Branching Out: Building Confidence

“If only I had more confidence, then I could do things like ______ and ________. My life would be more _______. Things would be better,” said plenty of people lots of times.

It was a theme for me too, for so many years, and it is a place I still occasionally find myself. I can still look back and see all of the ways that confidence, a shift in my temperament, would have helped me. It would have helped me in graduate school – seeing myself as just as deserving as my peers of my place in my program. It would have helped me in college and high school in trusting friendships and not needing so much affirmation through romantic entanglements. There is no question in my mind that more confidence would have changed my experience as a professional musician.

But I did not develop that confidence until much later because I had a fundamental misunderstanding about how confidence would come. I thought that at some point, someone in a position of some authority would recognize something good in me – would tell me that I was great at whatever. I would be acknowledged for the good things and THEN, having earned the needed recognition, I could be confident. The stories of Hollywood starlets being discovered at the lunch counter sounded just about right to me. Someone was going to find/see/acclaim my good qualities and then I could act with confidence, do things I dared not do otherwise.

It took me a long time to discover that my thinking was absolutely backward not on one, but two, counts.

In the first place I came to understand that true confidence has nothing to do with anyone else’s recognition of your gifts and good qualities, but lies in your own ability to see, claim, and appreciate those qualities.

bar-blue-business-533347Childhood lessons on humility made it difficult for me to recognize, claim, and celebrate my gifts. It was good to be good at things but not good to make too much of a fuss (or expect too much of a fuss) about them. The fantasy of someone else “discovering” me would let me get around the moral minefield of bragging – my genius would be pointed out by someone else. Aside from the obvious drawback that lunch counter discoveries of talent are rare indeed, they also put all of one’s sense of being enough in someone else’s hands. They put a tremendous amount of personal power in the hands of strangers.

The other thing that I had all wrong was the relationship between confidence and doing the things I wanted to do. I thought the confidence had to come first. It never occurred to me that I had the capacity to develop that confidence by taking action on my own behalf while I was still unsure, unsteady or even scared to death. I didn’t understand that waiting until I was “ready” to do the things I most wanted to do was really just me delaying BOTH those experiences AND the opportunity to develop my sense of confidence by taking risks, by taking action.

All of those steps I was delaying seemed too big to me, too scary. I was all caught up in a story that I didn’t have what it took to complete them, that I needed something else first. What I really needed first was a belief in my value as a human (worth conferred at birth by the way) and the willingness to act while afraid.

I needed the strategy of breaking big steps forward into tiny micro-steps so I could build confidence in my capacity and trust that 1) I will do what needs doing and 2) I will be okay even if those things don’t go well or create the results I am looking for.

adult-beautiful-close-up-936065-2I have those tools now. And I know I will be okay. I see that I have something to offer and I am building confidence every time I act in courage – taking steps when I am afraid. The fear doesn’t really go away if I keep reaching and growing but my increased confidence allows me to gather that courage and do it anyway.

Taking those steps, no matter how small, feels like reaching out with root and branch in a burst of self-supporting growth and bloom. It seems to me that the best parts of our life do this; they look like expansion and nourishment at the same time, and they are holy, sacred, and available to all of us. Even me. Even you.

Navigating Growth: Extending Your Branches

I have always liked maps. I love to look at them, to imagine traveling with them, using them to find new and more interesting or pleasing ways to get somewhere. GPS is seriously useful, but not the same. There I said it; judge away. I like to hold and touch and SEE the big picture.

adventure-beautiful-bright-243597.jpgAnd I see that I have always believed that having that big map – the big picture with all of the details for how to get there – for all of my decisions was absolutely necessary. I mean how can you decide which direction to turn if you don’t know where you are going?

My recent experiences fly directly in the face of that idea and all of its conventional wisdom. It has thrown me for quite a loop.

You see, I’m building a community. The idea for my private FB group came to me in stillness (that’s meditation for those of you not allergic to the word – allergy sufferers forget I said anything). I got more inspiration on a walk. I got other pieces in the shower but it didn’t all add up to a map, a detailed plan. It was a little more loosey-goosey than that. So I held onto it, wanting to get the destination firmly in mind, perfecting the path.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think there’s good to be found in working on your vision, but sometimes we (I) can get stuck there, moving pieces around mentally and never getting to the trip. It’s like planning a dream vacation your whole life and never actually packing a bag. For many of us the dreaming is the safe space. It is where we can try to imagine how it should be without taking any of the risks associated with trying to make it so.

