Whether you're new to writing or a veteran, published writer, it's likely that some of your writing habits may be unhealthy. And it's likely that some of your expectations for your writing don't always serve your own best interests. We can all get stuck in unhelpful patterns, especially because our schooling fills us up with many less-than-helpful assumptions, patterns and habits of writing--and of mind.
I'm delighted to share an article that I wrote and was published in Spirituality & Health Magazine.
It is my firm belief, and I've seen it confirmed over and over again with students and clients, that we can only do our best writing when we embrace our full stories and our full selves. That means we need to learn to integrate and care for and, yes, love ourselves.
I hope you enjoy the article. You might want to bookmark it so that you can remember to take these steps for yourself when you're writing.
Also, there's still time to join my FREE 5 Day Meditation and Writing Challenge where you can start putting some of these steps into practice. See more and sign up for the free challenge here.
And if you have friends who might enjoy the article or the challenge, please do share!
And as always, reach out to me with comments or questions!
Sign up to be part of the FREE 5 Day meditation and writing challenge here (the challenge will be active until Monday January 21)
Many years ago, my therapist asked me, “do you see the glass half full or half empty?” I generally liked and respected and was helped by this therapist, but her question really bothered me.
I went home and wrote a poem about that question—I imagined a mountain pass where two different girls walked. One girl walked over the pass unscathed, and the other girl stepped on a landmine. Would the correct question to ask those two girls be, do you see the world half full or half empty? How do we get to tell our story in the terms that work for us? In my poem, I wrote about the ways in which the same world includes both great suffering and great joy. Then I put the poem away, but recently I went back and thought about that experience again.
A lot of psychology and self help suggest that what is most important is our mindset, our perception of the world around us. But this emphasis on mindset often comes too soon—we need to first explore what happened, feel what we feel about that experience fully, without judgment, and then be open to whatever shifts in mindset may come.
I think that the question "do you see the glass half full or half empty" keeps us stuck in a dualistic mindset. I prefer Buddhist teaching of non-duality and emptiness, in which we step out of our small frame of mind and enter into a larger more multidimensional perspective.
Both spiritual teaching and writing allow us to re-frame the story—we just need to be mindful of how we are doing that reframing.
These thoughts and experiences—spanning many years—were all swarming in me, so one day I sat down and wrote an essay about it. That writing process was clarifying for me, and I'm delighted that the essay was recently published in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar.
I’m glad to share it with you and, as always, would love to hear your thoughts.
I also created some journal prompts below so that you can think about what metaphors work for you to frame and re-frame your world and tell your story in your own words.
Do you see the glass as half full or ultimately empty?
In the monastery dining room no one speaks. Chairs scrape across the floor; a serving spoon hits the inside of a pot. Someone coughs.
I’m already seated at the table with Simone while Eric and Gabriel stand in line waiting to take their food. Suddenly there is a big clank, a cluttering, falling sound, and then the rattle of a dish upon the floor. There are some whispers, some swishing sounds as whatever has fallen is cleaned up.
When Gabriel and Eric emerge from the kitchen, they come sit with us. Soon a nun stands up and strikes a large singing bowl, inviting us to eat.
We do not talk until we have mostly finished our meal and the nun again stands and again strikes the large singing bowl. But it is not until later, after the kids are asleep that night, that Eric tells me it was Gabriel’s plate, already full of food, that had fallen and split in two on the kitchen floor.
A young monk had come to Gabriel and reassured him. “Don’t worry,” he had said, “the plate was already broken.” Gabriel, thirteen, unsure what he was doing at a Buddhist monastery with his parents for the weekend, ears flushed from making a racket amidst the silence, had seemed to genuinely understand that the plate was, in a sense, already broken. Later, as he and Eric brushed their teeth in the men’s bathroom, Gabriel said, raising the toothbrush to his mouth, “the toothbrush is already broken,” and grinned.
Learning to see the plate—or the glass—empty and broken has been an invaluable teaching for me.
There is a popular metaphor that some of us see the glass half full and some of us see the glass half empty, but that metaphor has never quite worked for me.
In my first therapy experience with a good therapist who understood, listened, and taught me ways to listen to myself, my therapist asked me, “Do you see the glass half full or half empty?”
