The Wisdom of Journaling

Zengzi said, “Every day I examine myself on three counts. When working for others, did I fail to do my best? With my friends, did I fail to be trustworthy? Have I practiced what I preached?”

The Analects, 1.4

Daily self-reflection is one of the most demanding practices in Ruism. It’s also one of the most rewarding.

Setting aside time to reflect on your words, thoughts, and deeds every day has been part of the Ruist tradition from the beginning. Over time, many Ru formalized this practice by keeping a daily journal and sharing those journals with friends for feedback.

Here are a few reasons journaling is beneficial for anyone who wishes to become a better person.

Unless you are a child, no one is watching over you to tell you to do the right thing. As an adult, you have to hold yourself accountable. Without some form of accountability, it’s easy to deceive ourselves.

There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore the superior man is watchful over himself, when he is alone.

The Doctrine of the Mean, Translator: Legge

Keeping a daily journal is a simple, effective way to hold yourself accountable. Suppose, for example, you’re working on controlling your temper. Without some form of accountability, it’s easy to continue your bad habits and justify your behavior to yourself. If, on the other hand, you’ve committed to recording each instance of bad temper in your daily journal, you will have a much clearer view of your own behavior. It’s harder to deceive yourself on paper than it is in your mind.

When you find good in yourself, steadfastly approve it; when you find evil in yourself, hate it as something loathsome.

Xunzi

Journaling isn’t just about catching yourself doing the wrong thing. It’s also about catching yourself doing the right thing. Keeping a journal provides a form of feedback that is crucial to improvement. When you do something bad, you are reminded what to avoid. When you do something good, you are reminded to keep doing it, or to do more of it.

In a way, it’s no different than getting on the scale when you’re trying to lose weight. If the number goes up, you know that what you’re doing isn’t working and you need to change course. If the number goes down, you’re reinforced for doing the right thing and encouraged to keep it up. (And if you avoid getting on the scale at all, you’re deceiving yourself by not holding yourself accountable.)

Even with the best of intentions, however, it’s possible to miss the mark with journaling. After all, no matter how earnestly you hold yourself accountable, your journal will only reflect your own perspective. In some cases, we lack the self-awareness to see ourselves as we really are.

For this reason, many Ru share their journals with others. Asking for feedback from other people can help you see things in yourself that you can’t see on your own, no matter how hard you try.

The only reason to avoid journaling is that it’s hard. Keeping a daily journal is grueling and it can be difficult to fit into your busy schedule. And the prospect of getting open, honest feedback from others is daunting.

If you can overcome these difficulties, however, you will find that the countless Ru who have come before you were onto something: the progress you make in improving yourself through accountability and feedback will be worth the hardship and discomfort.

About the Author

Ben Butina, Ph.D.
Ben is the President and co-founder of the Ruist Association of America, Inc. and Friends from Afar, an English-speaking Ruist discussion group on Facebook. He's also the creator of StoneChimes.com, a modern English adaptation of the Analects of Confucius.