Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Midwifing the Writing

After a Seminar:

It’s quiet in the room in the seconds before the pens hit page. We’ve just spoken about listening to the rustling of a plastic bag. I rustle the bag. We listen. We speak about the signal that Hashem told King David to listen for before he went out to battle the Philistines. It was a rustling in the leaves of the mulberry trees. When the leaves rustled, then he would know that Hashem was with him, and he could bring forward his troops to engage the enemy.

Aside from the rustling, there is no real subject matter to launch the writing. But no one complains. They didn’t complain at our first meeting when all we gave them was a first line. Now we’re giving them even less. But they trust the process. They're ready to let go of the dock and swim into the open sea. It is vague, but it is exhilarating and wide open. I say, “Just put one word down on the page, and let that word lead to the next, as if you’re holding a rope, and you’re pulling, and you don’t know what’s on the other side.” Will they pull in a camel or a hurricane?

I sit with them in the silence before the damn breaks, and the waters gush forth. We stand on the edge of creation when worlds are being born. I feel like a birthing coach. I help with the breathing. I remind them why we are here—to deliver.

The workshop breathes life into old bones. We are diggers for buried treasures. We are beachcombers, collecting seashells. We are constellations shining in the firmament.

Once their pens hit the paper, and they do without exception, I watch them swim out. I wave to them, but they are too engrossed to notice. It’s a blessed silence. Nothing exists, but the movement of arms stroking through and legs paddling. They will return with a piece of light wrested out of the darkness.

When we go around the room and read out loud our finds, there are no comments. Only what we can’t suppress, a sigh or spontaneous applause. Everything is precious for what it tells us about our journey, what it illuminates, what message it smuggles back from the soul.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Six Days of Writing Your Way to Greater Self-Awareness and Healing

12 page e-booklet, $5.

Do you feel clogged up with undigested material from your life? Are you carrying around boxes and boxes of unsorted experiences, feelings, and anxieties?

Using the information about writing for healing and the six writing catalysts in PEELING THE ONION, you will begin the process of making order in your internal world. You will access aspects of yourself that you had forgotten or never knew you had.

Many studies have shown that writing is a powerful tool for relieving stress. Writing exercises like these have benefited people suffering from arthritis, heart disease, and other serious conditions. It was found that writing about emotional issues not only helped relieve symptoms, but led to long-term improvements.

After just one writing session, you will stand up and feel lighter, more awake to the beauty around you and the blessings in your life.

Varda also has an e-cookbook, BLUEBERRY FIELDS FOR BREAKFAST: A Cooking Companion for Creative Souls.

Much more than a cookbook, BLUEBERRY FIELDS FOR BREAKFAST is a guide for turning your cooking into a medium for self-expression. You’ll learn how to break out of recipes and enter the realm of improvisation and inspiration as your kitchen gets transformed into a creative zone.

From Delight Soup to Birthday Cake, from the blueberry fields on a Maine coastal island to the narrow streets of Jerusalem, this e-cookbook reads like a fascinating memoir of culinary experiences.

Varda is known for unlocking creativity in her virtual writing retreats. Now she turns to the kitchen to show you how to elevate meal preparation into an art form and the act of eating into celebration.
34 pages, $10.

By Varda Branfman

About finding our way back to places we've never been... Some people have been waiting a long time for this voice.

When the heart overflows with gratitude, then song is the natural response. Varda's essays and poems are essentially songs that celebrate her wonder and thankfulness at finding the answer to her question in the eyes of her children, in the air of Jerusalem, in an unused silver spice box, in the silence of her Old World grandmother.

If there is any darkness in these stories or memories, it is only as a pathway to experience the light of our higher selves. It is all one tapestry of light whether she is swimming in a glacial lake, saying Psalms in an old Jerusalem synagogue under threat of war, or witnessing the breathtaking dance of a 70 year-old grandmother at a Jewish wedding. She holds out the possibility of an exhilarating wakefulness – “Make yourself a shore/Hold nothing back” – and she shares a vision of the peace and wholeness to be found in returning to our higher selves.

$20 including shipping. Paperback.

By Yaakov and Varda Branfman

$17, including postage. Paperback.

Challenge, Adventure, and Pleasure in Giving.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Gentle, Effective Way to Remove Writing Blocks

(For a full description of the Virtual Writing Retreat, scroll down to July 30, '08)

Every writer comes up against writing blocks in the course of time. You may feel that the writing blocks are insurmountable as they effectively stop you from continuing to develop your creative projects.

