The Storm Before the Calm

landscape-695137_1280No matter how many times I experience The Storm Before the Calm, it always sneaks up on me. I never recognize it until I’m fully lost in it; bruised, drowning, desperate for relief. Storms are devilishly clever at disguising themselves. “I’m Hurricane Bob!” “I’m Tropical Storm Betty Sue!” “I’m Low Pressure System Barry Manilow!” Don’t let them fool you. No two storms have the same name, but they all wreak the same kinds of havoc.

Of course I don’t mean literal storms. I’m talking about periods of intense disturbance we go through prior to deep and lasting personal growth. I suspect we all have these Storms Before the Calm. But I don’t think most people recognize them. So it’s about to get unbearably metaphorically meteorological up in here.

A Storm Before the Calm begins long before we see it. It’s born in deep wanting—maybe a subtle itch, maybe a yearning so strong it rattles our teeth. It begins down in our guts, and eventually we begin burping it up, asking God (or Whatever) for resolution. Maybe we consult priests and offer formal prayers; maybe we gag out strangled cries that never even make it to language. Either way, we’re begging for change, for fulfillment, for something better.

We want this to happen smoothly and prettily, a sunrise illuminating a perfect summer morning. We expect it to happen this way.

And Whatever says, “Mmm-hmm.”

We forget that to give us more than we currently have, life must make us more than we currently are. And that the first act of every creative change is the destruction of the existing order.

Make no mistake: when we ask for better lives, we are calling the whirlwind.

When the Storm hits, we don’t connect it with our wanting, with our calls for help. We feel blindsided by misfortune, attacked by circumstances, drowned in agony we can’t control.

Loss of control is the essence of the Storm. We may lose control of our emotions, our actions, our work, our relationships, our bodies, everything. It all devolves into chaos—not just the normal inconveniences of daily life, but disruptive, preoccupying chaos, events and feelings we can’t ignore. Plans fall through. Efforts fail. Jobs disappear. Relationships end, or become fractious and impossible. Controllable? Ha! A Storm Before the Calm barely feels survivable.

I tend to recognize the Storm Before the Calm just after I become convinced that I’m cursed. During some of my worst Storms, I’ve felt like a cockroach that God (or Whatever) was trying to kill, first with a rolled-up newspaper, then with a shoe, then with a ton of bricks. After every mammoth blow, I’d be dismayed to find myself hideously alive, missing my head and most of my thorax, but still able to creep forward on my single remaining leg. While, I imagined, God rushed off to deploy the nuclear warheads.

That’s when I remember.

Wait, I think with my tiny, headless-cockroach mind. There’s something about this feeling, this horrible, horrible feeling…it’s not like ever before, but yes, it’s that bad. I think it may be the Storm Before the Calm!

And God (or Whatever) whispers, Bingo.

That dim flicker of recognition is the moment I feel the sea change. I’ve done it enough to know roughly how it’s going to play out. I relax into the belief that Storms Before the Calm come to destroy us, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And that this is grace unfolding. I know that the greater the gift we’ve requested, the wilder and more violent the storm will be, and the deeper the grace.

Contemplating this—that the Storm isn’t a curse, but preparation for the blessing—ushers me into the Calm. Right then, just like that, I feel the pain ease. Before the wind dies down. Before the argument is resolved. Before the disease heals. Before the rent is paid. The Calm doesn’t come because the Storm is over. It comes because I’ve moved into the truth.

Truth is always calm. Still. Gentle. Quietly and intensely alive.

I think almost everyone goes through this pattern. If we look, you can probably remember breaking through a few Storms into the Calm yourself: “Oh, right! After my nervous breakdown I discovered meditation and Klonipin, and things got so much better,” or “True, it was after Jack left that I finally got the nerve to quit my job slaughtering cattle.”

Right then, just with that tentative step toward a different interpretation of ill fortune, the Calm begins. It feels faint at first, but dropping attention deeply into it—focus more on it than on the Storm—begins to reveal that it’s VAST. So huge a million hurricanes could rage inside it and never disturb its peace. That Calm itself is what we really are. Every single pathetic-looking little human is bigger inside, far bigger, than any storm ever seen on earth.

