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Keeping a Journal (1): The Pros and Cons

Updated: Feb 6

The pros:

1. Accountability before self - It gives you the self-trust that sets you free. (FREEDOM)

The world is a busy place, and no one would ask for our explanations or excuses if they were not directly affected by our motivations, decisions, and following actions. And precisely because they are affected, they are no longer able to be fair judges of them. As I have argued in previous posts, there is nothing more important for the healthy functioning of the human psyche than the deep conviction that everything is ultimately fair. People can endure immense sacrifice and pain if they believe they deserve it or unimaginable courage and rebellion when they believe they are not treated like they should be. One of the best tools for finding fairness in the results I get as feedback from the world upon my actions is the account I present not to others but to myself by examining my motivations. Diving to the core of the motivation/ the engine behind an action is the only way I know of making ourselves believe that our life is of our own making. Only by taking full ownership of our actions can we escape the downward spiral of self-victimizing and avoid the dead-end street of outsourcing guilt and shame through blaming external entities. This unsustainable soul-shit discharge may be unburdening in the short run. Still, it comes with the price of limiting our control over our destiny by throwing away the privilege of freedom because of the responsibility it comes with. On the other hand, the more we embrace responsibility, the more trust we build in ourselves, and the more we like ourselves. Furthermore, when we are aware of the motives that drive our behavior, we feel more in charge of changing the behavior if we figure that the motivation is not as impeccable as we would like it to be. The more we approve of our decisions, the less we need others to approve them, and the more autonomy in decision-making we allow ourselves.

2. Inspection and handling of thoughts - It gives you the hope that problems have solutions. (HOPE)

A conversation takes two, but the only witness of all of our feelings, thoughts, decisions, and actions is ourselves! That makes us the perfect interlocutor in the most important talk of our life - the one with ourselves. Unlike a conversation with a voice in our head (that may be a symptom of a psychological disorder), the conversation with ourselves in writing has the benefit of keeping a record of the thoughts that we have already encountered (more than once), passed by, opposed, or befriended. Depending on the honesty and integrity of our record, we can go back to the thoughts and make them operational once they have appropriated material existence on the page: we can measure and compare them with our new thoughts, or refer to them later, have fun at them or be embarrassed by their existence. In any case, this archive of our thoughts and feelings makes the building of self-knowledge possible. The alternative oblivion and obliteration of the self make us prone to repeat the same mistakes and run around in the circle of the same thought. Its solution is made plain and obvious when pinned to the paper it cannot run away from anymore. To illustrate this, think about your mental burden as a difficult mathematical operation your mind is to calculate. You may be able to sum 2 plus 2 without putting it into paper, but if you would like to multiply 359 and 952901, you have very little chance to do it quickly in your mind. But you have all chances to do it on the paper provided that you know the multiplication rule and have the hope and faith that the task is doable instead of giving it up right away just because the numbers look large. If you give it up, you sentence yourself to the fixed mindset of unchangeable ignorance and, thus, hopelessness and subsequent helplessness. No one is to blame if you do not know how to multiply large numbers, but it would be wrong of you to say that the problem has no solution because it does: 342091459; it is just that you are still ignorant about it. By the same analogy, we are more or less capable of handling our thoughts charged with information. It is entirely our responsibility to keep stock, check and balance them, for if we don't control our minds, someone else will. It only takes some hope and skill to start pouring our tangled thoughts onto the paper in an attempt to untangle them. We have the same chance for success as in every inductive reasoning exercise.

3. Emotional stability and hygiene - It gives you the purity of heart to make unregrettable definitive decisions.* (COURAGE)

"In the small matters trust the mind; in the large ones - the heart." - Sigmund Freud.

While it can be helpful to know how to multiply large numbers, it may serve us nothing when dealing with the questions of the heart that cannot be satisfied with logic and reason alone. They happen to be the real deal that dictates our life, for we will not succeed in any venture if we are not passionate about it. As the healthy human mind is an open port (the unhealthy mind being a closed/ quarantined one) of ideas that come and go, we need to be aware of what exactly that cargo is before we appropriate it in our inland or throw it away back into the open sea. Thoughts are not meant to be in charge of major decisions as they are external goods to serve our native needs. What we believe to be "our thoughts" are pre-combinations of the thoughts we have allowed to enter through our security. Pre-combinations of the pre-pre-combinations of the pre-pre-pre-combinations are not capable of making decisions - this would be self-betrayal; they only inform us about the facts on which to base our decisions. A decision taken without emotional charge is impossible. There are no such decisions. The moment when you realize that the mind presents the case like a lawyer, but the heart decides upon it like a judge, everything will start making so much more sense. The job of the lawyer is to be convincing, but the job of the judge is to see the truth beyond the apparently convincing. This clarity of vision is possible only for the pure-hearted who know what they want, why they want it, and that they deserve it 1000%. The rest who doubt their goodness of heart must obey the mind at the price of secure survival in place of exciting living.

