As my birthday falls in June (this year is an especially notable one), I like to reflect at this time of year, considering the last year in my life as well as the 6 months since the official New Year. I relish celebrating my accomplishments and plotting my next steps to progress with my priorities.
We are enjoying the longest days of sunlight of the year here in Cologne, the harvest of the season, and for many, a time of rest, recovery, and recreation before the start of another school year. Maybe we have more space and time to reflect while taking a break from our usual responsibilities. Or perhaps we can take a moment to reflect even in hectic times, to appreciate our progress and plot our course.
Cologne and many places around the world are “opening up” again this summer following pandemic shut-down, and that’s something to reflect upon as well in order to make intentional choices going forward in our personal, professional, and creative lives. Writing and journal-keeping is one of my most trusty forms of reflection, processing, and awareness, and I am grateful the practice allows me to access my own wisdom over time.
In my blog on Artful Archiving, I shared: “I may not be a Beethoven-caliber genius, but I too work with a similar notebook system to anchor me in the midst of whatever chaos may come in life. No matter how much I digitize, I find for me much creative work must exist, at least at some stages of its development, in analog. So I have a daily diary, a bigger bullet journal of weekly, monthly, and longer-term planning, notes, and brainstorming, and yet another notebook of various ongoing professional projects and notes. At some point, the most important projects then are archived as Evernote notes, with photos, music, articles, and other relevant links attached.”
In addition to these journals, I also now keep daily morning pages, which I will discuss further below, but I have not always followed this system.
My personal writing practice
My own journaling rituals reflect a lot of experimentation and evolution over time. I used to only write during difficult or dramatic times (aside from my academic work), whether it be journaling, creative writing, or poetry. I usually didn’t manage to write as often in happy or stable times.
In general I waited for the muse to strike and didn’t yet write daily or even weekly, which resulted in ended not writing often, resulting in epic hours-long catch-up sessions, some of which would end abruptly. During these early years, I struggled with inconsistency, though I aspired to be a regular writer.
My first attempts at becoming a diarist started in 1991, with my awesome early-90’s strawberry-print journal.
Funny story about that first diary: when I moved out from one apartment in Portland, apparently it had fallen into a nook by the built-in bookshelves, and was missing until it was returned to me by mail. I found out that a young girl had called my parents’ house (that’s why to always list “if found” contact info!) to track my address down and mail it back, including a letter and photos of herself, as her father, the maintenance man had found it, and she had read it! I was a mix of deeply grateful to get it back, embarrassed at what I had admitted in writing, and touched that she found things in common with my childhood self shared in it’s pages, such as a love for dance.
I am pleased that I have done quite a good job of keeping Travel Journals to record international and domestic (AT hiking, cross-country road-tripping…) tales of adventure. Outside of trips and vacations, I kept a journal, with gradually-increasing consistency through my school years, early professional life, and graduate school. Now I can finally say that I am a daily diarist, with anywhere from a few quickly-jotted lines to pages to show for each day.
In case I am so lucky to enjoy nostalgia in my old age, and if anyone else cares to know, I would like to record my intimate story of what transpired. My personal writings also inspire me to create other works, projects, personal, professional, and creative breakthroughs, and in order to leave a legacy.
Current Journal Ritual
I use my journals and notebooks for everything, from the mundane but important List-Making bullets necessary to keep track of the minutiae of life and for critical reference and tracking, Brain-Dumping to process an overload of experiences and ideas, Brainstorming to strategize and understand the big picture, Note-Taking to learn and prioritize. Through practice, I have experienced how Journaling helps provide clarity about what is (what happened, what’s missing, what’s next and other tools) and vision of what I want to create, experience, and share through my life.
I have used Reflective Practice as both a student and educator, with my own students, including simple tools such as daily wins or “Glows & Grows,” up to very sophisticated exercises and prompts. In daily life I now journal to record Gratitude, Abundance, Inquiry, Creativity, and for therapeutic applications, in my Relationships to self and others.
Reflection and journaling is always the first step for me when I am designing my Roadmap/Project Plans for the short-, medium-, and long-term. Keeping a journal and well-archived notes also allows for accountability through follow-up and checking in on milestones and related habit-building.
