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Lifting The Veil

Deborah Collins
Dec 06, 2006

An Interview with John Terlazzo concerning his Contemplative Writing workshops & retreats

I'm sitting with John beside the campfire ring where ashes of last evening's fire bring to mind the music & poetry that lingered on into the night. The last of the retreat participants have said their farewells & I'm looking forward to hearing John speak about his experience here & find out more about what has fueled his passion for facilitating this retreat for the past fifteen years.

DC - Tell me John, what inspired you to hold the first writer's retreat?

JT - I had already been leading some workshops in various settings - hospitals, libraries. Situations in which, usually, people would attend one night a week for 8 or 10 weeks. But it was a natural next step to want to "upgrade" to a weekend intensive - a deep immersion into writing, communal intention, & Nature all at once. making poetry & exchanging ideas in the woods & under the stars - well, it's what the first poets did, long before written language.

DC - What would draw someone to this kind of retreat?

JT - A re-connection to our birthright. I don't believe that only some people are talented. "Talent" is a modern, Western concept - & a fairly oppressive one. My understanding - what I've witnessed in this life - is that ALL human beings were born to create & imagine. Some will take to writing, some will dance, some will paint, some sing & so on. But none of that will happen if people are not encouraged & nurtured & led within. And I don't see a lot of encouragement in our commodity - conscious culture. A recent poll done here in South-Central Pennsylvania showed that 96% of teenage girls listed "shopping" as their primary interest in life. This suggests that most of their profound human creative energy lies dormant, & what does surface is channeled into their desire to "wanna be" Jessica Simpson - who is herself a "wanna be" - only in her case she is what a corporation wanted her to be, she was manufactured. You understand, I'm saying that we're failing these young women - the ones at the mall & Jessica Simpson herself. We're failing them miserably. If Michelangelo, Vivaldi, Van Gogh, or William Blake came back & walked among us, they'd be shocked speechless. And when the words finally came to them they'd say, "Why aren't they teaching their children?" (I want it understood I'm not blaming schoolteachers - many, many of whom break their backs trying to illuminate & educate within a system that simply has other priorities.) So, I'm saying we live in a culture that feeds us on cotton candy. And a steady diet of cotton candy leads to cultural malnutrition, starvation. Our food, entertainment, even religion is pre-packaged, over-processed - so often devoid of any nutritive value. A life with any sort of psychic depth is simply not encouraged. But deep desire to know one's self, a deep desire to aspire to Art - that desire falls on us like manna. There's a real nutrition there that, to my experience, can't be matched. People are longing for that kind of nutrition & our work here is to take them deep within themselves to rediscover that birthright.

DC - What would you say to encourage someone who has never written anything?

JT - Well. to answer that we'd have to start the weekend's retreat all over again (laughs)... But, to begin with, I'd say breathe... be kind to yourself. And then I would suggest a way of writing that is akin to the practice of a monk sitting in meditation. There are ways of approaching one's self that are simultaneously tender & relentless. And such an approach - such a dichotomy - creates very fertile ground where Art is concerned.

DC - What have you learned about writing from your facilitation of the retreat?

JT - Writing has shown me that human beings are incredibly graceful, thoughtful, exquisite creatures. That we are not flawed. That if we can get beyond ego, that if we can move out there beyond all identity & concept - we really know what "whole" means, what "truth" is - that it's possible to realize our true nature. I have come to see writing as a profound vehicle that moves us along that path.

DC - Is the setting important to the creative process?

JT - It is helpful to be out here in the forest, or by a body of water & so, I like the retreats to happen in beautiful, natural surroundings. But it's not required. Most often I write at a wooden table with paper & pencil & a white wall before me... It is said that Victor Frankl was so enlightened that he was able to manifest beauty even in the Nazi concentration camp where he was a prisoner & that he & others like him survived precisely because they refused to turn their backs on Love & Compassion. This says to me that our lives are very easy by comparison & that we should be able to write anywhere, under any circumstances. I've done some work with adjudicated youth & their writing, generally, is excruciatingly powerful - much of it written in jail cells. It's telling to me that in our culture we don't ask young people to face themselves, to face their own depth - until they're in a jail cell. So it's a long answer to your question, but, no, setting doesn't matter. Heart matters - Heart & a desire to know yourself.

DC - What part does community play in fuelling the creative process?

