Journaling as a Mindfulness Practice

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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;

On purpose,               

in the present moment,

and nonjudgmentally.”

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.

 

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What is Really Going On? A Guide to Self-Care.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

We don’t, for the most part, question our instinct to go to the doctor for physical check-ups and to keep our bodily affairs in order.

But do we always remember do this with our psyches, or mental and emotional selves? Or do we shelve this kind of self-care for later, if we even think about it at all?

We often take these more invisible or hidden parts of ourselves for granted. We assume we can put off for later tending to those parts of us that are less glaringly problematic, despite some very important signs that we need attention—as we know, stress doesn’t have an obvious face, but presents itself in so many physical, debilitating forms.

Part of the issue is that we sometimes assume things don’t change all that dramatically within us, that we are some kind of fixed self who, for example, likes certain things and dislikes others, and has a certain set of priorities in life, and so on.

Because of this, we can tend to play out our lives on auto-pilot, without really determining if the things we are doing, and the people we are doing them with, are actually aligned with who we are at the present moment. Doing so works against the ability to live mindfully, to fully respect ourselves and others, the way we—and they—deserve.

It can be pretty daunting to think about having a nice, long sit-down with ourselves, to say hello, (re)introduce ourselves, and ask the all-important question of “what is going on.”

I had a great teacher who once said that we should always be asking this question—what is going on?—and ever since then, I’ve been unable to take this question lightly.

For example, he once showed a group of us a photo of a person—it was as simple as that. He then asked us, “What is going on here?”

We were quizzical, and remained silent.

“Think about it,” he said.

“It’s a person,” one of us answered.

“But what is really going on here?” the teacher continued. “Is this a person, or a photograph? Can a photograph of a person, just a piece of paper, be a person, and if it isn’t a person, why are we tempted to say it’s a person before we say that it is a photograph of a person?”

All at once, photography became a most complex, puzzling and mysterious medium, and I learned never to be complacent about what I think I know, and how I know it.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to self-knowledge and self-care.

Since we are always changing and evolving, whether we want to or not, we can learn very surprising things by honouring ourselves with a check-in.

We can check in with the self in a variety of ways, and we can do this all in our heads, say, on a long nature walk, or even better, by writing it down, which can force us to be more diligent and self-reflective about the process.

We can examine the state of our physical self.

How do I feel? Am I tired, frenetic, in balance? Are any muscles tighter than usual? Is anything out of alignment? Does anything hurt, or feel different than it used to? Am I getting headaches, and if I am, more or less than usual? Is there something my body needs now that it didn’t need before, and vice versa?

We can examine the state of our emotional self.

What feelings are going through me right now? What feelings have been cropping up repeatedly in my life recently? How have my feelings changed from the ones that used to preoccupy me? Am I angry, sad, frustrated, happy, at peace? How long do these feelings last? Do I feel I’m in control of my feelings? Which relationships bring me joy, and do I make enough time for them?

We can examine the state of our mental self.

What kinds of thoughts occupy my mind these days? Do I focus on the past? Do I fantasize or worry about the future? Am I distracted, or focused? What subjects are interesting to me, and do I make time for these things in my life? Do I feel balanced, and able to handle the tasks I have to do every day? How might I streamline better to function at my tasks at hand?

We can examine the state of our spiritual self.

Am I fulfilled? Do I feel something is missing? Is there harmony between myself, those around me and the environment? Is the way I spend my time in alignment with the way I want to be living my life? Do I know which life I want to have in an ideal world, and how can I move closer to that ideal?

If thinking about all this sounds daunting, it can be very helpful to answer these questions as lists, or in point form. Another great idea is to set aside some time to jot down a list of things you have learned as a result of your experiences. If you limit yourself to a relatively small number, like five things, you will force yourself to get to the most essential life lessons you feel you’ve acquired.

There’s a great chance that these top fives will surprise us, and tell us a lot about what our priorities are; this is a great starting point in thinking about the changes we can make to achieve more harmony within ourselves, and looking out to the world.

These intensive check-ins are like huge energy bubbles that can help sustain us in a chaotic world, helping us understand what makes us tick, so to speak, so that we can become more grounded in awareness of self. They also make periodic, mini check-ins easier to accomplish, so that we can develop a more fluid sense of our deepest and ever-evolving selves.

Doing these on a frequent basis—eventually, it can become as natural as breathing—will help us react with clarity and mindfulness when unexpected situations arise, difficult or otherwise, and integrate as fully and happily as possible into each moment of the life we are living.

The Things I Wait For on a Cold Wintry Morning.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

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.