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?



They’re Cashews, Not Communion

Yesterday I arrived home from a weeklong visit to the Chautauqua Institution, a wonderful place in New York that my family visits every summer. It’s really difficult to describe Chautauqua, and so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that. What does or doesn’t go on there isn’t really the point of this story anyway. The point of this story has to do with what being at Chautauqua does for ME.

When I am on my vacation, I attend a short worship service most days (but only if the preacher of the week is really good because mornings). I also take in two lectures most days, topics determined by a theme for the week. One takes place in a large amphitheater and the other in a smaller venue called the Hall of Philosophy. So with just these things, being on this trip gives me all kinds of fuel. Fuel for my spirit, fuel for my brain.

actors-artists-ballet-45258I am also there with family, so I get all kinds of connective fuel. I plug back into relationships and watch my kids and extended family do the same, getting to those conversations that take more than a lunch date, phone call, or even Sunday dinner can allow. In our home away from home we also have access to concerts, ballet performances, plays, visual arts galleries, and even a few comedians. So I get a big dollop of culture while I’m there as well.

Now, if you’ve hung in with me, I appreciate the trust, because this is not a commercial about my favorite place. Frankly I don’t need anyone making it harder to get tickets, but I wanted to show you how FULL my week was, how packed with things that are nourishing to me, how abundant the goodness. And I didn’t even mention the lake, the wooded walks, and the chipmunks… SO FULL.

And so I leave at the end of the week admittedly a little tired because I hate to miss a single opportunity and it’s a LOT of stimulation. There’s not a ton of downtime for this introvert. But even with that slight imbalance when I come home, to my life that really is pretty great, it feels a little empty.

After spending all day in the car yesterday, I stayed home this morning with our old canine buddy who is still working on forgiving us for leaving him… well, okay he doesn’t actually appear to be working on it at all, but I trust forgiveness will come anyway at some point because dogs are like that. In staying home I had the opportunity to catch up on some things I needed to do: some music I really needed to practice, some laundry I needed to get going, a little more unpacking because we ran out of gas to finish last night after the drive… and here I am in a lovely home, having some peace and quiet like I often really really want and honestly, it doesn’t feel all that great.

The funny thing is I didn’t really notice it, that it didn’t feel so great, until I noticed myself dipping a little desperately into the container of whole cashews. If you’re not a cashew fan, let me just catch you up by pointing out that they are VERY satisfying for hunger and they are a favorite gap filler of mine.

I noticed as I was attending to my bits, carting laundry around, making some iced tea, stopping to pet the annoyed dog and talk to him in hope of speeding reconciliation along, that I just kept dipping into the jar. Munch, munch, munch. I noticed after a couple of dips, that unlike the first foray, it really wasn’t about physical hunger at all anymore.

And I heard in my head: “They’re cashews, not communion Jules.” We can talk about the voices in my head if you want, but it could take awhile. So let’s just suffice it to say that this was the voice of the wiser and sometimes kind of impatient me, the one who wonders how many times I need to hear something before I get it. This lesson was about the use of food in inappropriate ways. This lesson was about covering up how I felt and failing to see what I really wanted.

I wanted to feel FULL. I wanted to feel bursting at the seams full. I wanted to feel all of the full feelings I got to feel for a week, but I was using the wrong tools. I wasn’t craving food, well, at least not after the first handful. I was craving the feeling being full, deeply satisfied, plugged into my body and my mind. I wanted to feel like there are so many amazing and brilliant people out there doing good work and so many more who are just on the verge of that and maybe don’t even know it yet. I wanted to feel like anything is possible, and that every single one of us has gifts beyond measure, even if we aren’t the one dancing Acteon’s part in the ballet. I wanted to feel full of new ideas and inspiration. I wanted to feel plugged in to the people who matter most and to myself. I wanted to feel full.

But cashews aren’t communion and so I put the jar away. I wasn’t hungry anymore anyway. They were just filler.

adult-boy-child-325521Yesterday in the car I made a list of actions I want to take that reflect some of the parts of our vacation that I want to extend into my “regular” life. I’m going to take another look at that list and see if it is listening to what I’m hungry for, and when my seminarian gets home from the service he was wise enough to go to in spite of fatigue, we’re going to check a couple of those boxes off, add the things/people/experiences we want to have to feel that good full, that deeply satisfied feeling. Because that’s really what it’s about right? Having the presence of mind to see what we’re REALLY hungry for and then figuring out what to do about it. Cashews aren’t communion. Cookies aren’t love. Physical fullness doesn’t do anything for a case of the soul empties. It’s all just cover and I can do better for all of me.

