The Ocean, the Pearl and My Heart: A Divine Love Story

I spent last weekend at Ananda Center at Laurelwood, a yoga and meditation retreat in serene rural Oregon near Portland, and am still feeling a strong connection to my experience there.

I've felt that post-vacation depression feeling before, where I feel bummed about being "back to the grind," as they say. But this is not that. It's more akin to feeling like I left a piece of my heart at Laurelwood.

The entire trip was deeply heart-opening, leaving me with a feeling of expansiveness and joy. Maybe it was the fresh air. The rolling green hills. The pervasively peaceful quality of nature. Meditating with dear friends. Meeting new ones. Being in the powerful vibrations of my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda.

It was certainly all of that. But it was also more.

I used to live at Laurelwood. Being back revealed to me the many ways in which I've grown, allowing me to feel and gently remember who I was when I first arrived at Laurelwood three years ago. It was like present-day me shaking hands with me from another lifetime.

That was powerful. But still, something struck me even more deeply.

At Laurelwood last weekend, it was like the ocean gifted me with a bright, beautiful pearl from its mysterious depths onto its tangible shore. I was enchanted and curious. I inched toward the shiny pearl, admiring its beauty and magnetism, and its ability to make me feel like the present moment is all there is and that the future is a blank slate, to be colored only by will power and choice.

It made me want to start choosing from my heart, with the same liberated boldness that it emanated through its radiant transparency. I thought I felt a warmth stirred up in my heart, but then I realized the pearl's luminosity was so pure that it was casting the warmth I felt. My heart began to sync with it.

Its warmth felt like home. I wanted to expand into it, so I opened my heart. Mesmerized, I bravely reached out toward the pearl. Just as my fingers scooped at the shore, a salty breeze nibbled at my shoulders. I opened my hands to find only wet sand. The ocean had swallowed the pearl back into its mysterious vastness in one mighty pull.

My immediate reaction was a feeling of loss. Then I felt a little lonely. The pearl had made me feel something so familiar. It had brought something out in me that made me feel alive, like anything was possible.

After reflecting on this experience for the last couple days, I realize now that the pearl activated my divine qualities, including love, joy, peace, wisdom, calmness, light and power. It was familiar because I was feeling myself, who I truly am. The uninhibited courage it inspired in me reminded me that it is a choice to tether ourselves to worry and other fears that hold us back. It guided me to renew my affirmation that I choose love and courage over fear.

My experience was not unique. Waves constantly wash pearls up onto the shore of life. We just don't always see them. We get too busy feeding our ego instead of nourishing our soul. When we do spot a pearl and try to grab it, it's okay if we miss. Because the pearl is already within us.

I'm glad the ocean swallowed my pearl this time. We tend to put so much emphasis on external factors being our pearl, our happiness. We find our pearl in lovers, careers, wealth, family, materialism. In doing so, we define our happiness by our pearl. Because we have our pearl, we expect to be happy all the time. When things go wrong, we blame our pearl.

People and life events can awaken our divine qualities of love, peace and joy, just like the pearl did for me this past weekend. But I don't want a pearl to define these qualities in me. I just want to allow it to awaken these qualities in me, guiding me to activate them within myself. That's why I'm thankful the ocean took it back.

My experience at Laurelwood reminded me to never depend on someone or something else to make me feel happy. And whenever those joyous times come along when someone or something awakens love, joy and peace within me, I will have the deepest gratitude—just like I have for the pearl from this past weekend.

Get everything you ever wanted through journaling!

You already know about gratitude writing. But do you know how and why it works? Our brains don't know the difference between our thoughts/stories and our perceived reality. So let's trick ourselves into thinking we're happy all the time! And eventually we truly will be happy all the time.

When you practice gratitude, you are uplifting your consciousness. You are calling on the higher faculties of the mind and heart, the higher chakras to lead your life, thoughts and feelings. I'd much rather have my higher Self in the driver's seat than a depressed or anxious me. That's not the real me anyway! When she comes along, I do my best to push her out of that driver's seat, out of the entire car actually. I want a life of pure bliss and lovingkindness, and that is not achieved by engaging in negative feeling and action.

I'm at a really great place in life right now. Probably the most positive place I've ever been. I feel grounded, stable, happy, driven and validated that I'm moving in a positive direction in all areas of life. But that doesn't mean the negative feelings don't come. I've struggled with depression pretty seriously in the past and sometimes I recognize those sneaky demons trying to claw their way back into my mind.

But that's where gratitude journaling and having a regular journaling/spiritual practice come into play! When I start feeling any negative emotion, I write my intentions or goals. These intentions are reflective of my dharma—Sanskrit for our purpose in life. I believe my purpose is to serve others by doing what I can to help them in their process to overcome suffering—ultimately, to support them on their path to becoming their highest Self.

So I write about ways I can do this. I write in stream of consciousness, doing my best to be a channel and allow the Divine to flow through me. That way I feel guided in my writing and know that what ends up on paper is coming from a higher place and not from just my ego. I create a rich and vibrant life on paper and meditate afterward, taking in what I've written and believing that it's already true.

And it is already true. The future is already written. We have will power, but there is also a divine intelligence guiding us on our path of life every second of every day. Let your higher Self emerge during journaling to remind yourself that that's who you truly are. You are love, peace, calmness, sound, light, energy/power, joy and wisdom (these are said to be the eight qualities of the Divine). Step boldly into your future with courage and confidence believing that you will claim what's yours.

What is ultimately yours is God and Self-realization. But there are a lot of higher actions we can take and higher things we can claim as ours to help us acheive these ultimate goals along the way. Ask yourself—what is it that you want to claim? Now write it down. :)

Writing 2017: How to manifest your highest desires by mindfully releasing past challenges

I know we're all beyond ready for this new year. But I want to remind everyone to process the pain, anger and frustration of 2016. Processing is crucial to our health and well-being. If we don't process, we are enabling stressors within our bodies by inhibiting our emotions and feelings. Stressors lead to issues with our immune system, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. So, process your pain!

Let go of feelings from the events of 2016 with mindfulness. Don't just move into 2017 by saying good-bye to the previous year's trials. How do we release mindfully? Dr. James Pennebaker, pioneer of "expressive writing" (journaling) as a therapy, suggests to write about traumatic events using as many positive words as possible. Examples of happy words are love, happy, romantic, peace, calm, secure, thankful, caring, trust and joy. More examples can be found here, or Google "happy words."

Be honest when using happy words to discuss your trauma or challenging experience. Don't write that things were happy or positive when they weren't. Rather, use happy words in reflecting about the event. Perhaps you learned something from the event and have consequently made positive shifts in your life. Maybe you are grateful, transformed, or have a new sense of love or joy.

Using positive words like these releases chemicals in the brain linked to happiness, and also helps our brain reframe the story of our challenges in a meaningful way. Once we are able to attach meaning to life events and emotions, we are often able to move forward with a bigger picture perspective and gratitude. This is mindfulness and processing in action.

Forgiveness is also an important aspect of processing and letting go. Forgive yourself and others by describing the event, and the before and after of the event. Furthermore, practice compassion by explaining what the person who you are forgiving was going through at that point in their life or where they had come from (perhaps an aspect of their upbringing is still affecting them now). If you're forgiving yourself, practice self-compassion by explaining what was going on in your life that may have caused you to react in a way that eventually led to your seeking of forgiveness.

