The Power of Journaling

Man’s mind is not a container to be filled but a fire to be kindled

Did you ever dream of becoming an author? Well, guess what? You are! You are the author of your life. It’s exciting to realize how much power you have. But there’s a price for that power. The price is called responsibility. Here’s what I mean. If I’m unhappy with my present situation, I have no one to blame but myself. After all, I’m the one who put me here. How can I be surprised by the way the story is developing when I am the one who wrote the script? It’s not enough to be an author. I also have to read what I write because if I don’t like the way the story is heading, I can change the script and arrive at a new ending.

Of course, the script I’m referring to is the collection of thoughts we have. That’s how we write our script. First we have thoughts. Then they lead to feelings which to action. Finally, our life is created by the series of actions we take. Obviously, then, our thoughts have immense significance. Because of their importance, I should always be reading the script (remain aware of my thoughts). When I do so, I can change them when necessary and stay in control of my life. But if I just sit back and allow my thoughts to take me where they will, I turn over the control of my life to the whims of fate.

My mind, then, is not a container to fill with thoughts, but a fire to forge and shape them. After hammering my negative thoughts on the anvil of awareness, I have to shape them into positive thoughts. How else can I create my destiny? Perhaps it was with these ideas in mind that Dorothea Brande wrote, “Man’s mind is not a container to be filled but rather a fire to be kindled.”

In addition to author, another metaphor for how we create our lives is that of sculptor. For example, French Biologist Alexis Carrel wrote, “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” Yes, it takes effort to chip away the marble, but isn’t the unveiling of a magnificent work of art worth it? Cathy Better points out our awesome responsibility: “Life is raw material. We are artisans. We can sculpt our existence into something beautiful, or debase it into ugliness. It’s in our hands.”

So, how do we begin creating our masterpiece? We start out by tuning in to what’s troubling us, holding us back, or preventing us from being happy. What painful emotions are disturbing you? What negative thoughts are plaguing you? Don’t run away from them, suppress them, wallow in them, hide from them, placate them, or give in to them. Instead, face, welcome, embrace, and use them to create a better you.

What is the best way to create a new me? It is by chipping away at the marble one piece at a time. It is small action steps and constant hammering that will transform me. Let’s look at an example. Suppose I’m shy and unhappy about it. Merely repeating “I am very confident” or “I am growing confident” cannot help very much when the statements are not true. Nothing succeeds like success. What I really need to make progress is to experience progress. Affirmations are fine to begin with as they point the way. They are roadmaps; they are pictures of where I want to go, which is good. But what I really need is positive experience, which I can obtain only by taking action.

So, what do I do? The first actions to take are reflection and questioning. After experiencing the pain of shyness, I use it to reflect by saying to myself, “I’m not confident, but want to become so.” Next, I unleash enormous power by asking myself questions. For instance, “What can I do to become more confident?” The question shifts my focus from a problem (shyness) to possible solutions. After asking the question, action steps that I can take immediately come to mind. For example, I can join a support group, talk to friends and ask for their advice, go to the library or a bookstore for a book on how to overcome shyness, do a search on the Internet, take a public speaking course or join Toastmasters International, or take an assertiveness course. Next, I ask myself which one of these solutions will I begin and when will I start. In other words, I make a plan and start chipping away at the marble.

As you can see, being the author or sculptor of our life is all about taking responsibility. The opposite of assuming responsibility is assigning blame. Be careful; sometimes we are so clever doing so that we are unaware of doing it. “Oh, I could do that too, if I had the money, were younger, were healthier, had the time, had the education, or had the support of others.” Did you ever have thoughts like that? Those thoughts are unproductive. They don’t take us anywhere. They just hold us back. The cure to such fruitless thinking is to shine a spotlight on those irrational thoughts by asking probing questions.

For instance, “Isn’t it true that many people, when compared to me, achieved success when they were poorer, older, sicker, busier, less educated, and with less support from others?” When I ask such a question, it becomes clear the fault doesn’t lie with fate, but with my own reluctance to master it. Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz nicely sums up this point, “Some people say they haven’t yet found themselves. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.”

Something that will help me master life is to change my negative probability thinking into positive possibility thinking. Why say, “I will probably fail” when I can say, “I will possibly succeed”? Don’t they have the same meaning? The outcome of both statements is uncertain. But the focus is different. One focuses on failure and the other on success. If it’s success that I want, shouldn’t it be the object of my attention?

