About this episode
We’ve got another Best of the Gathering Room episode for you today, a listener favorite called Building on Bright Spots. In this episode, Martha talks about finding and following the almost invisible “bright spots” in your life whenever things feel dark and cloudy. Because clouds are illusions, it's always possible to find little breaks in the clouds and see the clear points of truth that can guide you home. To find out how, tune in for the full episode—which might turn out to be a bright spot for you!
The Best of the Gathering Room - Episode 97: Building on Bright Spots
We had a problem with our interweb. You’ll notice I’m not in the usual place. That is because the interwebs are having a problem. Someone slashed through the cord out in a field. Guess which field it was. It was the field that Alexander Hamilton used as his headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Isn’t that cool? So the ghost of Alexander Hamilton canceled the Gathering Room until we could put it in this temporary space and they got the cable fixed. And so, Alexander Hamilton is haunting the Gathering Room and you should blame Alexander that we didn’t have a couple of sessions for a couple of weeks. But if you’re listening to this far in the future, you won’t even know what I’m talking about. So let’s get to the topic of the day.
I like to read through my favorite special books, the ones that comfort me and uplift me and help me get through any day. I have a little treasury of them, and sometimes, it’ll just leave me cold and sometimes one book will jump out at me. You know how it is. It’s great. I was looking in a book today that I haven’t looked at for donkey’s years. I mean, a long time. And somewhere in college, I had written in the margin of this book, Bright Spots. I was like, “What was that about a hundred years ago?” And I remembered it, and this is what happened.
It was the longest run I have ever taken. I set off from my dorm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My plan, because I was training for the Boston Marathon because I had accidentally told my Chinese class that I was going to run the Boston Marathon, and I looked it up in preparation for this Gathering Room. I just have to say all honor to my teachers who were great, but [foreign language 00:03:31] does not mean the Boston Marathon. It just means I like to run long distances. So this is what I was trying to say and I’d looked it up and I was telling my class I ran long distances.
The teacher said, “Oh, the Boston Marathon.” And I was like, “No.” And the other students were like, “Oh, [foreign language 00:03:45].” I was doomed. So I started running longer and longer distances in the middle of winter because the marathons in March or April. I was getting ready for a long run. I was going to go to Wellesley College, which is 13 miles away from Cambridge and then run back because that’s part of the marathon route from Wellesley into Boston. I was going to run Wellesley College over to Boston, back to Cambridge, and it was going to be a 20 mile run, which was big.
So I set out. Again, it was like three in the afternoon, which in winter in Cambridge is pitch dark. It gets pitch dark by about four. So I’m running, it gets dark, I’m running, I’m running. The sky clouds over. I didn’t have weather reports, I didn’t have internet or even TV. So I had no idea there was going to be a massive blizzard, and I just ran on into the blizzard and it was coming down. It was pitch dark and all I could see were clouds of little, massive globs of snowflakes wherever there was a light, which was not everywhere, I may add. I’m running, I’m running. At some point, I got extremely lost and I found myself, I ran to the town of Wellesley I think, or maybe I didn’t.
All I knew was that the lights all went away and I was running further and further into just darkness and snow. And I was like, “All right, how long has it been?” I had no idea how many miles I’d run. I looked at my watch. I’d been running an hour and a half. That was pretty that long, and I was lost. It was too cold to stop running. So I just kept running. I turned around, I doubled back. I thought I was going to follow my footprints in the snow to get back to someplace where I could recognize landmarks. It was snowing so hard, there were no more footprints. It closed in behind me like quick sand. So I just ran randomly for another hour and a half.
And at that point I was like, “I think I’m going to die in the snow. I can’t even come to a village or a hamlet or a magical toll booth or anything.” And I thought, “I need something to happen.” And what happened was that the clouds parted eventually in exactly the right place for me to see the Big Dipper and the North Star. I’d been running west into Wellesley from Cambridge, I’m pretty sure. I don’t know. Anyway, I thought, “Okay, East is that way. There’s the North Star. I’m running East.” So I ran for another couple hours. I was out there running for five and a half hours. Not that much distance because it was in heavy snow, but I feel I deserved some credit.
