by Diana Raab, PhD
Spirituality may be seen as the search for truth in one’s life in the interest of being happy. Writing as a spiritual practice can connect us to what seems most right for us, both personally and professionally. It can help us pinpoint our mission and reason for being by encouraging us to reflect on our feelings. Writing also helps us create a more profound sense of harmony and peace of mind.
Sometimes starting to write about pivotal or life-changing experiences can also confirm our identity. When I look back at my own life experiences and reflect on those that have truly transformed me, challenged me, or made me feel more aware or more alive, I must say that these were pivotal events involving the deaths of loved ones, the forming or evolution of relationships, becoming a parent, sexual encounters, and meaningful conversations with others. They have all been subjects of exploration in my journal writing, which has led to some form of change or transformation.
Transformation may be defined as a dramatic change in our physical or psychological well-being. Basically, the path of personal transformation is a process of becoming aware of, facing, and becoming responsible for our thoughts and feelings. When thinking of writing in this way, we can say that it can be considered a spiritual practice.
Most writers like myself will confess that they write because they have to write, not necessarily because they want to write. We write out of necessity because it either makes us feel better or we want to share our stories with the world.
My beginnings as a writer began when I was ten years old. I was the only child of immigrant parents who were gone all day, tending to their retail dry-goods store in Brooklyn, New York. My grandmother was my beloved caretaker while they were at work, and on Labor Day in 1964, I was at home with her.
It was a hot Indian summer day common to the season. We lived in a suburban community along with other immigrant families and their children, so I was excited when a friend invited me to go swimming in her pool. With a child’s enthusiasm, I knocked on my grandmother’s door to ask for permission. There was no answer. I tried several times, but still no answer. I called to her, but there was only silence. I looked inside the room to see my grandmother, completely still, in her bed. Trembling with fear, I phoned my parents at their store. I sat with my nose pressed to the front bay window until they drove up in Dad’s pink car that matched our house’s shingles—the color he had painted them the day I was born. My parents dashed out of the car and up to Grandma’s room. Before I knew what was going on, my beloved grandmother was being carried down our creaky wooden stairs on a stretcher and put into an ambulance. I never saw her again. She had taken her life.
I missed her very much—she was the only grandmother I’d ever known, as my father’s parents had perished in the Holocaust. I was so lonely without her company and her love. After all, she had been the one who’d taught me how to type short stories on the Remington typewriter perched on the vanity table in her room. Her loving attention was something my mother was unable to provide in a meaningful way.
However, my mom knew I was grieving and wanted to help me through the trauma of my loss. Reaching out to therapists wasn’t done in those days, and even if it had been, we would not have had the money for it. So, my mother went to the nearest stationery store and bought me a blank, red leather journal with a saying by Kahlil Gibran at the top of each page.
For many months after my grandmother’s suicide, my mother continued to encourage me to write down my feelings. I sat at my small birch desk or in my walk-in closet under the hanging clothes, writing about my grandmother and how much I missed her. Having been an English major in college, my mother intuitively knew that this was the best way for me to deal with my grief. So, for days on end after my grandmother died, I wrote in my journal. For me, writing was a spiritual practice back then and continues to be a very important part of my life today.
Little did I realize that my mother’s inclination to buy me a journal would set the stage for my lifelong passion for writing. As I grew into adulthood, each time I endured difficult times—including my turbulent adolescence in the 1960s, my daughter’s drug addiction, and my battles with cancer—I wrote about what I was going through. Not only did I delve into the experiences in depth, but I also wrote about how they made me feel.
It was more than four decades after my grandmother died, when I was forty-seven years old, when I received my first cancer diagnosis (which I wrote about in my book Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey). After healing from the physical and emotional trauma of that experience, I decided to follow my dream of returning to graduate school. I pursued my MFA in writing, and when the time came to consider a subject for my thesis, the story of my grandmother’s life occurred to me.
Coincidentally, around that time, my mother gave me my grandmother’s hand-typed journal telling of her early life as an orphan in Poland during and after World War I. It was the greatest gift a granddaughter could ever receive. I devoured every word and used it as a part of my MFA thesis, which turned into my first published memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal.
