Friday, December 26, 2008

On keeping a journal

When a lusty, ambitious young Scot named James Boswell first met Dr. Samuel Johnson, Johnson advised him to keep a journal of his life. Boswell responded that he was already journaling, recording "all sorts of little incidents." Dr Johnson said, "Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man."

Indeed, there is nothing too little, or too great, for inclusion in a journal. If you are not already keeping one, I entreat you to start today. Write whatever is passing through your mind, or whatever catches your eye in the passing scene around you. If you remember your dreams, start with them. If you don't recall your dreams, start with whatever thoughts and feelings are first with you as you enter the day, or that interval between two sleeps the French used to call dorveille ("sleep-wake"), a liminal space when creative ideas often stream through.

If you have any hopes of becoming a writer, you'll find that journaling is your daily workout that keeps your writing muscles limber. If you are already a writer, you may find that as you set things down just as they come, with no concern for editors, critics or consequences, you are releasing descriptive scenes, narrative solutions, characters - even entire first drafts - quite effortlessly. Some of the most productive writers have also been prodigious journal-keepers. Graham Greene started recording dreams when he was sixteen, after a breakdown in school. His journals from the last quarter-century of his life survive, in the all-but-unbreakable code of his difficult handwriting. First and last, he recorded his dreams, and they gave him plot solutions, character development, insights into the nature of reality that he attributed to some of his characters, and sometimes bridge scenes that could be troweled directly into a narrative. Best of all, journaling kept him going, enabling him to crank out his daily pages for publication no matter how many gins or how much cloak-and-dagger or illicit amour he had indulged in the night before.

You don't have to be a writer to be a journaler, but journal-keeping will make you a writer anyway. In the pages of your journal, you will meet yourself, in all your aspects. As you keep a journal over the years, you'll notice the rhymes and loops or cycles in your life. Beacuse I was recently invited to teach workshops in Romania, I have been re-reading Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian-born historian of religions. Opening the last volume of his published journals, I found him reflecting during a visit to Amsterdam in 1974 on how a bitter setback to his hopes at the time he first visited that city nearly a quarter-century before had driven him to do his most enduring work. He had been hoping that his early autobiographical novel, published in English as Bengal Nights, would be a big commercial success, enabling him to live as a full-time novelist. Sales were disappointing. Had it been otherwise, "I would have devoted almost all my time to literature and relegated the history of religions to second place, even though Shamanism was at the time almost entirely drafted." The world would have gained a promising, and perhaps eventually first-class, novelist; but we might have lost the scholar who first made the study of shamanism academically respectable and proceeded to breathe vibrant life, as well as immense erudition, into the cross-cultural study of the human interaction with the sacred.

Synesius of Cyrene, a heterodox bishop in North Africa around 400, counseled in a wonderful essay On Dreams that we should keep twin journals: a journal of the night and a journal of the day. In the night journal, we would record dreams as the products of a "personal oracle" and a direct line to the God we can talk to. In the day journal, we would track the signs and synchronicities through which the world around us is constantly speaking in a symbolic code. "All things are signs appearing through all things. They are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos." The sage is one who "understands the relationship of the parts of the universe" - and we deepend and focus that understanding by recording signs in our day journal.

Partly because I keep unusual hours, and am often embarked on my best creative work long before dawn, I don't separate my night journal from my day journal. All the material goes into one book - a leather-bound travel journal, when I am on the road. I try to type up my entries before my handwriting (as difficult as Greene's) becomes illegible and put the printouts in big ringback binders. I save each entry with a date and a title in my data files, so I automatically have a running index.

Here are some games I enjoy playing with my journals that you may want to play too:

"Bibliomancy" is the fancy name for opening a book at random to get guidance on a theme, or simply the quality and content of the day. I often use old journals in this way. For example, on Christmas Eve, after learning that a friend had developed a serious illness and was having other major troubles in her life, I reached blindly into a shelf of 30+ old travel journals, grabbed one without looking at the date, and opened it at random, I found myself looking at a short dream report from December 2003, just over five years before. The dream was about my friend. It stated that she had "accepted Purgatory for a year. This Purgatory is a room in her home that opens into the same realm." I shared this report with my friend, and we began to work with the meaning of "acceptance" and of "Purgatory". I also shared other reports in that old journal on tbe page before and after the "Purgatory" entry, since I have often noticed that when events start to catch up with an "old" dream, other "old" material around that dream can prove timely and helpful. The neighboring entry in my 2003 involved ways of delivering spiritual nourishment, which we found highly relevant.

