Living in Possibility

When I hear those words: “living in possibility,” it sounds pretty grand and floaty and rainbow unicorn-y.

child-girl-hands-6191And yes, that’s partly my cynic responding, but I think it’s also because in order to dismiss the idea of living in possibility, my brain wants to jump right to the outcome, to see what that looks like as I move through the world doing things I’d never thought possible, doing things nobody ever thought possible, leaping tall buildings in a single bound…. see there it goes again.

But the truth is that living in possibility starts in a way that really isn’t about leaping buildings or leaving a trail of glitter in your wake.

Living in possibility starts small, quietly, and internally.

Yeah, sorry. There are some steps before glitter and unicorns and that’s why we dismiss them, because we’re not sure what those steps are and we don’t know how to do them, and internal – yuck. I’m so with you.

As a life coach I spend a lot of time on the internal, mine and everyone else’s, and sometimes I just have to remind myself to look at the rest of the world because it’s tough in there. Those things on the inside can be pretty dark and full of spiders, but that’s exactly why the notion of possibility can be helpful. Possibility is like a little beam of light breaking in through the canopy into the darkness, encouraging the spiders to continue being helpful and eating pests, but not just run amok everywhere.

When it comes to living in possibility, the only real way to begin is to start thinking in possibility, which means taking a look at what we think when nobody (including ourselves) is looking, examining those underlying, unconscious assumptions about ourselves and the world to see if we’re boxing ourselves in. This has been an… erm… growth area for me.

For me beginning to think in possibility, as a conscious intentional project, began as a practice of noticing when I reacted negatively to positive things people said about or to me, something I did consistently and reflexively.

When praised after a speech or on a piece of writing or after singing somewhere, I would  do my best to dismiss that moment: in the early days by diminishing the praise somehow (revealing that I thought I did poorly or I should have been more prepared). As I started to see that, and to see some articles about how frequently women in particular do that, I made a conscious effort to NOT say those things any more. The next step was to begin to just say: “Thank you,” without extending that sentence with excuses and self-deprecation. This didn’t necessarily change my thinking, but it did bring my attention to my pattern and helped me to stop reinforcing my own unhelpful thinking.

Then I began to just really notice how I would recoil, turn away, internally dismiss those personal comments, and even passages in the many self-help books I’ve got stacked up around here. If I didn’t agree, if what they said was TOO good about me, I would skim past, breeze over, or even dismiss the speaker or author. Wow. I would essentially insult them so I could keep on insulting myself. True commitment.

The next step, after that noticing, was to begin to question myself.

An author and thinker named Byron Katie provides one of the most useful sets of questions I’ve encountered; all of those questions are based on reacting to our thoughts with some version of: “Is it true?” You’d be amazed at how many horrible stories about ourselves we can begin to unravel if we just take a deep breath and ask ourselves: “Is it really, absolutely true?”

So I began to apply that tool to my responses to the good stuff being thrown at me, but did a little wordsmithing, as I do, to make it immediately helpful: “Am I sure it’s not true?” My recoil instinct was clearly due to me thinking that whatever good thing was being said was not true, was demonstrably false, and maybe even demonstrated a little disdain for the speaker. I mean, after all, what would have to be wrong with you to have such low standards? Yes I’m shaking my head at myself too.

And so I began my practice of asking about the truth of that reaction, about my certainty that I was not whatever good thing was being acknowledged.

Sometimes that question was all it took, and I found ease in responding to praise about singing, about writing, about good deeds. The trick was when I got down to the internal worth. The trick was when I dug into some spiritually bent self-help books that wanted me to believe REALLY good things about myself like: “I now declare myself to be whole, holy, perfect, and complete.” (Iyanla Vanzant)

It has never been okay to declare myself perfect or complete. The notion of me being holy would defile holiness because of the mistakes I’ve made. I also assumed that if I believed I was perfect I would stop trying to be better and would naturally become selfish and complacent.

Well, that sort of lays the insides bare, doesn’t it?

