Waiting for the Haiku in Mindfulness

by Thomas Hills, Ph.D._1

What follows is an attempt at an honest exploration of my impression of mindfulness, in light of my experience of an 8-week course. It’s taken me a while to formulate this, and perhaps it is heretical, but in some ways I think the course led to this insight–so it is what it is.
I have practiced meditation in various forms since I was about 13. From a Western perspective it may be somewhat ironic that a book on ninja by Stephen Hayes may have introduced it to me, alongside the movies of Bruce Lee, where he occasionally sat in meditation. A karate course or two later and I was hooked. It was something about disciplining the mind, but more.
I recall in one movie Bruce Lee points to the moon, and he says, „Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.“ It is perhaps a cliche, but to a nine year old in the 70s, this was The Way. This was a deeper truth, both focused in the moment, but keenly aware of a bigger picture available to experience, available for those who only knew where to look (or how to look!). It was not the worshiping of that which cannot be personally experienced, or borrowing the language of some sacred system to justify personal whim. It was direct experience. A primal positivism.
Mindfulness, I worry, verges on a new kind of idol. It is like the finger. As a behavioral scientist, I fully appreciate the evidence for its benefit. It grows by the day. Meta-analyses show mindfulness reduces stress (Grossman et al., 2004), improves quality of life (Nyklíček & Kuijpers, 2008), improves executive function in the elderly (Moynihan et al., 2013), helps addicts overcome their addictions (Bowen et al., 2009), helps depression (Hofmann et al., 2010), improves diabetes (Gregg et al., 2007), and so on. Some might say, if you aren’t yet paying attention to mindfulness, you’re missing out.
But…
For me, there is more to it than that.
What is mindfulness? There are a number of definitions. Nonjudgmental awareness captures some aspect. Shunryu Suzuki might call it beginner’s mind: seeing reality as if for the first time. Dogen said „There is mindfulness that exists in moments of owning one’s body and mindfulness that exists in moments of having no mind. There is conscious mindfulness and there is mindfulness in which there is no body.“ Kitaro Nishida, a Japanese philosopher who contributed to the Western tradition, might have called it simply non-dual awareness.
For me, these are ideas that move where I need them to go. But when I look at an 8-week course in mindfulness, I am struck with the sense that we have taken the bones out of Dogen so that we can pick our teeth.
This is my ego talking, but an ego is a point-of-view required for communication. It is Jung’s filtering persona, a narrowing for presentation. But then again, my ego sometimes notices things I don’t.
Take this case in point. The Heartmath mindfulness technique of picturing a happy moment. This is not about developing understanding. It is a kind of mental band-aid. Of course, it may empower people to find an understanding, as if to stop the bleeding. But the question for mindfulness is where is the next step?
This is the crux of the problem. Mindfulness as a method to medicate the mind is not mindfulness in it the sense in which it originated. It is a salve that we apply to modern life. But to replace the spiritual quest that is so much a part of the human experience, there needs to be more. It is not enough to take to re-invent Huxley’s soma–that happy drug of the future–to smooth the edges on time.
But perhaps there is a path ahead.
This possibly apocryphal quote from Albert Einstein may offer some insight:
“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description” (p.59, Alves, 2013).
Whether the quote is from Einstein or not is beside the point. I agree with it, because at its base, Buddhism is about personal experience, which is the currency of mindfulness.
I am not prone to calling myself anymore Christian than Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, etc. Ghandi said he was all of them, which I guess is permission enough. But the above comment on Buddhism is trying to capture something that is inherent in an ideal religion: „a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.“ It isn’t about a way of seeing, it is about wonder.
It is hard to find the words to express such an experience in a concrete way. Ram Dass can say, ‘be here now,’ but this is quite an abstract instruction. „Nonjudgmental awareness,“ though easy to repeat, is also quite abstract. If we take it in Kitaro Nishida’s sense, it is pre-categorical awareness. But this is an even higher bar, even for a Buddhist, which is why many, including Shenryu Suzuki, claimed to have only rarely experienced it. Yes, you can stop or redirect thought, but is that the same thing as developing understanding from non-dual awareness? I’m open to the possibilities.
I find the most concrete representation to ‘Einstein’s Buddhism’, and the other non-dual awareness, to be captured in haiku. Why? Because haiku captures the consequences of mindfulness in action. A good haiku captures something that transcends the moment, but which at the same time can only be expressed ‘in the moment.’ It is both inside and outside the mind of the author and the reader. Yet the reader can, through re-experiencing the haiku, peak into the universal in the same way a child can stare at reflections in a rain drop.
This transcendent moment in haiku is captured by what is called a ‘cut word’ (kireji), which breaks the haiku into pieces in way that can sometimes point out how one arbitrary moment inevitably leads to another. Take Basho’s
“Being seen off, seeing other’s off–the outcome: Autumn in Kiro.”
The cut here is somewhat explicit as “the outcome” in Robert Aitken’s translation. This happens, that happens. Now this new thing happens, somehow transcendent in light of the prior things. Maybe there is also a kind of reflection around the cut word–like two mirrors positioned just right to capture one another into infinity. There is not one without the other.
That is too many words to explain something that cannot be explained in words.
Haiku is nothing special.
It poses an interesting question though. How many paths to mindfulness are there? Mindfulness in the modern era is potentially one way, depending on the definition we agree on. Would an 8-week course in haiku accomplish the same benefits as an 8-week course in mindfulness? There is an experiment from Mrazek and colleagues (2012) where an 8 minute mindfulness exercise is sufficient to produce behavioural change. Let’s assume it also produces change in a mindfulness scale. Would an 8-minute haiku exercise lead to a similar change? Maybe it is only my way of writing haiku, but then, maybe that is not so hard to communicate: listen and wait for the kireji to happen. Only then go looking for the words.
This can happen in many ways. Listening is not specific to Buddhist prayer. There are many contemplative or listening practices, which range from simple silence to yoga to Lectio Divina (divine reading). Even mantra is about preparing the mind to listen. Experimental science is a protocol for listening to the world. Let the data speak.
I want to close this up by saying what I think is under the surface of this little exploration. The human mind is built to process information. If it has access to new information, it will process it. But if self-projection into the past („I wish I hadn’t said that“) or the future (‘One day’ thinking) is louder than the present, then we learn little, and worse, we miss out on the present as well as making it harder to live in the present (‘Did I remember to turn the oven off?’). Mindfulness can be about getting to now.
But there is something else, and this is what I think motivates this essay: Practices like mindfulness can be bigger–they can also be about a personal and experimental exploration of reality that is not about saving yourself, but rather becoming yourself. Realizing that the „explanation for you“ is not only the finger your mind constantly points at itself, but something undefinably larger and more personal, at the same time.

