Write Therapy - The wright spirit
by Ritu Khanna
The Act of Writing is on trial, we are here to prove that it is a healing art. The trial is to take place in the Inner recesses of the courtroom of your mind and you will be called later to give a just verdict.
Exhibit A: A blank sheet of paper and a pen
Innocuous, unimportant, uninspiring-you are quick to dismiss the evidence. For how could these two seemingly harmless objects possibly heal the mind and change the course of our lives? And that too in the age of Cielos and cable, cell phones and CD-ROMs?
Think again. For such is the power of writing that psychiatrists commend it; counselors recommend it to their clients to improve relationships; executives employ it to mind their business. It makes living easier; it also helps us understand and accept death.
Writing is a meditation: it settles the mind. It is a de-stressor: it releases tension. It is like a confessor who keeps your secrets safe. It is also a mood-changer, with the capability of making you happy. It is an outlet, for it helps you let go of your negative thoughts. It is creative, cathartic, curative.
Quite simply, writing is beyond words, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his daughter while confined to prison; Anne Frank from her secret annex. Hugh Prather writes notes to himself; Franz Kafka did not even want his writings published. Generals narrate anecdotes from their lives; so do politicians, bureaucrats, artists. And, not to be left behind, there is the classic The Diary of a Nobody whose author asks: Why should Mr Pooter's diary not be immortalized in print—merely because he is not a Somebody?
Writing is for Everybody, it is a device used not only by those in the profession.
Examples abound in everyday life: Sakshi Kapur, 10, ties the key to her diary around a friendship band securely arranged around her wrist.
Reeti Desai, 12, is inspired by Anne Frank. Meena Gupta, 47, begins to write two months after her 13-year-old son's death and finds strength in words. Nimmi Kumar, 58, takes an oath to write the name of Sai Ram and an artist is born. Vijai Shanker, 62, uses it to express himself.
There are many forms of writing; there are many styles. We have different ways of expressing ourselves; we also have varied reasons for doing so. But when pen and paper make contact, thoughts are released and the mind gets more focused as we are instinctively drawn towards the quiet center of the self.
Writing is a disciplinary act that gives new insights into yourself and your relationships. It is also completely honest—for what do you gain by lying to yourself? It is a therapy prescribed for Everybody, not just for the disturbed, distressed or dying. Writing is a spiritual quest, it is the soul searching for truth.
"Writing is right," confirms our first witness, Dr Avdesh Sharma, an Indian neuropsychiatrist. Dr Sharma recommends it to his patients; he also constantly jots down his thoughts and priorities, and makes lists of things to do. He preserves these writings in a thick Think File, which he refers to regularly.
Writing is of fairly recent origin, states Dr Sharma. "Earlier we used to talk it out, or learn from a guru. But people felt they needed something more permanent. Also, their knowledge needed storing. Hence writing came into being—it is easy to retrieve, it is forever."
According to Dr Sharma, writing helps us see the trend of our thoughts and get insights into our problems. "Write on specific issues that are bothering you," he advises, "it will help solve the problems of living and also resolve interpersonal matters."
A tip given in Distress to De-Stress, a book he has co-authored: Keep a stress diary because "getting into the habit of noting daily stressors and their effects may help you identify potential stressful situations. Once you know the problem, you can chalk out specific plans to deal with it. "
Dr Sharma especially favors writing as an exercise for the lonely: "They need to vent their feelings. Writing then takes on the job of a therapist. " "Writing gives direction to your life, but, most important of all, it gives you a sense of control over your thoughts," continues Dr Sharma. It is not easy, he concedes: "You come in touch with yourself, suppressed issues are uncovered—and that, for most people, is a very frightening feeling."
And even though writing is for everyone, and all age groups, "it has to be treated as a long-term commitment, a skill that needs to be cultivated, for it is a gradual process that gives you time to reflect and grow", Dr Sharma concludes.
Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Achal Bhagat, a consultant at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, India, advocates the journal therapy. He asks his patients to write, but in a structured manner: "I tell them to make three columns, under the heads: situation, thoughts, effects." The first column contains a complete description of the situation; the second, a record of their thoughts in that situation; the third, their feelings, what they are doing, what they are avoiding, and so on. This works better than a free-for-all format, sums up Dr Bhagat. It helps the patient to change his thoughts.