In that book, I dealt with the two major turning points in my life: losing my grandmother and then discovering her sacred journal. The journal was sacred because of its role in my understanding of my grandmother and why she might have committed suicide. It was also sacred because it was another chance for me to get close to her intimate and private thoughts. I realized that writing about her was healing, as it allowed me to honor her and keep her alive, and it was also a way to understand why she had taken her life at the age of sixty-one.
Studying my grandmother’s life helped me become empowered by her experience and take on the role of a woman warrior. I realized that she had been a survivor for most of her life. She had survived the trauma of being orphaned, witnessing two world wars, and being in an emotionally abusive marriage; and she survived long enough to see me go to school. By examining my grandmother’s life, I realized that I, too, yearned to be a survivor and a fighter. I wanted to become empowered by my experiences and also help others become empowered by theirs. Thus, my grandmother’s journal was a huge gift.
In continuing my path of writing as a spiritual practice, I returned to school to get my PhD, where I researched the healing and transformative powers of memoir writing. Basically, my research examined how life-changing experiences have inspired some esteemed authors to write the narratives of their lives. I learned that writing one’s story is a way to reclaim one’s voice, share a family secret, or simply relate a personal story to others.
My research interest was based on the fourth and newest branch of psychology, transpersonal psychology—the study of optimal psychological health and well-being and the idea of reaching one’s highest potential. Transpersonal means “beyond the ego” or “beyond the personal.” It has to do with the exploration of the unconscious as a way to tap into the higher self, both personally and collectively. Transpersonal psychology grew out of the mid-twentieth-century humanistic psychology movement and the study of alternative states of consciousness. It was originally founded and introduced by Abraham Maslow in the 1960s at the Esalen Institute in California. Transpersonal psychology encompasses all other types of psychology, such as psychoanalytic, Jungian, behavioristic, and humanistic. It also incorporates the spiritual aspects of the human experience. When studying this newest branch of psychology, I incorporated transpersonal experiences, which are those that extend beyond the ordinary and usual ways of knowing and doing.
Transpersonal psychology also accentuates various ways of healing and spiritual practices. Writing is considered a transpersonal practice in that it encourages self-expression and self-discovery; it helps us identify our strengths and weaknesses, with the goal of realizing our potential and leading happier lives. When using writing as a spiritual practice, we are documenting the story of our lives; and, as such, we have the chance to relive, examine, and reconstruct our experiences in an empowering way.
Central to our needs as humans is the need to understand the world around us. By examining the causes and meaning of certain lived experience, we come to understand the role and impact they’ve played in our lives. Some people reach out to organized religious practices or spiritual paths to help them gain such knowledge and illumination. Others, like myself, turn to writing tice because it cuts through the illusion of the self. Writing has been my own spiritual practice because it has helped me release whatever is bottled up inside of me. In this way, my journal has become my lifelong confidant. Writing in my journal allows me to discover what I don’t know, and thus, I become more aware. It also helps me discover meaning and find a container for my experiences. Writing as a spiritual practice is very liberating and satisfying, because when we release our secrets, we achieve a level of freedom that gives us more control over our lives.
Freedom comes in many forms. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, I journaled my way to recovery. One of the things I acknowledged was the brevity of life. I realized that there was no time like the present to seek bliss by writing down the experiences that brought me joy. I also acknowledged that having toxic people in my life was a bliss deterrent, so as much as possible I tried, and still try, to surround myself with inspiring, positive, and loving individuals.
During my own journey of writing as a spiritual practice, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my practice; many writers, such as Anaïs Nin, have used writing in this way. In my own case, pivotal or life-changing events have served as stepping-stones for either new writing projects and/or self-discovery processes—an example being my newest book, Writing for Bliss. Overall, what I’ve learned as I use writing as a spiritual practice—and what I also teach others—is that this very personal creative process can bring about a sense of wholeness and, ultimately, a sense of bliss . . . which is what we all ultimately strive for in this life.
(Adapted from Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life)
About the author:
Diana Raab, PhD is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, and speaker. She blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, and Elephant Journal. Her latest book is “Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life.” Her website is dianaraab.com.