Dirty Lies that Keep You from Writing Magic

I’m so tired of all the glorification of suffering that seems to go hand-in-hand with writing. The idea that one must suffer for her art has been ingrained in us. It doesn’t help that some of our literary icons have told us its true.

“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.” E.B. White 

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Perhaps it’s good to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he is happy?” Aldous Huxley

Even if you’re not familiar with these quotes, it’s likely the notions that writing = hard and that suffering = better writing are some of your core beliefs because they’ve been repeated so often.

The truth is, as writers, we all hit creative blocks or need solutions to a craft problem. And, yes, writing takes effort. But we don’t have to suffer.

I did it, anyway, because I didn’t know better. After 10 years as a journalist, columnist and poet, I just couldn’t handle the suffering my writing life caused me. My writing depleted me. My failures, whether perceived or real, demoralized me.

Even though I’d made deep sacrifices for my art, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I quit my column. I stopped performing. I stopped publishing. I knew I either had to quit forever or I had to find a new way of doing things.

Marya yoga writingIn a commitment to this new life, I moved across the country to California, and I began cultivating a yoga practice that changed everything.

The teachings of yoga philosophy helped me with my relationship with writing. (I published a paper on this in a book on innovations in teaching writing. Read it here.) Soon, I saw that my yoga practice was a magical tool, too. And as I continued my quest for a relationship with my writing that felt supported, purposeful, and nourishing, I recognized the principles that I now teach in Practical Magic for Writers workshops.

Imagine a writing life…

  • that allows you to feel connected, rather than isolated.
  • that fills you with purpose, inspiration and joy.
  • that nourishes you, instead of depleting you.
  • that contributes to the well-being of you and others.
  • that helps you realize your best and highest self.

I have a FREE upcoming webinar where you can find out more: Intro to Practical Magic for Writers. You can attend live or watch it in replay.

 

 

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What it really means to be “woke”

There’s no mistake how much most of us enjoy our stories. Streaming our favorite films and shows is a national pastime that many of us can’t resist. The thrills, the romance, the suspense — all of this adventure, we experience from a safe distance. We know it’s “not real” so even when it’s dramatically tragic, we aren’t too concerned about how the death of our favorite character is going to impact our actual lives.

woke-up-v1-1312At night, similarly, we enter the theater of dreams, seeing stories unfold that terrify, delight, and amaze us. When we wake, we may remember them and wonder about them, but mostly, we shake them off because they aren’t “the real world.”

Then again, lots of what goes on in the real world, what we believe to be true and act on, is nothing but projection, too — just a great drama invented in our minds, a story we made up to give meaning and purpose to the world. It’s amazing how when we decide that something is true how the entirety of reality shapes itself to support that belief.

This condition of our minds is exactly why magic is so effective in producing the results we want. Like films, dreams, and our waking projections, magic creates meaning of the things in our world, attributing significance to them and acting accordingly.

Embracing magic has been a process of waking up within the dream of my life. The more awake I become the more I am aware that there’s no real difference between “reality” and “magic,” except that in “reality,” I am accepting the conditions of my life as somehow less mutable and more imprisoning than those of my imagination. In “magic,” instead of being at the mercy of an external world, I see that I get to choose what I’d like my world to look like. I get to create it intentionally, just like a writer and director would do for a film, except that the movie is my life.

Lots of people stay asleep within their dream. Mostly, I think this is because they don’t realize that they are dreaming. When most people say they are “woke” what they mean is that they are aware of some underlying social or political system at work in our culture. But this what is called in sleeping dreams “false awakening.” They’re just dreaming that they have woken.

To really be woke is to understand how much power we have, that we are the dreamer and that we can change the dream. That is we can actively change the projection that we generally and passively accept as “reality.”

dribbble_-_owlOf course, this takes lots of work. It takes work at things people will often dismiss as frivolous and impractical. Working with the subtle forces of deities (which is to say “archetypes”) and of our desires and aversions is the stuff of magic that wakes us up inside the dreams of our lives so that we are lucid and empowered, and we recognize the significance of everything.

