Tag Archives: mind-body link

The feel good formula familiar to journal writers

In a new book entitled “Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life”, positive psychologist Dr Todd Kashdan has defined a formula for happiness – and identified that heightening our levels of curiosity and open-mindedness about our experience is helpful to our well-being.

Who knew?

Well, if you’ve kept a journal for any length of time you will know that nurturing our curiosity is not only vital to garnering enough material to write about, but it also enhances our lives in other ways too. Curiosity makes us slow down; it makes us question things more keenly; it makes us look closer; it makes us appreciate more, and gives us greater opportunity for understanding and empathy. Think about Alice in Wonderland. “Curiouser and curiouser” were her watchwords. And she breezed through some pretty bizarre experiences without a single shred of angst or stress.

And what of the happiness formula itself?

Check this out:

(Mx16 + Cx1 +Lx2) + (Tx5 + Nx2 + Bx33)

The key is:

M – live in the moment; C – be curious; L – do something you love; T – think of others; N – nurture relationships; B – take care of your body.

Reflective writing is a positive step in the direction of all these factors, helping us be more mindful. Here’s a reminder of a few exercises to tune in to each of them:

  • Live in the moment

Spend five minutes becoming aware of your environment, the sounds, smells, air temperature, the things you can see around you. Make a note of them. Turn your attention to your body. Write about how it feels, where you sense any tension. Every time your mind is tempted to stray off into other thoughts and imaginings, bring your focus back to the page, to the feeling of the pen between your fingers. Keep writing. What’s important about this moment?

  • Be curious

Take a fresh view of an object that is familiar to you. It could be a trinket, an appliance or a piece of furniture. Get curious about it. Write it down.

  • Do something you love

What’s the thing that brings you the most joy and satisfaction? How often do you experience it? What promise will you make about the thing you love to do? Write it down.

  • Think of others

Bring to mind the first person you saw when you left the house today. Write a brief pen portrait of them. Allow ourself to step into their shoes and see the day through their eyes, maybe write a short paragraph in their voice. How have your perceptions shifted?

  • Nurture relationships

Write a letter to someone special to you whom you haven’t seen for a while. What do you want them to know? As you write, what feels like the best, most nurturing  way to reach out to them? Make a plan of action to do that thing and write it down.

  • Take care of your body

Initiate a ‘conversation’ with a part of your body that is causing you any concern or discomfort. What message does it have for you? What steps is it asking you to take to look after it better?  Make a commitment to do the thing your body is ‘asking’ for and write it down.

Our journals can become our handbooks for happiness. Between our minds and the page, the physical act of writing helps us integrate the feel good formula into our own lives. Get curious!

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Me and my shadow… Journaling to illuminate ‘Self’ and ‘Other’

The winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2013 was Hungarian shadow-dance troupe Attraction. They presented three tableaux over the course of the competition which told compelling stories (although the final one was just a touch sycophantic), sending the audience on an emotional inner journey, and clearly appealing to our human fascination with the illusion of shadow.

One of the things I always notice is my shadow. Right back since childhood. Although I no longer try and beat my shadow, or pin it down, I do still appreciate its shape and attitude. Studying Virgil’s Aeneid  for O level Latin I remember learning about Aeneas’ encounter with the insubstantial shades in the Underworld, the shadowy, lost figures of the Dead. But these days I prefer to think of my shadow as evidence of my body, my physicality, substantial and very much alive.

Shadow

It’s good having a body. Not only does it allow us to cast a shadow, it also allows us to play sport, dance, sing, make love, walk out in nature. Sometimes it goes wrong and it gets old, but generally, as long as we look after it and pay attention to it it’s a great source of solace and inspiration too.

Our bodies are vessels of physical intelligence, intuition and deep-seated wisdom, or, to coin a word from Marion Milner, sagacity. And, if we learn to recognise our body as part of ourselves, rather than simply as a vehicle to carry our head around, we can discover much from being in it.

