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Journaling for Health and Healing

Affirmation: I am a Journaler.  


Why Journal?  Why put pen to paper?  Is it true that writing makes a difference in one’s health and can even speed up the healing process?  What other benefits arise from sitting with a notebook or a pad or perhaps some colored pencils or markers?  Are there techniques that help one become a more consistent, insightful writer? These are the questions that arose as I prepared to present Healing through Writing at the 2017 Cancer Survivorship Summit here in Raleigh, NC.

If history is any indication of the importance of keeping a diary, it appears there is little doubt that most successful endeavors were meticulously recorded.  In the past an adventurer or explorer never seemed to leave home without a notebook and pen or pencil.  Certainly, Lewis and Clarke would not have been able to share every important detail of their expedition if they hadn’t been charged to write down everything that they encountered.  Why then shouldn’t we write?  Aren’t we all on an adventure?  Aren’t our explorations as important as any explorer’s?  True, our journeys may take us less out into the world, than in towards our minds, hearts and souls but those may be the journeys where we discover the most relevant truths of our lives.

Research has been done for years regarding the practice of journaling or expressive writing and anything you Google will tell you that writing can make a positive difference in whatever you’re experiencing.  It doesn’t matter what the challenge, writing can make a difference in everything from depression to dementia, from aches and pains to high blood pressure, from your outlook to your sense of well-being.  Truly, it would seem if they could bottle the process and sell it, it would be the miracle cure-all so many are seeking.  Unfortunately, like many healthful habits (exercise and healthy food choices to name just two) it requires discipline and a belief that it is going to enhance your life.  
One reason given for the clarity that journaling can bring is that you are being called upon to use both sides or your brain, the rational and the creative.  I, personally, can get very muddled when faced with some situations but once I begin writing about them, I can find solutions at which I would have never arrived if I hadn’t written about it.  
Beginning the Practice
*Grab a pen and some paper, not a keyboard.  
*Decide to set aside some part of your day, preferably in the morning to just sit and write, maybe      just a few minutes to begin.
*Adopt a few comforting rituals to go with the practice.  For example, make a cup of tea or coffee, play some soothing music, light a candle, perhaps say a prayer or take a few deep breaths, burn some incense, wrap up in a blanket, find a comfy chair.  Make this a nurturing experience. 
*Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two.  Feel good about any time you’ve managed to sit and write.
*Find an approach that feels good to you.  I follow the Julia Cameron approach from The Artists Way of writing three pages every morning.  She never mentions how big or small the pages are to be or how big or small your writing is to be.  You decide that.  Once you’ve found what works for you, try it for a while but stay flexible.
*Don’t edit anything.  Don’t worry about the spelling or the  grammar.  It is never a good or bad entry; it’s simply a learning experience.  
*If you don’t know what to write about, write, “I don’t know what to write about.”  If you write something that unsettles you, go back to it when you’re done and see if you can rephrase it or learn from it or perhaps when you return to it, you will feel better about it and you can simply let it go.  Perhaps the exercise is calling you to seek professional help. That too can be very good information.
*I personally like to write a phrase or intention that I have adopted for the year at the top of my daily entry.  I then like to write about three joys I experienced from the day before and one joy I am hoping to experience that day.  That part of my practice comes from The Joy of Appreciative Living by Jacqueline Kelm.
Journaling Prompts

Free Writing – Put the pen to the paper and just go.  Whatever comes to mind.  My experience has been that after writing my “stream of consciousness” for a few pages, a gem or two appears towards the end of the entry, not always but enough to make me feel like the time was spent well.

