Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
One of the most significant contributors to the level of happiness you experience is your life paradigm… [the] operating model for your life. ~ Domonique Bertolucci
I’ve been thinking so much about happiness lately: what it is, what it means in the grand scheme of things and, especially, how to get more of it. I have so many of the ingredients of a happy life – health, friends, family, work that I enjoy, safety, money for essentials and even for fun – and yet I’m probably not as happy as I could (or should?) be under the circumstances. Why is that?
On a fundamental level, it probably has a lot to do with the worldview, or paradigm, that I’ve been operating under for most of my life. It goes something like this:
Life isn’t supposed to be happy – we’re here to grow, and growth happens most when we experience difficulties. People who are lucky and happy are the exception, and that will never happen to me. I have to work hard and control everything/everyone around me in order to be okay. Something is always missing – I never get to have what I really want (because that is asking too much).
With this worldview, I’m predisposed to focus on what’s missing, what needs to be done, what could go wrong, etc. Even at the best of times, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and working hard to prevent it. It’s not a very relaxing way to live! There’s always something that I’m waiting and wishing for in order to truly be happy. The underlying reality beneath this paradigm is a feeling of unworthiness: that I don’t really deserve to be happy or to get what I want.
Our original paradigms, because they develop gradually from a very young age, can be hard to detect – like the water a fish swims in. To find out what yours is, think about how you would answer these questions: What is life all about (or, what is it like)? What is my role in it? What always happens to me? What can I expect from life?
Fortunately, our paradigms are not set in stone. I can choose a different worldview, and gradually adopt behaviors that go with it. This is what I am choosing to believe instead:
I am safe and taken care of in every moment. I don’t have to struggle or make anything happen (even my own growth), or do anything at all in order to deserve happiness. Happiness and love are available to me all the time, in every circumstance. Everything is unfolding exactly the way it should, so I can relax and trust that all is well just as it is.
Of course, in order for the new paradigm to become more than just a bunch of empty words, the sense of unworthiness that lives beneath and supports my old paradigm must be healed. Fortunately, I believe that healing automatically follows on the heels of awareness and willingness. (Again, I don’t have to make it happen!) Once we become aware of the worldview that controls us, and willing to change it, the healing process has already begun.
Energy doesn’t communicate in English, French, Chinese or Swahili, but it does speak clearly. ~ Elaine Seiler
I find it a tiny bit amusing that so many people are claiming to be “empaths” these days, as if it were something unique and special. I actually believe that we’re all empaths, to one degree or another. An empath is simply someone who reads the energy of others, and every single one of us does that, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It’s quite literally our mother tongue: the way we communicated and understood the world as small children.
Of course, some people are more fluent in the language of energy and use it more purposefully, but that’s just a function of awareness and practice. (And there are also cautions that come with greater fluency – see below.) We can all become more conscious speakers of the language, and it starts with the energy we ourselves project.
I used to imagine that if I didn’t speak my thoughts out loud, no one would be aware of them. I’ve since come to realize that my energy is broadcasting loudly and clearly, even when I say nothing. If you ever have a chance to do equine coaching with a horse, you’ll have a clear demonstration of this (read about my experience in this blog post). Horses, as prey animals, are exquisitely sensitive to energy and will always mirror back to you the energy you put out. Any form of pretense or mixed signals (when you think one way but act another) is “read” as untrustworthy by them, and they will steer clear.
How do they do this? How do we know when someone is angry, even when they say that everything is “just fine?” Or how do we pick up so easily on an inauthentic acting performance in a movie? On a practical level, I think it’s a combination of subtle body language and facial micro-expressions that are beyond our conscious control. On the level of “woo” – well, we are all made up of energy. Energy is what our more conventional senses read: light energy for vision, sonic energy for hearing, and so on. Is it far-fetched to think that we might also pick up on thought energy?
I believe that as we learn to monitor our own energetic presence, we’ll become more adept and accurate at reading others’ energy as well. And now for the caution: I’ve noticed recently that some people who are naturally more empathic will use it as an excuse for avoiding certain people and situations. This isn’t always wrong, of course. I stay away from horror movies, bars, even Facebook, because the energy often feels bad to me. But it can also be a way of avoiding work we need to do.
