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Poetry for Health and Healing

by Steve Jaffe(more info)

listed in healing, originally published in issue 88 - May 2003

Introduction

Poetry saved my life. I know you think I mean this in some lofty, metaphorical way, but I don't. I mean it literally.

My heart gave out in 1999, and after three angioplasties and finally a quadruple bypass, my doctors prescribed the only thing they said would cure me: I needed to relax. At the time, that happened to be impossible. I was in a nasty, expensive legal battle with my former employer, my oldest child was seriously ill, and I was still reeling from a spiteful divorce from my wife of 21 years. But worse than all that, my new wife - a ray of sunlight in the darkness – had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt like everything was coming at me from every angle and that I couldn't get out from underneath it.

The author aand his wife

As it turns out, the stress was not only impeding my recovery, it was contributing to my illness. A study by The British National Health, Safety and Environmental Department shows that stress accounts for 80% of most modern illnesses, especially heart disease. Another alarming statistic, in a study by the American Institute of Stress, found that 70-90% of visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. In a very real way, stress was killing me and I didn't know how to turn off the valve.

But if the solution to my health problem was to relax, none of my doctors had a workable answer as to how to do it. I tried meditation, long walks, and exercise. I even sold my businesses and retired. Changing my lifestyle (as the doctors so helpfully suggested) was not working. My chest pains kept getting stronger and stronger.

Rhythm Poetry

I'd always kept a journal, but what I was writing in it – my anger and frustration – was all negative. One day, however, as I wrote about the arrogant attitude of my claims adjuster denying a part of my claim, I noticed something magical happening. My thoughts started to dance as I wrote, turning my emotions into, for lack of a better word, poetry. Now, I'm not claiming to be the next William Shakespeare, but the melodic, rhyming stanzas started to do what no doctor, no medication, no quadruple bypass, had been able to. It provided relief and even solutions to the severe problems that were plaguing me – or rather – killing me.

Each time I finished a poem, I felt better, pure and simple. As one poem turned into 20, I felt a change blanketing my body. The stressful thoughts that weighed on me for so long and controlled my chest pains were now channeled into this newfound journaling technique I called rhythm poetry.

Writing rhythm poetry forced me to shine a bright light on my life and take an honest look at the choices I'd made. And yes, that was often unpleasant. Think about how leeches were used in medieval times to suck infections out of wounds. Same idea. The poems were able to release the poisonous emotions, giving my brain a sort of reprieve. I coined the term 'mind diet', because this regime was making my mind fit and healthy, and in turn, having a similar effect on my body.

Even experts agree the key to good health and healing is learning to honestly identify your feelings – something few of us are able to do well. "The written word is very powerful", says Dr. John Graham-Pole, a professor of pediatrics and affiliate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Florida. "It helps (people) to make sense of things that are otherwise hard to make sense of." Writing rhythm poems forced me to address the crazy thoughts, worries, anxieties, tensions and fears I'd been living with for years.

What I was doing, I realize now, was telling 'Me' about myself – my hidden feelings – through my poems. Before, I had allowed my life to revolve around others, neglecting myself, keeping the bottled up stress I had locked up tight. Rhythm Poetry opened up my mind to possibilities that had previously seemed impossible.

Before I began writing poetry, there were mornings I hid in bed rather than confront the myriad of problems awaiting me. I remember one morning lying in bed, thinking about the day ahead of me: my wife was scheduled for a radiation treatment, my child had gone off his meds for the fourth time, and a team of contentious lawyers were planning to eat me for lunch at a deposition. But instead of burrowing under my blankets, I wrote a poem called 'Stay Loose'. I used the page to deal with my inability to cope at that moment.

Stay Loose

"The storm is here.
The wind is blowing,
trying to knock me down.
I am prepared to brace myself,
With feet well-planted on the ground.
I will stay loose and not fall down,
these storms all seem to burn out
I will just try to stand my ground,
and pound my chest and shout:
"You might be big and you might be strong
I am not scared or blue.
So blow real hard and try your best,
your time has run out for you."

The poem is simple, short and about something tangible that was happening at that moment. It helped me face the day. There have been many other bleak days which I soldiered through, armed with nothing but rhythm poetry. I just kept writing until my mind was free of all unwanted thoughts. During my wife's battle with breast cancer, writing poetry saved me from complete despair. The poems, 'Go Away I'm Not Home', 'Day by Day' and 'Hope in Small Bunches' are just a few of the 90-plus poems I wrote during that time which helped me deal with my emotions, rather than letting them fester. It was an incredibly powerful feeling.

The Mind Diet

To share that power with others who need it, I created the The Mind Diet Series (see www.minddietbooks.com). The interactive journaling programme provides step-by-step instruction to unleash your healing abilities. So far, I've released three books: Count Your Life With Smiles, Not Tears, Healing From Within, Emotionally Surviving Cancer and Beyond Valentine's Day, Making Love All Year Long. Each book tackles a different subject, but uses the same therapeutic techniques.

The most important thing to remember about writing rhythm poetry: it doesn't require a writing lesson. It does, however, require a desire on your part to want to be healthy every day and heal the day-to-day ills that might be plaguing you. My series is all about the process, not the product.

