Three Ways to go Deeper with Journaling

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Do you ever wonder if writing things down in a journal really helps? In my own journaling practice, I have discovered that some light structure often helps me to get at the more protected places in my awareness, and makes my writing more insightful and revealing. Going deeper in this way, even once in a while, aligns my daily choices more closely with my long-term personal and professional goals. When I'm away from home, as I was this past weekend, journaling can also help me to feel centered when I'm managing an unusual schedule and adjusting to different weather and time zones.

The following three methods can be used separately for as little as 10-15 minutes at a time, but they also build on one another, and can be used cumulatively in a longer journaling session of 30-45 minutes.

1. Set a timer

Timed writing is a minimally structured version of stream-of-consciousness or free-writing. The rules are: 1. start the timer, 2. touch pen to paper, and 3. keep writing until the timer goes off. If you get stuck, keep writing “I’m stuck” until something else comes into your mind. It will. I promise! Write lists, stories, complaints, feelings, images, memories, to-do list items, or anything else that spills out onto the page. No censorship.

I often do this practice in the morning, immediately upon waking, as described in Julia Cameron's legendary The Artist's Way. Often, 10-15 minutes of timed writing clears the static out of my mind, externalizing stray worries and irrelevant bits of information so that I can isolate what’s truly important for this day, or this hour.

At longer stretches of 20-40 minutes, timed writing becomes more surprising. The surface level gets written off, so to speak, and a deeper layer of thought emerges. I start making connections where I didn’t see them before. I may realize, for example, that an image of floating in the water from a dream is linked to a longing for more creative time in my art studio. Or, a mysterious desire to study herbalism might emerge unexpectedly from a quiet place inside, where it is usually drowned out by the urgency of my daily schedule.

2. Ask a Question

It’s our nature to explore and to change, and even if we are happy with our relationship, our work, or our living situation, there are things we will certainly become curious or concerned about. If these questions go unanswered, they can fester as anxiety or confusion. Journaling is a great way to, instead, get to the bottom of how these questions are prompting us to grow.

At the top of the page, write a question you’re wrestling with (if you’re not sure, try writing, “What am I concerned about today?” or “What do I want to know today?”). Then, write freely on this topic until you get to the bottom of the page. You may also like to set a number of pages (say, three) for this task. I find that the set number gives me a pleasant sense of completion.

Some questions I’ve asked myself recently include: What do I need more money for? What job will I have five years from now? How do I help to build an equitable society? Your question can be specific or general, but must feel important to you on a gut level. If you don’t feel an emotional investment, it probably won’t be a useful journal session for you. Avoid skill or research-based questions (what’s the best program to learn Chinese?). Save those for your To-Do list!

3. Start a Conversation  

One step further than asking, of course, is answering! In journaling dialogues, you choose an entity to have a conversation with through writing. This works great when there’s someone significant in your life who is, for whatever reason, inaccessible (estranged or no longer living).  But dialogues with body parts, younger or future selves, inner wisdom, inner demons, individual emotions, your job, or a creative project are all excellent frameworks as well. Begin as if you were writing a script for a play, starting with a sincere question that feels important to you:

Me: Hey, lower back, why are you so achy all the time?

Lower Back: Well, you know I do a lot of work carrying us around every day and I need to rest

Me: Really? How often do you need to rest?

LB: Well, every day. I mean how often do you need to sleep?

Me: But can’t you rest when I sleep?

LB: Sometimes, but not always. When’s the last time you got a really great deep sleep?

Me: Good point

LB: I rest my case. Ha-ha

Do not overthink this. In fact, don’t think at all; just write. Allow the answer to come from your hand, not your head. Keep asking, keep answering. You may be surprised at the variety of information you can get from this technique. It may feel a little strange at first, but once you let go of judgement and accept the first thing that pops up, you’ll be off and running. Allow your dialogues to be totally ridiculous or profoundly emotional. Nothing off limits.

Journaling is a highly personal and accessible wellness practice, and need not take much time at all. No fancy journals or pens are required, although there are many available should you feel inspired! Furthermore, journaling is a private affair. It’s one of the few moments in our lives where we can truly be alone, and if you write by hand, which I recommend, it is an opportunity to re-inforce the mind-body connection, which is ultimately one of the most precious resources for our well-being. 

Do have favorite journaling techniques? Please share them in the comments!

Authentic Leadership Part 3

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

In part three of this series on leadership, I’m exploring two “characters” that I’ve known myself to play when stepping into a leadership role: the Superhero and the Visionary. The perspective of each is distinct, and provokes a certain style of interaction with followers. This post examines the patterns of each one.

Unrealistic Expectation #3: Heroism
Authentic Quality #3: Vision

On the dance floor, the superhero believes she is wholly responsible for the following partner’s pleasure and comfort. When I’m in this mode, I’m convinced it’s my job to ensure that every follower has a musical, creative, and fulfilling dance experience with me. I choose only movements and timings that are familiar and well-practiced, and I alter certain elements of my posture in order to match my partner’s shape, maybe lifting my chest or extending my arm more than is comfortable, or straining to appear taller or shorter than I am.

