Growing Roots (A Series): Part III

“Where do you feel that in your body?”

animal-autumn-cute-21259.jpgIt’s a simple question but one that tends to leave people perplexed for a minute or two. The head tilts, the brow furrows. This question was first introduced to me by my own coach; I then learned more about it, and about the criticality of body awareness to my own sense of being rooted in this life.

I’m afraid. I’m angry. I’m lonely.

Where do you feel that in your body?

The truth is that when we are consumed by our emotions, we are usually not paying a bit of attention to the body. In that state we are all about the mind and the story about how we are feeling, what caused us to feel that way, our chances for feeling differently, and what we can/should or can’t/shouldn’t do about it.

We never stop to see how we really FEEL. The body can do that for us. It gives us an expression of our emotion that is tangible, concretely experiential without the mental torment of all of the analysis that goes with upset. We can feel the vibration of the emotion in our bodies, observe and experience AND, perhaps with some practice, let it pass through without acting on it at all.

This allows us to experience how we really feel without all of the double-torture of the resistance to it and the suffering that comes with our mental stories about it. In this way we can enter into a conversation with how we feel instead of being in a screaming match with our emotions or constantly playing jailor to the things we wish to avoid.

Unfortunately one of the things many of us wish to avoid is how we feel about our bodies, so its really no wonder that we’ve distanced ourselves from them so thoroughly. I spent years moving with lightning speed from shower to bathrobe to avoid seeing my body in the giant mirror right outside the shower stall.

I couldn’t bear the intense self-criticism that accompanied that moment, the cataloguing of flaws, the harsh assessments of my efforts to get/be/and stay fit, the listing of the shifting physical realities that barred me from enjoying the fitness I had once achieved before arthritis, before twin pregnancy, before I had so very many other responsibilities. So I avoided her, that woman in the mirror.

In truth that act of avoidance was a condemning judgment all its own, a shame-filled retreat into bathrobes and baggy clothes. The price for all of this shame (as if shame weren’t bad enough all on its own) was excruciatingly high.

It turns out that we can’t lob criticisms on just one part of ourselves without feeling it in a more universal way. Our ego responds to those barbs with efficiency. In my brain, if I wasn’t fit enough to be seen by myself in my own bathroom, I was certainly not ready for primetime in any part of my life. I couldn’t feel confident with other women. I couldn’t’ take steps forward with my career. Every path would eventually be blocked by this sense of being so wrong, this overwhelming discomfort with the very fact of who I physically am.

In distancing myself from my own body, I stunted my own development and growth in ways that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I didn’t know that the care of the body, the relationship with the body, the willingness to experience myself through the body were all part of a way of being rooted, of having an incredibly strong foundation, of staying steady enough to grow. The body is a channel for deep rooting that our self-judgment and societal pressure has, for many of us, shut down.

The good news is that you have control over that channel, and rooting through the body is something that one can do intentionally by taking specific and concrete steps.

First and foremost rooting through the body requires a certain level of physical awareness, an in-touchness with physical sensation that can be fostered by simply allowing and lingering on the way that we feel in the body (cold, hot, relaxed, tingly) at any given moment, noticing and taking that in.

blur-body-care-161608Once we increase a sense of body-awareness (which really is more like body aliveness), it is infinitely easier to sort out what helps us to feel deeply good – what creates sensations of pleasure, of comfort, of wellness, of connection.

When we are paying enough attention to those sensations, we can actually change the way that we do things – small things like which socks we wear and bigger things like what we choose to eat – out of a clear sense of what feels best to us.

It sounds simple, perhaps too simple, but it was something that never occurred to me. I made most of those decisions based on a need to be efficient, practical, or a need to discipline myself in some way.

Approaching self-care as a way of responding to the body’s signals sends a deep message, a message that says: “You are worthy of attention. You are worthy of care. I am listening.”

THESE messages, just like avoidance and self-criticism don’t go ignored by the spirit. They are messages that inspire confidence, that allow us to imagine that we can have and do what we want, that we can be trusted to care for ourselves and others. They also create a relationship with the body that empowers it to experience our emotions so that we can stop stuffing them down or discarding them as unimportant. We can learn to be ourselves.

These messages of worthiness, capacity, and trust; these practices that affirm us both physically and emotionally can give us strength and courage to root us, to help us reach higher, spread out and claim our place in this world, to unfurl and feel the sunlight.

The body is a glorious channel, a conduit for growing roots. Are you listening to her?

 

Growing Roots (A Series): Part II

On Making People Your Roots

There was a commercial many years ago that always brought me to tears. It was Christmastime, early morning, and a young man arrives at what can only be his parents’ (beautiful) home. He is carrying bags and it seems that he is not expected. His mother comes down the stairs to find him – is overwhelmed by joy, and then they have coffee, the “best part of waking up.” The moment the producers of the ad filmed is the best version of what we want from home, from being rooted: acceptance, love, beautiful surroundings, familiarity, and a warm beverage. Really, it was quite a scene.

Family, where we’re always accepted, loved, where things are always familiar and beautiful and we can always find common ground over a cup of coffee… Ahhhh.

adult-affection-beach-936018Yeah, no, not me either, and I have a pretty good family. I say that like there’s some universal scale for judging families. What I mean is that my family’s dysfunctions tend to be low-level enough that they are not apparent to the casual observer and can often be bypassed with determined politeness. I recognize that in the family dysfunction Olympics, we are not on the winning team. And even with that said, my family has not always been a place of rootedness for me – a place of finding strength in the storm, a place of holding on when everything seems to be falling apart.

