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Writing to the general

Or, how I realized that copying letters for Amnesty International was a spiritual discipline.
By James Ishmael Ford
4.8.13

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Writing a letter.

(© 2007 Brad Killer/iStockphoto)

So, there I was, copying out sample letters to send to various generals, dictators, potentates, and other bad actors or their ambassadors asking as politely as possible that they stop torturing someone, and, if they could, please, pretty please to go one step further and let that person go free.

Okay, copying isn’t exactly right for how I do my letters. People have noticed I’m not the most compliant person they’ve met, and so, yes, I made various changes on the fly while doing my best to honor the intent and the tone suggested by Amnesty International. Considering their successes in this their most important project, that seems the wisest course.

As I paused to rub my hand, I realized how rare it has become for me to hand write a letter. While working on my knuckles and fingers I thought how quickly things change. Along with reading newspapers and sending Christmas cards and other things of bygone eras, I recall my childhood and how my mother insisted writing letters and notes was what any polite person does. I don’t think I did it a lot, but I do remember a couple of hand-written, always belated, thank-you notes to my grandmother—usually, at least in my memory, for socks.

I thought about notes thanking my grandma for small gifts and how it was a discipline, and how I was now writing letters, and how the emotion that I was feeling at that moment was in fact at odds with the tone of the letter that was flowing from the pen in my hand, and I realized how this mapped the frequent experience of real spiritual practices.

These days in the circles in which I move the term “spiritual practice” is fairly common. What it means, however, is less certain. For instance, the other day I mentioned to someone I’m off in a couple of weeks to a Zen meditation retreat. He sighed and said how much he could use a couple of days off, himself. Making it obvious he’d never been on a Zen retreat, which involves getting up very early, plopping oneself on a small pillow on the ground, and sitting still for about nine hours a day, broken by brief periods of walking meditation every half hour, the rhythm punctuated by brief liturgical activities, including simple meals eaten in the meditation hall, a little work, and very short rest periods. It involves a fair amount of physical discomfort, actually even a certain level of physical pain, which is nothing compared to the agonies revealed as we—as I—relentlessly watch the brain doing its thing. It turns out the human mind tends to run as tape loops, the same stories with minor variations looping over and over again. Not precisely what I’d call relaxing.

Now, while spiritual practices don’t have to hurt, at some point most do, to some degree. No pain, no gain is a motto for this kind of enterprise. So there I was, rubbing my sore hand, having written I don’t know how many letters and facing a fair number more. While hardly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, it was moving into some kind of work.

And there was something more going on. I mean, one doesn’t do the Zen thing for how it hurts or how it can be amazingly boring. There is a point. I saw it among my compatriots as we were writing those letters. An hour or so into it, my sense of connection to the people I was writing about began to deepen. They weren’t just names. Their stories began to seep into my heart. I began to genuinely feel a connection to each of these folk experiencing some pretty harsh things at the hands of tyrants. I also noticed the person sitting across from me stop and shake her hands a couple of times. Our eyes met, we smiled, and we both turned back to the project. In that moment I felt connected to her as well as to the victims of oppression, and from there, if only to the smallest degree, my heart shifted again, and I felt some sense of connection to the general I was at that moment writing.

That’s when you know you’ve found a spiritual practice. The critical thing was that turning of the heart, which may occur within those who follow this discipline that enlarges us, and helps us see into the great secret: we are all family. Every precious one of us belongs to the same family.

The point in these disciplines is taking something we’ve heard about ourselves, our uniqueness and our radical interdependence, and coming to know for ourselves whether it is true or not. It is very important, much more important than the side effects such as being a little healthier and a bit happier. Knowing this intimate reality of our lives, that we are connected to the victim and the oppressor, that there is no part of this planet that isn’t family, we can then make decisions and chart a course of action that is more likely to be of use in this world. It’s that important.

So, I’m up for writing as a spiritual practice. And it’s practice in that lovely dual use, it is preparing us, preparing the way, and it is the doing right now, complete. Pretty cool. Another marker that this writing letters is the real deal.

I hope you will consider writing some letters. And, yes, pen to paper. You don’t need to write lots of them. But there must be someone who should get a letter, someone you’ve meant to write but just haven’t. Put the paper down on a nice surface, write the date at the top, and open your heart.

Then, after you’re done, even if you’re not so sure it was a spiritual practice, at least you’ll have a letter worth mailing.


This essay is adapted from a sermon given December 5, 2010.

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