Have you ever woken up in the midst of a dream, thinking “I must remember this!” then padded off to the toilet — or to put the kettle on — only to have your dream vanish from consciousness?
The same thing can happen in meditation. You might remember something important, gain some insight or come up with a great idea, but then forget it completely. Indeed, much of what goes on in meditation can remain hazy or elusive.
Even if your intention is to be mindful, you might find it surprisingly difficult to remember more than a few key moments.
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t remember. It just means that you don’t. This is where the practice of journaling, or recollection, can play an important role.
The benefits of keeping a meditation journal
When you begin meditating you won’t really know what to expect. You may have some hopes and aspirations, but your ‘meditation map’ will be virtually blank. Each time you meditate you’ll be able to fill in a few details, but there’ll always be areas that are sketchy and vague. Taking time to reflect and journal after you’ve meditated allows you to develop a much more detailed map — and having a detailed map allows you to make better decisions in subsequent meditations. In other words, the process of journaling helps you to grow and develop your meditation practice.
Without this post-meditation reflection, you may find yourself repeating the same patterns over and over, reinforcing old habits rather than learning from your experience.
Journaling also allows you to look at — and beyond — your thoughts and emotions, to the ways in which you welcome or resist your experience; and at your reactions and responses to whatever arises. You begin to understand how you meditate. This can’t really be known just by describing the technique you’re doing or the type of meditation you practice. By keeping a journal you’ll also get a sense of what’s missing, and what requires exploration or development — and, over time, these periods of reflection will lead to greater confidence and trust; in your own capacity to meditate and in your ability to troubleshoot any difficulties that arise.
A journal is also a record of your meditation history. It allows you to identify patterns and to acknowledge the progress you’ve made — and it gives you a more objective viewpoint from which to evaluate your practice. You might be surprised to discover that certain difficulties and concerns have vanished (and that others remain stubbornly persistent). You’ll be able to identify the issues and emotions that most trouble you, the types of experiences that you habitually suppress or avoid and the habits that bring you satisfaction and enjoyment.
How to start a meditation journal
Keeping a meditation journal does not have to be a time consuming or onerous discipline. On the contrary, it can be both rewarding and enjoyable. If you have the time and inclination, you can write freely about your experience, without any particular structure. But don’t pressure yourself to recall paragraphs of detail. It’s usually easier just to start with what you remember most clearly, even if that’s only a sentence or two. More may come to mind as you write and reflect. You can sketch, doodle or draw too. And you don’t have to journal after every meditation.
It’s a good idea to start by recording the basic details, including the date, time and length of your meditation session. You might also note whether you used an app, listened to a guided meditation or practiced in silence. For example:
Monday, March 5, 2017. 6:40 — 7:00 am (20 minutes)
Guided Meditation on Breath and Body. (Insight Timer App)
Meditated lying in bed. Found the guide’s voice irritating. May have fallen back to sleep a couple of times. Surprised at how calm I felt by the end, as I was dreading the day ahead.
An entry like the one above might only take half a minute to complete but can prompt surprising insights. For instance, just by writing down your thoughts about the meditation you might recall that you had found some of the instructions impossible to follow. You might then realise that it was your own interpretation of the instructions, rather than the guide’s voice, that actually triggered your irritation. You might also be a little more appreciative of the way in which you were able to move quickly through the irritation and into a calm state.
In the following slightly more detailed journal entry the meditator takes the opportunity to reflect on how certain memories and attitudes facilitated a transition from restlessness (and stressful thoughts about work) to comfort and peace of mind.
Thursday, June 29, 2017. 5:30 — 6:05 pm (35 minutes)
Recollective Awareness (in car).
Only planned to sit for ten minutes, after a very busy and tiring day at work. Traffic horrendous; so pulled over and parked on a quiet street. Mind chaotic. Thoughts about work which I didn’t want. Couldn’t get comfortable. I reminded myself to be patient with my thoughts and to listen to them as I would a friend. Started thinking about my previous job, and my boss there. I remembered how supportive and encouraging she was. (She was also a good listener.) Neck pain flared momentarily, then I must have drifted off. I recall feeling very warm and was surprised that I hadn’t been bothered by, or even aware of the traffic noise. I didn’t want to move and only opened my eyes when the setting sun started shining in them.
Options for journaling
When journaling you can jot down what you remember in dot points, or just write normally.
If you are making dot points, try to use descriptive phrases rather than single words. It’s also best to use your own language, rather than terms from yoga, Buddhism or other traditions. This helps to keep your reflections real.
Your descriptions do not have to be exact. It can be hard to remember much from some meditation sessions. There will probably be periods that seem completely blank. That’s quite natural, and no cause for alarm or disappointment. Furthermore, some experiences can be strange, vague and hard to put into words. Aim to be truthful and honest, rather than detailed or exacting. The intention is not to impress anyone with your wonderful meditation sitting (or literary skills) but to record what actually happened, so that you can learn from the experience.
You can write about what drew your attention, what attitudes were present (curiosity, kindness, patience), what you wrestled with and what you found yourself thinking about. You can also include notes on how events of recent days or weeks affected your practice.
As you write, you may find yourself thinking about your experience in a different way. To distinguish such ‘post-meditation’ reflections from the actual experiences you had during meditation, you may enter them in a way that shows that they did not occur during the meditation, (for example, by using parentheses, or by writing your journal entry on one side of a page, and any subsequent reflections on the other).
Remember, you will only be able to record a fraction of what happened. That’s normal. Some entries may be pages long, while others might just have a couple of paragraphs. How much you write will vary from session to session; depending on what happened, upon your fluency as a writer and upon any time constraints. It can be particularly helpful to journal whilst on retreat, or during any courses you attend.
Reviewing your meditation journals
From time to time it can be helpful to get a trusted teacher to read and review your journals; not in order to ‘grade’ your abilities, but simply to offer some alternative perspectives. You can gain some of the same benefits by re-reading your own entries. Looking back over a month or two, you’ll probably identify certain trends. It can be quite encouraging to notice how your practice has changed over time and the long-term view can also allow you to be more accepting of the daily ups and downs.
Journaling during meditation
A warning: when new to journaling you may find that you spend quite a bit of time during your meditation practice trying to remember what you’re going to journal about! The idea is to meditate as you normally would, and then to reflect back on your experience. Your meditation practice is not meant to be a rehearsal for journaling. If you find yourself continually going back over what you’ve just experienced, trying to commit it to memory, remember that the point of journalling is not to keep a perfect record of your experience, but simply to review it, much in the way a football team might do a post-match review in order to see where they made mistakes and where they can improve. Trust that you will remember at least a few details and that those details will be enough.