Why Wrenzai Loves Haiku

Those seeking enlightenment should not need or want to write. This was a conflict for the great Japanese haiku master Basho, as he was a serious Zen aspirant. Writing, let alone writing poetry, is viewed as a kind of “attachment.” But to borrow from a well known Zen koan, one can stay on top of a 100-foot pole for only so long and, as enlightened, must shinny back down to teach and provide guidance. And if writing and sharing haiku and related forms involves teaching the Way and providing guidance, then why not? Certainly, the following haiku, by another famous Japanese haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa, teaches and guides (my version):

dewdrop world

Wrenzai loves haiku (there’s no grammatical distinction between plural and singular in Japanese). He loves reading, writing, and reliving haiku. But how can one love a few words, such a small form, a sub-sub-genre so far removed from the mainstream of American culture that it seems beside the point—so tiny and immaterial it comes and goes as fleetingly as a chickadee and costs nothing in cash? I’m reminded of a tiny image I wrote a few years back:

just one seed

We pay so much lip service to “being in the moment” and getting back to nature,” yet we get caught up so easily in the work-a-day world, in getting ahead, in ruing and glorying in the past, in the “blocks and binds” of the city that these two universal values fall by the wayside. Writing haiku is all about being in the moment and getting back to nature, as I may have succeeded in expressing in this “fishing” haiku:

trout strikes

Writing haiku aligns us with the present, brings us deep into the now. We begin to notice what daily we overlook, the small things, the tiny creatures—instances and events as meaningful in their context as our actions are in ours. I experienced this haiku moment a few months back:

pill bug

Writing haiku sharpens our eyes, ears, and attention, much as taking pictures does. We begin to see the interfaces and cruxes of creatures and rock-hard earth, how we survive and even live with gravity, birth, work, love, and death—all packed into a few words or syllables. In other words, the universe is found in a cup of tea. But sometimes we look too hard and see our own minds looking back, instead:

see shell

There are many myths and misconceptions about haiku. While counting syllables is a good way to get started, in the end the syllables matter less than capturing the vast in the minute in a moment’s seeing or connecting, the juxtaposition of the infinite and the finite (and it generally takes fewer syllables to say in English what it takes in Japanese). Writing haiku often involves a realization, as in Zen or other meditative practice. And the most successful haiku manage to evoke that realization in the reader (the irony in the following haiku is that the word “haiku” consists of three syllables in Japanese).

irony is

Traditionally speaking, a successful haiku is likely to manifest certain aesthetic traits: 1) contraction, brevity, reduction to essential, understatement; 2) caesura, interjection, interruption, juxtaposition; 3) novelty, freshness, the new, invention; 4) mysteriousness, the ineffable; and 5) deep appreciation of beauty and deep melancholy because beauty is fleeting (“The Aesthetic Coordinates of Haiku,” Dietmar Tauchnar, Frogpond, Vol. 36:3). The most famous haiku ever, inscribed by Matsuo Basho, is successful for all of these reasons (also my version):

old pond

Thus we are taken so deep into a moment we’re left to flail helplessly and happily even in the mere reading of a haiku. For Wrenzai, the love is in the magic and the discovery. Being attuned to the possibility of writing haiku is a kind of yoga of the moment’s literary spirit, as the mind’s eye stretches to see and relate.

More Dangerous Thoughts

I’ve heard from a number of readers about my first post, “Dangerous Thoughts.” Those who commented seemed to have read my purpose in that piece. Others, however, who called or met with me to discuss “Dangerous Thoughts” directly, had issues or suggestions.

First, I’d like to say that, while I do occasionally have the dangerous thoughts I describe in that first post, such thoughts do not dominate my mental activity, nor do they altogether limit my actions, although I have to admit that, because my world view is not the most popular on the planet, I’m sometimes reluctant to share it (yet here I am, exposing my antithetical thoughts in public via Wrenzai Insight Journal).

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2102

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2012)

I’d decided that while I feel certain that most people, particularly aspiring writers, have such potentially limiting dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t assume that they do. Nor did I feel I could exploit others’ dangerous thoughts in order to offer helpful tips on the subject. Thus, I chose to use my own creeping doubts and slippery ivory-tower views as my example. I really didn’t feel I was exposing my deepest, darkest secrets in doing so. I didn’t reveal any murders or breaches of national security. Still, I’ve found such insecurities to be universal. I can say this because I’ve taught writing for over twenty years and seen these creeping doubts in many of the struggling writers who have attended my classes or participated in my writing retreats.

I can live with my dangerous thought confessions, as I believe them to be as common as dreams.

Benevolence (Italy, 2011)

Benevolence (India, 2011)

But I found that several who responded took what I wrote literally, as a reflection of my dominant way of thought. And while I knew I was taking that risk, taking that risk has been worth it. One reader commented humorously, thanking me for revealing her own thoughts, which suggests I succeeded in my effort to show that such writing insecurities are universal.

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, December 2012

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, February 2012)

But all this self-reflexivity falls short of my intent here. One close respondent was concerned that I was just as sadly limited by my state of mind as he has always suspected I am. Of course, because his insight into my inner state and into the extent of my experience in these matters is limited, I had to reassure him that, as I say above, the dangerous thoughts I describe in my earlier post do not represent my dominant mode of thinking as I approach the various problems, challenges, and desires of my life. Once I’d clarified this point for him, he reminded me of his own personal approach: Visualizing what you want to do paves the way to doing it.

