Category Archives: eastern therapeutic writing

Feel the fear and write it anyway

I want you all to join my e-course. I want you all to join my e-course.

I have written that line. And deleted it. And written it again.

The course is excellent. I have seen students make choices that have led to better relationships with their families. I have seen people have difficult conversations with partners that would never have happened otherwise. (Conversations that are challenging. Conversations that say ‘I love you’.) I have seen people finally knuckle down and sort the office out, or book tickets for that round the world adventure they have been putting off. And I have seen them write beautiful poetry.

I’m not sure if my resistance to championing the course is that I don’t want to scare you off with a ‘big sell’, or that I still have a few shadowy wisps of resistance to success (my word of 2011, this year’s was ‘confidence’). I suspect it’s a little of both.

I have buckets of gratitude to those teachers whose work I drew on in writing this course, and buckets for the students that have taken it in the past. I am grateful to the students because when they pay it allows me to keep doing the work that I love, and it allows me to keep drinking the rich, dark coffee that smells so good and which I really should cut back on.

Part of the course is about learning to act in a positive way, whilst feeling the resistance you have to acting. The second week is inspired by Dr. Morita, a Japanese therapist who worked with people suffering from agoraphobia and other anxiety disorders. He understood that feelings come and go, but that we can still take care of the things we need to do right in the midst of those feelings, whether that’s sweeping the leaves, or writing this weekly newsletter.

“Lacking cash to buy firewood,
I sweep up leaves from the road in front,
Each one as valuable as gold…”

from a poem by Ryushu Shutaku
Tr. David Pollack

Morita also understood that you start from where you are. Today you sweep the leaves. You can build the house tomorrow.

“My way of doing things is simple. It’s not necessary to make impossible efforts when troubled. Put simply, when you are vexed just be vexed and say, ‘Yes, and what shall I do?’ Just be in suspense about the outcome and move forward a little at a time.”
Dr. Morita

What can you do today?

Registration is open now for my e-course Eastern Therapeutic Writing, and for Writing Ourselves Alive, with Satya Robyn.

Heron image by Steve-h 

An interview with Gregg Krech: Director of ToDo Institute

This week I’m delighted to welcome Gregg Krech to our series of creativity interviews. Gregg is the founding director of the Todo Institute, and the author of Naikan, Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self Reflection. He is also the editor of Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living.

I think that the style of Gregg’s work, and his approach to life, parallels what we are aiming for here at WOWH. He describes his attiude to mental health as one, “that values action rather than talk, attention to the world rather than attention to oneself, and gratitude for the support of others rather than blaming them for our problems.”

Gregg lives in Vermont with his wife Linda, daughters Chani and Abbie, and their Golden Retriever, Barley

Hello Gregg, great to have you with us. One with the first question. What is it that drives your creative work? 

I believe the world, particularly western society, is headed in the wrong direction.  My writing is an effort to bring people back to a set of values that make life worth living: gratitude, compassion, kindness, self-awareness, interdependence, purpose and constructive action.  My involvement in Japanese Psychology (Morita and Naikan therapies) was born from a desire to find a way of reconciling our spiritual and psychology worlds.  Many Westerners have discovered profound wisdom in teachings from the East, but struggle with that wisdom and the nearly irresistible pull of contemporary western lifestyles.  We need an approach to everyday life that is unified and grounded, so we don’t get caught up in a current that takes us away from an authentic and meaningful life.
Ten years ago I stumbled upon the phrase “Thirty Thousand Days” which is the average number of days someone in western society has to live.  This idea is a driving force in my work and in my personal life.  We’re reminded of our own mortality and the preciousness of our human life.  Our limits challenge us to find purpose and meaning in this life.  So my writing is often driven by the desire to remind people of the precious nature of their time and to help them use it wisely.

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career? 

I would encourage myself to trust the unfolding of life, to relax into that unfolding, and to be assured that life in twenty years would far exceed my expectations for it. Which it has.
How do you keep creating when things get difficult? 

Our suffering offers us the greatest potential for waking up. These are the moments of our greatest creative potential. Some of the best artists, writers and musicians are those that have used their challenges and tragedies and turned them into creative outlets.  There’s a phrase, “working at our edge” which is what happens when we feel we are pushed up right against the edge of our capacity to cope.  It’s not something we find enjoyable, but it’s a place of great discoveries and creativity.
How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
Because I write about psychology and spiritual practice, my writing informs my life and relationships.  And much of what I offer originates in my own personal practice.  So my life and creative work really depend on one another.
What is it like to send your work out into the world? 