All of these adjustments may seem generous at first, and sometimes they may well be appropriate, but leading in this way all the time sacrifices something important. Because I’m focused on minimizing risk and prioritizing the following partner’s experience over my own, I find that dancing this way for a long time makes me emotionally and creatively detached. The narrowing of the scope of vocabulary and posture disconnects me from my own natural way of dancing, which is the primary gift I have to offer my follower in the first place. At the end of the night, I feel dissatisfied with the dance experience overall.

In addition to this loss of creative flow, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that although leaders certainly influence the dance experience for their followers, taking full responsibility is impossible. One simply cannot dictate another person’s experience. Operating on this false assumption, though, the superhero exaggerates the role of the leader and diminishes the role of the follower. How can we have creative dialogue if I’m doing everything?

Sometimes the superhero persona is projected onto the leader by others. In the context of dance, following partners might look to the leader to make them feel elegant, beautiful, and sexy as well as balanced, grounded, and centered. In the office, we might expect the leader to arrange for all projects to unfold on time, separate our work into manageable sections that magically fit together with everyone else’s, resolve all conflicts with other employees or with clients, fix our equipment problems, and eliminate environmental stress.

I’m not suggesting leaders do not have their part to play in these matters, but when the superhero character is active, both leader overreach and leader-blaming are common. When I am in the following role, I like to consider what I myself can change to make my work (or my dancing) more comfortable, meaningful, organized, relevant, interesting, or productive. For more on empowered following, see my previous posts on Support, Excellence, and Readiness.

On the other hand, if I’m in a position of leadership at work, I’m usually checking myself on how much responsibility I’m taking for my followers’ professional experience. Do I ask only for what I’m sure will be easy and simple for them, and then compensate by doing extra work myself? Do I avoid asking for creative or logistical help? Design plans and agendas that I think they may expect rather than what I am excited to try? Where am I sacrificing my own creative curiosity to a concern for my employees’ success or satisfaction?

I know when I’m trying to play the heroine and do it all for my follower, instead of with my follower, the dancing never goes as well as I hope. I simply can’t do someone else’s job for them. If I could, I wouldn’t need a partner at all, and social dance is defined by the duet. To access that creative power of two, either in dance or at work, I propose that we replace the superhero with the visionary as often as possible.

Visionaries invite followers to collaborate, to co-create dances or projects with them. Rather than attempt to do things for followers, they invite them to bring their own skills to the proverbial table (see authentic quality #2: Inspiration). Caveat: in dancing and business, there are definitely times when it’s appropriate and necessary to play it safe, and to curtail exploration. I’m just suggesting that as a general rule, heroism will not produce expansive creative dialogue between leaders and followers.

The visionary leader on the dance floor is connected to sensory impulses as well as intellectual ones, responding to a quality in the music that propels improvisation. Clarity of communication in the dance partnership is one of the visionary’s most defining characteristics. This leader’s posture is focused and still. She coordinates well-timed shifts of weight and changes in physical position, facing, and pressure that transmit to the follower a precise direction and speed.

When I manage to embody this character myself, I am in a state of heightened awareness and curiosity. There’s a deep trust that the phrasing in the music, the shifting spaces of the dance floor, and the sensation of my partner’s movement will coalesce to “show me” where the dance is going. I associate the visionary perspective with a focus on “seeing” the dance emerge rather than trying to engineer it intellectually. This sometimes includes a kind of corporeal “seeing” with the body. I articulate this vision to my partner through the non-verbal language of dance improvisation.

When I partner with visionary leaders, I always know exactly where to go next and when, but unlike the "command" state I discussed in Part 2 of this series, there is no rush or urgency. Instead, there is a deliberate quality from moment to moment that makes the dance feel new and fresh, even when the steps and patterns are familiar. There is a sense of discovery that comes from this leader making decisions, and therefore signals, based on what she is hearing or feeling in the moment, rather than based on memory or a habit of “automatic pilot.”

In the work place, exceptional and time-sensitive communication is also, of course, critical, but it may take more diverse forms (for example, speaking or writing, as well as nonverbal signals). Imagining a new product or seeing, in her mind’s eye, the client’s success, the visionary leader must communicate so that followers can then organize to make that vision a reality. The process is continual and back-and-forth, just like a dance partnership. The leader describes, the follower(s) prototype(s), the leader refines the description, the follower(s) develop(s) the work accordingly, and so on and so forth. In the work place, we may may even alternate between leading and following roles, depending on the process. (See my earlier post on how to lead and follow yourself through creative work).

The larger the vision, the more support it needs. By asking for that support, and by inviting the contributions of others through clear and consistent communication, visionary leaders clear a pathway for followers to pursue their individual work in a way that fits meaningfully into the larger picture. Even if the vision changes over time, it’s important to have one, because that is what drives creative dialogue. The more committed we are to our visions, even as they evolve, the easier it will be for followers to devote their energy to fulfilling them.

Do you have a story of visionary leadership? Please share in the comments!