If you and your taste buds can’t seem to get a handle on what you’re really hungry for, I’d love to help.

30 Days of Freedom

I’ve been doing a little experiment, 30 Days of Freedom. It was all on Facebook, so if you haven’t seen it, find me and friend up! It has really been an interesting ride and frankly, I can’t recommend my experiment enough. The idea was to consciously choose an action every day that made me feel more free.

Choose to feel freeSome of the things that I chose to do were concrete, tangible, like jumping on my kids’ trampoline. Other actions really brought me face to face with how I think and how that makes me feel. And that’s the real lesson here for all of the freedom assignments I gave myself. The real lesson lies in the conscious examination of what was going on in my head that made me feel constrained, confined, limited. It’s life coaching 101, and I got a thirty day dose. I claim feeling more free as my goal, which means consciously looking in the spaces of constraint and limitation is a must.

Jumping on my kids’ trampoline wasn’t about having fun, although it was, mostly, fun. It wasn’t about looking silly, although that was surely part of it as well. It was about challenging my tendency to dismiss moments of silliness and play in favor of productivity and work. It was about finding the playfulness that I forget is just as important as the other things I feel. It was about firmly telling my inner timekeeper that I really DID have 10 minutes to go outside (without walking the dog) and simply play. This is a thought that I need to consciously practice. I could come up with a neat explanation for why my head works that way, but it’s not really the point. What’s really important is seeing what I’m thinking and challenging it, questioning, asking if it serves me, and if it doesn’t, trying on a different thought.

The importance of the thoughts over the actions I was choosing to take became crystal clear to me over the weekend. My sister and I had cooked up a long weekend at the Delaware shore with our families. My kids were really excited to see and get in the ocean, and I was excited to see it and spend time away with loved ones. As we prepared for the trip I began to think about my freedom challenge, and my recent lack of enthusiasm for really getting in the ocean (beyond say calf deep). It occurred to me that this could be a great freedom challenge. I used to get in the ocean. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed that. At some point I became more aware of large and dangerous sea creatures and that combined with a growing sense of my own mortality convinced me that calf high was just about right. But that policy felt limiting. It felt uncomfortable. I felt like I was missing out. So I hatched a plan to really do it this time, to get in, to share the ocean with my kids the way my Mom shared it with me, fully immersed and jumping over waves.

The first day we were there I sort of used as my prep day. I stared the ocean down a bit, while marveling at the beauty. I felt myself get used to the chilly water. I felt the salt on my skin and in the air. I watched my kids and my nephew and remembered how much fun it was. I prepared. On Friday, I vowed, I would get in. I would challenge this fear to release myself from it. I would be more free… tomorrow.

And so Friday came, and with it came monster waves. I have NEVER seen waves like that in the Mid-Atlantic. They were Hawaii quality waves. They were giant. They were relentless. The undertow was VERY strong. The red flags were up on the lifeguard chairs down on the guarded beach. And so I sat with my challenge. And I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed of being afraid. I felt ashamed of waiting to claim a little freedom. I felt ashamed of the fact that I did not want to get in that ocean. I felt ashamed of reigning my kids in and limiting their experience, afraid I was just foisting limiting baggage onto them. I got myself pretty hemmed in with all of that shame and fear. It felt pretty awful.

And then I remembered. I remembered that my freedom challenge wasn’t about doing things I was afraid of. It was about the reasons. It was about the thoughts. It was about the stories I tell myself about what I choose and don’t choose. Watching grown men and women exit the ocean out of breath and a little scared proved to be all the data I needed to snap out of it. I wasn’t letting fear RULE me, I was choosing. I was choosing for me and choosing for my feather-weight kids. I was choosing based on the information that was all around me, not because of my ancient distrust of sharks. I was CHOOSING. THAT is what it feels like to be free, I just didn’t recognize it. I got so caught up in changing my behavior I forgot to look at what I was thinking. I have been afraid of the ocean because of sharks. This weekend I was afraid of not being a strong enough swimmer to guide myself and my kids through the roughest surf I have ever been in. THAT is different. I looked around and noticed that all of the other Moms thought it was different too.

true freedom is an inside jobThe only thing that was keeping me from being free in the surf this weekend was me. I set myself up and then tore myself down for being a responsible parent. I set myself up and then forgot about the whole point. I forgot that I have the power to choose the story I tell myself. I forgot that I have the power to make decisions as I like, as they serve me, that I can choose to feel shame or I can choose to simply choose presence in the face of the sand and surf. I can choose disappointment for my children or I can choose gratitude for the experience that we WERE having, which was pretty amazing. I can choose what I call freedom for me and choose how and when I push those boundaries. I can choose. Free.