The dreaming space is where my son hangs out in preparation for Halloween. He LOVES Halloween and he spends months thinking about his costume. He wants it to be whatever he wants it to be: one year scary, another year clever and literary, this year I think he’s going for political satire (yes, that’s my kid) and he works at that vision. He sees the big picture – him going to the door, the adult GETTING it, the candy, the pride. He sees the impact he wants to have. He begins to think of the details associated with the costume. We talk about those details and invariably when we get to about 2 weeks out, he begins to have doubts. He begins to think maybe his idea isn’t so great after all. This year his big worry is: “What if they don’t get it?” Oh honey, I know. Then he moves into the familiar. Maybe he should dress up as something easy, something that comes in a bag with all of the pieces, something everyone will recognize right away. Maybe he’s got the destination all wrong. It is only the time pressure (and maternal nagging) and the siren call of the candy payoff that forces his hand, that moves him out of dreaming and self-doubt into action.

I began to feel this same thing happening with the idea of this community I wanted to build, but with no candy payday to push me forward. I was sort of sitting still fondling the vision, and the longer I looked, the more I noticed the self-doubt that was creeping in around the edges. I began to hear internal message and all of those messages boiled down to some version of “Who are you to do that? Who do you think you are?”

I began to wonder if maybe I needed some training. I began to compile a reading list. I thought of some other things I would probably need to do before getting started in order to be “ready.” Let me interrupt myself (again) by saying there’s nothing wrong with training, reading, or otherwise preparing yourself for a new venture, unless you are doing all of that as a way to 1) delay action indefinitely OR 2) feel good enough to pursue something to which you feel called right now. That’s exactly what I was doing.

The fix wasn’t in more school or a more specific vision. The fix wasn’t in reading the “right” books. The fix wasn’t in preparation. The fix was in releasing the need to perfect the big vision long enough to take the next small step. The way I chose to do that was to change the conversation in my head from “What do I want to do?” which is a super important but LONG conversation that gets all of those internal naysayers in full screech mode TO “What small step should I take next?”

WHOLE different question, right? Reflecting on what small step to take next is far less daunting and while it tends to generate its own mental obstacle course, that tends to look more like confusion than self-abuse which I would argue is easier on the spirit.

“I don’t know” feels better than “No you can’t” AND it can be answered by a question perfectly grounded in possibility and shared with me by a friend who learned it from Iyanla VanZant. “Well, what if you did know?” Pretend you do know what to do next. Now what’s the answer?

It’s such a wonderful question because it sidesteps the fog that our brains use to keep us still. It’s a wonderful question because it brings us back to stillness, to what we DO know, what we can know, what we ARE capable of and out of the hunting and overwhelming picture of the perfection we’d like to create.

I believe the answer to that question, the question of what to do next, is usually quite simple. It is almost always something we already know how to do, and if we can quiet our minds enough, we can access it – either right there in stillness or sometime after like on a walk or in the shower.

It is tempting, when we get an answer, when we see a step that is as small as writing an e-mail or making a phone call, to make it bigger, to turn it into more, to consider everything about it, another brilliantly executed stall tactic by the safety monitor in our minds.

child-costume-fairy-127968If instead, we accept that simple step and execute it, we build trust in ourselves, trust in the benevolence of the universe, and trust in the possibility that we can be enough right now. If we just get the costume we envisioned,  create the props that give costume clues, wear the long johns if necessary, the KitKats and Twix bars will flow and MAYBE next year we will remember that it is okay to do it just the way we want.

Growing Roots (A Series): Part VII

Rooting in Trust: The Gifts of Being Uncertain

Yep, there it all is. Trust and uncertainty. Our favorites, right?

I got started thinking about the relationship between these two things in church. Our minister made reference to the Jewish practice of writing God as G-d. I learned that this spelling is a way of signifying that the writer is talking about the god of Abraham (the ONE god for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, yes the same ONE for all three), signifying that entity while being clear that we can only be so specific in doing so. In the words of my minister this practice serves “to show we don’t really know what we are talking about.” I love this admission.

