Can Poetry Heal Collective Trauma?

Three ways poetry can transform our wounds into compassionate action

Indian sprinter Milkha Singh was destined to win gold in the 400 meters race at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After all, he had clocked the world record of 45.8 seconds at preliminaries in France. At the final in Rome, he was leading the race till 250 m when he unexpectedly slowed down to look back and ended up fourth. While the legendary sprinter regretted this moment for the rest of his life, we wondered, “why did he look back?”

Many years later, his biopic revealed that what made him look back in that decisive microsecond was the memory of his painful past. When his family was massacred during the India Pakistan partition violence, his grandfather commanded him to “Run Milkha run. Don’t look back”. He ran from his traumatic past and became one of the fastest runners on the planet. But when he expected it the least, his past caught up. 

Little did he know that the collective trauma lives in the subconscious of our body. And it keeps surfacing again and again till it finds its resolution. 

After the Rome Olympics, Milkha Singh got an opportunity to travel back to his village in Pakistan, where his parents were murdered. He cried his heart out and met his childhood friends. That one visit healed his wound. In the following race in Lahore, Milkha Singh ran like nothing could hold him back. The President of Pakistan gave him the title of “The Flying Sikh.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Milkha Singh to physically visit their past and heal their wounds. We need poets like Gulzar, whose poems create portals for us to travel back to the source and heal our souls.

I am back at the Zero Line
My shadow whispers from behind me,
'When you give up this body
Come back to your home
Your birthplace, your motherland'.

― Gulzar, Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition

Poetry has played a crucial role in healing our collective trauma. Whether it was the world war, holocaust, slavery, partition or a profound personal loss, poets have worked like earthworms— composting the unresolved trauma and making the soil fertile for the future to be reborn.

Poets are sensitive beings who notice the societal divides, let them sink in their bodies, and germinate into verse. Poetry transforms personal pain into archetypal messages. Whether it’s Gulzar writing on Indo-Pak partition trauma, Elie Wiesel reminding us of horrors of the holocaust or Maya Angelou capturing the essence of racism in the USA, they speak to people across generations and geographic locations. In their poems, we are seen, comforted, awakened and released. 

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

― Maya Angelou, Caged Bird

Writing poems has been my healing practice since the age of nine. But I did not know how to help others in a similar journey till I met my teacher Arawana Hayashi at the Presencing Institute.

Arawana introduced me to the awareness-based social arts called Social Presencing Theater (SPT). I soon learnt how awareness practices could help embody and express the deeply felt experiences at a personal or societal level. I started integrating SPT and poetry in working with gender trauma in my work and personal life. The poems and insights generated over seven years of inner work were published in my first book, “Trading Armour for a Flower“, as a poetic pathway. 

I thought it was my personal journey until a woman from Israel asked my permission to translate the poems into Hebrew and change the pronoun from “he” to “she”. Zohar Zoharah Noy-Meir started reading them to the victims of gender trauma in the Red Tent circles. She told me that the poems gave voice to the unexpressed emotions and healed their divides. 

For the first time in my life, I realised that poetry could create space for collective healing. Zohar inspired my wife, Sonali Gera and me to host SPT based Embodied Poetry dialogue circles in cafes, public grounds and living rooms across India. 

Soon, I had a humbling realisation. No one came to these gatherings to read my poems. They came to meet themselves. Poems were a doorway through which they stepped in to meet their wounded parts. And as we did this collectively, we mirrored each other and created a new narrative. In short, we transformed our wounds into collective poetry.

***

After ten in-person and ten online circles, I saw a three-step process through which poetry facilitates collective healing. Very similar to Milkha Singh’s healing journey.

1. Collectively witnessing our wounds 

Spiritual teacher and author of the book “Healing Collective Trauma“, Thomas Hubl says that the way to heal our trauma is to witness it collectively. Poetry creates such a space. 

Like Milkha Singh, Amrita Pritam also took the long train ride from Pakistan to India amid the partition riots. She became a “refugee” overnight, travelling alone to an unknown land with two kids and one blanket. That night she wrote a poem that called us to reckon with the collective suffering on both sides of the divide.

Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere

- Amrita Pritam, A call to Waris Shah (translated by Khushwant Singh)

Amrita’s verse takes us beyond shame or blame to embrace our shared brokenness. My wife and I experienced a similar phenomenon when we were invited by MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse) to host a poetry dialogue circle in Shivaji grounds of Mumbai. Men and women from diverse walks of life attended. The gathering opened up with the poem “Million Small Irritation” as the genesis of gender violence. We invited participants to form small groups and create social body sculptures (like tableaus we see at the Republic Day parade) to show how they experienced gender trauma in their lives. As we embodied each other’s struggles, new wisdom started emerging as phrases and sentences. We weaved it all together to co-create a new poem– “Purity hidden in our blindspots“. 

A woman shared that “I could voice the cry that my grandmothers had muted for generations. It found resonance in our shared space”. Another participant, a retired Army Officer, said that “poetry gave legitimacy to the emotions that I had buried inside”. The irritation that had the potential to become unacknowledged violence had found its place in his living room.

2. Integrating our past  

As Milkha Singh revisited his old village and embraced his painful memories, he started feeling whole again. Thomas Hubl calls this process “integration”. It is how we metabolise our painful past to create fertile soil for the emerging future. Poet Amanda Gorman did it when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony. In her lines she integrated all our divides and created a new field for hope and humanity.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew. 
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.

- Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb 

In another poetry dialogue circle, we were hosted by a women network. Around twenty women and six men gathered. We opened the dialogue with the poem “He Longs to be Understood” that touched the unexpressed power needs of men and women. It led to an animated conversation on patriarchy. Many women were angry with men for exploiting the power and controlling women’s expression.  

Neel, who was quiet so far, finally spoke. He shared how he might be the patriarch in the women’s narrative. However, he did not choose to be one. His mother and wife expect him to be the tough guy, manage finances, take unpopular decisions and be a bad cop to his kids. He sits alone on many nights, longing to be home, cook food and play with his kids. Neel’s vulnerable reflection opened many hearts. Shobha, an entrepreneur, shared that while her father was alive, she could not relate to him as a patriarch. But after his death, Shobha took over the family business and the provider role. Within no time, she found herself behaving exactly like her father. A patriarch she never wanted to be. 

This heartfelt poetic dialogue helped us reconnect with our base relationships and embrace the parts we could not relate to so far. It gave birth to a new narrative with a sense of wholeness.  

3. Transforming our wounds into compassionate action

For Milkha Singh, his wound transformed into freedom almost immediately. He became the “Flying Sikh” he was born to be. Later he established a charitable trust to help other struggling sportsmen. 

Poetry, too, has similar power to heal what’s broken and inspire compassionate action. When a defaulting tea-seller was presented before the Railway Magistrate, Bharat Chugh, he was torn by the tea-seller’s poverty. Instead of following the legal mandate, Chug acquitted him and wrote a poem. In a recent article, Justice Muralidhar shared that Bharat Chug’s “poignant poem” is shaping the High Court judgements and inspiring others to serve the poorest of the poor.

The law required me to punish him, 
it’s dry, blindfold diktat and arbitrary whim; 
I chose to exonerate him, but didn’t say anything; 
how could I ask him not to earn his bread — when the state couldn’t bring…
Could I think of a more honorable way, 
this boy could have earned a living — 
selling honest tea — with fair billing.

For legal authority was there, but moral authority I had none, 
my nation’s law had somewhat failed, and poverty had won!”

- Bharat Chug, Tea Seller and the Judge 

Sometimes poems are the keys to unlock a movement. A poet has very little say in what may unfold. I had one such humble keymaker experience when India announced a lockdown on the 24th of March 2020. Within a week, 23 million migrant workers had no option but to walk on foot, thousands of kilometres back to their villages. When the images of millions of men, women and children walking and dying on roads came through social media, my heart broke. Their collective trauma was unbearable for my little ego world. I cried for many nights letting my helplessness and angst transform into a poem, “A Long Road of Inhumanity“.

The poem triggered conversations that resulted in a citizen movement called Dignity of Labour. My colleagues at the Presencing Institute invited me to create a social art performance based on the poem. Our performance video was featured at the Global  Forum, followed by a dialogue among more than a thousand global changemakers. We did similar forums in India, leading to rapid funding and the launch of new initiatives to support migrant labourers. 