A few weeks ago at the Swindon Festival Of Literature I heard Resurgence editor Satish Kumar define spirituality (from Latin spirare to breathe) as relationship, a particular connection that we share through the act of breathing the same air. And I find that we create relationship with our shadow-casting bodies  through precisely that – breathing; breathing into our physical presence, creating a tingling feeling from the tips of our toes to the top of our head. Milner is particularly struck by the sensation of her skin burgeoning right to the ends of her finger nails as she focuses her attention and her breath on the weight of her body.

This sets the scene for deeper forms of inquiry. Once we’ve been reminded about our physical self by the appearance of our shadow, and we’ve reconnected with our body through the simple, intentional act of breathing, we can then begin to notice what memories we have stored, and what these tell us about who we are.

How we view our relationship with our own physicality is an important aspect of the exploration of self and other that our journaling practice makes possible. It’s a vital starting point.  Whether we think of ourselves as our bodies, or our bodies as part of ourselves, or even as completely separate from who we think ourselves to be, when we dare to go further than our self-righteous, self-pitying rants, we find great stillness in our body. I also know from experience that what my body has to tell me is always valuable, whenever I make space to hear the particular message coming from my back, neck or jaw.

Like Aeneas we might see our physical shadow as our insubstantial ‘other’. But it is an echo of  our substance and can point the way back to the ‘other’ within us.

Otherness is always part of us. The unknown, unconscious functions of our body that enable us to perceive our environment; the mysterious, though entirely rational, rhythm of life which pulses through us day and night; the ability we have to engage in an activity and be aware that we are engaged in it; the ease with which we recognise the “me” and the “not-me-guv” in our physical experience.

Our inquiries go deeper when we develop the capacity to view ourselves objectively. We need to become ‘other’, to get out of our own way and step aside from ourselves in order to look in. We can imagine another self, stepping out of and away from our body to look back whence it came. As we do this we are automatically expanding our imagination, our inner space, which, once expanded, won’t shrink back. We have now become simultaneously the observer and the observed.

Meanwhile the functions of the body continue, and maybe they benefit from increased inner space. Inner reflection and expressive writing in our journals have a proven  feedback loop of health benefits. The space within expands, our awareness increases and from a more objective standpoint our unknown, unconscious and mysterious functions get to choose which of our narrative serves us, and which needs to be jettisoned.

So next time you see your shadow, appreciate its magic and use it as a prompt to expand your inner space. As you look back to your Self from the perspective of your inner Other, what do you notice?

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Why journal writing is good for our brain

Journal writing is a physical act in that it requires we use our fine motor skills to wield a tool that marks the page. It is also a mental and intellectual act in that in order to be intelligible the marks we make must conform to the conventions of the language in which we operate. It is a creative and intuitive act as we give permission to our emotions and imagination to express themselves.

In this sense journal writing is a past-time that immediately and simultaneously engages all those parts of our brain that are responsible for physical coordination, verbal and logical reasoning and emotional response. It is an integrally holistic exercise in itself, firing activity across the whole of our cerebral hemispheres. Add to that the act of reflection, reading what we have written, and we become aware of new insights that our whole brain is  pointing us towards.

It occurs to me as I write that journaling might therefore be a form of dreaming. When we get really absorbed in our journaling session we have little control over what emerges at the end of our pen. Many writers of different genres report a similar experience once they get into the flow of their work, and the content of their writing seems to be directing itself, like our dreams. So it is with reflective writing. Once we let go of the stage directions of our conscious mind, our imaginations really do roam free and what we read invariably surprises us.

So why is this beneficial? In his seminal work on brain function The Master and his Emissary, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist highlights how a world which is run by too much left-brain thinking  is one which is mechanistic, virtual, fragmented, and with a greater tendency to manifest exploitative practices. This is because our left-brain is more utilitarian, governing rules, language, and logic. Whereas a world which respects human artistic endeavour, and which acknowledges the more emotional and intuitive aspect of humanity, is demonstrating a prevalence for right-brain thinking.

McGilchrist’s point is that overuse of one set of cerebral skills at the expense of the other results in a very lop-sided world. We need to strike a better balance between the characteristics of our mind, including using our brain in a more integrated way, and acknowledging that our physical bodies are also part of the equation. Journal writing is one way of training our brain to fire on all cylinders of its creative and logical potential, and if more people achieved this the world could become a different place.

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