Writing Letters: A Spiritual Practice
Looking for a new practice to calm the mind and connect with others? Try writing an old-fashioned letter.
Every day our senses and brains endure a digital onslaught—not just from being held captive by smartphones but also email conversation purgatory, inbox overwhelm, and screen fatigue.
Think back to when your smartphone did not ping you with every package delivery. Close your eyes—go ahead—and conjure your old life with a flip phone, then a landline, a desktop computer which, of course, never left your house. What did we do with our downtime without the entertainment megaplex in our back pockets?
We were all letter writers once. We were written to. We had postage stamps, notebooks or stationery sets, pens or pencils, and an address book kept at a writing desk. These objects made a readiness kit for reaching out and updating friends and family.
What would it be like to take 30 minutes of your week (or even your month) to write a letter to someone you miss? An old-fashioned letter on paper, with a writing implement, looking down at blank paper instead of up at a screen. Erasing or drawing a line through words that did not come out right; inserting with an arrow or as asterisk afterthoughts or amendments. Signing your name. Sketching, if that’s your thing. Folding the paper. Procuring an envelope … or better, creating one yourself from paper and tape. Finding a stamp—you must have stamps somewhere, right? Mailing the letter. Then not expecting or craving an immediate response.
The act of writing with pen and paper is inherently mindful: no delete key, no keyboard shortcuts to relocate text. What do you want to say, to whom, and how? And there are no hyperlinks to follow or apps to scroll through, much fewer distractions.
To sit down with a blank piece of paper and pen is no different in action from unrolling the yoga mat, setting up the zafu, kneeling with a rosary. The intention, or even the reason for the committed practice—wellbeing, mastery, faith—can vary as widely as handwriting itself.
A key essence of letter writing dovetails with a spiritual or contemplative practice: the repetition of the mundane act, the reverence for the method (and affection for the recipient), and detachment from results. It is not the doing but it is the not-doing you make space for.
When we are engaging in spiritual practice, we may have cloudy intentions. Yoga may begin as physical exercise but lead to clarity of mind and a sense of connection to a higher calling, with many stops along the way. In the same way, writing letters can blossom into a core practice.
For every letter you write, you are not filling that time with a thousand flickering moments of distraction. Every letter you send will be received by someone who will understand in a heartbeat you have been thinking of them. The person who savors your letter may not respond, or not for a while, which means the act itself becomes an offering: an offering of time, attention, affection, humor, memories, or a reminder of a shared life.
Each letter you send and receive is a tactile object, a talisman for and proof of relationship. Letters are held close, unfolded, read, studied, reread, stored, rediscovered. I can still conjure my oldest friends’ handwriting because of this material past. How many people’s handwriting can you recognize at a glance?
Letter writing cannot be part of a multitask; the one thing you are focused on is the paper and pen in front of you. The act of writing creates a direct channel between your brain’s story-making side and the arm and hand’s focus on letter strokes, keeping lines aligned and the right length. If you are typing, a program or app will make sure your words break at the end of a line and wrap neatly, perfectly kerned and leaded, to the next line. In letter writing, you hold the reins, you guide the pen in meditative sync with your words. Your words can be misaligned, balanced, or delightfully quirky. It is choreography.
Letter writing has a shadow side, the same shadows we must get to know or at least become amicable with if we are to devote ourselves to any spiritual practice. A letter can be left behind, holding the place of the writer, a message or a bombshell or an ultimatum or a confession, a firestorm folded within an envelope. I’m leaving. The marriage is over. The disease has won. There are the rejection letters, college or career hopes slumping like a toppled sand dune. The last letters from a suffering loved one who has taken their life. Can we have the faith or shattering bravery to save these letters as well? Will we ever, ever want to relive the soul crush born in these letters? It may be enough to live with having received these letters, but not to keep them.
You do not need to call yourself a writer to write, just as you must not be an athlete to cycle, a monk to meditate. Perhaps there are inherent strengths the novice letter writer has that the literary writer has lost through overtraining.
Twenty years ago, a college friend who was a fellow English major told me that he kept a copy of every letter he sent. Baffled but also awed by his confidence, I wondered if he imagined a university one day wanting to archive his papers. He is now a screenwriter and of course, I suspect he was onto something. But were his juvenilia more insightful, erudite, fun, and sincere than the letters from friends less aspirational, more lighthearted about their communication?
I come from a long line of letter writers. My maternal grandmother was a veritable hub, matriarch with a Bic pen and lightweight paper, writing to scores of siblings (eight), children (ten), cousins (infinity sign), and friends (no one has ever tried to count them, like stars in a mountain sky).
As I think about her last letter to me, penned just weeks before a diagnosis of an aggressive glioblastoma that would end her life within a month, I think about her writing as a compulsion to keep everything steady, normal; denying the changes to her mind, memory, and coordination.
Her handwriting revealed signs that made sense in hindsight. Her penmanship, once as consistent as a knit garter stitch, began to falter and slope. She mused in her letters about how fatigued she was from the many house guests she had, how she just could not get enough rest. As all letter writers, she was a reliable source about her own experience, but not of all the facts.
For generations, family members, luminaries, world leaders, and the notorious left troves of letters for us to reflect on to understand them. How will our children, grandchildren, and beyond understand the details of our lives? While I don’t imagine my children one day reading through a server’s worth of my email. I do hope they will treasure my cards and letters.
- by Rochelle Bourgault