The Rhythms of Meaning

By Annie Finch

When you were a child, did you ever chant words to yourself, over and over? Did you love the way that made you feel? I don’t think I’ve ever met a young child who isn’t entranced by the way a word or phrase can turn to magic through rhythm and chant. As we grow, we tend to suppress our love for rhythmic language unless we are reading to children, or maybe shouting at a ballgame or rally. At least in public, we tend to entrust language to the logical parts of our brain, treating words like little machines to make meaning with. What a loss to us, individually and as a culture. By throwing away the body of language, its rhythmic shapes and traces, we give up a source of enchantment and joy—and a valuable source of self-knowledge.

Words have both brains and bodies. Rhythmic language offers a unique bridge between the logical, meaning-making mind and the intuitive, dreaming mind. This is one of the reasons why poets have been esteemed for their spiritual powers in cultures across the globe; for example, in Celtic culture, the bards were the only people allowed to wear rainbow robes, commune with the wishes of the earth deities, or dethrone the King. Knowledge of language rhythm and meter shaped their wisdom and lent them their power. Chanting and rhythmic language have likewise been essential to the powers of mystics, shamans, medicine people, and seers, griots and volvas across cultures. All around the world, indigenous societies have known that the rhythms of words can shape us, change us, unite us, and open us to ourselves.

Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote that “motion is the significance of life, and the law of motion is rhythm.” After a life devoted to the sounds of language and decades pursuing psychological healing and spiritual experience, I believe that language rhythms reveal insights about ourselves that the surface meanings of words often hide. Through my experience facilitating rituals involving chanting over many years, I have learned how to read the language of rhythmic words, and I have named the basic patterns based on their correspondences with the elements. The rhythm of air (a simple two-syllable, rising pattern that you may know as iambic meter) evokes clarity, vision, and the mind. The rhythm of earth, on the other hand, evokes strength, nurturing, and the body. The rhythm of water evokes emotion, compassion, and the heart. The rhythm of fire evokes passion, creativity and the will. The rhythm of the matrix invites intuition and spirit.

I share these tools with people of all backgrounds and walks of life through the Healing Spiral of Words, a system through which each of us can explore our own rhythmic fingerprint through the writing, sharing, and exploring of rhythmical journaling. By writing about a personal issues—a challenge, a loss or bereavement, a confusion, a yearning, a resentment, a fear—in each of the five rhythms and then sharing or discussing our writing, we are led through a remarkable and often uncanny process of ritual transformation.

The five rhythms I use in the Healing Spiral work somewhat like yoga for the mind, guiding our words through a series of postures as we write.  After the rhythmic journaling, there is time to discuss the writing and gather key information. Perhaps, when you write about a challenge you are having at work, one of the rhythms is easy for you to write, while another is far more tentative. This fact may offers insight into which aspect of your personality—mind, body, heart, will, or spirit—is contributing most to your situation. Or perhaps one of the rhythms keeps interrupting another as you are writing. This fact, and the exact words that are interrupted as well as the words that interrupt, offers information as well. In such ways each of us—poet or not—has the ability to reclaim the amazing capacity of rhythmic language to help us to learn about ourselves, recalibrate our choices, recognize dangers, and uncover our true desires.

Not long ago, I was teaching the Healing Spiral on a warm spring evening.  As I beat the small drum louder, the group bent over their notebooks and lost themselves in the irresistible pull of the rhythms, letting their minds join the push of the pattern I had shared with them. As I moved among the group, guiding the process, I saw faces light up one by one as people felt their logical language-brains beginning to dance on the page.

In the discussion afterwards, one participant read aloud some words in the rhythm of air, describing her desire to assert herself in the world. As she read, we heard a sudden change to the rhythm of water, as if a new voice from within had interrupted her thought. Sure enough, the words in this new voice described a hidden fear that was holding her back. It was a revelation to her. The words of this woman who had never done creative writing before were a mirror that revealed her mind, body, heart, will, and spirit conversing with each other. As we watched her being transformed by this insight, all of us were moved to feel how the Healing Rhythms are such simple language patterns, yet each one shapes, changes, and opens us to ourselves. The patterns of rhythm dance language back into the world, linking each syllable and its meaning to the life-force of our bodies and everything around us.

I believe that all of us can access and learn from this rhythmic dance. With the Healing Spiral, we can create our own personal powerful rhythmic language and learn to read and interpret its meanings. In sharing the Healing Rhythms with visual artists, yogis, and seekers of all backgrounds, I have learned that the treasures and insights of rhythmic language are not reserved only for writers. All of us think and speak in language every day, and all of us live in rhythm, our bodies and movements pulsing with patterns of heartbeat and breath. Our rhythms of word and sound offer a doorway into a fuller living of our own life as well as into other lives, the life of our spirit, and the life of the earth. Shall we learn how to enter those doorways together?

Annie Finch is an acclaimed poet and spiritual teacher. She is the author of the poetry collections, Spells, Calendars, and Eve as well as numerous books on the art and craft of poetry.

Annie Finch will be teaching The Healing Spiral of Words: Transformation Through the Rhythms of Language at the Garrison Institute on September 21-23, 2018. For more information, click here

Photo from Alexander Bormotin on Unsplash.

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