Writers say that their writing is the best therapy. How can this therapy be further nuanced and improved? Can writing take you beyond curing and into the domain of bliss? Can everyone write this way?
Why writing cures?
There are several therapeutic mechanisms in writing.
- Self-expression via a medium. We can confront our thoughts and emotions that we cannot access otherwise.
- Exploring perspectives and alternatives. While in real life we may miss certain alternatives when we write we tend to notice them. In many kinds of writing, we generate empathy towards our heroes or ideas and experience life through different perspectives.
- If other people enjoy and appreciate our work, we get a certain appreciation of our pains and struggles.
- Humor, loud self-expression, and attention to technical details of the process reduce pain. When we write we appreciate all of those.
And this is my own list. Other authors will have different lists. Yet, the therapeutic effect of writing is in consensus. So far I address the part that deals with the content, but what about the shape?
Handwriting vs typing
While typing on a good mechanical keyboard can be very rewarding, we learn to type without looking at the keyboard. The way letters form on a screen is somewhat detached from the event of pressing a button. We can edit the text in many ways, and link between multiple texts. This can be productive, but it is not mindful.
The old typing machines were more limited and more focusing. All keys served a very clear function. When keys were pressed, physical levers moved. And you needed to slow down so that the letters will never jam – hence the QWERTY keyboards. The whole experience was less productive but much more mindful.
Before typing machines, writers used handwriting. There is a very clear connection between how you hold the pen and the mark the pen leaves. The connection is stronger in fountain pens, where you can actually see the brilliant dyes drying out in front of your eyes and feel the tactile feedback of the nib on the paper.
The original calligraphy was done with a quill or a brush. The brush needed to be dipped in ink, allowing you to focus and formulate your will each time you wanted to make a mark. Every aspect of your mindset, breath, and motion is visible in the shape of the letter. And the utmost focus was required because erasing letters was not easy. Using a quill with expensive parchment, or a brush on silk was very much like using a sword – you had a lot of actions to perform with zero margins for error.
Mindfulness embodied in the text
Usually, when we perform mindful meditation, we notice things we usually miss. We focus on the way we breathe, the heartbeat, the wind and sensations of heat or cold, the position of each part of the body. Being here and now we kind of notice everything, but do not hold anything we notice tightly. We simply acknowledge, enjoy and move on.
If a person writing some text is in a state of mindful meditation we can probably trace the relevant cues. For me, the first place to look for this sort of mindfulness would be Japanese zen. Zen meditation is not exactly mindfulness and somewhat transcendent, yet anyone practicing zen may often experience a profound feeling of here and now. I would expect a poet or a warrior to feel especially alive just before dying. Let us test this hypothesis.
In Japanese poetry, there is a genre of ultimate mindful text called jisei. It is also called “death poem” and is typically written in a very traditional form, like three-line seventeen-syllable haiku, or five lines thirty-one syllable tanka.
The death poem is tied with mystical Buddhism. From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death because awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. Ancestral shrines are very important in China, Japan and Korea, and are often adorned with jisei of the dead. The writing of a death poem was limited to the society’s literate class, the ruling class, samurai, and monks.
Here is an example by a great Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō:
Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields
And here is an example by a Korean scholar and politician Jo Gwang-jo
Loved my sovereign as own father
Worried over the country as own house
The bright sun looking down upon the earth
Shines ever so brightly on my red heart
I do not think people writing such poems were curing their own pain of imminent departure. They were expressing the way they perceived their role in this life and in the universe, and they probably draw some joy associated with enlightenment.
Beyond life and death
Do we have something similar in western literature? I am somewhat familiar with Russian poetry…
Authors enjoy a special status above human mortality and morality. I will try to translate the words of the great Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin:
I can clearly feel the voice of a poet beyond death. And for me, if feels like a triumph. But I do not feel in these words the physical manifestation of mindfulness: breathing, heart beating, gut-wrenching, bright or chilling, dreaming and wondering… The words are powerful, yet almost abstract…
So I will try to translate the words of another great Russian poet Boris Pasternak:
Mindfulness is present not just in the texts of great poetry. When drawing letters with a brush or a quill, the artist is very focused. This state of focus is experienced as mindfulness.
I am not a master in calligraphy or graphology, yet there are some things even I notice. Put “mindful calligraphy” in Google image search. Look for the calligraphic word “breathe” and the japanese symbol of mindfulness.
Mindful letters sort of breath. As a quill of a brush is quite flexible, there is a variation of the line width. Only unlike what we usually see in fast powerful strokes, in mindful fonts we see powerful but slow variations. In English the tops of letters “b”, “l” and “h” get wide elliptical loops. If there is a natural connection between letters, the writers really enjoy it, and if the letters cannot be connected, the writer is not afraid to take the hand away off the paper.
In mindful letters there should no uncertainty, stylishness, hurry. Some letters are round and flow like water, others are more substantial and square like stones. Both are fine.
Avoid mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens
Mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens are effective, fast, accurate, yet they do not allow you to present the entire range of your skills.
When practicing mindful writing, you want tactile feedback. Probably you will enjoy seeing the ink drying. You actually want to feel everything to get in touch with your sensations. Probably you want to watch the line variations and connection between cursive letters.
You can do all of those with a brush, a quill, a fountain pen, or a wide lead holder. It is well beyond being precise and comprehensive. Beauty is also of little importance. You want to see how your mindset presents itself in the way you write. Do you hurry or hesitate, doubt yourself, or rush forward?
The idea is simple: formulate in your head what you want to write, then visualize it on paper and finally implement your vision flawlessly. If you fail, try to understand why and repeat. Notice your pose, your breath, your emotions, the space where you write… Very simple and yet very hard.
What should I write?
People who write poetry, are somewhat messy. Every word is considered, evaluated and possibly modified to get just the right sound. The result does not look good. Then they take their draft and write it down beautifully, or type it some computer interface.
People who practice calligraphy usually take a readily available poem or quote. This can be their own poem, a quote of someone famous, or a small section of a masterpiece. As they write it down, they experience the entire range of emotions associated with the piece, the entire range of sensations of concentrated writing, and more. As they see ink making a mark and drying in front of their eyes, they get a very special perspective.
Some artists doodle using words, letters, and verses. I also occasionally do this, and I assure you it is very easy if you are not looking for perfection.
Can anyone do that? Yes, as long as you are literate. Will you be able to show it to your friends? Possibly, but you will need some talent and a lot of practice. Do it for yourself.