Doing Nothing

TailLob2Yesterday I went whale-watching with my son Adam and my partner Karen. It was a beautiful day, and there were humpbacks everywhere. Aside from the slight injuries I sustained being elbowed by other tourists, it was awesome.

Of course Adam had his own odd way of whale-watching, which consisted of sitting on the boat with his eyes closed for three hours. Whenever I asked him something (“Don’t you want to see the whales?”  “Don’t you want some water?” “Don’t you want to elbow a tourist?”) he’d shake his head briskly, wide awake. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was “feeling ALL the sea animals.” As one does.

This illustrates a paradox I’ve noticed this month: Sitting still is incredibly powerful. Recently I’d been hankering to meditate more, and I can’t sustain a good hanker, so I started sitting more often, and for longer time periods, than ever before. This has had a weird result. Slowing down has caused everything I do to happen faster.

Every day, after meditating for an hour and a half, I get up and observe my body as it does chores. Then I watch my brain and body together writing, teaching, or answering email. I don’t feel as if I’m doing it, and it happens bizarrely fast.  All my life I’ve felt rushed, but the more of nothing I do, the more I seem to feel my way through the ocean of tasks we all face.

This month, especially if you have a lot to do, try doing more of nothing. If you don’t meditate at all, try 10 minutes a day. If you do meditate, double your time. Then notice the velocity at which things get done. If you don’t notice an improvement in a week, quit. But give it an honest try.

Lao Tzu says, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” I’m finding this to be almost magically true. 

Do it—that is, don’t do it—and see for yourself.

How to Accept Yourself

947908_92637448Have you ever heard one of those near-death stories where someone recounts an out-of-body experience? I just love them, especially when they include details I didn’t expect. For instance, I’ve heard several previously nearly dead women say that when they were ostensibly peering down at their bodies from a distance, those bodies looked unexpectedly pretty. The physical form they’d seen as less than lovely when it was “me” proved quite appealing when they saw it as “that lady down there on the floor.” 

Why is it that most of us, like these women, obsess about our own appearance? Even my most gorgeous friends feel depressingly imperfect, while the rest of us sit around contemplating either a makeover or suicide, depending on how far we stray from our physical ideal. 

These self-judgments can’t be mere aesthetics, or we’d evaluate ourselves and others on the same objective criteria. More likely, it’s a social impulse, born of every person’s longing for acceptance and fear of rejection. Something in the human psyche confuses beauty with the right to be loved. The briefest glance at human folly reveals that good looks and worthiness operate independently. Yet countless socializing forces, from Aunt Clara to the latest perfume ad, reinforce beliefs like “If I were pretty enough, I would be loved.” Or the converse: “If I feel unlovable, I must not be pretty enough.” 

Such thoughts are seductive because they relieve us of the responsibility of developing self-worth (turning it over to some longed-for or long-suffering lover). Inevitably, though, that someone—parent, friend, partner—doesn’t love us enough, or we somehow fail to sense their love. We feel rejected, abandoned, alone. It’s unbearable. Realizing that we’ve surrendered our self-esteem to others and choosing to be accountable for our own self-worth would mean absorbing the terrifying fact that we’re always vulnerable to pain and loss. As long as we think the problem is our bodies’ failure to meet a certain physical standard, we have something concrete that we (or our local plastic surgeon, who does a fabulous tummy tuck) can work on. 

And so we dive headfirst into the endless project of improving our physical selves. No cosmetic strategy ever fulfills our hopes, since what we hope for—the knowledge that we’re acceptable—is almost completely unrelated to physical appearance. We begin to think thoughts like If only someone loved me, I could accept myself. It’s a Catch-22: Before we can feel loved, we must feel beautiful, but before we can feel beautiful, we must feel loved. You can swim down that spiral for decades, maybe all the way to your grave (from which you can brood about your sudden realization that your looks were actually okay all along). There’s another way to go, and I suggest you use it.

You may have noticed that all the “defects” I’ve been discussing are located not in the body but in the mind. It’s the mind that mixes up beauty and acceptability, that misperceives the cause of emotional pain, and that sends us down the class IV rapids of self-loathing. Your mind creates a lot of your supposed appearance problems, and it can resolve them, almost instantaneously, if you’ll let it. 

The Big “If”

Our ideas about love and attractiveness are so primal, our need for belonging so intense, that most of us are loath to abandon our favorite beliefs on these issues. If you’ve ever let yourself feel lovable and lovely, only to be deeply hurt, you may see accepting your own body as a setup for severe emotional wounding. After all, you let down your guard before and look what happened! You’ll never go there again. I understand your resistance. That’s why the first step in changing your self-evaluation is careful, logical risk assessment. 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 
The strategy of feeling physically unattractive actually does preclude the pain of (a) naively trusting that we’re good enough, (b) being horribly wounded, and (c) feeling alone, unacceptable, and hideous. Believing we’re ugly cuts straight to the chase, making sure we feel alone, unacceptable, and hideous right from the get-go, and without reprieve. If you don’t believe me, you have only to look back at your own history. How many times have you told yourself you’re unacceptable? How many times did this lead to happiness, freedom, and perfect relationships? All right, then. 