She was trying to suggest that how we interpret and react to what happens to and around us is as important as what happens. But her question annoyed me. Did she mean to imply that my anger and pain and sense of injustice were not justified, were simply a matter of my own subjective experience?
The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time?I remember going home and writing a poem in response to her question. I called it “Half full/half empty;” it was about the different experiences two girls had along the same mountain pass. One girl enjoys the beautiful day, bringing flowers home to her mother, while another girl, walking down the same pass just hours later, steps on a landmine and gets her leg blown off.
Was the difference between these two girls that one saw the glass half full and the other half empty? Was it a matter of perception or of experience?
What I needed was to acknowledge that pieces of me had been exploded, shattered. There were troubling experiences in my past—among them an early experience of sexual assault—that I had to witness, acknowledge, and mourn. Over years in therapy, I learned to listen to myself so I could do that.
The danger with the image of the glass half full or half empty implies that our experience is primarily subjective; it not only blames the victim, but also nullifies her experience.
We live in a world that often prefers not to see suffering and that often looks the other way. Looking the other way does not mitigate the suffering, but perpetuates the cycle.
The activist in me, the empath in me, the person committed to social justice and to deep listening, resists the metaphor of the glass half empty and the glass half full. The limitation of this metaphor is not that our subjective experience and our response to what happens is unimportant, but that the metaphor implies an inherent judgment, dualism, and over-simplicity: Will the viewer see the glass the “right” way and thus “right” her experiences and her life?
By contrast, the metaphor of the empty glass—or the broken plate—works powerfully for me.
I first heard the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness several years after I started working with my therapist. By then, I was able to acknowledge the pain and confusion I had felt as a child but had not been able to name. I had developed tools to listen to and care for myself. But I wanted a different level of healing.
I began to study with a Tibetan Lama. The first night I went to his teaching group, he lectured on the Diamond Sutra. He spoke for an hour about the Buddha’s insight that the glass of tea was empty—not just of liquid, but of form, of self.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world.By looking deeply at his own experience, Buddha was able to have insights that modern-day physicists would have millennia later: that this world of solid things is an illusion of our own perception. We now know that matter is full of almost infinite, empty space between moving electrons. Everything is always moving, impermanent, changing.
To see things as empty is not the same as to see the glass as half empty. When we see the glass as half empty—or half full—we still live in a world where there is a solid glass. But Buddha taught that all things are empty. He takes the solid ground out from beneath all things, and all of us.
Emptiness in Buddhism is sometimes seen as depressive, but I find it quite the opposite. Seeing the emptiness in all things paradoxically allows me to experience fullness. The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time? Can you see past duality?
If we start with the expectation of fullness, the world will again and again seem to be working against us. We will not just be disappointed, but we will be living in a delusion.
But if we can see the emptiness of all things—if we can see the limitation of our perception of solidity and of self—suddenly that emptiness is teaming with life and with excitement. Because the plate is already broken, we do not get attached to it when it falls and breaks. Because the plate is already broken, we do not take personal responsibility for a world in which gravity and fragile objects co-exist.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world. It is a world that includes both flowers and landmines, a world that has both joy and pain, a world of infinite multiplicity and potential.
Today’s news cycle emphasizes the landmines. Many people are experiencing a sense of horror and disillusionment. They thought the glass was half full, but now they are wondering if perhaps the glass is half empty. If it is only half empty, they wonder whether it makes sense to have hope. And if they don’t have hope, they wonder what is the point of action.
If we believe that the world is a vessel that we can perceive as empty or full, it is hard to see the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. It is hard to see the impact of climate change, that ice caps are melting at extraordinary rates and Antarctic ice shelves are falling into the ocean. Emptiness allows us to see the world as it really is and the rapid changes we are living through.
Similarly, emptiness can make us more aware of how much actually works. The other day as I was biking, I was suddenly able to see that all the cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians, children on scooters, mothers with carriages were all interacting in peace. A group of kids, maybe eleven years old, walked down the street laughing, safe.
How can I prepare my children to live in a world that includes both flowers and landmines? How can I help them prepare for the future and for the future’s radical uncertainty? Gabriel is now 17 and Simone is 13. My hope is that their sense of self is grounded enough that they can experience the freedom of non-self. I hope that they have had a childhood secure and full enough that they can acknowledge and embrace the radical emptiness of the world.
