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:
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 freehand, 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.
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 to 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.
Journaling can help us to stay connected to our inner world. When we get caught up in the 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, the 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.