Category Archives: Reflective Writing Practice

The art of letter writing

When I was a student living in Spain, well before the days of email and mobile phones, writing letters home was my way not only of keeping in touch with those I loved but also of reflecting on my experience. For a time letter-writing was just like keeping a journal.

These days we are more likely to use electronic forms of communication – and what we are gaining in speed and immediacy we are perhaps losing in connection.

When I write a letter I hold the person to whom I’m writing entirely in my mind’s eye, and craft my words in a way that I feel will be most meaningful to them. It’s the ultimate exercise in writing for an audience, but it’s also an opportunity to see what words show up to describe how we really feel.

In personal letters we can send a heartfelt message, interwoven with our kindest intentions for the recipient, and add another connecting thread into the global skein of human consciousness. I picture handwritten letters criss-crossing the surface of the earth, the products of our myriad physical acts of moving our hand across the page, translating the thoughts in our minds into inky and intelligible shapes on paper. There really is no wonder at all why it always feels so special to receive a hand-written letter, given the complex physiology and psychology involved in the process, and the special link that is forged as a result.

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Me and my shadow… Journaling to illuminate ‘Self’ and ‘Other’

The winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2013 was Hungarian shadow-dance troupe Attraction. They presented three tableaux over the course of the competition which told compelling stories (although the final one was just a touch sycophantic), sending the audience on an emotional inner journey, and clearly appealing to our human fascination with the illusion of shadow.

One of the things I always notice is my shadow. Right back since childhood. Although I no longer try and beat my shadow, or pin it down, I do still appreciate its shape and attitude. Studying Virgil’s Aeneid  for O level Latin I remember learning about Aeneas’ encounter with the insubstantial shades in the Underworld, the shadowy, lost figures of the Dead. But these days I prefer to think of my shadow as evidence of my body, my physicality, substantial and very much alive.

Shadow

It’s good having a body. Not only does it allow us to cast a shadow, it also allows us to play sport, dance, sing, make love, walk out in nature. Sometimes it goes wrong and it gets old, but generally, as long as we look after it and pay attention to it it’s a great source of solace and inspiration too.

Our bodies are vessels of physical intelligence, intuition and deep-seated wisdom, or, to coin a word from Marion Milner, sagacity. And, if we learn to recognise our body as part of ourselves, rather than simply as a vehicle to carry our head around, we can discover much from being in it.

A few weeks ago at the Swindon Festival Of Literature I heard Resurgence editor Satish Kumar define spirituality (from Latin spirare to breathe) as relationship, a particular connection that we share through the act of breathing the same air. And I find that we create relationship with our shadow-casting bodies  through precisely that – breathing; breathing into our physical presence, creating a tingling feeling from the tips of our toes to the top of our head. Milner is particularly struck by the sensation of her skin burgeoning right to the ends of her finger nails as she focuses her attention and her breath on the weight of her body.

This sets the scene for deeper forms of inquiry. Once we’ve been reminded about our physical self by the appearance of our shadow, and we’ve reconnected with our body through the simple, intentional act of breathing, we can then begin to notice what memories we have stored, and what these tell us about who we are.

How we view our relationship with our own physicality is an important aspect of the exploration of self and other that our journaling practice makes possible. It’s a vital starting point.  Whether we think of ourselves as our bodies, or our bodies as part of ourselves, or even as completely separate from who we think ourselves to be, when we dare to go further than our self-righteous, self-pitying rants, we find great stillness in our body. I also know from experience that what my body has to tell me is always valuable, whenever I make space to hear the particular message coming from my back, neck or jaw.

Like Aeneas we might see our physical shadow as our insubstantial ‘other’. But it is an echo of  our substance and can point the way back to the ‘other’ within us.

Otherness is always part of us. The unknown, unconscious functions of our body that enable us to perceive our environment; the mysterious, though entirely rational, rhythm of life which pulses through us day and night; the ability we have to engage in an activity and be aware that we are engaged in it; the ease with which we recognise the “me” and the “not-me-guv” in our physical experience.

