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What if I told you one of the easiest, most versatile and affordable tools you could adopt for your “coping toolbox” for being mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy was… journaling.  Yes, that old chestnut. A favorite go-to of angsty teens everywhere turns out to be a remarkable tool for life-long self care.

I share my enthusiasm for journaling both as an avid journal-keeper myself as well as a therapist. Personally, I love going to coffeeshops and journaling. I sit down and “check in” with myself, see what’s *really* going on with me. Sometimes I doodle, sometimes I embroider quotes with colorful markers and pen. Sometimes I vent. Sometimes I stare out the window and then back at the empty page; permission to “just be”. If there’s a problem that I’m trying to tackle, I typically review all the variables, projected possibilities, pros and cons until an answer begins to emerge. Sometimes there is no “answer”, especially around things that are not in my control, but acknowledging the emotions I’m feeling makes me feel a little better.  And that, my friends, is something useful to know how to do! Keep a journal long enough and you have a record of your subjective experience across time, which is pretty neat to look back at later.

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Regular journaling often leads to more easily putting together the puzzle pieces of seemingly unrelated experiences into a more cohesive whole (pssst, that helps with meaning-making, problem solving and with feeling more “in control” of one’s life). Just writing down a description of what exactly you are experiencing during a given day… recording your thoughts, noticing your feelings and then perhaps following the bread-crumb trail to where those feelings began, studying and notating your own behavior… this can be a powerful tool that can help you in a multitude of ways.

As a therapist, I encourage people to allow themselves to be more curious. And perhaps try to record this curiosity.  Pull out pen and paper or, your phone if you prefer, and ask yourself questions about you, your life, your day, your process.  Be curious about why or why not you did something and why you did it the way you did.  There’s almost always a reason, a motivation, a pull, a purpose, a function… hiding in plain sight. Being curious about yourself is “fine-and-good” but doing it alone in your own head only gets you so far; it will only get you so much benefit. It’s kind of like doing a math problem in the air, we all get lost pretty quickly. So, it’s helpful to write all this complicated stuff down so you can work with it in a more “hands on” way!

Being curious on paper, now that’s a lot like a conversation! Or, perhaps like keeping detailed notes in a field experiment. Journaling is a safe place where you can say anything, a place to “try on” different ideas, solutions or to envision various possibilities… all to yourself, right where you can benefit from it by putting solutions into action.  If you want to.  Journaling might even help you realize all the excellent reasons to NOT act right now.  Understanding the why or why not can be comforting, illuminating, a relief.  It gives you more power and insight over your own existence.  Journaling can help you develop the super-power of self-knowledge… and that leads to personal growth.

So, Why Journal? How Does It Help Exactly?

Journaling has been studied extensively and been found to be beneficial in many ways.

  • Journaling has been shown to lead to long-term improvements in mood, reduced depressive symptoms, lower blood pressure

  • Journaling helps you discover patterns in your life or your behavior through “self-observation”. Journaling helps you document your experience for future reference or analysis. You could treat your journal like they are the field notes of a scientist studying and observing an interesting subject (you!) in the wild, noticing what happens in sequence and noting the results, being curious about how things might have gone had one variable been different or a different approach been taken.

  • Journaling helps  develop more understanding, compassion and gratitude towards others, yourself, your problem solving, your struggles, and the ways you cope with life. Journaling can help you learn to listen to yourself and pay attention to your own needs and desires, like a friend gently comforting you when you are freaking out. Here is a wonderful series by Kristin Neff on how to enhance self-compassion.

  • Journaling helps you sort through moments in life that are uncomfortable, ambiguous or uncertain.  It’s a primary tool to help tolerate sitting with ambiguity (which you know the soft animal of my body loves :)

  • Journaling can be used as a coping tool to get relief during difficult moments. It can reduce ruminating thoughts by serving as a container and space to organize thoughts.  Once you’re familiar with using journaling it can feel like an oasis, an access-point to feeling empowered and free in the midst of situations that may be disempowering or when you are feeling trapped.  Journaling is like a transporter in that way.  (Tip: try asking yourself “would writing help me right now?)