Compassion will help you see the situation from a bigger picture perspective or longer rhythm. But don't let compassion minimize your original feelings or excuse the person for his or her wrongdoing. To respect your own feelings while simultaneously allowing yourself to let go and forgive, write down the emotions you had during and after the event, and explain why these emotions arose. This will cultivate clarity on where you are at now with your emotions that are tied to the event. Perhaps you are less angry than you were in the past about the situation. Cultivating this awareness will help give you the strength to take another — perhaps the last — giant stride toward ultimate forgiveness.

Last thing: always write in stream of consciousness. This means to write quickly and not edit your thoughts. Bringing this sense of freedom to your writing will guide you to break your inhibitions in dealing with your feelings and emotions.

How to Manifest Abundance and Expansion: Replace limiting habits with positive action

I’ve realized that when I put forth the effort to make lasting changes in my life, extraordinary shifts in many areas of my life begin to occur. Fears and limiting beliefs are replaced with confidence, abundance in all forms and expansive opportunity. Doors begin to open in ways so creative that I’m certain my limited human mind couldn’t have come up with them.

When we release limiting beliefs and habits that no longer serve us, we are creating space for abundance and positive opportunity to flow into our lives. My guru and great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, said, “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” It’s not enough to simply want abundance and happiness; we have to work toward these high ideals and desires to manifest them.

To do this, we need to take self-inventory—which Yogananda also said to do. He said to journal before you go to sleep each night, noting your thoughts, behaviors and actions. “If you don’t like the course of your life or who you are becoming, change it,” he said. You can change it by consistently engaging in positive action, thus exerting great will and ultimately allowing a great flow of energy/positive change to manifest in your life.

How does one decide what to change? Identify habits and patterns in your life that don’t positively serve you. It could be an outward action, such as drinking too much coffee, or an inner habit, such as thinking anxiously. How does one break these habits? Choose a positive action you’d like to replace the habit with. For example, you could replace drinking your morning cup of coffee with a large glass of refreshing water, and your anxious thoughts with thoughts of gratitude.

This seems simple enough, but the key for success is devotion and consistency. Deepen your devotion through praying and journaling about what you’re changing. Pray for guidance in replacing your poor habits with positive action, and simply talk to God or a higher power about your process. Journal about how replacing these habits is serving you and why you want to make these changes. Strengthening your devotion will strengthen your magnetism, thus increasing your ability to be a divine channel, as well as your power to manifest your highest ideals and desires.

Be consistent by making a commitment to yourself that you will make these changes. Commit to making the change for a minimum of 21 days (that's what is widely suggested to break a habit or create a new pattern, but I suggest 30 days). For example, don’t drink coffee and drink water instead for 21 days. You’ll probably find that on day 22, you forgo the coffee and drink water naturally without even considering the former as an option. If you want to create a new pattern, simply tell yourself that you are replacing not doing the action with doing the action. For example, replace not journaling with journaling, or meditating inconsistently with meditating daily, or exercising twice a week with exercising five times a week.

I am currently leading a free 30-Day Habit Challenge on Facebook in a private group. If you have questions or would like to join, please email me and I will add you to our group if a spot is open.

Journaling to Cope with Family During the Holidays

The holidays are a season where pain from our childhood can be triggered by spending time with relatives. As an intervention, you can try journaling about thoughts you have when your triggers arise. Simply notice what thoughts go through your head as the trigger begins and write these down.

Example: Dad starts showing his detachment from the family, only talking about his own distant pastimes—ultimately revealing once again his hallmark narcissistic behavior that has always left you feeling disgusted and unloved. When he does this, you immediately notice yourself say inwardly, Can’t stand it. I hate when he does this. He only cares about himself, he doesn’t love me. He should never have had kids!

Write this down and then think of how you can balance these thoughts or replace them with an alternative thought. For the personalization part of your thought, He only cares about himself, he doesn’t love me, reassess the situation. Your father is not acting this way because of you; rather, it’s because of himself and his own healing that he has not done. He is projecting his built-up pain onto the rest of the family by making you all feel lesser and himself more important.

For the overgeneralization part of your thought, He should never have had kids!, perhaps you truly believe this sometimes, but maybe not all the time. Be honest with yourself and use language that reflects how you truly feel. Perhaps write, Sometimes I feel like he never should have had kids, and elaborate if you feel to. Or on the other hand, if you feel this could apply to your situation and family dynamics, you can use compassion and write about the positive things he has done as your father.

This journaling tip is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique, where you can reform your thoughts to reshape your reality. It is also derived from the teaching from the great yoga master, Paramhansa Yogananda, that thoughts are things, meaning they become your reality—so be aware of your thoughts and realize that you have the power to change them, which will also change your life.

For further reading on CBT: Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life, A workbook of cognitive behavioral techniques by Matthew McKay, PhD, Martha David, PhD, and Patrick Fanning

You can check out a satirical (yet very accurate) portrayal of families during the holidays in this video.

Mindfulness and Coping with Family During the Holidays

By Jennifer Park, M.S., MFTI

The holidays are among us—a time when some of us experience difficult emotions and are apprehensive about going home to deal with difficult family members. Dealing with difficult relatives can be exhausting. Our relatives can set off triggers that bring up deeply stored pain and childhood wounds that we have so comfortably compartmentalized and tucked away as adults. When old, hurtful memories come to the surface, we end up feeling fragile and unsettled, perhaps thinking to ourselves, “Oh great, here it goes again.”

How do we find our sanity in the midst of chaos and dysfunction? Some deal with their discomfort by grinning and bearing it, knowing that their discomfort will only be for a few hours to a few days. Others focus on how much good food there is and indulge in soothing their feelings with food or drink. Others put on their “happy face,” denying their triggered feelings.

These “solutions” are common avoidance tactics that do not help create confidence but instead keep you stuck with your issues. In fact, instead of healing and releasing your triggered issues, avoidance tactics may be reinforcing the idea that the triggers are too threatening. You may start identifying with the dysfunction and creating unhealthy thought patterns from your negative interactions during the holidays.

So how do you go beyond being stuck in this way during the holidays? How can you deal with your problems in a healthy way that will also build up your confidence? What approach can you take to remain yourself without giving in to your triggers?

This holiday season, if you are triggered by a relative, instead of feeding your negative feelings with thoughts and letting your annoyance grow, try detaching from your destructive feelings, by recognizing them and then releasing them. You may feel resistance at first, but you can have awareness toward the uncomfortable feeling and still continue to let go of the irritation.

Imagine your harmful thoughts like the claws of a cat slowly separating from your favorite sweater and envision letting go of the triggered image or memory. By focusing your attention on moving past the annoyance, you should feel peace, or a feeling of nothingness. Try staying in these wonderful feelings—you may be surprised with your feelings of calm andpeace.

Developing this sense of peace in your body will increase your sense ofwellbeing and confidence. The more you practice, the better you will get at staying connected to your body, even when you are surrounded by chaos and dysfunction.

Jennifer Park, M.S., MFTI is a Newport Beach-based prelicensed mindfulness marriage and family therapist. She incorporates mindfulness practices to her therapy sessions to help people reconnect to their authentic self and find inner peace. www.jenniferparkcounseling.com

Why I Journal: A personal testimony of trial and inspiration

Why do I journal? The simple and yet most revealing answer is that it frees me. It separates my truest self or my soul self from my ego, letting me see the real me and my own reality with restored clarity. Journaling helps me remember that I’m doing just that — restoring my clarity, meaning that clarity was there before and that I’ve simply adopted all these things that aren’t really me. I was merely trying patterns of attitudes, behaviors and actions on for size until I realized they weren’t for me and woke up to what fits best. Journaling awakens me. It awakens me to truth. And I’ve found that truth fits best.

