I'm delighted to publish a new essay, "The Single Most Powerful Tool for Healing: Tell the Right Stories," on Tiny Buddha.
As the title of the essay suggests, the essay is about the experience of healing from trauma and the importance of having good narratives for this work.
It felt vulnerable to write this essay—and that vulnerability is what the piece itself is largely about. So often, we're quiet about our challenges, cloaked in shame about the things that hurt us. I want to help shift that practice so that we can receive more support when we're hurting and so that we can heal more fully by giving ourselves appropriate narratives about the value and beauty of healing itself.
As I write: "And just as our trauma stories are powerful, our healing stories are equally powerful and important. We can and must break the silence and taboo not only around the trauma itself, but also around the complicated, messy, long, but ultimately rewarding process of healing from trauma."
You can read the essay here: https://tinybuddha.com/blog/the-single-most-powerful-tool-for-healing-tell-the-right-stories/
I hope you'll read it and enjoy it! I've also created some questions for reflection for your own life below. I hope you'll enjoy those questions as well and find reflecting and writing on them helpful.
Journal Questions to Reflect on Your Own
Fall is really here; the kids are back in school; the work week is back to its more regular routine (though my schedule always seems to defy any normal). And most of us are just a little (or a lot) too busy…
So how do we stay focused on what really matters as we get sucked up again in the busy-ness of work and our lives?
How do we prioritize how we spend our time? How can we find ways to go with natural rhythms—both externally and internally-- instead of against them in an over-scheduled work week?
These questions are not only personal; they’re not only a matter of personal preference and lifestyle. They’re also fundamental to the way we function as a society.
Our ideas about work are inextricably connected to our ideas about our place in the world. And a book I read recently, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronin’s 1983 classic, made me realize that our assumptions about work are inextricably connected, too, to our assumptions about and treatment of the land.
Here’s an article I wrote recently about the book, and rethinking our relationship to work in an age of environmental collapse.
RETHINKING THE AMOUNT WE WORK IN AN AGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE
As the lazy days of summer come to an end, and we have to head back to our jobs and to the busyness of American 21st Century life, I’ve been thinking about the nature of “work.”
So much of the work that we do in our world is misplaced. Think, for example, of the spray meant to kill mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus but that killed millions of honey bees. How much of our “work” to control things has unexpectedly counterproductive, even harmful, outcomes?
We live in a state of urgency and alarm most of the time, hurrying from this to that. But what are we in a state of high intensity to do and to accomplish? And what would happen if we took more time to pause and reconsider, from all angles, the short term effects and the long term outcomes of our actions? What if we took more time for leisure and wonder? How would our world look and be different?
I recently read Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon (I highly recommend it.), and it gave me new insight into the history of our relationship to work and a better understanding of how, in our age of environmental collapse, we might begin to re-orient ourselves to work and to the land again.
Cronin’s book concentrates on the difference between the Indians' and colonists' use of the land. But underneath that story is another story about the two different cultures' assumptions about work.
When the colonists first came to New England, the Indians appeared not to work very much. They lounged around much of the time. The natural world seemed to be a kind of garden of Eden to the colonists, providing the Indians with everything they wanted. The bounty of the natural world seemed almost never-ending.
The colonists looked at the Indians and instead of following their example and learning from them in this new land, they deemed the Indians “lazy.” After all, in a world of such abundance, why weren’t the Indians working to create even more comfort for themselves? The Indians, after all, didn’t have the nice houses and tangible things that Europeans had, and this made them seem poor to the Europeans. It was paradoxical, because on the one hand, the Indians almost never died of starvation, needed to work very little to get their food, and did not experience anything like the cold that Europeans were so accustomed to, not only because the Indians had more wood, but also because they used what wood they had sparingly, and they lived close together to share the warmth of the fire. The Indians, unlike the Europeans, already lived in a world of abundance. Yet a few early settlers looked at the Indians with admiration.
Why was this?
The Protestant/Puritan worldview was one in which humans were born in a state of original sin, out of joint with the world, and needed to work diligently and with difficulty to achieve salvation. According to this worldview Indians were not only lazy, but out of touch with God’s will.
However, the Indians had a totally different philosophy. They believed in a world that supported human life along with the lives of animals and spirits in a pluralistic worldview, without a judging God, in a landscape of abundance. They did not need to “work” all the time because they had what they needed.
In this early encounter between two different cultures, we see how what we believe dictates how we live.
Perhaps some of you are thinking that the Indians could only live in sync with the land, because they had such a small population. Perhaps, but I want to suggest that the mindset—the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world—comes before the population explosion, not the other way around.
