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.

Celebrating the Ebb Tide

You are an ocean. You’re about 60 percent plain water, with an admixture of chemicals that approximate the sea in which your most ancient ancestors evolved. Also like the sea, you are tidal. You ebb and flow. Your heart and lungs continuously contract and expand.

Your circadian rhythms alternate between alertness and sleepiness. You also have ultradian rhythms, multiple physical systems that ebb and flow within each day. Ultradian rhythms control things like your hormonal levels, heat regulation, appetite, and nostril dilation. (Yes! Nostril dilation!)

Unfortunately, you’ve had your natural rhythms disrupted by a culture that praises you for working continuously, and makes you embarrassed or ashamed of the need to rest. But in high performing roles, from musical performance to office work, human beings function best in bursts that max out at 90 minutes. These work periods are interspersed with at least 20-minute periods of R&R (I myself find that 70 minutes on, 30 minutes off, is the best way to get things done).

Here’s my challenge for this month: Try tuning into your innate rhythms, allowing ebbs as well as flows, and see what happens. When you settle into work, or play with your children, or clean the house, set a timer for an hour. Before you start, rate your energy level from 1-10, with 1 being “I am so close to dead I can see Grandma beckoning from heaven,” and 10 being “I am on crack and plan to take over the universe.” Work with full attention until the timer rings, then check your energy levels again. If you feel like resting, even a little, do it. Lie down. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket. Read a book. Close your eyes and feel yourself descend into an ultradian peace. After 30 minutes, check your energy again. If you feel like working, set the timer and dive in again. If you don’t, rest a bit longer, then re-check. All day, follow your own rhythm.

Just paying attention to this will tune you into your own best working pace. If you can keep yourself from comparing your rhythms with others, or insisting on mechanical consistency, or panicking about everything that’s still left to be done (dear, there will always be infinite things left undone) you’ll eventually find yourself working more powerfully and resting more deliciously.

Just to reinforce the importance of ebb, as well as flow, let’s celebrate the resting times. Curl up and rest, cuddled up, eyes closed, nostrils dilated out to here, and trust that when you stop fighting the pull of the tide, the ocean in you will bring everything you need.

Like Ten Thousand Knives When All You Need Is a Spoon

spoonIt’s been a long day, and I’m almost out of spoons. I have a couple to use writing this, but I’ll need a good sleep to forge more spoons for tomorrow.

Does this sound odd to you? Let me tell you about “Spoon Theory,” my current preoccupation. Spoon Theory is a real thing—you can find it in Wikipedia, listed as a neologism (a phrase just entering popular usage). Spoon theory is the brainchild of the wonderful blogger Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. She explained life as a Luperian (is that a word? A neologism?) by using spoons to represent the energy it takes to do things.

According to spoon theory, every task we ever do—getting up, taking a shower, driving the kids to school—costs a spoon. Most people, most of the time, have dozens of spoons. But there are times when some of us wake up with only ten, or four, or one.

If you’ve only got one spoon, you have some decisions to make. Should you shower, make breakfast, pay your bills, or focus on a crucial work project? Choose carefully. Your options are practically nil.

As someone who’s had various autoimmune diseases since my teens, I’m acutely aware of everyone’s spoon count. I raised my longsuffering children on a king-size bed, since I usually couldn’t walk, sit, or stand without pain.

So the other day, when someone with her own autoimmune issues offered to check my email for me, I said, “That’s not happening. You’re out of spoons.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “That would give me spoons.”

Wait. What?

“If it were my email, it would take spoons,” she explained. “My email makes me want to join a witness protection program. But doing it for you makes me happy. See?”

And I saw! I did! Her cheeks were pink, her eyes suddenly, subtly, brighter. She had accrued a spoon! Just one, but still.

The implication of this event, while shocking, must be faced squarely:

SOME ACTIVITIES CAN GIVE YOU SPOONS!

This isn’t part of classic Spoon Theory, so far as I know. But as I cast my mind back to my own most spoonless times, I remembered occasional, inexplicable surges of energy. I’d hear a bit of wisdom, and feel my baseline vim spike up to near normalcy. Or I’d have a good cry and then feel lighter, stronger. In fact, most of my self-help advice comes from being absolutely out of spoons, and then noticing that certain thoughts and actions added to my inner silverware drawer, instead of robbing it.

Now, please don’t think I want you to buck up, ignore your depression or fibromyalgia, and clean your damn house. Dude, you might as well just fling all your spoons into a live volcano. No, no, no. I just want you to go wherever your spoons take you.