And sure enough, here came the cities, the factories and then the rundown neighborhoods and then the suburbs of Boston, and then Boston itself. Ran into Boston, took the subway back to Cambridge. And I remember writing in the margin of that book later, Bright Spots, and it reminded me of a Robert Frost poem, which by the way, I was quoting in my podcast Bewildered with Rowan Mangan, the Gracious Badger. I want to stop hearing parenthetically say, if you have a question you want to submit to Bewildered, we would love you to do that. Please go to rowanmangan.com/bewildered and leave a question with your voice so we can play it on. I’ll repeat this at the end. We can play it on the podcast.
Anyway, we’re making the podcast and I suddenly thought of Robert Frost’s poem and I don’t remember. I think it’s called Something Like A Star. And it begins, “Oh, star, the fairest one in sight. We grant your loftiness the right to some obscurity of cloud. It will not do to say of night since dark is what brings out your light.” So I thought, “Okay, the obscurity in my life is always clouds because if things are really dark and I’m not clouded, I can see the stars.” And in a strange way, being able to see the stars is almost more powerful than being able to see the sun because you don’t know where the sun’s … which direction it’s going to be and it changes throughout the day.
But if you can see the stars, and I later wrote a book called Steering by Starlight, that’s why my whole self-help thing was based on finding your own North Star, because that star may have saved my life that night. And the way it did it was with darkness. The clouds were gray, the sky was black and the stars were showing. And I thought, “Okay, here’s the deal. To find our way, we’ve got to get rid of the clouds.” So if you customarily have a lot of thoughts that make you feel murky, and you know what it is, everybody has these automatic negative thoughts. We have a negativity bias in our thinking. We look at things that go wrong because that will help them not happen again, and all of that.
For example, I’m writing about anxiety. So I talk to a lot of people about anxiety and they’re very focused on their anxiety. And the anxiety is always caused by clouds. Clouds, metaphorically, are illusions, and illusions are thoughts that we believe even though they are not true for us at the deepest level. So we’re out of integrity, not because we’re trying to be bad, but because we’re trying to make sense of the world, and the world tends to cloud us. So clouds, think about it now, any cluster of thoughts … I have them, you have them, we all have them … these cloudy thoughts that drift in, and they’re different topics for each of us. For some of us, it’s “I’m good enough to be loved.” For some of us it’s, “I’m always anxious, I can’t get rid of my anxiety and here’s why I’m anxious.”
For some people, it’s fear of physical trauma. For some people, it’s fear of being rejected in love or not being loved at all. We have these little stories that are based on conditioning and trauma. You can know that they’re clouds if they make you feel murky. These do not give you a direction to go. They make you go for soothing maybe to people you think might be able to make you feel better, but it’s almost like taking medicine when you’re standing on a nail. The cure for the pain of standing on a nail is not opioids. It’s taking the nail out of your foot. I’m sorry I’m mixing metaphors like [inaudible 00:10:30] here.
But if you’ve got something that makes you murky and makes you feel captured in circumstance and victimized and you can’t get through it, those are clouds and you’ll just keep running in circles. Better to start looking for breaks in the clouds. And the best way to cause a break in the clouds is to get your mind to be quiet, even for just a few minutes. Meditation is an awesome way to do it. Going for a walk is an awesome way to do it. If you can bring up the motion, the activity in your body, it can calm your mind. The one I’m writing about now that is my favorite is creativity, because the brain structures that go from … this is in Jill Bolte Taylor’s last book, which is so wonderful … go from fear to thoughts of control to stories about anxiety, are all in the left hemisphere.