This method of treatment is derived from the principles of cognitive therapy. There are two kinds of thinking—directed and non-directed. The former interests cognitive psychologists and includes problem-solving procedures aimed at meeting specific goals. It is an organizational process that could easily culminate in writing.
"Writing works," attests Dr Bhagat. "I use it myself."
It also worked for Savithri who was helped by Sahaj, a Pune-based society for health alternatives that organizes workshops in holistic healing. The belief is that there is no one prescription, each person has to choose his way of wanting to get well, and that a disease tends to lose its metaphorical significance if we observe it intensely and closely.
Savithri not only followed this advice, she also took to illustrating the different stages of her life. "I got a lot of happiness as it revealed so much. I was amazed when I even experienced myself at age two...I gradually integrated all the unresolved parts of me and accepted my shadow," says Savithri gratefully.
For Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, drawing, or doodling to be more precise, is an act on which he has little conscious control. Unknown to his audience, the transcendental meditation guru keeps a set of felt pens next to him and doodles while he delivers a long lecture. This results in colorful drawings that appear mystical and meaningful.
We now summon Nimmi Kumar, an Indian housewife from Mumbai.
Kumar's daughter's illness, a time of intense personal trauma for her, and her great faith in Shirdi Sai Baba prompted her to take a mannath (pledge to God) that she would write Sai Ram's name 125,000 times. This was in 1986, and after having written it "about 50,000 to 60,000 times, I decided I was a little fed up of just writing it straight. I began doodling, a form of Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu god) emerged, and it was then that my husband suggested I take to a bigger format, and in color".
Kumar adopted a wider canvas, and carried on her task; and though the message remained the same, the medium had changed to acrylic. "I wasn't an artist, I had no training, I had only done some work earlier using plaster of Paris," she says, still somewhat surprised at the shape her vow took. "Things just happened. Without sounding supercilious, I would say it was the will of God. " Within eight months, she had lost count of the number of times she had written Sai Ram-possibly millions, she estimates. She started incorporating pictures (Ganesh, Durga in her many forms, Vishnu, Shiv), slokas and mantras (a recent painting has verses written in Gurmukhi, the Punjabi script of India; another has the 18 chapters of the Gita) in her works of art. Each painting, however, carries the name of Sai Ram, "be it once, a hundred times or a thousand".
The response has been beyond her expectations: her paintings number close to 200, she has held four solo exhibitions in Delhi and Bombay and an informal show in New York.
And how does Kumar view her work? "It's a therapy," is her solemn affirmation. "In fact I could not have asked for a better therapy. It helped me cope with a very difficult and demanding moment in my life. I would say that writing a mantra is definitely more powerful than reciting it or using a mala or a rosary. Far more of us is involved in writing. It helped me immerse myself completely in my work, I found peace. It brought me an understanding of things that are destined, I became more accepting and centered in my approach."
Another example of maternal love finding refuge in words is revealed in Exhibit B:
Paula, a tender and true tale of a mother's vigil at her dying daughter's bedside, by Isabel Allende. Hearing about Paula's illness, Allende's literary agent deposited a ream of lined yellow paper on her lap, with the advice that she unburden her heart or else she would die of anguish.
Allende to her 28-year-old comatose daughter who was suffering from a complex case of porphyria: "Writing is a long process of introspection; it is a voyage towards the darkest caverns of consciousness, a long, slow meditation. I write feeling my way in silence, and along the way discover particles of truth, small crystals that fit in the palm of one hand and justify my passage through this world...I plunge into these pages in an irrational attempt to overcome my terror. I think that perhaps if I give form to this devastation I shall be able to help you, and myself, and that the meticulous exercise of writing can be our salvation."
Confronted with visions of death as she sits in the dismal corridors of hospitals waiting in vain for news of Paula's improvement, Allende's thoughts turn to the rites of birth and how the process can be compared with that of creating a book: "Children, like books, are voyages into one's inner self, during which body, mind and soul shift course and turn towards the very center of existence."
Like birth, a book begets hope, it is also a new beginning. It is the writer's search for answers, an almost involuntary act that enriches both the writer and the reader, for reading is certainly a therapy. And there is no better proof that, for Allende, the act of penning her thoughts helps the body, mind and soul than her words: "...My writing is magical, the hour of sorcery, ...My only salvation when everything around me threatens to come crashing down".
