Burning through the fog in your mind

Source: Disney Gallery


” Pooh began to feel a little bit more comfortable,

because when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain
and you Think of Things,
you find sometimes that a Thing
which seemed very Thingish inside you,
is quite different when it gets out in the open […] “

* A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

 

Do you know that feeling? Like Winnie the Pooh? All kinds of thoughts and emotions drifting through your mind and just not being able to see things clearly? Possibilities and impossibilities. Pros and cons. Good things and bad things. Conflicting feelings. Impossible dilemmas. Nothing solid to latch onto. No clear direction to take. Just a blurred mush of stuff inside your head. Not particularly pleasant. Especially when you’re trying to figure out what it is you want …

I’ll tell you a little secret. There is something you can do. Something that will help you get through the mush and create some clarity.

Writers use it “to burn through the fog in their minds” and “come home to what they have to say” (in the words of writing guru and best-selling American author Natalie Goldberg). CEO’s and managers use it to further develop their leadership skills. Lifestyle coaches use it to help their clients persevere in making changes in their lives, even – or probably especially – when the going gets tough. Counsellors use it to help people improve their mood or cope with stressful situations. And educators use it to fuel transformational learning. The kind of learning that brings about fundamental changes in people’s lives and alters the way they see themselves and their world.¹

It’s been used in many different forms and called many different things, but for me the term “stream-of-consciousness writing” captures its essence best.²

This month’s Insight focuses on what stream-of-consciousness writing is and what it does. It tells you more about how you can use this special kind of writing to accelerate and deepen your understanding of what you want. And it gives you a method. One that doesn’t require anything more than a pen and paper and a little bit of time.

 

1. What is it?

Stream-of-consciousness writing is a kind of writing that allows you to catch all the different things that are going on in your mind. It draws on our distinct and uniquely human ability to use language.³

Basically, what you do is simply write down everything that enters your awareness at a particular moment. It’s like taking a snapshot of what’s happening in your mind, capturing it in words. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, dreams. Whatever comes floating on the stream of your consciousness (hence stream-of-consciousness writing). Even if it seems irrelevant, irrational, embarrassing, outrageous, silly or just plain crazy.

When you do this regularly, you end up with a whole bunch of scribbles of whatever crossed your mind at all those different moments. Telling a story. Your story.

 

2. How does it help you discover what you want?¹

A. It helps you get more clarity

What you think and feel at any particular moment is different from what you think and feel at another moment. When you write things down at those various moments, guided by whatever crosses your mind, you’ll catch different parts of yourself. Of who you are, of what is important to you and of what you might want (which may or may not be consistent with one another; also see the article Why ‘not knowing what you want’ is so very normal).

Being able to read your writings again at a later time, allows you to take a step back and look at all those different sides of yourself from a little distance. It allows you to untangle what really matters from what just doesn’t, the significant from the trivial, what is helpful from what is not. It allows you to get to your very core, burning through the fog in your mind.

B. It helps you solve problems and dilemmas

Being able to reflect on what you felt and thought at different moments creates more oversight. The snapshots give you different views, which in turn can even help you see solutions to problems and dilemmas that you hadn’t thought of before.

In addition, the sheer act of capturing your thoughts and feelings on paper also means that you can let them go. You don’t have to keep mulling over them. They’re already in front of you, ready to be looked at. You’ve freed up space in your mind to get creative and discover new ways forward.

C. It helps you in trying and learning new things

If you’ve decided to experiment or learn new things as part of discovering what you want, stream-of-consciousness writing allows you to literally re-visit your experiences. It helps you gain more focus, persevere when the going gets tough and deepen your learning.

An added bonus is that neuroscientists have found that consciously re-living the moments at which you were trying to learn something new helps the brain adapt, as it activates developing neural networks. You’re effectively supporting your brain in making the necessary changes.

I will not go into details here, but if you’re interested in reading more about this, allow me to refer you to the articles “Meet your biggest ally: Your brain“, “Discovering what you want: Small and simple things to start with today” and “Too much to learn? Here’s what to do …

D. It makes you feel better

Stream-of-consciousness writing makes you feel better. Quite literally. As you splash out your thoughts and emotions, you’re letting them go and creating a bit of distance. You can look at your thoughts and emotions, instead of getting caught up in them and reacting from them. It’s cathartic.

Psychologists have consistently found that this kind of writing is associated with more positive moods, improved mental balance and health, as well as lower levels of experienced stress.

But it doesn’t end there. Medical research suggests that people who regularly practice some form of stream-of-consciousness writing also show improvements on physical measures of health. For instance a better functioning of their immune system, higher quality of sleep and lowering of blood pressure. Some studies, albeit not consistently, have suggested that some of this may be caused by a reduced presence of so-called stress-hormones.

