Creative Meetups: Action Learning for Health and Healing

Creative Meetups are provided by the Health Story Collaborative (HSC) to enable participants to reflect, connect and gain support from other people who are also living with chronic illness or disability or are carers.  The free Meetups, currently facilitated by Jennifer Harris on the Zoom platform, provide a stimulus for writing “to access and release emotions, personal stories and creative spirits”.  They form an avenue for healing through the mechanism of narrative therapy.

Alice Morgan, author of What Is Narrative Therapy?, maintains that narrative therapy can take many forms.  For instance, she suggests that it can involve “particular ways of talking with people about their lives and the problems they are experiencing”.  In essence, it involves people sharing their stories orally and/or in writing to gain insight into the meanings they ascribe to events, experiences and current situations (such as a physical or mental health condition).  Jodi Clarke points out that we carry multiple self-stories including those related to “self-esteem, abilities, relationships and work.”  She maintains that the process of “putting your narrative together” (however, this is created) enables an individual “to find their voice” as they explore  their life experiences and the meanings they attribute to them.

What is action learning?

Action learning can be described in simple terms as a cycle – planning, taking action and reflecting on the outcomes (intended and unintended).  It is used worldwide in public, private and not-for profit organisations and communities to create positive change and empower people to be the best they can be.  It can be undertaken by an individual by themselves (as I have done with my tennis playing over the years) or, more often, as part of a group or “action learning set”.

Creative Meetups and Action Learning

Creative Meetups and action learning have a core assumption in common.  Alice Morgan expressed this well when she maintained that narrative therapy assumes that “people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities” to resolve their own challenging situations – an assumption that underpins the process of Creative Meetups.  This is also a fundamental assumption of action learning (AL).  

Reg Revans, the “Father of Action Learning”, charged with improving the mining industry in the UK, got mining managers together to solve their “here and now problems” in the mines.    He also got nurses in Intensive Care Units together to work on their challenging situations.  In an action learning context, participants are often described as “personal scientists”.  Some academics in universities, tied to the concept of universities as the sole repository of “expert knowledge”, had great difficulty accepting this core assumption and would actively oppose the uptake of action learning – it challenged their firmly held beliefs about knowledge creation and dissemination.

Creative Meetups and action learning have a number of other elements in common and, in the final analysis, both seek to create positive change in a situation (either individual or collective).  Some of the shared elements are as follows:

  1. Peer support – a fundamental principle is to treat each other as peers – with no acknowledged hierarchical difference.  There is a recognition that we are “all in the same boat” – each facing challenging situations.  Reg described this element as “comrades in adversity”; more recently, people have termed it “comrades in opportunity”.  In essence, it involves providing mutual support irrespective of our work role, status, social position or experience level.
  2. Collaboration – participants work together towards a common goal (e.g. health and healing or team improvement) and willingly share stores, resources, and insights for mutual benefit.  People are unstinting in their sharing – often recommending or loaning books, highlighting helpful websites or identifying relevant expert people.
  3. Don’t know mind – participants adopt a “don’t know mind”, not presuming to know and understand another person’s situation.  Reg suggests that if you think you understand something fully, you are not only going to get yourself into trouble but other people as well.   Adopting a don’t know mind – not jumping to conclusions or interrupting another’s story with your own (erroneously assuming they are same or similar) – enables a person to tell their story in an unfettered way, opening up the path to healing and recovery. 
  4. Honesty – the conscious exploration of what it means to be honest with oneself (owning up) and with others.  This opens the way for improvement and change.  The process of writing in Creative Meetups helps participants to identify false self-stories and unearth truer and richer stories that open up new avenues for their lives and their relationships. Action learning, too, enables the development of honesty.  Reg, for example, recounts an action learning program involving industrial executives in Belgium who, after 18 months of action learning, identified “What is an honest man and what do I need to become one?” (they were all men) as the most significant question they wished they had asked at the start of the program.  He maintained that the pathway to learning and change involves “admitting what you do not know”.  Reg also maintained that if you are going to do “something significant about something imperative”, you will come up against how you define yourself and your role.
  5. Reflection – reflection is assisted by writing and sharing.  The more we reflect, the more it becomes a way of life.  Frequent reflection-on-action can result in the ability to reflect-in-action.  Reg suggests that reflection is best done in a group because when we reflect alone we can tend to reinforce our existing assumptions and maintain our blindspots.  He argues for diversity in the reflective group – diversity of culture, nationality, profession and orientation (business/not-for-profit/community).  The Creative Meetups provide a rich diversity in terms of location (participants are from different countries and cultures) and health/caring situation.   Participants can gain insight gratuitously when others share their reflections from their different perspectives.
  6. Questioning – the willingness and ability to ask “fresh question” to open upinsight into a challenging situation.  Reg describes this as “questioning insight”.  This approach involves “supportive challenge” – challenging assumptions to enable a person to be the best they can be.  Alice Morgan highlights the role of questioning in narrative therapy because we can often develop negative self-stories.  Both action learning and Creative Meetups (narrative therapy) cultivate curiosity.
  7. Action taking – action learning involves learning through action undertaken with others where possible.  Creative Meetups promote writing as taking action to become open to  the healing power of storytelling.   The writing can take any form, e.g. prose, poetry, dot points.  Action is also reflected in the changes in behaviour undertaken by participants as a result of insights gained through writing and sharing.
  8. Facilitation – to design and manage the process of sharing.  In Creative Meetups, the facilitator provides stimulus material (e.g., a story, music or poem) to enable participants to write and share.  In action learning, the facilitator guides the process of planning, acting, reflecting and sharing.  In both situations, the facilitator is not a teacher.  Their role is to create an environment that promotes safety, trust, openness and sharing – their metaprocess goal is to develop a learning community.   

