The space between: how haiku poetry can heal

By planetm | February 23, 2022

Jane Ayres reflects on absorbing the beauty of hidden spaces for inner calm and how the simplicity in the act of creating haiku – Japanese poetry with just 17 syllables – has helped her to heal.

Space surrounds us. Yet we often lack a conscious awareness of this fact – until we believe we need more of it. Such as more space to park multiple cars, more space in our homes for increasing amounts of stuff, or just space to think. We can never have enough space. Or so we assume…

After my hysterectomy, I thought a lot about the nature of space – physical and mental. I wondered about the unexpected womb-sized space I imagined it must have created, visualising it as large and cavernous, although the consultant insisted it was only as big as a fist. Even so, bizarrely, I felt sure I could feel the difference inside my body. Would the new space remain hollow? Or would something else fill it? Well, apparently my bowels would naturally drop into the new cavity. A bit like getting a bigger house and finding the extra room soon becomes occupied. It seems if we make space, we quickly use it.

With its focus on mindful postural alignment and body awareness, the postures (asanas) and practice of Iyengar yoga teach us to utilise our internal space while also strengthening our digestive system. This form of yoga has helped me deal with the physical consequences of the surgery. The standing postures, in particular, make me feel stronger and calmer, and I’m convinced the yoga continues to create more space inside – or at the very least has taught me how I can access this new space.

To come to terms with the psychological aspects of the procedure, I discovered the power of poetry to heal the wounds and as a comforting aid to mindfulness. Next, I began to write, exploring the juxtaposition of words, patterns and white space on the page; using this almost meditative process to help me deal with, and fully process, my myriad of conflicting emotions about the surgery.

Haiku: a spiritual discipline

It wasn’t too long before a good friend suggested I should perhaps consider learning about haiku, a very short form of Japanese poetry traditionally consisting of 17 syllables. Previously called hokku, haiku was given its current name by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki towards the end of the 19th century. Despite (or because of?) its formal and spiritual discipline, I was attracted by its clarity, apparent simplicity and space to breathe without wading through excessive verbal clutter. Eager to learn as much as I could, I joined the British Haiku Society.

I have long been intrigued by the importance of aesthetics in Japanese culture, which is reflected in an emphasis on shape, form, space and line. The Japanese have a concept called Ma, which is integral to both haiku and Ikebana (the arrangement of flowers dating back to the 7th century), in which everything is carefully and mindfully placed to create serenity. It is experienced as a conscious awareness of the space between things. A pause. An architectural silence.

For example, in Ikebana, both a discipline and form of expression, Ma is the space that exists between the branches, the leaves, the stalks – every element of the arrangement, from the base to the tips. Ma reflects a specific moment in time. Visual, spiritual harmony to be contemplated.

Filling the void

These precious spaces are everywhere; the silences between the notes in music, the breath taken between words – written or spoken; even the haunting absence of a loved one. When someone dies, the space they used to occupy heaves with almost tangible memory, reminding us they are gone; that we will, in time, follow. Last year, I watched a BBC documentary about a thought-provoking artist who creates her work by illuminating the spaces between things, filling them with concrete so they are visible and tactile. Why are we so afraid of the void and compelled to fill it?

The act of waiting – between appointments, in waiting rooms, traffic jams, queues in the supermarket, or perhaps for someone who might never arrive – opens up a transitory space for reflection, rather than fear and frustration. Could it be a space that might even be enjoyed as delayed gratification before the eventual outcome or destination?

Instead of trying to create more space, could appreciating the many hidden spaces and precious pauses in our daily lives offer a path to inner tranquillity? If only we care to look, we might discover that the secret of a mindful existence is to tap into the glorious spaciousness within and around us.

Discover more

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Planet Mindful magazine. Want to live more mindfully? Check out more mindfulness techniques here.

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