Here’s a new hypothesis: There’s no risk-free way to love. The possibility of being devastated is always there, but the possibility of joy exists only when you put your battered heart right on the table by trusting that you’re lovable. I’m not asking you to do this all the time, or even in large doses—at first, anyway. I’d just like you to experiment with a new mind-set, a few minutes at a time. 

Find a Way to Change Your Mind 
Even though believing in your own adequacy is actually less risky than feeling unacceptable (haven’t we just proved this with the mighty power of logic?), this thought can still be terrifying—or, if you’re the cynical sort, impossible to get your head around, logic be damned. That’s okay. You just need to set clear, safe-feeling time boundaries within which to demo this idea. Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for ten minutes. During this brief time, push your mind to attack its own protective strategy of self-denigration. Write down several examples of:

  • Occasions when someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t look perfect.
  • People you’ve loved even though they didn’t look perfect.
  • Stunning people who act so awful they begin to appear ugly.
  • Famous people who are dazzling despite physical imperfections.
  • Artists’ work that reveals charm and grace in places many people see ugliness.
  • Women who are so perfectly at ease with themselves that they set a new cultural standard of goddessness.

If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, it might take you a while to come up with examples for a given topic. Stick with it. You’re pushing yourself to make new associations, to jump the tracks of your habitual protective self-condemnation. You’re not just thinking new thoughts but actively unthinking the illogical, painful, imprisoning thoughts you’re used to. This is difficult. So what. Do it anyway—for ten lousy minutes. Tomorrow, do it again. 

Experiment with Dope (As In Dopamine) 
If you attack your preconceptions for just ten minutes at a time, you’ll eventually feel a subtle loosening, a little wiggle room as your mind begins relaxing its grip on the idea that you’re not so hot and not so lovable. Before moving on, it helps to add some psychoactive chemicals. Some people achieve social confidence only when they use alcohol or drugs. I can never remember to buy these things, but I always have a few mood-altering substances on hand—or rather, in my head—and so do you. 

For example, dopamine increases when we face something unfamiliar and difficult: working a crossword puzzle, knitting a complicated sweater. Epinephrine is released when we sustain moderate exercise. When we take a chance (for example, by expressing an unpopular opinion or displaying something we’ve created), we produce more epinephrine. All of these hormones can increase our confidence enough to help us release our old, supposedly protective thoughts and behaviors. 

So once you’re used to unthinking your physical self-image, give yourself a little chemical boost to compensate for the emotional shields you’ll be dropping. Complete a challenging task, work out until you sweat a bit, take a risk that makes your heart speed up, or all three. You’ll feel more confident for several hours. Use that time for real-world experimentation. 

Test-Drive a New Self-Concept 
With a head full of crumbling misperceptions and happy hormones, go out in public and pretend for, say, half an hour that you’re lovely enough to be loved. Now go to a coffee shop and have a tasty beverage. Notice how your body moves when you trust that you’re good enough. Not America’s Next Top Model good enough, just good enough. Feel the difference in your facial expression—or if you can’t get a handle on that, then try to gauge the energy you exchange with other customers or the barista. Most important, pay attention to how other people are reacting to you. 

If you’ve done the homework (steps 1 through 3), you’ll find something miraculous beginning, like the first tiny green crocus shoots emerging from snowy earth: Most people will accept you. They’ll be attracted to you in a variety of ways. The more you release your defensive, self-conscious inner critic, the more you’ll get smiles, courtesy, friendliness, all kinds of positive attention—not from everyone, but from most people. From enough people. 

Yet this connection between self-acceptance and attractiveness become an upward spiral, just as the conflation of rejection and ugliness has been a downward one. After some practice in coffee shops, try accepting yourself while chatting with a friend, then a colleague, then someone who intimidates you. One crucial caveat: Save your family of origin for last, possibly for never. Much protective self-criticism stems from growing up around people who wouldn’t or couldn’t love you, and it’s likely they still can’t or won’t. In general, however, the more you let go of the tedious delusion of your own unattractiveness, the easier it will be for others to connect with you, and the more accepted you’ll feel. 

Understanding and dismantling defensive beliefs about your own ugliness is a process that frees you to unreservedly accept yourself, your body, and other people. The resulting open heart is the one perfect feature that really will protect you emotionally by giving you a sustained sense of belonging. While not everyone will always love you, you will see abundant, observable evidence that you’re always lovable. That means the skin you’re in has always been, and will always be, beautiful enough.

The Empathy Workout

I can’t say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don’t think anyone does. Oh, I’ve seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune. Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist abandoning my customary torpor to participate in perky physical activity of any kind. Nevertheless, I do cardio pretty regularly. I do it because I know my heart was designed to handle such challenges, because once I get started, I feel that it’s doing me good, and because if I stop for very long, my health begins to atrophy.

There’s another form of cardio that works much the same way, though it affects the emotional heart rather than the one made of auricles and ventricles. This workout consists of deliberately cultivating empathy. To empathize literally means “to suffer with,” to share the pain of other beings so entirely that their agony becomes our own. I know this sounds like a terrific hobby for a masochistic moron, but hear me out.

The reason to develop a capacity for empathy, and then exercise it regularly, is that only a heart strengthened by this kind of understanding can effectively deliver the oxygen of the spirit: love. 