  • Journaling can be used to clear away the “cobwebs of the mind” or for “daily maintainance” of self care. Writing daily has the reported benefit of “clearing” the mind and giving relief to the writer in a way that could be useful if you are wanting to alleviate your mind of worries, “mental clutter” or stress.  Journaling is an opportunity to face problems head-on daily instead of letting them pile up.

  • Journaling cultivates curiosity and problem solving skills. Curiosity leads to insight, personal growth, gain perspective about self otherwise difficult to attain –

  • Journaling helps improve self esteem and self love.  Journaling helps you process/ notice destructive thinking or destructive circumstances, it helps you examine irrational or cruel ways of regarding yourself and practice being more self-loving.

  • Knowing yourself is one of the best ways to improve future relationships. Journaling helps you know yourself so you can be a better in each of your relationships.

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How to Journal… like, specifically, HOW do you start?

There are numerous approaches as to how to approach journaling.  There is no one right way to do it (thank goodness!) so think of it as a no-fail, low-risk situation we already know has numerous benefits.  First start with some guidelines:

Keep It Simple – don’t feel like you have to go out and get some fancy leather-bound journal–in fact if you know you’ll be tempted to keep that beautiful journal pristine and therefore not use it then skip getting the most gorgeous journal in the world.  Using a spiral-bound notebook like the kind you used in school may feel uninspiring or remind you of unpleasant homework.  I encourage you to use whatever is readily available, is utilitarian and that you like on some level (but maybe don’t love).  Sometimes when I’ve forgotten to bring my journal with me I’ve used post-it notes, scraps of paper, etc. and tape them in my journal later.

Let Go of Perfection – no need to manage your grammar here, let yourself write without censoring, let go of correctness or even making sense or having your words be legible (to everyone anyway). This space is for you, so let yourself go. Some find that focusing more on the quantity vs the quality of writing helps banish the critic.  If your goal is to write non-stop for 10 minutes you will focus on that task instead of how good what you write is, and that’s good.

Have Courage – please know that writing takes courage, vulnerability. It’s not always easy to “open up”, even to yourself. But as Brene Brown reminds us, vulnerability is a strength. With great risk comes great reward; writing is worth the risk because of what you’ll gain in insight, personal growth and cultivation of a handy coping skill.

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Then there’s the HOW of journaling techniques, of which there are many:

Start with just writing about your life – use journaling as a way to capture, document and describe in detail what is going on in your life right now. Capture your life “as is” and without judgment. You could use pictures, clippings from magazines or scrap-book paper, draw, make lists, use different colored pens or pencils, zentangle, write a poem, list what you ate, what you saw, what you read, favorite quotes, end your entry with naming what you’re thankful for at this very moment or with an affirmation that’s resonating with you.

Maintain a log of successes –  Begin by writing big ones you can easily remember and then try writing down small successes that occur during the week.  As you pay attention, the list will grow and serve to inspire and ground you.

Stream It – Dump It – Time It – Trying a variety of approaches to journaling often keeps the practice fresh and stimulating.  “Stream-of-consciousness” or dump-writing are easy ways to get journaling quickly and without judgement tripping you up.  According to Samara O’Shea in her beautifully written book Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits, she describes stream-of-consciousness writing:

Stream-of-consciousness writing is mental anarchy and spring-cleaning all in one.  It’s like going into the basement, turning the tables over, breaking the records in half, cutting the stuffed animals open with a sharp pair of scissors (and feeling much better afterward), then putting it all out just in time for the garbage man to collect.

To get started, O’Shea suggests beginning with any word (which will inevitably lead you somewhere); picking an emotion that’s been overwhelming you lately or one that you haven’t felt in a long time; or asking yourself a question.

