Christian Reifsteck, Standing Stones Healing Co.
I am a fervent journaler. I started journaling 20 years ago when I was a college senior nervous about what was next in my life. I felt compelled to write about those uncertainties in order to gain a better understanding of my experience and to help ease my fears. It worked. Writing my thoughts down on paper felt like talking through those fears with a friend. And it worked so well that I’ve been journaling ever since.
Journaling has numerous mental, emotional, and even spiritual benefits, and the research on those benefits is solid. Robert Maurer in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way writes, “Research demonstrates that people who use a journal to chart their emotions receive many of the same physical and psychological benefits as those who talk to a doctor or minister or friend.” But even better than talking with a friend, when I started journaling as a college senior, I was able to say things I wouldn’t or couldn’t have said to a friend, which lead to thoughts and realizations I wouldn’t have had otherwise. In the ensuing years, I’ve explored many challenges and had many realizations in the pages of my journals that has led to a lot of spiritual growth. Here are my top tips on how to start journaling for spiritual growth and development that can help you to create your own journaling practice.
1. Write alone.
Solitude is an important component of deepening your spirituality and living a life of greater meaning because no one else can experience meaning for you. While others can and should and do facilitate our spiritual growth, we are ultimately the ones who assign and derive meaning from our experiences. When you write alone, you create an intentional space for self-exploration that is like a cocoon holding your transformation. As Sheila Bender writes in Keeping a Journal You Love, “Solitude implies one person and is about being alone, but not in dejection and desolation. Instead, solitude is a state of being that fosters contemplation about what is at the bottom of our minds and in our hearts.”
You can of course talk with someone else about what you write or show them if you want to, but the actual writing should be done alone. Not only does writing alone allow you to focus on yourself, but it also allows you to feel less inhibited: no one will be looking over your shoulder to make sure that your spelling and punctuation are correct. No one will be judging your word usage or penmanship.
2. Write about your feelings.
In writing alone, no one will be judging your thoughts, either. This is a main reason why solitude is so important to journaling for spiritual growth: it’s challenging to be in deep touch with our feelings when we aren’t alone. Bender notes that “we too often shy away from solitude because we’re not sure what we’ll find there,” which is why we frequently hesitate to be alone with our thoughts in such a visceral way as viewing them fixed in writing.
If expressing feelings in writing is new to you or feels daunting, it’s ok to begin by writing about the facts of your day in an “I did this” or “I went here” kind of way. This is a great method for starting if writing down thoughts and feelings is outside of your comfort zone, and you may need to use this kind of fact-based writing several times as a starting point, but ultimately this fact-based kind of writing is best used only so far as it serves as a diving board into the pool of your emotions, which it will almost always lead to.
When journaling for spiritual growth, it does not matter what you write; it matters that you write. Write about why you love your significant other or how angry you are at them. Write about the beautiful, sunny day or the gathering clouds. Write about your anxiety about your doctor’s appointment or the companionship of your pet. The possibilities are infinite, and whatever you feel compelled to write about is the right thing to write about.
As Bender writes in Keeping a Journal You Love, “Even if all you do is log in facts about mood changes or food intake, you are still taking the opportunity to sit alone contemplating something you have done or thought. More information about your thinking and feeling will arrive if you listen for it.” If you’re not yet ready to dive, that’s ok. Begin by sticking your feet in the water, even just one toe if you need to: you’ll slowly increase your comfort level and eventually be doing cannonballs into the deep end. These are the deep dives that will allow you to uncover thoughts, feelings, and observations that you might not have realized otherwise and allow you to grow and develop as a spiritual being.
3. Write by hand.
You can type journal entries, but I strongly advocate writing them out by hand. It’s a much more immediate, involved, intimate, and soul-searching way to write than by typing it out on a screen. More than punching keys on a keyboard, you are actively engaged in the act of writing, in the absorbing motion of forming letters with your hand and using fine motor skills. Practically every piece of writing is typed now, and the dying art of writing by hand puts us more closely in touch with what we’re writing. It requires more effort and therefore more thought.
If, for whatever honest reason, though (a broken hand or nerve damage, for instance: sorry, bad handwriting doesn’t count…trust me, mine’s not so pretty), you need to type your journal, you’ll still derive benefit from it, so please feel free to type if you simply must. Just like it’s not so important what you write as it is that you write, it’s also not as important how you write.
4. Write without rules.
The how of the writing also includes rules. This kind of expressive writing isn’t concerned with spelling, grammar, punctuation, or any of those mechanics of writing. As Henriette Anne Klauser says in With Pen in Hand: The Healing Power of Writing, this isn’t the kind of writing “where perfect sentence A follows perfect sentence B, and you sit at a desk with a rigid-back chair, holding your hand at the correct angle.” It is, however, the kind of writing in which you write from an interior monologue that doesn’t hold back or stop to edit, spellcheck, or consult grammatical rules. The focus is not on writing correctly, so throw the rules of writing out the window. There is no worrying about capitalization, diagraming sentences, or where to put commas. The focus is on your thoughts and feelings and bringing them from your brain to the page.
The introspective writing of journaling is also not creative writing, as in a work of fiction or a poem or even a memoir, though of course you’re welcome to do any of that, too, if you like. My own journals are littered with thoughts, poems, and quotes, so you absolutely can do some creative writing in your journal as you get into the practice. But the daily poem I write or the interesting quotes I transcribe aren’t the essence of journaling for spiritual insights. Instead, the point is to think on the page in a stream of consciousness kind of way, the way in which you might have a one-sided conversation with a friend or a therapist.
5. Write consistently and for 20 minutes.
Ok, so this is two tips, but I combine them because they work well together. I am a big proponent of twenty minute spiritual exercises, and doing anything consistently will help you to get the most benefit from it. What I have found over the last nearly 20 years of journaling is that twenty minutes is a beneficial amount of time for this kind of writing. Like with going for a walk or meditating, it’s enough time to get absorbed in what you’re doing and benefit from the experience, to get some thoughts on the page and acquire clarity or a new perspective on a challenge, but it’s not so much time that to sit down and do it feels daunting.
I also advocate writing consistently, meaning daily or at least regularly, in order to consistently delve into your thoughts more deeply and to experience the most growth. Just like exercising regularly is going to provide more benefits than exercising once in a while, a consistent journaling practice will develop stronger spiritual muscles. The research agrees: Maurer writes, “Psychology research suggests that clients are supposed to write in their journals for at least fifteen to twenty minutes a day to receive its benefits.” If writing for 20 minutes every day feels like too much, the good news is that, like exercise, writing in a soul searching way only every once in a while will still benefit you when you do it.
The times in my life when I wasn’t journaling consistently were the times when I most needed the therapeutic and soul-searching benefits of journaling. At these times I was afraid to get too in touch with my feelings for what they might reveal, particularly regarding unhealthy love and work relationships. I inevitably felt better, though, once I returned to the page, and writing about and creating meaning out of my experiences helped me to heal and move on.
Though twenty minutes is a good length of time to aim for, there is no reason why you can’t start with ten, five, or even two minutes, so don’t watch the clock or count words. Quality is more important than quantity on your spiritual path, so it’s not about how much you write as it is what you get out of writing. It’s important to start where you’re comfortable, and journaling for spiritual growth can be a true challenge for many of us. Simply attempting it is a success, but if you stick with the practice, those two minutes will eventually increase to twenty, and perhaps many more, perhaps even to the point where, twenty years later, you are still learning, growing, and uncovering new depths in a fulfilling and meaningful spiritual journaling practice.