Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #129 How to Look for Help
About this episode

We’ve all had times in our life when we’ve needed help—and we’ve all had times when we’ve received the help we needed. In this episode of The Gathering Room: How to Look for Help, Martha says that appreciating those times when you’ve been helped in the past is the key to getting help in the future.

How to Look for Help

Martha Beck:

Welcome to the Gathering Room this week. The topic is how to look for help, and I almost called… I was thinking of where to look for help because everybody thinks, “Oh, where can I look for help?” But that’s actually misleading as we’ll see in a minute. I almost called this, How to Have Been Helped. For those of you who do not have English as a first language, I don’t even know what to tell you that conjugation is, even if you do have English as your first language, How to Have Been Helped is sort of the real agenda for today. One psychologist found that people spend most of their money and time trying to create positive memories. So we want not necessarily just the experience of something, but the experience of remembering the something, because it’s the experience of remembering all our somethings that sort of create our image of what the universe is like and what our place in it really is.

So if we think of how to have been helped, it’s like finding the universe a friendly place, being able to find help everywhere because you look back on the life you’ve lived and you remember having been helped. Now, every single one of us could look back on life and remember times when we needed help. Without question, right? We were born little and helpless, and we really, really need help. Not all of us look back and say, “Ooh, I was helped this time. I was helped that time.” And some of us may feel like we were never helped. That’s a grim life. And when we believe that, we have what’s called learned helplessness. We don’t look for help anywhere. We don’t expect help. We don’t even try to help ourselves because we’ve learned that it’s pointless.

All of this came from me reading yesterday a poem by Kay Ryan, who was a poet laureate for a while, and she took it from a quotation from Charles Darwin’s autobiography. And what he says is, looking back on his childhood, he would ask for help from whatever higher power, and he would say, “I marvel at how generally I was aided.” So Kay Ryan wrote this poem about, I Marvel at How Generally I Am Aided. This is how it goes. “How frequently the availability of help is demonstrated. I’ve had unbridgeable distances collapse and opposite objects coalesce enough to think duress itself may be a form of prayer.” So, she’s looking back and saying, “Ah, I was helped here. I was helped here. Unbridgeable distance collapsed. Oh, unlike objects coalesced. Wow, look at all the times that I’ve had miraculous help in my life.”

The key to getting help if you need it now, and who doesn’t? I do. The key to getting help now is to think this way about having been helped. So this is how to look for help. First, we look back and we, instead of holding the image of ourselves as needing help, which is one of the ways people try to get it, they show how needy they are. “Oh, I’m really, really broken and crippled and impoverished and miserable.” Now, that certainly does get some help from people, but it tends to leave us, that way of thinking, leaves us having been hurt instead of having been helped. So the focus, when you focus on need, creates a lifetime that feels like nothing but need. In fact, we’re much more likely to be helped, now and in the future, if we see ourselves not as people who need help, but people who’ve always ultimately received help.

So, Anne Lamott writes about this in one of her books. She writes a joke about this guy who, he walks into a bar in Northern Canada, sits down at the bar and he orders a double scotch. And he says to the bartender, “I tell you, I used to be a believer. I used to think there was something, there was a higher power in the universe. And then I had to go through this.” And the bartender says, “What?” And he said, “Oh, I got lost in the snow. I got lost in the woods, and I was completely alone, and I fell in a hole and I couldn’t get out. And I’m telling you, I prayed and I begged and I asked whatever is out there to help me, and nothing. Nothing happened.” And the bartender says, “Well, how did you get back here?” And the guy says, “Oh, yeah, after a while, some stupid hiker came along.”

The point of this is that we often tend to see ordinary things as if they are not miraculous help, when in fact we could choose to see even the most ordinary things as the arrival of miraculous helpers. I love and I often quote to y’all Rumi’s poem, The Zero Circle, that starts, “Be helpless, dumbfounded, unable to say yes or no. Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up. So let us not be sure of anything besides ourselves, that we exist, and only that, so miraculous beings come running to our aid.” This sounds kind of like nonsense unless you live in a memory of having been helped, of the stupid hiker coming along, and just all your attention is on the way you were helped.

