Category Archives: Spirituality

Christmas and the blessed baby

I’m not a member of any organised religion but because of where and when I was born, the Christian symbols and stories are the ones I’m most familiar with.

Of all the Christian symbols, the blessed baby speaks to me most strongly. I very frequently dream about babies, and these dreams always carry a wave of positive emotion, along with a sense of magic and mystery.

A baby is a bright bridge to the future, something fresh and new. During politically and socially turbulent times such as these, we might look to the future with fear and apprehension, but the baby is innocence of the open, trusting heart.

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Every Christmas, even though I’m not a Christian, I feel inspired by the archetypal energy of the blessed baby. I take time to contemplate and focus on celebrating every thing and every person that I love.

Family and friends, of course; people I’ve met and people I’ve yet to meet. Writing and teaching. Books, art exhibitions, theatre. The moors and coasts of Cornwall, where I live; the amazing cities I still have to visit.

This robin I can see right now, in the hedge outside my window. This coffee.

Every big and tiny thing we love reflects love back to us, warming and lighting our hearts.

My blog is both a big and tiny thing; it’s big for me, but tiny in the blogosphere. I love that some people come back again and again, until I feel I’ve got to know them, and some drop in from Africa or Hong Kong or Norway, giving me a sense of connection across the globe.

I haven’t had time to blog these last few weeks because I’ve been busy promoting my new book, Free-Range Writing, but I didn’t want to let Christmas go by without saying a warm seasonal thank-you.

Happy Christmas, and may you be touched by the archetypal power of the blessed baby, whether you follow any particular faith or none.

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‘Poetry is an act of peace’

I came across this quote from Pablo Neruda when I was preparing my workshop for Bridging Arts at the Truro Museum in June, and it was very much in my mind as I watched the writers who came to the workshop engaging on a deep emotional level with the stories in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition, about the Cornish experience in wartime.

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Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. Pablo Neruda

Writing is always about connection, whether we’re writing poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. In stories, we connect with the characters we create; they come alive for us because of the way they make us feel. In non-fiction, we connect with the ideas and experiences that spark our interest and passion; in poetry, we connect with the symbolic layer of the psyche, where meaning is not objective and exact, but something the heart understands.

Every kind of writing connects us with our shared humanity and helps us feel and appreciate the rich complicatedness of our shared human condition.

I’m thinking about this quotation again today because we seem to be bombarded in the news with reports of appalling acts of ignorance and cruelty, from the vicious suppression of citizens in Catalonia to the treatment of the poor and disabled by our government here. The maverick gunman in Las Vegas. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump… well I really have no words for them.

What we have, on the side of civilisation, is books. Reading, like writing, strengthens empathy, creates connection. It’s frightening to me that communities are losing public libraries, and schools are losing libraries too. Children are not encouraged and taught to read for pleasure, but rather to analyse and imitate, in order to gain good marks.

In my familiar world of children’s writing, the World Book Day list has just been announced. It’s full of books by celebrities, as if books by wonderful authors are somehow of less value than those that carry a famous name on the cover. We are not teaching children to value writing, but only to value fame.

Sometimes in the madness that seems to have the world in its grip, it can feel as if our civilisation is going to Hell in a handcart. Writing and reading are small acts of rebellion against a dominant ideology of greed and division.

I was really keen to teach the poetry workshop in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition – it felt like a privilege to have that opportunity. It felt like something really good to do, and I loved the ethos of Bridging Arts, which is all about creating connections.

I’m delighted to say that I’ve just heard from Bridging Arts that they would like me to run some more writing workshops next year in the run-up to the centenary of the end of WW1.

Write, read, remember. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important.

What do you think? Does reading and writing feel, to you, like ‘an act of peace’?

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Can a shaman cure writer’s block?

I recently listened to a programme on Radio 4 called Butterfly Mind, by Scottish  playwright, David Grieg, which posed the question, ‘Can a shaman cure writer’s block?’

The programme explained the shamanic world view and took us through Greig’s experience of soul retrieval with a shaman, including finding his spirit animal guide.

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One of my animal guides

The process was effective, insofar that although Grieg still experienced some periods of feeling blocked he no longer felt so worried about it, and his conclusion was that ‘maybe we just need new metaphors.’

Finding new metaphors enables a new understanding of situations, and therefore a new way of experiencing them. Images are bridges to the wider mind of image-ination; the wisdom of instinct, intuition and emotion, that dwarfs and contains the narrow rational viewpoint.

