Ask the Body; She Knows

During a sermon on gratitude yesterday, our intern minister referred to a book about America before the Europeans arrived. The central point of the book is revealing the ways that the culture of Native Americans was more “developed” and “evolved” than most of us might suppose.

aerial-architecture-black-and-white-700974As a former social studies teacher the idea was not new to me, but it gave me pause as it clearly demonstrated this idea that we have, at least in the places where I experience the cultural cloud, that being evolved and developed is evidenced by complexity and complication. We are evolved when we live in dense centers of population and develop cultural events and places to hold them, when we do more stuff, when we have more stuff. It’s an interesting premise, an assumption. It’s an assumption I’m not sure I agree with.

It got me to wondering if we make this assumption on an individual level as well. Do we complicate things out of some kind of sense that THIS is what being grown, sophisticated, fulfilled, evolved is all about? I can’t speak for anybody else (as much as I’d like to), but for me the answer is an unqualified yes.

I have often complicated my life because I felt that was the responsible, the practical, the adult thing to do. I have lingered over problems and lived in the pause for months, nay years, at a time because answering a difficult question with the simplicity of what I wanted was unacceptable. I have added things to my life because my culture tells me they are the right things to want, to seek, to add, and to plan for me and for my family. I have chosen complexity as evolution. I am sitting here seeing that so clearly and yet seeing it doesn’t necessarily make clear an alternate path.

This is the part of this tale of complexity and cultural absorption where another writer would encourage you to embrace simplicity: to downsize, to purge all of the trappings of commercial existence. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought books about doing just that – yes the irony is everywhere.

I am not that writer. I can appreciate simplicity but frankly am not that low maintenance (and that’s an admission that has been a long time coming). I greatly enjoy creature comforts. I also really love to have enough room to be by myself despite having a full house. And then, there are the books.

My life is also tied to the lives of at least three other people who have little interest in tiny houses and washing dishes by hand.

So perhaps it’s a cheat, but in challenging this artificial complexity, I want to recommend not a zealous pursuit of simplicity, but the more ambiguous but tremendously revealing practice of discernment.

For those of us who live or have lived with ministers, discernment is a regular part of common speech, but it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of play elsewhere, which is interesting in and of itself. Merriam-Webster tells us that discernment is: “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.”

In the ministerial context, discernment usually refers to sorting out one’s call to ministry: “What is God calling me to do in this moment, in this career, in this life?” In other contexts, discernment really just refers to engaging in a careful examination of the stuff that may not be visible on the surface when you have a choice to make. Discernment is usually seen as a process, one that involves a pause and some serious reflection.

And so I return to this idea of complexity and simplicity in our lives and which path is better for us. We reach complexity through addition: the addition of stuff, the addition of needs and wants, the addition of ideas about who we are and should be, the addition of obligations, the addition of activities, the addition of relationships and connections. We reach simplicity through subtraction of the same list.

It seems to me that we cannot simply say that either complexity or simplicity are inherently virtuous/better/more evolved, but that it is proceeding through our lives with discernment that allows us to be more healthy, better developed, both more human and divine as we navigate the terrain before us.

looking-up-sitting-woman-1588038How do we exercise that discernment? The temptation is to gather data, but I want to suggest an alternate path, one that digs into the obscure bits that don’t usually get featured in our pro-con way of making choices.

When we want to add to our lives: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this addition. Does it feel light, expansive, warm, excited? Does it feel heavy, tied down, drained, exhausted? The body can help you to discern how you feel about things that you may not feel good about saying out loud (even to yourself).

When we want to subtract: be still for a moment and see how the body feels with the idea of this subtraction. Does it feel more free? Does breathing become deeper and more satisfying? Does the body contract and shrink? The body can tell you when it’s time to let go of something and when something should be maintained.

Discernment can be tricky. You mind has a library of books full of stories between you and the answers to the questions you ask, the choices you long to make. What if the body can light up that darkness with some clarity? What if the way that you actually feel can make the obscure tangible?

As we enter into this season of gratitude and gathering, take a moment to check in with that body and see what she has to say about all of this. Where does your complexity fill your cup? When does simplicity feed your soul? What choices are actually so much simpler than your brain wants them to be?

Ask your body. She knows.

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.