The Rocks We Cling To

A few weeks ago I sang with my church choir. We sang a hymn that was one of my Dad’s very favorites. Whenever I hear it, I can see him sitting, eyes closed, at our beloved Chautauqua Institute, leaning his head back as if to take in the sound fully. Getting through the piece without tears was a surprise and a welcome signal that I am coming into the time when I can remember my Dad with joy in addition to my sorrow for the loss.

beach-clouds-cloudy-557067There is a line in the hymn: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging…” The arrangement we performed really swells and sweeps in this moment and it feels like both storm and strength. I can see it, the figure in the water holding onto that rock amidst the cresting waves and the dark sky. The hymn reminds us of the joy, the peace that can be found using love as our rock, our foundation.

I know, not just from my own experience, but from so the stories so many others have shared with me, that love is not always the rock we cling to. We cling to all kinds of rocks hoping to weather those storms. We cling to tradition (or at least the “way we’ve always done it”); we cling to rightness; we cling to stability; we cling to stories.

What I’ve found is that there are many rocks that will help us SURVIVE. In times of trouble, we can turn lots of place to muddle through, to endure, to get by, to get through, to get past. But some of those rocks, they leave us cut and bleeding, wounded by the clinging rather than by the storm.

Some of those rocks are old stories we have about who we are. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I HAVE to do XYZ. I really SHOULD or SHOULDN’T.” These are the guideposts we develop when things get tough, and sometimes they really do help us. The thing is that once they are in place, they sort of become furniture, or bricks, unquestioned in purpose or validity. It’s there; it should be there. It’s ALWAYS been there. It is truth and when I suspect it’s not, I am wrong; I am bad. I am flawed and a failure because I can’t live within the story I’ve created for myself. And yet we cling. We cling to those stories.

We cling to those rocks not because we are stupid. We cling to those rocks not because we don’t want better. We cling to those rocks because we are scared. We are scared to question what we know. We are scared to do things differently. We are scared to try on a new story because the outcome is unknown.

And so we cling to those rocks and get cut and bruised and hold on with our teeth chattering from the cold. We stay stuck because it feels safer. We stay stuck because it’s what we know. We stay stuck because for us or for someone we love getting unstuck means breaking the rules. We stay stuck because we are afraid we’ll lose everything if we imagine a new way. We’ll lose our friends and family. We’ll lose the community and relationships we’ve cultivated. We’ll be that outsider – unwelcome in the ring of humans around the fire. Cold, alone, abandoned.

It’s old this coping mechanism. And by that I mean it’s human evolution old, not just you personally old. Our tendency to define our possibilities using a pretty narrow scope and a shallow field ensures our acceptability in the tribe and we need the tribe to survive, even if it means everybody in that tribe is clinging to their own brutal rock.

It’s a grim picture, but being somewhat drawn to the image, I want to extend this metaphor just one step farther. If you are clinging to a rock that hurts, I want to know if you’ve tried to touch the bottom with your feet. I want to know how convinced you are that you can’t stand up. I want to know what would happen if you just let go? Even I, a confirmed “sinker” in a lifetime of swimming lessons, can float with the occasional small maneuver. What would happen if instead of clinging to that brutal rock, you just let go and see where the storm takes you?

beach-dawn-dusk-128458There are some things I can tell you about storms on the water. First and foremost: they always end. Secondly, they bring up all kinds of miraculous and beautiful things (just ask any shell collector). Thirdly, when they are over, the beach is there and the sun emerges, and more often than not there is someone who will help you find your towel.

Maybe it’s time to trade in your rock, or maybe it’s time to just float.

The Self-Help Swiss Army Knife

I’ve been thinking about getting Swiss Army knives for my kids for Christmas, and I confess that this is likely a result of some ridiculously romantic notion of them cheerfully whittling on the back porch without cutting their fingers off and in lieu of some other pursuit that I find idiotic, but I’ve been thinking about it nonetheless. I have always been in awe of the massive amount of utility packed in such a relatively small container that is the Swiss Army Knife.