Is Happiness the Wrong Goal?

“I just want to be happy.” I hear it ALL the time. I read it everywhere. It’s like a moaning mantra. It’s an interesting sentence in many ways. What does it mean to be happy? How different would that definition be for different people? Does this mantra suggest that you mean you want to be happy ALL the time, for five minutes, for some percentage of the day? And how about that JUST – is it ONLY or is it as though this is a small thing to want?

Our dogged pursuit of happiness as a goal has taken us in so many different directions, it seems pretty clear to me that the definition of happiness, or at least what is believed to be necessary to get there, is REALLY different for different people. And I think the thought of being happy all the time, no matter what your definition, is kind of funny. How would you even know that you WERE happy if that was all you felt? There’s a lot of trust there that your mind wouldn’t find SOMETHING to be bothered about, something to mourn, something to struggle with. Maybe your mind is cleaner than mine, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what my circumstances, I’m not going to be happy all the time. And so as for that “just,” if we’re talking all the time, being happy is no small feat. It takes work. It takes mental work. And when we have to do that… well, we’re not always happy. See what I mean?

How to be happy is the wrong question
All of the baggage that surrounds this notion of “just being happy” makes it worth considering that maybe happiness isn’t the best goal. What could we strive for instead of happiness? There’s another question that we’d likely get a variety of answers to, but I want to share what I learned from Sebastian Purcell over the summer. He’s a professor of philosophy who studies the Aztecs (as mentioned in this previous post), and it would seem that the Aztecs thought the proper goal for our striving was, rather than happiness,  something they called “rootedness,” becoming deeply tied to and nourished from several sources. I was immediately intrigued by the idea, and that grew when I heard just HOW the Aztecs suggested one become more rooted.

In Aztec philosophy, the way to achieving the good life was marked by becoming rooted in four different ways: 1) rooted in one’s own body, 2) rooted in one’s own psyche, 3) rooted in one’s community, and 4) rooted in the universe. Oh, okay. Easy. Done. Yeah, no. That sounds like a tall order, so what are we really talking about here?

I have to say I absolutely LOVE that the first principle is becoming rooted in one’s own body. In my work with clients attempting to lose weight, I have seem so many people who only address their bodies with negativity, who have stopped listening to their own bodies’ language, and who don’t even want to look at their beloved spirit shells. For the Aztecs, the body was a source of sacred connection and nurturing. They emphasized this importance by recommending that people do something like yoga every day to be in tune with their bodies and balance “competing energies” within the body. For modern westerners at least, I think we could go a little more basic with some body awareness: cultivating the ability to really feel how your body feels, to pay attention to those signals (hunger, pain, fatigue), to pay attention and be fully present when we do something that feels physically good, to find ways to eat and move that are not just enjoyable for the chattering brain, but that make our bodies FEEL good, so we can become rooted, grounded and nurtured through our bodies.

The second principle is also really interesting in that the Aztecs saw becoming rooted in the psyche as an act of balancing desire and longing with judgment. The believed that good judgment is learned and tempers or informs, but does not destroy, our desire. Boy does that sound healthy! I can attest to the way that some of us use our “good judgment” to completely overwhelm, override, and dismiss our desire. We rely on our good judgment alone to take us toward our goals, losing sight of where those goals were born in the first place. If they are not born of desire, that’s a long row to hoe. To be rooted in one’s psyche, desire and judgment work together to inform our actions and allow us to be both grounded and nourished, rooted.

Thirdly the Aztecs believed that rootedness is cultivated in the community. Social cooperation is critical to the growth and health of a community AND to the rootedness of the individual. In other words, the roles that you play in society, the tasks you take on, are not only for the benefit of others, but for our own individual benefit. We become nourished by participating. We become grounded by interacting and working together with others. It sounds obvious when I say it, but in our 24/7 culture it is all to easy to let these kinds of things fall by the wayside. It is all to easy to let community involvement fall to the end of the list, forgetting that it is part of who we are, that it’s not just part of serving others but in being our best selves, rooted.

Finally, the Aztecs believed that rootedness can grow by developing a sense of being part of the larger energy of the universe. For them, the way there was either through religious drugs or through the study of philosophy. In my experience, there are other ways. Meditation has, for me, always been an inroad to a sense that I am part of something greater. Standing at the edge of the ocean has the same effect. When I look around at a large gathering of people and take the others in, see them as individuals and see the group, see the purpose they are there for, take in their connectedness I also feel a touch of the divine. It would seem that my willingness to slow down, to be present, to notice my place in the physical world and in my community is a way to be rooted in the universe.