However, the most transformative part of this journey was the shift we experienced within ourselves. Poetry and embodiment helped us to see the world from the eyes of the migrant labourer. It dissolved our rescuer-victim duality. We could feel the strength of their spine. We decided to call them “nation builders” and support them in creating local, rural enterprises. 

***

The pandemic proved to be much bigger than all our relief work. It brought humanity to its knees. The collective trauma and resulting systems crisis have pushed us into deep fear and fragmentation. It’s a call for poets and social artists worldwide to create spaces where we could reckon with our collective suffering, reconcile with our loss and regenerate wellbeing for all. 

As poet David Whyte shared in an interview with Thomas Hubl at the Collective Trauma Summit 2020

“Healing is in being found and giving words to parts of our body that had no voice yet”.

_____________________________

Gratitude: I am grateful to:  

  • Sonali Gera for co-hosting many embodied poetry dialogue circles
  • All the wonderful people who organised, hosted and participated in 20 online and offline gatherings over last two years.
  • The Himalayan Writing Retreat team and the participants of the Blog Writing Workshop for co-editing and shaping this article 

———————————-

Manish Srivastava  is a senior faculty and co-director of Social Presencing Theatre at Presencing Institute. His first book, Trading Armour for a Flower, has become part of gender trauma healing circles across many countries. His upcoming book “Midnight Journey of a Seed” offers a poetic pathway to develop resilience in the face of the pandemic. Follow him on www.sacredwell.in for the upcoming poetry healing circles. 

Longing for Dignity

Transforming  human trafficking ecosystem

Sometimes we need to walk to the edges of our civilization to see deeper truths. Human trafficking is one such edge. It is a story of how human can reduce humanity to an object for flesh-trade.

I was ignorant and apathetic to the world of human trafficking until two leading non-profit organizations, working on anti-trafficking, invited me to facilitate a dialogue. They asked me to help them solve complex systems challenges in their field that was leading to internal ideological conflicts and impacting their collective work.

We convened a group of men and women committed to fighting against this gruesome act of humanity. At the end of the first day, we sat in a circle and shared painful stories of how young girls and boys are sold, how their innocence is manipulated, and their dignity is destroyed. As they introduced me to the dark world of human trafficking, I felt deeply sad, angry and helpless. I had no courage to facilitate a dialogue on such a painful topic. At some level, it was hard for me to relate to their complex challenges.

Honouring the FieldKali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Coincidently, the workshop was scheduled during Navratri (April 2017)– a festival where Hindu’s worship nine avatars of Goddess or Divine Feminine over nine nights. On that particular night, it was Day 7, Kalaratri pooja. I invoked the Goddess in my meditation and confessed my limitations as a man holding a conversation that related to deep dishonouring of the feminine. I asked her to help me in my role as a facilitator. Image of Kali with Shiva lying on her feet popped up with two clear insights: 1. Listen to the body (Kali doesn’t like anything heady) and 2. Surrender (as Shiva did)!

Next morning, instead of conversations, we used an embodied contemplative theatre practice called 4D Mapping to understand the social system that leads to trafficking of girls. 4D Mapping is one of the practices of Social Presencing Theatre developed by Arawana Hayashi. In this, we work with complex systems challenges, embody key stakeholders and co-create a social sculpture of current social reality. This process makes visible the hidden dimensions of the social field and generates in-depth data about the shifts that could move the whole ecosystem towards its wellbeing. Most importantly, this process required us to surrender our agenda and listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Participants played different roles representing victim girl, her family, her dignity, police system, shelter homes, anti-trafficking NGOs, the justice system and customers. As we embodied the roles and relationships between various actors, all the stories from last night and many generations, become alive. We were uncovering the primal patterns of systemic oppression: where suppressed-sexuality turns women into objects of sex; and upheld-morality fights back to give her justice. She suffers on both ends. Sacrificing her dignity and freedom. While we walk the clean streets with our pants zipped and collars upright.

Collective Resonance: 

When we sat back in a circle to reflect on what we just experienced, the whole room went in deep impregnating silence. There was an unspoken resonance vibrating through space, transforming words into tears. After a while, few spoke from their heart. Others nodded in deep acceptance.

