Meditation and the Arts

Writing poetry and playing violin teach concentration, mindfulness, and non-attachment.

The violinist experiences a kind of samadhi “in action” when she achieves the full expression of her playing. She must be wholly mindful to the act. She concentrates her whole life energy on moving the bow hairs across the strings to make her instrument sing. Put another way, she inflects the body so as to project, with full power and nuance, the melody or musical figuration. In so doing, she eliminates all bothersome distractions beyond her focus on making beautiful music and detaches herself from all thoughts outside of playing violin, including irksome self-recrimination and unnecessary self-criticism. She transcends being too concerned with audience response, especially the feeling that she’s failing them in some way or is inadequate to the task of entertaining and moving others.

Every fiber present in this playing....

Every fiber present in this playing….

Writing descriptive poetry involves a similar approach and makes for another good example of how yogic or meditative approaches can be applied to other activities. Sitting by the lake, I watch a female bluebill duck hesitate at water’s edge, then clamber up on to the bank beyond my legs. I see that her beak has a metallic blue tint with a few subtle orange spots and that her fine white and brown markings are quite symmetrical from side to side. I see that her feet are of an unlikely, almost “man-made” orange color. She jabs with her beak at a blue-and-black-striped dragonfly perched on a blade of grass. Misses. She waddles by, disappearing behind the bench where I sit.

Female mallard

Female mallard

As I watch, however, observing the duck in detail, feeling perhaps what it might be like to be a duck, to desire to eat a plump, “wingy” dragonfly, to rip up and choke back green grass with a toothless beak, I do not produce these words in my mind; I do not distract myself with language and “being” descriptive. I save all that for later, for that moment when I shift into “writing mode.” I simply watch, absorbed, even mesmerized, by the image, by the presence of “duck,” in me as much as outside of me. I’m taken by the “natural world” in action (the premise here being that all life, the whole world, is real and valuable and worth attending to). I abandon myself to the world; I do not resist. I do not keep myself separate, distinct, or even “detached.” Rather, the world absorbs, encompasses, and “possesses” me.

Taste the wings

Taste the wings

So to the world, as both “object” and “subject,” I give myself, wandering along the path of meditation on the journey toward “wholly being.” Such reversals of view are a way of practicing non-attachment to self and to other than here and now.

Finally, if I’ve been struck deeply by an image, if I want to explore the image further with words, I pick up my pen and write. This shift of focus to language and writing can be its own form of meditation. Some poems, in fact, like some musical pieces, are actually called “meditations.”

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

Thus all actions one undertakes in life in which quality is the concern— achieving some sort of ideal experience or expression, including doing everyday chores, running errands, carrying on personal interactions, and performing tasks at work—ideally involve the same approach of mindfulness, concentration, and non-attachment. Meditation is a state of mind that we can carry throughout our day.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

the duck snaps at
the dragonfly—we get it
when she misses

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Three Frog Poems

Gnomic Frogs

for frogman Brent

Tree frogs are creaking
out in the dark cave of night,
in the hollow of the ocean’s roar
beyond my open window.

Where do they live during the day?
For hours I’ve studied the moss
growing on the forest’s trunks
and never spied a green tree frog.

Can I blame them for being
so completely themselves,
for embracing night so wholeheartedly
when it’s during the day we people clamor so loudly?

Were there only such a frog
as could sing a few appreciative lines
about the bubble of light in which I dwell
high up in my room above the woods!

How I exclaim myself with my pen,
how such human attentiveness
must be worthy of mention
in the annals of the frogs,

but who seem only to say,
“Prayers are best not
answered. Silence
is the soundest reply.”

Pacific Green Tree Frog, photographed by Brent Matsuda (bio below)

Pacific green tree frog (all photographs by Brent Matsuda—bio below)

Lucky Frog

Frog, I see you hop across the freeway
in a rain storm as I speed by.

Water blasting out of wheel ruts,
juggernauts of tires bearing down,
cars like hydroplanes, freighters
like mountains flying by.

Under a hundred wheels (and mine)
you hop and hop and do not stop,
you do not dodge or turn around or give a thought
to being crushed and turned to mush.

In my rear view mirror I see you make it
to the other side. You lucky, lucky frog,
the whole wide world
your slippery bog!

Note: “Lucky Frog” was previously published in Many Trails to the Summit: Poems by Forty-two Northwest Poets, edited by David D. Horowitz, 2010.

Columbia spotted frog

Columbia spotted frog

Haiku

her stream dried up
the young frog sets out
down the human trail

*

sitting on the deck—
both my cat’s and my head turn
at spring’s first frog-croak

*

hey there’s a whole clan
of green tree frogs
creaking over there

Peruvian frog

Peruvian frog

The photographer: Brent Matsuda is a naturalist and wildlife biologist with a specialization in herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), based in British Columbia. Although most of his professional work involves birds, his personal passion is frogs. Brent conducted his thesis work on the only frog in North America that uses internal fertilization and breeds in fast-flowing cold mountain streams: the coastal tailed frog. He is the lead author of the Amphibians and Reptiles of British Columbia field guide. In his spare time, Brent loves to photograph frogs wherever he travels in the world.

