Tag Archives: self-awareness

Lessons from Milner – expressing thoughts in their wholeness

Uh-oh.

It’s not quite been 20 years but there is something of the Rip van Winkle about the sleepiness of this blog.

Since reading Marion Milner my approach to journaling has shifted. And it has resulted in my living more – and writing less.

This has always been a conundrum for me. Reflective practice ought not to stifle action. It ought to stimulate action and ensure its enhanced authenticity. Being a lover of action I guess I’d always felt a bit awkward about the reflective bit and have always wanted to strike a respectable balance between the two.

Through Milner I have discovered a fascinating journaling trick which has been like super-charging my life with lightning.

Here’s what she says:

“I must learn to maintain a vigilance, not against wrong thoughts but against refusal to recognise any thought.”

At first I didn’t want to accept that I too may have been refusing to recognise certain of my thoughts. But then when I did, and when I then began to express those thoughts in my journal, things really started to shift in my outer life.

Our inner censors are so insidious and wily. No matter how articulate we are in talking about them, no matter how aware we are of their strange potential to sabotage us, they always find a way to sneak under the radar.

I noticed my inner censor was acting all rational on me. And who doesn’t want to be rational, right? But it was hiding in plain sight, making me think that rational is good, rational is me – when all along it jolly well isn’t.

My inner censor was stopping me from dreaming, and even though dream-like thoughts would nudge at me these were typically not the ones I would write about.

Suddenly when I took Milner’s advice things started to happen. It felt different to express all my thoughts – especially the ones that my inner censor would have been carefully corralling previously. But the results have been transformational.

Try it. Don’t let your inner censor lull you to sleep. Pay attention to the dreams you have when you’re awake. Be vigilant. Be alive.

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What has journaling helped you achieve?

I’m curious. For all you dyed-in-the-wool journal writers out there – what are the things that you have made possible for yourself just by keeping a regular reflective record of your thoughts and experience?

Maybe it’s something small but incremental. Or maybe it’s something way more significant and challenging.

Recently I got some feedback from one reader that The Journal Writer’s Handbook had made her think so differently about what she was doing with her life post-retirement that she went out and booked a 3 month round the world cruise. Wow.

And another reader who struggles with insomnia was simply delighted to have had a good night’s sleep after spending a few minutes scribbling down her thoughts before turning out the light.

For me the reflective way has helped me cure my back pain, supported me through times of grief and disappointment, and continues to inspire me with new ideas for writing.

So over to you – what would you never have done without your journal?

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How journaling can reconnect us with our community

Walk into any good quality stationers and browse their journal shelf and you will doubtless find a notebook designated as a Travel Journal. This is for recording thoughts and reflections in places we visit, on holiday, or as part of a conscious effort to be ‘away from it all’, in places that aren’t part of our usual itinerary.

But what about journaling in places that are already familiar to us? That form part of the landscape we already call home? What can that do – to us? And to the place?

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading a group of journal writers through a short workshop in response to our surroundings. These were Old Town Gardens in Swindon, Wiltshire, UK. We used the Bowls Clubhouse as our base – whose members could not have been more accommodating or welcoming – and enjoyed an hour and a half of companionable journaling and reflective discussion.

First, everyone was invited to choose an inquiry from our specially created washing line:

Washing line of inquiry

Then we all embarked on a meditative stroll around the park, allowing our bodies and our minds to slow down and notice what we notice – using our senses, paying attention to whatever caught our eye, picking up “objets trouves” along the way, seeing how our perceptions were affected by the inquiry we had selected – or not! Sometimes called psycho-geography, this is a way of seeing how our environment affects us, how we interact with it and what we take away from it physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Upon our return we enjoyed a few minutes writing about our experience – what we noticed, what memories were evoked, what was important to us about the place, what connects us to it, what feelings and emotions arose, what insights occured.

And then we shared something of our reflections in a respectful and open discussion.

Everyone went away feeling completely relaxed and connected – to each other, and with renewed fondness for the place. We all experienced something of the power of community journaling, and glimpsed the potential of how this type of shared mindfulness, through the medium of reflective writing,  might help us re-shape our relationship with the environment, and with the places we each call home.

Bandstand

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Happy beads

What can emerge for us in our journals if we take a few moments to ask ourselves “What is the most important thing that happened yesterday?”

According to Marion Milner, 20th century British psychoanalyst, artist and author of A life of one’s own, An experiment in Leisure and Eternity’s Sunrise, we can tell something is important when it shifts us somehow, when we feel a physical response to something, or when a memory or object brings with it a particular warmth.

She describes her ‘important things’ as beads, each of which she describes in exquisite detail in her journals, and these beads she believes give her clues about what makes her happy.

The challenge in this practice is first and foremost to notice when you are moved by an important thing. It requires a particular level of self-awareness to distinguish between an authentic response and a more standard, conventional, only-to-be-expected reaction.

So perhaps the inquiry ought to be made more specific: “What is the most important thing that happened TO YOU yesterday?”

Happy bead threading!

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When journaling isn’t enough

It’s been a time – two weeks in fact – of scattered, unfocused thinking and desultory journaling. Even my brand new journal with song-birds on the front has left me uninspired – making me wonder whether their characteristic flitting and pecking has been part of my problem.

