Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. ~ Robin Sharma
Misinformation is a real problem in the era of technology and ever-present connectivity. But, long before the days of smart phones, Twitter, and Facebook, we were already living intimately with the world’s original misinformation machine: the mind.
To be accurate, what we’re really talking about is the egoic mind – that voice in your head that has an opinion about everything. The functional mind is essentially neutral and usually quite helpful. This is the part that knows how to drive a car, read a newspaper, make dinner, find a job. The functional mind is a servant, while the egoic mind is the wanna-be master of all that we do.
One of the first rules for living a sane life is to feel your feelings, but question your thoughts. Usually, we do the exact opposite: stuff our feelings, but obsess endlessly over our thoughts. Because they are “ours,” we have a real bias to assume that those thoughts are true. One way to debunk that assumption is to realize that all of our minds basically tell us the same things, over and over again.
In order to control our behavior (and attempt to control the behavior of others), the egoic mind uses thoughts that generate fear in its myriad forms. Fear that we are not good enough. Fear that we are messing up. Fear that we will miss out. Fear that we’ll lose someone or something that is important to us. And on and on.
All of the major categories of egoic thoughts hinge on some form of fear: comparisons, judgments, worry, obsessive planning for the future, and endless rehashing of the past. The particular details vary from person to person or day to day, but the underlying messages remain startlingly the same.
In a very real sense, the egoic mind is running a psy-op on us.
When you really grasp that point, it can feel a bit creepy at first! The egoic mind – the one you’ve been listening to the most intimately and trustfully your whole life – is not really your friend. As in any psy-op, what is says seems reasonable and important. Because society is made up of other people who are also listening to their minds, you will hear the same thoughts being reinforced all around you. They must be true!
The way out is to become relentlessly aware of how your thoughts actually make you feel. When you feel fear or anxiety (or anger, which is usually a cover for fear, especially in men), take a step back and look at the thoughts you are having. You don’t have to make them go away or “do” anything about them. The egoic mind is just part of the standard operating equipment we’re born with. You’ll always have thoughts – you just don’t have to believe them.
It’s very much like the radio programs used by countries at war to hook enemy personnel into fearful and demoralizing stories. Once you understand that they aren’t true, they stop holding power over you and just become mildly annoying white noise in the periphery of your consciousness. You might be “hooked” for a moment or two when they first come up, but you can train yourself to quickly recognize what they are and simply let them go.
The voice in your head does not have to be the master of your life.
Since you cannot miss out on experiences that you are meant to have, every breath offers you the chance to put your faith into the hands of the Universe to remember how blessed, supported, and divinely guided you already are. ~ Matt Kahn
My relentless focus on the upside to pandemic life hit a speed bump recently when I had to cancel my annual housesitting job in Hawaii. I just kept hoping it would work out (actually, I was longing for it with all my heart), but it was not meant to be. Instead, I’m spending a lovely, quiet week off work at home, watching late summer turn into early fall and reading a book by Matt Kahn called Whatever Arises, Love That.
He reminds me of how important the quality of relaxation is to a quiet mind and an open heart: “Relaxation is always the preferred rate of speed for any level of spiritual exploration. Any time you rush through your journey, direct experiences of transcendence are replaced with shallow degrees of understanding.” Ironically, although relaxation was what I was longing for in Hawaii, my desire to control essentially uncontrollable circumstances was the opposite of relaxing!
Usually, slowing down is something that has to be forced on us. Sometimes it’s an illness or injury that does it, sometimes age, responsibilities, or lack of resources. Sometimes a pandemic. What marks true relaxation – and spiritual maturity – is how we react to this inability to move forward at speed. I like the concept that we can’t miss out on experiences we are meant to have: if they don’t happen now, they are either not meant to happen, or not in this timing. Knowing that, we can relax into the kindness of slowing down.
Surprisingly, relaxation is a quality we can also bring into our most active “doings.” I firmly believe that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you do it (the quality of energy you bring to it). Matt Kahn writes: “While success in many areas of life may be contingent upon getting things done, the rewards of spiritual evolution are discovered when the way you approach each task is equally as important as the goal at hand.” [Emphasis added.]
When I explore the energy of relaxation, it feels very open, fluid, and expansive – the opposite of the tight, constricted feeling I have when my mind is trying to arrange life the way it thinks it should go. I can look for and cultivate this energy whether I’m on the beach in Hawaii, sitting on my couch at home, or in the midst of a busy day at work. It’s about letting go of control (it’s just an illusion anyway) and truly believing that the experiences I’m meant to have will find me, at the perfect time. No effort required.
