Journaling for Health and Well-Being
Try journaling for a healthy mind. Thirty years of research has consistently weighed in on journaling’s mental-health benefits.
In her book A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever, Marianne Williamson writes that
…journaling is… a tool for cultivating your highest self, as applied not only to weight but to any area of your life. Journaling is a way you listen to yourself, by making it clear to yourself what you actually think and feel. The more room you give yourself to express your true thoughts and feelings, the more room there is for your wisdom to emerge. In listening to yourself, you learn from yourself. In listening deeply to the voice of your heart, you reestablish relationship with your true self, so long denied.
Writing about your feelings demystifies them, keeps them from rolling around and around in your head without arriving anywhere, and gives you a little distance from them. It helps you remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR FEELINGS. Your higher, purer self is the “you” that God created, and it is that self whose voice provides such honest clarity when you’re journaling.
Occasionally, when I am journaling, my writing segués into an intimacy with God that is tantamount to prayer.
Dreams, Emotions, Gratitude
My practice – which is by no means the only or the best way to go about journaling, and which is therefore continually subject to change— is to sit down at the computer first thing in the morning, every morning (or so… give or take… usually; quite often, sometimes); open my journal document; and set down anything I can remember about my dreams.
According to the Dreams Foundation (www.dreams.ca), dreams “offer a private means to explore inner reality and to gain unique, undeniable, personal experiences.” In addition, “there is overwhelming evidence that [dreams]… can be used to improve waking life,… [offering] opportunities for fun, adventure, wish fulfillment, creativity, deep personal insight and healing, and all this at no cost and with no line-ups!”
Check out the Dreams Foundation website for more information and dream exercises.
CONCERNS, WORRIES, EMOTIONS
After recording the snips of dream I can recall, I write for circa ten minutes about whatever’s bothering me. If I’m thoroughly and completely happy, I express my joy instead… but usually there’s at least one little weed I can nip in the bud. (Do weeds have buds?)
When I was working as the “marketing person” – we didn’t have titles – at an architecture firm, I shared an office with the “graphic-design person,” a real sweetheart who was younger than my youngest child and whose name was David. He was a wizard at design but he didn’t have a lot of experience in marketing or in the special skill of promotional writing – the text for print ads, proposals, reports, and so forth.
My job had recently been created. The employees weren’t used to working with me, so when they wanted ads, media releases, and other marketing services, they strode right past my desk to David’s, whereupon David graciously suggested that they talk with me about the concept and the copy before getting David involved in the design.
David and I worked beautifully together and did a lot of spectacular and effective work, and in due time the satisfied employees returned to our office, walked past me, clapped David on the back, and said, “Great work, Champ,” or words to that effect. It made me crazy, no matter how often I reminded myself that there were people in the world with real problems, matters of life and death, conditions such as famine and epidemics run amok.
So I was both annoyed about being overlooked and ashamed of myself for being annoyed about such a petty grievance. Journaling helped me (a) realize that I had a legitimate concern, and (b) come up with a solution. Here’s a journal excerpt (me talking to me):
Bill Brown did it again — gave the assignment to David, then came to me as David suggested. I reminded BB of the “usual process.” We worked out the ad concept, Bill approved the text, David assembled the ad, and it was perfect – right on the money. And then, as predictably as the night follows the day, BB took David out to lunch, that’s how grateful he was for “a job well done.” I was so furious and so hurt [at being ignored, excluded], I came close to quitting on the spot.
Why were you furious and hurt?
Because I’m at least 50% responsible for the success of the ad, and I want to be given credit where credit is due.
Why? What difference does it make as long as the work is done well?
Because it feels bad to be ignored or overlooked and it feels good to get strokes for good work.
Because it feels good to feel good.
Right, uh-huh. But why do you need the strokes to feel good?
Well, two reasons. First, it reassures me that I really am doing good work. Second, we waste time and lose opportunities. If people came straight to me, we could develop the concept and see if the ad fits in with other marketing the firm is doing or consider supporting the ad in other media.
Why do you want reassurance about your work?
AFTER A FEW MORE questions and answers, it became clear (a) that I was confident about my work and was, in fact, getting positive feedback from David and from my supervisor; and (b) that better coordination — achieved by making me the designated go-to person for marketing and promotion — would probably improve marketing effectiveness and would save resources. A little research confirmed “assumption b,” which became the basis of the proposal I developed and took to my supervisor for discussion, which in turn brought about a well-justified policy change.
