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Self-examination Through Journaling

Last year I had the chance to read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams and to read the Adam’s biography that preceded it by Catherine Drinker Bowen published in 1949.  What is striking about the two stories of one man’s life is how McCullough focuses on Adam’s emotional life  his insecurities, his emotions under pressure in a word, his psychology.  Bowen, on the other hand, focuses or the externals: what it was like for young John growing up in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the impact of the 1748 settlement of the War of Austrian Succession, when King George II blithely returns to the French territory the Massachusetts colony had gained at the cost of thousands of lives and fortunes of Massachusetts’ colonists.

McCullough’s treatment reminds us that, unlike the period preceding World War II, we continue to live in an overwhelmingly psychological age.  We see a merging of the personas of athletes, rock stars, and politicians by a press that reflects this fascination with the internal lives of others. This fascination with the internal lives of others is in part a reflection of our own inability to look within.  There are good reasons we might not wish to look within.  On the one hand, you may be, like me, tired of our culture’s obsessive need to psychologize everything, to see a person’s actions always and solely defined by their internal, psychological make-up.  On the other hand, you may be a typical nose-to-the-grindstone lawyer, who in your quest to establish yourself as a lawyer and then to maintain that identity, never takes the time or makes the opportunity, to discover who you are.  There is a middle way.  A Zen phrase seems best to capture the process: “Know thyself, forget the self, see the opening of ten thousand things.”  While self-absorption is obviously not the goal, knowledge of the self is an essential part of the journey to a life of fulfillment and happiness.  The unexamined life does continue to be the unlived life.

So a question for us all is how to do this examination.  One of the most fruitful processes, or adjuncts to this process of self-examination, is journaling.  It is a natural for lawyers.  Most of us are in this profession in part because we are drawn to the use of language orally or written.  Writing is a tool of the trade that is available to help lift depression, understand and ameliorate one’s obsessive nature, and/or find meaning in one’s life.

Journaling has a long history of aiding inward search and growth.  Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and John Fox are all examples of seekers who used this kind of writing to help know themselves and find their life’s direction.  What makes journaling, or any creative process, exciting is that it is a journey into the unknown.  It is a quest and record of the quest.  The process itself is what opens and illuminates, more than the result.  As Rilke said in his letter to a young poet: “[B]e patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.  And the point is, to live  the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Journaling provides a process, like Rilke describes, to gradually without noticing, live your questions into answers.  Here are some thoughts on ways to do this and exercises to get started.

Pema Chodron in her book Wisdom Of No Escape suggests three key ideas for journaling: precision, gentleness, and letting go.  Precision being clear about what comes to you in your writing, and staying present to it, whatever it is.  Gentleness  welcoming kindly whatever comes to you in your writing, letting it say to you what it will, befriending it.  Letting go  it’s on the page; leave it there until it chooses to return to you a week later, a month or never.

All journaling seems to begin best with the seemingly pointless practice of writing whatever comes in your head and then looking at what appears on the page.

Writing Exercise:  Each morning, open your journal, and write automatically whatever comes.  No stopping, no editing for ten, fifteen minutes.

There may be negative voices that enter like I shouldn’t write about this or that is stupid.  The secret to self-knowledge is to get below the ego stream of shoulds or should nots, to what your life is really trying to say.  Negative voices may be inaudible to your conscious ear, but can keep your writing stuck; push ahead anyway.

Not only must we not heed the voices of censure in our writing, but we must also heed our own internal positive voices.  Thoreau said: ” takes two to tell the truth,  one to speak, and one to hear.”  We must be our own best listener.  Only by truly listening to ourselves will we be able to take the liberating step of telling someone we trust what gold we have discovered in our writing,  who we are writing our way into becoming.

Writing Exercise:  Write about what it was like, in some point in your life, to talk over something of deep concern with a really good listener whom you could trust.  Then write about something that concerns you deeply as if a part of you is listening as this caring listener did.

Henry David Thoreau was a prolific journal writer.  For 24 years until his death at age 45, Thoreau kept journals and notebooks that amounted to over two million words in 39 volumes.  His journals are a reflection of both his outer and inner worlds.  A constant theme of his writing is be alert.  Thoreau believed that by his process of writing, his consciousness was heightened, he was not just skimming along the surface of life, he was more alert to experiencing the deeper realities of life.  He would have agreed with Henry James who said: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

Writing Exercise:  Choose something around you specific to write about.  Be entirely present to what you are writing about.  Sometimes this kind of writing is done most effectively as a poem.  Just be sure and don’t let anything about you enter in the first 12 lines.  If you write with great alertness and detail, you will discover something new about the thing you are writing about and something surprising about yourself.