Tracking how symbols feature and evolve in your dreams and your experience of the world around you will give you your own encyclopedia of symbols, better than any of those dream dictionaries, because the snake or the train in your dream is yours not theirs. While it may open into the archetypal data banks of the collective unconscious, or super-conscious, those links are for you to explore and not to receive on a hand-me-down plan.

When I was an undergraduate, writing book reviews for a local newpapers, I was fortunate to be assigned one of the first English-language editions of the Carnets of Albert Camus. I was struck by how the great French writer was fired up by the quotes he recorded from his eclectic reading. Etched in my memory is a grim exchange in the Carnets from a Russian source. Avvakum, an archpriest, and his wife, are trudging through a frozen waste. The wife asks, "How far must we journey?" "Until death, daughter of Mark." "Then, son of Peter, we must hurry on."
My own journals are peppered with quotes from all over, from sources celebrate an utterly obscure, ranging from the message I may have spotted in the first vanity plate I saw on a certain morning (BCRE8V) to a spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead or a "snapper" from Mark Twain.

If we are privileged to have access to young children, one of the greatest gifts we can give them - and in the process, ourselves - is to encourage them to record dreams and stories in a boom that will become a journal. I did this with my own daughters. When they were very young, they would do the pictures and I would write the words for them. They took over more and more of the writing, as they got older, until, at age nine, they were keeping their journals by themselves and for themselves. Then the same thing happened in each case. They said to me, in effect: "That's it, Dad. This is my secret book and you can't read it anymore."

Now that's a journal. The secret book of your self and your soul, not to be shared with anyone without permission, which should not be given lightly.

When life deals you a tough hand, you'll find that as you write your journal, you are practicing spontaneous self-therapy. You may be able to write your way through whatever ails you. There's a great release, perhaps a catharsis, in saying what you need to say in the safe space your journal provides. When you see and state things as they are, you already begin to change them. Keep your hand moving, and you may manifest the power to re-name and re-vision symptoms, challenges and difficult situations in the direction of resolution and healing.

As you keep your secret book, you'll discover more, and more will discover you. You'll find yourself straying off the tame and settled developments of the everyday mind, into the wilder borders of imagination, where the Big story of your life can find you.


Wanda Burch said...

I always kept pages of notes scattered in books and lost in various places but began to keep a journal in 1988, just two years before my diagnosis of breast cancer. After several disturbing dreams - that I would not have remembered had I not kept a journal - coupled with a "big dream," my dream diagnosis was confirmed. At that time I looked back through my journals and discovered that I had been dreaming of my illness off and on for those two years. Journaling my dreams literally saved my life. Near that time, I came across statistical studies that tracked people surviving chronic illness - the not-so-surprising results were that those who kept journals survived years longer than those who did not. They were more aware of their bodies and more aware of influences from their physical environment. They also had the best psychiatrist/psychologist available - their own words coming from the internal and external events of their lives.

My journal - and my dreams - have been invaluable tools for charting my life and "dipping into the well of vision," as Robert suggests, reminds us that we do dream the future - not always immediately apparent - and that we again and again have the opportunity to evaluate our direction based on words already dreamed, already experienced, already lived in advance of the moment.

I collect historic journals and find that some of the most compelling descriptions of life, culture, the landscape and the tenor of a time comes from the personal words of those who lived and slept and dreamed in a place. Robert says that we all become uninhibited writers when we journal. That is true - and writers love to dip back into their own journals and chart their own life changes - and how fascinating it is to dip into a more distant past and read the words of those who are jounaling places and people that we receive only half glances of in history.

My grandchildren have an enlightened teacher who encourages them to keep sun journals for the day and moon journals for the night. At the end of the year she asked them to pull their favorite words - and poems - from those journals and she had them bound in shiny hard bound covers - with their own illustrations. My granddaughter sent me hers for Christmas - it was, as you can imagine - my most treasured present. My granddaughter is in the second grade - so it is never too early to begin a journal!

Robert Moss said...

