Writer and yoga teacher Helen Lehndorf answers this week’s Five Quick Questions (although she’s given us six). She will be teaching writing inspired by spiritual traditions at our upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat.
1. We had a discussion about the idea of the ‘spiritual’ that it was a bit too ‘airy fairy’ for many people and yet there has been a lot of interest in your workshop so far. Why do you think we shy away from writing about the spiritual, when especially with poetry it’s one of the first places that many people turn to in times of hardship or struggle?
Yes, thank you, Kirsten, for giving me a gentle shove to say what I actually meant in my workshop description when I was skirting around it a bit at first!
I think New Zealand Pākehā culture is predominantly secular/scientific-materialist with some cultural residue from Christianity and as such, to identify as a Pākehā person who engages with spiritual exploration and practices is to swim upstream a little. My ‘spiritual’ life is so personal and nuanced, I usually opt out of talking about it to people unless they are particularly curious, because I feel no inner-imperative to persuade anyone of anything.
There can be an odd conservatism in contemporary New Zealand poetry where irony and intellectual remove is celebrated but anything edging towards mysticism is looked down upon. I drank this kool-aid for a long while and bought the message that ‘mysticism’ meant flakey, ‘woo-woo’, magical-thinking, etc…but now I am so in love with Rumi, (and many other mystical writers through history) I have reclaimed the word ‘mystical’ for myself.
To be mystical is just to observe and celebrate the mystery in our daily lives, the life-force which exists in the unknowable questions and the paradoxes…so much wisdom stems from the ability to sit with the unknown, and many tools for coping with life, too. If you are able to BE with, or even to celebrate mystery, you are able to have a more peaceful mind because you aren’t constantly grasping for concrete answers. The mystic is the sibling of the nihilist – they are at opposite ends of the same spectrum, but they are connected. In my opinion, a nihilist is a mystic having a very bad day.
2. How do your spiritual practices affect/interact with your writing practices?
Yoga has taught me to not forget to breathe, to not forget to move my body from the hunched-over-a-laptop position. Meditation has taught me focus and single-pointed-mind in terms of doing one task at a time with my full attention. Both have taught me to discern what I can and can’t control, what matters and what doesn’t, and that there is a larger story to my existence. All of these things make my writing life more sustainable and enjoyable.
3. Some writers such as Rumi, Li-Young Lee and others see writing very much as a spiritual or meditative practice in and of itself. How do you feel about writing compared say to prayer, chanting or asana?
Writing is deep dialogue with the self, and engagement of the mind. In chanting, prayer and asana there are opportunities to surrender the self, which can be deeply refreshing.
4. Is the spiritual an undercurrent in all of your work?
Yes. It starts with awareness of mental habits and awareness of breath, and spirals out.
5. How do you use journalling to create your work?
I use it as a safe dumping ground. Journalling is where I write in a unfiltered way. In my journal are seeds, germs, blobs, hints, snatches…the raw material which can sometimes be shaped into more elegant writing (if I’m lucky.)
6. What should people expect from your workshop?
Questions, mainly! Lots of questions, arising from the work of great writers, to ask of themselves and to use as a ‘way in’ to generating some of their own writing. Also, connection and fun. The material will be deep, but so will the play! I’m hoping for some belly-laughs alongside the brain nourishment.