When I was training as a therapist I kept a ‘practice’ journal. I thought this would be a simple record of my developing communication skills.
I was wrong. I soon discovered something was going on inside me. Someone was talking and someone was listening at the same time, two people holding a dialogue in my head. When I stopped, there was also something else.
In the gaps between writing, talking and listening changed to reflecting. Now the paragraphs were like mirrors reflecting words at me, endlessly refracting their primary lexical meanings, made worse because English is not my mother tongue.
My mind was riddled with doubt and uncertainty. What are the words telling me? I felt vulnerable, realising that journal writing was more than record keeping. It was a therapeutic experience challenging my analytical and reflective abilities and unleashing my creativity.
This creativity brought new intensity, but also made me aware of the inaccuracies and ambiguities in the everyday use of words – a ‘semantic suspense’, full of uncertainty and vulnerability. This became easier over time and often internal dialogue and reflection seemed to change to insight and understanding about life. Especially that it cannot be sewn up easily.
It was as if through writing an inner ferment began, waking my psyche from its sleep or, to use Heidegger’s expression, from the ‘forgetfulness of existence’. Journaling became and still is a focused, meditative activity taking me beyond the written word to a deeper sense of self and a more intuitive experience of reality.
Some people experience music, art and dance as more directly spontaneous and intuitive, echoing the Zen wisdom that using words to describe experience is missing the mark. Of course, there is always the danger of getting bogged down in wordy descriptions and thereby missing the experience itself.
Chuang Tzu sees words in a different way: ‘Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares; but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.’*
I think journal writing can be useful as a means to examine how we let words unwittingly reinforce our learned attitudes and beliefs and how this shapes our behaviour and interaction with others and the way we treat ourselves.
In my experience, words help enrich our lives when we capture our ‘talking’, ‘listening’ and ‘reflecting’ on paper where, as Kate Thompson puts it: ‘Writing is speaking and reading is listening in the conversation with the self.’**
*Chuang Tzu. (1971) Translated by James Legge, arranged by Clae Waltham. New York: Ace Books; chap. 26.
**Thompson, K. (2006) Coming out as Writing Therapists; Lapidus, Vol. 2, 20.
See also my blog: Can reading and writing make it better? (December 21, 2017