Of course, it always feels good to finish some project and publish it.  And it’s my hope that it will be helpful to someone out there who finds it.  This past year there were many “natural disasters” and we revised a small booklet that I’ve written called, “The ToDo Institute’s Guide to Navigating Through Crisis.”  When you make something like this freely available, you never know who will stumble upon it.  It’s a great example of just trusting the process.  Sometimes you get very direct feedback from someone who writes to you and tells you how helpful something was.  Other times you hear nothing.  Either way, you simply move on to the next effort.
What was the best advice anyone gave to you? 

I would say it’s the three questions from Naikan reflection:
1.       What have I received from others?
2.       What have I given to others?
3.       What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?
These questions are so simple, it’s hard to imagine they could have much impact on someone.  Yet they’ve changed my life dramatically.  My work.  My marriage.  My relationship to my parents.  And my whole outlook and appreciation for my life.  It seems unimaginable that such simple questions could have such an extraordinary impact, but that is the power of self-reflection.

What helps you to pay attention to the world? 

Paying attention to the world is one of the core teachings of my work.  So I’ve developed all kinds of fun ways to do it and to remind myself to do it.  Perhaps my favorite exercise along these lines is haiku poetry.  I’ll give people the assignment to write a haiku poem in which the poet is invisible.  Haiku has a specific structure of three lines with a specific number of syllables.  (5-7-5).  But haiku also points the poet towards the elements of life that often go unnoticed — rather than grandiose sunsets or snow-covered mountains.  Haiku forces you to really look at what you normally don’t notice, like a weed growing from a fissure in a rock, or the sound of aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze.  When my family travels, we have a daily haiku poetry contest and everyone gets involved.  My children have become wonderful poets, but, most importantly, they have learned to really look around and see the world, rather than get caught up in their internal chatter of thoughts and feelings.Thank you very much for your thoughtful answers Gregg. Do check out Gregg’s website TodoInstitute.org, and his blog, thirtythousanddays.org.

How to get things done (I’ve said this before – and it’s still true)

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Kaspa writes: It would be lovely if I could just learn something once, and then have it learnt for good. However I find myself discovering the same things over and over again.

A few days ago Fiona and I were talking about moving house again. For a while we’d been toying with the idea of moving to a more rural, remote, location. A place where we could step out of the front door and into the countryside, instead of out into the street as we do now. In the end we decided to stay where we are, there are lots of good things about where we are now, and we hadn’t seen anything that ticked all of our boxes.

The decision to stay motivated us to think about how we use the space here. Could we be more settled in this house?

We bought two new (pre-loved) sofas for the sitting room. We moved one of our old sofas up into the office, and got rid of the other one. We moved the uncomfortable cane sofa that was in the office out into the conservatory and set about making the office into a livable space. If this winter is as cold as last winter, we’ll retreat up here away from the draughty single glazed sitting room…

The last big job was to sort though all the accumulated stuff on the shelves, and in the drawers of my desks… There were piles of papers I hadn’t looked at since I’d heaped them on the shelves, over a year ago, back when we moved in.

Last Sunday evening, after our furniture shuffle, my energy ran out. I knew that I’d got meetings on Monday (or thought I had, see Monday’s post: We all get things wrong sometimes) and we both had plenty of work to do on Tuesday. We earmarked Wednesday for the big sort out.

On Monday evening I was working in the office. Fiona was sitting up here too, looking at the mess on the shelves, thinking about starting to clear them. She said that she was going to make a start… An hour later, when I had finished my job, she was still sitting on the sofa… I can hardly blame her really. I didn’t want to start then, either…

On Tuesday Fiona was busy seeing clients all day. I did some writing in the morning, ran some errands in town, and then settled into some study. All the time ignoring the looming mess in the corner.

I’m re-reading Zen Therapy by David Brazier. One line jumped out at me. Of course I can’t find that line today, as I flick through the pages – but here’s another in the same spirit:

The way of Zen is supremely practical. Although we tie ourselves up in knots with our ideas and feelings, the way through generally begins with acting purposefully now. Know your purpose at this moment and there is no difficulty in knowing what to do. Paradoxically, perhaps, being able to act in this way means letting go of trying to control tomorrow or yesterday. Simply do the right thing now.

I put the book down and started sorting the shelves out.