See, we don’t get to choose which effect a given activity has on us. I can’t make my email give me spoons—I’ve tried, and the effort left spoon-shaped gouges all over my soul. But sometimes when I’m low and miserable, I notice a topic, a book, or a person, and hear a tiny plink! inside. My ears perk up. My mind clears.

Spoon!

I believe we’re all being steered by our true selves, and our true selves’ favorite steering mechanism is spoons. When we stray off course with actions or even thoughts, nothing on earth can make us feel spoonful. When we take a single step in the right direction: Spoonage! Maybe a teeny espresso spoon appears, or maybe it’s a big old soup ladle. A spoon is a spoon. Just keep doing whatever created it.

If you long for the world to be a saner, more loving place, please be advised that you must start inside. Care for your sick, anxious, exhausted self as lovingly as you want to care for every suffering thing. And when you find something that gives you spoons, go toward it. Go right into it. Go wherever it takes you. If I’m brave enough to follow my own heart, I know I’ll have the spoons to meet you there.

May all our scores be very low

Doggie Do-Good Camp was supposed to last twclaireo weeks. That’s a long time to be separated from a dog you’ve just adopted, but when we got Claire, our emergency backup Golden Retriever, it seemed necessary. She was anxious, jittery, and unresponsive to even simple commands. After two weeks, a Doggie Do-Good trainer called to report that Claire needed more time. “Claire is one of the cutest dogs we’ve ever worked with,” said the trainer. There followed a charged silence. The trainer took a deep breath and added, “Her scores are, er, very low.”

It was hard to contradict, but still, harsh, dude. All our lives we’re taught to jack up our scores, fight for every point we can get, compete for rank like hyenas fighting over filet mignon.

After a full month of Do-Good Camp, Claire came home with a dim, flickering concept of the word “Come.” Mainly she just figures we like to shout randomly; she hasn’t put this together with us meaning for her to do…well, anything.

We could go back to rigorous training, but we haven’t. You know why? Because even with all our kvetching and complaining about a dog who has the same I.Q. as a patch of mold, Claire’s joy in being naughty has brought us untold happiness.

It’s amazing to watch a life lived without concepts, without rules, without fear of punishment. Claire is free from all that, and so even more than most dogs, she continuously chooses love over everything else. Love of play, love of sleep, love of our motley little pack of people.

Today, for at least fifteen minutes, try channeling your inner Claire, doing something that may look messy, but fills your heart. (I’m sharing a video for inspiration.) Every few hours pause, tune in to your desires, and then throw yourself into something that feels as luxurious and sensual to you as rolling in the dirt does to Claire.

claire video

We didn’t name our emergency backup retriever, but her wonderful former owner did it perfectly. “Claire” means light; for us, living out of sheer joy, no rules, lights up our family and teaches us how to illuminate our own experience. This month, may your life be filled with light, and may you care not one bit if your scores are very low.

Not to Worry: 10 Things to Stop Worrying About

Everywhere I turn these days, people are urging me to worry. “Restaurants are swarming with bacteria!” shouts a local news promo. “We’ll tell you what to beware of!” From the computer in my lap, a parenting blog warns, “There’s plenty to be anxious about.” Noting the pallor of my furrowed brow, a neighbor clucks, “I think you should be more concerned about your health.”

Friends, there are many areas in which I need encouragement, but worrying is not one of them. I worry the way Renée Fleming sings high Cs: Effortlessly. Loudly. At length. You may be similarly gifted, because worrying comes easily to a certain subpopulation of humans, namely those of us with pulses. We’re constantly creating new, worry-based strategies for living.

But worrying is worrisome: It’s stressful, and as we all know, stress will kill you. I worry about that a lot. So today I’m striking a tiny blow for sanity with my list of ten things you can officially stop worrying about.

1. What’s on Your Plate

“If I can just finish this project,” says my ultrabusy friend Nancy, “I can stop worrying.” She’s said this every time I’ve ever spoken to her. No matter how much work Nancy finishes, by the time it’s done she’s fixating on a whole new crop of chores. In our achievement-obsessed society, this is “normal.” But I realized just how insane it is when a friend was dying of cancer. On her deathbed she managed to joke with me, “Hey, at least I only have one more thing on my to-do list.”