Sometimes, when I can’t reach the Calm, I’ll just stomp into the Storm, betting wildly that it’s more benevolent than it seems. With a sort of inner Viking war scream, I’ll open the grim and complicated spreadsheets from the bank, or go get the painful medical test, or initiate the conversation I’m way too afraid to have. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll sit in a silent room, refuse to distract myself, and face the tempest in my mind.

If I do this bravely enough, a weird thing happens. Right at the center of every Storm I find its eye—the one part of my flailing self that can see clearly.

From that still place right inside the storm, all the horrible luck, the stress, the pain, the shame, the loss, begins to reveal itself to me as an incomprehensibly perfect, intricately choreographed rearrangement of the universe, meant specifically to do one thing: Fulfill my longing.

“Oh,” I notice. “The illness came to teach me to relax.” Or, “Oh. The job loss came to teach me that people will help.” Or, “Oh. I failed because I had to discover that I’m worthy of love, no matter what.”

Oh. I called the Storm. It came because I asked. And it’s exactly—exactly—what I needed.

At that moment, I realize what my favorite yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said, “Don’t you see? God is doing this all for me.”

Not to me.

For me.

Oh.

Make of yourself a light

I’ve heard from so many of you in recent days, weeks and months about how we can get by during a period when the news from the world feels cruel and dangerous. I wanted to talk to you directly about the helplessness many of us feel at such times.

Click to watch video

The Buddha’s last words were, “Make of yourself a light.” As a tribe, it’s my wish that we may all be lights for ourselves and each other in times that feel dark.

All for All, Always…and Other Wisdom from Martha Beck

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Task Seven: Notice that you are all for all, always.

We’ve arrived at the final task in our newsletter series based on my new book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. The Seventh Task in becoming your wild self is the ultimate act of spiritual surrender, in which you completely release your identification with what I call your “meat self”, that sense of individuality and “me-ness” that has defined you throughout your life.

So, why not do that now? Take a deep breath, and just let go of your ego forever. Take a few moments, if you need them. I’ll wait.

Obviously I’m kidding, though kudos to any of you who just achieved spontaneous enlightenment through the sheer power of suggestion. The Seventh Task represents the end of all suffering, which makes it the Big Banana, spiritually speaking. It’s what generations of mystics and yogis dedicated their lives to seeking, and very few were ever successful. So it’s fairly safe to say that you and I are unlikely to spontaneously achieve the Seventh Task in the checkout line at Whole Foods, no matter how raw and organic our groceries.

If you’re using the first six Tasks consistently, Task Seven will take place when you add in stillness, in the form of some kind of meditative practice. You might even find that your meta-self begins moving into stillness spontaneously. The magnetic tug you felt when you first let your body be moved in Task Three, the deep fascination of Task Six, might all steer you in the direction of some sort of meditation. Give in to the desire to be still, even if it hits you in that self-same Whole Foods checkout line. We all know the staff there have seen weirder things than a spiritual seeker clambering atop the avocado display to assume the lotus position.

Give in to stillness; more importantly, open into it.

If you can do this for long enough, I’m telling you, you’re going to experience something more miraculous and bewildering than anything you’ve encountered on this path so far. You keep opening and opening into the stillness, and at some point, something very… unusual happens. And by unusual, I mean by standards that would have even veteran Whole Foods employees shaking their head in disbelief. But bear with me. Do this for long enough and a moment will come in which you will experience the universe opening its eyes as you. If you continue to expand, the scope of the intelligence that’s looking out through your eyes grows incredibly, impossibly, magically vast.

And then one day you just might find yourself looking at the world with a new understanding: I made this. Not your individual identity, but the entirety, the consciousness that existed prior to energy and matter; the creator whose name is Stillness and out of which all things come. And you know for a fact that if a miracle were needed, you could perform one. There is no doubt, no self-aggrandizement, no ego—there’s no you. There’s no self left at all.