JOURNALING FOR GRATITUDE
To educate yourself for the feeling of gratitude means to take nothing for granted, but to always seek out and value the kindness that will stand behind the action. Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.
— Albert Schweitzer
An article on the UMass/Dartmouth website, “The Importance of Gratitude,” offers evidence that feeling grateful is good for your health. Researchers such as Martin Seligman, Robert Emmons, and Michael McCullough are turning their attention to the study of gratitude and its relationship to health and mental well-being. Among other findings, they’ve shown that
- People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercise more regularly, have fewer adverse physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and feel more optimistic about the coming week….
- Daily discussion of gratitude seems to correlate with lower levels of stress and depression, and higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, energy, and sleep duration and quality.
- People who think about, talk about, or write about gratitude daily are more likely to have helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support.
- Those inclined toward gratitude are less concerned about material goods, are less likely to judge their own or others’ success in terms of wealth, are less envious of wealthy people, and are more likely to share their possessions with others.
- Daily gratitude practices may help prevent coronary artery disease.
BY THE BY…
Wayne Dyer is quoted on mindbodygreen.com as follows:
Be in a state of gratitude for everything that shows up in your life. Be thankful for the storms as well as the smooth sailing. What is the lesson or gift in what you are experiencing right now? Find your joy not in what’s missing in your life but in how you can serve.
If I were Dr. Dyer’s editor, I would argue strenuously for “Be grateful for…” in place of “Be in a state of gratitude for….” Do you agree? Why or why not? (Explain your answer below. It will not count toward your final grade.)
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
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Chapter 2, Part 2: Why We Need Poetry
Are babies programmed for language?
Current linguistic research is exploring the hypothesis that “children [are]… programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk… Indeed, children in the first five years of life have such a remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally quite different languages simultaneously—if, for instance, their mother is Chinese and their father American—without displaying the slightest signs of stress or confusion.” *
In other words, according to the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and others, babies are apparently wired to get what’s inside their heads—thoughts, ideas, questions—out into the Great, Wide World, through the medium of language.
Part of the evidence for an “innate appreciation of language,” according to Bill Bryson, writing in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, is that children everywhere, in every culture, whatever its language, no matter how complex or “wildly inflected” it is, learn to speak in exactly the same way.* By the time they are barely a month old, they show a preference for the sounds of speech over all others. Their infant babbling consists of the same sounds and commences at the same time—four to six months before they begin to talk. Their first words are simple labels (Me, Da), advancing to subject-verb combinations (Me want, Da go), and so on—my older son excepted. His sister, who was nearly 11 when her baby brother Jack was born, recorded in his Baby Book that his first words were carrots and onomatopoeia.
Additional research appears to confirm the theory that “children are programmed for language,” which is good news for those of us who use poetry as a way of gaining access to buried emotions and inclinations. Learning the discipline of expressing ourselves through poetry creates a channel to the unconscious—one that is wide enough to accommodate something as unruly as rage, but narrow enough to keep all our feelings from spilling out at once so that we can identify what emerges bit by bit.
Staying alive: God trumps entropy
This is not a religious book. Virtually anyone who wants to write poetry and to grow in self-knowledge and self-expression can benefit from it.
As a person who experiences God in all things, I am unable to write a shopping list, much less a book about poetry, that is entirely secular. Strip anything of spirit and there’s nothing left, is the way I see it.
But I am not going to preach or to espouse any particular theology. When I speak of God, for our present purpose, I am referring to the Ideal, the Perfect, the Goal that motivates all growth and change, the Organizing Principle—the opposite of entropy.
What (not to put too fine a point on it) is entropy?**
Entropy is the tendency of things to get messier when left on their own. You first heard about entropy from your parents: “Why are you just sitting there? The lawn’s not going to mow itself.”
Entropy is the tendency of everything to fall apart unless something, some form of energy, is holding it together. Think (but not too hard, because this is not a perfect analogy) of a Popsicle after it’s been out of the freezer for a while.
The inanimate universe leans toward chaos, decay, disorganization, and disintegration. Entropy is, you might say, the natural state of things when energy is not applied to them.
The attributes of God are counterentropic—a word I just made up because I can’t think of a better one. Anti-entropic won’t do. God isn’t against entropy. God is life and order. God is love, and growth, and beauty. It is the way of God and nature to lift things up, and these attributes are manifestations of energy, and they are the reason we are all still here. It is the way of entropy to melt like a Popsicle.
Entropy is not evil. Decay, in fact, is necessary to growth. Think of compost, which is decaying organic matter, and how it literally feeds growing things.
