wake

with the coming of the spring rains
the earth – once compact
– loosens her grip and
life obscene breaks trough.

The chestnut, maple, birch
unutterable cries of Hades’ guests.
Twisted, the branches spread, grow,
an unfurling of silent anguish
utter isolation

while branches seek warmth
endeavor to warn those
admiring Demeter’s garden

Pearl crocuses at daybreak
rotting leaves; Sparrow dips her
head in mourning.

April

ice in a glove
bluebells and cow parsley
dust in the corners of our eyes

early encroaching morning darkness
pregnant; an echo chamber

the trees were bare
shut out with finality
we took refuge in an
airless suspension

Upon a morning, a turn.
A heavy, cloying fragrance-
magnolia in bloom

arrogant, seductive, teasing
a terrible beauty.

As day gracefully took its leave
darkness would return, begging
on blended knees
a friend

transient solace.
The ecstatic blossoms never far
away, gratuitous
a strange vitality.

Sun spills through the window.
They drink their fill but we
hide in corners
speak in whispers with
eyes downcast

The Records of a Travel Worn Satchel: on the road to Japan

In a few days time, I will be in Japan. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to this country imbued with thousands of years of rich cultural history, my curiosity fed by Japanese authors such as Yusunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima. The artist to really capture my heart, however, was Matsuo Basho, the 17th century Zen poet known for his beautifully simple and poignant haiku poems.

In his youth, Matsuo Basho was a servant to the wealthy Tōdō Yoshitada a participant in haikai no renga, where a group of poets would alternately compose short verses which made up part of a larger, collaborative composition. Having been exposed to poetry from a young age, Basho continued the art even after his master’s death,gradually gaining recognition in intellectual circles for his technical skill and poetic talent. For a time he lived an urban life in Ueno (modern-day Tokyo) but despite his popularity, Basho favored a reclusive one spent in nature rather than the bustle and chaos of city life, settling himself in Fukagawa. Throughout his lifetime, he amassed many zealous disciples who he taught and instructed, some of whom even built a house for him and planted a banana tree outside. So taken with the new tree, the poet took its name (芭蕉 bashō) to be his new haigo or pen name.

basho

Basho travelled extensively and often used what he saw as inspiration for his artistic work, best exemplified in his famous The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Travel Sketches. In it, he traces the journey where he walked all around rural Japan, covering around 1,500 miles over 156 days. In my 15 year old mind, Basho was the 17th century ascetic equivalent of Jack Kerouac. At one point on his travels, Basho stays overnight in the Ryushakuji temple of Yamagata famous for “the absolute tranquility of its holy compound”. During his stay, he is taken by its beauty, writing of how

The stony ground itself bore the colour of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

In his other Travel Sketches including The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton and The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, he similarly captures the beauty and simplicity of his environment and immersion in it. He is able to witness the passing of the seasons as well as the everyday lives of ordinary Japanese people around the country, clear in his observation of the people of Ueno, Tokyo.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

The author and academic Nobuyuki Yuasa asserts that through his travels,

“Basho had been casting away his earthly attachments, one by one, in the years preceding the journey, and now he had nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he would not be able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’)…) He saw a tenuous chance of achieving his final goal in travelling, and he left his house ‘caring naught for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy’.

Haiku are traditionally structured around two scenes that are then juxtaposed or brought together, allowing for a degree of ambiguity and an irresistible lightness, so included is a miscellaneous selection of some of my favorite of Basho’s poems as their sheer beauty and simplicity speaks for itself:

Spring’s exodus –
birds shriek,
fish eyes blink tears

Draining the sake
cask – behold,
a gallon flower-vase

Wake, butterfly –
it’s late, we’ve miles
to go together

Come, let’s go
snow-viewing
till we’re buried

Girl cat, so
thin on love
and barley

 

The Importance Of…battling burnout

Today, we live in a burnout culture. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in previous posts and no wonder, because it is has such a pervasive, damaging effect on how we work and live our lives in the 21st century. This ‘burnout’ may manifest itself in different ways i.e. stress, fatigue or anxiety, though what is clear is that the primary offender is often one’s work life.

When trying to juggle and manage a demanding schedule and unrelenting work commitments, the first sacrifice to be made is almost always sleep. The clinical psychologist Vicki Culpin writes in The Business of Sleep that we are currently suffering from a “sleep epidemic”; Denis Campbell draws attention to the findings of The National Sleep Foundation in an article for The Guardian, which indicates that 16% of adults in the UK sleep for less that 6 hours a night. Inevitably, people often turn to artificial stimulants to compensate for the consequences of a lack of sleep with energy drinks, strong coffee and even caffeine tablets presenting themselves as a way to continue to function throughout the working day. Never mind leisure time, any spare moment throughout the week or even the weekend is precious and to be used to catch up on all things that pile up outside of work, such as doctors appointments, laundry, shopping or cleaning. When one has an unhealthy work/life balance, all other areas of life become marginalized so that life has little purpose outside an office cubicle.

It is abundantly clear that this emphasis on overwork and the idea that salary and career should come first has a hugely detrimental impact on the psyche of workers and society as a whole. A recent study shows that when people feel a degree of power after, say, after a promotion or a salary increase, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others – in indication that the philosophy our work culture is based on favors an unhealthy breed of individualism over collective social well being. Christopher Harvey’s article for GQ calls attention to the urgency and gravity of the issue, hilighting that

Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.

Overwork and burnout have become badges of honor that employees wear with pride, many people familiar with the routine smug moaning bragging of their colleagues over how little sleep they’ve had or how many hours overtime they just had to put in the night before. How much one works has morphed into a way to judge others on their work ethic, with colleagues routinely battling it out to be the most assiduous worker, a phenomenon known as “busy bragging”.

Stress_at_Work

Though this might appear to work in the favour of employers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that work-related stress and sleep deprivation, however dedicated employees may be, leads to a less productive and efficient work force. When companies exert too much pressure on their employees, it becomes harder and harder to retain staff, leading to a high staff turnover. A Forbes article calls attention to the fact that

As many as one million people per day miss work because of stress. Studies suggest that all of this translates into a loss of anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion annually for U.S. employers. The effects of burnout take a toll not only on individuals, but also on businesses and the economy.

Paradoxically, overwork does not equate to higher levels of productivity but instead only to those of work-related mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.

Perhaps, to curb the effects of this dangerous trend, we should re-envision what it means to be a working man or woman in 2018. Though it may sound naive and idealistic, this should be the year that we change our workplace culture so that the well being and mental health of employees comes before profit at all costs. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out how he believes the ideal state should be constituted, happiness the central idea behind a functioning, flourishing society. For Aristotle, all actions have ends though some are subordinate to others, the ultimate end being that of ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing, essentially “doing and living well”. Moreover, while individual happiness is of value, it again is subordinate to the happiness and flourishing of a community, a philosophy we would do well to incorporate into our profit-driven modern society. Work is a means to an end – that being the happiness or flourishing of ourselves and our community – rather than an end in itself.

More and more, we are seeing corporate wellness programmes enter the workplace which give staff the opportunity to engage in activities such as mindfulness, yoga and exercise to improve their mental and physical health, though admittedly these are the companies that can afford such expenditure on their staff – often not the case for the majority of businesses. Instead, then, perhaps employers could be encouraged to try to engage with staff more on a personal basis, give them more credit for the work they put in and cease to encourage employees to work until breaking point by removing the individual pressure placed on them. It is becoming abundantly clear that businesses need to start putting people before profit not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a happy, healthy workforce is crucial to a well-functioning economy.