Emotional Cardio

Love requires connection between lover and beloved, and empathy is the quiet miracle by which this connection is forged. When you share others’ suffering, you also share their experience of receiving your gift—the gift of being accompanied into grief or anguish rather than bearing it alone. Naturally, almost involuntarily, people will love you for this. If you’re in a state of empathy, you’ll feel their love for you as your own emotion, thus coming to understand what it means to love yourself. This will make you love the other person even more, and of course you’ll receive that love even as you give it, which makes it even deeper, and…well, you can see where this is going. Become an expert at it, and soon your life will be absolutely lousy with love. 

I know one wise old man who has been working at empathy every day since becoming a meditation master early in his life. He matter-of-factly describes a state of complete empathic fitness as a “continuous emotional orgasm.” Who’s with me now? All right, then. Let’s talk about your exciting new cardio workout—but first, a crucial warning. 

Caveat Empathor

Many people, especially those of us who’ve had a little bit of therapy, fall into an emotional trap Buddhists call “idiot compassion.” At first glance, this looks like empathy, but it’s actually projection. It encourages us to condone harmful behavior by assuming that the perpetrator is acting out of pain and helplessness. 

“I know he’s just a hurting little boy inside,” says Jeanie, whose boyfriend, Hank, has just beaten the living tar out of her for the umpteenth time. “He’s so sensitive. His mama abandoned him. He even cries when he talks about it.” Because Jeanie herself would become violent only in the grip of intolerable torment, she thinks she understands Hank’s motivations—and so she excuses his behavior. Real empathy is not based on this kind of projection but on close observation. If she were a true empath, Jeanie would notice that Hank, while “so sensitive” to his own misery, never notices others’ distress. 

When Jeanie understands that no one who cares for her could act as he acts, she’ll drop the idiot compassion and get the hell out of Dodge. At that point, she’ll realize that real empathy doesn’t put us in harm’s way. It protects us. That’s just another reason to implement one of the following exercises: 

Exercise 1: Learning to Listen 

If you want to feel that you belong in the world, a family, or any relationship, you must tell your story. But if you want to see into the hearts of other beings, your first task is to hear their stories. Many people are gifted storytellers. Only the empathic are true storyhearers. 

To become one of these people, start with conversation. Once a day, ask a friend, “How are you?” in a way that says you mean it. If they give you a stock answer (“Fine”), repeat the question: “No, really. How are you?” 

You’ll soon realize that if your purpose is solely to understand, rather than to advise or protect, you can work a kind of magic: In the warmth of genuine caring, people open up like flowers. You’ll be amazed by the stories you’ll hear when you use this simple strategy with your children, your next-door neighbor, your aunt Flossie. You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. 

Even if you’re not in the company of people, you can work to increase your storyhearing techniques. Here’s a snippet from English teacher Jane Juska’s wonderful memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman, in which she describes teaching creative writing to prisoners in San Quentin: 

Suddenly Steve, silent until now, speaks: “…when we used to have a really fine librarian here, he gave me this book. It was Les Misérables…. That book changed my life. It gave me feelings, gave me empathy…Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.” He is wrapping up this gift and holding it close. It is his forever. 

Books, movies, songs—stories told in any artistic medium can give you an empathy workout. To grow stronger, find stories that are unfamiliar. If you read, watch, or hear only things you know well, you’re looking for validation, not an expansion of empathy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to achieve high levels of fitness, focus once a week on the story of someone who seems utterly different from you.

Exercise 2: Reverse Engineering

Some mechanical engineers spend their time disassembling machines to see how they were originally put together. You can use a similar technique to develop empathy, by working backward from the observable effects of emotion to the emotion itself.

Think of someone you’d like to understand—your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person—especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling. Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you.

What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I “reverse engineer” the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It’s a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.

I train life coaches to use reverse engineering in real time, by subtly matching clients’ body language, vocal tone, even breathing rate. It’s so effective that clients often think the coach must be psychic—how else could anyone “get them” so quickly and completely? Elementary, my dear Watson. The body shapes itself in response to emotion, and shaping one’s own body to match someone else’s is a quick ticket to empathy. 

Exercise 3: Shape-Shifting 

In folklore, shape-shifters are beings with the ability to become anyone or anything. As a child, I was fascinated by this concept, and used to pretend that I could instantaneously switch places with other people, animals, even inanimate objects. What if I woke up one morning in the body—and the life—of my best friend, or a bank robber, or the president? What if, like Kafka’s fictional Gregor, I suddenly became a cockroach? (You could find people who think I’ve actually done this.) My point is, what would it feel like to be them? How would I cope? What would I do next?

I still play this game, especially in public places. I recommend you try it, soon. See that strange man in the orange polyester suit putting 37 packets of sweetener into his extra-grande mochaccino with soy milk? What if—zap!—you suddenly switched bodies with him? What would it be like to wear that suit, that face, that physique? What impulse would lead to sugaring a cup of coffee like that, let alone drinking it?

I can feel this shape-shifting developing my empathy. It gives my heart a stretch, makes me entertain unfamiliar thoughts and feelings, leaves me with the sensation that I’ve completed a stomp session on an emotional StairMaster. And if I want to ramp up my workout, it’s just a short hop to some practices that work even better, and have been tested for centuries.