Creative Meetups, in promoting writing and reflection, are helping participants to grow in mindfulness which is described by MARC (UCLA) as “paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”.   Both action learning and mindfulness contribute to positive mental health because they increase self-awareness and heighten a sense of agency (belief in the capacity to have some control over our inner and outer environment).  In cultivating mindfulness, both approaches help people to develop resilience, compassion and creativity. 

Reflection

I initially joined the Meetups with a view to writing my stories in prose but have found that the stimulus provided by the discussions and my recent reading of Kim Rosen’s book,  Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, has led me to write several poems about my health story and the process of the Meetups.  Kim’s identification of the transformative elements of a poem continues to provide a pathway for my poetic expression.   I used her elements to analyse a poem I had written called For the Love of Tennis that enabled me to express my gratitude for being able to continue to play tennis despite a diagnosis of “multiple-level spinal degeneration”.

Following a recent Meetup, I unearthed my feelings about my chronic condition of food sensitivity/allergy resulting from Long Covid-induced Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.   I was surprised about the intensity of my feelings of frustration and alienation that I had not previously given voice to.   The poem, The Inflammatory Thread in My Life, provided a creative outlet and release for emotions I had kept “under wraps” and not expressed to anyone, including myself.

In a previous post, I shared a poem, Compassionate Listening, that I wrote following a Creative Meetup where the stimulus input included an excerpt from Joni Mitchell’s performance of Both Sides Now at the 2024 Grammy Awards.  To me the poem reflects the stance of participants of the Creative Meetup in being able to engage in deep listening, provide active support of the storyteller and reflect back not only the feelings expressed but also the intensity of those feelings. 

Compassionate listening strongly reflects the ethos of HSC where Healing Story Principals (such as Micheal Bischoff) sought to support people “to tell and listen to stories in ways that are healing, connected and empowering”.  The support and connection underpinning Creative Meetups and action learning promote health and healing.

Reflecting on the process of Creative Meetups and my long-standing experience with action learning in multiple contexts, I was inspired to write the following poem:

Where is “There”?

When you share your innermost secrets

and I say, “I’ve been there!”,

where is “there”?

It’s not where you have been

with your unique experience and perception.

I’m not inside you looking out,

I’m outside you looking in.

It’s like the glimpse of the Bay

that I get from my back deck.

It’s not the Bay!

It’s only a tiny window

on a complex ecosystem.

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Image by Xavier Lavin Pino from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

The Transformative Elements of a Poem

In a previous post I discussed the transformative power of poetry.  In that post, I drew on Kim Rosen’s book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, to illustrate personal transformations that have occurred through poetry, including that of the author and Maya Angelou.  Poetry has a special power to transcend our analytical mind and capture our deeper inner landscape.  It has a unique capacity to move people out of darkness into light, out of depression into contentment, out of loneliness into connection.  In a section of her book, The Anatomy of A Poem (Chapter 5), Kim explains the elements of a poem that generate this transformative power.  She links her discussion of the poetic elements to their psychophysical impact on an individual, while acknowledging that each person reacts to a poem differently and may change their reaction over time – rejection can turn into admiration.    

