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The Power of Telling Our Stories

August 1st, 2015 · No Comments

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A couple of years ago, I began participating in Lip Service, a literary event here in Miami, similar to NPR’s The Moth, where storytellers share true personal stories in front of a 600-person audience.

I’ve done several shows and have exposed some very revealing, very tender parts of my life and my inner world. And it scares me silly every time I do it.

Why? you might wonder. Why stand in front all those strangers in a dark theater, with a video camera rolling, revealing your secrets?

When I began, I had absolutely no idea why. The moment I heard about Lip Service though, a strong pull came over me and I thought, “I want to do that. No, I have to do that.”  I knew I had to, even though I’d never done anything like it. I’d done lots of public speaking before, but it was professional and carefully curated. Safe.

This would be different. Risky. Messy. Scary. But despite my reservations, I listened to that inner voice and now I know why my intuition was so spot-on.

Telling the whole truth about yourself is the most liberating thing you can ever possibly do.

When I explore my personal struggles, large and small, the places I’ve been hurt, confused, or upset, I can dig down to the radical truth about myself and the situation.

I find my mistakes, my bruised feelings, my anxieties, to be sure, but as I keep exploring, I also find the places I was not seeing reality clearly. My vision unclouds and the truth shines through.

I look at my childhood with new eyes and see where I carried the pain and chaos from it into adulthood. And how I don’t need to do that any more.

I find solutions to problems I thought were unsolvable. Sometimes the solution is simply to get it off my chest and out into the world.

I see the humor and the everydayness of things I thought were Oh-So-Huge and Dramatic and Terrible.

I find forgiveness for those who wronged me and see where I needlessly harbored resentment.

By admitting my vulnerability, I understand myself better. I find my true voice, my authenticity. I don’t have to pretend or hide with anyone, even myself.

Ultimately, it’s deeply compassionate work.

Sharing those urgent places with an audience makes it even more powerfully transformational. It leaves me feeling courageous and proud of myself.

Audience members tell me how they understand how I felt and that they relate to what I did. They say that my story helps them understand their own stories.

There’s a lot of healing in knowing we’re not alone, that we’re not the only one who feels afraid, guilty, or foolish. We’re all in this together.

Even when something frivolous gets under my skin, if I explore why I’m obsessing about it, something deeper and universal is invariably revealed.

Last May, I went onstage for Lip Service and told a lighter story about me, myself and my hair. As I learned, even a light story, when looked at truthfully, can have depth and meaning to it.

So here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

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Getting Back to “The Real World”

June 9th, 2015 · 8 Comments



“Back to the real world tomorrow,” my friend Jen lamented. We’d spent the last ten days in Peru with a small group of friends, sampling the restaurants, art galleries, and nightclubs of Lima, and exploring the Amazonian jungle. We’d laughed and talked and been completely absorbed with our adventure. Wi-fi was almost impossible to access, and we’d been truly disconnected from our daily lives.

But if life at home with our jobs and laundry and email is the real world, then what is the world we’ve been in? And why do we resist leaving it?

On our bus ride back to the airport from our lodge in the rainforest, I had the great fortune of sitting next to one of our guides. Carlo, a bright, cheerful man in his mid-thirties, is an expert in the traditional herbal medicines of the jungle and had given us a tour of the lodge’s medicinal garden, deep in the rainforest. He’d shown us plants that cure a wide variety of ailments, from arthritis and cancer to headache and difficult childbirth. He had a sweetness that made listening to him a delight.

Carlo had pointed to a small square indent in the ground, about six feet on each side. He’d lived in a small structure on that spot for a year, he’d told us.  His mentor had instructed him to do so as part of his training as a medicine man.

On the bus ride, I asked him to tell me more about his experience living alone in the jungle. He said he went to the lodge only for meals and stayed in the jungle the rest of the time. It had been a spiritual journey for him—a time to go inward and to come to terms with adulthood, with life, with himself. He learned to communicate with the plants as well, by living with them and observing them.

He left his jungle house the day a jaguar visited him, scratching at his thin walls.

“Did you enjoy your time alone in the jungle?” I asked him.

“Very much,” he said. “It was very spiritual and I learned many things.”

“Were you sad to leave?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he said. “The jaguar was a sign. It was time to go.”

For Carlo, there was no thought of “back to the real world.” He hadn’t resisted staying alone in the jungle, either.  For him, each was simply the right time to move on to his next experience. He told me he’s now married and has two young children.  He said he loves his life now as much as he loved his year in the jungle.

What if we could approach our experiences and transitions like Carlo, without resistance? What if the line between “the real world” and “vacation world” was not subdivided into drudgery and stress versus fun and freedom? What if, when our vacations are ending, we could see it as Carlo did when the jaguar arrived, as time to go?

I think that there’s a key element that, at least for me, allows an ease in transitions between adventures and “the real world”: gratitude.

Gratitude is the foundation that allows us to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of our lives. Gratitude for our adventures, gratitude for the opportunity for us to see beyond our routine experience, and equal gratitude for our daily lives. Gratitude for life itself and for all it brings.

I think Carlo would agree.


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The Gift of Presence

December 9th, 2014 · 3 Comments

magic gift box with lights in their hands

Daddy?  Daddy?  Daddy!  DADDY YOU WEREN’T LISTENING!”

“Yes, I was,” my father answered.  “You said that you have a spelling test and you’re going to have a Christmas party at school.”