Journaling as a Means to Personal Transformation

We are the authors or sculptors of our lives. To become the person we want to be, we need to reflect on our thoughts and actions and then make whatever changes we consider necessary. After all, our thoughts solidify into actions, each step of which helps to shape our lives. Rather than merely reflecting on our thoughts and actions, writing them down will greatly enhance our transformation. The difference between reflecting on our thoughts and writing them down is like the difference between sculpturing with a mallet and a sledgehammer. It’s a difference of power. Reflection is a mallet. Writing is a sledgehammer.

Thoughts are frail. Like cherry blossoms blown about by the wind, our thoughts scatter in every direction. That’s why mere reflection lacks power. But writing them down forces us to focus on the issues, and reading them helps us to stick to the subject. If you wanted to burn a newspaper, you wouldn’t try to do so by putting it out in the sun, would you? Even if you left it there for 50 years, the worst that would happen is the pages would turn yellow. Yet, if you were to use a magnifying glass to focus the rays of the sun, you could set the newspaper ablaze in minutes. Writing is the magnifying glass that sets our thoughts on fire.

Keeping a journal and meditating are similar in four respects. First, both can substantially improve our lives. Second, nearly everyone has a vague notion of what it is to meditate or keep a journal. Third, few people understand the specific steps involved in either activity. In other words, they don’t know exactly what to do. Fourth, there are hundreds of methods for engaging in either practice.

To simplify, I will now describe one method. It’s the technique I use. But first, what is the purpose of scaling mountains? According to mountaineers, it is because they are there. And what is the purpose of writing? According to US novelist Thomas Louis Berger, it is “because it isn’t there.” That’s why I keep a journal. Because it isn’t there. What isn’t there? My evolved self. That is, a new and better me. I am better today than I was yesterday and I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. That’s why I keep a journal. I do it to experience continuous growth.

Any good teacher or supervisor knows that if you want someone to change their behaviour, you start with sincere praise to let them know they have value and are appreciated. Next, you explain that they can become even better by doing whatever it is you are about to suggest. If this is the way I treat others, shouldn’t I treat myself in the same way?

So, the first step I take every evening when making a journal entry is to answer the question, “What have I done right today?” By reviewing my accomplishments, it encourages me to stay on course and do even better in the future. Now that I am motivated to do better, I go on to the second step by asking myself, “What have I done today that I could have done better?” Here’s where opportunity lies. I look for ways that I can improve by learning from my mistakes. Thankfully, I never run out of opportunities for self-improvement.

Each of the steps I take in my entry grows more important than the step before it. In step three, I ask myself, “What actions can I take to seize the opportunities for self-growth that I have found?” After listing action that I can take, I move on to the fourth step, which is to fit the action steps into my daily schedule. Depending on how busy I am, I begin to incorporate them into my life, if not during the next day, within a few days.

Although any changes I make for the better are commendable, they are not of much value unless they become permanent, or habitual. That’s why step five is the most important. This is the step where I monitor my progress and make sure I stay on track. I keep a watchful eye on my improved behaviour, making sure I repeat it for at least 30 days, so it will become a habit. Once it does so, I am free to forget about it and move on to new areas of improvement. Step five also blends into step one, for when I look at what I am doing right, I am actually monitoring my progress. So, the five steps form a cycle of never-ending improvement. I find the steps easy to follow and never spend more than 30 minutes to carry them out.

There is something else I do. Often, as I work in my journal, I will have a flash of insight or good idea, or just think of something I may want to consider in the future. Although none of these thoughts may be directly related to my self-improvement regimen, they are worthwhile. So, I immediately add these flashes of inspiration to another journal, which serves as a repository of good ideas. Keeping multiple journals and instantly flipping between them is a simple matter when working with a good software program, such as David Michael’s The Journal. Once a week, I spend ten or fifteen minutes browsing through my repository of good ideas to see which ones I am ready to act on.

Keeping a journal will steer, focus, and use your thoughts to take you where you want to go. It will accelerate your growth and help in achieving your goals. It puts you in charge of your thoughts, and, therefore, in charge of your life. Once you get into the habit of keeping a journal, you will come to believe that living without one is like being a farmer who refuses to water his crops!

Journaling both informs and forms us

If my method of journaling doesn’t appeal to you, not to worry, for there are many other ways to go about it. I’ll introduce a few other methods here. Perhaps one of them will whet your appetite and convince you to give it a try. I encourage you to do so, for once you enter the world of journaling, you will make many pleasant discoveries. You will learn through experience that journaling both informs and forms us. The greatest discovery of all is self-discovery. Journaling will introduce you to your best friend, your strongest ally, and your greatest accomplishment: yourself. That’s enough of an introduction; now let’s move on to the descriptions of five methods you can experiment with. Even if none of them is for you, they’ll help you to find your own method.

