I published the story of how before I became a national poetry slam chick, I used to be a cringing poetry chicken. It’s all about using magic to move past what we are afraid of and how to claim what we really want.
I cringed inside every time he said it.
“This is Marya. She’s a poet.”
I was ashamed. His introduction made me feel like an imposter.
Even though I’d been writing poetry since I was young.
Even though I’d taken poetry workshop classes in college.
Even though I’d published literary magazines.
Even though I’d read and performed poems publicly.
Even though my poems had been published.
Other writers will understand. Something about calling myself a poet felt self-important. Pretentious. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be called a poet because I wasn’t a Great American Poet.
I tried to explain, “Poet, author, artist, musician… one does not just bandy these terms about.”
You can read the rest of it here at my Wholly Creative blog where I discuss some of the Hermetic principles of magic that helped me manifest what my heart really desired.
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.”)
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.
I love a good ritual! A few years back I invented a ritual to celebrate the new year and honor the things I wanted for myself and my life.
It started as an urge to give others what they most wanted. Just before Christmas 2015, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a couple of close friends. I wanted something that would be meaningful but wouldn’t be expensive. I had squirreled away some giant mugs with spiritual quotes that seemed like a good start, but I didn’t just want to stuff them with candy (so impersonal!) or give an empty mug (symbolically awful!).
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give the people I love what their hearts most desire?”
The rest came to me pretty quickly. I conceived of a variation on a floral arrangement in the mug: “The Manifestation Tree.” It would be an attractively arranged bunch of branches from which paper leaves were hung by ribbons. On the leaves, goals, desires, or dreams could be written down with the intention of the growing them into existence.
It was everything: affordable, meaningful, symbolic, and practical.
I gathered fallen branches in a eucalyptus grove. Then I went to the craft store for the rest of the supplies: florist’s foam, decorative moss, silver spray paint, ribbon, craft paper, permanent markers. I selected silver spray paint and shimmery craft paper to create a magical feel, and then I chose ribbon colors specific to my friends’ personalities. My Buddhist friend would get a purple-ribboned tree in a black mug with an image of Buddha; and my yogini friend would get a aqua-blue ribboned tree in a blue mug with the lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles.
My friends appreciated their gifts, keeping them up for the season and then saving the mug when the branches had served their purpose.
I was so in love with my invention that I made an identical blue tree for myself, and it still stands. My manifestation tree sits on my kitchen table year round, a sort of altar in the my home’s nerve center of growth: the place where I nourish, heal, and warm myself.
I’ve watched as each of the intentions I wrote down manifested one by one. The leaves were a visual reminder of what I wanted in my life, and I believe moved me toward what I wanted. As I identified new goals, I wrote them down and added them to the tree.
The tree is rather full now, and I’ve seen most of what I intended come to fruition. This year, I may begin removing the leaves that have manifested to make room for new ones to grow. It seems fitting that these leaves be sent up in fire or stored in a special place.
Early in the year, I signed up for Sam’s 6-week Get It Done online workshop because I’d stalled out in my vision for Wholly Creative. I had an idea of what I wanted to do — teach people how to integrate mind, body, and spirit in their creative lives — but I didn’t know how to clarify my vision and implement a plan. Over the months, I’ve heard Sam tell those of us that get creatively stuck or are dealing with a problem to “Make some art about it.”
She says it so often, it finally sunk in.
Only, this time it was personal: a friend with whom I’d had a close but difficult relationship re-appeared after a long (and peaceful) absence. My ambivalence about his return manifested as intrusive thoughts. Whether working or playing, I kept thinking about him, and I was losing both focus and peace of mind.
I took out some paper and a pen, and rather than write, I start to draw. When I was done half-an-hour or so later, I had grade-school art to show for my efforts, but I felt like I’d gone through top-notch psychotherapy. My divided feelings had become a firm resolve to maintain my distance from this dear, but toxic, friend. My feelings of hurt turned to empathy as I analyzed my drawing. I could see his pain and fear disguised as toughness and cool detachment, and I could see the power in my transparency and vulnerability. He was walled in; I was levitating.
Something in me was healed, and I didn’t even need any artistic skill to do it.
Skill, in fact, may have gotten in the way. If I’d tried to write about the problem, chances are my ego would’ve stepped in and start editing and offering opinions before the words made it to the page. But in a medium where I’ve got zero talent? My ego didn’t even think to speak up. It was out to lunch while it thought I was goofing around with kid stuff.
I wondered what it was like for Sam’s other clients who followed her advice.
Roxana Ramos, a client of Sam who lives in Peru and works in the visual arts — including paper and bookbinding — made some art with India ink markers and paper after she and her boyfriend had an big argument. Unlike my metaphoric rendering, Ramos expressed her feelings abstractly.
“Once my feelings had form, I was able to analyze them,” Ramos said.