“You’re just being a parrot.” I’d say.  “I don’t want to talk to a parrot!  I want to talk to you, Daddy.”

I had this conversation with my father many, many times in my childhood.  It was always the same.  Even as a small child, I knew when he wasn’t really listening, even though he could repeat my words back to me with the precision of a tape recorder.

But I knew when he wasn’t present.  And it didn’t feel good.  It felt empty and bewildering.  It made me question the value of what I had to say.

The times when he was really listening and engaged were wonderful and felt very different.  And I remember them distinctly.  It’s what I always wanted from him, more than a new bike or a doll or a potholder loom.  And it was the one thing that was so elusive in our relationship–his presence.

It’s the same thing we want from each other as adults.  We want more than a warm body pretending to be with us.  We want a here-and-now presence, where we know the other person isn’t distracted, multitasking, or politely waiting for us to finish talking so they can have a turn.

I recently led a workshop on presence and asked a group of about 50 women what they wanted for the holidays.   They initially said things like “a clean house” and “finishing the holiday cards.”  After we dug down a bit, here’s what they said they really want:

  • to enjoy their favorite people
  • to re-connect with folks they haven’t seen or been with lately
  • to show appreciation for others
  • to show love
  • to feel connected to others in a meaningful way.

In other words, as these women discovered, what we want is each other.  We humans are social creatures.  Our relationships matter to us.  The human connection is one of the major cornerstones of high life satisfaction.

And now when we are here at that “most wonderful time of the year,” it’s easy to lose sight of that.  We get busy decking the halls, cooking up a storm, shopping ‘till we drop, and partying like it’s 1999.  And we forget why we’re doing it in the first place.

The good news is that the easiest and most delightful way to both get and give the gift that everyone really wants, is not with our presents.  It’s with our presence.  It’s a gift that is 100% free and the stores never close.

And here’s an extra bonus—when we give the gift of presence, we’ll never have to dread those credit card bills in January.

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It’s Only a Mat

June 9th, 2014 · 8 Comments

There was a surprise waiting when I went to yoga Sunday morning. We regular students keep our mats rolled up on a bank of narrow shelves in the back of the studio. The shelves had gotten so crammed full that if one mat was pulled out, a half dozen other mats came with it. They call ‘em sticky mats for a good reason.

While our teacher Natalie was on vacation, some of her helpers moved dozens of nameless mats up to the tiny front check-in area and piled them on the floor. When I arrived, a half-dozen people were scrambling through a candy-colored jumble in search of their mats. I stood back to let the crowd thin out.

Within a few minutes, only one woman was left ahead of me. She was bent forward at a ninety-degree angle, pushing, pulling and struggling. She straightened up, turned towards me and heaved a big sigh. She was young and beautiful, but her brows were kitted and her mouth contorted. “This is so stressful,” she said. “And I came here to get rid of stress.”

“Take your time,” I told her. “It’s only a mat.”

She smiled weakly and turned back to her plight. About ten seconds later she retrieved a bright fuschia mat and hurried into the classroom.

There was a time when I would have reacted exactly like that. I would have forgotten that I was young and beautiful. I would have forgotten that I was healthy and strong and had two incredible arms and legs. I would have forgotten that it was a blazingly brilliant Sunday morning in Coconut Grove, and that I had just walked in a light breeze under mahogany trees filled with dancing leaves and trilling mockingbirds.

Yep, I would have started yoga class upset and frustrated because my mat had been moved and it took me an extra minute or two to find it.

Stressing out is virtually our national pastime. Eight in ten Americans report workplace stress. Seventy-five to ninety percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Almost half of us lie awake in bed at night due to stress, and about two-thirds of us will have hypertension by the age of 60.

Granted, people sometimes face serious and stressful problems–a life-threatening illness or the loss of a loved one. But how many of us are stressed because we arrive at yoga class and the mats were moved? Or because we jump in our cars to go to the grocery store and an accident ties up traffic for five minutes? Or because we’ve misplaced our keys? Or the dryer won’t start?

Our stress response is provoked over and over all day long, from things no less trivial than these. Then, the “stress wiring” in our bodies becomes stronger and more efficient. Over time, it takes less and less of a circumstance to push us into a stress state. The “set point” for our stress response to kick in actually lowers and we respond by pumping out stress hormones from smaller and smaller provocations.

In short, we create a hair-trigger stress-response system by reacting so dramatically and consistently to trivial inconveniences. We’re not very happy campers, either, while we are going about creating both acute and chronic health problems.

What’s the answer? One obvious solution is immediately available to all of us. If something is going on that you can’t control, let it go. Arguing with reality never succeeds—we always lose the debate as well as our health and well-being.

If the mats have been moved or the traffic is tied up or your flight is taking off late, let it go. If the rain is messing up your hair or if the lack of rain is drying out your flowerbeds, let it go. Two or ten or twenty extra minutes, frizzy hair, and wilted flowers are not worth compromising our happiness or our health.

Next time something unexpected happens and you’re delayed or inconvenienced, you might want to remind yourself that you are uselessly (and perhaps harmfully) stressing about something you can’t control.

When it was my turn at the mat-pile, I found two identical Mandukas—thick, grey, high-end talismans owned by those who take yoga very, very seriously, or like me, just need some extra knee cushioning. I considered what to do for a few seconds, then heard Natalie’s sweet voice.   Class was starting.