I don’t know if you saw the… There was this dumb trope on Saturday Night Live where people would pretend that they were crushing other people’s heads. So it’s like, if I put my hand like this and I say, “I’m crushing,” and this is Facebook, “I’m crushing my head.” Or on Instagram, “I’m crushing my head.” So, whatever’s in the foreground looks immense and whatever’s in the background looks small. So if we put our attention on sitting in the hole asking for help, the times when we’re in need are huge and they cancel out everything else. But if we focus on the times we were helped, that becomes huge and starts to cancel out everything else. So, if we start to look always at the times we were helped, we begin to live from a state of gratitude.

So I would love us all just right now to do a little thought exercise. Just remember a time when you needed help and you got it, right? And I’m just thinking, “Oh, this morning I needed help wrestling our two-year-old away from extra M&M’s.” She’s in potty training and she gets rewarded with M&M’s for doing her business properly or hygienically, but then she tries to grab more M&M’s than she is supposed to have. So it was an all-out wrestle. And if you listen to our podcast, Bewildered, Ro and my podcast, you know that our daughter is extremely strong, frighteningly strong, yes, and can throw herself around with very little abandon, so I needed full-on help. If I think about the way Ro came running to help me, she’s a miraculous being. She came running to help.

Like, what did you do today where you needed a little bit of help? Maybe you needed help to see, so you turned a light on. The light could be the miraculous being. You’d sit there going, “Look at this light. I needed something from which to drink my coffee. Oh, my God, someone gave me a mug.” If you start to live from this place, and speaking of coffee, I have to tell you, Ro, Rowan Mangan, the Gracious Badger, whom I’m sure you know, she loves her morning coffee, and if you bring her a cup of coffee in the morning, her gratitude exceeds description. Like, you can do other things for her and she’ll say, “Thank you very much.” But if you bring her coffee, she looks at you like you are the savior risen from death. “Thank you, thank you so much.” Which means that everyone wants to bring her coffee.

I had the same experience with my son Adam when he was little, my son with Down syndrome. He would get so grateful for things like, if you got him underwear or a battery for a toy or something that isn’t that fancy, he would be just beside himself. “Oh, a battery. Oh, my goodness, thank you. Underwear. Underwear. Look at the underwear.” If you start to live from this place of gratitude, if you’re around someone like that, you can actually feel the force of the universe trying to give them things. So living in what they call in 12-step groups the attitude of gratitude, it’s not a way to be righteous. It’s not a way to do your chores. It’s a way to literally bend the forces of other people’s personalities and maybe the universe itself toward giving things to you so your life doesn’t become…

So many people come to life coaches and they say, “Listen to what’s been done to me.” If you can change this whole idea of life as what’s been done to you into, what has been done for you, oh, my God, listen to what’s been done for me. After this podcast, I guess it’s kind of a podcast, after this broadcast, sit down and say, “Here’s what’s been done to me…” Put it down and you’ll feel yourself getting bitter and shriveled. And then start another column that says, “Look what’s been done for me.” And pick even the smallest things and just start listing. You’ll feel everything shifting inside you and around you. If you can stay in that energy, I swear you’ll get everything you ever wanted fast.

So I was thinking about this and I was remembering a time I was in a 10-story building. No, I was on the 10th floor of a 15-story building that had a fire in the basement. The entire basement floor was burning, and the stairwells to the building became effectively chimneys. They were just filled with black toxic smoke. And I tried to get out down the staircase. I was holding my 18-month-old and I was pregnant with my second. It’s a long story. I’ve told it in a book. Basically, I passed out before I could get down the stairs in pitch darkness and smoke with people running and screaming around me, but I couldn’t see them. And I got out of that smoke because I thought a firefighter came and tripped over me and found me, because someone grabbed me by the shoulders and picked me up and frog-marched me down the last few steps of the high-rise and then out into the sunlight.