A man who played the role of a ‘victim girl’ shared that while embodying her role, he could feel her trembling fear and pain in his body. He added that while every other player in the act were pulling or pushing the girl to justice, all that she longed for was acceptance and dignity from her family.

A woman who played the role of a ‘policeman’ shared that while playing the role, she felt exhausted and misjudged by others. All that policeman wanted was appreciation and dignity for his work.

Another woman who embodied ‘family’ found herself powerless and filled with shame. All through the exercise ‘family’ kept lying on edge away from ‘dignity’. She said, “I know the girl longs to come back, and everyone else judges me (family) for letting her go, but I have no dignity left within myself. I have no agency or power either.”

Everyone in the room, including me, cried as we embraced the fact— we all were somehow victims and contributors, unfairly stuck in this systemic suffering. And each one, irrespective of our gender, longed for acceptance and dignity.

Collective Resolution: 

Slowly our heart-felt reflections transformed into collective resolve.

A program leader opened her heart and said “I think we got it wrong from the beginning. We got so invested in our idea of justice that we turned insensitive to girls need. How different are we from the trafficking ecosystem that robs her of her dignity? We need to redefine our purpose from anti-trafficking to pro-dignity”.

A young man who works with communities and shelter homes said “I have been feeling this for long. Her dignity dies at the source: when her family sells her due to their vulnerable social-economic conditions. We should work at the source instead of trying to fix the problem after she has lost all hopes in the trafficking system”. Another leader declared: “Let’s redirect our attention and funds for bringing dignity to girls and working with their vulnerable families”.

In following days and weeks, insights were translated into new projects. Relationships between the partners has deepened and so is their collective advocacy for draft bill on anti-trafficking in India. However, there was another piece of the puzzle lying in the outer circle.

Customers & Citizens: Two sides of the same coin?

Throughout our reflective dialogue, I kept wondering about the mysterious role of the customers. How could men be so inhuman to turn a woman or a child into an object for the sex-trade? Don’t they get curious about her feelings, her fears, her helplessness?

In the paralysed stuckness of the customer, I could see wounded masculine energy that falls prey to their own repressed sexuality, and, gets stuck in corrupt game of sex, money and power.

Towards end, my attention shifted to yet another invisible role– bystanders or citizens. Those of us who are aware but choose to disengage from the dark quarters of sex-trafficking or prostitution. We do not want to get our linen dirty in this mess. We would instead write college essays on ‘legalization of prostitution’ or share WhatsApp jokes on ‘Bangkok holidays’. Aren’t we part of the social system that creates the ground for sex-trade? Haven’t we invented and upheld morality that shames sexual desires? Pushing it to shadow realms of prostitution and pornography. In that sense, how different are we form the customers who create demand and activate the human trafficking system?

We generated powerful felt-insights when we created the embodied map of the stakeholder, oppressors, rescuers and oppressed in the social system. I wondered, how we would place the feminine, masculine, child, shame, sexuality, dignity within our hearts? Who oppresses whom? What accentuates the customer? What disempowers the bystander? What is the divine within us really longing for?

Returning to the Woman within

After the workshop, I sat alone in the room, feeling the resonance of the dialogue we just had. Unresolved, I turned again to the Goddess, the divine feminine. She responded from within:

A woman is reduced to an object for sex
So you can strip her of all her dignity
And redeem yourself from your shame

A stone is turned into a revered Goddess
So you can project her dignified presence
And redeem yourself from your guilt

Where have you lost it, O civilized man?
Couldn’t you pause and feel the woman within?
She longs for dignity and your presence!

—————
This experience led me to a poetic exploration of the inner dimensions of masculinity; and it’s journey from woundedness (exploiting feminine) to wholeness (honouring feminine and healing the world); in my upcoming book “Trading Armour for a Flower: Rise of New Masculine
—————

– Manish Srivastava


Gratitude:

I am grateful to the leaders and team members of Kamonohashi Project and Save The Children India for this opportunity to learn and work with them. They are doing incredible work to transform the trafficking ecosystem. Pls, visit their website to learn more about their work and contribute to their projects.
Kamonohashi Project: https://www.en.kamonohashi-project.net 
Save The Children India: https://savethechildrenindia.org