The spirit that wants to heal the earth for us—not for itself, but for us—is abroad in the human race right now. It’s in you and in me with the intention to show us that “you” and “me” are an illusion. There is only “all”—all for all, always. When we wake up to that, we will save the world.

And that, my darlings, is about as wild as it gets. Wouldn’t you agree?

Put Your Mind in Service to Your Higher Self…and Other Wisdom From Martha Beck

may 2016Task Six:
Let Your Meta-Self Flow Through You

Task Hello, beloved readers! If you’ve been following along—or if you’ve read my recent book, which is finally out and about in the world—you know it’s time to learn the Sixth Task of Bewilderment (pronounced “be-wilder-ment”). It’s all part of the process of waking up to your inner, deeper, higher purpose.

Task Six is about learning to let inspiration flow not only through your limbs and heart, but also through your brain. This delicate operation can’t work well if you haven’t mastered at least the rudiments of earlier Tasks, particularly Task One, which is to calm yourself out of fear. Most people tune into fear and use their thinking as a control mechanism, trying to access good feelings and avoid bad ones. This approach can be quite effective. It can get your taxes filed, your children educated, and your ordinary work done. But it’s sort of like inheriting a magic wand and using it only to stir soup. When you put your mind in the service of your higher self, it becomes limitlessly resourceful, creative, and beautiful.

The way to do this is simple: find a problem you want to solve or a skill you yearn to master. Work very hard to find a solution or acquire the skill. Then stop—completely—and go out to play. Think. Don’t think. Think. Don’t think.

If you repeat this process enough, a fabulous thing will happen. You’ll get a feeling of something forming in your brain, and then, quiet suddenly (and most often during a “don’t think” period), an idea will pop into your consciousness like an egg rolling out of a chicken’s derriere. Or, with an almost audible click, the skill you’ve been struggling to learn will suddenly become easy.

This won’t feel like something you’ve done, because you don’t have to do it. Your larger self (I like to call it your meta-self) does it for you.

I could go on and on about the number of inventions, philosophical ideals, scientific breakthroughs, and artistic masterpieces that have come to be through this method. But I’ve thought enough for now. I’m going to call my dog, roll out my new electric scooter (a hundred bucks online—so worth it) and toodle about the countryside, waiting for my higher self to lay its next egg.

*You may read the first five Tasks described in my newsletters here:

Make Language Your Servant…and Other Wisdom From Martha Beck

mb_0407When you look in the mirror, you don’t see what the rest of us recognize as your face. You see all your small asymmetries—the freckle on your left cheek, your crooked smile, the part of your hair—reversed. When you think about yourself, this quirk of perception is much more dramatic, because as Byron Katie says, “Like a mir­ror, the mind has a way of getting things right but backwards.”

Katie fans (including all MBI coaches) spend a lot of time noticing this reversal of the real, and flipping our thoughts to discover the truth. This is what I’m calling the Fifth Task of Bewilderment. It’s a way of making language our servant, not our master, as we wend our way toward the truths that set us free.

If you’ve never heard of this Task, but you’re sick of misery, I urge you to learn it and use it, soon and often. Try this: call up an unhappy thought you believe about yourself—“I’m a loser/ idiot/ failure/ hot mess/ etc.,” or “I’m too old/ fat/ stupid/ loud/ etc.” Write it down.

Now, you may recall that the Second Task was simply noticing what nourishes you, and what poisons you. Read your unhappy thought, and just notice how poisonous it is. It will corrode your happiness like acid destroying silk. The Second Task asks you to push it aside, but the Fifth Task makes it useful. Your pain is the indicator that this thought is useful and important, but only because its mirror image, its polar opposite, is trying to make itself known to you.

The full Byron Katie work will help you see this at a deep level, but right now, try a shortened version. See if you can think of real, factual evidence indicating that the opposite of your unhappy thought is the truth you most need to learn right now.

