A Long Missed Shift

There have been NO MUSHROOMS in Nanaimo so far this fall. With failing hope on my walk today I wandered from time to time off the trail, poking mournfully at the ground with my walking stick. Eventually I gave up and decided to just enjoy the walk. As I came around one curve in the path I stopped and looked at this scene:

That the last red path

A post shared by Richard Powell (@stillinthestream) on

Something in the way the branches filled up the space with horizontal lines, the autumn light, late in the day, and the deep reassuring stillness caused a sort of mental pop in my head. I felt it like a knot un-knotting. Pop, un-knot.

I was suddenly full of a warm shy contentment angling up towards joy at the edges. I smiled. It has been a very long time since such a feeling has come to me. I carried on down the trail, swinging my stick and breathing in the green smelling air, lungs not big enough to take in as much as I would like, shoulders not broad enough to throw back on my spine like a devil may care mendicant; but certainly I had knees enough to saunter and lips to whistle a gentle tune into the silent tree space, where pips of little brown creepers came back to me as a kind of distant echo.

The Welcoming Prayer

Sadness, loneliness, depression — feelings most of us don’t welcome.

Speakers like Tony Robbins and Sharon Pope as well as a growing number of Psychologists say that suppressing or avoiding feelings is not good for us. This includes suppression of negative emotions. Experiments show that suppression of emotions leads to increased sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system and worse memory for social information such as names or facts about individuals seen on slides 1.

There are also authoritative references that link cancer to a “type C personality.” Type C personalities are known for their tendency to “suppress wants, needs and desires.” 2. The implication being, I suppose, that suppressing these things somehow increases the risk of cancer.

The logic goes that feelings that are not acknowledged continue to arise until we pay attention to them.

“If you ignore an emotion, it will get stronger.”

All feelings carry information for us and therefore none are really negative, according to Karla McLaren. Sadness tells us we experienced a loss. Jealousy that we need better alignment with a source of love. Anger that we need to restate our voice or set a boundary. And so on. When we push them away, we reinforce a belief that ignorance is bliss, a truism that only applies to subjects we don’t need to know about.

I have discovered from my own tendency to ignore unpleasant emotions, that  ignorance is the mildest form on a spectrum of illusions about “what is.” At the extreme end are delusions I only wish were true. I like them better than what is actually going on. Denying what is and clinging to a fantasy, however, is dangerous to my mental health. But so is stark realism. Some optimism and a positive outlook can motivate me to change situations in my life that initially seem insurmountable, but never the less are not; and a dream that is “not yet” true can inspire me to improve the world, not just for myself, but for others.

But I always found it difficult to figure out when to follow a dream, and when to face reality. Two years ago I discovered the Welcoming Prayer.

WelcomingPrayer600I began using this prayer daily to start my meditation time. I found it difficult at first, especially when trying to welcome things into my life that I perceived as truly awful. I was welcoming loneliness, sadness, fear, and anxiety. I was welcoming sickness, pain, loss, and hardship. It seemed outrageous to welcome nasty people, unfair circumstances, and painful conditions when what I really wanted was them all to go away. I wanted freedom from them all. So then I let go of the desire for freedom!

It felt crazy to let go of my desire for survival too. What if that meant I didn’t survive? “What if” indeed.

I discovered that the key is to focus on those desires that are causing me suffering. Worried about loosing my job? Welcome anxiety, let go of the desire for self sufficiency. Sad about a relationship that didn’t work out? Welcome loneliness, let go of the desire for affection and love.

The crazy thing is, it works!

When I embrace whatever I am pushing away and let go of the underlying desire, I really do open to the the love and action of God within. Even when I am doubting the existence of God. Sun Through Spirea

This prayer sends a strong message to the subconscious that I will not be driven by desire. It is a mindful transfer of motivation from biology and fear, to what practitioners call the “true self.”

The True Self

The true self is understood by different people to be different things. But whatever the true self is, they all agree that surrendering the things you desire most — puts you in contact with it.

The true self is your authentic self, your imago dei, that part of you that is connected to God [or higher wiser part of yourself if you don’t believe in God]. Once you’re in right alignment with that, you can decide what you are going to do in the outer world from a place of calm acceptance. Sometimes you might choose to fight, achieve, compete, or strive for something important. Other times you might choose to acquiesce.

The important effect is that now the choice is not made from desperation or grasping. It is made from a sense of thoughtfulness and reflection.

And I find this state very similar to that dearest interest of mine, sabi. When desire has been disengaged the poetic vision can unfold. This kind of poetic vision is it’s own reward, but it also opens the mind to the layers in any experience. Paradox, irony, pathos, all become richer and more interesting. This is a mellow and tempered state, full of richness and value.

So, it seems, the Welcoming Prayer is a practice that can foster connection to the True Self; and being so connected allows most of us to more easily enter the state of being that is, or is very similar to, sabi.

