Journaling is a powerful tool for self-development and spiritual growth. Aside from meditation, it’s how I connect with myself, my ambitions, dreams… my shadow. While writing down thoughts and hoping for the best is worthwhile, learning how to journal effectively makes a huge difference.
There are many different journal methods, and when starting out, it can be unclear where to begin, or what technique to use. If you’re looking to step-up your journaling game, this article is for you. I’ll share a number of journal techniques and tips that have become cornerstones of my mental health and spiritual growth.
What Are The Benefits Of Journaling?
There are too many benefits to mention succinctly, but above all else, journaling boosts self-awareness. It’s a way to learn about yourself and develop a relationship with your inner world. Transferring thoughts, fantasies, worries or dreams to the page is an act of alchemy, transforming the nature of mind by manifesting it in the material.
I see journaling as a buffer between myself and the world. If I’m unsure or uncertain, I write for clarity. If I’m caught up in difficult emotions, I write for coolness and calm. Your journal is your confidant, best friend, coach, lover, spiritual guru, and a pathway to the deepest parts of yourself.
When I feel disconnected, I journal. When I feel lost, I journal. When I feel overwhelmed, I journal. It’s a grounding force, a reminder I have agency, that I’m empowered to support myself, to find solutions, take action, grow.
When Is The Best Time To Journal?
I journal every day. When I’m really in flow, I’ll turn to three or four different notebooks, multiple times each day. I’m a writer with a vivid inner world and imagination, so this catharsis is beneficial for me. There are days I skip the practice, which is okay. Losing touch and returning is a nice reminder of the benefits.
Mostly, I journal first thing in the morning. I spend so much time in front of a screen for work, it’s nice to wake up, meditate, brew coffee, and sit with pen and paper. I don’t rush my thoughts, I take my time.
I design spells of intense journaling and use rituals to add a sacred element to the practice. I’ll return to this later.
The Different Methods of Journaling
In this article, I’ve attempted to categorise what is an intuitive process. First, there’s the inner vs. the outer, or the being vs. doing. Journaling inner-processes is an act of self-discovery. It’s contemplative, focusing on the emotional or spiritual landscape. Journaling the outer explores elements of goal setting, solving problems, navigating practicalities.
Within the inner and outer, there’s journaling that is retrospective, and journaling that is forward-thinking. One delves into the past as a form of writing therapy or reflection on areas of life and overall direction or fulfilment. The other looks to the future by visioning, planning, creating structure, setting intentions.
Using A Digital Journal vs. Writing By Hand
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of handwriting when compared to typing on a keyboard, with one study showing greater therapeutic benefits when using pen and paper to write about traumatic experiences. It’s been suggested that writing by hand is more beneficial for cognitive development and learning — making handwriting preferable when journaling for self-development.
Occasionally I use a digital document. These are the times where my thoughts are so rapid that I want to note them quickly, and as a fast typer, this is the best way to keep up to speed. Mostly, though, I allow the process of slowing down to strengthen the connection with my thoughts and inner processes.
Organisation is easier digitally. My solution is to use different journals for specific purposes. I recommend investing in a nice journal for your main reflections on spiritual growth or personal development, and buy a nice pen, so the combination creates a feeling of specialness, rather than hurried notes on a scrap of paper.
I have separate journals for my general life planning and one for my schedule. I have a spare A6 size journal for daily to-do prompts. Plus journals for general creative ideas that spring to mind, and an A4 journal for the big-picture MindThatEgo business and content strategies.
If there’s a particular project or goal you’re pursuing, you may want to invest in a separate journal. For example, I have a journal dedicated exclusively to my meditation practice and study of Vedic philosophy. It has fancy patterns on the front and screams esoteric and I’m afraid to write in it because I fear I’ll make it less pretty.
Anyway, the main goal is keeping everything organised in a way that works for you. Oh, and if you buy a nice journal, don’t be afraid to write in it.
Creating A Journaling Ritual
An extra step for journaling for spiritual growth is setting the environment through ritual. My daily journaling is a general overview — I usually write for 20 or 30 minutes. Occasionally during this time, I’ll write myself prompts and reminders for deeper reflection at a future point.
A journal ritual is an extra-special time. I’ll set aside an entire evening or at least a few hours. I’ll clear my mind beforehand with meditation. I’ll set aside time in my calendar with the intention to journal. I’ll light incense, turn off all electrical devices, make myself a tea or coffee, and focus fully on the page.
I apply these practices during solo retreats to great effect. During this focused time, I feel my consciousness expand, transcend, and fill the room, as the words on the page take on a life of their own. Often I feel as if I’m in a trance, like my unconscious is communicating with me, and I’m just listening to what wisdom it tells.
