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The Trouble with Enlightenment

“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.

Getting Naked and Getting Real

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.

The Gift of Discipline (with thanks to Anne Lamott)

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.”

 Wow!

 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.

What to do when criticism gets ugly

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.

Finding courage when you don’t have any.

I was stuck, scared stuck, and nothing was unsticking me.  Someone was not following through on an agreement with me, an important agreement involving money they owed me.   A string of broken promises littered the past, and I was afraid to confront them.  I was just plain scared stuck.

I’d tried the soft approach.  I was nice, patient, good humored, positive, encouraging. (“Of course you’re going to pay me.  I understand.”)  I visualized success, and imagined the feeling of how good it would be to have this problem out of my hair.  (Oh, it was yummy!)

I’d self coached, just like I suggest to my clients and students.  I’d worked with a couple of my brilliant go-to coaches and each time, vowed to move forward.  And didn’t.

Honestly, though, most of the time, I avoided thinking about it.   Months went by, and nothing happened.  My positive energy hadn’t gotten results, visualizing success was getting harder, my courage was AWOL, and every day that slipped by was costing me money and peace of mind.

Not a good place for a personal coach who helps people find the courage to overcome their doubts and fears.  That didn’t feel good, either.

It was time to get tough and to call in the big guns—a lawyer.  And that scared me too, notwithstanding the fact that I am a lawyer.

Late one night as I paced around and contemplated my dilemma, a grand idea struck.  I’d create a courage vision board as inspiration.  I grabbed a pile of magazines, poster board, scissors and glue, and furiously began thumbing through the magazines, searching for photos of brave deeds, ferocious animals, and deering-do.

But there was one problem.

All I had on hand was a pile of Yoga Journals and O Magazines.  Photos of toothy, smiling waifs twisted like pretzels did not inspire courage.  Neither did photos of Oprah’s dazzling gowns, luxe vacation home, or Tom Cruise jumping on her couch.

Where were the lions and tigers and bears when I needed them?

And then, serendipity jumped off of the pages of an old Vanity Fair, written shortly after the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010.  Haiti, which has been called “The Best Nightmare on Earth,” has a special place in my heart.   I’d been there twice, and it’s people and culture fascinated me.  I knew the earthquake was a gargantuan tragedy in a place that was already at the breaking point.  The magazine featured an article about Camp Penn, the relief site founded by the actor Sean Penn.  Frustrated by the slow and meager response to the crisis from the world’s humanitarian community, and anguished by reports of people enduring unspeakable suffering without so much as aspirin available, Penn took matters into his own hands.  He assembled a team of doctors, a supply of morphine and surgical equipment, an airplane, and flew into Haiti.  He didn’t ask for permission, he simply took action.  Penn personally supervised his operation, despite the huge dangers from the anarchy and panic engulfing the fragile country.  The US military was so impressed with his courage and results, that they invited him to set up his operations within the borders of the military base they had established.

And there it was—Courage.  In living color.  A photo of Penn, squarely planted in a nightmarish, rubble-strewn scene in Haiti, looking as serious as a terminal illness and as mean as a snake.  And in an instant, I got it.  Sometimes that’s the stance that’s needed, that’s appropriate, that’s essential.  Sometimes that’s what right action and love and heart look like.

If Penn could risk his life like that to alleviate suffering, what the hell was I doing draining my energy over collecting a debt, legitimately owed to me and long overdue?  Was I waiting for permission from the other person to proceed?  (Admittedly, I was.  I wanted my money and I wanted to be liked.  Oh, yeah, and respected too, for my kindness and restraint.)   Was that likely to happen? (Duh. No.)  Who was going to give me permission other than myself?  Whose approval and respect did I really need here?

That was all the inspiration I needed.  I ripped out the photo, clipped it to the lampshade in my office, and started moving forward.  Yes, there was a lot of work to do.  Yes, it wasn’t easy.  Yes, my fears were triggered over and over.  And each time they did, I looked at up that photo and asked myself a simple question.  WWSD? What would Sean do?   Would he hesitate?  Hell no!  He’d tell his lawyer to move forward, he’d take the action she recommended,  and he’d say “Absolutely no more delay for any reason!”

