Literature and Mental Health: Poetry and Mindfulness

Poetry and mindfulness

What is poetry anyway?

I hated poetry at school. Mostly because I could become fascinated with a poem, and draw all over it, creating my own ideas about what it was about, and then the teacher would talk. I’d stare at the annotations I’d made wondering how it was that I couldn’t see the rhymes. Why was it that my syllables added up differently each time I counted? And I blamed the poet for not writing more explicitly what they were trying to say.

The silent pursuits of reading and writing are great. I just had a problem with sounds.

Over Christmas, my sister left a couple of poetry books lying in the living room. She is very much fond of spoken word poetry. I started reading and looked and saw that this poetry, which followed no obvious pattern, which sometimes makes less sense than my own diary, didn’t resemble the poetry I remembered from school.

And I didn’t like it. Or rather, I liked it, because it was soppy at times, emotional and poignant, but I didn’t regard it as poetry. It was more like the rubbish that I would like to tweet as my heart breaks, but hopefully judge it wiser not to. Of course, I love what I write, as I write it in that emotional splurge of a moment, and to me it feels real. Very real. Genius in fact. But I just don’t imagine anyone else quite understanding without a heart transplant.

Literature and Mental Health

So how come, that now, today, I’m thinking and writing about poetry? Well it comes down to my decision to do a free online course called Literature and Mental Health. There is little logic to how I chose what to study next. I have done multiple courses in the art and archaeology of Ancient Egypt which I picked because the course title began with an A. The gift of a wonderful curiosity.

But I read a lot. And I read a lot about how we think about ourselves, and how we as people might have brighter happier thoughts. So maybe it does make sense.

I read when I’m heartbroken. Specifically, books that can educate me in such a way as the pain I weep is logically and rationally assessed, a strategy put in place, and understanding found. I swear off repeating the same stupid, stupid mistakes.

Seeing a course on literature and mental health started me wondering whether there was an alternative, additional way to use reading to get me from numbness or fear back into that realm of bright happy thoughts. (Not in any way negating the success of my aggressive self-help reading strategy. For me at least, such a strategy is more effective than chocolate.)

Mindfulness, meditation, taking a walk or reading poetry

Week one, and Stephen Fry is talking about how ‘great poetry isn’t a tantrum’ which I get. And prosodics and enjambments and ottava, which I got momentarily, but have now forgotten.

Poetry can do something special to the mind. It can slow you down, pull you towards specific images: the calm of nature or the soothing familiarity of something as ridiculous as a child’s ball game or the shipping forecast. A bit like meditation. Except in poetry you have sounds and ink and with meditation you have that continuous inhale and exhale.

I’d never thought about poetry like this. For me, it’s always felt combative. As if the poet was challenging me to see why it’s great. Unsurprisingly, I only like a few poems. Normally only ones about hedgehogs.

Yet many other people have strong, positive experiences of poetry. So I’m slowly letting these uncountable syllables and mysterious rhymes into my life.

So, my question today, as a person ignorant to the world’s vast array of poetry, is whose poetry do you like?

What happens when you play with silence

I’ve been thinking about silence.

It comes from practicing silence. Closing doors as quietly as possible. Tip-toeing around in socks. Lifting your chair rather than just giving it a shove when you want to tuck it under the table. Stirring your milk into your tea without the spoon touching the sides of the mug. And not speaking.

I spent just under 10 days in such a silence as I learnt to meditate.

Silence of Thought

Whilst meditating, my thoughts were supposed to be silent too. My mind was supposed to be focused. But silencing your thoughts is hard. It’s a process of disengagement rather than shutting them up and it’s not something that comes naturally.

Hence, whilst feeling the subtle effects of my breath, my mind also reflected on the experience of silence.

Silence of Technology

As well as not speaking, I sent no messages through any electronic device. I had no access to a computer and my phone was in a locker in a locked locker room that was out of bounds. I wonder if I have had been away from a phone or computer for such a duration since my age reached double digits. I rather doubt it. Maybe on a long scout camp, but even then I imagine I had my mobile.

Despite only being in Hereford, I was more isolated from my family and friends than I’d been a few months previously when I’d been in Egypt.

Silence of Reading

‘Course boundary’, ‘Female course boundary’ and the signs telling you how to exit the buildings in case of a fire, were the only words I read. I didn’t write either. I had no pen and so was forced to remember what I wanted to write about on my escape.

Not writing was an interesting challenge because on a daily basis I write lots. I write for professional reasons, but I also write to organise my thoughts and my emotions. I do much of my reasoning on paper. Not writing meant that my thoughts hung around longer and kept running in repeating loops around my head.