There’s actually a picture of me in The Boston Herald coming out of the smoke, and I was covered with soot. My little daughter is with me. At the time it was daughter. Now it’s just child, but I didn’t know at the time. And then when I looked back at that, the interesting thing was, in the picture in The Boston Herald, there’s no one behind me at that moment. Someone else, the news crews were actually there. This high rise fire was a big news story, and they actually had film of me coming out of the building, and there was no one behind me there. Some miraculous being had come running to help. But what I remembered most, because I didn’t know that it was this strange invisible person, is that I went over to an ambulance that was there and I said, “Could you check my child?” I was worried about them.

And the ambulance technician looked at me and he said, “Ma’am, are you expecting?” And I said, “Yes, I’m pregnant.” And he turned and looked into the ambulance, and the ambulance was full. There were all these people sitting there with soot on their faces and oxygen masks breathing pure oxygen. And the ambulance technician turns to this group of people and says, “We have a child and a pregnant woman here. Could anybody give up their mask?” And without the slightest hesitation, every single person took off their mask and offered it to me. God, it still makes me cry, like a long time later. When I look at what’s been done for me, wow. Can you look at what’s been done for you? Can you see yourself that way? Can you see your life that way?

We always, now, every time I remember, we do a meditation. So if this is your first trip to the Gathering Room, by popular vote we have decided to do this meditation at some point in every Gathering Room assembly, and this is the place I’d like to do it now. We’re going to do a meditation, but first I want you to prime your brain by thinking of something that was done for you. And it can be a big thing or it can be a very small thing, but I just want you to drill down in your memory and focus on that. Yeah, I’m clashing your head. Make it very big. Something was done for me, something was done for me. And just let that drop into your heart. Think it in your head, and then physically let it drop into your heart. I just have that picture of those wonderful, wonderful people in the ambulance just taking off their masks and holding them out.

So I’m going to take that emotional tone and I’m just going to hold it in my chest, and then we’re going to go into our meditation. And then I’ll take questions. So those of you who know how this goes, we start with the odd question, “Can I imagine the distance between my eyes?” Settle your breathing and imagine the distance between your eyes. Now imagine the distance between a tiny flux of matter in the space inside the atoms of your entire head. “Can I imagine the distance between the atoms in my head? Can I imagine the space inside the atoms of my body? Can I imagine the space inside my body extending and filling the bodies of every other person connected to this broadcast right now? Can I feel this space in which we all are one thing? Can I feel the stillness holding us all? Can I hear the silence beneath every sound?”

And then go to your heart and just think. Look what’s been done for me. All I have to see is that you’ve all shown up here today. Look what’s been done for me, you beautiful people. Oh, that’s very sweet. You are all very, very sweet. So let’s look at the questions you’ve asked. Okay. “What is your way of reminding yourself while in the hole to look for miracles? It’s so much easier in hindsight.” Yeah, and that’s why when I’m in an actual hole, that’s when I use hindsight the most. I like to look back through my journal and I’ve written down the times when people did something for me or when circumstances align for me the way Charles Darwin says, “I marvel at how generally I was aided.” And it’s when I feel most stuck and scared that I need to go back and remember. So write these down while they’re fresh in your mind.

And then when it’s time to really grab the rope for help, your own memory, your own journal is the place you can turn. Oh, look, people wrote down some beautiful things that helped them. Someone said, “A great night of sleep helped me out big time today.” That’s beautiful. And I can also see the times when total insomnia served me so well by making me sensitive and compassionate to others. “I am sick and my husband fed my birds. He also makes my coffee every morning.” Oh, do you know? When people have near-death experiences, they say they get to review their whole lives and what stands out for them as the great moments of their lives were not when they won an award or did a big project, but when they got up and made coffee for someone who was sick and then fed the birds so that someone else wouldn’t have to. These are the miraculous beings that come rushing to help. We are each others.

