Tag Archives: mindfulness

Twilight vision

Terms like sleep, waking, and dreaming may be too crude to capture accurately the fine structure of consciousness. Our vocabulary for describing states of consciousness is still too undeveloped.

Ryan Hurd and Kelly Bulkeley, editors, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Praeger, 2014, Practical and Applied Psychology Series, 2 vols., x)

Somewhere between wakeful consciousness and sleep, the mind encounters an intermediate phase of awareness—a meditative doze, often studded with bizarre imagery. This mental state, a portal between sleep and waking, is easily crossed though by most people, a dimly-perceived way station as they travel onward into their day or into their night.

But either by serendipitous occurrence or when sustained as an intentional practice, the “twilight” state has long been mined by creative thinkers and artists. Famed historical examples of scientific discovery, technical innovation, and works of art or music first came to their inventors as visions in proximity to a dream.

Described by some as “dreamstorming” and by others as “active imagination,” deliberately cultivating and exploring this elusive state may offer intriguing rewards for a journal-keeper who has tried all the basic methods and now seeks new adventures.

The easiest time to experience a twilight state—but not the easiest time to write about it—is when you’re lying in bed either tucked in to sleep or just waking up. What you can do at this time is to focus on and appreciate the transition into sleep (or into waking) as it unfolds in real time. A small girl I met at a campsite several summers ago described confidently to me that when she went to sleep at night in the tent, she watched for the movie that would always begin after her eyes closed.

As you relax, note how images appear behind your closed eyes or through the blur of half-closed eyelids. These images are not quite dreams because you’re not asleep, but they also don’t correspond to what occupies your surroundings—say, your bedroom—as observed when awake.

The scientific terminology for these visions are hypnogogic (when falling asleep) or hypnopompic (when waking up) experiences. As in dreams, and sometimes continuous with the content of a dream, the content of these images can range from human or human-like figures to landscapes and interior settings, sometimes even taking the form of glowing lights or shifting geometrical forms.

Your first conscious thoughts upon waking, if not too fleeting to retain, often carry insight that feels like it was dredged up to the surface from the depths of your sleeping mind. More pragmatic than a dream journal, a notebook to jot down these first thoughts—whether it takes the form of a prompt for something important you need to do today, a sudden fresh approach to a problem you attempted to solve yesterday without success, the vision of a potential creative project, or just the impulse to get in touch with someone you haven’t had contact with in a while—might represent your next step in this project of cultivating the sensitive mental state at the boundary between sleep and wakefulness.

After trying these initial steps for several nights and mornings, enjoying an easy familiarity with the dreamy state of letting images arise, you may feel prepared to “dreamstorm” or conjure up twilight imagery in the middle of the day, while sitting in an upright (or comfortably lounging) position with your journal at hand or at least some loose blank pages, prepared to write.

The clearest and most detailed guidance for journal-keepers on “working actively in that intermediate state of consciousness . . . the twilight state between waking and sleeping” can be found in Ira Progoff’s book At a Journal Workshop (57).What Progoff calls “inward perception” is achieved by closing one’s eyes, becoming calm and still as if preparing to meditate, and simply observing without judgment or interpretation the perceptual imagery, visual or nonvisual, that comes into the mind. Progoff’s Intensive Journal system leads participants through a process of recording and interpreting such imagery to cultivate insights that may elude us when we restrict ourselves to rational, step-by-step cognitive reasoning.

A more streamlined, if less thorough version of this practice can be found in KT Mehra’s “How to Use Active Imagination in Your Journaling” on the CreateWriteNow blog. In this essay Mehra outlines a simple five-step method for activating one’s untapped “visual and imaginative faculties” by “loosening the rigid focus” of regular daily thought patterns.

While intriguing to explore in a journal, the fruits of twilight imagery or active imagination may also serve a broader purpose for poets, composers, and other creative artists. Robert Olen Butler’s book for fiction writers, From Where You Dream, advocates this approach: “It’s a funny state. It’s not as if you’re falling asleep at your computer, but neither are you brainstorming. You’re dreamstorming, inviting the images of moment-to-moment experience through your unconscious. It’s very much like an intensive daydream, but a daydream that you are and are not controlling. You let it go, but it’s coming through language that you’re putting on a screen, so there is some intervention on your part, and yet the essence of it—that rainy street and that dog barking and the lamplight—are nothing you’re going after consciously” (31).

Whether you call it dreamstorming, working with twilight images, or using active imagination, the key to this process seems to lie in learning how to “control, yet not control” the way it unfolds. With practice, the goal is to settle into a rhythm: intentionally entering a still, receptive mental state, allowing images to come forward and engage in play without interruption, and only then, in smooth and subtle fashion, moving into the more active role of describing and interpreting the flow of inward perceptions yielded by this waking dream.

