ikebana arrangement in two containers by Ekaterina Seehaus, Materials: calla, Australian flax икебана Согэтсу Sogetsu school ikebanaweb.com ikebana meditation article

Ikebana as meditation

I have been reflecting on the meditative aspect of ikebana already for a while. This article covers my discoveries.

If you ask your friend Wikipedia “what is ikebana?” it will say that it is an art of arranging flowers. But then it will also tell you that it is a Kado – the way of spiritual developments, a path of self-knowledge similar to the martial arts (karate-do, aikido, judo etc). This perhaps is what sets ikebana apart from other forms of floral art.

I have been curious about spiritual development systems for years. They vary a lot but one thing they all seem to have in common: a practice of connecting with the inner peaceful core. In the contemporary language we often call it meditation.

My personal experience with mediation is all about taking distance from the thinking mind. Or rather bypassing the worrying, chatting, busy part of the brain and connecting directly to the wise, silent, peaceful part of it.

All who have ever attempted mediation know that it is easier said than done. Many of us spent vast amount of time trying to stop thinking. We get frustrated, discouraged and insecure once we realize we are not able to do it for a meaningful length of time. What’s next?

A while ago I came across a helpful hint. The speaker was comparing thinking mind with a very active monkey who is constantly busy jumping from task to task. How do we keep the monkey quiet? The answer was simple. We give her a banana. And while she is busy with it we can do our peaceful meditation.

What can we use as our metaphoric banana? There are many tools created by humanity. Repeating memorized verses of prayers and religious chants is perhaps the most common one. Doing dynamic meditations like martial arts is another well-known form. Any extreme sport would be a “banana on steroids”. Those are needed for the brains of top executives or world leaders. Their minds are filled with so much serious stuff that switching them off is nearly impossible unless you are a well-trained meditator.

A side note to be explored later: I am convinced that most of the successful people are skilled in some form of meditation and do it regularly be it extensive running or a yoga practice. Did they became successful because they were good at controlling their brains? Or did they learn to control their brains to cope with the increasing level of worry as they went up? In either case the ability to find stillness in the most crazy situation seems to be the distinguishing factor between those who “make it” and… the rest of us.

I hope by now I have convinced you that meditation is a serious matter and not a spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Finding our personal way of distracting the monkey brain is worth investing some time into.

After years of yoga and Tai Chi I absolutely unexpectedly found a very easy way of entering into this highly desirable meditative state. For me it is through practicing the art of ikebana. It was a perfect distraction to my thinking patterns minus the dangers of the extreme sports. And it had a bonus compared to yoga: at the end of each lesson I had a nice flower arrangement to remind me of the experience I had.

I have elaborated on my experience many times when talking to people about ikebana. For me, when I come to my teacher’s place for the lesson I leave the world behind the door. I am a different person with a different purpose and a very difficult task at hand. I am working on the assignment and nothing else matters.

I love this perfect moment during an ikebana lesson when there is complete focus, silence and concentration in the group. Keep in mind that it is typically a group of women, who were happily chatting just before the lesson and will carry on chatting right after. They are all transformed for this brief moment. They have fully given themselves to the process of creation. And the more they are able to let go of anything outside of the ikebana world the more enchanting their arrangements are.

In the book “Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement” Gustie Herrigel speaks about the way teachers in Japan used to review students’ works. Teachers were evaluating whether the true connection with the essence of the flower was achieved by the student. Nowadays we perhaps would not use such wording. Nevertheless it is clear what she means. It is not tangible and you can’t put your finger on it but sometimes an arrangement just works and sometimes it does not. Even if there is no fundamental difference. You are just tuning into harmony or you are not.

So how do we enter into this special state of complete presence to our creation process? Well, first of all we try to avoid over complicating it. We just stay with feeling and avoid thinking. The simplest way is to concentrate on the sensory contact with the material.

Listen – pour water into the container as the first step. Listen to the sound of water. This will make you do it slower because it is actually quite enjoyable.  It also prompts you to handle your tools more carefully without making noise when you put them on the surface of the table. This in turn makes your movements more conscious, which is the whole point really.

Touch – different materials have different texture. Try touching stems of different flowers, bark of branches, petals and stamens. Rub pollen between your fingertip (careful, don’t mark your clothes! Some pollen is not possible to wash off). It is fascinating how much variety nature has in it. Humbling really.

Smell – yes, this is the best part. Even if you are using flowers which do not have an iconic perfume smell there is for sure a subtle scent present. And it is not always a pleasant one. 🙂 But this is yet another discovery you can make to get acquainted with your materials. And don’t forget that leafs, grasses they all have their own less pronounced scents.