The anatomy of a poem

In discussing the elements of a poem that may contribute to personal transformation, Kim identifies four aspects that can influence our reaction – (1) breath, (2) drumbeat, (3) song, and (4) image.  These are discussed below to offer a sense of what they may look like and feel like:

  • Breath – our breathing can be impacted by the pattern and pace developed in a poem through rhythm, line length and phrasing.  Rhythm, for example, can create calmness or a sense of urgency.  Line length can be slow and ponderous or fast and staccato-like.  Phrasing can be regular or irregular with disruption to an established pattern by short statements or punctuation.  Surprise and challenge can change breathing patterns because they can pull us up from our habituated behaviours.
  • Drumbeat – the sense of a drum beating can flow from accentuated syllables followed by softer syllables or broken with pauses.  The rhythm of a poem can create a sound experience similar to that of a drumbeat.
  • Song – a sense of singing can be generated through repetition, rhyme, or rhythm or alliteration as in the repeated “r’s” in this sentence. Words themselves can conjure sounds and their own sound can be a reminder of a song or singing.  Resonance in a poem has a unique quality that can reverberate in the listener’s mind and body.  Kim also maintains that “rhythm creates entrainment” and entrainment, in turn, “creates passion and movement” – the whole person synchronizes with the poem’s rhythm.
  • Image – can be created by word-pictures, metaphor, exploring ambiguity or opposites, and challenging linearity or expectations.  Kim argues that “the body feels the images” – images that create sensations arising from both left-brain and right-brain activation.

While each component of an element (such as repetition, rhyme, or metaphor) can create an effect, it’s the unique combination of elements in a poem that can generate a transformational impact.  In a New Dimensions Radio podcast, Kim discusses her concept of the “anatomy of a poem” and describes poetry, in all its many forms, as medicine for the soul.

Reflection: A poem about tennis

My poem below was inspired by Kim’s discussion of the “anatomy of a poem”.  In writing the poem I was conscious of the transformative elements that Kim describes.  I did not actively try to incorporate all the elements but became aware as I wrote how Kim’s discussion and illustrations were influencing the shape of my poem, For the Love of Tennis:

For the Love of Tennis

I’m grateful to play tennis again

The slice, the serve, the stroke, the sound.

A different goal

Not to win every point

To play with appreciation

And create surprise.

I’m grateful I can run, bend, stretch and strain

So much I’ve taken for granted.

No longer annoyed at my mistakes

Gratitude that I have the chance to make them.

There are many components of the elements that Kim describes incorporated in my poem.  What immediately comes to mind is the alliteration achieved through the number of “s” letters/sounds present – slice, serve, stroke, sound, surprise, stretch, strain.  The word “sound” has its own resonance and each type of tennis stroke (e.g. slice or serve) conjures up a different sound.  The “strokes” together with “run, bend, stretch and strain” evoke images and conjure up a sense of movement.

There are components of challenge as well as surprise in the poem.  There are challenges to expectations (to play to win; being grateful for the chance to make mistakes) along with “surprise” that is reinforced by the word itself.  The goal of surprise arose from my need to change my own expectations of what I am able to achieve on a tennis court in my late 70’s.  To this day I am able to create shots that surprise my partners and/or opponents (e.g., a backhand, half-volley drop shot; a  topspin lob from corner to corner; an unplayable backhand slice; or a half-volley, backhand lob) – so this element of surprise is an achievable goal for me (since I have lost a lot of my strength, speed of reflexes and movement around the court).   Surprise, too, is present in the sudden change in line length and equally sudden return to a longer line – eliciting the sense of a “drumbeat”.

Permeating the poem is a strong sense of gratitude – that I am able to play tennis again (after a period of rehabilitation); that I have access to a tennis court, social tennis partners and the equipment and funds to play; that I have been coached, had practice partners and played numerous games of tennis with different players; that I can move (run, bend, stretch and strain); that I can play many different tennis shots and associated spins; that I have played tennis on different surfaces and on overseas courts in France, Port Moresby, England and New Zealand.  Finally, there is the personal challenge not to take these things for granted.

Tennis to me, like writing poetry, is one of the many ways to grow in mindfulness.  Through tennis, I develop my powers of concentration and my gratitude, creativity, resilience and resourcefulness. I also become more able to “be-in-the-moment”.

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Image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

The Transformative Power of Poetry

I have just been reading Kim Rosen’s brilliant book, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words.  I found it enlightening, stimulating and inspirational – opening up new areas for personal exploration.  Kim is a world-renowned poet, activist, an award-winning “spoken-word artist, and a teacher of self-inquiry.  She brings a rare openness, insight and compassion to her writing and numerous individual and community engagements.  Kim collaborated with cellist Jami Seber to create Feast of Losses, a unique merging of music and poetry.  The collaborative endeavour reflects the ambiguity of everyday life in today’s world – life and death, grief and joy, loss and gratitude.

