Poetry as meditation: How writing or reading it aloud can improve your mental health and well-being

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When Tammy Ho Lai Ming felt the collective pains and frustrations of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, she found solace by turning her anguish into art.

“I have been writing poems that document the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests for quite some time,” says Ho. “A number of these poems have been published and I would like to think they provide an alternative record of the city’s struggles.”

Ho is a talented poet and translator who was inspired by Chinese writers during this volatile period. Her passion and commitment to strengthen the collective poetic voice of the Chinese people was a source of hope for her.

Poet Tammy Ho has been inspired by Chinese writers.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“I am very pleased to see the high visibility of poetry in translation. I am very familiar with the translations of Chinese poetry, both classical and contemporary, in English. I must say, it is very promising. There are new forms, new poetic languages, and new voices constantly being embraced,” says Ho.

Ho is the president of PEN Hong Kong – a group whose aims are to promote literature and defend freedom of expression; a junior fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities; and an adviser to the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. She is also an associate professor at Baptist University in Hong Kong, where she teaches modern drama, fiction, and poetics.

“Like all other reading, poetry is an intimate encounter, leaving the reader alone with the poem and, by extension, its author. The nature of poetic language is intense and distilled. There are moments reading poetry when your eyes are really opened by the audacity or beauty of an image or a choice of words.”

With many of us looking for creative ways to improve our mental health, Ho, along with other authors and experts, believes poetry is both a medium of expression and a meditative-like practice that can have a calming, positive impact on our well-being.

“Poetry can bring relief from one’s troubles, just by dint of being read and engaged with,” she says. “If you are new to poetry, it is best to read it for enjoyment first and foremost and not worry too much about the weightier themes or deeper meanings. These will reveal themselves at a later point, once you have a familiarity with a poem you find you really love.”

Therapists and mental health professionals often encourage the practice of writing affirmations that help with positive thinking, and poetry can have the same kind of therapeutic effect

“Lines from poetry, repeatedly recited, serve the function of a mantra, a prayer – a helpline,” says Ho. “In times of distress or disappointment, reciting poetry aloud that speaks directly to your own situation or poetry that has a message that has helped you in the past, I believe, can be reassuring.”

Another important component to the meditative impact of poetry is reading aloud.

“Sometimes reading something positive and switching our minds towards positive thoughts can be one of the best ways to ward off negative feelings or stop spiralling into negative thought patterns,” says British author and journalist Georgina Rodgers.

Georgina Rodgers is a British author and journalist.
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Rodgers’ most recent book, A Year of Reading Aloud, promotes the importance of both poetry and the act of reading it out aloud as a way to enhance creative output and bolster mental health.

“The most obvious benefit to reading poetry aloud is the fact that it is like another form of meditation – it forces us to focus and be present in the moment, but it is even more ‘active’ than meditation, so some people may find it easier,” says Rodgers.

The book presents a new poem for each week of the calendar year by celebrated voices both new and old, and encourages readers to practise the art of reading aloud to focus on the rhythm of the present moment, slow down, and switch off the busy mind.

A Year Of Reading Aloud by Rodgers.
PHOTO: Amazon

Rodgers also believes the emotional elements of poetry are relatable regardless of the reader’s familiarity with poetic language.

“Poetry can also be another way of working through difficult emotions during hard times of loss or isolation; sometimes when we feel alone in our grief or depression, there is a common humanity in these feelings that can be comforting,” says Rodgers.

For those who are not steeped in the art of poetry or even struggle with self-expression, reading and writing poetry can be a way to open our minds to researching new words and phrases to describe how we are feeling.

“As well as the positives that are well known of studying poetry – such as improving critical thinking, developing empathy, and improving memory – so many forms of literature can bring comfort at times when it is needed most, transport readers to another world, and encourage broadening our literature canon,” says Rodgers.

Reading and writing poetry can develop our emotional intelligence and even our memory. This can be just as important as scholarly or professional education, as it broadens our capacity to understand ourselves and the world around us.

“As American poet and Joe Biden inauguration performer Amanda Gorman said: ‘Poetry demands that you rupture and destabilise the language in which you are working – always in that tradition of truth-telling,’” says Rodgers.

“I think that poetry can paint an image and connect with emotions in an incredibly powerful way; it cuts to the heart of the matter in a few simple but clever words.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.