A Guide for Effective Journaling

Therapy is where we learn to cultivate our inner sanctuary. It’s where we can get what we need in order to be present with ourselves when no one else is around. Because relationships are our holding space for being ourselves, it is getting enough practice at that with others that allows us to become our own safe space for doing whatever delightful baloney we choose. Journaling is a thread between those inter- and intra-personal spaces.

Consider your diary to be a log of your honesty with yourself. From honesty comes our best explorations and our best art. Know that the work is to move towards increasing depths of understanding of yourself and of the world. Work to be honest to the extent that your diary becomes a sort of photo album of your living experience- but one no more organized than a dream.

Here is my guide to making your experience pleasurable and useful…

Remember the intention: What do I need in order to be willing to see the truth of myself, and of the world?

Flow with your materials.

The richest explorations are done in a relaxed but alert state. That begins by being physically comfortable and supported. Ideally the sensations of the journaling itself are pleasant and draw you in so that you can focus on pouring yourself out.

So, use the path of least tension. Unlined paper, a writing implement you like, and a quiet room are usually considered the most suitable. Somatically speaking, it’s very useful to see how your words are written. Writing is a form of drawing. Our muscle tension or relaxation, our speed of writing, the slant of our words or lines- all of it expresses something beyond the letters and words themselves.

However, it is most important is to honor whatever particular things you need at this point in time. If lined pages help you not to worry about straight lines, then lined pages it is. Typing instead of writing is also fine. Use whatever means keep you from physical distractions, but also work to get rid of any physical barriers in order to give yourself incrementally more space. Challenge yourself to try a new setting or technique so that you can keep expanding. Work to stay relatively comfortable as you do so.

Once you find something like a flow, you can move on to attending to the more complex distractions. That’s where the good stuff is.

Be alert for all manner of distraction.

Because this is a practice of burrowing into oneself in order to explore one’s depths, it’s vital to notice what gets in the way. What is the blockage made of, and what is needed to move past it?

Notice your willingness or reticence to write something down. Write down as much of what you notice about this as you can bring yourself to do. These are some of the richest moments of potential for noticing what you are and are not yet willing to know or to do.

Zoom out, and take a look. Every now and then, perhaps at the end of each paragraph or page, slow down and consider your writing. Ask yourself questions-

  • What am I feeling (sensations and emotions) right now?
  • What am I afraid of happening?
  • Who am I writing this to?
  • Who am I afraid will read this?
  • Who do I hope will read this?
  • What am I really trying to express?
  • What do I want to feel- now, or if I reread this?

Use your answers to increase the realness and honesty of your entry.

Honor your reticence.

We tend to suck at this. We are far too practiced at telling ourselves, “If I just…” or “All I have to do is…” Practice not doing that. Replace those moments with honest reflections about what is making something difficult. When you dislike something, it’s for a reason. Listen to yourself about it with kindness. The reason helps to point to what you need. Often you won’t know what you need, but paying matter-of-fact attention to what you’re feeling will often get you there, if only after you’ve enlisted support in the process.

And expect your hurdles to increase in size and complexity for some time. Keep your process moving along the way. Eventually, you’ll move through to deeper work. And then you’ll hang there for a while. And then you’ll deepen again. Eventually the practice becomes the work. The practice is the work, and this becomes apparent after a few times of moving through something tough or lovely.

Before I move on to particular ways of writing, notice how much of this is about paying attention. This is the bulk of the work of journaling, just as it’s the bulk of the work of therapy. You are working to get out of your own way by paying attention to what’s in your way. And paying attention indeed requires paying something. The practice of doing this is the work itself. The technique is what allows you to create something. So return to these reminders often. Now onto the ways to create entries…

Explore from different angles.

  • Have conversations- with yourself now, with yourself at past ages, especially childhood, with your imagined future selves, and with others. Focus on emotions and needs.
  • Log your experiences. Go heavy on sensation-based descriptions. These entries are great for important experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, and are a big part of creating an album of your life that is rewarding to make and to read. But logging can also bring the needed reverence to minutia.
  • Track yourself and your surroundings in the moment. You can do one or the other, or both at the same time. Go heavy on sensation language here, too, and be as grammatical or un-grammatical as you please in the moment. Our experiences go beyond words, so breaking free of their form becomes very important during tracking.
  • Draw. Sketch, paint, scribble, whatever. Being able to draw as you journal is a huge step in being willing to put anything down. It’s a great way to get at the aforementioned wordlessness of our experiences.
  • Write down your dreams. Dreams are a wonderful peak into the deeper chambers of our unconscious, which are typically closed during waking hours. Often just describing them in your journal will cause you to remember more of them, and to dream in a richer way. You can choose to explore them on paper or not, but be sure to notice what emotions you felt during your dreams.
  • Store precious items. Be careful with this one, and really curate what you add to your collection. The intention is not to increase your diary’s show quality (at least not for others). These items are for recounting visceral reactions, and for exploring these reactions. It needn’t even be a special item, but simply one that evokes a sensation or emotion.

Whatever arises, attend to it. If you don’t know how, ask for help. Happy journaling.

Boundaries and Why They’re Awesome

Your boundary is the edge of your experience. It’s where you begin and end. It’s not your skin, but rather an extension of your body in energy form- the space directly around you. Its width and shape and permeability are aspects that only you can determine. We often move about unaware of our boundaries until something is off. When someone feels too close to you, they’ve encroached on your boundary. When they’re too far, your boundaries are not in contact with each other.

Gestalt theory offers a nice little brain-stretching hypothesis: there is perhaps no contact without boundaries. I completely agree with this. If you cannot feel yourself, you will not know when you’ve come in contact with something other than yourself.

This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t feel intertwined with or part of each other at times. Rather, it is through a strong sense of one’s body and boundary that intermingling can occur on a deep level and in a safe way.

When I feel strongly grounded in myself and aware of my space, I have a sense of my entire body. I can list many sensations and any associated emotions. I can feel, see, smell, hear and taste. I can detect what isn’t me or mine, because it comes with a different sensation profile. Speaking of Gestalt, do you know what we did as therapists-to-be during our trainings? We smelled each other! Talk about boundaries! Breathing in another person’s scent is a very clear way to have an experience of the self and the other. On a very deep level, even if their particular smell is familiar or evocative, you can really feel their separateness. In fact, these can be some of the clearest moments of those three parts: “I, you, we.” It’s this sense of “That is not my scent. It is yours. And your scent creates in me a feeling of…” Mine. Yours. Ours.

Embodying yourself and your space brings clarity and safety. It means tuning into your senses and allowing them to guide you from moment to moment. It is when we are checked out and unaware of our boundaries that we experience confusion, taking things personally, feeling bitter and resentful. Embodiment does not solve pain, but it does make pain clearer so that it can be dealt with appropriately. If you’d like to know more about that particular aspect, I say a whole bunch about embodiment in my article on The Body and Aliveness.

I talk about boundaries often, because therapy is hugely about exploring them. The relationship between myself and a client must begin by getting clear on where we each end, and where we make contact. Most of this happens on the client’s end, but because different people evoke different experiences, I always have some adjusting to do, too. And the way we interact together is always a rich source of exploration. The most healing in therapy happens in that contactful space between our bodies. We explore what it feels like (sensations and emotions), and why (thoughts). We look at how the narratives about our contact are helpful or hindering in terms of meeting needs, and we practice safe and meaningful contact. As a person is ready and willing, they can then begin to practice this outside of the therapy room.

The clarity of knowing what’s “me” and what’s “not me” enables us to communicate with ourselves and others in a way that feels good (even when it’s difficult), and works to meet our needs.

It’s terribly important to remember that boundaries are flexible. Inflexible boundaries are what we call defenses. They serve us fine in specific circumstances or for limited periods of time, but they hold us back if overused. A solid boundary has a built-in function that allows for adapting to new circumstances and new information. Sometimes I think of something my first therapist said to me about being like seaweed. Seaweed takes root in the ocean floor. It moves back and forth with the tides, but it stays firmly planted. The image really worked for me me, and I think of it often when it comes to the sense of my space. (Note: the metaphor either ends if and when the seaweed is uprooted, or you can follow me down a bit of a hokey metaphorical path about the subsequent journey of the seaweed in which I WILL make this image continue to work. I’m flexible. Case in point.)

Sometimes we think we are clear on our needs and boundaries, but in our attempts to communicate them to others, we inadvertently spill over into someone else’s space. This happens because we sometimes forget, or never got to learn, that we each have control over exactly one person: ourselves.

Discovering what you’re made up of, where you end and others begin, and how to navigate space pays off like crazy. It’s powerful and relieving to discover not only that it is up to you to meet your needs, but that there are clear and meaningful ways to meet them even when others are involved.

Winter Rest

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.” -John Burroughs

Hello lovely readers, and happy winter! Many of you have asked why I’ve been quieter here and on social media lately, and it means a great deal to me that you wondered and reached out. As I’ve shared with a few of you, I’ve been amidst a winter rest.

Particularly because I’m a therapist, I tend to steer away from speaking heavily about my current personal process. But over the last few months, what’s been happening in my personal life has been a clear and, I hope, relatable example of a somatic process, and so I hope that you will find value in my sharing it.

I’ve finally come to understand that winter is about rest and renewal. As a hardcore sun worshiper, in the past I’ve treated winter with indifference at best- a time where you just sort of hold out for the warm weather to return. But a few years ago, I began to celebrate the holidays in a more earth-based way. This began with small things like cooking with seasonal produce more often, and putting local plants and flowers in vases around my home. I recall the latter being a fiscally-inspired decision during a spring season wherein I found myself on a major fresh flower kick. One day I decided that I may as well use the flowers outside of my front door. This started a new habit of noticing more closely than before the subtler changes in the plantlife around my home and city.

