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Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –


                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,


                       but to practice


                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice.

In the 1970s, Hirshfield spent three years in residence at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is situated in the Los Padres National Forest in central California. The fragrance of cedar, we may infer from her title, was in the air. In Zen centers and monasteries, residents rise as early as 2:30, splash cold water on their faces, and make haste to the zendo (meditation hall) for the first sitting of the day. “Decades after,” as she puts it, Hirshfield is still continuing this practice, though her external circumstances no longer require her to do so. “What is this?” Zen students are enjoined to inquire, whether the focus of inquiry is a concrete object, a physical sensation, or a state of mind. In this instance, Hirshfield implicitly asks why she is still performing a less-than-pleasant action, morning after morning, when she no longer has to.

Employing abductive reasoning, her poem entertains three plausible explanations. The first is that she is maintaining the rigor of Zen discipline, as a musician might do in playing scales. The second is that she is reconnecting her present experience with what she has called the “diamond at the center of [her] life”: her years as a full-time Zen student at Tassajara. And the third is that she is using the shock of ice-cold water to awaken herself, awakening being a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Rejecting all these explanations, however, she answers her own question in five key words, each of which carries a rich cargo of meaning.

The first of these words is practice, a word and concept as essential in Zen as it is in medicine or law. In Zen, nearly every activity one might engage in, be it sitting, eating, walking, gardening, cooking, or cleaning, is viewed as a form of practice, to which the practitioner gives his or her wholehearted attention. An end in itself, each such practice is also a means to an end, namely full awakening, and it is also the fruit of previous practice.

No less important is the word choosing, which Hirshfield underscores by allotting this operative verb a line to itself. One of the primary benefits of Zen practice is the eventual replacement of habitual, reflexive reactions with mindful, chosen responses. Through daily practice, the former give way to the latter. By anchoring ourselves in a stable posture, practicing conscious breathing, and observing our thoughts as they come and go, we become intimately aware of our mental habits—what Zen teachings call our “habit energy”(vasana). Bringing this awareness into our everyday lives, we develop the capacity to relinquish our most destructive habits. We fortify our power of choice.

The third key word is make, which in this context refers to creating a particular emotional response. In her book How Emotions Are Made, the distinguished neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett propounds what she calls the “theory of constructed emotion,” which holds that our emotional responses are not hardwired into our bodies and minds but actively constructed by our brains from three primary components: “affective realism” (empirical fact filtered through present feeling); “emotion concepts”; and social realities. Broadly speaking, Zen teachings accord with Barrett’s findings. Our emotions don’t just happen to us. Our brains play an active part in creating them. By becoming fully aware, through daily meditative practice, of that ongoing, moment-by-moment process of creation, we gain control over our reflexive thoughts and actions.

By such means, we can make the unwanted wanted. Rather than merely react to a splash of icy water by fighting that sensation, we can choose to respond with openness and curiosity. Rather than mindlessly react to its verbal counterpart—an offensive opinion, an inadvertent insult, a condescending remark—with prejudicial judgment and a commensurate retort, we can learn to respond with genuine compassion. And over time, we may even come to welcome adverse situations, insofar as they offer occasions for cultivating broader awareness, clearer insight, and deeper understanding.


Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins,2001).

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, “Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview,” Agni Online.

Photo: Jane Hirshfield, Zen Center of Syracuse, November 2009.




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