This designation, this way of acknowledging such a big mystery with three characters, speaks to an acceptance of uncertainty that I find refreshing and intriguing. And the impact for the faith that uses this spelling is instructive.

aisle-beach-celebration-169198Acknowledging that fundamental uncertainty about divinity has not prevented the Jewish people from developing a deep and abiding faith both as a group and as individuals as they so choose. That uncertainty has not prevented the Jewish people from referencing, describing, and writing about or praying to God as they so choose. Acknowledging the limits of what is known has not kept Jewish people from developing a shared cultural tradition of celebrations, rituals, food, and music with which to enrich their lives as they so choose.

Accepting this fundamental uncertainty about the exact nature of God has not prevented or hindered growth, love, richness and fullness in living.

My mother told me a long time ago that I “have never been a fan of uncertainty.” As I write that, it occurs to me how much more those words describe her than me, and how universal they seem to be in humanity. But to keep it personal, I admit that I have always felt more comfortable with a clear plan, routines, expected outcomes. These qualities all helped me as a teacher and parent, but haven’t always served me well in times of trouble and stress and during times of fundamental unpredictability (which I acknowledge are increasingly common as I am honest about it).

For years the added discomfort of “I don’t know what will happen” kept me committed to plans that I no longer felt good about, routines that didn’t serve me, and striving for outcomes that my heart wasn’t invested in. That fear of uncertainty kept me caged up.

It seems to me, as I think about this whole G-d thing, that there is an entirely different way to approach uncertainty. It seems to me now, as someone who has entirely thrown off her professional plans in favor of the substantial risks of soul-centered self-employment, and as the partner of someone who discarded a lucrative career in favor of seminary, that our avoidance of uncertainty is based entirely upon the possibility of a negative outcome and our desire to control the process – thinking that our control will eliminate negative outcomes.

I look to the lessons of my own parenting when it comes to this issue. I confess I tend to be on the controlling side of parenting in many ways. We limit junk food, video games and television in our home. I acknowledge that these limits have created some social gaps for my kids and I STILL think I’m in the right. With all of that said, and no parent reading this will be surprised by this, all of that control in no way guarantees how my children will behave, the choices they will make, or who they will become. The uncertainty and unpredictability in human interactions and growth can bring great disappointments, and they can also reveal joy and beauty beyond what we could have asked for.

What I’m seeing through all of this is a fundamental difference in being rooted in control and rooted in uncertainty – which, by the way, means being rooted in trust.

Being rooted in uncertainty implies some basic acceptance of the fact that we can’t ever be completely certain of, or totally control anything beyond how we feel inside. Uncertainty is the fundamental reality. It is our desire for control that makes it so uncomfortable.

back-view-backlit-city-847483What if, instead of believing our actions would result in a particular desired outcome, we chose what we do based on whether or not it feels good, the kind of good that makes us nod our heads when we choose it; The kind of good that, when we are listening, makes our bodies feel the way the have felt during the best of times. What if we used that criteria, of how we feel, and trusted that the way we feel is enough, that things will be what they will be, and we will handle the outcome?

Making choices that way is only possible when we accept uncertainty as a fundamental condition of reality and choose to trust that ultimately we will be well, or well enough. That rooting, that acceptance, opens us up to seeing beyond what we are hoping for, outside of the boundaries of what we have planned for ourselves and what our linear thinking and our logic dictate as the most likely outcome. Acceptance of uncertainty, and the choice to cultivate trust opens a rich and delicious world of choices that can make our lives so very whole, so very full, and so deeply connected to our needs, our gifts, and our desires.

What would happen for you if you just admitted that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and if you sat with that admission long enough for the fear to subside? I think I know what’s on the other side, and it feels like freedom.

Growing Roots (A Series): Part VI

black-and-white-black-and-white-busy-735795Rooting in Goodness

My culture applauds motion.

You must be moving, making, doing.

The measure for “good” is productivity.