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy, 2011)

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy 2009)

I have always been one to visualize an outcome, then move in the direction of that outcome in order to make it real. Visualization is as common as leaves, and the idea has been developed in books (see Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization, for one). But the art is not so much in making visualizations real, but in taming the monkeys so they don’t get in the way of the visualization—or in the way of the realization of that visualization. Many people feel troubled by self-doubt, worthlessness, cultural marginalization, and historical oppression, or they lack support, belief, or material resources.

If a we think that a black man, fresh off death row, found innocent after twenty years of a crime for which he was wrongly convicted, can wake up on the first morning of his release and visualize all he wants to do that day and actually make it all real and that that man can do that as readily as someone who has had years of practice and success in building competence and self-confidence along the way—then we are out of touch with reality. There’s no comparison. The “ex-con” is going to have one hell of a time making it in the world, even if he never committed a crime in his life (in Texas, one out of seven on death row has been found to have been wrongly convicted). The thoughts that are likely to dominate this man’s mind might sound like this: “True, I’ve been proven innocent, I’ve been spared execution by state injection, but having spent twenty years on the Row, aren’t I still an ex-con? Aren’t I worthless for having been treated as worthless for twenty years?” It’s hard for a man to remember his self-worth, social viability, and democratic equality when for twenty years the great and powerful Wizard of the State has treated him as worthless. This man has a monkey in his mind the size of the Empire State Building to stare down and put to bed.

Compassion (Delhi, India, 2011)

Compassion (Delhi, India, February 2011)

It’s seems rather simplistic to say that all we have to do is get up in the morning and visualize what we intend to do and, voila, it’s as good as done. It’s simply not that simple for some people. They have complexes, blockages, and negative scripts running through the sound processing centers of their minds, and these complexes, blockages, and negative scripts are none other than those aforementioned monkeys playing havoc with our minds, eclipsing our best thoughts and undermining our best actions.

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Another close respondent reminded me of the Four Agreements. The idea is that if we focus on, and strive to live by, these Four Agreements, the monkeys will have no space in our minds to make a ruckus. They’ll give up and go obediently to bed as the saintly Four Agreements rise to conduct catechism on the mind’s thoughts. Here are the Four Agreements:

Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret (from ToltecSpirit.com).

I find the Four Agreements to be rock solid—true, valid, and potent. They’re hard to argue with. But what both Visualization and the Four Agreements don’t take into account is the chaos, sturm und drang, and compost of creativity that must be present in the writer’s life in order for the writer to produce the new and unexpected, the universally felt or experienced. For example, how can the mystery writer describe a murder without imagining the act, in detail, in advance of writing? Many ideas for art and literature have arrived on the crest of a primal wave of passion, such as when a woman imagines murdering her husband then writes a novel about it instead. How can scriptwriters and movie-makers create such violent films without visualizing the violence before hand? There’s a wildness that must be groomed, a dangerous but realistic and productive wildness that provides fodder for depictions of the worst, as well as the best, of what it is to be human. Strict visualization of monetary outcomes and purist actualization of a few agreements may make the mind too square or narrow to allow for wild expressions of beauty and meaning. Artists—even scientists, I’d suggest—can’t afford to be too strict of thought.

Wrath (Olympia, Washington)

Wrath (Olympia, Washington, June 2011)

While Visualization and the Four Agreements are excellent thinking tools with which to become more productive, successful, or enlightened, if we occupy our minds too much of the time with strict principles, we may become rigid in our thinking, which, in turn, may leave little room for chaos, compost, creativity, and growth.

Confiding (Ocean Shores)

Confiding (Ocean Shores, June 2011)

Wrenzai in the Woods

The light is dying, the woods growing shadows, a few last birds feeding at the feeder or on the ground below, a few last scrappers willing to risk the terrifying beak of the low-flying, twilight merlin.

The house looms tall, with its chalet front and barn back, up on its four-foot foundation, dwarfing the willows and myrtles while paying homage to the alder and spruce. Many stars have swept over the house’s head, many seasons of birds fluttered by.

Night House

Night House

Wrenzai got it in his head he wanted to build a house. It was the next big adventure. His father joined him to frame it out and dry it in during the summer of 1997. Wrenzai feels grateful. By September 1999, Wrenzai had finished the house and called it done.

Wrenzai and his wife, with hand tools and determination, gradually snipped and clipped the woods back, making the distance greater for the mosquitoes and the moles.

A house is a demanding spouse, requiring new clothes and accessories. Or new jeans—so be it! Rough-hewn and weather-beaten, scrubbed by wind, rain, light, and brine and pierced by bugs, birds, bats, and raccoons, the upkeep is constant, but meaningful.

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Pill Bug’s MissionWrenzai, for the first time, put down his own deep roots. It was in the cutting of the woods, the pouring of the concrete, the piecing together, board by board and nail by nail, of a sanctum sanctorum.

Wrenzai sits at the west end of the dining table with the kitchen behind him and the bird feeder out the window to the left, where over the years he’s observed dozens of species of birds feeding, seen others drawn happily to the commotion (though interested only in bugs and grubs), or turned to follow with his eyes those who merely sail by above.

Storms buffet walls and windows, thrash the willows and myrtles as they flail about like confused green waves, the woods a green sea of chaos.

Head of WindWhen the sun breaks through and lights and warms every recess of the woods and the flowers gleam with the storm’s last rain, there is no doubt this is Paradise, the kind of paradise that can only be experienced stepping out of a dark and raging storm into a halcyon bubble of bliss.

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Wrenzai sits at the head of his table, overseeing the birds, clicking away at his keys, writing through sunshine and storm. Millions of words fly through his fingers into reams of digital pages, each word a tiny bird, carrying a tiny message. Some words fly off in tremendous flocks, carrying with them, he likes to think, messages of greater import.

Art of Breathing