Writing in a journal is a wonderful way to write with some freedom, with little to no judgment. Although written for oneself, we do have extraordinary examples of journals in the work of Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, May Sarton, and Anne Frank, among others. As these illustrate, a journal can help one cultivate the ability to live in the present, to become deeply aware and appreciative of life. Journal writing has been used in many different kinds of college courses, from philosophy to law. It is taught in many different ways, but the usual instruction is to write about one’s experience in the first person, without thought of a reader other than oneself, even though the professor will usually read it. Students use either paper journals or their computers.
A journal records the movement of one’s inner experience. It differs from a diary, which usually records the unstructured events of a person’s life. Journal entries are reflections of the mental, emotional, and imagistic occurrences within the writer. “Journals take for granted that every day in our life there is something new and different,” wrote Thomas Merton in his. The more mindful the writer becomes, the more likely it is that he will capture the essence of each day. By writing close to the time when an event occurred, the writer can capture specific details of his response to it. Some teachers also use the journal for students to reflect on an assigned reading or experience.
The instructions can be as simple as those that Layli Phillips Maparyan gave her students in a class on “Womanist Perspectives in Social Activism” at Georgia State University:
Every time we do a contemplative exercise in class or have a contemplative homework assignment, briefly comment in this journal. It may be handwritten. Please use a campus blue book or other small pamphlet you can hand in at the end of the term. Each entry should be about a paragraph. You should record your feelings, thoughts, sensations, and any related experiences or insights. Do this as soon after the exercise as possible, as you will lose clarity if you wait.
This provides the student an opportunity to reflect immediately, but, also, gives the student a record of his or her journey over the course of a semester.
Journaling in silence can help people concentrate their thoughts on a particular idea and aid in quieting the mind. Journaling can also be good preparation for a conversation, allowing people to center their thoughts and get to the essence of the conversation more quickly. If you have a large group discussion planned and would like the group to thoughtfully prepare, try asking people to spend 20 minutes writing in response to a guiding question. Journaling of course does not need to be in the service of conversation. In and of itself, it can be a powerful way to connect with our inner lives and our world.
Free writing is another exercise that can help you observe your emotions, intuitions, or physical responses. It is a method of inner inquiry: you never know what you will learn until you start writing; then you discover truths that you did not know existed. Free writing can free the writer.
It is a simple practice. You begin writing and write continuously for a set period of time, often 10-15 minutes. The pen should be constantly moving, with no pause to correct spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
An Intuitive Writing Exercise:
- Choose a quiet space where you will not be disturbed.
- Do a simple breathing meditation to clear and focus your mind and cultivate awareness.
- Optional: Write a question. Write a few lines on anything you would like intuitive guidance on. Focusing on one question ensures optimal clarity. For example, How can I become a much more effective in my job? (work); Why do I have such difficulty developing healthy eating habits? (health); or How can I have a stronger relationship with my family? (relationships).
- Start to write. Write whatever comes. Don’t think, and don’t judge what you are writing. Write whatever comes out of the pen. If you get stuck, start writing, “I feel stuck.” Keep your pen moving! Keep writing, and don’t think about where it is coming from.
- Write for 5, 10 or 15 minutes. You’ll know when you’re done.
- When done, read through you have written out loud, and see how it makes you feel.
- Try to distinguish if you are writing from your intuition or your rational mind. Keep Practicing!