Haiku and Relaxation
Nature in itself is calming. Relaxation CDs are almost always filled with the sounds of brooks bubbling, birds chirping, frogs croaking, and waterfalls tumbling. These sounds have an effect on the human brain that allows a person to relax, clear their mind, and breathe. Other relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, bodily exercise, hypnosis, and visualization exercises. While haiku can’t provide hypnosis or physical exercise, it can trick one’s mind into thinking it is calm and relaxed. Whether one is reading it or writing it, haiku has the power to cleanse negativity from one’s mind.
Poet Sylvia Forges-Ryan and her husband, psychologist Edward Ryan spend the first few pages of their book, Take a Deep Breath: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace, leading the reader through a breathing exercise. They give the reader a few moments of a “deep experience of spiritual knowledge” without too much effort. In reading the paragraph, just by reading the words and not thinking about them too much, I was able to relax. The simple words on the page such as “without judgment allow your attention to focus on the natural rhythm of your breath” were enough to make me stop and pay attention. This, as Ryan and Ryan say, is all there is to enlightenment.
Reading haiku is much the same as this short breathing exercise. The reader must allow his or her self to stop whatever they are doing and experience the poem. If they read through it quickly and without pause, they may miss the feel of the haiku. They will glance at it, think huh, that’s nice then go right to the next poem and likely forget about it. Take this one, by Sylvia Forges-Ryan,
changing to snow
Forges-Ryan, TaDB, 68
Without taking a moment to stop and really think about this haiku, the reader misses the peace hidden between the lines. If they allow themselves to hear the idea of the poem (not the words themselves) they will understand that the last goodbye is not a bad thing. The sound of rain is peaceful itself, but it has a sound. The sound can either be peaceful or it can be noise. The sound of falling snow is silent. The sound of rainfall changing to the sound of snowfall is noise falling quiet. This holds a sense of finality, hence the last goodbye. It is a release rather than a sacrifice. The rain is also a sign of cleansing, of washing something away and being replaced by the pure white snow. It’s like erasing a page and starting over.
A similar haiku is written in Caroline Gourlay’s anthology, Lull Before Dark.
falling snow . . .
the branches of the oak tree
Gourlay, LBD, 56
The parallel images of the snow in Forges-Ryan’s and Gourlay’s haiku are fascinating. As Forges-Ryan’s snow is the blank slate, Gourlay’s snow is the beginning of building something new. Even though she doesn’t use the word “begin” in the haiku that is the image that comes to mind. Snow is starting to pile on the bare branches of the tree and slowly the piles become taller, maybe weighing the smaller branches down so they begin to droop. Gourlay gives the impression of watching the snow for a long time, using the ellipses in the first line.
Ellipses in haiku provide a built in pause for the reader to breathe. The reader may reflect on the words just read or anticipate the coming line. Whatever the thought is during the ellipses there is thought. There is a slowing down, a tapering of the reader’s internal voice. In the same moment that the voice is slowing down, it is gaining momentum for the next line. Even in a serene haiku, such as Wally Swist’s as read in The Silence Between Us, an ellipses can help the reader gain momentum for the finale of the poem.
on the pond . . .
Swist, TSBU, 46
The serenity of this haiku can be described as soft. Feathers and silent snow falling suggest a soft silence, which is demonstrated in the use of the ellipses at the end of the second line. The reader’s inner voice is forced into silence for just a moment and the reader can appreciate the image of feathers on the water before filling in the reset of the scene with softly falling snow.
Another characteristic of relaxation techniques is imagery. A lot of times a person can close their eyes and imagine themselves in a different place and whatever is racing through their mind can ease itself out. Nature is often a popular choice for imagery. Scenes of beaches, forest trails, or mountains can have a meditative effect on the mind if the person is willing to clear their head of everything but that place. This haiku by Peggy Lyles in To Hear the Rain is a good example of imagery haiku.
in bird song
Lyles, THTR, 78
This is a good imagery exercise because it is open to interpretation. The reader can imagine themselves literally anywhere with birds and be “correct” in their interpretation of the poem. If they want to be on a beach, the birds are seagulls. If they want to be in the forest, the birds can be cardinals. If they want to be in a house, in the springtime, hanging laundry from the line, and drinking a cup of coffee, the birds can be bluebirds. The important part of this haiku is the middle line. “Lost.” The reader is not just listening to the bird song. They’re not doing something with the birds singing in the background. They are so engrossed in the music the birds are making that they are lost in it. This is so important that Lyles repeated the phrase “bird song” and use the word “lost” alone in the middle line. The combination of these two choices isolates the word and makes the reader focus on it.
Just as the last goodbye in Forges-Ryan’s haiku was not a negative concept, the idea of being lost in Lyles’s haiku is not either. She likes to write haiku with a spiritual feel to them. Her haiku
my small son asks
who made God
Lyles, THTR, 57
is another example of a typically negative situation being made into a meditative one. Traffic jams are usually stressful ordeals filled with swearing and frustration. But add a small child in the back seat asking the big questions, and suddenly the traffic jam is an opportunity for reflection. Speaking to a child about such a big idea is also a meditative exercise. Everything needs to be dumbed down to the simplest terms possible in order for them to understand so it can force the adult to think in simple terms.
Simplicity is a key to stress relief. The simplicity of the tide hitting the shore or a walk in the woods can make a person forget all of their problems. The simplicity of a haiku can do the same thing. There don’t have to be any bells or whistles. It isn’t elaborate, loud, or full of $900 words. A haiku is a trigger to something bigger. As Ryan says in his book, “the world of haiku is there before us; all we have to do is open the door to it” (TaDB, 18).
Forges-Ryan, Sylvia, and Edward Ryan. Take a Deep Breath: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace. New York, NY: Kodansha International, 2002. Print.
Gourlay, Caroline. Lull before Dark. Decatur, IL: Brooks, 2005. Print.
Lyles, Peggy. To Hear the Rain. Decatur, IL: Brooks, 2002. Print.
Swist, Wally, Randy Brooks, and Christine Sandidge. The Silence between Us: Selected Haiku of Wally Swist. Decatur, IL: Brooks, 2005. Print.