“Journaling is for teenage girls, not me.” That’s what I thought as I walked down Route 10 in Morgantown with a packet of paper and pen in hand for…journaling. My mom died. I developed hypothyroidism. I couldn’t sleep for months. My mind raced with anxious thoughts. Stepping out into nature slowed me down. Afterwards, the thoughts returned.
At the time I was training under Master Malcolm Perkins of Ninja Karate Academy in Ventnor, NJ. Master Mal was a troll-like, rockstar red-haired, ski-capped former Vietnam POW. He could have been a roadie for Van Halen. The first time I trained with him he handed me a board and looked at me.
Matt: “What do you want me to do?”
Mal: “Break it!”
Matt: “With what?”
Mal: “With your head.”
With over a decade of martial arts experience at the time, you’d think I would have broken many boards. Not me. I broke one board with a spinning back kick for my purple belt test two years into training. That’s it. Andy Carr, my kickboxing teacher, didn’t believe in breaking boards. He broke faces.
With little experience I used what I knew to attempt to break that board – physics! I pulled the board as fast as possible towards my head and stepped forward into a vicious head butt. BAM!
The board broke. My head didn’t. In our group of three I was the only one that didn’t bust my head. I learned: sometimes you have to take a leap of faith…at full speed.
Fast forward to walking down the side of the road with journaling supplies in hand. Master Mal kept me company on the phone late at night while I dealt with anxious thoughts. He knew I was suffering. Master Mal would do anything to help you fix your problems. He even called my boss at work “just to chat.” I expected my boss would tell me about a Mafia-threat, but Master Mal was cordial. Still if you’re a boss and you get a call from your employee’s karate teacher, what would you think?
Before that journaling walk, Master Mal asked me to capture my thoughts. He told me to write them down every day. “Whatever you’re thinking, write it down. It will be beautiful.” Maybe Master Mal knew that capturing my thoughts would trap them. Maybe he was just throwing things against the wall to see what would stick. Either way it worked. Journaling wasn’t the only tactic that tamed my restless thoughts, but it helped tremendously.
After I wrote ten pages on the side of the road that day in Morgantown, I continued writing a page or two every day. I didn’t want to do it. It felt awkward. I was uncomfortable. Master Mal motivated me to push forward. At every weak moment in your life, you’re lucky if you have someone with a heart of gold supporting you. When I re-read what I wrote in my journal a week later, I realized “This guy is crazy. He doesn’t realize how good he has it.” Recovery was in my crosshairs.
That was unstructured, free-form journaling. It’s now almost a decade later. I now use structured journaling to focus on key goals, continuously improve through reflection, and increase happiness through gratitude. It’s one of the best practices I’ve adopted in the last few years.
Before journaling I often felt like I wasn’t getting the full benefit of each day. Events happen daily. I might learn from those experiences or they might slip away from memory, wasting an opportunity. With journaling I maximize my opportunities consistently. You can learn from each day if you stop for a minute to reflect on it. You can be happier if you pause to recognize who or what you’re grateful to have in your life.
Read part 2 for tips on how to get started. Trap your anxious thoughts with free-form journaling. Increase your focus, learning, and happiness with structured journaling.
Master Mal was a writer himself. If you ever want quick inspiration when you’re down on life, check out “Hey God – Are You Really Up There?”