How to journal to achieve real breakthroughs

In my last post I discussed the basics: why, when, where, and what to journal. Today’s post covers how to journal to achieve real breakthroughs in self-knowledge, emotional mastery, spiritual connection, and even writing skill improvements. The key is to relax your thinking mind’s tight grip, and dive into the murky realm of emotion.

Write from the heart

Yeah, you’ve probably seen this phrase before. “Write from the heart” appears soft and squishy and rather meaningless… but I’d like to break it down into why it’s important and how to do it.

Pretty much everything in life comes down to how we feel. We like to think that we make rational, logical decisions… but the deep underground rivers of emotion (both positive and negative) are the true shot callers. So why did we never receive training on how to identify what we’re feeling?

Because emotions can be scary. Negative emotions are processed in a part of our brain that doesn’t have words to describe what’s going on… and what we don’t comprehend gets shut down and stored in our bodies. This emotional numbing comes at a cost; if emotions call the shots, and we don’t know how to listen, then we’ve cut ourselves off from our inner compass.

It’s easier to know when we feel happy or loved, but our emotional vocabulary doesn’t come close to describing the 34,000 emotions experienced by human beings. And when we don’t have the vocabulary, we are unaware of even the positive emotions that motivate us and define us as individuals. We simply don’t know ourselves.

Feel it, label it, and release it.

Journaling can borrow an incredibly effective practice from meditation called labeling. The task is to pay attention to the lived experience and label what’s happening without holding on or rejecting it. We can avoid getting caught up in our own stories by simply getting a better vantage point.

Labeling in meditation typically focuses on seeing our thoughts for what they are instead of getting caught up in them, and then labeling them accordingly, like “thinking,” “judging,” “analyzing.” This technique can also be used to more deeply examine what we’re feeling, as if we’re scientists peering at a new type of bug: “Stomach tense… feels like a ball of twine… shallow breaths… oh, this is what ‘anxious’ feels like. Open and spacious in my chest area, warm and tingly… ah, this is what ‘loved’ feels like. Oh… really open, almost like my energy is in front of me, radiating outward: this is what “freedom” feels like.”

We can combine the meditation technique of labeling with the practice of journaling to fully translate a sensory experience into language and understanding. If you’re only journaling with your analytical mind without feeling deep down into what is really going on, then nothing transformational can occur. We just spin and spin and spin, creating the illusion of progress with no real traction.

Conversely, when we start intentionally witnessing what we’re feeling — in real time or recreated through memory — and translating those feelings into words (especially words on a page), that’s when magic happens. Emotions hold power in darkness, but the light of awareness diminishes that power. We are in control… we are liberated. We have access to inner wisdom, boosting self awareness and assurance.

The practice

We can use the power of memory to explore positive emotions without repercussion. Settle into a comfortable chair, breathe deeply, feeling the air flow into your chest, and then go even deeper — imagine it going down your spine, into your seat, your legs, your toes. Really feel yourself sitting in your body, grounded… not floating up in your head.

Now imagine a time when you felt joy, safe, peaceful, included, free, or valued. Relive that experience. What does this emotion feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Create the “tasting notes” for your own vintages of emotions. Label them and write them down.

In your journal, explore: How meaningful is this emotion to you? Does it define you or motivate you? Some of us are driven by the need to feel safe, others by freedom, others by purpose or belonging. These “defining emotions” that go hand-in-hand with humanity’s core needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) help us understand who we are and why we do what we do. They can be used to guide future decisions.

Cool processing

Whether we work with negative or positive emotions, the same caveat holds: don’t drown in the emotion. While it’s important to access and acknowledge negative emotions (shame, rejection, etc), there’s a difference between being an observer of the memory and stepping into the memory. This post does a good job describing “cool” versus “hot” processing; cool processing is being an observer, labeling the emotion and what is happening. Hot processing involves stepping back into the memory and allowing it to re-trigger pain and trauma.