But these are things we discuss in my therapeutic (aka conscious) journaling program. I want to get a little more particular and tell you why I personally journal. As with most people and their life’s calling, I did not choose writing, writing chose me. It’s only after over 20 years of devout practice that I’m figuring out what this common saying means. I wrote because I thought that’s just what everyone does. Everyone talks. Everyone breathes. Everyone must write. Or so it seemed from my earliest memories. People were always writing letters and articles and stories, I thought that’s how I should communicate and express myself too. No, I’m not in my 90s reminiscing of letters to my sweetheart at war during television’s days of novelty; rather, I grew up in the ’90s, but nights in my room with my tiny blue diary my mother gave me were much more exciting than the Full House reruns my sisters were watching and the Nintendo games they were playing.

In my youngest journaling years (I started when I was four years old with the miracle gift from my mom), my writings were mostly simple recordings of my days and admission of the range of feelings I was beginning to experience and explore under life’s ever-evolving circumstances. But it was these simple diary entries that brought me my first and most profound journaling blessings. My writing was expanding my awareness. I became cognizant of my feelings and how they changed with situations, I was conscious of what happened each day and how circumstances from seemingly random days were actually single brushstrokes on the grand painting of life’s bigger picture. Journaling was my art form and also a science because it was an experiment with an outcome I could hypothesize and later critique.

Over time, but not much time as I was still an adolescent, I began to realize and appreciate life’s gradual stages and personal changes that my journaling revealed to me. It became apparent that life is lived in seasons, with behaviors, values and beliefs changing like the colors of a tree’s autumn leaves. It also became quickly clear that journaling was empowering; I could freely release any of these behaviors and attitudes, welcoming a new season just as a tree greets winter upon shedding its leaves.

These remain my most valuable personal reasons for journaling today: journaling’s ability to empower the writer and to expand his or her awareness. My 20s until somewhat recently showed me seasons of depression so gloomy that I really didn’t know if the clouds would ever recede to reveal the light. Journaling, however, revealed to me that I am the mover of my clouds. After all, our clouds are only fluff and fantasy that our minds make up. Of course, it wasn’t always that simple to me. But I found that journaling got my energy moving, making it possible for me to move my clouds of darkness and depression. Writing down my hopes in times of sorrow had the same extraordinary power as consciously writing down our intentions and visions, because that’s what I was doing (without yet realizing) — setting my intentions, which many of us know today has power that can truly move life’s mountains.

Moreover, I experienced a few times where I simply could not find anything positive to write about and didn’t want to aid the descending power of my downward spiral any longer. But I knew I couldn’t altogether give up writing — my form of self-expression and creativity and life — so I meditated on what I could write about and “gratitude” came to me. Like intention-setting, gratitude writing also gets energy moving. Journaling stimulates the amygdala, the part of the brain in the limbic system that controls memory processing, decision-making and emotional reactions. It also stimulates the prefrontal lobes of the brain, creating neural pathways, just as meditation does. I like to think of writing as a purification process, burning my forrest of old habits, and replenishing it with a crystal stream of clarity and higher consciousness.

This clarity I’m blessed with post-journaling has guided me in making many positive and major decisions in my life. Journaling revealed my need to find balance and joy, thus guiding me to set related intentions, which I believe caused a series of events that led me to move to a meditation retreat where I found my spiritual path and some truths about my higher aspirations, including mydharma (or purpose/path of righteousness). It’s almost hard to believe that several years ago, I was in an abusive relationship where I feared many things, such as safety and the destruction of my true essence; I feared I would be broken. It wasn’t physically harmful, but the emotional manipulation was so subtle yet intense at times that it was hard for me to tell what was real and what wasn’t, or how bad things actually were.

This is where journaling again was my saving grace. I strove to be truthful in my journal entries, though sometimes I didn’t know what the truth was and other times I wanted to conjure up a fantasy life story because I didn’t want to admit the shameful truth. Before long I had page after page of truth illuminating the problem and the solution. When a situation is that subtle, it’s hard to tell what the problem is, let alone that one even exists although things certainly feel wrong. During that season of my life, I was training to become a counselor for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. It was almost unbelievable how precisely scenarios taught in training about victims of abuse matched the pages of my journal. Recognizing this similarity helped me realize how wrong my situation was, and gave me the courage and strength to not only leave, but to accept and process the transition and to make it a permanent departure, as my training showed me how damaging and dangerous my experience was and could be. My writing gave me clarity so crystal clear that I looked back over my journal entries and the fact that I was in not only in an unhealthy but an abusive relationship became glaringly evident — so much so that I almost felt embarrassed or even stupid to not have always known. But my writing also showed compassion for myself and the situation, which allowed me to let go and move on with grace and dignity.

Journaling helps me navigate the seasons of my life, through times of light and darkness, joy and sorrow, peace and disruption. It’s my gatekeeper of decisions and truth. It has helped me learn my evolving passions and truest dharma, which has encouraged me to make big life decisions. I was always interested in film, but focused more on the art and structure of the written word in college, majoring in journalism and working as a human rights journalist in my early career. Reporting on such issues inspired me to get involved more intimately, leading me to become a state-certified peer counselor and get a Master’s in American studies where I focused on gendered violence. In working with survivors of abuse, I saw that counseling, though miraculous in many ways, did not always help the client in the way she hoped for. This is when I suggested journaling to clients, knowing how helpful it had always been for me, and from this my journaling program was born. But within the last couple years of guiding people to live in their own self-expression and creativity and craft their own stories, I realized how important self-expression, creativity and storytelling are to me. Journalism and teaching journaling allows for some self-expression and creativity, but I knew my soul was calling for a deeper and more expansive experience. Many journal entries helped me realize that documentary filmmaking would be a perfect platform for the self-expression, creativity and social impact that I long for. So I applied and was accepted to the documentary filmmaking graduate program at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, and will begin this fall.

I share these seasons of my life’s story because I frequently facilitate my journaling program to survivors of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking, and I feel it’s important to make known that journaling is empowering and healing on infinite levels beyond what my story solely reveals. Journaling gives us the awareness we need to identify our issues, and the insight we need to process and accept them and move on. In addition to counseling centers, I also facilitate my program at spiritual retreats and centers. Introspection is an ancient and deeply transformative spiritual practice. It is known as swadhyaya(self-study), the fourth niyama (or yogic “do” or way of right living) of the great sage Pantanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. But this is only my story — a single story out of the countless transformational stories of those who journal. For me, journaling has been empowering and spiritually awakening. What has journaling been for you?

Inner Awakening Writing Center featured in LA YOGA Magazine!

We are honored and grateful to be featured in the April issue of LA YOGA Magazine in an article on human trafficking and yoga therapy by Amanda Ridder. Thanks for the beautiful feature and spreading awareness for human trafficking, LA YOGA andAmanda!

You can read the article here and pick up a copy of LA YOGA inyoga studios throughout Southern California.

The Secret’s Out: How to Manifest Your Dreams In 2015!

Close your eyes and imagine how you want your life to be. Paint the details across the blank canvas of your mind — where would you live, what would you do, who would be in your life? Now, imagine you had the power to manifest this dream. Guess what — you DO have the power to manifest all this and more by consciously setting your intentions!