This is what I focus on in the Genius workshop of the Practical Magic for Writers series. We work with the mind’s powers — of imagining, of creating story, of dreaming and believing and knowing — as we write.  I have found writing to be the strongest magical tool I know of to shape and create reality. It’s allowed me to wake within the dream and to dream wide awake.

 

A self divided cannot stand: resolve inner conflict, get more done

Much of my personal and creative life began to fall in place when I started to practice yoga and study yoga philosophy. It was on the yoga mat and in the classic texts that I found the best instructions for healthy thinking and practical spirituality. These enhanced my writing life. (You can read my paper presented at the MLA conference and published in the book Beyond the Frontier here: ” Writing West to East and Back Again: A Yogic Approach to Life-Writing.”)

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Yoga & Writing

In the introduction to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Hindu text on physical yoga practices, Swami Muktibodhananda explains that yoga is the union of mind and body (to be clear, they aren’t separate…they just get out of synch or in dysfunctional relationship). This idea from that introduction has become central to my well-being:

Often we observe that when we try to practice self-control and discipline, we create more mental problems in our mind and personality…Therefore before you practice self-discipline and self-control, you must prepare yourself…If harmony is not created in the personality, then self-control and self-discipline will create more conflict rather than peace of mind.

You want to know what this “conflict” looks like?

Imagine your ego self holding a whip demanding that you to get to work and your feeling self complying grudgingly, refusing defiantly or in some way failing miserably. The task could be working on a creative project or going to the gym or doing the dishes. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s a split in the personality between the self that thinks you should do something and the self that doesn’t want to it. It’s a sort of schizophrenia, almost.

A self divided against itself cannot stand. Or put another way: you are not being able to stand yourself.

I lived like this for years. I got a lot written, published and performed, but I was miserable because I was living in conflict with myself. Basically I’d tell myself I was a loser if I didn’t do the thing I knew I should do. There was some value (moral, financial, ethical, etc) inherent in the action that I felt I “should” do, but instead of focusing on the value, I focused on the action itself. When I lose focus of the “why” of things, I quickly see a hostile relationship between Marya the goal-setter and Marya the goal-fulfiller.

These days, when I recognize a “should” and an aversion to it, I know to look deeper. Why do I think I should do it? What is at the root of the aversion? This sort of reflection really helps me unify my “selves.” When I am connected with my desire — with why I “should” do something –I am able to get to my work in a way that makes me feel good and fills my work with purpose.

What “shoulds” do you wrestle with? Take some time to write about these, about what value these have (financial, moral, ethical, social, etc.). Sometimes we inherit “shoulds” from our families or society without examining them; if they have no value to you, personally, let these go the same way you might discard an ugly chair that used to belong to Aunt Agatha.

I think you’ll find that once you connect with why you want to do something, the aversion will soften or even disappear and you’ll be able to show up for the work you should do because you want to do it.

Sacrifice: a confession, an oath, an homage

I’ve been trying to write about sacrifice for days now. I realized it was important part of Fire element (I’m writing a book, Practical Magic for Writers, where I look at writing through the lens of the four classical elements), that we need sacrifice in order to keep us committed. I know this firsthand; I’ve sacrificed big time.

I have a clear purpose, a clear audience, but there is something in me so adverse, so resistant to writing about it that I haven’t been able to get myself to sit down to write for three days. When I try, my aversion has me open Facebook or email or compose something else. I’m a professional writer, for fucksake. And a writing coach. “Heal thyself!” I scream at myself in my head. Disgusted.

candle flame
A light in the darkness

Lighting a candle got me to sit down and open my lap top and start writing. I made it to 800ish words in a herky-jerky, stop-start process that felt a lot more like learning to drive a stick-shift than sitting down to write.

It’s a huge relief when I realize I am crying. I’m opening a huge can of worms. Fucking huge. Because to me sacrifice means leaving my then-2-year-old daughter with her father so that I could write. And it’s difficult to explain how I could do that and not be a monster; or if I am, how I got to be that monster. Or how my now-26-year-old daughter has both benefitted and been hurt by my choices. How we both say I did the best I could, given the circumstances, but both of us feel like we deserved better. We’re both still hurting and angry.

