The Holiday Hurricane: Finding Shelter

December is a month of intense psychological ambivalence. On one hand, there’s a lot to love about songs and sweets, parties and presents. On the other hand, the holidays present us with a host of stressors. I’m not just talking about vague malaise. This season forces our brains to face challenges that, at any time of year, can push them into confusion, anxiety, even panic.

Understanding what our brains undergo during this month can help us deal with the season more easily. So here’s some information that may help you weather the hurricane of mental pressures you’ll almost certainly encounter during the next few weeks.

What December does to our brains

The holidays create all sorts of situations that would mess up our brains at the best of times. Consider “decision fatigue,” a brain state that occurs when we have to make many decisions in a short time. After a few hours we develop a particular type of exhaustion, which renders us unable to feel confident in our choices, or even think through our options. This isn’t a character defect, and we can’t overcome it with willpower. It’s simply what happens to the human brain when we’re confronted with an overwhelming number of choices. Which gift to buy? How many cards to send? What to wear to the party? The decisions around the holiday are supposed to fill us with good cheer, but instead, they drive almost all of us to decision fatigue.

If you go into a shopping center this December, you’ll be flirting with another difficult brain state. This one is called the “Gruen Transfer,” after Victor Gruen, the German shopping-mall architect who discovered it. Stores and shops—especially during the holidays—bombard our senses with all sorts of stimulation: flashing lights, huge and complex displays, clamorous music. All of these put our brains into a kind of hypnotic state in which we become confused, forgetful, and weak-willed. Once the Gruen Transfer kicks in (and marketers do everything they can to ensure that it does) we’re more likely to dawdle, wander, and make impulse purchases.

As we stagger dazedly through the mall trying to make decisions, we’re further burdened by the many faces of social anxiety, which rise to their apex at this time of year. Almost everyone has a touch of social anxiety, especially when many people gather to exchange gifts and good wishes. We worry about how others will judge our clothes, our bantering skills, our choice of gifts, our net worth, our relationships—you name it, the holidays put a hard bright social focus on it.

An offshoot of social anxiety is “social comparison theory.” Psychologists have found that we determine our self-esteem and sense of value by evaluating how we stack up against others. Internal comparisons go ballistic during the holidays. We’re supposed to be in happy relationships, raising perfect children, enjoying all the romance and success we see in every holiday-themed advertisement or rom-com. I can count on one hand the Decembers when my life looked the way I thought it was “supposed to,” and during those holidays I was actually hiding a toxic brew of subterranean unhappiness. I only managed to match the “perfect holiday” stereotype on the outside by sacrificing my inner life..

This is by no means an exhaustive list of psychological triggers we encounter during the holidays. But just add these few together and you have a recipe for a mental hurricane. As you decorate the tree or spin the dreidel, your brain is whirling so violently that cows and motorhomes go hurtling past. It’s overwhelming at best. At worst, it can suck you into a savage vortex of self-loathing and despair.

Culture versus nature

What’s the solution to all this madness? I find it in the distinction between our true nature and our surrounding culture. Cultural pressures max out at the holidays, pulling us away from natural inclinations. Nature itself can put us back on track.

If you live in northern climes, where this is a relatively cold, dark time of year, don’t avoid the supposedly “bad” weather. Right now I’m looking out my window at a gray, still scene: trees stripped of leaves, birds and small animals puffed up and cuddled together, sharing body heat. It reminds me that trees sense light—that is, see—with their leaves. When the leaves are gone, the tree has closed its eyes. A winter forest isn’t dead or frozen; it’s asleep. The animals, too, are preserving their energy, banding together, and even hibernating. Culture says this is the time for the hustle bustle of celebration, but nature says, “Hush, now. Be still. There will be time for that later.”

How to break free, step one: Just notice

To follow our own nature at this time, it helps to notice our brains going into the various kinds of predictable psychological distress I’ve just described.