Intention-setting is an incredibly powerful way to transform your dreams into reality and start living your passion (aka living yourdharma, or “right action”). To set an intention, sit calmly and visualize what you want to happen in its fullest form. Then, in the coming days, weeks, months — however long until it manifests — meditate on the intention, pray that it happens if it’s part of divine will, and consciously think about it regularly.

Writing down or journaling our intentions increases the power behind their manifestation. Before or after we visualize what we wish to manifest or change in our lives, we can write these intentions down. Write with conscious sincerity and devotion to the idea of your intention bringing you sattvic (“pure,” “highest virtue”) solutions that inspire you to be your highest Self. Such devotion creates the space needed within us to attract and house positive energy and high vibrations. This new energy will gently encourage old, negative energy to melt away, and best of all, will guide us into being our best Self.

So what does it mean to you to become your highest Self? Who is your highest Self? Our highest Self is our soul as divine truth, free of ego and attachments. To many yogis, this truth is considered to be made of joy, love, peace, calmness, wisdom, power, sound and light (or the “eight aspects of God“). When you set intentions, think about what makes you feel the most joyful, peaceful, light-filled and calm. When envisioning your manifest intentions, notice how their outcomes make you feel. If you feel uneasy or contracting feelings, this is your intuition telling you that this outcome is not right; it is your ego acting, rather than your soul intuiting.

Paramhansa Yogananda, a great master of Kriya yoga and author of Autobiography of a Yogi, famously offered this encouragement regarding introspection to truth-seekers: “Do you like the trend of your life? If not, change it.” Journaling consistently helps us identify trends in our lives and gives us the freedom and space to evaluate how we feel about such habits and circumstances. Writing down our intentions can be the first step in changing trends in our lives.

The trick to ensuring that writing down our intentions will help manifest them is to follow our writing with action and will. Write with will and act with will. If we truly want something that is right for us, the universe often gifts us with these humble dreams of ours. We don’t always receive what we wish for in the way we imagine, but the Divine gives us what we want at the time we need it. But we must strive to seek truth with hearts of gold, for it is when we desire with purity and humility, and when we seek truth above all else, that we will receive what we need and what is ultimately meant for us. As the Holy Scripture reminds us in Matthew 6:33: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Let journaling help you figure out what feels right to you in life. When you determine things that don’t work in your life, follow this with lists of resolutions or ways to change. May your journaling insights and the year 2015 bring you all the peace, love and joy you need to become your highest Self and live your passion!

Follow Self-Study with Action!

Our Writing and Consciousness journaling classes are taught from a yogic perspective. Yoga is commonly understood to mean “union,” referring to oneness with the divine. We also know that man is made in the image of God, and therefore, divinity lies within each of us. The Indian scriptures define our inner divine qualities as love, joy, peace, calmness, wisdom, sound, light and power. A purpose of journaling is to awaken these divine qualities within us, reminding ourselves that we are these qualities, while letting go of negative emotions such as fear, doubt, worry and anger.

Patanjali, the ancient sage of Ashtanga yoga, describes the path to enlightenment, or union with the divine, in eight limbs or stages (Patanjali’s Eightfold Path). Two of these stages are known asyamas and niyamas, or do’s and don’ts for right living. There are five yamas and five niyamas. The fourth niyama is swadhyaya, meaning self-study. (It is usually translated to “study of the scriptures,” but as Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Kriya Yoga master Paramhansa Yogananda, writes in The Art and Science of Raja Yogaswa translates to “self,” which means the proper translation for swadhyaya is “self-study.”) Therefore, self-study or “introspection,” which literally means “to look into,” is a major stage toward enlightenment.

Journaling is the tool that will help us master the practice of introspection. Swami Kriyananda, founder of worldwide Ananda communities, says, “Self-study begins with the careful observation of one’s thoughts, feelings and motives.” When we look inward, taking notice of our emotions and behaviors, we gain insight into life’s longer rhythms — the bigger picture of why things happen and how we can resolve situations. But the question that we must not forget to ask ourselves after receiving insight is: How will I use my will to move in a positive direction?

The key words in this question are “will” and “direction.” Swadhyaya, self-study, introspection, journaling…it’s all great but is essentially nothing if we don’t follow it with action. All too often, we relish in the sense of release after journaling — and might even pause in astonishment or bafflement after coming to profound insights — but once we set the pen down and tuck our journal secretly away, we forget about these invaluable, potentially life-changing insights as if they were simply rushed sensations, fading as quickly as they came.

This is fatal! When journaling, we should identify the direction we’d like our lives to unfold and exercise our will to move toward this direction. We can use our will as freely as we’d like, but without direction, we get nowhere. As all great yoga masters say, life is an experiment and we will never reach enlightenment or oneness if we don’t use our will in life’s laboratory.

In Writing and Consciousness classes, we come up with action plans and set intentions after identifying particular insights that have inspired a specific direction. We must remember with faith, however, that we must consciously and fearlessly experiment with our actions because, though tried, it’s true — we will never get anywhere unless we try. And we all want enlightenment and oneness, don’t we? So practice swadhyaya, a right-living “do” in yoga, and journal to find insight and direction. Then take action! And your fears, doubts and worries will roll away, as your love, joy, peace and calmness radiate. You will then begin to live your truth.

Prayer Journaling: How to Be Honest with Yourself

The most important thing to do when journaling is to be completely honest. Sometimes we think we’re being honest, but we’re really not telling 100% of the truth. I catch myself writing white lies every now and then when journaling. It’s not that I’m trying to be dishonest, but sometimes we want things to go a certain way or we have an underlying fear of admitting something. This comes out in our writing as lies, or denial of the truth.

One way that helps me tell the complete truth all the way through a journal entry is by writing that entry to God. I call this “prayer journaling.” I start with: “Dear God…” God, or the higher power, whatever you feel comfortable referring to, always knows the truth. He knows us more than we know ourselves because He sees through the lies that we tell ourselves. So if we journal to God — we can look at this as writing down our prayers — we are often more likely to tell the truth. We can lie to God, but this defeats the purpose of journaling.

We can lie to ourselves too when journaling, which would also defeat the purpose of this excellent and cathartic therapy. But we don’t always realize we’re lying to ourselves because that might be our reality as we’re seeing it. “Lying” when journaling is okay and quite normal. It’s human nature to want to avoid the truth because sometimes it can be scary, especially when processing trauma or other emotional events. But we need to be honest in order to progress during recovery, and to advance with our personal transformation and spiritual growth.

I find that when I start a journal entry with “Dear God,” I’m more easily able to detect when I begin to tell my white lies. A contracting energy immediately builds in my core then travels to my hand holding the pen and stops me from writing the lie. I know God knows the truth, so there’s no point to write a fabrication or a creative spin to this reality I’m trying to process. Sometimes I need to take a moment before continuing with the journal entry because I need to breathe and face the truth. I need to decide what the truth is sometimes and sit with it before I admit it in writing. In our daily lives, we often find little ways to skip away from the truth, so when the truth finds us in journaling, we need to take a second to recognize that it is in fact the truth.

These don’t always need to be life-changing or traumatic truths. They could be seemingly smaller things, like realizing our true feelings for someone, or our real feelings about a situation. Maybe we were avoiding the fact that someone really hurt us, but when we write “Dear God,” our true feelings finally surface. Maybe we’ll find when writing that we’re in love with someone, but our denial caused our daily actions to let us believe otherwise. Maybe we’re falling out of love with our partner and are fearful of admitting it, but our written prayer in our journal helps us realize our true feelings. God already knew anyway, so we might as well admit it when we’re writing our journal entry to Him.