Recently, a co-worker confided that she was thinking of quitting because she was so sensitive to the “negative energy” of our boss. Yes, he can be a bit sharp at times, but he’s actually a pretty good guy. Instead of running away, I would love to see her simply confront him about how his losses of temper make her feel, and maybe even do a little introspection around her own perceived fragility. (Click here for an article I wrote about the hardiness of the soul.) We can and should be empathic without using it as a crutch to avoid difficult or challenging situations.
In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion. ~ Machik Labdrön
It would be lovely if being on a spiritual path somehow meant that nothing would bother us anymore. We’d either become immune to the things that used to make us angry or sad or scared, or else maybe they wouldn’t even happen to us anymore! I wish.
I’m as averse as the next person to going through painful and uncomfortable circumstances, but I’ve come to know that wishing (or pretending) them away never works for long. In the end we’re forced to confront them head on and simply submit. The Buddhist story of Milarepa and the demons is a wonderful illustration of this:
Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived in a cave. (You could definitely say he was on a spiritual path.) One day, when he returned from gathering firewood, he found his cave filled with horrible demons. First, he did as we all do and tried to chase them away. Predictably, this did not work.
Next, he tried talking with them sweetly and reasonably, trying to persuade them to leave. This is the strategy of “spiritual bypass,” when we try to convince ourselves that we really aren’t bothered by the demons – we’re above that, right? If we can just stay Zen and use our affirmations, surely the demons will leave and we won’t really have to deal with them… But they didn’t.
Finally, Milarepa realized that they were not going to go away and leave him in peace. Looking each one in the eye, he bowed to it, accepting it as his teacher. At last, they disappeared... All but one.
The most ferocious one of all remained. It was terrifying! Milarepa would have given almost anything to avoid doing what he knew he had to do, but – and this is the truth for all of us – he really had no choice. The only way out is in. Surrendering completely, he placed his head in the slavering mouth of the demon, and it too disappeared.
Once we truly turn and face what scares us most, it no longer has any power over us. We learn that we can actually bear the discomfort. This is real spiritual maturity – not to be without pain, but to face pain (fear, sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness, embarrassment, rejection) without running, fighting, or pretending we’re above it.
Writing [and life!] is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ~ E.L. Doctorow
When I’m going through a stressful experience, my first tendency is to project myself into the future, exploring all the possible outcomes and what I would do in each case. There’s a certain amount of comfort in this, but the trick is to learn when to stop! Once you have a basic sense of the possibilities, it’s time to pull back into the current moment or, as a friend of mine says: this 24 hours.
Right now I’m heading back to court with my ex-husband. The details aren’t really important, but the overall situation is one of financial uncertainty, acrimony and fear. My mind is having a heyday with this, imagining disastrous outcomes and trying to figure out and control what is patently uncontrollable. When I go down that rabbit hole, I feel instant anxiety, anger, panic, despair.
Not fun – and not even helpful. Those imagined things aren’t happening to me now, and might very well never happen. Even if they did, my distress right now won’t help me to deal with them in the future. That same friend once gave me a great visual touchstone for how to remain anchored to the present moment, even in the midst of uncertainty and fear.
She was on a motorcycle with her husband on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway (no guard rails, steep drop offs) when a thick fog and rain descended. With zero visibility, she was terrified that they would fly off the side of the mountain at any moment, and yet there was no safe place to stop and wait it out. As they cautiously made their way down, she kept repeating to herself: Right now, in this moment, I’m safe. Right now, in this moment, I’m safe.
In reality, we never know what’s going to happen in the next moment - even when we think we do. We only ever know for sure about the moment we’re currently experiencing. Am I okay right now, in this moment? Yes, I am. Right now I have enough money to meet my needs. Right now I’m warm and safe and dry and well fed. I have some contingency plans in place as a sop to my mind’s most pressing fears (because I’m still human, after all).
