Nearly everyone is familiar with The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis. This great book has sold more copies than any other except the Bible. And what is it? Simply a devotee’s journal of his spiritual inspirations and lessons.
The practice of keeping a journal can be very helpful to your spiritual life. Paramhansa Yogananda said that one of the most effective ways to develop will power is to engage everyday in creative writing. What could be more creative than to look at your life and extract from it the lessons and guidance that God has given you during the day?
I’ll give you the example of my own journal. To give my writing a direction, I choose a quality that I want to develop in myself, work on it, and write about it for a whole year. For example, I might select from the ten yamas and niyamas the nyama of cleanliness. First I might explore cleaning up the house, and ways to keep it clean. Then I might explore cleanliness of the heart and after that, purity of thought.
Through the year I would try to go deeper and deeper into the practice of cleanliness. Then on December 31, looking back over the year of journaling, I might think, “Just look at what I thought cleanliness was, and how much I’ve learned about what it really is!” Mahatma Gandhi said that by perfecting the single quality of nonviolence, he was able to perfect all the other spiritual qualities as well.
You could choose some other spiritual quality — loyalty, for example. Well, loyalty to what? You’d start with what’s closest: loyalty to your spouse, to your family, to your community, and expand from there to loyalty to truth, to God.
We can accomplish much more on the spiritual path when we focus our energy in a systematic way. Keeping a journal helps us to watch our lives more consciously, carefully, and deliberately.
My first year at Ananda Village I attended Shivani’s class series on Paramhansa Yogananda’s interpretations of The Bhagavad Gita. When she urged us to keep a spiritual journal, I dove right in—writing, over the next eight months, some 3,000 pages about everything that happened to me spiritually—which means, of course, everything that happened.
It was a wonderful experience. The most powerful effect that I noticed was that writing about the day’s tests and lessons cleared my mental state. I found myself going into meditation with a clear mind, free of the restlessness that is born of unresolved experiences.
My journal was essentially a letter to God, telling Him what I’d been up to, how I wished I’d acted, and how I intended to act should similar opportunities come my way again. During the day I’d jot down a few key words to trigger my memory in the evening. In time, I came to look forward to my evening journal writing time with tremendous enthusiasm. No matter what had happened, how badly things had gone, the journal was my way of giving it all to God, and, in doing so, being free of it.
The actual writing I would do in “chronological order”—following the sequence of events of the day. I quickly came to see that things happened in the order they did for a good reason. By retracing my steps during the day, I could better see what this good—and on the deepest level, divine—reason was. I did not have set themes or topics—rather, I found that the day’s events provided an ideal testing ground for whatever attitudes or qualities I was working on anyway.
The whole experience brought God very close. I came to know Him especially as the Divine Friend, infinitely understanding, supportive, never judging, wanting only my own highest good.
While I was immersed in journal writing, I thought I would continue in the same way indefinitely. But of course journaling is only useful spiritually as long as it carries the devotee forward on the path. There came a day when my spiritual life took a dramatically different direction—a new and much more physically active form of service. Journal writing fell away. New ways of learning came to the fore. But behind the outward changes, the Divine Friend remained the unchanging reality!