Writing for the Heart: A Practice for Self-Liberation

Today we have a guest post from Purvi Shah, a writer and poet who recently facilitated a wellness session entitled "Imagining Our Wondrous Selves" at a Joyful Heart Heal the Healers event in New York City. Today, Purvi shares her reflections on why writing can be a practice of self-care, self-revelation and self-liberation.

In 1628, with his "Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill," Dutch artist Pieter Claesz offered a grim vision of our human destiny. As the description in The Metropolitan Museum Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History informs, "Here a skull, an overturned glass roemer with its fleeting reflections, an expired lamp, and the attributes of a writer suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain."

Claesz’s painting presumes our disappearance and the disappearance of our labors. In this view, even the writer’s fate is to be forgotten.

When we come to writing, we often imagine we must pen (or type!) something that stands the test of time. But this view elides what writing can enable in one’s present life, how writing can serve as an act of healing or moving towards self-recognition and wholeness regardless of how long the writing—or even such feeling—lasts. Claesz’s dour painting may strangely liberate us to focus on the present, free from the shackles of future benefits or the illusions that we need everything to last.

As an anti-violence advocate and writer, I seek to support us in "Imagining our Wondrous Selves." Through the dynamic Heal the Healers program hosted by the Joyful Heart Foundation, I had the privilege of leading amazing advocates in envisioning how writing can be an active practice of self-care, self-revelation and even self-liberation.

 We began with an activity where everyone shared one aspect of what they considered to be an element of love. With the disappointments of this world and especially everything we see in our work fighting violence against women, we are often attuned away from envisioning and naming love. And when we do not name, we unsuspectingly erase what exists, as well as what is possible. As advocates spoke about trust, support, validation, openness, mutual respect, being silly and so much more, we were able to create an affirmative heart of love—what it means to us and what we hope to take forward and create. This word cloud served as one anchor for our writing and wonders to come.

Another anchor included small journals I had brought for advocates to use during the session and to take home to continue the practice of writing and self-visioning. Images of flowers, birds and other delights graced the journals. Some of the journals also had images of superheroes. While we often think of other heroes, such as people we admire—including the survivors we work with—we don’t often think of ourselves as the heroines or heroes of our own lives. Indeed, women are so rarely even seen as heroes. The journals served as a reminder we ourselves must do so and take note of it.

One of the core exercises I led involved each healer describing a moment in which she or he felt perfect. At first, attendees struggled to conceive this feeling, as if the feeling were impossible. I offered ideas of what could be felt as perfection: moments of bliss, of feeling complete, pure delight. Slowly, everyone was able to delve more deeply and write of some experience they viewed for themselves as perfect. Advocates were then paired and each person asked their partner questions about the experiences the other had written about. From these inquiries, everyone was directed to expand on their original writings. After refining their work, attendees shared these pieces or segments of them.

Though my exercise sequences were very brief, a world of ideas and revelations opened. The workshop allowed one advocate, "to remember how much I used to love and benefit from creative writing." Advocates new to the idea of writing as an active practice spoke of integrating journaling into their self-care methods, seeing that there are "simple exercises to use in my own practice and for myself."

On a more fundamental level, the writing workshop demonstrated how we are creative beings and blessed to be so. One attendee revealed, "I learned that I have some creativity and I should be using it more often." Another shared, "I thought I was not creative enough to write but now I know I am/it does not matter." For these participants, writing tapped a creative place in themselves and fostered a new power of self.

While some advocates discovered their creative sides, others re-discovered voices they had missed. "I was reminded of my first love of writing," remarked one attendee. Another remembered that writing doesn’t have to be ‘perfect.’ Because we are afraid of falling short, we so often prevent ourselves from acting, even before we have started. The beautiful aspect of writing as a self-care practice is that we cannot fall short if we carry the spirit of an attendee who marked that "writing can help in the healing process."

Indeed, writing may not only help heal but also work to recover and discover our selves. Writing as an active practice—even with simple exercises—can give us permission not only to be ourselves but also to know our selves more intimately. "It helped me to ask myself questions," one participant admitted. Another advocate affirmed, "It helped me to remember not to be so hard on myself and I need to create an outlet to let some of my deeper feelings out."

The act of self-reflection through writing and asking questions—which we can always do even by ourselves!—enables insight. One attendee noted, "I benefited from a new awareness about creating a dialogue with myself." Another attested, "It was a reminder for how important it is to use self-reflection and to think about issues in different lights through different mediums."

This dialogue through the use of writing, sharing, and questions enabled one attendee to "get my body & mind as one," showing us that an inquisitive writing practice can help us to be in tune with our emotions and deepest selves – and to suture ourselves to wholeness. Writing can work with us to show more of our selves to ourselves and to others. As one attendee observed, "It reminded me how closed off I am and I need to work on that." Another mentioned, "I don’t usually put myself out there. It was helpful for me to be able to share with the group and to feel truly engaged."

As these advocates powerfully share, writing, when seen through the lens of healing, can offer a tuning of our selves to our own emotions as well as a greater openness to the world around us. For anti-violence advocates, this is a fragile but vital space to open. It is in this space of expansive possibility and asking radical questions that healing, new knowledge, and solutions can surface. Or as one attendee beautifully revealed, "I realized [there] is a thing/moment/activity I do/have in my life where I feel fully perfect. I never knew I had this before."

Even as we aim for the world we want to live in (as we do each day and must continue to do so!), as a practice of self-care, self-revelation and self-liberation, writing can enable us to see more fully what we have within us already and how to be perfect where we are. In this space, we can meet ourselves and others with love and wonder.

About Purvi

Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), which explores migration as potential and loss, won the Many Voices Project prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award in 2007. She is the winner of the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008 for her work fighting violence against women. In 2011, she served as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She believes in the miracle of poetry and the beauty of change. You can find more of her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.

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