The word “opposite” is key, here. If you think you’re too old, the truth isn’t just that 60 is the new 40—that’s just a lame way of comforting yourself, while still believing that there’s such a thing as “too old.” The Fifth Task asks us to radically shift our whole perception of reality. It asks you to think of a way in which you’re actually too young.

For example, maybe only immature humans, who haven’t yet noticed the ageless Being powering all of our meat-selves, fuss about aging. Maybe you’re too young to have stumbled across Einstein’s discovery that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TIME. Maybe you’re still so little you still believe it’s better to begin a journey than to come home.

Can you see how the Fifth Task forces open the tight fist of the mind, allowing you to touch and feel and play with reality in new ways? It’s the very definition of out-of-the-box thinking, and as you do it, you’ll find that your suffering begins to dissolve. What’s left is not a new box of thoughts, but a free mind. What you’ll see in the mirror after that is a wild, beautiful, undefined creature, with a wild thing’s pure delight in the experience of life.

*You may read the first four Tasks described in my newsletters here:

How to Know You’re on the Right Spiritual Path

My religion is called Do-Be-Do-Be Do, pronounced “doo-bee-doo-bee doh.” The final “doh” (Japanese for “the Way”) is more properly written like this: Do-Be-Do-Be means “the Way of Do-Be-Do-Be.” According to the religion’s only member—me—it aims to balance the active “doing” of Western religions with the serene “being” of Eastern religions.

This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that “laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I’ve studied and pondered the subject intensely. I’ve come to believe Marx’s dictum, “Religion…is the opium of the people.” Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn’t wrong—but he didn’t know that opiates aren’t purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the “endogenous opioids” necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn’t about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It’s about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.

Flying High on Faith

My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling “high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said.” Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. “I’d always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty.”

Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. “I was euphoric for more than a year,” he says. “Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside.” Drew found himself questioning Preacher X’s insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious “high.”

Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.

This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It’s why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We’re wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.

Compared with the other side effects of religion, getting high off religious participation, even becoming “addicted,” as Drew says he was, is a relatively innocuous one. In addition to the obvious Jonestown-style cult craziness, mainstream religions present their own dangers—because their substantial history, sizable population, and organized structure make their members even more certain that they have the Truth. When another group shows up with another version of the Truth, all hell breaks loose. “Us versus them” thinking can swell from prejudice to unspeakable violence. The Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, and countless other atrocities had religion at their cores. The perpetrators were so stoned on being Absolutely Right that they never noticed the mind-blowing irony of hating in the name of love, killing to defend the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and waging war under the banner of peace.

One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and…oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You’ll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.

In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.

Make Your Own Opiate

Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That’s how long it took me to realize that this practice could “turn on” the same natural opiates I’d once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I’d become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.

The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:

Embrace Uncertainty

The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren’t…but if you were, how would you know?

René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, “dazed.” Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t sure. Most people know Descartes’s famous statement “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). But he actually wrote “Dubito…cogito, ergo sum.” “I doubt…I think, therefore I am.” Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.

You’ll be vulnerable to “bad drug” religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: “Nobody’s absolutely sure of anything, and that’s okay.” This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.

Test Every Idea with All Your Senses

The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?

That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X’s ranting. It’s what led Copernicus to dispute the religious “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. It’s what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.

Asking if something “makes sense” has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the “self-evident” truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew’s problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.

We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can’t be sensed: “I can see how that might be true,” we might say. “It sounds right.” Or, “Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That’s why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song “This Smells Funny, and I’m Not Gonna Eat It.” If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don’t swallow it.

Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides

The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together.” I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it’s not religion—its absolutism. That drug’ll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.

“The problem for me,” Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, “wasn’t that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn’t just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice.”

In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.

So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we’re following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other’s company, but we don’t need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.

The Rainstorm After the Calm

drought

Photo credit: Kym McLeod

Drought is a strange stressor, a parade of beautiful days that slowly become terrifying. The current drought in California is the worst in history. While the rest of the country shovels snow and preps for floods, we Californians dab on the sunscreen and freak out a little more each day.

