Writing as Spiritual Practice (for Nick)

December 30, 2011

My nephew gave me a beautiful blank book for Christmas. It has a hard cover with an elaborate Celtic design and a delicate brass closure. The paper is ivory-colored and the lines are generous. It’s a little temple of a journal, and I look forward to bowing down at the inner altar there.

Nick is a substance abuse counselor. He came by this work honestly: he was an addict. Like so many of us who have descended to the depths of darkness and been liquefied like caterpillars in the cocoon, the only thing that made sense to Nick after his miraculous recovery was to be of service. This is why I, as a bereaved mother, sit with other mothers. This is why Nick, at 21, is an increasingly sought-after youth speaker in his area.

Confession (don’t tell Nick): I don’t journal anymore. Since I’ve become a published author, my lifelong writing practice has fallen away. Where I used to fill a notebook every couple of months, now it takes me a couple of years. Most of my entries consist of dreams I don’t want to forget. But that’s about to change. Nick gave me a beacon for Christmas, and I’m going to follow its light back home to myself and start writing for me again.

Writing has saved my life. As a tormented teenager, convinced that no one understood me or ever would, writing was the way I came to understand myself. My journal was the vehicle for navigating the inner and outer worlds. Writing was not only a psychological exercise, not only a hearth around which I told myself stories, it became a place of prayer, a holy inner sanctum, and I knelt there to praise my Beloved. When Jenny died, I wrote my way through the fire. I observed and recorded the vast array of feelings and epiphanies, and I reached out for her in the pages of my journal, conversing with her, listening for her voice.

Did I ever tell you that I know Natalie Goldberg? Not only know her, but adore her. Natalie has been my big sister ever since I met her in 1973 when I was twelve and she was only twice-twelve. Natalie was hired as the English teacher at the little hippie free school I attended in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Sitting around the wood fire with a circle of a dozen preteens in the hand-made Hogan that served as our classroom, Natalie, who was involved with Zen, developed something she began to call “writing practice.” This led to her groundbreaking book, Writing Down the Bones, and to the many books that flowed from Natalie’s revolutionary blending of writing and spiritual practice. I was her earliest and most eager disciple, and we have maintained a close connection ever since. Natalie has been one of the most important mentors of my life.

I remember when I first started doing serious spiritual practice. I was around fifteen and was studying with a rather unskillful self-proclaimed Sufi teacher. He seemed to disdain my writing practice as too worldly, and so I tried to abandon the relationship I had built with myself through writing, and I closed my notebook. For a time. But I could not stay away. I found excuses to return to my journal: recording exercises he gave me so I could practice them on my own, and then reporting to myself on the results of my spiritual experiments. But poetry crept into my efforts to compose objective accounts. Passion infused my discipline. Pain ransomed my captive heart. I slowly sneaked home and entered through the back door. The charlatan guru never even noticed.

Have I abandoned myself again, this time in a more subtle, insidious way? Has my professional path become an excuse for betraying the sacred inner dialog that happens thorough journaling? Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. I think I’m going to open Nick’s beautiful blank book and introduce myself to myself again. How about you?

Happy New Year. Welcome home.

Here is an excerpt from an email I recently received from a student who attended one of my Beautiful Wound workshops a few years ago, in which she thanks me for introducing her to writing practice:

It [writing] has been a key to my healing. I have always journaled but this writing is different. It is more an observation of the world around me. The natural world, the nature of life…I am finding my spiritual path through this avenue and my God has become so big and so real. Not the God in the box so neatly tied with string that I had tried to accept in the past. (Babs Cashion)

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11 Responses to “Writing as Spiritual Practice (for Nick)”

  1. Bob Corbin said

    I (now in my late 70s) made several attempts at journaling beginning in my early 20s. I had written for classes and wrote fairly well, but i could not for myself or, intimately, for others.
    Love letters to my future wife were my first real writing practice, but once we were married, that stopped. Much later i tried to write a 4th step which was probably at least thirty percent dishonest. Now i am once again journaling, using an on-line journal format and actually have about 50 friends who seem willing to read what i write and sometimes comment on it. But my writing is so full of ego that i ought to be barely able to stand it. (Actually, i like to read my “best stuff”.) This gift to your nephew is a gift to me, and i am sharing it with my friends.

    • Mirabai said

      How wonderful, Bob! Natalie often speaks of the surface level stuff (maybe what you’re calling ego) we have to write through to get to the true thing–often the surprsing thing–at the center.