It’s difficult to explain the subtleties of what happened – how I didn’t “give her up,” for instance, or how much my difficult relationship – including emotional, physical and sexual abuse – with my own parents influenced my choices. It’s too much. And my cat, which has been relegated to the porch for shitting and pissing all over the house, is howling. Other than the over-eating, she’s a healthy cat. But she’s an emotional wreck.

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A 24-pound cat fits easily into any size box.

Anxiety has me by the shoulders and is shaking me hard. And I want to punch the cat and shake her hard. I want her howling to stop so that my pain will stop its howling. Who can write in these conditions?

I decide not to be thwarted by writer’s block. Not to succumb to the urge to punch the cat. To write, even if it is crap. Just write it anyway. Because if I don’t write, not only do I feel the pain of the past but I also feel the pain of my present – my past and current powerlessness. And if I punch the cat, then I really am a monster.

I have rationalized my choices, but I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m pretty sure that’s holding me back. I’ve been punished enough. I am ready to be forgiven, to be washed clean. I want all the experience, all of the wisdom, none of the pain, none of the guilt.

The cat is still howling.

Too much of the time, I have felt like a hostage of circumstance. But I’ve decided my victim days are over. So, fuck you, anxiety and pain and shame and fear. Fuck you. You don’t get to control my life anymore.

I’m writing you off, out of my life. I will squeeze you out, shake you off. You will dangle at the end of my sentence, howling.

Good news: you’re an artist, not a sociopath

Validation is a tricky thing. We all need it…. Ok, most of us need it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re a sociopath. And if you need too much of it, you’re needy and exhausting and we all wish you’d work on your self-esteem.

It’s hard to strike a balance. Or to even know where the line is, exactly. This is especially true for artists. What’s “good”? What’s not? How do we know? If we are on the cutting edge, we don’t even have anything to measure our own work against. Sometimes it’s nice to just hear that all our hard work is appreciated and maybe even…gasp!…valued!

You wouldn’t think an offer to have work purchased (Hello, money!) would be an insecurity trigger. But my artist buddy called me the other day, questioning himself and his work because he’d received offers to buy the rag he’d used to wipe his paintbrushes. The problem was, people hadn’t shown much interest in the paintings that he’d labored over, sometimes for days at a time. The attention “The Paint Diaper” had gotten seemed to say “Why bother trying to create anything meaningful? — Just sling some color around.”

My friend was demoralized.  I told him I understood.

Some nights on the poetry slam circuit, I would get so disgusted by what I deemed the unsophisticated tastes of stupid audiences.

The average poetry slam audience liked pieces that rhymed. They liked poems with word play – regardless of whether they actually made any sense. They liked poems that were full of bravado and rebellion – they didn’t notice the logical or factual problems. Worst of all, they loved poems that sounded like hundreds of other poems. The predictable and familiar almost always won out over the inventive and challenging.

The truly creative, the challenging and artfully rendered pieces sailed over most people’s heads like a fine bone china plate, shattering into bits of polite but bored applause at the end. It was enough to make me want to scream or quit. Sometimes, like my friend, I wondered why I bothered at all. The only answer some days was that I couldn’t stop — that I was compelled to keep writing the same way he is compelled to paint.

But the day my buddy called me to tell me about “The Paint Diaper” situation, I had a new perspective. I had seen a picture of the rag when he’d posted it on Facebook. I’d enlarged the photo to get a better look.

The little swabs of color caught in the waffle weave of the cotton rag were random, yet they made sense. The effect – the unity of chaos and simplicity – was reassuring and lovely. But most of all, it was easy to like. It didn’t ask much from the viewer other than to be perceived as color and pattern.

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T o pander or not to pander? That is the question.

And I suddenly understood that my high expectations of my audience lacked compassion for the fact that life is often complicated and difficult, and people often just want art that distracts or pleases them, not another demand or challenge.

I understood my friend when he said his “real work” felt diminished; I reassured him that his art has value whether people appreciate it or not.