E. It further develops your brain

What’s interesting is that – when you regularly practice being conscious of what you’re thinking and feeling and then taking a broader perspective – your brain appears to structurally change.

The impact of awareness-related and perspective-taking practices such as stream-of-consciousness writing is currently being assessed in an increasing number of neuroscientific studies. Although the last word has not been said about this, several have already reported a strengthening of neural networks in the so-called prefrontal regions of the brain: areas that are associated with attention, problem solving, decision making, higher-level awareness and expression of your personality. And at least one study reported a similar phenomenon in the so-called temporo-temporal junction, an area that is involved with taking different views and seeing different angles.

So engaging in stream-of-consciousness writing not only helps in the short-term, but may also help you further develop neural networks in your brain that are very useful for the future.

 

3. How do you do it?

A. The basics: taking a snapshot

  1. Sit down with a pen and a piece of paper (I always use a simple notebook).
  2. Start and write down whatever you become aware of. Keep your hand moving. Whatever you do, do NOT stop. If you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write.” Just keep on writing. Don’t bother to re-read previous sentences. Never mind punctuation or spelling. Don’t worry about making sense or being socially acceptable. Just note whatever runs through your mind, whatever comes floating on the stream of your consciousness. It’s a snapshot of this moment. Capture it as best you can.
  3. Keep writing for 10 minutes. If you have more to say, you can always take more time.
  4. Try to do this every day, at different moments and if possible different places. The idea is to get a whole range of very different snapshots.
  5. For the best impact, write down whatever crosses your mind in an unrestricted, unedited way. This means it may not be suitable for others to read. Please be aware of what this means in your own particular context and take appropriate measures. If necessary, be careful where you keep your notes or make sure that others understand that your notes are private. Alternatively, consider using a computer or tablet that allows you to protect your notes with a password. If there’s no other way, consider writing in some form of code. What’s most important is that your notes bring back vividly what you were thinking and feeling at that time.

As an example, here’s part of a snapshot from my personal notes. I had just moved to Indonesia following my partner on his next assignment, only to discover I could not work in my area of expertise (Human Resources).

Jakarta, 23 January 2015

It’s a gloomy day today. Blehhhhh!! As gloomy as I feel! Can’t believe that not employing foreigners in HR is taken so strictly. Now what do I do? There’s a neighbour looking out the window. I wonder if he sees me sitting here. Is that even appropriate in Indonesia, to look into other people’s homes? I wonder if he saw me come home late last night. Probably not normal here for a wife to be out and about alone. Will they think less of me for it? Should I be concerned? It does concern me. I want to get it right. What is right? I don’t know. Doesn’t feel very good not to get it right. It would feel better if I just had a job. Funny how that makes such a difference somehow. Why? Anyways … <something unreadable> … Should get a new pen. This one stains. I quite like the smudges. They feel rebellious. Like I feel now. Rebellious smudges. Should look for a new pen and for what I want in my life. Not sure where to start. Just start somewhere. No idea. But want to make a difference somehow …

B. Reviewing the snapshots

Now, keep on writing stream-of-consciousness texts for 10 minutes every day for at least 3 weeks. By then you’ll have quite a few pages written. The next step is to take a quiet moment to read through the texts you have written over time.

It’s like sticking all the different snapshots onto a big wall and then taking a step back to look at all of them together. Let them speak to you. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself different questions while you’re looking at them. For example …

    • What draws your attention?
    • Is there anything that strikes you?
    • What inspires you and gives you energy?
    • What drains you and takes energy away?
    • Is there anything that makes you feel relieved?
    • Is there anything that makes you feel disappointed?
    • Are there any themes or patterns?
    • Where did you help yourself?
    • Where did you get in your own way?
    • Et cetera …

Don’t be surprised if this process doesn’t generate new insights at the very first go. It may take some time before you have enough snapshots to make more sense of the bigger picture.

Just keep on writing snapshots on a daily basis and reviewing them every 3 to 4 weeks. If it’s helpful, make it part of a regular routine, for instance reviewing all your snapshots on every first Sunday of the month.

Trust the process. It will generate new insights. If it doesn’t, you may not be going down to the core. Try to dig deeper. As Natalie Goldberg says “Go for the jugular!”.

C. On the use of pen and paper

I personally like writing by hand on paper, because it allows me to be more expressive. I can write big or small, use different colours and signs, make a drawing here and there, or use space to express myself. There are no red lines that pop up underneath words that I have misspelled or grammar that I’ve missed. To write by hand, for me, is less constrained, less controlled. It gives me more freedom.