  2. Rachel said

    Mirabai, my precious friend, this reminds me how much writing in journals has shaped my life through the years. As a musician, I wrote songs and poems a bit here and there when I was in my early 20s, but unwittingly started a lifetime journal practice at 24 or 25 — the same age the amazing Natalie Goldberg was when you met her! — to try to make sense of, reconcile and assimilate all that was happening around and within me, and because I am also a passionate poet, so I’d sprinkle in a poem when the spirit grabbed me, or a line or two, an impression. I had a chair, lamp and book designated in their corner in my parents’ basement and then in my own apartment, and sat in it every day to gather my thoughts. With no pun intended, it calls to mind Dylan’s “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than than now.” Though I bought and savored “Writing Down the Bones” in my 30s (and I am so envious, if I can say that, that Natalie was and remains your mentor), my practice tapered off in my 40s as I got busy earning my degrees and didn’t even have “time” to read for fun, let alone write for sanity, which will tell you my studies were an unbalanced time for my heart and soul. No matter, I still have all the volumes I wrote and much material should I ever want to write an autobiographical novel! Now my writing practice is so random it doesn’t merit that name. However, I want to regain the wisdom I had naturally at 24 so, in spite of or perhaps because of my currently sparse practice, in two days I’ll return to it, following your inspiration. The blank pages wait for me. While writing by computer seems to be the best for many people, for me it’s good for communications but paper and pen bring out my creativity much better, perhaps because I also paint. Ever since my 20s, even though I may not be writing regularly, I always have a blank book somewhere in my home. Since I don’t write on the backs of pages because the curve of the binding gets in my way, when I get to the end I turn it around and work toward the other end, to use up those blank “backs” as fronts. When I know I’m starting a new phase in my life, no matter where I am in a physical book, I give it a title page of special significance, one eloquent enough to honor that phase. Just another example to show that there is potential ritual of different kinds within the larger ritual of writing itself. Thanks for the gift of your reminder. Please also thank Nick for me if you think of it, for initiating this relay of reawakening, no matter how inadvertent. Sometimes the ripples of a seemingly casual act prove profound. Happy New Year to All!!

    • Mirabai said

      I love how evocative your relationship with journal writing is, Rachel–how you approach the page so prayerfully and with the joy of a cherished ritual. Yes, the beauty of language is connected with the passion for painting and music, in my experience too.

    • Doug in Traverse City said

      Rachel, being in my 50’s and now pursuing those “degrees” you mentioned, has too, seemed to create an imbalance in heart and soul for me (though I am often quite capable of creating these things in myself with or without school!). But the truth is, school has been difficult and an unbalanced time of my life in many ways and it was nice to hear I am not the only one that feels this way while pursuing their degrees. It is a difficult trade off at times, trading the acquiring of skills for the time to actually start enjoying or using them. It sounds like you made it through that time yourself and have not lost anything.
      It also sounds like you have a wonderful sense of what writing is about and wonderful ways to express yourself. I have enjoyed what everyone has had to say on this subject.
      Thank you for sharing.

  3. Pat Southerland said

    I also am starting to journal again. I gave my self a new journal for my birthday on the15th of December. I also have plans to launch a blog site–the AWE Adventure on January 1. After years of being a secret writer, I am going public!

  4. Marie M. Rubey said

    I could just cry ; sometimes dreams come true !!!

  5. Doug in Traverse City said

    Mirabai, I always enjoy the thought provoking subjects and the subsequent path they often lead me too.
    First Natalie. I needed a little refresher and found a lot of information on her on Wikipedia; interviews, videos, books etc. It did not take much viewing to understand the place of depth and substance she is coming from; the word authenticity comes to mind.
    Second, I was at Omega a couple of years ago and Catherine Ann Jones was giving a workshop on the power of writing as a tool for healing (she was a fairly well known screenwriter in Hollywood until she felt the need to use her skills more for healing than entertaining). I was impressed with her subject matter but did not have time to attend the workshop. One thing I had gotten out of the presentation was a link to the DailyOM Website that offers 6 week online workshops at, whatever price you can afford. There is also a list of other subject matter classes that are taught at this site by some fairly well known teachers; all for whatever you can afford to pay as well.
    Bringing the craft of writing (especially for healing purposes) to all people, not just professionals like playwrights, poets, screenwriters and novelists, is an impressive goal. I have not had time to take any of the online classes, but if they are as advertised what wonderful affordable resources for exploration and refining one’s own writing or living skills. The link to Catherine’s site is: http://wayofstory.com/wordpress/?p=227 and the DailyOM site: http://www.dailyom.com/cgi-bin/courses/courseoverview.cgi?cid=83 If anyone is interested.
    Broken down to its simplest terms, writing could be said to be, “A way to convey a message in an understandable way.” How easy it is to lose our way, how hard it seems to be to come back and find ourselves again. Writing at worse, can monitor the process (whichever way it’s going, at whatever place we’re at), at best it can allow deep insights and feelings to occur allowing for transformation. If we are conveying who we are and are being true to ourselves, then I think the hardest part of writing is done. We then need only find a way to convey it in a meaningful way, to either ourselves or others.
    As the coming year approaches, I keep thinking of Shakespeare’s, “This above all, to thine own self be true.” If I have lost my way, then perhaps it is time to take my body to the woods, my heart to the pen, and my mind to the God. Here’s hoping our writings are one more reflection of who we really are.

  6. Catherine Naylor said

    My stack of journals date back to 1976 (the year before I inadvertently (ha!) landed in Taos). Several years ago, I began writing everyday on a memoir of the last two years of my mother’s life, pulling memories from my journals of 1994-1996. In so doing, I stopped journaling, except for the occasional spurt.

    Thanks to Nick, via you, I’ll start again. Such circling around we do in life. It’s a wonder we don’t become permanently dizzy!

    Catherine Naylor

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