You don’t have to have this said to you as a child to intuit it, to infer it, to read it on the wind and digest it with your dinner. It is in the things we say. It is in the way we schedule our time. It is in our satisfaction when we check off an item on the ToDo list. Productivity is good. To be good, you must be productive. Simple.

The problem with this whole cultural idea is that it assumes NOT goodness at the outset.

Yep, I’m going there.

When we need to be productive to feel good, to be considered valuable, to be good, there is an assumption that we are not already, good.

When we really lay that out there it is clear why we would busy ourselves so intensely. Who doesn’t want to be good? I guess I shouldn’t assume this is a thing for everyone, but speaking solely for me and all of the people I grew up with, we all really wanted to be good. And in doing all of the things we individually thought we needed to do to become good, we inadvertently let it slip that we were pretty sure that we were not, in fact, without a lot of work and effort, good.

There is this assumption that we must escape our natural state, who we are without goading, without discipline, without force. We must leave that bad old her behind in order to achieve “good.”

You may be nodding along like, “Yeah, and…” It is a deep cultural norm, the idea that left to our own devices we will NOT be or do good, the idea that if given real freedom we would all be eating fried Oreos and washing them down with classic margaritas (no salt, lots of ice) and reclining on a beach eternally – just me?

Just for the sake of potentially altering your entire reality, play along with a little thought experiment with me.

Imagine that we flip the script so that you are already good.

Just sitting there reading this interminable post, you are good. You were good when you woke up. You were good when you went to sleep last night. You were good before, during, and after yelling at your kids last night because they were singing the song about poop again. You were born good, and you are allowed to believe that, to even say it out loud.

What would you do then, if you believed that you were, are, and will always be good?

What would you give up and stop doing? What would you do that you haven’t allowed for years? What new experiences would you seek out?

How would you deal with stress and strain?

afterglow-backlit-beach-797394-2.jpgIt seems to me that our biggest problems/worries/concerns/tangles/messes in life are likely far better addressed with a few minutes of standing still than with hours of busy rushing trying to be good.

If I am already good, then I can stop, take a breath, look around and really see.

I can see that in spite of all of the problems of daily life, I am okay in this moment.

I can see that a great deal of the drama around my troubles is how I let them get to me.

I can really see I have choices, including the choice not to act in this moment at all.

We spend so much time fixing, repairing, preparing for the worst.

So often a solution is already in the works. So often time is a key ingredient. So often what is missing is the perspective we can take or the awareness we can bring if we just stop moving for a minute.

If we are already good, we don’t need to measure, we don’t need to worry, and we don’t need to fix. We can stand still and let things develop.

We can take the time to see and address problems and troubles in ways that nobody else would – and we can see that perhaps this is why they arise in the first place, as a an opportunity to exercise our unique genius in real time.

When we can stand still it is infinitely easier to ask what we can learn from our troubles rather than reacting out of sheer panic.

If we are already good, we can stand still.

If we are already good, we can pause.

If we are already good, we can breathe first, last, and in-between.

 

Friends, we ARE already good.

YOU are already good: no matter what mistakes you’ve made, no matter what has happened to you, no matter what.

You are good. You are worthy. You are enough.

There is no committee to whom you need to prove it.

There really are no gold stars waiting in a desk drawer somewhere.

beautiful-beauty-brown-eyes-1065084You just need to begin to believe it.

And I know that’s not a small assignment.

So I’ll give you a smaller one.

Stop moving. Breathe. Tell yourself: “In this moment, I am enough.”

I think you’re far more than that, but it’s a start.

With so much love,

j

Growing Roots (A Series): Part V

Rooting in Your Gifts

When my children were young I began to search for a family church – not out of faith or a desire to worship anything in particular, but out of a desire to provide them and maybe even me with a safe spot, a community, a place to be at home even when home didn’t feel that good.

activity-adult-adventure-1376960.jpgI held memories of backpacking trips with groups from my my childhood church firmly in mind as I investigated our local options. Ironically my now seminarian husband was less enthusiastic about this quest, so I became the advance team. I made a list of churches to visit based on what I knew generally about beliefs and practices and what I could get down with, and perhaps more importantly what I couldn’t get down with, and I began to visit them.