It’s important to realize that both prayer and journaling are sacred practices that create sacred space — separately and together. Given the safe nature of both of these practices, we need to accept that it’s okay to be honest. Yes, someone can read your journal, but you can also get a lock, hide it or ask who you’re living with to be respectful of your sacred and private practice. God does not judge us. We should learn from God to not judge ourselves. Don’t judge yourself when journaling. If you catch yourself judging yourself when journaling, start your journal entries with “Dear God.” You might find that this creates more of a sacred space, free of judgment.

I highly encourage you to give prayer journaling a try. Many find that writing to God is extremely helpful, and have documented how such a practice has been helpful for them, like Janet Conner has so beautifully done in her book, Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within. Please feel free to share in comments on this blog how this journaling tool is useful for you. Many blessings to you during your transformational journey!

Launch Day: Writing and Consciousness Academy at the Yoga Institute

This is the transcription of a talk I gave on Aug. 30, 2014 on the Writing and Consciousness Academy for the launching of the Yoga Institute at Ananda Laurelwood, explaining the inspiration behind the Academy and why journaling is an essential practice on the spiritual path.

Good morning, thank you all for being here today. I find it fascinating that everything in our lives has brought us up to this exact point of being in this room together. Who we are, where we’ve been, our life experiences — it’s all essentially led up to this point. We probably weren’t always conscious of where our lives were leading us though. For me, even just five years ago, I couldn’t have intuited that I’d end up teaching Writing and Consciousness classes at a yoga institute. Maybe at a counseling center, which I did end up doing, but not here with you all today.

In the past, my work has mostly taken me to what we might call the “underground” — not exactly the uplifting, spiritual grounds ofAnanda Laurelwood. Six years ago, I began working as a human rights journalist after always having a deep passion for writing. I primarily reported on victims of abuse to help give them a voice — I traveled to Vietnam a couple times to reveal the neglect imposed by the country’s medical system on impoverished rural people. I spent time with and reported on at-risk youth near Los Angeles who were trying to overcome their mental health and behavioral issues through the performing arts. But it was in South Africa while reporting at a home for abandoned, abused and neglected children that I felt called to do more than report on the marginalized after learning that many of the kids I was reporting on, some just toddlers, were victims of sexual abuse.

I returned to the States and wrote my graduate school comprehensive exam on gendered violence in America, primarily on domestic violence and sexual abuse, and began working in New York City as an advocate for an anti-sex trafficking organization. After young ladies had been rescued from the terrors of sex trafficking, or more correctly put — “slavery,” I assessed their immediate and long-term needs and found them therapy, housing and, if appropriate, vocational training and education. The work, which has never felt like “work” to me, but rather a gift of service from God, was more inspiring and uplifting than anything. Few things in this lifetime have touched my heart as much as filling out college applications with these young ladies — and later sharing their joys after receiving their college acceptance letters. But, nevertheless, rare moments of distress did occur.

When I first met 20-year-old Sarah (for privacy reasons, not her real name) about two years ago, she had just been rescued in an undercover operation in downtown Manhattan and was suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among other issues. Soon after, she started seeing an excellent therapist. She shared with me that she did not feel comfortable in these sessions because she felt like she was talking to herself, that she was not being given any advice. I explained to her that that’s how traditional therapy works — that the therapist asks questions to prompt you to discover answers on your own. Still, she didn’t like this and pleaded for alternative therapy.

Knowing how cathartic and helpful writing had always been for me, I suggested she start journaling. I started journaling after learning to write when I was about 4 years old and have been ever since. I could tell from the start that something profound was happening — I didn’t simply feel happier from writing; I knew I was changing from deep within. As I got older and learned what consciousness was, I realized that that’s what was happening when I journaled — my consciousness was being uplifted.

Sarah’s consciousness needed to be uplifted in order to heal. But she didn’t know where to begin with journaling, so I gave her prompts — Who are you? What makes you happy? Who are you angry at and why? What are your dreams? What is holding you back from making your dreams your living reality? At first, her pain surfaced. But it needed to surface in order to be processed. But only weeks later, her face was joyful, the smile she wore wide across her face emerged from deep within, and I could see Divine joy in the light in her eyes. I asked why she shone so brightly. I’ll never forget her answer. It changed my life. She replied, “I feel like I have power. Journaling is just like what you said happens in therapy, Melissa — I am coming up with my own answers to my own problems. But on my own, not through a therapist. I gave myself my voice back.”

Today, Sarah is set to finish college soon. She might be a student, but she was also my teacher in many ways. She taught me the power of written introspection. Perhaps more importantly, I realized from Sarah and my years working directly with human trafficking survivors, that we all share the same life goal as these survivors. We, just like them, are seeking freedom. All human beings are seeking freedom, whether we know it or not. We are seeking freedom from ourselves, our ego. After human trafficking survivors break free from the physical restraint of their traffickers, they often work to free themselves of the fear, the guilt, the shame, the extreme anxiety that keeps them awake at night. We, too, are trying to let go of anything that is not truly us — fear, doubt, negativity, worry, anger — so we can become our highest self. We, just like the survivors, are just trying to become our potential. And we, too, can do that through writing.

This time last year, I moved from Southern California to Sacramento to do similar work as an anti-sex trafficking specialist and facilitate Writing to Heal workshops to clients and therapists. Clearly, I was being divinely guided there, because my boss was a devotee of Paramhansa Yogananda. She showed me the movie, Finding Happiness, on the spiritual community calledAnanda, and several months later, I moved to Ananda Village in Northern California, and of course, was eventually guided here to the Yoga Institute at Ananda Laurelwood.

I’d like to share with you what Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Yogananda and founder of Ananda, writes about introspection inAffirmations for Self-Healing: “Introspection means to behold oneself from a center of inner calmness, without the slightest mental bias, open to what may be wrong in oneself — not excusing it, but not condemning it either. Introspection means referring what one sees to the superconscious mind, and detachedly accepting guidance, when it comes.” Swamiji is largely talking about meditation as introspection, but Yogananda also highly recommended written introspection. In the Writing and Consciousness course here at the Yoga Institute, we combine meditation with written introspection to ultimately come to that center of inner calmness, where we can practice honest introspection with ourselves and come to solutions by the grace of God and guru, and on our own, much like Sarah did.

The Writing and Consciousness course is universal and not limited to victims of trauma, though it’s true that we all have experienced varying degrees of trauma during our lives. The course is based on the idea, “The calmer we are, the clearer we think.” The idea is to get to a place of inner calmness, like Swamiji states, so we can honestly evaluate our lives and separate our Soul self from our little ego self, long enough to gain clarity and see the bigger picture or longer rhythms of our lives.

In the course, we practice meditation before writing to calm our emotions so we can write from a place of clarity in order to practice introspection free of bias, and to more likely come up with lasting solutions. After writing, we generally feel either free or agitated. We meditate after writing to balance our heightened emotions by matching them to the calm, steadiness of our breath, or to expand into that peaceful feeling of freedom that journaling can bring. We practice many innovative and traditional journaling techniques to help students open up to their Soul self (or highest self) and to process blockages created by experiences and emotions.

Expressive writing, or journaling, is a relatively new field of therapy. In 1986, scientific studies were conducted on it for the first time (by leading expressive writing researcher and social psychologist, Dr. James W. Pennebaker at University of Texas, Austin), and it was found that it increases our health and happiness. Writers in the study were going to the doctor less, reported less health issues at doctor visits, were sleeping better and were getting better grades in school. Techniques in the Writing and Consciousness course were developed and expanded from these first studies, and many are new but proven by my clients to be invaluable, and were created from techniques I learned in journalism school and in my counseling certification program.

