By Ritu Khanna September 1996 The urge to write, to put our thoughts on paper, is like an involuntary, almost compulsive, act that takes control of our emotions. But is writing a therapy? A case for the written word 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
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