And I daresay that my family is not unique in the fact that sometimes they are the locus of my storm. Sometimes they are what seems to be at the heart of my falling apart. Sometimes they are the wind and the hail and the drought that makes my roots necessary. This is not some horrific betrayal on their part, merely a failure to be anything but human.

Family Scripts

The dynamics of family are complicated and sometimes painful, tangled in expectation and old wounds. Our behavior towards them often dictated by events from years ago; their understandings of us often hopelessly outdated or falsely based on a single event, a temporary pattern, or a developmental stage.

We see this when families get together and re-enact the same scripts over and over again. The patterns of interaction are predictable because they are ancient and ingrained. We know what they will say. They know what we will do. We are all caught in a play that stunts our growth by failing to leave room for something new. There is no improvising and being the one who steps outside of that script, who changes the rules, can be daunting and exhausting, unappreciated and met with disapproval. The roles we play in our families can make real rooting, a search for authenticity and growth difficult.

When I get together with my family, I become the quiet one. Yes, really. This person running on at the mouth (well, the digital mouth as it were) can go the better part of a holiday event without saying much of anything. The competition for airtime is too intense for my liking, and when I try to join in on the ribbing and merry teasing that my family loves, I miss the mark and offend someone every time. Quiet is safer. Quiet is predictable. Quiet and apart maintains the structure of our interactions that was established when my siblings were all born two years apart and I trailed behind by a few more years. Status quo please and thank you.

We all like stability and predictability. This is, after all, part of what we seek in hoping to feel rooted. This same yearning can make the dynamics of family unsafe for change. What are we to do then, if these iconic containers (home, hearth, and family) for rootedness and connection are false?

chatting-cups-dog-745045One answer many people choose is community – building a hearth and home of one’s own by carefully selecting a group of confidantes, playmates, treasured humans with whom we can entrust the most tender parts of ourselves. I’ve constructed my own “framily” over the years. Most of my twenties were spent with a group of four couples, most of whom I still count among my closest friends. Framily can do a lot to keep us sane, keep us motivated, keep us warm when it gets really cold in the big world. I can and have found a great deal of comfort and wisdom in my chosen beloved community, but there was no magical rooting feeling that arose with that effort.

My sense of rootedness, of the capacity to draw strength and dig into peace only really began when I started to look for those things, and to toy with the idea that I could find them, within myself.

Roots are Grown, Not Given

beautiful-black-blur-987627It was only when I began the difficult task of truly accepting all of myself, even the parts that I was ashamed of, that I began to grow and feel those roots of acceptance.

It was only when I began the herculean task of loving myself – even the body that aggravated me – that I began to grow the roots of unconditional love.

It was only when I began to toy with the idea that this ME, this person, this incredibly complex combination of genetic material, cosmic timing, and individual experiences is enough, is perfectly formed for this world and all that I want to do in it, that I began to grow roots of strength and sustenance.

It was only when I began to acknowledge that all that has happened to me and every choice I’ve made has taught me, modeled me, and guided me to now that I began to grow roots of trust.

As I continue my own journey of rootedness, I have begun to explore the ideas of a divine and benevolent force that I had discarded after one too many personal tragedies. I’ve begun to find new sources of strength, love, and compassion to tap into but the gateway, even for these “higher planes” is always through me, through openness, through love.

Where are you looking for your roots? Do you feel them? Have you looked inside?

Growing Roots (A Series): Part I

Where Are You Rooted?

bark-beautiful-branch-1080401I think the Hallmark card answer to this question features family and home – some kind of (outdated for most) fictional version of the generational homestead where you are always loved and encouraged. For most people reality is a lot more complicated. Modern humans don’t often have access to their physical ancestral home (“I grew up here. I was just driving through the neighborhood. Do you mind if I look around?”)

I, for one, moved three times before I graduated from high school and became a sort of serial home changer for years after that. Some of those later moves were based on the sheer practicality and necessity of changing work situations and the realities of being a renter, but I was always searching.

I was always searching for HOME, some mythical geographical spot – some alchemical mixture of architecture and good vibes that was meant to be a safe and enduring harbor for me. I had this sense that my internal discomfort and restlessness just needed to be in the right spot to be healed.

The Family Homestead

When my parents made the decision to leave their home in the DC suburbs in order to downsize and remove themselves from the rat-race, I asked that they let me know before they put the house on the market. This was the house I had lived in during high school and to which I had returned in times of early adult crisis. They did just that and my husband and I bought the house from them.

abandoned-antique-architecture-175692It was a charming old house and I loved it like a family member. When we hired an old house inspector, we found out our new home was in fact an ailing family member. We jumped into the task of reviving her, bringing her up to code, making her safe, securing her against the forces of nature. I had this idea that when we got her completed, the magic would ensue. I would feel safe. I would feel certain. I would feel like I belonged. I would feel rooted and connected to this place where I had done so much growing.

We spent a lot of money on that hope. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. If you’ve ever owned an old home, or a boat, or your own business, or had a kid with terrible teeth, you are familiar with the wind gust that is generated by thousands of dollars rushing out of your account to fix the most recent problem.

My favorite fix occurred on the day that the old house fixing specialist, who rode to work on his bike that had a wagon of tools attached, inserted four car jacks under the house in specific locations to address the fact that the whole structure was sinking into the ground. Each jack had to be raised to a different height because, as is the way with old houses, the level of “sink” into the earth varied from spot to spot. This reality had made for interesting versions of parallel and perpendicular between walls and floors, creating gaps and cracks and thousands of places for small objects dropped on the floor to go and live for eternity.