 

 

 

by Thomas Hills, Ph.D._1

What follows is an attempt at an honest exploration of my impression of mindfulness, in light of my experience of an 8-week course. It’s taken me a while to formulate this, and perhaps it is heretical, but in some ways I think the course led to this insight–so it is what it is.
I have practiced meditation in various forms since I was about 13. From a Western perspective it may be somewhat ironic that a book on ninja by Stephen Hayes may have introduced it to me, alongside the movies of Bruce Lee, where he occasionally sat in meditation. A karate course or two later and I was hooked. It was something about disciplining the mind, but more.
I recall in one movie Bruce Lee points to the moon, and he says, „Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.“ It is perhaps a cliche, but to a nine year old in the 70s, this was The Way. This was a deeper truth, both focused in the moment, but keenly aware of a bigger picture available to experience, available for those who only knew where to look (or how to look!). It was not the worshiping of that which cannot be personally experienced, or borrowing the language of some sacred system to justify personal whim. It was direct experience. A primal positivism.
Mindfulness, I worry, verges on a new kind of idol. It is like the finger. As a behavioral scientist, I fully appreciate the evidence for its benefit. It grows by the day. Meta-analyses show mindfulness reduces stress (Grossman et al., 2004), improves quality of life (Nyklíček & Kuijpers, 2008), improves executive function in the elderly (Moynihan et al., 2013), helps addicts overcome their addictions (Bowen et al., 2009), helps depression (Hofmann et al., 2010), improves diabetes (Gregg et al., 2007), and so on. Some might say, if you aren’t yet paying attention to mindfulness, you’re missing out.
But…
For me, there is more to it than that.
What is mindfulness? There are a number of definitions. Nonjudgmental awareness captures some aspect. Shunryu Suzuki might call it beginner’s mind: seeing reality as if for the first time. Dogen said „There is mindfulness that exists in moments of owning one’s body and mindfulness that exists in moments of having no mind. There is conscious mindfulness and there is mindfulness in which there is no body.“ Kitaro Nishida, a Japanese philosopher who contributed to the Western tradition, might have called it simply non-dual awareness.
For me, these are ideas that move where I need them to go. But when I look at an 8-week course in mindfulness, I am struck with the sense that we have taken the bones out of Dogen so that we can pick our teeth.
This is my ego talking, but an ego is a point-of-view required for communication. It is Jung’s filtering persona, a narrowing for presentation. But then again, my ego sometimes notices things I don’t.
Take this case in point. The Heartmath mindfulness technique of picturing a happy moment. This is not about developing understanding. It is a kind of mental band-aid. Of course, it may empower people to find an understanding, as if to stop the bleeding. But the question for mindfulness is where is the next step?
This is the crux of the problem. Mindfulness as a method to medicate the mind is not mindfulness in it the sense in which it originated. It is a salve that we apply to modern life. But to replace the spiritual quest that is so much a part of the human experience, there needs to be more. It is not enough to take to re-invent Huxley’s soma–that happy drug of the future–to smooth the edges on time.
But perhaps there is a path ahead.
This possibly apocryphal quote from Albert Einstein may offer some insight:
“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description” (p.59, Alves, 2013).
Whether the quote is from Einstein or not is beside the point. I agree with it, because at its base, Buddhism is about personal experience, which is the currency of mindfulness.
I am not prone to calling myself anymore Christian than Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, etc. Ghandi said he was all of them, which I guess is permission enough. But the above comment on Buddhism is trying to capture something that is inherent in an ideal religion: „a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.“ It isn’t about a way of seeing, it is about wonder.
