One of the best uses of journal writing is answering our own questions. Defining the question is the first part of what we do, and it is very important. The question should be something that is answerable, and it should point the mind in a useful direction. “What?” and “How?” questions help us more than “Why?” questions. “Why?” can help us, too, but too frequently we use it to ask unanswerable questions like “Why did she reject me?” or “Why do I always make such a fool of myself?” What we need are questions we can answer, like “How can I better understand the situation at work? or “What is my part in this problem?”
The questions we ask are specific enough to have answers, and they are intended to fill in gaps in our knowledge. So we think about what we need to know or need to figure out, and we ask about our problem. Then we have the theme for today’s session. (If our question is big enough, it could also be the theme for a series of sessions.) Asking questions starts the process of inquiry. We ask questions this way because something bothers us, because something puzzles us and we need to understand. To get answers we can use, we need to learn to go from facts and evidence to questions about what we do not know.
A journal inquiry has structure, and it has rules. It is a time for reflection and understanding. The rules are that we take a break from our normal routine. We pick a private place, and we leave our busyness and hurry outside the door. We take out our journal or we open the journal file on our computer, and we start a new entry. We read the last entry and see where we left off, then we ask ourself what is on our mind? What is important to record today, and how will we approach the questions we have? What is the theme for today’s entry?
The theme for today is what stands out in your mind when you ask what is important: what is important to discuss, and what is important to understand? The single question “What is important?” guides you all the way from the beginning of each entry to the end of each day’s session. If it is important to talk about your relationship, what is going on that concerns you? What worries do you have and what do you need to ask? If it is important to talk about work, you ask the same questions about your worries and concerns, and you find the one question that keeps you on the track of what is important.
Write down your observations and your question. Write down your facts and your speculations. Include your feelings about the topic or problem situation. Put down whatever is relevant and give yourself time to write. Reflection takes time. It demands that we slow down and consider what is real and what is not real. It asks us to use the wiser parts of our mind and focus on what is important. What is important to understand today? What other questions do we need to ask to get where we are going? Let’s look at an example:
“Today was a hard day. I had a project I needed to finish for work, and I had errands and shopping to do. I ended up in a rush, and I feel like I never got to what was important. Right now I need to think about how I could have done things differently. What was my problem today? Why did I get so scattered and end up in a rush? All day I kept thinking about how much there was to do and how I couldn’t do it all. I was worried about my deadline and whether I would finish. I was worried about my wife being sick, and I think I worried myself into a corner. I started telling myself I was behind, and then I started to rush. Then I confused myself about what I had to do.”
“How could I have handled this day differently? I knew what I had to do and I thought I could finish it, but then I started worrying. I made myself so nervous that I started rushing and forgetting things I had to do. I know that worry doesn’t help, but I do it anyway. I did get finished, but it wasn’t because of rushing. Somehow I have to get myself to stop worrying. There is a lot to do, but it all gets finished. I just need to stay on track and stay focused. If I catch myself worrying again, I need to tell myself to stop so I can think about what I am doing. I can remind myself that things are o.k., and I can stop myself from rushing and making things worse.”
Worrying doesn’t help, but in the moment we don’t even notice what we are doing. That is the way it was for this man, but he took the time to write and ask a couple of key questions. Answering them was easy once he asked and took the time to look at his day. This is what you can do when you organize your mind and ask what is important to understand. Once you find your topic, stay on it and let yourself explore what you already know. When you link up your knowledge and your insights, then you are on the way to finding a solution. Developing the habit of being thoughtful about what is important in your life is one of the key benefits of using your journal for self-exploration.