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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

Jungle_DSC2307

 

“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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Go ahead–get your hopes up!

April 20th, 2015 · No Comments

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A friend and I were talking about an adventurous trip we’re both considering. We both had some reservations about it and we were discussing the pros and cons.

“I don’t want to count on it until I’m sure that I’m going,” he said. “I don’t want to get my hopes up and then get disappointed.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He couldn’t give me a reason.

The next day we spoke again. “I changed my mind about not wanting to get my hopes up,” he said. “Your question made me realize that I’m on fire about this. It would mean so much to me to do this. I want to be excited about it. I am excited about it.

“I realize that growing up, my enthusiasm was often dampened. My parents really meant well, but they always disregarded my excitement. I think they wanted to protect me from hurt, so I’d say the glass was half-full and they’d warn me it was half-empty.

“I’m ready to reclaim my natural joy towards life.”

It was a beautiful moment, and from there, the rest of our conversation was filled with our excitement about the amazing possibilities that could unfold if we took the trip, as well as some honest reflection about our hesitations.

But we don’t always realize what my friend did, do we? We often keep ourselves from getting our hopes up and stop there.  We stop short of getting excited about possible new adventures, opportunities, or good news. Whether we’re contemplating taking a trip, getting a promotion, or finding our dream home, we so often temper it with, “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

This robs us of the joy that’s available in the anticipation, deliberations, and decision-making.

That joy and excitement is like rocket fuel, and propels us with the energy, focus, and drive to take the steps we need to move forward. It enhances our motivation and performance. And it feels great, too.

We do the same thing when bad news is on the horizon. When waiting for results from a medical test, for example, how often we prepare ourselves for the worst, not wanting to get our hopes up. And then we wait in dread and terror.

I challenge you to ask yourself why–why shouldn’t you get your hopes up? Can you find a single valid reason to dampen your enthusiasm, optimism, or joy?

We think that we’ll be better prepared by not getting our hopes up. We fear that it will hurt worse later if we’re optimistic and then don’t’ get what we want.

But the truth is this: disappointment now does not prepare us for disappointment later. It doesn’t protect us from hurt later, either. It only generates negative feelings right now. If bad news comes, we’ll still feel crappy later.

I once told a client that she might as well go slam her hand in a car door right now, just in case she might slam her hand in the door next month.

Because that’s exactly what we do when we don’t let ourselves get our hopes up, isn’t it? We generate pain and negativity right now when the event we dread may never happen.

Disappointment about what might happen feels heavy right now. And it’s totally useless. If we get what we want, we’ve felt terrible unnecessarily, and if we don’t get what we want, we’ve felt terrible leading up to the bad news.

And in doing so, we deny ourselves moments, days, weeks, lifetimes of excitement and enthusiasm. We rob ourselves of the very stuff that energizes us and propels us towards rich and fulfilled lives.

So how about it? What joy or enthusiasm are you holding back from? What bad news are you suffering about before you get it? What possibility are you failing to celebrate?

Then, ask yourself why. Why not get your hopes up? Why not imagine yourself in the situation you dream of? Why not imagine the best possible outcome?

The only thing you’ve got to lose is today’s pessimism, anxiety, and pain. If you don’t believe me, you can always try the car door test.

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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 · 9 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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Life Begins at the Edge of Your Comfort Zone

May 13th, 2013 · 11 Comments

Buddy and me

Within an hour of my arrival at summer camp in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains the summer I was ten, I was hunched up in a puddle of tears.  A group of returning campers had introduced me to  Camp Mount Mitchell’s initiation ritual—they knocked me to the ground, pulled off my sneakers, and tossed them onto our cabin roof.  Those sneakers may as well have been on the moon.  I was so frightened of heights, the thought of having to climb up to that roof left me inconsolable and weeping. 

That fear of heights stayed with me.  Amusement park rides, steep mountain trails, even ladders—all sent me into a panic.  Flying on commercial planes was fine, but the nausea and shakes I had during an afternoon in a small plane left me swearing that I’d never get in one again.  

Which is exactly why I jumped at the chance to take a flying lesson in a small, open cockpit 1929 vintage biplane recently.

Because I’ve been on a mission to overcome my fear of heights.  It’s part of a larger goal to deal with all of my irrational fears.  One of the things I’ve learned about fear in the last few years is that it can be provoked by real or imagined danger.

