Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
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.
The doing is often more important than the outcome. ~ Arthur Ashe
I always wanted to be a person who did yoga. I mean, yoga is cool, and it’s spiritual, right? I have started and stopped a yoga practice more times than I can count, but I could never get one to stick until I learned a couple of things that made all the difference – and that apply equally to all aspects of life.
1. Yoga (life) is about loving the body/circumstance you have, not longing for a different one.
They say that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. I have always been a results-based person, in all areas of my life. I love goals! In yoga, this meant that I wanted to achieve something – specifically, I wanted to be flexible. I wanted to be one of those lithe and lovely women who can fold themselves in half and rest their faces gracefully on their knees. (I even have a picture of this on my vision board – see above.)
Unfortunately, although my upper body is quite loose, my hamstrings and lower back seem to be made of cement. Because my goal was to become limber in the shortest amount of time possible, I would push myself in each pose to the point of discomfort. Result: it hurt, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would soon find myself avoiding yoga class at all costs. Secondary result: I made no progress whatsoever, and would eventually give up, every time.
When I do yoga now, I try to honor the body that I have, tight hamstrings and all. Comparison, whether with the person on the next mat or with an idealized photo torn from a magazine, has no place in my practice. I am careful to take each pose only to the place where I feel a comfortable stretch, so that the whole practice feels like an enjoyable dance that I actually look forward to doing.
I’m also careful not to compare my own performance from one day to the next. I have stopped looking for a souped-up version of progress, and finally realized that:
2. Yoga (life) is about where your body/circumstance is right now, not where it was yesterday or might be tomorrow.
When I focus on the pleasure of what my body can do, rather than what it can’t, yoga is actually fun. I feel grateful that I can stand and reach for the ceiling, or gently bend and feel the stretch in my back. Many people can’t do these simple things. Maybe, one day, I won’t be able to do them either. Doing them now, slowly, consciously, and with pleasure, feels like a sacred prayer.
Which brings me to another thing that always frustrated me about yoga: the idea that it was supposed to be like meditation. Now, meditation is something I know how to do – but yoga never felt the least bit meditative to me until I finally stopped striving constantly for results. Approaching yoga that way kept me out of the present moment and focused on the future I was trying to achieve, but the reality is:
3. Yoga (life) is really and truly about the journey, not the destination.
When I learned to focus on my experience from moment to moment, and especially the sensation of my body stretching and moving (not straining), I naturally fell into a quiet meditative state. I have to admit, this is easier for me to maintain when I do my yoga at home, rather than in a class setting with people around me and an instructor’s voice giving directions. Quiet + focus + acceptance = (voilà!) meditation.
Though I will probably never be able to fold myself in half (sigh), at least I am now a person who does yoga.
Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises. ~ Bernie Glassman
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned as I’ve studied and coached over the
past several years is that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you do it.
Many clients come to me facing a choice about what they should do in a certain situation. They want to know which is the “right” answer: A or B? What they usually don’t see is that there are really four choices (or double however many choices they think they are facing), because there’s a healthy way and an unhealthy way to do just about anything.
Here’s a fictionalized example to show you what I mean:
Katie has a younger sister who lives on the other side of the country. They have a close but fairly co-dependent relationship, which Katie, at least, has been seeking to heal. When the sister called to say that she was getting sober (again) and wanted Katie to fly to the East Coast to help her, Katie called me. On the surface, it seemed like she had two choices – to stay or to go. But on an energetic level she really had four choices:
Clearly, the real choice wasn’t actually about whether she should stay or go, but about the energy behind each of those actions. There was a healthy way for her either to go and help her sister, or to stay home – and an unhealthy way, as well.
But how exactly do you figure out what your energy is?
It’s not nearly as mysterious as it sounds. Energy is something that we’re all familiar with, although we might not be conscious of it. When my energy is negative, I feel it as a sensation of turmoil or buzzing in my chest and throat. You might feel it as a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, a tightening, a pressure, or a burning sensation.