If our art is about an expression of ourselves, then had he not done it? And hadn’t I? We had both honored that urge that compelled us to create. And if it wasn’t appreciated the way we had intended, did that matter? I mean, so what if it was the unintentional result of the process that delighted people?

And so what if my own “real work” was less appreciated than my commercial work or the poems I’d composed intentionally pandering to audiences so I’d get high scores? Hadn’t my efforts both to express myself and to be appreciated allowed me to understand my friend better and to connect over a shared experience?

And isn’t that what art is about after all: expression and connection?

The entire creative process is fraught with questions and dilemmas that philosophy and spiritual traditions (religions) have grappled with, found answers and solutions for…and then codified. But creativity, to me, is real faith. It’s a living breathing thing in which we explore and celebrate and struggle with what it means to be human.

Fishing for creativity in an ocean of mind

So many times I’ve heard the “essay in my head” or the “poem in my head,” the words effortless and organically stringing themselves together, the ideas and the cadences apt. Perfectly so. The ideas and words just flow in my mind, a perfect spontaneous composition.

Then I grab a pen to capture the stream of word-tumble feeling-thought, so I can claim, publish, own this exquisite expressionBut the ideas just sort of land on the page without the same life in them, without the same depth or beauty.

I remember pulling a fish from the Atlantic ocean — the fish’s other-worldly iridescence, the powerful aliveness of muscular swish-jerk from its center. And then, later, how it just lay there — limp, cold, and grey.

fishing-islamorada-2-LThat’s how it feels so often after trying to get down the composition in my head and put it on the page. So often, it feels like that fish that does not want to be pulled from its boundless, buoyant element.

The imagination is an ocean — all potential. When we conceive a creation in our minds, it is limitless, lovely and perfect.  But when we manifest it, we bring it down from the realm of the mind (thought) into the world of the body (senses). As the abstract becomes concrete, the infinite becomes finite. Embodying, grounding, manifesting: these mean limitation.

I have to come back to this principle time and again. To remember that my willingness to create must co-exist with an acceptance of imperfection. That my desire to have and to hold what I have imagined may come at the cost. But, oh, how delicious those inspirations can be when they are lovingly prepared.

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Meditation on abundance

I feel pregnant: abundant, full of life, physically crowded, moody, hopeful, expectant, and a little exhausted. I’m incubating ideas for my writing, my teaching, and my coaching business. All this from my bedroom…my bed, actually, since the 120 square feet is not enough to include a separate workspace. Some women get bed rest when they have difficult pregnancies. Not me, I’ve got bed work…and my baby is the work itself.

A cactus in full bloom on my porch
A cactus in full bloom on my porch

I’ve got notepads, pens, a lap top, books, and a coffee cup on a queen-sized pillow top. I’m propped against pillows with a cat curled up beside me as I write. My former office – my 200 square foot living room — is occupied by former baby, now my adult daughter, who has moved across the country and is living, working, sleeping on my couch. I’m thrilled as always by her arrival and take pleasure in her company, even though the apartment is a tiny place meant for one person with a day job, not two people, two cats, and a small business.

I know this is why literal pregnancies have limits — conception and growth are followed by delivery. We can only contain so much.

I know this is why I must sit down and write, too. The ideas, the words, and the emotions want to come. They are ready. They crowd me. If I do not make room for them, anxiety comes like labor pains.

The fullness is not always comfortable, but I remember not to complain. I learn to make space. This is what abundance looks like. My craft, my calling, my daughter and animals. My life full of warmth, tenderness, and purpose in this tiny, sunlit haven on the coast of Southern California.

All this is full. All that is full. From fullness, fullness comes. When fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains. So say the Upanishads.

The nature of life: fullness — what flows in, how we expand and accommodate, what flows out and into the world.
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When you’re afraid to go there

It was a perfect day for a beachside BBQ. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific. The sun was shining full and warm. I’d awakened with the sun at about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than my alarm, and made pancakes and eggs. I had enough time that I’d even considered going to a 10 am yoga class before meeting with a new friend to go to her co-worker’s BBQ party.