It was time to take my own advice.  I grabbed one of the two mats, pushing aside thoughts about whose sweat and grimy footprints other than my own might be lingering on it.   When I get home, I told myself, I’ll have a hot, soapy shower and scrub the mat clean. Then I’ll write my name on it with a black marker so this won’t happen again.

“After all,” I reminded myself, “It’s only a mat.”

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Beautiful Mistakes

February 21st, 2014 · 8 Comments

I’ve spent most of my life doing my best to avoid mistakes.  At all costs.  It seemed like a good strategy–a good way to stay “out of trouble” and the best path to success.  Then some smart, successful, and very talented people began encouraging me to make mistakes.  On purpose.

It started about fifteen years ago in a portrait photography workshop with a well-known, gifted teacher.  She gave me a weird assignment: spend a week taking photographs the wrong way.   Cut off heads, hands, and feet in awkward places.  Get too close, overexpose your shots, and ignore the rule of thirds. 

It was hard to do.  It felt strange.  But by the end of the week, I was experimenting and shooting with way more spontaneity and abandon.  Many of the photos were useless, but a few were downright lovely.  Beautiful Mistakes. 

Photography has always been easier and more fun since then.  I shot the photo above this post last summer in Woodstock, New York.  I was with my family and the backseat of the car we’d parked next to was so Woodstock, chock full of 60’s hippie stuff—drums, tie-died t-shirts, Indian blankets.  I wanted a photo of it and I had only a few seconds because everyone was hungry and waiting for me.  I grabbed my iPhone and quickly took one shot.  I didn’t realize the reflection of the car window would show my hands and the trees behind me. But I think the result is far more interesting than what I’d planned—a Beautiful Mistake.

Then I met Martha Beck, my wonderful mentor, who insisted that not only should I break the rules I’d been operating under, I should create my own rules.  At every turn over the last eight years, Martha has lovingly been in my face, pushing me to trust my inner guidance, make my own rules, and be willing to fall flat on my face.

Martha introduced me to improv in our Master Coach training.  Improv can only be done successfully when you are willing to look like a complete idiot.  You must be totally spontaneous–improv moves way too fast to plan anything.  It was fun and I thought it might help me with my perfectionism and “avoid mistakes at all costs” tendencies.

So I took a couple of improv classes locally with Carey Kane here in Miami.  At first I dreaded my turn. My lines often fell flat.  But the more I did it, the more comfortable I got with looking like a complete idiot.  By the end of the classes, I was consistently having fun and sometimes zinging out some pretty funny lines.

Now I’m in a memoir writing class with the awesome Andrea Askowitz of Miami’s Lip Service.  Each week, we’re given a couple of provocative prompts (a time you wish you spoke up and didn’t, how you edit the truth when talking to friends, a time you knew you shouldn’t have had sex and did anyway).  We dive right in, writing spontaneously for ten minutes without editing anything.

Then the real fun begins—we read our stories aloud to each other. We give each other feedback—what’s interesting, what needs clarification, what doesn’t fit.  We cannot criticize our own work or skip our turn.  The only comment Andrea allows us to make before we read is, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.”

The stories written by my classmates are consistently poignant and horrifying and heart-wrenching and funny and often downright brilliant.  They seem to feel the same way about my stories.  We discover things about ourselves we weren’t aware of.  We’re often surprised when the group laughs or cries when we read something we thought was stupid.  We see ourselves in each other’s stories—the universal messiness and glory of being a human.  Each week, I fall more deeply in love with these wonderful people who are so willing to expose themselves in the name of creativity and self-exploration.  The mistakes of our writing and the mistakes of our lives are on full display and it is truly beautiful.

I’ve discovered that my willingness to make mistakes has served me far more than my commitment to avoiding them.  Here’s a list of some of the advantages I’ve found in my adventures in Beautiful Mistakes:

1.    Creative projects are much easier and more interesting.
2.    I’m bolder and have more self-confidence.
3.    I’m more spontaneous and self-censor less.
4.    I don’t cringe so much when I goof something up.
5.    I have more fun at everything I do.
6.    I’m more willing to try new things and to experiment.
7.    I’m better at brainstorming when I work with a group.
8.    It’s easier to apologize when I’m wrong.
9.    I’m more vulnerable which makes my relationships richer and more authentic.
10.  Best of all, I feel a greater connection and love for others and a huge tolerance for their mistakes.

It’s been a pretty good payoff, I think, for doing things wrong.  These days, I can’t wait for my next Beautiful Mistake.  How about you?


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What to Do When Your Head is Up Your Ass

January 13th, 2014 · 12 Comments

A coaching colleague recently asked this intriguing question in a private online forum.  Here’s my answer:

QUESTION:  When you realize your head is up your ass and has been there for quite some time, how do you go about the process of removing it and moving on with your life?

ANSWER:  What a wonderful question!  It’s actually an essential question for those of us born with heads and asses.  We do indeed stick our heads up there from time to time.  How to remove it and move forward is essential to the ability to live bravely, fully, and joyfully.

Here’s how to do it:

1.  Give yourself a big gold star for realizing where your head is.   Our proprioception–an inner GPS that lets us know where our body parts are without seeing them–is especially challenged when our heads are up our asses.  Not only is it dark in there, we’re in a state of utter confusion.  Many of us spend a lot of time with our heads in that dark crevice and never even know it.  So recognizing that your head is up your ass requires accurate proprioception under extremely challenging circumstances.  Congratulations!

