Mark Matousek’s Writing to Awaken is a gift to the world. An engaging process of self-inquiry guided by just the right questions, it is perhaps the most effective of all spiritual practices. Since it bypasses dogma and doctrine, it is available to anyone who wants to heal, grow, and connect with their authentic self.
When I was a child and magic was afoot, the word abracadabra was synonymous with the power of manifestation. I could wave my magic wand over Doris the princess doll, or Boris the stuffed panda, and practically feel them come to life under the gravitas of the spell. Later in life, as a Harvard-trained scientist and researcher in the field of mind-body medicine, I discovered that abracadabra is more than magic-speak or a song by the Steve Miller Band. These Aramaic words mean, “I will create as I speak.”
Tell a story. Believe the story. And voila! It manifests in your cells, your brain, your heart, your behavior, the choices you make…or don’t. We embody our stories quite literally, as these days we have the brain scans and hormonal assays to prove it. Mark Matousek, who is a writer rather than a scientist, knows this as well. He sometimes refers to us humans as Homo Narrans—the storytelling species. Stories slay and stories heal. Their transformative magic resides in our ability to identify them, learn from them, and—when necessary—change them.
I have always loved stories, which explains in part why I became a psychologist as well as a scientist. Listening to a client’s story is a sacred act. Each one is a distillation of fact and feeling, an elixir that can sometimes be a poison, and other times a medicine. The nursery rhyme claiming that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is way off target.
Words have the power to create our world. We have stories, but we are not our stories. A crisis often turns out to be an opportunity. When the light of awareness turns on through self-inquiry, a childhood belief may evaporate like dew in the sun. When the curtain of old beliefs is pulled back, we become like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. We can see past the smoke and mirrors, which enables us to take our own power back.
As Mark explains, we are always inventing ourselves through story. When we become conscious of that and are willing to write down our experiences truthfully, we can inquire deeply as both participant and observer. With even a tad of compassionate perspective, our inner and outer world will slowly, but surely, shift on its axis. We can finally become who we really are underneath all the layers of sediment that have accumulated in the course of our lifetime.
In the winter of 2016, Mark and I were both facilitating workshops at a retreat center in Nosara, Costa Rica. Not a bad gig in the middle of the winter. Mark’s program had the same title as this book, Writing to Awaken. In an interesting synchronicity, mine was called Writing Down the Light. Since we taught sessions on different days, I was able to attend some of Mark’s classes. They were masterful. He knows what questions to ask and why it’s important to ask them. Each writing prompt elicited a deep and thoughtful silence in the room, and within me. The only sound was pens on paper.
At mealtimes, stories of insight, pain, and wonder abounded. Yes, there is often pain involved in telling the truth. But it’s transient, as opposed to the pain of living a lifetime with beliefs and opinions about yourself and others that are much smaller than the majesty of our real, authentic selves. The final morning in Costa Rica, Mark and I officially met for the first time at the breakfast table. I felt unabashed hero worship. “He is a real writer,” I thought to myself breathlessly. My favorite memoir of all time is his book, Sex Death Enlightenment. It is raw and true, scalding and funny, transcendent and thought provoking. When we met over omelets and papaya, my story was that I am a scientist and a psychologist, but certainly not a real writer. While it’s true that I have written sixteen books, one of them a New York Times bestseller, I have always viewed my own writing as utilitarian. It’s a means to an end, but certainly and unequivocally not real writing.
Perhaps you harbor the same unfounded myth about yourself. This is a book about writing. What if you can’t do this? What if you fail? The truth is that you can’t fail to develop insight and freedom when you actually sit down and work through the forty-eight lessons in this book, each one fascinating and masterfully crafted. No one is checking your work for syntax. There is no need to be clever or right. The only requirement is to tell the truth. As Mark says with an economy of words, the kind of words that distill years of spiritual practice: “When you tell the truth, your story changes. When your story changes, your life is transformed.”
Several of the books I’ve written are also about spiritual practice. At different times in my life as a scientist, psychologist, mother, and lover, I’ve been immersed in Jungian psychology, Buddhism, mystical Christianity, shamanism, kabbalistic Judaism, and various forms of meditation and ceremony. Each practice has revealed another facet of the sacred. But self-inquiry, which lies at the heart of the journey you are about to embark upon, has been the most transformative—and the most gentling. Perhaps the simplest and most profound definition of the sacred I’ve ever read comes from this book: “The sacred connects us to what is most tender, expansive, and loving in us.” This is what awakening actually feels like. Mark has given us a superb, experiential guide for the journey of a lifetime. It’s with real and humble pleasure that I give you this little pep talk called a “foreword.” Read, write, and rejoice in the beauty of this amazing and mysterious gift of life.