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Keeping a Journal Can Transform Your Life



by Sandy Grayson

Where Do I Start?

What is journaling? In March 1770 , John Adams wrote, “The only way to compose myself and collect my thoughts is to set down at my table, place my diary before me, and take my pen into my hand.” More recently, Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying, “Keeping a journal will absolutely change your life in ways you’ve never imagined.” What’s the big deal? Why do so many spiritual practices and teachers recommend journaling? As Louise Hay, bestselling author of the book You Can Heal Your Life, once wrote, “It is so important for each of us to take that inward journey and discover what attitudes and beliefs we hold within ourselves.”

Why Should I Journal?

The reasons we journal are as varied as the different types of journals piled high on bookstore shelves today. Journaling brings self-knowledge. Writing down your thoughts, venting your emotions about a problem or situation in your life, or just recording scribbles, poetry, inspiring quotations, and dreams brings you closer to who you are. It is a window into what is important to you.

You may have a particular intention for your journal. You may want to leave a legacy for your children or heal from a divorce. You may be working through an illness, or you may need to release emotions in a healthy way. You may be developing material for a novel or otherwise nurturing your creativity.

But you don’t need to have a specific reason. A journal can be a companion, a best friend, a way to tap into your intuition, or a place to dump your emotions so they don’t land on friends and loved ones. Your journal can be a way to clean out the junk in your head so you can focus on what is really important to you.

Ultimately, writing in a journal is an act of self-love. Your journal is a safe place to get to know yourself and discover who you are. It can bring clarity in a confusing world that bombards us with messages and images of who we should be, what we should want. A journal allows us to paint a picture of what we want our lives to be, and helps us love ourselves enough to create it. Your writings, musings, and doodles are a way to talk to your soul.

The Digging Begins

Many workshop participants tell me that they come to their journal wanting to experience a revelation, and all they can manage is a few monotonous details about their daily life. They judge the words on the page and question whether they are “doing it right.” If you’ve ever stared at a blank page for hours wondering where to begin, you’ve come to the right place.  

Maybe you’ve started observing your world and writing down what you do each day. But how do you go from writing around an issue to digging into it and through it? Many of us feel awkward when we begin journaling. Often we are not comfortable with the feelings that arise. Although we hunger for self-knowledge, we are not sure how to achieve it.

What stands between you and the magic of journaling? Do you feel awkward? Does it make you uncomfortable to write down secret thoughts that you don’t want anyone else to read? Do you feel blocked? Do you not know where to begin or what to write about? This book is designed to help you overcome any journaling fear or block. In this chapter, we will begin to dig a little deeper with your journal entries. Using the exercises in this chapter, we will determine what areas of your life you want to focus on. Then we’ll go into more detail in subsequent chapters. This chapter is a taste of what’s to come. If you do these journaling exercises, you will be creating a glorious book filled with wonderful personal thoughts and musings. Your journal will become a window into your soul.

Get Brave

It’s time to get brave and dig down deep. It takes a certain amount of bravery to pour your deepest emotions, dreams, and desires onto a blank page. Your deepest self will be documented for all of time. I understand the trepidation you may feel, and I am here to help. You are not alone. Almost everyone feels this way when they first begin to experiment with journaling.

What I can tell you is that if you persevere, the rewards of journaling are gigantic. A peaceful energy will you and follow you throughout your day. You will feel more calm and centered when faced with stressful situations. Your newfound freedom will spill over into every aspect of your life. Your creative, artistic side will begin to peek through, even in the most mundane moments. Your inner wisdom will show up in your everyday transactions.

I challenge you to not be satisfied with living an ordinary life. Strive to find your voice. Do not wait. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to find your voice at all. You have an opportunity to experiment in finding your voice with your journal. You can dig and play and express yourself in creative ways. And if you don’t like what you write, you can destroy the evidence in the nearest fireplace.  

However, be wary of your need to write an “acceptable” journal. We all have a need for acceptance, but tribal thinking is the enemy in your journal. Your goal is to discover your beliefs, no matter what others may think. Trust your inner wisdom, follow your intuition, and listen to your heart. Write the longings of your soul, and be willing to go out on a limb to express yourself. Your true voice will show up, and if you let it sing to you, it will get stronger and stronger. It all starts with the willingness to write down anything that comes into your mind.