1. Conventional journaling. This is the method that usually comes to mind when we discuss diaries or journals. It’s simply a record of the events in our lives. There is no need to go into the minute details of our daily activities. Instead, merely record vignettes and snippets of your actions and feelings. Why do so? Because they will become a source of pleasure and learning. Don’t photo albums provide pleasure and jog the memory? Yet, all they do is record our physical environment. Our journal, however, records our interior life. Since it is a record that is more significant than mere physical change, it will provide even greater pleasure than a photo album. You are not a being of this instant; you are a process. You are a river because your life unfolds over many years. Your journal can become a panoramic ‘photograph’ of the stream of events and emotions that flow through your life. It provides the big picture and paints a portrait of the complete you.

Besides pleasure, our journal is also a source of learning. Its pages remind us that what we once thought was unbearable, was in fact manageable. It’s a reminder that any pain or suffering that we experience will pass. It’s a record of how we coped. We can refer to our past to learn from our successes and failures.

2. Lists. Some people find it helpful to keep a list of their accomplishments. If you stop and think about it, you will realize that you do things you are proud of every day. The problem is many of us don’t stop and think about it. Instead of filling our hearts with joy, we fill our minds with negativity by focusing on what ‘went wrong.’ Keeping a list of our achievements and adding to it every day puts our attention where it belongs, on the positive. Focusing on our many attainments builds confidence and motivates us to do even more. And when we do this regularly, we will grow to realize that nothing ‘goes wrong,’ it just goes differently. And it provides us with the opportunity to develop our coping skills.

Another way of focusing on the positive is to keep a gratitude list. Each day you record what you are grateful for. This is a good practice because a grateful heart is a happy heart. Rather than complain about what we don’t have, we can choose to be grateful for our blessings and for the suffering we have avoided.

3. Cathartic writing. When we are in pain, we wish to speak to others about it. Having a shoulder to cry on provides some relief. Yet, there are times when we don’t want to burden others with our problems. Or perhaps we are not ready to confide in them because of embarrassment, shame or guilt. At such times, one may receive relief by writing about it. It is best to do so in great detail, exploring every emotion. Doing so helps to separate oneself from the pain. It is almost like writing about someone else. Cathartic writing, then, is psychotherapeutic. It helps to purge the soul of pain and can be of help when suffering from grief or depression. This type of journaling, however, works best with professional counseling. Keeping a journal while attending a support group is more powerful than just keeping a journal or just attending a support group.

4. Dialogue. Wouldn’t it help to have a wise person always at your side, so you could turn to him or her for advice whenever something was troubling you? Sadly, many are unaware of the help that is available. Perhaps it is because there is no one at their side. But the words of wisdom they seek are not by their side, but inside. It’s called by many names, including Inner Wisdom, Inner Self, Higher Self, Unconditioned Self, Inner Adult, Intuition, soul, or Divine Spark. We can harness its power by entering into a dialogue with it. So, if you feel the need for guidance, describe your problem and write your questions. Then be still and allow your Inner Voice to speak to you. Write the answer you get. The answer may lead to another question, which in turn leads to another answer. Just continue the dialogue, back and forth, until everything becomes clear to you. This powerful technique is worth exploring.

5. Intuitive journaling. When it comes to communicating with our Inner Wisdom, some of us are more gifted than others. If you are new to journaling and find it difficult to access your Inner Guide, you can benefit from using the method I’m about to describe. But first, a little background information. If you were debating whether to take that job in a distant city, or to break off that 1 1/2-year relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, the answer you seek lies within. Your subconscious is a database of trillions of bits of information. It can instantly combine and string them together to answer any question troubling you. The problem is most of us don’t know how to access our subconscious. Try as we may, we cannot retrieve the answers we look for.

It all, however, becomes easy when we use an intermediary between our conscious and subconscious. One such go-between is the Chinese Book of Changes. Two helpful translations are R.L. Wing’s The I Ching Workbook (also available as software) and Hilary Barrett’s I Ching: Walking your path, creating your future (also available as software). No, I’m not referring to fortune-telling. I’m not speaking about myths, magic, or madness, but of meaningful dialogue with your own subconscious. You see, any reading you receive from the I Ching can be interpreted in many ways. But when you are seeking an answer, your subconscious will automatically interpret it in a manner that answers your question. Try it and see for yourself. Recording the results of your I Ching sessions is a form of intuitive journaling.

By now we have learned that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is also a lot easier to write with! So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started by writing something worth doing or doing something worth writing!



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