We may see ourselves battered by decision fatigue: Which gift should I buy? How many cards shall I send? Should I go to the duty party or the fun party?

We may notice that we’ve been numbed by the Gruen transfer: Where’s my car? Why did I buy this rubber chicken? Why did I go back for two more?

We may feel the vertiginous dread of social anxiety: Is this the right outfit? How do I talk to all those new people? What if I end up drunk and naked like last year?

Or we may find ourselves stinging with shame from endless comparisonsWhy aren’t my children as successful as hers? Why am I still single, when everyone else has somebody? How can I hold my head up when I’m so much poorer than they are?

How to break free, step two: Disconnect from culture, connect with nature

Instead of avoiding the cold or the dark, address the holiday hurricane by breaking free from culture and taking a few minutes in nature. Go out in the early dark and stand among the sleeping trees. Watch your breath freeze into mist. Let yourself shiver in the cold without struggling—you can handle it for a few minutes. Breathe deeply, and feel your whole nervous system resetting itself to nature’s rhythm.

How to break free, step three: Prioritize rest

Once you’ve briefly escaped the various pressures that cause holiday brain, you’ll notice that this is a season of rest. If you’re spending time paralyzed by fear or indecision, replace that with a nap, or meditation. Cuddle with loved ones—other humans, pets, a favorite book. Be still, not because you’re dazed into immobility, but because you’re allowing yourself to relax. The time spent doing nothing will be the same, but you’ll be restored, not depleted.

A new holiday paradigm

December madness is so ubiquitous and intense that we’ll all probably get caught up in it this year. That’s okay. An occasional storm is refreshing and exciting, but not if we can’t take shelter when we’re tired of it. Knowing that our brains are susceptible to multiple holiday triggers, and knowing how to detach from them, can help give us power over the chaos.

Turning back to natural rhythms at a time of peak cultural pressure deepens that power and plugs us into the vast, quiet forces that shape us. Instead of the hyper-stimulating melee of human activity, we can ground ourselves in stillness, in rest, in love. Instead of harried, anxious little creatures, we can become the very embodiment of peace on earth.

Gratitude and the Life Abundant

So here I am, getting ready to celebrate the holidays in Pennsylvania, of all places. After a rush of magic convinced me to buy a ranch in California, I never thought I would move again. Why did I?

First, because as we all know, God finds our plans hilarious. Second, because the river of mystery that moves us through life doesn’t stop moving. I’ll tell you the whole story sometime, but for now, I want to talk about how to stay in the center of that river. It has everything to do with Thanksgiving, with gratitude, and with abundance.

When Jesus said “I come to give you life more abundant,” I don’t think he just meant padding our bank accounts. I think he meant learning how to fill every moment of our lives with more joy, fascination, passion, and presence. Research shows that mere stuff can’t give us that kind of abundance. It comes from pushing our limits, from helping others, and especially from expressing gratitude.

Gratitude is the emotional sweet spot from which we can create our best lives. It takes us out of feeling like victims and reminds us how we’ve been supported, even by the smallest things, in good times and bad.

In one study, people who wrote letters of gratitude to someone in their lives, and then read their letters aloud to the recipients, showed markedly increased levels of happiness for months. Doing good deeds, overcoming obstacles, and learning new skills also boost happiness, but nothing came close to the power of delivering a heartfelt “thank you.”

Try saying the word “red” in your mind repeatedly as you look around a room. Everything red will suddenly pop into your attention. Similarly, when our focus is on gratitude, we suddenly see how much we have to be grateful for. We see the abundance that surrounds and permeates us.

Abundance is in the air we breathe, filled with smells of food, shampoo, falling leaves. It’s in the fact that our incredibly complex, soft, fragile bodies have remained alive for years. It’s in the flash of connection offered by everyone who has ever smiled at us. It’s in our cell phones—my God, our cell phones—tiny machines like robot servants that put infinite resources in our palms.