After all, when the colonists first arrived in Plymouth, their population was tiny; they could have chosen to live more like the Indians, but they didn’t want to. They could have used more of the Indian’s farming methods, moved away from monoculture and used more nuts and fruits from trees and plants that required little cultivation.
But instead of learning from the Indians, the Europeans imposed their ideas of work onto the new landscape. They used monoculture farming practices, cultivated crops that were foreign to the natural landscape, introduced livestock and in a short time, the land of abundance that the Indians had cultivated for themselves, turned into a land of endless labor.
“The Garden of Eden” that the Europeans first saw had not just been an untouched state of nature--and this is the main point of Cronin's book. The Indians were not just lazy. The land of abundance that they Europeans first saw had been carefully created by the Indians. The Indians had used practices similar to current permaculture practices, and a method of controlled fire to encourage mature tree growth, plentiful wildlife, and abundant nuts and berries that created abundant food and cared for the land in sustainable and productive ways.
The Indians had worked with the land to help it be more productive. They had not worked against it and thus had created for themselves a life of leisure and ease.
Only a few Europeans could appreciate this accomplishment, but here is one from the 17th century writing about the Indians: “For their days are all nothing but pastime. They are never in a hurry. Quite different from us, who can never do anything without hurry and worry; worry, I say, because our desire tyrannizes over us and banishes peace from our actions.” ~ Pierre Biard
I think we can recognize ourselves in this description of people who are always in a hurry, full of worry and desire for more. But what if we tried to become more like the people who “are never in a hurry?” What if we also worked with nature instead of against it?
For the past 500 years, we have lived at odds with the natural world.
Because we are afraid of the Zika virus, we spray poison and kill thousands of bees, whose activity we need for our own survival. Because we believe that the world is not hospitable to us, we fail to see or respect the ways in which the natural world does support us. We plant mono-crops and use inorganic fertilizers and deplete the soil, and we often don’t even bother to plant native crops or to plant crops that support each other and the soils health. And at the same time while 14 percent of Americans (48 million) live. We create more and more “smart phones,” bigger and bigger houses, more and more cars, and we are facing the greatest environmental crisis of human history. We spend our energy creating space probes to find another planet that might support life, while we disregard—and kill off—the life-supporting qualities of the amazing planet where we live.
Homo sapiens sapiens—people like us—have been around for roughly 200,000 years. Agricultural practices in which people live in a sedentary manner are only roughly 7,000 years old, starting in the Middle East (an area that is now, not coincidentally, largely desert).
Although we often are asked to imagine pre-historic people as living in a state of perpetual hunger, cold, danger, and fear, perhaps instead, they lived with a sense of greater leisure and abundance than many of us live with today. Evidence of sleep patterns, bone and teeth health, of full grown height, and evidence of family planning in cultures that are not bound in place by agricultural practices suggest as much.
Our “civilized” life style very well may make us “worry” more and “work more” than we need to as a species.
So what do we learn from this?
Obviously, we can’t rewrite history, but we can—and must—learn from history, and from the wisdom of our ancestors, especially during this time of environmental collapse. And understanding the origin of our ideas can help us shift them and re-orient ourselves to the world and to ourselves.
I suggest that individually and collectively we re-examine our assumptions about work and our place in the world. Do we believe that the world is an inhospitable place that will only support us if we dominate it and earn our place here or can we believe that we can live in synch with the natural world?
And if we believe that we do not always need to work endlessly to ensure our salvation, if we can relax a bit into our lives, then how will that change the decisions we make?
None of us alone can alter the culture of work, but here are some areas that we can begin to make changes:
published first on elephant journal here:http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/09/rethinking-the-amount-or-time-we-work-in-an-age-of-environmental-collapse/
I hope everyone had a wonderful summer!
Today I want to talk today about transitions--
Buddha teaches us that we live in a constant state of impermanence. Nothing ever stays the same. We are always changing.
Modern science teaches us that the cells of our bodies are completely renewed every seven years.
What stays the same? Where do we find continuity?
So we are always changing. But at certain times in our lives, those changes are more abrupt.
Many of the people I work with come to writing in times of transition: we feel, in these liminal times, out of joint. Our old meaning-making system no longer makes sense; we need to retell our story, enter into a new relationship to story, to meaning, to ourselves. Or we feel a calling to share the wisdom and the wackiness and wonder of what we have just gone through—this is a natural human need.
As we retell our story, amazing things can happen.
The first step, I believe, is acceptance: first we must accept what is, and what was. Without acceptance, we remain stuck, stagnate.