It doesn’t matter what system you use to find these metaphors. Maybe shamanic drumming and chanting will work for you, or maybe the wonderful gifts of your dreams.

Many of my creativity workshops involve some kind of image work. It’s easy, instant, exciting and enjoyable – and very effective. I’ve got two collage workshops coming up for the Society of Authors this autumn, one in London with Lucy Coats, who works in a shamanic way, and the other one in Manchester.

I’ve also scheduled a weekend workshop here in Cornwall in January, because that feels like the perfect time of year to share some image work techniques with writers who want to free up their creativity.

What tricks and techniques do you use to give your creativity a boost? Please share!

A home-made four-poster bed, an out-of-body experience and a flash of inspiration…

I’m delighted to welcome Dutch therapist, Susanne van Doorn, into the House of Dreams today, to tell the fascinating story of how she came to start her dream journal, years ago. She even includes some tips for you if you’d like to try it too.

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When Jenny invited me to write something about journalling, I immediately thought about my dream journal. It all started when I was 16.

I had a very romantic self-created Four-poster bed with old curtains that gave me the feeling I was embraced and secure when I retreated at the end of the day. It was all designed so I could secretly read without getting caught by my parents.

When I was 11 I had an out of body experience because I had gotten really ill from undiscovered type one diabetics. That whole experience, of flying around an unknown hospital and seeing (and nurturing) my body from above had ignited a fierce interest in spiritual books.

So, that specific night I want to tell you about, I had the book ‘Creative Dreaming’ from Patricia Garfield in my secret hideaway place to read. It was a revelation to me…

For the first time in my life I read that you have the ability to guide your dreams to give you an answer to a certain topic (and believe me, like any 16 year old, I was an accumulation of questions).

For the first time in my life, I read that you had the ability to ask the persons you meet in a dream for a gift.

I immediately turned out the light and went to sleep. You will not believe what happened…

In my dream I met my deceased aunt An (I am named after her: SusANne). I was thrilled to see her but than I remembered I had to ask her for a gift. So, like in most dreams I communicated telepathically to her and asked for my gift. She gave me a yellow rose, a sign of friendship.

You can imagine that such an experience had me craving for more. So I started writing down as many dreams as I could remember.

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Here is part of a dream I had the night before my first date with the man who would later become my husband.

“I am on a train, looking out of the window and I enjoy the sun very much. All of a sudden a drop of water touched my arm. I am amused and enjoy the coolness of the water.”

Being on a train is a symbol of the journey of life. We are all in it together, you have little influence on its direction after you have chosen a certain destination. But in my dream i enjoy the warmth of the sun.

The water is a symbol, of life, a symbol of the goddess if you will. It is like life gives me support to let me know that I am on the good track. The sun is shining, all the ingredients of fertility are there.

I hope that my blog will encourage the idea that you lay a pen and paper next to your bed, and write down a dream whenever you remember something. You’ll see that the more times you write something down, the better the memory of your dreams will be (I have 10 tips to improve dream memory in an ebook on my site).

And even if you don’t believe dreams have any meaning, you’ll be surprised how many times dreams have pointed out something.

Try to write in the first person’s perspective, even though it can be hard (dreams are often in the third person perspective). In this way the dream keeps its “juiciness”.

Jot down the main emotions you had the day before. Emotions are often the key towards attaching more mening to your dream.

Write down all the symbols in your dream and put your first association behind it.

Now re-write the story, using your associations and see if that gives you some useful insights into your personality.

The great thing about dreams is that they ignite your creativity (for example, I took a course in tarot because of a dream, I organised a trip to England searching for King Arthur also because of a dream). So for me the question if dreams mean anything or not is really not relevant. For me, dreams are a key to creativity.

I want to thank Jenny for giving me the opportunity to tell you something about journaling.

 

About Susanne

Susanne van Doorn, PhD (The Netherlands) is a Dutch therapist working for Therapeut van Binnenuit and blogging for Mindfunda, where she reviews new books about dreaming, spirituality and mythology, interviews authors and teaches several online courses.

Author of “A dreamers Guide through the Land of the deceased”, Mutual Dreaming: A Psiber Experiment with co-author Maria Cernuto published in Dreamtime spring 2014, translator of “Theory of Dreams” by Vasily Kasatkin (2014).

She is a regular presenter at Iasd conferences since 2013, In the Netherlands she gives presentations about dreams on a regular basis. She has a vibrant internet presence on Twitter: @susannevandoorn, Facebook and Linkedin.