First published in Lion's Roar: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-glass-might-be-half-full-but-its-already-broken/
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Sometimes my students ask me whether it's okay to write from anger.
I tell them, of course it is. Anger can be a good motivator. Often we have good reason to be angry, and our anger can help us be social justice warriors. It can direct us towards making change.
So write from anger! Put it all on the page, and then after you have your first uncensored draft, revise it before publication so that you don't say anything you regret.
I want to share with you a piece I published recently that was written from anger.
A few weeks ago, I was having a nice quiet evening reading a book when I came across a passage that I found so disturbing I literally shouted outloud.
My kids looked at me like I was crazy. But I was furious.
In the middle of a well respected book, Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, about the connection between Buddhism and psychotherapy, was a description of sexual abuse by a therapist to a much younger woman patient given as an example of GOOD therapy and good dharma. I couldn’t believe it.
I was so upset that I stayed up until 2am writing a review of the book. Over the next days, I refined the piece, but it was my anger that fueled the piece.
Today still well-respected teachers in the buddhist and psychotherapy communities can praise sexual abuse of women--and it can go unremarked in major reviews of the book.
Writing the piece, I realized I was not just writing about one book, but about a whole society and mindset that doesn't have proper tools to see or name abuse or to listen to women--or, to really listen deeply, for that matter, to anyone.
I hope you'll read the piece. It talks about the blindspots in psychotherapy; psychotherapy's difficult history of not listening to women; the dangers of spiritual gurus; the #metoo movement; and the question of when to take seriously one's own authority.
Writing this piece reminded me of why our voices are so important, and why we need again and again to stand up for them.
I also want to invite you to use your voice and speak out against the things that you find upsetting and unjust. There are certainly many things like that today. And while we can't tackle all of them, we can address some of them.
It’s only because of the people who have spoken truth to power before us that we have the freedoms that we have today. Our voices matter, and we all support one another in this endeavor.
Again you can read my piece here:
What is one particular thing that seems unjust and that really upsets you? Whether it is big or small, write about it. Let yourself go. Say what you want to say to right/write the wrong. Don't hold back. Give yourself full permission to express yourself completely and imagine yourself being fully heard.
Look back over your work and make any revisions to it.
It may be powerful to read your piece aloud and to hear yourself speak your own truth. Try it.
Think of one way to share your voice around this topic with someone else--it could be in conversation, online, in a letter to an editor, in an essay, poem or another form.
Read more about writing, social justice and responding to the me too movement in these pieces below:
The word “rest” has a Germanic root that was a measure of distance: after traveling a certain distance, one needed to stop and rest. The very concept of rest, then, was inseparable from movement. When we depended, for travel, on our bodies, or the bodies of other animals, rest was built in. One could, literally, only go so far without stopping to rest.
Rest is a core human experience; better rest leads to better immune systems, less inflammation, lower stress, slower aging, greater creativity, and greater satisfaction.
Without rest, we would quickly age and die, yet many of us are unable to rest, to feel relaxed, to give ourselves the permission to slow down our frenetic activity.
Today, we can board a plane and less than seven hours later arrive 3,000 miles away. In our automated, electric world, we can not only travel without rest, we can do just about everything without needing even to pause.
Factories make our goods around the clock, and strawberries and asparagus are available whenever we want them. At night, after dark, we just flip on the light. Many of us living in cities hardly ever see the dark anymore.
In all kinds of ways, subtle and not so subtle, we get the message that we are not supposed to stop. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us have a hard time resting. We live in ways that the human body is not built for, yet we have so internalized the message of our ceaseless world that we push ourselves, push ourselves, and then push ourselves some more.
As a teacher and coach, I see the internalization of this message in my students and clients all the time: we measure ourselves by our accomplishments. Even we writers, whose work clearly comes from the depth of the unconscious mind, push ourselves to write more, to produce more, to be more active on social media.
Even as mothers, we often measure themselves by how much we give — to our homes, to our children, to their schools.
In these measurements there is no resting point — no point at which a built-in stop is expected, considered necessary.
But without these stops, instead of getting more of what we want, instead of getting closer to our goals, we sabotage our health, our relationships, our creativity, and the quality of our lives.
Paradoxically, by trying to be more productive, we sabotage our very ability to be productive.
So what can we do?