But that while acceptance is crucial, its tonality is muted; we usually need to accept things that we perceive as negative. There’s little excitement or bliss in acceptance.
But what if we meet transitions, or at least try to meet transitions, with more openness? Recently, I’ve been thinking about a more dynamic approach to transition, an easing into wonder:
I’m excited by the ways in which the story that we think we are living ends up turning and becoming a different story. You are working within one frame, and then something happens, and you find yourself able to peer into the world from a bigger frame of reference, from a bigger, perhaps even metaphysical, perspective.
The event that you think is the worst thing in your life ends up being, on some level, your greatest teacher.
I’m working with a client, Chris Mattson, who is writing a book about her path to becoming a healer. When her teenage son died of a brain tumor, she was sure it was the worst thing that could happen in her life. She was distraught.
And yet, something amazing happened. The horrible moment that his body was removed from the house she felt certain that she wouldn’t be able to go on, but her husband asked her to take a walk on the beach, and she did. And in that walk, instead of falling into the pit she was afraid of, she was able to connect with the moon, with the water, with the air and the sky and the sand beneath her feet.
And in that connection she heard the voice of her son, and she felt a connection to him that was so solid nothing could take it away. In that connection, a new life opened, and in that opening, she found a level of healing that she had never known before, and that led her to becoming a healer who can help others heal.
This is an extreme case, but what if we met our life with the curiosity and openness of unknowing?
I’m not saying this is easy, or that Chris didn’t –and doesn’t–continue to feel loss and pain, or that an almost unimaginable tragedy like hers is something that anyone could wish for or treat lightly. Or that I don’t feel loss and pain even at something as benign as another summer coming to an end.
Loss and pain are natural parts of our animal existence. A friend of mine has a bird, and once a year its feathers molt and the bird is in great pain, its loud squawks taking over the house. In the wild, the bird’s feathers would be plucked out by other birds, but this task falls on my friend and her partner, who must pull the feathers out themselves.
Loss and pain cannot be completely escaped. But in addition to the pain of the world, there might be something else: not just acceptance, but some miracle, some opening, some unexpected who-knows-what that also comes.
I’m trying to start this new academic year, when we all go back into our routines, into our busy-ness, and the full weeks of more work, more homework, more regularity, reminding myself of the wonder that is around us all the time, and remind myself that change—which we also live with all the time-- is a portal into that wonder.
I’d love to hear from you and hear how you approach transitions.
So why is it that so many published writers are unhappy?
On the one hand, there is more and more scientific evidence that writing makes people emotionally and physically healthy. Researchers like James Pennebaker and Lewis Mehl-Madrona have done great work in this area. And yet, the cliché of the tormented, struggling writer points to a different truth. There have been numerous studies showing the higher rates of mental illness and distress in writers, from Kay Jamison’s famous study linking madness and creativity to more recent ones about the increased risk of suicide among writers.
I’m choosing to share my own story, because this is a paradox that I’ve tried to untangle.
My father was a writer and I grew up surrounded by writers and books. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I always wanted to be a writer myself.
Fast forward: I grew up, got a PhD in English, and started to publish my creative writing widely. And yet, it wasn’t making me happy. I loved to write, but it also made me anxious. I questioned and turned things over. I felt driven and unsettled.
And truth be told, many of the successful writers I knew and spent time with also seemed anxious and unsettled. Even though their writing was deeply important and engrossing, well-being wasn’t exactly the quality they seemed to be cultivating.
Then, in my mid 30s, two of my good friends—both successful, published writers—committed suicide.
What was going on?
Maybe it had nothing to do with writing, but I was worried. We don’t need to wrack our brains to come up with a list of unhappy writers or ones who committed suicide. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf are just a few who come to mind.
Nor had I noticed that my father’s writing, much as he loved it, never gave him much peace or equanimity. Perhaps I had inherited this writing-bug as a kind of habit energy. Perhaps it was time for me to reconsider what I was doing with my life and put my energy elsewhere.
I had two little children, and I wanted to be present for them—and for myself—-completely. I wanted to cultivate not just questions, but also answers, acceptance, inner peace and well-being. These were qualities I wanted to be able to give my children, and I needed to find them for myself in order to be able to pass them on.
So I focused on being a mom and on looking deeply at my inner life. I could see that while so many people think what they need for happiness is outside rewards, when those rewards come they often don’t bring the sense of completion and fulfillment that people expect.
Where then, do we get our happiness from, our sense of fulfillment and completion?
I wanted to get to the root causes. I continued to teach writing, but my “me” time was spent on therapy, meditation and yoga—not on writing. If I could listen to and understand myself, maybe I could understand the roots of my psyche and emotional life.