 

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Dream journal

The era of pandemic has affected even our sleep and dreams, and you may find yourself wanting to reflect these odd night-time experiences in your journal.

Yet the distinctive shape of a diary relies on dailiness. Diaries record time in regular periods of waking life covered in an entry, punctuated by gaps of nightly silence between entries, when we imagine the diary-keeper sleeps. To recall the classic example of this framing, Samuel Pepys announces over and over that he arose “up betimes” (or sometimes, he confesses, late) and concludes many an entry by signing off to sleep again: “And so to bed.”

In the diary each day opens the door to a new entry, whether it marks a fresh start or simply dives back into the routines and unfolding circumstances chronicled in entries past. Yet as journal-keepers widen the scope of reflection and explore internal life by describing varied states of mind, the day-by-day structure may run up against the challenge that a significant portion of mental life takes place in sleep. “No matter how you want to think about dreams,” says Christina Baldwin in One to One, “they are helpful pieces of knowledge and insight to include in the journal for self-awareness” (131).

So, how to incorporate dreams into the diary? Nearly every book about journal-keeping sets aside a chapter to address the issues surrounding a dream journal. The first question involves whether to keep the dream journal as a separate book. Ron Klug gives the example of a “dream log” in his list of journals that might stand on their own: Stored right beside the bed, the dream log waits for the writer to “immediately jot down their dream and any thoughts they have as to its meaning” (30).

Kay Adams describes the trade-off between a separate dream log, which has the advantage of providing “a running ‘script’ of your dream life,” versus integrating dreams within the context of daytime entries, a juxtaposition that more easily reveals connections and reference points with events that happened in waking life: “the sum of the parts can create a greater whole” (190).

Tristine Rainer in The New Diary recommends a framing method that both marks off the dreams and keeps them together with the rest of the journal: “If you put a box around your dream titles or write your dreams in red ink or otherwise distinguish them, you can later read through the dreams alone as in a dream log. The added benefit is that the night dream and the day life remain side by side. . . In retrospect you can see even more patterns and interconnections, and you can also observe to what extent you successfully listened to and answered your dreams in your waking life” (158).

Teachers and counselors with extensive experience in guiding dream work agree without exception on the importance of capturing a dream directly upon waking, before the details fade from memory.  They all give some version of Baldwin’s advice in Life’s Companion, to “keep a dream journal, notepad, sketchpad, or even small tape recorder by your beside” (139).

Sleep scientists have established that everyone dreams, even if they don’t retain their dreams in memory; apparently the simplest way to improve retention is simply to allot a certain amount of waking time to thoughts about dreaming. If you have dream-related ideas and intentions on your mind during the day, especially in the crucial minutes just before sleep, you are considerably more likely to remember at least fragments of a dream when you wake up.

Books on journal-keeping advise jotting down whatever you can remember of the dream, “catching it by the tail” so you can reel in more of the dream as you write it down. A popular format seems to involve recounting the dream in present tense and first person, as if it’s unfolding before the reader’s eyes. Another standard practice in dream therapy (which in these times seems heavily dominated by Jungian depth psychology) is to give each dream a title (see Tristine Rainer above), presumably for indexing and reference when later analyzing and interpreting the dreams in sequence.

Clearly, though, it’s up to each journal keeper to handle their dreams in any way that feels useful and instructive. Dream life, as part of internal experience, offers access to elusive non-rational, associative, and image-centered mental processes that may reward creative exploration in the pages of a journal.

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Clocks, diaries, and interior time

Diaries foreground time. Their structure of periodic, dated (even time-stamped) entries calls attention to the passage of time, day by day.

Historians who study the early modern era, including Stuart Sherman in Telling Time, claim an intriguing connection between the accessibility of portable clocks for individual ownership and the rise of day-based prose narratives like the newspaper and the diary.

New technology allowed people to count minutes reliably for the first time, so they could structure habits and work patterns into smaller increments. “Where church bells and clock towers had for centuries tolled time intermittently and at a distance,” Sherman explains, technical innovation made the progression of seconds, minutes, and hours palpable to the eye and ear: “Huygens’s clocks, ticking steadily, translated time into a sound both constant and contiguous” (4)

The new experience of “closely calibrated temporality . . . became concurrently a widespread practice in prose written, distributed, and read over steady, small increments of real time” (9). The spread of private diaries, daily newspapers, journal-letters published by travelers, and other installment-based forms of writing reflected how Europeans now perceived their position in time.

