How to Explore the Meaning of Life through Journaling

, candle, watch, ink, key, words - how to explore the meaning of life through journaling by Santa Rosa therapist Patty Bechtold at 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 taking a deep dive into the meaning of life and exploring:

  • Why midlife transition is a significant meaning-making chapter, especially for women
  • Common philosophical, cultural, and religious beliefs about life’s meaning
  • The case for defining life meaning through meaning-making actions
  • A meaning-making journaling activity to reflect on the past year

Have you ever asked yourself the big question: What is the meaning of life?

I’m betting that somewhere along the way you’ve pondered this question.

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) questions that arrive during our life journeys, often at turning points or dark nights of the soul or times of loss and life transition.

In life’s complex journey, midlife transition is a significant meaning-making chapter, especially for women.

It’s often a time of turning inward. In fact, you may feel like there’s an internal compass pointing to what is yet to be explored within you.

Although you may feel anxious, overwhelmed, or confused during midlife, you’re also likely to sense a compelling energy within you, pulling you forward to uncover and delve into the meaning of life. This energy is actually a testament to your natural gifts: to reflect, to introspect, and to dive deep. 

Perhaps you even feel an urge to take a closer look at a fuzzy internal image that’s beckoning to you…towards the life that’s waiting to be unearthed and lived, both within you and outside of you.

Your willingness to ponder life’s meaning might shift when you slow down.

Those moments when you can step back from all the going and doing often open up space for questions about life’s meaning to rise to the top. 

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of stopping for a time in a stunning place, mesmerized by a vast ocean or humbled by a magnificent mountain. Suddenly you see something about yourself or your life you hadn’t quite seen before.

But no matter what helps bring the questions forward, it’s safe to say that for those of us in midlife and beyond, defining and seeking meaning is a key part of our passage through life.

Not surprisingly, many wise ones have tried to define the meaning of life.

There are plenty of perspectives on the meaning of life, most related to various philosophical, cultural, and religious beliefs. For example…
  • Humanism emphasizes the value of human experience, relationships, and personal fulfillment as the core of life’s meaning.
  • Altruism and Service defines meaning in life through acts of kindness, helping others, or making a positive impact on the world.
  • Simplicity and Minimalism advocates for a simple and minimalist lifestyle, implying that the pursuit of less can lead to a more meaningful existence.
  • Hedonism is a philosophy that suggests that the meaning of life is about the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.
  • Legacy and Contribution promotes the idea that leaving a lasting legacy or making a significant contribution to society is at the core of living a meaningful life.
  • Connection and Love are often seen as being central to a meaningful life: creating deep connections, experiencing love, and fostering meaningful relationships.
  • Self-Actualization, defined by psychologist Abraham Maslow, conceptualizes the meaning of life as reaching your full potential and becoming the best version of yourself.
  • Religious traditions often try to provide answers to questions about life’s meaning. For instance, Christianity focuses on serving God and preparing for an afterlife, while Buddhism aims at achieving enlightenment and breaking free from the cycle of rebirth.

Considering these multiple perspectives, what if there is no definitive path to understanding the meaning of life?

What if part of your job as a wise woman is to determine the meaning of life for yourself?

This is, in essence, what existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir believed: that life has no inherent meaning, and it is each person’s responsibility to create their own meaning through their choices and actions.

Although I’m a bit of an existentialist at heart, I don’t fully agree with existential theory. I do believe that there is inherent meaning in life; there is meaning in humanity beyond nothingness.

What if the meaning of life is yours to create?

In my humble experience, I’ve noticed that whenever or wherever questions about life’s meaning show up, as much as we might long for a specific answer to the questions, there probably isn’t one.

You can’t really define the meaning of life on the surface of things or through the experiences and beliefs of others.  

And as Rilke famously wrote, the journey involves living the questions.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

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Essentially, the meaning of life grows from a willingness to live the questions and take meaning-making actions.

This is what Ira Progoff believed. Progoff was an American psychotherapist known for his development of the Intensive Journal Method. He also studied depth psychology with Carl Jung.

In my opinion, Progoff offers us a unique door to explore the meaning of life through journaling with his stepping stones metaphor: in this form of journaling you gather up life experiences as if they were stepping stones along the path. And then you write about them.

Of course, meaning-making is different for everyone.