We poured our money and time into that old girl. And after several months in that house, after seven years of trying, I got pregnant. This shift created new cracks in our plan to be rooted in place, to be the link in a geographic family legacy chain.

Cracks in the Foundation

While we had been rebuilding, old problems were festering in our neighborhood. Crime was on the rise. More to my immediate and specific concern, violent crime was on the rise. As my body grew to accommodate twins, my walk to the subway slowed. At that slower pace I became aware of more signs of trouble and experienced my own lumbering vulnerability which increasingly attracted unwanted attention from others.

During the final phase of my pregnancy, which involved 10 weeks of modified bed rest (which I will forever refer to as “house arrest”), I was reclining in the only chair that could still hold me comfortably when I heard gunshots. They weren’t in my house or even in my yard. They weren’t next door, but down the block. I don’t even remember the circumstances of the crime, I only remember sitting in that chair, nearly incapable of even rising to standing by myself, and feeling vulnerable, helpless, and wildly protective.

My dreams of digging deeper roots – of digging in to that family place – were shattered. I stared out at the double corner lot we’d been so excited to have as a place for kids to play and knew I couldn’t be okay with it. I thought about the playground down the bock where I’d imagined taking my kids and where I’d recently seen evidence of drug traffic and knew I’d been fooling myself all along. Having spent time here growing didn’t mean I should stay, and it didn’t mean I was home.

The funny thing is, though, I thought I’d just gotten the place wrong. I still thought the answer to my rootlessness was finding the right location.

The End of the Geographic Solution

When we embarked on searching for our current home, we had 3 month old twins in tow. There is nothing like house hunting with infants to cure you of the idea that finding the perfect home will solve most, if not all, of your problems. There is no perfect home for 3 month old twins. And 3 month old twin parents are really too tired to make good decisions. We chose the house where they stopped crying and fell to sleep. Yes, that is the truth.

I could tell you more about that house, but the house is really not the point. The point was to get to feeling rooted, and dispelling the myth that hearth and home, that architectural and geographic alchemy are THE answer to that question. We landed in a better spot in so many ways, but it took years for roots to grow and they didn’t grow because we’d found the right place.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are places that are better and worse for us. I believe that the spaces and land we inhabit can contribute to our growth and well-being. But I don’t believe that you need to find the right house or the right town to feel at home, and as a one-time compulsive real estate shopper, THAT was a huge revelation.

How to Grow Roots

argula-botanic-grow-6414Feeling at home, deeply rooted, is an inside job and requires attention to what is going on under all of that practical geography.

Being rooted is about more than checklist of features, double-closets and neighborhood school rankings. Being rooted is about more than a spot on a map or walkability or even how much the utilities run. Being rooted is about more than your family’s history on that spot, more than your memories, more than expectations and tradition.

Being rooted starts with listening: listening to discomfort, listening to tingles of curiosity and the light quick breath of joy. Being rooted starts with your attention to the signals your amazing body gives you when you can get quiet enough to hear them. Being rooted means being at home with and in YOU, an idea that confounds some and scares the living daylights out of others because it sounds like a lot of work and like it may be uncomfortable.

And it may be, but you don’t need to do all of that just yet. You don’t need to take all of the healing steps to grow your roots. You really only need to take one step at a time.

And the first one is simply a breath, in through our nose and out through your mouth, a breath that soothes your tired nervous system, that nourishes your cells. A breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, that takes your focus and thereby quiets the chatter in your mind. Just a breath and your attention on the growing sensation that you are safe, that you are secure in this one moment, that in this breath you are completely and unassailably okay.

Roots are grown rather than found or inherited. They are cultivated rather than dictated by tradition or market forces. They are individual as much as they can be intertwined. They are yours.

Keep breathing.

Awakening to Joy

I have a confession to make.

It’s about joy.

We have had a strained relationship over the years.

I have eyed joy from afar, from a distance, with trepidation and suspicion, daring only to dip my toes in when the temptation was too strong to resist any longer.

There are a whole hornet’s nest of old reasons for that, some of which I’ve already revealed and some which continue to spill out here in this miraculous digital space, but in some ways the reasons are not important.

The actual wounds and hurts matter far less than my reaction to them, which was to close, to armor up, to prepare myself for the battle that I perceived life (in part because of those wounds and hurts) to be.

Working with my own coach at one point I could actually hear that armor going on, the clink and clank of the heavy weight of the individual pieces as I covered myself up so I could be safe in body and spirit. I could feel the burden of carrying all of that protection as constant exhaustion. And I could sense the fruitlessness of it as the emotional ceiling shrank to the height of “fine” rather than “great,” or “wonderful,” or even just “happy.”

affection-conceptual-connection-256738Joy was not allowed in because in order to block the bottom end of the scale, I had to cut out the top. This is the unfortunate reality of how it works with our feelings. We cannot block selectively. We can only block for intensity and volume, so we either have them all, or we limit ourselves to a narrower band that feels tolerable if not good. Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and all around compassion genius, describes this narrowing: “These reactions, strategies, and story lines are what cocoons and prison walls are made of.”

What, then, are we to do if we want to experience joy? This has been a question I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. I have all of the ingredients for a joyful life and yet somehow the feeling still seemed inaccessible to me. Ironically, now that I seem to have gotten a better handle on this whole joy thing, I have stumbled onto a book that describes the very process I’ve been following, although in a much more concise and clear fashion (without all of the bumbling and experimenting). Pema Chödrön describes cultivating joy as working on the mental capacity to celebrate and rejoice in good fortune – even in the smallest forms. To do this we need to be present, to see what is actually around us, and we need to acknowledge and be present when we resist that rejoicing.