In a cultural shift that went far beyond just carving up time into smaller units, Sherman argues that through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, a dominant religious focus on eternity and wholeness was replaced by a more secular interest in present and “middle” moments—that is, on what you can accomplish right now: “clock-dials, minute hands, diaries, newspapers, and novels were new precisely in that they called attention away from endpoints and invested it in middles—of the current hour, of the ongoing life—that were sharply defined and indefinitely extended” (21).

“Clocks and watches, by rendering time palpable, audible, and visible . . . established themselves as the new point of reference not only for measuring time but for talking and thinking about it” (24). Sherman turns to the diary of Samuel Pepys—who took great pleasure in consulting “my minute watch” and even gave one to his wife—claiming that Pepys “writes middleness assiduously. . . When Pepys writes up an entry at the end of a given day, he often knows only the story’s middle, and not its conclusion” (94).

A diary’s structure relies on the idea that each entry occupies a “middle” position in time, reinterpreting the past to explain the present, but forever unable to see what happens next. It’s important to note Pepys’ obedience to this diary “rule”: even when he composes a diary entry long after the day in question, in some cases (such as his account of the Great Fire) revising multiple drafts, he still maintains the “fiction” or “contrivance” of limiting the entry to what he knew on that day. As Stuart Sherman concludes, the diary’s “narrative confines itself (regardless of the author’s information) to the timeframe specified by the dated calibration at the page’s edge; illumination as to the direction any given narrative is taking arrives in stroboscopic increments at intervals of a day” (94).

Clocks gave employers the ability to enforce stricter workday routines and productivity expectations, but diary-keepers could track their own progress toward goals, too. Samuel Pepys inventoried how much his wealth had grown at the end of each calendar year; he also used his diary to make rewards contingent on good behavior, such as promising himself that he won’t kiss a woman or drink wine again until he has caught up on a pesky backlog of diary entries.

Even before Pepys, the practice of keeping a diary often involved self-monitoring. Called “heart-watching” in Quaker parlance, this tradition, also associated with seventeenth-century Puritans, was popularized by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography and continues to this day in the form of Bullet Journal “habit-trackers” and spiritual journals that chart each time the writer says a prayer.

But apart from the history of technology, we’ve always had clocks inside us, programmed at the molecular level and “entrained” by the seasonal changes in day-length. Our interior timekeepers try their best to optimize healthy schedules that balance eating and digestion, physical exertion and sleep.

Does a connection between mechanical clocks and the rise of the diary make it less relevant for journal-keepers to focus on the physiological cycles our bodies live through in a 24-hour period? Though Sherman does not mention circadian rhythms, I wonder if the new focus on clock-time represented an important step in separating people’s intellectual understanding of time from their bodily sensations.

Clock-time, with its accompanying (often unrealistic) expectations of productivity—not to mention external agents making ever-more-precise demands on our time—have the effect of disrupting internal rhythms. As a result, sleep scientists suggest that people’s bodies suffer from a pattern of ongoing deprivation that begins by overstimulating with caffeine to compensate for insufficient sleep, followed by self-soothing with alcohol when that accumulated caffeine makes it hard to settle down at the end of the day—only to shake off the effects of the alcohol next morning by consuming even more caffeine.

Having learned about the origins of the modern time-sense might offer us a new opportunity in the diary. Consistent with its tradition of self-monitoring, we could steer the journal in the direction of seeking a healthier balance between two competing modes of dailiness: internal bodily rhythms governed by natural cycles, and the external march of the mechanical, industrial clock.

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Lunar cycles

People know little about the moon. Popular astronomy and planetarium websites report that to many in their audiences, it comes as a huge surprise even to learn that the moon is visible in daylight. How can we reach adulthood so unobservant of our surroundings that never once did we look up to notice the moon out during the day?

Hollywood audiences apparently take no issue, either, with outdoor establishing shots that tell us a scene takes place at night—and in which, by some unwritten rule, the moon always appears full. I love how the smugglers in “Poldark,” who you’d think might have wanted to move their goods under cover of darkness, always work under a full moon. Then a show’s plot will advance by a week or two, until another scene takes place at night—can you guess whether the moon has changed its phase?

In earlier times, paying attention to the moon held higher stakes than it does today. It could be useful, or even affect survival, to know and predict the lunar cycle. Archaeologists have studied coastlines in Africa with intertidal zones where early humans dependent on molluscs for their food supply had to have a “sophisticated knowledge of the relationship between lunar-driven tides and intertidal foraging.”

Those “early modern humans could recognize the relationship between lunar cycles, tidal systems and [availability of molluscs] and thus design symbolic calendar systems that allowed them to time their visits to the coast so as to make productive use of the coastal zone.”  Attunement to the lunar cycles mattered a lot, as foragers could risk drowning in the rising waters if they ignored or miscalculated the lunar—and therefore tidal—cycle.