And all of that shows the ways that old wounds and improper words diminish my living in possibility. Those thoughts create the cage for what I can do, my estimation of my capacity.

What would happen if I let go of the words and wounds that get in the way, or if I kept them in safekeeping but decided they need not get in the way?

Here’s what happens when we step out of certainty and into possibility:

“I cannot trust” becomes “I find it difficult to trust but would like to learn.”

“I cannot love or be loved” becomes “I am willing to begin to allow myself to open myself to love in all forms regardless of my past.”

person-road-walk-1605411“I can’t surrender” becomes “I am open to the idea that surrender creates both ease and action and is strength rather than weakness.”

“I am not enough” becomes “I wonder how I would feel if I decided that I am exactly who I should be right now.”

All of that by asking: “Are you sure? Is it absolutely true?”

Thinking in possibility leads to living in possibility. Glitter and unicorns to follow.

 

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?”

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.

The Angel at the Start and Finish

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. While there, I heard a number of REALLY great lectures. I’ll have more to share about them in the coming weeks, as I sort of process and integrate everything I heard and learned. I wanted to go ahead and share one tidbit with you now because I thought the story was so beautiful AND so instructive.

The speaker who presented this lovely tidbit was the Rabbi Daniel Cohen, whose talk was entitled: “Leading a Life of Legacy: Mission and Meaning in Every Moment.” I’ll have more to say about Rabbi Cohen’s talk later, but this one story was asking to be told.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I am no rabbinical student. My knowledge of Judaism is scant at best, and so what I present here I do with faith that mistakes will be taken with charity. I am happy to be corrected; just know that my intentions are pure, or at least really good.

adorable-affection-baby-826734So, with all of that lead-in complete… the story is about babies in the womb. My understanding is that this is not a biblical story, but one that exists in Jewish scholarly texts. The story says that there is an angel that comes to a baby as it grows in the womb. The angel, Lailah, provides the growing baby with all of the knowledge that it needs, in the form of the texts of the Torah. The angel also tells the growing baby about the history of her soul. Finally, Lailah provides candlelight for the growing baby so she can see from one end of the world to the other. (You can find a very accessible version of this story here.) The rabbi presenting the story referred to this knowledge transfer from angel to child as the light. The angel puts the light inside of the growing child. And then, just as the child is ready to be born the angel touches the baby’s face (slaps in the old texts) just between the lip and the nose, causing the baby to forget all of that knowledge and leaving a little dent on the skin.

What?!

The idea here is that as the child grows and encounters these ideas, these concepts, the light, the child will recognize them, remember them; the light will be more meaningful and held in a more sacred place because of that recognition.

What?!

This idea is so interesting to me because it clicks in with some other things I know and believe.

When I was studying to be a teacher, one of the things we learned is that students need some internal architecture, an intellectual framework, for deep learning to occur. One text referred to this architecture as “hooks,” places to hang new knowledge. One way to develop hooks was to tap into things students already knew or maybe had learned at one time and forgotten. I’ve seen those principles in action and know them to be effective. There is no denying that we learn better in the second, third, fourth exposure to an idea – once we have some hooks, categories, a framework for information.

I add to that my own recent personal growth, which feels a lot like a remembering: remembering who I was before I got completely lost in parenting twins, remembering who I was before a long battle with infertility damaged my sense of hope and wonder, remembering that (despite whatever flaws I might be seeing in myself at any moment) I am pretty freaking miraculous, remembering what it feels like to believe that I am never alone and that who I am matters. Remembering those things feels like finding a light, at first a small flame, maybe like a candle. And as I sit with those ideas, as I allow myself to question some of the thoughts that have kept me “safe,” I feel that light getting bigger, shining into the corners and and onto the cobwebs, bringing a warm glow.

This idea of Lailah imparting the light so you can remember it later feels very real right now, and I touch my philtrum (that’s the super weird name of the dent above your lips under your nose – words are so cool) to honor my own remembering.