When we feel ourselves pull away from the opportunity to celebrate, to rejoice, Chödrön suggests that we: “right on the spot, we can go beneath the words to the nonverbal experience of the motion. What’s happening in our hearts, our shoulders, our gut? Abiding with the physical sensation is radically different from sticking to the story line.” BOOM.

In order to access the joy, we have to actually allow the discomfort we experience when presented with the makings of joy – whatever those might be for us, AND the way to do that and not turn it into some multi-day mind fuck is to feel those feelings in the body. I know this to be true from first-hand experience. Being instructed by my own coach to notice my emotions in my body for the first time was a total revelation, and the way that it quieted the mind was nothing short of miraculous. It is in this miraculous quiet space that we can relax, that we, as Chödrön puts it “train in softening rather than hardening.”

bloom-blossom-close-up-36764Softening, rather than hardening. It sounds risky to many, but doesn’t it also sound so restful? Doesn’t that armor just get so very heavy? Doesn’t “fine” grow so tiresome?

I know it did for me, and as I open this space, as I drop my armor (which is a process by the way and one that is not exactly linear in my experience), I discover that I can be safe in my joys, in my rejoicing, in my celebration because I am no longer so fearful of experiencing the lows. It is all part of the human experience, and I really do want the whole shebang. Don’t you?

 

 

If I Were Good…

“My value comes from my vocation; this is a cultural trap.”

The words sort of rang out around me. I was in an amphitheater listening to the Reverend Skye Jathani preach. I did not expect to like him, but that’s another story altogether. THIS story has to do with that quote.

Reverend Jathani was sharing that he spent a fair amount of time providing professional counseling for young people, and what he noticed was the weight that the struggle for self-worth put on what could be a much simpler choice – what to do for work.

close-up-doctor-health-42273Jathani noticed that so many young people were making significant, and oftentimes expensive, decisions about their schooling, career, and job choices based on what would make them a good person, what a good person WOULD do, you know if they were one. “If I were a good person, I would choose to be a pediatric heart surgeon in the poorest location I could find. I would not charge for my services,” says the musician with a gift for poetry. This example is fictional and admittedly exaggerated for effect.

I am VERY familiar with this drive to find our self-worth in work. After a short stint in corporate America doing environmental policy work (which didn’t feel environmental at all and definitely felt like a lot of work – again a story for another time), I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I was tired of diddling around on the edges of social change. I wanted to sit in the seat where it happens.

And make no mistake, I firmly believe that I had that relationship right; teachers are agents of social change. I left my not very cushy job and embarked on a Master’s degree in record time so that I could get down to the business of creating a better world. I landed a teaching assignment in an affluent Maryland suburb. The kids drove nicer cars than I did and still complained about their rides. Somehow my vision of Stand and Deliver had morphed into where can my husband and I both get a job that is somewhere we want to live.

Despite the compromise, I was very proud to be a teacher. I am still proud to have been a teacher both in Maryland and later in Washington, DC. I continue to be proud to be a teacher, albeit a teacher of adults who CHOOSE to learn with me. When I made that career move into teaching, I KNEW that what I was choosing was something that most people in society, including my parents, would understand, approve of, and maybe even admire. That really mattered. And I was good at it. I was, and continue to be, a good teacher.

But the classroom ate me alive. My need to do well by my students, to not just be a teacher, but be a great teacher (because if you’re going to buy your self-worth, you have little choice but to go all-in) made me pour hours and hours into my profession that rightly could have been spent refilling my cup. I slept very little. I worried a great deal. I railed against the system whenever things went wrong outside my classroom. I marched to the administration office on a pretty regular basis.

And look, all of those things are fine. They would all have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was doing them to save myself.

You see it wasn’t some inner calling or deep intuition that I was answering when I chose to be a teacher. Being a teacher was the most practical way I could think of to help people, and I really needed to help people so that I could be a good person, because frankly, I was really quite certain I was NOT a good person.

Fresh off a divorce after a short marriage that I and everyone around me were pretty sure could have gone differently with a little maturity on my part, my self-worth ached for evidence of my value to such a degree that I would have traded just about anything to succeed in that noble profession.

And that’s where I slipped into the trap.

Our culture tells us that what we choose for work is a demonstration of our value and our biggest source for pride. We learn that work is the key to a meaningful life and to the measure of who we are. I so needed to test well.

And what all of that pushing made me miss was just this: the quiet voice suggesting that I take care of myself, the wise voice asking if it wouldn’t be better to train to be an administrator than to constantly try to do their jobs for them, the nagging sense that if I continued on that course in that way I would find myself locked down by anger, bitterness, and the dis-ease that had already begun to show up in my body.

I was simultaneously experiencing a decline in my health (a strange assortment of symptoms likely triggered by exhaustion and stress) and taking a last shot at getting pregnant with the help of the infertility guru in the region. The day that he suggested that my body would be best served by finding different work was one of the best worst days I had for a long time.

I was so relieved. Someone was telling me to stop. Someone was acting as alarm clock for me to wake up. And yet, if I could not be that teacher, who would I be?

During my infertility treatment I managed to land a job with a non-profit that read like a fantasy for someone who wants to be seen as a good person. And I did a terrible job. The reasons for that were not all under my control. My boss was removed and more than a little concerned with own reputation at the expense of actually doing work. I was unprepared for the job I got and nobody around had any idea how to do it. I was far too tired to be the go-getter it would have taken to really shine in that job.