The longer we stay in gratitude, the more abundance we see in any situation. The more abundance we see, the more gratitude grows. This virtuous circle puts us smack-dab in the middle of the Force, whatever that may be. We begin to notice small miracles, and then large ones. Soon, we may come to feel quite swept away by grace. Try it.

Don’t limit your thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. Look at the abundance that attends you this very moment. Write it down. Read it out loud. Share it.

I’m looking out my window at another ancient forest, this one as lush and deep as the oak savannah is wide and golden. The first time I entered this room, tagging along behind my realtor, I thought how I’d miss seeing deer and wild turkeys wandering past my windows. Then I glanced through a window and saw a flock of wild turkeys. The deer weren’t far behind. They were like animal emissaries, agents of abundance come to assure me that as we release everything and abandon ourselves to the river of mystery, we’ll be given even more than we have lost. (This Thanksgiving, I’ll be sending up a special wave of gratitude for turkeys.)

Right now is my chance (lucky me!) to thank you for reading these words. Thank you for giving me your precious time and attention, for putting your unique, irreplaceable energy into the field of consciousness. Thank you for joining me in this amazing adventure called human life. And thank you for noticing that this life, if we know how to look, is always offering us life’s full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and flowing over.

Everything is Changing, All the Time

Cold river in taiga forest

I once heard a Zen monk say that all our suffering comes from resisting one simple fact: everything is changing, all the time.

Think about your life situation in this moment: the good and the bad, and the ugly. Whoops! Now it’s different. While you were thinking, everything around you got a few seconds older.

What we think of as “my life,” stable and solid, is in fact a flowing river. The banks may look the same, but the water is always, always, always changing.

I was stunned when something told me, “Move to the woods in California.” But by then, I was old enough to trust that inner voice. So I bought a truly enchanted and enchanting ranch in California.

Thought I’d stay forever; after all, didn’t the magic send me? Yes, it did. And then it decided to send me somewhere else.

Life flows like a river. I’ve learned not to cling to any spot on the bank, no matter how lovely. Moving is wonderful practice for allowing flow. I’ve had a chance to look at every object I own and ask, “Do I really need this? Do I really want it?” The answer, I’ve found, is usually “No.” Bless you, Goodwill! I’m moving on with a much lighter burden of stuff.

In the midst of this, the wonderful Master Coach Abigail Steidley, who has been a beloved and vital part of my company for years, felt her own need to move on. Knowing how well she does magic, we’re all letting that current go where it chooses. Ab, my admiration, affection, and thanks for you are boundless. And love flows.

The river of our lives flows away from some things, right into other things. Each present moment is the point where time intersects with eternity. There, all experience is present, because the whole river of time flows through eternity. All memory, all perception, all presentiments of future, everything we have ever loved or will ever love is intimately available—but only In.This.Moment.

As my life flows, as your life flows, we can tune into presence and find connection—not flimsy, mind-made, let’s-pretend connection, but true oneness. That’s the reality we like to call “magic,” although it’s far more real than the losses we seem to suffer.

Thank you all for being part of my tribe. Let’s continue to let this amazing river take us wherever we are meant to go.

20 Things a Life Coach Should NEVER Say to a Client

Coaches trained in our Wayfinder Life Coach program are just excellent in every way. This is because the most empathic and magical people tend to find their way to this training. It’s also because our program is the gold standard and sends world-class coaches into the world.

It must be said, though, that not all coaches are created equal. So as you read through this list, think of all the people YOU could help by being unlike these fictional life coaches!

#1 Tequila will fix that.

It’s just generally good manners not to offer addictive substances in a coaching situation. (Grab a pencil if you need to take notes.)

#2 Thank God you’re here. I’ve been so lonely.

We get it: it’s hard being lonely. But we life coaches avoid putting our energy anywhere but on the client; as Martha likes to say, “Show up to give attention, not to get attention.”

#3 Sorry, babe, you’re too far gone.