Often throughout history, too, armies seeking to conduct post-sundown warfare have selected a date when the moon was full to enhance visibility for their nocturnal foray, or a new moon to ambush the enemy under maximum darkness.

Scientific studies still support the validity of relationships between animal behavior and the moon. But does the lunar cycle directly affect human behavior?  Anecdotal evidence abounds, especially in places like police stations, crisis hotlines, birthing centers, and emergency rooms.

But hard evidence for the connection tends to crumble in the face of large-scale statistical analysis. Formal studies, many summarized in a Current Biology review article “Human Responses to the Geophysical Daily, Annual and Lunar Cycles,” examine claims of a monthly spike in so-called lunacy, rates of criminal behavior and traffic accidents; these claims, along with supposed correlations between lunar phase and stock-market performance, have all been soundly debunked.

Study after study has failed to support a causal connection between lunar phases and human physiology. Scientists explain that, to begin with, the gravitational force that generates the tides depend on the alignment among earth, moon, and sun, rather than specifically the moon’s phase in relation to earth, “so a full moon does not mean a specific gravitational effect on earth.” Secondly, the idea that our bodies are mostly made up of water and therefore we might host internal “tides” is contradicted by the fact that the moon’s pull is actually a very weak effect, not strong enough to stir most bodies of water (lakes, even the smaller oceans), much less to govern ebbs and flows inside a human body.

Even the most obvious monthly human rhythm—our menstrual cycle—shows no clear evidence of direct influence by the position of the moon. Yet based on the coincidental similarity in the average length of these cycles, cultures around the world link femaleness with the moon in their mythologies, legends, and spiritual practices.

Some evidence does suggest that people’s sleep can be disrupted when the night sky displays more light (such as the three or four nights closest to the full moon). As certain psychological conditions are exacerbated by sleep deprivation, this effect may partly account for anecdotes about the resulting incidents. Such an effect, hugely reduced by the advent of bright artificial lighting after sundown, may have been great enough in past times and still in remote places to keep lunar-phase myths alive.

We choose which cycles to focus on, to note in our diaries, and to invest with significance. Knowing that seasonal changes and circadian (daily) rhythms deeply affect our bodies—sleep patterns, appetites, activity levels—it makes sense, as a practice of self-awareness, to keep daily cycles in mind, a connection that the original meaning of the words “diary” and “journal” already invites.

Some calendar points constructed by culture, too, like weekdays versus the weekend, record-keeping and financial deadlines pegged to the turn of the month, or recurring tasks on a work calendar, tend to fold themselves in to the account of a journal, corresponding to rhythms that matter in our lives.  Diaries kept by observant Christians often punctuate their week with Sunday (First Day or Sabbath); in diaries I’ve studied, especially if the writer is a churchgoer, Sunday’s entries may provide a pause to express religious sentiments or reflections.

The question of the lunar month holds a place of quixotic tension in this calendar. Like many journal-keepers, I’ve often followed an impulse to track lunar phases and even let my awareness of the moon’s current phase (last quarter, new moon) prompt the shape or direction of a journal entry. For no rational or scientific reason, I enjoy starting a new volume on the day of a full moon or a new moon.

Paying attention to the moon, even if it doesn’t directly control our physiology, may still have value. Observing your surroundings, such as to notice the moon visible in the sky at morning or midday, and to know where we stand in the lunar cycle, connects you with something beyond yourself.

Humans who menstruate, if attuned to the unfolding sensations in our bodies, can learn to take better care of ourselves by recognizing and working with the inherent “monthliness” of hormonal/menstrual cycles rather than denying or resisting them. Discovering a pattern that may be highly individual, we learn how different points around this cycle are associated, for us, with changing emotional states and physical sensations in semi-predictable ways.

Like the similarly odd fact that our sun and moon appear to share an almost identical diameter as viewed from Earth, the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that any link between lunar phase and human physiology is nothing but coincidence. And links with other perceived connections, such as higher incidences of “lunacy” or crime, simply don’t hold up under statistical examination.

So, let’s accept that the moon exerts no effect on us, and only stirs large bodies of water like the oceans. Maybe as journal-keepers we simply observe those forces the moon exerts on Earth—the ebb and flow of tides, the fluctuation of crescent and gibbous moons, of lighter and darker night skies—as stations that usefully mark our own path through the seasons and the dozen or so full moons that make a year.

 

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Journal method #7: Reflecting

Clear rural pond at sunset reflects a horizon of trees and light.While thousands of journal prompts ask us to launch into reflecting on something specific, this post will examine reflection itself as a tool—one that you can pull out to enhance your journal even after you’ve started writing a new entry.