It is hard to find the words to express such an experience in a concrete way. Ram Dass can say, ‘be here now,’ but this is quite an abstract instruction. „Nonjudgmental awareness,“ though easy to repeat, is also quite abstract. If we take it in Kitaro Nishida’s sense, it is pre-categorical awareness. But this is an even higher bar, even for a Buddhist, which is why many, including Shenryu Suzuki, claimed to have only rarely experienced it. Yes, you can stop or redirect thought, but is that the same thing as developing understanding from non-dual awareness? I’m open to the possibilities.
I find the most concrete representation to ‘Einstein’s Buddhism’, and the other non-dual awareness, to be captured in haiku. Why? Because haiku captures the consequences of mindfulness in action. A good haiku captures something that transcends the moment, but which at the same time can only be expressed ‘in the moment.’ It is both inside and outside the mind of the author and the reader. Yet the reader can, through re-experiencing the haiku, peak into the universal in the same way a child can stare at reflections in a rain drop.
This transcendent moment in haiku is captured by what is called a ‘cut word’ (kireji), which breaks the haiku into pieces in way that can sometimes point out how one arbitrary moment inevitably leads to another. Take Basho’s
“Being seen off, seeing other’s off–the outcome: Autumn in Kiro.”
The cut here is somewhat explicit as “the outcome” in Robert Aitken’s translation. This happens, that happens. Now this new thing happens, somehow transcendent in light of the prior things. Maybe there is also a kind of reflection around the cut word–like two mirrors positioned just right to capture one another into infinity. There is not one without the other.
That is too many words to explain something that cannot be explained in words.
Haiku is nothing special.
It poses an interesting question though. How many paths to mindfulness are there? Mindfulness in the modern era is potentially one way, depending on the definition we agree on. Would an 8-week course in haiku accomplish the same benefits as an 8-week course in mindfulness? There is an experiment from Mrazek and colleagues (2012) where an 8 minute mindfulness exercise is sufficient to produce behavioural change. Let’s assume it also produces change in a mindfulness scale. Would an 8-minute haiku exercise lead to a similar change? Maybe it is only my way of writing haiku, but then, maybe that is not so hard to communicate: listen and wait for the kireji to happen. Only then go looking for the words.
This can happen in many ways. Listening is not specific to Buddhist prayer. There are many contemplative or listening practices, which range from simple silence to yoga to Lectio Divina (divine reading). Even mantra is about preparing the mind to listen. Experimental science is a protocol for listening to the world. Let the data speak.
I want to close this up by saying what I think is under the surface of this little exploration. The human mind is built to process information. If it has access to new information, it will process it. But if self-projection into the past („I wish I hadn’t said that“) or the future (‘One day’ thinking) is louder than the present, then we learn little, and worse, we miss out on the present as well as making it harder to live in the present (‘Did I remember to turn the oven off?’). Mindfulness can be about getting to now.
But there is something else, and this is what I think motivates this essay: Practices like mindfulness can be bigger–they can also be about a personal and experimental exploration of reality that is not about saving yourself, but rather becoming yourself. Realizing that the „explanation for you“ is not only the finger your mind constantly points at itself, but something undefinably larger and more personal, at the same time.

 

 

 

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Здравейте! Благодарим Ви за посещението. Моля, натиснете бутона начало за да продължите :)

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