Last month, my first check arrived.  It felt so good.

The photo’s still up there on my lampshade, too.  Just in case I need it.

 

Here are some simple exercises to inspire courage when you don’t have any:

1.  Find a photograph (from a magazine, the internet, or your personal photo stash) of someone you admire doing something incredibly brave.  Mount the photo where you can see it whenever you need a shot of courage.  Ask yourself, over and over again: what would they do right now in my situation?

Here are a few examples, but it’s better if you find your own.

Augusto and Michaela Odone, the parents featured in the film Lorenzo’s Oil, who relentlessly searched for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s ALD.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger who masterfully landed a disabled jetliner in New York’s Hudson River, saving the lives of 150 passengers and 5 crew members.

Immaculée Ilibagiza who, during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, stood silently starving in a cramped bathroom with seven other women for 91 days and emerged still infused with hope, spirit, and a heart full of love.

2.  Ask yourself: am I waiting for permission or encouragement from the person or situation I need to confront?  Then ask if you need their consent or approval, whether you are likely to get it, and what life would be like without it.  Ask yourself: am I approving of the way I’m proceeding here?

3.  Hire help if you need it—a lawyer, a coach, an expert consultant.

4.  Breathe.  I’m serious about this.  We tend to hold our breath when we’re afraid.  Make sure your exhale is as long as your inhale.

5.  Proceed forward in tiny little steps.  Remember, the first few steps forward are often the hardest.

6.  Keep going until the entire job is done.   All of it.  Each time you get stuck, take one or all of the above steps.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon was right—life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.  That’s what he told his young son, Sean, in the sweet and loving song, Beautiful Boy.

That song has been on my mind a lot lately.

Because I wasn’t planning to write this post.  I was planning to write a lighthearted Valentine’s Day post.  I’d even started it.  But then life, glorious life, with it’s curveballs and lessons and bewildering and sometimes pain-drenched surprises swept in.

While I was busy making other plans.

That is, until a sunny and golden Thursday morning a few weeks ago, when I sat on my sofa immersed in coaching a very cool client, planning a day full of coaching other wonderful clients.  That was my plan.  It was in my appointment calendar.

Then I heard a rustling noise coming from the bushes just outside my window.  The meter reader is lost, I thought.  Again.

“Excuse me,” I said to my client, and walked to the window to tell the meter reader where to find the meter.  Again.

But it wasn’t the meter reader.  It was a furry black dog and the rustling was the sound created as the dog vigorously shook Checkers, my tiny, frail, nineteen-year-old cat, who was hanging limply in his mouth.

What followed was not pretty, and I won’t go into it.  In short, my little cat died within the next few minutes.

And I had to deal with it.   All of it.  There was no choice.  No option.  My plans were meaningless.

Instinctively, I grabbed the phone.  I needed to talk to someone who would understand, support me, help me cope with the shock. Sitting in the middle of my living room floor, with tears still streaming down my face, I called my good friend Marlene, a cat lover who had a special affinity with Checkers.  I called Susan Grace, a friend and fellow coach, a constant gentle and loving presence in my life.  I called Jane, who has cared for Checkers when I was out of town, and her fury validated mine.  I called my veterinarian’s office, where the kind and helpful receptionist helped me figure out the logistics.  I told my neighbors Sandy and Blaine, who I knew would try to help me locate the dog’s owner.  One after another, throughout the day, they all patiently listened and offered their sympathy and support, all in different ways, all helpful and all received with my deep gratitude.

I called my two children, now young adults.  Checkers had been their childhood pet–a presence in their lives all but a few years. They’d found her hungry and pregnant mother when they were in elementary school, the morning after Hurricane Andrew swept through Miami when we’d had other plans.  We cried together, and shared stories about our sweet cat.

And as I spoke about the unexpected twist that life had taken, I was comforted.  The pain didn’t go away, but it helped immensely to share my pain with others.

Since then, each time I’ve tried to write that Valentine’s Day post, I got stuck.  The words wouldn’t come.  Whatever I wrote seemed forced and inauthentic.  Because it was.  Finally I surrendered to the truth: another plan had to be set aside.  I’d have to write something else, still from the heart, but more reflective of how I was feeling.

