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!