Dump-writing is, essentially, what Julia Cameron of “The Artist’s Way” recommends.  She calls it doing “Morning Pages”.  You can set a timer for 10 minutes or decide ahead of time that you’ll write 3 pages longhand without stopping.  She emphasizes doing this exercise first thing in the morning which provokes claity, comfort, prioritizes your mind and synchronizes the day at hand… clearing out the “cobwebs” of the mind.  The nice thing about dump writing is there’s no wrong way to do it.  They are not high art.  They are about anything and everything that might cross your mind.  They are for your eyes only.

Change your writing style to match your mood – If you are angry, maybe scratch large red words there, if you are feeling uncertain or scared, maybe write tiny words in a spiral shape. You could also write using colored pencils or pens and see what colors you are drawn to or which match the emotion you are feeling.

Guided Journaling Often Gets You Thinking– There are TONS of writing prompts out there. Some examples to try:

  • How am I feeling? How do I want to feel?
  • What does my soul want me to know?
  • What would an ideal day for me look like, sound like? How can I make such a day happen in the next month?
  • What do I want to learn about myself?
  • What do I want to change about myself? What would I never change about myself?
  • Describe the room, describe the people in your life, describe yourself.
  • Describe the aspects of your life that you are pleased with and those areas you’re displeased with.
  • What questions would inform the work you are doing?
  • What intuitions do you notice?
  • What are some of the forces driving you?
  • What fascinates you?
  • What is your particular understanding of yourself, your past, your family, your purpose?
  • What do you hope for in the future?
  • What is being revealed to you?
  • What puzzles you?
  • What questions might you ask of yourself and of your work?
  • What is it you have been given to say?

I also like the book “The Creative Journal” by Lucia Capacchione.  It’s a book full of guided prompts around certain personal growth topics such as “Where You’re At, Where You’re Coming From”, “Who You Are”, “How You Are With Yourself”, “How You Are With Others”, “What Your Higher Self Knows”, and “Where You’re Going”. The prompts can be used using writing, drawing, art-making, poem-making, or whatever medium you like at the time with a goal of self-exploration.

Get Inspired Using the Words of Others – Write down lines from a poem or quote that inspires you or copy quotes in fancy lettering.  Let yourself doodle with eyes open or eyes closed.

Write with your subdominant hand – Subdominant hand writing helps access your unconscious mind. You can start a dialogue with your inner child by writing with your subdominant hand. Try answering with your dominant hand.  What issues emerge?  This kind of writing can also be used to tap into or develop your intuition.  For example, your could write down concerns or questions you have for your “higher self”.  Take a deep breath and listen for a response. Let yourself write automatically.If you don’t get an answer right away, look and listen for signs between journal sessions.

Tap into a new perspective by using the third person – Try writing about yourself in the third person and you’ll find it helps give you distance from the problem and gives a different perspective.  Afterward, write down what you learned about you.  This is especially helpful if you are struggling with something that’s disturbing you.

Starting to see why journaling is like the swiss-army tool of coping?  If not, maybe try journaling about it…

current music faves: phantogram, tori a (as always), florence and the machine

current show faves: the oa, this is us, american crime story

see what’s going on at my practice at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Failure Club is one of those new Yahoo web shows/ Morgan Spurlock’s latest social experiment that explores what happens when people embrace the possibility of failure while helping each other go after their dreams.

The show asks the question “Is there something you always wanted to do but were too afraid to try?” 

It aims to reframe failure as a tool for self-enhancement, stripping away the idea that failure is wrong.  It focuses on 7 New Yorkers bravely chasing their dreams of learning to horse-jump, start new business ventures, become a stand-up comedian, etc; all while meeting weekly to support and encourage one another.  Their collective goal is to confront and embrace fear thereby emerging better and stronger people.

Questions explored by the participants experientially and in support-group format so far have included:  What if you “made friends” with failure, would you actually succeed more?  Would allowing yourself to flex your “vulnerability muscle” result in finding out what you are truly capable of?  Even if you don’t succeed fully, isn’t at least starting something you had been putting off partially a victory?  What if embracing failure could mean freedom to embrace anything in life?  Maybe perfection is just preventing us from practicing or trying to reach a meaningful “big” goal?  Maybe many of us let the fear of others judging us hold us back?

