Last week, one of the participants in my class asked me if writing really did heal. Well, that brought me up short. If it did, I suppose, I should be the healthiest gal on the planet, with the amount of scribbling I do. But I’m not, I’m really quite sick, and have been going through a “bad” patch for quite a few months now, so that the bad patch is looking like the bottom line.
“Well,” I answered her, ” it is not a magic bullet, clearly, and you need to get physical things checked out, but finding your voice really is empowering…” I went on to quote research, etc. She looked at me a bit dubiously. I drove home rather dispritedly. Was I fooling myself?
I went home to find an email from a long lost friend from the back of beyond, from what my son might call my “hippie” days. She has started a restaurant in Baja California, and sent pictures, and it looked so beautiful that I immediately wanted to hop a plane and just disappear into that lush oasis by the Pacific. Maybe there I could be healthy. My friend, who is deeply spiritual and deeply a free spirit, emailed me when she heard I was struggling with my health, with a “Miracle Cure.” I absolutely had to try it, she said, and I was back to our free wheeling days as waitresses, where she often wanted me to try substances. I knew she sent it out of love, and for a nano second, I was tempted. But I’ve been around the block too many times, I know the chemistry of my body and what is and isn’t working, and I know there is no miracle cure. Just a long slow process of doing the best I can with the best docs I can find, keeping up with the research and accepting the reality of my life.
The confluence of these two events together got me to thinking. I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach. She is a psychologist and a practicing Buddhist, and her work speaks to the same issues of healing underlying issues of self-judgement, shame, anger and fear that often surface in our classes. No matter what the reason people come to the classes–grief, pain, suffering, these emotions are the ones that often surface. How does writing help heal the ways in which people deal with these often overwhelming emotions? One way can be to create an open inquiry into our feelings–both as sensations and emotions.
Emotions are a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves….they can cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our bodies. If we can mentally note unfolding experience, the sensations and feelings, layers of historic hurt, fear and anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness. (Adapted from Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)
This is not an easy process, nor a one time process, but a process of learning to sit with feelings. How can writing help? We can begin by naming sensations and feeling them in our bodies. Here is one way to go about doing this:
Do a body scan. Where is the tension? Is it in your stomach? In your journal, can you describe the sensation? Can you make an image of it? Now, what emotion do you associate with that sensation? Does it signal danger, fear or anxiety? Now, what story do you habitually put with such a feeling? Notice that there are three parts to this process. After you write about the sensation/feeling/story, take a deep breath and check yourself again? Has it intensified? Passed? Could you withstand it? Are you able to perhaps address it? Treat it as an old enemy or friend? Ask it what it wants to tell you?
This practice of noticing, describing, befriending, can begin to slowly to quiet us. We can gradually begin to inquire lovingly into ourselves, into our felt experience of being in the world. We can begin to notice stories which have had a hold on us which may not be true. We may begin to notice areas of our lives which we habitually neglect. Our journals can be the safe arms within which we can pour out our feelings, even the emotions we are most ashamed of. This process can free the energy we use to resist our feelings to instead move through them, and thus have more energy to meet life.
Is it a “Miracle Cure?” No. But it is a way, one way, to help us heal.
writing, to me, is like a prayer. It may not be answered, but at least we’ve expressed it.
More and more of us are acquiring Buddhist philosophical tendencies as we grow older, aren’t we? Happy Birthday to you on the 13th!
Joy Jacobson pointed me toward this post (as I think you know, we co-taught a narrative writing class for graduate nursing students at Hunter College this summer and I mentioned you and your blog in a post I wrote on the CHMP Web site–see http://bit.ly/oHwwAd). We’re currently working with a group of nurse managers in a hospital in New Jersey, and in last week’s session, we started with a relaxation breathing exercise and then had the nurses do the body scan writing exercise. It seemed like all of us, nurses and facilitators alike, got a lot out of it. Just wanted to say thank you for writing about it and let you know we found it very helpful.