Keeping a Spiritual Journal: A Powerful Tool for Self-Exploration

Young Woman Writing in JournalWe began our journey at the “Living Yoga Blog” with a look at the key principles of Yoga, followed by an overview of each of the major branches.  Since then, we’ve continued with a closer look at the primary techniques, which we’ll conclude this week with a look at the Yogic approach to using a spiritual journal.

Of course, most of us are familiar with a journal as a place to record our thoughts and experiences, but the Yogic approach is a little different.  The Yogis realized a journal can also be a place to record and evaluate our work on our personal path – much like the training journal of an athlete or lab record of an inventor.  Of course, if you happen to be serious about training, you know a journal is essential, allowing you to record your work and the results you are experiencing, and inner work is exactly the same.  A spiritual journal allows us to monitor efforts and evaluate growth in order to continue to improve on our chosen path.  Given its usefulness, it’s no surprise luminaries over the millennia have kept journals, from St Augustine to Gandhi to Swami Sivananda, who not only kept a detailed record but strongly encouraged his students to do the same.  In this article, I’d like to share a bit about his approach, including how it differs from a conventional diary and how to use it for own spiritual work….

 The Four Components 

To begin, most of us with diaries use them sporadically, writing often at some stages while allowing them to lay dormant at others.  We also tend to approach their use in a very casual way – again, sometimes to ponder deeply, sometimes simply to “vent” or imagine.  Of course each of these have their merits, but for reasons we’ll explore, Swami Sivananda actually recommended a more systematic approach, encouraging students to use their journals on a daily basis and to try to stay in touch with four basic components in their use.  The four key components of a spiritual journal are:

  1. Clarifying Our Values & Goals
  2. Recording Personal Practices
  3. Reflecting on Progress
  4. Revising Our Approach

Let’s look at each of these in greater detail….

Clarifying Our Values & Goals

The first element of a spiritual journal – just like an athlete’s training program – is asking ourselves what it is we specifically wish to work on and why.  Obviously, for an athlete, without self-evaluation and goals it’s easy to fall back into old patterns, focusing on forms of training we’re good at or enjoy while allowing areas of challenge to become more pronounced, and the Yogis realized personal growth is exactly the same.  The first value of a journal is it gives us a place to systematically reflect on our deeper values and goals in life.

This part of a journal is especially important given the distractions of our contemporary society.  We know we are constantly surrounded by difficulties and diversions.  Some of these, such issues at work or challenges at home, are important and necessary parts of life, while others like the media which surrounds us aren’t necessary but are equally hard to control.  Regardless, both can dissipate our energy if we’re unfocused and in turn dramatically slow our progress in life.  The Yogis realized we are best able to minimize these distractions and honor our obligations when we are centered, especially if we are clear and focused in our core beliefs.  Of course, we all have “general goals” in the back of our minds, but we don’t always take time to really think them through or to evaluate how they fit together.  As a result, we might pursue less important but manageable ones while inadvertently letting the more powerful ones get pushed aside.  Keeping a daily journal gives us a place to think through and concretize our long-term goals – to ask “Is this really what I want or is it just a step to something higher?”

Related to this and equally important, a journal gives us a chance to reinforce these goals on a day-to-day basis, asking at the start of a day: “How do I want to approach today in terms of my bigger goals?  What are my priorities in terms of what I do, how I think, how I treat people, and where I put my focus…?” or, at the end: “How did I do in honoring my goals and ideals?”  Ultimately, by reminding ourselves of our values each day, we are better able to stay on track amidst the challenges and distractions of our busy lives.

Recording Practices

The second element of a spiritual journal is recording our practices.  In Yoga, we refer to any formal activity that’s part of our personal growth as sadhana, which traditionally includes practices such as meditation, scriptural study, prayer, asana, pranayama, service, etc.   Again, just as an athlete carefully tracks his or her training in order to constantly improve, so we as spiritual aspirants can record our efforts.  This record can include both external practices, like study or asana, as well as internal efforts such as examining mental patterns like fear or attachment.

Further, again like an athlete, we can use our journal to record not only our practices but also the amount and even the quality of our efforts from day to day.  This can be as simple or detailed as works for us – for example, beginning each day’s entry with a list of our intended sadhana and a check system for recording what we‘ve done or, if we prefer, time spent in each endeavor.  This gives us a simple but easily-reviewed record we can look back on over the days to see how we are doing in terms of the practices to which we have committed.

