How to journal your way into the meaning of life

Northern California Life Coach + Therapist Patty Bechtold describes how to write to understand the meaning of life with Ira Progoff's stepping stones journaling activity, wiselifetherapy.com
A major part of the meaning of life is contained in the very discovering of it. It is an ongoing experience of growth that involves a deepening contact with reality…the meaning of life cannot be told. It has to happen to a person.
—Ira Progoff

Today I’m following up from my last post about the inner voice and the movie Stranger than Fiction. In it I promised I’d tell you more about Ira Progoff’s Stepping Stones journaling activity, so here you go.

I’m hoping you’ll find it helpful during these times of tremendous transition.

Why is the meaning of life important?

How many of us, at some point in our lives, have asked this question: What’s the meaning of life? Maybe you didn’t say it with exactly those words. Maybe it was more like, “What’s it all about, this thing called life?”

You might have scribbled it on a piece of paper or felt its deep pull somewhere in your body. 

It’s one of the enduring (and often elusive) existential questions that come up along the way, during turning points or dark nights of the soul or global pandemics.

Alternately, the question of what’s it all about might arrive when you’ve finally stepped back from all the going and doing. Or perhaps you’ve stopped for a time in a stunning place, mesmerized by a vast ocean or humbled by a magnificent mountain. 

But here’s the thing: whenever or wherever it shows up, as much as you might long for a specific answer to the question, there isn’t one. You can’t really define the meaning of life on the surface of things or through the experiences of others. The meaning of life is yours to create. At least, that’s what the existentialists would tell you.

The meaning of life comes from your own actions of meaning making.

This is the essence of Ira Progoff’s stepping stones metaphor: you gather up life experiences as if they were stepping stones along the path to the meaning of life. And then you write about them.

This journaling activity anchors you in your own story and your own wisdom. It helps you make sense of your life, which is especially important during the times we’re living in.

Furthermore, you discover the meaning of life through your unique lived experiences, through things that are happening or have happened. And while your experiences may be similar to someone else’s, they’re also unlike anyone else’s because at your core you are unique, unlike anyone else.

There is only one of you.

As you journal about your experiences they become woven into the fabric of your past, present and future. Not only do they help define your story, but they impact the way you narrate it and imagine it going forward (hopefully with grace and compassion).

Truth be told, I was a bit overwhelmed when I first encountered the stepping stones journaling activity a few years ago. It was presented to me as an opportunity to journal about all the stepping stones for my entire life.

That was overwhelming, and clearly way too much for me.

But when I decided to create a series of stepping stones for one single year (2020), the path forward started to appear naturally.

How to journal into the meaning of life with Stepping Stones

You can do this journaling activity with any period of time or set of experiences in your life. For instance, you could do a journal a series of stepping stones about:

  • the animals you’ve known and loved
  • a period of time before, during or after a loss or life transition
  • your relationship with a partner, relative or friend
  • a favorite creative activity or hobby

Truly, the possibilities are endless, just as the depth and breadth of the meaning of life is endless.

How to journal your Stepping Stones for 2020

To begin, give yourself a few minutes of quiet, and let some memories from 2020 bubble up, ones that you know in your bones will be important to remember.

No need to judge a memory as good or bad, trust your inner wisdom to take care of you and help you choose what’s most important and meaningful for you and you alone. Remember, this is your life, and you get to define your own meaning of life.

Write down each memory, describing it with a short phrase. Try for about 8 to 10 memories.

Here’s the list of Stepping Stones that I journaled about…

  • the conversation about drifting
  • when Rocky got sick
  • held tight by women’s circles + writing circles
  • 100,000 deaths
  • she suddenly disappeared
  • found poetry + soul collage
  • summer journaling: light, sun, air, water, wild turkeys
  • imagination saved me
  • tears that wouldn’t stop
  • dusk on the deck w/George under my sweatshirt

Once you’ve gathered 8 or 10 of these meaningful moments from 2020 you can put them in chronological order.

Begin with this journaling prompt: It was a time when…

Capture the essence of each stepping stone in your journal, a paragraph or so. It doesn’t have to be long, unless your feel the urge to keep writing.

Here’s an example from my journal, to give you a sense of it. Because, you know, George! He is so clearly tied to the meaning of life for me.

It was a time when the sun was setting, day ebbing and George jumped up on me and got under my sweatshirt. He’s done this dozens of times but there was an instant of pure knowing that this moment was everything, life consolidated into a waning day and the warmth and connection of this small living creature whom I love so much. I said, “I never expected to have a moment like this,” meaning outside a tiny beach cottage at summer’s end with this little guy cuddled into me, the chill descending, the waves faint in the background. These things we can’t see for ourselves, I think that was the point. That our lives are so much deeper than what we expect and we have to give ourselves over to that, flail around and let the road take us where it will. Give into it because that’s when we’ll be surprised by these small precious moments.