With the advent of social media, our already frenetic world has picked up and revved. Our own lives are packed and planned and driven by career and family demands, and then the burning Internet’s rotisserie of distractions. Quite frankly it is overwhelming. A self-diagnosed workhorse, patience is a method I haven’t quite grasped yet, a pace my breath hasn’t slowed to match. When faced with the great in between – the place where most of our lives hover – my heart feels caged with butterflies. Even beauty can become terrifying under a storm’s halo of a thousand flapping wings. Now is the task, how to find our way out towards the light switch? How to flip it on for all the insects to rush towards and burn.
The above paragraph was scrawled in my journal. Just before writing that reflection, I stumbled across Hans. Hans is an elder interfaith minister in upstate New York who, like I, teaches in prison and sees the world through the lens of relentless hope (I am still working on that part.) Hans asked me, openly and with a gentle curiosity, what my spiritual practice is. After hemming and hawing and sputtering out something about being influenced by all religion and spiritual paths, I came to my final answer.
Writing is my spiritual practice. Of course it is! How could I have thought anything otherwise? I am a writer, after all. Hans nodded when I explained that writing is what slows the drive, idles the engine and allows me to employ patience. It helps me to sit in the discomfort of not knowing, embolden to engage work when the time comes, to release and become present. Writing alerts me to the beauty that is constantly surrounding, turning my attention to what is fruitful and juicy. With one eye on the future, I practice training my wandering eye on the crispness of the blank page. To savor, not it’s possibility of what will be written, but what it is: smooth, open, innocent. And then to abandon all and pour that page until it is full. Writing helps me become more profoundly aware.
But how to employ writing this way if it is not your natural go-to practice? Easily. Here are five ways to use the tool of writing to infuse awareness into the daily existence:
1. Morning Free Writes
Or morning pages as Julia Cameron popularized in the Artist’s Way, is a wonderful method of writing three pages upon waking, when the funk sings on the breath and the gunk stings our eyes. This hazy precious space between consciousness and sleep serves as a tool for what I affectionately call “wiping the brain.” Think of turning on the faucet, letting the cloud run from the tap before dipping the glass beneath the water to drink. What occurs in this morning practice is a chance to write without the judgment or worry that plagues us when fully awake. It opens a space to write from beyond the intention of “good writing,” and rattles the unconscious to the surface. The only rule? Don’t stop to think. Keep the pen moving.
Julia Cameron recommends not returning to the writing for a lengthy period of time, and this method intrigues me. What will we discover in the pages when we re-immerse in the words? I’ve found clues to my internal landscape, put a magnifying glass up to brushed away desires and fears, located tender moments and admitted secrets. Our body knows what our mind cannot fully face yet, offering us a deep awareness that arrives from a sacred beyond – the depths and caverns of our own lived experience.
2. Gratitude Lists
Gratitude is a phrase tossed around extensively in spiritual circles and the internet – and there is a reason for it’s popularity. It simply works. The practice of listing our thanks daily, or weekly, invites us to actively partake in shifting and directing our emotional landscape. Our lens widens, our perspective softens and we hold all that is in a particular gentle light.
I find writing eighteen points is the magic number. After the first ten, I am struggling to locate the next blessing, and yet it is always there, waiting to be found like a secret jewel. This excavating and searching is the ultimate work of gratitude, the creativity that enters the practice, lifting the mundane to the holy. Bless the train’s timeliness and the apple’s crisp bite. Bless the short line at the DMV and $5 appearing in the back pocket of old jeans! The opportunity also allows us to pull the lesson out of an unsavory or embarrassing moment. Under gratitude’s warm coat, the world becomes more vibrant, juicy, alive, and most importantly, more forgiving.
3. “Noticing” Journaling
Recently a friend and I began a practice of co-journaling that is centered in noticing. We first began with an intention to infuse a conscious focus on areas of our lives that were struggling. Sharpening the lens on home, body, money and spirit was framed in the question: “what gives me power and what takes it away?” What came out was a heightened awareness of our daily existence and a commitment to ourselves, individually and collectively, to take responsibility for the trajectory of our lives.
Retooling the process a month in, we shifted to open journaling, losing the scaffolded method to allow a free association. Turning up our awareness on spirit, we share what we notice: when we felt good, when we felt down, what interactions could be celebrated, where our ego got caught up and faltered. Instead of a vent session, the shared nature allows us to seek the lessons, notice with pure curiosity and express cleanly and vulnerably. Alone or with a trusted witness, this act of noticing is a powerful tool for incorporating awareness as a way of being.
4. Private Letters
A friend recently shared with me his new practice of writing private, unsent letters. It is often a method I suggest to friends and students as a way to express and gain a sharper clarity. He explained that often the people he wanted to address didn’t seem ready to accept feedback – and sometimes he wasn’t ready to share it himself. Where do those emotions go when there is no release? Research tells us the stress weighs on our organs and breaks down the body. The feelings cycle around without an exit point and the volcano stirs.
Taking out a piece of paper and pouring into it, without the threat of the letter being seen, allows us to simulate the conversation we’re desperate to engage. The private nature offers permission to be as nasty, hurtful or as brutally honest as we need to be, allowing the feelings an escape route, a literal extricating from the body onto physical paper. It can also save us from creating great rifts in our most cherished relationships.
Blowing off steam evaporates the burning anger, disappoint and stress, allowing sun to shine through. From that vantage point, we open up choice. Do we still need to address the issue at hand? If we do, how can we enter the dialogue from a space of kindness, tenderness and compassion? If we aren’t ready, we have offered ourselves a place to share our truths, and a palpable, physical relief.
5. Sensory Observation
Vignettes, as I recently taught my class, are a highly underrated written form that center on the idea of a visual snapshot. These sensory-dense, delicious shots of story are unconcerned with the full picture, and rather choose to sharpen the lens on one specific idea, person or moment. What makes the vignette form so attractive is its reliance on the image, a peek into a forbidden window. Often I describe the creation of imagery in writing as the act of imagining and translating a paused film scene – what do you see? What might the smells be lifting off the coffee in frame? Where meditation asks us to empty the mind, a task that can feel daunting and frustrating to master, creating a vignette steeped in the five senses brings us to the present moment in a profound way. Instead of emptying the words into the atmosphere, we empty onto the page and create something of them. We deeply enter the now. Grab a cup of tea, sit at the window, assess the internal and external landscape, and write a story about this particular moment. Turn off the phone and enjoy.
Caits Meissner is a poet, facilitator and vibrant creative force dedicated to transformation and healing through storytelling. She created Digging Deep, Facing Self, a 30-day intensive online writing course designed to uplift, heal and transform women into their boldest selves. To learn more about the upcoming course, starting June 2015, visit www.growfierce.com.