I consider myself fairly self-aware. I’m relatively in touch with my feelings and can put words to them. I have a good sense of my strengths and weaknesses. I know where I trip myself up. And yet, I’m never as aware of what’s really going on inside me, of what I really believe and how I’m really feeling deep down, as when I put words to paper. That’s when my thoughts and feelings crystallize. That’s when I come to understand my story, when I see it from a broader perspective. And even more so, that’s when I really begin to feel it.

Back in the day (before the coronavirus), I spent four days of writing, sharing, laughter, tears, community, and warmth with Nancy Slonim Aronie, founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard, and a Kripalu presenter. Nancy is a force of nature. With down-to-earth humor, tell-it-like-it-is wisdom, and unabashed enthusiasm, she creates a safe container for people to express their deepest truths.

Both seasoned writers and novices are given a prompt (something like, “What frightens me most is …”), and are encouraged to write without editing themselves. Then they read their stories aloud to the group. There’s only one rule that everyone must follow: “Tell people what you love about what they wrote,” Nancy says. “At the beginning of a creative process, criticism can shut people down. But when people feel safe, they take chances. When they aren’t worried about being judged, they tell the truth.”

One by one, each of us began reading our stories. Some wrote about memories of special occasions with loved ones, others about the details of daily life that bring peace or joy. There were stories about fractured relationships, immeasurable loss, and incredibly private experiences that had shaped the writer in profound ways. I found myself sharing intimate stories about my childhood and my recent past. And, when I read my stories aloud, my throat tightened and the tears eventually flowed. It was a relief to share what I carry inside, knowing that it would be received with only praise and support.

Peter Meyer, an attorney who does mediation and consults for parents of children with special education needs, is so taken with Nancy’s programs that he’s attended seven times. He finds reading his stories aloud to the group beneficial in important ways.

“Sharing intimate, intense utterances of your past with a group of compassionate active listeners is healing in a way that feels more powerful than therapy,” Peter says. “There’s a shift you feel as you release your hidden and sometimes horrid truths with a group of humans that ‘get it.’ It’s as if you release the negative energy from your body as you speak it.”

“A lot of people carry secrets and shame, and they’re toxic,” Nancy explains. “If you get them on the page, you get them out of the body and you don’t have to carry them around 24/7. They stop being your identity. They’re something that happened, but they’re not who you are.”

Nikki Graham, a writer and photographer who was taking the program for the first time, agrees. “It’s cathartic,” she says. “It opens the door to old wounds that you may or may not have dealt with and—surprise!—you find that there’s always more excavating to be done.”

In response to one of Nancy’s prompts, I wrote about an experience I’d had a few years back that was a source of shame. It surprised me that I wanted to tell the story to the group, but I knew I was in a judgment-free zone. And, after I told it, I could feel the beginnings of self-forgiveness, something I hadn’t allowed myself until that moment.

Nancy says writers are alchemists, because they can turn the darkest and most unsavory experiences into gold. “When we write, we can transform what happened to us,” she says, “but first we have to feel it.”

After four days of processing our thoughts and feelings on paper, sharing our most treasured and painful experiences, there was a collective feeling of connection and a palpable sense of levity among us. Nancy says the biggest takeaways for participants seem to be greater lightness of being, confidence, and inspiration. “My hope is that people reconnect with their vulnerability,” she says, “that they come away knowing that inside of everyone is a little person who got hurt. I want people to depart the group knowing they’re really the same as everybody else walking around—it’s just the details that are different.”

Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health