To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else. ~ Emily Dickinson
One of the biggest tricks the ego plays on us is to constantly judge and rank our experiences: “This person or activity is important (good, worthy, desirable), but that one is not (or not as much).” These endless comparisons rob us of the ability to truly see and enjoy people and experiences for what they are: stand-alones, one-offs, events that will never be repeated in exactly the same way again. Instead, we instantly categorize, rank, and file everything that occurs to us, usually without even realizing that we’re doing it.
And we apply this ranking system to everything – the people we talk to, the things we do, the goals we set… even to ourselves. “This other person is more important/successful/prettier/fitter/richer than I am, but that one is not.” Maybe we’re less likely to approach someone who seems “out of our league,” or we pass over someone else we deem less important.
In a thousand ways, our comparisons stand between us and the richness of experience we could have.
As we go through our days, certain activities stand out, while others are rushed through, simply to get them done. We’re impatient with unproductive time, “boring” or repetitive chores, work that seems mundane or unimpressive. We live for the weekends, or vacations, or retirement, and then wonder why they don’t live up to our expectations. The truth is, we’ve forgotten how to simply live, and take in the moments of our lives fully, one at a time. The continual search for something or someone “better” leaves us unable to recognize happiness when it’s right in front of us.
I try to remind myself of this continually throughout the day, raising my awareness of when I’m judging something or someone as “less than.” One practice that helps is to try to see whoever happens to be (six feet) in front of me – whether the cashier at the grocery store or the Queen of England – as the only person in the world for that period, equally worthy of my time and attention. It also helps to believe that, if someone is in front of me, there’s a reason for that. It’s not a mistake, even if my mind says it is.
Same goes for the things that happen: If you’re stuck in traffic or your plans for the weekend fall through, there’s a reason for that, too – so you might as well settle in. In fact, I think the whole concept of “wasting time” is suspect. How can we judge what a “good” use of time is? Can it be just sitting in the sun, getting nothing done? Henry David Thoreau is my favorite muse when it comes to time. At Walden Pond, he wrote:
“For the most part, I minded not how the hours went… it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.”
Time seems to magically expand when we aren’t rushing through it to get to the “important” stuff. Try it yourself: Make the decision to give your full attention to whatever or whoever is in front of you in the moment, without judgment or comparison. Be as fully present and wide-awake to your most ordinary days as you would be to a long-anticipated vacation. Give the same effort and care to the work that no one sees as to that which is more obviously rewarding. Let life choose for you, and simply say “yes,” with all your heart.
…just being ordinary in itself is an expression of Divinity; the truth of one’s real self can be discovered through the pathway of everyday life. To live with care and kindness is all that is necessary. ~ David Hawkins
I’m not sure if it’s the result of social media or just a normal human (ego) tendency, but we all fear it to some extent: Being ordinary. One of the gifts of this pandemic is that many of the more Instagram-able aspects of life are denied us, including travel to exotic places, dining out, and most other forms of socializing. We’re thrown back on ordinary life, bereft of the things that make us look and feel “special” in the eyes of the world.
To the ego, ordinary means boring, unsuccessful, unpopular… not good enough. The ego is a master of “compare and despair.” It constantly watches what other people do, from celebrities to neighbors to friends, and judges our own worth in comparison. It really doesn’t matter whether we pronounce ourselves superior or inferior, because the measurement itself is meaningless – like trying to figure out the distance to New York in pounds.
Even when we try to use a better measuring tool (are we making a big enough impact on the world? Helping enough? Doing enough?), we are really just dressing up the ego in spiritual clothes. We still feel that we need to perform – and be recognized as succeeding – in order to be okay. We still want to be the great and powerful Oz, not the ordinary guy behind the curtain.
One of the great tasks of life is to learn our own worthiness… that we are enough, just as we are. It’s so easy to lose our true selves in the performance. We do what we think we ought to do, or what would look good, rather than what we really want to do. We spend more time curating an image than cultivating authenticity. It sometimes seems like it's more important to look happy than to actually be happy!
I confess that I’m glad life has slowed down for everyone, at least temporarily. Even though I’m not a big social media fan, I still occasionally fall prey to comparisons, especially as an introvert who would truly rather stay home much of the time anyway. When I give it care and attention, ordinary life is rich and challenging enough for me. And when I stop trying to be "special," when I stop endlessly ranking myself against everyone I meet or see on the internet, I feel much more relaxed, happier, and (bonus!) more connected to everyone else, too.