Letter Form – Choose a person and tell them your story. It could be someone from your past, or maybe that special someone in your future.  It could be a stranger who showed kindness or a doctor or technician who is part of your healing process.  Maybe it’s a former sweetheart to whom you never really said goodbye to or a parent, living or deceased you never told, “I love you.”  Once you begin your list, it might provide you with material to write a book.  This letter is yours, however, don’t send it unless you’re sure that’s the right next step.
Life Map – Write out some of the highlights of your life.  I’m sure a few immediately come to mind.  Start with one of them and journey to the next one, go back, go forward.  It doesn’t matter, just reminisce in writing.  
Questions – I know have I more questions about life and the world than I have answers.  There are questions about the unknown, about relationships, about what’s going on in my body, about why I respond a certain way to certain people.  It’s an endless list.  Ask one and let the pen help you find an answer.  
Listing – Begin by making a list, a list of anything; colors, shapes, scents, foods, places, etc.  Choose five or so and begin writing about whatever comes to mind about that topic and each item.
Quotations – I usually read something motivational every morning and inspirational every night.  They aren’t necessarily long reads, some are just a paragraph or two but many times they lead me to some wonderful quotes.  I like to record them and perhaps see where they fit in my life and how I can use them to enhance the way I live.
Interviews – Check in with what’s going on in your body once in a while.  Find out why that tummy is upset, or perhaps why your back is achy.  Maybe you want to dialogue with a new condition?  I’m not trying to say your brain caused your ailment, but I am saying there is always a lesson to be learned and journaling about the issue can be very enlightening. 
Inner Child – Take an inventory of what brought you joy as a child and write about it and see if there isn’t a way for you to incorporate some of that joy into your present life.   
Focus on Nature – One sure fire way to step outside of ourselves and bring us to a greater sense of awareness is to step outside into nature.  Focus on the miracles of this world or perhaps those outside of the earth, the stars, moon and galaxies.  Write about the flowers, the rivers, the wind and the sun.  Focus on all of the amazing gifts we have been given and so often take for granted.  
Log of Success – It’s easy to beat ourselves up, especially when we aren’t feeling our best.  Take a look at what you consider the highlights of your life and journal about those.  Then take a little while to examine them and allow a sense of accomplishment to resonate within.
Question Your Higher-Self – Many journalers have asked their higher-selves questions to which they simply could not get a clear answer and then allowed the pen to write out the answer.  There are several books about writing out a question to one’s guardian angel or spirit guide and how rewarding and surprising it can be when the answer appears.  
Draw, Paint, Color, Collage – There are many ways to journal and some days you might just want to try something different, a picture, a collage, a Mandela.  Let it appear on the page and then see what it “tells” you.  
Prompts – Many writers use “prompts” to begin their writing process.  It can be a photo, a statue, a bit of nature, a quote, a painting.  It really doesn’t matter.  Once you use a prompt and see where it leads you, let go and go crazy with it, you will never again have nothing to write about.  
There are many approaches and a lot of scientific data to back up the exercise of keeping a journal or a diary but the best proof of its effectiveness is when you notice that you’re feeling better, perhaps calmer, more grounded, not as anxious, surer of your direction or more ready to give and receive love.  When qualities that enhance your life and nurture your spirit start to appear as a regular part of your daily existence, you won’t care why this discipline works; you’ll only care that you’ve finally discovered it and put it into practice.

A Blessed Life

 Affirmation: I enjoy every moment of this blessed life.

The conversation revolved around the needs of the poor and destitute and what we are capable and willing to do to alleviate their sufferings. The news stories revolving around the excitement of the 2016 Summer Olympics were in a sharp contrast to those of the sport stories. They were grim and horrific.  The photo on the front of the August 14th Wall Street Journal was that of a little toddler, Omran Daqneesh, 5, who was rescued after an airstrike in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Within hours, this photo of his dust and blood-covered face captured the world’s attention.  You can google it if you like.  It was taken by Mahmoud Raslan.  It has been compared to the photo of the little girl running from the napalm blast during the Vietnam War.  It’s a single image that brings into our homes and hearts the complete devastation caused by hate and evil.

The question, however, always seems to remains the same, “What can I do?” What can I do?   I know I’ve written about this before and as you might know I do volunteer and raise money and send money to different charities especially those that help children.  I do pray daily for “those most in need of God’s mercy.”   It’s a part of my morning ritual and part of my Rosary but is that enough?  Yes, I would like a magic wand to wave. I’d like “all the money in the world.”   I’d like to be a mini Mother Teresa but I do not have those gifts and some days I simply feel helpless in the face of such suffering and agony.

