If you’ve ever kept a journal, you know it can be a great means for self-study — whether looking back on the day or simply expressing emotions we may have held inside. Given its usefulness, it’s no wonder many spiritual luminaries have kept journals, from St Augustine to Gandhi. The great Yoga sage Swami Sivananda was no exception, not only keeping a journal himself but strongly recommending it for all of his students. In this article I’d like to share his approach, including how it differs from a conventional diary and how you can use it as a powerful tool for your own spiritual work.
The Four Components
To begin, most of us who keep diaries use them rather casually — perhaps relying on them heavily at some stages while allowing them to lay dormant when things are going smoothly in our lives. Swami Sivananda was actually much more systematic in his approach, for reasons we‘ll explore. In fact, he encouraged students to use their journals on a daily basis and to strive to always include four basic components in each of their daily entries:
1. Recording Practices
2. Reinforcing Values & Goals
3. Reflecting on Progress
4. Revising Our Approach
Let’s look at each of these in more detail….
The first purpose of a spiritual journal is to record our daily practices. Swami Sivananda felt this was particularly important. Just as an athlete carefully tracks his or her training in order to constantly improve in his or her activity, so we as spiritual aspirants can record both our efforts and whether or not they are moving us toward our spiritual goals. This record can include both external practices — like study or asana — as well as internal efforts — such as watching mental patterns like fear or attachment.
In yoga, we refer to these spiritual practices as sadhana, which traditionally includes such activity as meditation, scriptural study, prayer, asana, pranayama, service, worship, etc. Just like an athlete, we an use our journal to record not only our current practices but also the amount and even the quality of our efforts from day to day. This portion of a spiritual journal can be quite simple — for example beginning each day’s entry with a simple list of our activities and a check system for recording what we‘ve done or, if we prefer, the time spent in each endeavor. This gives us a simple but easily-reviewed record we can look back on over the days to see how we are doing in terms of the practices to which we have committed ourselves.
This record can be helpful for a number of reasons. First, Swami Sivananda realized that most of us have far-from-perfect memories when it comes to our efforts — especially when we are working on multiple things at once. In fact we tend to have a distorted sense both of our strengths and the areas where we could be stronger. We might think, for example, we are very diligent in our meditation but not so good at service when in fact it’s the other way around. A journal can help us see whether we’re truly applying the practices we think we are and in turn better evaluate our overall program.
In addition, if we happen to be working on several practices at the same time, it can often be hard to know what techniques are helping and what are hindering. In turn, just like a chef records the different ingredients he or she is varying in a recipe, we can use our journal to evaluate what we have been doing against the results we are experiencing, allowing us to distinguish what is truly serving us and what can be changed for the better.
Reinforcing Values & Goals
This leads to the second component of a spiritual journal, which is reinforcing what we are working on and why. This is especially important given the numerous distractions of contemporary life. In this modern world, we are constantly surrounded by difficulties and distractions. Some of these — issues at work or challenges at home — are important and necessary parts of life, while others — such as the media which surrounds us — aren’t necessary but can be hard to control. Both, however, can dissipate our energy if we’re unfocused. The yogis realized we are best able to minimize these distractions and honor our obligations when we are centered in our beliefs. A daily journal gives us a chance to reinforce these on a daily basis, asking ourselves: “How do I want to approach today? What are my priorities in terms of how I think? How I treat people? Where I put my focus…?” By reminding ourselves of our values, we are better able to stay on track amidst the challenges and distractions of our busy lives.
Reflecting on Progress
Of course setting goals is only half the process. Again, just as an athlete or chemist records the results of his or her efforts, a we can use our spiritual journal to do the same with our inner work. Again, this is especially important when we are using a variety of techniques and/or working on a variety of goals. For example, if we’re working on an ethical principle such as santosha (contentment), we can use our journal to look back on our day and ask how we did in observing that goal. “When did I maintain my sense of contentment? When did I lose it? What were the situations that seemed to challenge me?” This can give us a concrete sense of where we are improving and where we can still use work. This, in turn, leads us to the final component of a spiritual journal: Revising Our Approach….
Revising Our Approach
Once we‘ve identified areas in which we still have room for improvement, a journal can be a powerful tool for reevaluating and shifting our efforts. We can look back on our practices, see what we’ve tried and with what impact, and then tailor our approach accordingly. Again, just like the scientist or athlete, this can give us a concrete means for steadily moving forward.
An extension of this idea, and yet another way a journal can serve us in our growth, is by using it to shift patterns. We all have situations in our lives which can trigger feelings that can overwhelm us, in turn leading us to patterned responses that don‘t truly serve. A journal can be a powerful tool for shifting these patterns. By taking the time to reflect on these situations and to envision healthier responses, we can teach ourselves over time to respond to them in more constructive ways.
To illustrate, imagine a pattern we’d like to change — for example, a tendency to get frustrated by a co-worker who is often late or absent. We can use our journal to reinforce a more positive way of thinking about and responding to the situation. To begin, we can ask: “What assumptions am I making about him — about his situation or his thoughts? Maybe he’s dealing with a situation at home I don’t know about. Perhaps he feels guilty about his pattern but masks it out of shame. Maybe as a child he wasn’t taught the same values I was….” Often this alone can be enough to diffuse the negative, distracting emotions around the situation. We can further shift our patterns by then taking the time to think through a healthier way to respond. “If things were reversed, what would help me? Is there a way to respond that would feel better for everyone involved? If the Dalai Lama were in such a situation, how would he respond?” By using our journal this way, in the future we can greatly increase our ability to stay in touch with our values and respond in a way that is healthy for everyone rather than falling into unconscious patterns that don’t serve.
Taken together, these four components provide a wonderful opportunity. By tracking our efforts, reinforcing our principles, evaluating our results, and adjusting our practices, we can greatly improve our growth on all levels, moving even more strongly toward fully living our beliefs. So if you’ve always assumed a journal was merely a place for recording feelings or experiences from the day, I warmly encourage you to try this approach — I think you’ll find it an invaluable tool for self-exploration and progress on your path.
About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), & personal trainer with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness. He currently offers private guidance both in person & via email integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition. To learn more, please call him at (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html