Is It Possible to Relax This Week?

Exploring the benefits of meditative journaling.

Posted Nov 06, 2020

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
Source: Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.

Everywhere around us, we are hearing of people feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, depleted of energy from the election, the pandemic, the stress of work or potential layoffs or unemployment, caregiving responsibilities, etc. When people are burnt out, they often self-medicate and soothe with things like alcohol, drugs, and food as well as excessive forms of television watching, social media scrolling, and sleeping.  

We know what contributes to good self-care, though — namely a healthy diet, exercise, a proper amount of sleep, and some sorts of daily rituals, weekly routines, and monthly practices that sustain and nourish our well-being. These may include activities such as meditation, yoga, music, art, stretching, journaling, hiking, and communing with nature. But what might happen if you could combine a few of these effectively in ways that transformed your relationship with yourself and the outside world and that enhanced your trust in yourself and the universe? 

During my last stop on my book tour before the pandemic shut it down, I had the privilege to meet a fellow author, Sandra Johnson, at Hub City, a fabulous independent bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The store had planned their annual event called Delicious Reads to bring together 20 authors and 140 or so curious readers to savor books, dessert, and tea. It was an afternoon I had looked forward to for the 6 months since I had been invited to participate, and it was a disappointing blow, yet understandable, when it was canceled at the last minute because of the pandemic.

But because some of us had traveled a distance to be there, we made do with what we had and instead of gathering in a ballroom at the AC Marriott, we hung out at the bookstore and gave short readings and talked about our books. When Johnson spoke about her book, The Mind-Body Peace Journal: 366 Mindful Prompts for Serenity and Clarity, it resonated. Since my mid-twenties, I had made commitments to myself — some that I kept better than others — to meditate, to dive deeply into the world beneath the busy surface of our lives, to anchor deeply to hear that still small voice within, and to listen to its dreams and wisdom. When Johnson suggested we grab some dinner together before the long drives ahead of us, I was game. And it was at dinner that I got to hear even more that intrigued me about her writing. 

And again, I had the opportunity to catch up with her recently and to explore more about meditative journaling. In this week, in this moment, it seems that this practice could be a necessary tool and tonic to honor ourselves and to heal our hearts.

Meditative journaling is mindfulness-based. Through it, we express our thoughts and feelings in what Johnson told me is "a nonjudgmental manner that fosters greater self-enlightenment, clarity, and balance." 

I really wanted to know what got Johnson into meditative journaling and how she might recommend others approach it. Johnson shared with me, "The more I learned about mindfulness, the more I learned how meditative journaling, which is a way to practice mindfulness, is an effective tool to strengthen emotional and physical resilience. I found studies conducted by leading psychologists like James Pennebaker, Ph.D., and Joshua Smythe, Ph.D., to be fascinating because they proved that this type of journaling decreases depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues while strengthening the immune system, lung functioning, and overall physical health. In short, it increases your emotional and physical resilience that results in a better quality of life."  

As an educator who has also facilitated workshops related to work/life balance, creativity, and flow, I have often been confronted with students who are resistant and who say, “I don’t meditate,” or “I can’t sit still long enough to meditate,” or "I can't write." So, I was interested in what Johnson's response would be to this resistance. She explained: "I would tell them meditative journaling is a great alternative to traditional meditating because it’s interactive—you can read writing prompts and respond to them in any way that feels real. To further expand the concept that meditating goes beyond sitting for long periods with your eyes closed while focusing on your breath or single word, I include a number of meditative exercises in my book such as taking walks outdoors and other physical activities that free the mind and calm the spirit and then journaling about the experiences."

But, where does one begin, I asked Johnson. She told me that a great prompt for a beginner is the first one that appears in her book and relates to the importance of practicing gratitude which has been demonstrated to decrease stress. The prompt reads: "When hard times come, we tend to magnify their importance and minimize the things that are good in our lives.  Regaining balance involves recognizing all that we have to be grateful for, even things as small as a delicious cup of coffee or comfort from the warmth of sunshine. What are you grateful for today?" 

Johnson also offered another prompt to help move us out of the despair of stuckness and stagnation: "Where do you feel stuck or want to make more progress in your life?  Breathe mindfully for a few minutes and then note your thoughts about this issue along with potential solutions."  

The book serves as a gentle compass for us to find our way back to ourselves. Another prompt offered by Johnson relates to trauma: "Expecting to remain unchanged after trauma is unrealistic and only adds to our suffering.  Instead, honor the fact that you had enough strength to survive a difficult circumstance and use that strength to start on the path toward healing. What can you do to help yourself move forward on the journey toward healing from trauma?"

Clearly, meditative journaling can be a powerful tool. Best of all, this feels doable and manageable. It's something we can do when we first wake up, before we go bed, to counter an afternoon slump, in the backseat of the car, in a dorm room, or in quarantine. This is accessible and can be done anywhere and is inexpensive while significantly improving the quality of our lives. Who wouldn't want that? Anything that helps to support us feeling more grounded, balanced, still, and connected — especially in this particular historical moment — is a welcome gift.