2.  The removal process is done in a straightforward way and with the kind of tenderness you’d use with your bewildered elderly aunt with dementia when she’s wandered out of the nursing home and gotten lost.   Be kind. Be gentle. Be patient.  The extraction might be a little painful, so remind yourself of the great pleasures and possibilities awaiting you.

3.  Welcome all emotions as you go about your task—rage, tears, anger, sadness, fear.  Whatever arises is perfect.  Feel it all the way through.  Run, howl, growl, wail, and dance it out of your body.  Shake your fists and stomp your feet.  Some ugly, discordant music can be very useful.  This is all best done once your head is freed from your ass.

4.  Don’t waste any time or energy telling yourself that your head should never have gotten up your ass in the first place, how you knew better than to put it there, how you didn’t listen to your body, did it again, ignored your intuition, blew off the red flags, etc., etc., etc.  Coulda, shoulda and woulda will only keep your head firmly stuck right where it is and delay your progress.  Don’t do it.

5.  Same goes for blaming others—don’t waste your time or energy.  It doesn’t matter one whit that someone else lied, tempted, cajoled, fooled, cheated or tricked you to into putting your head up your ass.  Blame is a distraction.  Whatever shameless, exploitative, narcissistic, or manipulative thing anyone else did is done and over.  File it under “Good to Know” and move on.

6.  At least for now, don’t spend time pondering how your head got up your ass, how to keep it from getting up there again, or any of the larger lessons that can be learned from your adventure.  The deeper meaning and the life lessons will reveal themselves when your head is completely out of the dark and your eyes have readjusted to the light.  Then you can look back with curiosity and wonderment and maybe even learn something.

7.  Celebrate!  Celebrate that you have a head and an ass and that they found each other!  Celebrate that hard as your head tries to convince you that it has all the answers, it really doesn’t, and now you have rock solid evidence that many of your other assumptions can safely be rejected!  Celebrate that on some level, your ass was only trying to help out by providing a refuge!  Celebrate that your spirit has been in search of experience and has achieved it’s goal!  Celebrate the Holy Fool that you are!

8.  Reconnect with the most luminous parts of yourself–your heart, your soul, your essence.  Go for a walk in nature.  Buy flowers.  Sing in the shower.  Look for the beauty all around you. Inspiring commencement addresses are particularly useful right now.  Like a recent college graduate, your head has been stuffed to the brim with learning, but you don’t quite know how you are going to use it in the world. Revisit books, poems, quotes or works of art that moved you in the past.

Once you’re purring along nicely again in your beautiful life, realize that it’s probably not the last time this will happen. Putting our heads up our asses seems to be an inevitable part of the human experience.  We forget, misjudge, goof up, and inevitably do it all over again. Successful living is more about process than avoidance—put head up ass, notice, remove, rebuild, learn, repeat.  Over and over through a lifetime.

It’s not a bad way to live if, over the course of time, we can we discover it more efficiently and get it out with more dignity and aplomb.  The sooner we just go ahead and admit it and begin the extraction and rebuilding process, the greater the chance our head will stay firmly upon our shoulders more of the time where it does us the most good.

Happy New Year!





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The Trouble with Enlightenment

August 14th, 2013 · 10 Comments

“I cheated on my wife with her best friend.”
“I married a man I didn’t love for his money.”
“I raped a woman.”

It was the first day of my first personal growth workshop. We had entered a darkened hotel ballroom and were handed a blindfold and led into circles, eight people on the outside, eight on the inside, facing each other. Blindfolds in place, we stepped towards the person opposite us, drew close and whispered in their ear the thing we had never before told anyone, the thing that most haunted us in the middle of the night, the most shameful thing we’d ever done.

We repeated our confessions to each person in the opposite circle. Eight times to eight strangers.

“I gave a child away for adoption when I was nineteen. I was too irresponsible for birth control and too selfish to raise her.”
“I cheat people in my business.”
“I beat my children out of frustration with my life.”

Anguished sobs filled the room.

Eight times we whispered. Eight times our confessions were witnessed. Eight times we heard whispered back to us: “I sincerely and completely forgive you.”

Then we switched places, forgivers became confessors, confessors forgave.

Sixteen confessions, sixteen forgivenesses. A wrenchingly powerful healing, part of the work of the late, great Debbie Ford.

One confession I heard that day was markedly unlike all the rest:

“I don’t meditate enough,” a woman sputtered through hiccupping sobs. She was as filled with shame and remorse as the liars, the cheaters and the abusers.  I considered that she was making it up, but her anguish was real. She was truly in a lot of pain.

I now know pain like hers is not uncommon. Many of us that are drawn to personal development work expect ourselves to think and act like the Buddha at all times. Anything less than that kind of perfection is bad, wrong, and deserving of remorse, regret and self-flagellation.

In my coaching practice, clients routinely say things like:

“Good mothers never yell/lose their tempers/want to get away from their kids/etc.”
“You can’t be spiritual if you are jealous/don’t meditate enough/make a lot of money/have ugly thoughts about your boss/etc.”
“It’s shallow and wrong to want a big house/designer clothes/a prestigious job/etc.”

These statements are all coming from perfectly lovely people who are engaged in the business of being human and who believe their intolerance for themselves and their desires and behavior is a necessary step in their path towards self-improvement.

When you cross perfectionism like this with a quest for “enlightenment” you get a perfectly miserable person, someone wracked with hiccupping, shamed sobs because they don’t meditate enough or ate a bag of Skittles or yearn for a new BMW.

