Launch Day: Writing and Consciousness Academy at the Yoga Institute

This is the transcription of a talk I gave on Aug. 30, 2014 on the Writing and Consciousness Academy for the launching of the Yoga Institute at Ananda Laurelwood, explaining the inspiration behind the Academy and why journaling is an essential practice on the spiritual path.

Good morning, thank you all for being here today. I find it fascinating that everything in our lives has brought us up to this exact point of being in this room together. Who we are, where we’ve been, our life experiences — it’s all essentially led up to this point. We probably weren’t always conscious of where our lives were leading us though. For me, even just five years ago, I couldn’t have intuited that I’d end up teaching Writing and Consciousness classes at a yoga institute. Maybe at a counseling center, which I did end up doing, but not here with you all today.

In the past, my work has mostly taken me to what we might call the “underground” — not exactly the uplifting, spiritual grounds ofAnanda Laurelwood. Six years ago, I began working as a human rights journalist after always having a deep passion for writing. I primarily reported on victims of abuse to help give them a voice — I traveled to Vietnam a couple times to reveal the neglect imposed by the country’s medical system on impoverished rural people. I spent time with and reported on at-risk youth near Los Angeles who were trying to overcome their mental health and behavioral issues through the performing arts. But it was in South Africa while reporting at a home for abandoned, abused and neglected children that I felt called to do more than report on the marginalized after learning that many of the kids I was reporting on, some just toddlers, were victims of sexual abuse.

I returned to the States and wrote my graduate school comprehensive exam on gendered violence in America, primarily on domestic violence and sexual abuse, and began working in New York City as an advocate for an anti-sex trafficking organization. After young ladies had been rescued from the terrors of sex trafficking, or more correctly put — “slavery,” I assessed their immediate and long-term needs and found them therapy, housing and, if appropriate, vocational training and education. The work, which has never felt like “work” to me, but rather a gift of service from God, was more inspiring and uplifting than anything. Few things in this lifetime have touched my heart as much as filling out college applications with these young ladies — and later sharing their joys after receiving their college acceptance letters. But, nevertheless, rare moments of distress did occur.

When I first met 20-year-old Sarah (for privacy reasons, not her real name) about two years ago, she had just been rescued in an undercover operation in downtown Manhattan and was suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among other issues. Soon after, she started seeing an excellent therapist. She shared with me that she did not feel comfortable in these sessions because she felt like she was talking to herself, that she was not being given any advice. I explained to her that that’s how traditional therapy works — that the therapist asks questions to prompt you to discover answers on your own. Still, she didn’t like this and pleaded for alternative therapy.

Knowing how cathartic and helpful writing had always been for me, I suggested she start journaling. I started journaling after learning to write when I was about 4 years old and have been ever since. I could tell from the start that something profound was happening — I didn’t simply feel happier from writing; I knew I was changing from deep within. As I got older and learned what consciousness was, I realized that that’s what was happening when I journaled — my consciousness was being uplifted.

Sarah’s consciousness needed to be uplifted in order to heal. But she didn’t know where to begin with journaling, so I gave her prompts — Who are you? What makes you happy? Who are you angry at and why? What are your dreams? What is holding you back from making your dreams your living reality? At first, her pain surfaced. But it needed to surface in order to be processed. But only weeks later, her face was joyful, the smile she wore wide across her face emerged from deep within, and I could see Divine joy in the light in her eyes. I asked why she shone so brightly. I’ll never forget her answer. It changed my life. She replied, “I feel like I have power. Journaling is just like what you said happens in therapy, Melissa — I am coming up with my own answers to my own problems. But on my own, not through a therapist. I gave myself my voice back.”

Today, Sarah is set to finish college soon. She might be a student, but she was also my teacher in many ways. She taught me the power of written introspection. Perhaps more importantly, I realized from Sarah and my years working directly with human trafficking survivors, that we all share the same life goal as these survivors. We, just like them, are seeking freedom. All human beings are seeking freedom, whether we know it or not. We are seeking freedom from ourselves, our ego. After human trafficking survivors break free from the physical restraint of their traffickers, they often work to free themselves of the fear, the guilt, the shame, the extreme anxiety that keeps them awake at night. We, too, are trying to let go of anything that is not truly us — fear, doubt, negativity, worry, anger — so we can become our highest self. We, just like the survivors, are just trying to become our potential. And we, too, can do that through writing.

This time last year, I moved from Southern California to Sacramento to do similar work as an anti-sex trafficking specialist and facilitate Writing to Heal workshops to clients and therapists. Clearly, I was being divinely guided there, because my boss was a devotee of Paramhansa Yogananda. She showed me the movie, Finding Happiness, on the spiritual community calledAnanda, and several months later, I moved to Ananda Village in Northern California, and of course, was eventually guided here to the Yoga Institute at Ananda Laurelwood.