Fortunately, we are learning more and more about the importance and value of rest. From Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution to Sara Mednick’s Take A Nap, Change Your Life, more and more studies argue for the vital importance of rest.
Here are four essential things we can all do to get better rest:
1. Listen to the natural rhythms of our bodies, and of the days and of the seasons. As organic, living beings, the more we tune into the organic world around us — and within us — the better and deeper our rest can be.
2. Change our framework of thinking about rest. Rather than think of rest as time away from what matters to us to, instead, we can think of rest as the crucial support that we need to live the lives we want to live and travel the distances that we want to travel.
3. Prioritize rest. We may need to start by literally putting rest on the calendar. Take a day off of work. Don’t allow ourselves to go on our computer after a certain time in the evening. Go on a retreat. Think of these things not as indulgences, but rather as necessities that fuel everything else you do.
4. Find rest throughout our days, even our busiest days. We can think of rest not as the “other,” in contrast with our busy lives, but instead as a quality that we can carry within ourselves, all the time.
We can cultivate a peaceful resting place within us that we can return to. Practices like returning to our breath or coming back to the present moment help us find rest even in action.
There is a beautiful song from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition which celebrates this natural resting place. Here is the song:
“Breathing in, I go back to the island within myself. There are beautiful trees within the island; there are clear streams of water; there are birds, sunshine and fresh air. Breathing out, I feel safe. I enjoy going back to my island.”
This island of rest is not a desert island, but instead a fertile place, full of life-giving element.
We can all learn to inter-be with our resting state, and as we do that, we will learn better to awaken to the fullness, vitality, and creativity of who we really are.
First published on the Copper Beech blog
Every day, I hear from people who wish their writing were going more smoothly, or who wish they were writing and aren’t.
I want to give you some tools to make the creative process unfold with more ease.
Many of the tools and techniques that I’m going to be talking about can be helpful in all areas of life!
So many of us have areas of our life that aren’t going as smoothly as we want, or we can’t even find the time to do what we want to be doing. Something’s blocking us.
Sometimes those blocks are external. But very often those external blocks have become internalized.
So the first thing that I invite you to do is ask yourself:
What external blocks are keeping you from writing the way you want to write? Or is the challenge internal?
In this series of videos I give you tips for this process.
I talk about how I came to the unique method that I have--it wasn't always easy for me!—and why I'm so passionate about it.
Here is the first video (the text is below and you can also get a audio link when you click on the video)
(You can click on video or this link here to watch)
We all have stories, but how do we listen to them mindfully so that they lead us to our true purpose and we don't get overly attached to the thorny pieces?
In our complicated world, how can we calm our nervous system so that we are more available to ourselves and others?
I'm so excited to share with you my conversation with Jillian Pransky, a yoga teacher of over 20 years and the author of the newly published book Deep Listening, in which we discuss these questions.
In our conversation, we talk about:
Jillian's also a great storyteller, and she tells some memorable stories that I think you'll enjoy!
(Click above or watch here: https://youtu.be/BywY5dFjCqc)
If you want to listen to the conversation you can listen here:
You can see more about Jillian and her new book Deep Listening at her website www.jillianpransky.com.
As always, I love to hear from you. Let me know your reactions to the conversation and your own experiences with deep listening. And please share with any friends who might be interested.
In my last post, I wrote about getting our story straight, and I said that I’d talk about supports that help us in this process so that we can and live with more health, vivacity, creativity and agency.
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.
(notice that I'm not infecting this blog space with an image of the other presidential nominee)
Fight, Flight and Mindfulness in this Election Season
Nine years ago, at the start of the Obama/McCain election, Eric and I began the process of filing for permanent residency in Canada. After almost eight years of a Bush presidency, we wanted another option if McCain came into office. We’d been active in our demonstrations against the Iraq war; we were convinced that declaring an “axis of evil” was not a path to peace, but instead a path to more violence; we worried about a possible war with Iran; and we didn’t want to raise our children in a country at war. In the election season we spent many weekends in New Hampshire campaigning for Obama. The week Obama was elected president, our permanent residency papers arrived.
Now eight years later, our permanent residency has run out. Because we didn’t use it, we lost it. Today, I’m starting to hear people talk about moving if Trump becomes president. I can understand the sentiment, but eight years later, I’m in a different place in my life. And our kids are at a different place in theirs.