I have reached the New Age-y point where I really do see how I’m creating many aspects of my reality: my friendships, my business, my sinus headaches. But so far, this drought has me stumped. I tried controlling it with my mind. It gave me a sunny sneer that lasted more than a year.

So recently, when our beautiful medicine man friend came to visit, my hopes were low. Way low. He stayed for a week, during which the landscape hummed with wild animals and an undeniable electric energy. But when the medicine man blessed some sand, laid it down, and told us it would bring the rain, my hopes were minimal.

The next morning we woke to a dense, drippy fog. The following day it rained. Then a few more foggy mornings, and finally, a day I spent editing a book and looking up every minute or so to relish the fact that, yes, it was still raining. For ten hours.

That night I turned on the local weather report to share the general rejoicing. Confusingly, the sad weather man said that no rain had been reported anywhere. No precipitation anywhere. It seems to have rained for ten hours almost exclusively on my property.

Was this a coincidence? A hallucination? I’ll never really know. California is still in a historically severe drought, clearly a punishment from God.  Or, perhaps, a chance to learn the hard way—really, is there any other way?—that miracles can happen.

Whatever your personal drought (a love drought, a health drought, a money drought), I know how awful it feels. I’ve been all the way through all those droughts, and come out the other side. I’ve learned that one day, when your hopes are so low you finally stop grasping at them, the rains arrive.

The Benevolent Guide

A few days ago, my partner Karen’s beloved father passed away after a long illness. It was a very gradual departure; for weeks, everyone thought that each hour might be Charlie’s last. The days immediately following his passing were unthinkably grueling for Karen and her family, but I’ll say this for imminent death: it clearly differentiates the things that matter from the things that don’t. Being together matters; how we look doesn’t. Love matters; status doesn’t. Having a roof over our heads matters; having a mansion doesn’t. Peace matters so much that by comparison, literally nothing else does.

A few months ago an interviewer asked me, “What are you most grateful for?” and I found myself cheerfully blurting, “Death!” There was a long silence, and then I stammered, “Er, well, it’s nice to think we don’t have to just, you know, keep doing stuff.” The interviewer did not seem to be going there with me. Oh, well, I thought; when I’m dying it won’t matter what she thinks of me. And then I remembered: We’re all dying!

Getting past the fear this creates has been a life’s work for me—a work very much still in progress. But after schlepping away at it for years, I now feel more awe and wonder than dread of death, and the knowledge of its inevitability gives me permission to do more and more of what matters, less and less of what doesn’t. In Africa, where I spent June, I had few possessions, no telephone or email, a very simple schedule. Since returning I’ve given away most of my clothes and set out to minimize things like unnecessary meetings, housework, correspondence, and especially thoughts that distract me from the amazement of being alive for a little while.

Think about whatever you have planned for the next few hours. Would you do this thing if you were currently helping a loved one cross the threshold of death? Will this thing matter to you at all when you’re the one crossing that threshold? If not, stop. Do something that matters in the face of mortality. Living this way makes death a benevolent guide that shows you how to create the best possible life you can have. And doing that brings peace, the peace that matters so much that nothing else can ever compare.

When in Drought…

when in droughtLast year was the first I spent in California. Having come from the desert, I was all excited about the winter greenness, the rains that always come in October…okay, November…well, FOR SURE in December…or absolutely in…January?

Or not.

This is the first time in recorded history that the rain has not come at all. The forest I love is gray and stark. I swear I can feel things dying.

I was getting rather testy with God about this when a thing happened.

Jeanette Trompeter, a journalist and pal of Master Coach Jill Farmer, asked to interview me for the local news. We did the interview, then I forgot all about it. Several weeks later, I happened to flip on the TV exactly in time to catch the segment about me. Jeanette then told the weatherman how worried I was about the drought. The man in the magic box faced me and said, “Martha, stop worrying about the drought.”