I’m telling this story not to seek your solace or your sympathy, but to share with you the power of connection in times of stress, pain, and loss.  This is why we come together for funerals and celebrations of life for those who are no longer with us.  This is why we laughingly have festive divorce parties, why we help friends pack when they are moving away, why we sit with them after their miscarriages.  We sit together with a bottle of wine.  We bring them fresh cookies, hoping to sweeten their lives.  These are not pity parties.  These are times of deep connection and validation.  We need each other in challenging times, and this is especially true for women.

Researchers at UCLA have confirmed that women in particular gather to “tend and befriend” each other in times of stress. Men don’t to do it as instinctively as we women do—men rely more on their fight or flight response.  While women also have a fight or flight response, we seem to also seek out the company of others as a way of coping with our stressful situations.  It’s been theorized that we developed this strategy long ago: in primitive cultures women couldn’t leave small children behind in the face of danger, fighting or fleeing wouldn’t work with babies in tow. So women gathered together to support and protect each other.  They, as we, tended and befriended one another.

So, whether unexpected pain slams into your life suddenly and fiercely, or whether it seeps in slowly and tortuously, notice your urge to gather and to connect with your friends and loved ones.  Heed those ancient instincts stirring within you–they’re healthy and normal responses.

Tending and befriending works.  And I think it’s good to know what will help us through times of upset and discomfort.  Because there’s one thing we can count on for sure.  As John said, life will happen, even when we’re busy making other plans.

The Paradox of Success

“I’ll never get it!” my Inner Nag grumbled last week in yoga class as we practiced shifting between Warrior Pose, a two-legged lunge, and Tree, a one-legged standing position. Instead of gliding back and forth in the seamless ballet our teacher demonstrated, I repeatedly lost my balance and toppled sideways.

With a voice full of mischief, our teacher, Natalie Morales, casually commented to no one in particular, “If you don’t fall out of a pose at least once during class, you might not be taking a big enough risk or having enough fun.”  She doesn’t call this class “Funyasa” for nothing.

Immediately I relaxed and the challenge became interesting again. Natalie’s words reminded me why I was there.  Physical performance is only a small part of it.  I was simply taking a big enough risk to stretch past my safety zone and into my risk zone.  Today’s limits aren’t permanent, and falling out of the pose was a message of feedback, not failure.  Every success I’ve had in that class has been preceded by dozens if not hundreds of failures.

I was also reminded that I was there to play and have fun, not to practice Jaw Clenching Pose, Eyebrow Knitting Pose or Inner Fuming.

Having recovered my good humor, I experimented by shortening my lunge and adjusting my balance … and there it was!  Tree Pose!   For a nanosecond!  Then I teetered, lost my balance, and toppled again.  But I was closer. For a moment, I’d done it.  And, I’d discovered a couple of tricks that might make it easier in the future.

Importantly, I was engaged with my own experiment again, and not thinking about what everyone else around me was accomplishing that I wasn’t.

My shifted attitude is what psychologist and motivational expert Carol Dweck calls our Mindset, a key component of our success.  A fixed mindset tells us, “I’m born with only a finite amount of intelligence, competence, or capability.  I have limits that stop me.”  A growth mindset says, “I can improve with learning, effort, and practice.  I can do more so I’m going to keep trying.”

According to Dweck, fixed and growth mindsets can occur not only in activities like yoga and other endeavors of physical performance, but also in education and learning, leadership, relationships, and even self-esteem.  When presented with an obstacle, those with a growth mindset tend to rise to the challenge. With a growth mindset, we’re less likely to fear failure, and instead, view it as a chance to improve.

Those with fixed mindsets believe that since they have limited amounts of intelligence, talent, and skills, they’d better prove to themselves that they are adequate. They exhaust themselves trying to measure up, comparing themselves to others, looking for external approval, worrying about being judged, and thrashing themselves for falling short.  It’s no surprise that fixed mindsets keep us stuck.

As we move into this New Year, let’s take this opportunity to notice where we have fixed mindsets in our lives.  Where are we believing that we (or those important to us) have limits, that we’re not smart enough, talented enough, courageous enough, lovable enough, or good enough?  When we notice ourselves looking for external approval and comparing ourselves to others, is this simply a signal of a fixed mindset?  Can we then shift to a growth mindset by reminding ourselves that we can get better if we don’t give up?