*A note to the Bulgarian speaker: In Bulgarian, solution and decision/ resolution both translate as "решение." Still, the differentiation between the two is critical because not all solutions are considered or chosen when a decision is made. Sometimes the opposite is true; decisions are made against the wise advice of a particularly good solution. Every nation needs an uncorrupted judicial system and everyone - an uncorrupted heart to be operational for its own good; only then will the solution coincide with the resolution in complete, blissful alignment. That said, what an optimistic language Bulgarian is, or just naïve.

While keeping a journal cannot purify our heart (only our actions can), it could make us more aware of the reasons behind what is currently heavy on it (negative feelings of anger, jealousy, envy, pride, desire for revenge, cruelty, guilt, shame, loneliness, sadness, emptiness, etc.) so we can identify the actions and take them towards purification and cleansing. Needless to say, the hygiene we grant our bodies is not to be considered a luxury but an absolute necessity for our hearts and minds just the same.

The cons:

1. Focusing on past mistakes/ threats/ traumas dooms us to fearfulness and hopelessness. (The opposite of COURAGE and HOPE)

One of the effects of being honest with ourselves before at least this single mirror called a diary or journal is the realization that we are the makers of our own worlds by choosing what to focus on and what to leave behind. When we write down some things and leave out others, we prioritize and thus reinforce their significance for us. This thought, however liberating might be, comes with the price of anxiety and neurosis ["Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." - Soren Kierkegaard] because the moment we prioritize, we become subjective. By becoming subjective, we become vulnerable. Objectivity is also not possible because during introspection, what takes place is not understanding of our past but imagining our past because precise reconstruction of it is impossible: our history, memory, past perceptions, and the external influences that we have faced are within the domain of the past and will stay there forever. As such, they are ultimately unreachable and impossible to resurrect entirely. We can only make a copy like an archeologist that builds a scale model of what must have been. Remember this limitation of our self-knowledge, and stick to the scientific method of brave trial and error of hypothesis. If we forget that deductive reasoning is inapplicable in the field of self-knowledge, we are fooled into digging deeper than necessary into the unfathomable cause-and-effect chains; we trigger our imagination to fill in the gaps to the point of supplying our biography with enough made-up excuses/explanations for the present state of our affairs. We are so inclined when seduced by the escapism into the past. The trouble is that we may be so taken by the creative activity of rebuilding our past that we unnoticeably brainwash ourselves to firmly believe in the reconstruction as if it is the original. The more we collect accounts of the events in our lives and our responses to them, the more we zoom in on the view of the many possible explanations for why things have gone a certain way. But imagination that is put to use only past data rather than to create the new one of the present is employed to recognize made-up past threats rather than to build alternative and different opportunities. These (missed) opportunities will be the new past before long. The more we use our imagination to construct meaning out of data, the higher the risk of misapplying it = producing fears. Every fear is imagination that fabricated a threat rather than an opportunity. [On the other hand, people without imagination (that is responsible for the recognition of threats and the creation of opportunities) are capable of reckless bravery that puts them in unnecessary danger.]

-> A workaround

would be to formulate all of your sentences, like EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM., positively, even when writing about unpleasant things. You simply exclude the words "no" and "not" and all of their relatives: "don't," "cannot," "shouldn't," etc.

For example,

1) "I didn't have time for my family today." leaves you with nothing but a sense of guilt and deficiency (of time), and it doesn't benefit you in any way. If you write instead, "I prioritized x, y, z (scrolling on social media, watching TV, hanging with the gang, etc.) before my family today." It gives you a sense of ownership over your time (you have a 24-hour day just as much as anyone else on Earth) and a focus over x, y, and z that are to be actioned upon. If you want to re-prioritize, you are free to do so; if not, again, you win the clarity of your real wants - "I want to be with the gang more than I want to be at home." and that is fine if your consciousness can handle it. If your moral compass is telling you that it is not really fine, you can brainstorm ways to make your time at home more pleasant. The fruits of the brainstorming session are the "treasure" your digging into your daily experience aims at. Only once you have brainstormed actionable ideas for making home life better, visualized them, and implemented them as soon as possible will you relax on the matter.

