Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
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.
Entering the kingdom of God means feeling, as if we were floating in the womb of the universe, that we are being taken care of, always, at every moment. ~ Stephen Mitchell
I’ve done very little writing lately. Something inside is metamorphosing and many of the things that once seemed very important to me (growing my email list! Selling books! Attracting coaching clients!) now seem nice but not really worth a lot of time and energy.
I’m enjoying life.
Nothing amazing has happened; I’m simply appreciating the day in and day out routine of getting up, having my coffee, reading, watching my daughter spread her wings, meeting a friend, watching a movie, going to work in the restaurant. Not having any ambition for things to be different. Not waiting for a relationship or some form of tangible “success” to make me feel worthwhile.
I honestly used to scoff at the idea that the purpose of life could be as simple as being happy. I thought the real purpose of life was to learn and grow, but now I think that is just the means to the end – and the end is being happy. We learn and grow, not to be better people, or to earn some outer reward (in this life or the next), or to prove ourselves worthy, but simply to be happy. Because until we learn to overcome the ego and its ways, we’ll never truly be happy.
The ego, or mind, is the enemy of true happiness. Ego keeps us focusing on what’s “out there.” How many friends do we have? How much money do we make? How good do we look, and how successful are we, compared to every single person we meet? Depending on the answers to those questions, we may feel “happy” for a while, but it doesn’t last. The ego also tells us that we have to make it all work: we have to make the right decisions, do the right things, be the right kind of people in order to earn our happiness at long last.
All the personal growth work I’ve done over the past decades has led finally to this realization: none of that outward stuff matters. None of it. This is why I now find myself more or less ambitionless. I don’t need anything to be different. Each moment, even the ones in which things seem to be going wrong, is perfect, because in every moment I know that I am loved and taken care of, “floating in the womb of the universe.” This is the message that the soul quietly and constantly reiterates underneath the blaring of the ego’s alarms.
I will keep on writing when I have something to say, and I hope that my readers will understand if my posts are a little less regular! I’m always very happy to hear from you, whether with your troubles or your joys. Through both, I hope you choose to believe that you are loved and taken care of in every moment.
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.
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