Morning pages and recovery: how a daily writing habit can help restore inner clarity and peace
It's what helped me write this newsletter post after a 5-month creative abyss
Welcome to the Examined Life: a newsletter dedicated to our spiritual and emotional well-being using verified consciousness research.
If, like me, you have been feeling creatively blocked, or emotionally strained but unable to access the emotions themselves; if you're looking for a way to clear brain fog, or bypass corrosive mental chatter, then this issue can help.
It will offer some context, and a gentle nudge for you to start your own journaling practice to access your inner self, inner wisdom, and clarity. No fancy software is needed. Just a pen, paper, and thirty to forty minutes every day.
This issue has two parts
Background and context
If short on time, you can skip straight to the heading “Morning pages or peering through brain fog”
If you were forwarded this email, get your own:
Part 1: Background and context
Please allow me to apologize for going dark for over 5 months. You may not remember this newsletter. In which case, here’s a brief (re)introduction. Writing is not my profession, but an absence like this is tantamount to professional suicide for a newsletter.
My name is Amogh, and last year I started writing this newsletter for our spiritual and emotional wellness using verified consciousness research.
In March, I started a piece on the nature of stress. It ballooned into an enormous document that I could not finish. While I tried to distill insights from a book on emotional and spiritual recovery1, what bothered me was that I was offering advice on something that I hadn’t quite *solved* for myself. Stress, that is.
I had written previous issues covering chapters of the same book, including topics like weight loss (after years of being overweight). But with stress, each time I sat to write down it brought up inner roadblocks.
Also in March, my wife and I welcomed our third kid, the second within three years. The world had shifted on its axis yet again. More about that later. Yes, on the surface, I suddenly had no time for a few months.
But the real reason for my paralysis was not the lack of time, but the lack of utilized time.
I just couldn’t bring myself to use that little bit of free time I had in a productive way. Partly due to addictive behavioural patterns I’ve always had that allow me to escape from the mountain high list of to-dos. And partly due to the emotional vulnerabilities triggered by an otherwise celebratory event.
I was in denial, especially after a year of mind-numbing lockdown. At first, I avoided facing it by food and phone use. Then binging became untenable. I have a tendency to normalize addictive behaviour like it is eating, checking the phone, avoidance of some difficult, but necessary tasks.
Some of it I have dealt with successfully in the past, with great assistance from spiritual programs like the 12 steps. But the patterns return in newer areas of life, needing renewed examination.
So, anyway, here I am, sharing a little bit of that self-examination with you, hoping that it will benefit your own journey into the serenity of Self.
Unravelling of my fitness program
In my previous life when I had the luxury of spending the first hour of my day in meditation, contemplation, and reading, I had worked out a repeatable morning routine. A spiritual fitness program, if you will.
It was a practice inspired and necessitated by 12-Step2 recovery. Nothing fancy, just a few simple reminders to nurture what the Big Book calls “fit spiritual condition,” so as not to relapse into addictive behaviour.
A few lines of reflection, prayers, and silence functioned as a spiritual cobweb-cleaning exercise. This allowed me to (more or less) calmly navigate the challenges brought by the day. And if the storms moored me away, I was able to find the rope to anchor myself to safety.
More often than not, my morning fitness routine kept my anxiety at bay, and over the years allowed me to work through a number of fruitful and challenging work situations. Problems gradually revealed themselves as gifts.
All this stemmed from a reliance on a Power greater than one’s personal self3, and not self-will, as the driver of one’s life.
Then came the hard-learned lesson: the benefits of a sustained program, ironically, made me complacent. When life becomes easy, who cares about guard-rails?
Complacency is the enemy of spiritual progress. Within four or five years, after getting married and having a baby, I found myself gradually mooring away from the very practice that had anchored me.
Suddenly I didn’t have enough time in the mornings. I would ‘forget’ exercise, both physical and spiritual. My part-time job also contributed—social media, even professionally, can be a corrosive influence. The attention span suffered. The impulse control diminished.