As you probably know. I live in North Carolina.   I think it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the states, if not the world.  We have the ocean at one end and the mountains at the other.  We have Carolina blue skies and when you fly into this area all you see is green green green.  If that isn’t enough we have flowering bushes and trees that dot the landscape wherever you go.   Most days I am in awe of living here.  How did this happen?  Why am I living in this paradise?  Did I “do” something right?  Did I “do” something to deserve this?  Am I a favorite child of God and so She/He placed me here in the midst of Shangri-La?  Why do I get to live this life of abundance and comfort when so many are making do with so little or perhaps nothing at all?

I know some would tell me that I chose this experience before I was even conceived, smart me.  Some others might say that this is karma, what I did in a previous life earned me this life I now have.  Good job, Jean!  I, however, do not have an answer that makes any sense to me.  Maybe you do?  I know my Christian faith tells me I am called to give much because I have been given much.  I’m not even sure I understand that.  How much is enough?  I have heard many religious people talk about how everything we have is a gift from God.   I don’t really get that either.  I’m grateful for everything I have, even those things I didn’t think I wanted but received anyway but really did God bestow those on me?  Does God really look down and say, “There’s little Jean Anne and I think she should enjoy a piece of chocolate, a good husband, wonderful children, a beautiful sunset or a stunning vista?”   I don’t think so!  I do believe, however, that we get to choose how to view whatever it is that comes into our lives and we can choose to be grateful to a God that can create the beauty and pleasures and even the challenges of this life. That’s what free will is all about; we get to choose how we perceive whatever is or has occurred in our lives, especially those of us who live a life of comfort and privilege.

I am re-reading Christiane Northrup’s, Goddesses Never Age, with my study group, The Seekers. The chapter on optimal health revolves around the concept of finding pleasure.  I know it sounds hedonistic but the lesson Dr. Northrup is teaching is about fully embracing the joys and gifts of our lives.  It’s not just about the concept of pleasure but of how to affect a healthy response to what we enjoy.  She’s not telling us to simply notice those aspects of our lives that bring us joy.  We are being encouraged to not only be grateful, which I know for many is a challenge in itself; we are being called to savor those experiences, to taste them, to feel them, to let them raise us up beyond our wildest dreams and fill every cell in our bodies with tingling sensations.  She is suggesting that when we have that piece of chocolate or see that sunset or hold the hand of a loved one, we take the time to fully embrace the feelings of the experience. What happens when we allow ourselves to completely experience such pleasure?  There is a physical reaction where our bodies emit Nitric Oxide and NO has healing properties that cause all sorts of wonderful effects including a delicious sense of well-being.

I believe God does care about us. I believe God loves us beyond our wildest dreams and that He/She will and does intervene in our lives in a very personal way but we have to ask and we have to be open to those gifts and then, the most important part is that we must fully appreciate our gifts, even those we didn’t think we wanted.  The conversation I was having about the poor and destitute and our responsibility took a completely different turn than I had expected.  The wise woman across from me said with emphasis, “Well then, Jean, you must fully enjoy every moment of this blessed life.”  That felt like quite a challenge.  I had another person tell me they thought when we arrived at the pearly gates St. Peter’s question would be just that, “Did you fully enjoy every moment of your blessed life?”  I’m working on having that answer be, “Yes.”  Perhaps with an attitude of gratitude my healthy healing body and spirit will in itself spread out and make a difference in someone’s life that is less fortunate than I.  Perhaps part of my giving back and sharing my bounty doesn’t lie in only giving time, talent and treasure.  Perhaps it also requires unconditional love and bringing hope and joy into every part of our lives and therefore, the world.

Claiming Your Power

Affirmation: I Did It!

Isabelle and her brothers, Sam, Joe, & Owen and sister-in-law, Arden 

Graduations of all type have taken place at this time of year during which this is being written; celebrations of milestones, accomplishments and dreams come true. My oldest grandaughter, Isabelle, graduated from the Raleigh Collaborative High School. It was a tiny school, only twelve children. There were only four students graduating. Our whole family attended the ceremony. It was a wonderful event. Two of the three teachers spoke, the principal, Doctor Anderson, spoke and each family had a family member (Isabelle chose her grandfather, my hubby) speak. Then, each student showed a slide presentation of their life and also gave a short speech. All of them were very nervous. There were about sixty people in the audience.