The rabbi followed the tale of Lailah with an additional story about an angel, and here’s where I am really off-roading it because the lecture was outside and there were dogs and butterflies to watch. I got a little distracted. I don’t know if this second angel is from Jewish texts or if it is an idea of Rabbi Cohen’s. I did a quick search on the Googles, and didn’t find anything to clarify things, but I’m going to proceed to share anyway because I think the idea is instructive no matter what its origin – just wanted to be honest about my lack of knowledge, and about the fact that my attention span has limits.

This angel (same angel – don’t know – see previous reference to dogs and butterflies) greets us at death.

afterglow-backlit-bokeh-556658And the angel asks us two questions: 1) did you see the light I put into you, and 2) did you share it?

Rabbi Cohen’s focus is on living a life that is meaningful, and these questions really get at the heart of that. Did you figure out who you are and what you believe in? Did you let other people see that? Did you find ways to be seen and heard as your true self? Did you engage with the world in ways that upheld and demonstrated your deepest beliefs?

Did you see your light? Did you share it?

Do you see your light? Will you share it?

Would you like to?

With so much love and nary a slap on the mouth,

julia

Free Floating Feels… Nice

Things have been shifting for me for a while now.

So much has changed.

On the one hand are all of the external changes we’ve made. I’ve gotten a new career. My husband (also referred to as my seminarian) left his IT career to go to… yes, seminary. There have been other external, sort of tangible changes, but the truth is that the biggest shifts have been entirely internal, shifts in world-view, shifts in self-view, and perhaps most unexpectedly, shifts in God-view.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that my relationship with the almighty, God, Spirit, the Universe, the All-One, whatever you want to call it (because they’re all just words for the same thing for me, but we can argue about that later) has been tumultuous in the past and I ended that roller coaster ride with an ugly and protracted break-up that I think became (or so I thought) final in about 2001.

argument-bench-breakup-984953I can say more about all of that, and the factors that went into my divorce from spirit, but that’s not today’s tale. Today’s tale is more about certainty and uncertainty.

During my breakup with God I started putting things into buckets. One of my clients talks about this too: the good people bucket and the bad people bucket. She realizes that there, at the very least, needs to be a more ambiguous bucket, and that further the buckets are problematic to begin with. My labels were different, but I had buckets of my own and the labels for them were no less black and white.

My rejection of faith was so complete that I put people of faith in their own bucket (not my bucket) and I ascribed characteristics to them that were, even on a good day, uncharitable. It was all part of distancing myself from my own faith, but that’s not all it did. And in order to maintain my own clarity about my beliefs, I became adamant. Clarity was important in a way that, at least during that time, huge groups of people were not.

I was adamant that there was no entity outside of what we can touch and experience with our concrete-loving senses. I was certain that all of the theology that went with the belief in such a being was equally deluded. And, just to be extra nice, I figured that in order to buy all of that claptrap, you’d have to not be using that God-given (ha) grey matter very well. I was certain. I was adamant.

And in my certainty I made my world pretty small. There were songs that were uncomfortable to sing. There were thinkers I didn’t want to listen to. There were stories that didn’t interest me. There were specific sets of myths I didn’t want to share with my children. There were ideas I didn’t even want to consider. There were people who would be hard pressed to get further than the front gate of polite conversation. I did a whole lot of filtering and rejecting.

Riding that intense certainty was kind of like being on a raft in the ocean (one of those old rubber blow up jobs), floating above everything. And sure, that’s nice. You can bob along, taking in the sights, dipping your toes and fingers into the water to cool off, if you’re really good you may even manage to ride a wave in a little ways. You’ll stay mostly dry and you’ll have a little fun, but you miss out on SO much, and you still run the risk of getting wiped out by a really big wave.

My certainty kept me from so experiences that could enrich my life, made me uncomfortable rather than curious when presented with songs, stories, or ideas that fell outside of my rules for believing. It kept me safer, up on the raft, but I never got to get all of the way in the water and see what it feels like, the coolness up against my skin, the shells on the ocean floor, the little slaps of the wave against my skin, the rush of the decision to dive under or over or bodysurf a wave in.