Whatever comes up, see what it is without calling it right or wrong. Acknowledge it. See it clearly without judgment and let it go. Come back to the present moment. From now until the moment of your death, you could do this. ~ Pema Chödrön
Like nearly all of us, I’m experiencing the curious limbo land of this pandemic. Though fortunately I’m still working, the absence of most other activities and relationships, as well as the total uncertainty of what the future might hold, leaves me feeling like a plane continually circling the runway, waiting to land. One week blends seamlessly into the next, with little to differentiate it other than the most recent thing I’ve found to read or stream (or cook).
In the midst of this low-level but relentless cycle of anxiety and boredom, what keeps me sane – and even happy! – is the solace of the present moment. The mind resides in the past and future, but neither one is much use in the current situation, if it ever was. Our lives are not what they were even two months ago. Many of our false refuges (mindless busyness and socializing, endless planning or hoping for the future) have been taken away. But the ineffable, irreplaceable quality of the present moment is always available to us, if only we pay attention.
The photo above illustrates this beautifully for me: the swirl and blur of thoughts that are always there recede into the background when I focus on the perfect color of one flower, or the taste of my morning coffee, or the simple comfort and familiarity of inhabiting my body and letting the current moment be what it is – even when it’s not something my mind labels as pleasant. What Buddhists call tranquil abiding means cultivating the ability to be present with both the “good” and the “bad.”
I love that Pema Chödrön calls this the practice of a lifetime. Every moment is a new opportunity to come back to the present – out of the trance of the mind and back to physical reality. What am I actually experiencing now, in my body? Though the mind is rarely in the present, the body always is (it’s not possible for it to be anywhere else!). That’s why the breath and the physical senses are such powerful anchors for aligning with presence. They can bring you home to your body, any moment that you choose to give them your attention.
What this looks like for me is very consciously and deliberately being where I am, rather than wishing for something different. The pandemic is great for this, because so many of the activities still open to me – gardening, cooking, even my job taking care of twin baby girls – are slow, repetitive, and sensory-rich. There’s nothing like a baby for teaching presence! They wake up when they wake up, and no amount of wishing or planning or getting frustrated will make it different. When I practice tranquil abiding, I can just kiss their fuzzy heads and be with them in the moment, whether they’re laughing or crying.
And that, my friends, is true refuge.
I’ve been single for a while now, and I have to say, it’s going very well. Like… it’s working out. I think I’m the one. ~ Yvette McIntire (yvettemcintire.com)
I’ve been on quite a journey in the five years since my divorce. At first, I just assumed that I would be in a relationship again soon. Before I got married (way back in my twenties), it seemed like there were always men around, and I was pretty much always in a relationship.
It took me a while to figure out that no men were showing up on their own steam. Then I tried (half-heartedly) to find a man through the internet. On two or three occasions I lasted several days before closing my account in despair. Yes, there were plenty of men there, but they weren’t what I was looking for. My tolerance for kissing frogs in search of a prince was much diminished from thirty years ago.
I’ve had many discussions with friends in a similar situation. Are we just being too picky? I don’t think so. When I consider who I was back in my twenties, it isn’t surprising that I was able to find many people to date. Aside from the obvious, I was more or less unformed, just like everyone I was meeting. We didn’t know who we were yet, and so the possibilities seemed endless. Kissing frogs was just what you did in order to find out.
Well, I know who I am now.
I found out the hard way. I’ve done the work to become the person I am today, and I’m no longer willing to spend a lot of time with people who haven’t done theirs (especially in an intimate relationship). This cuts the possibilities down considerably! I also love my life as a single woman. A relationship would have to be very good to tempt me. I am free and happy and excited about my future. I have wonderful, evolved friends to share my life with.
Does this mean that I’ve “given up?” In a sense, yes: I’ve given up the search. I think the relationship I want is like a precious and rare diamond, one that must be found by pure chance or fortune or kismet. It won’t be found by kissing frogs. (No offense is intended to either frogs or men by this.)
But “giving up” sounds like defeat, and I feel far from defeated. I actually celebrate how far I’ve come on my personal journey, how much I’ve learned about myself and life. I celebrate my unwillingness to compromise or settle for anything less than pure joy simply to have the comfort and security of a body next to me. I’ve spent far too much of my life putting other people’s wants and needs in front of my own.
