Inner health and balance depend to some degree on a sense of personal continuity through time. Using the pages of your journal, you can strengthen the sense of continuity in your life by doing some “time travel.” You can go back to remember and glean new insights from the past, and you can project forward, dreaming and planning for the future. Connecting the past and future will help you see the continuous flow of your life, helping you to recognize patterns that need to be changed and producing new understanding that can make your life richer, fuller, more purposeful and more meaningful.
Journaling: The Past
“Who controls the past, controls the future.”
— George Orwell
Everything that has happened in your life is with you at the present moment. That is a tremendous amount of experience, and isn’t it said that experience is a good (perhaps the best) teacher? Then it makes sense to recall and use the past to enrich the present and future.
You may want to recapture moments from the near or distant past simply for the sake of savoring them. Emotionally charged memories often spark further creative writing.
One interesting exercise is to try to expand your first childhood memory. Imaginatively place yourself back into that period of time. Try to feel, see, taste, smell, and hear things as they were, and record the incident as concretely and specifically as possible. Don’t worry if you feel that you are inventing details. The goal is to get a good idea of who you were, where you were, and what was happening, in a vivid sense, not that your exercise be faultlessly accurate.
After you describe that first memory, reflect upon it in your diary. Carl Jung contends that the first memory will contain a pattern that can be seen again and again throughout the lifetime. See if that holds true for you. Photographs are an excellent way to spark recollection if you would like to develop your powers of memory. Pay special attention to the details of a photo, and try to imagine yourself there. In your diary, set the scene in motion, writing down the event as it unfolds.
Writing about the past can provide catharsis for delayed or deferred emotional responses. Sometimes purging of past emotions begins the process of self-acceptance in the present. Tristine Rainer, author of The New Diary, gives the account of one diarist who experienced a pattern of trust, broken trust and withdrawal in her relationship with the men she dated. At the onset of a new relationship with a man who reminded her strongly of her father, she decided to observe her pattern carefully in her diary. She recorded the development of the new relationship in great detail, and at the same time, recorded any spontaneous memories she had about her father.
When she found herself dreading her boyfriend’s departure on a business trip, she found that at the same time she was recalling memories of the exact moment when her father left home and filed for divorce. By associating the past with the present, she was able to recognize why she felt as she did about her boyfriend’s departure. She was also able to learn from the memory what she had been too young to understand at the time the event happened — that her father’s departure was not a broken trust with her; she had mistakenly interpreted it as such. With this realization she was also able to stop the pattern in her present life.
Whenever you have an inappropriate or extreme response to a current situation, exploring the past may give you clues as to why you feel as you do. In your journal you may ask yourself reflective questions such as, “What in my past might be responsible for my feelings now? Was there a time in my past that I felt like this?” Over an extended period of time, you may come to recognize characteristic, intense responses that accompany recurrent situations and you will then be in a position to take charge of them.
In Ira Progoff’s writings on journaling, he suggests that diarists return to an important intersection in their lives, when they consciously or inadvertently made decisions that determined their future life course in order to explore through imagination the choices or paths that were not chosen. The writer can be reacquainted with interest or talents that are still waiting fulfillment. Abilities, projects or relationships that could not be pursued for one reason or another in years past may now be feasible. The purpose in exploring paths not take is neither to compare them with the present, nor to feel “if only I had ï¿½” regret. The purpose is to discover future options.
The present moment is the point of power. Problems become stressful when we feel powerless. Writing a problem down serves two functions: it clarifies real issues, (giving you focus) and evokes possible solutions in an arena where you feel safe to explore any option.
The present is also the place to begin altering perceptions. If you find that you tend to focus on negatives, you can use your journal to train yourself to find positives. Begin with a list of joyful moments or a list of things that make you happy. Compile a retrospective list of the happiest moments of your life. At the end of the day, list the day’s small pleasures.
Happiness is often a matter of where you place your attention and these lists can be a tool for teaching yourself how to give attention to the positive aspects of your life. Anais Nin writes in Diary VI: “Every moment you can choose what you wish to see, observe, or record. It is your choice. So you create the total aspect according to your vision. We have a right to select our vision of the world.”
We all hit times in our lives when there is so much going on that we fear we’re going to drop all the balls we’re juggling. The journal can be a place to examine and re-establish priorities. When we bring the most important aspects of our life back into focus, we can turn our attention first to these, then balance the rest.
Sometimes in the process of working for others, we lose sight of ourselves–who we are, what we like, what we need. Journaling can help you rediscover aspects of yourself that have been lost or neglected. To find out what brings you true happiness is to discover who you really are.
Journaling: The Future
“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.”
— W. J. Bryant
In your diary you can lay all your assumptions, your desires and your hopes before you and in doing so construct a vision of the future. You can work on correcting negative assumptions that may cause problems and use your creative power to influence the future constructively.
The simplest and most direct way to focus the future is through making lists. Just as you might record stepping-stones of the past, you can create stepping-stones to the future, as you like it to be. Of course the “stones” will vary in reality, but they are still a path, and one you have chosen.
Another idea is to list your expectations. Everyone has assumptions about the future and while some may be unconscious, they will have great influence on our lives. Listing your assumptions or expectations makes them conscious and puts them where you exercise some control.
For example, list all the things you assume will never change about yourself. Then ask yourself: “Are these assumptions realistic, or do they reflect negative thinking?” Negative assumptions should be altered before they become self-fulfilling prophecies. The diary is a good place to make these alterations. Write down positive affirmations that you can carry with you to combat negative thinking.
Of course there is the obvious list of things you want to accomplish. Remember the difference between daydreaming and goal setting is giving the dreams workable parameters, steps to achieve them, and a time frame to work in. The journal is a good place to turn dreams into goals.
Turn your journal into a time-travel machine. You may find it to become the best and most lasting gift you’ll ever give to yourself.
“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”
— Alan Watts