For the Week of September 16, 2016: The Healing Power of Haiku

A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a presentation on the expressive writing programs I lead with cancer patients and survivors to a visiting group of medical students from Dokkyo University in Japan, part of an annual “observership” program hosted by Moores UCSD Cancer Center which I’ve participated in for several years.  My part in the program is to discuss the health benefits of expressive writing and the “Writing through Cancer” program series I lead for patients and survivors at the Center.

It’s always an enjoyable morning, but it’s a different presentation than I usually give to groups.  First, I’m challenged to explain the research highlights of expressive writing and how it’s put into practice in terms that are easily translatable to a group whose English language skills are not generally well developed.  The second and more interesting challenge lies in the cultural differences between American and Japanese populations.  To “tell the truth” about one’s difficult or traumatic experiences, as those in my cancer writing groups do, and expressive writing research demonstrates the health benefits of doing so with several different groups, it’s not appropriate in Japanese culture.  Thus, the medical students and I have an interesting discussion about how expressive writing could be used effectively with Japanese cancer patients and others.  That discussion has naturally migrated to a poetic form that is uniquely Japanese:  haiku.

Creating poetry out of life’s hardships is, of course, an acknowledged healing practice.  The poetry written by cancer patients, for example, has been featured in many magazines and books, like Karin Miller’s two volumes of The Cancer Poetry Project, first published in 2001, and filled with poetry that deals with every stage of the cancer journey.  Poetry was a way for people to express their grief and sorrow in the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.  An article entitled “In Shelley or Auden, in the Sonnet or Free Verse, The Eerily Intimate Power of Poetry to Consoleappeared in the New York Times less than a month after the tragedyThe author, Dinitia Smith, noted “In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way…” (October 1, 2001). ‘In times of crisis it’s … always poetry,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins remarked, “What we want to hear is a human voice speaking directly in our ear.”

Shortly after the catastrophic Japanese tsunami of 2011, the Los Angeles Times featured an article entitled “Capturing Japan’s pain in 17 syllables.”  Haiku, a centuries-old Japanese poetic form, commonly about fleeting moments in nature or its changing seasons, became a vehicle to capture and express the pain of the Japanese people in the days and weeks following the tsunami.  Reporter Julie Makinen described how it began:  Amid the cacophony of news bulletins and tweets and cellphone alerts registering yet another aftershock, Yoshikatsu Kurota quietly sent out his brief verse. It was published Thursday, in small type, on Page 14 of the mass-circulation Asahi Daily, in the corner that Japan’s newspapers still devote to such poetic endeavors… Seventeen Japanese syllables, radiating out into the universe, perhaps touching a few other distressed souls adrift in the chaos.

About the nuclear power plant

too much detail I hear

such unhappiness

Yo Yasuhara, a Buddhist monk living in Kyoto and a practitioner of haiku first wrote of the October 2004 earthquake which rocked his native Niigata after she spent an uneasy night in the frigid cold in the aftermath:

It’s cold and wet

camping outdoors

aftershocks multiplying

the misery

After the 2011 tsunami, Yasuhara again wrote a haiku, one ultimately carved into a memorial stone in the city of Kyoto:

Days of disaster

I can never forget

the cold and wet

Haiku, as it turned out, gave the Japanese medical students and me some possibilities for using writing, in this case, poetry, as part of healing.  Later, as I led them in some short writing exercises to demonstrate my workshop approach with cancer patients, we incorporated haiku writing, then discussed the possibilities and power of the form.

The essence of the haiku form lies in its brevity and visual intensity.  In seventeen short syllables, it paints a picture in the readers’ mind, calling our attention to an observation and the story hinted at behind the image.  Its most common form is written in three lines, the first line five syllables long, the second, seven, and the third, five, for a total of seventeen syllables, although when translated from Japanese, is not always perfect.

Haiku teaches us the power of observation, of being present to the here and now.  It’s a short-hand route to express suffering and pain, as the tsunami haiku shows us.  It can also be used to express the medical experience.  Pulse:  Voices from the Heart of Medicine, is an online magazine that features essays and poetry by patients and medical professionals, published every Friday.  Pulse also showcases haiku in every issue.  In three short lines, contributors describe their medical experience, for example:

hospital trolley

A nurse wakes me

with a sleeping pill

(–By Cynthia Rowe)


brain tumor on scan

springtime hues drain from my life

black and white remain

(–By Hedy S. Wald)


her bit fat arm

swinging happily at her side

breast cancer survivor

(–By Roz Levine)

Haiku can be a way to use poetry to express your sorrow and pain, but it has the potential to do much more than that.  Haiku takes us beyond sorrow and pain to notice the external world,  the fleeting moments and beauty in Nature, and that teaches us gratitude.  Focus on one small moment of Nature, and the noise from the external world vanishes.  You open your eyes—and heart—to the smallest details, the fleeting moments and beauty in the natural world.  You become aware of the feelings such moments evoke.   While the first level of Haiku is always located in Nature, the second is most often a reflection on Nature, often characterized by themes of  acceptance, aloneness, humor, silence, awakening, compassion, even death.  It’s why Haiku is a poetic form that can have such impact in emotional healing, because a dialogue with Nature is more than just observation; it takes us inside ourselves.  Writing haiku is a kind of meditation,  calming, and quiet. Perhaps haiku, poetry in its simplest form, offers not only a way to find words to express our suffering, but as it also expresses beauty, perhaps it is a prescription for a larger life.

This week, try using Haiku to express yourself—whether it’s an aspect of your cancer experience or a small moment of Nature that offers a metaphor for life.  Three lines, 5, 7, 5, for a total of seventeen syllables.  If you’ve been reluctant to try writing poetry, haiku offers you an very accessible way to begin.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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