Finding Your Hidden Self: How to Start Contemplative Writing

Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples/Public Domain

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”) fresco from Pompeii ca. 55-70 CE.

Source: Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples/Public Domain

In his journal of 1836, the great American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson advised his readers to “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”

Emerson’s word choice is significant. Trumpets have the capacity to wake us from our daily stupor. The blare of a trumpet calls us into action.

Perhaps you, like me, are already creating your own “bible.” Coffee mugs, calendars, posters with the wise sayings of Gandhi or Einstein, Tolkien or John Lennon, fill our homes. We read with a highlighter in hand and record memorable sentences in a journal; we post our favorite slogans online.

What if, rather than turning to outward sources, we could be the source of our inspiration? What if we turned our quest for insight toward our own luminous hearts?

Miriam Hall, teacher, writing coach and mentor, has been helping students do just this for more than 15 years in a practice she calls “contemplative writing.” Her personal experience led her to study the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and to her own mentors, Natalie Goldberg and Leesa Renee Hall. I had heard about the transformative power of her work and wanted to know more, so I asked her to share some of her secrets, including some “getting started” exercises. Enjoy!

Charmua/Used with permission

“Make Your Own Bible” Pendant Necklace by Charmua

Source: Charmua/Used with permission

What is contemplative writing? How is it different from other types of journal writing? Who have you studied/trained with?

Contemplative writing is a practice I developed out of a combination of the teachings of my mentor Natalie Goldberg, my local mentor Paula Novotnak, and the contemplative psychology teachings of Karuna Training. In some ways, “contemplative writing” is another way of saying “writing practice,” as Goldberg calls it, but infused with Tibetan Buddhist teachings on wisdom and compassion.

Contemplative writing combines meditation and writing, plus a view that whatever the mind has to offer—neurotic and speedy, slow and sluggish, mindful and meandering—is all welcome and all connected to our inner wisdom.

People often view journaling as a kind of “mind dump”—get the crap out of our heads and onto paper. That kind of writing is completely fine and perfectly useful. But a slightly different view—that even our confusion contains wisdom—as well as slightly added structure—timed writing, using a prompt—helps to make writing time more productive and insightful, whether simply for yourself (journaling) or for publication (essays, poetry, fiction).

Miriam Hall/Used with permission

Miriam Hall

Source: Miriam Hall/Used with permission

I sometimes say that contemplative writing is more a compassion practice than a writing practice—compassion is foremost in practice, from writing to sharing to feedback.

Early on in my teaching, a student said to me that she came to me to become a better writer, but realized first she had to become a better human being. I replied, “Close—you need to discover you already are a better human being.”

How did you discover your calling as a contemplative writing teacher?

I had the incredible fortune to be introduced to Paula, who was offering classes in my town in the early 2000s. As soon as I entered her classes, I knew I wanted to offer something like what she was facilitating, even though I hadn’t previously considered being a teacher. She was incredibly generous and let me study with her like an old-fashioned journeyship. When she had to stop teaching for a while, I started to offer my own classes.

Paula Novotnak/Used with permission

Paula Novotnak

Source: Paula Novotnak/Used with permission

Previous to that, I had written a great deal—poetry got me through my father’s death when I was 12—but I stopped when my mom died when I was 19. Coming back into writing in my early 20s was a big deal, and I was nervous about returning to it.

In addition to starting me on the path to teaching, Paula’s classes made that transition much gentler and inspired me with a love and curiosity that still infuses my offerings today.

Later I studied with Natalie Goldberg for a few years and, more recently, with Leesa Renee Hall. They have all imbued me with aspects of the teaching path, as well as becoming a Buddhist teacher and teaching other forms of contemplative arts—photography, movement, anti-racism.

How does contemplative writing work with therapy?  

I often say that contemplative writing isn’t therapy, but it is therapeutic. I am a multi-mode person—I need dance, writing, photography, and other ways in, in addition to talking. Many people have found especially writing in a group to be deeply empowering.

I have watched people combine our writing groups with group therapy, one-on-one talk therapy, and modalities like EMDR to make major life changes: divorces, career shifts, getting through a major loss, managing systemic racism, and more.

I find most modalities need to combine with other ways in order to work at their full strength. Contemplative writing is highly complementary with many modes of therapy as well as other therapeutic practices.

Is contemplative writing used to help heal emotional wounds? Can you give some examples of when it might be useful?

There’s a lot of research out now through people like James Pennebaker, saying that writing even just a little bit about difficult experiences—or even positive ones!—helps us process them more clearly than if we only talk about them, or don’t communicate about them at all.

Something about the process of putting it on paper, when we really let the mind go wherever it needs to go, making connections, insights, or finding confusion, really helps give some breathing room and space around our wounding. Doing this practice, especially in a group, encourages some serious shame-busting in gentle ways, seeing over time that we aren’t just our wounds and not just our daily neurosis. We are much more than either of those two.

I also find contemplative writing very helpful for integrating the many parts of ourselves (as Dale discusses in her recent blog post, “Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?”) and closing the gap between who we think we want to be and who we are, creating what Jen Louden calls “a human-sized life.”

