Verba volant, scripta manent
what is said is fleeting, what is written endures

A journal preserves the life experience of an individual.

The more ruthlessly self-honest the journaler, the purer and more expansive the preservation. Without the telling of my own perspective, without recording the details of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, my life’s story will be reduced by others to a series of facts about the places I have lived, who I married, and how I made my living.

If at the end of my life, I will be financially successful, my life will be recorded as such by others. If I die penniless, they will not cover my shame by hiding the fact in my obituary, or if I am otherwise noteworthy perhaps, in my biography.

Yet all of the achievements that might fill an object-level accounting of my existence on this planet, distract from the sternest truth: the unsearchable infinitude of my being.

Were I to permit this to be the only record of my life, I should expect that nearly every vital detail of my experience will be omitted. I should not be surprised to discover, upon my death, that nobody knew me at all, that nobody had any real idea of what life was like inside of my particular skin, the character of my day to day perceptions, who I loved, how I loved them, the heartbreaks endured, the daring required to achieve feats later assumed to have been inevitable because they happened, and all of the other beauty and horror that I have witnessed.

Everybody else will be given their opportunity to remark about my life from the outside, but only I can report the fullness from within. Yet, if I were to write my journal with the expectation that it will one day be read by others, then it immediately becomes a performance, and my hypothetical future readers an audience, nullifying the possibility of communicating anything truthful about myself at all.

Since the age of 17, I have kept a journal, and since the age of 30, I have done so without writing for an audience. For this reason, I do not regret the loss of my journals from my earlier years to an unfortunate accident.

That performance was not meant to be preserved.

In something of a paradox, the only record of my life that would be worth reading by an audience would not be written for one. Rather, it would be a genuine working out of my problems, sincere analysis of my internal and external challenges, expressions of joy and sadness alike, and an attempt to weave together a meaningful, growth-oriented self-understanding in a dialogue between myself and the rest of existence.

In daily practice, the journal also preserves life: not merely the record of life, but life itself. The act of writing, of daily self-expression and analysis is vitalizing to lived experience. When I reflect on my feelings, my communication, my relationships, my inner monologue, I am able to bring more of the unconscious elements and workings of my mindbody out of the darkness and into the light.

Reflective consciousness enables the reading and interpretation of the non-verbal communication inherent to the individual’s conversation with life. The more unconscious I am of myself, the less likely I will be able to perceive the winks and nods from the universe, the dry humor of GOD.

The more conscious I become of myself, the more I will see my conflicts with a creative tint — opportunities for ingenuity to work out the causes of suffering, negotiating peacefully with life and others to reduce it, rather than resorting to the manipulative blunt instruments of threat and bribery.

Healthier, happier, more harmonious interpersonal relationships, heightened self-understanding & inner peace, and the self-confidence of having a means to approach dysfunction to these when it arises — this is the ultimate reward from journaling. Like the gym, however, its benefits accrue from habitual, long-term repetition.

In the past 10 years since I rebooted my journaling with the practices I will describe now, I have written more than 3,000 entries and 1.9 million words — but when I started, those numbers were both 0. There is no skipping steps, no jumping to the front of the line — because there is no line. What took me 3,000 entries to achieve in personal development might take another 300.

We are all radically different from one another, and although we can benefit from similar practices, the details of how those practices evolve will be as diverse as we are. My own practices zigs and zags in and out of the mundane and useless at times. I still get stuck in life. The journal is not a magical cure, or a sufficient condition for worldly success. But like going to the gym is for the body, it is part of a lifestyle decision to be healthy and fit in mind and spirit.

The following are some of the categories of function and style that make their way into my own journal, and which I share as a sort of sample of what is possible. You will need to develop your own rhythms, focus where you feel most moved, and discard all the best advice when your heart tells you it’s necessary.


Why did that interaction yesterday leave me so unsettled?
What was the trigger of my angry response to my loved one?
Why does this pattern of behavior repeat over and over even though I decided to stop?

These are the sorts of analytical questions I ask myself day after day as I am trying to understand why the reality of events does not track with my hopes and expectations as much as I would like. At a certain point in my own development and process, I realized how little control and influence I truly have over the thoughts, actions, opinions, and judgments of other people. It is something people always say blithely “you can only control yourself,” but the implications of embodying this belief are profound.
Accepting total responsibility for your own life requires a lifetime commitment to self-analysis. Whatever you want out of your life, you will be the only person who does the required work to get it. The whole of your mind and body are your tools and instruments for experience and achievement alike, and the only user manual of any use will have to be written yourself.

Social Commentary

We live in a strange world, full of strange people doing strange things, and full of opinions that are, rather strangely, not their own. As more of our lives have become mediated by social technology, our inner world has been invaded by the noisy imposition of others. Opinions are formed through attraction and aversion rather than cold analysis. What will get more likes takes precedence over discerning what ought to be more liked.

From the privacy of your journal, no thought need be off-limits. You can open up and let your genuine sentiments, reflections, and opinions take form, without worrying how they will be judged, and whether they will cost you social capital. You may have deeply held beliefs about the world that you have been unable to express because you do not know how they will be received by others. You must give yourself the chance to at least receive them yourself.

