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Practicing Contemplative Journaling (or How to Write Something Truly Thoughtful)

11 Feb

The Art of Contemplative Journaling (or How to Write Something Truly Thoughtful)

Have you ever wanted to sit down to write something? Not as big as a book or a novel, yet not something smaller like a recap of the day’s events. Instead, something that really interests you as you write it?

Then the concept of Contemplative Journaling will interest you. It’s the practice of writing something more than a standard journal entry, but less than a full story. It’s that lovely “in-between” area; something you can accomplish in just an hour or two and that makes for better reading and better writing.

While many ways to journal this way exist, I’m going to take you through just a few of them.

Contemplative Journaling Method #1 | Expand on Your Lists

If you read my recent post about the best formats for blog posts or journal entries, you should be pretty familiar with list-making. Lists are such fantastic little structures: great for itemizing simple things (like a grocery list) and for keeping track of what’s important (goals for 2013).

Take one of the lists you’ve already written and expand upon each item. Let’s say you decide to revisit your List of Goals for 2010 … even though it’s now three years old. Here are a few angles to create a contemplative journal entry from this.

+  Have you achieved those goals? If you have, talk about how you did it. If there are some you have not achieved, write about why not. Maybe it’s just no longer a priority.

+  Why were those your goals then? This is a great way to write about who you were then and who you are now by exploring what was important to you at the time.

+  Is there an item in that list you haven’t accomplished? Maybe it has been a goal for several years now, but you’ve just not been successful with it. Perhaps it’s time to examine why you keep thinking it’s a priority and how you’ll make it a success the next time you add it to a list.

Contemplative Journaling Method #2 | Process an Experience

While you’re reading this, think about something embarrassing that has happened to you in your life. If nothing comes to mind, think about someone who wronged you, or made you upset. Everyone has had at least one embarrassing or upsetting experience. Contemplative Journaling is a great way to process that experience. If you need to work through the experience and let go of something, this is a great exercise.

First, think of the ‘thing’ you need to let go of. Maybe it was a coworker who made a rude comment, or an inappropriate way you behaved. Objectively describe the event as it happened. Do not include ‘feelings’ in this part: no discussing how you felt or how you think they felt. Just actions.

Second, after detailing the event, move on to write about the ‘feeling’ part of the experience. Where did your feelings come into play and what were they?

Third, write the experience from the viewpoint of any other person involved. If it’s the coworker with the inappropriate comment, write the experience from his/her perspective.

(As this can be an intense exercise for some, if you need a quick break to come back to the project with fresh eyes, this is a perfect spot to pause.)

Fourth, read what you wrote and write about why you’ve held on to this. Why does this experience come up in your mind so readily? Why are you carrying it around? Does it relate to something seemingly unrelated in your past? Explore everything that comes up in your mind and write it down.

Fifth, write a statement of release. Literally write a release for the experience. “ I’ve processed this experience and I was holding on to it because of X. I no longer need to carry it with me.”

You can use this technique for all kinds of things: the loss of a pet, losing a contract on a house you’d been trying to buy, spending too much money over the holidays, canceling a night out with friends because you thought you wanted to stay in. If you have an experience that keeps ‘sticking’ then you should examine it.

Contemplative Journaling Method #3 | Be the Version of Yourself You Want to Be

This tends to be a good exercise at the beginning of a new year. It’s helpful in getting your brain to really connect the dots between where you are today and who you want to be tomorrow. Self improvement! But more fun.

Let’s say you go back to work next week after a few days off. Write about your normal workday if you went in as you are now. Below that, write about your workday, but as the person you’d like to be. Maybe you are trying to have more efficient mornings at work so you aren’t scrambling to leave on time. It might look like this:

“I show up for work 10 minutes late on Monday, set my stuff down and go to the break room for coffee. I see a coworker and we talk for about 10 minutes about the past weekend. I go upstairs, turn on my computer. I talk to my cubemate for a few minutes about the weekend. I check my email, and respond to one or two of them. Then I check Facebook. At about 10 a.m. I start my first task. I break to use the restroom. I come back and finish the task and take a lunch. After lunch, I go to my coworker’s desk to talk for a few minutes. When I get back to my desk, I see someone has left a stack of reports I need to scan, copy and file by the end of the day. I sit down to finish the work I should have completed that morning. It’s 3 p.m. and I go for a break to grab a snack. By the time I get back it’s 3:30 p.m. and I still have to copy all those documents and prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. I don’t leave until just before 7 p.m. when I should have been out the door by 5 p.m.”

The rewrite might be:

“I wake up 15 minutes earlier than normal and sit in bed to read a chapter in a book. This prevents me from hitting the snooze button and gives me a bit of ‘me’ time. I make it to work 5 minutes late. I go and grab coffee and briefly talk to a coworker. I go upstairs, turn on my computer, and make a to-do list for the day, except I divide it into Morning and Afternoon tasks. I complete a small, simple task first; then I check my email and respond to a few. I work on my next task, complete it, and grab another coffee and bathroom break. I come back, finish the last task of the morning, and head to lunch. At lunch, I invite a new coworker out with me. This gets me the socialization I think I need during the day. After lunch, I work on my afternoon tasks. I leave on time.”

It might seem like a mundane thing, but most people really enjoy this. It allows you to look at yourself as you are, and then as you’d like to be. Productivity is a great thing to try first because everyone (generally) could be a bit more productive. Whether it’s at the office, or at home (hello, laundry that never gets put away) there are a ton of scenarios to write about here.

This actually teaches your brain to better recognize those bad habits so you can correct them moving forward.

More advanced prompts for this involve interactions for others: communicating with your spouse, communicating with a child, etc.

Contemplative Journaling is an excellent use of those nice journals, nice pen and your brain. If you want to sit down to really write something then this is the perfect exercise for you.


Meet the Writer: Cole Imperi is a business owner and a proponent of the handwritten word. When not at Doth Brands, a Branding & Identity firm catering to the health, wellness & deathcare professions where Cole works as Owner and Creative Director, you might find her on her yoga mat teaching yoga or behind a laptop writing for Simplicity Embellished, a letter-writing and lifestyle blog.


Editor’s Note: This article is part of the How to Write series. Read the others here:

How to Write: Sympathy Notes

How to Write: Ideal Business Correspondence Notes

How to Write: Friendship / Appreciation Notes

How to Write: Thank You Notes

How to Write: With a Fountain Pen

How to Write: To a New Penpal

How to Maintain Your Pen Collection

How to Write: Improving Your Cursive Skills

How to Write: A Letter of Resignation

How to Write: A Letter of Recommendation

How to Write: The Best Formula for a Blog Post People will Actually Read

2 Responses to “Practicing Contemplative Journaling (or How to Write Something Truly Thoughtful)”

  1. Else T February 11, 2013 at 2:43 PM #

    Great post. I’m going to try all three methods in my journal soon. THese are great prompts for writers’ block, too! Thanks for the ideas.

    • Cole February 13, 2013 at 5:05 PM #

      Glad you liked it Else! :)

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