Being True to Life: Poetic Paths to Personal Growthby David Richo
Psychotherapist David Richo offers a fresh and inspiring approach to personal growth: we can use the process of writing and reading poetry to move toward greater self-understanding and emotional healing. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, you can learn to use poetry to explore your feelings, your relationships, your childhood, your dreams, and more.
Richo explains how the creative, intuitive process of making poetry can help us gain access to our deepest truths, leading us to make connections and explore experiences in a new way, beyond the constraints of everyday language. This book offers a range of practical exercises for getting started, as well as guidance on how to read poetry in a way that can be personally transformative.
Being True to Life shows us that poetry is not reserved for a few specially talented individuals but is a deeply human activity that anyone can tap into for greater clarity and insight into life’s struggles, beauty, and mysteries.
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Read an Excerpt
From Introduction: The Healing Power of Poetry
"A poem begins in delight . . . and ends in clarification of life . . . a momentary stay against confusion." —Robert Frost
This book is based on the captivating and delightful idea that writing a poem can be a powerful tool for self-discovery and healing. In writing a poem about something that touches us we access parts of ourselves, our feelings, and our motivations that other types of language or exploration often leave hidden. Reading or hearing a poem can open us to new depths of understanding. In both writing and reading poetry we are opening to our own truth and processing it in such a way that healing and liberation can result. Indeed, poetry—like psychological work or spiritual practice—can help us explore and deeply understand who we are and what we are here for.
In childhood we may have been given the gift of an Erector Set or a dollhouse. We learned how to enjoy these gifts and we gained many skills by using them. In school, when we memorized the times tables, we gained information for future use. However, if we were lucky enough to be exposed to poetry by a thoughtful teacher and we came to appreciate it, something much more powerful was going on than the gaining of skill or information. In reading it, we were reaping the wisdom of the ages. In writing it, we were using a tool to record and process our experiences so that meanings in them not accessible by mere thought could be revealed. The message of this book is that the power and wisdom of poetry is still available to us, whether we think of ourselves as poets or not.
Poetry may seem intimidating to many of us, perhaps due to our experiences having to analyze or memorize it in school. But writing a poem as part of a process of growth and healing can be intriguing and highly satisfying. Such poetry opens us up to the richness of our inner world and connects us to others, our readers.
Writing poetry to express what we are feeling, to celebrate an occasion, to show appreciation, or to follow any lead of creative imagination is a long-standing practice throughout human history. Events that fascinate or frighten us take us by the hand into valuable self-exploration. This book is intended to help you find the uncultivated poetic talents in yourself for just such an exciting journey. You may believe you have no poetic skill, yet anyone who can write words can compose a poem, just as anyone who can talk can sing and anyone who can move can dance.
In this book, we are reconnecting poetry to its healing and spiritual roots. We are discovering that there is poetry in our souls and it is located right where our growth is. We are hearing the poems of others as messages from the soul of humanity. Indeed, when we read poetry with attentiveness, it becomes a Lectio Divina, a divine reading, a contemplative openness to the revelations that keep coming through us.
Composing poetry is both psychological and a spiritual event, because the requirements for writing a poem are like those of psychological and spiritual progress. We must learn to live in the moment. We see them in new ways and focus on what is significant. We expand our freedom of imagination. We locate the many voices within us, realizing we are more than our ego. We hear and express the music and rhythms of the natural world.
In using poetry as a tool for growth and healing, we write in our own way and on any theme. We do not have to write perfectly or for publication. We accept imperfection in our craft. In fact, we write with more confidence when we are not insisting on achieving an ideal. Our only purpose is to put something on paper and then use our skills to work with it so that it says best what we feel, what we perceive, what we are passionate about. In true passion, we are not in control. Paradoxically, this surrender to what arises from within us makes us less self-conscious and more open (which are also aspects of psychological and spiritual growth). We are all already poets in the depths of ourselves—as our image-filled and wildly imaginative dreams show us!
What Is Poetry?
A Poem is
a party of
an itch for rhythms
in the shy verandah light—
Rowdy to recite,
It won’t be a big bash
like at the bar down the street—
only we few desperadoes of excess,
versed in startle
and finding yet again
our own asylum from the hullabaloo.