When I said offhandedly it’s too bad we let our permanent residency run out, Gabriel, our sixteen year old, looked at me askance: "you can’t walk away", he said, "you need to stay to support and defend what you believe in."
I was proud of him for his quick response to my offhand remark--proud of his sense of home, of belonging, of responsibility.
This fall, I’m going to be going to New Hampshire again to canvass for the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and I plan to do everything I can to keep Trump out of power.
But that’s not really what I want to write about here—though I do urge and encourage everyone reading this to step up this election season and do what you can to keep Trump out of power for peace at home and abroad; for the environment; for race issues; for the supreme court and for so many other reasons.
What I really want to reflect on is my own fight or flight instinct, and the alternative that mindfulness has taught me.
Eight years ago, I understood both fight and flight. I understood that there is a time for each and value in each. That is true. But somehow those alternatives were in a state of high duality, and very charged.
Mindfulness taught me not only to look outward to the danger, and to possible actions, but also to look inward to my mental and emotional responses to danger. And in doing so I realized that while I can stand up for what I believe in strongly and fight for my values, and while I can also flee or move to look for a better way of life and for new opportunities, I can also cultivate my own capacity for acceptance and for internal peace, whatever the external circumstances.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have arrived at a state of constant inner peace. Far from it. But I do believe that in looking for internal peace and equanimity and a sense of safety in our own lives, we must start with ourselves: fighting and fleeing is not going to be enough to feel at peace. And I also believe that finding peace and safety in our own lives will help create peace and safety in the world.
Sitting with my fight or flight reactions—my strong desire to stand up for peace and what I believe in; my strong desire to protect my children and myself—I realized that I am never only responding to the present moment. I am also responding to the times I felt scared and paralyzed as a child. I am responding to generations of anti-semitism, the fear of pogroms and repression, that my ancestors lived under. And I am responding to hundreds of years, thousands of years, of culture and responses and reactions.
But when I meditate, or just simply remember to come back to my breath, I cultivate a larger perspective. I can zoom way out and see the countless tragedies of history: the wars and injustices, the disasters that were not, despite people’s very best efforts, averted. Long before I was born, innocent children were needlessly killed and nothing I can do now can change that. And the world went on. Other children were born and smiled and laughed and experienced very great joy and accomplished beautiful things and loved well and fiercely and made the world a better place. And some of those children had children who died innocently. And some did not. This happened in the past. And it happens now in the present. And will happen, too, in the future.
For me, being mindful is coming into acceptance; it is coming into the present moment just as it is, and it is being here, now, with all the world’s largeness and smallness at once.
In this election, I will do what I can to spread love and understanding and to resist hate and violence. I will work for Hillary and continue to support a progressive agenda and vision of greater equality, greater sustainability. And I will try at the same time to cultivate peace and appreciation for the moments that we do have, for the chance to act in accordance with our beliefs—to work for change, though we never know what the future holds.
I know that there will be times of fighting and of fleeing again in my life—on the large or small scale. But I also believe that even as we fight and even as we flee looking for a better life, we can still hold some equanimity and stillness within us—or some memory of what it is like to know deep peace and know others who have known deep peace. This deep peace and belief in peacefulness can be another legacy that we carry within us, wherever we go, and whatever the future may hold.
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!
As I write, my daughter and ten of her friends are in the other room, watching a movie, and then they'll take over our upstairs and have a sleepover. Though Simone’s birthday isn’t until the end of August, we celebrate at the end of the academic school year, so this is her twelfth birthday party.
Twelve is a time of transition: the girls’ talk and games oscillate between boys and freeze dance party and pin the tail on the donkey. Their bodies are a wide variety of sizes and development.
In three days, they will move on from elementary school and they'll start middle school in the fall. This is a somewhat emotional time for me—I get emotional at each of my children’s birthdays and graduations, and now the phase of my life mothering elementary aged children is over. I have so loved having young children, and much as I love having older children, my body contracts and feels brittle at the thought of not having little children in the house to give purpose to and to brighten my days.
Simone will have a graduation/moving up ceremony at her school next week, but it is only for students and teachers—for some reason, there is no official graduation ceremony that the parents attend, so I have to deal with this transition on my own, in my own way.
