On a snowy Saturday, I was welcomed into award-winning playwright Alexandra Gersten-
Vassilaros’ Upper East Side apartment. Right away, she reminded me of a blond goddess living among her photographs, art and memorabilia, pieces reminiscent of her Greek heritage.
Being surrounded by these Hellenic pieces may have been why the session felt more like a visit with the Greek muses than the standard workshop. Olga Berg, a personal development coach and Alex took a small group through a day-long series of emotionally intense exercises based on "The Work" of ByronKatie. These practices helped us analyze how we judge people and situations in an attempt to heal our individual pain through recognition of the stories we tell ourselves.
Alex is getting ready to lead her own Tuesday night series of workshops on Writing as a Tool for Healing at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care in NYC’s Flatiron District on Jan. 31. In anticipation of that, I took the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions about the program.
Brette Popper: Why and how does the process of writing heal someone from suffering?
Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros: I’ve noticed that the process of writing our thoughts down on
paper can help slow us down, help us move out of high reactivity and invite us to discover layers or parts of ourselves that we forgot were there, or forgot how to even correspond with.
In community with others, our shared complications become our shared humanity, our similar struggles with love, loss and grief can be orienting and tenderizing and deeply reassuring. Writing and listening to other people’s work can move us out of isolation, move us out of our stuck or fearful condition and help us notice what else is possible.
Writing can free us from beliefs or habitual thinking that causes us to suffer or merely endure difficulty. During and after my husband’s illness and passing, writing helped me gasp less and breathe more. Resist less and become more curious. Getting still-er by writing it down gave me a way through pain, through resistance, and helped me hold some of the contradictions that life and death issues bring to the surface so vividly. Writing became a refuge, a way to refresh my thinking and inspire me to live and love more vulnerably and adventurously.
BP: Who is this workshop for?
AGV: Anybody who wishes for a little more room, a little more spaciousness in their head or heart during an illness, following the passing or loss of someone close and dear.
BP: What should someone expect to get from it?
AGV: I hope that people taking the workshop feel some measure of relief and comfort. We come together to participate instead of isolate. I hope that participants might even discover ways not just to be lost in grief, but, perhaps, even to be found. Found out. Found in the layers. Have our hearts been broken or have they been broken open? Without the pressure of writing “well” or “nicely” or needing approval for our writing, we are free to dig deep, perhaps, free ourselves from some sticky place, some slow-cooked shame or terror and find comfort in our shared experiences and connectivity, in our humanness.
BP: Do you need any special qualifications to participate?
AGV: No, participants should expect to gain comfort writing and reading out loud in front of others. There is no cross talk or commentary while we are in the session. We are there to witness ourselves and one another. Though we are exploring the territory of our lives, our experiences, thoughts and feelings on paper, this isn’t a writing class. I won’t be giving pointers or hints on how to write better. I will be writing along with the participants and sometimes what I write about becomes the start of a new play or idea, but that isn’t my goal. We write without rules, though I do give prompts to get us going.
BP: How did writing help you heal from your own suffering?
AGV: The weeks and months after my husband died, I couldn’t write full sentences. It felt too painful, so I wrote fragments. Lists of things I noticed. Things I felt. Moments. It’s near to poetry without the pressure to make something poetic. Writing in groups helped me to self-witness, to become curious about who I am below the surfaces, below personality, below all the identities I claim as “me.” All the noise gets some light, some space. Writing allowed me to explore my mind and my heart, which, I keep discovering is more supportive, and more flexible than I imagined.
BP: Are there particular ways in which Buddhism (or your spiritual practice) informs your teaching and writing?
AGV: My spiritual practice reminds me to be infinitely curious and less judgmental. My
practice of inquiry and meditation permits me to explore more and seek to control and manage less.
Chodo and the Zen Center for Contemplative Care were instrumental in helping my family and I begin a conversation about my husband’s end of life decisions. Chodo helped us to set up hospice at home. The care that Chodo took with my husband, talking with him, with myself and with our boys was brave, kind and orienting. It was a relief for each of us to finally discuss what was happening together. It was what our hearts craved, but we did not have the language. His offered us ways to approach death with more activated love and gratitude than I ever thought possible.
BP: What motivated you to teach?
AGV: I like to hear other people’s stories. I love their complexity. I love the oddness or peculiarities that live in the details. I love details. I am encouraged by how we are lost and found, lost and found, lost and found over and over again. We are nothing new, nothing special but at the same time we are wonders. The way I moved through my own fear and loss made me feel I might have something potent to offer. I am compelled by the ways we grow and change, with and without our permission.
BP: What are you working on now?
AGV: I’m working on the rewrite of my play BIG SKY as well as a new idea for a script that explores how death is the catalyst for change in a family who would rather, uh, not.
Writing as a Tool for Healing begins on January 31 and runs on Tuesday evenings at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care on 119 West 23rd Street, $240 for all six classes or $50 each.