Yes, I’ve finally found myself - and I am the one.
If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes. ~ Andrew Carnegie
It’s the goal-setting time of year again. Reading back over my previous January blog posts, I’m amused to see myself becoming less and less specific in terms of what I hope to achieve in the coming year. Even the word “achieve” feels suspect to me now.
This year I’m playing more with aspirations and how I want to live, rather than what I want to do. Many people choose a word that they hope will symbolize the coming year. I decided to look further ahead, choosing three words that sum up the life I aspire to live:
I want to live a life of adventure, inspiration, and love.
To me, adventure means having an open and questing mind and spirit. An adventure can be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional – or all four – but it always means that you are moving into new and exciting territory, stretching, growing, learning, testing, becoming…
Inspiration, for me, refers to both feeling inspired and – hopefully – inspiring others as well. Inspiration is one of my most favorite feelings! When I’m inspired, work seems like play, obstacles become games, and life feels exciting and meaningful.
Love comes in so many flavors, and I truly don’t prioritize one over the other. Parental love, friendly love, romantic love, love for the earth, love of self… any form love takes is good by me. It’s the most important thing there is: without love, I am a clanging cymbal, for sure.
So now, having defined my top three values or aspirations, I can use them as a yardstick to make choices in the coming year(s). If something or someone doesn’t foster a sense of adventure, inspiration, or love, I need to pass.
Then, to take it to the next level, I also thought about how I want to show up in, or experience, the individual moments and activities in my life:
I want to approach everything I do with ease and joy.
I think this is an important refinement. We can get everything right in the big picture, and still fail to enjoy our lives in each passing moment. It’s possible to bring an attitude of ease and joy into every activity, from brushing your teeth to going on vacation – and certainly also possible to do it without them!
So what your words would be? How do you want to live your life (big picture)? And how do you want to approach each day and moment?
To answer a call is to reject the authority of credentials, of human valuation of any kind, accepting only the authority of the call itself. ~ Kathleen Norris
There’s a lot of mystery and cachet around the term “calling.” Everyone wants to find theirs, but no one can tell you exactly how to go about it! Sometimes you can even back into one by doing all the wrong things first, which is what happened to me.
This story started two years ago, when I unwisely signed up for a pricey online course that was supposed to help me “make it work” in my coaching business. Within a couple of weeks I knew it was not for me – I honestly couldn’t bring myself to use the sales-y language and calculated strategies that were being taught. It was an expensive mistake!
Worse, the experience led to crisis of confidence in the overall direction I was going. I didn’t feel like a typical success-oriented life coach. I hated focusing on (or even caring about) how many people signed up for my blog, how many books I sold, or how much coaching I did. Gradually my inspiration to write dried up and, as I said in my last post, I seriously considered stopping altogether.
What I realize now is that learning what I didn’t want actually forced me to confront what I did want with all my heart. The thing is, I’ve been afraid to call myself what I really am – a spiritual coach. First of all, it seemed arrogant. Who am I to coach someone’s spiritual life? Secondly, I was afraid of losing people in droves – both traditional Christians and the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum. I admit: it always feels like a personal rejection when people unsubscribe, even though I know it’s for the best.
Because when we try to be all things to all people, we aren’t really there for our real tribe (or, most importantly, for ourselves).
Some of you – the ones who are already in the tribe – are probably wondering what I’m even talking about. We’re already on the same page. Some of you will be offended by my outside-the-box spirituality, and some will just be bored. That’s okay too.
I’m excited to be writing a new book (estimated for next summer), and am fired up to embrace my calling as a spiritual coach. This is what I think and live and breathe 24/7 anyway, so finally admitting that I don’t really care about the all-important “bottom line,” in comparison to authenticity and inspiration, is incredibly freeing. Sometimes you have to go in the wrong direction for a while in order to recognize the right one.
If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark. ~ St. John of the Cross
Well, maybe it hasn't been a year, but it feels like it. Month after month I sit down to write, and each time I end up thinking.... maybe next month. One of the things I often tell people I coach is to follow their inner guidance. This is great when you clearly know what you want, but when you feel conflicted it usually translates into: Wait. And waiting is hard. The ego craves certainty, action, charging ahead.