Then I reconsidered. I was overcome by an urge to stay in, to gather myself. Not understanding the urge, I started to gather things. I began putting what I would need for the day in a pile on the corner of the couch: towel, sunblock, a change of clothes, phone charger, a cooler full of sodas, snacks. Then I remembered: I was taking my bike, so I started to rethink, unpack, and regroup.

IMG_2356The closer it got to “go time,” the more I felt like I should stay. Something wasn’t quite right. I tidied the bathroom. I put away some clothes in the bedroom. I organized the files on my desk. I started double checking things. Was there enough food and water in the cats’ bowls? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? I was now officially late.

“Go,” I told myself aloud. “Stop fucking around and go!”

But my resistance was strong. I considered texting my apologies and staying home and watching movies.

“What are you doing?” I said again out loud. “You’ve been looking forward to this!”

I stopped for a moment and took a breath. I paid attention as the inhale expanded my body — my neck, shoulders, and chest were tight. And that’s when it hit me… I was afraid! I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, or if I’d be physically comfortable there (too hot, too cold, too hungry, etc.), and that was enough to create unconscious fear. (When this happens chronically, it’s called anxiety.)

What’s weird is, I’m constantly told how brave I am. People say to me “I wish I had your courage” because I travel alone, because I play my guitar and perform in public, because I’m willing to try new things – improv comedy, spoken word, sailing, sky diving, entrepreneurship.

People assume that because I do these things that I’m not afraid to do these things. They are wrong.

I’m afraid a lot. But the fear involved in the “big stuff” like jumping out of planes and into new things is easier to deal with than the everyday fears of the “little stuff” like the beach party. The big stuff is easier because I know I’m afraid so I can face the fear, but with the little stuff it’s easy to overlook the fear. When I don’t see it, I’m not able to challenge it; then, I’m unconsciously controlled by fear.

Writer’s block is just like this. Like the beach & BBQ outing, writing is something I want to do. But deep inside, I’ve also been afraid. I dawdle and procrastinate when I am afraid “to go there.” For years, I was unaware of this fear, so I was really hard on myself for not writing more. I’d tell myself I was never going to amount to much (even when I was working as a weekly columnist) and I’d feel like a fraud around writers and artists who were prolific. In essence, I compounded my yucky feelings (fear) with more yucky feelings (shame).

And I wondered why I just couldn’t be more creative!?!

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I faced the fear of sharks, freezing, drowning, and loss of control when I learned to sail…but it’s still not as scary as writing.

Does anyone create well when they are afraid and ashamed? Self-actualization and self-expression are high on the pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and safety and acceptance are at the base. It’s difficult to deal with the needs at the top if we haven’t met those at the bottom. In fear and shame, I couldn’t build a happy, productive creative life.

My point is, “Just do it!” (or as my friend put it the other day “Just sit down and fucking write”) is not the answer for someone who is deeply and unconsciously afraid. I had to build a healthier relationship with my feelings and creativity. Awareness of the fear lets me begin to negotiate my way through it. Then writing is like sky diving: I face the fear, lean into the resistance, and take the plunge.

In case you were wondering, I also made it to the party. And I had a great time.

Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.

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The Art of Doing without Doing

“Practice the art of doing without doing”: it’s on a Post-it stuck to a binder for what I call my “Phoenix Feather” project. “Phoenix Feather” feels good in the mouth; it’s fun to say. I had a childlike wonder as I used crayons to draw a picture of a red and purple feather. Then I slid my artwork into the front the binder to impart that energy to my work there. I’ve learned that feeling good about my project helps me approach it in a way that lets work happen easily rather than as part of a struggle. I’ve been making much progress on this project because it feels fun, wonder-filled, and inviting.

Another Post-it on the binder reminds me “I can of my own self do nothing. John 5:30.” And a third, a paraphrase of the Gayatri mantra, a highly revered Hindu prayer, invokes the source of all inspiration and creativity:  “You who are the source of all power, whose rays illuminate the world, illuminate also my heart so that it, too, can do your work.” I’m eclectic when it comes to spiritual inspiration! There’s wisdom and guidance from so many sources.