Our inquiries go deeper when we develop the capacity to view ourselves objectively. We need to become ‘other’, to get out of our own way and step aside from ourselves in order to look in. We can imagine another self, stepping out of and away from our body to look back whence it came. As we do this we are automatically expanding our imagination, our inner space, which, once expanded, won’t shrink back. We have now become simultaneously the observer and the observed.

Meanwhile the functions of the body continue, and maybe they benefit from increased inner space. Inner reflection and expressive writing in our journals have a proven  feedback loop of health benefits. The space within expands, our awareness increases and from a more objective standpoint our unknown, unconscious and mysterious functions get to choose which of our narrative serves us, and which needs to be jettisoned.

So next time you see your shadow, appreciate its magic and use it as a prompt to expand your inner space. As you look back to your Self from the perspective of your inner Other, what do you notice?

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ESSO-powered journaling

No – I’m not talking about petrol, and I don’t wish to be an advert for fossil fuel consumption.

ESSO stands for the things I most yearn for in my life, and which I found myself writing about the other day – Ease Simplicity Serenity and Order. I love how acronyms present themselves to me and invariably bring a new metaphor along for the ride.

Those who know me and my family personally might well scoff. You know what creative chaos we live in. But if I don’t form the intention to be with more ESSO, even if it’s a pipe-dream (OMG, when will this oil-industry analogy let go?), then I have not a cat in hell’s chance of staying sane.

With ESSO in mind I picked out a new journal this week, and found one which depicts singing birds on branches next to neat little bird-boxes. I proceeded to plan my week, including all our meals, and even shopped for all the menu items. I made sure all the laundry and all the ironing got done in one attempt, and I managed to clear away all the clutter from the bedroom floor.

A little order has gone a long way to support the ease and serenity of my time this week. Maybe I have been fuelled by ESSO after all.

What are the things you’re most yearning for right now? Can you make an acronym or acrostic out of them? And what’s the metaphor that accompanies it?

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Beyond ranting – the necessary authenticity on the other side

Our journal writing workshop last evening was yet again a wonderful opportunity to share insights and learn new perspectives. My gratitude goes to workshop participant Elinor who shared a wonderful phrase that somehow landed quite forcefully with me. She said: “Necessity has no emotion.”

The reason why this hit me with such a clunk is because it seems to account for what I have found in my journal beyond the ranting. Once I’ve stripped away the whining voice of my inner critic or the exclamation marks of my ego; when I’ve named and shamed the stuck-on-repeat stories with which I’ve been comforting myself, and once I’ve come to terms with my main vulnerabilities, what’s left is a calm, balanced narrative in which I’m finally able to speak my truth. There are no exclamation marks here. No over-blown claims about my own brilliance. No excuses and convoluted reasons why I won’t/shan’t/can’t. Just calm, logical, plain, straight-forward truth. Well hello.

Pearl

Inner wisdom and authenticity are the pearls I’m constantly encouraging my workshop participants to pursue. These are the buried treasures that our journals can reveal to us, but from whose scent the decoys and false trails of our inner critic, our stories, excuses and egoist self-justifications often throw us. How easily we become distracted and displaced! But every pearl needs its grit. It would be foolish though to mistake the grit for the final product!

In Elinor’s insight I’m seeing that authenticity is akin to necessity. Our authentic self is who we necessarily are – who we cannot avoid being, no matter how many layers of negativity, self-judgement and self justification we heap on top. And when we hear its voice we find pearlescent peace, quiet and truth.

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Journaling and the value of inner independence on International Women’s Day 2013

The creaking mechanism of my groping intellect has finally spewed out the following thoughts on independence – did you hear the clunk?

First a little bit of context: for International Women’s Day tomorrow I’m joining the women of Swindon Wiltshire in celebration at Central Library, and delivering a very short journaling taster workshop at 2pm. By way of reflecting on the links that Swindon women have with Nepal, Aghanistan and Pakistan, and with many other nations around the world, I wrote the following intro to my workshop. There are exercises to go with this and I’ll publish these tomorrow. Or, if you can get along to the library in Swindon come and join in for yourself!