I find the idea of the show (and the progress the people have been making..!) fascinating.

One of my favorite things a Failure Club member said in the first episode was “I spent a decade giving a sh*t what people thought and all I got was… sh*t”.  I hear that.  I’m tired of caring so much what others think, letting that hold me back so I’m left with successfully not embarrassing myself– but also not having accomplished certain precious goals.  Anyone else out there relate?

Check out the show here.  I see clear connections to what has been discussed on this blog:  finding ways to get out of your comfort zone to enhance personal growth, facing anxiety head-on rather than avoiding it, trying to make the hard-but-right decisions in life, pursuing what you are passionate about in life even if it means being vulnerable and uncomfortable along the way, learning to sit with the ambiguity of not-knowing whether one will succeed but taking steps forward toward the goal anyway.

current music faves:  regina spektor, peaches, deb talan

current show faves:  alcatraz, project runway allstars, homeland

breakfast today:  trader joe’s breakfast burrito and hot sauce (highly recommended!), coffee with vanilla creamer

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“Magic can be defined as the art and practice of changing consciousness at will.” ~Starhawk

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How do you change your consciousness?  Learning to sit with ambiguity may be one doorway to doing so.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to writing about it so much.  There are many ways of shifting one’s mindset, attitude, focus or consciousness:  practical, psychologically-based ways, spiritual ways and disciplined ways.  There are, of course, unhealthy ways consciousness can be changed that are quite rampant in our culture as well, though I would not recommend them (examples would be:  escapism, drugs, alcohol, hoarding, obsession, compulsion, shopaholism, etc.)

The times I find I most need to change my consciousness (and I wish I could always do it “at will”!) are times when I am feeling and thinking darkly and starkly about life or about myself.  When I can only see things in black and white and I keep focusing in on the negative.  We all have moments when we feel so down it seems impossible to ever be “up” again.  I have a friend that calls this “being fatalistic”.  Breaking out of it can be very challenging (I know at least, for me it has been).

I find breaking out of fatalistic, undesirable funks takes willpower and creativity.  I tend to examine what I am exactly doing at that moment (sitting on the couch for several hours, not exercising for weeks, not reaching out to a support network of friends, emotional eating, whatever) and I ask myself what would be something different I could do than I am doing right now.  I often get out pen and paper to make myself SEE my options.  And then I do whatever works.  For me, sometimes it’s just getting up and moving if I had been stationary.  Or committing to that yoga class tomorrow morning.  Or stopping with the eating and writing instead (ahem, facing my emotions).  In DBT, this strategy is known as “opposite action” and it can be helpful in getting one unstuck.  Sometimes we just need some intentional momentum to get us going in a new direction (especially if we didn’t like the old direction).

Sometimes we want or need to change our consciousness or thoughts because they are not really helpful or accurate.  Redirecting our brains to reassess the accuracy of the statements we tell ourselves can help us be discerning thinkers and not be overly harsh or critical towards ourselves.  We all tend to engage in cognitive distortions (examples found here).  Knowing when we are making cognitive distortion errors and correcting them in our own minds is part of the secret of changing consciousness at will and for the better.  One of the most common cognitive distortions is Black and White Thinking.  Solution?  See the grey.  Sit with ambiguity!

current music faves:  the national, adele

current show faves:  new girl, happy endings, prime suspect

breakfast today:  bagel with sausage, cheese and spicy sauce (again!)

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“In the past, a high tolerance for uncertainty was a quality to be found only in great geniuses like Leonardo.  As change accelerates, we now find that ambiguity multiplies, and illusions of certainty become more difficult to maintain.  The ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives.  Poise in the face of paradox is a key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.”
~Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

I came across a book recently, entitled “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci”.  As I perused it in the used bookstore near my house I noticed a chapter on the importance of… sitting with ambiguity!   The author argued how important this trait of Da Vinci’s was (referring to as “sfumato”) in contributing to the genius of his work.