In the past several months (year?), my certainty has left me. More recently I have left it. There is no grand declaration of faith coming here. I really don’t know what I believe. THAT’s the declaration. And opening that door, leaving room for uncertainty has let in a flood of possibilities that have enriched me so thoroughly I’m dumbstruck.

beach-blue-feet-37921I’ve encountered people, ideas, music, books, poems that I would have rejected wholesale before with a range of emotions from curiosity to delight.

I’ve played with my own ideas, turning them over, testing them out: “What would it feel like to actually believe in a benevolent God?” and feeling the peace, the comfort, and the support that that very idea has held for countless people for so very long.

I think there are a lot of folks who would probably like me to get more specific, to define the terms of my conversion. But I’m not interested in that.

I’m interested in the uncertainty. I’m interested in the ideas. I’m interested in the experiences, and I’m especially interested in how letting go of my own certainty has changed the contours of my days.

I think there is a God, or something that fits under that general idea, and I think that she must be very, very patient. And for that I am grateful.

The Frame is Everything

I had a conversation with a client recently.  It was a great session for both of us. I share some of it here not to tell you about him personally, but to use him as an example of a fundamental principle of what I coach about, what I teach about, and what I try very hard to live.

beard-cap-elderly-162547You see, this client of mine is an older man. He is retired and has been having some health issues. He’s been spending a lot of time reviewing his life: looking back at the past, examining and evaluating the contours, the relationships, the activities and events. And the result of all of this examination and evaluation has not been pleasant for him. He concluded at some point in there that he has wasted much of his life. He wanted to meet with me to figure out whether some early childhood traumas were the cause of that waste. His pain was very real and my heart ached for his sorrow.

And as my heart ached I began to ask questions, because that’s what coaches do.

I began by explaining that there’s no way I could legitimately answer the question of whether or not a specific experience was the cause for the mistakes he had identified in his life. I further explained that I wasn’t sure the exercise of pinpointing a a single event as cause was really a valuable exercise if what he wanted was to feel better.

I asked him how things would look if he believed that his life had been a good one, if he was good enough, had done enough.

He sat with that thought for awhile and conceded that he would feel better with that thought.

I asked him if there were things he needed to forgive himself for. He came up with some choices and decisions that have clearly nagged him over the years.

I asked him what things he HAD accomplished in his life. He had a big list.

I asked him what he had done that he was proud of. He had a big list.

I asked him what parts of his life he feels good about. He had a big list. These lists didn’t overlap, mind you, so there really was a lot there.

I asked him if he thought my perspective on his life might be different than his after hearing all of this. He thought it just might.

And then we talked about the brain, and the power of a thought that creates a frame for our understanding.

At some point my client had inherited, created, deduced the thought that his life was not valid, that the things that made him unique were not valuable. This became his frame for the portrait of his life. If we want to talk about it in writing terms, this conclusion about his own worth was his thesis. Each review of his life, his choices, the events that have made up his days was sorted through with the purpose of proving his thesis. This is what the brain does naturally. It likes to help us be right. I mean really, who doesn’t like to be right?

So his brain understood that he believed he had little worth and so it was constantly working on providing evidence for that idea. The brain is incredible. It is powerful. It is efficient. It LIKES to work for us. It likes to sort, categorize, evaluate. It wants to work. The thoughts that we choose are assignments for that amazing machine: “Here, go prove this. Thank you.” It will do it.

And this is how our stories become so entrenched, so convincing, so compelling. The brain will find the evidence for that assertion, no matter how damaging it might be.

Because: human.

We are complicated. We make mistakes. We make choices that in retrospect seem less than brilliant. Human. And for most of us, that’s not a one shot deal. We keep learning our whole lives, so that’s a whole lot of opportunity for choices that could easily be interpreted as mistakes rather than being seen as a moment of real growth. There’s plenty of evidence in everyone’s files for some kind of statement about them being rotten or screwed up or less than worthy. Yes, I mean everybody.