Consider prescribing yourself a dose of reflection whenever you find your diary reverting to a bland factual account of daily weather and completed tasks. Conversely, reflection can also fruitfully intervene when you’ve hit a rough patch and find that these days, your diary seems to serve only to vent a geyser of negative feelings, often in unoriginal, heated language.

Reflection works differently from other journal methods because any time while writing in a journal, you can pause and reflect. Stephanie Dowrick, in The Creative Journal, comments that “the process of journal writing gives you an invaluable measure of distance between yourself and your thoughts . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly how helpful this [measure of distance] is.” She describes reflective writing as a process of “’making room’ inside my own mind so that new thoughts can arise” (15).

So, how do you go about reflecting? To reflect means to break off and make sense of what you see. You give yourself a chance to examine what was just written, identify connections, patterns, or contradictions, and relay these findings in the next few sentences, as annotations, or in a later entry.

In contrast to journal methods that ask for concrete, immediate observation or a lightning-quick sequence of unprocessed thoughts, reflection takes more time to think before writing and involves intentionally stepping back. The “stepping back” matters most—yet another spatial metaphor for that process of creating “a measure of distance” or “making room” for focused work.

That new space opens within the mind of the journal-keeper. In a way the writer splits into two selves: one that can experience while another makes sense of the experience. Two common stylistic indicators of reflection in a diary include introducing the pronoun “you” and phrasing ideas in the form of questions. Both these linguistic moves give rise to implied dialogue between two subjects.

On the surface, these moves may appear to shift power toward a person other than the writer—an implied reader who is directly addressed as “you” or presented with a question to answer. But given the tradition that a diary is private and has no reader, reflection in a journal takes place within the writing self alone. A version of talking to oneself, it allows the writer’s mind to entertain and develop more than a single perspective.

In her book Diary Poetics Anna Jackson persuasively shows how the “you” in many examples of modern journal entries make more sense if “you” is taken as referring to the diarist, rather than a hypothetical reader. Instead of “I” (the writer) addressing “you” the potential reader, the second-person pronoun instead lets the writer build mental distance between an experiencing self and a reflective consciousness. (Sometimes the diarist may feel a need to protect the self at even greater distance by using third person to write about themselves.)

The use of questions likewise implies the two-sidedness of a conversation—or at least a sense that someone (outside or within) is listening to the journal-keeper and invited to respond.

Overuse of the reflective method may call out for its own counterbalancing. Analytical language can begin to feel detached and generalized, so a lengthy reflective passage may find itself giving way to “juicier” stylistic methods like specific descriptions, action scenes, or language that evokes direct sensations, whether emotional or physical.

Remember, too, that the insights gained in reflection only represent your thoughts at the current time. In the triumph of figuring something out, it can feel tempting to view that new interpretation as the final word on a subject, especially an emotionally complicated issue that matters deeply to you.

So even as you round off the reflection, you’ll want to leave the door open to re-question, reframe, and possibly someday replace today’s conclusions as the flow of time continues and the pages of future experience unfold.

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Journal method #5: Shaping a day

Maybe you don’t keep a daily diary, and even take pride in how your journal cultivates an elastic sense of time: an open-ended approach that lets you focus on the immediate moment of writing, venture back to reflect on significant incidents in the past, or list the current ongoing circumstances in your life. Yet despite its marvelous flexibility to travel across minutes, weeks, or years, any journal or diary, at the very root of its name, retains a privileged connection to one well-defined span of time: the day.

You can honor the form’s tradition of dailiness by choosing to dedicate the occasional entry to a detailed sketch or portrait of your day. Tristine Rainer, in The New Diary (Updated for the 21st Century) makes the point that you gain the greatest benefit from this type of entry “if you have time to expand it as fully as possible, to push beyond an outline of the day’s activities” in order to dwell on the nuances, sensory textures, and highlights of insight or emotion that defined the shape of this 24-hour period.

Rainer acknowledges that a full chronicle of every day “could become exhausting and dull.” But if practiced “occasionally,” she asserts that “a complete record of the day will give you a sense of the complex, detailed fabric of your life” (27).

To enhance the challenge, instead of spelling out or labeling your emotional state(s), you could try allowing your feelings to seep through the vocabulary and phrasing that describe the day. The tone of selected words, the entry’s pace and rhythm, explanations of context, commentary, which aspects of the day you choose to focus on and how you arrange them—all these elements of apparently objective description will reveal your mood and interior life.

Equally accomplished as novelist and diarist, Virginia Woolf understood how thoroughly perception shapes experience. As she wrote in her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,”

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.