Isabelle was gracious in her talk, thanking her entire family for their support and including us and stressing how blessed she felt to be a part of such a loving family. My heart almost burst. We are all so very proud of her.  She was the first presenter. The last student to speak was a young man, a man we knew to be twenty years of age, who was slight in stature and appeared very timid. He read his speech, hesitating over the pages and stumbling through several of the phrases. He ended and then he began to walk off the stage when he suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, I forgot something.” He returned to the dais, looked out at the audience and especially towards his family and raising his fist shouted, “I did it.” I wasn’t the only person there with tears in my eyes. As I write this I still feel weepy with the joy of his accomplishment.

My friend told me that when we arrive in heaven she thinks the question Saint Peter will ask us is, “Did you appreciate and celebrate all God gave you. Were you joyful and grateful?” Was I? Have I been? Really? I began to journal. How many times in my life have I shouted, “I did it!” I have not, I have not claimed victory. I have downplayed my accomplishments more often than I have celebrated them!

Right now I am in the process of preparing for an outward bound type of trip to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Isabelle has been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design. It’s the only school to which she applied and she will be attending as a photography major. It is her passion. I am providing her the opportunity to photograph a part of the world which with neither of us are very familiar. I am anxious. I’ve been gathering all the gear necessary for this expedition, things I have rarely packed, if ever. I recognize I am blessed and lucky to be able to do this and to share this time with one of my favorite human beings but it is way outside of my comfort zone and so I have been quite nervous.

Recently I finished Christian Northrup’s book, Goddesses Never Age. Don’t miss this book. I truly believe that any woman over the age of eighteen, maybe even younger, should be required to read this marvelous guide for a woman’s life. If you don’t get it and you’re a woman reading this, at least turn the title into one of your affirmations and claim it! Towards the end of her book, in the middle of this trip’s preparation, she writes about the healing effects of being in nature.  Isabelle and I will be in the thick of nature and Dr. Northrup’s advice helped calm me.

Several of my readings lately, including Dr. Northrup’s book has stressed the life changing practice of letting go of our own agendas and attempting to live a life within the Divine flow. You’ve probably heard it, “Let go and let God.” It’s a life long practice. It takes patience and quiet and setting aside our egos. For me, I feel like I’m right there, following the “path” God seems to have laid out and then I’m off doing my own thing again, taking back control of my life and truly believing I have control of it. Ha! What if, however, because of my time with the Lord, my prayer time and my meditation time, I am actually being led to this Alaskan experience? What if this is a place where I will learn and grow and heal in a way beyond my wildest dreams? If I could truly believe that would I still be anxious or would I be excited?

After graduation and pondering the accomplishments of these four young people, I sat with my journal and wrote down several things in my life of which I feel very proud. I began with my education and then listed this wonderful family my husband and I have created. I went on to list several charity projects I’ve spearheaded and the positive, joyful manner in which I went through breast cancer. It wasn’t a long list but I felt good about it. Then I sat back and I read it over. I read it again and I thought, “If I didn’t know this woman and I read this list of accomplishments, I’d say, ‘Wow, this is a remarkable woman. I’d really like to meet her.'” Then, I thought of all the people in my life who, like myself, don’t always see their amazing selves as others might see them. There are so many who don’t really claim their accomplishments, especially the women.

My experience has led me to believe that most of us try to be humble and it’s not always to our benefit. Just recently a young friend was sharing her accomplishments at work. She’s effecting amazing changes in her work place by guiding people towards a healthier life style. She had engaged more people in this project than anyone else in her organization. She went onto explain why she was so much more successful than others. It wasn’t because of her passion and knowledge. It was because the other counsellors were at some sort of disadvantage. “No, no, no,” I said. “Claim it! You did it!” “You are using God’s gifts to be the change people need. You are a remarkable woman.” My other friend chimed in and said, “Don’t bury your coins,” or as Marianne Williamson says,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

What if each of us took some time to write down several things of which we are proud? I encourage you to do this exercise. Then read them like it’s about someone you do not know. I’ll bet you’ll find yourself saying, “Wow! This is a remarkable person. I’d really like to meet her or him.” I’m expecting to add my Alaska outward bound trip to my list when Isabelle and I return and with great joy and gratitude I hope to shout from the dais of my stage, “I did it.”