And just as all of us have filing cabinet drawers full of things we might not be proud of, we also have good things we’ve done, moments of rightness/goodness/kindness, excellent choices and graceful recoveries. We have fleeting moments of tenderness. We have times when we felt loved and connected. We have days of wonder. We have moments of pure inspiration. Yes, I mean everybody.

Because: human.

So what makes us able to access those good drawers (and that felt awkward to me because my mother calls your underwear your drawers)? The frame we choose, the big belief about ourselves, the story we have about who we are at the core – that’s what helps your brain decide which files to dig into. And THAT my dear friends, is a choice. The frame that we give our lives, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, the labels we put all over ourselves – those are all choices.

I’m not saying it’s easy to make that choice. Your mind will fight you. It wants to stick with what it knows. Efficiency is highly valued up in there. But consciousness and practice really will do it for you.

I see what I am thinking about myself. I see what it does to me. I KNOW there are likely other possibilities (that might be the part you’ll need to take on faith for the moment). I am willing to try on a different story, even if it is only a teeny tiny bit better.

adult-beautiful-face-774866If that feels like maybe it would be a huge relief, if there’s a little internal happy voice/a little tickle/a sort of weird bubbles in your chest feeling as you consider that possibility, I want to offer you this thought: “I am glorious.” Try it on. Try it on without the smirk or the eye roll or anything else you reflexively do to diminish your value. Think it on purpose with a deep breath in and a gentle exhale. “I am glorious.”

How does that feel?

I’d really love to know. Let’s talk about it.

The Keys to Your Freedom

I still see Mel Gibson yelling Freedom at the top of his lungs, blue paint on his face, in his we didn’t know you were crazy and a bigot days. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you haven’t seen Braveheart, and in many ways that’s probably okay.

freedom-handcuffs-hands-247851The moment in the film is one where he’s motivating the troops to face a much larger, better equipped, and infinitely better trained army.  And he calls them to action, to sustained and courageous action in the name of freedom.

It’s been a clarion cry since people were people who organized themselves, since people tried to be in charge of other people, since the draw of other people’s stuff tempted the first guy to go take it with force. Freedom.

And it’s clear from history AND from the silver screen that the call to freedom gets people going.

It gets people motivated.

It gets people marching.

It gets people chanting.

It gets people fighting.

The call for freedom in our shared world is loud, persistent, and the consequences for NOT claiming it are all too often real and brutal.

What I’d like to think about on this independence day in the U.S. is the calls for freedom in our inner worlds, which are so often more subtle and more easily dismissed in favor of more “practical” concerns:

  • the cry for freedom that happens in your head as you drive into a job you can’t stand,
  • the cry for freedom that happens in your head as you tough it out in a relationship that doesn’t nurture you in the slightest,
  • the cry for freedom as you buy things you don’t need to feel better,
  • the cry for freedom as you search around for something to believe in that feels like a home rather than a prolonged punishment,
  • the cry for freedom as you hide pieces of yourself to fit in and please people.

Those are all real cries.

They’re not wearing blue face paint and riding a big stallion, but they will if you ignore them too long.

I used to ignore those cries, and I endured the loss of sleep, the anxiety, the gnawing hunger that came with that choice. I tried to move things around. How about this? How about a little graduate school? No, how about doing the same job in a totally different environment? No? I just kept plugging away in situations that were wrong because I was sure that the things that would make me feel free were not available to ME. Sure, someone else might be able to make that work, but not me. I didn’t even really think about it long enough to have an argument with myself very often. I mean, this was what being an adult was, right? You find something you’re decent at that will get you paid and you DO IT. How it makes you feel is just because it’s a job… “That’s why they call it work.”

I rode those feelings in to a job that was draining me of everything I had until I started to have heart palpitations, and until my doctor told me that there was absolutely no way I would ever get pregnant in that condition. I was 37. I believed I was running out of time – another idea that enslaved me.