“We have many privileges as western women – full and equal access to democratic processes, education, employment, and the right to live outwardly independent lives.

When we reflect on the lives of women in places like Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan we are shocked by the cultural norms in those countries that disempower women and prevent them from living as freely and independently as we do.

And yet I suspect that in the face of adversity, and barred from the outward experiences that many of us enjoy, those women have a great clarity and independence of thought. Ironically, although traditionally they have fewer opportunities in life than westerners, it is possible that they have greater mental independence than many of us in our ‘information-overload’ society.

Here in the west so much of what we think these days is subject to what other people want us to think.

When we were growing up we only had to contend with our parents, our schools, our peers, newspapers, magazines, the radio and the TV. These days it’s all that PLUS the internet, social media, websites, forums, 24 hour TV, round the clock shopping – the opportunities to be bombarded by information are endless.

Imagine living in a place where information is forbidden. Is prohibition likely to stop us being hungry for information?

If anything, preventing people from being informed only gives them a greater clarity on what it is they wish to be informed about. This comes across over and over on our news channels which conduct interviews with courageous and driven women living under the Taliban regime, at risk of rape and violence in Pakistan, or being held back from employment in Nepal and other countries.

Personally I greatly admire and am moved by the stories I read and listen to about young women who are standing up for their rights and demanding their voice be heard. For them this is the women’s emancipation movement happening a full half century after it happened for us.

We have a duty to bear witness.

And although there is little we can individually do to help (although coming along to events like this makes a huge difference to our awareness) one thing we can do, in fact we must do, is ensure that we don’t squander our own independence of thought on the altar of emancipation.

So we need to be much more careful to take the time to figure out for ourselves what we think.

One way to do this is to develop a practice of reflective journal writing. Putting our thoughts on paper is a great way to dissect them, to understand ourselves and to gain insights into our unique perspective.

It also helps us recognise our own resilient spirit, as well as enabling us to empathise with others, such as our friends in less emancipated countries.

So while it’s IWD and we’re here to experience reflective journal writing, let’s have a go at a few exercises to help us think about womanhood, and create a reflective meditation on solidarity with our counterparts far away.”

Please check out www.the100womenbookproject.com and www.pashtunwomenvp.com

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Meditating on independence

At my daughter’s school they often have a theme for the term – such as courage or friendship or understanding. Theoretically this gives some sort of framework or something to think about during the weekly assemblies and in ‘golden time’. It’s a neat idea – and in a reflective environment I think it would work extremely well. (Just not sure about how reflective a school environment is.)

So I decided to pinch this idea. However, instead of choosing my theme at the beginning of the week, the theme chose me. It crept up on me and presented itself to me rather stealthily.

I was preparing for an up-coming Journal Talk Podcast with US journaling coach Nathan Ohren when I suddenly found myself writing about my role models as a young person. (Nathan’s prep questions are SO good.) And just as suddenly I found myself with a powerful inner conviction that my greatest influences were women who best modeled independence.

The whole concept of independence fascinates me. For me it has moral, ethical and political resonances as well as material ones, and it occured to me that this is a theme worth investigating further.

Interestingly my thought process on this during the past few days has indeed been completely independent of any journaling – as I have done none. At the moment I am happy to hold the inquiry “what does it mean to be independent?” as a form of meditation, a ball that my sub-conscious mind keeps tossing while I get on with my day.

I’m not yet ready to journal on where the meditation is leading me – but I have a sense that it is leading me somewhere quite significant. It’ll be great to see what shows up on the page when I finally enter the reflective classroom of my journal.

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A blast from the past

Nearly 5 years ago I put together an article for E-zine, or some such content farm, on the subject of writing to redress the balance of our brain. I wanted to reproduce it here but couldn’t find my E-zine login. Nevertheless the piece was picked up and reproduced on the blog of writing for well-being practitioner Ellen Taliaferro, back in May 2008. (Geez have I been banging on about this stuff for that long?)

Anyway, I thought it was worth another outing here:

http://ellentaliaferro.com/redressing-the-balance-%E2%80%93-writing-with-the-whole-of-our-brain/

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