But everything was ‘fine’ as long as I was paid on time. It’s amazing how a paycheck can keep one numbed to the real issues of one’s life. Then 2020 came and chipped away at whatever fortifications remained. Work slowly dried up.
This year we had our third child, as I wrote earlier. Coupled with taking care of a restless 3-year old, whatever free time, focus, and energy I had previously seemed to fly out of the window.
Days turned into weeks and months passing by in a blur of diapers, home-chores overlaid on a mind-numbing anxiety I sought to divert my attention from. I am a stay-at-home dad. Work hadn’t picked up much (post-Covid ‘recovery’ y’all).
Part 2: Practice
Morning pages or peering through brain fog
A couple of months ago, I was looking for an easy way to start journalling, I came upon a book by Julia Cameron, the writer and teacher best known for ‘The Artist’s Way.’
So far, I had considered journalling as a form of writing. Like I’m-going-to-sit-down-and-write-but-it-had-better-be-something-GOOD-and-meaningful.
This would immediately bring up my inner defenses and perfectionism (which is really a fear of not-being-good-enough). Nothing would stick—including online journalling workshops, special writing apps, prompts, etc. I was creatively blocked, unable to write without self-criticism or distraction overriding the exercise.
Around this time, I had been dipping into a couple of books by Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path…) and in each one she mentioned similar exercises for creative unblocking.
The tools she suggested were often the same but applied in to different context. The first tool, the one that jumped out at me is Morning Pages. Julia writes elegantly and at length about the effects of this practice on her students, and on herself.
Here is one passage that I bookmarked:
"You will write three pages every morning, a practice that I call Morning Pages. They are to be strictly stream of consciousness, no “high art” here. You simply move your hand across the page and write whatever thought comes into your head. Even “non-thoughts” are fine. Don’t expect or demand that you have a writing style. Any style at all will do. So fret, gripe, worry, scold—or celebrate. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages. Your pages may sound grumpy and whiny— “I’m awake and I want to sleep two more hours. I hate my job. I hate my boss. I hate the life I have invented for myself these days.” Your pages might sound anxious and scattered. You might find yourself angry or sad. It’s all right. It’s all all right. Your job is simply to get down on the page whatever it is you are." – Julia Cameron
I pretty much put the books aside at this point. My inner critic’s defenses had been breached. These so-called morning pages could be grumpy and whiny, devoid of any style and literary merit… and no one would care? OK, I have permission to suck.
I grabbed a pen and a notebook, and sat down to write. Slowly at first, but little by little each day, my hand fell into a convenient rhythm. Sometimes I dozed off writing—out of the resistance to thinking and inner honesty. Other times, the gripes flowed effortlessly.
I discovered that writing on a computer felt superficial. As soon as the words appeared on screen, the mind would jump into critic/editor mode, abandoning the flow of thoughts.
But the organic resistance of pen on paper allowed me to gently unravel the feelings behind recurring thoughts. Slowly, line by line, I found a way to unblock.
Writing this way is no different from talking to yourself. The best conversations are not rushed, and morning pages make for interesting slow conversations.
What am I feeling?
What's bothering me today? What am I not admitting to myself?
What am holding on to? What pissed me off and, more importantly, why?
Now, what’s really bothering me?
Why am I eating repeatedly? Why am I picking up my phone again and again?
‘Words of advice’
Does this ever happen to you?
A friend calls you up to ask for advice. He or she explains the problem, fumbling with words. You ask a few questions to understand it better, and then listen. Or simply: why is that? Tell me more.
Sometimes, a new perspective appears. You offer, have you considered this…?
Now, if it's a real friend, you wouldn't rush to judgment even if it seems like a silly problem at first.
You wouldn't say, you're a f*cking idiot. You deserved it. What the hell were you thinking? Right? (Yet, how often do we end up saying it to ourselves?)
Listening to the problems of others lets us switch to helper mode.