In virtually everything we undertake, our own experience has a wealth of proof that we can and do get better at everything we try to do.  In virtually every instance, the human capacity to learn, to grow, and to improve is real and provable.

As my yoga class and indeed life itself always demonstrates, our failures are just a part of the process of learning, of growth, and of progress. Failure always precedes success. The exploration of the edge between success and failure is how we learn what works and what doesn’t.  And success isn’t always the achievement of the goal we set out to attain.  Success is more often about staying curious, present, and engaged, taking risks, and having plenty of fun along the way.

‘Tis the Season…for a New Holiday Tune

It’s the most wonderful time of year.  

Or is it?

For some of us, that song, indeed The Holidays themselves, sounds like a thousand reindeer hooves scraping across Santa’s blackboard.  Bah, humbug!

Oh, we all know better than to stress out about The Holidays. This year, we promise, we won’t overextend ourselves.  We won’t overindulge.  We won’t spend time in places we don’t want to go or with people we don’t want to be with.  Never again, we say.

Then we do it anyway.  We buy too much, eat too much, drink too much, decorate too much, push ourselves too much.  Spend too much time in too many places with too many people we don’t really care about.

We even expect too much from others, thinking that this year our family and friends will behave in ways that they won’t, don’t, or can’t.

And we start the New Year needing a week in an isolation tank, four hours a day at the gym, and a very large inheritance to regain our energy, our weight, and our financial health, resolved, of course, to Never Do It Again.

‘Tis the season.

So this year, let’s just admit it and do our very best to show up each day of the rest of this year committed to a new tune–one that will take us to the other side of The Holidays happy, healthy and soulful.

Here are a few tips for a Holly, Jolly Holiday Season:

1.  Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to ring out the old, and ring in the new.  Start right now. How do you want to feel in early January?  What kind of connection and memories do you want to have made with your family and friends?  What do you want your credit card balance, your weight and your energy level to be?  How do you want to feel about yourself?

Decide the answers to these questions and ring in the new right now.  Don’t wait.  Set an intention to begin the New Year today.

2.  Make a list and check it twice. Write down your tendencies—those pesky areas where you know you are challenged.  Do you eat, drink, shop, or cook too much?  Get so frazzled you don’t enjoy your friends and family?

You better not pout.  Decide what do you want instead.  What do you want to have created when the holidays are over?  How do you want to feel?  How do you want to look?  What do you want to weigh?  What credit card balance do you want to pay in January?  What do you want to have accomplished?  Who do you want to have spent time with?

Write down each of your holiday tendencies–the ones that take you away from what you want for the New Year.  Then write down a new behavior  to begin today.  If, say, you are challenged by the avalanche of sweets in your office, note it and add the inspired action that will bring you to the intention you set:  “When I’m at work, I’ll really savor and enjoy one small sweet treat each day.  Then, I’ll stop.”

Check your list more than twice if you need to.  Check it whenever you are tempted to eat, drink or be merry in self-destructive ways.

3.  Hark!  Your body’s wisdom sings! Got a gnawing feeling in the pit of your belly?  That’s  your body saying “listen up”.  That’s how it get’s your attention.  It’s crooning  to you, guiding you towards what you really want.

So what’s on your playlist?  Is it Winter Wonderland in four-part harmony or Welcome to My Nightmare as you agree to bake 400 holiday cupcakes for a school party?  I’ll Be Home for Christmas or the theme song from Dragnet when you’re about to say “yes” to a seven hour drive on snowy roads to be with your great aunt’s long lost third cousin?

Hark!  Those inner songs are clues.  Listen.

4. Over the river and through the woods to Crazytown we go. You know this tune.  You fantasize a holiday gathering that looks like a 1940s Christmas card, with everyone cheerfully bonding ’round the hearth.

You also know what you get instead.  Every year. Your mother asks if you’ve gained weight.  Aunt Betty asks if you have a boyfriend yet.  Your brother’s kids have a burping contest as they launch wrapping paper spitballs into the gravy, while your bro and Uncle Charlie have a loud, eggnog and rum-fueled debate about whether it’s the Republicans or the Democrats messing up the world.

