The Power of Mindful Journaling

The Power of Mindful Journaling

Sitting down to meditate can be scary.

And I won’t even add, “especially for beginners”. Even seasoned practitioners have days where they’d rather do almost anything than stop and be present with uncomfortable feelings, or get real about what their monkey mind is telling them.

One way to approach that scariness? Research has shown that combining journaling and mindfulness significantly increase mindfulness, as well as as a sense of relaxation, and positive thoughts and emotions. As a lifelong journaller whose writing and mindfulness practices are inextricably linked, I concur.

  • What do I need to journal mindfully?
  • Can’t I just write instead of meditating?
  •  How do I practice mindful writing?
  • 3 ways to use writing in meditation
  • 8 mindful journaling prompts for self-compassion, clarity and to quiet the mind
  • Bonus exercise

What do I need?

We’re so used to being on screens and laptops that the idea of “writing” usually evokes typing. And if that’s the only way you can write, no problem.

But if you can replace the screen with a pen and notepad, please do. Studies show that writing by hand affects our brains differently and actually has impacts that are similar to meditation. (See? You’re already halfway there.) I use a notepad for my morning pages (see below), a pile of scrap paper for brainstorming and scribbling, and a separate journal for thoughts I might want to return to later.

Can I just write instead of meditating?

Yes! And no. If you’re really struggling to sit still (or walk, or stand – meditation isn’t only about having your bum on a cushion), writing can serve as a meditation in and of itself, as long as you’re doing it with intention. You might also find that after some  writing, your nervous system has settled and you feel like being still for 5 or 10 minutes (or more).

How do I practice mindful writing?

First of all, let go of any notions of “I’m not a good writer” or “I got Ds on all my essays at school.” This is not that kind of writing. What we’re doing here is allowing the thoughts to become clear. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”  Ideally, once we’re aware of what we’re thinking, we can then become a little friendlier with the emotions beneath those thoughts.

Imagine an iceberg. The part of the iceberg you see above water is the thought. The enormous part below that’s holding that thought up is the emotion. Writing helps us go from being stuck in our minds, above the water (plotting, planning, obsessing or worrying) to exploring what’s beneath the surface and being present, compassionately, with how we feel… which is what’s driving that mind stuff.

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Let’s say  you’re angry about a situation with a colleague. You find yourself repeatedly rehearsing conversations you want to have with this person, and shaking your fist in the air.  So, you might first sit down and give yourself some time to write… about your rage, your indignation, your worries, your fears, and anything else that might arise.

The more you write, the more you might notice yourself settling. You might also become more acquainted with an emotion you hadn’t realized was there, like grief about the relationship, or fear about your job as a whole.

This might ease you into sitting with and allowing those feelings, which then allows your body to process them and let them go.

3 Ways to Use Writing in Meditation:

Write as the meditation (if you find the practice of sitting on a cushion too daunting)

  • Set your timer, turn off your phone and other distractions, and pull out your pen and paper with the intention of becoming clear.
  • Give yourself the freedom to write unhindered. Go with your stream of consciousness… whatever comes up (even if it’s “I don’t know what to say.” You’ll be surprised where that takes you!)
  • No editing, spelling corrections or grammatical concerns. All “mistakes” are welcome here.
  • If you’d rather not set a timer, you can simply write until you fill up 1 (or 2 or 3) lined pages.
  • Journaling prompts can be helpful to get started (see the list below).

Write as a pre-meditation (to quiet the mind prepare to go deeper)

Combine the two.

  • You might start with a short meditation to get settled
  • Then take about 20 minutes or so to write about what’s come up for you, or to answer a journaling prompt’
  • Then do a longer meditation based on what’s come up for you around your writing.
  • For example, you might notice you’re being critical of yourself, and do a self-compassion meditation. Or you might notice a lot of fear arise, and do a RAIN practice.
10 Mindfulness Journal Prompts to Boost Self-Awareness

8 mindful journaling prompts for self-compassion, clarity and to quiet the mind

  • What do I not want to be feeling right now?
  • What am I trying to get right? What am I convincing myself I need in order to be whole, acceptable, good? Whose voice is telling me that I’m not enough as I am?
  • Do I believe I deserve to be loved just as I am? Why or why not?
  • When faced with the reality that I will die, what seems important?
  • Am I making space for pleasure in my life? Do I believe I deserve pleasure? Why or why not? What brings me true pleasure?
  • What if I were enough, just as I am? How would it feel in my body if I didn’t have to prove anything or remove anything to be worthy?
  • Give your inner critic the mic. Let them blab on and on about all the ways you fall short… until they run out of steam.
  • What’s something you would do if you didn’t care what anyone thought of you?

Bonus Practice Idea: The Morning Pages

In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Margaret Cameron stresses the importance of the Morning Pages for mental clarity and to promote creativity. Many people, including Tim Ferris, swear by this practice. How to do it?

  • Wake up.
  • Roll over (no checking your phone).
  • Write stream of consciousness for 3 full pages. Let it all come out – your dreams, your stresses, your petty disagreements.
  • Do not read these pages over when you’re finished. Burn them if necessary.
  • Repeat for 30 days.
  • Prepare to have your life changed forever.