Writing about it is one way that I am marking the transition; I’m having conversations with friends and with Eric; I went to a restorative yoga class and dedicated the class to this transition. I am making my own private ceremonies, making my own stories. But part of me wishes there were a more formal transition and a more formal way to make sense of these big life changes.
In more traditional cultures, there would be more ceremonies and more story telling, and I miss that. What happens I wonder, when we lose that?
This week, I’m going to be at Kripalu for a Narrative Medicine conference. I’m excited and eager to learn from the presenters who have been doing this work for a long time. One of the things we are learning is the importance of story telling for our mental health and also for our physical health. Without stories and times set aside to process our lives and transitions, our loves and our losses, we can become blocked—emotionally and physically. As our energy gets caught by our emotional selves, our physical selves develop illnesses. If we cannot narrate our story in words, we narrate our stories in symptoms. Just as physical toxins build up and can make us sick, so, too, emotional toxins can build up and make us sick.
Even something as joyous and celebratory as a daughter’s twelfth birthday party—and it is a joyous occasion—needs to be taken in, digested and processed.
The events of our lives, like the food we eat, need to be processed; we need to take in what serves us and eliminate what doesn’t. And this processing takes place through story, song and dance.
In a culture that pays less and less attention to the arts and to formal ceremony, rites of passage and story telling, it is no surprise that more and more people are isolated, depressed, unhealthy and violent.
A few weeks ago, I was at Kripalu to interview one of the leaders in the field of narrative medicine, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a doctor trained at Stanford who integrates native healing and story telling in his work and in his books. His work has inspired me for many years, and it was a real honor to meet him and talk with him. He brings together the best of the West with the best of indigenous cultures and brilliantly demonstrates the ways in which stories—on a personal and also, equally importantly, on a communal level—are essential to well-being and healing.
One of the things that’s particularly exciting about Mehl-Madrona’s work is that the stories he uses and elicits from his students are not only the memoir-like first person story of “this happened to me and then that happened,” but also and primarily stories that tap into our deep unconscious and into our connection to the larger human and animal worlds: stories of heroes, transitions, trials and triumphs. Mehl-Madrona uses traditional native stories and myths and also stories from popular culture to help people connect to a greater community and understanding of what it means to be human and to put their own individual challenges within a larger context and gain new perspective and new courage and energy to move forward and retell their own story. “Often you need to tell a story to get a story,” he told me.
As liberating and important as it is to uncover and claim our individual stories, sometimes we can get trapped within those stories, and it is also transformational to connect our personal experiences with the experiences of a larger, more coherent world. My passage into middle age and the growing up of my individual children is not unique to me, but part of a cycle of life.
Similarly, as my daughter and her friends negotiate these transitional years and experiment with the ways in which they are and are not part of a group, are and are not unique, (middle school is an age of drama), I can’t help wishing for a kind of rite of passage. Some of her friends will have a Bat-Mitzvah, but we never went down that route. I wish, however, there were other, readily available growing up ceremonies and ways to connect to cultural stories.
The books and the movies about girls this age that my daughter watches fill this role in part, but more communal form of story telling and stories that connect us not just to other humans, but back to the earth and to our natural cycles, and that connect our minds, bodies and spirits in times of transition are also deeply important and powerful.
When I interviewed Mehl-Madrona, he was in the middle of leading a workshop on Cherokee Body Work. “What kind of landscape are you in?” he asks his patients on the table as they explore the psychic landscape of their physical wounds. The mind-body connection is made on the healing table, and most patients locate themselves in the wilderness connected to the earth; this allows them to make healing connections they wouldn’t be able to make if they stayed in their left brain. “Often,” Mehl-Madrona told me, “the deepest healing comes from the subconscious mind—it’s more playful—imaginative.”
When we tap into our unconscious mind and reconnect with our bodies, we create pathways for healing and well-being. This happens on an individual level, a social level and also on an earth level.
As we listen to ourselves better, we learn, too, to listen to others better and to the earth better, and vice versa: as we listen to others better, we learn to listen better to ourselves.
This year, Simone’s last night of elementary school will be summer solstice and the full moon—a co-occurence that happens only every seventy years—just once in my own life time. This is a propitious time, a time of great transition. My hope and prayer is that we can learn to listen to our transitions, to quiet our minds and to go inward, so that we can remember the ways in which we are all connected to a greater cycle of being and belonging, presence and change and honor the life—and health—of all things.
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