Joseph Anderson

Soul Cartography: Journal Writing

I’ve invited participants in the Soul Cartography class starting this week to acquire a journal and write daily for fifteen minutes about their experience of the class as it progresses. This task warrants a bit more explanation.

The main purpose of the journal is to direct your attention for 15 minutes every day to what’s happening for you in the class. The specific content of the journaling can truly be anything you want it to be, and it can change from day to day. To help you get started (and to help you think about the many tools you have available to you as you engage in Soul Cartography) consider the writing approaches below.

Writing to cultivate present-moment awareness: Mapping our lives requires us to engage with the story we tell ourselves about ourselves; what meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg, in her book Real Happiness, calls “narrative mind”. Soul Cartography provides a few simple tools for reflecting on that story – but in a way that gives us some perspective, and helps free us from our habitual and obsessive identification with that narrative. The key to using the tools effectively is to cultivate a present-moment awareness that balances the all-consuming nature of narrative mind. From this place of centered presence in the now, it’s much easier to see,  with clarity and objectivity, the varied contents of our lives in all their glory, disaster, and tedium,

An approach to journal-writing that cultivates present-moment awareness is to pay attention to the contents of your mind and write that down – nothing more or less. For the purposes of the class, we are focused particularly on thoughts being stirred up in your reflection on your life. But the practice itself does not have to be limited to that, and if your fifteen minutes of writing finds you capturing other pieces of mental furniture, that’s ok. The key is to stay focused on the now in your writing. Even if that happens only a little bit, it will help cultivate the present-moment awareness in support of Soul Cartography (and a whole lot else beside!).

Writing to cultivate spatial and kinesthetic awareness: In the two years or so since I started using maps and diagrams to explore the dimensions of my life experience, I’ve been noticing a virtuous circle: the more diagramming I do, the more aware I am of my position in space and my movement through it; and the more that spatial and kinesthetic awareness grows, the more easily I can render the abstract elements of my life experience in a dimensional way. So it seems to me that anything we do to strengthen a sense of our physical body in space (yoga or tai chi or dance, consciously aware walks in nature or the urban landscape) will help develop our ability to diagram.

You can use the act of writing itself to stimulate your spatial sense. You are moving your pen or pencil across and down the page, capturing your ideas in this two-dimensional space as you go. (I encourage you to avoid using an electronic device for this writing if possible, to maximize the kinesthetic experience!) A written page is, in a sense, a highly encoded and abstract diagram of thought. You can intensify this effect by putting your writing into poetry-like lines and stanzas. Don’t worry about whether it’s “really” poetry – this is just a way to play with space. You might engage in experiments with concrete poetry (a Google image search on “concrete poetry” will show you exactly what this means) or freely mingling doodles, sketches, ideas for diagrams into your writing. You might also spend some journal time writing about physical space: places from your past, places in your life today, in your dreams or imagination, or reflections on what it’s like for you to move through space.

Writing to cultivate aesthetic awareness: Using a diagram to capture the dimensions of your life is an inherently metaphorical activity: you’re rendering the messy, dynamic, polymorphic characteristics of a lived experience into a two-dimensional space. To perform this alchemical feat takes non-linear thinking, openness to unexpected possibilities, risk-taking and leaps of faith. Cultivating this kind of creative awareness is a bit of a mystery in itself. I think the root of it is to stimulate your imagination and your sensitivity to beauty in whatever ways you can.

A place to start may be to write about specific images or associations that are showing up in your Soul Cartography exercises. In an experiment I did yesterday, I created the image of a bird with two wings; the feathers on each wing represent different aspects of my life that I’m seeking to balance and integrate. So I might write a journal entry on this image of the bird; what associations come to me from that image; how it feels to think of myself as a bird needing both wings to fly; what is my relationship with birds and what does that show me about how this image is at work in my life, Any element that shows up in any exercise can provide equally rich fodder for weaving associations and reflections.