Creativity, is a part that causes curiosity, which leads to the idea of connection, which then leads to creativity. So on the left side, we’ve got fear, control and terrifying stories. On the right side of our brains, we have curiosity, connection, and then works of self-expression in some way. So if you want to be clouded, one of the nice things about that, the right hemisphere too, is that it doesn’t use words. So what I’d like you to do right now to uncloud is I want you to go to a moment in your life where you had a sense of peace and clarity, when those clouds parted and I saw the North Star, I was still lost. I was exhausted, I was freezing, I was scared, but I also went, “Okay, I know I need to go there.”
You will have had these bright spots in your life. You are old enough to have had these, even if you’re only 18. There was a time when things were dark, but in the middle of the darkness, you thought, “I need to do that.” For some of you, I’m thinking of the friends and clients that I’ve had. For some people, it’s really dark, but I know I don’t want to be married to this person, or it’s really dark, but I’m going to marry this person even though no one thinks it’s okay, or it’s really dark, but I know that I am going to take my loved one’s death and I am going to move myself forward into a new version of reality that I don’t even imagine. I know it’s there, I feel it, I see it. It’s a long way away, but it’s just a pinpoint of light and you focus.
The North Star was not the biggest thing in my visual field. It was a little teeny, tiny point of light. You focus on that. If you’ve had an experience that made you feel like the universe was calming and comforting you, focus on that. Last week when we were going to do the Gathering Room and the line was cut and everything, Row and I were like … I had an interview … and we were like, “Oh, no. We can’t do the interview.” And so, we jumped in our car and we drove to New York City and Karen took the baby and it was a lot of drama. We were driving along saying, “Okay, we’re going to find the part of this that’s happening for us instead of to us.”
And I know it was nothing compared to what a lot of people go through, but it’s nice to practice on every little thing. So we started saying, “Where’s something we can hang onto?” And all these strange little miracles started happening. Ro was like, I want to hear Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue on the radio and I’d never even heard Tangled Up in Blue. I had no musical literacy. Tangled Up in Blue came on the radio. We were just like, “What?” And then we started seeing signs that were billboards, but they seemed to be speaking directly to us, to our situation, to the questions we were asking. And we just started to laugh.
And then it was cloudy. The clouds parted. One ray of light came down. A hawk flew through it. And I said to Ro, “Here’s the challenge. When we’re worried about things not going well, we have to actually remember these moments of bright spot. We actually have to remember Tangled Up in Blue coming on the radio. And even if it was a pure coincidence, it felt like the North Star in that moment. So we’re going to focus on that for the emotional frequency it gives us and for the joy of moving forward according to the little bright spots, because honestly, it’s the little bright spots that are more fun to follow than … it’s so much better to do that than to get in a train that only has one track and just let it take you wherever you’re going to go, and then you die at the end of your life.”
It’s much more fun to go out in the clouds and find little bright spots peeking through that you can steer by. Ro is now texting me some questions and I will get into this. So the Robin scene says, “How does intuition play a part in the manifestation of bright spots?” I think it only plays a part in that you have to surrender your skepticism. There are a lot of things that have happened to me that feel supernatural by the lights of our culture, because we don’t believe in things like being able, for example, to feel someone else’s energy at a distance. That has happened to me so many times, I can barely even count them. So I have to say I’m either going to believe that when I sense someone else’s energy, it’s real, or I’m going to believe the culture which says it feels very real, like a bright spot to me, but the culture says no.
So if you find yourself experiencing something and it’s real for you, but the society says no, like you’d be embarrassed to talk about that, it’s probably your intuition because it’s not your training, it’s not your socialization. So it’s your intuition that is looking for the stars, because the culture is all about get on a track and go straight forward and let other people guide you. But we’re off track. We’re out in the wilderness in the Gathering Room. And if you see a bright spot in your life or in your history and you’re focused on it and all the social training says no, that’s a good sign and it is your intuition. And I’m telling you right now to give it a try, hang onto it. Pretend that bright spot is the North Star and steer by it for a while and see if the clouds don’t start to fall away and let you guide yourself by all kinds of familiar landmarks. Once you find the bright spot, you’re on your way. Just have to stay focused on it.