 Personal collection of Bruce Kennedy/Used with permission of the photographer

Source: Personal collection of Bruce Kennedy/Used with permission of the photographer

One powerful example is how we need to write out stories of wounding—and joy—again and again, and again. This kind of “broken record” quality of healing can be really annoying to the writer, “Oh, I am writing about this again?!” but others listening really understand how we need to write through it repeatedly until we can write it clean.

For example, I have a student who came to me over 10 years ago and was quite sure even then she would leave her emotionally abusive marriage. It took six years of therapy and weekly contemplative writing classes—where she often wrote to her younger self, wrote in rhyming poetry about how it was going to be OK, and wrote out very deeply what was lacking in her marriage—and, at the end of that time, she was able to leave. She cites the practice and group as essential for deepening her compassion for her younger self who married this man, as well as her current self, adjusting to a life alone for the first time in three decades.

Do I need to do contemplative writing with others, or can I do it alone?

I teach contemplative writing in groups because people find the energy of writing with others to be incomparably powerful (similar to having a gym buddy or meditating in a sangha). Doing just about anything in a group challenges most of us in some ways, but also helps shore us up so we can go further and deeper than we do on our own.

There is no reason to be ashamed of needing others. Zero. One mentor of mine, Jeffrey Davis, likes to encourage us to “DIT instead of DIY”—“do it together” instead of “do it yourself.”

That being said, plenty of people in my community do contemplative writing on their own, myself included. It is definitely a practice you can pick up yourself and take with you in your own life. Most find it helpful to take a class or be in a group to start, as that helps us get through some strong inner critic layers we can encounter when we start facing new vulnerabilities.

Ironically, being with others can make us really self-conscious and feel even more vulnerable, but generally, we can heal with others faster than we can on our own.

What kinds of things have people learned about themselves through contemplative writing?

Recently, I did facilitator training for a program called Unpack Biases Now with an amazing mentor, Leesa Renee Hall. She uses expressive writing prompts in a contemplative methodology to unpack biases we barely notice, because they are below the surface of our daily consciousness.

I say this both because she deserves a shoutout, but also to say that after teaching writing in these ways for 15 years, I am still finding the endless possibilities of these kinds of writing modalities. You can unpack your biases, figure out your deep self-care needs, connect with your inner critic and inner mentor… the sky is the limit.

Natalie Goldberg/Used with permission

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones

Source: Natalie Goldberg/Used with permission

How can I begin and maintain a practice of contemplative writing?

You can start doing contemplative writing via an online class (which I offer, and others offer under different names), you can use a book (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, for example), simply set up a group yourself, or use your own time and space to practice.

You need hand-writing materials (uses different parts of your brain than typing), a timer (phone is fine), and some quiet and space. You can use a guided meditation from any number of sources or use silent meditation instruction you’ve received (better to not have mantras or music), then set a timer for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes to start.

The other part of the structure is to use a prompt. A prompt isn’t a topic—“What you did on your summer vacation”—a prompt is a leaping-off point—“What I can see from here,” “She closed her door on the way out.” You don’t have to stick to a prompt; it is just where you start. “Where I am” is a favorite from a colleague of mine, Saundra Goldman.

Write the whole time, no matter how bored or finished you think you are. We need to keep writing to get through the resistance, including it if it arises so you can move through it instead of avoiding it (“This is the worst writing I have ever written. I suck. I am not a writer. OK, now that I’ve said that, what do I want to write?”).

The two keys to any contemplative or meditative practice are structure and flexibility. You can’t get the support you need without structure, and you can’t give yourself compassion without flexibility. Finding a balance between these two—which looks different for each person—is key and ongoing.

Some people do well with “Do this every day for ten minutes at 9 a.m.,” some do better with “I will sit and write three times a week in the afternoon,” and some folks rebel against any structure and have to keep an open intention but no specific time slots. I work with people in community and one-on-one to establish what is right for them.

What are some exercises you have your students do as part of learning contemplative writing?

Out of the basic practice outlined in the previous question, there are endless iterations. My introductory online course takes folks through writing in the voice of their inner critic and the voice of their inner mentor, learning to write about what is happening right now, and asking yourself what you really want to write about.

Some of those prompts are:

“Write for five minutes in the voice of any one of your inner critics.”

“Write for ten minutes in the voice of your inner mentor.”

“What is right in front of me?”

“What I really want to write about is…”

“I remember…” or “I don’t remember” (a classic from Natalie Goldberg)

Any of these can be adapted to fiction, a different time, or point of view (“What she really wanted to write was…”). In my classes, we also play with non-dominant handwriting, as well as writing as drawing and writing slower than the discursive mind, which is more powerful than trying to keep up with the buzz in your head.

The most important part of learning this practice is to keep going under any circumstances, as Natalie Goldberg says. Write, no matter what. You can be gentle with yourself, slow down, pause, and breathe, but don’t stop, especially if your inner critic tells you to. Right underneath your resistance is a lot of energy just waiting to be freed.

The second part of the class, if you do it in group form, is just as important: learning to listen to fully and be listened to (most of us only experience this in therapy, if at all), and to give feedback based on our direct experiences. Rather than offering critique or interpretation, we offer what images, words, ideas stuck with us or arose for us. It’s a powerful holding, trusting space enriched by each participant’s personal wisdom.

I deeply believe our liberation is bound up together, and the entirety of this practice helps us experience the full spectrum of our individual and collective freedom through compassion.

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