I love that invocation in the Gayatri. When I’m connected to Source, letting divine energy move through me, my work is effortless. It becomes doing without doing.  In my search for more on the topic, I found this post by Lindsey Lewis on Daily Cup of Yoga: 5 Ways to Master the Art of Doing without Doing.

You might also try my tips on procrastination, How to Get Moving and Get Things Done, which is my own kinder, gentler way to entering flow.

#whollycreative #whatsyourstory

Free yourself from a dysfunctional mind-body relationship

I think it’s fair to say I’ve lived in my mind for most of my life. I’m a reader and a writer. I’ve also been in school nearly my whole life, except for a five-year window in the 90s before I became an educator.

Other than for vanity reasons, I never gave much thought to my body. Through my twenties, I punished it with long hours of work and school and got few hours of sleep. Through my thirties, I replaced the school work with independent study and writing. My genetics kept me slender even though I got only a little exercise. The important work was mental not physical, after all. As a scholar and a writer, I need a brain; my body is secondary.

More, there wasn’t much motivation to be “in my body.” I always ached, literally head to toe: chronic headaches, neck stiffness, back aches, knee pain, foot cramps. I just thought that was how it was, and though I saw a chiropractor and massage therapist, I thought managing pain was a normal part of having a body.

Seriously.

I lived for the times I was “checked out” while reading and writing, “zoned out” when I was performing or teaching, or “numbed out” from drinking.

At 40, things changed when I began yoga, which is when I started to really feel what was going on in my body. I had huge emotional releases – lots and lots of crying – just moving through the poses on my mat. Sometimes I’d have to drop into child’s pose to sob. Even though I had a wonderful consciousness shift after I began my yoga practice, my body actually became more painful. Some days (not all) my knees ached so badly, I had trouble walking.

Even after I quit drinking a couple years after beginning yoga, I’d wake up slowly and have trouble moving. “I need the first hour of the day to stare in my coffee and mutter,” I’d say. As recently as a couple weeks ago friends would invite me to morning yoga and I’d say, “I can’t do anything before 11:00 a.m.; I don’t move well in the morning.”

And I thought this was normal. That’s life, right? You get old and your body hurts.

But this morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. on my own. When I put my 47-year old feet on the floor, they didn’t hurt. I didn’t have to limp to the bathroom with one hand on the hallway wall for balance. I put both feet down and stood up. Then I started shifting my weight back and forth, stepping in place. My feet were limber, sort of like hands. My toes felt longer, sort of like fingers. I started to dance. My whole body had an ease to it, I’d never felt sober.  I felt lighter, taller. I started to swing my arms over my head and then I sang as I danced around, “I feel good…in my body!”

Seriously.

What had changed? I’d had two sessions of rolfing (deep-tissue work that stretches the fascia, developed by Ida Rolf), which had worked out the adhesions in my connective tissue. The places that were bound up had been pulling my body out of whack, and the problem had compounded as the years went by.

But it wasn’t just my body. Two days after my first appointment, a girlfriend who’d known me for fifteen years called. She’d seen me through heavy workaholism and functional alcoholism, when I’d been alternately high on progress or booze, and she’d stuck around to see a new more peaceful, sober me. I’d answered her call while I was walking on the beach and watching the sunset, and I felt energized about my writing and the work I’d done developing Wholly Creative. I was bubbling with enthusiasm. For the first time in years, I didn’t feel like I had to slog through the day.

“Are you on a bender?” she asked. I didn’t understand what she was asking. “You sound like your old self… You sound happy.”

I’d been sober for four years, and while I’d cultivated more peace, I hadn’t felt this good since when I got those regular doses of “spirit” that allowed me to feel really free in my body. I’d had little windows of elevation after yoga or dance or a bike ride, but pretty quickly the window closed and I was back to the slog. My friend was right. I felt alive again.

Today, it occurred to me there is a correlation to how I was doing mentally and how I was feeling physically. I am more inspired and more creative because my body is functioning better. Talk about mind-body connection, right!?

With still eight more sessions to complete the rolfing process, I am ever more amazed by how we can increase the quality of our creative and intellectual life by tending to the body. And it’s not just mind and body, it’s spirit, too.

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