What that aspiring meditator didn’t get that afternoon, and what we all need to keep in mind is that growth and wisdom never means abandoning acceptance and faith in where we are right now in our process. In fact, the first thing we need to ditch in our quests to be wiser and kinder and more fulfilled is our impatient and intolerant drive to be enlightened and wise.

Being human is a messy job. We have conflicts within us. We make the same mistakes over and over. We intend to skip dessert, walk outdoors every day, and meditate regularly. Then we don’t do it. We want to be spiritual and embrace noble values and we also want designer shoes and to look hot. We yell at our kids when we’re tired, even though it violates our intentions and well-considered principles.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better, to be better, to show up more nobly in the world. In fact, it’s extraordinary and it’s admirable. But when we are judgmental and intolerant of the way we are right now, the unimproved, “as-is” version of us, we suffer needlessly and actually postpone our growth process.

It takes time to change lifelong habitual behaviors, an open mind to understand why we continue to avoid doing the things that will help us move forward, and a curious, experimental process to grow into fuller, richer versions of ourselves. Sometimes it takes insight we don’t yet have. Sometimes it takes a metaphoric two-by-four upside the head.

It always takes acceptance of where we are and where we’ve been.

And that was ultimately the point of Debbie’s brilliant work. We are all imperfect and will continue to be. We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t. We’ve all lied, cheated, manipulated, abused, at least in our minds if not in the world. We’ve all had ugly thoughts about ourselves and others. We’ve all coveted material goods. We’ve all treated people badly and we’ve all made promises that we haven’t kept.  All of us. We may as well admit it.

When we make ourselves wrong for being human, we become intolerant and ashamed of that part of ourselves. We hate these parts of ourselves, we disown them and pretend they don’t exist by shoving them out of our conscious awareness. Jung called it our shadow.

Then, as Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” The very act of hating, denying and hiding parts of ourselves gives them more bite, more power over us. We stay disappointed in ourselves. Our inner voices grow mean and scold and chastise us. We are unhappy and frustrated. All of the energy we use in this inner struggle with ourselves keeps us stuck.

Sometimes we see our problem everywhere else. We project our shadow onto others, and fixate on their imperfections. We’re intolerant of those who just won’t meditate enough, or do whatever it is we are hiding in our own shadows. We know what’s wrong with them and exactly what they need to do to get their act together. Then we beat ourselves up for being too judgmental.

This all diverts our attention and energy from what’s essential and true and good about being human, and about being just plain us. If we can just admit it, admit we’re imperfect, we’re good to go. It’s actually a big relief. Our inner voices of scorn and derision can take a break. We are more authentic, more self-accepting, and kinder. More present. Our energy is liberated in that spaciousness and we can consider our options in each moment. We can do better when we are not locked into battle with ourselves.

It takes courage to stand tall and admit we are imperfect. It takes courage to forgive ourselves. It takes courage to be vulnerable. This was the point of the exercise in the hotel room.

Yet this is how we become whole. Whole humans who can look with curiosity and self-compassion to accept what we see, find what we can learn from our feelings and thoughts and behaviors and desires, and from there, find our path towards doing better.

So let’s set our sights on being whole, being fully who we are in this moment, and admitting that we are humans—sometimes magnificent, sometimes messy.

And that’s perfectly okay.

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Getting Naked and Getting Real

July 11th, 2013 · 24 Comments

I’m stark naked in broad daylight, sitting with my new best friends who also happen to be naked.   We’re immersed in steaming water that smells faintly of sulphur, having an Important Conversation.  Thirty feet below, the Pacific churns in fifty shades of green, crashing and foaming onto jagged, kelpy rocks.  Above, a grassy hill stretches sharply towards a blazing blue sky.

This is California, of course.  Where else would a group of new BFFs take off their clothes and jump into a communal bath to have an Important Conversation?

We’re contemplating creativity, what it means to be a human, and how on earth we’re going to take everything that’s happened in the last week back to our lives of phone calls, texts, emails, deadlines, dental appointments, dead batteries, car pools, cooking, laundry, and people-who-need-us-to-do-stuff.

We’ve been here for a workshop in the art of memoir and creative storytelling with two modern masters, Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston.  If you haven’t yet read Cheryl’s books Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things, run, do not walk, to get your hands on them.  Wild is the book that inspired Oprah to restart her famous book club; Tiny, Beautiful Things is Cheryl’s collection of raw, wise Dear Sugar essays–the advice column to end all advice columns.  And Pam’s latest book, Contents May Have Shifted is an evocative collage of adventures about relationships and exotic places, told with intimacy and wit.

I came to learn how to be a more compelling writer, but I’ve gotten so, so much more.  I’ve been particularly stuck by the parallels between creating literature and creating a life, about how the process of any great creative pursuit parallels our personal journeys to stretch, grow and emerge as fuller, richer, kinder humans.  The issues that I explore daily with my coaching clients and students are the same issues that these two great writers regularly confront, and that have inspired this Important Conversation today in the baths.

I had previously imagined that writers on this level simply sat at their desks each morning and the perfect words and stories flowed directly to the page, perhaps needing a little tweaking or rearranging here or there.

I was dead wrong.  Great artists who produce great work are just like us.  Really.  Just like us.

–They struggle with fear and avoid their work, just like we do.  It’s just part of their creative process. They tell themselves it’s too hard.  They tell themselves that they suck and that they’re not good enough.  They worry about what other people think about their work.  Both Pam and Cheryl do this and said that every other writer they know does the same thing.