Now, don’t think our journaling focus is just on negative emotions and events. On the contrary, it’s very important to write about happy events and memories as well. Writing can be fun and we’ll surely find that in journaling. Each of us is made up of divine qualities — joy, peace, love, calmness, power, wisdom, light and sound. Sometimes we forget that we are these things. Journaling helps us remember. And that can be fun and enlightening. It was for Sarah when she remembered that she had power, that she is power. And unveiling these qualities can be just as enlightening for us.

As Yogis, we practice balance. We know that even feelings of prolonged elation can cause blockages, because we’re then living in the falsehood that overexcitement brings, opposed to living in truth brought by divine joy. Plus, it’s just good to reflect on our happiness! By uplifting our consciousness, expressive writing allows us to live daily from that place of inner peace, love and joy. When our consciousness is in a higher state, we engage in more actions of compassion, love, empathy and understanding, opposed to a life lived in a more negative state of awareness, where we’re driven by feelings of doubt, fear, anger or greed. Expressive writing changes the way we view ourselves and the world around us, and there are fascinating techniques that help us specifically do this, but I want to save some surprises for the sample class later today.

It’s important to realize that we are living in an age where more people are turning to holistic healing methods and expressive therapies, like journaling, in order to heal and transform. They are done with the methods and medicines that simply mask their symptoms, like antidepressants, and are seeking the real thing — TRUTH — and are ready for it. They know that truth will heal them. Truth is the honesty and divine guidance that we’ll find when journaling. Truth heals by raising consciousness to a state of upliftment where we are able to let go of what’s ailing us and merge back into our highest qualities that represent our true self.

Miriam and others have shared with me that they think many people like Sarah will find Ananda Laurelwood. I agree. These people are done with living in their problems and want to heal from within. They might not know it, but they want to raise their consciousness. And the Yoga Institute offers so many ways to do just that through expressive arts — through musicwriting,visual arts and holistic healing.

The paper we write on when journaling should be a mirror reflecting our truest, innermost self. The ultimate goal in the Writing and Consciousness course is to reveal both our ego self and our Soul self, and then hold onto and expand into our Soul self, and let go of our ego. If Sarah could let go of her past and find her true, beautiful self by finding her own answers in journaling, we too can let go of what holds us back and become our highest selves. And as Swamiji says, may we release mental bias and accept divine guidance as it comes.

Healing Vicarious Trauma with Writing and Meditation

The most effective and quick way to heal is by changing our consciousness. Consciousness is our awareness and perception of ourselves and the world around us. It affects our moods and our actions. For example, if we are in an uplifted state of consciousness, we will feel joyful and engage in actions of love and compassion. Contrarily, if our consciousness is in a lower, debased state, we will feel depressed and discouraged, employing negative actions that can harm ourselves and others. Therefore, if we are suffering from negative emotions and feelings caused by vicarious trauma, it would be helpful to raise our consciousness to essentially transmute these negative symptoms into a positive state of health and well-being.

We can raise our consciousness and transmute negative symptoms of vicarious trauma into a positive state of wellness through meditation and introspection (journaling or expressive writing). The purpose of expressive writing and meditation, as taught in this workshop, is to expand our consciousness to a level of expansive peace, joy, calmness and love in which we can constantly live.

We can analyze our problems all we want by thinking about them, but this is unlikely to bring a sustainable solution. Thinking is limiting; writing and meditation are expansive. Expansion through writing and meditation will bring us real, lasting solutions for healing. In the process of raising our consciousness through writing and meditation, we will let go of negative and repressive feelings we have toward past events in our lives. Letting go will reawaken us to the freedom that is already present within us, and writing will give us a voice to reclaim our innate power.

We can use this model for healing from vicarious trauma using expressive writing combined with meditation:

Emotional experience —> Write and meditate —> Clarity and calmness of feeling —> —> Intuition and empowerment —> Healing and becoming your potential

Goals in Healing Vicarious Trauma with Writing and Meditation:

  • Realize that the trauma we are experiencing is not our own
  • Identify symptoms we are experiencing related to vicarious trauma
  • Link symptoms to sessions with clients to understand the specifics and bigger picture of how and why clients’ trauma is affecting our behavior, health, cognition, emotions and social sphere
  • Determine how we are practicing self-care and make an active plan to increase, if necessary

What is Expressive Writing and How Does It Heal Vicarious Trauma?

Expressive writing is a form of writing and therapy that raises our consciousness by giving us freedom and clarity through communication with ourselves. Communicating one-on-one with ourselves gives us intimate free-range to honestly and privately explore our deepest feeling and emotions. If we experience trauma first-hand, our traumatic memories are typically stored in bits and pieces in our memory as static events. Writing allows us to string these static events together in one fluid story, helping us understand the bigger picture of our trauma. Honest introspection and reflection brings us clarity, allowing us to process troubling memories that have restricted and repressed us.

Self-Care, Letting Go and Balance:

On the other hand, if we are experiencing vicarious trauma, our honesty when journaling helps us determine what symptoms we are suffering from and what we are doing in the realm of self-care. Again, such honesty gives us clarity, from which we can begin to make an active plan to change. Through writing, we can let go of disturbing images, spoken words and faces of fear that our clients have shared with us and that may haunt us. We can also release the overload of distressing details our clients share with us so that we are not also carrying them around with us, inhibiting our daily lives and our ability to give counseling and therapy. Vicarious trauma often occurs when we take on more trauma accounts than we are able to handle, and as a result, experience more trauma-related effects and symptoms than we are able to handle. Writing (and meditation) helps balance this excess by allowing us to see where we are taking on too much and how to actively plan to only take on what we can sensibly handle.

“Ah-Ha!” Moments: Realizing How and Why Vicarious Trauma Is Affecting Us

Additionally, we will have “ah-ha!” moments during journaling, where we will begin to see both specifics of what is truly bothering us and the bigger picture of how vicarious trauma is affecting our lives and why. For example, in regards to the specifics, we might suddenly or gradually begin to lose things or become uncharacteristically clumsy (behavioral symptoms of vicarious trauma) and not know why. If we are journaling about how we truly feel about our sessions with our sexual assault and domestic violence clients, then we will realize that these feelings have stayed with us outside the counseling center and are affecting our behavior by making us feel disconnected with ourselves since we are thinking about our clients’ trauma. Ah-ha!

Then we can begin to unpack the bigger picture of why these feelings are still with us — perhaps we are not realizing that these traumas are not our own because we are not practicing enough self-care, or maybe clients’ traumas have triggered unresolved personal memories for us. Sessions with clients can trigger emotions within us, born of compassion and related to our own past experiences. Writing expressively, not only about our work with clients, but also about our own lives, helps us process experiences allowing us to become more centered and less susceptible to vicarious trauma. If we are not doing enough self-care, then we can write about ways to increase this practice. If we are experiencing triggers, then we should seek trauma client help in the form of counseling and self-care (more meditation and expressive writing, but using techniques for trauma clients).

Writing and the Brain:

Expressive writing is an outlet that taps into the creative part of the brain that helps process trauma and balances emotions. When we write, there is a positive response from the amygdala, located in the temporal lobes on both sides of the brain, which plays the role of processing memory, decision-making and emotional reactions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which controls affective and motivated behaviors and certain forms of memory.