After a lot of inner healing, I came to see that I could be my own witness. I didn’t need the outside confirmation that I thought I needed. In the process, my physical body became healthier. I became a better mom. Eventually I felt I had something I could offer to other people as a healing modality.
But something else happened, too. I noticed that during those years that I had stopped writing, I actually hadn’t. I couldn’t stop writing and I didn’t want to.
I still loved to read. And I loved to write. And I loved to teach. That wasn’t going away.
So I found myself with another question: how can I—how can we—write toward well-being and wholeness while still creating quality work?
Was that possible?
I’ve taught literature now for over a decade, and while I see the deep divide between the supposed rewards and the actual rewards of writing for many people, that doesn’t have to be our reality.
I’ve seen that we can write with the intention for wellness and wholeness and the intention for great, well-crafted, complicated work that looks at the whole range of human experience. The complexity of writing and our intention toward well-being need not be in contradiction. But we need to be aware of the potential challenge, write consciously and look deeply at ourselves.
Over time, I also came to see my friends’ lives and deaths differently. Certainly it wasn’t writing that had made them unhappy; for them, as for so many, their despair was rooted in a variety of other causes. Writing was one of the bright spots in their lives. But I wonder if it might have been even brighter had their writing been aligned with an intention of healing, without worrying that would compromise their craft and art.
In order to do this, I believe we need to approach our writing practice with certain parameters.
Here are some practical guidelines that I offer to my students:
- Write with the intention of wholeness and of health. I used to write with the goal of expressing how I felt in the moment, in both a beautiful and original way. But now, I always ask myself whether that expression also leads in some way toward health for myself and my readers.
- Create a safe place for yourself when you write. Make sure you have a safe physical and emotional space to write in. Make sure, for example, that no one will inadvertently read what you write if you don’t want them to.
- Write first for yourself, without concern about external or internal judgment. I try to put aside how “good” my writing is and write the first draft as freely as possible, letting myself really get into the flow and step out of self-judgment. Edits can come later.
- Ground in and feel your body as you write—don’t get cut off and stay solely in your head. Writers can feel removed from their bodies. I know I can get completely absorbed in my writing, so I try to set a time and take breaks to get up, move my body and breathe consciously. This not only makes my body healthier, but my writing feels lighter and more dynamic.
- Be comfortable with making mistakes, being imperfect and existing just as you are. Again, stay away from self-judgment. We write partly to explore and learn. We cannot learn and grow without making mistakes.
- Remember your writing is not you. You are bigger than your writing and bigger than the sum of your work. Sometimes I still get trapped in the false belief that if my writing is not “good,” there is something less-than about me. But I also know that this is old habit energy from my education, and from generations and generations of ideas held in our society. We are all worthy. And we are all more than the sum of our parts.
- Hold onto love as you write. For me, everything that I value comes down, on some level, to love. If you write about something that makes you angry—injustice, violence, prejudice—let that anger be rooted in your love and concern for the world.
- Write the best work you can and concentrate on your craft. But let the flip side of “good” be not bad, but interesting, worthwhile and full of growth. Perfect is boring. When writing, consider the Japanese idea of Wabi-Sabi—the beauty of imperfection and transience.
- Don’t forget to smile while you work. Remember, creativity doesn’t have to be serious. Have a good time!
I spent last week at Kripalu at the inaugural Narrative Medicine conference put together by Lisa Weinert. It was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people, and to connect with a larger movement of folks interested in bringing literature and well-being together.
When I tell people about the conference, most people react positively, then pause a moment and ask me,
“So what exactly is narrative medicine?”
What’s exciting about this field is that it’s still being defined—there is no “exactly” about it. There are institutional definitions: Columbia University has a program by that name--“Narrative Medicine”--which supports the use of narrative throughout medical training and practices. The simple premise is that when doctors have the tools to really listen to patients’ stories, they become better doctors. In a time when doctors are allotted less and less time with patients, this practice seems absolutely essential.
But as the Kripalu conference showed us, simply listening to patients is not all there is to Narrative Medicine. Narrative Medicine encompasses both regular medical practices and more alternative practices. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, one of my heroes, brings together his Stanford medical education with his Lakota and Cherokee heritage, and for the past twenty years he has written about the power of story in healing. One of his books is titled “Narrative Medicine,” and his presentation at the Kripalu conference asked us to think not only about the role of story, but also the role of community in story telling. Mehl-Madrona shows us how the imaginative and mythic help us connect us not only to ourselves, but also to others.