What tools will make me feel betterAnd then I got to thinking about that idea – a group of tools all hooked together and easily accessed, thus the idea of a Self-Help Swiss Army Knife was born. I began to seriously consider what tools in my toolbox I would recommend that people take on an adventure where outcomes are uncertain and pragmatism can be invaluable. And so, as a holiday gift to you all, I’ve come up with my Self-Help Swiss Army Knife (SHSAK) – although as I am a writer and coach and not a bookseller, it is sort of a DIY version (something I think I’d recommend against when it comes to an actual Swiss Army Knife – my Youtube search yielded lots of DIY to do WITH these knives and one actual “melee” weapon made of Legos).

So the Self-Help Swiss Army Knife needs to provide both the basic daily functionality of a plain old pocket knife and the extra bells and whistles (ok, corkscrews and toothpicks) of the real deal. Everybody with me?

Tool #1: A stillness practice. It can be meditation, but that word makes a lot of people anxiously flee (which they could prevent with meditation, but that’s not a helpful observation). The idea of and the procedures of meditation turn a lot of folks off, but there are many ways to develop a stillness practice – here’s one example, for more Google “sit spot”. What’s the point? The point is just like the one for the main blade of that knife. A stillness practice will cut away the crap. It gets you closer to what you actually want and need and gives you a break from the excess EVERYTHING. Sounds pretty good, right?

Tool #2: A body practice. What? Develop rituals, exercise, habits that put you in touch with your body. We spend so much time in our heads that we rarely give these amazing containers the attention that they deserve, and much of the attention we do give them is negative (a list of things we don’t like about them or recognition only when there is ailment). Paying attention to how your body feels and cultivating better physical feeling is both deeply rewarding and revealing about what is going on with you emotionally while you’re thinking about your holiday gift buying list. A body practice, like that nail trimmer on the knife, gets us focused on necessary self-care in a way that can only promote wellness over time.

Tool #3: Some method of journaling – this need not be written. If verbal expression isn’t your thing, maybe art OR maybe you hate to write, but love to talk. Find a way to express what’s going on in there in a stream of consciousness sort of way – no rules, no judgments, no grammar, no erasing, just get it all out there. Journaling is the can opener of the SHSAK. Let’s open it up and see what’s inside.

Tool #4: Now that we’re taking a look. Let’s magnify that vision a bit. For this, I heartily recommend Byron Katie’s The Work, a process of inquiry that she describes in her book Loving What Is. The author teaches us how to ask questions of our beliefs and our assumptions so that we can stop being hampered, tortured, made anxious and unhappy by things that aren’t necessarily true. It is a great tool for taking a closer look at what we think and believe and how it is impacting us.

Tool #5: Brooke Castillo’s The Model as described in Self-Coaching 101. This book is amazing. In it the author basically describes how to identify and change thought patterns that keep us stuck, prevent growth, and cause misery. Does she promise a totally happy life? No, but she promises a conscious one, where you get to make decisions about how you think and feel. This is the wire cutter and wire crimper of the SHSAK. It can also take care of small annoyances like the toothpick. Now THAT’s a useful tool.

Tool #6: Once you rearrange your assumptions, you may feel a little adrift. Any time you’re feeling adrift Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star makes an excellent compass for finding your way home – or to a new home. Okay, most Swiss Army Knives don’t have a compass, but I think we can all agree that they should, so the SHSAK definitely has one and this book is it.

Tool #7: The Fear Chair exercise as described by Liz Gilbert in Big Magic. The author talks about the power of fear to stop us in our tracks, regardless of how excited we might be about our endeavor. The answer? To put fear in its place. It can be here. It can exist. But it cannot drive. It cannot make decisions. It cannot run the show. This exercise is a great screwdriver. Pull it together, make it functional and go.

Growing and changingTool #8: Recognition and celebration. Growth and change are hard – that’s why so many of us avoid it at all costs. Notice your progress. Notice your accomplishments. Notice the way your life changes as you become more yourself. Break out a corkscrew and celebrate with a glass of champagne, or curl up with your favorite blanket and a book at a time you wouldn’t normally allow yourself such a treat. Give yourself a pat on the back and a big hug.

There you have it; a toolkit for self-transformation. If only I could fit them all into my pocket or yours.