I teach a twelve-week course titled, Journaling for Passion, Clarity and Purpose. In Week #7, participants engage in some writing exercises for gaining clarity, especially in areas of life where there is persistent suffering, confusion, or unresolve. I never ask participants to reveal their personal situations, but I coach journaling techniques for getting the clarity they seek to identify new choices and actions to take.
This is a true story about a student (I’ve named him Dan) that I share to illustrate the power of journaling for clarity. Dan was plagued with acute sinusitis — the sinus passages connecting his ears, nose, and throat were extremely narrow, and got easily clogged. All his life, from childhood into his late twenties, he feared the changes in seasons because it meant certain, unavoidable, and chronic sinus infections. Pollen, a runny nose, or a few sneezes were a sure sign of the oncoming suffering. Left unattended, the sinus infections would affect his hearing, and give him excruciatingly painful headaches and earaches until treated with a 10-day course of antibiotics. For prevention, he took decongestants so often they lost their potency on him. He frequently used a salt-water neti pot (an instrument used to wash the sinus canals) day and night to try to keep his sinus passages free of the smallest obstruction. Dan has been angry, anxious, depressed, and miserable about this for years, and compounded by the feeling of being doomed and trapped because except for a very serious surgery, it seemed like there was never going to be anything he could do to get rid of it.
When we got to Week #7 in my course, Dan spoke to me about his condition. I could see that he identifies with the topic of suffering. I’m not a doctor, and I didn’t have any medical advice for him, but I did recommend he write about his suffering in detail, and use it as an experiment for clarity. I encouraged him to be specific as possible, to write out everything, including how his first sinus infection happened, every step of the process in learning about his condition, everything he could remember about treating it, everything. Dan came back a day later and showed me his journal: seven pages all about his sinuses. “Feel any better?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It’s miserable. I hate it. In fact, writing about it has only made me realize how weak and unfortunate I am. Maybe this technique works for emotional conditions, but I’m still suffering, and I don’t think this will ever go away.”
“Keep going,” I replied. “Seven pages is a good start, but you’ve got more than that. When you meet with any anger, frustration, and all those stories about being weak and unlucky, try focusing more on the facts. Blame and shame are a roadblock to clarity. Sometimes anger and frustration are mind-numbing drugs designed to insulate your suffering. It’s good to acknowledge them because they signal this is important to you. But our path to clarity requires we let go of ‘how we think things should be’ and focus on the truth, the way things are. Did you include your first doctor’s visit? When did you learn that it was called acute sinusitis? Write about the first time that antibiotics seemed to be the cure.”
Dan went back to his journal and kept going, amazed to realize that there were still more details he had left out. He came back to me a couple more times to brag about how many pages he had written (now ten, now thirteen!) and complain he still felt no relief. All week long, I sent him back to his journal to re-read, and double- and triple-check that he hadn’t left anything out. He got better and better about writing out the facts, and eventually he created a complete chronology of his condition from as far back as he could remember, to the present day.
By the end of the week, Dan came to me with a giant grin. “I got it, Nathan,” he said, “I got clarity. What an amazing exercise!”
I asked what he meant, and what he learned.
“Two nights ago, I was re-reading the whole thing, from beginning to end, adding in details in the margins. I found I was repeating some parts, and it wasn’t organized well, so I re-wrote it, this time much more factually. I haven’t written about anything else this whole week.
“About halfway through my re-write, something within me shifted. I saw how ridiculous I was being. I literally burst out laughing at myself. I threw down my pen because writing it down just didn’t matter to me anymore. I finally realized: I have acute sinusitis. It’s a known condition, and I have options with how to deal with it. Period. Everything else is just me being upset about it!”
To this day, Dan still has very narrow sinus passages. He is still careful to keep his nasal passages clear during a cold or allergy attack. But one thing is different. He has let go of the suffering. He is clear about his condition, and clear about his choices. And at a deep psychological level, he is clear that complaining offers no relief. This journaling exercise on clarity literally cleared up the trouble with Dan’s sinus condition!