One way to remove a block is to acknowledge it and honor what it has come to tell you. Instead of railing against it and hoping against hope that it will disappear, you can approach it as if it were a locked door. Imagine that door; picture it. With a prayer in your heart that you will succeed in opening it, reach into your pocket and take out a key. Then turn the key in the lock and gently push the door open.

Walk through the door and look around you. Where are you? Is there anyone there with you? Be aware of yourself. Look down at your feet. Are you wearing the shoes you presently wear or are they shoes from your childhood? What memory have you walked into or what imaginary scene? What are you feeling?

You may have walked through the doorway into a situation from your present day life with people whom you know. Ask yourself, “Why am I here? What have I come to see?”

Now take up a pen and paper or sit at your computer and write. Put down one word and watch as the next word comes and the next until you find yourself writing in a stream of consciousness. You may find yourself describing what you found on the other side of that door, or you may find that the door is a catalyst for you to take yourself somewhere else to another time and place.

You may very well find that your writing has become revitalized after the experience of feeling the door in front of you and unlocking it. Hopefully, you will be finding things to say that you’ve never been able to say before in ways that are also new to you. You may realize that the block was standing in your way in order to kick you out of the status quo and the predictable. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise to lead you to new avenues of expression and new frontiers to explore.

Getting Underneath the Pain

When we are feeling physical pain, our usual response is to try to cover it over with some kind of medication. If we are experiencing emotional pain, then we might want to mask it by drinking, overeating, buying or doing some other activity to totally divert our senses away from the very thing that is crying out to be heard.

Here is an alternative course of action, a healing response rather than something that will only temporarily relieve our pain and distress. Instead of running away from the pain, we will be running towards it.

Ask yourself, ask your soul, and ask G-d: "Where is the pain coming from?"You already have some answers from your childhood, from your boss, from your marriage, from a school principal, from a crabby neighbor, from bureaucracy, from too much chocolate chip ice cream. But more important than all those people and things outside of you is what's inside of you.

Try sitting down with pen and paper or at the computer keyboard. With your eyes closed as you breathe deeply, ask again, “Where is the pain coming from?” What's the root of that pain which is catalyzed by outside forces? Does the neighbor bring up some deep-seated memory of conflicts with parents, judgments by authority figures, or unmet expectations of love or acceptance? Is the ice cream your way of silencing the place inside that is crying out for love and acceptance?

When you really listen to your insides, you may hear some very, very simple answers-- they were there all the time, but you just hadn't heard because there was so much static flying through the air. At the same time that you face the underneath sources of your external pain, the answers to what to do about it will often spring up spontaneously. Your insides know what to do to heal.

The universe is full of answers to questions that we don't bother to ask.

When the pain motivates you to re-unite with your insides, then the pain turns into light. It turns into a flashlight to illuminate your way in the dark. You can be thankful for the pain-- because pain is a sign that you're alive and feeling. You're awake.

Write from the inner landscape where you’ve journeyed. Pick up the pain in your hands and carry yourself through the silence into your vast inner world. Let the pain turn from ache to song, and let your voice rise up and sing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Catalyst: A Memory that You Don't Remember

Your writing catalyst is to find a memory that you don’t remember. You’ve got plenty of memories that you replay over and over again in your mind. This time you’ll be fishing in your subconscious for a piece of the past that you don’t really remember.

Maybe you have only a tiny smidgen of it or the thinnest slice, but you’re going to hold on tight and pull the whole thing in.

It’s all there inside of you, only you don’t usually have free access. In relaxing and allowing things to float up without taking conscious control of their direction, you’ll be discovering something in the forgotten past.

You’ve already relaxed, but try relaxing even deeper. Let your mind float on the waters like a rudderless boat. Let your mind float to wherever the current moves it. You can trust and let go. Watch how an image from the past will slowly float up into view.

Like an iceberg, most of it is underwater. Get a sense of its size and shape. Now start writing by letting one word lead you to the next word.

