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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.

A Soul Walk

I have, at many times in my life, been a planner. This isn’t to say I’m particularly good at planning, as many disappointed friends and family members will attest to, but it does mean that I like to plan ahead for the things I’m trying to do. I like to know what’s coming. I like a certain sense of order, and when presented with spontaneous suggestions, I confess I am prone to a lot of blinking that signals internal processing (or stuckness).

composition-materials-notebook-760720I’ve planned my way through many things. I planned my way through college and two graduate programs. I planned my way through twin babies and toddlers. I planned my way through household budgets and family gatherings and career changes. And while a great deal of that planning has served me well, I know it’s not the only way to get things done. I also know sometimes planning is not the best way to get things done. I know this because I am also a musician.

I’ve written hundreds of songs – including about 20 that I actually like. I’ve also performed with different folks and had spontaneous moments of music magic that we couldn’t possibly have planned for. I’ve had terrible gigs turn into great evenings because of one small moment of inspiration.

And music isn’t the only place this has happened for me. My decision to become a life coach wasn’t really planned out. I had been thinking for a long time about what to do for work when the kids got settled in elementary school, but life coach hadn’t even surfaced as an option. When it did come up, it was like bells going off in my head. There was no need for a spreadsheet and a five year plan. It was time. The choice was clear.

Even having had those experiences of spontaneous beauty, though, my planning self tends to lead the charge. Because I know that I have this tendency and because I’ve seen the wonderful things that can emerge in other more intuitive ways, I’ve developed a practice that helps me stay in touch with that more soulful side, that helps me stay open to solutions and decisions that don’t seem to fit in the flow chart. It’s called a soul walk.

A soul walk is just about the most simple thing you could ever do. You don’t need any special equipment, unless the weather where you are is like the weather here in which case water is always advisable. All you need is some time and a willingness to quiet the internal hubbub.

On a soul walk, you begin walking any way you want. If you take walks regularly, you can even start on your usual path. Take deep breaths as you walk and notice what’s going on in the world around you, suspending judgment if you can. “There’s construction noise” rather than “There’s a whole lot of effing construction noise that makes me really angry” for example. Keep breathing.

daylight-daytime-fashion-906106When your breathing helps to quiet the monkey mind inside, start to pay attention to how you feel when you reach an intersection or any other opportunity to change course. When you see that intersection coming, just ask: “Which way should I go?” and see if you feel a pull. Don’t question it. Don’t fight it: “But that street has no shade. I hate that street. If I go that way I have to walk on the squishy mulberries on the sidewalk.” Whatever. Follow the pull, even if you think you’re only having a pull because I told you there might be a pull.

Let yourself be guided as though you have an inner compass telling you which way to turn at each intersection and keep breathing.

Notice if the pulls get stronger as you follow them. Notice what happens if you don’t follow a particular pull. Notice what happens when you just keep breathing while you walk. My guess is that at the very least you will have a peaceful walk that leaves you refreshed and feeling a little more confident, a little more supported, maybe even a little buoyant.

We make so many choices on any given day. And so many of those choices require us to weigh the pros and cons, do some calculations, negotiate with someone else; it’s easy to lose track of our own knowing, our own internal compass, the guidance that lets us walk with ease through the world.

Sometimes all we need is a little practice.

When was the last time you listened for direction from that quietest part of yourself? How long has it been since you felt that internal pull?

Maybe it’s time for a walk.

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.

I Will Not Be Shamed

Someone tried to spank me on Facebook yesterday. I had posted a picture of myself after a haircut, something I do pretty much every time I get a cut as a way to celebrate doing something nice for myself and to continually work on the fear of being SEEN, real pictures of the real me at real (although admittedly well-styled, at least on my head) moments in my real life. I guess there were a lot of posts on my page yesterday, because I gave a sermon at my church and provided the music on Sunday, and folks had posted pictures and recordings of that. At any rate, the spanking…

artist-circus-clown-476Someone commented: “Wow Julia for someone who seems so private you seem to need a lot of attention.” It was followed by the obligatory: “LOL,” as a way to say I’m not really insulting you. Other favorite FB devices that serve this b.s. purpose include: “Just saying…” and the ubiquitous winky emoticon. This digital attempt to use humor to diffuse criticism is something I am VERY well versed in. It’s dishonest. It’s dishonest to pretend it’s a joke and it’s dishonest to believe you are NOT being critical when you do it. Mini-rant over; back to the larger rant.

