I remember reading somewhere–I’ve forgetten precisely where–that Virginia Woolf once compared her journal to a junky drawer filled with random bits. The purpose of a junk drawer, of course, is to stash things you don’t need now but might need later. And thus this analogy between journaling and junk-hoarding is an apt one. As a long-time journaler and newly obsessive photographer of abandoned places, I guess I know junk. I’ve seen junk, and it is I.
When you practice meditation long enough, you realize that your own mental junk drawer is infinitely expansive: everything and everything can fit inside, and does. In the middle of meditation, for no apparent reason, a memory from your childhood will bubble into consciousness, followed by an argument you had yesterday, followed by an intensely detailed sensory image of a double-pepperoni deep-dish pizza. These thoughts and images come and go regardless of anything you try to do to control them. One thing that Zen teaches you is to receive this incessant junky flow without judgment or discrimination: don’t cling to any thought, and don’t push any thought away.
My writing students–particularly my adult writing students–are sometimes shocked by the level of comfort I have when it comes to sharing my own “raw” writing and the presumably “private” thoughts it contains. Some people like to hide their junk drawers, thinking that others will judge them poorly based on the random assortment of trauma and pain they contain. I, for one, believe that we all share pretty much the same traumas and pains, so showing you mine is not much different than looking at yours. Writing in this sense is like getting naked in front of other naked people: once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, albeit in slightly different shapes, sizes, and colors. But if you’ve ever spent time with dancers, you know that people who are intimately familiar with their own bodies are typically unashamed by nakedness, seeing their bodies as the comfortable tools of their trade.
Thus, just as I was once shocked to watch a woman dancer I’d recently met start undressing in the middle of a mixed-company conversation, my writing students are sometimes shocked when I read some scribbled bit from my journal, the ink still wet from my pen. “What do you mean, you have a missing sister?” “Do you often feel like killing yourself?” “Doesn’t it bother you that your parents have never visited you since you moved from Ohio?” These are, I suppose, pertinent questions: I suppose normal people would be troubled by missing siblings, self-destructive impulses, or seemingly indifferent parents. In the chaotic clutter that is my mind, though, these are simply random bits, pieces that are there but only occasionally considered: part of the unending stream of thoughts, they neither forgotten nor dwelled upon. Like blandly ambient music, such thoughts are neither irritating nor particularly likeable. Instead, they simmer just under the surface of consciousness, appearing every now and then: oh, you again?
Writing, like meditation, is about befriending your junk, or at least tolerating it. With pen in hand, I do the same sort of thing I do when sitting on a meditation cushion: I pay attention to the flow of thoughts while consciously not minding their character, frequency, or tone. In journaling as in meditation, there is no difference between “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” Just as one’s nose makes no distinction between pleasing aromas and noxious ones but instead smells them all, the mind functions by producing a nonstop assortment of cognitive bits, all of which have no direct connection to who or what we “really” are. Thus, a good person can have bad thoughts during meditation; a bad person can have good thoughts. Typically, people have a range of thoughts, good and bad, that coexist despite their contradictions: one minute you love the person sitting next to you; the next minute you’d like to slap them. This isn’t a sign that you are good, bad, crazy, or sane: this is a sign that you are a living, thinking creature. After a while, you come to realize that who we are is, like our thinking, beyond categorization and judgment. Thoughts and the selves who think them are neither good nor bad, they simply exist.
Thus the trick to journaling is to cultivate a nondiscriminating mind: pretty or not, all thoughts deserve to be recorded. And so the brain that thinks becomes intricately and directly connected with the hand that writes; after years of keeping a hand-written journal, in fact, I’ve come to wonder whether I actually think with my hand, not my head. Stashed and saved, today’s random thoughts might come in handy someday, or never. I’d like to think, though, that new thoughts, surprising thoughts, provocative thoughts, and thoughts of astonishing shapes and sizes are more likely to show up on the doorstep of a mind that has made a practice of receiving all thoughts with equanimous hospitality.
Since many blogs (my own included) are nothing more than online journals, blog-reading is a kind of junk-shopping: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Like yardsale shoppers, we sift through one another’s castoff dribs and drabs, holding up piece by piece to consider what fits and is appealing. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and since we aren’t entirely the same person from moment to moment (our moods as well as our identities changing and transmuting over time, as subtle as billowing smoke), our sense of what is necessary and precious gradually evolves. Thus the scrap I stash in my junk drawer today–an incomplete pack of cards, a handful of used batteries, a tape measure, an old magazine–might tomorrow hold some special merit or memory, offering a use or application that never previously suggested itself. In a word, you never know, and as my mother always says, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. My mother’s drawers, of course, are particularly junky; in my case, it is my notebook, not my drawer, where I save both hidden hurts and surprising joys.