In this passage Woolf implies that we can use our “ordinary” minds to view every “ordinary” day as not just unique but extraordinary—as offering a treasury of sensations, ideas, perceptions, reactions, interactions, and feelings that may strike you as momentary or entrenched. Unless the day is extraordinarily bad—perhaps muffled in unbearable strain or grief that places caring for yourself above working in the journal—you can practice uncovering the day’s richness in all that it presents.

Followed through from dawn to dusk, from the shrill of a morning alarm to the ritual of settling in at bedtime, whether the day marks itself in hours, in scheduled and unscheduled events, encounters with other people, mealtimes, pastimes, or outings—the full description of its turning-points, its ebb and flow of energies, will do more than illuminate just that one day. Looking back at the entry will tell you more than reviewing a page in an old calendar. You’ll perceive again what life felt like, and survey all that you received and responded to during this time.

Samuel Pepys typically began his diary entries with the phrase “Up betimes” and ended with, “and so to bed.” This formula of daily rising and retiring would predict a chronicle of an ordinary person’s activities over many thousands of mostly ordinary days. But if you can write about your days with the vitality and enthusiasm that Pepys brought to the task, maybe people will be reading your diary almost four centuries from now.

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Journal for the seasons: Spring

Even in quiet years we tend to overlook the equinox, that halfway mark on the path between two annual extremes. Even if we didn’t find ourselves clumsily surfing, as we do now, on momentous waves of disruption and instability, who pays attention to such a subtle gateway into the new season, delicate balancing-point of day and night?

This year uncertainty abounds in our work lives and families. Event plans, travel plans, social plans, and everyday activities face new restrictions and complications with every scrolling headline. Livelihoods and lives are threatened—grim prospects bound to affect real people we care about, even if for now we still absorb the news impersonally, through onscreen charts and graphs.

So what about the inconsequential arrival of spring? We still receive public-health advice to spend time outdoors, perambulate, greet neighbors and their leashed dogs from a prudent six-foot distance. A friend on a bicycle called out, “making our own gym!” yesterday as she rode by. (Indoor exercise facilities had closed less than an hour earlier, not to re-open for the foreseeable future.)

Yesterday, too, Middle Way Farm, located just north of town, announced the year’s first outdoor planting of vegetable seeds—snap peas. “Farm work,” Jordan posted, “is continuing relatively uninterrupted despite how every other part of life has been disrupted. I’m trying to take solace in the work and the steady coming of spring but it’s still hard.”

In personal journals, as on the farm, a rhythm develops between unpredictable events with heightened impact and the familiar cycles we count on—night following day, spring following winter. Long-time journal keepers can look back to see what happened on this day three years ago, or ten. The first seedlings in a bare field, the first redwing blackbird, or the first rain instead of snow might, depending where you live, serve as expected signs of spring.

Right now, as journal-keepers discuss (protected by the safe distance of online platforms) a revival of the “plague diary” tradition—in which people record how their lives are disrupted by threats of contagion and enforced isolation—we’re also encouraged, if we can, to go outdoors, to spend time in fresh air and take in the natural landscape. In a healing way, the journal can weave together what endures and what changes.

And so, though many people will notice this only on a subliminal level, one of the most disquieting aspects of global heating (climate crisis) must involve the alteration of long-established cycles of phenology. For as long as we can, let’s note local details of recurrent renewal even as we mark the ways that everyday interactions, family life, and how we make a living assume a stark new form.

Some habits we’re forced to adopt could recede in the next weeks and months while others persist into the future. Journal-keepers understand this: The diary never knows what comes next. While writing today’s entry we can’t discern what common practices we may be giving up forever, what inconveniences will affect us for merely a week or two, and what all this change means for the long-term. We couldn’t tell back in September 2001, could we, what aspects of ordinary life would alter only briefly and what changes would persist 20 years later?

A well-kept journal reflects large-scale cultural shifts more accurately and vividly than a completed narrative. Writers who already know the outcome will tend to distort the keen sensation of uncertainly—the luxury of retrospect lets them correct misplaced assumptions, point to hints missed at the time, and minimize fears that turned out to be unwarranted. But journals capture a big transformation in the very act of hitting a household, a workplace, or a neighborhood.

Respect the equinox, this moment of balance poised between. From where you are, reflect on the seismic tides of change moving through our lives, accepting that we simply don’t have a long, settled perspective. If you aren’t one of those presently caught up on the front lines, unable to take time to write, make it your gift to preserve an authentic uncertainty viewed from the present vantage-point. Open up a personal journal. The words you write today may contribute, eventually, to forging sense out of this year’s chaotic season.