Types of Journal Practices
There are an infinite number of possible motivations and personal benefits to journaling and reflection. In fact, in the book Living a Beautiful Life, Alexandra Stoddard writes: “People who keep a daily journal do it for diverse and private reasons. Just as it is possible to gain more control over your life by developing meaningful rituals, so too, keeping a regular diary helps you know more clearly what your thoughts and feelings are, because you’ve written them down–have put them into words. You learn, by recording your thoughts and pleasures. A diary helps build up the muscles of your personality. For the modest amount of time and discipline it takes to keep a diary, the rewards are tremendous. In truth, those of us who keep diaries cannot stop. Once I’m in the flow I must keep up; like breathing out and breathing in, writing in my diary is a daily ritual. It helps me keep track of myself and my life, and thereby live more deeply and fully.” (p.33)
Clearing away superficial needs and tasks from our minds, such as making lists so that we don’t have to focus on keeping track mentally, reduces stress and frees the brain for higher-level decision making and creativity. Even simple, “entry-level” journaling practices can have a profound impact can include quick gratitude lists, task to-dos, shopping lists, daily or weekly, priorities, ideas that come in dreams or waking thoughts, and accountability trackers for habits we’re working on. Write it all down!
Expanding to the next level, so to speak, we can use journaling to flesh out our visions as they come to us, set long-term goals and conditions of satisfaction, process challenging situations, make distinctions and work with context, analyze, critique, navigate breakdowns, come up with creative solutions, and fuel our personal expression. Journaling is indispensable to therapy, be it physical or psychological, coaching, and educational contexts. Anywhere you want to grow, reflective practice is there to assist.
Kathleen Adams’ article, “A Brief History of Journal Therapy,” which first appeared in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mind Body Medicine in 1999, indeed provides a concise summary of proven uses for journaling in therapy as well as in other educational contexts. Although I didn’t need more convincing of the powers of reflection for mental and psychological well-being, Adams reports physical affects that I found a bit surprising:
“Probably one of the most common reports from people who write journals is that the act of putting thought and feelings on paper helps give useful emotional and mental clarity. However, there is scientific evidence that the relief that comes from writing things down is more than just psychological. Dr. James Pennebaker, a researcher in Texas, has conducted studies that show that when people write about emotionally difficult events or feelings for just 20 minutes at a time over three or four days, their immune system functioning increases. Dr. Pennebaker’s studies indicate that the release offered by writing has a direct impact on the body’s capacity to withstand stress and fight off infection and disease.” (p.1)
Educational Reflective Practices
As an educator and coach, I have used different types of journaling and reflective practices with hundreds of students and clients over the years. This is in the tradition of responsive journaling practices which Kathleen Adams explains were becoming more widespread around the time of my birth:
“In the 1980s many public school systems began formally using journals in English classes and across the curricula as well. These journals, often called “dialogue” or “response” journals, offered a way for students to develop independent thinking skills and gave teachers a method for responding directly to students with individual feedback. Although the intention for classroom journals was educational rather than therapeutic, teachers noticed that a simple assignment to reflect on an academic question or problem often revealed important information about the student’s emotional life. Students often reported feeling a relief of pressure and tension when they could write down troubling events or confusing thoughts or feelings.” (p.1)
How wonderful to benefit from these educational innovations in academic life, as well as professional and personal applications. As an educator, I foster a student-centered, emancipatory approach to learning, so of course reflection and self-awareness are constant companions.
Dance & Reflection
Sometimes dance is approached from a purely technical or “practical” perspective, but I find it far more impactful on the life of the whole person when theoretical and reflective perspectives are included. In the Journal of Dance Education article “The Dancer as Reflective Practitioner: Is it possible?” Sherrie Barr agrees. Barr explains the pedagogical controversy: “The dichotomy between theory and practice within dance education is a reflection and expression of the same tension that has characterized the question of liberal education in the 20th century. Should liberal education encourage the development of a reflective and critical sensibility, or should it be subordinated to vocational and pre-professional training?” (p.60)
Barr goes on to argue for students to experience the fullness of what the subject of dance can offer: “Dance is as much a participatory and historical art as it is a living art form which dialectically engages, as it always has, the larger culture of which it is a part. As such the teaching of dance must provide challenges and opportunities, engaging students in the full discipline by connecting diverse theoretical ideas to their movement investigations. As students become aware of themselves as reflective practitioners within dance, they can become aware of dance as simultaneously a performance art, a cultural practice, and a venue for scholarly investigation.” (p.64)
This is incredibly empowering! To provide one example of regular engagement in reflective journaling in a dance technique context, I’d like to share the Evaluative Log I use for university-level classes, inspired by one shared by my colleague at Leeward Community College, Alex Durrant. Simplified versions of this type of log can be used with younger students as well. The Evaluative Log consists of four questions:
- What did we do in session today? What vocabulary was used and what does it mean? What exercises did we cover? Did we create a choreographic sequence today? Can you remember it? If so, can you describe it with the correct vocabulary?