This particular journaling activity focuses on anchoring 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.

I think of it as a kind of internal awakening, a transformation of sorts. Of course, there are many ways to move toward that internal awakening and Ira Progoff’s journaling methods are simply one way to do so.

In my work as a coach and therapist for women, I’ve witnessed this transformation in many clients (and not only those that take up journaling). Still, it’s interesting to note that Progoff’s philosophy echoes the midlife journey by highlighting the road of self-discovery as a way toward a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

One important benefit of this work is that it reminds you that you are unique.

Truly, there is only one of you and and no one else has lived your life. In fact, you are the only one who can live your life and tell your story.

That means you get to 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 simply you, unlike anyone else.

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).

How to explore the meaning of life by journaling about your “stepping stones.”

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

  • your life chapters
  • 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 use the Stepping Stones journaling practice to capture the past year.

Near the end of a year or the beginning of another one, it’s valuable to look back at where you’ve been. That said, there are so many journaling prompts designed to help you reflect on your past year that all those questions can actually feel a little overwhelming. 

However, looking back on your year through the stepping stones lens is very different. It’s a gentle, intuitive approach that encourages you to trust your own wisdom and know that anything you write is perfect. 

There’s no need to come up with final answers either, because insights will reveal themselves in the writing itself without you having to figure anything out.

(By the way, this is just one example of how you could use stepping stones for journaling. You could use it every time you journal. Or once a month. There’s no need to limit it to once a year.)

1. Begin by giving yourself a few minutes of quiet as you let some memories of the past year bubble up.

Open up to receive the memories instead of forcing them. Trust the stillness and quiet to bring them to you. Notice any memories that seem 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 and make your own meaning of life. (And there is no wrong way to do this.)

2. Write down each memory, describing it with a short phrase. Try for about 5 to 10 memories.

Here’s an example: my list of Stepping Stones for this last year.

  • Keep the channel open
  • A brother lost/a brother found
  • Spontaneous soup making
  • Raccoon visits
  • Women’s Circles + Women Friends
  • A bleak world
  • Peeling away the layers
  • It’s compelling here
  • Ancestors and sweet spots
  • The long gray summer

3. Put the memories in chronological order and begin writing.

Start each memory 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 you feel the urge to keep writing. However, five minutes (or less) is plenty of time for each one. You can write them all in one sitting or spread them out if that works best for you.

Also, consider writing in the third person. Studies actually show that we are more positive and self-compassionate when we step into a more distant version of ourselves. 

Here’s an example from my journal, to give you a sense of it. 

“It was a time when a voice whispered in the midst of my meditation: Keep the Channel Open. Who was it, I wondered? I was in a far off place and her voice was in an even farther off place. Was it Martha Graham, the originator of those words that so many of us have scooped up and attached ourselves to? Was she dancing her way into my meditation with her colorful scarves, long dresses, flowing movements? My body wanted to move, so I did a little. Moving my neck, gently, aware of that crick on the right side. “Let it release,” Martha said to me, “let it be easy.” Just like my friend Julie always says: let it be easy, let’s not make it confusing or difficult. I always let out a small sigh when she says that.” 

5. Take time to read your entries after you write them.

There’s nothing you have to do with these stepping stone memories. That said, you may desire to feel some sense of completion at the end of your writing.

One way to do that is to read them aloud, to yourself or to someone else, because that often enhances their meaning.

Another option is to take a simple action that signifies the ending of one year and the beginning of another. I encourage you to think of a simple ritual that would signify this for you. For instance, you might:

  • Light a candle during your journal writing and blow it out when you finish.
  • Close your journal and take a few steps forward, to signify moving to the next year.
  • Open the door to go outside, and then close the door with deliberation and presence as you look up at the sky.

6. One final recommendation…

If at any time your journaling feels dark or difficult, put your writing aside and do something else. 

Also, if you sense that anxiety or depression are getting in the way of any form of meaning-making or personal life transition right now, it may be wise to seek professional help.

Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.Christina Baldwin
Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

Welcome. I'm a Santa Rosa therapist and life coach, and I help women who feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. I specialize in self-esteem, anxiety, depression, grief, life transition, and women's groups. On this blog I write about different approaches to help you find your way back to your deepest wisdom. Thank you for being here.