I know! Right?

It still hasn’t rained. That’s how these things work. When I was deep in debt, I got winks that said “Stop worrying about money.” It arrived…eventually. When I was “incurably” ill, I got winks that said “You’ll get well.” I did…eventually. The good stuff didn’t happen when I wanted it to, but it happened. And in the meantime, these loving messages from the universe helped me drop useless anxiety.

Try this: Think of a current “drought” in your life. For 10 minutes, just trust that it will all be okay. Trust that you’re being guided. Trust, against all odds and evidence, that you are safe.

When I use this exercise on my drought fears, the strangest thing happens: I feel it raining inside myself. I become a microcosm of the life-giving rain that, someday, will bring California back to life. Or so I trust.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A week after Martha wrote this, it started raining in California.

How to Cure Self-Consciousness

file6461281015948You step into the party feeling reasonably confident. True, your favorite little black dress feels somewhat tight, but it’s still elegant, and the wind outside only tousled your hair a little. Then, just as you’re preparing to mingle, it happens: You pass a mirror and glimpse your reflection—your horrifying, horrifying reflection. The dress isn’t just tight; it fits like Luciano Pavarotti’s diving suit. Your hair looks as though a crazed weasel nested, bore young, and died there. Aghast, you wobble off your high heels and sprain an ankle. All eyes are glued on you. All conversation focuses on your disgrace. Everyone begins texting hilarious descriptions of you from their cell phones.

In your dreams, baby.

I mean this both literally and figuratively. Most of us occasionally dream about being embarrassed in social settings. But even in waking life, many of us operate as if Simon Cowell is doing a play-by-play of our work, wardrobe and snack choices. One team of researchers has dubbed this phenomenon the “spotlight effect.” In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny. To claim it, we need to develop a mental dimmer switch.

Turning the Lights Down Low

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, Victoria Husted Medvec, PhD, and Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, the psychologists who coined the term spotlight effect, also devised numerous ways to measure it. In one experiment, they had college students enter a room with other students while wearing an “embarrassing” T-shirt. (The shirt bore the likeness of a certain singer, whom I won’t identify here. I will say that for days after reading this study, I was medically unable to stop humming “Copacabana.”) When the mortified students were asked to guess how many people in the room would remember the face on their T-shirt, they gave a number about twice as high as the number of students who actually remembered the shirt.

Other studies support what this one suggested: The spotlight effect makes most of us assume we’re getting about twice as much attention as we actually are. When Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” he was wrong—but only because he was president of the United States. If you are currently president, rest assured that millions will note and long remember if, say, you barf on the prime minister of Japan. However, if you are not president, you’re probably pointlessly blinded by the glare of imaginary social judgments.

These judgments aren’t limited just to times when we mess up. Our distorted perceptions mean we not only exaggerate the impact of our errors but also undersell our inspirations and contributions. For example:

  • You modestly mumble an idea in a meeting, assuming that co-workers will be awestruck if they like it, appalled if they don’t. Net effect: Nobody really hears the idea—until the annoying extrovert across the table repeats it more loudly, and gets all the glory.
  • You wear clothes a bit duller and more concealing than the ones you love, only to look back years later and wish you’d bared and dared more in your youth. (As one of my friends sighed about her self-conscious daughter, “If she only realized that at her age, you’re beautiful even if you’re not beautiful.”)
  • You sing, swing, and mamba only in the privacy of your home, never with other people. Repressing the urge to sing “Copacabana,” you miss the joy of sharing silly or sultry abandon with the people you love—and the people you may never get to love because inhibition robs you of the confidence needed to form a bond.

These self-limiting behaviors have no positive side; contrary to what many assume, they rarely save us from doing things we’ll later regret. In fact, Gilovich and Medvec have found in other studies that, in the long run, people most often regret the things they failed to try, rather than the things they bombed at. Trying yields either success or an opportunity to learn; not trying has no positive result besides avoiding mockery or envy that (research shows) wouldn’t be nearly as big or bad as we fear.

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