So wow. Yeah. And I felt it for a minute, because let’s face it, the LOL, the “just saying,” and the winky face don’t really do anything about the words, do they? I felt that accusation. It fed right into old stories of mine about bragging, being too proud, trying to get the spotlight, things that were actively discouraged in my home.

Those stories are things I’ve worked on, but they’re still there, so when I received the FB spank, I had to take a few minutes. My initial response (internally) was not very friendly to the speaker, but it was also tinged with self-doubt. You can tell this is true because I DID go back and look at what I’d been posting that day. Was I asking for attention? Was I showing off? Was I shining too bright a light on the good things that had happened over the last 48 hours? ALL of that is spin, nonsense, garbage, old stuff that’s meant to keep me small.

My retort was sassy, but unnatural. I hid how it made me feel with false confidence: “I don’t actually need it at all. People just keep giving it.” I thought that would be adequate. He persisted. “I almost believe you… Sorta. It’s all good. You’re a babe regardless. LMAO.” Oh, thank goodness he thinks I’m good looking. I continued to respond with my put on self-confidence and he eventually surrendered, which I confess is my goal in these situations, BUT it left a mark AND it reminded me of some things.

It left a mark because it brought up old stuff that I’ve been working on but didn’t particularly want to dance with on a particularly good day. It also left a mark because dammit, can’t a girl just be happy about haircut? Can’t a girl just share the good things that are happening? Can’t a girl just be proud for a minute? Would it have been a problem if a man had posted photos of his recent speaking engagement, his golf score, himself all dressed up for a special night? WHY is this a problem?

It makes people uncomfortable. And to that I respond with a resounding: “Sorry. Not sorry.” I’m sorry if you are not comfortable sharing the wins in your life and if you were raised to believe that you should not crow when something has gone right. I mean that. I really am. That’s the part I’m sorry about.

What I’m not sorry about is that my newly found lack of shame and conscious decision to stop playing small makes you uncomfortable. You can challenge me if you really need to, but I won’t be pushed back into the closet. I won’t.

And I want to ask you to do something, which I acknowledge I have no real right to do, but if you’ve read this far, maybe you’ll be game.

alone-boulders-idyllic-426893If you get uncomfortable when people share their best bits, I want you to take a minute and think of something you are proud of, and even if you don’t feel ready to share it, just sit with it. Feel what it’s like to congratulate yourself, to revel in the good thing you are or did or had or made for yourself. Bathe yourself in praise for just a moment. It’s really okay. Nobody can stop you in your head. Nobody can ask you who you think you are or tell you you’re too big for your britches. You get to just enjoy it. If you’re ready to take it a step further, share it with me. Send me a little note so that I can read it and then say: “That’s awesome. Yay you!”

This is how we rise. Not even a little bit sorry for that friends.

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.

What’s in the Way?

I’m getting some guidance from an exceedingly wise and savvy master coach. She is tremendously helpful. AND she pushes me. And that’s what I signed up for, but you know how that goes. When you find these people, you know it’s a gift, but oh my. Before she asked me anything I promised myself I would go “all in” on this relationship. In other words, no half measures, no diddling around. Everything she suggests will be attempted. This is not the way I usually operate, which is the point, right?

alcohol-alcoholic-drink-1484So she stepped right out of the leading gate and wondered if I would consider giving up alcohol while we work together. It is a four month commitment. The potential health benefits alone (improved sleep, less peri-menopausal interference) of such a move should be enough for me to immediately get on board with that experiment. But I wasn’t on board. I was not at all on board. In fact, my resistance was pretty strong.

