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People often ask me what I mean when I speak of transformative language and of the healing power of words, and many times I don’t have a good answer for them, or a good answer that fits within the elevator we’re in or the train one of us is rushing to catch. The examples I have–of my own experience and of others–aren’t yet sound-bite-able, so I’ll sometimes yammer on until we hit an uncomfortable silence or the train door closes.
Kim Rosen, in her recent interview in The Sun magazine, “Written On The Bones: Kim Rosen On Reclaiming The Ancient Power Of Poetry,” offers a concrete example of one man’s experience of the healing power of poetry. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Kim and seeing her perform at the 2010 Power of Words Conference. Kim is an artist who embodies poems, committing them to memory and performing them , sharing them, witnessing them and bearing witness to them. The experience is often profound.

In Kim’s interview, she speaks about a man named Christopher: “[He] had been sent to me by his singing teacher, who felt I might be able to help him bring more spontaneity and emotion into his voice.” As I read about Christopher, I think back to an earlier version of me: a man who had to be prepared, who needed to be in control and who practiced a stoic disconnection from himself and others. How many men lock away spontaneity and emotion in order to be a professional at work, to be a “rock” in their relationships and to be secure in their “act-like-a-man box”? How many of us, of all genders, need to feel in control, pursue perfection at the cost of joy and feel ashamed of some emotions?
To help Christopher embody more depth in his performance, Kim gave him one of my favorite Rumi poems, Love Dogs, as translated by Coleman Barks. In this poem, a man cries to his god but is never answered and so he stops. Then, in a dream, he is asked why he stopped praising:

                    “Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back."
                    “This longing
you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

Christopher had trouble with the lines “The grief you cry out from // draws you toward union.” He kept rephrasing it, “The grief from which you cry // draws you toward union.” Christopher said that it sounded better to him, that it was more grammatically correct. The reflection of me that I see in Christopher is his perfectionism, his unbendingness to conform to a structure ill suited to the joy and freedom of ecstatic poetry. He was able to eventually say the words as Barks had intended them, which led to this:

The amazing thing is that when Christopher finally spoke the line the way Barks had written it, his voice broke, and this huge sob came bursting out. He was scared and embarrassed at first. He hadn’t let himself cry in public since he was a kid, so it was quite a stretch for him, but he did it. And that release freed his voice and his spontaneity.

This is an excellent example of the transformative power of language: “And that release freed his voice and his spontaneity.” Something in this poem resonated with a hidden part of Christopher that was ready to be revealed. And once revealed, it freed his voice, giving him more depth and breadth as a performer.

Ready to do something? Try writing about it.

Write about a time you held on too strongly to something—a rule, a way of being, an idea—and later realized that had you only let go, things would have gone differently, perhaps even better. How did you feel when you were holding on? How did you feel after your realization?

Write about a time something hidden in you was revealed to you. I don’t mean a secret you were hiding from someone else, but a secret that your body, your unconscious, was hiding from you that became visible when just the right light was shown upon it. How was it revealed to you? What changed in you after this revelation?

Scott Youmans is an experienced facilitator with an MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College. He’s a computer programmer, a dedicated partner, and a New Warrior. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow Scott Youmans at his ‘This Energetic Man’ blog.

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.