You can read Susanne’s review of my book, Writing in the House of Dreams here.

When you say you love writing…

Reading brainpickings this morning (fantastic site – do check it out), I came upon a quotation from Dr Oliver Sachs:

I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue… In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…

That’s exactly how it is for me. I’ve always written, as I’ve always explored my dreams, for the joy of inhabiting more of my own mind, and in wonder at its curious workings. It isn’t that my mind is unusually vast and curious – everybody’s mind is, but through writing and dream-working, we become aware of that.

 

I think the fact that we all have this incredible vastness of mind is what leads to the feeling Sachs describes as accompanying our creative aha moments, the sudden rush of love for the world, and for thinking, which goes beyond the individual, and connects us all.

I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to earn enough from my published work and related activities such as teaching workshops to keep the wolf from the door, but I see that side of my writing as the job. It’s only a small part of the writer I am.

Writing brings me, again and again, to the edges of my awareness. It feels risky; it feels exciting, making new writing explorations, not knowing what I’m looking for, or what I might find.

Confronting the non-rational is unnerving. Here the unfettered mind suffers a      kind of agoraphobia, a fear of its own awesome spaces ~ Marilyn Ferguson

I would take it further even than mind, though. I feel that writing enables us to experience every area of our self more fully. The way we engage with the world through our senses, which can be quite unconscious until we need to pay attention to it in conjuring scenes and settings; the way emotion is not just something ephemeral, but anchored in the physical body, in blood and skin and muscle.

Our minds, our lives, are full of wonders, and when I say I love writing, I guess that really it is life I love.

What do you mean when you say you love writing?

‘Writing, for me, is liberating…’

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Judy Dinnen in the House of Dreams to talk about her personal writing, as part of my occasional series of guest blogs on journaling. Judy has an MA in creative writing from Cardiff university and is ordained in the Church of England. Some of her poems have been published in magazines or resource books.

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Judy Dinnen

I write because I need to, because some story or story seed beckons. I think pen and paper is best and sometimes it’s in my book of skies, so I write around clouds or through sunsets. You can see this notebook on a stone on the north Wales coast.

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These clouds might seep into my words but not always. Now I have a book of walls and I wonder how this will constrain or inspire my writing. In the first year of Trump, I have reservations about the effects of walls. I need to become a graffiti writer out in the open air.

I write sporadically, often in holidays or trips to new or interesting places. For example I went to the Nazi parade ground in Nürnberg last year and was moved by the scattered names of prisoners on railway tracks. That’ s a bit like piggybacking on the artwork of others, but I’m glad to say I wasn’t on the trains to Auschwitz. It was the names that spoke to me, that shocked me, so many, yet each one recorded for eternity.

I often pick up on moving words or personal stories and turn an event into poem. I sometimes write freely and carelessly when faced by some problem or angst. I first wrote like this the night my mother died. I never turned that into a poem but it did serve to show how releasing writing can be. I felt also that she had given me this gift of poetry.

Writing for me is liberating; it helps me to think, to feel, to untangle conundrums. That’s why I belong to Lapidus and to The Creative Arts Retreat Movement, or CARM. I have led workshops with the homeless, bereaved and village groups and in this new phase of my life I lead poetry retreats with CARM.

In these retreats I offer Christian prayer, space, poems, writing prompts and plenty of time for punters to explore words. They might explore the joy and value of words, words placed alongside each other, words echoing or enhancing each other, crying together or arguing.

Sometimes I’m just a writer on these retreats and then I use lovely surroundings to inspire me. In that place in North Wales I like to sit on the sea-shore and listen to the waves. They tell me what to write. In that house of prayer there is an intriguing labyrinth and walking round and in and back is a metaphor for life. Scope for raising questions; scope for adventures too!

I love that Judy felt her mother had given her the gift of poetry. That is a wonderful gift indeed.

You can find out more about CARM retreats here

If you keep a diary, journal or notebook, we would love to hear your story. Please send a piece of about 500 words, some pics of you and your journals, plus any links you’d like to include to  author@jennyalexander.co.uk

Leave Judy a comment if you have enjoyed her contribution. 

Diaries, Notebooks, Journals… Let’s Talk About Personal Writing!

Every year, in early January, I run a workshop called ‘Writing the New Year In.’ It’s one of my favourites, and I look forward to it. My goal is to help people experience the deep pleasure of personal writing, which can help you find your writing confidence and voice, and may become a seedbed for ideas that will grow into finished writing projects.