I went to services to see how it felt, to check out what was being taught and said. If the minimal bar of not offending me was passed, I then asked about their programming for kids. It’s possible that part of my motive as a stay at home parent of twin pre-schoolers was to find just one hour in my week where I could sit and think without being interrupted.

I could say more about the churches I visited – who made the initial cut and why, but that’s not really the point today. Today the point is what I did with church.

I think, even in my older twin mom exhaustion that I knew that many of my core needs were not being met. This reaching out for community was an attempt to shift that balance, but it was, in many ways, an attempt to apply that same old geographical solution to the problem of feeling terribly alone and isolated. If I could just find the right place, I would feel better.

I did find a place, a really great place, and we began (slowly and intermittently) to attend as a family. People were welcoming and friendly enough. We were reserved and rushed. Church became an additional item on the list of things to do, and I (as the one who started it all) became the ringmaster of the Sunday morning circus. In my attempt to find community, I had created a lot of work for myself, had added more tasks to the insane stack of domestic work, childcare, and freelance writing and editing I was already doing.

For me doing all of these things meant doing them well. I was exhausted, and fully retreated into my armor of perfectionism. So when I entered this new space – wrangling husband and children to get there, it became a box to check off (and to be sure to do well) – one more thing on my list – a thing that I sensed could help but that I was really unable to engage with in a way that WOULD actually help.

I had set a trap for myself, and I was caught.

And then, one Sunday, the choir returned from summer hiatus. And they were good! I say this with love: church choirs are often NOT good. Being a musician can make regular attendance at a place with a not good choir a difficult thing to commit to. This choir was good, and it occurred to me that maybe this was a thing I wanted to do.

It had been over 20 years since I had sung in the University Choir at Penn State. I had been in a few bands in the meantime, and occasionally even been paid for that, but even that beer-soaked musical effort was a distant memory, so there was some anxiety about taking on this new musical thing with a group of people I didn’t know.

The director and I sorted out where my voice belonged and I began to attend. And I began, again, to sing. It had been years since I’d sung in front of people who I wasn’t attempting to coax to sleep or to learn the alphabet or just cheer up.

It had been far longer since I’d read notes on a page, and it was tricky. As I continued to attend, I found help all around me. I learned who the great sight-readers were and sat near them for a boost. I slowly went from singing along quietly and tentatively to actually singing along, sometimes with confidence. I began to feel my way back to the space that appears when I sing and I allow myself the pleasure of trusting that I am good enough at it to stop worrying.

Wednesday nights became sacred time, and it was easy to believe that the shift that occurred was a result of finally choosing the right geographical solution. I had finally found the right place. In retrospect, I think something else was at play that created that magic for me.

To participate in choir, I had to set everything else aside. There is no multi-tasking in choir. I also had to face the fact that I would make mistakes. These were two things I was desperate to do but didn’t recognize the longing.

attractive-background-beautiful-756453In addition to that though, to get that soaring feeling I sometimes get when I sing, I had to engage with my gift and trust that it is good enough. Whoa.

I had to plug into something that I knew could bring me joy and let all of the worry about looking foolish go. Whoa.

I had to take off enough armor to let the sound come out, to breathe deeply to support it, and to have the sensitivity to others necessary to work in a group with my, and all of their, gifts. Whoa.

I had thought to turn outward to root myself in a community. I had thought it was a question of finding the right place and then identifying the right people and then, over the course of however long it would take a shy and introverted person to do so, to cultivate relationships with those people.

It had not occurred to me that I could turn inside – to my joys, to my desires, to my needs and my gifts and that turning in THAT direction i could grow roots and find community. i could find more nourishment, confidence, AND kindred souls for care and comfort.

I had never realized that rooting begins not just with soil, but in the seed.

Growing Roots (A Series): Part IV

Rooted in Possibility

Several years ago, I decided it was time to go back to work. The plan had been, and continued to be, that once our twins were in full-time school, I would return to teaching. While I would not be available for the kids in the morning, the relatively early high school dismissal would allow me to be home, even if still working, for their arrival in the afternoon. I would have summers off so we wouldn’t need to pay for childcare. All the bases would be covered. It was the perfect plan.

achievement-adult-book-1043514I proceeded to take the courses I needed to renew my teaching certification and then signed up to substitute teach in my home county with the idea that I could get to know the principals and have an easier time finding a job once hiring season rolled around. Another perfect plan. I am an excellent planner.

