Each morning you have a limited amount of time. Maybe you’ve got a commute, or a baby that demands to be fed exactly at 5:30am, or a commute and a baby. How do you fit in self care? Self-help gurus say to set your alarm a bit earlier to squeeze in a morning run or to make a green smoothie for a nutritious breakfast. If you’re anything like me, anything that starts with “set my alarm earlier” is not gonna happen.
I’m not going to lecture today on getting the big rocks in first. You’ve heard that before. I get it. Sometimes, you just need to get into survival mode and get stuff done.
Ready for a change?
But maybe you’re ready to make a change. Maybe you’ve got a little more time to work with because the baby now sleeps through the night, you’ve changed jobs, or you’re retired. Or, perhaps you’ve realized that years of pushing through has burned you out and its time for some me-time to recharge your creativity.
When you can carve out time for yourself, what do you spend that precious time doing?
Two healthy habits that will enhance your mental health are meditation and journaling. If you have only 30 minutes, which one should you wedge into your day? Which will make you calmer, happier and more productive? Having practiced both techniques this summer for over thirty days each, I’ll share my thoughts.
I’ve spent most of my life burning my candle at both ends. After struggling physically and emotionally last year, this year I’m focusing on my health. While I’ve practiced meditation for over ten years, it’s been catch as catch can, grabbing 10 minutes between meetings or before bed, or being mindful while washing dishes or standing in line. Early this summer I made an effort to make meditation a deliberate practice. I visualized waking up, meditating and continuing throughout my day in blissful self-actualization. To help me along, I bought a meditation app. Every day for 60 days straight, I meditated for at least 15 minutes. I felt centered. I felt calm. One day, while sitting, I had a breakthrough moment. Something loosened in my chest, like a fist unclenching. The only way I can explain it is that I had stopped bracing myself against the world. Good stuff!
Then in September, I wrote a blog post on journaling techniques. While researching the article, I discovered Morning Pages. The technique is simple: Write three pages, first thing in the morning, by hand, on any subjects that come to mind. Keep your hand moving and write without thinking or editing.
This morning was my 37th Morning Pages entry. I write about the comings and goings of the previous day. I work out to-do lists for the upcoming week. I rant about injustices. I record my previous night’s dreams. I review books. I ideate for blog posts, songs and novels. I document observations on life.
Each entry averages 34 minutes of writing time. Due to time constraints, since I started Morning Pages, I have not meditated in the morning.
Which set me up for a better day, Morning Pages or meditation?
Morning Pages v. Meditation
Both Morning Pages and meditation clear my mind, but they go about it in completely different ways.
Corralling versus free range thoughts
In meditation, I notice my thoughts wandering, take note and gently redirect to re-focus on my breath. With repeated redirections, my brain quiets. Sometimes, I can easily stay with my breath from start to finish. Sometimes, its a continuous struggle where my mind is fence fighting with some yapping thoughts and I have to grab it by the collar and drag it away again and again. At those times, meditation is not peaceful. I leave my practice more tense than when I began, irritated by the original issue and my ability to let go.
When writing Morning Pages, instead of corralling my thoughts, I let my mind free. When I’m riled up, my brain vents through to the page like the instant pot valve, blowing off steam and spittle. When it’s working well, my thoughts go immediately from brain to pen without an intermediate editor. Raw words flow onto the page. I stir them around in the pot, restating arguments, hypothesizing, and problem solving until they’re browned on all sides. At the end of three pages, I’ve usually exhausted everything I have to say. When I shut the notebook, the thoughts stay there and don’t come with me through the rest of my day.
Ease of Use
Both meditation and Morning Pages are easy to learn. Meditation is harder to master. While I have a better ability to concentrate now than when I first started practicing, focus is built with consistency over a long period of time. In contrast, while it can be hard to resist the urge to pause, consider and edit as you write, it is easy for anyone to write three pages. I have never been frustrated while writing Morning Pages.
Silencing the Inner Editor
The most impactful difference is Morning Pages trains me to silence my inner thought editor while meditation suppresses the thoughts themselves. The inner editor is the nagging voice in my mind saying “those are stupid thoughts”, “that doesn’t make sense”, and “that’s not good enough”. By keeping my hand moving, in each writing session I get hundreds of repetitions of releasing my thoughts without second guessing. This is good practice for me. I generate a lot of ideas by following where my mind leads. We meander, like letting my dog lead the way on a walk. If I have thoughts about lunch while writing Morning Pages, I go with it. I describe different ideas for lunch, which are my favorites and how they taste. I indulge my wandering mind with Morning Pages and in return it drops ideas for song lyrics, blog posts, and novels.
In contrast, meditation teaches acceptance of the wandering mind, but gently re-directs it to practice focus. When I first started to practice, I thought I must leash my wandering mind with an iron grip, “I MUST NOT THINK!”. Now, I realize the goal is to groove along with my breathing, relaxing into it. When my mind inevitably wanders, I gently redirect, “Oh, I’m thinking again about lunch. Let’s return to follow the breath instead.” Meditation makes me content with what is. It heads off rumination at the pass. It puts a little distance between me and my problems. It grants perspective. The universe is a big place. I am small. My problems are small. Thoughts and feelings are fleeting. Everything is OK.
Which would I choose?
If I could choose only one morning practice, it would be Morning Pages. I have a very strong inner editor in all aspects of my life and I feel the Morning Pages practice helps me to trust my voice. However, I do try to work meditation into my day because acceptance and concentration are useful skills. I like to do a walking meditation when I walk the dog.
Julia Cameron, the inventor of Morning Pages, agrees that if you’re going to write Morning Pages and meditate, write first as your ideas will be more energized. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, also writes and meditates, but she calls writing her “deepest Zen practice.” She says, “writing practice is a more expedient way of settling into a quiet place. I get to run through the thoughts and then let them go; whereas when I sit, there’s no place to spit them out and they take a long time to digest.”
This is what is working for me right now. How about you?
P.S. Shout out to Stuart Danker, Your Friendly Malaysian Writer, for his blog post on drafting longhand to enhance writing. I enjoyed using that technique with this post.
5 responses to “The Difference between Meditation and Journaling”
What a lovely post. It’s right up my alley as I tend to use both, and you’re on point there with their benefits. I would choose morning pages too, only because I deal with words, which they do seem to help in. And thanks for the mention!
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Yes, I agree. If you work with words in any way, poetry, blogs, songs, short stories, speechwriting, the morning pages may be surprisingly helpful with creativity. I’d hate to have to choose, though. Meditation is also so helpful.
I try to do both. I like to start the day with a twenty minute meditation and the daily pages!
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That’s great that you can do both. I think that’s the best combination. Do you think it matters if you write or meditate first, Carol? And which would you pick if you had only 30 minutes?
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Personally, I have to meditate when I first get up as experience has taught me I won’t do it later. I try to always do the meditation as it sets the tone for the day. Then, the writing can happen any time in the day that I get the chance.
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