Dear Wanda, thanks so much for expanding and confirming our sense of what a journal can be - a therapist, diagnostician, forecaster, counselor, writing machine and well of vision. Your grandchildren are very fortunate to have a teacher who encourages them to keep a Sun Book and a Moon Book! Let's hope she inspires others. In my dream of our evolving society, student will be given credits and class prizes, at all levels of education, for keeping journals.

Nancy said...

Journaling has become essential to me since 2001 when I started studying with you, Robert, & following my dreams in a more disciplined way. All my life I've had a love affair with words; an unknowing slip from someone can send me into uncontrollable laughter. I heard a newswoman recently talk about a gang of hoodlums "hurling racial epitaphs"! I've always used writing to sort out my thoughts, & now rely on my journal to help me understand things in my life & the world around me.
This past week I lost heat in the house for a few days, in bitter cold temperatures & on solstice night. Patiently untangling the problem, my brilliant & handy boyfriend replaced a controller module (am I too controlling??) which got 2 of 3 zones in the house heated, then finally a faulty valve for that zone, which blew because there was too much pressure (I need to learn how to handle my stress better!), taking out the Controller. So all is well again, & he is at work on some cleanup & modifications so this won't happen again.
I've been journaling about this to help me understand its symbolism: if my heart is the furnace/boiler/heating unit of my body-house, is it finally time for me to let someone else in to help me take care of it, instead of trying to do everything myself? Working on this together & letting him take the lead, yet knowing my participation & feedback is very important, has been a great learning experience. A poem is brewing about all this (we needed to BLEED the boiler last night! How can I not write about this?). Sometimes I feel like my journal is my best friend.

Robert Moss said...

Hi Nancy - The state of our house, or our car, in physical reality can indeed speak volumes, symbolically, about the state of our bodymind and soul. This is a great thing to journal, and in your vivid sharing we see how the act of writing about these things brings a situation into higher relief (and may relieve the situation too :-). Thanks for sharing, and for journaling.

Carol said...

Journal Loops. I find as I go back in my journals, many issues reworking themselves but just in a different time/framwork. After reading this lastest blog entry, I went back to a journal of 20 yrs ago. On the front of the journal I had the Graham Greene quote: "Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation." I have many different journals. A daily event journal, a nature journal, dream journal, book journal, movie journal, journals over a certain event, etc. At some point I may try to combine them all as they are starting to blur together. Sometimes I wonder how I have time to live life, with all of these journals demanding some atention. Actually I know I live life with more intensity as I record for myself what is of importance to me.

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

I smiled when I read your typo - "we deepend and focus that understanding" - because it is a bit like taking a dive into the deep end of a wonderous pool of insight. I hear this in a bit of lyrics from Chris Cornell when he was frontman for Audioslave: "What do you see before you blink? What do you feel before you think?" (I keep an index, too, else I'd lose track of all the threads of thought!)

Robert Moss said...

Carol: I love your journal loop back to a quote from Graham Greene you recorded twenty years ago. Through journaling, we become aware of other ways in which time loops and life rhymes. We notice ourselves approaching familiar crossroads, and choices and challenges we have faced before. With the growing consciousness of the "witness self" that journaling helps to promote, we can now move beyond cycles of repetition and travel the spiral path, where reaching a familiar point doesn't meet repeating yourself because while you are going round you are also going up.

Unknown said...

Like Wanda above, I have pages of writing all tucked away in places. I find handwriting cumbersome, I can speak more quickly on a keyboard.

I simply cannot understand much of my handwriting when I am writing dreams down in the middle of the night. So, I am thinking of transcribing them on the computer then printing them out and putting them in a 3-ring binder.

I assume all you experienced Journal keepers are handwriters, any thoughts on this, anyone?

Nancy said...

I print. It takes a little longer than cursive writing, but is much easier for me to read. Faster isn't always better; writing by hand seems to force me to be in the moment more. I find the physical act of writing, pen on paper, very satisfying.

Robert Moss said...

Naomi: I type, when at home, and write when I'm traveling (and type up those entries as soon as I can). Sometimes my best journaling and writing of the day begins as an email letter to one of several dear friends with whom I am used to sharing dresms and new discoveries and reflections. Besides its other uses, for me, email has revived the old art - and pleasure - of epistolary writing, and I enjoy the conversational tone and the sense of sharing. I'll then save the best of an email letter in my journal files and maybe rework it for other purposes.