Instead of fretting about getting everything done, why not simply accept that being alive means having things to do? Then drop into full engagement with whatever you’re doing, and let the worry go.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I can’t just cut my anxiety loose! It isn’t under my control!” I empathize with this argument. I also know it’s bunk. To stop worrying about something, simply direct your attention toward something else. Personally, I like to interrupt my flow of worry by imagining—vividly—what I’d do if an elk walked into the room. See? Distraction works.

2. Needing Help

I used to be one of those people who spurned assistance—from other people, from God, from chemicals. Not anymore! These days—whether I’m begging for divine intervention, enlisting a fellow coach to help me overcome my aversion to e-mail, or refilling the awesome prescription that helps me sleep no matter how disruptive my schedule—I pretty much walk around hollering, “Help wanted!”

Are my helpers crutches? You betcha. Mama needs crutches, and she doesn’t worry one little bit about using them. If you worry about needing what you need—a shoulder to cry on, a standing date with a shrink, whatever the shrink prescribes—come to Mama, and she’ll smack you upside the head with her crutches until that worry flies right out of your mind.

3. Your Children

There was a time when I spent many hours worrying about my kids. In fact, I was so worried my firstborn would feel unloved that I “soothed” her constantly, blasting the poor child with a fire hose of anxious energy. It’s a wonder she survived.

My second child, who arrived with an extra 21st chromosome, eventually led me to a shocking conclusion: We don’t actually have much control over the way our kids turn out. Genes do a lot of the deciding, and the owner of those genes does most of the rest. Some kids let parents have a great deal of influence; others don’t. Either way, people blossom when we love them, not when we worry about them. Worry just teaches worry. Let it go.

4. Your Face (and Hips, and Butt…)

As long as we’re on the subject of DNA, let’s take on the big kahuna of worries: our appearance. Ten bajillion product ads notwithstanding, your looks are another thing that’s basically genetic. Stressing about them only deepens the facial creases that make everyone in your family resemble perturbed bulldog puppies. Key phrase: everyone in your family.

Instead of obsessing over your own appearance, try noticing—and mentioning—beautiful things about everyone else. This will make people adore you, which, last time I checked, is what most of us are hoping to achieve by worrying about our looks in the first place.

5. What You Own

The trick here is learning to reframe your perspective. For example, my friend Kathy always lays a colorful towel over her expensive tablecloth before serving her twin 7-year-old granddaughters a snack. One of the twins recently said, “Grandma, you don’t need to worry about us spilling. Spills are just memories.” If you’d rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you.

6. Everything You’re Doing Wrong

I don’t know any perfect people, but I know many who worry about being perfect. They exercise religiously and serve their families home-cooked organic free-range Tofurky recipes. They are unbearable.

I love the Buddhist concept of enlightenment as living without anxiety over imperfection. You can strain every fiber of your being trying to be flawless, only to face inevitable failure—or you can stop worrying about perfection, which instantly makes everything feel great. Save time and tofu: Choose option two.

7. The Past

I agree that your divorce settlement was a travesty of justice on par with the sack of Troy, that your last boss was abusive, and that you shouldn’t have calmed yourself with so many Cosmopolitans prior to testifying before Congress. I do not agree that worrying about it now will do any good.

The word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.” When we fixate on something in the past, we grab our own histories by the throat, cutting off the flow of physical and emotional energy that keeps us fully alive. To start the flow again, look forward. Think how you can apply what you’ve learned. Let your divorce teach you to negotiate assertively, your horrible boss help you spot and avoid other creeps. Let the debacle at Congress send you to a 12-step meeting. Embracing the lesson always loosens the stranglehold of worry.

8. What People Are Saying About You Right This Very Second

People are always telling me elaborate stories about the elaborate stories other people are supposedly telling about them. “I know people mock my pain,” growls one client. “Everyone expects me to be strong,” says another. “You think I’m expendable,” sobs a wife, while her husband protests, “You think I’m a robot.” All of these people are wrong, but they’ve got company. We all worry what people think about us—until we decide not to waste the energy.

When I first started coaching, I noticed that I never worried what my clients thought of me. Why not? All my attention was focused on understanding them. I watched like a Martian observer, not a vulnerable peer. This took me out of worry mode, and it helped clients feel seen. By not worrying about what they thought of me, I accidentally ensured that they thought well of me.

Today, pretend you’re a Martian gathering data on humans. As you notice what they do and say without focusing on your fear of their opinions, you’ll feel less self-conscious, and they’ll feel the nonjudgmental attention they’ve always wanted from you. Win-win.