So I didn’t shine. I did the work in a minimalistic way. I found competent and friendly help and as I moved further into recovery, and later pregnancy, I had the opportunity to experience being a good person without being a great employee. I had the opportunity to see that I was not in a job that worked for me and to let go of the worry of that thought so that I could rest and listen for and attend to what was next for me.

beach-breeze-clouds-370037And as pregnancy with twins progressed to bedrest with twins, I learned to be a good person from a seated position, fully reliant on the help of those around me for all of my needs. I learned to let go of work as salvation and to look inward at what I could be, for my children and over time, for myself. I woke up and in doing so, learned to find my self-worth exactly where it is located, inside of me, at birth, irrevocable, unrenonounceable, no returns or exchanges.

When I see this I am free, free to listen to the call that lights my spirit on fire. And as it turns out, that helps people.

So bet it.

What You Can See Changes

August is coming to a close and I’ve barely whispered a peep about the practice that I’ve been doing during this last of the summer months.

Some background facts: 1) meteorologically it is usually somewhere between swamp and armpit in my state during August; 2) I have a geriatric dog; 3) I like to walk; 4) there is a huge construction project going on that has impacted the woods behind our house and begins making an atrocious amount of noise at 7 am; AND 5) I let on to my mentor and coach that my meditation practice had fizzled and the other practices that keep my head and heart in the game just haven’t felt right lately.

So she suggested I do a little experiment. She suggested that I get up BEFORE the construction and instead of doing whatever I would normally do first, I take a walk, a mindful walk, not a gung-ho let’s get some exercise walk, a connected walk. I could take my aging canine to slow me down so I can pay attention and get into the woods before all of that infernal noise.

environment-forest-grass-142497She suggested that there might be things for me to see, hear, feel there. She reminded me how I feel when I am in the trees. She suggested that since my other practices weren’t doing the thing, maybe it was time for a new one.

Now there is a WHOLE lot in there. Yep, a lot to unpack, but rather than do that for you, I’m going to just tell you what I found.

I have, every day since she suggested it, gotten into the woods before the construction begins. I have slowed down; and she was right, the dog helps with that, except on the days he has outright refused to join me from the comfort of bed (some friend). I have appreciated the cooler air coming down off of the mountain (it is technically a mountain even though it is a Maryland mountain and thereby admittedly on the small side). I have loved the quiet at that hour. Well, what initially seemed like quiet until I tuned in and heard all of the birds, the squirrels, the water in the creek, the deer skittering away, a dog on the other side of the neighborhood saying hello.

I have stood at the top of what I thought of as the gash in the woods where the trucks razed the trees to create an easement for a water line. At first I took it in with sorrow. At second and third glance I saw that the children were right and it will make an amazing sledding hill come winter. And finally, as time has passed, I see the grass growing back and the wild beginning to, ever so slowly, return. I am awed by the stamina of our earth even as we plod along so disruptively.

I have stood in that tree-lined space and asked what I can do to help: to help the land that had been torn, to help our country, to help my community. Answers have come. Some were complex. Some were remarkably simple. All were clearly for me.

abstract-art-blur-1038278I have gone from a woman doing the dance that can only result from walking face-first into a spiderweb woven across the trail, to a woman who sees the spiderweb from a yard or so away and slows down, shifting perspectives to get the whole scope and art of it all, the woman who takes the time to figure out how to get around it with the least possible disruption.

I have allowed the energy of the grove to seep into me, wash through, and return to the earth as I walk on.

I have entered the woods in one place and come out another, having experienced more changes than seem reasonable in those short walks.

As my month long challenge comes to a close, I sense that my lesson in the woods may be nearing an end, which is not to say that I won’t return, but it may not look like this, may not be at this time, may not be THE way to adjust my sights in the coming month, because that is what these trips were supposed to do, to help me see.

When we open to an experience, and enter it with the persistence of one who is devoted to that openness as process, as experience, as a moment of renewal, what we can see changes, like spiderwebs catching the sun at just the right angle. We can wake up, even just a little, to everything in the world that usually escapes our notice.

Wake up loves. It’s time.

How to Come Home

So this week I’ve been talking about coming home to yourself – being who you really are and bringing that sense to all of the difficult spaces you find yourself in: the difficult job, the marriage that isn’t what it once was, the argument with a friend.

antique-art-door-211763And that’s all very well and good as advice goes, but it doesn’t tell you a lot about how to GET THERE. Okay, Julia I can see that being my authentic self could have benefits. I can see that not continually fighting to improve according to some metric and instead bringing my gifts to a problem might bring me some creative solutions AND a whole bunch o’ fulfillment. I am on board, but… what the hell are you talking about? How do I come home.

It’s a fair question.

And it’s not one that there is one specific answer to, but there are strategies, there are things you can do, and things you can stop doing. Maybe we should start with the stopping.

Stop: pretending you like things you don’t, volunteering for things you don’t want to do, assuming that you’re the only one who can ________, believing that you just need a little more/different training/certification, believing that there is a right way to get it and that’s what you need to figure out, hanging on to clothes/books/music that you don’t like/make you feel bad, spending a lot of time with people who leave you feeling exhausted or really negative. This list could get a lot longer, so I’m going to leave it here for a moment because the critical thing is not that you STOP EVERYTHING that isn’t perfectly aligned (at least not right away because that would be really hard), but that you stop enough to make some space for discovery. Stop just one of these things and make room.

You need space for discovery because that’s the START category of this whole proposition.

You need to start paying some attention to what you already have inside you, maybe some things that have been there, unattended and dusty in the corner for a while.