I ignored the cries of freedom until I could literally physically not ignore them anymore.

I see people do it all of the time. You see we all have these ideas, ideas about what’s possible and what’s right and who we are. Some of those ideas help us feel free and some of them keep us in prison.

So I ask you on this day of independence in the U.S., are there cries for freedom that you are ignoring? Are there signals you’re getting that tell you something’s not right? How loud will you let them get before you listen?

Sometimes after turning a deaf ear for a long time, we don’t even know how to listen anymore. We don’t recognize the call. We don’t recognize the cry as one we can do anything about. It just turns into a sense of how things are wrong and will always be the way they are. It just turns into a sense of impossibility and stuckness. It turns into hopelessness and repetition, stress eating and drinking, suppressed emotions and weariness.

back-view-blonde-hair-countryside-757056Freedom doesn’t feel like that. And sometimes it involves changing your circumstances, but before any of that happens, it involves finding those chains in your head and your heart so you can see them.

Sometimes all you need to do is see them beloveds because you hold the keys.

I’d love to help you find them.

The Benefit of Doubt

Over the last few years I’ve become a close observer of how I interact with other people.

That sounds kind of stalker-esque and creepy.

What I mean is that I’m a lot more aware of what parts of a conversation I’m responsible for, what parts are completely out of my control, and which parts are imagined and therefore none of my business.

Yesterday I heard that I had been left off a list – I didn’t get the invite. It was a pretty big deal – big event, big emotions, old baggage. It was unintentional. Nothing was meant by it, but my mind didn’t want to let it be. It really wanted to turn this into something. It didn’t need me to raise a ruckus about it, but it wanted to chew on it and make it mean something hurtful. I turned to my friend literal listening.

What is literal listening?

blond-blurred-background-cars-825982Literal listening is paying close attention to all of the words that are actually spoken, asking for clarification as needed and, here’s the kicker, not inserting any additional words, interpretations, subtexts, feelings, hostility, or anything else you might be inclined to insert. You take in and respond to exactly what is said.

The key question to literal listening is: “What is (or was) actually being said? What words were used?” Notice there’s no: “What did so and so REALLY mean?” in that formulation. Literal listening assumes that speakers will say what they mean and that listeners will ask for clarification as needed.

Why is literal listening useful?

Literal listening protects our feelings, our energy levels, keeps us from wasting time, and allows us to focus on what is true and necessary. Literal listening does all of this by preventing us from getting into someone else’s business, and by that I mean what they think of us. Let me back up a little here because I don’t think I’ve talked about this for a while. I firmly believe that what other people think of me is absolutely none of my business. It is an idea I personally got from a writer named Byron Katie, but I know it’s around in other places as well. What people have in their heads about me is their problem, not mine. When I spend a lot of time interpreting, inferring, assuming, and detecting, I am actually invading their privacy; let’s face it, while there seems to be less evidence of it these days, adults do self-edit sometimes, and that’s a good thing. If the person you are engaged with has chosen NOT to tell you what they think of you, shouldn’t they have that option? Mightn’t it be better that way?

The important effect here for the late night mind monkeys. Literal listening strips away all of the grist for our rotten story weavers and lets us simply face the facts as we actually KNOW them to be.

When is literal listening helpful?

Literal listening is particularly helpful when we’re interacting with the people in our lives who are difficult or with whom we have baggage: maybe we even know they don’t like us be we are tied to them in some way that makes no contact unavoidable. Maybe we know we don’t like them but haven’t quite managed to rearrange our social circles yet. Maybe it’s a co-worker who is difficult and unpleasant. Maybe it’s a boss who tends to be short with praise and long on condescending looks and deep sighs. Clearly there’s stuff there, but do we really want to enter into the kind of conversation we would have to have to clear it all up with ALL of those people? Would we even have that opportunity? I’m pretty sure there are a lot of work environments where team counseling is not an option. I know there are family situations where that would take years.