Poetry uses words and phrases like unusual dance and twists that we know we never saw before and did not write imagine possible. As we read and wrote poetry, we find out how far we, too, can stretch, rotate, twirl, and reshape ourselves. We find our range of movement, our capacity to pause, and our depth of silence.
The dictionary definition of a poem may be paraphrased as “a writing in verse that is arranged in lines using rhythm, imagery, figures of speech, and sometimes rhyme to achieve an impact on our thoughts and feelings.” The word poetry comes from the Greek word poiein, meaning “to make or create,” with further sense of “gathering and collecting.” A poet creates by gathering and saving the images, ideas, and impressions that strike him. Then he synthesizes them and makes a poem from his own contemplations and distillations. He shares his impression through images and metaphors that contribute to the meaning he wants to convey. Thus, a poem is not only made but found, not only found but shared.
The ancient Romans around the time of Virgil referred to a poet as vates, that is, “a prophet or diviner.” A poem is a form of divination, something that helps us look into what appears before us and see more than what ordinarily meets the eye. A poem can foresee or open us to a meaning that would not be immediately recognized. In fact, the Sanskrit word for poet is kavi, which also means “seer.” To write poetry is to see more deeply.
Making poetry is a revolutionary act. Poems say things and present worlds that do not match the standard versions of reality to which we are accustomed or tied. A revolution frees us from attachment to what has been and the hear of what might be, in favor of what can be. To write a poem that challenges the way things are is to grow in courage through self-expression, an important contribution to our common evolutionary goals.
To read a poem is also a challenge in that we are invited to suspend our beliefs. We have to loosen up. We have to let go of our tight and circumscribed creed about what life should be and how language should work. In this way too, reading a poem is certainly a revolutionary and personally liberating experience. Poets are not afraid to evoke a new or altogether irreverent vision for themselves and their readers. It takes freedom from fear to allow that vision to come through to us as readers—or from us as poets. Reading a poem may incite us to be rebels, since a powerful poem is an insurrection that we are invited to join.
Poetry is too intimate to be nailed down in strictly linear terms. Reading a poem is more like comprehending a multifaceted totality all at once than like following logical steps to a single conclusion. It is more like entering spirals of possibilities than like walking a straight line to a single destination.
Poetry is a mystery that ultimately defies definition, which is a clue to its spiritual scope. Therefore, whatever I affirm in this book is always open to interpretations. This is what is so wonderful about poetry: it will not sit still or stay put.
Mindfulness and Imagination
In the world of poetry, we are called on to relax our intellect and follow the pathways of mindfulness and imagination. Mindfulness means learning how to pay full attention to our moment-to-moment experience without judgement. When we are mindful, nothing in our experience is rejected as “bad”—whether it’s our feelings, our thoughts, or our physical sensations. At the same time, we don’t cling to any feeling or thought. We simply acknowledge whatever arises and then let it go. The exercises and practices presented in this book will help you to cultivate mindfulness as a tool for unlocking your poetic depths.
One of the most powerful ways to develop mindfulness is through sitting meditation. In mindfulness meditation, we sit and follow our breath attentively. As thoughts arise, we silently label them “thoughts,” and then return our awareness to our breath. We neither suppress nor entertain any thoughts or feelings that surface. We let them arise and evaporate, like bubbles from a glass of champagne. Mindfulness meditation shows us the emptiness of ego, the illusion of self, as we see the impermanence of its thoughts and emotions. We begin to discover another dimension of ourselves where sanity and wisdom abide, the virtues that foster our personal growth and spiritual evolution. Mindfulness is an intense wakefulness, a commitment to live consciously in every moment, becoming aware even of what usually goes unnoticed, such as our breathing.
Because mindfulness involves direct seeing without judgement, it can help us approach poetry in a new way. Our fear of poetry is usually based on a judgement about ourselves. In reading a poem, for example, we might feel incapable or lacking in intelligence is we do not immediately understand what it means. This may hearken back to how we were introduced to poetry in school. When we try to compose a poem, we might immediately start to judge its literary merits and criticize or stifle ourselves. Using mindfulness, we can begin to approach poetry in a way that is far more welcoming and respectful of whatever emerges.
Meet the Author
David Richo, PhD, is a therapist and author who leads popular workshops on personal and spiritual growth. He is known for drawing on Buddhist thought, poetry, and Jungian perspectives in his work. He is the author of How to Be an Adult in Relationships and The Five Things We Cannot Change. He lives in Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California.
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