A few suggestions on how to pay attention to those dusty parts. Some of these standalone, and others are multi-part strategies.

  1. Consider a meditation (ugh, I know – okay I’ll do like Martha Beck does and call it stillness – better?) practice of some kind. You don’t need to sit on a mat for an hour and think and do nothing (unless you already can and find it blissful). You just need to carve out some time and space in your head to let go of the junk that fills it up all day long. It’s awfully hard to look inside when there’s a constant influx of information, tasks, sounds, requests, noise, news, and wind-up monkeys banging cymbals (just me?). All of that everything keeps us at the surface, puts us in survival mode, keeps us from connecting to our core, which is (and I would have laughed uproariously if you’d said this to me five years ago) a place of peace. If you’re open a practice like this, check out this post for some suggestions on easy ways to get started.
  2. It feels weird to continue with a bulleted list after suggesting meditation, but such is the way of learning sometimes. The second thing I’d recommend is that you ask yourself what you used to like to do that you don’t do anymore. Any old hobbies in there? Any secret and long packed-away dreams? You may find some things on that list that got packed away for a reason. Like me for example, I used to like to drink beer competitively, as a sport with friends. First of all, I don’t recommend that. Secondly, that particular game got put away for a whole collection of good reasons. When I started asking myself this question about tucked away pieces of myself, I remembered how much I like to sing and how sad I was that I had stopped when the kids were born. I also remembered writing, a lot. Hmmmm…. Yes, I do a whole lot of both of those now, and one is part of my “work” in the world. The other is sheer pleasure, and even pays now and then.
  3. Get real honest about what you need and what you want and no, I’m not going to tell you to stop wanting anything. Check in on those needs and see what you can do to meet them to make yourself feel safe, secure, and like survival mode may be a little minimalistic. Explore those wants to see how they line up with the goals, career path, actions you’ve written down for yourself in your big book of obligations. Check yourself.
  4. Write down all of the reasons that you cannot want what you want, that you cannot be who you are, that you cannot dream what you dream. Write them all down in a flurry of negativity. Be the worst fan you can imagine. Be the anti-cheerleader. Go after yourself; just get all of it out on the page. ALL OF IT.
  5. When you have exhausted the list of shitty anti-support and abuse, read through it and for each one, ask yourself one thing: is this absolutely, irrefutably, totally 100% true? Do I know it for a fact? Would other people agree with me? If your list is anything like mine, there will be a whole lot of “No” in response to those questions. Challenge your reasons for hiding, for pretending, for squirreling big parts of yourself away.
  6. Start to play. Pick something. A hobby, a dream, a want, and play with it. Let it take your imagination on a journey. Let yourself explore the ideas. Let yourself imagine what could be different. Unleash yourself in your mind, and do so without constantly telling yourself why you shouldn’t or how it’s a waste of time. Savor your daydreaming. Get really good at it. Draw pictures about it. Write stories about it. Sing about it. Whatever. Just do it and be in it.

adult-armchair-beverage-846080And that’s it. Wait, what? No, really it kind of is. And let me tell you why. Because when you unleash yourself in your mind, everything else follows. Your beliefs change. Your feelings change. Your actions change. It ALL changes and it changes in a way that lets you be your whole self, that lets you be you, that lets you be at home wherever you are.

I’m here if you need someone to navigate. I have excellent maps.

And I’ll happily say: “Welcome home, love.”

 

Come Home to Yourself

“You don’t need to change yourself. You need to come home to yourself.”

I was sitting in the grass listening to a talk by the Reverend John Scherer (mentioned in yesterday’s post) and this line really stood out.

It was not a new idea for me. Martha Beck, with whom I studied life coaching, often talks about coming home to peace as the foundation of personal growth and transformation.

The concept of improving things by coming home to peace, to yourself, is a game-changer, and it was a good reminder to me even now.

blackboard-board-chalk-21696I’ve been thinking about shaking some things up in my business, in my practice, and when I think about that really hard, which is my temptation as one who has regularly been rewarded for the thinking in the past, I am usually inclined to add a bunch of stuff, to seek out and take advice from the VAST multitude of business consultants out there (if you’ve never worked for yourself and seen this first hand, trust me you’d be blown away by how much money is changing hands learning how to make money change hands). I get really busy, big lists, big tasks. I check in with a lot of people: what do you think, how does this look, will this work, am I okay?

I spend a fair amount of time figuring out how to change what I’m doing, which sometimes morphs a bit into changing who I’m being. I know some of you feel me on this. We make concessions. They tend to start small, but can end up feeling really big when we realize that we’re proceeding in a way that we not only don’t really recognize but that feels foreign in a not exciting kind of way, that feels icky not just scary, that feels like a compromise with someone you really don’t like. We change to fit the world, or at least our understanding of the world.

It reminds me of my first couple of years teaching high school. I remember shopping for clothes for that job. I remember needing those clothes to look a certain way, some sort of picture I had in my head of teacher. It had nothing to do with modesty. It was just some idea of what I thought a teacher should look like. I also had ideas about how a teacher should act. I made my choices carefully (which isn’t always a bad thing – don’t misunderstand me). I SO wanted to get it right. As for the work itself, I worked my behind off. I was an excellent teacher. Or, I should say, the me that I constructed for the purpose of teaching, was an excellent teacher.

Because the thing is that I wasn’t really there. I was so busy making sure I was being right for the part that I forgot that I was not an actor. I forgot to bring my actual self to work with me.