Literal listening allows us to engage with the people with whom we have baggage, real or imagined, and still accomplish the things we need to accomplish without taking on more emotional burden.

It allows us to interact with people with whom we have insecurities and maybe old wounds without taking on more hits.

It allows us to continue to function and take responsibility for what we do and say in environments that feel emotionally charged.

It allows us to find some room to simply be and be ourselves and requires adults who have a problem with that to actually come out and say something.

ask-blackboard-356079For me literal listening gives me a way to rewind the tape when my story teller gets rolling. When I am deciding what people think of me, what they REALLY meant, why they did what they did or said what they said or what they REALLY think and then looking for evidence for all of that horrible stuff, I can take a big deep breath and ask myself: “Do I know any of that? Is it true? Was it actually said? What WAS actually said? Am I creating a problem by invading his/her private thoughts? Am I making myself suffer by trying to figure out the subtext?” I can benefit from the doubt that arises when I ask myself these questions.

That doubt allows me to stop the storyteller, and to thank her for trying to protect me all of the time. I can give her a pat on the head and suggest she take a nap while I review the words that were spoken and remove all of the meanings I’m so tempted by old wounds and insecurity to add. I can choose, even if someone really IS being rotten, I can always choose to not take that in and make it part of me, and oh my how much better that feels.

 

I Shall Not Want

Babies want.

adult-baby-bed-225744They want to be fed when they’re hungry.

They want to be changed when they are wet.

They want to be held.

And as their vision improves, they want to touch the shiny things.

I have never met a baby yet that doesn’t want.

It’s part of how they survive, right? They want their needs to be met in specific ways (that last phrase has driven many a new parent completely insane).

We don’t tell them that they are not allowed to want when they are hungry, to be held when they need comfort. We don’t get upset when they want to touch the shiny things.

That all comes later.

At least it does for some of us.

I was raised to not want. I was raised to not want money, to not want nice clothes, to not want more than my share, to not covet, to not desire, and perhaps more importantly – not to express my wanting, my coveting, my desires. My wanting was pressure on a parental structure that was already maxed out. My wanting was a problem for other people and a personal character flaw of mine.

I should be happy that I had anything at all – don’t I know about the people in ________ (insert developing country in the news)? I’m not sure they ever actually said any of that. But the message came through loud and clear – at least it did to me. Christmas lists were requested and then bemoaned. Preferences were investigated and then judged. Being asked what you wanted became a trap. The best answer was nothing. I am perfectly content with everything just as it is. I imagine at least 50% of this story I had going was inferred. I heard it; I interpreted it. I determined what behavior would serve me best and intuited the reasons behind it. Given how all of the members of my family have changed and grown now I can’t possibly honestly say whether or not any of the story I have is accurate. The point isn’t whether or not it was true, but that it was true for me.

There are a lot of references to want in all of the great spiritual teachings and there seems to be some degree of consensus on the the fact that wanting is not necessary, that increased faith, belief, devotion – whatever – will help you to NOT want. This was not the version of not wanting that was part of my childhood endeavor. The version I was participating in was when you see that you do actually have a want and decide that it is a problem so you jam it down in a little mental box. You shame yourself for that desire. You lock it up somewhere internally and feel guilty. This is not a practice that leads to freedom or enlightenment. This is the version of not wanting that is born in, and regenerative of, fear, lack, smallness, and scarcity.

Having done a great deal of work and given it some thought, I now have two reactions to want that I think are equally important, at least to me.

The first reaction is based in the idea that rather than being fundamentally flawed or maybe even a little evil naturally, I am actually pretty wonderful. I am good. I am part of the goodness that exists in the world and my motives, when I don’t start thinking weird things and injecting them with insecurity and fear, are all pretty pure. My wants don’t make me a bad person. We like shiny things. We crave things. We seek experiences. And all of those are clues about who I am, what I am up to, where my path lies and how I can grow. When I am honest with myself about how I feel and who I am my wants are guideposts for the future rather than a rescue ladder for the past. My wants are a dance of imagination, play, and joyful experimentation with the laws of the universe and the will of the Divine.

