Before mindfulness became a household word, and far before I had any idea why I was writing, or that writing could be used as part of a therapeutic or spiritual practice, I was journaling.
It was an instant love affair. My first diary had yellowy lined paper crusted with gold at the edges and a plush leathery cover with an illustration of a bear holding bright balloons. It came with a gold (well, probably brass) lock and key that I coveted as the gateway to a world of secrets and confessions I treasured like gems in a treasure chest. That the gems probably consisted of irritation with my little sister and my favourite boys and girls names is beside the point. If I needed to vent and dream in private, it was my freedom and my choice!
“It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.” – Anne Frank
Over the years, I made journals out of composition books and notebooks I’d compile in burgundy and grey three-ringed binders I pilfered from my dad’s home office. These pages were my sacred space—a home—where I would visit whenever my thoughts and emotions were on the brink of spilling over. It was also a sphere of sorts, a bubble enveloping me where I existed in my own special universe of person and page, where I could continually return the way we do with great, juicy books.
As I wrote, I could feel the world outside passing by without me, until I was ready to catch up and rejoin it.
“Journaling is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.” – Mina Murray, Dracula
Journaling, a very particular mode of writing, for me grew into a way of rendering life—the often-hard living of it—palatable, manageable, and even exciting. It’s never been so much about needing to record daily events for fear they’ll “go on slipping like sand through our fingers,” as Salman Rushdie has put it. I actually rarely write down details of time, place and event, unless they’re attached to a specific emotion I need to explore.
Rather, I’ve always felt nothing is real until it’s been written down; I synthesize new happenings into my understanding of life and discover nuances about myself and my reality. Processing events and feelings is much easier for me once they’ve been filtered through the journaling process—this is how I find my way through riddles of emotion. Written down, they became something I can regard with a measure of distance. I can start to accept and befriend them. Journaling allows me to simultaneously take a step back from overwhelming feelings, while paradoxically, becoming more intimate with them.
“There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.” – William Makepeace Thackeray
It’s like having a conversation with a best friend; analyzing problems from every single angle with someone we love and trust who can offer new points of view and render the problem more tangible. What we don’t process or put out there stands a good chance of disappearing from the realm of our consciousness. Intimate chats and journaling, among other tools, help frame our existence and give it meaning: they help us become aware of thoughts, fears and desires that might remain obscured if we don’t honour them with attention.
I write daily, but I admit it came as a revelation that I’ve been inadvertently engaging with a practice that was not only a precursor, but would prove integral to mindfulness training.
Chronicling fluctuations in mood, naming and dissecting my emotions and fears, writing interior-based poetry, jotting down scenes or bits of conversation that sparked awe in me. These second-nature practices were, I realized, slowly helping me merge closer to my own life and find my place in a world I felt more connected to.
“Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
The term mindfulness has slowly entered the zeitgeist, more so after January 23, 2014, when TIME magazine ran a cover story called, “The Mindful Revolution.” The proliferation of words/concepts like mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality are reflective of a, largely Western, society crushed under the stresses of modern living, in desperate need of change. We know—and if we don’t know, we learn the hard way, that easing stress and finding peace and happiness cannot be achieved by latching onto a fad, taking a weekend course, or decorating ourselves with the material trappings of wellness.
I believe, though, that being surrounded by these catchwords can only help take us in the general direction of non-violence and harmony, if only by calling attention to our awareness that something is wrong.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, defines mindfulness this way:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment,
I love how this definition encompasses so much of what feels right about being in the world as our best selves. We generally understand mindfulness to be about being present, but how do we do it, and if we’re being honest, why. Meditation helps train our minds to focus on the breath or an object of attention to enhance our concentration skills and direct the mind to the now. But to what end? What is mindfulness really about?
For me, on purpose is the vital quality of having intention along with our awareness. We are not blindly adhering to the present, but willfully encouraging ourselves away from places (past and future) that we understand do not logically exist, because we genuinely want to progress and be happier. In the present moment amounts to the revolution of living fully and richly now, the only time frame we have at our disposal. Nonjudgmentally, as I see it, teaches us that we can’t criticize or hate our way to personal growth; we can gently and gracefully move toward peace by accepting things as they are, and acknowledging with attention and compassion how everything that comes, also goes. In short, it’s all okay.
“As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had ever imagined.” – James W. Pennebaker
It’s been such a joyful discovery to find journaling’s place within the larger arena of mindfulness and to understand how much of a therapeutic tool it’s been, which makes me feel passionate about wanting to inspire others to journal. If we apply Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness definition to journaling as way of paying attention, we find journaling is invariably something we do on purpose: we are often so distracted in day-to-day life, letting our mind wander here and there, but we willingly and actively come to our journal. We want or need to explore something that is weighing on, unsettling or exciting us, that needs our loving attention. We want to make sense of it all.
Journaling is always placing us in the present moment.
Even as we wax nostalgic or panic about upcoming events, we are pausing and carving out the time, here and now, to explore these feelings. The act of writing keeps us tethered to the present and allows us to take a step back from what preoccupies us as we become acutely aware of our selves as witness or agent of the memories, worries, desires or concerns we experience. To worry is to be lost in the chaos of an emotion. To know or articulate that I’m worried is one step removed – I am aware, I have the choice of breaking it down and taking action. Or maybe there’s no solution, but still I write until the feeling’s intensity subsides; I hold a space for the emotion so it can weaken its grasp on me, as all things do when confronted with our gentle attention. Journaling and meditation both allow for this very healing ability to show our selves love, to observe and hold space for our emotions.
“Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize … Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger… This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Nonjudgmentally might be the trickiest one. It’s hard not to judge ourselves, and if we’re honest, others. When we sit down to meditate, or approach our journal, we are ultimately making a choice to be in a safe zone for the unfolding of whatever arises: crazed thoughts, difficult emotions, confusing combinations of the two. We are acknowledging that we are complex beings with myriad concerns; we are granting ourselves the space to observe the swirl of our interior worlds in motion, to feel what we are feeling with compassion and, I’d say, hope.
“Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” – Julia Cameron
Journaling is a beautiful tool for self-knowledge and awakening; we become actively acquainted with our stories and how we construct them without attachment or judgment. We engage with who we are right now as we reflect on and celebrate our beautiful complexities and the wondrous world we are connected to. With every word, with every line we scrawl with our favourite pen, we are stripping away the layers that confound or threaten to overtake us by being mindful of them, and we are left with a simplified and more integrative way of being.
*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.