I’d like to share with you what Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Yogananda and founder of Ananda, writes about introspection inAffirmations for Self-Healing: “Introspection means to behold oneself from a center of inner calmness, without the slightest mental bias, open to what may be wrong in oneself — not excusing it, but not condemning it either. Introspection means referring what one sees to the superconscious mind, and detachedly accepting guidance, when it comes.” Swamiji is largely talking about meditation as introspection, but Yogananda also highly recommended written introspection. In the Writing and Consciousness course here at the Yoga Institute, we combine meditation with written introspection to ultimately come to that center of inner calmness, where we can practice honest introspection with ourselves and come to solutions by the grace of God and guru, and on our own, much like Sarah did.

The Writing and Consciousness course is universal and not limited to victims of trauma, though it’s true that we all have experienced varying degrees of trauma during our lives. The course is based on the idea, “The calmer we are, the clearer we think.” The idea is to get to a place of inner calmness, like Swamiji states, so we can honestly evaluate our lives and separate our Soul self from our little ego self, long enough to gain clarity and see the bigger picture or longer rhythms of our lives.

In the course, we practice meditation before writing to calm our emotions so we can write from a place of clarity in order to practice introspection free of bias, and to more likely come up with lasting solutions. After writing, we generally feel either free or agitated. We meditate after writing to balance our heightened emotions by matching them to the calm, steadiness of our breath, or to expand into that peaceful feeling of freedom that journaling can bring. We practice many innovative and traditional journaling techniques to help students open up to their Soul self (or highest self) and to process blockages created by experiences and emotions.

Expressive writing, or journaling, is a relatively new field of therapy. In 1986, scientific studies were conducted on it for the first time (by leading expressive writing researcher and social psychologist, Dr. James W. Pennebaker at University of Texas, Austin), and it was found that it increases our health and happiness. Writers in the study were going to the doctor less, reported less health issues at doctor visits, were sleeping better and were getting better grades in school. Techniques in the Writing and Consciousness course were developed and expanded from these first studies, and many are new but proven by my clients to be invaluable, and were created from techniques I learned in journalism school and in my counseling certification program.

Now, don’t think our journaling focus is just on negative emotions and events. On the contrary, it’s very important to write about happy events and memories as well. Writing can be fun and we’ll surely find that in journaling. Each of us is made up of divine qualities — joy, peace, love, calmness, power, wisdom, light and sound. Sometimes we forget that we are these things. Journaling helps us remember. And that can be fun and enlightening. It was for Sarah when she remembered that she had power, that she is power. And unveiling these qualities can be just as enlightening for us.

As Yogis, we practice balance. We know that even feelings of prolonged elation can cause blockages, because we’re then living in the falsehood that overexcitement brings, opposed to living in truth brought by divine joy. Plus, it’s just good to reflect on our happiness! By uplifting our consciousness, expressive writing allows us to live daily from that place of inner peace, love and joy. When our consciousness is in a higher state, we engage in more actions of compassion, love, empathy and understanding, opposed to a life lived in a more negative state of awareness, where we’re driven by feelings of doubt, fear, anger or greed. Expressive writing changes the way we view ourselves and the world around us, and there are fascinating techniques that help us specifically do this, but I want to save some surprises for the sample class later today.

It’s important to realize that we are living in an age where more people are turning to holistic healing methods and expressive therapies, like journaling, in order to heal and transform. They are done with the methods and medicines that simply mask their symptoms, like antidepressants, and are seeking the real thing — TRUTH — and are ready for it. They know that truth will heal them. Truth is the honesty and divine guidance that we’ll find when journaling. Truth heals by raising consciousness to a state of upliftment where we are able to let go of what’s ailing us and merge back into our highest qualities that represent our true self.

Miriam and others have shared with me that they think many people like Sarah will find Ananda Laurelwood. I agree. These people are done with living in their problems and want to heal from within. They might not know it, but they want to raise their consciousness. And the Yoga Institute offers so many ways to do just that through expressive arts — through musicwriting,visual arts and holistic healing.

The paper we write on when journaling should be a mirror reflecting our truest, innermost self. The ultimate goal in the Writing and Consciousness course is to reveal both our ego self and our Soul self, and then hold onto and expand into our Soul self, and let go of our ego. If Sarah could let go of her past and find her true, beautiful self by finding her own answers in journaling, we too can let go of what holds us back and become our highest selves. And as Swamiji says, may we release mental bias and accept divine guidance as it comes.