Presence, Not Practice, in Haiku
By Robert Epstein
When I meet with a person in psychotherapy who is seeking support for some personal challenge or interpersonal conflict, I am as fully present as I can be during our time together. This being present ––which is not based on any theory or approach –– includes mindful awareness, compassionate non-attachment, openness, genuineness, humour (where appropriate) and intuition.
I use the term “mindful awareness” because I do not have “a meditation practice”, as some students of meditation like to say. This is because I personally regard “practice” in the realm of meditating to be stultifying and confining. For me, meditative awareness can happen anywhere rather than in a meditation hall or in front of an altar. Because meditation and haiku parallel each other in some ways, I likewise view the notion of practice as it relates to haiku writing as both unnecessary and a hindrance.
a meditating Buddha
above the lunch crowd 1
Many meditators and haiku poets may consider the notion of practice as a guiding light and/or a source of pride, a measure of hard work and personal attainment. Insofar as the word practice connotes such qualities as commitment, determination, earnestness, enthusiasm, perseverance, diligence, and discipline, these are certainly admirable qualities associated with practice with which one can hardly quarrel (except that I do). In addition, practice may be considered part of a well-defined method, system or approach at the centre of which is a desired outcome or destination.
Despite the appealing aspects of practice, I view the disadvantages as outweighing the advantages. Any “gaining idea” in meditation or haiku runs the risk of leading the beginner away from the essence of these undertakings. Consequently, I wish to engage the reader in a discussion of the constraints associated with “practice” as it relates to haiku. In addition, I would like to inquire into the ways in which simple presence serves as a compelling alternative to practice; that is, when it is not pursued as a goal, per se.
my father asks me
to hold his hand
. . . hospital room 2
Beginning meditators and fledgling haiku poets understandably look for guidance in the form of a teacher and/or how-to manual. However, aside from the basics, seeking an outside authority can foster a slavish adherence to a method, system, or rules, on which practice is based. As J. Krishnamurti, a 20th century secular spiritual teacher, astutely observes in Truth and Actuality: 3
To me, meditation is not something that can be cultivated or practiced, following a system. It must come naturally, like a flower that blooms. You cannot force it.
Since I resonate deeply with Krishnamurti’s understanding of meditation, I want to quote his description in Meditations: 4
. . . when we use the word “meditation” we do not mean something that is practiced. We have no method. Meditation means awareness: to be aware of what you are doing, what you are thinking, what you are feeling . . . Out of this awareness comes attention, the capacity to be completely attentive. Then there is freedom to see things as they actually are, without distortion.
Perhaps it is obvious, but nonetheless worth stating, even so: As the reader may have observed from their own experience, seeing does not require practice. Young children need not be admonished to practice seeing. It is innate. Yes, youngsters early on are urged to look both ways before safely crossing the street, but this, too, is not so much a practice as an activation of our built-in alert system.
Practice is dominated by repetition, which is useful to gain proficiency in acquiring a skill such as air-conditioning repair or piano playing, but potentially dulls the mind when it comes to meditation or haiku poetry. Repetition that leads to routine can result in rigidity, a closed mind that over-relies on the acquisition of limited knowledge stored as memory (thought and image). These constitute obstructions in both meditation and haiku insofar as both call for openness, sensitivity, and relaxed alertness, as well as insight unencumbered by the trappings of daily consciousness. Listen again to Krishnamurti in Meditations: 5
A system of meditation is not meditation. A system implies a method, which you practice in order to achieve something at the end. Something practiced over and over again becomes mechanical –– does it not? How can a mechanical mind, which has been trained and twisted, tortured to comply to the pattern of what it calls “meditation”, hoping to achieve a reward at the end, be free to observe, to learn?
As an alternative to practice, one might be tempted to call his or her haiku writing a discipline. This term has its own set of problems not unlike the idea of practice. There is coercion and punishment woven into misconceptions associated with discipline thanks to public (and private) education. If one looks at the root of the word, disciple, and inquires into what this means, there may be a way to avoid falling into the trap. In the true sense of the term, a disciple is one who is dedicated to learning. Period. Notwithstanding conventional associations, a disciple is not someone who displays unquestioning devotion to a guru, mentor, or saint; a disciple is not incapable of thinking for themself.
Still, given the pitfalls of framing haiku writing as a form of discipline, I am inclined to steer clear of this notion, as well. Older haiku scholars, grounded in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, conceptualised haiku as a Way; J. W. Hackett did as did R. H. Blyth before him. Viewing haiku as a Way or Path has roots in Lao Tzu’s Taoism and the Buddha’s Middle Way.
A more secular view might be to characterise one’s haiku writing as an undertaking. Perhaps this sounds too plaintive, if not boring. Doing so assures more humility than practice certainly does. There isn’t much room for the ego to inflate an undertaking, though I wouldn’t underestimate its capacity for cunning appropriation. I leave it to the reader to sort all this out through earnest self-inquiry. Of course, in the end, one may simply decide to not call one’s haiku writing anything other than it is: haiku writing. It does have a simple, spare, wabi-sabi ring to it that personally suits me, at least.
Both meditation and haiku call for silence, a non-forced quieting of the mind, so that one can come into the present and observe with clarity his/her inner world or external surroundings. A quiet mind free of thoughts, preconceptions, images and associations will discover with fresh eyes –– to invoke a phrase by Bashō, the father of haiku –– truths which reveal themselves.