If you struggle to set time, use nature as a guide. The Full Moon and New Moon are great prompts to journal deeper. As are landmarks and special occasions. For a few years now I’ve journaled extensively around the turn of the year and around my birthday, which has become an integral aspect of my practice.
Other than that, I use my intuition and emotions as a guide. If I go through a significant life event, if I’m feeling at a loss and I’m unsure why, if I’m feeling low in mood or sense low-level anxiety, I’ll set aside time to meditate and journal, allowing inner-wisdom to channel through to the page, to soothe me or slap me in the face.
An Overview Of Journal Techniques
When I was younger I’d get a diary for Christmas, and I’d be unsure what to write. I’d end up writing a generic overview of each day. “Woke up. Played some Football Manager. Went to Argos. Had a nice tea. Watched some stuff. Bedtime.”
I thought documenting daily activities as factual events, organised by the calendar, was the extent of journaling techniques. But when exploring self-development and confronting depression and anxiety, I started to journal my thoughts and emotions in a deliberate and skilful way.
I’ve developed a number of techniques that all fall under the umbrella of journaling, but each has its own qualities. I recommend you explore what works for you. It’s your journal. Be as creative or as practical as you like. Use these techniques for guidance.
Clearing The Mind: Stream of Consciousness Journaling
This type of journaling was popularised by Julia Cameron’s morning pages in The Artist’s Way. The technique is to write freely, without judgement, about absolutely anything that comes to mind. It’s a purging process that pacifies excess, frantic thoughts.
Stream of consciousness journaling transfers thoughts to the page and clears space in the mind. Sometimes the process leaves me less overwhelmed and settles my thoughts. Occasionally the stream of consciousness itself reveals something deeper, reflecting insights I was unaware were present issues.
Within this type of journaling, I give space to different aspects of mind. I might allow my planning-brain to stream about the endless list of “to-do’s” that have the potential to distract me. I might let my emotions dictate, and unleash a rant of epic proportions.
A form of stream of consciousness journaling is what I call the untangling technique. If I’m feeling fuzzy-headed, I write down what needs to be expressed freely and openly, just to get my thoughts on the page. Then I’ll sift through the mess that exists on the page, prune the wildness of mental overgrowth, and create clarity.
The aim is to allow stream of consciousness journaling to unfold in whatever way is necessary. You’ll often be amazed or amused by the content you produce.
Looking Back: Analysing And Problem Solving
Journaling develops the analytical and the intuitive. I have different exercises for both. Generally, I apply my analytical mind to practical matters. I assess causes of stress, and break down the issue into actionable steps. I reflect on decision-making, behaviour, mindset, obligations. It’s a masculine, focused approach.
I use analysis and problem solving for my mental health, too. Typically I run through Cognitive Behavior Therapy practices — I’ll note my thoughts or beliefs, identify distortions, and reframe them. This alone helps me feel better and in control of my mental processes.
Looking Back: Contemplation And Reflection
When I contemplate and reflect, I switch off the analytical mind. The process is free from any desire to judge, analyse, or find solutions. I write events as they were experienced, including an overview of my emotions, thoughts, insights, or anything else that stands out.
This is the space for gratitude. It’s incredible how writing is often a prelude to an outpouring of emotions. I might reflect on a specific friendship, reminisce about shared moments, and feel an outpouring of joy or appreciation. This practice allows me to better recollect life’s beautiful moments, imprinting them firmly in my memory.
I reflect on tough times, too. Usually, I distil lessons or learning. It’s an emotionally driven approach compared to the analytical. What I’m called to practice might be surrender, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion. It’s a way I connect with my heart and process emotions.
Contemplation is deep reflection. I reflect deeply on my life, but I journal existential contemplations, too, such as death, love, purpose, meaning. Contemplating the profound elements of existence is a spiritual practice. It makes you realise what truly matters.
Looking Ahead: Visioning And Setting Intentions
I dedicate plenty of time to journal about my dreams (in the “desires to manifest” definition) and visions. It’s crucial to have a North Star, to be familiar with your inner-compass and values. This process is freeing: I allow my imagination to run wild. I feel how I’d like to feel and connect to the emotional energy behind my goals.
In this energy, I don’t worry about actionable steps or practicalities. That comes later. As Henry David Thoreau said: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
Intentions and visions are different from goals. They aren’t as specific but they are the pulsating aliveness, the seed of what you wish to sprout. Forget misconceptions about always being in the now and never considering the future — visioning and setting intentions is a big part of spiritual work.
Looking Ahead: Planning And Goal Setting
I set intentions for areas of growth. I set goals for tangible achievements. I try not to confuse the two. I remind myself an intention focuses on the process, a goal focuses on the outcome or result. Goal setting and planning utilises the analytical mind, it’s action-based and practical.
I break down goal setting and planning to a day overview, a week overview, a month overview, or bigger yearly goals. I’ll connect these steps to a calendar, so I can see how these tasks fit with the unfolding of time.