I started to receive the calls to sub. The auto-dialer would begin to ring me in the afternoon and continue until the next morning. As these calls came in, I began to notice how they actually made me feel… nauseous. I chalked it up to nerves after staying home for so long and forged ahead with the plan, because that’s what strong-willed and determined people do, right?

But here’s the thing. I went in; I subbed. I did the job and it didn’t make me nervous. I didn’t find it particularly difficult. I wasn’t scared to go. And yet, that queasy feeling persisted. I found myself turning off the ringer on my phone to avoid the feeling rather than digging any deeper.

There have been many ties in my life where I’ve ignored my intuition – my “gut” feeling about something, but when my “gut” threatens to vomit all over everything, I confess I get a lot more attentive.

Right about that time I had a phone conversation with a friend who was in crisis. Her marriage was in a downward spiral. She was filled with fear and doubt and heartache. We talked for a long time and as we did I had the strangest sensation. It was sort of weightless. As she talked about the difficulties of her situation, I seemed to just know what to say. Everything came naturally. While it felt odd to feel good the the face of her feeling so bad, I did. I felt really, really good – and not one little bit like I was going to throw up.

It occurred to me that maybe that’s how work could feel, rather than vomit-inducing. So I began to explore ways that I could become some kind of therapist or counselor.

As soon as I acknowledged the desire to shift gears, the mental barrage began. Any of these new ideas would require more schooling. Already having two master’s degrees made me reluctant to pursue a third. It seemed selfish to even consider more schooling while my husband plugged away at a lucrative job he hated. We had already invested so much time and money in my education; clearly I should just find a job with the skills and training I already had. Besides, starting something new would delay my ability to help financially by years.

I felt completely trapped. I also felt like I’d been caught in this decision-trap before. I’d already changed careers once, twice if you count getting a “real” job after being a musician for a few years.

Given how I felt about the prospect of teaching, I could only conclude that I had made the wrong decisions before. I didnt’ trust myself with this decision at all. I talked it through with friends and trusted family members. I went round and round, never actually landing on a decision.

Finally I did make one decision, that I needed help from a pro to sort this out.

I found a local therapist and presented her with what felt to me like a very straight-forward and practical conundrum – what to do for work. I imagined that a fresh set of well-trained eyes would help me to see it all differently. And she did.

It didn’t involve any personality testing or strengths-finding. It didn’t involved specific career counseling or consideration of my training could be used. What it did involve was rooting myself in possibility.

I had already figured out some version of what I thought I might like to do, but couldn’t even seriously consider it because of the wall of can’ts and shouldn’ts that I had constructed. I had boxed myself in with a host of nos and the only yes I had allowed myself made me literally physically ill.

All of my thinking about my problem was firmly rooted in impossibility, a web of rules and assumptions that I had generated without much help from anyone else. That sticky web was holding me firmly in place. I was steady for sure, but growth was out of the question.

adult-beautiful-girl-blue-875862Growing roots in possibility began with the simple question: “What if you could? What would that look like?” The list of reasons that was impossible emerged and my skilled therapist traced all of them back to their source – thoughts about myself that could generate all of the required negativity to prevent progress.

We began to challenge those beliefs, and as we did, the question: “What if you could” began to feel more approachable, like something I could afford – that I was allowed to ask myself.

I began to feel the truth that we don’t have to judge prior choices as mistakes in order to change course. I began to sense the open territory that came with the idea that I was allowed to explore this world in search of that weightless, good feeling. As each of these new thoughts and feelings emerged, I felt the relief that comes with dropping the burden of impossibility.

And I felt myself begin to grow, beneath the soil at first, but it didn’t take long for those healthier roots to bring changes above the dirt as well. It didn’t take long to feel entirely different.

I couldn’t make a decision about work because all of my thinking was rooted in false beliefs that led me to conclude that anything I wanted to do was impossible. As I cast those beliefs aside, I become rooted in possibility, a playful and delightful anchor for growth.

So I ask you, gently, and with so much love: “What if you could? What would that look like?”

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?