One of the three prime characteristics of maturity is patience.  Writing is a way to help you pause in your life, to be centered in your life, rather than carried along on a vast current of emails, faxes and cell phone calls.  One of my favorite books of poetry is Pablo Neruda’s Odes To Simple Things.  The poems are powerful because Neruda has had the patience to examine carefully, in his imagination, the common everyday things of our life and in so doing, he has hallowed them.

Writing Exercise:  Write about an everyday activity in concrete detail.  Write about your reasons for doing the activity and how you felt.  Does writing deeply about the activity raise the activity to another level of meaning?

Once one’s own powers of observation and freedom have been enhanced by writing, it may be time to follow Marcel Proust in The Remembrance Of Things Past.  The past is not gone.  It is all right there in the psyche.  We can wallow in it as the source of all dissatisfaction and unhappiness or we can understand it in a new, broader way than we had a chance to do when we were rushing headlong through it in our experience.  There is what actually happened and then there is the meaning we and the years have put into it.  In the process of making this review, one can come from primarily one of two perspectives: blame or gratitude.  The cup is either half full or half empty.  We are all living expressions of indebtedness to others.  From a prospective of gratitude, our past can become whole.  Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelias gives us a good example.  From his Meditations: From my Grandfather Verus [I had the opportunity to learn] a kindly disposition and sweetness of temper.  From what I heard of my father and my memory of him, modesty and manliness.  From my mother, the fear of God, and generosity and abstention not only from doing ill but from the very thought of doing itAnd on he goes for several pages.

Writing Exercise:  Identify people, institutions, things for which you are grateful.  Write discerningly about your feelings of gratitude for what you have been given.

Writing about the past, even with an attitude of gratitude will, if done with freedom, stir up ambivalence.  We will remember both love and hate, acceptance and rejection.  This gets us back to Rilke’s words: ” living the questions or at least writing through them.  When we write through the division in our emotions about the past, we are getting close to healing.  We are moving through a process where polarities can become paradox.  Many of our internal troubles (and those of the external world also) come from taking half of a larger truth and beating ourselves or others over the head with it.  Maturity and growth, lies in the reconciliation of what seemingly cannot be reconciled and then moving on.

But it takes more than thinking and puzzling to come to terms with paradox.  It has to be lived.  The greatest truths about life are transmitted in paradox because no one truth can encircle sufficiently the mystery that gives life meaning.

Writing Exercise:  Spend time journaling about a tension in your life or thought that involves serious inner division.  Try to move beyond either/or to both/and in a story, statement or poem about the tension.

Dreams were important to many of the authors of the books of the Old Testament and the book of Acts in the New Testament.  In the Romantic era, one’s ability to write poetry was seen as contingent upon dreaming vividly and remembering those dreams.  In our more scientific era, dreams get little attention except perhaps among students of Carl Jung.  Dreaming has been compared to rebooting the computer.  For the journal keeper, dreams are an important source.

Our best chance to catch hold of a dream is to write it down (or dictate it for later transcription) upon awakening.  The journal writer will then want to write about what was dreamed, to work with this material from the unconscious.  Inevitably, dream journaling will lead to discoveries.  For a dream is uniquely personal, only the dreamer has experienced its tone and affect and only the dreamer can find meaning or no meaning in a dream.

Writing Exercise:  Write your dreams down in the morning when you awaken.  Later that day, explore them and/or use what you have remembered as a starting point for a narrative or description.  If you have a big dream, befriend it; explore it fully.

Always the search for Truth begins with asking the right question.  Often the key to winning a case before the jury is convincing the jury what precisely the question is the jury should be asking and answering.  As you explore your own life by journaling, learn to pose questions that you write about.

Writing Exercise:  Identify the important questions in your life right now.  Don’ try to answer the question.  For a week or longer, try to expand on each question, clarify and detail as precisely as possible what each question is,  live the questions in your life and your writing.

Just as important as using writing to reach into the unknown is using journaling to lift up those moments in your life when your consciousness was expanded, when you experienced a reality that seemed greater than ordinary.  Psychologists call them peak experiences.  William James wrote a cross-cultural book validating their presence everywhere, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  They may be big or small.  A time you read something that really spoke to you.  Or, when you climbed a peak in the Rockies in time for sunrise.  When gratitude overwhelmed you.

Writing Exercise:  Write down your moments of heightened awareness.  Is there a pattern?  Learn to record them, like life dreams, when they occur.  Ask what questions or answers they bring.

A happy and joyous life is about a life with meaning.  Journaling provides a way to understand and to scale the barriers to freedom in your life and then to celebrate and to claim the meaning your life brings to this world.

– by Don Carroll

*I am indebted to Barbara E. Parson and Mary C. Morrison’s Live The Questions: Write Into The Answersfor many of the ideas expressed herein.

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