JT - Community is everything where human beings are concerned, & so it's especially true in a setting like this - in the workshops & retreats - as you saw this weekend... People have asked me to judge poetry contests & I have to politely decline, because human beings weren't designed to compete. We were designed to commune. Likewise, I've not been too keen on poetry slams. At least the ones I've witnessed place so much emphasis on winning - you get two minutes to shout your poem & it better be flashier that the last guy or else... you know it reduces poetry to television. Having home-schooled my kids & having done writing workshops with other home-schoolers, I've noticed that one of the beautiful things about that whole movement is that it's based on co-operation, not competition. As a friend pointed out to me recently, given a choice between the two, human beings - if not manipulated otherwise - will always choose co-operation... Community was very strong here this weekend - we bathed in one another's silence & words. That sound of humans laughing & speaking & weeping together in turns - holding one another aloft, melting into the consciousness of the clouds. Beautiful!

DC - How does the meditation help the participant? Does someone have to know how to meditate to participate?

JT - If you can breathe you can learn to meditate. An introduction to meditation can happen at a retreat in a few minutes time, with ease. Anyone who desires to, can learn. If someone chooses to continue Sitting practice beyond the weekend, there is a great deal I can do, on an on-going basis, to encourage & support them. I am committed to that... As I've said before, Sitting Meditation is a metaphor for contemplative writing - the two are in many ways interchangeable. In both situations we return to our practice daily regardless of our mood or frame of mind. In both practices we are becoming more & more present to this moment. In both, we show up however we are & witness, without judgment, the nature of our existence in this moment. In one, the vehicle is the breath. In the other, the vehicle is the energy that flows down the arm & onto the page. In my experience the more we sit or do contemplative writing...

DC - the more the answers appear?

JT - (laughs) No! I think the more the unanswerable mysteries deepen! And the further into them we are drawn - which I love so much more! The deeper the practice, the deeper one moves into one's consciousness. Images arise there that you can't get to using your intellect alone. The need for definition drops away as the experience becomes so much clearer. It is part of why the sense of community this weekend grew so strong. It takes me back to one of my favorite quotes - did I mention this yesterday? There was a Zen master called Yasutani Roshi who said: "The fundamental delusion of Humanity is to assume that I am here & you are out there."

DC - Can someone really learn to write in one weekend?

JT - Sure. They say Hanuman the Monkey Hero leaped across an ocean while carrying a mountain of flowering herbs on the tip of his little finger, so why not? I'm joking - a little. Learn to write in a weekend? Sure, but what's the hurry? Just write & then write & then write some more. Just allow yourself to participate in the creation of your life - then what does it matter whether someone calls what you do writing or manure? remember we said that virtually NO ONE liked Van Gogh's work when he was alive - but he didn't stop. The answer is if what you write feeds you inside - then keep writing, no matter what.

DC - Does everyone have to read out loud?

JT - No. No one is required to read aloud, but everyone is invited to do so. Some read often, some never do & some wait until the last minute - all are respected. In the workshops & retreats, everyone is welcome to show up as they are.

DC - What if everyone wants to stay forever & no one leaves?

JT - That's community! Then we become intentional community. We put up straw bale houses, bake pies, milk goats, play with children & paint pictures.

DC- How do you help individuals improve their skills?

JT - Through a series of writing experiments, discussion, stillness & so on - the intention is to return people to that natural state wherein they can trust themselves fully, & then if the desire is clear & strong what we call "skills" naturally arise. For many people, it might mean having to unlearn what school & society has taught them about "skills" or "talent" - again, not because the genuine hard work of many school teachers has failed, but because human beings were not designed to be institutionalized. generally, schools tend to teach poetry upside down & backwards - which is why so many Americans will tell you that they "hate poetry". They had it institutionalized out of them. Part of our purpose then, is to bring people back to that pre-bureaucracy clear state for a kind of rebirth of awareness. In our natural state, then - clear & free - the skills & abilities arise. This is another area where contemplative writing & sitting meditation are so similar. This sweet dichotomy appears & we find it could be said of either practice : it is simultaneously the easiest & most difficult thing I've ever done. That dichotomy says to me that it's worth pursuing.

DC - What would you say are your strengths as a retreat leader?

JT - I don't know. You'd have to ask somebody else.

DC - What keeps you coming back?

JT - Seeing the Veil lifted... a little more & a little more.