Practice first with positive emotions — accessing, feeling and labeling emotions without getting lost in daydreams — before venturing into negative emotions. Then work with easier negative emotions, like those more distant in your memory (like that time I fell down the stairs on the first day of a new school when I was 11); save the traumatic ones for last.

While it’s much easier and more desirable to “swim around in” positive emotions, we run the risk of drifting off into fantasy land. Our goal is to understand ourselves better, not to self-medicate… so again, labeling is key. Feel it, label it, and release it.

Dear reader, what do you think? Are you ready to try your hand at this?

How to start an effective journaling practice – The Basics

I’ve been a compulsive journaler my entire life, filling countless lined pages with outpourings of inspirations, frustrations, hopes, heartbreaks, and extensive overanalysis. I wrote to understand myself, others and situations. I’ve also learned how to quiet my mind and simply let my pen move across the paper, channeling insights and messages that come from either my wiser subconscious or what you might call God, Spirit, or All That Is.

Journaling was a bit like my compulsive yet sporadic meditation practice; I did copious amounts of both before I figured out the reason why neither of them had been effective. When I made one small but significant change, I began to see real progress in my levels of mental peace and personal growth. I’ll get to that change after we first cover some basics.

Why to journal

A lot has been written about the benefits of journaling, including improved creativity, mental well-being, communication skills, mindfulness, and even IQ. You can click here for a top 10 list of benefits.

But there are many reasons why people journal, and knowing your why will help you stay committed to the practice. Do you want to figure yourself out? Enjoy some me time? Gain clarity? Solve problems? Find your voice? Learn how to stop censoring yourself? Grow as a human being? Express your emotions and feel heard, even if only by yourself? Develop your writing skills? Deepen your spirituality?

If you’re ready to start a journaling practice, spend some time here on your why.

When and where to journal

Keep your journal and a good pen wherever you consistently spend time. My journal is a permanent fixture on my nightstand, but you might have a favorite chair or desk that you use often. Or you can carry it with you so that you can write whenever inspiration strikes.

  • Before bed: At night you can have a bit more time to relax and reflect without the pressure of “gotta get to work.” You can also write down questions you want to solve and let your mind work on it while you sleep. And committing any problems or frustrations to paper can also settle your mind so that you’re able to fall sleep faster.
  • Waking up: In the morning your mind is fresh, clear and unburdened, which makes it an ideal time for free-flow writing, creativity and spiritual practice.
  • Bookends (morning and night). Set your daily intentions in the morning, and assess your day before you go to bed.
  • During the day: If your journal is on your desk, it’s an easy way to experience some self-care: step away from your computer, go for a walk with your journal, and download to paper any ideas, insights, frustrations, or solutions that want to be heard before you get back to the grind.
  • Weekends. I love marathon journaling sessions on lazy weekend mornings in my PJs while sipping my soy latte. I’ll combine it with a thought-provoking book that stimulates my creative juices, picking up my journal and pen when my reading sparks an idea.

What to journal

This, of course, depends on your why. Once I succeeded in figuring myself out and stopped overanalyzing, my focus has shifted to writing poetry, aligning myself with something bigger than myself, and ideating on my new venture (a guided journaling program, go figure!). The important thing to know is, there are no rules. Write whatever you feel like writing. This is a 2-way conversation with yourself and/or the Universe (or whatever you call Her), so you’re in charge.

How to journal

Ahh, now we’re at the heart of the matter. In order to reap all those benefits up in the Why section, there are a couple guiding principles to follow. It’s so important that I’m going to cover it a separate post. Click here to read about the how.

Guest Post: How I fell in love with my life

This is a guest post on personal transformation by Jennifer Pomo from Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were going through our phase of radical releasing around the same time, and it was such a joy for me to hear how this process has born fruit in her life over the past year.

“Goodness this full moon is a potent one. Last night I drove home from dinner and dancing with friends. We danced in the living room until midnight, music loud enough to wake the neighbors but lucky to have the closest neighbors a few acres away.

