Buried in a closet somewhere in my apartment is a ridiculously large box of old journals, some of which date back to the late 1980s and recount the goings-on of my 1st grade self – navigating friendships, playing soccer, riding my bike, starting to discover that boys were maybe kind of cute. There are journals from my high school, college, and post-college years, and even some from graduate school – probably 30 or so of them in total.
There are certainly many embarrassing stories hidden within this plethora of musings from my younger self – things written I now cringe to read for how silly they seem – and I have asked a trusted to friend to burn said box of journals should anything ever happen to me. (You know, to protect my family from all the silliness contained therein.)
But mostly, I absolutely love that I have this written record of my life. Even in spite of how mortified I might feel if they were ever to be discovered.
Reading my own journals – even thoughts written down mere months ago – never ceases to surprise and intrigue and teach me about myself. It helps me appreciate where I am by showing me how far I’ve come. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry. It helps me be kind to myself. And it shows me that sometimes I’m much more insightful than I give myself credit for being.
I am a huge advocate for journaling and believe it can be a significant and powerful tool for healing.
I’d like to use the 5-phase theory of Chinese medicine to explain how journaling can support both your physical and psychological health by tapping into and promoting the energy of each of these 5 phases – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.
1. Wood: Motivate, Establish Structure, and Facilitate Personal Growth
The energy of the Wood phase is that of expansion, growth, rebirth, and forward movement. It is associated with the Spring season, when days get longer, seedlings begin to emerge from the earth, and flowers begin to bloom.
Journaling can be an effective tool for stimulating this Wood energy by helping you identify goals, create structure around those aspirations, imagine a clear vision of the direction in which you are heading, and track your progress along the way.
Setting goals – to eat more healthily or be more physically active or maintain a more regular sleep schedule – is great, but having a way to track your progress, work through setbacks, and get more specific about why a particular goal is important to you can be vitally important to the your success in achieving that goal. Keeping a journal can support you in this capacity.
Furthermore, setting aside a particular time during the day or week to commit to writing – even if only for 10 minutes at a time – can provide a bit of structure to help you stay on track.
2. Fire: Stimulate Joy and Self-Expression, and Create Connections
Fire is about joy, passion, creativity, relationships, and self-expression. The energy of this phase is exuberant, active, and engaged. It is about intimacy, connection, community, and love. The Fire phase is associated with the Summer season, when the sun is out, the temperatures are hot, and the excitement in the air is palpable.
Keeping a journal can also positively impact your relationships and your ability to connect with others. It allows you to deepen your understanding of your own emotions, needs, and desires – which can bring clarity to your interactions with romantic partners, parents, children, and friends.
To access the joy of the Fire phase energy, keeping a gratitude journal can be a particularly useful exercise. It reminds you to appreciate and take pleasure in the people and opportunities and experiences – and, yes, even the material things – in your life that bring you the most happiness and love. It can ignite your enthusiasm for life by helping you to be happy exactly where you are in the present moment.
3. Earth: Digest, Nourish, and Assimilate
The Earth phase is about nourishment, groundedness, and assimilation. It provides energy for the digestion of food, but also of thoughts, emotions, and experiences. It is associated with the Late Summer season, during which crops ripen, harvesting takes place, and we reap the benefits of our earlier efforts.
Earth phase energy works on the physical, psychological, and emotional levels to bring about adequate integration of all that you take in –tangible and intangible – so that you can be adequately nourished in both body and mind.
Journaling is an awesome way to process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Things can get a little jumbly and confusing inside your head. Writing your thoughts down can help you gain a little clarity and perspective about your experience, and assist you in working through difficult emotions.
When you fail to properly digest thoughts and feelings, worry is often the result. Keeping a journal can help you wade through the internal chaos, extract what’s useful, and discard the rest – alleviating much of your worry in the process.
Additionally, keeping a food diary can be an excellent way to ensure you feed yourself wisely and adequately throughout the day. It can help you identify specific foods or patterns of eating that lead to digestive upset, fatigue, headaches, emotional upheaval, or any number of physical ailments. Tracking your meals – even if just for a short time – can illuminate the intimate connection between your food choices and your state of mind, providing the impetus necessary to begin changing the way you eat as a means of nourishing your whole self.
4. Metal: Reflect, Get Clear, and Let Go
The energy of the Metal phase is that of self-reflection, individuation, and letting go of what no longer serves you. It is about refinement and distillation, taking only the best of what’s been harvested in the Earth phase before it and leaving behind what’s inessential to your further growth.
This Metal energy is associated with the Autumn season, during which the days get shorter and the temperatures colder, the trees lose their leaves, animals prepare for hibernation, and many plants begin to go dormant. The pace of the world slows down, setting the stage for introspection and self-cultivation.
As a tool for self-reflection, journaling is incredibly effective. Sitting down to write affords you the opportunity to pump the brakes on your life and turn inward. It can be a great way to explore your own belief system, question your own motivations, and begin to understand your own attitudes and behaviors a bit more deeply. Journaling can bring you clarity about who you are, confidence in your uniqueness, and courage to own your individuality and awesomeness.
Keeping a journal can also assist you in letting go of thoughts, beliefs, fears, and relationships that do not serve the fullest expression of your being. Sometimes, a simple “I release . . .” statement written down can help facilitate this letting go process. (For example, writing down “I release my belief that I am not good enough” or “I release my fear of failure” and then repeating the statement aloud to yourself several times.)
Other times, writing the story of an event or experience from which you are struggling to move forward can help you let go of your attachment to that event or experience. Getting your story out of your body and onto the page can be immensely therapeutic and liberating.
5. Water: Meditate, Integrate, and Contemplate
Water energy is that of stillness, storage, and quietude. The Water phase holds the potential energy that makes possible the activity of the four other phases in the cycle. It serves as the reservoir of willpower and determination from which growth and expansion emerge, and is the source of the body’s vital energy. Water energy is associated with the Winter season – the season of hibernation, storage, and decreased activity. A time for introspection, meditation, and contemplation.
Journaling can be an effective tool for tapping into the stillness of the Water phase energy. I highly recommend using a good old fashioned pen and paper when journaling, as opposed to typing on a computer. Writing by hand is – for most of us – inherently slower than using a keyboard and can enhance the contemplative nature of journaling by forcing you to (literally) slow down.
To utilize journaling as a meditative exercise, writing for 10 or 15 minutes in a sort of stream of consciousness style (i.e. writing down whatever comes to mind without editing or judging or pausing to reflect on what you’ve written) can be a useful place to start. I often recommend combining journaling with meditative practice – either writing before a sitting meditation as a way of clearing the mind or writing directly following a meditation as a way of accessing any insights the sitting practice might bring to bear.
There is also an aspect of Water energy that relates to the unconscious and subconscious mind – those aspects of your consciousness that can be elusive and difficult to fully comprehend. Keeping a dream journal can be a great way to gain access to this part of yourself and to benefit from your own inherent wisdom. Try keeping a notebook next to your bed to write down any dreams you remember upon waking each morning. You might be surprised about how much insight you gain by tracking the inner workings of your unconscious mind.
Intimidated or overwhelmed by the thought of keeping a journal? Start small. Try writing for just 5 or 10 minutes 2 or 3 times a week. And remember that keeping a journal is about the process of writing, not about the award winning prose you produce each time.
Want more information about journaling? I recommend checking out “The Creative Journal: The Art of Finding Yourself” by Lucia Capacchione.