She understood from the colorful loopy doodles that she’d had an imbalance that contributed to the argument: “I was too analytical, concentrated on my practical side, so when it was time to feel, I got overwhelmed and exploded.”
For her, another up side to this therapy is that it also contributes to her oeuvre and provides a source of income. (This blog’s featured image at the top is Ramos’s “Us”).
The simple creative practice has helped Ramos overcome overwhelm, the problem that brought her to Sam in the first place. Artists, especially those who are in full-time jobs while pursuing their art “on the side,” often face overwhelm. Other times, the problem stems from too many options. Whatever the cause, overwhelm shuts artists down.
MK Piatkowski, a Canadian singer, dancer, playwright and director, also conquered overwhelm. She quit her full-time job and set out on her own thanks to Sam’s advice to “make some art about it.”
“The practice reminded me that I needed to be an artist again,” Piatkowski explained. “So I’d work and then think, ‘Ok, dance break!’ or “Ok, now let’s do some writing.’”
Piatkowski also used the art of writing to remove a “grief block” that was keeping her from moving forward after the death of a friend, and she incorporated the work into her one-woman cabaret show-in-the-making. She also makes art to clarify her vision for One Big Umbrella, her business that serves theater professionals and creative entrepreneurs.
And it’s not just artists. Even cowgirls get the blues and can benefit from art-making.
Jane Sisam, a veterinary scientist in New Zealand working “to improve animal health and productivity through on-farm workshops, teaching and demonstrations” was having trouble naming her business. Her indecision, she said, “was just like being in a whirlpool, just going round and round, and not getting anywhere.” Sisam wrote and drew pictures about the problem, and finally settled on the name The Pink Cow Company, which satisfied her desire for a right-brained name that would help her business stand out and a feminine name that would represent the “ladies”– both the cattlewomen and the cows – that she works with.
Sam’s explanation for her directive is that art explains our feelings to us. “The other part, I think,” she says, “is explained by the immortal words of my friend Bill Baren [a coach who teaches The Art & Science of Conscious Success]: ‘Feelings just want to be felt.’ And once they know they’ve been felt, that energy can be released and resolved.”
For some, that resolution creates a domino effect. Unblocking in one area leads to movement in other areas. Says Piatowski,“I didn’t move forward in the business until I started writing the play.”
I know that for many years I underestimated the power of my emotions, trying to bulldoze through blocks with sheer will power rather than addressing their causes, which was both exhausting and unreliable. I’ve developed a deep respect for what I once saw as frivolous. Integrating mind, body, and spirit, also means integrating work and play, business and art.
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.
I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I love nature. I enjoy sailing, hiking, sunbathing, kayaking, and bike riding. I’ve even done some protesting of GMOs.
But I know people deeply committed to eco-preservation. These people chain themselves to trees or to each other and block destruction of the environment, like the Everglades, enduring heat, injury, and dehydration, until the authorities eventually haul them away to jail. I deeply admire these people. Still, I don’t see myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I admire martial artists. That doesn’t make me a ninja.
Still, I surprised myself the other day when I did everything short of hugging a tree to make myself feel better. Here’s what was going on:
For no real reason other than it was a Tuesday, my chest was tight and there was lump in my throat. One way I deal with anxiety is to dial up my productivity. Sometimes it helps.
On the Tuesday in question, I applied for a DBA for Wholly Creative, learned online software to help my business, organized my workspace, brainstormed with my assistant about other opportunities, and met a friend for lunch. I felt powerful, full of momentum. After lunch, I crashed for a half hour and took a nap. But by the afternoon, the tension was still there in my chest and throat.
So I tried the opposite approach: do less.
I walked to to the beach. I wrote for a little while. I watched the children throwing buckets of water at each other, the waves rolling in, couples sitting on blankets in the soft sand together, the golden light of the setting sun bathing the whole scene in such magical light that even the garbage seemed enchanted. But the breeze, waves, and sunset didn’t do much for the constriction I still felt, like an unseen hand was reaching down my throat and squeezing my heart.
I packed up my things as the breeze blew colder, and as I walked toward home, I was drawn to the coral tree that stood in the grassy area along the beach. It’s complex root structure fascinated me. Its branches rolled like cursive into the punctuation of bumps and nubs.
I slowly approached the tree, more curious than committed to an action, still with this discomfort, this dull aching in my chest and throat. I thought about doing a couple lion’s breaths, sticking out my tongue with a forceful exhale, which sometimes helped a little.
Instead I began talking to the tree. “Hi there. You’re an interesting tree. Do you mind if I sit here?” I climbed onto the horizontal portion of the trunk and settled in. “I used to have another tree friend back in Florida.”
