Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
“I think a servant of the Enemy would look fairer and feel fouler.” ~ Frodo Baggins describing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I sometimes wonder if life is like one of those Indonesian puppet shows, where the action that enthralls the audience is really just a series of shadows thrown on a screen. It seems like we often get so caught up in our stories, in events and plans and action and things, that we lose our connection to the reality behind the story.
It’s as if there is a double life going on all the time.
On one side, we have our stories, complete with heroes and villains, sidekicks, plot twists, and changes of scenery. I call this “form.” It’s all the things that show up in our physical world: our bodies, our jobs, our relationships, our possessions, etc.
And on the other side, the part of us that is eternal, that – yes – lives this life, but also lives beyond and past this particular life, these particular forms. I think of this as “energy,” but you could also say “spirit.”
The problem is that usually “form” gets almost all of our attention, and “energy” very little, when it should be the other way around. I often say this to people I coach (and to myself) because it seems so counter-intuitive. Form is the thing that seems solid and real and worthy of our attention.
But that’s just because we’ve formed the habit of looking at and valuing form over energy. In reality, energy is the only thing that matters, which you can easily prove to yourself. We all know people who have everything going for them in the way of form – money, success, beauty, youth – who are nevertheless unhappy. And also people with almost nothing, as far as form goes, who are radiantly happy. (Watch the documentary Happy for some striking examples of this.)
Form by itself has no ability to impart happiness, but energy certainly does.
The great thing is that once you start concentrating on (becoming aware of and valuing) your energy, you’ll find that it’s every bit as real and tangible and easy to track as form is. More, even, because form changes and passes away, while energy (as we learned in 5th grade science) can be transformed but never destroyed.
So how do you learn to do it? First, just start putting your attention there. Remind yourself that forms don’t really matter that much (even if society says they do). Instead, ask yourself how you feel. Ask it about everything and everyone in your life. Ask it about yourself, and about everything you do. What does it feel like?
And then steer by those feelings. Value and prioritize the things and people that feel good, not the ones that just look good (sometimes they’re the same, but that’s just gravy). The next level is to really start identifying yourself, and everyone else, as an energetic body. That’s what we actually are: just a bunch of electrons, protons and neutrons surrounded by a whole lot of space. Your electrons even switch places with the electrons in your chair – did you know that???
Energy is what the world of form is actually made up of, so let’s just skip right to the stuff that matters.
One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again. ~Abraham Maslow
Re-invention is my word for 2021. It’s an especially good one for people in the second half of life. In our twenties and thirties we “invent” ourselves, in essence. We figure out how to do the things that adults do: make a living, keep ourselves alive, maybe raise a family. In the process, we face plenty of scary decisions and experiences that are not really optional.
The problem with midlife is that now we mostly have a choice about whether or not to take on new and scary growth experiences. And, given the choice, the ego will almost always choose the safety of the known over the unknown. Though the soul is always whispering “Grow, grow,” the ego is just as determinedly putting on the brakes, pulling back against the risk (or even just the inconvenience) of trying something new.
In Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” few people reach the stage of self-actualization. For one thing, it’s kind of a First World problem, isn’t it? I try not to forget how privileged I am to even have the option of concerning myself with personal growth! But aside from that, the urgency of the needs decreases as you go up the pyramid, and it’s easy to simply let inertia take over. No one’s gonna die from not being self-actualized.
At least, not on the outside. The inside is a different story.
One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr, says that in the first half of life you build the container, and in the second half of life you fill it. Filling the container is what I’m trying to do as I re-invent my life. I’m trying to figure out, on the deepest, most authentic level, who I am and what I want.
A tool that’s been helpful is the free VIA Character Strengths Survey. It tells me that my top five values are:
1. Love of learning
4. Appreciation of beauty & excellence
From this perspective I understand my love of travel, and how excited I get when I have something new to learn. To “fill my container,” the activities I choose have to reflect these values. They would look very different for someone whose top value is creativity, for example, or leadership.
Self-actualization doesn’t look the same from one person to another, but if you take the time to build outward from the very core of your being, the life you re-invent will lead you there.
Pausing is stepping back from thinking and habitual ways of doing, and simply noticing.
~Lisa Kentgen, An Intentional Life
I’m keeping it simple this year: besides putting my rotund cat on a much-needed diet, the only resolution I’m making is to pause more often. Just to stop, as frequently as I can, to notice what’s going on inside me and around me.