City Lotus says, “What if you’re afraid to go to the light? What if it brings up too much fear so you stay stuck?” Fear is the clouds. Clouds hide the bright spots. The bright spots are there even though the clouds obscure them. So what you need to do then is realize that your fear is, as they say in 12 step groups, false events appearing real. I just had such an interesting experience with someone who I thought had a terrible loss, lost a loved one. I thought, “Oh, they’re going to be grieving like crazy.” Called them, nope. They seem pretty relaxed actually. And I think it was like, “Okay, this is my evidence that I was so afraid that they would be in desolation and they were afraid they’d be in desolation.”
And when the loved one died, they were like, “No, it was the right time. I’m okay. I’m at peace.” So there was some grief, but it was not conflated by thinking that what had happened should not have happened. My friend was accepting that what had happened had happened. It was when I stopped and stomped around in the snow and said, “I really am lost. Okay, I’m going to accept that and now I’m going to ask for whatever can come to send me home.” And that’s when the clouds parted. And I thought it would be a car driving by or something. Nope, it was just this one break in the clouds, but it was just in the right position. It was just enough.
So if you’re scared, know that you’re in the clouds and try to find a space where you’re not afraid. It’s always good to ask yourself the question, “What would I do right now if I had no fear, or what would I do right now if I knew that nothing could harm me or if I knew I would succeed?” And then move forward with that, even if you don’t succeed. You’re going to have a much better time than just staying crunched in a ball. I’m the Valerie says, “How can I stand the pain of not knowing when the clouds lift, being just in the dark? How can I trust with a cloudy mind?”
That is the challenge, isn’t it? And the only answer I have for you is that you can find trust in the cloudy world because it stops your suffering. Being in illusion causes suffering. And that’s true even if you think you’re in a happy illusion. If you think, “Look, I have a great job, a great marriage, great everything, everything’s great. I should be happy, but I’m not,” the attachment to the things that you have that you’re telling yourself are wonderful, those are the clouds and it will hurt you to say, “I am in a perfect life,” if it’s not a perfect life. To say you’re in love with someone, when you are in love with them, to go off with them forever is the best thing that can happen.
To say you’re in love with someone and go off with them when you’re not in love with them is the worst thing that can happen. It’s not waiting until there’s no fear. It’s finding a place where you believe something that does not cause suffering. So whatever is in your head that’s causing suffering, when you get to the other side of that and say, “I’m going to question that. Maybe my perfect life isn’t so perfect.” And then there will be a deep breath and a relaxation into the truth of your situation, and that’s the gap in the clouds. It’s always going back to your truth that causes the gap in the clouds. Great question, but you’re looking for, “I’m suffering, I’m suffering, I’m suffering. I can accept this.” That’s the break. Then you can start steering.
Okay, Downtown Treasure says, “Doesn’t creativity come after the mind quiets?” Yes, if you’re willing to be completely passive, and if you’re completely passive and wait for creativity to come after the fear quits, you may very well wait to another lifetime or three because you’re not afraid because of circumstances. You’re afraid because of the way you’re thinking about circumstances. For example, I’m watching my little two year old, she was two yesterday, Lila. She’s looking at bugs outside and she’s like, “Ooh, big bug.” But she’s not inherently afraid of them. If she learned to be afraid of bugs for some reason, she would then have a fear response every time she saw them. And that fear response would just keep coming every time she saw a bug, unless she challenged her own fear.
There are two ways to do this. I’m going to tell you about it because fear is a big topic that’s coming up for you guys. There’s two ways that fear can get into your brain. One is that you have a stressful, traumatic experience like, I don’t know, tripping or being hit by a car or whatever. That is processed straight into this very primitive fear center called the amygdala. Bam, there’s a fearful response. It’s very intense. It puts you in fight or flight. Here’s the thing, your brain will then connect anything that you experience just before that crisis and it will make it part of the same crisis.
