Growing up, I kept a daily journal, generally penning in a lovely diary with a small lock that opened with a flimsy key. The daily entries were similar because life as a middle and high school student wasn’t thrilling. I was backstabbed by a “best friend” who had since run off to befriend our common enemy, unhappy with my parents who were indifferent to their teenage girl’s troubles, or simply pining for the newest Nike Airs. The entries were often dramatic, sensationalized, dreamy, and emotional. A feeling of trepidation always lingered at the thought of someone reading through my diary, so I carefully worded each entry to ensure I never appeared at fault or risked getting labeled a “bad person.” I was careful to insert symbols in curse words to show that my decency extended even to my private writing: What a sh*tty day.
Back then, journaling was a way for me to escape reality and enter a world that I could control and recreate with the motion of a pen. It was a space to vent and express things that I would never dare say aloud to others. At the time, I imagined writing to no one in particular but was confident that someone was listening. Now, it’s clear that journaling was an unawkward way of communicating with myself. I would start each entry with the words Dear Diary, but this could easily have been replaced with, Dear Grace. In the end, each entry was my teenage self yearning to hear the simple words: everything will be okay.
At that tender age, looking inward wasn’t an option. I constantly sought external validation. Yes, it was exhausting, and many times I caught myself repeating destructive patterns that perpetuated suffering or conflict with others. It was a lot easier to point the finger outward and blame others for my problems than to consider my own behavior. Why would I want to put myself through this? Of course, someone else was to blame!
After high school, I stopped journaling for a while since I no longer needed to express my thoughts on paper. Instead, it was easier to call up a friend and have them listen and reassure me that the unfortunate sequence of events unfolding before me was not my fault. They were my cheerleading squad to help me from turning inward and seeking the origin of my suffering. As time passed, however, the squad dispersed and all I was left with was my shame and bad habits. I needed a way out.
Decades later, I would learn a new way of journaling that wasn’t an escape from reality or a reinterpretation of my life but a magnifying glass to examine my exact mind state without self-editing. Running away or avoiding problems wasn’t an option. Yes, it was initially horrifying. But this type of Won Buddhist daily journaling would guide me inward to face everyday situations with honesty, vulnerability, and courage.
My teacher told me that the first step of mindful journaling was to “write the situation exactly as it happened—as if [I was] taking a picture.” At first, it was difficult for me to begin this practice, especially after years of training to self-edit entries. In many ways, I wasn’t ready to admit that I held certain attachments or biases, or that I could treat people a certain way. Over time, recording the situation as if taking a picture helped me cultivate the ability to be honest in a way that embraced my shortcomings and failures. I became better at noticing fleeting thoughts, erupting emotions, and judgmental attitudes toward myself and others. My journaling grew into a practice that helped me honor my feelings and regard them as great teachers, allowing me to gauge the parts of myself that needed healing or special attention. My teacher helped me realize that honest writing could lead to radical change.
One powerful device of mindful journaling is the practice of stopping and identifying the trigger of a disturbance and the thoughts or emotions that arise at that moment. We often fail to recognize when a disturbance happens, especially when we’re on autopilot and can’t stop to take inventory of the cause of complicated emotions. But when we fail to pause in a challenging situation, it’s easy to revert to old patterns and react to negative thoughts or overpowering feelings. Consistent mindful journaling helps us develop the strength to cease reacting to situations that provoke us.
In other words, mindful journaling helps us cultivate the power to stop incessant thinking and create space before responding. Each pause to write is like driving over a speed bump and preventing a potential accident from happening. Pausing in this way helps us become a detached observer of our emotions and reframe the situation. It allows us to resolve to act in a way that is good for both ourselves and others. And this one pause has the power to alter the subsequent course of events and lead us down the path to less suffering. When our habits and preconceptions no longer guide us, we can make room to consider a situation from multiple angles, and make better and more compassionate decisions. What am I feeling in my body? What if I placed myself in someone else’s position? How is my decision going to affect us in the future?
Mindful journaling also offers a concrete moment to reflect on our mistakes and set an intention to do better in the future if a similar situation arises. This final contemplation and intention-setting are crucial because they are the elements of journaling that bring self-compassion into play. We learn the power of self-forgiveness and forgiving others, and we make resolutions to do better next time. It’s the journaling phase that helps us admit and let go of previous mistakes while also setting goals for a brighter future.
Many of the students with whom I’ve shared this kind of mindful writing have expressed their gratitude for how much they’ve learned about themselves and how empowered they feel to modify their reactions. Here’s one example:
When I made breakfast, I noticed my housemate had poured liquid from the remnants of a tuna salad all over the sink. He also left the dirty bowl and both had turned into a crust with a foul odor overnight. I felt a visceral sense of disgust with a desire to gag. Judgment arose, with the thought of “did his parents never teach him to clean the sink after each use?” I was frustrated, mainly because we had an agreement to wash our dishes promptly and avoid leaving things overnight. I felt a great sense of gender inequity with him as a man being less diligent with housework!
Here the student observed and acknowledged the feelings of disappointment and frustration and understood that it is normal to feel this way.
I paused and reminded myself that we have different upbringings and that living at home as a child was filled with shouting, abusive language, and neglect based on how well or unwell I cleaned. In forgiving him for his mistake due to ignorance, I am extending an element of forgiveness that my child self would have needed. I reminded myself of all his efforts lately and his receptiveness to my request to take his hair from the drain after showering. There may be inequity in our household dynamic due to gendered socialization, but he is making an effort when I provide gentle feedback.
Here they paused, allowing themself to reframe their thoughts, learn from them, and vow to take action that would be beneficial to both themselves and their housemate.
I have made a note to check in with him about better managing dishes in our next housemate check-in. I cleaned the sink and bowl and continued my breakfast routine.
Here they realized this was a neutral situation and they were able to choose how to react, including having a respectful discussion with their housemate about the situation.
It may be impossible to make the whole world, or our entire external environment perfect, smooth, and without conflict. We will always meet people who annoy us and confront situations that don’t meet our expectations. But mindful journaling can teach us how to cultivate our minds to deal with whatever comes our way.
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