Writing and Mindfulness–and Some Thoughts about Journaling

Mindfulness is an awareness of our mental states that is often cultivated with a meditation practice. Many writers are also meditators. What might you gain from cultivating a practice of mindfulness that will help you with writing?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is more than just tuning into mental states and emotional awareness; it is cultivating the habits of mind that keep us detached and objective so that we don’t get so swept up in our thoughts and feelings that we act on them, instead of acting deliberately. Mindfulness helps us to control impulses because we learn to simply watch desires and not act on them immediately. Mindfulness is a way of creating space in our lives so that we can stop and take stock. It helps to keep us grounded, which means we stay true to who we are—meaning true to our integrity, true to our vision, true to our core self.

Depiction of the Buddha meditating. Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY, Feb 2016.  Photo copyright Alyssa Colton

Depiction of the Buddha meditating. Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY.

The potential pitfalls of journaling

In some ways, writing is a form of mindfulness, especially when journaling. Journaling is often touted as having therapeutic value, and it can do this work, but I think we also have be aware of how we are using journaling and be careful that it is not having the opposite effect of what’s intended. Are we using journaling as a way of getting obsessed with a specific story we are telling? Are we using it simply to vent? And if so, by writing it down, are we giving it *more* power because it then seems more legitimate? Are we actually taking a step back and creating that space when we journal? I know that at one time I used journaling a lot to vent, but rarely felt better afterwards. Often I felt worse and found myself getting even more caught up in the story I was telling. Journaling does not necessarily give us a step back—in fact, it may do the opposite, because it is a way of becoming *attached* to our thoughts. The purpose of mindfulness, on the other hand, is to become detached from our thoughts.

So if we journal in order to feel better, we must be sure that we are using it as a way of letting go and not hanging on. We also must use it as a way of moving forward and giving voice to other perspectives that might help us shift into new knowledge and understanding. Journals can be great, non-judgmental listeners—but if we are judging ourselves as we write, we totally negate this effect.

For me, writing fiction is often more therapeutic than journaling, mostly because it gives me a way to become detached from the stories I’m telling. It’s an escape, yes, but it’s a way of distracting my mind, of becoming totally absorbed in something that’s not about my ego. I enter that “zone” which is inherently grounding, because I’m giving myself over to something higher, to something powerful, something almost mysterious. This does not mean that I don’t journal—though I journal a lot less than I used to. I still use my journal to take notes, to document, to explore, to process and to sift. However, I’ve stopped journaling when I’m in the heat of the moment, because I find that it counteracts the process of detachment. Writing things down makes it even more real, more legitimate–more permanent. Instead, as much as I can, I try to remind myself that the heat of feeling is temporary, and that I  just need to breathe and allow my feelings to flow through. Once I’ve gotten over those peaks and valleys, I can use writing as a way of making sense of my reactions and exploring what’s underlying them.

Of course, I can see journaling as venting could be helpful as a way of “getting out” those more powerful feelings—as long as you don’t become attached to them. You might want to burn or otherwise destroy any writing like this you do to prevent those feelings from becoming a story you tell that’s not serving you. Just be careful of becoming too attached to what you’ve written. All good writers know that you have to be able to let go of your words.

Using journaling to process and understand

Journaling can be a powerful way of uncovering *why* things bother you the way that they do. Asking questions of yourself can help you dialogue and uncover some of that difficult, messy stuff that can help you understand and see things more clearly. So, for example, when a friend makes an offhand, condescending comment that leaves you feeling angry or upset, you might start interrogating why and realize that it brings up feelings of inadequacy that are actually rooted in memories of being called stupid by your older brother. Or you might try to imagine what your friend may have been experiencing at the time in order to encourage yourself to have more empathy. Writing, then, can help you peel off layers of thoughts and memories and figure out how they are affecting you unconsciously.
Mindfulness to cultivate sensory awareness (and enrich your writing)

Cultivating mindfulness can also directly enrich your writing skills and technique. Writing requires awareness and observation, skills that  meditation can help us hone. When I teach writing classes, I often lead students on a meditation where I ask them to imagine a place and to bring the place alive as much as possible through imagining its visual details, its smells, its sounds, the way it feels and even the way it tastes. So, for example, the place might be a grassy knoll by a stream. The meditator would then summon up the babbling of the stream, the coolness of water on her fingers, the taste of the water, and the feeling of the breeze on his face. If the weather allows, I take students outside and ask them to notice things they’d never noticed before on the campus as well as something for each of the senses. Students always– *always*– notice something they’d never noticed before, whether it’s a small garden, a statue, a smell they might not have tuned in to before, or the sounds of cars on the street.

Since writing is built on sensory details to create images and worlds, cultivating an awareness of our environment and our senses is one of the primary jobs of the writer. Slowing down and paying attention—skills we often do not get enough opportunity to cultivate—are crucial activities for writers. It also puts us into a place where we can write more easily, and even want to write more. Distraction is one of the enemies of writing, or any artistic production, and cultivating mindfulness helps us resist all the distractions of our modern life.


Suggested Activities for Cultivating Mindfulness

  • Start a meditation practice. I suggest starting with short, guided meditations. Know that nobody can be a perfect meditator. Your mind will wander. It’s okay—don’t judge—just gently pull it back when you notice it wandering. Some days it’s easier than others. I find it easier to meditate with gentle music and nature sounds, because it helps to block out distractions, but some people prefer quiet.

    *Some guided meditations to get you started (you might also search on YouTube for these or other meditations)

The Albany Peace Project

The Honest Guys (if you like British accents, you’ll love these)

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health

Meditation Relax Club

  •  Go for a walk and be present in your environment. Notice everything. Any time your mind wanders to something not in your immediate environment, gently pull it back.
  •  Go somewhere and write out everything you see, hear, smell, taste, feel.
  •  When you eat, tune into the taste and texture. Go slow.
  •  Stop judging. Let yourself just write. The suspension of judgment is an element of mindfulness that everyone can benefit from.
  •  Read writers who connect meditation, mindfulness, and writing. Natalie Goldberg has several books that are great for this—start with her classic Writing Down the Bones.

    Click here for more of my recommendations for books on writing.

Photos copyright 2016 Alyssa Colton. Permission is granted for their use as long as a link to this page is provided.


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