But, here’s their secret–they’re onto themselves–they expect that inner backtalk and their resistance.  It no longer surprises them.  They know it’s part of their process.  And they don’t let it stop them.  

Writing is hard, they agreed.  Getting what’s in your head onto paper takes hours, lots of false starts, and often brings frustration.  But the difficulties are not reason enough to avoid your soul’s calling.

After they fret and flounder, they roll up their sleeves and go to work.  In Tiny Beautiful Things, a stuck, self-loathing young woman complained she could only “write like a girl,” and sought Sugar’s advice.  Cheryl famously advised: “Don’t write like a girl.  Don’t write like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”  In other words, do what burns inside you to be expressed and do it ferociously.

–The demands, routines, and curve balls of life do not keep them from their work or their dreams. Both Pam and Cheryl cope with the ordinary and extraordinary interruptions of life, too.  Just like we do.  They deal with email and phone calls and heavy schedules.  During the week with us, Cheryl’s young children wanted cheeseburgers and their Mom’s attention, and an out-of-control forest fire raged within a mile of Pam’s beloved ranch in southern Colorado.  In fact, Pam had evacuated her home only a few hours before she flew to California to be with us.  Neither of them uttered one syllable of victimy complaint.  They shared their knowledge, passion, energy and showed up smiling and present, every session.

–Moving towards their dreams, improving their skills and doing their creative work is part of the tapestry of their lives. Notwithstanding packed schedules, they regularly develop their skills and move forward with their visions.  Cheryl reads works by great writers daily, paying careful attention to details like how the writer moves them from place to place in physical space.  Pam regularly reads poetry to improve her impressive precision with words. She gathered ideas for stories during class breaks and shared them with us.  Pam turned her personal disaster into a creative exercise and had us write about what we would rescue if we had to evacuate our homes in four hours, like she had.

–They don’t know the path before they take the journey.  They don’t expect to know it either.  While some writers may know exactly where they’re going and have it all figured out, these two definitely don’t.  Pam describes her starting point as The Forest of Not Knowing. She likes it there and explained the many advantages of not-knowing.  Cheryl likewise has no idea where her writing will take her—the path arises organically as she writes.  Wild was originally intended as an exploration of her grueling Pacific Crest Trail hike and, after she began, it veered into the deepest waters of human experience.  If “not-knowing-where-it’s-going” worked for Wild, which is being hailed as one of the great masterpieces of our times, it might just work for our challenges.

In other words, when we have a project ahead of us, we don’t need to know where we’re going or where we will end up.  That’s okay.  We just need to start.   In personal development, this approach is extraordinarily successful.  I encourage my coaching students not to worry about having a plan for their clients and to proceed a step at a time.  Our clients’ attention, awareness, and insights will light the trail, bit by bit.

For me, hearing that even accomplished artists cope with the same things I do and the same things my clients do gave me great reassurance.  Whether we want to create great art in our lives or whether we want to master the art of living, we can expect bouts of inner resistance and fear, a variety of obstacles and losses, and lots of time in The Forest of Not Knowing.

This is all part of the experience of creating anything, as well as the experience of being human.  If we’re willing to then dive in notwithstanding the inner and outer forest fires, and keep moving towards our dreams and desires, we can express what yearns for expression.  We can create our own masterpieces.

And sometimes, if we’re very, very lucky, we can sit with our bared souls and our bared butts in the company of understanding friends, and contemplate the mystery, the wonder, and the everyday magic of it all.

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The Gift of Discipline (with thanks to Anne Lamott)

December 14th, 2012 · 22 Comments

Too busy, too tired, too scattered to move forward with your dreams and important goals?  I know.  I struggle with it, too. 

When I’m not too busy or too tired to even start, my blog writing sessions sometimes go like this:

Get excited about a topic!!!  Write one sentence.  Re-read sentence several times.  Check email.  Think about second sentence on way to kitchen to make tea.  While water heats, rummage through purse to locate cell phone.  Check phone messages.  Plug cellphone into charger.  Pour hot water into cup, add tea.  While tea steeps, look around house for book that’s marginally relevant to writing topic.   Return to kitchen without book.  Remove a few receipts from purse while tea cools.  Pile receipts on counter for eventual filing.   Start load of laundry while tea cools more.

Whoops!  Before you know it, I’m either out of time or too tired to write.  Oh, and my tea is stone cold, too.

Sound familiar?

Anne Lamott, one of my very favorite writers, was recently in town at the Miami Book Fair.  She addressed this very topic–how to move forward with our dreams.

Anne took the stage in loose, faded jeans, sandals, and a white cotton peasant blouse.  Her unruly blonde dreads were tied back with a scarf.  She wore no makeup.

 During her talk, a fussy toddler began to protest being confined in his seat.  Anne stopped mid-sentence, and turned to fish around in a large shoulder bag that she’d plopped on the floor behind her.  Smiling broadly, she pulled out a plastic baggie of crayons and stepped down off the stage.  She walked through the auditorium to the baby and gave him the crayons. When she returned to the stage, she mirthfully told us that Sunday School teachers always carry crayons.  

 Anne’s that kind of fun, unpredictable person. 

 Yet, she gets things done.  She writes books.  Excellent, meaningful, funny, wonderful books.  Lots of them.  Many of them were written when she was a single mother with a young child.

