Psychotherapy and Counseling: The Healing Power of Writing

Writing is a powerful tool for personal exploration. We crave meaning in life, but experience is more vital. Good writing must draw on great resources of truth sourced from the inner world and preferably from the inner depths of the writer. How to make notes on inner work. Writing is fun and empowering; to express our deepest longings, sadness and passion; to give form to the inner world and offer all this to the outside world is a gift.
As I sit down to prepare another article, it occurs to me what a powerful practice writing is for personal growth. For nearly 35 years I have been involved in something, which used to be called 'the new therapies' or the Human Potential Movement, sometimes humanistic psychology.

Now, what draws these epithets together is personal development through awareness practices that lead to a direct experience of life. One essential idea was, and still is, that meaning is secondary to real experience. We might say that we crave meaning in life and that's surely true.

But deeper than that, we long for genuine experience, abandoned and unhampered by inhibition and reserve. The trouble with meaning is that it is mental or intellectual, whereas experience potentially engages the whole person - physically, emotionally, energetically, spiritually as well as mentally. So, it's not enough merely to think ourselves alive, even if it does have meaning.

Good writing should be vital and exciting. It must draw on great resources of truth sourced from the inner world and preferably from the inner depths of the writer.

Over the years I have found myself increasingly recommending writing as a therapeutic tool. As a practice that is demonstrative, expressive, relatively concrete in a milieu of mystical, sometimes ephemeral methodologies - which sometimes carry the danger of delusion - it is a refreshingly down to earth practice. Anyone can do it - and it's not a matter of how well you do it; we are not back at school, not being marked out of 10, not even having to use good grammar (though that's not a bad idea by any means - I'll come to that in a minute); it is more a matter of how real it feels, as a genuine experience.

I encourage my clients (you might think 'patients', but that's not what I call them) to make some notes following a therapeutic hour. These notes do not have to be exhaustive; all the subjects and details of the session do not have to be recalled and recorded. What's essential is that the important themes are there and the life statements (unconscious guiding dictums of our life) are written down, along with significant insights, progress on themes that are being explored over time and fresh material that arises during the session.

This writing should be done in a notebook kept especially for inner work. It should include dreams, insights and thoughts we have throughout the day, poems and drawings, random remarks, memories, insights gained from meditation or contemplation, as well as session notes.

As we sit down to write we can notice many things, which make writing an important exercise for personal growth in itself. All the accrued nervousness, pressure to perform, expectations and stress are present in the act of writing. This is true. Notice it the next time you sit down to write. If you are aware and if you are willing to see it, all the memories of the very first time you set pen or pencil to paper are present. You can use this insight to bear you back (or down, down) into repressed memories of early childhood, the school years when you were learning about the world surrounded by other children all doing the same, with teachers who may have been inept and ineffective or talented and inspiring. The veil over memory peels back and you can revisit the past and learn something new, all from simply writing.

One of the things that makes writing vital in inner work is recording in written form what inevitably retreats from memory and is finally lost altogether if we don't. A peculiarity of the inner journey is that at those moments when we feel like giving up, through despair, disappointment, frustration et al, one of the overriding justifications or excuses is that we have nothing whatsoever to show for it. This is true in one sense, since therapy is, and should be, a process of loss. It is only through loss that we can gain our true center which is eclipsed through inner possessions in the form of opinions, fixedness, judgments, calcified partisan memories and its transference into the future as we face it as echoes of the past. All of this is the antithesis of personal liberation.

When we look back at the notes we have made, it becomes very difficult to hold on to despair based on the idea that we have achieved absolutely nothing in inner work. The pages attest to our resolve to work through our personal material and give us reference points for our inner development.

Now, to the sticky subject of good grammar. While we need to give ourselves permission to write any old how in our therapy journal, there comes a point when we realize that how we write directly reflects how we think. Thinking is an interesting topic, because most of us have taken it for granted. Only those of us who have studied philosophy, or to a lesser extent psychology, will have thought about the process of thinking. Yet thinking ranks highly in the endeavor of psycho-spiritual development.

This is because the higher mental capacity is closer to the spiritual realms than the gross forms of physicality and even emotionality. It is from the mind that we derive our perception of ideal forms, like absolute truth which cannot be experienced in the relative world of time and space.

Developing our awareness of how we think is a powerful way to discover that the world is perceived through illusory veils. These veils originate in the mind. Literally, how we think of the world is the world we experience and perceive.

What has this got to do with grammar, you might well ask? When we pay attention to spelling and grammar (though not in the school sense of... well, see above) we begin to see that how we write - not just content but the way - reveals a lot about who we are. As we refine our ability to write clearly, relevantly and sensibly (in all senses) the process reflects back on our thinking. It becomes harder for us to indulge in muddled thinking, when we have learnt to write clearly.

One final point then: writing is fun. In spite of all our preconceptions, our early life biases, writing is fun, but not only that; it is empowering. To fashion, create, fantasize, take risks, write the truth (or write lies), interpret and symbolize the world of imagination, fantasy, visions; to occupy and explore the fragile and by no means exact borderline between fiction and non-fiction; to express our deepest longings, sadness and passion; to give form to the inner world and offer all this to the outside world (if and when we choose) is a gift, not only to others, but to ourselves.
Published: 5/19/2011
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