And THAT gave me pause. There was an initial panic: “Am I an alcoholic? Why is this a big deal? Why am I even hesitating? Do I have a problem?” This line of inquiry proved rabbit-hole filled and so I shifted my lens. I moved from fear and judgment – the need to discern and neatly categorize myself – into curiosity.

Why IS this a big deal? What am I getting out of my relationship with alcohol? Am I resisting because it is change? The tenor of these questions was very different than that initial panic reaction. It was genuine curiosity, like looking at the patterns of veins in a leaf or growth rings on a tree stump. “Wow. Look at that. Huh.”

And so I sat with her suggestion overnight, just being with my discomfort at my discomfort, noticing it, seeing it, working not to judge and just notice. Taking this stance, of curiosity and observation, made it a lot easier to really consider what was going on and figure out what I wanted to do about it.

Ultimately I decided to follow her suggestion (with a one week exception when I am on vacation with some food and wine oriented folks who always combine those nicely) in part because I promised myself to be all in, but also because of the reaction it caused. It was pretty clear to me that my attachment to the bottle was stronger than I wanted it to be (and here’s where my mind can go crazy with that and make it MUCH bigger than it needs to be) and I thought about what it does, the wine (my drink of choice).

I can say I drink it for the taste, and I do, but I’d be lying if I said that was all of it. I enjoy that warm feeling. I enjoy the softening of the edges it brings. I like the mellow relaxation it ushers in. THAT is truth. And I know that constantly warming myself, softening my edges, and finding the mellow zone is keeping me from some experiences, some realities, some feelings, and some thoughts that could use my attention. I’m not sure I know what those are, but the attachment/the resistance tells me that they are there, waiting for my attention.

And so I have embarked on this four month experiment. It has only been a couple of days and I can already say that skipping the glass or two in the evening has produced some physical differences. I am sleeping more deeply. I also don’t seem to need as much sleep. I wake up more quickly with a clearer head. The morning caffeine that had been on the rise now seems excessive. My body is noticing and appreciating the break.

My mind? That’s going to take longer I’m afraid, as it usually does. But the process of considering this change and ultimately making this decision in the interest of commitment and authenticity, reminds me to ask you what might be getting in your way. What are you using to avoid, delay, ignore, or subdue how you feel about things? What habits are keeping you from living more fully, in a more engaged way, with more consciousness and clearer choices? What change are you resisting with everything you’ve got?

bed-blanket-female-450056Listen, I’m not suggesting we all go monastic here. No sleeping on pallets or hair shirts required. I do, however, think there’s value in looking at what we use for comfort or distraction and asking ourselves what it’s really doing for us. What is under the desire for comfort, for numbing, for relaxation, for soothing? They are uncomfortable questions to be sure, but looking at them, seeing them, noticing what arises when we actually sit with that discomfort, THAT is a part of the path to freedom, the place where you know you can handle any feeling, the place where you know yourself and make clear decisions about what does and doesn’t work for you, the place where you actually address the things that bother you rather than just telling the dissatisfied part of yourself to hush.

I’d ask you to join me out of solidarity and turn this thing into some kind of  120 day challenge, but I don’t feel comfortable being that specific, and frankly 120 days is a long time to for me personally to maintain a cheerleading posture. What I do want you to know is that I am here, noticing my stuff, seeing what I’ve been hiding from, feeling whatever comes up. I am here working at my authentic humanity because it is safe to do that, even when it feels scary and super uncomfortable. If you’re ready to give up a warm fuzzy or two, I can be there for you too.

 

Letting Go of Plan B

I stumbled across a quote the other day that challenged me.

“Why don’t we stay in the realm of the answer, rather than always returning to the realm of the problem?”

It’s from Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love, which is a challenging book, chock full of challenging quotes, but this one called me out – not called out to me but called me out.

And I say that with some gentleness, rather than scolding.

balance-beach-body-1199588You see, I’ve discovered a variety of practices that make me feel really good, really centered, really effective. I’ve figured some things out about what my body and spirit need most to do my work in the world. And I do them… until I don’t.