 How does this spontaneous, free-spirited person do it? 

We found out when a woman in the audience asked Anne for advice.  The woman wants to write but has a busy life–a job, kids, a household to run, too much to do.  You know, the usual.  Our usual.  She told Anne that in the evenings, she’s only has enough energy to hang out on Facebook.  What can she do, she asked?

 Anne dished up some tough love.

 “The path to freedom is through discipline,” Anne told her.  “You will either write now, or never.” 

 “We don’t have the time to wait,” she continued.  “Treat every day as if it’s your last.  Ask yourself what you will care about at the end of your life?  Having spent your evenings on Facebook? Watching the 10 pm news?  Or something else?   If you want to write, you must commit that every evening at 10 pm you will write for an hour, come hell or high water.”


 The path to freedom is through discipline. Treat every day as if it’s your last.  You don’t have time to wait. It’s now or never.  Commit to do it, come hell or high water.

 Isn’t that what’s required to accomplish any of our dreams, any of our goals?  It’s how books and blogs and stories get written.  It’s how weight gets lost and kept off.  It’s how businesses get established and moved forward.  It’s even how we harness our inner voice of worry or any other self-destructive habit. 

 We don’t wait.  We either do it now.  Or never. 

 Anne’s talk was a beautiful reminder that we can have the self-discipline to accomplish our dreams and still be fun-loving, generous and spontaneous.

 It really isn’t that hard.  Letting a dream slip away is much, much harder.

 The truth is we are all disciplined.  We all have areas of life where we don’t hide behind our lame excuses, where we just show up and get the job done.  We brush our teeth regularly.  We pay the electric bill and feed our kids, too, not just when we’re not busy or when we feel like it.  We do it consistently.  With commitment and discipline.  We do it because we like our teeth and our lights and our kids well enough to take care of them.

 We must treat our dreams with that same commitment and discipline.  We must replace those old “I can’t/I’m too busy/I’m too tired” stories with the truth. 

Here’s the truth:  if we regard our dreams as essential to our well-being as we regard our electricity, we’ll move on them.

 Then, we can take “it’s now or never” to heart.  We can easily give up time on Facebook, watching television, checking email, or whatever words and habits we allow to suck up our precious time.

The result?  Time and energy for writing without interruption, no snacks after dinner, neglected business goals accomplished, freedom from the grip of worrying.

 So what’s your dream?  The one you don’t have the time or the energy for?  The one that, at the end of your life, you will want to have accomplished?  Here are some considerations, based on Anne’s wise advice, that will help you move forward:

 1. Ask yourself what is burning inside that wants to be liberated, accomplished, achieved?  What, at the end of your life, do you really want to have done? Identify the non-essential things you do instead—social networking, reality TV, or, like me, a murky soup of random activities.  Be sure to include all the time you spend ruminating about how you hate some aspect of yourself or your life—it’s a major time sucker.

2.  Identify the stories you tell yourself that get in your way.  The ones like “I don’t have time” and “I’m too busy.”  Get really honest about those stories, and remind yourself of all of the things you regularly do notwithstanding those stories.

 3.  Commit to use your precious time and energy for your dreams.  Remember that your dreams are as essential to your well-being as the electricity in your home.  Turn off the TV, get off Facebook, let the email wait until tomorrow.  Start immediately.  Remember what Anne said—it’s now or never.  Put your time and energy into your dreams, come hell or high water.  You don’t have time to wait.

 4.  Cultivate patience. Remind yourself that a big goal or dream takes time to develop. Remind yourself that changing habits takes time.  Remind yourself to take tiny steps forward.  Remind yourself that this is what progress looks like, and taking time is part of the process.

 5.  Bust yourself with kindness. Gently bust yourself when you need to, and then recommit and get back to work.  And remember—it’s especially important to speak to yourself kindly, reverently, and respectfully when busting yourself.

 Discipline like this—honest, authentic, committed, patient, kind–is a wonderful gift to yourself. You’ll be amazed at how great you feel, too, when you are moving forward toward your goals and dreams, rather than focusing on how tired and time-limited you are. It’s truly the key to your dreams and the path to freedom.

Now, finally!  I’m going to go make myself a cup of tea.  And drink it before it cools off.

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What to do when criticism gets ugly

October 23rd, 2012 · 29 Comments

I got a very critical email last week.  It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t constructive, and it hurt.

I’m co-presenting a three-part telecourse with my friend and mentor, the very wise Gail Larsen, author of Transformational Speaking, If You Want to Change the World, Tell a Better Story.  We created the class based on her work.  She’s never done a telecourse before; I’ve done lots of them.  She’s got a powerful body of wonderful work that needs to spread further; I wanted to help with that by sharing my experience with it.  Together, we created a plan.

After the first class, we received a flood of warm, encouraging responses.  Word of mouth led others to sign up even though the class had started.  Gail and I were over the moon.

Until we got one email that got personal.  Very personal.  And it was directed at me.  Gail was wonderful and inspiring, the writer opined; I was not. And the writer explained, in unkind and pointed words, exactly why she thought I should basically shut up for the rest of the course.

My focus tunneled down, laser-like, to the hurtful words in that email.  I felt the energy drain from my body as my mind raced, scattering in a thousand directions at once.  I forgot all about the positive messages.

One of Gail’s powerful Transformational Speaking principles is to “use your authentic power with those who can hear you, rather than the force of argument with those who can’t.”