As well as being a fast way to lose a client, this statement goes against all that you, as a Wayfinder, already know. None of us is ever finished growing, healing and thriving…as everyone who’s been through our training knows from experience.

#4 Let’s talk about your bowel movements.

Life is so rich with facets, isn’t it? We know it can be difficult sometimes as a LIFE coach to understand the limits of your jurisdiction. But I’ll break this one down for you: in the Martha Beck system, we advise against any discussion of bodily functions unless strictly relevant.

#5 [Pulls on foil hat.] We need to prepare for the coming of our new overlords.

Stay on task, coach! Overlords or no, it’s all about the client, remember?

#6 Stop crying, start winning!

It’s true: there are coaching traditions that sound a little like this. That’s not our style. We believe you’re “winning” when you’re in touch with the inner knowing that’s yours and only yours, and which will steer you faithfully into your best life.

#7 I’m beginning to think your parents were right about you.

No one’s parents are right about them. Say it with me: no one’s parents are right about them.

#8 There’s nothing wrong with you that a little plastic surgery can’t fix.

Yeah. Nah.

#9 I can see in your eyes that you come from the faerie people.

Even if it’s true, guys, refrain from saying it. Just trust me on this one.

#10 That reminds me of something Oprah said to me once.

If you’re Martha, you might get away with this. Though if you’re Martha, you probably wouldn’t say it. Paradox!

#11 You, you, you! Why don’t we ever talk about ME?

See above, regarding showing up to give attention.

#12 I recommend you get a LOT more cats.

Believe me, this client has enough cats already. More than enough.

#13 I recommend you get a LOT more tattoos.

We all know that guy who regrets the tat his friends thought would be “dope,” right? Don’t bring the wrath of God down on you; don’t get involved in tattoo decisions. The training will show you so many neat tools that will help your clients decide on the tattoo issue by themselves. Perfect.

#14 Have you seen “Thelma and Louise”? Consider that your guidebook from here on out.

Any works of art that feature characters driving off the edge of the Grand Canyon in a Ford Thunderbird just aren’t great models for your coaching clients. If you’re not sure why, please register for Wayfinder training immediately. If you are sure why, please register for Wayfinder training immediately!

#15 Have you tried eating your feelings?

She has tried. That’s why she’s here.

#16 Not sure the overhead compartment can hold all of your emotional baggage. HA! Get it?

Just because it’s a good line doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to say it. You know this. But damn, it’s a good line. Take it to the next Martha Beck Coaches’ Summit and try it out on your friends.

#17 Yikes. Good luck with that.

We aim to help our clients empower themselves to live the life they were born for. We don’t solve their problems; we teach them to free themselves from the thoughts and beliefs that are making them unhappy. But we do help!

#18 I’m definitely gonna need a nap after this.

There are probably clients who would take this as a badge of honor! But let’s avoid it, eh? Just to be on the safe side?

#19 Have you tried just being happier?

He has tried! That’s why he’s here.

#20 Ask yourself, “What would a Kardashian do?”

There are times in life when the Kardashians can and must be our guides. That’s just basic logic. However, it’s not an approach we teach in Martha Beck’s Wayfinder Life Coach Training. Why? Because we have better ways! Better than the Kardashians? Yes, my sweet poppet. Even better.

Want to find out? Sign up for the final Wayfinder Life Coach Training for 2018 and get:

  • Eight months of rapid and revolutionary personal growth. You’ll learn the coaching tools by practicing them on yourself and in groups: this is transformative.
  • A tight-knit community of people like you, people who get you, people who care about what you care about, people who laugh at what you laugh at.
  • Hilarious classes with Martha, both recorded and live, that will blow your mind while you eat popcorn and enjoy the ride.
  • A solid set of tools that will see you sailing into a coaching career, if you want one, with confidence and grace.
  • Training in 21st-century entrepreneurship: we won’t leave you out in the cold.