As this element of your practice evolves, you will come to see how empowering independence of thought truly is, and you will become more confident in your own views and your ability to engage with them, defend them when necessary, and allow them to evolve when the evidence indicates error.

Emotional Purging

Perhaps the strongest reason to write authentically, and not as a performance, is that we all harbor a variety of negative emotions that from time to time are better expelled and objectified. Whether these are emotions of anger and hatred, or sadness and despair, so long as they remain within and unexpressed, they continue in motion.

Like an organism being dissected for scientific understanding, our emotions must first be killed before they can be analyzed. Expression, in a sense, is the death of an emotion — it is moving inside (emotion contains the word motion) until flushed out of its host and dies. If you happen to like your emotions, and don’t like the idea of killing them, all I can say is don’t worry, they seem to keep coming back to life.

Those emotions may be expressed in various ways, of course. In our common course of life, they tend to be expressed when they force their way out, rather than by intention, conscious reflection, and by choice. It is in these contexts that our emotions do us maximal damage: staying within too long and souring experience, and in uncontrolled expression when compelled by circumstance

The journal provides a healthy, intentional outlet for the purposeful expression of emotion on my own terms. I do not have to worry about the cleanup afterwards. If I hate somebody, I can say that I hate them, and then, seeing such words in blue ink on the paper in front of me, I am convicted of my hate. If I have been driven mad by my surroundings, I can curse them all, and then recuperate myself instantly to see that really and truly, this is not how I feel about them. I can cry and bemoan the travails of life, and then realize that it isn’t quite as bad as it previously seemed.

The more forward and external we can permit our emotions to be, the less the experience of ‘nausea’ in life. But it is always tempting to remain timid in these expressions, for fear somebody might find them one day, or imagining how some future admirer might judge me if they saw how angry I was those days when I just couldn’t take it anymore and was prepared to curse GOD and die.

The word catharsis comes to us from a Greek verb that means “to strip away.” The unbridled expression of our emotions, and the purging of the many forms of resistance that underlie them, is indispensable in the journey of life development and personal growth.

Everything that is not fundamentally, truly, and evolvingly part of myself, that element of changeless change within me, must be stripped away whenever such layers are found, because all of those layers are barriers that intervene between myself and the direct experience of life as it is, where all joy and abundance are possible. Part of each individual’s calling in life is to keep the perceptive channels clear of those blockages.

Daily Life Reporting

The context of life shapes our experiences, and often a burst of creative energy may come from some unexpected corner. While I have never had the patience or interest to record the details of my daily diet, the time I take my dogs for a walk, or the details of routine conversations, there is nevertheless more than passing importance to many of these facts. I sprinkle them in when moved to do so, sometimes because intuition tells me some fact might be more than is apparent at first, and sometimes just to make a record of some simple pleasures of life: a beautiful sunset, a lovely conversation, a romantic exchange.

While I would strongly discourage anyone from giving an hourly account of their day as a primary approach to journaling, not everything has to be heavy, serious, or deep.

Life can be appreciated for its lightness as well.

Hypothetical Dialogues

Difficult conversations are part of everyday life. Just because we do not have them out loud every day does not mean we are not having them. Have you ever acted out a conversation in your head before having it? Or replayed a conversation over and over afterwards?

The problem with such hypothetical conversations is the lack of meaningful feedback. As I am not having them with the other person, but with myself, I am quick to imagine what they might say, without fully understanding why I expect them to say it. When I put it into writing, I can more carefully consider whether my assumptions might be true.

Does the other person really feel the way I am worrying they do? If they do feel that way, what is the legitimate reason they likely feel that way?

Part of learning how to have productive hypothetical dialogues is practicing genuine empathy: assuming good faith on the part of the other, expecting them not to attempt to harm me intentionally, and so forth. Especially for people who have suffered childhood or early adulthood trauma in family, school, work, or romantic relationships, hypothetical dialogue can be an effective way of de-programming default trauma responses that only reify the trauma when they occur in the moment with others.

Moreover, the more I practice such dialogues, the more I see the genuine goodwill in the intentions and words of others — when it is truly there. It simultaneously becomes easier to identify bad faith, manipulative behavior, and understanding when it really is the other person who is causing the problem.

This is why a journal has been more effective for me than almost any other tool in the improvement of my life. I have been able to be more empathetic with the people who deserve it, and more understanding of their pains and problems, and at the same time, it has become vastly easier to spot and eliminate those influences in my life that really are purely negative.


In Self Reliance, Emerson writes that “prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest points of view.”

In my own framing, prayer is the self’s dialogue with the rest of existence as a whole — not with particular elements of existence; not specific others; but with everything that lies beyond my control.

My journal is my prayer book. It is where I express my contemplation of the facts of life, and attempt to converse with that which is not me. I will not go into great detail here, but save further discussion of this for the future.

Nevertheless, it would be a disservice to neglect its mention. The mere thought of prayer as being something outside the rote and memorized rituals of a church, or the performance of a charlatan is enough to invite quiet meditation on the idea.

If this were my journal, I would probably just stop there — on a full thought, one to which little more could be added with words.

Reflection does not need a conclusion — but resists conclusion. Reflection simply begs more reflection, but those reflections must be of some substance. Thus I must always resist in myself the temptation to tarry too long in writing, for it is only away from analysis, in embodied life itself, that the image for reflection is generated.

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