This quote is me – my spiritual practices, my beliefs, my faith, my discipline, my will, my self-compassion, my business, most of my efforts really. All of them I handle with a duck-in/duck-out sort of mentality. I rarely go all in and sustain it.

I duck into meditation and then something interrupts my practice and I forget to keep doing it.

I dip into prayer and then forget to use it when I really want help or guidance.

I cherish my budding faith in the universe when I feel good and deride myself for it when things aren’t going well.

I always return to the realm of the problem.

What makes it so difficult for me to stay in the realm of the answer and what would that look like? My mind offers some very practical explanations for my dip in duck out approach.

You can’t, after all, meditate all day long. You do actually have to DO some things.

Wisdom answers: You can bring your awareness to your breath at any time. You can acknowledge your thoughts as transient and consciously choose and respond to them. You can wish for peace for yourself an others constantly.

My mind: You can’t, after all, pray all day long. You do actually have to DO some things.

Wisdom answers: You can converse with the force that binds us all day long, in snippets or treatises. You can ask for things, help, guidance. You can want and ask for more. You can see any action you take as prayer and proceed as though that is your intention. What would happen to your days if all of your actions were a prayer?

My mind: I’ve got too much to do.

Wisdom answers: When you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, your effectiveness, your efficiency, and your productivity skyrocket. You know this. Is it really the to do list that’s getting you or is that just an excuse?

And that’s when the bird poop really hits the hair, because it’s not about spirituality or personal development or woo woo practices, it’s about self-sabotage and whatever is getting in the way of feeling and being better.

It’s about being afraid to succeed.

It’s about being afraid to be different.

It’s about being afraid to change (AGAIN).

I see myself and this entire pattern as a desire to not be ALL IN.

I think I do this a lot, hold back, stop myself from being all in. I’m not sure exactly why, but I imagine it has something to do with the vulnerability inherent in being all in.

cards-casino-chips-39856When we go all in, we are clear about what we want. We are claiming and proclaiming (at least to whoever is around) our desires, our intentions, our dreams, our wants. When we go all in we stop hedging our bets, taking half measures, protecting our behinds, busily formulating Plan Bs. When we go all in we let other options go, we release the safety of the status quo, and we step firmly into new territory with unpredictable outcomes. When we go all in, we are risking (and the alarmist in my wants to add… everything).

The fears that get in my way are the same no matter what I’m talking about.

The reasons to play it small are equally consistent.

But the reasons to go all in, those I’m less familiar with as it has not generally been my way… except that one time.

That one time I decided to try one more time. That one time I decided to remove all of the obstacles to what I wanted. That one time I took advice and sought out the best collaborator I could find. That one time I aligned my thinking with the outcome I wanted and kept it there, ditching the fear that it was all a horrible mistake. That one time I trusted that even if I didn’t get what I wanted, I would be better off for having tried – really tried. That one time I quit my stressful job, stabbed myself with needles full of hormones, got poked and prodded and examined and investigated. That one time I did EVERYTHING. That one time I got pregnant and actually carried the babies: that one time.

And I’ve taught myself the lesson by thinking maybe I had something to say to you about the struggle to be consistent with our self-care. It turns out the lesson I needed to hear today was a different one, a lesson about the gifts of real commitment and some encouragement to jump in the deep end of the pool every once in a while. The question I need to ask myself is a real one about aligning my action to my desires, about honesty and authenticity, about realizing that taking risks has always been the only way to get the things I most wanted.

And so I’m going to start to ask myself: “Are you all in?” Not to spur myself to greater levels of workaholism. Not to shame myself into some kind of to do list-making frenzy, but to check my heart, to check my thoughts, to see if I am really committing to what I say I’m trying to do, to what I say I want. The answer doesn’t have to be “Yes,” but if it’s no, then that bears looking at, right?

How about you? Where are you employing half-measures and expecting a full return? Are you all in?

 

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Back, Baby

Yes, I know that’s not how the song goes.

I REALLY do know because I used to sing that song, in front of humans, on a stage, with beer.

