rue confession: for a long time whenever I did a “spiritual” class, workshop, or program, and the teacher told me to “journal” about my experience it made me want to scream. It wasn’t that I did not like writing – I did and do and I write for myself and my community almost every day. And it wasn’t that I did not have anything to say or record about my experiences. I did, but the instruction to “journal” was so vague, so undefined, that it made me a wee bit mad. I have seen this with my community members too. I cannot tell you how many people I know have spent lots of money on really gorgeous blank books, lined journals, and even computer software, promising themselves that now, for real this time, they were going to start a journaling practice. And they do. For about three weeks. Then life happens and the lovely blank books sit on a shelf collecting dust. Sound familiar?
In both of my intensive courses – the Miracle Tree Sessions and Spinning Gold – I advise my students to keep a journal dedicated to their reflections, wonderings, learnings, and knowings as they pertain to our daily practice and to the broad field of sacred arts.
In the Miracle Tree Sessions we have some very specific parameters within which we work given the scope and content of the course. But Spinning Gold is different: it is more concerned with making life-connections and putting into practice the broad array of techniques across the spectrum of the sacred arts.
Technique is a word that comes to us from the ancient Greek word “techne” meaning “skill”. I think this is one of the secrets to successful journaling. It is not something that most of us do easily and without effort. For this reason, one of the biggest reasons for failure in journaling is the assumption that journaling is just a matter of opening up, a matter of free form flowing. What do you think will happen when it no longer flows? The journal stays closed and gathers dust.
Now some free form work at times is worthwhile; but what flows freely needs a form, a way to hold and channel. (This is one reason why I often teach people how to create sacred vessels for ritual purposes, your journal too is a kind of sacred vessel). Free flowing water becomes useful to us when it isn’t just flowing everywhere. We put it into a glass, pump it through pipes and so on. Even our bodies have a form! A journal is a form and a home for self-expression and self-reflection, both of which require skillful means.
So the very first thing to do is set aside the feeling that “anything goes” when it comes to journaling. Don’t worry: all you need is a little focus and some skills, neither of which will “kill” the spirit, but which will only energize it. I would like to share with you three basic techniques for journaling to get you started. For my Spinning Gold students, these are three introductory methods and as we go deeper into our course I will reveal some more advanced (and awesome) techniques.
If you, like me, feel a blank look come across your face when facing that blank book, when someone tells you to “journal” and you say “huh?”, these three techniques will help you get the ink flowing and the pen moving across paper.
1.) Just the facts the ma’am! The Plotinus Technique
Plotinus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who wrote and taught on many natural, metaphysical and mystical principles that are still in currency today. He is the first source of this technique, a variation of which is used in modern psychology and psychiatric practices concerning post trauma recovery. The Plotinus technique has many benefits. It improves your memory, it orients you within time and space, and it also allows you to give your inner critic a break from endless commentary on your actions. If you find yourself constantly worried and anxious about certain matters, this exercise, when turned into a practice, can be a simple and effective way to break you out of that mold. It sounds simple, but trying to recall each move of your day is actually a pretty difficult thing to do.
The technique itself is simple:
Before going to bed each night, get out your journal and record ONLY the facts of your day from memory, without value judgments. Set a timer for something comfortable, say 10 or 15 minutes, and resolve to keep writing during that time. When the timer rings, stop writing. That’s right, put down the pen. You will probably find yourself tempted to keep going. But for this exercise, you should try your best to resist losing your awareness of place and time.
One of the points of this exercise is to practice a certain frame of mind, to learn to see things for themselves, outside your worries and value judgements. And what a relief it can be! Simply record the events and facts as they happened to you.
For example: I got out of bed at 5:30am. It was windy outside. Honey my dog needed to go outside, but hesitated at the door when she saw the wind. I went to use the restroom. I wrote down my dreams from last night, I brushed my teeth, said some morning prayers, and sat quietly for a few moments. I made coffee, I scrambled some eggs, I decided to wear my brown pants into work today, I went to put on my shoes and found that the back strap had broken…you can get even more detailed in the observation and recording of events. But the name of the game is this: during the time you are recording, stay away from thoughts of critical judgments, worries, and evaluations.
I find it a refreshing and stimulating exercise that helps my magical work. But don’t take my word for it. Try it and see for yourself!
2.) Writing Down the Bones technique
This technique is one created, as far as I can tell, by Natalie Goldberg and popularized in her bestseller Writing Down the Bones. The approach is very simple:
Pick any topic, the more mundane the better. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about the topic. Everything is game – thoughts and feelings, perceptions, memories. Some examples of topics that work well for this: trash on the street, old bubblegum, cold coffee, toast, vegetables, running shoes, dust on the shelf, sunlight on the table, red roses, aluminum foil…you get the idea.
This method takes the Zen approach of first thought, right thought and assumes that by writing about relatively innocuous ideas and objects we can actually access a window into our souls and discover feelings, thoughts, and inspirations that we did not even know were present. For those who tell me that they are too busy to have any kind of regular journaling practice I always point them to Natalie’s technique. We all have ten minutes so we all have a ready-made practice!
3.) Dream Recording and Interpretation
The final sacred journaling technique is one that many of you are already doing: dream interpretation. Refer to the earlier post I wrote detailing a very specific and effective way you can work with your dreams, and make connections that are relevant to your life and practice! (Note: this post is accessible to Spinning Gold and Miracle Tree Session students only). You can mix or match these techniques as you like. Some days you may not remember a dream, so work with the Plotinus technique or follow the Writing Down the Bones method. If you would like to build up your memory and objectivity work with Plotinus, if you only have 10 minutes follow Natalie, and if you are ready to pursue your dreams then get to interpreting them!
From Techniques to Practice
Okay, so now you have three basic techniques for working with a journal. Are these enough to get the job done? No. There is no silver bullet solution to effective journaling. Why? Because what’s missing is us. And who are we? Why, we’re amazing, of course! But we’re not perfect. And we’re unknown and mysterious, even, sometimes especially, to ourselves.
Techniques are worth very little, if we are not willing to show up at the page, exactly as we are, with all of our precious foibles and imperfections, our mysteries and our restless yearning for something more.
P.S. — Choosing the right journal!
As soon as we talk about journaling, a natural question immediately arises: There are hundreds even thousands of different styles of journals out there to choose from. What kind of a journal do I need to get?
Bottom line: I want you to think about what makes sense in your life, given the way that you live your life right now.
If you are constantly on the go, you might want something that is small and portable. Your car or even the inside of your purse might be your sacred working space at this moment in your life. But if you are more stationary and have a love of fine paper and elaborate covers then honor that. There are many different journals that will make your senses sing!
If the idea of keeping a journal really intimidates you – if you are afraid of “screwing it up” somehow – here is my favorite solution. Go to your local drug or grocery store and get one of the back-to-school spiral notebooks, preferably one with a silly picture on it like Garfield eating pizza, a superhero, or Hello Kitty (patron saint of Awesome). There is something about buying a cheap, fun spiral bound notebook that tells you that it is OK to screw it up, OK to be dinged and damaged, OK for you to show up exactly as you are.
Your journal is a tool, so you need a tool that works for you, that fits your life just like a good hammer fits your hand, or a good, comfortable shoe fits your foot.
Go forth and write!