By Alana Lehrfield, LSW
Beloved and frequently quoted American poet, Mary Oliver, died a few weeks ago on
January 17, 2019. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, she was most notable
for her celebrated poems The Journey, The Summer Day and Wild Geese. In a rare interview
with Krista Tippet in 2005, Mary Oliver discussed “the wisdom of the world, the salvation of
poetry and the life behind her writing.” The link to the interview can be found at
http://onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world-jan2019. Get your tissues out.
In the interview, Mary Oliver described her writing process which began early every morning
walking through nature with her notebook in hand, writing and walking, and “listening to the
world.” As a tribute to her and to her creative process, I wanted to explore the many benefits
of journaling in this month’s blog. We don’t need to be brilliant poets or even consider
ourselves artists at all to reap the benefits of journaling. All we need is paper, a pen and a
willingness to meet ourselves on the page. See some of the benefits of journaling below:
Access to Your Creative Side
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, describes a form of journaling called “morning
pages.” Morning pages are one of the tools that Cameron recommends fledgling artists use to
access one’s own creativity. Ideally, three pages are to be written out free hand, daily, before
any other mundane pursuit. The discipline of this daily practice provides the space for our
creativity to blossom. Mary Oliver describes this process as tapping into that “wild, slippery
part of ourselves.” Scientifically, the act of writing accesses your left brain which is analytical
and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain if free to be creative, intuitive
and have access to your feelings. Journaling helps your right and left brain work together and
helps remove any mental blocks.
Work Through Emotions
I often recommend journaling for my clients as a way to process complex emotions.
Writing about anger, sadness or other strong emotions can help us to diffuse the intensity of
these feelings. Anger, for example, is a secondary emotion which means it is always a reaction
to another more vulnerable emotion. Anger usually shows up as an automatic, knee-jerk
reaction, however in reality, it is acting to protect us from experiencing other more raw and
painful emotions. An example of this might be feeling angry about not being invited to an
exclusive event or party that “everyone” is going to. Underneath the anger, you might feel
hurt, rejection, jealousy, envy, sadness and disappointment. Being able to process and label
these underlying emotions can help us feel calmer and less upset.
Journaling can also be an effective outlet for stress and anxiety. Instead of letting your anxious
feelings fester, or allowing them to release in an unhealthy way that could damage your
relationships or even your own physical health, journaling provides a safe and nonjudgmental
outlet for stress. It is especially effective if you grant yourself permission to be imperfect, to
make spelling and grammatical errors. Writing quickly and not thinking too much is also
beneficial. Julia Cameron recommends not allowing your pencil to leave the page. This can
help us learn to ignore our inner editor and allow ourselves to express what we are thinking
and feeling without judgment.
Another form of journaling that has gained popularity is gratitude journaling. According to
neuroscientific research, dopamine and serotonin are released in our brains when we express
gratitude. Dopamine causes us feel good and to want to experience more of that feeling.
Serotonin activates the happiness center of our brains. Keeping track of what we are thankful
for can allow us to shift our thinking from what we lack to what we appreciate in our lives. This
gentle shift can help us to experience more happiness. Taking the time to find something to be
grateful for even in dark moments can help get through life’s most trying times.
In her poem The Uses of Sorrow, Mary Oliver wrote:
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift.
Know yourself better
Journaling can help us to stay connected to our inner world. When we get caught up in day to
day responsibilities, journaling can help us step back and take a moment for self-reflection. We
can explore our hopes, dreams, fears and nightmares. It can help us reflect on our values and
fine tune them. Looking back on previous entries, you may begin to notice patterns in your
thoughts and behavior or in the behavior of others.
While journaling may not be for everyone, I hope this will encourage you to explore this
valuable and easily accessible avenue for personal growth and development. While not a
replacement for therapy, a journal can function as a trusted friend in times of despair and
loneliness. Furthermore, material may surface in your journal that can bring more substance to
your therapy sessions. In addition to helping us process our feelings, reduce stress, express
gratitude and self-reflect, we can gain control over the stories that we tell ourselves about
ourselves. A fresh page can give us the space to imagine a fresh start and leave behind parts of
ourselves that no longer serve us.