And that’s the song (minus the beer) that came to mind when I thought of this pretty high woo concept today…

You see every now and again I draw a card for myself, from an oracle deck. If none of that means anything to you that’s OK. Oracle decks are illustrated cards that allow users to explore an idea, a choice, a decision. Cards that are well-written contain a pretty substantial share of wisdom. I find them useful. Let’s leave it at that for now because it’s not the point. We can talk more about these cards later if you want.

The point is I pulled a card this morning called Soul Retrieval. Whoa. Right? I mean no matter who you are and what you believe, that phrase seems like a kind of big deal. And it’s not the first time I’ve gotten this card. It’s not even the first time this season I’ve gotten this card, so I decided to really give it a good read.

art-asia-candle-751077The interpretation for this card taken at its most WOO assumes reincarnation, and the idea is that you may have parts of yourself, your core being, or at least some energy, stuck in another time or place and you need those parts here and now.

Yeah, like I said it’s high WOO. But really, the idea, if you break it down, isn’t so very woo and has some widely applicable elements that I want to take a look at.

The core suggestion here is that we can get stuck in the past.

And yes, you’ve heard that phrase “stuck in the past” so many times that it is trite, a cliche and at least in this case, the reason the phrase is part of our common parlance is because it’s a thing that happens.

It is entirely possible to get stuck in a moment, in a conflict, in an argument, in a trauma, in an event, in a temporary role, in a version of yourself, in a pattern… Are you picking up what I’m laying down or do I need to keep going here – because if you’ve been around for a while you know I can keep going.

attractive-beautiful-beauty-594421We can get stuck in the past in a way that makes the way we live today more difficult, less engaged, less wholehearted than we could be. I’m pretty sure we can all agree to that point. We’ve all had relationships that make us act differently with other people with whom we might consider having a relationship. Those of us with siblings have likely noticed a little age regression when we gather together. Those of us who’ve experienced personal tragedy can likely recount the ways that things have been different from that time on.

And this isn’t all to say that you shouldn’t be changed by your experiences. Because beloveds, we are definitely here to be changed by our experiences. BUT are we here to continually be drained by something that is over? Are we meant to prevented from having new experiences by the old ones? I don’t think so.

So what do we do?

We have to reclaim that energy. We have to redirect our focus. We have to retrieve our souls.

Sometimes this means some forgiveness. I’m not going to tell you it always does because I’m not comfortable being that strictly prescriptive, but… Let me just add here that forgiveness is not for the person who wronged you. It is for you, pure and simple. It doesn’t mean you will forget what was done or that you will decide it was okay. It simply means that you are willing to let go of the poison you sip every time you drink from the well of anger you have about it. Your attention and your energy will no longer go towards that moment, that conflict, even in being right about it.

Sometimes reclaiming that piece of ourselves just means realizing that that moment, that interaction, that situation is in the past and you are not. I have at times said: “That is not happening right now. That already happened. It is over. I am here, now,” to remind myself of who I am and the fact that I already made it through that moment, that conflict, that tension. I don’t need to do it again. I don’t need to perpetuate it in any way. I don’t need to relive, rethink, reconsider, re-do it. The feelings I had in that moment are the result of thoughts I had at the time that I don’t need to continue to choose today – aye, there’s the rub.

In reclaiming our energy, in redirecting our focus, in retrieving the soul, there are choices to make, simple choices that can feel really BIG.

Choices like: 1) I am choosing to be present, to attend to and notice what is actually happening and how I am reacting. 2) I am releasing my need to be right about something that has passed. 3) I am releasing thoughts and emotions that were based on one moment that has passed and that are hindering my progress, and 4) I am redirecting my energy to who and what I am today.

beach-heart-love-161002There. Simple. Right?

I know. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is entirely possible, and wouldn’t you like to be here now, all of you, all of your energy, all of your resources?

What would be different if you weren’t stuck in time, if you could gather up all the little pieces of your heart and hold them all inside your chest right now? Who would you be then? I’d love to help you find out.