Obviously this person hadn’t heard me.  Logically, I knew that.  But telling myself to fuhgeddaboutit wasn’t enough.  I needed to work though the sting and the hurt of her words so I could show up for those who could hear me, without flinching, without holding back, and without being riddled with self-doubt.

I’m fine now.  In fact, I’m stronger and more committed than ever.  Here’s how I got there:

Admit what’s happening inside. 

I started by just admitting it–she’d gotten to me.  Her words stung.  I was hurt, upset, distracted, angry. Old memories spiraled up.  I felt deflated, worried, ashamed.  It was personal and I was taking it personally.  I didn’t like it, but that was the truth.

You can start there too.  Whatever it is, admit it.  Admit exactly where you are and start there.

Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be upset, that anger doesn’t help or to just get over it. Don’t try to be wise or enlightened when you really want to crawl in a hole and hide or you’d like to anoint your critic’s face with thick cream pie, preferably in a very public location.

If you stuff your feelings down, they’ll surely pop up later, surprising you like some giant cosmic game of whack-a-mole.  Usually at a very inconvenient time and place.

So, just admit you’re human and that you’re hurting.

Get in touch with your full reaction.

What sensations are you feeling in your body?  Feel the pressure, vibration, movement, density, temperature, location, direction of your sensations. Racing, swirling, stuck, bubbling, churning—whatever they are, feel them.  Curiosity helps at this point.

And stay with it.   In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says it takes about 90 seconds to fully process our uncomfortable sensations and emotions. But 90 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re not used to doing this.  So stay with it.  Keep feeling what’s present in your body.  Often it’ll completely resolve in a very short time.

What are you thinking?  Let all those worrisome, shame-ridden, and nasty eye-for-an-eye thoughts rip.  Write them all down.  Go ahead.  They’re just words.

Here’s where The Work of Byron Katie can help you realize that the worst thing that can happen is happening in your own mind.  Start with the most painful thoughts and work them through with Katie’s entire process until you can face your critic’s words with neutrality.

Get some wise support if you need it.

This is where your coach, your shrink, your trusted advisor, or your imaginary league of superheroes can help.  Call on them.  That’s what they’re for.

Remember to BMW (bitch, moan, and whine).

Get some unenlightened support, too.  That’s what friends are for.  I told a couple of trusted friends about what the critic had said.  They supported me lovingly, unconditionally, and without reservation. One friend’s response was delightedly over the top—filled with passionate outrage and laced with insults like “poopy-head.”  Reading her email, I laughed hard and immediately felt better.

Defend, justify, and explain yourself.

Write a letter to your critic justifying the choices you made, the words you uttered, the colors you painted with.  Defend yourself. Explain.  Justify. Set the record straight.

Blow your critic’s words to smithereens with your vaster knowledge, your broader experience, your superior intelligence.  Analyze the hell out of the situation.

Don’t forget your excuses.  You were under the weather, your assistant screwed up, your grandmother was hospitalized and the dog ate your homework.

Be truthful, of course, but write it all down.  Then delete the whole thing from your hard drive or tear the page into a thousand little pieces, realizing that you don’t need it.

What you needed was to hear your side and then to let it go.  It’s illuminating, cathartic, and healing.

Look again at the critic’s words, take the high road, and do what is necessary.

After you’ve dealt with the sting and your hurt, when the truth begins to sink in, look again.  Look past the personal, harsh words of your critic.  Get on the high road and decide whether you need to respond, apologize or offer a refund.  If so, do it.  In this case, Gail and I both simply thanked the person for writing and made a full refund to her.

Then, again putting the harsh personal words aside, consider whether there is a kernel of truth in what was offered by your critic.  Is there anything you can use to improve your work?

Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  The point is to look analytically, dispassionately, and to consider the possibility that there is something you can use buried in the vitriol.

If there is, extract the morsel from the mud, being careful not to drop  any of the sludge on your shoes.

If there is no morsel to be found, let it go.  ‘Nuff said.

Remind yourself that creative expression is about commitment, not consensus.

As the poet David Whyte asks, can you “live in the world with its harsh need to change you” and “look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”?

When you offer your voice or your creativity into the world, not everyone will agree with you, appreciate you, support you or like you.

Congratulations.  You took a stand for something.  You didn’t go for bland.  You didn’t water yourself or your offering down to the consistency of baby pablum.  You made a commitment, you took a risk and you let us see you.  Now look back with firm eyes and say, “this is where I stand.”

That’s what coming alive is all about

Remember, you don’t need a lack of criticism in your life; you need to express yourself authentically.

Find your courage and stay the course.

To be sure, I’ve been criticized before.  But in the past, I felt that there was truth contained in the message, something I could learn or use, or an apology I needed to make.  As Rumi said, I used the criticism to “polish my mirror.”

This time, someone didn’t like what I had to say and the way I said it.  In a class designed, at least in part, around what I had to say.

What the hell can you do with that?

I think there is only one thing any of us can do in these situations.  Silently offer our thanks to our critics for helping us see more clearly and grow stronger.  Then it’s time to move forward.

As the magnificent Ralph Waldo said:

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”

So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m feeling fine now.  Going through this process helped.  Writing about it helped, too.  It’s time to let it go and move forward.

And I hope that you find a voice loud and strong and bold enough to draw criticism, too.  And when that happens, even if that criticism is not kind or constructive, look back with firm eyes, map your course of action, find your courage, and follow it to the end.

There’s too much important work to do in the world to make any other choice.

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