Mindfulness is about knowing where we are (being in the moment) and also about maintaining an awareness of where we have been (reflection) and where we are going (having goals). A meditation journal can help us with all of those areas of awareness, helping us to have a more unified awareness of ourselves.
We may make efforts to be in the moment while we’re meditating – to be aware of our experience as it unfolds in the eternal moment and allowing our own inner beauty to manifest. Or perhaps we become a habitually vague in our practice, and spend a lot of our time drifting in thought, making insufficient effort to bring ourselves back to our current experience.
Keeping a meditation journal helps us have a more definite sense of what is actually going on. When we sit down after meditation and take a few minutes to journal what we’ve been experiencing, it makes it pretty obvious how effective we’ve really been. If we examine our experience, honestly and with a desire to learn, then we become much more aware of what our meditation practice actually is. We can become more aware of our weaknesses and our strengths, and have a much more penetrating understanding of what we need to be working on.
A journal also allows us to look back at our experience as it has changed over a period of time. We can review several days, weeks, or months of our practice and learn about the patterns that our consciousness follows. Perhaps we’ll discover that we are lazier than we thought, or perhaps that we try too hard, or perhaps even that we fluctuate in our efforts. We may discover that there are particular distractions that are much more common that we had recalled. We commonly also discover – especially when we’re feeling a little down – that our meditation practice has been more effective and enjoyable than we had remembered.
And our journaling can help us to set goals. It’s not that we try to pin down our experience before it happens – that’s rarely if ever going to work and it’s more likely to result in frustration than in any progress in our meditation practice. Instead what we’re trying to do in setting goals is to develop a stronger sense of where we want to go in our meditation practice. Through looking back at our past experience we can see what we need to work on. Perhaps it’s forgiveness or patience that we need to develop. Perhaps it’s more persistence. Or more calmness. Whatever changes we want to make, having clear goals will help us attain them. Our goals become the magnetic north pole that allows us to navigate through our experience in order to get where we want to go.
I know that some people use checklist style journals, with lists of distractions and positive factors that can be checked off. The advantage of this is that you can do your journaling very quickly, and that you have ready made categories to help you analyses your experience. But I’m not fond of this kind of journaling. To me it seems to pigeonhole our experience and leads to a superficial understanding of what’s going on in our practice.
I prefer a more unstructured form of journal, where you can write freely about your experience. In this style of journal a blank or lined notebook will do. There are a few brief formalities that precede any entry – the date, the name of the meditation practice, and how long you meditated for. Then you can write more generally about how the practice went – what distractions you had, what you did about them; what positive factors (like calmness, patience, concentration, etc) that were present and what you did to strengthen them. You can write about factors in your life that had an effect on your practice – things like lack of sleep, or a particularly busy day, or that you felt refreshed after a day’s hiking with a friend.
When you start keeping a meditation journal, your entries can be quite brief. It’s better to start with the intention of writing brief entries and then finding that you want to write more expansively than it is to set out to write detailed journal entries and then feel you’ve failed because you only have time to jot down a few notes. Something like the following can be very helpful:
Mindfulness of Breathing. 25 minutes. Had a hard time staying focused. Nodded off to sleep a few times — hadn’t had enough sleep. Felt a bit despondent.
Something like that (and this is a fictional entry) only takes moments to write, but can be very useful. In the moment of writing there may be the recollection that feeling despondent reveals the presence of some kind of unhelpful assumption about how your meditation should go. And that can help you to remember, in future meditations, to go more easy on yourself and to accept lapses.
Something like this can be helpful too:
Metta Bhavana. 40 minutes. Started off feeling very irritable. Stayed with the practice and ended up feeling calm and relaxed. Had only planned to sit for 30 minutes but sat on for a while.
This helps to reinforce in the mind that progress is possible. And when you encounter one of those doubt-ridden days when you think nothing ever goes right in your life, you have concrete evidence to the contrary.
Remember that your journal is a tool, not a literary document. You’re writing it in order to help you gain more perspective on your practice, not so that you’ll impress future generations with your talent as a writer. If you get drawn into thinking that you need to write meticulous and artful prose, you’ll probably find that you don’t get very far.
All of my online students keep an online journal where they write down what’s going on in their practice. These are more extended accounts that might vary from a paragraph or two to several hundred words. How feasible this is depends a lot on how fluent and confident you are as a writer, and on how much time you have available. For brief periods, such as being on retreat or attending a class, it’s worth making the extra effort to journal in this way. For most people, this isn’t going to be feasible in the long run.
I read my students’ journal entries and can give them very specific feedback and encouragement. Most of them find this to be very useful, but unfortunately not everyone can get a teacher to read over their journals and make comments. You can gain some of the same benefits, however, just by rereading your own comments over a period of time and reflecting on them. It’s an excellent practice once a week to read over all of your journal entries for that week and to see what trends you notice. This helps you appreciate change and to stand back from your day-to-day experience so that you can learn from having an overview.
Double entry journaling
A further refinement of this approach is “double entry” journaling. In this method you leave every second page blank in your journal – you only write on the right hand page. Then when you do your weekly review of your journal you can make notes on the left hand page. Those notes might include further reflections on some aspect of your experience, or may pick out particularly significant things that you have learned. Or they might simply summarize what you’ve written on the opposite page so that you can look back over an even longer period – perhaps three or six months – and can quickly review your major trends and learning experiences over that time without having to read each journal entry in full. Those notes also “flag” particularly significant experiences and observations so that you can easily find and reread them in detail later.
One last piece of advice. When you decide to keep a meditation journal, you’ll almost inevitably find that your meditation becomes a rehearsal for the journal entry that follows! You’ll find yourself thinking about what you’re going to write, rather than just getting on with the practice. I see this as a form of the hindrance of doubt, because we’re trying to find reassurance and security in getting our journal entry “right.” So simply smile whenever you recognize that your doubt is manifesting in this way, let go of the thoughts, and then return to the practice without self-recrimination.
In short, journaling helps to connect past, present, and future, so that our life seems more of an integrated whole rather than an assortment of disparate experiences. This helps us to develop more integration, or integrity – a sense of continuity of experience over time.