Could it be that the poetic drive, specifically the poetic drive behind haiku and other forms of nature aesthetics, is a way to connect to the True Self? I am beginning to think so…


  1. Richards, J. M. , & Gross , J. J.(2000). Emotion regulation and memory : The cognitive costs of keeping one’ s cool. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 410-424. see also Gross, J. J., & Levenson , R. W. (1997) . Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 95 – 103.
  2. http://emedicalhub.com/type-c-personality/

Continuing To Be Still In The Stream

Shortly after the publication of my first book on wabi sabi in 2004 I created a website called stillinthesteam.com. I maintained a full site with contests, articles, and news, for 10 years, then transferred my domain name here in July of 2015. I want to shift my focus from the wider wabi sabi ideal, to the application of sabi in everyday life. I still believe that the the phrase “still in the stream” captures the paradox and joy I’m following, and also searching for. When I started my 100 lakes project it was a way to more deeply explore sabi through a practice known as Kanjaku. The 100 lakes blog has largely been a series of travelogs with the occasional post of my philosophical musings.

Canoe on Anutz Lake, near a stream inflow

Over the years I launched new blogs to try and chronicle some of the inner journey I have been on, but as is often the case for me, and those with similar personalities to mine, I don’t seem to make much progress after the initial inspiration. But this is what it means, in part, to be still in the stream. Still, in this sense, equates to “continuing to exist, or persist” in the stream. Mid stream really. “Nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, nothing is finished.” And the nothing being finished part, like the rest, is not a bad thing. We want perfect lasting completion. We want to be able to relax out of striving, seeking, and working into accomplishment, answers, and rest. For me, those qualities are not bad, but the exploration of wabi sabi had confirmed for me that goals promise satisfaction and contentment one day, and as attractive as this sounds, it is an illusion. Because satisfaction and contentment are as transitory as all other feelings in life.

So, being still in the stream is being ankle or knee or even waist deep in the flow — in the process. But there is another kind of stillness that is not persisiting-in-the-moment-ness but more along the line of persisting-in-the-momentlessness. This is the stillness which we think of as being without movement. The stillness of a meditator, of a person in reverie, and of objects that reside in one place for a long time. It is the air that seems not to move in a forest glade, the water that seems not to move on a calm pond. We love the look and feel and experience of this kind of stillness. And most of us know it is a relative thing. Even when the mist is rising off a glassy lake, and the reeds and rushes stand like sentinels, we know that the mist is swirling is very small movements of air, and rings appear on the water from fish moving below the surface. Stillness of this kind is really a reduction of motion, a quieting of frenetic activity which seems somehow to hush our mind, to create a mindful state in which we can let go some of the burden we seem to be carrying. I’m realizing now that letting go, is perhaps as important to sabi as being still. And also, there is the stream. Always the stream. More on this as I go along…

A Useful Idea

The word Sabi has changes over the years. Originally is was a slightly longer word in Japanese, the word sabishi. In the simplest terms, that old word meant solitary or lonely. In Wabi Sabi for Writers I traced the development of the word over time and it’s enduring association with wabi. In particular I focused on Basho who I believe coined the shortened word sabi to identify more than just an aesthetic quality. I thought then and still think that Basho used sabi to describe a way to appreciate the pathos of life without descending into despair.

Writers and other creative people who are “sensitive to things” seem particularly vulnerable to despair and much of literature, especially in the19th, 20th, and early 21st century, seems to be about the loss of faith and the descent into nihilism. Sabi may be useful for those of us struggling to make sense of our life in this post-modern world.

Like the history of the word itself, I hope that I can develop a “sabi paradigm” that can entice a person to move from loneliness to a oneliness. Or to use more conventional language from a dualistic materialistic mind set to a non-dual anatheistic mind set.

A Definition of Sabi

In Wabi Sabi for Writers I said that sabi “was refined over the years to emphasize a state of receptivity, fostered in remote natural settings.” The legendary Japanese poet Basho was among the first to use the word and he did so to distinguish his style of poetry from others. There existed a different but similar word, aware, which described the state of being open or sensitive to things. Aware is pronounced ‘ah wah ray’ but coincidentally has a similar meaning to the English word aware, as in awareness. The English word aware, comes from the German root, which is more about wariness, than artistic sensitivity, so we can’t quite equate the two.

Buttertubs Marsh

Both sabi and aware have to do with an openness to poetic qualities in an object or place, especially when we are unhurried or alone. The emphasis is on sensitivity and emotional receptivity. Aware was part of a popular phrase, “Mono no aware” which is translated as “an awareness of the poignancy of things.” The poignancy comes, usually, from a things impermanence or transience. Howard Rheingold in his book, They Have a Word for It, writes of aware: “Would cherry blossoms be as poignantly beautiful if they bloomed all year round, or if they were as tough as walnuts?” Seeing the cherry blossom with the awareness that they are only here for a few days each year, makes them more valuable.

Basho taught his students that sabi was the color of a poem and gave examples of people who showed pluck or stamina. What makes sabi different from aware is that it includes a deliberate acceptance of things as they are. This deliberate acceptance makes sabi more than awareness, more than sensitivity. For sensitive souls, poets, song writers, artists, etc. sabi is more “spiritual” for lack of a better word. A person might experience aware when she sits in misery contemplating a fallen soldier, too young to have savored the freedom for which he gave his life. She is wracked with the pathos of the scene. Her sister, adopting a sabi mind, sees the same scene and feels the same pathos but moves it towards an aha moment.

Aware is the “ah” or “oh” of sorrow, and sabi is the ‘ah” or “oh” of insight.

For an excellent discussion of sabi in the work of Basho, see: Sabi, Nature, and the Relationship by Riley B. Irwin