For example, I had a friend whose parents were alcoholics and the sound of ice going into a glass would just trigger the living daylights out of her. She’d just be terrified. And she didn’t know that it was the sound of ice, but that always came along with her parents getting drunk. The other way that fear can get you is through the cortex, which is the part that talks and tells stories. That’s the part that looks at the internet and goes, “Oh, my God, whatever.” Whatever the new thing that’s going to get you. There are stories and stories and stories. People believe conspiracy theories on the right, on the left, in the middle. We believe that everything on earth that’s going wrong is somehow going to get to us because the information gets to us.
So we tell ourselves stories and they’re not really rational, but they feel rational to the left side of the brain. And one of the characteristics of the fear is that it will tell you that its knowledge is absolute and true, but it will tell you so in a way that makes you feel scared and wanting to control everything. If you want to control something, you’ve got a fear that’s going on in the story centers of your brain. In order to calm down the fear, you don’t wait for the fear to go away and then get creative. You say, “I plan to get creative and here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to notice what makes my amygdala excited, not excited in a good way, but afraid, and I am going to calm it like I would calm a frightened animal, because in effect, that’s what it is.”
One of the best ways to do that is just self-talk, where you sit there and go, “You’re okay. You’re all right. You’re okay, little one. I got you. We’re going to get through this. It’s fine. There’s nothing in the room to be afraid of. Calm yourself, calm yourself.” And you’re working directly on your amygdala. All the therapy in the world is not going to help your amygdala not be afraid of ice falling in the glass. It just is. So soothing and comforting is the way to deal with those fears.
The other fears can be undone by questioning the stories that cause panic. And those are always false. They’re always false. If there’s a true story that gives you a challenge, it still comes with a sense of willingness, peace, and a knowledge of the next step. It’s still the star. Even if you’re in the dark in the blizzard, freezing to death far from anywhere, it’s still a calm, still point. The right story, the true story for you is always different from the one that causes fear. So you tell those stories in a different way. You have two jobs: Calm your amygdala like you’re holding a baby, and then question the stories that are causing fear. “Really? Is that really true? That monkeypox is going to get me right here, right now in my bedroom or whatever?”
And when those things have quieted down, you can now start to bring in the right side of the brain by getting curious. Where the left side gets afraid, the right side gets curious. So go find something that stirs your curiosity even a tiny bit. And once your curiosity is alive, then it wants to start connecting things. And then you start to learn and you start to get involved. And before you know it, you’re into the right hemisphere of the brain, the parts that Jill Bolte Taylor says are playful and creative and connected to the all, to the universe. And there you go, the clouds are gone. That’s a really good question and I’m very glad you asked it. Okay, so yeah, quiet your fears, then bring in creativity deliberately.
Donna says, “I think the cloud of self doubt and abandonment follows me like pigpen’s ball of dust so much that if there I do find the break in the clouds, I often find that I seek that cloud because it’s familiar. How do we break the comfort of the familiar cloud? I really suggest you going with your very sharp, incisive mind. Go look at work like Steven Hayes, the Enlightened Mind, or any of Byron Katie’s books and say, “Oh, there’s anxiety again, my comfy cloud. I can choose my comfy cloud, but I’m going to know that that’s what I’m doing.” So don’t lie to yourself and say, “I have no choice in this.”
Instead, if you must give into the cloud of anxiety, say, “Well, here I go again.” When you’ve had enough suffering, you’ll want to come out. And that’s when you start to question the stories and calm the amygdala and then boom, start getting curious and then your creativity kicks in and the world changes before your eyes. [inaudible 00:27:14] says, “How do you reach a break in the clouds when your truths are buried? I can feel loads of clouds, but I can’t get to them.” Okay, what I do is I have devoted time. Sometimes, I have to wait a couple of days before I have an hour or two hours. Often, I’ll stay up late at night or get up really early when something’s stirring inside me and there are lots of clouds.
I sit still and then I start to drill down. Is this thought the absolute truth? Is this thought the absolute truth? And layers and layers of them will come up? And I just think, is that true? Does it cause the sense of truth to settle in my heart? If you haven’t read my last book, The Way of Integrity, or you haven’t heard me say this before, the one thing that I can get people to do that puts them in that truth more than any other statement is to just say silently in your mind three or four times or how many times it takes, “I am meant to live in peace. I am meant to live in peace.” So just say that to yourself a few times. “I’m meant to live in peace. I’m meant to live in peace.”
