I’m sure you can agree: we’ve moved through a lot of different emotional states the last few weeks. I’ve noticed my mind flood with worry thoughts, while at other times, I find calm and peace. Amidst our anxiety and valid concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am called to offer a practice– a coping mechanism I’ve used for many years–to serve you as a powerful tool in the most uncertain times.
I like to think of journaling as mindfulness with a pen. It is reflective writing, which, in the psychological research, is often called expressive writing. What I love about journaling is how it is totally accessible. It’s cheap. It’s efficient. You can do it from anywhere, anytime.
But you might ask: Why bother? How does writing really help us during these periods of times?
You, too, may be feeling nervous energy or muscle tensions in your body. Or, maybe you’re just feeling a bit “off,” distracted, reactive, confused, even numb. Troubling thoughts, often accompanied by negative body sensations, are sometimes so vague and unclear, we walk around with it all day without the ability or awareness to release in a safe way.
Through journal writing, the release of inhibitions facilitates calm within our bodies. While writing, we use our prefrontal cortex: an area of the brain that enables us to consolidate loose, nervous energy, and convert it into a memory.
Once we have a memory, we can place it on a “bookshelf” in the mind. We have then finally freed up space: naturally, we gain clarity, tap into our resilience, and find peace of mind.
So, how do you begin?
The first step is to gear up: grab any writing tool you want: your computer, a calendar book, or paper and pen. (I tend to use 4” by 6” journals with lined pages, but that has varied over the years!) Once you have your gear, the next step is to find your setting. In my Journaling for Serenity video, I’m sitting in one of my little nooks in the house, my home office. It has good lighting, a chair and ottoman that are cushy and comfortable, and above all, it’s a private space where I am unlikely to be interrupted.
Continuing to set the space, I tend to have various reading materials near me. These are typically meditation books, or texts filled with with wise sayings. You may have a prayer journal, the Bible, or other books of comfort that pull you. I find a little reading helps turn my attention away from ruminating over what I have identified as “the problem du jour,” putting me into a more meditative, reflective state… as I begin writing.
I start by finding silence and stillness within. I try to quiet my mind and listen for inner wisdom to naturally emerge. My mind goes, and I wait, allowing thoughts, images, or little nuggets of wisdom to bubble up and guide the first, and then the following sentences. If I’m stuck simply regurgitating fears, upsets or complaints, I turn my attention to an inquiry, formulating questions such as: What do I need right now? Where am I not taking ownership? What could make this situation more tolerable?
This technique of moving from declarative writing to inquiry can shift our thinking, moving us from more left-brain, linear, rule-oriented, logical thinking into more holistic, imaginative, right-brain functions. This is where we create new solutions, viewing the whole as greater than the parts.
The bottom line: Journaling doesn’t have to have hard and fast rules. While there are many techniques you can utilize, no single one steals the show. Simple, free-flow writing does the trick. There doesn’t have to be a formula, rhyme, or even reason to it. You don’t need to edit, keep it, or even write full sentences!
It’s important to practice not judging yourself when writing. It doesn’t always need to make sense. You don’t have to share it with anyone, yet if you’re ever venting about others, you can use initials. Keep it in a private space, with or without your name in it. As for your subject matter: anything goes. When comedian Garry Shandling began one of his first journal entries, it was simply: “Today. I began a journal.”
(Another one I enjoyed: “Give more. Give more of what you didn’t get. Love more.”)
Another guide for journaling comes from one of my favorite authors on writing, Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling book, The Artist’s Way. She states:
“Every day, after you wake up and before you do anything else, write three pages, longhand. Start writing and don’t stop until you get to the end of page three. Don’t slow down, don’t self-edit, and don’t think about how bad or even good this writing might be… the only requirement is that you be as honest and unfiltered and unfettered and free as you can, and, most importantly, keep the pen moving. Get out of the way. Go.”
Although Cameron advocates for daily journaling, how frequently you write depends on what is best for you and your lifestyle. Generally speaking, one can benefit by writing 15 to 30 minutes, three or four times a week. You get to choose. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says: “There are two things to avoid with your journal. One is never writing in it, the other is always writing in it. In the first case, you participate in life without observing it. In the second case, you observe life without participating in it.” The power behind the practice is learning how to become more in touch with ourselves, so that we may repurpose mental energy, and promote calm and clarity.
I love my journal, particularly now. It is ready to listen to me whenever I need. It never tells me I’m whiny or that I’m thinking too much. It always listens, never interrupts, never turns away. And that acceptance in those private moments, is you accepting yourself–any hour, day or night. If journaling calls to you, I invite you to take a moment, read something inspiring to you, find your settling, and release any thoughts that could be draining your mind and body. Turn it over to your journal, and just let it go.
I mention a number of excellent resources in a brief journaling workbook that I have used at prior journaling workshops, soon accessible on my website here: (www.TheIntegralTherapist.com). I welcome your comments as to how the practice is going. You can reach me at CarlaBarrow@TheIntegralTherapist.com, or 786.708.1724. Thank you.