That said, we cannot count on writing in our diary alone can compensate for the lack of visualization and active initiative. Journaling can help us become more imaginative (in the positive sense) and more enthusiastic about living our own life. Still, it is only half the job done - a necessary but not a sufficient condition, provided it is done carefully. As with anything - journaling is an art in its own right. More on it in the next post.

2) "I shouldn't have eaten that junk food" becomes: "I should have chosen the apple instead of the junk food." This way, you prove to your inner witness that not only do you recognize the mistake, but in the future, you are able to transcend and outsmart it because you have its positive alternative within the scope of your focus. If you fill in your diary with negative talk, it will reinforce in you the impression of doom by putting all the past threats under the looking glass as if they are meant to accompany you forever. This is going to make you feel more hopeless than hopeful.

Learning to write, think, and talk in positive sentences only is not easy at first, but you will get better at it with practice. The benefits of positive phrasing stretch far beyond fruitful journaling, but that deserves a post on its own.

2. The self-made prison walls of self-absorption (The opposite of FREEDOM)

"There were once upon a time two sausage machines, exquisitely constructed for the purpose of turning pig into the most delicious sausages. One of these retained his zest for pig and produced sausages innumerable; the other said: ‘What is pig to me? My own works are far more interesting and wonderful than any pig.’ He refused pig and set to work to study his inside. When bereft of its natural food, his inside ceased to function, and the more he studied it, the more empty and foolish it seemed to him to be. All the exquisite apparatus by which the delicious transformation had hitherto been made stood still, and he was at a loss to guess what it was capable of doing. This second sausage machine was like the man who has lost his zest, while the first was like the man who has retained it. The mind is a strange machine which can combine the materials offered to it in the most astonishing ways, but without materials from the external world it is powerless, and unlike the sausage machine, it must seize its materials for itself since events only become experiences through the interest that we take in them: if they do not interest us, we are making nothing of them."

-> A workaround

"The man, therefore, whose attention is turned within finds nothing worthy of his notice, whereas the man whose attention is turned outward can find within, in those rare moments when he examines his soul, the most varied and interesting assortment of ingredients being dissected and recombined into beautiful or instructive patterns."

"Gradually, I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, and individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged into war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, and friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventive of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to getting psycho-analyzed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from becoming a crossing-sweeper provided he was compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way."

- Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness.

“I and I are always too deeply in conversation: how could I endure it if there were not a friend? The friend of the hermit is always the third one: the third one is the float which prevents the conversation of the two from sinking into the depth.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Genuine and affectioned interest in another person brings us to the interest in the world (so we can help them or share more of that world with them and better facilitate a greater bond between us); and vice versa - the more we are curious about the world, the easier we get interested in its people.

In sum:

Keeping a journal raises our awareness and helps us declare intentions, but it cannot work on those intentions instead of us. Our actions that follow the journal entry are what decides whether the journaling exercise was successful or not; that is, if we have become more courageous, hopefully, and free, or less so. Clearer minds can purify the heart and vice versa, but only if action is taken to get the light and warmth across. The "recommended" actions are those that have somebody (or something) else outside of us as a focal point of our interest, provided we do not lose ourselves in them. Journaling may be "no activity of a progressive kind," but it is the activity that makes "progressive" activity possible by giving it focus (= awareness + intention). In the example above, the interest in our family brings about progressive action only after we have placed these people in the center of our focus, which does not happen automatically and without (self-)reflection because the world carries us away with the illusions it presents to the mind all the time. We may not be very motivated to keep a diet before we relate it to someone we love: I will choose the apple before the junk food next time to be a better example to my child or be healthier to have better quality time with the people in my life. It is hard to love oneself when no love is felt for others and vice versa - the more people interest us deeply, the more meaningful our own existence becomes. This is why we need to return to ourselves every now and then to complete the cycle before we start a new one out in the (social) world. While many things can help us return home to self (practicing a hobby, meditation, exercise, etc.), the practice of keeping a diary leaves behind us a trace of our thoughts and feeling in words - something we cannot find anywhere under the Sun - We have to create it to have it. It is a matter of respect towards our feelings and thoughts and our life in general.

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