This may not seem very ambitious but, in reality, noticing is the foundation of all change. In fact, once you notice something, it’s already begun to change, automatically. This is something I frequently point out to people I coach. Most often, becoming aware of negative patterns or things we want to change about ourselves makes us feel helpless or depressed, but really, noticing these things is something to celebrate: a sign that you are already on the way to forming a new pattern or response.
When you notice what you are doing, even as you’re doing it, it becomes less likely that you’ll do the same thing again in exactly the same way. It introduces just a second or two between stimulus and response. That pause, that second of awareness, is an opportunity to choose another way. Maybe not the third or fourth time, or even the tenth time, but eventually your response will change, simply by noticing.
The simple truth is, we can’t change what we aren’t aware of.
Of course, noticing isn’t just about the things we want to change. Pausing to check in with ourselves is a great habit to form. Are we tired? Hungry? Happy? Irritable? Does something feel off? How often do you put your head down during a busy day and barely come up for air until you hit the bed at night? How many days and weeks in a row go by like that? A pause to close your eyes, take a breath, and feel your own body takes only a few seconds, but those may be the only truly awake seconds of your day.
In that pause you might suddenly feel the sunshine on your face, or hear a bird singing, or notice that you have a stiff neck and let your shoulders un-hunch. In that moment of coming home to yourself, you might suddenly realize how grateful you are for your life or, conversely, that you’re just going through the motions now and something needs to change. There are realizations and truths that simply wait for us to pause, to take the time to listen, before revealing themselves.
Lots of people resolve to meditate or journal or attend church or take a class, and all of those are worthy goals. But supporting them, on a foundational level, is the practice of pausing, of checking in, of becoming aware of your actual experience of life. There is no substitute for that.
Whatever lifts the corners of your mouth, trust that. ~ Rumi
Most people have heard Joseph Campbell’s famous advice to “follow your bliss,” but I’ve always thought that it raised the bar too high. “Bliss” sounds great, but how often have you really experienced it? Am I the only one who’s apparently bliss-deprived?
Holding out for bliss, I think we might miss the subtler signs that are showing us the way. Though less gaudy, they might be even surer guideposts to a happy life. We keep waiting for the big bliss rush when deciding what to do, looking for certainty that we’re making the right decision, that nothing will go wrong, and we’ll never regret it. That’s the ego for you: ever risk-averse. The ego is looking for a lighted super-highway to the future, taking you directly to success and happiness, with no detours along the way. I wish.
I think the soul’s guidance is more like the breadcrumbs in a fairy tale. You have to watch for them, and you can’t see too far down the path. The soul, after all, is about the journey, while the ego only prizes the destination. This is where smiling comes in. I think if we can train ourselves to value and trust those little hits of happiness, we might just find ourselves enjoying the path so much that we forget to worry about the destination.
Those little hits might seem laughingly trivial to the ego (which always takes itself, and life, very seriously). What lifts the corners of your mouth? It doesn’t even have to be a full-blown smile. What feels good, for no other reason than it just appeals to you in the moment?
To be fair, this practice is often trickier than it should be because, for a lot of us, our feel-good meters are out of whack. Sometimes what “feels good” in the moment is only an escape from something else that we don’t want to acknowledge or feel. The only way to recalibrate your meter is to pay strict attention to the results of what you do.
Does bingeing two seasons of Derry Girls three times in a row really make you feel good? (It did me!) If it doesn’t, you have a little more digging to do. Maybe you actually enjoyed it, but just feel guilty for “wasting” time? If so, I think you can safely ignore the guilt. If you feel heavy and squirmy after your indulgence, something deeper is amiss.
Go slowly as you start this practice. Keep asking yourself, “What do I want now?” (and banish the word “should,” which is a favorite of the ego). Pay attention to your body, to any lightness or warmth or expansion, to anything that lifts the corners of your mouth, even slightly! Follow the breadcrumbs of your true nature through the day, trusting it to guide your steps.
This is a moment-by-moment practice, and you can always make a different choice next time. In fact, giving yourself permission to turn around and go a different way is crucial to avoiding decision paralysis. That’s another trick of the ego, telling us that we have to get it right – OR ELSE!!!! Or else, what? Like the search for bliss, this is simply the ego’s misguided attempt to protect us from “failure.”
Just thank it, and keep looking for the next breadcrumb.
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.
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