So what better time to launch my new occasional series of guest blogs about private writing?

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Karen Laura Steel to the House of Dreams to talk about her writing journals. Karen is a funeral celebrant – she takes naming ceremonies and weddings as well – who has also worked for 20 years singing to elderly and brain damaged people in residential settings.

Here is the story of her personal writing.

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Karen Laura Steel

I remember the first diary that allowed me to write more than childhood entries: “Went to school. Ate jam sandwich…”. It charmed me with its ornamental lock and pretty little key. I was 10, and it was a 5-Year diary, so I was aware it was something of a commitment, but the closely drawn lines and the never-ending feeling gave me a kind of hope. There weren’t many days over those 5 years that I didn’t write at least a small entry on how I was coping at new schools; having begun Comprehensive Education, only to move after 18 months, having to start O Level courses again. My diary listened as I missed old friends, found that cliques, once made, were hard to break into, and that friends we’d moved to be closer to weren’t necessarily worth the effort!

My teen-diaries received emotions on unrequited love, the excitement of prospective love-interests and despair when things went hopelessly wrong.

By the time I was beginning my degree, a plain notebook accompanied me everywhere, especially invaluable during my semester in America as I recorded first impressions of places and people every few hours at least. It was my 1980s version of fb, but private and didn’t need the approbation of others.

Battling depression in my twenties my journal received all my heart’s outpourings when no one else seemed interested or capable of understanding where I was coming from. In my thirties when finally receiving help, dream journals, notes on counselling sessions or discussions with helpful friends gave way to writing about new avenues of spirituality as I explored Yoga, its philosophy, and anything which gave a different perspective on the world.

Over time my journals have also generated other creative outlets, germinating ideas for songs or other writing.

Too much work ate into journal time last year, until I decided that life was far more enjoyable when I could jot down my problems and see the solutions emerging spontaneously.

Part of me wishes the notebooks were all the same size or of similar design, but the array of covers which have held my confidences are a testimony in themselves to my changing life, tastes and experience and are precious for that. I am writing once a week at the moment – and the desire to do it more often is encouraging me that I’m back on track!

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Some of Karen’s notebooks

You can find out more about Karen’s work by visiting her website or reading her blog, Diary of a Funeral Celebrant.

Do you have a practice of personal writing? If so, we’d love to hear about it here in the House of Dreams. Please email your piece, up to 400 words, a sentence or two about yourself and any links you’d like to include, to author@jennyalexander.co.uk. A photo of yourself would also be good, and possibly one of your journals.

I’m planning to make this an occasional series throughout 2017, welcoming a wide range of guests. Let’s celebrate personal writing!

What does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas can be the most wonderful time, or the most bleak, depending on what’s going on in your life. We associate the festive season with abundance, and as much as it can be an opportunity to celebrate all the good things we have, it can also heighten our awareness of what we lack.

Money, certainly, with so much pressure on us to buy, buy, buy. For some people, a home. Family maybe, or friends. Or a specific family member, now departed, or a specific friend. Like most people, I’ve had some very bleak Christmases in my life, but I’ve never stopped loving Christmas.

Because for me, Christmas is about love. The birth of love in the world, the symbolic baby which, in difficult times, is the gift of hope for a better future.

I think that in the modern world we can sometimes have too narrow an idea of love. We tend only to think of it in terms of other people – children, parents, siblings, wider family and friends. But love is much bigger than that.

We can experience a deep love and sense of connection with our environment, or our work, or our inner world, which is just as transforming as love within relationships.

Carl Jung says the creative mind plays with the objects it loves, and whatever else is going on in my life, I always love the beautiful objects of my imagination, which I meet on the page or in dreams. That love is a force behind all my work, including this blog.

Love of every kind enlarges us, holds and inspires us. When we’re with someone we love, or doing something we love, or in a place we love, we’re not thinking, we’re just being. Time future and past is gone, and we are truly present.

You can call it God, this context in which we lose our small self. You can call it Nature, Great Spirit, Soul, or simply Love. Whatever we love redeems us from the lonely responsibility of feeling we are all that there is.

Love does not depend on money, home, family, friends – it’s a force in the world, and in our human nature. More than ever in these turbulent times, when we can feel helpless and in despair, love is a choice we can always make.

For me, Christmas feels like a reminder of that, in case we forget.

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This Christmas, may you feel blessed. 

 

I dream, therefore I am

I enjoy reading about quantum physics because it’s basically an exploration into the nature  of reality – matter, energy, parallel universes – all the things that I myself love to explore through dreaming.