And like many people, I have a wonderful imagination when it comes to scaring myself silly.  But when imagined fears are in charge, our lives stay small and pallid. We avoid adventures large and small and retreat from opening our hearts to love, speaking our truth, and going for our dreams.  Fear overtakes common sense, and even worse, it drowns out desire and passion.

Yes, fear drowns out our desires and passions–those delicious yearnings and stirrings inside us that pull on us and guide us towards lives of pleasure, passion, and deep connection.

In short, we can imagine ourselves out of the very adventure of being alive.

So here’s what I’ve done to change the pattern:

I examined my thinking.  I identified the thoughts fueling my fears and gently questioned them, looking for the truth.

Is it true I’m going to fall, get stuck, trip, loose my footing, crash, die?

What would this experience be like without the belief that I’m going to get hurt or die?

Can I think of instances where I or others did these things safely?

I worked through my scary stories just like that, one by one.  The truth was always safer and kinder than my imagination was.

I calmed myself with mind-body tools.  I did my heartbreathing exercise until I could imagine myself in a situation involving heights and then gently and efficiently bring myself back to a calm state.  I breathed consciously in moments of challenge.  I visualized myself being calm and confident in scary situations.  I grounded myself over and over.  (email Support@TerryDeMeo.com if you want an mp3 and a worksheet guiding you through the exercise.)

I felt the fear and did it anyway. I remembered what Darren Taylor, a/k/a Professor Splash a professional stunt diver, once told me about his fear of diving off an 80-foot platform into a tiny, shallow vat of water.  “Hell, yes, I’m afraid.  I just do it anyway.”

I gradually challenged myself in the real world.  I did this in ways that were fun and engaging.  I put no pressure on myself.  I did it because I wanted to, not because there was a voice in my head scolding or berating me.

Climbing at Bandelier

A couple of summers ago, I climbed 140 feet up a series of four ladders to Alcove House, an archeological site of the Ancestral Pueblo people in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument.  I had to consciously breathe the whole way, but I did it.  And I was also so elated that when I got back down to the canyon floor, I climbed right back to the top again.  Guess what?  The second time was a snap!

Ziplining in Barbados

I went ziplining in the rain forest in Barbados, attached by a harness to a thin cable hundreds of feet above the ground.  I coached and calmed myself, and before you know it, I was standing on a platform in the jungle, all hooked up and ready to soar.  Lifting my feet off the first platform took some “feel the fear and do it anyway” self-coaching.  But by the time I arrived at the end of the course, I was elated–no shakes at all!  It was fun flying through the air!

And then, a few weeks ago, I was invited to the grandest adventure yet—a chance to fly a very special small airplane.  The very idea triggered the same old responses–sweaty palms, fearful thoughts, racing heart and legs like jelly.

Several friends gave me “you’d better be careful” and “I would never do that” messages.  My very vivid imagination got carried away more than once.

But I trusted the tools and processes that have worked for me and for so many clients.  And I used them.  (I’ve learned that the best coaching tools in the world don’t work unless you use them!)

And I climbed into the front seat of Buddy, a 1929 vintage Stearman Model 4 open-cockpit bi-wing airplane, one of only seven still existing in the world.

I was a little afraid as I was getting settled into the leather cockpit seat when the shoulder straps repeatedly slid off my shoulders.   Can I fall out if we tip over too far? But I realized that was just a predictable little protest from my lizard brain, and immediately diverted myself with some gentle breathing .  And once we began taxiing, fascination and excitement took over.

Sarah and me, up in the air

My fabulous instructor, Sarah Wilson, sat in a compartment just behind me; we wore headsets and talked to each other the entire trip.  She gave me clear concise instructions, and before long, I was steering the plane, guiding it up and down, left and right, and even into a figure “8.” Sarah’s ebullient energy and deep love of what she does encouraged me to engage and have fun, and made the day even more special.

Elephants and Buddy’s wing.

We flew high and we flew so low we could smell the orange groves beneath us.  We saw elephants in a field at the Ringling Circus Center for Elephant Conservation.  We saw cows and flocks of birds and highways and farms.

And when we landed, I realized that I hadn’t had one single frightening thought, my heart never raced, and I didn’t have to remember to consciously breathe.  I had so much fun and it was so interesting that I forgot to be afraid.

Will my irrational fears return?  Who knows?  It doesn’t matter.  If they do, I’ll just keep chipping away at them.

But this I do know: when we intelligently and consistently confront the things that hold us back from our dreams, we find the places where we come fully alive and where we soar.  And in that place, the sky is the limit.

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