Alison Leigh Lilly

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

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This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

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