You don’t know where you’re going, but the memory will take you where it needs to go. Be ready for surprises as your writing illuminates a piece of your past.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Full Description of the Five-Day Virtual Writing Retreat

About Writing Retreats in General:
Writing retreats are a well-established institution, which are often held in scenic spots all over the world. They are designed around private time for writing and writing workshops for receiving feedback from writing mentors and other participants.The idea sounds great on paper, but the retreats are impractical for many of us who can’t take time off from our work and families. Plus, their cost can be prohibitive since it includes travel and accommodations.
What is a Virtual Retreat:
We want the valuable opportunity to concentrate on our writing under the guidance of an experienced mentor, but how to carve out a space and time for doing the writing and receiving the feedback? In answer to this question, the idea of the virtual writing retreat was born.Since the virtual retreat takes place in cyberspace through e-mail correspondence, it can happen in any place and start at any time. Its main requirement is a commitment of one half to one hour of writing time each day for the duration of the retreat.
How Varda’s Virtual Retreat differs from a writing course:
The retreat is customized, meaning it is designed around the individual’s personal needs and desired focus. There are no standard writing exercises.The first day’s writing catalyst is created to facilitate the exploration and excavation of the area that the participant has mapped out with me. Subsequent writing catalysts depend on the direction the writing is taking so that the participant can go further and deeper.Often, the focus changes as material emerges that was not anticipated.Always the emphasis is on the process unfolding rather than on delivering a certain end product. In this way, each participant experiences the writing as an exhilarating journey into self-discovery.
Scheduling the Virtual Retreat:
The retreats usually begin on a Sunday and go for five consecutive days, but it's fine to being on any day of the week. It’s best to pick a week that has some free time for writing, and it’s ideal to schedule consecutive days because of the obvious benefit of establishing continuity and momentum. However, a participant may not be able to schedule the retreat for five days in a row, and in that case, the times can be flexible.
How the Retreat works:
Before Day One of the virtual retreat, the participant decides on a certain focus, e.g. overcoming a writing block, choosing which way to go at a crossroads in a writing project or in one’s life, healing from a traumatic event or issue, or developing clarity about an emotional, physical, or spiritual challenge. Keep in mind that the focus is not written in stone and can shift dramatically in the course of the retreat. It is simply a way to begin.
I send you a writing catalyst for each day of the retreat to facilitate and guide your writing. These are jump starts rather than assignments, and the participant is always free to take off in the direction he or she wishes to go. After reading through the writing piece that was generated, I respond with suggestions for developing it further. I base my choice of the next catalyst on my experience as a writing mentor in knowing ways to break through to a deeper and more profound awareness of the material. I also rely heavily on my intuitive abilities.During the course of the retreat, participants usually keep up a lively correspondence with me about their self-encounters during the writing, their daunting struggles, and their stunning triumphs.
One participant wrote about her experience on the retreat: “I had fun, honed my writing skills, and touched down on my personal imagery. Varda’s a great wise spirit and guide.”
From another participant who has so far taken the retreat 8 times:“Varda showed me how to gain access to the hidden gifts within. I learned that it’s possible to meet up with and reclaim memories, feelings, attitudes, or situations that had eluded my grip. Varda taught me how to write from the subconscious. If that were the only thing I would have learned on the retreat, It would have been enough. Catalyst after catalyst took me to far off, distant places that existed right inside of the me I longed to know.”
Cost for the Five-Day Retreat: $250.00 or 950 shekels.
For further information the best place to reach me is at

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Sample Day of the Five Day Virtual Writing Retreat

People are often asking me how the virtual retreats work. So I decided to post a sample day from an actual retreat.
First, the individual decides on a focus, which is always flexible, and simply provides a starting point.
In this sample day, "Malka" chose to focus on her ambivalent relationship with her daughter and her desire to increase the love between them.

What I Want to Focus on in the Retreat:

Dear Varda,
This time I want to focus on discovering the language of love - this is a new language for me, as yet unknown. It's a state of being that I am not familiar with.

Much pain in relation to my daughter. I find that when I go out of my way to help her become a mature person, afterwards I get very "stingy" and mean to her and I know it's a way of disconnecting from my storehouse of sadness on the neglect of my childhood in those same areas.

My main goal is to become more loving so I can patiently and lovingly help my daughter and improve our relationship. When it is good, it is very, very good and when it is bad - it is AWFUL

This time I want to focus on discovering the language of love - this is a new language for me, as yet unknown. it's a state of being that I am not familiar with.

Based on Malka's statement of focus, I gave her the following catalyst:

Catalyst for Day One

Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine being with Leah and seeing her in front of you. Open your heart and feel the love. Express the love. Just as there are connoisseurs of diamonds who can appreciate every single facet of them, be a connoisseur of your daughter and observe her from every angle. Find the language of your love.