What Is Meditation and How Does It Heal Vicarious Trauma?

Meditation is an ancient practice that aims to bring the meditator clarity and self-awareness by achieving inner calmness. When we are calm and still, we make ourselves more able to connect with our highest self. Our highest self is our truest, most authentic self. It is our freest and most powerful self, free from the limits of ego and attachments. Meditation helps calm us so that we can recognize and let go of all limitations, and attune with our freedom within. Meditation inspires us to express this reawakened freedom in our daily thoughts and actions, ultimately cultivating self-transformation and empowerment.

Meditation and Compassion Fatigue or Burnout:

When counseling sexual assault and domestic violence victims, we are susceptible to personally feeling fear, pain and even terror, like they’ve experienced. We perceive this on a visceral level — our own bodies sense their fear, extreme anxiety, anger and other related feelings. Subsequently, we can end up making some of these feelings and experiences our own. Meditation makes us stronger, more resilient and centered within ourselves, so we are less susceptible to adopting these feelings. Moreover, it is not unlikely that we may experience compassion fatigue (a form of burnout) when working with this population. Meditation helps us be more centered with our emotions and live with more balance, avoiding overburdened hearts and minds.

Meditating before writing helps bring calmness, so we can write with more of a clear mind, so we can bring about lasting solutions and active plans to change when writing. Meditating after writing helps bring heightened emotions back to the calm, steady nature of our breath. Photo courtesy: P K Gupta VNS

Finally, meditation is key in helping us understand that the trauma we experience with clients is not our own. Meditation does this by bringing us calmness and clarity that help us connect with who we truly are. When we are calm, our self-awareness increases and we are more likely to see that clients’ traumas cause conditions that we are here to help, not conditions that we are meant to experience as our own.

How Is Meditation Combined With Writing to Heal Vicarious Trauma? 

In Writing to Heal + Meditation workshops and Writing and Consciousness classes, we meditate before and after writing. Meditating before writing helps us calm ourselves so we can think clearer. The calmer we are, the clearer we think. This way, we are writing from a place of relative calmness and centeredness, giving ourselves the opportunity to work out our problems from a higher, more aware state of mind. When we are finished writing, we usually either feel a sense of freedom form releasing so much that we had been holding on to, or we feel upset and agitated — which is completely normal (most people feel negative emotions, opposed to feeling free for at least the first few times they journal. It is likely that these upset emotions will arise less and less after writing over time). Meditating after writing helps balance our heightened emotions, bringing them back to the steadiness of the breath where they can transmute into centered emotions that are more in line with who we truly are. If we feel free and expansive after writing, we can meditate on that sense of freedom, allowing it to permeate every cell of our being and outward.

For Ultimate Health and Healing: Journal consistently, not just during emotional events

Introspection is critical for our health and well being, and our spiritual growth. In the form of expressive writing or journaling, introspection is especially beneficial because it allows us to disclose information that we otherwise might not admit to others or even ourselves. Because of this factor, expressive writing is an excellent therapeutic tool for those who have experienced emotional or traumatic experiences. However, we should not limit ourselves to journaling or engaging in other introspective practices only to process and recover from distressing experiences. Rather, it is equally important to journal consistently, regardless of how dramatic or uneventful our lives seem to be at certain times.

This is because we might be unaware of how social factors could be contributing to our avoidance of feelings and processing feelings. For example, our friends and family, even with the best intentions, might tell us to put the past behind us or move on after we’ve experienced an emotional or traumatic event. We might not even realize it if we end up following their advice, because we might react to such suggestions by simply not talking to the friend about the event. This means that we are engaging in avoidance, a tendency we might employ as a means to maintain or attain “internal equilibrium,” as trauma psychologist and professorJohn Briere, PhD, explains in his article, “Working with Trauma: Mindfulness and Compassion.” Yet, we are actually prolonging or exacerbating the pain or other emotions caused by the event. Modern mindful psychotherapists call this the “pain paradox,”where we end up experiencing more pain by trying various ways to avoid pain.

Another factor that causes us to avoid recovering from emotional experiences, according to Dr. Briere, is the media. The media largely promotes materialism as a way to resolve any shortcomings or weakness we might feel that we have. From clothes and accessories to make women feel more feminine and empowered, to cars to make men feel more masculine and in control, the media’s promotion of the acquistion of such worldly, ultimately meaningless items (on top of its advocacy for pain relievers and antidepressants) tells society that once we do something “to stop feeling bad, we’ll automatically feel good.”

Of course, we don’t recover after “doing something to stop feeling bad,” though we might briefly feel better. The way to start feeling good and truly recover from any distress that experiences bring us is to be honest with ourselves about the event and our feelings about it, and then face the event to process it. Facing the event means to recount the event or sit with it. This will help us overcome fear and is a step toward accepting the event. Once we accept the event, we are ready to fully process it.

How can we face an event? Through meditation and expressive writing. Meditating before writing allows us to become calm so we can think clearly about the event while writing about it. Our emotions might be heightened after journaling, so meditating after writing will help restore balance within. I suggest this combination of meditating and expressive writing as an introspective healing modality to trauma clients, which has proven invaluable in their recovery process and ultimate transformation. Such a combination allows for not only their recovery from the traumatic event, but for their personal and spiritual growth that transcends their emotional experience — for their evolution toward their highest self and self-realization.

Writing Technique: Using pronouns helps heal

A primary concern clients have at the beginning of my Writing to Heal + Meditation workshops is what type of language and style to use. Among other style techniques, a tip we go over and practice is using pronouns. Leading expressive writing researcher and social psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker and his colleague, R. Campbell, prove in a fascinating study that using pronouns (I, he, she, they, we) improve our overall health — immune function, stress levels, blood pressure and our social relationships.

How does the use of these simple words cultivate such profound results for an area so critical as our health and well-being? This simple technique is supported by equally simple reasoning; when we use pronouns, we tend to follow with an explanation of who these people/pronouns are. This explanation helps us understand our sense of self in relation to others. When we clearly understand ourself and our social relationships, we begin to understand the bigger picture of our lives. When we see our lives from the bigger picture perspective, we begin to uncover our purpose in life.

When we establish such clarity, we become more centered and aware of who we truly are, allowing ourselves to let go of self-identifications, heightened emotions and negative experiences. Additionally, pronouns help us see who we truly are because in defining these people, we see who they are to us. We can evaluate if these relationships have a positive or negative impact on our lives. Our explanations of other people also reveal much about ourselves, as we can see if we are being impartial in our evaluation or if we are acting with unfair judgment. Such introspection will reveal truths about ourselves and our lives — so long as we are being completely honest with ourselves in our writing!

At this point, our newfound sense of clarity begins to help us make sense of things, automatically organizing our hazy and haphazard perspectives into a fresh state of consciousness where we are aware of our freedom and free will, and how we can use such will to become our highest self, living our life’s true purpose.

Campbell, R.S., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2003).

How does expressive writing help heal?

Here are several ways that expressive writing helps us heal, as taught in my Writing to Heal + Meditation workshop (originally designed for victims of emotional/psychological trauma, but these principles can be applied to anyone seeking healing or personal/spiritual growth):

Writing helps us accept.  Many psychologists consider normal memory to be “the act of telling a story.” With traumatic memories, however, we tend to remember them in bits and pieces, like a series of single, static photos playing through our heads.  This fragmented sort of memory generally prevents us from being able to tell the traumatic event as a fluid story. When we remember experiences only in parts, we are unable to accept them as a whole. Remembering our traumatic experiences in one fluid story helps us understand the bigger picture of our trauma.