Recently, I stumbled upon an article in Mother Nature Network with the intriguing title, Parallel worlds exist and interact with our world, say physicists

It takes the theory of parallel worlds a step further, because it proposes that they might not only exist, but also affect our lives in this one and, here’s the exciting thing, we might therefore be able to investigate them.

Now there’s a new theory on the block, called the “many interacting worlds” hypothesis (MIW), and the idea is just as profound as it sounds. The theory suggests not only that parallel worlds exist, but that they interact with our world on the quantum level and are thus detectable.

When I read about this, it reminded me of discovering that science had proven matter is actually energy – a fact that dreamers, shamans and other psychic explorers have always taken as read. I feel that science is not about discovering phenomena so much as discovering rational explanations for them.

Of course, when I talk about dreaming, I’m not talking about the psychological – that is, scientific and rational – way of being a dreamer. As soon as you let go of the psychological model, you understand through creative dreaming that the psychological model is far too small.

We are much more than what we think and understand about our self and our life. Our world is much more too. From just this universe, to parallel universes and now to parallel universes that interact with the one we know, the doors of perception are being cleansed.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern~ William Blake

Dreaming is an opportunity to cross the borders into other worlds. We live in this world as if it’s our one and only life, but for a dreamer like me, it nests among other lives and way beyond, stretching to infinity.

It doesn’t matter to me whether this can be explained, or even whether it’s ‘real’ in the scientific sense. It is real because it makes my reality. I dream, therefore I am.

 

10 Fantastic Christmas Presents for Writers

It’s that time again, and the great thing about buying things for writers is that you can give them something that will provide weeks or months of writing pleasure and inspiration without breaking the bank.

Here are some suggestions for things your writing friends might like – or if you’re a writer, why not treat yourself?

Gorgeous Notebooks.

The name says it all, and they really are gorgeous. I’ve been using them for my writing journals for several years now, as readers of my newsletter will know. Great quality paper, beautiful binding, a useful ribbon to mark your place and a handy pocket at the back for bits and pieces.

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Disposable fountain pens.

They write just like a fountain pen but the ink doesn’t smudge, and they come in every colour. If you aren’t keen on sharpies for book-signing, these are a good alternative, as well as being excellent for writing in your gorgeous notebook, of course.

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Coach Yourself to Writing Success

Whatever kind of writing you do, it helps to understand what’s most important to you and create writing goals that fit with your core values. That way, you’re both more likely to succeed and also more likely to enjoy your success when you do. My friend Penny Dolan recommended this book to me a while ago, and I’ve recommended it to other writer friends ever since.

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Go Stationery pocket notebooks

Even in these days of mobile phones, most writers like to carry a notebook somewhere about their person when they’re away from home, and these are perfect – not too big, bulky, or heavy to put in your pocket; soft but not flimsy covers; good quality unlined paper and attractive cover designs.

I got mine from Waterstones.

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100 Prized Poems

Not just writers, but everybody in the world can find solace, joy, companionship and inspiration in poetry, and this new book is full of wonderful poems. My thanks to Jackie Kay for recommending it during her brilliant workshop at the North Cornwall Book Festival 🙂

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6 A writing workshop – any writing workshop!

Speaking of Jackie Kay’s workshop, which was pure delight, a place on a writing workshop will please your writer friends or writer self, and it’ll be something to look forward to at the end of the Christmas festivities.

I love going on other people’s workshops, and I’ve yet to meet another writer who doesn’t. (I’ve added the link to mine, but you can just google writing workshops in your area to find ones local to you)

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7 Probably my favourite book on writing ever

Being a writer isn’t just a way you pass your time – it’s a part of the way you are. Developing a practice of writing is a profound kind of self development, and Natalie Goldberg brings a Buddhist sensibility to it which I love.

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And speaking of self development…

8 Shamanic and Jungian tools for writers who want to rewrite their own story

This is a fascinating workbook with loads of writing exercises. Not for everyone, obviously, but I really enjoyed it.

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9 A day out to somewhere interesting

Most writers are more excited by experiences than things, so how about a ticket to somewhere that might spark their imagination, such as the Foundling Museum?

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10 And finally…

Two companionable books for writers from me, which both offer plenty of short writing tasks for you or your writer friends to take refuge in if you need to pace yourselves over the festive period.

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Happy Christmas shopping!

Have you got any recommendations for Christmas presents for writers? Please share!