I thought I would share a sort of quick summary of the book in the hopes that you, my faithful readers, will either pick up the book yourselves or perhaps benefit in some small way upon learning the seven Da Vincian principles for enhancing ones life.

The author, Michael Gelb, is a businessman interested in how Da Vinci’s way of thinking might be applied to the business world.  He warns that though perhaps we cannot all be geniuses of Da Vinci’s stature we can work to apply a “Da Vincian” approach to learning and cultivate intelligence, thereby guiding one toward the realization of one’s true potential.  Sounds right up the Soft Animal Wisdom alley, right?  Let’s DO this.

The Seven Da Vincian Principles (or ways to be awesome, like Da Vinci!)

1.  Curiosita– An insatiable curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

2.  Dimostrazione– A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.  A desire to free your mind from limiting habits and preconceptions; questioning traditional wisdom; learning through practical experience.
 
3.  Sensazione– The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.  Think of times in the past year you’ve been most vividly alive… chances are, your senses were heightened.  Sharpening our senses will enrich our experiences.
 
4.  Sfumato (literally “Going up in Smoke”)- A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Learning to be ok with and endure confusion can be key to allowing yourself to make new discoveries.  Da Vinci evidenced a “phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites and embrace uncertainty”, a critical characteristic of his genius.  Just think of the ambiguity inherent in Mona Lisa’s smile.
 
5.  Arte/ Scienza– The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.  “Whole brain” thinking.  Balancing mind with body.
 
6.  Corporalita– The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise.  Balancing body with mind.
 
7.  Connessione– The recognition and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena.  Systems thinking.  Learning to see and appreciate patterns, relationships, connections; understanding how your dreams, goals, values and aspirations can be integrated into daily life.

Gelb goes on to offer examples of how Da Vinci incorporated these ways of thinking into his art and daily life.  The book offers helpful self-assessments for readers to examine how they currently fare in each area and then application exercises to strengthen yourself in particular areas if you wish.

Sfumato-Strengthening Exercises

1.  Specifically regarding the principle of Sfumato, Gelb suggests ways to make friends with ambiguity.  He suggests starting with examining three situations from your life, past or present, where ambiguity reigns.  Describe the feeling of ambiguity.  Where in your body do you experience it?  If ambiguity had a shape, a color, a sound, a taste, a smell, what would they be?  How do you respond to feelings of ambiguity?

2.  Most of us are not fully aware when we are anxious.  For many people ambiguity equals anxiety.  To thrive with uncertainty and ambiguity, Gelb urges, we must learn to recognize when we are anxious.  When we become more conscious of our anxiety we can learn to experience it, accept it and free ourselves from it.  Describe the feeling of anxiety?  Where in your body do you experience anxiety?  How do you respond to feelings of anxiety?

3.  Note the words you use when saying goodbye in conversation.  Are you ending with a statement or a question?  Notice the words you tend to use that are overly-absolutist:  “always”, “never”, “must”, etc.  Monitor your intolerance for ambiguity in your daily life.

4.  However you can sharpen your senses in the face of paradox or embrace creative tension will enhance your Sfumato skill.  Contemplating the relationship between opposites is a great way to strength and cultivate what Gelb calls “confusion endurance” (thinking of joy and sorrow, intimacy and independence, strength and weakness, good and evil, etc.).

How would you rate yourself on the seven principles?  What is the area that poses the greatest challenge for you?  How might strengthening that area benefit you in your life?

current music faves:  new tori, school of seven bells

current show faves:  up all night, project runway

breakfast today:  blueberry bagel with sausage patty, “cup egg“, cheddar cheese and trader joe’s chili pepper sauce.  yum!

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 “And the day came when the pain of remaining tight in the bud was greater than the risk it took to open”. ~Anais Nin

I have been interested in understanding how human creativity “works” for years and I have put that interest into action by painting, writing, and being an all-around crafty gal, as of late.

I’ve also been working my way through Jeanne Carbonettie’s book, Making Pearls:  Living the Creative Life, for the better part of 2+ years (!).  I finally finished the book by, well, reaching the end, but also by completing my last art project associated with the book (which we will get into shortly).