I’ve danced more in the last three months than I’ve danced 30 years. Last night the full moon lit up the Santa Fe winter sky so bright I could have easily made the drive home without my lights on. There I stood in the middle of the street I live on, staring at the full moon staring back at me. I didn’t want the dance to end and so I kept on dancing. I’ve always wanted to dance like no one is watching and truly, no one was watching.

Memories of this time last year came flooding back. Nothing in my life is the same. This time last year I had begun the process of dissolving, of coming completely undone. This time last year I had no idea where I was headed, I only knew I was following a longing, a pull that required total trust on my part.

I had made a commitment to stop the fast track I was on and become still. In June of 2018 I left my marriage, the gated house on five and half acres of pinons and juniper trees, dirt roads and stunning mountain views. I was supposed to be living the quintessential, charming Santa Fe life. It was all smoke and mirrors. I moved into a tiny casita in town which became my cocoon. By the end of October 2018, I had quit my job and let go of everything I had built that I thought meant safety and security.

This time last year I didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror, didn’t recognize my life, my clothes, my hair, my thoughts. This time last year I went dark, went deep into the dark night of my soul, cradled by the long winter months. I had a few close friends I saw, but other than that, the life I created and built in the public eye, a community I had grown to know and love had come to an end.

I’ll never forget the day I was walking through the restaurant I helped build looking down at one of my signature dress pieces and thinking “Who even wears this??” I sent a message to my friend right away telling her I felt like an imposter in my life and in my work. She wrote back asking if what I was experiencing was actually my inner shero coming to rescue me, asking me to trust her and to follow her lead. A life I had built in service to others had run its course. The only person I wanted to serve was myself. In choosing to serve me, to commit to serving my longing, my hearts desire, whatever that was, my entire life changed.

I can’t tell you the number of people who have recently come to me saying how happy I look and that I am glowing. I have even been asked if I am in love. Yes, I am in love. I’m in love with my life. I’m in love with myself for the first time in my life. I’m in love with my courage and my commitment to keep traveling the path into the unknown. I’m in love with my willingness to trust.

My happiness has been born from countless tears, from being brought to my knees. My happiness has come from getting honest and holding myself accountable for my actions and how I was living. My happiness has come from refusing to blame anyone or be a victim of my life. My happiness has come from letting go. My happiness has come from ending the chase of trying to dictate what I thought my life should look like and instead letting life have its way with me.

I lost the ability to write for nearly eight months. Yes, I filled volumes of journals but my story had no words to it. This was unnerving for me. I would start a sentence and that was as far as my writing would go. Instead I wanted to be on the mountain and I wanted to dance. I wanted to seek out what other writers had to say and read poetry. I’ve devoured more poetry in the last year than I have my entire life.

It’s only been recently that my words are making their way back to me. I feel vulnerable but I’m no longer afraid to put myself back out into the world. This time last year there was no way I was comfortable enough in my skin to even make an appearance that felt authentic. This is something that happens when we unravel, when we come undone. It requires time alone. It requires going in and remaining present with ourselves until we are damn good and ready to resurface again.

Last night I danced in the middle of my street recalling my favorite movie of all time, Moonstruck. I saw Cher walking dreamily down the street of her Brooklyn neighborhood, kicking a tin can, forever changed and in love. Has this always been a clue from my past? Did I know at the tender age of 17 I was leaving a clue for my future self to remember this moment in time? Me dancing in the street in my long black winter coat, completely changed and in love?

I’m going to go with yes.”

How are you responding to Jen’s story, dear reader? Have you gone through your own dark night of the soul, or do you feel it calling to you? Where does your happiness come from?

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Why New Year’s goals and resolutions don’t stick (and what to do instead)

From the archives, a post I wrote in January 2020 that’s still very relevant!