It allows us to access inner wisdom instantly. Other times, answers may appear after contemplation. Either way, when we approach the problem as a compassionate listener willing to help, we discover something that could be called our inner selflessness. Inner greatness, if you will, or inner wisdom. The world feels lighter, and we feel more connected with the other.
This is what morning pages can feel like if one is willing to have a patient conversation with oneself.
Morning pages become a way to ask yourself as you write. And then continue to write what comes up. You'll be surprised that when you slow down and ask, insights and answers appear out of nowhere.
Getting into the habit of writing thoughts down without too much deliberation leads to greater clarity. Deliberation can sometimes lead to resistance—this word doesn't sound good, this phrasing sucks. Who cares? It’s just for you.
Writing flow offers a gentle momentum that keeps the ink flowing as we untangle thought-loops to reveal the underlying feelings.
If we are able to face the feelings and not immediately turn away (resist/deflect/ distract), there is sometimes a rare moment of insight where we suddenly glimpse the larger pattern and realize:
Aha, I see that. This is where it comes from. That’s the error, and this pattern is the result. I see why.
But one must do this without expectation, and without the desire to manipulate the process towards a predefined outcome. I’m not selling a miracle cure. Just a tool that can help clear the pathway to oneself.
Writing with intention…
(And not focussing on the outcome)
One of the most powerful influences in our life is a persistent, prevalent intention.
E.g.: a painter might start out with little else but a love of the materials, the smell of paint. A writer, similarly guided by the love of sentences and their rhythms.
The guiding intent needn’t be about havingness or doingness (e.g.: I want a six-pack, I want to be famous). It is preferable when it’s about beingness, meaning a shift of identity (I want to be the kind of person who does x)
Morning pages can help direct you to uncover a latent intention, clarify a deeper longing for purpose, or simply a set of negative programs at work within consciousness.
My intention was to access some deeper schisms in the mind, to examine and resolve inner contradictions that influence my behaviour and render it out of my control. To find out where my problems arise, and how to resolve them.
Once we begin to dig a little deeper into our everyday experience, we become more aware of the 'what' of it. Writing day becomes a way of telling the truth, or recording one's subjective experience of it as it is. No one needs to read these pages, they are for us. They need not be literary in style, for their merit is in the experience of doing it and not in the quality of output.
We can confess our worst secrets and nobody will shame us for them. If we have ever forgiven ourselves for our past mistakes, the process of writing about a deeply held resentment or an unfathomable regret can be truly therapeutic.
But if we have the sort of instincts that would rather stick the knife in, we need to render the superego benign before opening the floodgates of our conscience.
If we have a habit of denying imperfections within us—whether it’s out of fear of a parental voice, or upholding personal vanity—then the process will be rendered opaque with resistance.
However, if you’re willing to be a wee bit vulnerable, just pick up the pen and paper…
Thought-ing Vs Thinking
You know when you’re thought-ing—it’s like listening to a radio that’s switching between stations randomly. The mental chatter goes on and on driven by subtle underlying emotions. It’s thought-surfing.
Thinking is what we do when we sit down to design a bathroom, work out the chords of a song, solve a maths problem or cook a new recipe. It’s consciously done, it requires focus and being present.
When we ruminate or find ourselves in loops of mental chatter, replaying painful situations, memories, what-I-shoulda-saids, we’re essentially in reactive mode.
When we write down what’s on our mind it gently nudges us into proactive mode. We become aware of our own seismic responses rather than reacting to thoughts, feelings, sensations unconsciously.
“Writing makes us conscious,” writes Julia Cameron.
“Once we are conscious, it is difficult to act out in unconscious ways."
✍🏼 Excerpt from my morning pages4
How does it feel to be complete from moment to moment?