The premise of Ms. Carbonetti’s book is that creativity is cyclical in nature and that it often helps to recognize where we are in the cycle at any given moment and… honor it.  She lays out the creative cycle as one mirroring the process of oysters making pearls:

  • Waiting – When instinct tells the oyster the time is right, it cements itself to something stationary and waits.  It waits for noursihment to come to it. 
  • Opening – Then the oyster decidedly opens, taking in water and all sorts of things as it filters out what it wants and doesn’t want.
  • Closing – When it is ready to “digest” its food, it closes its two shells.  It is now that some grain of sand lodges within the shells and the oyster works to integrate it by secreting its mother of pearl lining around it.
  • Holding – As the oyster holds this pearl-to-be, the object rolls around freely within the closed space, which is what allows it to take on its characteristic round-shape.
  • Releasing – Now comes the time of releasing the pearl from the shell.
  • Emptying – Releasing always leads to emptying, everything goes! 
  • Sitting – There is then nothing left to do but sit.  The cycle is complete; the pearl is beautiful.

Ms. Carbonetti notes that “we are always in the cycle of pearl-making, forming out of the stuff of our lives something beautiful and meaningful”.  She presents projects at the end of each chapter that prompt the reader to engage with the ideas inherent in each stage of the creative process by creating a 7″ square of watercolor paper  per phase (Waiting, Opening, etc.).  Each stage is uniquely associated with a color that is meant to symbolize the energy of that part of the process. 

Without further ado, here are my humble conceptualizations of what I resonated with when it came to each phase of the creative, pearl-making process:

WAITING (Red)

As an artist, waiting is associated with the life-blood and root of creative ideas, contemplative thought, embracing uncertainty, groundedness in “just being”, the allure of possibility and anticipation of the unknown.

OPENING (Orange)

Opening, in the artistic sense, is considered the “womb of ideas” phase; associated with listening for and connecting with what you are feeling, noticing, intuiting… and going with the flow of what you find. 

CLOSING (Yellow)

The process of closing for an artist is associated with tapping into quiet power, having patience as the aha! moment of sand sneaks on into the oyster’s shell.  This is the part of the process that welcomes having a sacred space to incubate.  Commitment to the artistic idea completes this phase.

HOLDING (Green)

Holding is a phase associated with growth and nurturance.  Affirmation and acceptance are key here as new ideas come up and are welcomed, not judged and scared away.  There is a compassionate gaze eminating from the artist here.

Releasing is associated with expressing one’s truth, raising one’s voice, coming to terms with all that our creation is, and what it isn’t, and giving it to the world anyway.  It is what it is and we surrender it, facing the truth of the moment.

EMPTYING (Violet)

Emptying is associated with insight and wisdom.  This comes from finally stepping back from what has been created and seeing the bigger picture.  This is the phase in which energy is finally withdrawn, this is the final let-go; the artist stops fiddling with the painting and let’s it be a finished work.

SITTING (White)

Sitting is associated with having faith in what has been created and finding peace at the end of the process.  It is about trusting what has been created and just being now that the cycle is complete. 

Along the way, this proposed process of creativity touches on many of the ideas already espoused here at Soft Animal Wisdom.  I see the DBT-ness (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) inherent in the Waiting, Opening and Holding phases.  I see the importance of generally sitting with ambiguity in the Waiting and Opening phases.  There also seems to be an overall vibe throughout the book that values mindfulness, compassion and being in the present moment… all Buddhist ideals.  I would definitely argue that much of the creative process exists as a liminal space where one has not yet created something and yet is also on the cusp of having created something. 

I have enjoyed the process of creating the squares for each phase and, in turn, enjoyed making the latest pearl that is today’s post… now back to Waiting, I suppose!

current music faves:  tori a. (obsessed right now)

current show faves:  dexter (season 6), breaking bad (season 4)

breakfast today:  veggie crepe from chicago creperie crepes-a-latte, toasted marshmellow latte 

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