If you’re ready to change your life, come join the tribe.

You have reached your destination

I have nothing against Google Maps, but this week it told me to sleep in the middle of a five-lane city street packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

We were driving to see the redwood forests of northern California. We overnighted in San Jose, where we’d booked a charming little Spanish-colonial hotel, set among lush trees. I put the address into Google Maps, which confidently led us into the heart of a major metropolis jammed with vehicles, pedestrians, and huge, flashing Christmas light displays. “You have arrived at your destination,” said the soothing voice from my phone.

So I called the hotel, which turned out to be awaiting my arrival in the heart of San Jose…Costa Rica. This is a true story.

As I booked an outrageously expensive room on very short notice, I reminded myself that living as a Wayfinder isn’t about always getting where you want to go, when you expect to arrive. It’s about venturing into the unknown, making mistakes, and ending up in the wrong place, repeatedly. A good Wayfinder is someone who’s comfortable losing the way.

We eventually got back on track—like you do—and today I stood among trees that were already tall when Jesus and Buddha walked the earth. They grew taller as the Vikings sailed, were already huge before the Aztecs ever met a Spaniard. Wandering through them, I felt acutely that they were not only alive all that time, but aware. They’re like space creatures: immensely still, benevolently alien beings.

I got lost again among these giants—this time not geographically but psychologically. Spiritually. My small body, my brief life, my human identity all felt inconsequential next to the redwoods, and I loved it. Being lost in a blaring city had been jarring. It took some serious positive thinking to cope with it. By contrast, losing myself in an ancient forest was a kind of ecstasy. At some point in the hours I spent there, I forgot that I was separate from the trees, from the soil. I forgot to be a self, divided from the rest of the universe.

This kind of “lostness” is what lets us know that our Wayfinding compasses, our inborn Google maps, are working perfectly. When our minds quiet and our hearts open, we find ourselves in a map of the universe drawn like a Chinese painting, tiny human travelers barely visible in the vast beauty of nature. We don’t need to feel huge or central, the focus of attention. We don’t need to feel anything but present.


The mindset of Wayfinding can help us on a literal journey, or in every ordinary day.
 For you, today, that might mean navigating a relationship problem or a career disappointment. Stop, acknowledge that you’re lost, feel for the step forward that brings peace and lets you loosen your hold on what you thought you wanted. Take that step. Then do it all again. Move always toward inner stillness and loving communion.This mode of Wayfinding can become a constant state. It doesn’t mean life will be perfect. It means getting lost, but without anxiety: blundering into places we never anticipated and don’t understand, and rejoicing in it all. Once we’ve set our internal navigation to track our true purpose, we’ll get lost a thousand times: that’s how the way is found. At any given moment, it’s okay to be someplace unfamiliar without a clue where we’re going next. Whatever is happening, whatever’s around us, we always ultimately know where we are. We’re home.

Turn on the Stars

I was steeped in writer’s block, boosting my self-esteem by rescuing bears in Candy Crush, when my daughter phoned with the news. You’ve probably heard by now, but I just have to write it down myself: Scientists have discovered that when dung beetles roll their balls of animal feces at night, they navigate by looking at the Milky Way!

I know what you’re thinking: Thank God some intrepid scientists asked themselves, as we all do, “How the hell do dung beetles navigate at night?” And thank God these scientists did not remain on the couch playing Candy Crush! No, they took a bunch of dung beetles to a planetarium, where they let them see different simulated night skies: some dark, some with stars visible, some showing only the Milky Way. And here’s what they found out:

 


*Dung beetle path illustration from Current Biology (Volume 23, Issue 4). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072

Is this not cool, I ask you? Dung beetles who can see the stars (specifically the Milky Way) roll their poo-balls in fairly straight lines. Those that can’t just wander around haphazardly, probably trying to think of something interesting to write.