Here’s a journal entry sent to me by a twenty-two-year old woman who is just beginning to dig a little deeper in her journal: What is it about my life? Sometimes I feel so small. I know it’s about something bigger. Bigger than me and you, bigger than everything I’m feeling right now. Moments grace me and I tap into the power; other moments flash by — unnoticed. I’m sitting in the longing and despair. I float around in a fog of depression and anxiety. Nothing seems to lift me up. Is it up to me? Do I hold the key? The ultimate power, is it within me?

As she allows herself to ask these big questions, you can see that there is wisdom behind her words. In the rhythmic way she expresses her pain, it feels as if she is on the verge of an answer, if only she will keep writing.

Many times, as you are doing the timed writing exercises, it will feel as if nothing is happening. Then, all of a sudden, a breakthrough occurs. If you had stopped at eight minutes, you never would have gotten that great new idea or experienced the revelation. So no matter how awkward it feels, or how much your mind is jumping around, just keep the pen moving for the full ten minutes, or however long you have agreed to write.

The timer triggers an urgent, creative response. Your subconscious mind knows that you have a limited amount of time in which to accomplish a goal or get an answer, and it will respond to this pressure if you give it a chance. The more you practice this subconscious timed writing, the more in the flow you will feel when you journal.

Try This: I Remember. I first discovered this prompt in a writing group as we worked with one of Natalie Goldberg’s books. Write the words “I remember” at the top of a blank page in your journal, and set a timer for ten minutes. This gives your brain just enough to get it going so that you can relax and fill in the blanks. Don’t worry if it feels as if your mind is jumping from one memory to the next. It doesn’t have to flow onto the page as a complete story. This exercise is just for you to feel the act of writing without thinking, without editing, and without judging. If you feel stuck and don’t know what to write next, write “I don’t remember” and begin again. The point of this exercise is just to let your mind relax and see what happens. Your subconscious will guide you if you let it. Where does it want to take you?

Helen is fifty-three years old; she’s been married thirty-two years and has three children. Here is her journal entry, written in response to the prompt “I remember”:

I remember my wedding day. It was so beautiful. I felt like a fairy princess. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? I remember when my son was born; it changed who I was. I remember the “me” who existed before I was a wife and mother. Those roles took over my life until there was nothing left of me. I remember having big dreams of going to law school and changing the world. I saw myself standing on the steps of the White House, defeating the big, bad corporations. Now my husband works for one. The corporation pays our mortgage. We are owned by them. When did I give up my values? Was it one big decision, or the sum of many small compromises? Was it wrong to think that getting married was the best possible next step? Was I crazy to think that I could hang on to the idealistic young woman and still be a wife and mother? I remember when my life did not feel so complicated. I only had to think of what I wanted, and even that seemed like a huge undertaking at the time. I scoff at how much drama I created back then. Ah, to be young again, with my whole life ahead of me. Would I do things differently? They say, “If I knew then what I know now...”What then? This is definitely something to consider; what would I change if I had my life to live over again?

This entry triggered another question for Helen to explore next time she sits down with her journal. She can continue to write by asking the question, “What would I change if I had my life to live over again? ” It takes her deeper.

What would you change if you had your life to live over again?

There are often clues hidden in our childhood memories. When we come into the world, we feel the vitality of life coursing through our bodies. We are connected to the magic of the world, and every day feels fresh and new. What are some of the dreams and goals you had when you were a child? Here’s a good exercise to help you remember what brought you joy when you were a child.

Try This: You...Only Younger. Visualize yourself at the age of seven. See your bedroom, your house, your yard. Now imagine that you are sitting across from that little person right now, and you are laughing, talking, sharing, playing, and having the time of your life. What makes your seven-year-old self happiest? What brings her joy? Write about all the things you loved to do when you were seven years old. Tell me what you loved as a child. How many of these things could you incorporate into your life today? Have fun with this exercise.

Anne was twenty-seven years old and newly married when she wrote this. She told me that she had a difficult time remembering pleasant things from her childhood at first, having grown up with an alcoholic father, but finally something surfaced in this journal entry:

It is a challenging task to sort through my childhood and find good memories. With so many unpleasant recollections springing to mind, it’s easy to reconnect with that scared little girl I used to be. I said a little prayer: “Flood me with good childhood memories, help me reunite with the happy little girl I see in the pictures,” and I walked away from my journal for two days.