Court cases can drag out for a long time. I don’t want to give away my happiness and peace of mind for the next several weeks or months, and so I pull my mind back, continually, to this 24 hours. What is happening right now? That’s all that I need to respond to, and all that I have a hope of influencing anyway. Just this 24 hours.
The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly. ~ Richard Bach
Sometimes I have to say this over and over to myself: There are no mistakes. There are no mistakes. Because often it feels like there are lots of mistakes in this world! My mind tells me that so many things are wrong. Global warming is wrong. Children starving is wrong. Having guns all over the place is wrong. It’s also wrong that I have to wait in line so long at the post office, that the checker at the store was rude, and my hair doesn’t look right today. From the tragic to the petty, it seems like there are mistakes everywhere.
That’s when I trot out one of my favorite mantras: Nothing is random, nothing is a mistake. I take it to the extreme and try to see even minor annoyances as somehow purposeful. For some reason I was meant to be stuck in traffic (why else would I be here?). What can I get out of this experience? It’s both easier and harder to apply this to the big, bad things. Most of us will admit that good often comes out of suffering, but does it follow that the suffering was part of a plan? That can be hard to swallow.
To many people, the idea that tragic events are part of a plan for good is an affront. I get that, and yet for me the idea that the same events are simply random mistakes (being in the wrong place at the wrong time) makes me want to jump off the planet. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s simply a matter of chance whether I get hit by a bus this morning or win the lottery. I take great and active comfort from the belief that there is a plan, and that the plan is ultimately for the highest good of all concerned (whether I ever figure out how doesn’t matter).
Karma is another concept I think is often misunderstood as an explanation for negative events. I do believe in karma, but to me it isn’t a punishment. I see it as more of a growth experience that we voluntarily take on (maybe not consciously, but at least on a soul level) in order to directly experience the opposite side of a situation, relationship or action. It’s a balancing movement, like the natural swing of a pendulum. Of course, we may also take on challenging experiences – big or small – simply to learn and grow. It’s what we’re here for!
So instead of seeing “negative” events (whether life-changing or only briefly maddening) as mistakes, why not view them as expressly picked for your highest good? We don’t have to understand the details of metamorphosis for it to work, any more than the caterpillar does.
The ego never has enough of anything, so if we listen to the ego, we will feel that we don’t have enough, even when we do. ~ Gina Lake
How often – even in the midst of a generally happy and comfortable life – are you aware of a sense of lack? Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough appreciation or recognition for your efforts. It’s too hot, too cold, too short, too long. He’s not really reliable. Or he’s too reliable, and boring. She could be a little less picky. If only I were younger, prettier, luckier. (And on and on and on.)
To the ego, there’s always something missing. It’s basically the ego’s self-appointed job to point out what’s wrong – with you, with everyone else, with the world in general, and this moment in particular. That’s how the ego stays in business: by creating problems, which it can then attempt to solve. And if it can’t solve them, at least it has something to complain about. Either way is a win for the ego, because it captures your attention and keeps you involved with your thoughts and judgments about the world rather than simply experiencing it as it is.
The mind (ego) is a judgment-producing machine, and usually the judgments are negative. It’s like having Debbie Downer as a continuous voice-over in your head, but we’re so used to it, and so conditioned to believe that these judgments are ours and therefore important (and correct), that we simply accept them as the truth. We identify with that voice in our heads, give it our attention, and believe what it’s saying. And suffer because of it.
But there’s another way to experience life. When we focus on what’s missing, we miss what’s actually present. All the wonderful qualities – of a person, place, situation, moment in time – are ignored in favor of the one thing (or many) that we wish were different. Underneath that voice of discontent is another, very quiet, voice that is humming with contentment.
The only way to hear that voice is to turn down the volume of the ego’s constant complaints and judgments. You’ll never do away with them completely; they’re the nature of the mind. But when you see them for what they are – just thoughts, and not very helpful ones at that – it becomes possible to step back just a bit from them. This is how you dis-identify with the ego. You don’t kill it or “transcend” it or make it go away. You just stop listening to it so fervently and automatically believing what it says.
Learn to recognize the “channel” in your mind where the ego is constantly running its negative commentary. When you notice that you’re listening to it, simply call it out for what it is – Ego. The more you do this, the easier it is to tune in to the other voice, the one that says:
Everything you need to be happy is present in this moment. Nothing is missing.