Planning and scheduling harness my spontaneous creative ideas. Over the years I’ve realised discipline is freedom. Without a container for my creativity, I quickly become overwhelmed. Adding structure around the mass of free-flowing and ever-changing abstract concepts helps me stay motivated and focused.
Journaling For Spiritual Growth
If you use journaling for spiritual growth, use the page to confront your ego’s bullshit. It’s tough going, but holding yourself accountable in this way is a catalyst for rapid expansion. You’ll learn about your ego, know where you keep yourself stuck, and see the range of excuses you tell yourself when you’re attempting self-deceit.
I tend to reflect if I find myself indulging in emotions such as bitterness, anger, frustration. I reflect when I noticed I’ve been triggered or reactive. I enquire: why did I react this way? What’s the truth of how I feel? Am I blaming other situations or people? Is there something I can take accountability for?
The ability to be radically honest with yourself is essential for continual progress on the path, due to the ego’s trickery. I make sure I cultivate self-compassion in these moments, so I don’t turn against myself or become overly harsh. But there are times where I give myself a kick up the backside on my journal pages.
Documenting And Interpreting Dreams And Synchronicities
As I mention in The Great Wave, the meaning of symbols — in dreams or synchronicities — aren’t immediately obvious. I was reassured to read Carl Jung took four decades to decipher the magnitude revelations from his unconscious!
Fortunately, thanks to Jung’s piercing insight, the landscape of the unconscious is better understood. Working with the unconscious is a process I love, because it has an enchanted quality, and reveals the mysterious and interconnected elements of reality in a way that is both personal and universal.
Documenting is taking note as if the psyche were a scientific experiment. It’s not an attempt to deconstruct or interpret. It’s the part of the process where meaning isn’t yet fully understood. Learning what the unconscious communicates takes time, but by piecing together the mystery, the bigger picture starts to make sense.
Interpretation is an intuitive process. I do this when I feel called to do so. I’ll explain the event (a dream, synchronicity, lucid thought, etc) and then reflect on it without overly engaging my intellect, instead writing from the heart and soul. My interpretations are question marks until I have enough insight to realise the ultimate message.
You can have loads of fun with this. The other day, when interpreting a dream, I had a wonderful realisation. A memory of an A-Level Media Studies exam floated into my consciousness. I had to analyse an advertisement, decipher its meaning. I enjoyed this exam more than most, and it was interesting to note how this symbolised the similarity with the process of interpretation.
Journaling For Self-Discovery
I use a similar technique to deliberately connect with myself. I ask a lot of questions on the page, and respond intuitively. After some time, I’m in communication with my soul. Asking the right questions is an art, and much is revealed by asking the tough questions, the ones you may feel reluctant to answer.
Such is the magic of the psyche, often the questions themselves come from the seed of the answer that is already known on a deeper level.
Another form of self-discovery is communicating with different aspects of my personality. I talk about archetypes in both Mindsets for Mindfulness and The Superpower of Self-Compassion. A journal technique for self-discovery is to ask different archetypes for their perspective, before writing a reply in freehand.
This is mind-blowing. I might ask my voice of wisdom to respond, or deliberately approach an archetype, such as the Warrior of Acceptance. What then flows onto the page is usually beyond what my conscious mind would’ve conjured in that moment. My intuition has developed immensely by these techniques.
Joining The Dots And Shifting Perspective
Journaling is a gift that keeps giving. Even years after turning to the page you can find hidden nuggets of wisdom, premonitions, the onset of a change of life direction, the murmuring of the heart’s desire as it started to make itself known in the conscious mind.
Using past journal entries for further learning is a skill. There are three main exercises I use for old entries. The first is joining the dots. With the benefit of hindsight, past entries are a window into the past. I see themes unfold or challenges materialise and dissolve. I see how seemingly unrelated events fit together, how the dots join.
The second is providing context. Journaling your emotional responses or thought processes is so valuable because, in hindsight, you don’t just see the event, you see your perception of it. It’s easy to forget all the worry when things go well. But the journal is a record of truth which illuminates patterns of thinking or behaviour.
In the future, when the mind attempts to deceive you or you’re operating from fear, you can look back on moments, those very moments where you felt the same as you do now, and know it turned out okay, that you coped. This helps put a lot of worries into context and highlights the impermanent, ever-changing nature of problems.
Finally, the greatest gift of reflecting on old entries evidence of your growth. Just like how, when looking in the mirror each day it’s difficult to notice weight change, personal growth is hard to quantify. Often you don’t realise the changes you go through, or ways you transform.
But when traveling back in time, and viewing life through the eyes of past you, then the path you’ve travelled and lessons you’ve learned feel more solid, then you see the change, the transformation.
Did you find these journal techniques useful? Do you have any to add? Let me know in the comments.