gratitude practice: how to journal

Here on Bliss Your Heart, I’ve often talked about mindfulness and even keeping a gratitude journal, but it occurred to me today that I’ve never actually shared my philosophy on journaling with you.  And since journaling is a really, really important part of my life (albeit a relatively recent one), it seems only fitting that I share some thoughts with you on how I approach it.

Especially since my approach is pretty much as unstructured as you can possibly get.

So maybe you’re sort of anti-journaling, assuming that it’s all  about writing very lofty thoughts in beautifully bound journals every single day, for the purposes of baring one’s darkest and most emotionally-wrenching secrets from the depths of one’s soul for all posterity.  You know, like Anne Frank, except more profound.  To be honest, that’s what I used to think about journaling.  So I totally sympathize with your hesitation.

However.

I’ve come around to the idea that there really is absolutely no right or wrong way to journal (including the lofty-thought method, above, and if that works for you, then go for it).  But, it might possibly be far more rewarding, and freeing even, to look at journaling as merely a way to capture the ephemera of your life.  By approaching it way — just capturing your messy, imperfect life, with no thought about how you want the final product to look or read — the result, of course, is that you’ll have an accidentally beautiful record of your life and times.   In fact, journaling in this manner has changed my life.  My journals have kept me very organized with respect to my daily schedule and life, but have also provided me lots of inspiration for my work as well — things I’d like to photograph or write, or projects I’d like to tackle, or even future goals to which to aspire.

So, today, I thought I’d share with you the various sections in my journal, from the very basic to the more elaborate, Levels 1-3 — maybe, if journaling is something you’ve always wanted to do, one of these levels will inspire you.  In any event, note that underpinning everything that I share with you here, I only have 2 rules for myself:

1.  I’m not allowed to rip any pages out of my journal. If I make a mistake, or I try doodling something I don’t like, or I don’t think it’s neat enough, or heck, of someone rests their coffee cup on the open page leaving a ring stain, it stays in the book.  At first this felt very restrictive, but I’ve learned that years later, after I’ve forgotten about it, I come across the scribble, or the coffee stain, and I’m sort of charmed by it.  So, since this is my rule, I never buy spiral-bound journals, since the temptation to rip out a page is too strong.  Instead, I buy tightly-bound journals — Moleskines are great (hard to rip out pages), and I started using those, but then I found a more eco-friendly version, and have been using those instead.  And I always get the unlined versions, so that I can write as big or small as I want, but it doesn’t matter, really.

Also, I always have a favourite pen. I like these.

2.  I always keep my journal on me.  I store it in my bag, and it’s my constant companion, easily accessible at a moment’s notice.  That way, if I find yourself somewhere with a few spare moments, I  just whip out your journal to jot down random thoughts.

And that’s it.  For the rest, here’s how the rest of my journal looks — feel free to start at Level 1, and do nothing more, if you’d like.  But I find all of them pretty helpful:

Level 1:  At its most basic, it acts as a scratch pad and a repository for to-do-lists.  There’s nothing like a to-do list or scratch pad to make my journal seem a little less “precious,” and more like a tool, which is really what it is, day-to-day.  To do lists are, of course, easy:  every day, whether I write or include anything else in my journal, the one thing I do make sure to do is write down my to-do list for the day.  There is something just so satisfying about scratching through the items that I have to do as I get them done; in addition, having all of my to-do lists in one place is convenient:  I can go back and remember when I did something, or if I fail to do something one day, I simply move it to the following day.

Thenand this is the part that might be unlike how you’ve ever heard journaling done — I keep my journal”‹ with me for the rest of the day, and use the pages following my to-do list like a scratch pad.  Someone calls and leaves a message for my husband?  I write it down there.  Need to make a grocery list?  I write it down in my journal.  Plannng a trip?  The packing list goes in the pages.  Ideas for blog posts, names of bottles of wine I want to remember, even brainstorming book ideas while I sit in the car pool line, waiting for my daughter to come out of school — anything that I would scratch on a piece of paper or even a napkin happens in my journal.  I love colour, so I use coloured pens to highlight things that are important to me.  And don’t get me started about doodles, writing down favourite quotes, gluing in photographs or found postcards or favourite fortune-cookie fortunes …

The beauty of this is that because my journal is chronological, I’m able to go find things — notes, ideas, etc. — easily.  It’s been a great way to organize my life, and an easy way to start “journaling” without feeling too exposed or weird about it.  And in the end, ultimately, it’s a great record of my life, even just these brief lists — one that I’ve found I’ve come to treasure

 

Level 2:  “Morning Pages.”   In addition to the to-do lists, above; and, in fact, before I even write down my to-do lists, I write two “morning pages.”  The idea is actually espoused in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, and the concept is this:  first thing in the morning, before I even turn on my computer, I write at least 2 pages (The Artist’s Way actually suggests 3 pages) of whatever comes to my head — completely stream-of-consciousness, without any particular attention to spelling or grammar, simply spilling all the thoughts that are cluttering my mind every morning.

To be honest with you, I rarely go back and read these pages — but what I’ve found is that just doing this clears my head for the day, and gets rid of the superfluous thoughts so that I can focus on what’s important to me for the day.  It’s just a nice little clearing exercise.

One practice I try to maintain:  I try to do the to-do list and the morning pages before I turn on my computer.  In this way, I’m sure to focus what’s important to me for the day before my email inbox decides to rule my  world.

 

Level 3:  A scrapbook and a photo album.  I touched on this with the cell-phone gratitude practice I wrote about earlier:  whenever I come across a piece of paper that I love — someone sends me a pretty card, for example, or I get a fortune from a fortune cookie that I like, or my daughter draws me a pretty picture that I want to save — or even a photograph, I just glue or tape it right into the pages of my journal.

 

 

Again, I just stick these down on the next available blank page that I have, regardless of when I received or found the card, or when Alex did her original piece of art for me.  Sometimes I caption them, sometimes I don’t.”‹

And if I really don’t want to use adhesive, because I’m afraid of it damaging whatever I’d like to keep, I discovered these awesome adhesive pockets that you can get in any office supply store, that conveniently holds 4″x6″ photos.  So every now and then I grab one of these pockets, stick the photo (or whatever) inside, and slap these babies into my journal:”‹

 

Level 4:  Art journaling.  Over time, I’ve become really taken with the concept of art journaling — not just writing down thoughts, but simply expressing them through art.  I’ve never considered myself much of an artist in the traditional sense of the world; however, since a journal is ostensibly very private, I found that my journal is where I can play around with art and colour without risk of anyone judging my work.  I love colour, and when I first began, I would just paint a page with water colours, just to have something different from a plain white page to write on.

And sometimes I just doodle, using big fat coloured pens to write down favourite quotes I come across, and just generally messing around.  his is just for playing purposes, and in fact, I most often do this sitting in front of our television, watching a movie on the weekend, just playing around.  It’s something to do rather than surf the web, you know?  Just for play.

So that’s it!  Again, to make a journal a journal, you don’t have to do all of these things — you might just do some of them.  Or none of them, and come up with some ideas all of your own.  But I think the practice of just handwriting things on paper is meditative.  It certainly helps me organize my life.  And again, the result — even the pages with the coffee/tea rings on them — make for a really beautiful record of my messy life.

So if, for the year to come, you’d like to start spending more time doing something just for you, consider picking up a plain journal and a few pens, and start playing, without any preconceived expectations or judgments.  You’ll thank yourself.

(Do you journal?  Do you have a special method?  I’d love if you’d share it in the comments — I’m always looking for inspiration.)

 

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