Life = order
A living thing — I’ll use myself, the living thing with which I am best acquainted, as an example—is highly organized at the cellular level. All I have to do consciously is eat, drink, and breathe, really, to exist. It might not be a giddy or intellectually satisfying existence, but the potential is there. When I breathe, my body gets the oxygen it needs to convert food to energy, which keeps my various systems functioning more or less efficiently, which enables me to walk and talk, and from there it’s a short step to giddiness or scholarly pursuits.
Our anatomical systems are programmed upward, toward life and growth. They make new cells and dispose of the old ones, filter the blood, manufacture various proteins, and so forth, and I don’t even have to pay attention. I can kick back and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time without having to check even once on whether my pancreas is still doing whatever it is that a pancreas does.
Disease and death = entropy
It is no accident that diseases are called “disorders.” Injuries and illnesses are entropic. Cancer cells, for example, reproduce in a chaotic, unpredictable manner, whereas healthy cells are in balance, new cells replacing old cells as needed. Healing from injuries and illnesses is a process of returning cells to their normal, orderly functions.
When a living thing dies, entropy takes over. I know this because not long ago a couple of rats died under my shower. They did not die where they could be conveniently scooped out by someone, anyone, please, God, other than me. Removing them required a major bathroom overhaul that took several weeks.
Meanwhile, major entropy was occurring at the cellular level within these rats, as their cells ceased to regenerate. They decayed. They rotted. And they did these things no more than three feet from where I brushed my teeth.
I hardly need point out that dead cells are not programmed toward life and growth. They aren’t programmed at all. The programming quit when the life went out of them. They are completely at the mercy of entropy, so they disintegrate. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t disintegrate fast enough.
The opposing, or perhaps complementary,*** effects of entropy and order take place at every level: microscopically and personally; in your household and your community; globally and universally. The body may run okay on automatic pilot — at the cellular level — but when you move up to the organism level, there’s a lot you have to do to, consciously and intentionally, to keep things from falling apart.
Consider what happens when you fail to “apply energy” to something — from combing your hair or washing the dishes after supper, to doing your homework or going to your job. Parents have to impose order on their children. Car owners have to keep their vehicles maintained. Homeowners have to paint their houses. Gardeners have to water and weed their flower beds.
We expend much of our energy in a race with entropy, maintaining ourselves and our stuff before they descend into chaos. If we don’t do it, or if someone doesn’t do it for us, everything goes to pieces. The car rusts. The grass dies. The wood rots. The porch sags. Our teeth fall out. We flunk out of school. Our kids grow up to be axe murderers with absolutely no table manners.
Psychologically, we are programmed to prefer order and we are cranky when it is lacking.**** The most miserable people I know are those who are constantly running after their lives. “I don’t have time to plan,” they say. “I’m too busy fighting fires.” They don’t buy new car tires until there’s a blowout. They don’t clean the yard until a family of weasels takes up residence behind the garage.
These are not orderly lives. They are continually being snatched from the jaws of entropy. The only organizational principle is urgency. There is little joy in such an existence.
If you are wise, you make conscious decisions about what’s truly necessary and, just as your cells do, you (the organism) develop systems for taking care of necessities so that you can also attend to wants and desires. A planning calendar is such a system. It is a powerful anti-entropy device. I actually own one. I’m not sure, at the moment, where it is. Perhaps the weasels have taken it.
Other obstacles to orderliness
Entropy is not the only thing that interferes with maintaining an orderly existence and indulging your wants, interests, and talents. Other people’s expectations, real or perceived, throw a lot of us off course. The more you are concerned with the opinions of others, the more obligated you feel to do unnecessary things. Your life slips out of your grasp like the Little Gingerbread Boy, and all you can do is to run after it and try to rein it in.
My sister, Pipi Campbell Peterson, is an author and professional organizer who specializes in decluttering—closets, offices, lives—so that her clients can have greater serenity, enjoy more time for the Good Stuff, and find their keys. If you are going to Live Poetically—indeed, if you are going to finish this book—you will probably have to declutter and create some space for it, just as you would if you were taking dance lessons in your basement.
* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. William Morris & Co. (New York), 1990.
** Entropy = The physical Universe’s macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive. —Buckminster Fuller
*** Order, in the form of growth — and entropy, in the form of decay — are complementary in that they rely on one another.
**** Psychological entropy is “the distribution of energy in the psyche, which tends to seek equilibrium or balance among all the structures of the psyche.” Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian.