Journaling is a practice as old as writing itself. Most of us start out as children with some sort of diary. It’s first pages contain shaky block lettering that slants off the page at an angle. “Dear diary” we say, and we’re off. My childhood diaries usually run for about a week. And then there is a jump of a few years before I’m back to try again.
In the end they’re mostly a list of what I ate, who I played with, and whether or not my sister and I got into a fight. Over and over again I discovered that these things make for incredible uninspiring writing. And so I gave up.
But I kept coming back.
And I’m pretty sure you did too. Most of us do. We start off a diary or journal with the best of intentions, but inevitably we wander away. And yet we keep coming back. We buy a new journal, a nice new pen, and we sit down and start again. Over and over again, sometimes for years. Why?
I think it is because at some level we know that the journey into the heart of ourselves needs to be told. I think we know at some level that to go deep we need a tool. The journal is an excellent tool for discovery. The problem usually is that we have not been taught to use it properly. (And this is where journaling prompts, what you’ll learn about in this article, become important.)
Popcorn and chopsticks
I am a white woman, raised in the Midwest, who could use chopsticks as a child. Not stabbing things with them, or struggling. I have for a long time been just as happy to grab chopsticks as a fork. They aren’t mysterious or strange, they’re just a tool. And the only reason they are that way is because when I was very young I was taught to use them by someone who ate with them daily.
Our parish priest and his wife were Chinese. And he taught the kids in our church to eat with chopsticks using popcorn. (He also fried up egg roll wrappers and coated them in cinnamon sugar. He is the reason elephant ears are deeply disappointing to me.) Most of my peers still find chopsticks to be clumsy and difficult. And that is what journaling is for most of us.
Journaling is clumsy and difficult because we’ve never been taught to do it properly. Writing prompts can change that.
How to Journal (and why)
Journaling helps us to get deep into things, to wrestle with big stuff, to dig into our hearts, to explore our spirituality. And it’s simpler than it sometimes seems. I will walk you step by step through the process of keeping and using a spiritual journal. One of the advantages of this practice is it is easily adapted to any spiritual tradition. Christian journaling, Jewish journaling, yoga journaling, meditation journaling; is all just as helpful.
Step One: Supplies
This is going to annoy some folks but here goes: if at all possible use analog journaling tools! (If you have a disability that makes it impossible for you to write with paper and pen by all means use what works for you!) Neural science is pretty unanimous at this point; our brains benefit from analog input. Human beings (in general) learn better if we write our notes by hand.
The same is true for journaling as a spiritual (or self discovery) practice. The physical act of moving your hand and arm as you write activates parts of your brain that typing on a keyboard does not. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever journal digitally, but that I highly recommend making pen and paper your regular practice.
(I love fountain pens and use those for their beauty and relaxing writing experience. You can also use crayons, colored pencils, a regular old no 2, a ballpoint, or a twig dipped in homemade ink. The options for notebooks are near infinite, choose what works for you.) But if you fear “messing up” it might be best to start with a journal that isn’t so fancy as to be intimidating.
Step Two: Habit
The key to any spiritual practice is to make it a habit. Habits don’t form overnight, which can be frustrating but is also their power. Spiritual journaling can be a good experience even if you only do it once. But as with things like exercise or therapy, the more consistent you are the better your results will be.
When I was learning to eat with chopsticks repetition was key. If I’d just played with them once or twice I would have gotten nowhere. So if you have tried something (anything) just once to twice, not been so great at it, and felt awful, they key is to not stop! You don’t learn a new skill overnight. So I suggest that you set yourself up for success. As with any new practice mark down time to do it on your calendar. Same as a doctor’s appointment, or a meeting.
Mark it down, and then do it. Even when you don’t feel like it. (Because sometimes you won’t.)
And this is the key to a habit. You will miss a session, and that will make it much easier to miss the next session. And then you’ll feel guilty, and like a failure and now you’ll be even less likely to sit down and journal. Know that this is normal and the only way to break the cycle is simple to go back to doing your habit. No guilt, no shame. Just pick back up where you left off and go on.
Step Three: What to write about
The reason I was so bad at journaling as a kid is because I was writing about things I didn’t really care about. I was writing to write, because I thought journaling was cool. But peanut butter sandwiches and homework do not interesting writing make, and so I would get bored and quit. Even worse, I became convinced that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say. (This wasn’t true, and it’s not true about you either!)
What I needed was structure and a compelling reason to sit down and write. And this is where spiritual journal prompts shine.
The whole point of spiritual journaling is to help us draw closer to the Divine, and to our own nature. Spiritual journaling is meant to help us do the work of peeling back the layers, asking and answering deep questions, and maybe hearing from that still small voice within.
The Prompts: 20 Spiritual Journal Prompts
Below you will find four different types of journaling prompts and five prompts to try within each category. Try a few and see what works for you!