Things would have probably come crashing down for Dylan Thomas if he were unable to write. Thomas studied poetry with a single-minded passion: "I had to try to learn what made words tick, beat, blaze, because I wanted to write what I wanted to write before I knew how to write or what I wanted to."
In 1926, psychologist G. Wallas identified the four stages of creative thinking: preparation (finding a theme, reviewing your style), incubation (ideas develop, often in the unconscious mind), illumination: (ideas spring to life when least expected) and verification (a time for evaluation and revision).
For Thomas, creativity was the goal, writing the means to reach it. A good poem is inevitably the result of good thinking, or what Thomas called the "scribbling, muttering, whispering, intoning, bellowing, and juggling of words".
A good poem is also a therapy, the origin of which can be traced to American psychiatrist Jack Leedy who discussed it in his group sessions during the 1950s. Leedy used a poem, or a part of it, to help his patients understand their feelings. And while bibliotherapy (as its name suggests, it covers the assigning of reading matter to the patient) had been used earlier, Leedy was the first to turn to the therapeutic value of poetry-he wrote about it (Poetic Therapy, published in 1969) and also formed the Association of Poetry Therapy the same year.
Writing haiku poetry is another creative outlet that is gaining in popularity. There has been a tradition among Zen masters to write a poem on attaining enlightenment or just before dying. And though haiku represents the best in Zen aesthetics, haiku writing sessions and contests in Japan also attract housewives, students, waiters, among others. Even amateur poets can learn qualities such as simplicity, naturalness, directness and profundity from this verse form of three lines, with five, seven and five syllables in each.
Our next witness, Punjabi poet and author, Amrita Pritam.
"Yes, of course, writing is a therapy," says Pritam emphatically. "While writing you cannot but face yourself. It is an opportunity to understand yourself.
But what is more important," she adds, "is that you become a witness—the highest ideal of yoga and spirituality—you are experiencing/writing and also witnessing. Whether other writers, too, see writing as therapy depends on their yearning to know, to reach higher levels of awareness. It cannot happen if they are in it for pelf or name and fame."
But does she keep a diary, a journal, a record of all her feelings? She laughs: "All writing is a dateless diary. If you look deeply and chronologically at a poet's or author's work, you will notice that it is autobiographical."
It could also be the result of a dream. Recalling your dreams could well be the first step towards making them come true. The Silva Mind Control Method teaches you how: "While meditating just before going to sleep, say: 'I want to remember a dream, I will remember a dream.' Now go to sleep with paper and pencil by your bedside. When you awaken, whether during the night or in the morning, write down what you remember of a dream. Keep practicing—your recall is clearer, more complete."
Pritam's spiritual experiences, manifested in her dreams, have led to many extremely evocative poems when the "whole experience comes to life, word by word, and sets itself, down on paper".
Amrita Pritamhas also been involved in inspiring Tihar Jail prisoners to write a book of poems. This led to a very unusual encounter: A stranger contacted her, saying that the book should include the poetry of a woman who is a "prisoner of life". On further questioning, he revealed that the poet was Anamika, a prostitute living in Varanasi, India.
Some lines from a poem by Anamika, loosely translated from Hindi, that reveal that, for her, too, writing was a way of expressing herself:
"Why did you give me a body, Lord,
and why did you give me a mind?
While all I do is wander from place to place like a ghost's shadow—
I waste ...My days moving around in the market
And the nights hanging between sleep and waking
The youth you gave me, O Lord, I'm compelled to sell"
It is now the turn of Kiran Bedi, the policewoman who dared to be different, to take the witness stand. She is characteristically forthright: "For me, writing is therapy, I believe in it one hundred per cent. "
Bedi adds for emphasis: "It is the clearest, most visible therapy—you can see, read and analyze what you have written. In fact, you can become two different persons, the writer and the reader."
She agrees that poetry is also therapeutic since writing in verse often helps clear our thoughts, as does a personal diary. "I've kept a diary since I was a student," confesses Bedi. "Then I used to write: 'Hello, ...My friend, I'm back to you'. I used ...My diary as one of ...My best friends. Today I still keep a diary, but in a different way. I do not write daily, but I use it to analyze ...My thoughts."