Exercise 4: Metta-tation 

World-class empathizers like my friend the meditation master (he of the continuous emotional orgasm) conduct a daily regimen of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. This involves focusing all of one’s attention on a certain individual and offering loving wishes to that person with each breath you take, for several minutes at a time.

Classic metta practice starts with your own sweet self. For five minutes, with each breath, offer yourself kind thoughts (May I be happy, may I feel joy, etc.). Taking these few minutes every day can put you on the road to complete, uncritical acceptance—the foundation on which all empathy is based. (Reaching that point, admittedly, takes years for most of us incomplete and self-critical people.)

Then switch the focus of your kind thoughts onto a friend or family member. When you feel a sense of emotional union with that person, target someone you barely know. As a final, black-belt exercise, project metta thoughts onto one of your worst enemies until you can begin to feel for them. Don’t rush this process, or (God forbid) fake it. You’ll only become a saccharine pseudo-empathizer, wearing the plastic smile of a fitness model from Neptune. 

The Payoff

The thing about cardio is that once you get used to it, you can feel it making you stronger, calming you down, improving your quality of life. Regular empathy practice keeps you on the edge of your emotional fitness, but the benefits are enormous: an awareness of union that banishes loneliness, a natural ability to connect and relate to others, protection from idiot compassion, a wider, deeper life. As your empathy grows, you’ll find that it’s infinite and that through it, you transcend your isolation and find yourself at home in the universe. I promise, it’ll do your heart good.

When You Feel Lonely

At times in my life, I have felt utterly lonely. At other times, I’ve had disgusting infectious diseases. Try admitting these things in our culture, and you’ll find they evoke identical responses: Listeners cringe with a mixture of pity, revulsion, and alarm. In a culture where everyone wants a happy family and a sizzling relationship, the phrase “I’m lonely” rings like the medieval leper’s shout of “Unclean! Unclean!”

Fortunately, we now treat disease not by isolating its victims, but by diagnosing and healing them. Finding those who can comprehend the emptiness of your heart, diagnosing and ameliorating its ailments, can keep you productively engaged when your loneliness is at its worst.

The Time-Tested BLD System

Allow me to introduce the Beck Loneliness Diagnostic System, which is based on years of research I’ve conducted by brooding about my own problems during bouts of emotional eating. My system divides loneliness into three categories—absolute, separation, and existential—each of which has different remedies. I prescribe two courses of action for each type: quick fixes (to feel better immediately) and long-term solutions (to banish it for good).

Type 1: Absolute Loneliness

This malady occurs when we believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is no one who understands us and no one who wants to. Absolutely lonely people have few personal interactions of any kind. Isolation creates indescribable despair, for which typical self-help advice—”Have a bubble bath! Try aromatherapy!”—is ridiculously inadequate. The only saving grace of this state is that it often hurts enough to motivate people to try the following prescriptions.

Quick Fix

Basic human contact—the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words—is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. If you’re feeling abandoned by the world, interact with anyone you can—today. If you can afford it, hire a good therapist; if you can’t, hire a bad one. Attend a 12-step group, claiming codependency if you have no addictions. Sift wheat from chaff later—right now, it’s “Hail, fellow! Well met.”

Long-Term Solution

If you’re living completely on your own, you must find understanding somewhere, somehow. No matter how scary it is to learn and use social skills, absolute loneliness is scarier. The best method to break out of solitary confinement is to seek to understand others, and help them understand you.

A simple three-step communication strategy is the most effective way to accomplish this. When you meet people, show real appreciation, then genuine curiosity; offer an honest compliment (step 1) followed by a question (step 2). Say “Cool hat. Where’d you get it?” Most often this approach will result in a brief, pleasant chat. Occasionally, though, someone will answer in such an interesting or charming way that you’ll want to respond by volunteering information about yourself (step 3), such as “I can’t wear hats—they make me look like a mongoose.” Repeat these three steps, and you’ll gradually connect at deeper and deeper levels.

The key word is gradually. Understanding is a dance of seven veils in which strangers take turns revealing a little more about themselves—not everything at once. Be patient, and the three-step combo can take you all the way from discussions of headgear to conversations like “You’re amazing. Shall we get married?”

Type 2: Separation Loneliness

If you force yourself to communicate with people appreciatively and curiously, you’ll eventually emerge from absolute loneliness. However, you’ll still experience what I call separation loneliness. Traveling, empty nesting, and almost any job will distance you from friends and family. Only since the Industrial Revolution have most people worked in places away from their homes or been left to raise small children without the help of multiple adults, making for an unsupported life.

Quick Fix

Use separations to remind yourself how wonderful it is that you have people to miss. Solo time can motivate you to demonstrate that love. Focus on communication over distance. Tell interesting stories on the phone or in an e-mail about your day. Let your favorite people see life through your eyes. Ask them about what they’ve been experiencing, and listen or read with total concentration. You’ll come to know one another in new ways, and absence really will make your hearts grow fonder. Once that’s done, I recommend finding understanding by doing what the song says: If you can’t be with the one you love…love the one you’re with. Use your appreciation-curiosity-openness combo on the folks around you.