Next, listen to your thoughts as you contemplate a course of action. It can help to speak them aloud or write them down. Don’t listen to them for pointers as to what you should do, but to how they make you feel. Feel inwardly for whether your thoughts increase or decrease the sensation of negative energy.
These are some of the thoughts Katie shared as she contemplated each of her choices:
Can you feel the different energy behind those thoughts? The healthy choices bring a peaceful or calming sensation as you contemplate them, while the unhealthy ones ramp up the anger, fear, guilt and resentment.
Even after you find that peaceful place, it’s common to lapse back into negative energy and have to repeat the clarifying process, sometimes many times. Just be diligent in monitoring your energy and examining your thoughts.
Ultimately, Katie decided to stay home and help her sister from afar, but she had to continually watch for signs of guilt and anxiety creeping back in. The interesting thing about the energy you put out is that it will affect not only you, but the other people involved in the situation as well.
When Katie was able to stay peaceful, she could truly support and comfort her sister in a way that wasn’t possible when she was feeling anxious and guilty. And had she flown across the country feeling angry and resentful, her energy would not have been helpful in that case either.
When you make sure your energy is clear before taking action, the action itself will always be much more effective – no matter what it is.
The desire of my heart is to be loved so fearlessly by somebody. I will not allow myself to not feel chosen every single day. ~ Hannah B., contestant on The Bachelor
Yes, I confess that I watch The Bachelor sometimes, and I also happen to believe that profound wisdom can be uncovered almost anywhere. This particular episode followed hard on the heels of a disheartening experience on Match.com, so I was particularly receptive to its message.
Although we’re probably at our most raw and vulnerable when dating, everyone – every day, everywhere – faces the fear and pain of not being “chosen” in some way. And let’s face it, many times we will not be the chosen one. Sometimes we will feel alone and lonely, less-than, not good enough, rejected, outside in the cold, looking in.
This is when we get to make a choice for ourselves. No matter how hard we try, how good we look, how carefully we protect ourselves, we can’t guarantee that we’ll never experience rejection from others – but that doesn’t mean we have to reject ourselves, as well.
We can be fiercely in our own corners, loving ourselves fearlessly and choosing ourselves every single day. In February, it’s all about romance and relationships, but the most important love affair you will ever have is with your own sweet self. This is especially true when you’re feeling vulnerable and hurt. So often the ego jumps on the bandwagon, heaping scorn and self-condemnation onto the embarrassment and shame we feel when we seemingly haven’t been “chosen” by someone, whether it’s a friend, co-worker, potential date, or an anonymous troll on the Internet.
When that happens, make a conscious choice to love and honor yourself. Treat yourself gently, like the precious, irreplaceable Being you truly are. I hope that “Hannah B” went home, had a nice hot bath and maybe cried a little with a good friend before heading to bed. Not alone, but with the most important person in her life – herself.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. ~ Martha Beck
I am learning to play the ukulele. At least, that’s what I hope I’m doing. Right now things don’t sound all that great – it will be a long time before I’ve developed the muscle memory and finger dexterity to actually play a song the way I want to. Still, I plug away at it almost every day, trusting that eventually I’ll get there!
I’m also studying Spanish, with similar results. Both are a lesson in staying with my present experience. I one day hope to speak fluent Spanish and make beautiful music, but to get there I must tolerate doing both very badly, for a very long time. Oddly, I’m loving it.
I’ve always been a mostly future-oriented person, setting goals, thinking about the next step and what I want to accomplish. I’ve been impatient with the time it takes to reach those mythical “finish lines,” and inevitably find that they have either moved or are quickly replaced by something else even when I do manage to reach them. I’m not usually content with doing things badly, but that’s changing.