Bedi on her recent book, I Dare!: "Putting it together helped in many ways since it answered a lot of questions I get in ...My mail. The document I am now working on-my years at the Tihar Jail—is a therapy."
And while at Tihar, Bedi encouraged the inmates to try writing as a means of releasing their emotions. Three collections of their poetry have been published in English, Hindi and Urdu.
Bedi gives the example of "an angry young man who was full of ideas. He was angry with the police, the prison officials, the judiciary. We gave him a table and chair, paper and pen, and told him to write. This helped channels his energies, he felt relieved, and is no longer a problem. He has written a manuscript in Hindi; it is with me, I'm looking for a publisher."
She pauses, and then declares with the certainty of a lawyer: "He is a living example of writing being a therapy. "
Bedi proceeds to present the case of the patients at the Navjyoti de-addiction clinics started by her: " At Navjyoti, we ask them to write regularly, to put their feelings of the day in a diary. They write for themselves, but can discuss it, if they choose to, in the therapy class. "
"Put it in writing. It works!" she charges.
A sentiment shared by another witness—Reeti Desai, a student of the British School in Delhi, India. Though her mother does not know it, Reeti keeps a diary, a record of important events that happen in her life. Reeti's reluctant confession: "...My diary is someone I can talk to. Usually when I am bored, I just lock myself and write. And when I fight with ...My brother, it helps me get ...My anger away."
Adds her classmate, Joylene Madam, 12: "...My diary is ...My best friend, it never betrays ...My secrets."
Inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, "the only diary I have read", Reeti took up a school assignment on the immortal book that symbolizes the plight of the over six million Jews murdered during the Second World War. And, this summer, when she had a one-day stopover at Amsterdam, she knew exactly where to head: Anne Frank's house which is now a museum. Once there, Reeti went behind the revolving bookcase to the back annex where Anne hid with her family and wrote her diary. "It was simply amazing," exclaims Reeti.
Anne called her diary Kitty, it was a gift on her 13th birthday, "possibly the nicest of all". It probably came to her at a moment when she needed it most.
Anne in her diary: "I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in ...My heart...the reason for ...My starting a diary: it is that I have no such real friend...
"Oh, so many things bubble up inside me as I lie in bed, having to put up with people I'm fed up with, who always misinterpret ...My intentions. That's why in the end I always come back to ...My diary. That is where I start and finish, because Kitty is always patient."
Anne's prophetic words: "I want to go on living after ...My death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me. I can shake off everything if I write; ...My sorrows disappear, ...My courage is reborn."
She lives on through her diary which has been translated into more than 55 languages. And a fitting testimony to her is the Anne Frank Journal published by Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, that takes up the issue of human rights.
Writing to right a wrong is advocated by management consultant Vijai Shanker: "If we keep something in our mind, the tension keeps mounting. Writing is a good therapy because it allows you to express yourself. "
Shanker writes to editors and friends whenever he feels there is a communication gap and writing could help improve matters.
"There are three kinds of personalities-passive, assertive and aggressive," he observes. "The assertive personality lies in the middle. A writer ought to be assertive, we should not keep suppressed feelings within ourselves. If physical exercise maintains the body, writing helps maintain the mind. It is like a mental exercise: you think, you collect facts, you put these thoughts on paper-this keeps your mind alive and alert." ???Write your targets, goals and deadlines. Write to clients or suppliers expressing gratitude. Share moments, successful and otherwise, with your colleagues.
"Put it all down," counsels Avinash D. Narula, director, Datapro Infoworld Ltd. "Then it depends on you what you want to do. You can translate it into action, or throw it away. But writing gives you options, you can move on. You are not hurting anyone, you are not answerable to anyone."
In a sense, it is just you, your thoughts and a sheet of paper. And there is enough paper, as Narula adds in an aside.
"Yes, writing helps," defends Narula. "Let's see what causes people an upset, a nagging in the head. It could be an undelivered communication, a thwarted intention or an unfulfilled expectation. The moment I write it down, I am released of pressure. By giving language to ...My thoughts I have made them more specific. I can now action ...My thoughts."
Narula's brief: "If you are not feeling one hundred per cent, take a piece of paper.Think. Put it down. Do not worry about the order, it'll get sequenced along the way. Write your goals, plans, list of things to do or to communicate... writing often becomes a way of talking to yourself, of getting it out of the system. "
His concluding one-liner: "Writing helps us to live positively. "
Exhibit C: A Hate Diary
It contains 10 forms, for solutions and complaints, with perforations on one side. The idea is to write down what is bothering you, and then the solution.