I can hear it breathe 6
the deeper quiet
of uncut roses 7
Practice does not lead to truth; insight does. Flashes of insight occur outside of conventional time in what Zen Buddhists call the Eternal Now. Here is Krishnamurti again talking about meditation, but he could just as well be speaking of haiku poetry: 8
When you look at a tree, or the face of your neighbour, or the face of your wife or husband, and if you look with that quality of mind that is completely quiet, then you will see something totally new. Such silence of the mind is not something that can be attained through any practice; if you practice a method you are still living within a very small space which thought has created as the “me”, the “I” practicing, advancing.
I have observed that when I am present there is great interest in and curiosity about whatever is happening. At such times, I find myself filled with enthusiasm. Interestingly enough, the root of the word is theos, so enthusiasm means to be in or with God (however one defines the latter). More often than not, a quiet joy follows whatever I might discover or encounter, poetically speaking.
Joy is one way of knowing that I have found the “God” channel, as it were, which I define as Loving Intelligence. To put it another way, joy like enthusiasm may be the fruit of the haiku mind when one is present with what is and goes a little beyond.
Since I began writing haiku some 30 years ago, I have written dozens of poems (as have many other longtime poets). Are the more recent haiku I have written “better” than the ones I penned when I started out? On the whole, probably. If consulted, the journal editors I have submitted to, might answer: “Yes, Epstein appears to write better haiku now.” Does this mean I have improved through practice? My categorical response would be: No.
Why do I say “no?” The question goes to the heart of my objection to the notion of practice. Let me try to spell out clearly and succinctly what I mean.
If my haiku writing has “improved’ over several decades, it is not due to practice. If and when I write decent haiku, I attribute it to allowing my thinking mind (ego) to get out of the way such that my intuition can apprehend some poetic truth being revealed to me based on clear seeing.
Japanese garden . . .
a lantern 9
Having access to one’s haiku mind is a function of learning, which does not rely on, or necessitate, practice. Practice is not synonymous with learning. On the contrary, practice is more likely to hinder rather than advance learning, because the former is (consciously or unconsciously) susceptible to becoming ego-driven.
If I am proposing to replace practice with simple presence in the realm of spirit, what then fosters learning? In the context of haiku, what supports the latter for me is, unequivocally, non-possessive love. I love the truth; I love life (notwithstanding its hardships and losses) and the mystery at the heart of our transient existence. Without question, it is love that has fostered the conditions conducive to bringing more awareness, more sensitivity, and attention –– as well as intuition –– to all that is taking place internally and externally.
shelves filled with Verdi
Beethoven, Bach – I listen
to one small sparrow 10
this one life
I move the sparrow
to higher ground 11
In a nutshell, love enables me to be more present in my life. It is this presence, not practice, which constitutes the ground of the most compelling haiku that come through me. Does every haiku I write now reflect extraordinary presence? I assure you it does not! 12
Presence is and always will be moment-to-moment; there is no cruise control button I can set. I am more –– or less –– awake in any given moment when I write. The haiku I pen reflect just this. A haiku practice will not compensate for what is lacking by way of presence. This is all right with me; I would not, in truth, have it any other way.
blue jean patches
the sky will always belong
to my mother 13
1: Aoyagi, Fay, Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks. San Francisco, CA: Blue Willow Press, 2011. The poems I have chosen for illustrative purposes strike me as having been written without reliance on a haiku writing practice, but of course –– with the exception of my own haiku –– I don’t know this for a fact. They strike me as fresh, innocent, spontaneous, startling, and moving.
2: DuFlon, Wende Skidmore. Smooth Sail Each Journey: Haiku for Coaching (unpublished).
3: Krishnamurti, J. Truth and Actuality. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1977.
4: Krishnamurti, J. Meditations. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2002.
6: miriam chaikin, Frogpond, 35.2, Summer 2012
7: Beary, Roberta. The Unworn Necklace. Lancashire, Great Britain, 2007.
8: Krishnamurti, Meditations.
9: Forrester, Stanford M. in Stanford M. Forrester, ed. a motley sangha. Windsor, CT: bottle rockets press, 2005.
10: Bauerly, Donna M. in Robert Epstein, ed. The Sacred in Contemporary Haiku. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2014.
11: Owen, Renee. Acorn, #28, Spring 2012.
12: Please know that I have no desire to substitute a romanticised or idealised version of presence for practice. Nothing could be further from my intentions. I simply wish to suggest that being mindfully aware of one’s surroundings with openness, care and interest without any gaining idea is enough to foster a haiku mind and the fruits it will bear, naturally. For this, no practice whatsoever is necessary.
13: Robert Epstein. Free to Dance Forever: Mourning Haiku for My Mother. West Union, WV: Middle Island Press, 2018.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published on September 24, 2021 on the blog of Charlotte Digregorio’s Writer’s Blog and appears here with the author’s kind permission.
Robert Epstein is a licensed psychologist, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, who is a haiku poet and anthologist. His most recent edited collection is The Helping Hand Haiku Anthology; and his latest books of original haiku are, A Hummingbird Still: Haiku & Senryu in the Spirit of J. Krishnamurti as well as Checkout Time is Noon: Death Awareness Haiku Tenth Anniversary Edition.