This has not been a year of charging ahead for me. This has been a year of taking baby steps in a number of directions and then waiting to see what unfolds. I’ve had an almost comical series of large, unexpected bills (most of them involving dentists or pets, and sometimes - just for variety - a combination of the two). I’ve been “let go” from a job for the first time in my life. I’ve had a letter from a collection agency over an issue I thought was resolved – also a first.
I am dancing with the Universe in a whole new way this year! It actually feels pretty good. Security is always an illusion, anyway (although it’s a very comforting one). True security cannot come from an outside source: a relationship, job, or bank account. Real security comes from knowing in your bones that you are safe and loved, that there is a plan underneath the seeming chaos, and that all you ever need to do is to respond to the present moment with the best you have to give. The rest is out of your hands.
I’m over trying to force my life in a certain direction. I like the feeling of drifting with the current – when I can quiet my ego, that is. My ego has a disconcerting tendency to shout things like “What a loser!” and “You’re going to end up on the streets!” at odd moments if I don’t keep an eye on it.
In the past, I’ve used both physical and spiritual means to try to force my life to go the way I thought it should go. Of the two, the latter is much more dangerous. It involves seemingly healthy and evolved practices like visualizing, saying affirmations, and praying, but then puts them all in the service of the ego. We’re still trying to control what happens to us, but it’s all cloaked in a misty haze of spirituality.
I’ve given up most of my spiritual “practice” this year, which scared me at first. I’m not reading many books nor taking any classes, not meditating (at least formally), not working any goals or affirmations. At first I thought – my ego thought – that I was taking a huge step backward and simply reverting to where I was before starting on this spiritual journey. Lately I’ve come to see it differently.
I think (and hope) that I’m entering a sort of “post-spiritual” phase, rather than reverting to an earlier one. In this new phase, spirituality is divorced from the ego. It’s a much freer way to live! There’s a lot less to do, because I’m not trying to control anything, including my own spiritual growth. Everything is simply unfolding the way it wants to unfold. My only job is to be open to what’s happening, to be an active participant in the present moment. And then the next present moment, and the next.
As you might expect, this is a lot harder to write about than the old way! On the surface it looks like a whole lot of nuthin’ going on. But this is where I am. I’d love to hear whether this resonates with your own experience. I’ve contemplated dismantling my website and business altogether, but I’d also love to continue to be of service if anyone is still interested in exploring this "post-spiritual" world with me. At any rate, I will probably continue to write less often than I used to – I’ll shoot for once a quarter. Thank you all so much for reading, and for being the amazing people that you are!
How can one learn to live through the ebb tides of one’s existence? We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow and resist in terror its ebb… ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Last month I didn’t write, and this month I had to force myself to do it. Somehow, I feel like I should only write when things are going well and I can be upbeat and inspiring. When I’m feeling uncertain, anxious, sad… then I want to curl up in a corner and hide. Why is that?
On the surface, nothing particularly terrible is going on. In fact, I moved to a lovely new apartment that feels so much homier than the one I’ve left. But there are money worries, and getting used to orthodontia, and not knowing what to do with my future, and watching my daughter’s struggles to get established as an independent adult in this tricky economy. There are worries about the world, and animals, and looking old.
And, most of all, the unconscious worry that this ebb tide will never end. That I’ll feel this way forever. The water will never come back in.
But that’s not how the world works. I can look back on my life and see the ebb and flow of my circumstances. I see evidence of death and rebirth everywhere in nature. It’s only the ego that screams out: Something is wrong here! You shouldn’t be feeling like this! You’re supposed to be happy all the time!
I look around at friends and Facebook and feel embarrassed that my life seemingly isn’t Insta-worthy. How come that 50-something woman got divorced and instantly found a handsome, rich new husband to travel the world with? I haven’t had a date in five years! How come other people’s children leave college and walk straight into great-paying, fabulously interesting jobs?
I think when our lives were circumscribed by the village or neighborhood we lived in, there was a more realistic set of references for what was normal to expect. We knew that hard things happen, and people keep going. Or not much of anything happens, and people still keep on going. We don’t reach the summit and expect to stay there the rest of our lives. In order to reach a new summit, we have to go down the mountain and back up another one. We have to let the water go out so that it can come back in again.
I write this for myself as much as for anyone else who is reading. Ebb tides and long slogs across the plains are part of life too, just not the parts that people like to admit to or commemorate on social media. I want to stand up and be seen when my life is just blah and worrisome, rather than hiding away until I feel all bright and shiny again.
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