Now imagine yourself at her age. Sit yourself at her age next to Leah in your mind's eye and send love to yourself as well. Appreciate the young Malka. Minister to her wounds. Send her compassion and understanding. See Leah's light and beauty in you at her age. And then see yourself in her. Realize how you are being healed as you love and accept your daughter in all that she is.

You and your daughter are one. Loving her is loving yourself. Loving her is loving you. Can you feel it?

Malka's writing for day one took the form of letters written by various aspects of her inner world. She addresses her resistance to exploring the whole issue of love and then she proceeds to find her own creative ways of overcoming the blocks.

Dear Varda,

Thank you very much for your kindness in taking on this hard job of sending catalysts to match my very own issues. However, I didn’t make it clear from the start that this problem that I have with my daughter and finding ways to love her won’t be possible for me to fix. I let you know that this is my problem, however I should have specified from the start that I cannot find all that love in my heart for every facet of her person. I cannot sit myself next to her and find what to love in me either. There is ice-cold hardness at every turn, there is a problem I have every moment and that problem is this:

i hate myself. it’s the plain truth. I never talk about it or anything, but it’s true. so when you tell me to go ahead and nitpick to find every possible lovely thing about Leah I feel a block, a wall of stone in front of me. I can pretend and try that there is what to love, and I can even believe in my heart of hearts that there is what to love – but the actual action of reviewing all the lovely parts of her is going to be fake.

I know it. I know that I can sit her up and I can admire her. I know that I can scrutinize her and find what to love. There is a lot there. She is a special person. She cares, she wants, she is cute. But what I find such strong resistance to this work that I am inclined to toss this whole idea. I know that I can write and it will be a piece of art, but I don’t think it will work on my insides. I am very, very hardened at this point to this kind of intense, unconditional love. I don’t see what to love in myself, I don’t know what love is, I am not familiar with this word. I am just a foreigner. All I know is what I have lived through, I don’t know what is supposed to happen. I don’t know what there is to love. I just walk through and slip by. I am unnoticed and will never be noticed. I can’t find the love. I am too lazy to work on it. I am unhappy that I have to work so hard to talk about love. I am upset that it is so unnatural for me to love. I recoil when reading the catalyst because I feel I cannot pry open the doors of my heart to Leah’s or to anyone. To anyone I’ve hurt or who have hurt me.

I don’t want to find the love because I am afraid of the feeling. I think that true love is hurtful. I think that finding true love is painful because there is nothing to do with the intensity of the feelings. I am worried about facing a situation I never experienced. I know that I am capable of intense feelings but I am not sure if I ever loved anyone unconditionally and I am fearful about starting this now. I am afraid that if I start on this catalyst and start scrutinizing Leah as if she’s a diamond, I will miss half her goodness, I won’t be able to see her soul in the best possible light. My glasses will be tainted by my own anger and upset and it won’t be giving her the best possible examination. I don’t want to get involved in an art that I am not familiar with.

I don’t want to sit myself up there next to her and just love myself at the same time. I feel like I am a lost case. I tried loving me already and it never penetrated. I tried seeing myself in a sympathetic light and healing from this traumatic period of my life ,. and my whole traumatic life, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t hit me in a way that really helps me. I feel so down. I am afraid nothing can help. Talking about love won’t work. I don’t know what real love is. I only see people with their deficiencies. I only see people with their faults and shortcomings. I don’t know how to look at people with a good eye. I am forever judging.

I never learned the language of love and I never will.

So says, Inner Coward Malka

To see to it that my wounds are properly bandaged and sacredly visited. To admire and to empathize. To allow for pain and hurt. To understand that healing takes time and only by finding the source of the infection, can it actually take place. By administering gentle doses of love. By affirming the importance of me and my needs. By waiting patiently for health. And by forgiveness. But most of all, by learning the definition of the word – love.

I can learn that. It will be like learning a new language. I love language. And I love the language of love.

Malka continues, now writing to her own inner coward.

Dear Inner Coward Malka,

You are very funny. Almost making me think that you are for real. Why scare me like that? I almost believed you, that you are giving up on yourself. Now, now. Come on, this is no time for joking. I understand that you feel a bit fearful about starting on this journey of feeling and healing and looking for love etc. But please – it’s not a time for such indecent jokes! Do you hear? Please don’t trick me like that again.

