The Spiritual Journal: An Interview with Mark Matousek

Q:  Mark, how does journaling deepen our spiritual connection?

A: Reaching below the mundane surface of existence in our journals, we enter a sacred dimension in which the search for truth is our guiding motivation, just as it is in spiritual practice. Both journaling and spiritual seeking get their fuel from the same perennial question, Who Am I? Know thyself — gnothi seauton — warned the Oracle of Delphi. This crucial mandate pushes journalers and spiritual seekers to deepen their connection to Source (God or Self) in the quest for self-discovery (and enlightenment). Both endeavors are driven by the love of truth, which awakens and sets us free when we articulate it.

Also, the discipline of journal practice is an ideal entrée to meditation, prayer, and even yoga.  Introspective writing prepares the mental ground for centering practices of all kinds, which is why some of our greatest journal writers (from Augustine to Anaïs Nin) have been dedicated spiritual practitioners.  The two endeavors go hand in hand, feeding, enriching, informing, and broadening one another.  I would argue that journaling is, in its essence, a spiritual act since its twin aims are wisdom and liberation of a psychological nature.

Q:  How does healing and health connect with spirituality?

A: The word spirit comes from the same root for “breath.”  Since the time of the ancient Yogic and Chinese traditions, which termed breath energy prana and chi, respectively, we have understood that health and inspiration were deeply intertwined, and that by strengthening and deepening our spiritual awareness, we simultaneously nourished our physical energy (and, in turn, creativity).

The burgeoning field of neuroscience (paired with moral psychology) is proving, in one study after another, that spiritual practices – from meditation, to prayer, to devotional singing – have strong (and provable) health benefits.  Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been doing amazing work with Buddhist meditators, revealing how contemplative practice increases gamma function (related to positive and healing power in the body), and explaining why so many dedicated spiritual practitioners are not only happier, but heal more quickly and have greater psychological resilience. The interface between spiritual practice and the healing arts – including mainstream medicine – is among our most exciting contemporary fields of discovery. Body-mind medicine is the way of the future, and spiritual awareness (including the relationship between energy and healing) is the cutting edge of medical research.

Q: Spirituality at times seems illusive and ethereal, and at other times feels immediate and enveloping. Can journaling help bring these two seemingly separate and different qualities together?  

A: Keeping a spiritual journal helps us ground spirituality in the mind and body.  By bringing us into the present moment, and teaching us to use what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” journal practice reminds us to pay attention to the here and now, to observe what is actually happening around us, and to explore our inner lives from the platform of the present tense.

There is nothing elusive or ethereal about genuine spiritual awareness.  When students ask me how they can know when they are telling the whole truth (the alpha and omega of spiritual wisdom), I always tell them that they can feel it in their bodies.  There’s a ‘ping’ in the center of chest when we tell the truth, out loud or on paper.  We feel lightened, clarified, and exhilarated when we touch upon the authentic in ourselves and others.  This quality is palpable and recognizable – not occult, esoteric, or mysterious – and teaches us to recognize (and long for) authenticity in all areas of our lives.

Also, by articulating numinous qualities (such as faith and mystery) in words, we make these qualities real for ourselves.  The human mind uses language to connect to itself to experience, and to understand the complex nature of our many-layered lives.  Armed with language, we can create stories to explain ourselves TO ourselves, thus assembling a workable, personal narrative – a language-hewn mirror in which to observe, critique, and improve ourselves. Journaling is the most immediate, intimate, and effective tool that we have for discovering spirituality in our everyday lives and recognizing our original nature in the midst of (and underneath) what we reveal to the world.

Q: Can you give an example of a writing exercise that helps explore one’s spirituality?        

MM: One of my favorite exercises centers on the difference between soul and spirit. The desire to leapfrog our own darkness is a major trap for both writers and spiritual seekers.  We imagine that there is a shortcut through the mess of our own psyches, failing to recognize that the so-called mess — our conflicts, regrets, disappointments, delusions, confusions, expectations, etc. – are nothing more than the source of our richness and originality.

Soul and spirit are useful metaphorical terms for describing divergent aspects the self.  Soul encompasses the depths of earthly experience, eccentricities, character, and mess. Spirit refers to our transcendent, eternal nature, the Oneness we share with all sentient beings (the Self that cannot be taken away).   Soul attaches; spirit detaches. Soul descends; spirit ascends.  Soul loves the past; spirit inclines toward a more perfect future. Both are necessary, complementary aspects of holistic life, and each of us tends toward one orientation or the other (they also overlap, of course, in crucial and illuminating ways).

Contrary to what many spiritual traditions would have us believe, soul (and sensual, soulful wisdom) is as important as transcendent, pristine, spirit in the movement toward self-realization. Without proper attention to the soul, spiritual life becomes arid, inhuman, and perfectionist; a long, futile attempt to rid ourselves of our wonderful, crooked, unique personalities and the (sometimes) devilish desires that go with them and can bring so much pleasure.  But balance is key.  Without proper attention to the spirit, soulful lives can become self-absorbed, narrow, and hedonistic, all earth and no sky. Spirit refers to our transcendent, eternal nature, the Oneness we share with all sentient beings (the Self that cannot be taken away).

It is important to know whether you are a soul- or a spirit-type, and how this tendency characterizes your life, writing, and practice. Soul types tend to need a dose of transcendence; spiritual types tend to need a measure of gritty groundedness.

Knowing which type you are also helps to choose, and stick to, a wisdom practice that balances your natural proclivity with its necessary opposite.  Here are some questions to stimulate your writing in your spiritual journal to explore your soul/spirit balance:

  • How have these soul/spirit concepts shaped and (mis)shapen you?
  • What do you resist in one or the other?
  • Do you celebrate your peculiarities, twists, subversions, transgressions, and character (which comes from the Greek root for “etching”)?  Or do you struggle for conformity, selflessness, and so-called perfection?
  • Do you honor your expansive and transcendent spiritual nature?  Or are you always trying to bring yourself back down to earth, afraid to break free, to explore, to imagine?
  • What might you do — in a practical, day to day sense, to right your own imbalance(s)?
  • What lessons do you need to learn, or unlearn, in order to enjoy your ENTIRE nature, not merely the half you’re familiar with or which is condoned by your community or culture?

Mark Matousek is the bestselling author of two memoirs, Sex, Death, Enlightenment: A True Story and The Boy He Left Behind: A Man’s Search for His Lost Father, as well as When You’re Falling, Dive!: Lessons in the Art of Living and his newest book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good. Mark is on the Journal Council for the International Association for Journal Writing and also wrote the Spirituality Add-On for LifeJournal.