I always feel that the experience of completeness, indeed, pure happiness, is somewhere in the future, and out of reach. When the paycheck comes in. When I will get sex/beer/chocolate. When I buy that book or that camera or that guitar. When I will be rich, when I will have the time, when I will have the right mood or the silence, when the kids are asleep, or when I unfettered access to enjoyment…
When the chores will be complete or the house will be cleaned. When the food is ordered, when anticipating a good meal or coffee. When I will enjoy that vacation… THEN I think I set myself up for depression here believing that all these things need to happen for me to feel “complete“ and total.
How much of my life have I missed this way, waiting for "happiness" that’s always out of reach?
The ability to sit still without being swayed by emotional currents is possible to cultivate. In fact, just doing something once, twice seems to open the likelihood becoming something else:
Break the pattern of anger and resentment once, and you become forgiveness, even for a brief instance.
Break an unconscious cycle once and, already, you can see the beginnings of a conscious one…
I decided to break my five-month habit of not ‘shipping’ anything with this issue. Will it help anyone? Wishfully, maybe. Was it necessary—I think so. Was it kind? I do hope so.
I’m changing the newsletter frequency to once a month (or maybe two). It gives me more time to dig deeper into ideas before writing about them.
Special thanks to readers who enquired about this newsletter’s absence. And to Naomi who suggested that I use morning pages as a basis for a newsletter post. Check out her newsletter, ‘The Longform Addict’
Thank you for reading,
— Amogh (see you on Twitter)
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Healing and Recovery by Dr David R Hawkins. It’s worth its weight in precious metals. If you don’t have the time to read it, stick around, I plan to digest and share portions of it for our mutual, er, healing and recovery
The 12 steps as pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous have become a pathway of recovery from addictions that, historically speaking, were without a cure–such as alcoholism. The 12 steps are recognized as the foundation of recovery used by numerous self-help groups centered around behavioural and substance addictions. Here’s what Dr Hawkins writes about AA in Power Vs Force:
According to its preamble, AA is “not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, or organization.”
It has “no opinion on outside matters.” It is neither for nor against any other approach to the problem of alcoholism. It has no dues or fees, no ceremonies, trappings, officers, or laws. It owns no property; it has no edifices.
Not only are all members equal, but all AA groups are autonomous and self-supporting.5 Even the 12 basic steps by which members recover are described as only “suggestions.” The use of coercion of any kind is avoided, and this is emphasized by slogans such as “Easy does it,” “First things first,” and, most important, “Live and let live.”
Alcoholics Anonymous respects freedom, in that it leaves choice up to the individual. Its identifiable power patterns are those of honesty, responsibility, humility, service, and the practice of tolerance, goodwill, and brotherhood.
Hawkins, David R.. Power vs. Force (p. 150). Hay House. Kindle Edition.
If I hadn’t read Power vs Force, I wouldn’t have turned to the 12 steps for my own addiction problems, but that’s for another newsletter.
Higher Power: When I use the word ‘God,’ I use it outside the context of organized religion—I cut the middle-man out ages ago. Many rely on organized religion to dictate the terms for what is ultimately an inner experience. Not me.
Instead, for practical purposes, the AA definition of a Higher Power resonates well with me:
a Higher Power of one’s own understanding: a Power greater than my personal will, my personal self, and my mind.
A Power I can rely on for intuition, assistance, and purpose as and when needed.
Unconnected to the idea of an ancient, anthropomorphic dude up there with a bad temper and penchant for punishment.
I don’t have to ‘understand God’ to relate to an impersonal Higher Power as the Source of life itself. A Power that could restore sanity if asked. I found this definition practical, workable, and even universal.
Anyone can utilize their own definition based on their understanding of a power greater than the self. Some folks don’t think that there is one at all. That nothing greater than the self exists. Since we cannot prove or disprove God, all assumptions are provisional. However, one might be able to verify the existence of radically subjective states (enlightenment) as true mystics have expressed over time.
You might find in this quote the makings of an epiphany: https://veritaspub.com/2021/06/07/happiness/ - from Healing and Recovery - Dr David R Hawkins. Partial screenshot: