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.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
Full disclosure: there nothing complicated about what you’ll read below, no previously unheard of secret formula.
But just because something is simple doesn’t mean that we naturally generate the will or ability to do it. If we did, there would be a whole lot more balance, happiness and goodwill in the world.
Yet, all these things do exist in abundance, and it is our absolute birthright to be able to tap into these positive qualities of living. There are no miracles necessary, no magic-fix-all set of instructions to shoot us way up into the stratosphere of joy.
Happiness, harmony, balance—these are not end-games to which we jump, only to rest there until the end of (our) time. Of course not.
We are human. By our very nature, we come into this world with a body, and that body will eventually deteriorate, sicken, age and die. Often, our minds and our bodies will be at odds. Our body will want to run when our mind wants to quiver and cry. Our mind will want to soar when our body is unable to move.
This is not something to regret or bemoan. There is so much beauty in being unfalteringly, unwaveringly human.
Being human allows us to cry when we feel we’ve reached our limits, but also to laugh at the potential absurdity of the situation. Crying will leave us in one place, laughing in another, and both are temporary and both are infinitely possible, and repeatable.
To this extent, the choice is ours. Being human, right now, is not the choice, so there is little sense in feeling stuck or trapped by the very parameters of our existence.
How we are to be human is very much within our power. We seek happiness and barrel right back into feeling stuck or depressed, not seeing how we are clawing against the walls of something (that elixir of happiness) that is actually not trying to hide from you at all.
It’s existed all along, embedded into every single moment we choose to accept the situation we find ourselves in. And this is incredibly difficult to do, especially without a whole lot of effort, training and mindfulness, but it’s also incredibly simple.
Sometimes we just need to be reminded.
It’s often the littlest things that can propel us down this road of acceptance. If we can’t grasp the meaning of something as gaping and wide as happiness, let’s bring ourselves back to the things capable of invoking that giddy, joyful feeling, things that can remind us that we are right here, already in happiness’s arms.
Let’s do these:
Sing our favourite song: For real. Like, out loud. Belt it and feel something of eternity coursing through your veins. I usually choose Somewhere Over the Rainbow or Ain’t No Sunshine or In My Place, which aren’t the happiest songs, but their emotional resonance get me there every time.
Meditate: This is a no-brainer, and people cite this in every single “feel better” to do list. But there’s a reason for this. Meditation isn’t a hobby or an accessory. If we’re diligent about it, it can sincerely help us reduce stress, calm our minds and learn to accept everything that is happening in the present moment. To start, just sit and be aware of the breath going in, going out.
Standing forward Bend: Ahhh. Literally and metaphorically let it all hang out. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and slowly bend forward from the hip. Only go as far as your body allows (you can use cushions to rest your hands on), and just hang, trying with each out-breath to release more, holding no tension whatsoever in your upper body. Take long, deep breaths, and let your tensions escape, as your strong, tree-like legs support and ground you.
Shut down the computer, phone and other such playthings: Do this for five minutes or an hour or a day, and cut off many potential sources of stress, and watch how the world doesn’t fall apart without our connection to every cyber-molecule of it. Look out the window, go outside, read a book, do nothing. Hang out alone. We are great companions, just the way we are, once we get to know ourselves.
Journal: This might not be second nature for everyone, or maybe it’s a daily activity. It’s a truly wonderful way to check in with the self and become more attuned to feelings on physical, mental and spiritual levels. Take the time to nurture and foster this connection with self, and discover how much this enables a journey out of the head and into the world of instinct, intuition and beautiful human connection.
Do something for someone else: Give. Donate. Hug someone. Call a friend in need. There a countless options, and you likely know keep inside exactly what and how to do it. Make the world a bigger place by sharing its amazing bounty.
Write a letter: Pen and paper! You may be old enough to remember when writing people letters or having penpals was an ordinary part of life. Even when it was ordinary, it was awesome, and it always felt so good to write and receive letters. Now that it’s extraordinary, imagine how good it will feel to take the time to pour your heart out to someone, and to also receive a piece of their heart in the mail.
Scan the body: Feeling bad? The mind and body are cohorts, and you might be surprised to find that there is a physical element to your mental discomfort. Maybe it’s your posture, or that you slept funny on your neck last night, or that your limbs are stiff in this not-quite-warm weather. Do simple things like stretching to limber up, and watch your energy channels open and clear your mind/psyche.
Take a walk: Walking is truly a salve for the soul, living meditation. We often forget the healing powers of being literally grounded, connected to the earth. Cars take us away from this, and even bike-riding doesn’t quite compare to feeling the earth under you. If it’s possible, get off the roads and onto trails and grass. Take off your shoes. Feel how alive everything is, and how much you’re a part of it.
Laugh: This will do it every time. Whole strains of yoga and meditation are dedicated to this form of release, which de-stresses on all levels, and is the best soul-medicine around. A stress-free life is a happier and arguably longer one, and laughing and stress literally don’t know how to share a space together. Laugh often. Laugh alone, with friends and loved ones, and slide into a happy-place that is always at your fingertips.
The Things I Wait For on a Cold Wintry Morning
and the things i wait for are the things
that would come,
the wait isn’t long
we can hold it close
or let waiting go,
but on this cold, wintry morning,
the wait is a tickle, a snug space
it does not agitate,
and so i play with it
waiting for my ginger tea to boil
waiting for the small kerosene heater to hum
for the blast of warmth to dance with my face
waiting for either snow or spring to make itself known
waiting for a small headache to go away
waiting for wildly restless thoughts that came, to go
for ancient fears to dissipate like the scattered dust of childhood
waiting for the future I’m not sure I even knew how to dream of
waiting for the next perfect coffee mug
for the book that will draw me into its pages forever
so that i may never return,
waiting for time to slow down enough to kiss it and say thank you
waiting for love to take yet another turn
waiting for the lotus flower to unfurl me
for my journal to tell me the truth of who i am
waiting for the old photos to fade and the new ones to fall into the ether
waiting to sit by a campfire and hear other people’s stories until the end of time
waiting to hear more from all the elders
waiting to recognize my own touch
to see the face of the world-body in front of me smiling
and the angels to drop down through the top of my head
waiting for the bird who will be large and kind enough to sweep me away
and for the park bench i’ve come to know, to welcome me with a song
waiting to embody
waiting for no more waits, because i have arrived,
with you, this frosted morning,
we are here
where we have always been.