I packed up around 30 books to be recycled (off to the amnesty bookshop later) and got rid of huge amounts of stuff. It wasn’t long before Fiona appeared. Together we created a space we can both live with. The essentials are stored on the shelves, the books we want to read are there, as well some beautiful objects we wanted to display. Job done.

We sat back and enjoyed the clean space. We enjoyed knowing that that we’d now have the whole of Wednesday free…. (I’m working at the weekend, so today is ‘our day’)… of course it’s now mid-morning and I’m writing a blog post while Fiona catches up on email…

In our hearts we often know what our purpose in this moment is. Whether it’s simply sorting through a years worth of junk, or joining the occupy movement, or baking a cake for a friend. In my experience the courage to take the first step comes with taking the first step. Simply do the right thing now.

If you want to explore Zen philosophy, and getting things done, think about joining my Eastern Therapeutic Writing course. It’s a month long, and we’ll also look at deepening our relationships with others through naikan and writing Japanese poetry…

It starts on Monday. More details here. (or email me)

(photo by cometstarmoon)

How to get things (that we don’t want to do) done

Day 46 - PaperworkKaspa writes: I’m not writing this from the position of someone who is perfect at getting things done. Rather from the position of the person who has indulged in (and still does) a great deal of procrastination over the years and has got to know the tricks that my mind uses to keep me from getting things done, and a couple of tricks to help me get them done.

I’ve learnt that I have two main reasons for avoiding doing things:

The first reason is boredom – I have some idea of what I like to do, and filling in the tax form isn’t it. It’s also true that I have seen myself become attracted to high-pressure situations, addicted to the ‘buzz’ of working right up to a deadline. When I’m in that mode I get used to working with a high, edgy kind of energy and I can’t engage with anything that needs me to come down from that.

The second reason for avoiding something is a fear that it will change or challenge me in some way. For me this often manifests in social situations. I can remember at parties I would avoid going into rooms where the brightest conversations were happening for a fear of not being able to interact well… and avoid going into rooms where the deepest conversations were happening in case anyone asked me to reveal something about myself.

The tricks I’ve learnt:

Just do it
This really works for me, especially when faced when a task that I think is boring. Just take the first step, and then just take the second step. I have faith that if I really give my attention to what I am doing, one step at a time, the job will get done. Often my attention wanders. Facebook is a tempting distraction. But I remember what I’m supposed to be doing and get back to it.

Often once I get over the initial hump of irritation or boredom I can really get into the flow of what I’m doing.

If I’m still struggling to stay focused I…

Remember why the job needs to be done 
It really is important to fill out the tax forms if I don’t want to get charged too much, or pay a fine! Or I think about the people who it will effect if I get this job done, or if I don’t. There are usually real people that will be affected if I don’t do what I’m supposed to.

Feel the fear and do it anyway
I’d heard of Susan Jeffers a long time ago, but I’ve not read her famous book. I found the same advice in the work of Japanese therapist Dr Morita. He did a lot of work with agoraphobic people, and people suffering from anxiety disorders – real extreme cases of people being paralysed by fear – and some of his advice has really helped me.

Feelings come and go. I can’t control what feelings I have, they are the product of all sorts of things, from my family history to the way my brain is wired. But I can watch my feelings and notice that as fear comes up, fear will pass. I remember the first time I cooked for a large group of people. I was terrified. But I knew that people were relying on me to feed them. The meal was a great success, and I learnt that it was possible to achieve something whilst being afraid.

I also remember the time I dropped and smashed a large stoneware dish full of vegetable bake. The dish and that part of dinner were ruined. Everyone was very graceful and even if they hadn’t been it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. I learnt that it’s okay when things do go wrong. And it often gives you a good story to tell.

Trust that it is better to act than not to – follow you heart

If in your heart you know that there is something to be done – trust that it better to do it, than not to do it. This is the main lesson that I have learnt. My heart knows what is best for it. If I ask myself, ‘what am I avoiding?’ or, ‘what should I be doing?’ then my heart usually knows the answer.

Each time I do trust my heart and do what needs to be done, I learn that doing what needs to be done is the best way, regardless of whether I fail, or succeed. And more often than not, when I follow my heart, good things happen.

If you struggle with procrastination, or with engaging with the world, I’m run an online coursecalled Eastern Therapeutic Writing that might be helpful. The second module is based on the work or Dr. Morita, who I mentioned earlier. We’ll also explore how the Japanese contemplation Naikan can help us in relationships, how writing poetry can help us engage with the world, and we’ll work on our own personal koan. I ran this a couple of months ago and it made a tangible difference to people’s lives.