The art of journal writing


MICHAEL LEWIN shares his own experience of the value of writing a journal, including embracing imagination, feeling, expansive thinking, creativity, spiritual growth, self-development and much more.

Similar to other art forms, journal writing can only be perfected in actual practice and nowhere else. Through this process of sustained commitment to self-exploration and discovery, a process of discrimination and refinement slowly surfaces to aid our learning and take us forward into new territories of language development and expression – an adventure into the heart of our existence. This has certainly been my personal experience, making me leave behind a rather cold, fixed, rationalist, analytical shell to embrace an imaginative, expansive, psycho-spiritual mode of feeling and expression, which has brought my life so much richness.

At times I have been so engaged with my writing, trekking into a wilderness of a previously unknown psychological life. It has involved learning, clarifying, refining, growing, and has allowed a self-forgetfulness to quietly and without warning descend upon me, dissolving momentarily all traces of the normal functioning of the ego-driven self to reveal an underlying spiritual presence. And in these moments of self-forgetfulness I realize that I’m in meditation.


Suggestions for Journal Writing

In order to access some of the depths within us for our journal writing to be authentic, real and true, we need to cultivate prolonged periods of stillness and silence. Avoid the busy-ness of normal, everyday routines that contribute to a deadening of creative energies. This is not always easy to manage, but it is essential.

Rise earlier than normal in the mornings and, after meditation, go quietly to your place of writing and write. Do not edit at this stage or engage in any critical, judgmental attitudes towards your work. Record the previous day’s events, thoughts, feelings etc. without literary embellishments, unless the latter is what you are seeking and they come easily and naturally and are not too labored. Remember that later corrections are always possible. Avoid being too critical too soon, because time itself is the best editor.

Pay attention to the minutiae of the life that surrounds you. What are they saying to you? How do they impact you? Try to understand them, describe them, search for the underlying values and truths, but never ignore them or you could be missing out on a vital dimension, a crucial lesson. Everything in your life is your life and is therefore worthy of your full attention.

I am part of all
that I have met.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson

Our mind never stops; it is constantly enmeshed in a continuous process of thought creation. Therefore, should we not try and utilize this vast reservoir of power to expand our understanding of what constitutes significance, meaning and reality in our lived experiences, through the creative medium of exploratory writing? Try to absorb and assimilate, in a mindful way, everything you see, feel and touch for a future meeting at the keyboard. All our thoughts are possible future prose that could reveal hidden, imaginative, life affirming insight to sustain us.

Although inevitably there is a chronological structure to journal writing, there is always scope to make detours, to follow interesting ideas and thoughts to see where they may lead, in case they can throw up some form of fresh view unrealized before. Journal writing is not a straightforward recording function, but a full and open canvas where many possibilities for looking, exploring and change exist. After sufficient engagement with this process the world may never seem the same again.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass,
it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

—Henry Miller

Sometimes the writing goes well, and it seems to reach out to touch a hidden chord within us that resonates with such clarity. At other times, a possible moment of self-deepening is abandoned in the face of agitation, lack of concentration, impatience, doubt … But this is the very time to persevere, and in working this through we may come to realize another important facet of journal writing, namely, its therapeutic dimension. Writing can uncover what we are really doing within our lives and thus pave the way for our self-curative potential to develop.

I am both changed and developed by writing,
and am changing and developing myself
and others in the process.
My emotional, intellectual and spiritual landscape is always on the move.

—Nicki Jackowska

Journal writing, the chronicling of events, appears to be a universal phenomenon in all world cultures. Whether we filter the story of our lives through the modern Word Processor or use the time-honored oral tradition of telling stories over a night’s campfire, it makes no real difference. They are both equally valid. Both fulfil a deep-seated need for human expression and validation.


Working mindfully with words, crafting their potential fine beauty into shape, seeing if they dovetail together to give a coherent imaginative, accurate expression, a life, to your thought processes, is a fine and noble activity indeed.

… And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph …

—T.S. Eliot

Pursued over time, with commitment, the style, range and depth of journal writing may expand beyond all recognition, sparking off even more fresh thoughts and ideas for us to follow up in a self-reinforcing, creative act. Thus the journal becomes one vast repository of written material to be revisited, and sections can be independently reworked into more structured and coherent forms at later stages if required.

Finally, as the journal develops and opens up, we may find that it also helps highlight, in a fundamental way, our literary, emotional and psycho-spiritual progress as we move through life, recording its experiences and our growing and changing responses to them. And the more we give to this process the greater will be its rewards, until in the fullness of engagement it brings deep understanding and clarity to our life hitherto unrealized.

Excerpt edited and reprinted with permission from the author.
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Illustrations by GAYATRI PACHPANDE

Michael Lewin

About Michael Lewin

Michael has been involved in a number of Buddhist organizations over the years, has served as a Trustee of the Buddhist Hospice Trust been a Committee Member of the Lifestyle Movement, which is dedicated to simple, green living and was a Member of the Gandhi Foundation. A few years ago he spent two years living in a Franciscan Friary, engaging his time with meditation, walking, yoga and deepening his writing practice. He has spent the last 25 years teaching and supporting a variety of different groups, e.g. young offenders, young unemployed people, children at risk, children with special needs, adults with learning difficulties and adults with mental health needs.

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