- What were you confident with and what did you do well today? Give yourself full credit for your achievements, tell me about your personal triumphs and what that means to your progress! Does it mean you feel ready to challenge yourself further?
- What were you less confident about today or would like to work on more? How can you improve your skills in this area? What exercises do you need to practice? What muscles need to get stronger? How will you keep trying to achieve your personal goals?
- What are your targets for next session? What will you strive to achieve next time we are in the classroom? What do you need to do to get there? What do you need your teacher to do? — If you want me to work on something specific never be afraid to ask! Remember to keep your targets SMART (see also, “Futurablility for Objectives” Tool):
Creative Growth through Reflection
Growth in Creativity can be another wonderful outcome from regular journaling, as it provides an outlet for the flow of expression and inspiration whether it be poetic, novel or short fiction-writing, nonfiction writing, choreographic, pedagogic…the tactic proves effective for the whole spectrum of topics and styles.
Daily writing is stressed as a component of the incredibly popular The Artist’s Way 12-week program by Julia Cameron, although countless artists and creative people of all types, not just writers, have found it effective.
An exercise Cameron describes in Week 1 goes like this: “Every morning, set your clock one-half hour early; get up and write three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness morning writing. do not reread these pages or allow anyone else to read them. Ideally, stick these pages in a large manila envelope, or hide them somewhere. Welcome to the morning pages. They will change you.” (The Artist’s Way p.96)
Keep in mind that Cameron doesn’t suggest that we look back at these sorts of preliminary brain-dump free-writes until Week 10, when she finally directs: “Read your morning pages! This process is best undertaken with two colored markers, one to highlight insights and another to highlight actions needed. Do not judge your pages or yourself. This is very important. Yes, they will be boring. Yes, they may be painful. Consider them a map. Take them as information, not an indictment.” (p.291)
Cameron further recommends a 3-step process for getting the most value from re-reading our morning pages, a good guideline for review of any personal writing, I find:
“Take Stock: Who have you consistently been complaining about? What have you procrastinated on? What blessedly have you allowed yourself to change or accept?
Take Heart: Many of us notice an alarming tendency toward black-and-white thinking: ‘He’s terrible. He’s wonderful. I love him. I hate him. It’s a great job. It’s a terrible job,’ and so forth. Don’t be thrown by this.
Acknowledge: The pages have allowed us to vent without self-destruction, to plan without interference, to complain without an audience, to dream without restriction, to know our own minds. Give yourself credit for undertaking them. Give them credit for the changes and growth they have fostered.” (p.291-2)
Spine of Creative Work with The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp also talks about ways to identify or re-connect with what she calls the “spine” of our creative work:
“You can induce it with a ritual. I know a lawyer who has a useful gambit when questioning his clients: Whenever he hears a muddled explanation, he holds up his hands to silence the speaker and says, ‘Okay, explain it to me like I’m ten years old.’ That simple instruction, perhaps because it floods people with memories of a simpler time, gets them talking with clarity and purpose. That’s what the spine is to me: It’s my explanation to myself as if I’m ten years old again.” (The Creative Habit p.148)
Keep this in mind the next time you get lost in explanation or decision-making, explain it as if
“You can also discover the spine by recalling your original intentions and clarifying your goals. What was the first thing you dropped into your box for the project? Go back to it and remember how you started–that’s what it’s there for.” (The Creative Habit p.148)
Yoga & Compassionate Self-Study
Reflection is a natural component of yoga and meditation practices, and in the book Yoga Where You Are by Dianne Bondy and Kat Heagberg, they included a whole chapter to it, saying: “We’ve found regular journaling to be a powerful practice. We like to use questions or prompts, or you can also free-write.” (Location: 3,626)
Bondy and Heagberg provide helpful guidelines for starting a daily practice of journaling as compassionate self-study: “Journaling doesn’t need to take a long time to be powerful. Try writing what comes to mind—even for just two minutes or longer if you’re so inspired. There is no need to edit yourself or judge what you write. See what flows. As with meditation, we recommend setting an intention to choose a time of day and making a commitment.” (Yoga Where You Are Location: 3,627)
If you find writing from a chosen question or topic helpful, consider these prompts for compassionate self-study from Bondy and Heagberg:
- “What am I grateful for? (This is a great one to try every day!)
- What is my intention for today? What is my affirmation? (This is a great one to try every day!)
- What am I feeling right now? Is it my breathing, my clothes, my emotions?
- What are my core values? Do my core values align with my actions and feelings around the things I love to do?