The Power of Silence

After the silence had broken, a group of us gathered around a couple of tables, drank tea and reflected on the experience. One woman bravely leant back in her chair and said boldly, “Well I found that I’m much funnier than I thought.”

Eyes connected, and an acknowledgement of ‘me too’ went around the table. We all laughed at ourselves.

The woman who had spoken up had spent days of the course in floods of tears, but reflecting on the experience as a whole was much moved by the resilience of her mind. Now, cheerful and loud, she seemed far removed from an emotional breakdown.

I get the impression people expect silence to be boring or perhaps intimidating. Dare to give all those deeply hidden thoughts room to manoeuvre and perhaps they’ll take over. Of course thoughts surface. Faces and unkind or thoughtless comments from years ago battle for attention. Worries, to do lists and regrets are loud thoughts, dominating thoughts. We’re well practiced in giving them priority and forgetting our minds are actually creative, amusing and fun.

Thoughts on Tolerance on a Tuesday evening

I’m not as tolerant as I would like to be. Standing in other people’s shoes, accepting that not everyone has my values and nobody has exactly my worldview isn’t easy. With-holding judgement isn’t an art I’ve mastered.

There is no ‘but’ to this, no ‘however’, no excuses.

There’s a pain that comes with realising I have all these flaws and that they’re often cast as the leading lady in the drama that is my life. Yet through the sharp sting of a thoughtless statement and the dull ache of tedious politics there is a whole ocean of potentials. Possibilities for me to build this tolerance, listen to people’s stories and learn to understand them.Learn to understand myself.

My worldview needs expanding; my judgements have to be challenged.

It isn’t comfortable.

A cycle of extreme determination and then crash

By Posted on Location: 2min read

The Father quietly reminds me that I’ve a history of doing too much and then regressing back to an ornery thirteen-year-old as I disintegrate. He’s normally about a week too late, and more polite.

I started this week without having had enough sleep, something to do with a cancelled flight, the Midget’s addictive chatter and a concert. Last weekend was a great weekend.

There’s a higher background stress permeating the air around me: I need to find somewhere to live and at work we’re down a team member. Recruitment is a slow slow business that’s wearing us down. Furthermore, I’m in the beginnings of a potential freelance opportunity that’s amazing – if I can make it work. And… I’m racing 10km at the weekend.

In comparison to some it’s a pretty small list. For me however, it’s huge.

I know I’ve got problems when my dispraxic tongue begins tripping me up. My boss stares back across the desk at me. My words tumble out, but they’re all in the wrong order as if my tongue had taken leave of my brain and decided to try a shot at improvisation. It feels like I’m simultaneously trying to rub my stomach, pat my head and sing a nursery rhyme. I’m failing.

My skin is outraged.

There’s a tightness behind my eye, and more from alarm than habit I put on my glasses. I can handle a migraine, but I’d really rather it happened in the safety of home. Friday arrives with a sense of relief. I’m knocking over glasses, breaking them as I attempt to wash up and snapping at people who don’t deserve it. I need to stop.

Of course, none of this is a real problem. Give it a few days and I’ll be fighting fit. A few early nights, maybe an hour or two of meditation, a quiet afternoon spent curled up with a book and progress on the housing issue and I’ll be re-energised.

Yet, maybe it will be a few months, hopefully longer, but I’ll soon be back here again. It’s a cycle of extreme determination and then crash. I don’t recognise I’m falling apart until it’s too late and despite my determination I can’t seem to learn.

The final days of life; the first days of life.

The Nonna died, with my pink teddy bear and the Midget’s crying mouse in her arms. Warm, peaceful, painless. Death.

I held a tiny baby in my arms. One week old, the son of a friend, lips twisting ready to smile. Warm, soft, sleepy. Life.

And my mind is twisted by this circle that I so regularly ignore, the inevitable, the potential.

If I knew how to cry, I know I’ve got a world of emotion struggling inside me, but I don’t know how. I don’t know what I feel. First shock. The phone call stating that there was nothing more that could be done, the life support the Nonna’s body depended on would be switched off. Her brain, damaged beyond repair. Her life ended. Her breathing, once the ventilator was removed, steady but raspy. The snoring, predicted and normal, sounded a familiar imitation of The Mother.

Yet, throughout, her hand in mine was warm. The night passed and the sun rose, the sleepless night exhausting. Her breathing became more laboured. Gentle nurses injected drugs, brushed her teeth, applied lip-salve, and kept her eyes the picture of peace.

The end came eventually, as it does for all of us.

And in another room, a life was only beginning.