In the meantime, my husband and I went to the beach. He entertained himself for a few hours playing volleyball while I parked myself near the shore. The smell of salt and the wet breeze blowing my newspaper around reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in years: my family loved going to the beach. My parents would pack us all up and trek out to the beach every weekend. I remember now that it was the highlight of my week. My brother and I would create the grandest, most intricate sand castles any seven-year-old has ever seen. I can still feel myself lying beside my sand castle, obliviously covered in wet sand.

For that short moment, we would feel like a real, normal family, and that is what brought me the most joy. I don’t have to struggle to find moments and glimpses of normalcy anymore. I am thankful that I don’t have to make an effort to incorporate that feeling into my life, because it’s already there. And I do love to reminisce about how it feels to lie in the sand and giggle.

Break Out

The scary thoughts are the ones you need to commit to paper right away. The writing that makes you nervous or sends a shiver up your spine is what will take you to a magical place. You can start slowly. Use the prompts in this book and follow them along. If there is a specific topic you want to focus on, skip to that chapter and work with those prompts right away. The sooner you begin writing down the inner thoughts that are nagging at you, the sooner your mind and heart will feel clear to lead you to the next step.

There is no wrong way to do this. Just follow your intuition and jump right in.

Marilyn is in her late forties; she gave me this journal entry after a very brave writing session:

I don’t want to write about my marriage. I can’t. It’s easier to pretend that everything is okay. But I know it’s not. There’s a place deep down inside of me that refuses to be quiet. It’s a whisper that taunts me almost every day: “Your marriage is falling apart. It hasn’t been a real marriage for many years. How long will you go on like this? Can you resign yourself to a life without love?” I convince myself that everyone feels this way. My friends are unhappy in their marriages, too. But that doesn’t make it any easier. I can fill my life with luncheons and cocktail parties, and the kids still keep me very busy. But how much longer will that last? Soon they will be out on their own — driving, friends, parties — and living their own lives. What will we do then, when there is nothing left to talk about? How long will we be able to exist in a silent marriage, not talking about what really matters, drifting farther and farther apart — once lovers, now strangers in a strange place?

Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I meet so many people in my workshops who are feeling just that: despair. Their lives are not fulfilling. Somewhere along the way, they went off track. Maybe it was in an attempt to please a parent or to earn a living, but their lives have become an endless treadmill of going through the motions, doing whatever it takes to make it to the next day, only to wake up and do it all over again. How do you break out of this? Your journal is a great place to start. When you are willing to examine the details of your life, you can change them. This doesn’t mean that you should walk out on your husband and children and run away with the pool boy; it just means that you can look a little more closely at your dreams and wishes, and consider what would add vitality to your life.

Determining what issues or fears you may be hiding from and what brings you the most joy will automatically lift some of the veil that keeps you in a fog. Don’t be resigned to a life of quiet desperation. Break free. You can explore what freedom means to you in the pages of your journal.

If you’re ready to dive deep into what’s really going on with your subconscious, try this next writing exercise.

Try This: I Don’t Want to Write About. Do you really want to dig deep in your journal? Set a timer for ten minutes and write “I don’t want to write about...” at the top of a blank journal page. Then go. You may feel a little twinge in your stomach, or a voice may yell, “No! No! Don’t write that!” You must be fearless, or at least pretend to be, for the next ten minutes. If you are really having a hard time with this, tell yourself that you can always rip it up after you’ve finished. Asking yourself again and again, “What do I not want to write about?” will take you deeper and deeper into your fears. Don’t forget to ask for guidance as you jump into these deeper questions and allow the voice of wisdom to show up on the page. Alternate between “I don’t want to write about...”and “What can I do about...” and let the rest flow through you onto the pages of your journal. Keep writing until the timer goes off!

How did that feel? Did anything surprising show up on the page? Are you holding anything back? Is there something you simply could not allow yourself to write? If this is the case, then you absolutely must write it down, right now. Set the timer again, write this unthinkable thing on a piece of scrap paper, and when the timer goes off, reread it and then rip it into a million shreds. The act of writing will release your answer. The energy it takes to hold onto this secret fear could be blocking you from your deepest desires. Writing and releasing these fears onto the paper will open you up and give your inner wisdom a chance to shine.