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Journal for the seasons: autumn

On this day of the equinox, we find insight in an essay by Maria Popova, who writes on many topics in her online column, “Brain Pickings.” Popova describes autumn as the season most difficult to pin down, a time that can seem “temperate” as easily as it becomes “tempestuous”—a season often associated with the approach of winter and a process of inevitable loss, decline, and decay, while at the same time celebrating the abundance, ripeness, and fruition of yearly harvest.

The changing length of days continues to provide the most predictive cues for many organisms that adjust their physiology or behavior in accordance for the timing of vital activities like migration, reproduction, or hibernation. Days grow shorter during the entire time between summer solstice and midwinter; today we have reached the midpoint, the balance. How do the extending hours of darkness and the ever-scarcer hours of daylight affect patterns in your own day-to-day, journal-keeping life?

Maybe it’s easier to sleep on cooler nights, or harder to get up when the sun hasn’t finished rising. David Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, writes that many animals “become frisky in spring and hibernate over the winter.” Does time feel deeper or slower at this time of year? For many plants and creatures, “sensors of various kinds nudge [them] to keep track of the earth’s rotation around the sun” (Science Weekly, The Guardian, 14 January 2018). Can we still sense this rhythm?

Surrounded by artificial lights and temperature controls, having much the same range of foods to choose from all year round, and spending little time unprotected in the outdoors, to a large extent we have the luxury of ignoring the fluctuations of seasonal change. We don’t feel the physical effects or depend on reading the signs of earth and vegetation as vitally necessary to decisions that determine our food supply or preparation for getting through winter.

We have an abundance previously unknown—a year-round harvest season—and maybe also a loss that’s harder to register, a sameness of experience regardless of time of year. The practice of keeping a journal, especially one that observes nature over time (a phenology journal) can help to recover the balance of seasonality, the varying rhythms of outdoor experience, and an acute awareness of this halfway-between moment, the equinox of the year.

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Journal method #3: Expand the present

Diaries can heighten awareness of the immediate moment—for example, by writing a “here and now” entry—but they also offer a chance to interpret Now or “the present time” more broadly, as the current phase or chapter in one’s life.

Two classic books on journal-keeping explore ways to expand the present moment into a longer time-period from which to move forward. “There are steps to action, but no formula,” says Christina Baldwin in her book Life’s Companion. Baldwin claims that you can more clearly see the steps toward positive change once you establish a clear understanding of where you are now.

Adopting an honest view of the current reality is crucial, because as Baldwin adds, “we need to make use of the world as it is. Only from the position of being fully in the world can we influence it” (285). To this end, Baldwin offers a sentence-completion exercise that repeatedly opens with the stem phrase “Current reality is . . . “ She invites journal-keepers to create a page of sentences each beginning with that stem, to “make an objective list of the circumstances in your life.”

After listing the factual circumstances, Baldwin next suggests using the same sentence-stem (“Current reality is . . . “) to detail, in simple declarative statements, the emotions felt by the journal-keeper about the circumstances listed in the first part of the exercise. Though it may not seem like this exercise would reveal anything that the journal-keeper doesn’t already know, try it! Many have found clarifying value in writing out these lists and seeing what emerges, as a first step toward action for change.

A more intuitive way to place oneself between past and future, or “position oneself in the present,” comes from Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal method. “Now is not limited to the immediate instant,” Progoff writes in his book, At A Journal Workshop. Instead, “we stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present.”

This “present moment” could be longer or shorter depending on the person. It usually goes back to some significant event that continues to influence the writer’s life. Progoff writes:

For one person this present period in his life may reach back three years since he had a car accident and was hospitalized. Because of the changes it brought about, the period of time since that event is the Now. For another person this present period may be merely a few weeks since she met a new friend, moved to a different city, began a new job, or underwent some other significant change in her circumstances. Since that time her life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period. (47)

To launch this exercise Progoff asks the writer to take a few minutes, with eyes closed, to reflect on the implications of the question, “Where am I now in my life?” Instead of thinking about it deliberately, the goal is to relax in a meditative state, allowing an image or sensation to emerge in response to this question. The awareness may come in many forms—perception, symbol, metaphor—and can be described with the sentence stem, “It is like . . . “ followed by a description of what has revealed itself.

As a final step to consolidate this insight, Progoff has the journal-writer step back and look at this present period more consciously:

  • When did it start?
  • What are the main outer and inner events that stand out when thinking about this time?
  • How has it generally felt to be you? Is it a difficult time, a joyous time, a time of grieving?
  • What events have focused on the physical experiences of your body?
  • What relationships with others stand out, especially conflicts or newly strengthened connections?
  • What internal events—dreams, emotional states, transformation through art or spirituality—had a strong influence?
  • Have habits or beliefs changed during this period?