Throwing Away the Trash

Affirmation: I freely forgive myself and others.

The topic of the NPR story was about the abolition of the death penalty. What type of response do you have to the phrase “death penalty?” You must have given it some thought. The Old Testament promotes, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Exodus 21:24) Then, Jesus came along and promoted a whole new concept, forgiveness. Even at the end when He had been unjustly toured and crucified He prayed for His executioners, for all of us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

I think of this quote often. Someone once commented to me that He did not say, “Father, I forgive them for they know not what they do” or even “Father, I forgive them even if they know what they are doing.” I’m sure there are many biblical scholars who have dissected these last words of Christ that are much more qualified to fully explain all the implications of His petition; I am not one of them. I am simply trying to absorb the lesson that even after Our Lord was put to death because some people did not approve of Him healing the sick, raising the dead, and protecting and promoting the care of those who most needed love and care; He refused to hold onto the burning coal of hatred. In His final moments He was teaching us His greatest lesson.

As I drove along that day the story being discussed on the radio was about the death penalty in China and the tradition that allows a family member of the victim to actively participate in the execution of the offender by removing the support from under the person who is to be hung. The narrator told of a young man who had been stabbed to death by another young man and the mother of the victim had chosen to perform the execution. She approached the condemned, reached up and slapped him and then reached out and helped him down from his perch. She then went over and took the hand of the mother of the condemned man. The story resonated throughout China and now it was being shared with the rest of the world. Because of her action, the Chinese authorities were reconsidering their tradition. Because of her act of forgiveness, some of the world’s conscience was being awakened.

Why do most of us find it so difficult to forgive, me included? I am not normally angry. I’ll get hurt before I respond with anger. Perhaps that’s just another form of anger. Sometimes, however, I’m angry at institutions, authorities or systems. Sometimes I’m angry with individuals. I can be angry with strangers, friends and worst of all, with people I love. Some small injurious word or behavior and I can feel the resentment building. Most of the time just when I think I’m “over” something that has happened, I don’t even realize I haven’t let go of the perceived injury or intentional slight or harm but then some reminder comes along and I’m back with my sad response. I can recall events from decades ago that still cause my body to tighten up but most times I don’t even recognize the emotion. Sometimes when the anger arrives the feeling puzzles me because it is so rare for me to respond in an angry manner. The point is, however, whether or not anger or hurt feelings come quickly or slowly, responding appropriately and then releasing it is not only to your benefit, but to the world’s.

The question that sometimes comes to my mind is, “What do I know to be true; what do I believe absolutely with all of my mind and my heart?” “The only important thing in life is to love and to forgive.” This is a quote from a wise older woman who was from my Small Christian Community. I believe with all my mind, body and soul that the above statement is absolutely true. Richard Rohr, one of my favorite spiritual teachers explains the Beatitudes in this way, “Jesus seems to be saying, our inner attitudes and states are the real sources of our problems. How we live in our hearts is our real truth.” When I can carry only love in my heart and my body and when I can release myself from any resentment, my life is rich and rewarding and peaceful. My life is then filled with hope and joy and I am able to take those emotions, those qualities with me out into the world.

One of my morning meditations took me into a subway station. What am I doing here, I pondered? On the station were 6 briefcases evenly spaced along the edge. The train came and five people picked up a case and boarded. I went over to the sixth case and looked down. It had my name on it and so I opened it. It was filled with trash. It was filled with the resentments of yesterday, perhaps of my whole life? I carried it up out of the subway, found a trash can and threw it away. Perhaps like most of the garbage in my life, I need to gather those resentments up periodically and toss them out. Perhaps with practice, I can throw away all those resentments and other junk that interfere with the love and joy with which I want my life to be surrounded.

The Chinese woman in the story was changing the world because of her ability to forgive. I believe we are called upon to do the same and that with the softening of our hearts; we too will change the world.