9. Your Account Balance

I have nothing against the globally sacred rite of worrying about money. Except this: People, it has no payoff.

I stopped worrying about money when I was unemployed, living on credit card debt. It wasn’t that my ship came in. It was just that I’d decided to try writing for a living, yet I was too worried to write. So I proactively pushed aside worry as I worked. Did I make money that day? No. Did I make money sooner because I stopped worrying? I think so. Did I enjoy my life more from that moment on, regardless of how much I had in the bank? Abso-freaking-lutely. Go about your business, whatever it is, with full energy. And drop the worry. Watch how much stronger your moneymaking skills become when you’re not dragging around a hefty load of anxiety.

10. Worrying

If your Spanx are now totally knotted from trying to stop worrying, it’s time to take a nice, cleansing breath. Aaahhhh. Remember point number six: We’re not after perfection here. If you’ve felt even a tiny release from worry while reading this list, you’re succeeding. That slight lessening of anxiety is all you need.

Wiggle your worries a little each day, and they’ll gradually lose their hold on you. Trust that you’re already counteracting the barrage of messages that tell us, every day, to worry, worry, and worry some more. Enjoy the liberating sense of bucking the cultural tide. And speaking of bucks, if you have further questions, please feel free to direct them to my elk.

 

Freedom From Fear

Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, AlaskaLately I’ve become thoroughly exasperated with the part of my tiny brain that insists on continuously creating fear. Fear of dying soon. Fear of living too long. Fear of being alone. Fear of being spread out too thin between loved ones. Fear of drought. Fear of flooding. Fear of change. Fear of things staying the same.

ENOUGH, ALREADY!

I’ve tried suppressing my fear. It gets stronger. I’ve tried looking for the bright side, which simply focuses my mind on the inevitable dark side. I’ve tried medication, meditation, mediation, and a host of other ations. None of them worked. But recently, I’ve discovered something that does.

Here’s the thing: we can’t save ourselves from fear by seeking safety, because safety always means there’s something to be safe from—in other words, something to fear. The way out of fear isn’t safety. It’s freedom.

For a few weeks, I’ve been replacing every fearful thought in my head with a loving-kindness wish to be free from that specific fear.

  • When I’m scared that all the polar bears will die, I don’t say “Keep the polar bears alive!” until I’ve said, “May I be free from my fear for the polar bears.”
  • When I’m sure I have some dire illness, I don’t think “I must be healthy forever!”  I think, “May I be free from my fear of illness.”
  • When I miss someone, I don’t pester the person with needy phone calls.  I think, “May I be free from my fear of separation.”
  • Etcetera.

This request for freedom has been granted with subtle but remarkable power. I’ve had one of the calmest months on record. Freedom is landing me in peace, a state from which I function far more effectively—and safely—than anxiety. So feel free to try it. Really. Feel free.

Easy Does It

tumblr_lsmnttn3jX1qg5i5zLife is hard. We all know that. It is one of the primary beliefs that helped you gut it out through school subjects you hated, your soul-vampire of a job, and the years when your children, your partner, and your parents all depended on you. When I read through the journals I have kept sporadically throughout my life, I can see how acknowledging that life is hard helps me survive and overcome obstacles.

But, something weird is happening.

It’s not just me; it’s also people I work with, people I coach, and friends from all walks of life. We are being challenged to let things be easy. This is not an altogether new idea. 2000 years ago, Jesus supposedly said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The Buddha tried a life of pain and self-denial, then declared that it was not enlightenment and chose an easier path.

My favorite philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side path. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Way.”

It seems to me these days that the easy way is no longer an option for us: it is an imperative. What you are meant to do in the world may have begun with difficulty, but from here on, you are obliged to find the easiest path to all of your objectives. We live in a time of astonishing ease, especially those of us in the first world. Almost every day, at least one person says to me, “I can’t believe it’s that easy.” Guess what? It is.

For example, here are some of the things that seem too easy for me. I was educated to spend hours in libraries shuffling 3×5 note cards, searching through stacks of books, and reading thousands of pages in search of one nugget of truth. Now, I can Google “nugget of truth” and come up with over 2.5 million results in 0.23 seconds. In fact I just did it; how about this? “You are a dream of God come true.” That’s just awesome. That’s just too easy!

Another example: Now that I live in the country, shopping means a full-on expedition requiring at least an hour in transit just to buy groceries or a pair of flip-flops. Some of my neighbors recently told me that they shop online and have all of their purchases delivered to their country home. What? That’s just too easy!