For Baldwin and Progoff, the purpose of dwelling in the present and understanding the “now” is ultimately focused on the future. “Present time” entries build a vantage point from which to envision and set forth in a new direction. Such a dynamic model implies that circumstances continue to change, and that the journal-keeper can choose where to go from here.

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Journal method #1: Here and now

No journal keeper ever needs to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to open the book to a new page and get started—to select an opening gambit when faced with a rush of thoughts and emotions tumbling through the mind—or, at the other extreme, when bogged down by a sense of having nothing to say. Has too much happened since the last entry, or has nothing seemed to change much since you last wrote?

One method for starting any diary entry has proven consistently reliable. Tristine Rainer, in her book The New Diary, named this method “a here-and-now exercise.”  To do it, you engage in describing your surroundings at the time of writing. Rainer advises that this method works best if you “re-awaken all the senses,” intentionally heightening your physical awareness to pick up on concrete details that people don’t generally notice.

Here-and-now starts with describing what appears around you, making the language vivid, to bring readers right into the place of your writing. To do this exercise, it helps if you don’t write in a habitual place at the same time each day. Vary the scene of journal-keeping; look for different times to write and scout new locations.

What does “vivid” mean? To bring your scene to life, most writing guides suggest avoiding abstract words that render judgment (gorgeous, boring, neglected, delicious) in favor of clear factual details that immerse a reader in the experience. “The best way to avoid the trap of dead words,” says Hannah Hinchman, “is to keep a firm grasp on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be.”

Build a rich vocabulary of nouns and verbs; scrutinize adjectives and avoid piling them on; find out and use the precise names for everyday objects and the parts of things, like a lamp finial or a wall bracket. In my own journals, even as the writing unfolds across the page, I play a game of avoiding “to be” verbs—a page without a single “are,” “is,” or “were” means that I win for clear and pointed prose.

So, describe what you see—branches laden with shades of green outside the window, a fly swatter on the table, softening apples in a bowl—but also note smells, sounds, and even more subtle sensory experiences: The cidery smell and puckered skin of the nearest apple, the whine of the passing housefly, the white-noise hum of appliances around the house—bitter aftertaste of the last, cooled sip from the coffee mug, drape of humid air on arms and neck.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness, describes the state of heightened observation where you might notice, for example, how even when you close your eyes, the sound of rain can delineate a landscape, bringing out the contours and perspective of the surrounding space as raindrops hit different surfaces to produce different sounds, creating a complex acoustic experience.

What surrounds you here-and-now offers a variety of textures, colors, objects, perhaps living things to describe. You may also note interior physical sensations: Kabat-Zinn suggests, beyond paying attention to what you see, hear, and smell, pausing to immerse your awareness in the fluid “airscape” against your skin. Even on a day without wind, or when sitting indoors, if you attend carefully you can train yourself to feel a subtle current or draft moving around, in, and out of your body: cool, warm, wet, dry?

Why bother to note such trivial things and write them down? A here-and-now exercise squarely places you in the moment of diary-writing, and diaries take it as their project to begin in the present. “Put yourself right in the present,” advised the venerable diary-keeper, Anaïs Nin, quoted by Marlene Schiwy in A Voice of her Own. “Start there and that starts the whole unravelling, because that [present moment] has roots in the past and it has branches into the future.”

As you write about what’s around you, the outer world comes into contact with your physical self and produces interior sensations. Stretch to consider the less obvious sensory experiences, like sounds and smells in your environment. Let the here-and-now exercise work to expand your idea of what’s involved in being here, and your awareness of how that feels now.

By starting with the moment of writing, the diarist opens space to move in a variety of directions that we can explore in future posts. Just to give one example, sensory details of the present can evoke intense memories after years have passed. By practicing vivid ways to write about your “now,” you offer a gift to the later self who reads the diary—for whom, in Curtis Casewit’s words, “some long-ago days may still gleam there as if you had just experienced them.”

In posts ahead, we’ll look at ways to use the here-and-now exercise as a springboard. Details observed in the present often spark memories and provide a gateway into writing about the past—how it still affects our lives, or what has changed since earlier times. A single object, once we’ve placed attention on it, can become much more—the choice of words reveals what the writer finds important and how they feel at the time of writing. Mental or emotional state shapes everything recorded in the journal.

And finally, in future posts let’s broaden our idea of the present moment beyond a single point in time—the minutes spent writing today—to consider, as suggested by Ira Progoff (creator of the Intensive Journal), an “elastic ‘now’” that expands the present moment to include the length of time that has passed since writing the previous entry, or even the current period in one’s life. The elastic “now” can open enough space to take a fresh look at present circumstances and envision where to go from here.

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