And what started happening to me, and it may happen to you, I just wasn’t noticing it before, but lately I’ve realized that when I get to the truth, I always go, “Aha.” Even if I’m breathing in normally, this other breath comes in and it’s much bigger and much looser and then I’m in it. And then I look at a thought and it makes me clench. And I think that can’t be true. It doesn’t feel like peace. It’s not true. Some aspects of it may be true, but it’s not all true. I’m looking at it wrong or I would feel peaceful. I’ve been doing this for so long, you guys, and it always works and I’ve been through some weird circumstances and it still always works. So good luck with that.
We all have layers and layers of clouds. We have to get to the point where we’re willing to stop and just go, “Help,” in the snow until and try anything there is until the clouds break. And they do. Rare Coaching says, “Do you think we subconsciously hold onto an event we encountered where we were rejected and it holds us back from moving forward now in business, et cetera?” Yep, we all do that and we do it because the lie is if you hang onto this fear and never try anything again, you won’t get hurt again. Well, you get hurt again just by retiring. A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.
So if you’re trying to stay safe, the mind will say that, “Stay safe by never trying,” and that’s the left hemisphere. It’s a little control thing. Go over to the right and it will say, “I wonder what would happen if I did this.” It’s not saying, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong. You’ll never be rejected again. You should move forward. You can be sure of your success.” It’s just saying, “I wonder what would happen if I went over there. I wonder what would happen if I called that person.” It will give you an idea. The opposite of fear in the brain is not unfear, not fearlessness. It is curiosity. Curiosity will bring the break in the clouds. So good luck with this.
Okay, Mommy to Mindful says, “How do you start to get back in touch with your inner voice when you’ve put yourself at the bottom of the to-do list for years and your inner voice has stopped talking or I’ve forgotten how to hear?” You switched from you to I because it really is you. Well, your good friend, suffering, is right there. There’s a part of you from Mommy to Mindful that knew enough about your inner life to ask me that question. She’s got a beat on things. She’s looking at the North Star. She knows you are at the bottom. She knows where to find herself. She feels the resentment, the exhaustion, the unfairness of being last all the time.
And if you sit quietly with her and go inside yourself and find the one who’s been last on the to-do list, you’ll find out she’s fine. She’s been right there all along and she has ideas about what to do next. Remember, the North Star is curiosity here. It’s not, “I’m all better with everything.” It’s, “What would happen if I did this other thing?” That’s what takes you back. Finally, Isabel says, “How do you maintain hope when you know see the bright spot, but you’re not quite getting to what you want?”
I was saying this to Ro the other day In the Tao Te Ching, it says, “Hope is as hollow as fear. Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your feet are unsteady. Your grip is unsteady.” And Row said, “Huh, I guess faith is hope with its fear is hope with its feet on the ground.” Yes, faith is hope with its feet on the ground. And then we thought for a while longer and realized the ground is detachment from the outcome, being willing to just be in the present moment without pushing toward outcome. The present moment is the steady ground. When you’re on the steady ground of the present moment and you can imagine getting home to the warmth, to the blankets, to the piece, to the familiar, and just not be attached to it, but just hold it, it guides you right home. It’s without the stress of hope and fear, it’s faith.
And eventually, that does get you where you want. 30 miles later with your feet practically frozen solid, you find yourself back in the lights of the city and able to get the train that takes you home. But at first, it’s just a tiny, bright spot in the night. And there are many billions of bright spots in the night. And you are all bright spots for me, and I’m so glad to be back in touch with you. If you want to send a question for Bewildered, send it to rowanmangan.com/bewildered and record a question. We will do a whole, big podcast on it, likely as not, I love you, guys. Thank you for coming. Find the bright spots. They’re always there. The clouds can never last forever. I’ll see you next week right here. Bye.