Mindfulness Meditation


I do not remember when I was first introduced to the haiku and prose of Matsuo Basho, the great Japanese poet from the 16th century.  I cannot claim any special knowledge or expertise when it comes to poetry in general or haiku in particular, but I have to acknowledge that on occasion a particular poem will transfix me, bringing a moment of sheer illumination and joy.  Here’s a bit of prose, and a haiku, from the opening of Basho’s classic “Narrow Road to the Interior:”

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. Coming home from a year’s walking tour of the coast last autumn, I swept the cobwebs from my hut on the banks of the Sumida just in time for New Year, but by the time spring mists began to rise from the fields, I longed to cross the Shirakawa Barrier into the Northern Interior. Drawn by the wanderer-spirit Dôsojin, I couldn’t concentrate on things. Mending my cotton pants, sewing a new strap on my bamboo hat, I daydreamed. Rubbing moxa into my legs to strengthen them, I dreamed a bright moon rising over Matsushima. So I placed my house in another’s hands and moved to my patron Mr. Sampû’s summer house in preparation for my journey. And I left a verse by my door:

Even this grass hut

may be transformed

into a doll’s house.

Translated by Sam Hamill

(Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, a.k.a. The Essential Bashô, 1998)

What captivates me about Basho is the immediacy he brings to every aspect of his writing.  He notices things.  He is alert, without tension or anxiety.  It is clearly a present moment awareness, very visceral, very much focused on sense experience.  It is not a surprise, of course, that Basho was a man of Zen, committed to living a mindful life.  In the reading of his haiku and prose I find myself easily drawn into a mindful state, sensing the experiences in which Basho abides seamlessly, as if it was my own sensing, my own experiencing.

Poetry of this sort has that effect when the mind is open and receptive.  In January I was traveling in California with my wife and friends when I came upon a collection of artwork done by young children of the Long Beach Unified School District.  The water colors were engaging, and it was easy to picture proud parents praising their children and encouraging them to “paint more, paint more!”

Several paintings I saw that day had poetry embedded someplace within the artwork.  The poems were all written in the present tense, and oriented toward descriptions of sensory experiences.  The students captured what they felt in their emotions, in their senses, in the moment and the natural places depicted.  All were lovely, and created with great attention and care.  But one in particular captured my attention, and I’d like to share it with you.  The watercolor painting was straightforward, picturing a beach, the ocean, palm trees and a breeze, and a girl laying on a beach blanket with a basket beside her.  And in the sea you see waves, which is the title of the picture and the poem.  It was written by Atzallana Quintana, a young student from a school in that district:


You slowly

look up and the

Sunset sets your

eyes as

beauty, your

feet are hard

and cold, with

the rough sand and

the cold salty water.

You can see boats

slowly moving, the

clouds forming together

to hide the sun and

bring out the moon.

And still…All you

hear is waves~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am not going to analyze this poem, for to do so would impose my way of experiencing it, my way of being with it, and may distort your experiencing, if you make the mistake of thinking I have any special knowledge.  I would only encourage you to feel the presence Atzallana brings to her writing.  How she is firmly grounded in awareness of body and senses.  Her awareness feels comfortable, at ease.  I believe that if you savor each syllable, you will find yourself experiencing Atzallana’s world for a few moments.

Well, I will make one brief analysis.  Atzallana’s use of the word “still,” her timing of that word, after so much visualizing has been presented, her decision to have you pause for three beats, before moving on to an auditory sensation: that is brilliant poetry, an illumination of the sheer joy to be found in the present moment.  Basho would be so proud of this young poet, Atzallana Quintana.



Mindfulness Meditation

Taking Care

Driving this morning I found myself in a left lane merge onto a high speed interstate highway.  Upon entry I saw a warning sign flashing about 500 yards ahead, warning drivers to merge to the right.  I signaled with my turn indicator and checked my right side rear view mirror.  The nearest car appeared to be 3 or 4 car lengths behind, so I began slowly to change lanes.  The driver of that car accelerated hard, preventing me from changing lanes.  I moved back to my left lane, applied the brakes and slowed so I could change lanes behind that driver.  Minor annoyance arose, but I’m so accustomed to the aggressiveness manifest in people’s driving habits that it passed nearly unnoticed, and certainly was not taken for anything worth remembering.

Then something interesting happened.  The aggressive driver suddenly changed lanes, moving into the left lane that I knew was blocked a short distance ahead.  Greed emerged in my body and mind; the thought of not allowing him back into the lane arose quickly and strongly.  Righteous anger triggered pleasure centers in my brain, and I could literally see the pathway of revenge ahead:  accelerate hard, give him a taste of his own medicine!  But in that same moment a voice of sanity, literally the voice of my mindfulness teaching partner, Shannon, spoke these words she so often quotes from Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to chose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  So in that moment of righteous anger, the residue of the greed, hatred and ignorance that we all seem to struggle with, I found that space and returned to mindful practice.  I slowed and then gestured to the aggressive driver to move back over.

And then something wonderful happened: I began to laugh.  I laughed at myself.  All that meditation practice, and still so much dukkha, so much attachment to my desires.  I laughed at the human species: how we crave to be first on the highway, and how foolish our impatience and aggressiveness are.  I laughed about how wonderful life actually is, if only we can recognize our own contributions to our suffering, and just let go.  I laughed because I felt happy: happy that my day would have no residue from my old habits.

This practice is a wonderful practice, truly a pathway to freedom.  This is such a small and petty and simple event, but doesn’t it capture the type of experiences that we all have?  Have you ever felt yourself descend into a bad mood, and wonder why you were so irritable?  Could it be that in an ordinary day small, petty events that are not met mindfully may have added up to an irritable state?

Here’s another way to look at it. In an exchange with a contemporary named Pasenadi, who was the king of a nearby land, the historical Buddha was asked by the king “What, in the dharma, constitutes the highest good?”  Gotama answered “Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”

Care.  Care is a word that has more than one meaning.  Without going too deeply into scholarship concerning the derivation of the word attributed to Gotama, we can take “care” in this context to mean the opposite of being careless.  One must live with great care, which can be done when one brings a deep sense of caring to all sentient beings, beginning with the self.  When one has deep caring for all existence, one lives with great care.  Another way to see this is to think of “care” as the opposite of “squander.”  Each moment in each person’s life deserves great care; one must not squander the opportunity to live each moment fully.

In the moment of taking a mindful breath and allowing the wisdom of my colleague, friend, and teacher to fill my mind, I remembered that space between stimulus and response, and could exercise care in the moment.  As a result I did not do harm to another being, both the aggressive driver and myself.  As a result there was less opportunity to spread suffering further, by driving aggressively and, perhaps, recklessly, myself.  As a result I came away from this minor event with no painful emotional residue, only the joy from not taking myself and the world too seriously.  And as a result there was a moment of care brought to a world that is starving for care.

And all because of the wisdom of a skillful teacher, and the space in a single breath!