Roots of Narrative Healing – Part 1

Originally posted on August 4, 2015

Many elements of the healing narrative have been around for a long time. We can trace the concept that humans have narrative-making capacity, the freedom to interpret and reinterpret our situation, and the power to focus our attention on what serves us, all the way to The Bhagavad Gita at the very least.  While much of our current language around narrative in the context of healing is contemporary, some foundational elements predate coaching, conventional medicine and modern science itself. Part One, below, of this two-part blog offers a brief review of writing from thousands, hundreds, and just 60-plus years ago, that reveals the value of narrative as a force in healing ourselves and alleviating suffering in others.

Gita“It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control, but it can be conquered… through regular practice and detachment” (6.35) – The Bhagavad Gita, c. 500-200 BCE.

Even if we hesitate a bit at the prospect of “conquering” the mind, we know now that through intentional practice we can create and increase awareness of our mind’s habitual tendencies, learn to interrupt chatter that does not serve us and choose thoughts that do. The move from an illness narrative to a healing narrative inevitably involves increased awareness of habitual thinking. Over 2,000 years ago, the Gita asserts that the mind has a mind of its own, and that we can work with it.

 Boethius“No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him….So nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity.”  (II.iv) – Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, c. 522-524 CE.

In a more focused statement of the Gita’s premise of conquering the mind, Boethius points out that “miserable” (i.e. any adjective) is a judgement based in thought, and that through practice and equanimity we can choose more healing descriptors or even learn to limit our tendency to judge and ascribe meaning to a situation. We can make the move from applying adjectives and hyperbole to our situation, to “simply” noting what is –from “this pain is killing me; it’s excruciating…” to “right now I have pain in my right hip…” To the Gita’s permission to work with our minds through practice, Boethius emphasizes the importance of recognizing our state of mind, and the impact our choice of words has on that state, which in turn impacts our word choice, which impacts our state, which impacts our words, in an ongoing cycle.

Frankl“[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (75).
– Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, 1992 (1946)

Frankl’s remarkable reflections from the concentration camp may lead us to wonder, “Even this? Even in this situation, I am free to choose my response? How is this possible in the face of such suffering?” And the answer – in both behavior and words, comes from examples like the Dalai Lama’s life of love and peace in exile, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s protesting all sides in the Vietnam war, from Malala Yousafzai’s addressing the world after being shot, to  the families of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC as they addressed the shooter, and from those folks each of us knows in our own lives, who have responded to what they could not control with grace, dignity, love and compassion – is a resounding “Yes, you are free to choose, and Yes, you can do this.”

Frankl’s contribution complements the Gita’s permission and practice and Boethius’ emphasis on state of mind and word choice with a terrifying, revelatory and liberating assertion that yes, even under these circumstances, we are free to choose our response. Even under these circumstances we are free to choose a narrative that heals.

Part two of this “historical look” at the roots and ever-extending branches of the healing narrative will touch on the works of late 20th- and early 21st-century writers, including Harold S. Kushner, Mary Catherine Bateson, Philip Simmons, Toni Bernhard and James Pennebaker
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. V.E. Watts. New York: Penguin, 1969.

Easwaran, Eknath, trans. The Bhagavad Gita.  Tomales CA: Nilgiri, 1985.

Frankl, Victor E.  Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.  4th ed.  Boston: Beacon, 1992.

Living Poems, Writing Lives

A Brief Overview: Where the Book Has Been, and May Be Going
The book began to emerge in a workshop in 1998 at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY after I was asked to design and teach a combination of poetry writing and meditation (not a novel idea in ’98). It went reasonably well, no one got hurt, participants asked for a Part 2, and by the time we were done, I had an outline for the book, which appeared in print (arguably before its time) in 2004. I am amid a major purging and pruning. Stay tuned.

Interestingly (to me) I had begun fooling around with various forms of meditation in 1993, and by 1996 had a daily practice. During the weeks immediately following the request for a workshop, as my mind enjoyed occasional bouts of quiet while sitting, insights regarding how to use various literary tools as vehicles for self-knowing began to emerge—some of which I remembered, some I forgot. So, I decided to violate just about every meditation instruction I’d learned and began sitting with my notepad and pen at the ready. The workshop and the book are the fruits of that violation. Amen.

Meanwhile, here is a hybrid introduction—some from where the book has been, and some from where it may be headed.

Questions for the Poet and the Self

Every one of us knows the bittersweet moment that defines our having figured out or been told what needs to be done in a given situation, juxtaposed with our realization that doing it well will require some work and commitment.  Our poet spills his deepest feelings onto the page, captures the essence of what may some day be a good poem, only to remember that craft requires more than mere spillage, more than pure emotion gushing forth.  He then must choose between abandonment and embrace.  Having allowed that within to escape and manifest in writing, does he walk away from the page, or do the work that craft demands: diction, metaphor, music, line, point of view, imagery, form, texture and always, always, revision?  Re-vision, see again where the poem wants to go.  Yikes. This is a lot of work.  Is he committed enough to see it through?

As our poet may abandon or embrace this work, so our self chooses to address, or not, the work of life. Given miracles of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit, does she abandon or embrace her opportunities for ongoing growth and transformation?  When will she be satisfied—from what perspective does she view the world, of what perspectives is she aware, and to what level of consciousness, if any, does she aspire?  How tuned in is she to whispers from the future? Having felt the body, does matter still matter?  Does the body still entice once she embraces the mind?  Where the mind falls short, dare she explore Soul, gasp—and, gulp, Spirit?  Is she willing to embrace her interiors and exteriors through an evolving awareness of her awareness?  How committed is she to living fully—into and as her True, Unique, Authentic Self?

