Writing As A Revolutionary Contemplative Practice
By Ashley Shires
I have always been enamored by the writing life: as a child, I kept a diary; when I turned ten, I asked for a blue Buddy-L typewriter for Christmas. When I left the Arkansas Bible Belt to head off to college in liberal Boulder, Colorado, I took my first writing class with a long-haired adjunct professor name Petger, who was also an opera singer. I immediately declared Creative Writing as my major.
Writing helps me process the world, revealing the broken parts and the beautiful parts simultaneously. It allows me to express on the outside what I am feeling and thinking on the inside, something a polite Southern girl is generally not encouraged to do. One of my favorite professors, Lucia Berlin, the stunning short story writer, said that for her, writing “isn’t for therapy, but more for clarity, emotional clarity. To let me see what I really feel about something.”
But I have found writing to be therapeutic as well. When I was 28 years old, writing helped me to recover from PTSD. The story is this: I had been traveling for almost three months in Africa when I was carjacked in Kwazulu Natal by three armed men. One of the men held a gun to my head, ordered me out of the car and instructed me to run into the woods. While I ran, he aimed the gun at my back. I dove into the trees and the car disappeared down the road. I was left physically unharmed, but mentally and emotionally, I was destroyed. I stood in shock on the side of the road with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, my trust in the world shattered.
I made my way back to Johannesburg and was loaned the equivalent of $20.00 to last through the weekend, until money could be wired from the United States. I walked to a convenience store and bought some essentials: a toothbrush and toothpaste. And then I bought the most essential thing: a little notebook to replace my journal that had been stolen. I returned to my bed and breakfast and started to write. I wrote about the guns, the men, the terror, the trees.
Lucia Berlin said, “When I first started to write, I was alone. My first husband had left me, I was homesick, my parents had disowned me because I had married so young and divorced. I just wrote to…to go home. It was like a place to be where I felt I was safe. And so I write to fix a reality.”
That little journal I bought in Johannesburg was exactly like that, like going home. It was a safe place when I was traumatized and vulnerable. I wrote in the airplane back to New York. I wrote when I got back to Boulder. I wrote to make sense of the carjacking, to find meaning. I also reached out for help in other ways: I went to a psychologist who specialized in EMDR, a PTSD treatment that helped to relieve my flashbacks. And I enrolled in Richard Freeman’s month-long yoga teacher training program, an experience that was transformative in uncountable ways. But writing, for me, was always the underlying practice, the core practice.
And research backs up my experience. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Austin, Texas, has done extensive studies on the power of expressive writing. It was already well known that after trauma, people are more prone to depression and sickness. But Pennebaker discovered that that people who kept their stories secret were much worse off than those who didn’t. He wondered if writing about trauma would help people process their experiences, if it would help improve their health. Almost fifty students signed up for the first experiment, and the results were stunning. The students who wrote about emotional upheavals in their lives made 43% fewer doctor visits in the weeks and months after the study than those who had been asked to write about superficial topics.
Since that first study, over 300 more studies on expressive writing have been published, and in all of them, participants who wrote about significant events in their lives experienced better sleep, reduction in pain, drops in anxiety, and improved immune systems in the weeks and months afterwards. And they reported feeling happier and less negative than they did before. “By writing,” Pennebaker says, “you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings. It helps you get past them.”
For me, my regular writing practice is as revolutionary as my yoga practice. It centers me in my body and my emotions, and it gives me a broader perspective as well, a deeper sense of meaning in my life and my path in the world. Fifteen years after the carjacking, I have a record of what I’ve been though and how far I’ve come. I savor my poignant memories, and I am more conscious and grateful in the present. Writing taps into my true self, my whole, human self. I know that no matter where I am in the world, or how difficult the circumstances, I have tools to carry me through. I can always go home.
I am offering a 7-week online class, “Writing Through the Chakras,” Oct 2 – November 14, 2016. Introductory rate $35.
Receive guided journaling prompts in your inbox every Sunday morning for seven weeks. From the root chakra to the crown chakra, the class will focus on a different theme each week and its impact in our lives: groundedness, creativity, confidence, compassion, communication, intuition and spiritual connection. For more information and to register, visit www.AshleyShires.com.