Real happiness comes from being rooted.
The interesting thing about all of this, is that as I think about it, even as I type it all out, I feel pretty happy. Maybe it’s just my definition of happiness, but being that in touch, that connected with myself and the people around me, that sounds pretty great. Maybe the Aztecs knew something we didn’t. Maybe by taking our sights off of “happiness” as a goal and developing our sense of “rootedness,” we get to be truly happy a lot more of the time.

Looking Back at Happier Times…

This weekend we joined a small but loving group in bidding a final farewell to one of our closest friends. He had passed away 6 years ago, and his parents had been thinking about where to spread his ashes for a few years since. They then did a bit of a tour to friends and places that were sacred to their son so we could all lay him to rest exactly where he’d want to be, near the people he cared for the most. It was hard, but peaceful and we were delighted to all be together in his memory and then making new memories as we shared an evening together.

The whole event, predictably, made me think back to our time together. We were friends long before my children were born and we formed a group of 4 couples who had a whole lot of fun together. We traveled. We celebrated. We played. We drank and ate with abandon. We stayed up late and had absurd conversations. We talked quietly about things that mattered. And we laughed, a lot.

It is bittersweet to look back now, having lost a core member of that group. The whole thing got me to thinking about how I often used to look back at some “happier” time, a time where things were less difficult in some way, or perhaps where I, in retrospect, think I had something going that was RIGHT. In my conversations with people, it seems a lot of us feel this way, that there were certain eras in our past where things were just better.

Lots of folks in the personal development world will tell you that looking back is a huge stumbling block, that the present and the future are the proper place to set your sights. I get why they’re saying it, because there can be an awful lot of murk and muck back there to get our feet stuck in. There can be a lot of regret and self-blame and other-blame and family complications and deep sticky tarry complexity. But what about when we think back on “happier” times?

Here’s what I think. Sometimes those times just seem happier because our minds are selective and not so great at saving the whole roll of film (yes, I am old, it used to come in rolls, because there was film… oh never mind). So that’s one thing, but I also think there is a valuable way to look back at the past, at your happier times, even if your memories of that tie are incomplete. This kind of backward gaze allows you to figure out what you’re missing now. Huh?

When we look back at our happier times, we so often focus on the circumstances that surrounded us: a job, a relationship, people, maybe even a different town or city. We mourn our inability to recreate those circumstances and feel defeated, maybe even feel stuck or trapped in our current situation. But looking back at the circumstances is keeping our view restricted in such a shallow way. It’s like looking at one snapshot of a family gathering and thinking you understand the whole event.

I was happier then.
So what’s he best way to look back at happier times? The view that will really help you in your current situation is to look back at how you felt. If you are thinking those days were so much better, it’s time to figure out how you felt then. What kinds of things did you think about? How did you feel that you don’t feel now?

Let me demonstrate. I can look back on those days with my gang of 8 and remember some of how I felt, what made it so special. I felt accepted. I felt included and cared for. I felt a little wild sometimes. I felt free. I felt safe. I felt at home.

So if I’m looking back with longing, the question is, what is the feeling that am I longing for? What feelings am I missing? What am I craving? Which of those feelings could I use a little more of today? Truth is I’m a really lucky woman, and I’ve done a lot of work over the last several years to get a whole bunch of those feelings back. I feel accepted (by myself most importantly). I feel included by friends and family. I feel cared for (again, more so by myself than in the past). I feel safe. I feel at home.

What are you missing?
So, if I’m missing those days of yore, it mostly has to do with wildness and freedom, and hey, I’m working on it. I’ve been challenging myself, my current older/wiser/parenting self to feel out what freedom looks like now. I don’t need to recreate my freedom and wildness from then; it won’t fit me now. It won’t feel good. I need to just use the feeling as the target and figure out what I need to think to feel that way. My 30 Days of Freedom Challenge that I’ve been doing for the last twenty-something days has shown me perfectly that I can feel so much freer today WITHOUT turning the clock back, WITHOUT changing my circumstances considerably, even WITH my current responsibilities, because freedom is what it has always been, an inside job. It is all about what I’m thinking. When I think differently, I find those feelings. I feel better. I feel more free.

When you look back on an earlier time, what do you see? Do you imagine yourself happier, stronger, more creative, less encumbered? What feeling do you crave from your past, from your youth, from other times? Leave the circumstances as they are. Find the feeling and think your way right into it. I can show you how.