I take great comfort from this information, because I basically spend all my time rolling around a big ball of poo called My Life. I arise, make the bed, brush my teeth, and sometimes show up at my computer to work. But most of the time, like today, I don’t feel I’m making any significant progress toward anything. I’m just pushing my poo-ball around, hoping no one notices that I have no idea where I’m going.

Today I have a gimpy back and not much pep. In five hours I’ve written maybe a thousand words on my current book. A few hundred of them may even be useable. Today the ball of poo feels huge, and my progress infinitesimal. It’s enough to make you just stop rolling.

I had to lie down to process all this, which of course means I’m accomplishing even less than before. But then I had a thought. I am not only a dung beetle pushing a sphere of crap; I am also a human, who can take the beetle to a planetarium and show it the stars.

I know how to do this, I’d just forgotten. I forget all the time, even though it’s a ridiculously basic instruction. When I’m moving in random patterns, not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, I have to stop pushing my ball of poo. I can leave my life alone for a minute—I’m not making any progress anyway.


Once I’ve stopped pushing, I have to go to the planetarium, and the door to the planetarium is stillness. In stillness, we humans can do all kinds of magic our dung beetle selves can’t even comprehend. Once I get still, I can feel for the action that—right here, right now, for me—will turn on the stars. I can recognize it by my feelings. Anything I can think of that lifts me, that makes me feel relief, or relaxation, or just a little bit of joy, is the starry blur of the Milky Way. It may not be very clear or very bright, but I can navigate by it.

Today, the Milky Way appeared when I confessed my fear of accomplishing nothing to a loved one. I got a wonderful hug, and a comment: “Honey, you’re thinking work is important. But that’s not what you’re feeling. What are you feeling?” And just like that, I knew that watching a movie with my family and cuddling our new dog was my path. And here’s the funny, counterintuitive thing that always happens when I turn on the stars: as soon as I committed to doing what brightened my inner world, my writer’s block went away.

I am steering this poo ball like a mofo.

I know I’ll lose the stars again. I know I’ll wander aimlessly, feeling exhausted by all my shit. But I swear next time I’m going to do better. I’ll get still sooner, feel for my own joy more carefully, and do whatever lights up the Milky Way in the little messed-up planetarium that is my mind.

P.S. We will soon be releasing the details for African Star 2018: A Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat where the milky way is so close you can hear it singing to your soul. If you want to be sure to get them right away jump over here and sign up for the first-to-know list.

 

The Law of Attracting Trojan Horses

People talk about “the Law of Attraction” as a way to hook Hollywood headlines, Washington power, and Wall Street wealth. I believe in the Law of Attraction, but I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, I direct a slightly bitter laugh at the whole concept of thinking ourselves to success. Haha.

Here’s the sobering truth: We don’t attract what our minds want. We attract what our souls want. The mind, despite its amazing abilities, is powerless to do miracles unless it’s in cahoots with the soul. And what do our souls want? Not the cabana on the beach, not the well-oiled, nubile partner, not our names in lights.

Our souls want us to wake up.

Dammit!

Because of this, we draw into our lives—inexorably, unintentionally, with maddening repetitiveness—exactly the things that lead most directly to awakening. In many cases, that’s our deepest suffering.

You know how the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Well, the road to heaven is paved with apparently horrible mistakes. In order to wake up, we must not only observe people who bring up the most unenlightened parts of our egos—not even merely encounter them. We must give birth to them, move in with them, invite them into the bathtub and the bed right along with us.

So many of the things that transfix us, the things that make us fall madly in love, are Trojan horses. We think they’re a gift that will make us happy, and for a while they do. But then our time to awaken arrives. The new baby who’s slept angelically for two weeks develops colic. The perfect lover quits antidepressants, cold turkey. The friendly new coworker smilingly throws us under the bus in a meeting.

The soldiers are out of the horse.

There’s an awful period of resistance when this first happens. We go through all the stages of grieving our own deaths, because part of us is dying: the ego’s attachment to the story of the thing that’s going to make us happy forever.