This can be helpful for a number of reasons.  First, Swami Sivananda realized most of us have far-from-perfect memories when it comes to our efforts, especially when working on multiple goals at once.  He also realized we tend to have a somewhat distorted sense, both of our strengths and areas where we could be stronger.  We might think, for example, we are very diligent in our meditation but not so good at service when in fact it’s the other way around.   A journal can help us see whether we’re truly applying ourselves the way we think we are, which in turn allows us to more accurately evaluate our program as a whole.

Another advantage is in the area of discernment.  The Yogis realized, if we happen to be working on several practices at the same time, it can be hard to know what techniques are helping and what are hindering.  With a spiritual journal, just like a chef records the different ingredients and ratios he or she experiments with in a recipe, we can use our records to measure what we have been doing against the results we are experiencing, allowing us to distinguish what is truly serving us and what can be changed for the better.

Reflecting on Progress 

Of course, setting goals and recording effort are still only part of the process of growth.  Once more, just like a scientist records the results of his or her efforts in order to evaluate his or her approach, we can use our spiritual journal to do the same with our inner work.  Again, this is especially important when using a variety of techniques or working on a variety of goals.

For example, if we’re working on an ethical principle such as santosha (contentment), we can use our journal to look back on our days and weeks and ask how we are progressing.  “When did I maintain my sense of contentment?  When did I lose it?  What were the situations that seemed to challenge me?  Did I experience these results while following my program or had I allowed parts of my sadhana to lapse?”  Exploring these issues can give us a concrete sense of where we are improving and where we can still use work.  This process of regular evaluation also serves the additional purpose of reinforcing our goals – each time we look back on the days and weeks and reflect, it gives us that much more impetus to keep our goals in mind as we enter the day ahead.

Revising Our Approach

In turn, this process of reflection and evaluation leads us to the final component of a spiritual journal, which is periodically reexamining our approach and goals.  Once we‘ve identified areas where we still have room for improvement, a journal can be a powerful tool for reevaluating and shifting our efforts,  looking back on our practices, seeing what we’ve tried and with what impact, and adjust our approach accordingly.  Again, just like the scientist or athlete, this can give us a concrete means for steadily moving forward.

An extension of this idea, and one last way a journal can serve foster growth, is using it to examine and shift internal patterns.  We all have situations which can trigger feelings that overwhelm us, in turn leading us to patterned responses we’d like to change.  A journal can be a powerful tool for shifting this.  The Yogis realized by taking the time to reflect on these situations in advance and think through healthier responses, we can gradually teach ourselves to respond in more constructive ways.

To illustrate, imagine a pattern we’d like to change such as a tendency to get frustrated with a co-worker who is often behind.  We can use our journal to reinforce a more positive way of thinking and responding.  To begin, we can ask: “What assumptions am I making about his situation or his thoughts?  Is it possible he’s dealing with a personal challenge I don’t know about or is just acting on a different set of conditioned values – such as it’s more important to produce quality work, even if it’s a little late?”  Often this process alone can be enough to diffuse negative emotions.  We can shift patterns even further by taking time to consider a healthier way to respond.  “Is there a way to think about this or interact that might feel better both for him and for me?”  By using our journal to actively anticipate and think through more mindful responses, we can greatly increase our ability to stay in touch with our values during challenging situations rather than falling into unconscious patterns that don’t serve.

Putting a Journal Into Practice 

Again, taken together, these components provide a wonderful opportunity for personal growth – by clarifying our goals, tracking efforts, reinforcing principles, evaluating results, and finally adjusting our practices, we can greatly enhance growth on all levels, moving more strongly into our own values and beliefs.  So if you’ve always assumed a journal was just a place for recording feelings or experiences, I warmly encourage you to try this more structured approach – I think like many of us, will too find it an invaluable tool for self-exploration and progress on your path.

With this, we conclude our examination of the major tools of the Yogic path, but of course there are many additional techniques and principles, some of which might happen to be even more valuable for you depending on your goals and temperament.  In our next article, we’ll begin to explore more of these teachings and approaches, starting with an overview of the ashtanga or “Eight Limbs” on the path to enlightenment.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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