For the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of explorations of different spiritual practices, I have chosen journaling. Daily journaling has been an intention of mine for over a decade and a reality (which anyone who has attempted any regular spiritual practice can attest is a very different thing) for about three years. I can honestly say that of all the practices I have undertaken, journaling has been by far the most consistently helpful and insightful. And so I’m looking forward to exploring the practice here with more intentionality.
Journaling has been called the world’s oldest form of self-help. There are examples of journals from across Asia in the ninth through eleventh centuries, and one could easily point to second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as a kind of proto-journal. For as long as there have been literate people with ample writing supplies, people have written privately to reflect on their experiences. Why might this be?
One clue might be provided by Susan Sontag, who in her own journal wrote: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” While this may sound a little over the top, it fits in well with the idea of narrative identity, which is one of the major theories of identity formation. This theory postulates that we form our identity by integrating our experiences into a cohesive, evolving story, a story which allows us to integrate our past, present, and imagined future and situates us in the larger worlds of our family, society, beliefs, and culture. It’s no wonder that many (if not most) therapies, both professional and self-help, involve telling, questioning, and reframing the stories of our lives. Journaling provides a space for us to do just this. And in this act, journaling can help us discover or rediscover who we really are in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
What is it?
Quite simply, journaling is taking a few minutes to write down whatever comes to mind. This means that it is completely open-ended — it can be whatever you want it to be, or whatever it needs to be on any given day.
If you don’t know what to write about, check out these 5 steps for journaling, offered by counselor and writer Kay Adams. And, for tips about how to ensure your journal is as helpful as possible, Dr. Steven Stosny has some helpful advice about “The Good and the Bad of Journaling.”
As I mentioned at the start of this post, this practice was low-hanging fruit for me since I’ve been doing it regularly for some time already. Normally I journal in the morning, either right when I wake up, or right before I leave for work. This week there was one morning where I was busy with other things and didn’t have (didn’t make) the time to do it then, but I caught up that afternoon. Looking through the past week’s entries, my journal included anything from a simple chronicling of the day’s events to a discussion of concerns and opportunities surrounding a writing project I’ve been working on for the past few months, to thoughts about what I’ve been reading, to some deep and honest reflection on something that has been burdening my heart.
While all of the things I journaled about this week are valuable in their own ways, it’s the last of the ones I mentioned that highlights for me the particular benefits of journaling as a spiritual or sacred practice. More than anywhere else, my journal is where I allow myself the freedom and space to process what I’m thinking and feeling. Some days, this ends up being something like what Brene Brown calls a “shitty first draft” — simply pouring out my heart and mind and allowing myself to feel what I’m feeling, without reference to the broader context of life, faith and the world. And some days, this is enough. Simply providing a safe place to express my raw, unchecked feelings can be a journal’s great blessing.
But more often than not, writing out my feelings allows me to move beyond the shitty first draft: the more I write about my experience, the more I am able to bring in the larger context and situate what I’m feeling in the moment to the Big Picture of my life. Even if I start off talking about feelings of failure and inadequacy, because my immediate circumstances and feelings are only one small piece of data among the vast experiences of my life, I will very likely end reflecting on other experiences I’ve had that counteract that narrative of failure: positive feedback I’ve received, growth I’ve demonstrated, or ways I’ve helped others. This upward movement will often drive me to end in prayer and thanksgiving. This positive movement is something that I notice only with journaling; if I just think about my situation, my thoughts will almost always spiral into unhelpful rumination, which reinforces the ‘shitty first draft’ rather than transcending it.
Another benefit of journaling is that it helps me sort out my conflicting feelings or opinions, especially during periods of transition. My journal can help me figure out where I’m going, or where the energy of my life is drawing me, in a way that little else can. In a sense, it’s like a dialogue with myself, in which I simultaneously speak the mysteries of my heart that are too tender and raw for public consumption and listen actively, carefully, and compassionately to what it is I’m saying.
Finally, I have found that keeping up with this practice over many years has enabled me a greater sense of perspective on my life. Every now and then I’ll look back at my journals from years past, or entries from three, six, and twelve months ago, to see where I’ve been at. I have to say this has been truly eye-opening: Sometimes I’ll stumble across a ‘fresh’ insight in an entry from years ago and I wonder how I had let it slip away from me. At other times I’ll see a surprising pattern or through-line in my thinking. For example, this past October I was in the midst of a very difficult period of discernment; looking back and seeing the same concerns arise in my journaling month after month for well over a year was alarming and ultimately helped me in my decision.
However, like any practice, journaling isn’t without its pitfalls and dangers. In the article linked to above, Dr. Steven Stosny notes that journaling can have a negative effect on our well-being if it causes us to dwell too much in our heads, blame ourselves or others for our problems rather than looking for solutions, or simply wallow in our negative experiences. But, with a God- and solution-oriented lens, these pitfalls can be easily avoided.
It will come as no surprise if you’ve read this far, that I’m a big proponent of the sacred practice of journaling. Whether it’s simply recording a snapshot of my life or helping me to express — and ultimately move past — my shitty first drafts, journaling is an invaluable part of my life and my life with God. I really can’t recommend it more.