Someone else says, “I was having a really bad morning. Then for the first time ever, I was the recipient of one of those pay-it-forward drive-through things and got a free breakfast.” Stay in that energy. You’ll get a lot more free breakfasts. It’s amazing. Someone else says, “My husband asked and I said, ‘Yes, please,’ if he could carry my suitcase down the stairs.” And she puts an exclamation point on that, or he, puts an exclamation point on that. And I love the, “And I said, ‘Yes, please,'” because that, being willing to receive is part of what creates the gratitude that makes us say “thank you”, that brings in more stuff that makes us say, “Yes, please.” It’s all good. I love that you wrote in some of those things. I don’t have names today on the questions, so that’s a new thing.

“Is it possible to reframe and be grateful for traumatic and even abusive experiences? I think having experienced trauma has impacted my gratitude for life.” I have had some traumatic things happen to me, easier than some people’s lives, worse than I hope some others. And I am most grateful of all, of all my experiences, the ones I am most grateful for are the traumatic ones. I’m glad I survived them. I hated them. Having PTSD was no fun, but every emotion is the raw material for its opposite, and if you want resiliency and joy and gratitude and compassion, recovering from trauma is the way to go. One of my friends who’s a Peruvian shaman, a brilliant man, once said to me, “Compassion is the evolution of consciousness in the healing of trauma.”

So compassion itself, in his view, it’s what consciousness gains from surviving and healing trauma. So we’re in a world where a lot of trauma happens, and it’s nice to know that even though that’s horrible, it can be something that was done for you and not to you. Yeah, it was done to you as well, but it was also done for you. “What about the climate crisis? When everything that’s being done for me, nature, is in grave danger.” Well, if you look at something that huge, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. I do all the time. And the way I react when I feel overwhelmed is that I become very passive and limp and I tend to give up. If instead I start turning my attention to places where things were healed and restored, I start to get much more optimistic.

For example, when I go to my favorite place in South Africa, this game reserve called Londolozi, and I hear again the story of how that land was totally stripped of its natural life and then put back together by just a few people working for decades, yes, but decades isn’t that much if you can really restore the land to normal. I get to go to that place and see this gorgeous healed natural landscape, and then I think, “Oh, my God, look what’s been done for me. I’ve been shown this.” And then I have the courage and the confidence to go out and keep working in any way I can toward healing this huge, huge crisis that we are all facing right now.

“How do you overcome the feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness if you need help?” Well, just think of it this way. If you went to a nursery where there were a lot of new babies and one of them needed help, would you say, “Okay, that particular baby? Nah. No, not worth it.” Every single person is a miracle. And if you can just think of yourself as one of those babies in the nursery, you don’t have to be special, you don’t have to have done anything spectacular, you would try to help a baby in distress. All of us, when we’re in distress, we are just grown-up babies who have the same preciousness and the same value that all babies do and always will. So just stop thinking about yourself in particular and think of yourself as one of the precious babies, and that will help. At least it helps me.

And so what happens if you’re open to asking for help but you don’t know exactly what you need? Then you ask, “Please help me figure out what I need.” I’ve had some amazing things come into my life when people finally said to me, “I think this is what you are really needing.” Like someone helped me start my own business, which is still going, and I didn’t know I wanted a business. I was raised to think business people were bad. That was my family mythology. And when someone sat me down and said, “What you really want is your own business,” I was like, “Whoa.” Blew my mind. But it gave me a foundation that has helped me survive ever since.

“Is it a good idea to be positive and grateful about things that haven’t happened yet? Or is that kind of lying to ourselves?” I love being grateful for things that haven’t happened yet, but I don’t pretend that I’m going to force it to happen with my mind. I can’t control anything with my thoughts, people, not even my thoughts. So what I do is, I like to bask in the feeling of it having happened while knowing that that’s something I’m making up. But that’s all right. That’s part of the special attention aperture that attracts help. So the more you do that, the more people are, and the forces that be, I think are going to give you positive things to be happy about because you’ve been anticipating them.

Another one. “How about asking for help but feeling weak or disempowered by that? How to ask for help and keep one’s head up tall?” That takes a lot of courage, and one thing you can do that will make it much easier is when you feel inclined to help others, you do it. You readily become a person who goes to help. And then you’ll find that some people are like, “Can’t receive it,” and they’re really awkward, and other people receive it graciously and are very thankful. And it will help you start to see the kind of recipient you want to be. So help others, and you will find the way to ask for help and still keep your dignity. Okay. And you’ll know, you’re just paying it forward.

“How can we get better at accessing wordlessness? Trying to cultivate more mindfulness and wordlessness in my life since reading Steering by Starlight.” Yay. The best way I know to get into wordlessness is to soften the focus of your attention. So that meditation we did, the distance between your eyes, is meant to help you soften your attention focus. Another way you can do it is like, if you’re looking at my face right now, focus your eyes sharply on what you see, and then instead of having a sharp gaze, widen the perceptual field of your attention. See, I’m getting less able to talk, even describing it, till you see everything all the way to the periphery of your vision. And then instead of making one thing focal, just let everything be equal.

And as you just look with the soft focus at everything at once, you’ll find yourself dropping in. That’s how I start all my meditations and it works really, really well. Okay. Oh, someone says, “Thank you for Wayfinder training.” Yay. “What I learned there has become a touchstone of everything I do, working at my highest level of consciousness relating to others.” Well, that just makes me feel like I’m trying to show up for you as a helper and you’re showing up for me to go through the process and also be helped, and then help others. It’s all a big chain of help. It’s wonderful. Someone else says, “I know what I need, but it’s very difficult to ask for, like friendship. Social media friends are relatively easy, but friends closer to home, not so much.” Yeah, that’s really opening up your soul to say, “I really want friends,” and I would not go around asking people for it right away.

I actually prefer the miraculous beings that Rumi talks about. So, again, keeping a journal is a really powerful way to do this, and there is a lot of evidence that keeping journals actually makes your… Especially if you write about trauma and success, it actually makes the quality of your life much higher. So you can start asking in written form, “I would really, really like some close friends.” And then try allowing yourself to be pulled in different directions. There’s a subtle pulling sensation that happens. I’ve talked about this before. When you start looking at yourself as someone who’s had help, when you think, “Look at what’s been done for me,” you become accessible to a kind of magnetism that pulls other people to you and it pulls you toward new things.

And if you follow that pull, that’s where you often find the help you’re looking for. But it comes from right in here. Final question. “I’m an empathic, kind person who is very grateful. I am the helper. My experience has been people just getting help from me. It leaves me feeling like I don’t deserve help.” Mm-hmm. So when you say you’re an empathetic, kind person who’s very grateful, that tends to be a good description for people-pleasers and just notice whether you’re offering that help to others out of an anxiety, like, “I need them to be connected to me. I need them to feel good. I need them to be happy with me, not angry with me.”

If there’s any of this anxious, “I need” energy in it, that’s you being a people-pleaser, and people-pleasers give help without receiving it. To be in balance you start looking back at the things that were done for you, and then when somebody else needs something, you feel for the pull. Is the pull saying that you should help them? Or is the pull saying, “No, go somewhere else. Do something else.” So you’re taking your attention off their need and you’re focusing it on the feeling in your own self that is guiding you through this life. And it will guide you to the people who will give back to you. That used to be a big problem for me. Now I’m just surrounded by people who offer me the most incredible help.

And in fact, a few of them were at my house this weekend and somebody gave me that poem that says… I’m going to read it again to close. It’s by Kay Ryan quoting Charles Darwin. “I marvel at how generally I am aided, how frequently the availability of help is demonstrated.” So, I would like to just thank you for showing up to help me, to help me have a happier day, to help me feel connected, to help us all join in a community that can just bring us up a little bit so that miraculous beings will come running to help us and get help from us. Thank you so much for all the help you’re always giving… Look what’s been done for me. It’s amazing. I’ll see you again next week.

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