Okay, so they drive you crazy.  That’s what families do, and they’re going to do it again.  And you love them all anyway.  So, don’t expect them to be different.  Count on them being the way they always are.  Bring your sense of humor and your brightest holiday smile to your family gatherings.  Leave your fantasies home.

5.  Deck the halls with boughs of simplicity, meaning, and love. Banish your Inner Martha Stewart from your halls.  The real Martha has teams of elves to help her, and she makes a gazillion dollars to do all that stuff.  You don’t. Need I say more?

So sing out!  Cry out, “No, No, No!” to all of your shoulds. To anything and everything that feels heavy, burdensome, or born of obligation. To all that numbs, distracts, disconnects, or drains you.

Then, jubilantly raise your voice to sing out “Yes!” to all that feels like love, connection, joy, happiness, fun, generosity, gratitude, strength, courage, peace, nurture, kindness, compassion, humor, and appreciation.  To all that nourishes your soul and your ability to connect with what gives your life meaning.  To everything that makes you laugh, that strengthens you, that makes you whole. To all that energizes you, feeds your spirit, and brings you alive.

And whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah,  Kwanzaa, or just the end of 2011, don’t wait.  Let this time be the beginning of a whole new way of approaching the most wonderful time of the year.

 

Best wishes for a fun, happy, healthy, wondrous Holiday Season and a  New Year brimming with joy, peace, prosperity, connection, and laughter.

Finding the Sweetness in Criticism

I recently taught a telecourse on how to develop your intuition. I spent weeks preparing it and was pleased with the result. It was fun to do, well attended, and afterward, I received many enthusiastic thank-you emails and Facebook posts.  It felt great.

But one email was quite critical.  In this attendee’s opinion, I’d done a lousy job, gave lousy examples to illustrate my points, and took longer than the advertised time.  It was a very lengthy and detailed commentary, and it was directed to Martha Beck, Inc., who sponsored the call, rather than to me. Ouch.

In the not too distant past, I would have stewed about this for days.  My stomach would have hurt, and I would have stayed focused on it, disconnected from my good feelings of accomplishment.  Then, I would have dealt with my discomfort by putting on my metaphoric power suit and stilettos, and summoning Portia, my Inner Lawyer.  Portia would have searched for technicalities and loopholes, and argued an impassioned and detailed case for my defense.  My response to the writer would have taken hours to prepare.  Honestly, I really would have gone to that much trouble.

Happily, Portia is kicking back these days, and allowing Susie Q, my Inner Cheerleader, to fill her old role. Susie pointed out that with over a hundred people on the call, and such a subjective and mysterious topic, it was not surprising that someone would have disagreed with me.  Susie suggested that I focus on all of the compliments I received, send a simple note to the unhappy party, thanking her for writing, apologizing for the call going overtime, and offering her money back.

So that’s what I did.  And then I let it go.  And it felt good.  I was weirdly grateful to the writer.  She had a valid point about my going overtime and I’ll be more mindful of that in the future.  But more importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity to practice this simple principle: that other people’s opinions of us are their business, not ours, and when we stay in our own business, we are the happiest and the most productive.  When we stay in our business, our hearts are free to sing to us, and to guide us to what pleases us in the most deeply meaningful ways.

When we move into more public arenas in the world, staying in our own business is imperative.  This applies to any form of expression, whether it’s with words, paint, clay, or another form.  When we express ourselves openly, when we reveal our truth, we’re bound to encounter those who disagree with us.  We have a choice at that point.  We can go back to being small and quiet.  We can play it safe,  water it down, avoid controversy.  We can focus on the criticism and lose connection with our souls.  Or we can continue to connect with the places inside us that want to be heard, accepting the risk of not pleasing everyone.

Emerson spoke of this almost 200 years ago in his essay, Self-Reliance:  “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

So what about you?  Which choice are you making? These days, I’m choosing to walk into the crowd with the same independence as if I were in solitude, whispering only to myself.  And, as Ralph Waldo said, it’s pretty sweet.