Just in time for National Poetry Month, today’s post comes to us from Family-Endorsed Provider, Marianela Medrano, PhD, LPC. Dr. Medrano is a psychologist, poetry therapist, and an accomplished writer. She shares her insights on the influence Mindful Writing can have on our mental health. Thank you, Dr. Medrano, for sharing your insights with us at www.rtor.org. –Veronique Hoebeke, Associate Editor.
Early on in my life I learned to seek refuge in silence and writing when things around me became too big for me to grasp. Talking to myself, creating characters in my head was my way to cope. As I grew older I wrote down my characters and they became my counterparts while grappling with trying times. Writing became my way to process emotional difficulties. This helped me learn two things: that emotional pain was recurrent and that sitting through it, getting to know it, as opposed to running away from it, was healing. No emotion felt by me escaped from being written down and that made a difference in how I understood it.
Mindful Writing is a way to stitch together the seams of our inner and outer worlds. This kind of writing came as an intuitive response to the challenges I faced in life and it has not only been healing, but it has helped me remain calm in moments of emotional challenges. Of course, I didn’t know then that I was practicing two of the most important areas of my present clinical work: poetry therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Both of these methods place an emphasis on Mindful attention to how we observe life. I grew up in the countryside, so my surroundings invited me to be contemplative and to turn inward, which sprouted both the poet and the therapist in me. Paying attention to my emotional experiences prepared me to ride the murky waters that got stirred up with migrating away from home and other dislocations I endured. Writing has been a consistent and rewarding companion for me.
What is Mindfulness?
Before I go further, let me clarify what I mean by Mindfulness. Mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the state of being fully in the present moment, all aspects of it. When we write to notice the present moment, to get in touch with ourselves, we are writing mindfully. Observing our feelings, physical sensations and mental formations brings a level of cohesiveness to our experiences. The kind of writing we produce when we are fully focused on catching all the nuances of inner and outer life could lead to transformation as we become more attuned to what is important to us and therefore more vigilant in protecting it. Through this kind of writing we grapple with what it means to be human, with a mind, a body, and a soul that are constantly “interbeing” to use a term coined by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. This kind of writing deeply explores our level of consciousness, which in turn leads to a fine-tuning of our capacity for discernment and right actions.
Mindful Writing Helps Us Be Aware
Mindful Writing stimulates ongoing awareness. Through this awareness we discover the paradoxical nature of language. As humans we have a system of language that is unlike any other; it helps us communicate inner and outer experiences to ourselves and to others, allowing interactions to happen. Yet it is this very marvelous system what sometimes works against us, as pointed out by Steve Hayes and other ACT practitioners. “Minding” our problems, thinking too much about them, having thoughts about making them disappear, more often than not brings only more pain. We are all afraid of being vulnerable. Yet, getting in touch with what makes us vulnerable is a way to know it and affect it. When we know something well, we are better able to rearrange it in a way that works for us. In Mindful Writing, we don’t try to control our feelings or thoughts. Instead, we embody our emotions and experience and then externalize them.
In my practice, I focus in helping my clients become aware of what is really important to them. Daily writing can help them get in touch with their values. Once that is established, it is easier to discern whether their actions and behaviors are congruent with what is important to them.
Clients come to see me because something in their life doesn’t feel right. Often, they describe a sense of loss and unhappiness they want to get rid of. They have been led to believe that happiness is the absence of problems or suffering. This understanding of happiness provides perhaps the biggest challenge in setting off on our work together. When we take on the quest of avoiding suffering we soon find ourselves on the path of more suffering as the very effort to free ourselves from suffering hurts us due to the impossibility of the attempt. When I tell them that happiness is not the absence of suffering, they seem puzzled. I go on and ask them to, as in the Buddhist parable of the Mustard Seed, to think of someone who has not been touched by death or suffering. Invariably, they realize that suffering is part of being human. From there, we can begin our life-balancing work.