Long-Term Solution

This remedy requires facing some hard choices. If you’re continuously aching to be with people you never see, the rewards of your career or nifty home in the exurbs may not make up for the sacrifice. Many of my clients decide that their horrible jobs aren’t worth forfeiting years with their family. Others stop hanging out with people—even relatives—who drain them, in order to be with those who inspire them. You don’t have to make such decisions immediately, but you do have to make them. Every day brings new choices. If you want to end your isolation, you must be honest about what you want at a core level and decide to go after it.

Type 3: Existential Loneliness

The final type of estrangement is a bedrock fact of the human condition: the hollowness we feel when we realize no one can help us face the moments when we are most bereft. No one else can take risks for us, or face our losses on our behalf, or give us self-esteem. No one can spare us from life’s slings and arrows, and when death comes, we meet it alone. That is simply the way of things, and after a while, we may see it’s not so bad. In fact, existential loneliness, the great burden of human consciousness, is also its great gift—if we give it the right treatment.

Quick Fix

One word—art. In the face of great sorrow or joy, love or loss, many human beings who went before me learned to express themselves sublimely through clumsy physical things: paint, clay, words, the movement of their bodies. They created works of art that remind me I am not alone in feeling alone. Seeking the company of people who have learned to transcend the isolation of an individual life, who have felt as I feel and managed to express it, is the best treatment I’ve found for existential loneliness. (Notice that this advice is the opposite of the quick fix for “absolute” loneliness; you may need both prescriptions.) Make your own artistic connections. Read novels, listen to samba, watch documentaries: Seek art from every time and place, in any form, to connect with those who really move you.

Long-Term Solution

Same word—art. The quick fix is to appreciate others’ artistry; the real deal requires that you, yourself, become an artist. I’m not asking you to rival Picasso or Mozart, but I would challenge you to think the way they thought, to put aside convention and embarrassment and do whatever it takes to convey your essential self. Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others. 

If you begin to apply these prescriptions, whether by drumming up the courage to connect, choosing a moment of love over a moment of work, or creating something as silly as a bad cartoon, you’ll soon find yourself stumbling across beauty and communion. Loneliness, far from revealing some defect, is proof that your innate search for connection is intact. So instead of hiding your loneliness, bring it into the light. Honor it. Treat it. Heal it. You’ll find that it returns the favor.

The New Normal

Disclaimer: CAUTION! You will either like this post, or comment to yourself that I have truly climbed off the crazy station and onto the crazy train. So if crazy doesn’t work for you, just stop now.
 
So I just got back from yet another delicious and astonishing experience, this one at a ranch in Montana owned by a dear friend. This is the same place where I experienced the original Pronghorn event. This year, because I now know that Pronghorns frequent the area, I decided to up the ante: “Wolves!” I thought to myself. It’s WAY harder to attract a wolf than a Pronghorn. Then I realized this was a ridiculous thought, since calling a wild wolf requires exactly the same amount of effort as calling a Pronghorn—in other words, practically nothing.
 
When I got to the ranch, I asked if there were any wolves living in the area. My friend said she thought a few had been seen 18 months prior. I invited everyone in the group to call in some wolves…and at 9 o’clock that night, guess who started howling outside the cabin? Oh yes they did! Some people heard them all night long. I, like an idiot, got too attached and did not hear them myself. Damn you, tenacious ego! Still, it was one hell of a “coincidence.”
 
Oh, and by the way, the day the whales came (see last “Insight from Martha”), it was covered INTERNATIONALLY. My friends in Africa saw it and called to tell me they figured I was on that beach.
 
This is all so normal.
 
But enough with my obsessive animal stories! The point is that I am experiencing what many of you are, too: an increasingly powerful conviction that what we once thought of as the world “out there” is in fact as intimately connected to each of us as our own heart. On one hand, my own physical body feels more and more like an animal that happily lives its life without obeying any of my conscious intentions; on the other hand, my consciousness feels capable of creating physical events that seem distant and impossible.
 
In Expecting Adam, I wrote about a moment when, exhausted, sick, and heartbroken, I sent out the thought “I just can’t do this. Maybe you should drive.” I didn’t know what I was talking to, and I still don’t. But whatever it was, it surrounded me with an inexplicable sweetness. It picked up my heart and held it like a baby. Ever since, there have been moments when I have climbed out of the driver’s seat, only to grab for control again when my inner lizard raised its fearful, scaly head.
 
These days, I simply don’t feel like driving. The passenger seat is much more fun. I watch my own body and mind playing ecstatically with the illusion of form.
 
Have I lost you yet? If so, I respectfully and lovingly do not care.
 
Recently, several clients have told me that they have an odd sense of being disconnected from their bodies. They still feel sensations, but find themselves acting strangely in their own eyes. They have stopped driving. The journey has been taken over by what we, in our coaching system, call their essential self. Some people seem to be able to stop this from happening deliberately, others invite and enjoy it, and others, weirdly, are observing it as it happens to them without any conscious decisions on their part. I’m sure this has always been possible, but I’m just warning you: these days, our essential selves are growing more and more powerful. The blissful game of consciousness clothed in matter is getting faster and more delicious. So if this is happening to you, and it’s freaking you out, relax. Let the wolves drive.