A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. ~ John O’Donohue
I confess that I have a love/hate relationship with goals. On one hand, I've always loved making lists and scenarios of what I want to do and have in the future. Frankly, I can daydream till the cows come home. But as I travel further down the road of spiritual growth, I'm becoming very leery of this "living for the future" mindset.
I know that the future and the past are both ego territory. The mind loves anything that keeps it planning and scheming, or reminiscing and regretting. Meanwhile, we miss what's happening right under our noses. It's possible to live your whole life without ever truly being present.
This year I decided to approach my usual new year's resolutions from a different standpoint - more as aspirations and targets to aim for than destinations to reach or accomplishments to tick off a list. The ego is all about what we can accomplish (Doing), while the soul cares more about how we do it (Being). Ego also relies on white-knuckled willpower to get the job done, which isn't nearly as effective as the simple power of intention and attention.
And so this is how I'm hoping to live the coming year:
When it comes down to it, I’m convinced that if we just did the first thing on this list, to the best of our abilities and as often as possible, all the rest of the list – and everything else we hope to accomplish – would take care of itself.
That is my #1 intention this year – to simply be present and live each moment with awareness.
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. ~ Henry James
As my daughter grew up, there were many times when I found myself trying to put challenges she faced (often academic) into perspective. Although I don’t actually believe in the traditional “pearly gates” version of heaven, I once jokingly asked her whether she really thought St. Peter would require her to know her multiplication tables before he’d let her in. It’s absurd – but it highlights the chasm between what seems so urgent and necessary in a day-to-day, worldly sense and what is actually, truly important.
On that score, I’m with Henry James. If we simply try on a consistent basis to be as kind as we can humanly manage, I think we are doing very well. Being kind is different, in my opinion, from being nice. Niceness seems to have a lot more to do with keeping up superficial appearances and/or an unhealthy desire to please. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that plenty of “nice” people are not actually very kind!)
Kindness is all about the other person. Oddly, many of the kindest people are very shy and actually loathe being caught in the act. True kindness is more often extended to the outliers, anyway – those who have no way of returning the favor. What it’s really about is simply recognizing the basic humanity that makes us all, utterly and forever, equals. Kindness may be as simple as looking someone in the eye and truly seeing them.
Kindness is also something that we need to extend to ourselves. In fact, being critical or judgmental or even cruel to others inevitably means we treat ourselves the same way. We have to recognize and love our own basic and flawed humanity before we can allow ourselves to do that for others.
I wish that kindness (not niceness) was actively taught in schools and homes, along with all the other skills and achievements that are more apt to be emblazoned on proud parents’ bumper stickers. I’m happy to say that my daughter is a very kind person, even though she still doesn’t know her multiplication tables. I hope that she will be happy and successful in life, yes – but the fact that she is kind is what really makes me proud to be her parent.
The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. ~ Mary Oliver
What you do one day, or a couple of days a month – whether for good or for bad – ultimately won’t have much impact on your life. What you do most days most certainly will. It’s like compound interest: A couple of cents or dollars a day seems meaningless in the first few years, but over the course of a lifetime it can make you rich. Or conversely, a small, insignificant poor choice, made regularly, can sabotage your life by barely perceptible degrees.
I’ve been taking a hard look at my own habits lately, after reading Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits, by Gretchen Rubin. The book gives an exhaustive list of strategies that can help or hinder attempts to change behavior patterns, and some good reasons to pay attention to what you actually do on a daily basis (as opposed to what you wish you were doing).
Rather than attempting a total overhaul – since I’m more of a Moderator than an Abstainer, in her terms – I’ve been looking for ways to make my wanted habits easier (and therefore more regular), while making the less desirable habits, like visiting the very tempting bakery down the block, or having a glass or two of wine at dinner, into more occasional treats.