I always invite my clients to write down goals they have set for themselves and past attempts to achieve them. We then look at the workability of the system of goals, actions to achieve them and their outcomes. This way, they are able to track their daily experiences so our sessions can be more productive. After becoming aware of their feelings, behaviors and actions, we can turn the focus into designing activities that inspire a sense of mastery in living a life that feels congruent with what is important for them.
Mindful Writing Helps Us Accept
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we look at willingness to accept and take action as the bridge to personal satisfaction, which in no way means the absence of suffering. It is all about learning to be okay with not being okay. Willingness means that we do what is in the best interest of our values. We identify parts of life where people are not living fully according to their values. The idea is to help them see that values are a source of the commitment to apply willingness in the service of practicing behaviors, taking actions that concertize personal goals.
Through Mindful Writing we distinguish between the conceptualizing self and the observing self. The conceptualizing self fuses with thoughts and experiences, leading us to believe that we are what we think or feel. The observing self, on the other hand, is the perspective from which the person mindfully sees the difference between the self and experiences that happen to that self. Mindful Writing activates behaviors in the shape of commitments and helps the writer to take specific actions guided by the person’s larger goals and values. In a way, this practice teaches individuals to be their own therapist, maximizing the likelihood of them practicing the skills learned in sessions in their daily life so they can effectively address setbacks.
Mindful Writing Helps Us Understand Reality
Mindful Writing is a way to get in touch with reality, by accepting and embracing our experiences, regardless of their nature; especially in instances where the acceptance is also followed by a commitment to take actions that move toward life satisfaction. Recognizing for instance that we get anxious when someone doesn’t approve of us is a way to get in touch with not only the pain of rejection but also with how important the rejecting person is to us. Denying that we feel anxious would probably make us feel more anxious and would deprive us from getting in touch with the many circuits lit up inside of us by a sense of rejection. Communicating to the person that we feel anxious and disapproved, for instance in a letter that is intended to clarify and connect, could most likely, in the least, create the basis for a better understanding of how we are feeling. Writing the letter moves us towards what is ultimately the most important to us, connection with the other.
Let’s say that the person disapproving of us is very important to us, we may recognize that when we have the thought of not being approved we become defensive or aloof. This causes us to act counter to what we really want, which is to be connected to that person. The task is to first notice the paradox. Then to write about it, describe the feelings, the thoughts, and the actions that come out of it. Then, write out other possible actions we can create that will bring us to engage in positive interactions with the person despite our feeling disapproved. Notice that the intent here is not to deny or do away with the anxiety but to work with it. Writing to clarify what is important in our lives prepares us to juxtapose our thoughts, feelings, and actions and to see if they are aligned with what is really important. This kind of approach is at the heart of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Finding the Right Path
In my therapeutic work using Mindful Writing I offer four paths to embrace the wholeness of being human, with all its diverse experiences, good, bad, not so bad, in between and so on. Here are the four paths:
First Path: Practicing self-awareness, a way to dwell in the house of the self. Often we abandon the house of the self and get depressed because we feel disconnected from what is essential to us. This self-abandonment leads to unnecessary suffering.
Second Path: The cultivation and preservation of kindness toward the self. We practice kindness towards our own failures, knowing that they are not who we are, but merely things that happen to us. This path is also an invitation to allow the critic in us to have a voice in dialogue with our kindness, encouraging a conversation between the dark and light voices. This is a campaign for a zero tolerance policy toward self-hating.
Third Path: Encourages the use of discernment to understand our story. Our lives are made up of stories, but we are not only these fictions. This path deals directly with creativity, which comes from stepping into the unknown. When we reach a point where we feel at a loss we are forced to create a way out of it.
Fourth Path: This path is the port of entry into Mindful Writing. In order to experience transformation in the act of writing, we must allow ourselves to reinvent ourselves, to recreate ourselves in different ways. Neuroplasticity tells us that we are always changing, always expanding. Personal freedom is about learning to embrace multiple perspectives.
Regardless of what path works best for my clients, Mindful Writing has the ability to help us all become more aware of our inner workings and help us take positive action to live in accordance with our values.
Marianela Medrano, PhD, LPC
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