Just one more: I have trouble remembering writing deadlines. So, right now, my wonderful Master Coach Jill Farmer is typing up this newsletter as I dictate it, while I’m giving myself a pedicure. Decadently easy!

By the same token, a dear friend of mine recently found a significant other through an online dating service. My daughters create astonishing works of art on their computers that would take thousands of hours to paint on a canvas. When I set out to plant a vegetable garden, a dear friend who loves to garden came and showed me how. We just ate our first batch of potatoes, a small miracle that required virtually no effort on our part.

All of this easiness is causing great un-easiness. At least a dozen people, over this past month, have asked me for coaching because certain tasks had become so easy they feared they were doing something wrong. I don’t think so. I think that a wave of easiness is rising all over the world. Does mean that people are not suffering or experiencing enormous difficulty? Of course not. But it may mean that even solving the problems of the destitute is meant to be an easier task than we believe. It may mean that the everyday labors of our lives are being facilitated by something that is teaching us to use our striving, tenacity, and grit to do things so huge and beautiful that they have never been possible before.

Do this for me: This month, every time you set out to do any task, ask yourself, “Is there an easier way?” Or, “How can I make this easier?” Can you ask a friend for help? Have you tried Googling it? Are there services out there to help you? Might small miracles happen if you simply ask the powers that be for assistance? It floors me when I ask this question to myself and realize how much easier tasks have become. And, the strength I gained gutting it through the hard parts of life is now free to flow into tasks that have one common purpose: to make things easier for others. That’s why all of this is happening, people. We are a species that works to make things easier. We’re getting really good at it. But, unless we drop the idea “life is hard,” we can’t take advantage of the astonishing ease we have created.

Get Out of Jail

iStock_000001616955SmallRecently, I had the chance to watch the movie Instinct in which Anthony Hopkins plays a primatologist who “goes native” with a group of mountain gorillas. When humans kill his gorilla family, he goes berserk, kills some of the attackers, ends up in an African prison, and refuses to speak for years. Finally, a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. breaks through and hears the story of Hopkins’ adventures.

This movie is based on the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which I think all humans should read. The film has powerful implications about the 20th century, especially the great machine of industry that is our economy. If someone you love (possibly you!) is caught in a stifling system, being torn from their true nature and being forced to act as a cog in the machine, buy this movie and watch it together. The filmmakers’ symbol for society is a prison for the insane known as “Harmony Bay.” In it, you will see every horrible boss, every stupid meeting, every injustice and every suffocating separation from nature that corporate life inflicts on so many people.

Sorry to spoil the surprise, but Anthony Hopkins eventually frees not only himself but Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a lot of the other prisoners. Freedom looks different for each of these people. For some, it is simply the power the say no to a bully. For others, it’s the creation of loving relationships. But for still others, it is almost complete separation from all human structures. Every character is liberated from some sort of cage, and the key to the cage is always the courage to use all one’s available power and freedom to choose what most nourishes the heart.

Today, you can use the same key to unlock any prisons in which you feel confined. Freedom can start as simply as wearing the clothes you really like instead of what your friends will really admire. It can be standing up for a stranger who’s unfairly bumped out of line at the post office. It can be structuring your schedule to suit the wildest part of yourself, instead of the most docile and broken. We all have freedoms we have not yet explored.

Today, break a few bars and venture into territory that initially makes you say, “Oh no, I could never.” That phrase is a sign that you have bumped up against the bars of your cage. Notice if it comes with a nervous laugh instead of genuine revulsion (because of course if you are cruel or unkind, those bars are there for good reason.) Do something today that you think is too delicious, too selfish, too wacky to fit within the rules of your life.

After my family watched Instinct, I told my partner Karen I wished every man in America would watch it. Men in particular are trapped these days in the image of themselves as cogs in the great economic machine. So, Karen began telling people “Have you seen Basic Instinct? It’s amazing! Every man in America should watch it.” People began giving Karen strange looks. Eventually, someone told her why. But Karen did not suffer because she’d been recommending soft core porn rather than a fabulous drama. She did not disintegrate because of the head scratching and raised eyebrows of the people who now think she’s an obsessive Sharon Stone fan. A 55-year-old woman earnestly recommending smut to all her dearest friends is not a problem for her.

When you break your rules, when you act “crazy,” you won’t disintegrate, either. You will just join those of us who like to play outside our cages and respectfully do not care what anybody thinks.

Good luck and bon voyage!