I started to write compulsively when I was in the second grade: journals filled with secret thoughts and shameful truths that I could tell no one. Many writers begin this way, turning inward as children to look for answers they can’t find around them. These notebooks were my confessional, the place where I could reveal my true feelings and try to make sense of myself and the world.
I always felt better after I wrote. No matter how anxious, confused, or unsettled, my mind was clarified by writing. It was like flipping on a light in a darkened room; with words to describe what was blocking my way, suddenly I could see my way forward. Language helped navigate my inner world—I no longer felt helpless or trapped. Afterward, I could reread what I’d written and locate clues about who I was, what I was thinking, and why this person inside me was so drastically different from what others saw.
This difference came as a revelation. The voice pouring out of me onto the page, separating truth from lies, was my fearless and natural self. This self was hidden behind a mask, a fictional story that I called “me.” This mask wasn’t me by a long shot, however. Writing freely, without disguise, the gap between the mask and truth—between story and self—became glaringly obvious. Odd as this disconnect was at first, I realized that it was the gateway to freedom. Through it, a message emerged loud and clear: I am not my story. This life-changing truth has defined my work as a memoirist, teacher, and spiritual seeker over the course of thirty years.
What does it mean to say “I am not my story?” Students ask me this all the time. “Are you saying that what happened to me didn’t happen?” Of course not. “Are you calling me a liar, like I’m making these things up?” Not at all. What I’m acknowledging—along with a vast majority of psychologists, physicists, and spiritual teachers—is that what we believe to be real is not reality. The mind creates stories out of things that happen and composes a character they happen to. We then take these false stories for fact and live as if they are the actual truth.
We do this because we are Homo Narrans, the storytelling species, the only animal in all of existence that creates a conceptualized self. We invent ourselves at every moment—connecting the dots, developing plot lines, revising scenes, replaying old dramas—by composing a solid narrative with this fictional self at the center. We fully believe that our story is real, which is why when I tell students that every life is a work of fiction, they quite often feel existential confusion. Luckily, this confusion doesn’t last long.
Seeing that the story isn’t ourselves is a quantum leap in self-realization and the starting point of a whole new life. Engaging with that conscious life is what this book is about. Writing to Awaken is a journey of self-awareness deepened by the exploration of the stories you tell yourself and the masks you wear in the world. The transformational power of this writing practice continues to amaze me after all these years. The radical act of telling the truth awakens us automatically. When we write down our story, we become the witness, and this objective distance brings an aha! as the character we believed to be solid reveals itself as a narrative construct. As we move together through this journey, you’ll come to understand this better. For now, just remember a simple message that will make the way clearer as you progress.
When you tell the truth, your story changes.
When your story changes, your life is transformed.
Why is telling the truth so radical? Because we rarely do so completely in social life. As socialized animals, we’re taught to hide our feelings, to protect reputations, conventions, and interests. We’re liars of necessity, fear, and convenience. Imagine if everyone told the whole truth—regardless of the consequences. It would be a brutal nightmare! To avoid incrimination and cruelty, we opt instead for versions of the truth, euphemisms, half-lies, and tidied-up candor. Though we’re mostly honest, most of the time, civilized life calls for reticence and cooperation breeds compromise.
Then there is the matter of shame. We tolerate such heavy loads of it that revealing the truth can seem menacing, as if uncensored honesty might wreak havoc on our carefully manicured lives. Shame tends to keep us dishonest and silent, sitting on our secrets, trapped in the dark. That is why finally telling the truth—in writing, therapy, or a church confessional—has such a catalytic effect. We’re awakened by its unmistakable sound, like the pealing of a bell. Once we’ve rung that bell, it can’t be unrung. We’re called on to live with what we know since the fiction of self no longer traps us. We understand why we have felt inauthentic—in subtle as well as obvious ways. Wiping away the mask of lies, we reveal our true face in the mirror through writing, often for the first time.
The benefits of expressive writing are incalculable. They include psychological empowerment, emotional healing, social intelligence, increased well-being, creative growth, and a spiritual awareness that keeps us rooted in the life we’re living. Research has shown that as little as fifteen minutes of expressive writing a day can markedly improve physical and mental health. Unlike journaling, expressive writing requires that we do more than simply report the facts of our experience or free-associate on any random subject that comes to mind. The research of psychologist James W. Pennebaker reveals that in order for writing to be transformative, we must include our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and insights about our experience if we hope to reap the benefits. Pennebaker’s studies have shown that when subjects approach writing in this way, the practice can boost the immune system, reduce the need for psychotherapy, lower stress, and even accelerate physical healing.