Last winter, I read something by Henry David Thoreau that landed and stayed with me: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” I’m especially crazy for that last bit. A huge part of somatic work is about resigning yourself to and embracing the reality of the present.

I’ve realized that in the same way that our consciousness is affected by our bodies, our bodies are affected by the seasons. It sounds terribly obvious to me now, especially since I’ve been clear on other environmental influences. But only during this last autumn was I able to feel the seasonal change in my body. This, by the way, is something that us somaticists absofuckinglutely live for: clear, wise messages straight from the body. I felt my body slowing down, I noticed that I was focused more internally than externally, and on days when I didn’t need to set an alarm, I’d begun to sleep significantly longer. When I happened to read something about the ways in which plants and trees, like animals, hibernate during winter, this new awareness really fell into place. It couldn’t possibly be that plants and animals need to hibernate during winter, but that human animals do not.

So this year, I intentionally made very few plans. And that meant saying no to a lot of activities, of which there is no shortage in Los Angeles. I must have said some version of, “Perhaps next month. I’m in winter rest mode,” at least a dozen times during the month of December. It was in itself an interesting experiment with setting boundaries. And not all the boundaries were external. I have a tendency to become a knitting machine over the winter, and this year I took on fewer, less results-focused projects. Most of us think of cozy indoor activities when we think of winter and the winter holidays, but somehow that often translates to being busier and broker than ever. I simply decided not to do that this year, and while it has felt really good, it has also meant facing certain old beliefs.

Working your ass off and making as much money as possible are values pushed on us from multiple angles. Even most western therapeutic models don’t have a name for over-working. It’s culturally sanctioned. So even in the absence of criticism about taking a long winter holiday at home, I noticed that I would, on occasion, question my choice. Shouldn’t I at least offer a workshop? Or work on my book? Or at least, I don’t know, get some new pillows for the office? Once I got clear on the decision to not even look at email, the suggestions from that voice in my head got a little sneakier… Ok, so don’t work. But produce something. Maybe just throw a small holiday party? But, as one learns to do in therapy and is sometimes able to execute real-time, I was watching my internal process unfold and got wise to this sneaky voice and its overworky intentions.

So most everything that I did was internally-focused, and I believe this to be the essence of winter. Reflection, assimilation, and release. We work hard for months, putting plans and intentions into action, being creative in as many arenas of our lives as we can. Winter is for enjoying all the work we’ve done while our bodies and minds are renewed by the rest. Through reflection we can become clear on what has worked and what hasn’t. Through resting we renew our energies to begin the cycle again.

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” -William Blake

If I hadn’t rested, I wouldn’t have heard from my readers who wondered about my absence. That was in itself a gathering of the fruits of my labor: a time to use a bit of distance to reflect on what I’d produced in the last few months, and to hear how it affected others.

Amongst the other lovely effects of this process has been a deepening of my appreciation for nighttime. And this is something I thought impossible. I am very much a night owl. It is when I have the most energy and creativity, and also when I feel the most peace and wonder. That the nights are longer during winter is not something that I was able to appreciate or enjoy back when I was tensing my body against the weather until springtime. This year, and especially on the solstice, I have been reveling in the nighttime hours. I have done far more stargazing than ever before, and have even begun to dream about space.

I’ve also begun to dream lucidly on occasion, which I also attribute to this slowed-down time of reflection. It’s given me a chance to get more intimately and intricately in touch with my internal world, which feels really, really good.

It’s still winter. If you didn’t rest over the holidays, you have many weeks left in which to do so. I’m very aware that taking time off from work is a privilege that isn’t available to everyone, and by no means is that the only way to rest or enjoy winter. For me it was only one of many ways I’ve done so this season. And while I’m back in my office, and here writing this for you now, I am continuing my winter revels. Rest can and should be integrated into each day of your life.

Find or create quiet moments, however brief. Refuse to take on anything besides the simplest and most necessary of tasks. Walk outside with your morning coffee and see what’s happening in the plantlife. Notice what you can smell. If you live somewhere quite cold, enjoy the stillness. Listen to how well sound travels through the cold, dry air. Soak up the particular magic of snow. When you walk from your car to your home, look up at the sky. What do you feel when you gaze at the moon. My own therapist said something beautiful when I told her how quickly I was able to get grounded and present one night when I walked outside to look at the stars. She said that it’s very easy for us to let the sky be the sky.

If you can work less, do so. But do not call it a luxury or indulgence. It is a bodily necessity, and it is never indulgent to take care of yourself. Slowing and letting go is necessary in order for new things to emerge. Rest is not a stagnant process. Understanding and caring for ourselves is both discovery and creation.