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Journaling: A Tool for the Intentional Life

by Susan Wittig Albert

In the frantic, media-driven society in which most of us live, we are constantly bombarded with the implicit message that we must yield to every momentary impulse: go here, do this, buy that. In such an environment, living the intentional life is a challenge, and we need all the help we can get to meet it For me, meditation is one valuable aid; journaling is another.

I have been keeping a journal since I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the late 1960s, and I am continually amazed by the life changes my journals have recorded. Many of these changes were a matter of chance-random things that happened to me that altered the course of a day, a year, even longer. I met a woman who introduced me to sailing, which became my passion for five or six years (an expensive passion!). I received a job offer in Texas and moved to a city and state I would never have considered, if I'd been doing the choosing. Someone took me to a party; I met a man there, married him, and adopted his life style, which was substantially different from my own. As I look back over the journals from these years, I realize that most of these momentous, life-changing events were really accidents. I was living an opportunistic life, taking advantage of what came along. I was going with the flow.

But as the years moved along and I became more focussed on living an intentional life, my journal began to record many more life-changes that were a matter of choice-things I decided to do, directions I wanted to grow. My journal reminds me that I divorced my husband because I needed "to be my own woman, choose my own direction." I left my academic career in 1985 (according to my journal), because I wanted "to free myself to learn new lessons, to free myself from the past." I began to write full-time (my journal says), because I wanted "to get out of the career culture, to work at home, to use my writing skills to make a living." I read in my journal that I began to practice meditation because "I need to learn how to be quiet, to focus." Each of these choices, of course, led to new life paths, new things to learn, new ways to choose. My journal record makes that clear.

In an interesting way, though, my journal has been more than simply a record of the changes in my life. It has also become an important tool for intentional living. Over the years, I have used my journal to write down what I thought I wanted or needed-sometimes just the germ of a desire, sometimes a full-blown wish-and then, for the next few weeks or months, explore the desire by writing about it. Sometimes the exploration has taken me closer to the thing I thought I wanted, sometimes farther away. But what's important isn't whether I got it or not. What is important is the exploration itself, which teaches me to examine my intentions, to pay attention to what is going on in my heart, my mind, and my body. As I write and think and write some more, I get closer to the why, which is, when you get down to it, the most fundamental, the most important question of all.

If you would like to use your journal as a tool for intentional living, here are some things you might try.

  1. Set aside at least 15 minutes a day, every day, for journaling. It helps to do this at the same time every day, and in a pleasant place. (I love to sit on the deck in the early-morning sunshine with a cup of tea and a favorite CD.) It also helps to do this in the morning, as a way to gather your thoughts and energies for the coming day.

  2. Spend a few minutes writing about what you intend to do today-a plan for the day. Focus on what you want to do and why it's important. In this context, even trivial things-going to the grocery, taking the kids to soccer practice-are important, because you're learning to focus on your intentions.

  3. Spend a few minutes looking back over the previous day's intentions. Which of them did you fulfill? If some remain unfulfilled, why? (This is not a matter of failure! You're learning, from your own personal experience, how you can fulfill more of your intentions. You're also learning, from experience, what thwarts your intentions.)

  4. Spend a few minutes writing about a larger intention-a hope, a dream, a plan for some time in the future. I learn the most from this if I write, every day for a week or two, about the same intention, looking at it from different angles. What do I want? Why? What will it cost to achieve it? How will I be different when I've achieved it?

  5. If you can, take your journal with you (or a notebook you can use as an extension of your journal). During the day, remember your intentions, both large and small, present and future. Notice the small steps that you're taking toward fulfillment, and the things that happen that pull you away from fulfillment. Jot them down. Don't let yourself be judgmental, just notice.

If you continue to use your journal to focus on your intentions-seeing which of them diminish your spirit and which enlarge it; which are transitory and which persist; which encourage the growth of compassion and generosity-you will see changes in your life: intentional change, not random or accidental. Your goals will become more meaningful, you will move closer to them, and you will find more satisfaction in the process. And you will discover that your journal has become not just a record of your growth, but a tool to help you grow and a companion to witness it.

Susan Wittig Albert is the best-selling author of the China Bayles herbal mysteries and (with her husband) a series of Victorian mysteries. She is also the founder of the Story Circle Network, a non-profit organization for women who want to use journals and memoirs to record their lives. You can learn more about the Network by visiting the website, at www.storycircle.org, or by writing for a brochure to Story Circle Network, PO Box 500127, Austin TX 78750.

Copyright Susan Wittig Albert, 2001. May not be used without permission.

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Last updated: 03/18/01