Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Journaling’

My Philosophy Journal

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on July 28, 2019 at 8:00 am
My "Philosophy Journal"

My “Philosophy Journal”

A little over a year ago I started keeping what I call a philosophy journal. It’s an idea that I encountered in my study of the Stoics. The ancient Stoic teachers suggested that their students keep a journal as a way to enhance the philosophical teachings. The best surviving example of this is what has come to be known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The Meditations remains in print and I suggest you read the new translation by Gregory Hays, if you’re interested. I will touch on these writings in a future post. The point here, however, is that Marcus Aurelius, as a Stoic practice, wrote his ideas and thoughts down, not for publication, but as a personal journal. Fortunately, for us, his notebook survived the ages. Seneca and his Letters to Lucilius is another example of the practice.  These writings lasted because they have been valued as sources of wisdom and insight for quite literally thousands of years.


Old Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

I have, for as long as I can recall, kept a journal. This iteration, my philosophy journal, is a little different from what I’ve done previously. In the past, my journals were places where I put down quick thoughts, quotes, a brief sketch, a record or a musing. Paging through them now is rewarding and still provides me with insight and pleasure. My philosophy journal is different in the following way: It is less random and more purposeful. I begin with a quote drawn from my readings of philosophy. I keep it brief, as it is more a vehicle by which to explore my own thoughts than a specific philosophical teaching. I follow the quote with a paragraph or two fleshing it out in my own words, making it my own, as it were. Lastly, I attempt to distill the quote and my thoughts about it into a short pithy notation I call my Daily Focus. The Daily Focus is no more than a sentence or two and is something I can keep present in mind throughout the day. It is a practice, an attempt to distill wisdom and put it to work. Here is an example from my current journal–a quote, my thoughts about it, and my daily focus.

June 10, 2019

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” ~ Marcus Aurelius. 

I try not to speak ill of others. For the most part I am successful. I’ve weaned myself away from the vice of speaking badly of others pretty well. I recall years ago observing my friend Greg in a conversation simply grow quiet when the talk turned to gossip. That made a lasting impression and compelled me toward the same habit of civility. Yet, I still occasionally fall into the trap, which brings me to the second point of Aurelius’s quote above: the reflection of one’s own short-comings. To consider one’s deficits honestly, not as a way of self-flagellation, but as a habit of improvement, is a worthy practice. One’s shortcomings are never so noticeable as when we observe them in others.

Daily Focus: Be attentive to opportunities for improvement. 

You needn’t be of a philosophical bent to put these ideas to work for you. Perhaps you are religious and would turn to a sacred text for your quote and ideas. Or, maybe you read poetry and find it inspiring and motivational. I trust you get the idea. Similarly, I don’t just draw on ancient thinkers for inspiration. My journal includes quotes from William James, and Susan Sontag, Nietzsche and Sartre, and many others. The point is to find a text that is meaningful for you, to work with it and distill it, then employ it as a method to greater insight, improvement, and self knowledge. It is a practice, and what is life but a repeating effort of how to be?

The whirlwind about my head.

In Creativity, Writing on April 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm

What is to be done about the notes and observations, the history and thoughts, collected over the years, indeed, over the decades? It is a swirling whirlwind of muted information, everything I’ve forgotten but wanted to remember, just out of reach, a torment. Montaigne lamented that he read everything then promptly forgot it all. Like Montaigne, my mind is porous. I pour into it, and everything trickles out.

For those practicing the alchemy of turning experience into something–and that exactly is the trick–the content of our notebooks represents an archive of notions and ideas. Therein sleep our gestating projects, our dreams and most important observations. With love and patience and a practice spanning great lengths of time, we capture and compose these records. Yet they sit on the shelf, lonely sheafs, disrespected and forgotten.

The sorting and sifting is impossible. As a photographer who preferred film, I had a system. Sleeves of slides fill my cabinets, sorted by year and country and subject. If you asked me to print my night photo of the Prague Castle taken five years ago, the shot I took at 2:00 in the morning, in February, while standing on the Charles Bridge, worried that my film was going to freeze, I could put my hands on it in three minutes. But ask me where I stashed the note made while reading Moby Dick regarding Melville’s notion of happiness and I am lost. I am compelled to rectify this.

I have a project. A big project. And it represents a full and unconditional embrace of technology. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but the time has come to forsake feelings and get to work.

I began using Evernote a few months ago. I’m not going to explain it, other than to say it is the software by which I intend to take control of this matter. (I’ve linked it, you can check it out if you wish.) From my Mac to my iPhone to my iPad, it will all be there, at my fingertips, sortable and ready for use. And so, with the cracking of a stiff spine, I open the first journal and set to work.