In previous articles, I proposed that journal writing is a tool to train the mind. The purpose of that training is to learn to observe and interpret experience in healthier and truthful ways. Of course, there are many ways to improve the mind, including mindfulness, meditation, and mental strength training. Why writing, or more to the point, an approach to journaling that claims to transform the mind in some way? What is it that gets transformed and how do we know it’s real? In this article I explore how I use journal writing to train my mind.
Before getting started, I will share some beliefs that you may or may not agree with to get them out into the open. I don’t believe journal writing is an end unto itself. Writing needs to be more than self-directed therapy. I don’t believe that transferring your anxieties into journal entries is necessarily helpful. I don’t believe you can write your problems away. Journal writing can lead you into greater darkness. One of dangers of journal writing is excessive self-interest and narcissism. You may travel further down the narrow damp corridors of self-concern. You can go too far into you. You can forget that self and connection to the world are one. You can forget how to live.
Journal writing is a way to express the things that matter in your life in words. Practiced consistently, it is a way to begin understanding those things with some newly discovered clarity and discernment. If you are like me, you will often write about your difficulties hoping to find a way to alleviate them. It’s equally important to write about the positive things in your life too, but in an honest and truthful way. No rose-colored glasses and fragrant optimism required, just as a blindfold and toxic pessimism ruins hope. When I go down either path, I speak a personal mantra, “Get over yourself.”
If writing things down in a journal isn’t particularly helpful, then why bother?
Many people possess an innate enjoyment of writing. You don’t have to be an author to be a writer. Writing is a contemplative experience for me. My journal writing practice is, at its core, an embodied and mindful experience. I feel a primal connection to the wild and the full force of life when I write. Transformative writing invokes a deep state of connection with the primal elements of life. Modern life imposes a dissociative state. The modern human lives a life disconnected from the feral and creative realm of nature. Embodiment originates in nature. We do not belong to nature, we are nature. This is where writing begins.
Words have power to influence and alter what we feel, think, and do in life. In this sense, words have transformative potential. To possess that kind of power, however, the words need to come from deep within. They must be deeply felt, not just remembered. You can benefit reading the words of others, but they will always remain the words of others. You didn’t discover them. They don’t carry the same potential as your own words. Transformative journal writing is about discovering your own words, phrases, and vocabulary that helps you to broaden and expand the feeling of being alive.
The art of transformative writing is the relentless interplay between your words and your experience.
Transformative potential originates in interplay, interaction, and creativity. You train your mind to imagine words or phrases that resonate in your journal and bring them into the present moment. This is a creative and imaginative act. A kind of visualization. The language you use may or may not be poetic. It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that your words are your own, are found deep within, and resonate in your personal life experiences. The words of others may inspire, but they will not transform you. Transformative language can only come from deep within the body and that primal connection to the wild.
Does reading other people’s work help? Of course, it does, and you should read as much as possible. Just don’t expect to find the words that you need. Thanks to the constant encouragement of my wife, I am an avid reader of fiction after years of being a non-fiction reader. I am finding aspects of myself in characters and situations created by other writers. I discover words and phrases in the stories I read that I make note of them and work within my own context to see where they might take me. And more is better. Read voraciously and steal as much as possible. Take ideas word for word from other writers and bring them into your own life. Theft is the foundation of all artistic endeavors. Once you have these words, however, your work is just beginning. They are still not your words.
When you practice transformative journal writing, over time you will notice that certain words, phrases, and lines of thought feel stronger than others. This is an invitation to a deeper conversation. What are they asking you to do? How are they trying to redirect your awareness? How are they trying to focus your attention? What situations in everyday life might they benefit you? What are they advising you to take out into the world? In what ways might they be encouraging you to experiment with experience? These kinds of questions aren’t answered in a journal entry or two. Discoveries can take weeks, months, and sometimes years.
For example, one of the phrases that resonates with me is, Start again. Of course, for you there may be nothing special about those two words. It’s a basic idea in meditation practice used to stop the mind from monkeying around. It’s a phrase made of just two everyday words. For me, however, it’s a powerfully charged phrase, an internal earthquake, I conjure when I realize I have failed at a task. The reason it works for me is this: I can be mercilessly self-critical and spend more time raking myself over the coals than doing the work. The inner critic is a trademark behavior of perfectionists and over-achievers. Start again is my way of silencing the inner critic without a lot of fanfare and finding my way back to where I should be. Today, the effect is almost immediate.
The idea of start again permeates years of my journal writing. I didn’t just come up with the phrase, write it on my wrist, and chant it throughout the day (I’ve tried things like that, and it doesn’t work for me). I have trained myself to feel those words in my body as energy. I don’t need to remember to say them anymore because I have learned through trial and error to inhabit them. My body, when the critic is active, knows what to say. Saying start over is an act of self-kindness that changes my awareness and redirects my attention. If I can be kinder to myself, then I put myself in a position to be kinder to others. Two simple words with powerful resonance.
Training the mind through journal writing is a quest for congruency between body and mind, thought and feeling, intention and behavior. Transformative journal writing is a journey deep into the full force of your life, to discover words that conjure meaning and influence, and connect them to your experiences in the outer world. The real magic is in what you uncover for yourself by dedicating yourself to the practice of transformative journal writing.
- An excellent example of an individual creating their own system of personal transformation is Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal: “Diagnosed with learning disabilities early in life, he was forced to figure out alternate ways to be focused and productive. Through years of trial and error, he developed a methodology that went far beyond simple organization.” He promotes the bullet journal as a tool for intentional living as well as a “mindfulness practice in the guise of a productivity system.” His work is creative and compelling. He found his own way.
- A good article exploring various perspectives on congruency is Being Congruent Means Being Honest with Yourself.
- For more about the unbreakable connection between art and theft, read Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon.
- An interesting resource I recently came across is The International Association for Journal Writing.