But you can also use a computer, table or smartphone, if that feels better. Some people even use audio recordings. Just have a look and see what works for you. What’s most important is that you capture whatever you think and feel, so that you increase your awareness of all that’s going on in your mind and have access to it later.

Footnotes:

1. Sources for this month’s Insight

I used a range of different sources for this month’s Insight. Please find them in alphabetical order below.

A. On how stream-of-consciousness writing is used:

    • Boud, D. (2002). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 90, 1-94.
    • Cseh, M., Davis, E.B., & Khilji, S.E. (2013). Developing a global mindset: learning of global leaders. European Journal of Training and Development, 37(5), 489-499.
    • Goldberg, N. (2016, 30th Anniversary Edition). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the writer within. Boulder, CO, USA: Shambhala.
    • Hiemstra, R. (2001). Uses and benefits of journal writing. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 90, 19-26.
    • Meyer, S. R. (2000). “Journaling and Transformative Learning.” In C. A. Wiessner, S. R. Meyer, and D. A. Fuller (eds.), The Third International Transformative Learning Conference: Challenges of Practice: Transformative Learning in Action. New York: Columbia University.
    • Nesbit, P.L. (2012). The role of self-reflection, emotional management of feedback, and self-regulation processes in self-directed leadership development. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 203-226.
    • Tiberghien, S.M. (2007). One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve lessons to deepen every writer’s art and craft. Cambridge, MA, USA: Da Capo Press.

B. On the impact of stream-of-consciousness writing and similar practices on the human brain and body:

    • BrainFacts at www.brainfacts.org.
    • Campbell, R.S., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2003). The secret life of pronouns: Flexibility in writing style and physical health. Psychological Science, 14(1), 60-65.
    • Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
    • Kalat, J.W. (2014, 11th edition). Biological Psychology. London, UK: Course Technology, Cengage Learning EMEA.
    • Lepore, S.J., & Smyth, J.M. (Eds.). (2002). The Writing Cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. Washington, USA: American Psychological Association.
    • SharpBrains at www.sharpbrains.com.
    • The Dana Foundation at www.dana.org.
    • Trautwein, F.-M., Kansk, P., Böckler-Raettig, A., & Singer, T. (2017). Differential benefits of mental training types for attention, compassion, and theory of mind. An essay based on a contribution by Tania Singer, “Plasticity of the Social Brain: Effects of a One-Year Mental Training Study on Brain Plasticity, Social Cognition and Attention, Stress, and Prosocial Behavior,” given at the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress in 2017.

C. On stream-of-consciousness writing as a writing technique and on articulating thoughts, feelings and sensations to discover what you want:

    • Bieri, P. (2003). Das Handwerk der Freiheit: Über die Entdeckung des eigenen Willens. Berlin, Germany: Fischer Tachenburg Verlach.
      Unfortunately, this particular book by renowned Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri has not yet been published in English. The title translates to something like “The Craft of Freedom: About the discovery of your own will.”
    • Goldberg, N. (2016, 30th Anniversary Edition). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the writer within. Boulder, CO, USA: Shambhala.
    • Tiberghien, S.M. (2007). One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve lessons to deepen every writer’s art and craft. Cambridge, MA, USA: Da Capo Press.

2. Descriptions

Other terms have been used for stream-of-consciousness writing, such as free-flow writing and expressive journalling. The key feature is that you capture in words whatever you become aware of when you are writing.

It is sometimes used in mixed forms, where people are for example also asked to write their answers to specific questions or focus on specific parts of their experience. This article focuses only on the “pure” form of stream-of-consciousness writing, where the focus lies on writing freely about what you become conscious of while writing.

3. Our ability to use language

For most of us, being able to use language is so normal that we tend to take it for granted. But when you think about it, it’s actually something rather special. Let’s consider Winnie de Pooh for a moment, as I used his pondering at the start of this article. His creator – British author Alan Alexander Milne – has Pooh talking to himself and all of his dear friends as if he were human. About exciting Adventures in the Forest, and Thinking Things that seem rather Thingish. About friendship and love. And breakfast and Honey.

Winnie the Pooh’s real-life counterparts, bears, can also sense and feel and communicate. They like honey, they dislike rain. They can “tell” their cubs not to come too close to the cliff’s edge and “convince” wolves to back off. But they cannot tell each other about what happened yesterday in the woods. Or consider how they feel about friendship. They cannot share a critical review on what they had for breakfast. And they wouldn’t be able to have a chat about global warming and hunting policies.

The point is that our ability to use language allows us to think, reflect and talk about things that (1) aren’t actually physically there or happening at that moment, and (2) are rather abstract or intangible. It allows us to reflect on what we think and feel. On things that have happened in the past and on how our lives are evolving. On our memories, dreams, fantasies and visions for the future.

 

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