And then I began to tell this tree about another tree, a Green Buttonwood, that used to grow along the sea wall in Lake Worth. I used to sit on its similarly sideways trunk and listen to the waves slop against the seawall while I wrote. The days I spent there with the tree, I unburdened so much in the pages of my notebook. During our time together, I went through several boyfriends, my father died, I went back to graduate school, my daughter moved in with me and I became a full-time mom. I experienced and learned so much with that tree, that I developed a relationship with it. I started to call it my tree.
Then the fences went up. Hurricanes and time had damaged the sea wall, and a restoration project was underway. I couldn’t get to my tree without climbing under the fence. I wrote the city a letter expressing my concern about the tree. I was told by the city’s arborist that there were others who inquired, too, and that the city was looking into what could be done to preserve the tree.
One night as I walked in the moonlight to the park, I let out a howl. The tree had been uprooted. Its trunk and limbs, sawed into pieces, were in a pile.
“Murderers!” I shrieked and ran toward the fence. I lifted the chain link and crawled under it. Surveying the damage, I let out a roar, as much furious at my helplessness as at the person or people who had done this. And then began to sob. I rested my hand on a large limb, as I looked at the severed pieces lying casually on the grass.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.” I cried in the darkness as the leaves limply hung from their drying branches. “I tried. I didn’t know what else to do.”
That night I walked home with a bundle of smaller branches in one arm, dragging one large leafy branch behind me. Weeks later when they had dried enough to burn, I lit a funeral pyre and said goodbye. I saved one two inch piece of a large branch from the fire. It moved with me to California. I keep it on my altar.
I told this story to my new tree friend as we sat together looking out at the ocean. And then I settled in to write a poem about a girl in a tree. “Her heart relaxes in this hammock of arteries and veins.”
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.
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!”
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.
For me, writing has provided the spiritual adventure of a lifetime. It’s been the impetus for leaving bad relationships, for understanding the nature of love, for coping with trauma, for creating community, for taking up exercise, and for getting sober. While I was a columnist, writing was also a sort of therapy, connecting me with the outside world in a way that made me get out of my emotional pain — rather than looking inward, I had to look out and around. It was one thing that helped me not collapse into despair.
So while lots of wonderful people go to a sanctuary of some religious affiliation to get their spiritual experience, I get mine by showing up for my writing practice. I can tell how “spiritually fit” I am by looking at my relationship with my creativity. Am I disciplined and showing up regularly? Am I showing up with reverence for the “magic” that happens when I get in the zone? Am I humble when I am blocked or uncertain? Am I loving and accepting of myself and my work when it isn’t awesome?
I used to think that my writing career as a columnist and poet was a measure of my awesomeness: my drive, my talent, my connections. When I got stuck or I failed, I was full of self hate and shame. I’ve learned over the years that my intellect is not “mine” (I was just born with that innate intelligence into a family that nurtured it), my talent is not mine (again, I’ve nurtured it, but the aptitude was inherent), my will is not “mine” (all the energy I derive for that will power comes from food and air and lessons others taught me), and my love of writing is not “mine” either (many people share this love).
Oddly, before I really did some spiritual growth, I used to brush off my successes (“Of course I’m a columnist, I’m good at writing! That’s not really an achievement!”) and really focus on my failures. I’ve learned that I can celebrate success, but I have to give credit to EVERYthing that contributed (thanks Air! thanks, Food! thanks, Mom and Dad! thanks, Editors! thanks, neighbors for shutting up often enough for me to get work done!). To me this “EVERYthing” is a lot like what people talk about when they talk about ONEness, or how everything is one.
This also gave me a new relationship with the “f” word — failure. It’s not all on me. A host of factors play into my non-success. I’ve learned to interpret these occasions as an opportunity to renew my commitment to my craft or project, to exercise my humility, and to contribute to creative growth as I try again but in a different way.
Writing is not my religion, but it is my practical approach to spirituality. Instead of telling me the WHAT of spirituality (which is what religion does in its dogma–its code of beliefs), it has shown me the HOW. For me, that’s a wonderful approach because the HOW is inclusive of people of all faiths (or none at all), while the WHAT is exclusive to a specific religion. We also could use more practical spirituality in our everyday lives.
I used to be entirely pragmatic with no “trimmings”; however, now I see the value in creating altars and practicing rituals to support my creativity. As a pragmatist, I put my altar on the bookcase in the living room beneath the wall-mounted TV, where my focus naturally rests when I’m sitting on the couch, where I often write.
I have an image of the Hindu goddess Saraswati (she rules creativity and intellect), some candles, flowers, and a stone printed with the question “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I often light the candles as I hope to spark some new idea or let creativity shine. I look to the water (in the vase and in the Saraswati image) as a reminder to let things flow and not to be too rigid. The flowers remind me of the organic cycles of creativity (not always blossoming). And the stone I will often pick up and hold in my hands because grounds me as much as it reminds me to invest in what I really love and to dream bigger.
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