Observe – colors, shapes, lines, big curves and small details. They all are worth our attention. They are out there patiently waiting to be discovered. And once you discover them it is your job to create an arrangement to share your discovery with the others.

There are so many fundamental principles and laws used in ikebana without being mentioned. I keep on stumbling upon them and exploring them as I move through my ikebana journey. Here are just a few, which I want to elaborate on in my future posts:

  • The golden ratio – it is fundamental to the ikebana proportions but I have never seen it mentioned in any of the ikebana text books.
  • Minimalism – the principal of arriving to the beauty by removing extra elements as long as there is nothing left in the arrangement that has no purpose. Less is more.
  • Color theory – we teach the basics of it in the Sogetsu curriculum but there is so much more. I for sure want to dig deeper into it.

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I am still looking for a perfect definition…

In my search for the perfect Ikebana webpages I find a lot of definitions of Ikebana created by different people. Most of them start with “Ikebana is more than just an art of flower arranging…” So how do you define this “more”? Here are a couple of versions, my favorite ones so far:

“More than simply putting flowers in a container, ikebana is a disciplined art form in which nature and human creativity are brought together. Language is not needed to understand the beauty of Ikebana, it holds no cultural boundaries. Minimal materials convey meaning through colour combinations, natural shapes and graceful lines. Enjoyed not only for its beauty but also for its meditative qualities, Ikebana is an art form anyone, anywhere can appreciate and benefit from.” (by Donna Canning of www.new.uniquejapan.com)

“More than being decorative, ikebana is thought of as a path of life or a kind of meditation.” (by B. Lennart Persson of www.nordiclotus.com)

“Calling ikebana “flower arranging” doesn’t tell the half of it. This centuries-old Japanese minimalist art form was born in the Buddhist temples of ancient Kyoto. Working in ikebana is a silent, solitary and meditative act that is about connecting with nature and finding beauty in line and shape — branches and leaves — rather than splashy blossoms and lush bouquets.” (Team writer of www.paperandtea.com)

“Arranging ikebana is not an intellectual exercise, nor is it merely an artistic one, as the arrangers have to abandon themselves to their senses, pay attention to their feelings, in other words, follow their heart. Arranging ikebana is for me a spiritual practice.” (by Jean-Marcel Duciaume of Flowers, Poetry and Other Essentials…)

If you are already familiar with the Ikebana way, how do you define it for yourself?

Ikebana flower arrangement Movement IkebanaWeb
“The Dream Catcher”. What do the flowers dream about? Flying away from the container?

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What Ikebana means to me

By way of introduction let me share with you an essay I wrote to answer a question “What does Ikebana mean to you”? It was one of the assignments towards the end of the teachers’ training program at the Sogetsu school of Ikebana. Here is what I said:

“For me Ikebana is first of all the “flower way” – the way of personal and spiritual development. By practicing Ikebana I am challenging myself, testing my limits and learning more about who I am. Ikebana is essentially a meditative experience. It allows me to separate from my daily worries, to get connected to nature and eventually to my deeper self – a great way to slow down in our crazy modern life. Ikebana resonated with me from the start and I knew that I wanted to go as far as the flower way would want to take me.

Photography by Ben Huybrechts

Working with plant material provides a great opportunity of contact with nature in our predominantly urban lifestyle. You start by learning to see unique characteristics of different materials. Then you learn to notice how each individual branch and flower was facing the light and in which direction they were growing. Then you start to see a special line of a branch “hidden” by foliage, an unusual texture of leaves, patterns and color aspects of flower petals… After a while you develop the ability to distill the essence of a particular material and to express it in an arrangement. You learn how by removing non-essential parts of the material, using contrasting or complementary colors and textures you can bring out the key points. And if you did it right the magic happens and the spectator will see what you have see, what you wanted to show and to share. And maybe, just may be, somebody will feel a few moments of peace or a spark of surprise by seeing familiar objects in a new, fresh way.

Finding those special aspects in the ordinary materials is only possible by deeply connecting with the object itself. In the Ikebana teachings there is a notion of becoming one with the heart of the flower. For me it is the ultimate goal of my practice of Ikebana. I feel that it can help making my human experience more complete. And by becoming an Ikebana teacher I want to help others to find this peaceful experience and hopefully contribute to the overall harmony in my small way.”

Were you also asked to answer similar questions in your Ikebana schools? It would be great if you share what Ikebana means to you in the comments section.

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