"Make it as crazy as possible-if you feel like shooting your boss, put that down," says its creator, Gundeep Singh of The Learning Curve, "and then tear it off. "
This simple exercise relieves you of stress and helps change your attitude towards a person or situation. "It's fun, it's funny, just let your imagination run wild. Once you .Get used to the idea of writing in the diary, you will enjoy the exercise," argues Singh. "Do not take it too seriously though," he warns.
Osho sannyasin Ma Anand Savita works on another kind of diary, one that is prompted by love and the spirit to serve. Savita became a disciple of Osho in 1976, who assigned her the job of interviewing people and editing the talks between him and his followers-darshan diaries, as they were called.
A psychotherapist by profession, Savita testifies that diary writing, a most rudimentary form of writing, can be very therapeutic. She uses it when she feels disturbed, emotionally tangled and cannot see herself out of a certain situation. It also helps give her some clarity to her feelings and thoughts. One hour of good creative writing energizes her, claims Savita. For her it is a means of going into an almost dreamlike state.
Says Savita: "Writing should flow through you. You should become a vehicle through whom these words are expressed. And once the writing is done, one should forget about it. That is a process of going beyond the mind. Osho is a very good example. He uses words and throws them away. He does not edit anything, he uses the words for what they are'—mere tools—and once their job is done, he is over and done with them."
According to Osho, a poet writes because it becomes too heavy if he doesn't write. He unburdens himself by writing. The poetry is a catharsis. The poet feels good once he has written something that was persistently there asking for attention. (This holds good for prose and other writing also.)
Writing affirmations and other positive statements help you feel good about yourself. There is a certain finality, a sense of commitment, involved in the act of writing. Leading personal growth programs such as The Forum have exercises which ask you to write a letter or a communication to help give language to your feelings. You are encouraged to write what you want to see or do. This is said to have a miraculous impact on your motivation levels.
Writing letters helps in improving communication and relationships. Recommends John Gray in Men Are From Mars,Women Are From Venus: "If your partner has upset you in some way, write them a Love Letter, and while you are writing ask yourself how this relates to your past. As you write you may find memories coming up from your past and discover that you are really upset with your own mother or father. At this point continue writing but now address your letter to your parent. Then write a loving Response Letter. Share this letter with your partner...
"If you want your partner to be more sensitive to your feelings, let them experience the painful feelings of your past. Then they can understand your sensitivities. Love Letters are an excellent opportunity to do this. "
For believers, automatic writing is a chance to find answers to what they are seeking. Corroborates our last witness, Calcutta-based Pradeep Agarwal who conducts workshops in self-hypnosis and automatic writing: "You find you have no control,it is as if someone else is writing through you. You sit in a semi-dark room, with pen and paper at your side. You can call your guide or master to help you solve your problem." The spirit you have channeled connects, and takes over your writing.
"You feel much better and you do get good advice," states Agarwal, who calls this form of writing "an indirect therapy".
If in automatic writing matters are, quite literally, not in your hands, what happens when you encounter a writer's block? Probably the worst fate that can befall a writer, professional or otherwise, is not being able to write. An extremely frustrating and stressful experience, as many will attest, this condition is by itself a sure proof-if further proof is required—of the restorative power of writing:
So go ahead, pour your heart on paper. Do not worry if the spellings, style, sequence or syntax are not exactly the way they should have been. The objective is to be sincere and open, for the simple act of writing will make you whole and happy.
The case rests. But before arriving at a decision, just close your eyes and try to envisage a world without words. If you were condemned to a life without recourse to writing, would you be able to survive? For putting pen to paper is an exercise that is free, easy and minus all harmful side effects. It is also totally private, unless we choose to make it otherwise.
You are the judge, the verdict is to come from you. In writing, preferably.
Subject: Writing as therapy - 4 October 2010
My verdict is, biased as I am, yes writing is a fantastic healer. A journal, ones own thoughts, a fiction, poetry, doesn‘t matter, it is all cathartic. And I believe the old-fashioned pen and paper is the way to go, the connection between fingers and thoughts, the flow between mind and More...
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