Perhaps the most important part of The Mind Diet technique is the personal evaluation sheet. In order to change, reduce your stress and improve your health, you first have to deal with all the factors that encompass your life. Make a list of 20 desires, attributes and qualities you want for yourself. Make sure you're being honest and open minded. These descriptions have to be exactly what you have always wanted. Then rate each one on a scale of 1-5 (five being the highest) and add up your score. You should strive to be somewhere between 85 and 95 percent. What you have accomplished is to create a mental and written picture of who you are going to become. (I am still working on mine, by the way.)

It was through this exercise that during my darkest times, I discovered I was not the person I really wanted to be. I was moulding myself into what I thought the world around me wanted. Every day I woke and saw a stranger in the mirror. Until I decided to change, to take control, and become the real me - nothing else I was doing to mend my health was working. Slowly, I started to shed away years and years of habits, personality traits and relationship ruts I always fell back into. In order to sculpt the person you'd like to see each day, you have to be willing to scrutinize your own insecurities, fears, phobias, habits and even current relationships.

After you've completed the evaluation, you'll read some of my poems to get an idea of how to go about it. Then you'll begin to write your own rhythm poems. The process is easy and doesn't require that you have any creative talent. Once you've identified the feelings or emotions you care to write about, you choose a title - this is possibly the most important step in writing the poem. The title speaks about your emotions, feelings and anxieties at the moment. After that, the rhythm poem just flows out of your brain onto the paper. At first you might just write a few lines, however as you become more comfortable, you will begin to witness your poems getting longer with more detailed solutions. The key to using this journaling technique is to be sure you write a message to yourself and end with a positive affirmation or solution. Do not think that you can solve your problems by writing to change others – I've tried, and believe me, it only brings greater frustration and avoidance of the real problems. If you're able to help yourself, then you can sit back and watch your world change for the better.

Happiness is the goal here. Liking yourself is the first step in the process. Writing rhythm poetry for health and healing will at first be painful and overwhelming. Accepting your own faults is never easy. However, as you work on your flaws, you will begin to see celebration in your world. Your poems will provide you with a written blueprint to guide you through your metamorphosis.

I have enjoyed coaching others, teaching how to write through painful emotions and learning to love change in the process. As you write poetry to inspire yourself, you are on the road to a well-balanced life that will keep you healthy for many years. While Eastern medicine is just beginning to explore the mind/body connection, the use of poetry as medicine goes back to ancient Egypt and beyond. "Poetry and medicine are so closely intertwined", says Jack Coulehan, MD, MPH, director of the institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society at State University of New York at Stony Brook. "When you go back in history and think about how healing occurred in traditional societies, most healing was related to the power of the word."

I'm living proof that this is true. These days, my heart is healthy and my spirit happy. Life is good. Thanks to poetry. I'd like to end with a poem that explains what a Mind Diet can be for you.

A Mind Diet

"A mind diet is the sunrise each morning,
and the sunset every night,
A mind diet reduces the stressful weight,
that is inside you and squeezing too tight.

A mind diet is a warm hug from your love,
Or the praise that is given when you feel so unloved.
A mind diet releases the many things
stuffed inside our heads
helping us to be able to jump out of bed.

The stresses of life are with us all the time,
making our minds overweight,
we need a constant mind diet to level us out,
before it becomes too late.

A program to reduce the weight that you carry,
requires that you diet well,
and work on the mind that is stressed so hard,
with an agenda for mind re-sell.

A mind diet is your way to release
and also your way to cope,
a mind diet only works for you,
if you truly attempt to invoke.

What is needed to lose all this unwanted weight,
is to open and express what's inside.
This release frees up all of the bulk,
that keeps brewing, and trying to desperately hide.

So commit to this diet,
that will reduce all this weight,
and allow you to feel a Mind Diet state.
A Mind Diet is the first step for you,
to bring out a beautiful much brighter view.

Comments:

  1. Tony Sheppard said..

    Really enjoyed your article, thanks ! I deliver poetry workshops and work within Men's Health. I too value the healing qualities of the written and spoken word. I'll be using your testimony with a workshop with trainee GP's this afternoon, thanks again and take care, T


  2. Brandi Faith Heindel said..

    Thank you for the article, it was really helpful for me I am doing a speech on can poetry changes lives, and I have to agree it dose help with stress and a lot of promblems. Myself as a poetry writer I use to have a lot of bad thaughts when I was a little girl but I turned and started to write poems to cope with everthing today and that's why its important to me and thank you for the information. Keep up the great work. All smiles :)


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About Steve Jaffe

Steve Jaffe is a published poet and novelist. He has owned his own insurance agency and a direct mail advertising company. Prior to those careers he worked in the corporate world for an oil company after graduating with his Bachelor of Science Degree in Marketing from the California State University at Pomona. He retired in 1999 due to health reasons and while using poetry to heal his heart disease he created The Mind Diet Group, Inc., which publishes interactive journaling books in the Mind Diet Series. The series presently consists of three books: Count Your Life With Smiles, Not Tears, Healing From Within, Emotionally Surviving Cancer and Beyond Valentine's Day, Making Love All Year Long. For more information about this series go to www.minddietbooks.com.

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