Some Prospective Responses

Living Poems, Writing Lives explores these questions and some prospective answers for both our poet and our self.  Each chapter begins with a basic introduction to/review of a poetic device or concept: point of view, structure, line, image, metaphor/simile, drama, diction, punctuation, rhythm, revision, theme, texture, and completion.  Readers who would like to explore any of these more deeply might choose from among the following titles, among others: Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand; Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau’s Writing Poems; Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance; Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion; Robin Behn and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry; Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days; Mary Kinzie’s A Poets’ Guide to Poetry; and Michael Bugeja’s The Art and Craft of Poetry.  Each of these is unique; all of them have something of value to offer, and this list is illustrative, not exhaustive.

Each chapter then moves from the realm of the poet to the realm of the self, and explores the device’s or concept’s role in helping her live a conscious life.

  • To what extent is she aware of who she truly is: when she expresses her point of view, who is behind her first- person pronoun?
  • How does she structure her life around time, money, vocation, relationship and other areas?
  • As the line is the basic building block for the poet, what are the basic building blocks of her life?
  • Does imagery affect her day-to-day living, and if so, how?
  • Has she chosen her life metaphors, or is her perception of life as a journey, a gift, or a war simply borrowed unconsciously from others?
  • How much of the drama in her life arises from conflict that is beyond her control, and how much from conflict that she can influence or even eliminate?
  • Is she at all aware of her diction—her means of expression beyond simple word choice?
  • Does she live life punctuated by periods, commas, question marks, colons, exclamation points, or some combination thereof?
  • To what extent is she aware of and does she attempt to influence the rhythms of her life?
  • Does our self believe there is some underlying meaning, dominant idea or theme to her life story, and how does this belief affect her living?
  • Given the  interrelationships among these devices and concepts, can she recognize the overall texture of her life?
  • To  what  extent  is  she able to see her life anew—to revise  her  interpretations of events when  such revision serves her?
  • Finally, has she ever reflected upon her life’s completion?  How conscious of and prepared for death is our self?

Each chapter ends with written exercises and a brief discussion of some aspect of meditation.  The exercises address both poetry writing and self-exploration; the meditation section provides simple “getting started” instructions for several approaches as well as suggestions for further reading and/or experience.

A Basic Premise

That writing can be an effective tool for learning about and understanding the self is a given—our point of departure here, a point perhaps best supported by the work of James W. Pennebaker, (e.g. Expressive Writing: Words That Heal).  Among others, Ira Progoff’s classic At a Journal Workshop, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold, John Fox’s Poetic Medicine, all establish writing’s role as an exploratory, therapeutic, and healing process.

Although these authors, among others, approach the process from different angles and with various levels of intensity and structure, and whether one feels drawn to Pennebaker’s research-based programs, Progoff’s intensive journaling, Cameron’s morning pages, or Fox’s poetry (to grossly reduce each of them) they engage the writing process as a method to access the power of the unconscious, as a spiritual path to higher creativity, and as a healing artLiving Poems, Writing Lives travels a road both well paved and well traveled by these and others who have come before.  It also introduces a new mode of transportation.

An Even More Basic Premise

People develop. More accurately, perhaps, people can develop in many different ways, and people can pretty much stay “the same” (in a manner of speaking). Given reasonably safe, loving and stable circumstances, some physical, emotional and mental development is for the most part “automatic” in childhood and early teen years; given any circumstances at all, once we’re into our twenties or thereabouts, further development is optional—coming about through intentional practice or in response to external circumstances (more often the case, and usually difficult or traumatic). The second half of each chapter, which deals with “our self,” offers an approach to using poetry and poetic “devices” as vehicles for intentional practice—consciously chosen for our own development and/or healing.

Once the second half of each chapter commandeers the poetic device for use as a transformative vehicle, our “self” is called to look deeply into the question, “Who am I, really?”  Such looking requires a turning inward in order to explore both individual worldview and cultural influences, a caring, honest look outward that provides insight into our experiences, behaviors, and environment(s), and an ongoing recognition that worldview interprets experience, which, in turn, influences worldview. Our inquiry will consider the universal or absolute, as well as the more personal or relative realms—the latter very often the primary, or even the only realm of which we’re aware (and through which we filter any knowing we come across—whether we know it or not).  Our self’s inquiry further includes a variety of intelligences or developmental lines, as well as various states and types of consciousness.

Universal Rights of Pronouns Statement

While I believe this statement is becoming increasingly unnecessary, readers may have noticed by now that references to “our poet” above have been masculine, while references to “our self” have been feminine.  From this point forward, when those pesky, lovable third-person-singular pronouns are appropriate, they will be masculine in reference to our poet, and feminine when referring to our self. These particular gender assignments are completely arbitrary and have not been evaluated by the FDA, NOW, the ACLU or the FCC (thank God), and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any obsession, including, but not limited to, misogyny, misandry, or political correctness.

It is possible, perhaps essential, to navigate both the goofiness and gravitas of life with fierce, gentle intention and behavior.

Copyright © 2004, 2010, 2014 by Reggie Marra
All rights reserved.