Haiku & Parkinson’s Disease: A practice

By Tim Roberts

I have been interested in haiku since my teenage years. Thoughts of samurai warriors composing poetry on the battlefield fascinated me. The haiku that hooked me was Basho’s:

summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams

tr. Lucien Stryk

Now, in my fifties, my body faces its own battle with Parkinson’s disease, and I am hungrier than ever for haiku. The process of working with haiku, or rather, being worked by haiku, is both deep and powerful and it feeds the contemplative life I am trying to live. Both disciplines return us to the moment, open us to surprise and are sensory rich and lead us to presence, in which the past doesn’t exist anymore and the future hasn’t happened – and yet I am realistic about Parkinson’s. I find when I am present like this I feel free and the bleak Parkinson’s prognosis falls away. It doesn’t apply to Now. It hasn’t happened yet. I am here, I am whole and this moment is all there is. It is important to be refreshed by presence.

Haiku as a contemplative practice is about hunger – the hunger to be, to feel alive, to open to the world and be present. To me, Parkinson’s has also become a practice, to live deeply and fully. Haiku is a life force and the more time I spend with haiku the more I feel washed through by wonder, humility and generosity and I now practice as though my life depends on it – because in my view it does.

John O’ Donohue wrote, ‘Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force’.  This way of living in and taking from the world is out of balance. Hafiz said, ‘A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched holy mouth’. In these days of challenge and confusion we desperately need more poets to help us intuit and sense into our situation, our interdependence and to restore our right relationship with the beautiful and sacred Earth.

For Issa the way of haiku was a spiritual path. Basho was also a spiritual-eco poet living close to the seasons and the land. Basho related to creation as being alive and the world springing from a great silence. This resonates with me. Brother David Steindl Rast writes that at the heart of haiku is silence. Silence is an endangered species in our busy world, writes audio-ecologist Gordon Hempton. I have noticed that this silence, when we let it approach and unfold us, is restorative, composed of vitality, acceptance and belonging.

Haiku helps me appreciate beauty, which eases the burden of living with chronic disease. Kenneth Yasuda writes that ‘… a haiku attitude and aesthetic experience are inseparable and co-exist’. Inspired by nature and beauty, haiku often contain juxtapositions that open us to insight or the deeper questions about life. These juxtapositions and questions fill me with awe and can be found all around us if we look.

Parkinson’s gradually robs people of precision and poise, which may explain why I am thrilled by the precision and poise found in some haiku, an experience that is in equal measures beautiful, unsettling and astonishing.

I have long been mesmerised by the song of the cicada, especially at my favourite beach. Poet and Cold Mountain translator Red Pine said that the Chinese character for cicada is Zen bug – how apt! Cicadas live along the spine of the beach, in the dunes. They live for seven years in the dark earth and then emerge into the light to sing and mate. Their song is the song of life and it praises endings and new beginnings. The cicada song is the loudest by an insect and yet if we allow ourselves to just be with it we find it has a vast, spacious silence inside it. So too does the beach, between every slap of a wave, and hidden inside every shriek of a gull is the same silence, but it requires an attentive listening, a yielding, a haiku mind. The mystic in us revels in this silence from which we and all things arise. For a long time I have been wondering how to best articulate this when I came across a haiku by Basho that expresses it perfectly:

in the utter silence
of a temple
a cicada’s voice alone
penetrates the rocks

tr. Sam Hamill

Brother David Steindl Rast says that a haiku does not capture a moment – rather it sets the moment free. I love this! He goes on to explain, ‘The Japanese haiku is a poem of such subtlety that it defies translation, let alone imitation in any other language. It has become customary, however, to call poetic flashes inspired by the Japanese form ‘haiku’, in English too. The best among them capture a moment of intense awareness, they awake your senses’. Sam Hamill suggests, ‘Haiku should be approached with a daily reverence as we may approach a great spiritual teacher … the more the reader enters the authentic experience of the poem, the more the haiku reveals’.

I experience tension, rigidity and tremor that make it painful or uncomfortable to sit, hold a book, lie down or walk for long periods of time each day. I used to meditate regularly but the discomfort of the disease is distracting so I explore other contemplative approaches, chiefly haiku and contemplative listening – which are complementary. For example, deep listening returns us to the raw experience of living now, from which haiku springs.

I love contemplative listening, especially to birdsong before dawn and to insects during the day or a distant freight train during the night. This is a simple practice of attending to sounds as fresh, vivid and alive. These days we tend to be immersed in constant noise and have been trained to narrow our listening focus and attend to conversational listening for specific cues and meanings. Education, current working practices and social norms tighten our minds and we don’t notice the haiku moment as it slips past us. Rilke urged poets to ‘live the question’, this is well known but poorly understood because our society tends to intellectualise Rilke’s advice when a living inquiry into the question is an embodied experience – as is haiku. I was certainly off track in this way. I find that what we might call the haiku question also opens us to this embodied, grounded, centred way of knowing and it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. I now try to listen for haiku in the world around me, as St Benedict said, ‘with the ears of the heart’ and this supports contemplative listening. One of my haiku practices is to dwell in the question, ‘where is beauty in our world?’ It is a revealing process.

Parkinson’s makes it hard to move for periods of the day and night, so I compose haiku in my head, writing them down later, when I have more control. It is liberating. I was delighted to find haiku opens us up into a different kind of awareness. Haiku is fresh, vivid and alive and it leads us into the mystery and transmits deep human truths and questions about the living and dying and our relationship with existence. Reading and composing haiku is stimulating, satisfying and great fun. On a deeper level, I find haiku to be a revelation and the wisdom with which some haiku masters write guides me in how I want to show up in this world right now.