Unknown said...


So, are all of these files journal, email, dreams, everything on the computer or in hard copy or both?

I'm trying to be efficient and cut down on the fiddle that I get caught up in. It's maddening sometimes.

I have several places that I create in and use time. Painting, ceramics and fiber art. I'm going to start a blog for all of those centers, and so it's important to be effective with time. And of course the creativity that flows to all of those centers can get balled up if you know what I mean.

Sometimes, I say to myself "if I could only clone myself"....

I'm sure you have confronted these issues, Robert, you seem to have several pots on the fire at all times!

Joan said...

On January 9th 1982 I began a day/night journal with the following words: beginning today i would like to record whatever i can of dreams and ideas day and night/whatever i remember from sleep/what i think during the day/what i understand and what i don't understand...

and at that time, over the course of the next nine months or so a fascinating story emerged. The events of my conscious daily life evolved in tandem with the visions and stories that emerged in the dreams of the night.

In the end of this particular story, this particular journal, as I struggled with the particular forces within me, I must say that a true change occurred, a truly mind altering change, a shift, a liberation, but not without pain, not without struggle and not without confusion.

It was the PROCESS of this journal, of bringing into light the thoughts and images that actually were the reality of my day and night, it was the PROCESS that effected a change within me - in a sense led me down a path of experience and awareness that liberated me from an internal mental chain, an internal mental blockage.

At the end of the story, if there is actually such thing as an end, there was an actual physical shift in my mind - almost as if an oppressive blockage became unblocked.

At that time, I concluded that what happened with me is likely what is the intended effect of good psychotherapy - and, being a young women of little financial means - real true psychotherapy would never have been within my financial means. I also question if, in reality, there are any psychotherapists who are actually that good and I would likely not entrust a stranger with all of these internal workings - let alone imagine the financial cost if a professional spent as much time or care on this as I did!!! Also, I would have had to bear the annoying burden of possibly being expected to defer to the opinion of the professional before my own - which I likely would not have done.

At that time, though, I was not aware of people who worked with dreams in an honorable way and at this point I believe that those truly knowledgeable about dreams, like Robert Moss, would have more knowledge about the process that occurred in my day/night journal and with the liberating shift in my mind. I worked safely within the context of that which was already within me and it was a matter, again, of bringing to light that which was already there - that which was mysterious and that which is greater than me.

The beauty was in the process, and often I was in my daily mind and thoughts in confusion, often with the conscious mind NOT seeing clearly, but being given glimpses and gifts, through the images and through the stories in the dreams AND as I invited characters and situations into my life that played out their part in the story.

In this journal, I attempted to speak the truth of my experience, the true thoughts that ran through my mind, the truth of the dreams that were given at night.

And again, the most amazing thing occurred........a soul evolved, a mind lost a few of its chains, and a beautiful story was told.

And though the breaking of chains and some internal liberation occurred for me at that time, I still have a long, long, way to go.


Robert Moss said...

Joan: Thank you for your eloquent sharing of your experience of long-term journaling as a process of self-therapy and soul-making and releasing light from within.

Naomi: I think I have responded to your question already but, just in case, the answer is - all the above! My handwritten journals contain my sketches and souvenirs and first drafts of things (poems especially) that dreams inspire. My e-folders give me ease of access to material from several decades, with that automatic index. And I print out all the reports I type up and keep te copies in big 3-ring binders.

Janine De Tillio Cammarata said...

I've had a couple dreams of a white rabbit attacking me and biting my right hand. It has left me very unsettled so I want to start tracking it.

When you track your symbols, do you keep a separate log of the symbols and where you can find them in your dream journal or do you add the symbols to your title? I guess I would like a more specific explanation on how to keep track of these symbols so they are easy to find.

Robert Moss said...

Janine: I do track dominant themes and symbols in my dreams, and sometimes put the reports that feature them in a special folder ("White Rabbit", for example) as well as in my chronological files. We can't really do the Lightning Dreamwork process here, but if these were my dreams I would certainly want to have a dialogue with the White Rabbit and ask what he is and why he is going to these lengths to get my attention.