Sensitive species

Sensitive species

Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Stehekin River Washington Photos and Haiku: Fishing for Mosquitoes

what fun! the squirrel
depth-charging the river
with green pine cones

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

War-mongering squirrel

reading the river
for the biggest rainbow trout—
I’m illiterate!

River's a rune!

River’s a rune!

there the two ducks squat—
on a rock watching me cast
the stream flowing by

Western grebes

Western grebes

across the river
the spinner casts glances
at the tied flies

The fly-fishermen across the river

The fly-fishermen across the river

just one good yank—
keeping the fisher’s spirits alive
for the next day

in my rubber raft—
held up by air by water
held down by stone

Wrenzai headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

Headed for other side of river (photo by Fran)

not having a net—
tricking the big trout to swim
into a puddle

Tricked trout

Tricked trout

catching many more
mosquito bites than fish
biting my fly

please owl fledgling—
cry all night to your mother
over in the woods

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

Fledglings are noisy!

just hearing
a mosquito in the dark room
I itch all over

to swat or not
to swat the mosquito is
the question Buddhist

looks like Troy—
the mosquito carcasses
strewn about my legs

Tiny American Bird Wins Japanese Haiku Contest

Wrenzai is proud to announce that he’s won Grand Prize in the Non-Japanese (International) Division of the 6th Annual Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Haiku Contest in Japan. He is stunned and elated by the news. When a package arrived from Japan, he and Ms. Wrenzai were delighted to find in it not only several copies of the book published with the winning poems and an over-sized framed award certificate but also a “small prize.”

Wrenzai with the goods

Wrenzai with the goods

Here is the winning haiku:

the one-legged sparrow—
still embraced by the clan
on the power line

The prize brought tears to the recipient’s eyes. It’s a miniature folding standing screen of the original much larger 18th century screen of Buson’s (second of the great male haiku poets in Japan) calligraphic version of Basho’s 17th century “haibun” (prose with haiku) entitled Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) including “haiga” (ink paintings accompanying haiku). The book traces Basho’s journey around northern Japan, visiting significant historical and natural sites and guiding writing circles in towns and villages along the way. Wrenzai has read five different translations of this most famous work in Japan, several more than once, and has written a haibun with haiga (photos converted to drawings in this case) entitled Rowing Smitty: Travel Sketches and Haibun, emulating and learning from this great work. The book is to be published in the near future.

First three panels of screen

First three panels of screen

The coincidence is beyond meaningful for Wrenzai. It’s as if a distinct path has opened up before Wrenzai down which he must wander for the rest of his time on the planet. Life sometimes rings with truth!

Wrenzai wrote the winning haiku while (with his ever-vigilant eyes) watching sparrows through his sister Karen’s upstairs apartment window. He selected the haiku for the contest because, when he lived in Japan between 1988 and 1991, the country only then was beginning to provide infrastructure for handicapped people in public places. One rarely saw handicapped people in public. He’s not sure that the reason the poem was selected for the award has anything to do with why he wrote or chose it for the contest, but these are the thoughts he’s had on the matter. One way or the other, the sparrow event occurred and the poem came into existence before any thoughts about it took place.

Here is the other poem Wrenzai submitted to the contest:

the two grasshoppers
parted by my leg—
will they ever meet again?

This haiku is more blatantly traditional in form in that it makes more direct reference to the season, resides more in the natural world, and appeals to a simpler sentiment. But it happened and the words occurred to me….

May your observations and creations burst with passion!

Lake Quesnel BC Rowing Journey Photos and Haiku

Richie and Dana Clark

Richie and Dana Clark

the rowing journey—
making it up as we go
having lost the map

P1080753

Grain Creek, rainbow trout, Dana Clark

the youngest brother—
catching the biggest rainbow
with an ugly fly

P1080826

Long Creek, Dana Clark

abrupt windstorm—
catching our tents before they
fly into the lake

P1080828

Long Creek camp

after a chant
to the Indian spirits
the gale abates

P1080834

Long Creek, caterpillar

on a rain-slicked stone
also waiting out the storm—
a caterpillar

P1080848

Lake trout

the middle brother
snagging the longest fish—
lake trout from bottom

P1080861

Long Creek, Dana Clark

never noticed
how a mosquito walks—
socked in the tent

P1080977

Mitchell River log camp

waking to a rainbow
reflected on the lake—
what’s left for my heart?

P1090114

North End Lake Quesnel, Dana & Richie Clark

the son rowing
the father catching fish
the son soon fries

P1090215

Roaring River, ouzel fledgling

the ouzel tricking
her fledgling with food to flee
the birdwatchers

Roaring River butterfly

Roaring River butterfly

the butterfly
I’m trying to shoot landing
on my camera

Hunters Point, Dana Clark

Hunters Point, Dana & Richie Clark

father and son
carving first walking sticks—
troubled by knots

Hunters Point, Richie Clark

Hunters Point, Richie Clark

pan-fried rainbow—
after a long hard day
of skipping stones