The journey in Writing to Awaken is divided into four parts that each lead to the next. Along the way, I will offer reflections and Writing to Awaken 4 many examples from students who have participated in my classes. While their names have been changed, their stories are real. Part One starts with a question: who am I? This is the departure point for traditions of self-inquiry that precede even Socrates with his ancient maxim to “know thyself.” You’ll investigate your personal creation myth, explore the contents of your psychological shadow, uncover the nature of family attachments, and be introduced to the witnessing awareness that allows you to observe yourself clearly and gain insight from what you see.
Part Two explores your stories themselves, revealing the cast of saboteurs that block you internally, as well as how shame operates in your life, how you relate to purpose and meaning, and how love shapes the person you are.
Part Three considers your public persona, questioning things like performance, intention, power, control, and how you may be hindered by ambivalence or lack of focus.
In Part Four, you’ll learn how to reap the gifts of transformation, reveal the sacredness and spirit in an awakened life, and harness the power of the original genius that is uncovered in this truth-telling process.
In total, there are forty-eight lessons contained in these sections. It’s best to complete these lessons in sequence, taking all the time you need for each one. At the end of each lesson, you’ll find a series of in-depth writing prompts for you to choose from. It’s advisable, but not necessary, that you respond to all prompts, choosing any sequence that works for you. Trust your instincts and write about the questions that have the deepest resonance. You can always revisit these lessons in the future to explore questions that you skip.
Trust your own rhythm and the pace that suits you best. Deadlines can be helpful as long as they’re realistic, but do your best not to turn this into a writing marathon. Take your time with the questions, allow yourself to dive deep, but resist including everything that pops into your head. I recommend a maximum length of one thousand words per response, which translates to four, double-spaced, typewritten pages. This word limit will help you distill the writing and train your mind not to wander too much.
Whenever possible, avoid throat-clearing and lengthy prefacing of your responses. Instead, go to the heart of what you want to say. You’ll notice how evasive your mind can become when asked direct questions, particularly around sensitive subjects. Like all forms of awakening practice, writing requires mindfulness. Just as we bring our attention back to the breath during meditation, you learn to observe the wandering mind without excessive control, and gently return your focus to the question at hand.
Some writing days will be better than others, as happens with any ongoing practice. Expect to meet your own saboteurs along the way. Truth telling frequently calls up resistance; in fact, you will typically know you’re approaching a breakthrough when you feel discomfort. That’s when it is most important to stick with the practice. The more you write, the more comfortable you’ll become with the discomfort of revealing dangerous knowledge and saying unsayable things. If you find yourself feeling nothing when you write, or notice that you’re getting bored with a topic, see those as signs that you’re not taking risks. Pause and ask yourself: “What am I avoiding?” “What scares me here?” “What is niggling at me to get onto the page?” Allow yourself to follow these detours without losing sight of the question at hand. They can lead to discoveries you did not intend to make. As the philosopher Martin Buber reminds us, “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” This holds true for the writing adventure as well. By using the lessons offered in this book as points of departure, and the prompts as invitations to destinations unknown, you’ll stay open to what is below the surface of your conscious mind.
Remember that writing is only half of the process. After you’ve responded to a question, set it aside for a day. Then reread it. While you may have gained insight through your initial response to the prompt, it’s when you notice the gaps in what you’ve written— between what is true and your story about it—that transformation happens. Allow yourself the time to write about what you noticed during the review and to fill in any blanks. This close attention to your responses will deepen your insight. You’ll become less afraid of the witness’s perspective and what it reveals. You’ll see that the fears themselves are stories, which dissipate when you face them head on.
Although our medium is writing, you don’t need any writing skill for this practice to work. Literary talent is irrelevant here, and so are grammar, syntax, and elegant prose. The strengths you need are courage, transparency, commitment to the truth, and a sincere desire to transcend your story. I’ve guided thousands of students around the world through these lessons and am continually astonished by the cathartic power of Writing to Awaken and its lasting effects on people’s lives. I invite you to embark on this journey, dive into your own deep waters, and find out who you really are.