If you feel that you were still holding back on this exercise, go back and try it again. Keep trying until you’ve written down every scary thought that’s living inside your mind. At this point, it doesn’t matter if you rip up the journal entries or keep them; just get them out of your head and onto the paper.

Using these prompts to break out of your normal routine should refocus you on what is important to you. As you get more and more comfortable with releasing your deepest thoughts and desires, your life will take on new meaning. Your journal will guide you into a meaningful life.

Surprises on the Blank Page

Dennis, a fifty-five-year-old man who has been journaling for over thirty years, wrote to me, “I can say that I write in order to know what I think and feel. I am often surprised by what comes out.”

Being surprised by what shows up in your journal can happen the very first time you do a writing exercise. Robert, a man in his mid-forties who had never kept a journal, attended one of my workshops and felt a huge shift after just one ten-minute timed writing exercise. I led the participants through a visualization, then had them write for ten minutes with the prompt “Conversation with Your Ninety-Nine Year-Old Self”(which follows). In this exercise, participants asked questions of this older, wiser version of themselves.

After the workshop, Robert said to me, “I think something inside me shifted tonight.”He confided that, after four heart attacks and two bouts with cancer, he had never allowed himself to imagine that he might live to the age of ninety-nine years, much less be healthy. He told me that the visualization and the journaling allowed him to see a different perspective. It gave him a chance to map out a new path for his life, starting today.

That is one of the surprises that will come from journaling. In a moment, your life can change. You can have a major shift, or an answer may appear. It all depends on how wise you let yourself be.

Try This: Conversation with Your Ninety-Nine-Year-Old-Self. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Imagine yourself at the ripe old age of ninety-nine. You are in perfect health. Maybe you are sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of your home or working in the garden or walking along a beach or hiking on a nature trail. Your eyes sparkle with the wisdom of life experience. The lines around your eyes and mouth light up when you smile, and you smile often. Breathe in the essence of this wise old soul that inhabits your body; feel its presence within you.

Now go to your journal and have a conversation with this wise, wonderful person. Ask, “What would you have me know? What should I concentrate on in the coming days and years? What things could I do or experience that would have the most positive impact on my life?” Ask all of the hard questions about your current situation and just let the answers flow onto the page. You will probably feel the answers forming in your mind before you have even finished writing the question. Your only job is to allow the answer to appear on the page. Don’t edit yourself; let whatever thoughts come into your mind flow into your journal, no matter how silly they may seem to your logical mind. Remember, there are no rules; just write!

Try This: Taking Stock. Take stock of your life. What is working? What isn’t? Allow yourself to be completely honest in your description. What is overwhelming you? What do you love about yourself? Are you feeling jealous, angry, or envious of a friend, coworker, or celebrity? What’s missing in your life? What makes your life full? Name the three best things in your life. Now name the worst. Consider this exercise a new starting point, in which you can get to know yourself and your desires. How will you ever have the life you long for if you can’t pinpoint where you are today? Capture a little bit of your life at a time — little details, feelings, and situations that are going on at this moment. How does it feel to be you right now? How do you wish it would feel?

Here’s a journal entry from a friend of mine, written just after she bought her first home:

Nothing’s clear; my mind is tired tonight. I think about where I am in my life. Visions of men run through my mind; what do they mean to me? I work on fine-tuning myself, my house, my life. My nail polish is chipping off and I need to shave my legs, but I took the time to hang some pictures on the wall. Shave later, catch up on your manicure some other day. Today I will do things that have an immediate effect on me, my surroundings, something that will last. Nail polish chips, legs grow hairy, life moves on!

“Nail polish chips, legs grow hairy, life moves on.” These are words to live by! Your life is moving on right now. What are you going to do to craft and shape your life? Are you going to continue living your life as if you’ll get started tomorrow, or next week, or next year? Carpe diem!

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams plays an inspiring poetry teacher who encourages his students as he reads from Whitman: “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” What will your verse be? You get to answer that question, starting right now. No matter where you are in your life, your journal will be there for you as you contribute your verse to the world.


Excerpted from Journalution: Journaling to Awaken Your Inner Voice, Heal Your Life, and Manifest Your Dreams. by Sandy Grayson. Copyright © 2005 by Sandy Grayson . All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library . $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.972.6657, ext. 52 or click here.

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