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:
As Gabriel texts back images from Patagonia (they’re amazing!), I’ve been thinking about some of the places I’ve visited and how big and wide and multiple the world is and also at the beauty of connections over vast distances.
This brings me back to one of my perennial questions/ objects of wonder: our capacity to embrace all of it.
Yet again our news is full of suffering. And there is also so much beauty and love.
I have written about how to hold this multiplicity on my blog in the past and today I want to share a longer essay, Poetry, Pain and Wholeness, that was just published in the new issue of Anchor Magazine (that I also am very proud to edit)!
I loved writing this essay. In it I talk about writing a poem; being pregnant in Greece with Simone when Gabriel was 4; the 7.0 ma Earthquake in Haiti; the intersection of social justice and spirituality; healing trauma; the power of revising our writing; time; and multiplicity itself.
I know that sounds like a lot. It is. But I promise the essay isn’t too long… one of the things I love about writing is it can take us to so many different places and times and do so much of this powerful connecting work in a short piece (That work of connection is also very much what this essay is about).
I’d be delighted if you read the essay!
Here is the opening:
I’m looking out over the stone patio, past the near fig and scruffy walnut trees, to the turquois Aegean at a distance. I think this might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I feel a longing for it even as I’m present; the landscape itself both invites and resists.
Its beauty comes in part through its barrenness: the earth is rocky; only a few plants—oregano, sage and bindweed, with its little tiny white faced flowers—grow from these inhospitable conditions. Read Pooetry, Pain and Wholeness here
I also created some reflection questions for you so that you can think about your own writing process and the connections that it brings for you.
Below are some of the question/prompts. You can write them in a journal or write a more formal piece from them. You can address any of these prompts in any form—essay, journal, poem—or incorporate it into fiction.
Sometimes people ask me how to write a poem or an essay. My first answer is, read, write from what you read, trust your own voice and have fun!
These prompts help you make connections between what you read and what you write, always a great way to deepen any writing and to reconnect with the deep questions that we might not ask ourselves otherwise.
10 writing prompts
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?
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.
I hope you enjoy the article. If you do, please share it with others. At the bottom of this email, as always, I have links to my upcoming schedule.
I always love to hear from you--
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:
1) Reconsider your own relationship to work. If you pay attention to your assumptions about work, how many of these are inherited and how many are your own? Which do you want to keep, and which do you want to get rid of?
2) When you are making a new purchase, ask yourself whether you really need the new item: in an age of environmental collapse, consider all the material and human resources that have gone into making the items and ask yourself if you really need them. Entertain deeply the idea that less-- or fewer-- material things might lead to more health, enjoyment, and sustainability.
3) Look for ways to support permaculture instead of monoculture growing practices.
4) Make a practice of pausing before you make a decision—and encourage others—on every level, from your friends to top government officials—to do the same. Let’s consider not only the immediate consequences of actions but also the far-reaching ones.
5) When you are making decisions around your job, be comfortable placing equal emphasis on leisure and personal time—remember your worth is not dependent on how hard you work or how much you earn.
6) Take time to cultivate your own creativity and the arts in general in our society—and make art accessible to all.
7) Advocate for more vacation time/sick time/parental leave at your workplace and on the national level.
8) Rediscover the emotion and health benefits of more sleep.
9) Spend time in nature, and get comfortable with it—after all, it’s our world that alone supports us.
10) Advocate for protecting our natural environment, and for learning from it. From the amazing cleansing power of marshes to the medicinal power of plants, the natural world has great wisdom and abundance and the capacity to support human life, if we allow it to.
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 get a bit quieter and send out love for the victims and healing for everyone and for the world.
I believe that much of the violence in our world comes from people who don’t have the tools to sit still, to quiet the pain and the confusion of their bodies and minds and to unlearn the violence they have been taught.
If we could all stop, get quiet and tune into our deepest self, I believe that our world would become more peaceful, more compassionate, more appreciative of difference and of the miracle of life.
Silence can be our friend and teacher.
But if we silence ourselves completely, we can feel like a levee about to break. As important as silence is for a more peaceful world, expression is just as vital.
It is only when we express our whole selves, when we recognize our whole humanity, that we can really heal and become fully human. And it is only when we recognize our whole selves that we can fully recognize and cherish others.
Those who feel silenced live with great pain. Maya Angelou famously said,
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story.”
Speaking out, voicing our stories, is necessary for healing.
Similarly, those who react to the world with violence are often those who have silenced parts of themselves—we need to have silenced part of our humanity not to recognize the humanity of a person we are harming. This silencing takes place in the most economically privileged and in the least, and among people of every faith tradition and race. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
So to sit with silence and to quiet our thoughts, and then to express whichever parts of ourselves we have not been able to express can be two of the most powerful and healing things we can do—on an individual level and on a social level.
There are between 200,000 to 300,000 hate crimes in the US per year. In the US, every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. Every year, roughly 13000 Americans, more than one per hour, die of gun violence. This is not to mention all the violence taking place all across the globe.
So how do we address it?
In writing about these traumatic experiences, we heal ourselves, educate the world, and make others who have similar experiences feel less alone.
I run writing workshops for trauma survivors and want to offer some guidelines now for anyone who might be suffering.
I offer these five steps to writing your way through trauma:1) Sit in silence before you write. Ground yourself. Make sure you are safe in the moment. Surround yourself with some things that are pleasing to your senses—something that smells good can be especially effective. Nice music and beautiful pictures can also be effective. Feel your body. Feel your breath come in and out of your nostrils.
2) Write from your pain and anger. Don’t censor yourself. On the page at least you can put your full range of emotion down. Writing something in private on a piece of paper that you won’t share with anyone does not have the power to hurt another person. You can destroy the paper when you are done. But get the thoughts out of your head and put them on the paper instead. Writing in public can rarely have the same cathartic effect as writing in private, when you don’t need to worry about the impact of your words. Write just to clear your mind.
3) Take frequent breaks as you write and come back to your center, to your body, to your breath, and to the pleasant things that you have put around you so that you don’t get lost in the negative feelings.
4) End your writing session by writing about at least one thing that is positive. I always remind my students—and myself—that we feel pain only because we are capable of feeling pleasure and love. If we didn’t value our lives and our dignity, for example, we would not mind so much being harmed. If we didn’t love our friend, we would not care if he were hurt. So remind yourself of the positives and the miracle of those positives.
5) When you are ready—and only if and when you are ready—go back to your work and decide if you want to share it with others. If you do, you will probably want to edit it first so that it is ready to be shared. In that editing process you can farther rework and refine and your own emotional responses to the trauma and deepen your healing.
First published in Elephant Journal here
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