We are not writers. We are a group of physicians, nurses, midwives, social workers, internists, psychiatrists, and psychologists at the Cambridge Health Alliance, a large network of public health hospitals and clinics. And we are feeling a bit frazzled after a long, busy week working with our patients.We have gathered to participate in an innovative workshop on Mindfulness and Poetry sponsored by the Center for Professional Development, and organized by visionary internist and psychiatrist Elizabeth Gaufberg, M.D., who is the Director of the Center. Part of our work involves finding ways to bring mindfulness to staff and trainees.We wondered if writing would flow more easily after a meditation designed to orient us toward listening to sounds.
I am there as both participant and facilitator, along with two gifted and psychologically astute poets; Steven Cramer, Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University, and Martha Collins, who founded the creative writing program at UMass Boston and taught at Oberlin College for a decade. Their work is of special interest to clinicians. Cramer, in his recent book, Clangings, finds meaning and music in schizophrenia and mania. Collins, in Gone So Far, finds wisdom and eloquence in the fragmented speech of her aging mother.
I start the workshop by leading the mindfulness practice of Simply Listening, but with an unusual twist. After listening to external sounds, I ask the group to bring attention to words, phrases and images that emerge from within.
- Start by sitting comfortably, eyes either slightly open or gently closed.
- Allow yourself to simply listen to the sounds around you. Notice the sounds of traffic, the rain, the birds, the hum of the heating or cooling system, the loudspeaker.
- There is no need to name the sounds, to grasp or hold on to them, or to push them away. Allow yourself to listen to the sounds as they are.
- Imagine that your body is a gigantic ear, or if you prefer, a satellite dish, picking up 360 degrees of sound—above, below, in front, behind—all around you. Listen with your entire being.
- Notice that each sound has a beginning, middle, and end.
- If the mind wanders, no problem, just bring it back.
- Become aware of any words, phrases, or images that may arise from within. Become curious about thoughts or emotions that may want expression.
- Let yourself rest in the sounds of the moment, knowing that this moment is unique and this constellation of sounds will never be repeated. Become aware of the symphony of sounds around you.
- Take a deep breath, stretch, and open your eyes if they have been closed.
After the opening mindfulness practice, Cramer, adapting an exercise by Cleopatra Mathis in The Practice of Poetry, reads “To Go to Lvov,” by Adam Zagajewski, a haunting poem about a lost city, dreamlike in its beauty, from which his parents were banished, poetryfoundation.org. He suggests that we write down any words that resonated for us while we listened. Focusing on the idea of home, he then asks us to write our own verse, incorporating some of the words that spoke to us. It’s a seemingly simple and straightforward assignment, but what emerges from the participants is strikingly fresh, vibrant, and original.
Collins further inspires us by reading from her newest book, Day Unto Day. The book grew out of a challenge to write seven lines a day, every day, no matter what was happening. What resulted from this commitment to pay attention and record the details of daily ordinary life is lush and lyrical, a collection of wise meditations on love, memory, and death. She challenges the class to try to write just one line a day.
At the end of the two-hour workshop we feel energized and restored, surprised by the depth, passion and power of our words. I see this model as an exciting new synthesis that can be replicated and used to work with writer’s block.
And as I think about the power of these exercises to help us find and free our creative voice, to gain access to untapped words, images, and memories, I remember a New Yorker profile on Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker, who asked her students to “scramble” their plays as an antidote to predictable narrative. For example, if the scenes were in the sequence 1-2-3-4, someone in the class might randomly change the sequence to 2-4-3-1. Baker reflected on the fact that once the play had been scrambled, that it seemed perfect, and no one wanted to hear it any other way.
Is this, I wonder, what Zen masters are teaching with the koan, a puzzle that we can’t solve with the rational mind, but only by letting go of our habitual ways of thinking and embracing a more spontaneous and intuitive way of being in life, of knowing and experiencing?
Behn, R. & Twichell, C. (2001) The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from poets who teach. New York: Harper.
Collins, M. (2005). Gone So Far. Muncie, Il: Barnwood.
Collins, M. (2014). Day Unto Day. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press.
Cramer, S. (2012). Clangings. Louisville: Sarabande Books.
Heller, N. (2013) Just Saying: the anti-theatrical theatre of Annie Baker. The New Yorker, February 25, pp. 30-35.
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.