- How do my thoughts align with my actions and words?
- What stories am I telling myself? Are they true?
- How will I care for myself today?
- What will I do today that makes me happy?
- What feelings do I want to create in my life? Who will I share them with?
- What do I celebrate about myself right now?
- How is my yoga practice going? How is meditation going? Any reflections or realizations?
- What inspires me?
- What can I release?” (Yoga Where You Are Location: 3,631-3,649)
Buddhist monk Nick Keomahavong, recommends “5 Transformational Journal Ideas” in his YouTube video by that name. The types of journaling he discusses are keeping a Gratitude Journal (a daily practice that has made also made a difference in my life and for countless others), The Good You See in Others which is a beautiful practice that can help improve our relationships, a Shadow Journal exploring all sides of our identity, a Venting Journal (one of my favorite uses for reflective writing over the years, so that I can sort out my emotions before I get them all over someone else), and a Meditation Journal.
For meditation journaling purposes, Keomahavong suggests we record the following information after each meditation session:
- Amount of Time
- Experience in meditating
- Draw inner experience
- What steps did you take
Choosing Journaling Tools & Timing
Here are a few more tips on getting your journaling practice started or reviving a dormant writing habit. I suggest that you use what you have and don’t let materials become a barrier to immediately starting or resuming a written reflective practice. But there is something to be said for having your preferred supplies on hand to facilitate your continuing the practice.
Personally, I have found that the size of the paper/notebook matters. I discovered that I’m most likely to maintain daily journaling using a very small book for daily thoughts. This way there is no pressure to go on and on and fill the page, instead each page gratifyingly fills, leading to the next. When my daily journal pages have been too large, or the book is too thick, it’s not portable enough as well as being psychologically daunting for me to get started, creating a barrier to daily practice.
Then I use a medium-sized journal for planning and tracking or bullet journaling longer-term, and an even larger book for brainstorming and art journaling and really big picture or long-term projects which yearn for space to spread out. Find the right entry-point that is inviting and encourages regular practice and you are bound to develop your own beautifully personal system.
Alexandra Stoddard too has ideas to help establish your personal reflective practice: “Two things help in keeping a journal. First, choose a type of notebook or blank book that pleases you; second, set aside a time each day when you can settle down and write in it.” (Living a Beautiful Life p.33-4)
Stoddard encourages each individual to consider a variety of factors in selecting a journal: “The size, cover, smell of the notebook, as well as the color of the paper and its smoothness–these details matter; the more pleasing they are to you, the more likely it is that you will stick to the journal ritual–and enjoy it. Each diarist has to feel his or her own way at first, and then a system will eventually establish itself. Once you find a type of notebook you feel comfortable with, stock up on them–choosing the right journal is the important first step.” (Living a Beautiful Life p.34)
When it comes to the timing of your entries, you can take Cameron’s advice to start first thing in the day as you jump out of bed, or take after Stoddard and find a time and place that works for you: “After you have your blank book, pick a good time of day to write in it. […] I can even write on a bus or plane now–once you have the habit, you can do it anywhere; at first, though, I needed a ritual place, and time to be alone, to write. Be alone if you can, because it will make you less inhibited and more able to relax totally, to daydream and fantasize–and to hear what your subconscious might have to say.” (Living a Beautiful Life p.35)
Drawing is great, too! Visual note-taking strategies for effective learning. There is support for physically writing out your journal as an analog practice, but if that absolutely doesn’t work for you for some reason, then try recording as voice-to-text, or typing, or whatever seems to work best for the way that you process information and learn. We are all individuals, and need to seek out our own best reflective practices.
The questions we ask ourselves are important to the answers we will come up with, so let me know which of the recommended prompts or ideas you try out and how they work for you. I am planning future blogs on further provocative, “Socratic-”type questions, coaching questions and tools, and wisdom-access questions for fruitful inquiry.
A few other blogs and videos on related topics of self-awareness, learning, and growth include:
- Goal-Setting for Dancers Blog
- Powerful Portfolios to Catalyze Action Blog & Video
- Healthy Habit-Building Blog & Video
- Meditation Practice Challenge Blog
- Seeking Sweet Sleep Blog
- Bullet Journal 2021 plan-with-me and walk-through Video
Meanwhile, why not get out your journal of choice now and start by recording your responses to the questions below? Then take a picture and share with me for acknowledgement and celebration!
- What issue are you currently facing that could use some written processing?
- What important projects that you are up to deserve some reflection?
- What will you commit to in terms of journaling or reflective practice this week?
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
move through life with balance, grace, & power