So, here we go. You know the steps to this dance:

Denial
This isn’t happening. At worst, it’s just a blip. Everything will go back to normal soon.

Bargaining
If I try harder, if I do a better job and really make them happy, everything will go back to normal.

Anger
I WILL NOT PUT UP WITH THIS HAPPENING! EVERYTHING HAS TO GO BACK TO NORMAL, NOW, NOW, NOW!!!!

Grief
Nothing’s ever going back to normal. I want to die. I can’t get out of bed.

Acceptance
Maybe I can find a new normal. True, Troy is now being run by the damn Greeks. But on the other hand, we’ve got a really nice big wooden horse.

This sequence happens when we fail to get an expected email or our favorite sitcom gets cancelled, let alone when we lose a job, a love, or a lifestyle. I’ve been through it several times lately, on a moderate scale. And here’s what I’ve seen, every time:

I’ve seen that what we’re most afraid to lose is never a thing, person, or situation, but our story about how that thing will make us happy, conform to our ego’s desires, and remain forever unchanging. This is true even when the thing is our own body.

I’ve seen that when we relinquish our stories—when the truth of our soul kills the narrative we’re spinning out to impress ourselves and others—we reach acceptance and suffering ends.

I’ve seen that on the other side of death lies peace. Not the peace of the unsuspecting Trojans before they got that awesome horse, but the peace braided through their epic poetry and psychologically compelling myths.

This is what our souls attract. This joy, this disappointment, this euphoria, this depression. This death after death after death. Ultimately, I believe that we can let all our stories die. Then we’ll accept every Trojan Horse, every betrayal, as precisely the gift we most needed in order to awaken.

The meta-learning I take from all this is simple: know that your story is your own invention, and that it will die. Hold it lightly. Enjoy your gift-horse. And when the Greek soldiers pour out of it, offer them your sword.

Are you following love into fear?

 

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. –Helen Keller

When I was 14 years old I realized that I could either: 1) do something that scared me every day, or 2) live under my bed hoping to catch and eat the occasional mouse, like a snake. I was so frightened of life that I could see my life as an agoraphobe rising over the horizon.

I chose a life of fear. Thank God.

I’ve been guided by fear my whole life, but not the way you’d think. Being afraid of something—as long as the something sounded remotely interesting—became my cue to throw myself into that very thing.

All my life, I’ve addressed crowds because I’m scared of public speaking, traveled because I’m afraid of jetlag, written books because I’m pretty sure that everything I’ve ever written flat-out sucks.

All I wanted was a life that kept me out from under the bed. I didn’t expect that my full-frontal-fear lifestyle would give me a profoundly meaningful career, deep and lasting love, and countless experiences so amazing I’d think I dreamed them if I didn’t still have the receipts.

I’m so grateful for all this bounty.

And I’m still terrified.

Today, I have to pack for a retreat I’m running in Africa, write my column for Oprah Magazine, and begin shaping my ideas for a new book. These activities all scare me spitless, which means I absolutely will do them.

Damn it!

Of course, even though my fear never vanishes, things are easier now. Because these days, I know that other terrified people (maybe you’re one of them) are walking right beside me. People who’ve joined my tribe of hardy Wayfinder Life Coaches, or ripped open their souls for the Write Into Light course, or started their own books.

I won’t tell you that you can’t get hurt doing this. You can get devastated. It’s happened to me a hundred times. It’s happened to everyone who follows love right into fear. Too bad. Try it anyway. Climb out from under the bed. Spit out your last mouse tail. Grab one of our clammy, shaking hands, find a fear—got it?—and forward march.

 

Are you ready to live like Jumping Mouse?

One of my favorite stories EVER comes from many Native American traditions, and is estimated to be at least 10,000 years old. I read it when I was 15, in the book

Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm. I didn’t know why I began to sob as I read this apparently simple tale of a mouse who wants to find his way to the sacred lake that is the source of all things. I didn’t know until decades later that the story is a guide to awakening, that it metaphorically traces every step on the way to enlightenment.