It’s obvious to me that haiku also offer huge therapeutic potential. Mood or emotional state can be a concern in Parkinson’s because of the depletion of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Haiku practice, as I experience it, enhances mood, and in particular the perception of beauty, which increases joy and fulfillment. John O’ Donohue explains that, ‘When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming … In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness’.

Movement is vital for people with Parkinson’s and anything that prompts activity is welcome. The desire I have to search for haiku means that I am frequently moving around outside in nature looking and listening for the haiku aesthetic. I recently came across a praying mantis and was inspired to write the following:

praying mantis waits
patient and violent and still – 
the Zen of ambush

Haiku is rewarding and this satisfaction may be giving our brain extra doses of dopamine.

My daily routine is that when I wake up, and before the medication works, I have difficulty moving and controlling the tremors:

dreaming of birdsong
I wake to a wolf shaking me –
tremors again!

With immense concentration and physical effort, I can hold a notebook on my knee and grip a marker pen to write on card. A single word may take several minutes to form – but I can do it and that is a freedom I value. I call this ‘PD calligraphy’ and I write one or two cards each morning over a number of days and put them together to make a haiku. Some days I try to jot down a complete, new haiku that has arrived.  The result is often satisfying – and wonky writing! I put the cards together and photograph the outcome. It makes me happy. At those times when my body is shaking and too tight and unco-ordinated, and when speaking is difficult, haiku offers a methodical practice I can become absorbed in and focus my mind on. This greatly reduces the suffering and is a creative response to a devastating condition. Because of haiku’s brevity I can compose a number of haiku in my mind and commit them to memory until the next opportunity I have to write them.


First attempt at recording a haiku. Photo: Tim Roberts

Brother David Steindl Rast, who studied Zen in Japan for many years, explains that in Japan haiku is calligraphy – ‘Japanese haiku are calligraphy as much as they are poems. They are meant to be read with the eyes, not to be read aloud. The way they look on the page is part of the poet’s art’.


Tim’s ‘PD calligraphy’ of the same haiku as pictured above. Photo: Tim Roberts

I enjoy the structural discipline of composing haiku, although, depending who you read the emphasis on structure varies. I think of it as a short, impactful poem that can be uttered in one breath, ideally of 17 syllables – give or take – and a poem that, hopefully, strikes a chord somewhere in our depths. Haiku is often form, seasonal reference, and presence of mind. We might colloquially say an ‘aha moment’, which Clark Strand describes as ‘a turning of thought’, Kenneth Yasuda as the ‘haiku moment’. The haiku moment is an impulse, a spontaneous coming together of subject and objects, life revealing life and it communicates from and to our deeper self. Alan Ginsberg said haiku moments cause ‘a little pause in your mind’. As I attune to these pauses I find there are many in a day – provided I can be open to them. These moments can be humorous, for example,

waiting for laxatives to work
house is silent –
the first clap of thunder

Haiku is a new daily discipline for me and it is a heart practice, opening me to life and helping me live what social anthropologist Angeles Arrien called ‘The Way of the Healer’. Opening to the way of the healer is done by paying close attention to what has heart and meaning in our lives, which is where a haiku practice comes into its own and applied in this way it can be a transformative path. Healing can be considered a move toward wholeness, authenticity and integrity. Haiku is always moving us in that direction. Healing may or may not include a cure.

Angeles Arrien studied native peoples of the Americas and from this distilled eight concepts for healing. When we compose haiku, if we write with truth and authenticity our practice becomes what Arrien calls ‘powerful medicine’. Haiku assists with each of the eight healing concepts. In fact, haiku is so potent that we could replace the word healing with haiku in each of the eight points.

1.      Healing is a lifelong journey toward wholeness

2.      Healing is remembering what has been forgotten about connection, unity and interdependence

3.      Healing is embracing what is most feared

4.      Healing is opening to what has become closed or hardened

5.      Healing is about the transcendent, timeless moment when one experiences the divine

6.      Healing is creativity, and passion and love

7.      Healing is about seeking and experiencing self in its fullness with its light and shadow

8.      Healing is about learning to trust life.

I try to walk a healing path every day and my prayer is that I can be a healing presence in this world. Haiku to me is not so much a comfort as a glimpse of insight or clarity – an unsentimental reflection of the moment. Momentarily I find a sense of recognition and satisfaction. I am not experienced in writing haiku but I want to build a relationship with haiku so I thought I would share some more of my attempts.


Photo: Tim Roberts

Recent haiku by Tim Roberts:

five am alarm
waiting for the tremors to stop –
day starts without me

looking at lemons in the fridge –
my bitterness looks back at me

Angeles Arrien, The Fourfold Path.

Basho, translation by Lucien Stryke, Penguin 60s Classics.

Basho et al, translation by Sam Hamill, The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa, and other Poets.

Brother David Steindl Rast, Exploring haiku as gratefulness practice.

John O’ Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

Kenneth Yasuda, Japanese Haiku.

Editor’s note: Tim Roberts was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 4 years ago when he was aged 50. A police officer in Britain for many years he now lives with his wife in New Zealand and has three wonderful daughters and one special granddaughter. Tim enjoys nature, the peculiar quality of the sunlight in Aotearoa, the native birds, the wild beaches and the older woodlands and loves taking his dog for walks whenever he can. Read other articles by Tim: Gratefulness; Spirituality and health; Healing soul loss.