Real Magic

 

So, we just finished our very first Wayfinder Workshop. It was a FABULOUS experience for me—and let’s face it, who else matters? (I am kidding!) By targeting my last book to people who already feel their magic, I appear to have achieved two things: convincing most of the reading public that I am certifiably insane, and inviting the most awesome people on earth to come play with creating a new way of being in the world. We held the seminar on Pismo Beach, California, for reasons I will describe in a minute.
 
The first day, as we stood on the beach, some of us used the animal-calling exercise described in Finding Your Way In A Wild New World. By the following day, so many whales were surfacing off Pismo Beach that it made the national news. I watched them playing for an hour during our lunch break. My partner, Karen, insists that this is a coincidence, and it probably is. I’M JUST SAYING.
 
The fact is that real magic does not require the grandiosity of a Hollywood movie. When it arrives, one can always trace the way it happened in the physical world. The miracle is always a coincidence in which God chooses to remain anonymous. Magic is glory, not what I call “gloriola.”
 
On that same note, I want to thank anyone who gave so much as a glancing thought to my story about wanting a ranch where I could live close to nature. That miracle is finally a done deal, although I’m still waiting for it to land. This is not a story of “rich person buys a ranch.” This is a story of “wacky person feels compelled to buy something she absolutely cannot afford which she is then somehow able to buy.” Seriously, you guys, I do not know how this happened. All I know is that I can now sit on my front porch watching wild turkeys, deer, foxes, skunks, and potentially a bear (some of the coaches saw him down the road a bit, and there is nothing stopping him from visiting me). Best of all are the bobcats that live on the land. I like to think of them as starter leopards.
 
In short, I live in a three-dimensional miracle—and so do you. Before the Wayfinder Workshop, several tribe members gathered with a Shaman to dedicate the land to the objective of “Restoring Eden”—healing animals, ecosystems, and humans, in any way possible. At one point the Shaman took me aside and said, “Martha. Stop trying.” Without words, she helped me find an incredibly deep flow wave of movement in my lower torso. “There,” she said, “that anchors you and you can let others anchor there as well. Then, let it heal them.”
 
She didn’t say what ‘it’ was, because on one hand it is inexpressible, and on the other hand, once you’ve felt it, there is no need to describe it. It is the TAO. It is Love. It is saturating the air you breathe as you read this. Be still until you can let it find you. That is your only job. And then, what the hell, call some whales. Because that’s AWESOME.

There is Room

Broken Watch FacesEverything changes in time. This is the one constant in a Universe where all solid things ultimately disintegrate. It is the core principle that drives our fears and that led the Buddha to proclaim that the understanding of impermanence was the first “noble truth” that must be mastered by anyone who hopes to attain enlightenment.

Me, I’m just trying to get my damn laundry done before I have to leave for the airport.

I have struggled with time since I was a very small child. I remember vividly lying awake the night before my 4th birthday, staring at the ceiling, worrying intensely over how little I had accomplished over such a long period of time. I assumed that all the other 4-year-olds were much further along in their life missions. By the time I was in high school I was virtually insane with time anxiety. I got into a bitter argument with a friend who asked me what bothered me most about this world. I said “transience.” My friend thought I said “transients.” To this day, I think he abhors my position on our nation’s homeless population. What I meant, of course, was that everything passes away, and that I could not reconcile myself to the continuous loss that is an inevitable aspect of linear time. On a more basic note, I never felt I had enough time to do everything I hoped to accomplish. If I had known in high school how dramatically time demands would increase in the 21st century I would still be under my bed.

At this point in my life, I am lucky enough to have help with many tasks that once filled my available time and spilled over into time I should have spent sleeping. Even so I always feel I am running behind schedule. A few weeks ago I lost the cheap plastic Target watch that I was wearing because I know that I am always losing watches. For a few days I was on the road without a clock on my body. I was shocked by how often I looked at my left wrist. I remembered a Haitian proverb that became popular after slavery was abolished on the island: “The white man’s shackles have been replaced by his watches.” I had been experiencing time as my prison, my limitation, and my overseer.

To my huge relief, I soon bought another cheap plastic watch. But this one had a feature I had never seen. To set the time, I had to bring up a screen that said “chrono.” Every time I saw this screen a strange thought would pop into my mind. Not chronos, kairos. Chronos is a greek word that referred to the passage of linear time. Kairos means the time of the Gods. A moment of chronos is simply the tick of a clock. A moment of kairos is an undetermined time when an opening appears for the entry of the divine into the material world. Chronos is clock-time, kairos is god-time.

Either my subconscious mind or a passing guardian angel seems to be telling me that in order to move forward successfully with my purpose in life, I must relinquish my death grip on chronos and surrender to kairos. I am only beginning to experiment with this–such is the obsession with chronos I’ve had since preschool. At this point, my practice (and I would suggest this for you too if it feels interesting) is to notice that every day is peppered with kairos moments. A kairos moment may occur when your schedule is so full you feel like screaming. The message is to stop, to forget chronos, and to feel the calming force telling you almost nothing on your schedule is really important. A kairos moment might be the double-take you do when your eyes catch something beautiful or awe-inspiring. Take off your watch: the divine is speaking to you. A kairos moment may be the burst of laughter that comes when you realize all your darkest fears are fabrications of your mind. They are not happening now in this moment. This moment is the doorway to god. Stop and open it.