The second reaction that I have now sees a different path to not wanting – one that is born in gratitude, awareness, awareness and recognition. I shall not want, not because I have no desires, but because I am so deeply aware of the blessings that are already mine. My clarity about the gifts of my life eases my grasping, slows my breathing and enlivens my grateful and great full heart.

I shall not want all of the time because I see the blessings around me. When I DO want, I will pay attention and see what direction my heart is attempting to lead me in. There is no shame in wanting and, in fact just as it does when we are infants, the fullest highest expression of my life may depend on  it.

blur-blurred-blurry-722680I shall not want is inadequate on its own. It is not a standalone piece of wisdom. I shall not want as a way to hide from my feelings. I shall not want as a way to cover my pain. I shall not want without reminding myself to look for blessings. I shall not create rules for myself that close the doors to joy, beauty, and new ways of being. I shall listen to the whispers of my heart and soul. I shall remain open even when fear screams that I should watch my step. I shall honor all of the pieces of me from a place of recognition of just how precious this moment, and all of my moments are. I will want shiny things and I will see all of the ones right there in front of me.

In love and gratitude,

julia

 

What’s in the Way of Better?

accomplishment-ceremony-college-267885When I was younger (said in my geezer voice), I had all of these ideas about when things would be better. First they would be better when I graduated high school. Then they would be better when I graduated college. There was some stuff about boyfriends and relationships all during that time as well – that would definitely make things better. THEN there was the things would be better when our band finally got noticed, when I figured out how to make a living, when I could get my own place (okay that one was TOTALLY true). Sprinkled throughout there was still more better when I don’t have to deal with so and so or better when I can tell that person what I really think.

The point is that place of better was always out there somewhere and the things that were getting in the way were everything. Time and age was in the way. Lack of money was in the way. Other people’s behavior was in the way. So many things that were in the way of my feeling better. Didn’t they all know that I deserved to feel better? That’s a whole separate branch of this tree and it deserves its own post.

This habit of delaying better and tying it to something I had no control over continued on well into my adult years (wait, that’s right, right? I am well into my adult years… holy crap). When I was struggling with infertility, everything would be better if I was pregnant. When I was pregnant everything would be better after my twins were born. When my twins were born everything would be better… yeah, I don’t remember what I thought then. Sleep deprivation is a killer. When my twins were toddlers, everything would be better when they were potty-trained, able to dress themselves, etc, etc, etc. Now my husband is in seminary and I’m sure everything will be better when he’s done. Except for all of the countless ways it will be exactly the same and all of the new ways it will be challenging.

There’s some sort of cliche older person talking to younger person lesson in here. Something about the more things change, the more things stay the same. Wherever you go, there you are. The grass is always greener… There are more of these but my caffeine hasn’t kicked in enough to access more of them. They are right on the money, but they also miss something crucial.

What we miss when we point out that the grass is always greener is that when we make that comparison, we’re spending a whole lot of time looking at someone else’s lawn. It’s not just that it seems better over there, it’s that we’re not looking at here at all. If we spent more time looking at our own yard, we might notice a few things we didn’t see before.

beautiful-flora-flowers-83118We might see the tiny flowers that pop up in the earliest Spring.

We might see the shells in the flower beds that we brought home from a trip to the beach with beloved friends.

We might notice the pair of mockingbirds that nest in the bush.

We also might see that we’ve let the weeds get out of hand. We might notice that some of those come up rather easily.

We might notice some vines are threatening the small trees on the border.

We see the details. We see the “good” and we see the “problems.”

We see it all and can get real about what’s in the way of what we think of as better.

Is it what we’re not acknowledging and celebrating?

Is it what we’re choosing to leave unaddressed?

Is it what we define as better?

When I think about it “good” can only really happen right now, in this moment. When it’s in the past, it is over and when it’s something we are predicting, it is not ours to experience it yet. Good is now and better is here, if only we can see it behind all of the things we’ve let get in the way.