Realising I’d filled over 20 pages of my new notebook without acknowledging it and reintroducing myself, I tried the Dear Journal exercise. Predictably I got quite a ticking off from my inner guide. At one point she told me “It’s not generally my style to give you a bollocking but the amount of day-dreaming and unproductive moping you’ve been doing has got beyond a joke.” Ouch.

But still my writing felt like it had no meat. No juice. Plenty of whining but nothing insightful.

Avoiding sentences beginning with I didn’t work. My inner critic just taunted me instead with a sneering ‘we- know- what- you’re- doing’ remark.

With things still feeling knotted and tangled, distinctions were what I needed, to sift through all my commitments and tasks and to try and see the wood for the trees. But a list wasn’t going to cut it, there was too much going on. So I resorted to mind-mapping. Thank goodness. Shift began.

Exhausted last evening I could only manage to read a few pages of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men before sleep took over. But today, feeling refreshed, I took myself off for a walk in the beautiful town centre park near my home. I met a journaling friend and we shared some great ideas, then took a stroll to look at the trees, plants, flowers and wildlife. Gradually I felt clarity returning. My body began to smile again, and this evening, after a lovely dinner and a refreshing glass of wine, I’ve finally managed to return to this blog post, which is now in its fourth iteration after as many days. It’s a great relief to think that shortly I’ll be pressing the Publish button on it.

What I’ve learned from all this reinforces the advice I give in The Journal Writer’s Handbook: that sometimes on our voyage we need to find safe moorings and replenish our stocks. That sometimes journaling isn’t enough. For me this time I needed to reconnect with the trees and the squirrels and the birds, which, sure enough, just sat and sang.

Blossom in Old Town Gardens

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Beyond ranting – the necessary authenticity on the other side

Our journal writing workshop last evening was yet again a wonderful opportunity to share insights and learn new perspectives. My gratitude goes to workshop participant Elinor who shared a wonderful phrase that somehow landed quite forcefully with me. She said: “Necessity has no emotion.”

The reason why this hit me with such a clunk is because it seems to account for what I have found in my journal beyond the ranting. Once I’ve stripped away the whining voice of my inner critic or the exclamation marks of my ego; when I’ve named and shamed the stuck-on-repeat stories with which I’ve been comforting myself, and once I’ve come to terms with my main vulnerabilities, what’s left is a calm, balanced narrative in which I’m finally able to speak my truth. There are no exclamation marks here. No over-blown claims about my own brilliance. No excuses and convoluted reasons why I won’t/shan’t/can’t. Just calm, logical, plain, straight-forward truth. Well hello.

Pearl

Inner wisdom and authenticity are the pearls I’m constantly encouraging my workshop participants to pursue. These are the buried treasures that our journals can reveal to us, but from whose scent the decoys and false trails of our inner critic, our stories, excuses and egoist self-justifications often throw us. How easily we become distracted and displaced! But every pearl needs its grit. It would be foolish though to mistake the grit for the final product!

In Elinor’s insight I’m seeing that authenticity is akin to necessity. Our authentic self is who we necessarily are – who we cannot avoid being, no matter how many layers of negativity, self-judgement and self justification we heap on top. And when we hear its voice we find pearlescent peace, quiet and truth.

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In fear of false imaginings

My Facebook wall has been full recently of pithy aphorisms promoting wisdom, self-awareness and spirituality. They are invariably accompanied by an inspirational photograph depicting a lone tree clinging to a barren rock or dawn silhouettes of people doing yoga or tai chi, and I enjoy glancing at these messages and pondering whether or not they hold anything for me.

The other day I saw one whose entire text and picture I cannot recall, however I do remember the surprising phrase ‘false imaginings’ and it hit me hard. I took that phrase away with me and allowed it to percolate in my brain for a while. I felt the jabbing finger of my inner critic taunting me about the false imaginings of my journal, the place where I allow my creative mind to run riot and come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful dreams and schemes.

The fact is the very thought of false imaginings terrifies me. To me it means day-dreaming, egotistical fantasies unlikely to come to anything realistic, time-wasting, unfocussed dabbling, navel-gazing even. The very idea makes me go rigid with shame.

But false imaginings also means things we make up that don’t serve us. My inner critic’s conviction that day-dreaming is a waste of time is in itself a false imagining. Another is that the wilder the plan the less likely it is to ever come to anything. After all how can we adapt and change and try new and exciting things if we believe our inner critic and never let our minds wander and our creative imagination run loose?

Nevertheless I have a couple of ways of testing the ideas that my inner critic would have as false imaginings. The first is to blurt them out in public and see how they catch. Sometimes with a fair wind they have sailed high and far and continue to reward me still. The second is to allow the idea to sit in my head, and to see if it repeatedly shows itself to me over a period of time. Sometimes it will nag and nag until I figure out a way of making it real, and suddenly the falseness dissipates like summer clouds, revealing a beautiful and shining new thing.

So yes I do live in fear of false imaginings – but I’m also afraid of never having them at all. Our minds are endlessly creative and part of the fun is sifting out which bits are false – and which bits are the nuggets of gold.

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