I have notebooks and journals for everything: Work, habits, goals, exercise, personal projects, language learning, New Year’s resolutions…
I have them all sitting here on my desk, just waiting to be used. And so when I came across the practice of keeping a meditation journal, I thought the last thing I needed in my life was yet another one to add to the dusty pile.
The problem was, despite everyone spouting about the incredible, transformative benefits of meditation, my daily year-long practice was getting me nowhere. Worse, for the past few months, it felt like it was taking me backwards.
Half a year into keeping a meditation journal, and I can’t believe I ever did without it. Each time I sit, I take five minutes before to record the details of my practice — date, duration, type, place — and ten minutes after to write about the observations and experiences I had.
Bringing writing into my meditation has allowed me to get to know myself better than ever. Instead of wasting time, going around in circles and beating myself up when things aren’t going as well as expected, instead, I quickly notice when I’m stuck in old patterns and manage to bring my expectations in check before even getting started.
Overall, this means my practice is much deeper, much more fulfilling, and much less demanding on my time.
The ways in which a journal can improve your meditation practice are endless. Here are five that prove one deserves a place in your practice and at the very top of your own pile of notebooks.
1. Make the teachings personal
You can read every Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Thich Nhat Hanh book under the sun, and not be any the wiser if you aren’t able to apply the teachings into your own life.
This is why the Buddha’s greatest teaching was not the four noble truths or the principle of dependent origination, but to “not believe in anything simply because you have heard it or because it is found written in your religious books”. Before anything, the Buddha taught that one must inquire into one’s own experience and then only agree with something if it matches up with what you find.
The Buddha’s reasoning here was that it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in religion, tradition, and words, and start thinking that they are the source of the solutions to our woes. If attaining wisdom and freedom from suffering is like climbing a mountain, spiritual guidance is like the signposts that help guide us to the top. In this way, they are fundamentally different to the path — not least because everyone is at different stages and on different paths, and so everyone’s way to the top will be different from the next person’s.
Rather than relying on signposts, however, the Buddha also taught that there is no one better to give this guidance than ourselves. The problem is we often know what we need to do but do everything we can to avoid it. By keeping a meditation journal, we can keep track of our practice and become better attuned to what we need and when — developing the keys to lasting wisdom: a discerning mind and the ability to ask skillful questions.
2. Avoid spiritual bypassing
So often our approach to meditation is based on a method of problem-solving that only works in the physical world. For example, say we need to fix a car that’s broken down. There are two states, the broken-down car, and the fixed car, and to go from one state to the other, we need to take some sort of physical action and movement — i.e. find a mechanic and take it to the garage.
We spend much of our days in this problem-solving mode, and so naturally, we take the same approach to fixing our internal problems. We have the state we are in now — not feeling right for whatever reason — and the state we want to get to — feeling right, i.e. nirvana — and then go about a process of getting ourselves there.
The problem with this approach is that not only doesn’t it work, by thinking there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, we create the idea of a ‘broken’ me that’s here and we need to get away from, and a ‘fixed’ me that’s out there and we need to become.
This dualistic mode of thinking leads to what’s known as spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is when we use the highs and tranquil states produced by meditation (taking the car to the garage) as just another way of turning away from reality and temporarily avoiding the difficulties of life. But we are not broken-down cars, and the answer to our problems is not somewhere else to be found — it’s in realizing what’s already here, however broken and damaged it may seem. A meditation journal helps us see this by not offering us another way to escape, but helping us see how we can relate to our experience in a new way.
3. Go past what and get down to the why
We know ourselves and our lives too well — at least we think we do. So when it comes to our bad habits, unwanted tendencies, and are many inadequacies and deficiencies, we so quick to dismiss them that we actually never really get to know them or ourselves at all.
As Socrates pronounced in a speech following his decision to be sentenced to death over exile from Athens, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates wasn’t saying that everyone needs to become a philosopher and go through every aspect of their experience with a fine-tooth comb. Rather, he was saying that without an open, curious, and critical attitude to life, the chances are that you will end up being ruled by the parts of yourself, or of somebody else, that have been neglected and tried to be kept hidden in the dark.
The Buddha would agree with this. A lot of his teaching was built on not finding better answers to questions, but learning how to ask better questions. When we place our ability to question over our ability to answer and find solutions, we move from a mindset of closing doors to one of opening them. This is the attitude Buddha spoke of as necessary if you are to go beyond logic and understand that, “Things are not what they seem. Nor are they otherwise.”
So, as well as helping to bring the darker sides of ourselves into the light, a meditation journal helps us see our lives, as Gandhi said, as “a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved”.
4. Breakthrough to deeper ground
So often the time we put aside for meditating is spent mentally noting the shopping list and running through conversations we had the day before, with only a few moments of real focus on the breath just before the bell rings.
Although they can seem mundane and anything but spiritual, it’s these everyday tasks we think of as distractions and that supposedly keep us from the ‘real’ practice, that are actually the source of real progress and development.
Let’s say you regularly sit down to meditate after work, but every time you do the next door neighbour’s dog perks up and starts yapping away. Immediately, you get annoyed and start thinking about how this is yet again another wasted session and why can’t they control the damn dog and this is just typical and could your life really get any worse.
Another way to approach this scenario, though, would be to work with the initial aversion and use it as your practice. After all, if something presents itself to you, maybe it’s not there to be pushed away but used. Journaling gives you the power to do this; you can inquire into the feeling of annoyance, the person who feels annoyed, and the story behind why it annoys you so much. Noticing and exploring such feelings with a discerning mind, instead of taking them on face value, can accelerate and enhance the process of sitting and watching the breath by removing obstacles that you may otherwise have not known were there.
In the case of the barking dog, with a little reflection, we may realize we have bundles of assumptions and judgments about why we deserve this moment to relax, what we regard as unpleasant and pleasant experiences, and how much of our discomfort is not in the noise itself, but in the story we’ve weaved about what it means to us and who we believe ourselves to be.
5. Getting off the wheel of samsara
Everyone has heard the famous quote (often attributed to Einstein) that goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If this is true, though, then I’m sure pretty much all of us would qualify as officially insane.
It’s one thing to do the same things over and over again, it’s another thing to notice you’re doing them, and it’s a whole other kettle of fish to actually do something about it and change your behaviour.
But why is it so difficult to change? Is it just that we are extremely forgetful; do we just get a big kick out of self-flagellation? These no doubt have something to do with it, but there’s something much, much bigger going on, and it lays at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: the wheel of suffering.
The Buddha taught that as long as we crave and desire for fulfillment, we are trapped in samsara, or the wheel of suffering, It’s an easy enough concept to grasp, but the trouble is the mind is constantly evolving and coming up with new and ever subtler ways to deceive us and convince us that we’ve finally found the solution to all our problems.
Asking yourself the right questions is like throwing a huge spanner in the constantly turning wheel of suffering. Contrary to what many people think, getting out of the cycle is not to do away with all dissatisfaction and eliminate all difficult experiences. Rather, it’s to realize the imperfection, uncertainty, and impermanence that is inherent to all life. This is right here, right now, in plain sight for all to see. The problem is we don’t see it, and for that, we need to not bring in more ideas, principles, and beliefs, but cut through all the ones that lay in its way.
Life offers us so many solutions, answers, and teachings about meditation, that when it comes to the actual practice itself, we can often come away feeling worse than better off. Keeping a meditation journal gives us a way to slow all this motion down, do away with unhelpful and hindering ideas, and like the Buddha was so insistent about, actually find out what’s actually going on for ourselves.
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