There was still more: Jillian Pransky, a therapeutic yoga teacher, brought in the physical practice of yoga, deep relaxation, and listening to the conversation around narrative medicine. The yoga and meditation that she led us in were designed to open space within each of us. She used a wonderful metaphor: if you have a spoonful of salt and put it in a shotglass of water, you’ll have very salty water. If you put the same amount of salt in a bowl, you’ll have less salty water, and if you put it in a lake, you’ll have less salty water still. The more we make space for ourselves, for our emotions, for our physical bodies, the more we will be able to process and counteract the toxins that make us unhealthy emotionally and physically.
There were researchers, a Rabbi, and numerous memoir and fiction writers who spoke of the ways writing saved their lives; in the act of making meaning and sense and order and beauty from chaotic life stories, these writers came to healing.
And finally, there was the experiential piece: writing our own stories, putting experience on paper, at once claiming it and letting it go; and the equally, if not more powerful experience of being a loving and supportive ear for everyone else’s stories of loss, love, confusion, healing—in short, of life.
So how does this all fit together in the field of Narrative Medicine?
While there is no neat formulation, at the heart of narrative medicine is the recognition that every single person’s life is full, rich, complicated and full of meaning. And that to tell and to listen to stories is to make sense of that meaning. As we give shape, order, respect, and openness to our stories, healing and transformation occurs.
This is not just a kind of soft, feel-good healing that occurs, but can be scientifically documented: James Pennebaker has repeatedly demonstrated, in scientific studies, the direct link between writing one’s stories and decreased medical symptoms in test subjects. We know more and more about the relationship between stress and illness, and between mental and physical health. If writing just for twenty minutes, as Pennebaker had his subjects do, has such a noticeable effect, think of the radical effects we might have if we all took more regular time for story telling and listening.
What’s particularly exciting to me about the field of narrative medicine is that when we do this kind of story telling and listening, healing occurs not only on the individual level, but also on the communal and social level. As Lewis Mehl-Madrona reminds us, we live in communal stories, our stories are never only our own.
In an age increasingly dominated by media and by the frenzied mixed attention that our media demands of us, in an age dominated by violent movies and bad news in the newspaper, think of how empowering and healing it can be if we tell and listen to the kinds of stories that we want to hear, stories of meaning-making, connection, deep attention, love and compassion.
To tell and listen to these kinds of stories is not to be in denial, but instead to make our own meanings. It is to live the stories we believe in, individual and collectively, in our minds, bodies and spirits.
I want to start by asking a question: Why does creativity matter?
This is a really pressing question because I think most of us feel like we don't have enough time for our creativity, and we get caught up in the things we do for our career, for our families, for other people.
We live in a world, too, in which there is a lot of emphasis on science and technology, and less and less value is placed on personal creativity; sometimes we even feel it's an indulgence, not quite necessary.
Before we can answer the question of why does creativity matter, maybe we need to back up: What is creativity anyway?
I invite you to sit with this question.
What is creativity for you? What is creativity in your own life? How does your body feel when you think of creativity?
Take some time. Maybe close your eyes and just feel what you feel in response to that question.
Then you may ask yourself when you feel most creative.
The answers may surprise you. We don’t always feel most creative when we are doing activities that others might define as “creative.” (I personally know many writers who feel their least creative when they're sitting down to write.)
Each of us will have our own answers to these questions.
I’ll share with you mine.
For me, creativity is an experience of life-force.
In spring, it’s easy to see the life force running in everything, this urge towards new beginnings, towards creation, towards life.
But this life force is present all the time, this constant process of change and transformation.
For me being creative is not an act of self-exertion, but instead an act of self-alignment: when I am in line with the energy around and within me, when I feel my own aliveness and pulse and ever-changing nature, I wake up to what is. And this process of waking up to what is and participating in this ever-moving being is my truest form of creativity.
It is true, I love to write. And it is true, I love to move my body through yoga and walking and hiking and dance. And it is true I love to sit quietly and quiet the mind so that I can be more present for what is. So for me writing, yoga and meditation are all creative acts, and I try to engage in these as often as I can, and love teaching these forms to others.
But for me, those forms of creativity are ultimately just forms: the true creativity is this deeper life-force that we can all tap into all the time through our awareness and awe for our own aliveness.
No matter what is happening around us—whatever difficulties or challenges--tapping into our creativity is tapping into that which is. Tapping into our creativity is at once accepting what is even as, like the plants outside, we turn towards the light and stretch out our bodies and grow.
So why does creativity matter? I leave that to you to answer.
Emotional Healing & Mindful Writing Blog | Nadia Colburn
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society.
Thich Nhat Hanh