Every year on New Year’s Day, I would retreat and spend the day journaling to rehash all the things I hadn’t done the previous year, and set goals that I failed to keep for the next. After a few months, I’d beat myself up for the failures. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Not a good recipe for a healthy self-esteem, that’s for sure.

But 2019 was different: I felt no compulsive need to figure anything out. There was no puzzle to solve. Sure, I’d like to get to the gym more often and cut back on carbs, but my life is pretty simple these days. I’m a lot happier. I don’t feel compelled to make any big changes.

What happened?

I spent all of 2019 getting aligned with what brings me joy. It was an elimination diet of sorts; I literally eliminated everything from my life — stuff, job, home — and set out on a nomadic journey to feel my way back into a life that fits me like a tailored suit.

I recognize that not everyone can (or would want to) take the kind of crazy leap that I did. But I’ve made some observations from my transformation process that can apply to anyone.

  • Focus on how you want to feel. Emotions drive behavior, not logic or a list of to-do’s. When we get really clear on how we want to feel in every aspect of our lives, and start taking baby steps to feel that way more frequently, we gradually shift everything in our lives. There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a global sensation; she’s simply helping people surround themselves with what brings them joy by getting rid of what doesn’t. This book was instrumental in helping shift my own life and I highly recommend it.
  • On a related note, start with releasing. We’re all operating with a finite amount of time, energy and resources that are currently allocated to other things. Most of those other things (people, activities, stuff, work, etc) don’t bring us joy. They’re simply the accumulations of life that we’ve picked up, like a snowball that grows as it rolls downhill. The older we get, the more of this accumulation gathers unnoticed and unquestioned. We all need to get better at saying no, setting boundaries, and offloading what we can. Let’s eliminate the NOs so we can clear space for more YES.
  • Then add easy YESes. It’s hard to commit to the tougher resolutions like diet and exercise if the rest of our lives are lacking joy; you’re just piling shoulds on top of shoulds. No wonder we don’t stick with them! Try this instead: start with clearing some space in your calendar by replacing a NO with a YES… perhaps a cooking class, dancing in your living room, or painting rocks… whatever floats your boat. Clear some space in your closet by taking NOs to a resale shop, and trade them in for something that makes you deliriously happy when you wear it (I just picked up some happy striped socks for Christmas!) Start your day with a routine that puts a smile on your face; I make a perfect soy latte, journal and write poetry. What brings you joy? Do more of it. Simple.
  • If it’s not a Hell Yes, it’s a No. How many of us agonize over whether something or someone is right for us or not? Let’s make this perfectly clear and simple: if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no. Agonizing, debating, writing pros and cons… it’s all useless. Seriously. Look back over your life; can you honestly find one thing you’ve debated that turned out to be a hell yes? Ok, maybe 1 out of 100 times it might be worthwhile… but that means statistically you could save yourself a lot of time and trouble by moving on already. Make room for Hell Yes.
  • Let the process be more organic. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed by stepping off the hamster wheel, it’s this crazy focus on goal-oriented performance. Americans especially are programmed to operate in a linear fashion: set a goal and start ticking off boxes. But most human beings aren’t designed to work that way; like a blind person, we slowly sense our way a new life by making small changes and seeing how they feel to us. If they end up feeling good, we’re likely to do more of it. If it doesn’t, then we stop. So please stop flagellating yourself into performing according to some inhuman standard, and start having more fun with this process. Play. Experiment.
  • … but stick with it. If you’ve decided how you want to feel — let’s say strong and empowered — then the activities that directly contribute to that emotion – in this case, exercise – are no longer optional. It doesn’t matter how you feel in the moment; what counts is that you’re doing the thing that will help you achieve your bigger, more important emotional goal. Chances are the first few weeks are going to suck, and that’s ok. You’ll eventually hit a point where you realize: hey! I’m feeling strong and powerful right now! And boom… this whole process starts getting easier.

Dear reader, what will you say NO to this week in order to clear space for YES? How do you want to feel this year, and what will you start doing to feel that way more often?