The story is called “Jumping Mouse.” It’s about an ordinary mouse who can’t stop hearing the call of the rushing river (which symbolizes spirit or source). Little Mouse heads off on a journey to awakening. As it begins, a frog appears and insists that to follow his yearning, Mouse must jump. He must jump very, very high. After a few hesitant tries, Mouse puts all his tiny strength into one huge jump. He falls down into the sacred river, which terrifies him, but the magic has happened—at the highest point of his highest jump, he has seen the mountains of his soul’s home, where the still lake of spirit waits to show him his true self.

After that, Mouse gets a new name: Jumping Mouse. He no longer moves by creeping and crawling. He bounds along, leap after leap. (There actually is a species of mouse that gets around this way).

The point—everything that happens to Jumping Mouse has a point—is that once we’ve set out in search of Home, we can’t move by creeping and crawling any more. We can’t tiptoe, keep our profiles low, avoid exposure. Life becomes one leap of faith after another.

This is not an easy way to live. Jumping Mouse doesn’t have an ordinary mouse life. He has adventures that terrify and injure him. But along the way, he encounters and integrates great realizations, unusual friendships, deep wisdom, and finally his true self. Have you been to the river? Have you begun to live by leaping? If not, start now. Leap at the next chance that speaks to your heart. One leap of faith at a time, we’ll all get Home at last.

Stop Doubting and Start Writing

“When I write,” Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” We all feel that way when we set out to do something truly important. I doubt that Vonnegut ever believed his writing achieved as much as he wanted it to. But it changed a lot of things, all over the world. For one thing, it changed a Mormon girl growing up in Provo, Utah. It changed me.

The best parts of my childhood were made of books. That’s why, as I grew up, I came to see every task as trivial compared to sacred process of writing. Written language is such a huge magic, such a magnificent castle to explore with our minds, that it’s both magnetic to me, and scary as hell. The first time I had to write a poem for school, I didn’t sleep for five nights. They had to put me on Valium. But after that—even when the Valium ran out—I found that I felt much, much better when I continued writing. Writing became my sanctuary, my trusted friend.

Do you feel this way too? If so, I have some good news, and some bad news.

Bad news first: Those of us who know we’re supposed to write can no longer afford the luxury of procrastination. The world is a freaking mess, have you noticed? The madmen are running the asylum. Monstrous narcissism and lethal short-sightedness dominate every sort of social pyramid. Earth’s ecosystems are failing. Something has to change.

Now the good news: WE CAN CHANGE THINGS! ALL THE THINGS! We can change them in our pajamas! We just have to use the full, healing magic of writing.

For decades, I’ve been devising ways to use writing as a two-stage healing process. First, I use different strategies to “write inward,” discovering and expressing truths I didn’t know I knew. Then I find the flow reversing direction, finding different strategies to “write outward,” sending my newly discovered truth out to help someone—anyone—else.

Writing, you see, is equal-opportunity magic. It loves us all.

I believe with all my heart that if we use writing in this way, we can fix almost everything have broken. I know it’s an audacious belief, but what the hell, writing is audacious magic. One clear thought, powerfully phrased, can literally change history. You don’t have to create a book. Your message can be on a blog, or a tweet, or a damn T-shirt. But you have to write it.

I can sense you out there, feeling armless and legless, mouthing your one pathetic crayon. You probably feel like your crayon isn’t even the right color. Dear one, we all feel that way. IT DOESN’T MATTER. The time has come to stop doubting, and start writing.

Need community to cheer you on? Join the Write Into Light course. Need a role model? Read great writing. Need a reason? Look around. As Toni Morrison says, “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

So put fear aside, my brave world-healer. Wriggle your way over to the nearest wall. Take your crayon firmly in your lips. Begin.