Saved by a poem

In her book, Kim describes situations in her own life and that of significant other people where a poem has proved to be a source of insight, healing, support, and rescue from depression and/or suicide ideation.  At the age of 15, Kim experienced an awakening from what she describes as her insular life characterised by “distance, intelligence, and control”.  The poem, “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond” by E.E.Cummings, broke through her protective shell – a remarkable unfolding occurred through the “waves of sensation, emotion, and imagery” she experienced when reading the poem aloud.

Kim explains that the healing from poetry occurred for her not from writing poems but from “taking a poem deeply” into her heart and life and speaking it aloud.  She contends that the language of poetry is not a purely intellectual exercise but involves a holistic approach – engaging the whole person, their thoughts, emotions, spirit and body.  Poetry enables personal integration, reinforcing the mind-body connection, exposing our inner reality and its embodiment in our physical sensations.  It creates a sense of being vulnerable before a deeply profound truth that is difficult to deny.

Developing a relationship with a poem

Kim explains that sometimes we can seek out a poem for strength and support in a time of crisis – at other times a poem can seek us out.  We may initially resist a poem’s message but eventually if we persist, especially in reading it aloud, it will penetrate our defences.  She suggests that to take a poem into our life requires allowing the words to ignite our true essence – achieving an alignment of our “thoughts, words, and deeds with our heart’s wisdom and longing”.  

Kim tells the story of when she lost all her investments and savings in a scam that left her unable to pay rent.  A friend offered her somewhere to stay and together they continuously read aloud the poem Kindness, created by Naomi Shihab Nye.  The poem seemed to find each of them independently before they shared lodging for a while.  Kim recounts how, after memorising the poem and repeatedly saying it aloud, she came to understand that the kindness referred to in the poem is not about kindness to others but the kindness others offer you when you have lost everything.  The opening words of the poem resonated deeply with her – Before you know what kindness is, you must lose things.  Kim experienced an incredible outpouring of kindness from others when she lost everything – offers of accommodation or financial support and many gifts (even a year’s supply of lattes).

Kim suggests that choosing to learn a poem by heart can be influenced by curiosity, desire for pleasure, love or a personal need arising from a crisis.    She also talks of the challenge from what she calls “the yoga of poetry”.  We might be attracted initially to a poem but its inherent challenge, intellectually and/or emotionally, may be off-putting.  The focal poem requires a degree of stretch, moving beyond our comfort zone or opening ourselves to new insights about ourself and/or others.  This yoga-like stretch can be achieved progressively by persisting with the poem, reading it aloud, committing it to memory and, where possible, sharing it with others.

Opening up to poetry

Kim describes the habit she developed of recording poems in a diary, both those she has written and poems by others.  She describes the resultant record as an Autobiography in Poems. She explains how each group of poems addressed a need at a particular point in her life, e.g. to challenge her “idealized image” of herself; facing chaotic feelings; and finding herself and her life purpose. 

Kim argues that we can access the transformative power of poetry by writing or reading poetry, joining a poetry writing group, reading poems aloud by ourself or in public presentations, reading poems with a group and/or recording poems that appeal to us in a diary (or on digital voice media).  She encourages us to explore poetry as a way of opening ourselves to the richness of our inner life, as well as our inhibitions.

Reflection

In her book, Kim describes how poetry saved Maya Angelou, after she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend (at the age of seven) who was jailed and subsequently murdered.  Maya, feeling guilty for exposing her attacker and contributing to his death, became mute for six years.  During her silence, she memorised poems that appealed to her, including 60 Shakespearean sonnets.  Her school teacher (when Maya was 12 years of age) was aware that Maya was mute and loved poetry, so she challenged her by saying, “in order to love poetry, you must speak it”.  This led to Maya reciting a sonnet from Shakespeare – her first spoken words in six years. Maya went on to become a  world-famous author, poet and activist.  She also pioneered a unique autobiographical style in her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Kim observes that poems “seemed to know me better than I knew myself” and often “reflected my deepest feelings more intimately than words alone can touch” – because what touches us through a poem Is “between and beyond” the actual words.  She maintains that poems can give voice to supressed feelings and longings that may be hidden from ourselves.  I found this personally when I wrote a poem called The Inflammatory Thread in My life after hearing William Stafford’s poem, The Way It Is, provided as a stimulus piece for our writer’s meetup group with the Health Story Collaborative.  Until I wrote the poem, I had not realised the extent of my frustration with my allergies and food sensitivities that were impacting what I could eat and drink and negatively affecting my relationships.   

Writing, reading, speaking or sharing poetry can help us to grow in mindfulness because these activities can develop deep insight, expose our inner landscape and strengthen our resolve and courage, along with inspiring us to emulate the compassionate action of others.

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Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.