I find prompts incredibly helpful when journaling. Instead of having to come up with my own ideas about what to write (which tend to focus on how hungry I am, or how busy), a prompt can get you out of your comfort zone. Prompts have the tendency to make you examine things from a new angle, think about things you wouldn’t normally consider, or just plain provide inspiration when you are empty.
I’ve written previously about a favorite journaling technique which uses images as journal prompts. If you are a visual person, or you struggle with writing I highly suggest starting there. I find that the same images speak new and exciting things to me over and over again, and you probably have a wealth of images to work with already.
- Choose an image prompt at random from here.
- Flip through your Instagram feed and stop at random. Spend time with the image you landed on and write about what emotions it raises in you.
- Meditate on light and warmth with one of these abstract images of fire, or these natural fire images.
- Choose an image that matches the current season and explore this season in your life through that image. (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter).
- Find an image in your own home. A tarot deck, a piece of art on the wall, a children’s painting and write about the story it tells you.
Just like they sound, question prompts ask you a question and you spend your journal entry exploring the answer to that question, wherever that leads. You can find journaling questions all over the place, and I’ll list some here. They can be really helpful to come back to on a yearly or seasonal basis to see how your answers grow and change.
As with all prompts don’t feel compelled to stick exactly to the question. Let your journaling flow naturally, and if it wanders away from the question you started with that’s OK! It probably means that there is really something you need to dig into. I’ve listed some slightly different question prompts below. You can find tons of journaling questions on the internet, these are hopefully a bit outside the norm.
- Interview a respect spiritual leader in your tradition. (Yes, make it up.) Examples: Mary Magdalene, Isaiah, Eve, Rabbi Herschel, the Dalai Lama. The possibilities are endless, you ask the questions, you create the answers.
- What one question do you think the Divine would ask you today out of the depth of her love for you? And what would your answer be?
- If you could ask one question of your future self what would it be, and how would you like yourself to respond?
- What are you afraid of?
- What do you want?
- When have you been most content/say/excited/joyful? (Bonus question!)
This one is just what it sounds like. You start with a piece of sacred scripture (from your tradition), and use it as your prompt. But how do you choose what scripture you will use? I suggest a lectionary. Lectionaries are designated readings set out daily, or weekly over a number of years. For example, here you will find the daily lectionary of my tradition (Episcopalian/Christian). If you aren’t Christian Google can point you at reading lists for your own tradition and scriptures.
Here is why a lectionary is so good. In the example above, which is a two year lectionary, you will (if you read it all daily) cover almost all of Christian scripture in two years. Yes even the bits that are uncomfortable, challenging, or that you don’t like. And that’s key. If your spiritual practice is going to lead to growth you will have to deal with things outside your own comfort zone.
A lectionary keeps marching on, no matter your preferences. I find that being confronted with texts I wouldn’t normally choose to read often opens new questions for me. Some of your journal entries might just be how much you hate the text for that day. But even that can teach you something.
To use scripture as a journal prompt read the passage chosen for the day. You might read it more than once, or read it very slowly. Then write about your experience. What jumped out at you, what challenged you, what made you feel good or bad?
This isn’t Bible study, it is spiritual journaling. Forget all the stuff you learn in church or Temple and try to encounter the text new and fresh for that moment.
Questions to use with a passage of scripture:
- When was the first time I remember hearing or reading this passage, what was my reaction?
- Today, where am I in this story?
- What do I hate about this story/passage?
- What one word or phrase sticks out to me, why might that be?
- Retell the story (or teaching) in my own words.
On those days when you just can’t write a coherent sentence list prompts might be the way to go. There are probably millions available online. Google “journaling lists” and you’ll end up with more results than you could get through in ten lifetimes. A lot of them are empty fluff. But some of them are quite good. On the surface listing a bunch of things might seem like a silly exercise. But the key here is stream of consciousness. Basically to do a list prompt justice you should start writing and not stop (set a timer and stop when the timer rings).
Your list will likely start very surface level, it might seem empty and useless. But as you continue writing each item will bring up the next in a chain that usually (not always, but usually) gets you to something you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. List prompts can be very vague, or incredibly specific. You may discover the end of one that one of the items is something you want or need to write a lot more about.
Here are some examples of journaling list prompts:
- List all the emotions you can remember feeling in the last week.
- Things I believe.
- Things I want.
- What have I heard used to describe myself
- What words would I use to describe myself
- What words would I like to be descriptive of me (bonus!)
- How have I experienced the Divine in my life? (bonus!)
Step 4: Do it
That’s enough reading. Reading about spiritual practices doesn’t equal doing them. So now it is your turn. Pick a prompt above, and go. Just start. You don’t have to do it “right.” You don’t have to have a fancy journal. Just grab something to write on, and something to write with and start.