I can hold your hand as we go through this process. So Varda took you literally. So she really believed that you wanted to work on loving Leah and yourself. So she gave you a very precise catalyst with all the ways you can figure out how to love both of you. It doesn’t mean you actually have to go sit down and do it word for word. Let’s say you find it hard to love Leah now. Let’s say you don’t even feel like looking at her face right now. Let’s say she is so unappealing to you that you can’t look at her. So. So what will you do now?

Don’t write me a letter saying that this whole thing is impossible and you will never learn the language of love. You have to find your own way around this block. There has to be a way around it. If you truly want to work on it, as you wrote in the first place, you will have to be creative and find a way to do it.

Perhaps you can look at Leah when she was a tiny infant in your hands. Holding her and scrutinizing her when she was a few months old bringing joy and light into your household. Perhaps you can admire her when she was a toddler. Before the day of judgment came upon you, after giving birth to Ezra and becoming a scary Mommy.

Don’t run away or shirk your responsibilities. Don’t think that you can escape your work. You have to take the bull by the horns and take care of it. I am not saying that love is s/t a person neatly takes care of, but I also won’t advocate you loosely letting go and giving up on it entirely.

Malka, I believe in you. I have faith in you. You can do it if you truly want to. Tonight you don’t feel so loving, You are very tired now. Tonight you can dream about what you might find when you look at her w/o her glasses and w/o your glasses. But tomorrow, we’re back to business. No shirking.

Love, Me (Inner Strong Malka)

Another letter from Malka to one of her inner selves.

Hey, Strong Big Talker,

It’s nice of you and all to be so “loving” and “firm” at the same time but you don’t really understand what I am saying, I see. You think it will be so simple and you will just encourage me a little and I’ll go on my own and it will be all drama and fun. But you are in for a big surprise. I have grown old and stubborn. I have grown old and lost all my spontaneity. I have grown old and rusty; I creak at the hinges. I won’t buy your goodwill and nice talk. I am too busy for this. I have no time for niceties. Thank you very much, but you can try peddling your wares elsewhere. I am clear about myself and I am clear about what I can do. I will give it a shot tomorrow but don’t you DARE give me a hard time. I think you strong big talker are more of a judger than anything else. You masquerade as a strong, encouraging, and loving voice but no, you are not. You are still a judger who likes things to be good and right. You aren’t loving one drop.

And that tells me s/t about myself – the voice of love is so tiny, I don’t know if I can be quiet enough to ever hear it. I have a tremendous amount of visceral noise but the one lone tiny voice of love is threatened, deadened, and overpowered by all the inner noise. Especially the judging one. Argh. If to rid myself of Ms. Judge, your Honor, and get myself some love. If to rid myself of constant scrutiny and flattery and drown out the voice of nagging, berating. If only.

Thanks for your help, but no thanks.

From Inner Quiet Malka

Responding to Day One and Catalyst for Day Two

Try looking at this foreign country called "Love" from afar. I am not asking you to enter it by force or even to steal yourself across the border in the dead of night. Just climb a tower in your own territory where you feel "at home" and put on your binoculars and take a good long look, a scrutinizing look at this country called "Love" that doesn't give you entry. (And what happened when Ezra was born and you became a scary Mommy? How did that banish you from the Land of Love?)

What you "mustered together" for Day One, by the way, was brilliant. I always appreciate your honesty and feel dazzled by the power and rhythmn of your voice, and in this case, all your voices. When you wrote at the end about the need to get quiet in order to hear the tiny voice that is love, I felt the pang one feels when hearing Truth.

"Coincidentally," I've been working on getting quiet in myself lately and discovered that I could see the wind singing in the trees as their leaves tremble-- which could be a good metaphor for what love is. If you can't get quiet, it's hard to love yourself. If you can get quiet, then it's hard not to love yourself and everyone and everything around you. I wish I had the secret to getting quiet with yourself. It just seems to descend on me like a gift from Above, maybe in response to having dovened for it in some way. In the past it happened in only rare moments, but I'm hoping that it
will come more often.

I think it might have to do with letting go instead of pushing so hard, as in pushing to get ___________(fill in the blank, examples are: money, your child in a certain school, your husband to change a certain way) The trick is to let go but still keep living the life with your family and doing basically what you always do. It's fairly easy to let go when you're in some ashram meditating for half the day and eating raw food.

I hope I haven't digressed too much, but this is all in response to your beautiful comment about the lone tiny voice that is love.