But before getting too far in the process, I found that I had to back up a bit and figure out what I actually value the most, because there just isn’t time to cultivate every good habit I’d like to take up. What I found was that in some areas I was already doing a pretty good job. For instance, I value reading, and make sure that I get a lot of time for it. I value connection with my friends and family, and I also have a good track record of maintaining those ties (although I did decide to increase the frequency of emailing my parents!).
In other areas of value to me, my habits needed some tweaking. I value spirituality, and as an important part of that I value meditation. However, I wasn’t as consistent with my regular sitting practice as I wanted to be, because I was always physically uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Once I found a meditation bench that allowed me to comfortably kneel, and then – bonus! – downloaded an app to track my sessions and connect with other meditators (it’s called Insight Timer), I suddenly found myself on an almost effortless roll.
I was actually surprised by how motivating I found the app to be. This is the strategy of “monitoring,” and I’ve decided to see if it will also jumpstart my generally non-existent exercise habit. Health is definitely a value of mine, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw how much I don’t exercise. I’ve ordered one of those fitness trackers that look like a bracelet, and signed up for a somewhat pricey gym where you work with a trainer. (If I have an actual appointment, I’ll probably keep it.) I’m also using the strategy of piggybacking one habit onto another by doing 15 minutes of yoga immediately following my meditation.
Finally, since I’m a writer and I value creativity, I’ve decided that I should actually write a little bit every day. Formerly I’ve been pretty streaky with my writing. I’m using a wall calendar to keep track of my writing days, and setting the bar pretty low (I count it even if I only write for fifteen minutes, but I’m finding that fifteen minutes often leads to much longer).
What are you doing, or not doing that you wish you were, on a daily basis? What little things can you do that will set you up for success? What’s really important enough to you to do most days? I put a little note on my mirror to remind me of how I want to spend my days, and therefore my life:
Everyday I: meditate, write, connect with loved ones, and move my body.
A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition. ~ David Whyte
I love that old Zen phrase "chop wood, carry water." It brings me down to earth every time I get too wrapped up in the realms of mind or spirit - because even too much spirit isn’t a good thing! We are still physical beings inhabiting a physical body in a physical world. Whether we like it or not, we still have to take out the trash, brush our teeth, pay bills.
After my divorce in late 2015 (following a twenty-year marriage), I went on a spiritual deep dive that ended up lasting two full years. During that period I burrowed deep within myself, spending a huge amount of time reading, writing, meditating and attending classes on personal growth. Looking back now, I jokingly refer to the sterile suburban apartment where I lived as my Himalayan cave! In many ways I was truly living the life of a monk on a spiritual quest.
But eventually the seasons of life change. Recently I moved to a tiny but very cool apartment in the city. The game of life is swirling all around me here, and I'm itching to get off the bench and join in again. It’s as if the past two years of going inward have finally taught me the rules that were never clear when I was playing before. Suddenly my trajectory has changed and I’m focusing outward, eager to take what I’ve learned and test it out on the gritty playing field we call the “real world.” (Never mind that one of the rules is that it’s all actually just an illusion!)
Not that I’m abandoning my inner work – the goal is to take it with me into everyday life. I still meditate, read, journal, say my affirmations. I turned a whole wall of my new bedroom into a giant vision board that I can see from my bed. But I also went out and got a “real” job outside the house (just a regular old job hosting in a restaurant, which I’ve never done before). Joined a gym. Bought some clothes that were not yoga pants and sneakers. Thought about dating (okay – not very seriously). Got some blonde highlights that I immediately regretted.
Let me emphasize that I didn’t leave my cave because I thought I should (and I didn’t go into it in the first place that way either). It wasn’t a decision I made with my mind – it just happened. After my divorce I needed the time apart to process and understand where I had lost sight of myself. It was a restless, ungrounded feeling that told me that phase was ending. To be honest, it’s scary to leave the cave – but then, it was scary to enter it in the first place. We can never know how long a phase will last or where it will lead, however much the mind craves the answers ahead of time.
And, in reality, these phases are simply opposite sides of the same coin. It’s neither better nor worse to be spiritually or physically focused – we can get to the same place by taking either route. For me, for now, it’s about toting that barge and lifting that bale. But my prayer shawl is still hanging on the back of my door, waiting for me!
Join the family!