And it broke me. There is little as draining as being someone other than who you are all day every day (especially when you have to get up at 5 am to do it).

I was so exhausted from all of that being perfect that when I got home, well, after I finished the part of the job that I did at home, which was usually at 9 or 10 pm (I am not receptive to comments about how easy teachers have it), I had no energy to come home to myself, to try to plug back in and remember who was in there, to find the parts of me that might help make things feel better.

And so I concluded that I just needed to get better at the job to feel better doing it. I needed to get better at all of the parts that teaching is made up of. I needed to get better at planning (I did, by the way). I needed to get better at creating materials (checked that one off the list too). I needed to get better at asking for help from colleagues (some progress). I needed to get better at organizing systems for the classroom (no progress, ever). I needed to get better at all of the mechanical elements that took up so much time.

It never once occurred to me in those first couple of years that I needed to pay more attention to my relationships with students. We had a good, working relationship. I was deemed “professional and friendly” in observations. Sounds good. Except that the relationships, and my capacity to be helpful to them was the thing that might have saved the entire experience.

It is easy to see this now as a life coach, someone who still teaches, and who is very clear on the fact that what I teach is only part of the gig. The relationships that come with the job and the fulfillment I get in being allowed to witness important transformations feed me.  It is easy, in retrospect, to see what might have made a difference in my early teaching experience.

It is easy because now, so many years later, I know that the trick is coming home to myself.

And yet, I am still tempted to just better myself, to get better at the mechanics of the job, to get better at marketing, to get better at organizing things (still a big zero on that front), and don’t misunderstand me, getting better at the mechanics is not a bad thing. It’s a question of how I make that decision.

If I come at improving myself from a place of fear and a willingness to be somebody different so that my world will not fall apart, so that I will win in some way that my culture defines for me, so that things will “work,” I just may get what I want, but it won’t feel very good.

alone-back-view-blonde-247195If I come at my work from a place of figuring out who I am and bringing that person to work with me, it’s still scary, because I’m a little afraid of letting all of you see her all of the time, BUT every decision after that is so much easier, and the results feel better no matter what they are, because I am home.

Are you home? Would you like to be?

Finding the Lessons Anywhere

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing John Scherer speak. He is an ordained Lutheran minister who now writes about and works in the field of leadership development with a focus on “unleashing the human spirit at work.” He has a fascinating bio and the talk Scherer gave shared some simple but profound advice about turning your work into a spiritual development job.

Now don’t go all squirrelly on me. If that “spiritual” part made you pause, I invite you to replace “spiritual development” with “personal development.” It will work just as well and you may find that making that one replacement allows you access to some information or a perspective that could actually prove really helpful. I could say a lot more about the value of code switching in order to remain open, but I think that’s a topic all of its own and deserves a separate post. Suffice it to say that I recommend experimenting with it as a way to broaden, rather shrinking, your horizons.

design-desk-display-313690The point of Reverend Scherer’s talk was that no matter what line of work we are in and no matter how rotten that job feels, those circumstances can be framed in such a way that they can serve as prompts for personal growth. Yeah, I know, sometimes that doesn’t really sound like a fun thing to do. But I have to say that in my own experience of terrible jobs, or at least jobs that were terrible for ME, taking on Scherer’s perspective would have been extremely helpful.

When faced with terrible jobs for me I chose, rather than figuring out how to grow in that moment to meet the circumstances I was facing, to leave. And let me be clear: leaving a job is a totally legitimate decision. There are plenty of circumstances and situations in which leaving a job is perhaps the best and only healthy decision; however, there is always something that can be learned, even in retrospect, from situations that push us to the brink. I have had to return to the scenes of my professional desertion after years to reflect on what I could have done differently, what I might have learned and to ask myself if I got that lesson yet somewhere else (side note: they usually keep coming until we get them). What’s the advantage of growing first, before you leave? Pretty simple really, the next thing you choose or find will be based on that learning. You will find a new situation, a new set of circumstances, a new setting rather than choosing the same thing with different window dressing.

This is all well and good you might think, but how in the heck am I supposed to do that when it’s really so freaking awful to be there (in that job, in that marriage, in that volunteer position, in that house, in that church, in that whatever you’re in that is really doing a number on you)? Reverend Scherer proposes five questions to help you turn that challenging situation into an opportunity to grow.

The questions, and I’m not giving away state secrets by writing them out here (Scherer generously provides them on his website so you don’t even have to buy the book that they are the foundation of in order to try on this perspective) are: 1) What confronts me? 2) What am I bringing? 3) What runs me? 4) What calls me? 5) What will unleash me?

As a coach I see parallels between my own process with myself and my clients and Scherer’s five concise questions. These questions ask us to be clear and honest about the situation that we are facing. What is actually happening and what about it is poking me in the side so? They ask us to be self-reflective and accountable about the baggage we are brining to the table: our beliefs, our preferences, our histories and old stories, our auto-pilot thinking that could use some revisiting. Finally Reverend Scherer’s questions ask us to find a moment or two of stillness and and tune into the talents and passions that we have and are perhaps not applying to our work, to imagine how we could be more fully engaged, more fully expressed, more ourselves in the current situation.

Brilliant.

In case this applies to you, I want to say something about the idea of all of this being a lesson. When we say there is a lesson in a problem, it is not the same as saying that there is an omniscient being programming every moment to give you the right experience. This is a brick wall I hit any time people talk about finding the lesson in a crappy situation, and I admit my reaction may be because well-meaning folks have tried to help me find the lesson at precisely the wrong moment in a few personal tragedies, but I digress.