In so many ways I’m learning that it doesn’t really matter what we do, but only how we do it. I’m still making music when I practice changing chords endlessly, if I do it mindfully and with pleasure. I’m still stretching my brain and opening my life to another culture when I haltingly translate new verb tenses. The outward forms are important to the ego, but not to the soul.
The world (which is a reflection of the ego on a grander scale) only values and rewards the accomplishments themselves, not the time it took to reach them – hence our fascination with stories of “overnight” success. The ego wants to leap from peak experience to peak experience, skipping the mundane plodding along the way. But in reality, most of our lives is mundane plodding – even for the most successful people!
We all spend hours of each day sleeping, eating, bathing, dressing, getting from one place to another. How we experience this “mundane plodding” is far more important to our quality of life than how we experience our occasional highs. Whether or not I ever reach my goals of playing the ukulele well or speaking fluent Spanish, I can truly enjoy each moment I spend doing these things badly.
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. ~ James Taylor
I love this time of year. I love looking back over the past year and wondering what the new year will hold. I used to be all about making resolutions, but every year I find myself pulling further away from that concept. I want to enjoy the road as it shows up, step by step, rather than setting arbitrary landmarks to shoot for. And so every year my “resolutions” become more general. This is what I have for 2019:
Write more. Have more fun. Take care of my body.
Here are some questions that can help you take stock and think, in general terms, about the coming year:
1.What happened that was good this year? Include good things that happened to the people you love. For instance, my daughter graduated from college, my parents moved to a new house that makes it much easier to spend time with them. I made more money than I expected, and had a wonderful vacation with my sister.
2.What was challenging? Among other things, going to court with my ex-husband!
3.What was the silver lining that came with those challenges? I finally resolved the last vestiges of anger and hurt left over from my divorce (in the words of my beloved therapist, I cleaned out the dust bunnies under the bed).
4.What do you want to let go of? I would love to eat less sugar and drink less alcohol.
5.What do you want more of? Fun! I want to feel the way I felt playing in the ocean on vacation more often.
It’s lovely to send the old year off with a blessing and welcome the new year with hope, but best of all is to be alive and present to all that is good in this moment, right here and now.
When we judge others or ourselves, we create more messes; when we are discerning, there is no emotional or energetic charge in our being – it is simply a choice. The difference is in the energy. If there is blame or rejection, this is judgment. If there is compassion and clarity, this is discernment. ~ Heatherash Amara
Let’s face it – the mind is a judging machine. We constantly evaluate ourselves, others, and life in general. If you asked me right now, I could give you an opinion on just about anything, usually with very little thought. When I was younger, I didn’t need to be asked to give others the “benefit” of my opinion, which predictably didn’t contribute much to the harmony of my relationships. Even if I didn’t express it out loud, I’m sure that my disapproval was clear – energy has a way of making itself felt!
Judging others feels good (for a while). The whole purpose of judging is to make ourselves feel superior and “right”… except, of course, when we turn the judgment inward, beating ourselves up for not meeting some fictional standard of perfection. Even the self-righteous thrill we get from judging others doesn’t last long. In reality it separates us from others, leaving us lonely and stressed.
Honestly, would you rather be happy or right?
And judging life – weather, events, objects, our health, our living situations, our bank accounts – is simply a no-win proposition. What is, is, no matter how unacceptable we may find it. There is always something we can judge and find wanting, if we allow ourselves to focus on what’s missing, rather than what we have.
So how do we stop judging? Is it even possible to stop?
For me, making a distinction between judgment and discernment has been very helpful. Evaluations in themselves aren’t really the problem, and in many ways are even helpful in making good choices and charting our course in life. We must make decisions all the time: Who do we hang out with? How do we spend our time? And so on.
The real problem arises with the energy behind those evaluations. When you feel an emotional charge along with the evaluation, consider it a red flag that you’re veering from discernment into judgment. What to do next depends on who or what you’re judging.
As with so many things in life (maybe everything), what counts is the energy behind what you do, say, and think.
Join the family!