To remind myself of this I have been taking off my watch for several hours each day. Each time I look at my wrist and see nothing but skin I remember to drop chronos and feel for kairos. Within the kairos moment nothing ever needs to be done, and everything can happen at once. Life can weave itself around my heart’s desires. In one instant of kairos, there is room for everything we have envisioned for ourselves and for one another. I’ll meet you there.

Video Sneak Peek of the New Book!

 

Here’s a sneak peek of the stuff I’ll be discussing in my new book:  what’s YOUR “call of the wild”?
 

Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want will be released December 27, 2011. Reserve your copy on Amazon.com now. 

When People Are Mean

When Mean People Suck TeeThe first time I saw a T-shirt that said “mean people suck,” I thought, Now, there is a heartfelt sentiment, succinctly expressed. I only wished I’d been the author. I mention this because recently I’ve encountered several mean people, and I’ve had to remind myself that the concept of authorship is key to surviving these experiences.

I don’t know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there’s a more responsible and effective way to live. That’s how it is for us authors. I say “us” because you’re an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we’re passive receptors of life’s vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people’s—with the authority we’ve possessed all along.

Why are people mean?

Here’s the short answer: They’re hurt. Here’s the long answer: They’re really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they’re still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.

There. I’ve just described every single person living on planet Earth.

The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine, depending on how they “write” it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.

We perceive our life events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person’s story line goes like this: “I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe.” This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like “Please pass the salt” or “Hey, it’s raining.” They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line (“She’s saying I’m a bad cook” or “He’s bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us”). The story, not other people’s behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.

If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers’ spats to wars: You’re mean to me so I’m mean to you so you’re meaner to me so I’m meaner to you….

We’ll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say “when others stop being mean to us.” We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.

Here are some ways to use that power…

Like any work of fiction, your life story begins with description. Try sitting down and writing a one-page account of your life (no stressing over style; this is for your eyes only).

Now go get a hat. That’s right, a hat. When you wear this hat, you become the Reader, a different person from the Author. Put on your hat and read what you’ve written, pretending you’ve never seen it. Ask yourself, Is this the story of a hero or a victim? Is it a tale of the terrible things that have happened to the central character (you), or does it speak in terms of the choices you’ve made to create those circumstances? Do you dwell on vengeance or gratitude? Do difficult people and situations appear as forces who control you or as problems you are busily solving?

Now take off your hat and get a second piece of paper. Write another description of your life, one that is more heroic than the last (if your first story was valiant, make this one even more so). Mention times you chose wisely, instances when people were kind to you, moments you knew that no matter how bad things looked, you were going to succeed.

Don your hat, read your new history, and see how it compares to the first draft. I suspect that you’ll find it much more interesting and enjoyable. You’ve just exercised the storytelling talent that will take you off the wheel of suffering: the power to write your character as a hero rather than a victim.

This skill not only keeps you from being mean to others—if you’re consciously composing your life as a hero’s saga, you won’t excuse your own cruelty or anyone else’s—but also guides you to healthy options when others are mean to you. You’ll respond bravely but compassionately to the villains you encounter. You may need practice, but you can compose your hero’s saga with your actions, not just the written word. Feel hemmed in by obligations to children, siblings, parents? You are free to say no, even if it rocks the family boat. Trapped in an unenlightened culture?

You are free to act on your own principles, whatever the response. Take your liberty. Use your power. Rewrite every memory of your own victimization as a hero’s adventure.

“Mean” can also be defined as “small.”

Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. The belief that we are smaller and less powerful than others underlies most meanness, even when that belief is delusional. But we can also use our author’s imagination to size things in our favor. Think of a person who’s been nasty to you. Imagine that person shrinking to one inch tall. Picture your enemy stomping around in the palm of your hand, yelling or sneering all the customary cruelties. You’ll find that if your critic is making a valid point, it will still sound accurate, but mere verbal abuse is hilarious when squeaked in the voice of an inch-tall Mini-Mean.

Whatever your reaction to this tiny villain, that’s probably the best way to react to your life-size challenger. If the insults are laughable, just laugh. If the mean person has a point, tell her that you get it, but she could stand to work on her people skills. Practice what you would say if you felt big and invulnerable, then say it, even if you’re scared. Be “big” by responding to cruelty with honest calm rather than aggression or submissiveness.

Ernest Hemingway claimed the most essential talent for a good writer was simply a “built-in, shockproof shit detector.” Great authorship is all about truth. To write the stories of our lives as honestly as possible, we must thoroughly reject crap. This is especially useful when cruelty masquerades as kindness. Some of the most merciless behavior ever perpetrated looks very nice. The sweeter a lie sounds, the meaner it really is.

“Honey, people are whispering about your weight.” “Stop talking back, or you’ll lose that husband of yours.” “Oh, sweetheart, that’s way too big a dream for you.” Statements like these may be well-intentioned feedback—or spite. The difference is that honesty, even the tough stuff, makes you feel clearer and stronger, while meanness leaves you mired in shame, despair, and frailty.