Writing empowers us.  When we tell our traumatic experiences out loud for the first times, we tend to tell them without emotion and often use stereotypes to explain. Writing helps us personalize our story and allows us to tell it with emotion, using adjectives, or strong feeling words. When our stories are ripe with our personal emotion, they become our own, and we become empowered!

Writing prepares us for reconnecting.  Remembering our traumatic memory as a fluid story, opposed to a static event/s, prepares us for reconnecting with society and individuals, as we emerge from the isolation our traumas may have subjected us to.  (Reconnecting is the third and final stage in the recovery process.  Establishing safety is the first stage, and remembrance and mourning is the second stage.)

Writing improves our health.  Expressive writing has been scientifically proven to improve our mental and physical health and well-being.  Studies on expressive writing have shown that those who write expressively for about 15 consecutive minutes per day for a minimum of four sequential days sleep more soundly, get better grades in school, and have a strengthened mental capacity and memory.

Writing to Heal + Meditation Workshop FAQs

What is expressive writing and meditation? What do they have to do with healing? And how does all of this connect with consciousness? Here I share some answers to common questions clients ask and general topics we discuss in my Writing to Heal + Meditation workshops.*

What does consciousness have to do with healing?

The most effective and quick way to heal is by changing our consciousness. Consciousness is our awareness and perception of ourselves and the world around us. It affects our moods and our actions. For example, if we are in an uplifted state of consciousness, we will feel joyful and engage in actions of love and compassion. Contrarily, if our consciousness is in a lower, debased state, we will feel depressed and discouraged, employing negative actions that can harm ourselves and others.

What is the purpose of expressive writing and meditation?

The purpose of expressive writing and meditation, as taught in my workshop, is to raise and expand our consciousness to a level of expansive peace, joy, calmness and love in which we can constantly live. We can analyze our problems all we want by thinking about them, but this is unlikely to bring a sustainable solution. Thinking is limiting; writing and meditation are expansive. Expansion through writing and meditation will bring us real, lasting solutions for healing. In the process of raising our consciousness through writing and meditation, we let go of negative and repressive feelings we have toward past events and attachments in our lives. Letting go will reawaken us to the freedom that is already present within us, and writing will give us a voice to reclaim our innate power.

What is “expressive writing”?

Expressive writing is a form of writing and therapy that raises our consciousness by giving us freedom and clarity through communication with ourselves. Communicating one-on-one with ourselves gives us intimate free-range to honestly and privately explore our deepest feelings and emotions. Traumatic memories, whether representing minor/everyday or severe traumas, are typically stored in bits and pieces in our memory as static events. Writing allows us to string these static events together in one fluid story, helping us understand the bigger picture of our trauma. Honest introspection and reflection brings us clarity, allowing us to process troubling memories that have restricted and repressed us.

What is “meditation”?

Meditation is an ancient practice that aims to bring the meditator clarity and self-awareness by achieving inner calmness. When we are calm and still, we make ourselves more able to connect with our highest self. Our highest self is our truest, most authentic self. It is our freest and most powerful self, free from the limits of ego and attachments. Meditation helps calm ourselves so that we can recognize and let go of all limitations, and attune with our freedom within. Meditation inspires us to express this reawakened freedom in our daily thoughts and actions, ultimately cultivating self-transformation and empowerment.

Learn specifically how expressive writing helps heal in my next blog…

*My workshop was inspired by and largely based on the teachings of the great Yoga master, Paramhansa Yogananda, and by the guidance of his student, Swami Kriyananda, aka J. Donald Walters.
*This Writing to Heal + Meditation workshop was originally designed for those who have experienced emotional/psychological trauma, but anyone can benefit from the healing modalities of expressive writing and meditation, and the exercises taught in the workshop.

Expressive Writing: Let go of the past and become your potential

I started journaling when I was 5 years old after my mother gave me my first diary. It was blue and very tiny with a lock. Reflecting on it is emotional because it’s like remembering an old friend. Sometimes it felt like that tiny blue diary was my only friend. I poured my heart and soul into it, using my writing to tell it about when I thought my mom had cancer, when kids at school were mean to me, when I was devastated and furious about poverty and abuse I saw on the news. I could be so confused, so hurt, so angry before and during writing, but I’d always have a newfound sense of clarity afterward. So I kept writing.

It’s no surprise that after my early childhood discovery of my passion for cathartic writing, I became a journalist and counselor. My first journaling experience was over 20 years ago, but I still get that invaluable clarity and self-awareness that has proven to be an encouraging and comforting guarantee after every journal entry or blog post I write. Having had such an uplifting and transformative experience with writing, I found it impossible to not share this blessing of a healing tool with others. I developed a Writing to Heal + Meditation Workshop — a series of lessons on how to combine writing and meditation as a healing modality to unlock power and potential — and began facilitating it at a crisis intervention center I worked for.

Learning that most clients found writing as helpful or more helpful than I did inspired me to study expressive writing and mindful psychotherapy deeper in an effort to improve and further develop my workshop to best suit clients’ needs and foster their personal/spiritual growth. I created this blog to share what I’ve found during my studies, in order to further support and spread the fascinating research that has been done on the benefits of writing and meditation, and the incredibly positive client feedback on these two forms of therapy.

Expressive writing is a relatively new therapy and field of study; its first study was conducted in 1986 by Dr. James W. Pennebakerand his student, Sandra Bell, at the University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Pennebaker asked participants of the study to write about their most upsetting, traumatic experience for 15 minutes per day for four consecutive days. They were encouraged to explore their deepest emotions tied to the event and connect these emotions with other areas of their lives, such as childhood, their relationship with their parents and their current relationships with other people.

Dr. Pennebaker’s and Ms. Bell’s study showed that translating emotional experiences into words changed the way these experiences are stored in the brain. Moreover, the study, and many of the 200+ expressive writing studies to follow, proved that writing about personal experiences helps people improve their physical and mental health, sleep better and raise their grades in school. Perhaps most significantly, however, tying emotions to other areas of their lives revealed to participants for the first time how their traumatic experience is affecting them now. This realization can help clients take necessary next steps toward recovery.

I like to focus my workshops on this realization, as it is the critical point in which clients can effectively begin to unlock their potential and step into their own power. Once the client makes the connection of how a past experience is currently affecting them, they typically have that “ah-ha!” moment of clarity and jump one of the hurdles toward the finish line of self-realization.

Though we may never fully reach this finish line in this lifetime, leaping over stifling hurdles and knocking down uninspiring roadblocks make for a transformative journey. And transformation is what our life’s journey (and the recovery process) is all about. To determine a past experience’s current effect is to identify the root of the problem. Sometimes even the simple act of identifying the issue’s root is enough to let go with grace and move forward. Other times, making this identification will serve as the foundation to an active and mindful plan of how to let go and recover.

When we let go of the restraining grip a past experience has had on us, we make room for our true, highest self to emerge. Within our highest self lies our greatest potential. Thus, writing can help unleash that potential and realize our power within. There are countless ways in which the words on the pages of my tiny blue diary helped me transform into who I am today. Transformation is an ongoing process. Though my self-transformation is nowhere near complete, my continuous writing will no doubt tirelessly reveal more and more of my deepest intuition, assisting me in becoming my highest self one day. It is my hope that you, too, will try writing to become your potential, and that the information posted on this blog can expand your wisdom on your journey.