What I’ve come to see is that you don’t need to believe in omniscient forces conspiring in favor of your growth (although you are perfectly welcome to do so I think it’s worth imagining how your life would be different if you could believe that for a minute) in order to believe that tough times can provide an opportunity to grow up a little. I think we can all see how this could be true, regardless of our understanding of how the non-visible world works.

What is the problem? What am I brining to it that is complicating it? What assumptions are making it harder? What could I bring that would feel good, make use of my talents, make me more engaged and whole? What would need to change for me to feel more free?

Yep, that’s good stuff.

Simple questions, but the answers don’t always come so easily. When it’s time to grow the cloud of “I don’t know” gets in the way of clear vision. We can find it really difficult to see the difference between what is actually happening and the part of our understanding that is based on something that happened years ago. We may find it difficult to believe that we have something more, new, or different to bring to the table. We may be completely unable to imagine what would have to change to unleash who we really are in this world, or may find that idea too terrifying to consider for more than a nanosecond.

adventure-boat-canoe-15376Sometimes seeing our stories and navigating the waters of change requires a guide. I have clear vision and a well-honed paddle. I would be honored to take the stern and help you find a peaceful path through the wilderness.

The Toxicity of Certainty

Yesterday I posted about my recent shift in spiritual and religious certainty. While the point for both of us may have been that spiritual transformation, the notion about the value of certainty is the point that I think may be a little more generalizable, more applicable to more situations. And it all got me to thinking about certainty in general.

balance-business-calculator-163032Because we love us some certainty, don’t we?

Culturally we prize it. We claim it. We use data to back it up. We argue with charts and graphs. We gather all of the information that feeds our certainty and share it with other equally certain people so we can all be more certain, and feel justified in that, together. Yay for being sure and being right!

It’s not just our culture, though. It seems to me that humans are wired to seek certainty. In certainty there is safety. In predictability there is survival. In knowing what is and what will happen we are assured of our own ability to make reasonably good choices. Our brains love certainty. Being certain about things lets the brain turn that puzzle into one that has been solved and can now become part of the efficient, programmed background knowledge. It becomes something we no longer have to think about.

And there it is; the long-awaited and foreshadowed rub.

The problem with moving things to the efficiency drawer is that change DOES happen. The world around us changes. Even if nothing else happens, there are seasons. Even if we don’t attempt to make any shifts at all, a single butterfly may flap its wings in just such a way that the direction of a tornado is impacted weeks later (that’s the butterfly effect, not just a movie but a part of chaos theory and grounded in math). No matter how little we as individuals TRY to change, we still do.

Our bodies age. Our experiences impact us daily and cumulatively over time. Our incredibly powerful brains won’t stop learning no matter how much we attempt to dull them. Change will happen. For us to remain certain of so many things in the face of what we have to acknowledge as the inevitability of change feels unnecessarily stubborn at best and foolish and destructive at worst.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Arthur C. Brooks, an economist and the current head of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank that I don’t usually look to for inspiration – as a demonstration of my own certainty…). The name of Mr. Brooks’ talk was: “Work, Life, and Happiness After 50.” It was a phenomenal talk. I’ll have more to say about it later, I’m sure, but there was a point he made that feels particularly relevant to this whole notion of certainty and change.

He quoted a Dylan Thomas poem that many of us have heard before: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. You know the one, it has the line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yeah, that one. And I think there are a couple of ways you could take that advice. The poem is clearly about aging, and we could simply take it as a prompt to continue to live and live fully, hard, with vigor even as we age. But Brooks talked about this idea of raging as a way of fighting with change: the changes in our bodies, the changes in our understandings, the changes in our world. The problem, Brooks suggested, with all of this raging is that it keeps us from ever getting to progress.

In other words, screaming about our certainty and defending it until we are bloody may be preventing us from fully appreciating the contours of any problem and moving to the point of progress. Whew. That’s a big one. I know it.

And I know it. And here’s where it becomes spiritual for me again, but it’s just an example, so you can sub out anything you like. In the aftermath of a cavalcade of losses, I was certain about my loss of faith in just about everything that might keep a person feeling steady.

adult-angry-facial-expression-206460As wounds from those losses began to heal, and I began to change, instead of re-examining that certainty, I dug in. I became entrenched. And I raged. I raged against threats to my certainty. I congratulated myself on the intellectual achievement that was my certainty. I gathered evidence to support that certainty and I scorned, well, lots of things. Raged.

And all because I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to question those beliefs. I didn’t want see things in a different way. I didn’t want to experience whatever impact all of that learning, rethinking, shifting might have. Rage.

And yet, all of that raging made me fail to see so much: so much beauty, so much tenderness, and so many people. All of that certainty kept me from experiencing the world as it really is – for all that it is: good and bad.

Let me just say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having beliefs, which is great because we’re going to have them. It’s part of how the brain works. So is certainty. The question is when certainty becomes toxic. And I think the answer to that question lies in the discovery I made in my own theological unraveling.

When your certainty keeps you from experiencing the world (which includes yourself, you, all of your bits and feelings by the way) as it really is, that certainty has become toxic. When your certainty keeps you from seeing people as more than a point of opposition, when it keeps you from seeing the complexity of a situation, when it only lets in all of the good or all of the bad, it’s become toxic and it is keeping you from progress.

It is good to know some things for sure. This is why Oprah’s phrase “what I know for sure” has caught on with so many people. It feels good to be able to identify those things, those touch points, those steady rocks in the storm. It is wise to also know when to give them a second look. Sometimes all of that certainty is just raging against change. And sometimes that change really will make things better.