This is true physically as well as psychologically. I sometimes make my clients do push-ups while repeating feedback they’ve been given, such as “I need to lose 20 pounds” or “I should be nicer.” If the statement is false, the strength literally drains from their bodies. If it’s true, they become stronger. One client, a couch potato in her 60s, started cranking out literally hundreds of push-ups once she rejected the feedback she was getting from her husband and chose to believe what her heart was telling her. Try this yourself to see what your internal detection system reveals about the feedback you’ve received. Trust, remember, and revisit honest advice. Muck everything else right out of your mind.

If you opt to write your life consciously, you’ll find that a tale acknowledging your hero’s strength feels truer than one depicting you as a victim. You’ll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any bully. You’ll learn that the truth, no matter how hard, always strengthens you more than a lie, no matter how nice. On the other hand, if you don’t take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you. In the end, they will make you one of them. That should give you the motivation you need to take up your authority, because let’s face it: Mean people suck.

The Formula for Happiness

IHeart Carvingn my “Zero Attachment, Zero Anxiety” post, I commented on a contradiction between some of my earlier writing and what I have come to see as a constructive approach to creating your best life. The contradiction was about the concept of yearning. In the book The Joy Diet, I wrote that yearning is the internal map of the course your life was meant to follow. I believe I wrote something like, “Your destiny pulls you through life by the heart.” Last month I wrote that intense yearning is a form of attachment that can actually stop the thing you desire from reaching you. In the past month, I’ve realized that each of these ideas is accurate in its own way. Yearning is, indeed, a valuable indication of our best future, but it contains an energy that can push away our dreams even as it tries to pull them towards us.

Here’s the key to understanding how you can use the positive aspects of yearning while avoiding the negative: Recognize that yearning is loving something before you believe in it. The same may be said of jealousy, envy, disappointment and even despair. To love something deeply without believing it can be true is enormously painful.

The problem here is that we often fight our desire rather than our disbelief. Being firmly convinced that what we want could never happen, we fight to extinguish the enjoyment and delight of the experience for which we long. But every great spiritual teacher, from Jesus to Forrest Gump, has tried to explain to the world that love is indestructible. Therefore, the part of the yearning equation we must eliminate is not the love of the unseen thing, but our fear that it can never be ours.

Let’s write this as an equation. Here is what happens when we fight our desire rather than our disbelief:

Love + Disbelief = Yearning

To eliminate the distaste of this yearning, most of us try to solve the equation this way:

Yearning – Love = Happiness

This does not work because, as stated earlier, love cannot be subtracted. It’s the one permanent thing in the universe. In addition, subtracting love from anything makes it more painful, not less.

So this month, try the following equation:

Yearning – Disbelief = Happiness

If you have trouble simply subtracting disbelief, please realize you cannot force belief to exist, so you can’t simply add belief to something you don’t believe. The way to balance the equation is to allow your heart to trust that what it loves is real. If you can do this, trust automatically causes disbelief to relax and disappear. Then your equation looks like this:

Yearning + Trust = Happiness

Right now, make a list of everything you yearn for. Make sure that you realize that your yearning is for the emotional sensation that the experience would bring you rather than the form itself. (For example, you don’t just wish for the perfect lover, but for the sensation of knowing you are deeply loved. The perfect lover without that feeling would do nothing for you.) Make another list of things you feel you deserve, but don’t believe you’ll ever get — things like good luck, a soul mate, a really great haircut. Again, focus on the essence of the experience, not the physical form.

Now try a small thought experiment. Go through this list item by item and allow yourself to trust that the thing you love not only will come, but has already connected with you through the barrier of time. Notice any fear that arises to tell you that the thing for which you yearn will never come to you. Notice the choking, tensing or other form of contraction in your body when you focus on your disbelief. This is the body’s response to a lie. Give yourself a short space of time, say one minute, to take your attention off your disbelief and focus instead on the love of this thing that has not yet happened. Feel the warmth and openness of your life when you believe that your connection with this thing is real, solid, and inevitable. As the poet Rilke said, “You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens.”

Psychologists who study rats sometimes hook up the poor little creatures to harnesses that measure their pulling strength. Then they measure how hard the rats run away from an electric shock, or toward a pellet of food. If they put the shock and the food in the same place, the rats run toward it to exactly the point where their fear of the shock is as strong as their lust for the food. At that point, they develop what is called an “approach avoidance” response. They run back and forth, back and forth, toward the food and away from the shock and end up basically stuck in no man’s land.

When we yearn for something and focus on our fear that it may not happen, we create an approach avoidance response in everything our hearts desire. The love makes us magnetic to the outcomes we desire; the fear of loss or failure repels what we are trying to create just before it reaches us.

If we can change the way we solve the yearning equation so that more of our time is spent focusing on love and enjoyment than on our fear of failure or disappointment, the approach avoidance pattern begins to break down.

The future our hearts have already mapped for us gains the energy and momentum to break through the shell of fear and into our material lives. To live without fear or doubt is perhaps too much to ask of a small, frightened, human animal, but to practice the discipline of focusing on love rather than fear is something we can all achieve. Start with the things you want just a little. As trust begins drawing these things into your life, you’ll gain the confidence to escape approach avoidance responses and more impressive results will follow.

Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future has already entered you. It is pulling you through life by your heart.