5 lessons for living from a 17th century haiku master

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Haiku as we know it today―a rich means of expression and one of Japan’s highest art forms―can be traced to Bashō, a 17th century haiku master. An example of his work―one of his most well-known haikus―evokes the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping:

Old pond―
A frog jumps in
The sound of water

As Stephen Addiss tells it in his 2011 book The Art of Haiku: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters, early haiku was more akin to limericks, jokes, and puns: “Bolstered by goodly quantities of sake, composing humorous linked verse became a very popular pastime.” A popular activity was to engage in “poetry marathons.” One early haiku master once wrote “23,500 verses in one day and night, spouting them out faster than a scribe could record them.”

But Bashō helped “turn haiku from a clever and other frivolous form of verse to poetry that could express depth and richness of both observation and spirit.”

So how did Bashō do it? In examining his life, Addiss comes up with several reasons, all of which are relevant today for anyone trying to live a meaningful life:

Bashō was independent:
“By giving up his official position, by frequently moving, and especially by his journeys, he never grew stale or redundant, but could view fresh places, meet new people, and experience multiple aspects of nature. … He studied Zen, shaved his head, and wore a monk’s robe, but never become a monk. In short, Bashō didn’t fit into a category or niche in a society that was very niche conscious.”

Bashō was a careful student of history, but he did not allow himself to be overwhelmed or intimidated by his predecessors:
“Through his deep appreciation of both classical Chinese poets and Japanese masters such as Saiygō and Sōgi, Bashō could use them as exemplars of travel, nonattachment, and profound observation of the world around them. Earlier … poets used the past primarily for parody or to demonstrate their erudition and wit, whereas Bashō had a more personal, and often more poignant response to his predecessors that still retained his own poetic spirit.”

Bashō never stopped learning:
“In a world where humility could often be a pose, he felt it deeply; despite his success, he never stopped searching for greater significance and range of expression. It helped that he seems to have been boundlessly curious and nonjudgmental; he did not find dace-fish guts, or a horse pissing near his pillow to be unworthy of poetry. Bashō’s journeying became a way to always seek the new, rather than resting content with what had gone before.”

Bashō connected disparate ideas that eluded others:
“Bashō was an expert in combining into a single haiku two images or two elements that might not seem to match, but which together become very evocative. Sometimes these involved synesthesia, where two different senses are combined, such as sight and sound.”

Bashō was kind:
“Bashō added a kind of humor to his haiku that did not depend upon puns or esoteric references to earlier literature, although both might occasionally appear in his verses. Instead, he celebrated the humor of daily life, where a small smile or recognition became more valuable than an “I get it” grin or an “Isn’t that clever” smirk.”

FURTHER READING

Bashō on Wikipedia

3 Ted Talks for health

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Need a booster shot of motivation to get healthier? Try a TED Talk.

Here are three that I’ve watched multiple times.

The power of food

If you are looking for something to motivate you about the power of food to heal, look no further than “Minding Your Mitochondria.” Terry Wahls, MD gave a TEDx talk in Iowa about how she cured her secondary progressive multiple sclerosis by changing her diet, in addition to other lifestyle modifications. The talk, which has nearly two million views on You Tube, describes how, with all conventional treatment options exhausted and confined to a wheelchair, Wahls, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, turned to the research literature for fresh ideas.

By gradually changing her diet so that it was solely based on whole foods with a primary foundation of fresh vegetables and animal fat, she was able to walk again. Today, she is running clinical trials of what is known as “The Wahls Protocol” for people living with multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately, the powers that be at TED Talks have put a warning message on this video saying that is “falls outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines” and the “viewer discretion is advised.” Wahls has harsh words for this decision:

My key message is about eating 9 cups of vegetables and berries each day, along with a personal narrative of how I developed my nutrient-dense diet based on thorough research. My personal health narrative is not the first shared on TED either. TED endorsed personal stories about illness and recovery when it hosted Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, My Stroke of Insight. Yet her story has no warning label. What could explain this hypocrisy?

Perhaps TED’s sponsors are influencing its curatorial decisions. Monsanto is a major TED funder, as are several major pharmaceutical companies. Monsanto, an agricultural, chemical, and biotech company, is also one of the biggest proponents of food alteration via genetic modification. The genetically modified organisms (GMOs) they create are being connected to various health issues and environmental damage, which makes sense–changing the DNA of our food is likely to change how our bodies react to and process that food.

The power of compassion

Peter Attia, MD is the president of NUSI (the Nutrition Science Initiative) which is sponsoring innovative nutrition research designed to determine why people get fat. Is it because we cfonsume too many calories? Or is it because of the types of foods we eat? (This Wired magazine feature on NUSI from August, 2014 is a great intro to NUSI’s work.) In this talk, “What if we’re wrong about diabetes?,” Attia describes treating an obese patient with diabetes when he was a young doctor working in the emergency department of a hospital. He emotionally confesses the contempt he had for her, believing that her illness was a product of her weak will. Now, he says, he knows better. And he offers an apology. It’s one, quite frankly, owed to millions of people by their health care providers who remain as ignorant as Attia once was.

The power of data

Hans Rosling is a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. In this TED Talk, “The best stats you’ve ever seen” ―which has been viewed more than 8 million times―Rosling neatly debunks myths about the health of the developing world versus that of the United States. It must be seen to be believed.

The Banners of the Sun

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As all the world knows, the sun, a blinding globe pouring forth an inconceivable quantity of light and heat, whose daily passage through the sky is caused by the earth’s rotation on its axis, constitutes the most important phenomenon of terrestial existence. Viewed with a dark glass to take off the glare, or with a telescope, its rim is seen to be a sharp and smooth circle, and nothing but dark sky is visible around it. Except for the interference of the moon, we should probably never have known that there is any more of the sun than our eyes ordinarily see.

But when an eclipse of the sun occurs, caused by the interposition of the opaque globe of the moon, we see its immediate surroundings, which in some respects are more wonderful than the glowing central orb.

The Passing of the Constellations

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From a historical and picturesque point of view, one of the most striking results of the motions of the stars described in the last chapter is their effect upon the forms of the constellations, which have been watched and admired by mankind from a period so early that the date of their invention is now unknown.

The constellations are formed by chance combinations of conspicuous stars, like figures in a kaleidoscope, and if our lives were commensurate with the æons of cosmic existence we should perceive that the kaleidoscope of the heavens was ceaselessly turning and throwing the stars into new symmetries.