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To practice one’s pleasure (I do believe pleasure, like love, is a practice we can and must cultivate) in service of a life that’s all-in is above all an act of exquisite vulnerability, because at the heart of what’s pleasing about pleasure is honesty; pleasure is not something we can fake. It’s not a performance. When we inhabit our pleasure we exhale into our authentic selves. We are laying aside self-consciousness and worries about what others think, and we are, for however brief a moment, suspended in oneness with life itself. We are bared. We are open.
This is why nothing hurts quite like being rejected while inhabiting our pleasure—nothing, that is, except living in fear of such rejection and therefore deciding over time that our pleasure doesn’t matter, or worse, that it’s a contagion.
Joy—not glimpsed or tasted, but worn like a silky skin and savored—feels, to me, naked, exposed. Feels trembly. Feels unhidden. Feels all-in. Feels deeply vulnerable. When I anticipate and imagine cultivating and claiming fully my joy, as a spiritual posture, my heartbeat quickens and my chest heaves up then down, as it sometimes does when in an elevator and the body is still traveling between floors, suspended, despite the gentle thud of arrival.
The experience of epiphany is, more than anything, an act of radical belonging: in its midst we learn that confusion is a symptom of over-steeping in the known, a failure of curiosity. We discover that true freedom—that sudden sensation of clear-seeing—is achieved not through isolation, not by stepping-away and seeing anew, but by climbing into the palm of what beckons from beyond and finding we've always lived there.
Nothing illuminates our inner life-source like love does, and nor is there a darker abyss than the one we're plunged into in the wake of love's loss. We are wounded in love, and we heal in love. We lose ourselves in love, and we reclaim--and name ourselves anew--in love.
True healing is only something we can give to ourselves, which means that chronic anger—an emotion that keeps us focused externally—prevents internal healing in the name of self-preservation. But invulnerability in the guise of self-preservation is the insidious cost of anger unexamined. What my own journey of healing has taught me, above all else, is that true self-preservation necessitates feeling fully—with curiosity and compassion, and very often slowly, bit by gentle bit—the very pain we’ve been avoiding when we focus obsessively on the person or circumstance that has hurt us or caused us to feel afraid.
Life's exuberance does not manifest despite the dark, but through it. When we mistake the natural, generative pain of creation as an indication of something gone wrong, we unwittingly overlook the very encounter that will open us fully, that will bring us face-to-face with what it is we need to know, to feel, to gather, to husband in order to make way for the creation that seeks expression through us: our own astonishing capacity for feeling, for ever-more presence to the breadth of our aliveness.
Whether you are celebrating today, or grieving, or aching... Whether you have children, have lost children, chose not to have children, wanted children and could not birth or otherwise raise children of your own... Whether you are with your children, or estranged from them ... You are, yourself, born of a mother, and you are, yourself, called every day into the profound life's work of learning to parent yourself.
Like the mechanism of the beating heart, or the process of birth shared by all mammals, creativity is born not by way of unwavering action, but through the pulse of contraction: surges of energy born on the back of quiet periods that appear, to the observer, so still as to be lifeless: the winter tree shorn of leaves, the tangle of brittle stalks upon which last year’s peonies balanced and billowed, the birthing woman sunk in sudden sleep between the volcanic heaves of her womb’s sharp cinch and release.
When we make a mantra out of overcoming our comfort zones in search of our best selves, we predicate transformation on a lie: that we don't like to strive, that thriving is hard, and that it doesn't feel good. (All of which feels surprisingly and interestingly Puritan, don't you think?)
In contrast, I'd like to suggest that we drop the rhetoric of the "comfort zone" and cut to the chase, call it what it really is: the zone of fear.
When we're stuck, spinning our wheels, not sure how we got here but quite sure we don't want to stay, we're not comfortable—we're afraid.
Am I (with the best of intentions!) gearing up to survivethis season? Or am I setting myself up to thrive?
Maybe the answer to this question is obvious to you, but if you're like me, you're not always sure; survival-mind is so deeply normalized by our culture today that we often don't realize when we're caught in its grip. Hyper-consumption (the f.o.m.o. fomented by Black Friday, Cyber Monday... the belief that eating and drinking well past the point of our body's comfort or health means we're in sync with the "holiday spirit"...), overspending and over-commitment, and habitual people-pleasing are just a few ways in which we perpetuate and naturalize survival-mindset, that deep-grooved network of beliefs that whispers there's not enough, more is better, and that's just the way it is.
You know you're in survival mindset if you're bracing for the days ahead. You know you're in survival mindset if you're letting yourself off the hook with regard to self-care (eating well, sleeping enough, honoring your boundaries and priorities) in the name of being festive, fun, a "good friend" or a "good host." You know you're in survival mindset if you're striving for perfection, if you're spending more time thinking about what others will think of your efforts than you spend enjoying those efforts along the way, and if you're responding to feelings of overwhelm by shifting into auto-pilot, that slightly numb state of being in which we tell ourselves that the delayed reward of "getting it all done" justifies the edgy cortisol high we're riding through a sea of seemingly endless tasks.
Do you feel like you start your days on purpose, with a calm, clear vision of what you want to feel, want to create, want to give, and want to receive? Or do you feel like you start your days on autopilot, rushed and scattered, as if your life is somehow driving the bus and you're in the back, scrambling to pick up the notebooks you dropped as you hurried to find your seat?
If you're like most of the people I work with, your mornings look more like the latter than the former. And that feeling--of being at the mercy of, rather than in control of your life--can, if left unchecked, siphon your confidence, self-trust, motivation, and--worst of all--your ability to dream.
This year, the coming of fall means the advent of intention. As the Buddha once said, the whole of conscious life unfolds on the tip of intention. And I want my intention to be strong, focused, and clear--just like the bright fall air, the cool mornings and crystalline skies. I want to wake every day with an overarching vision of what it is that I want, above all else, to feel--in my body, my mind, and in my interactions with others. I want to light my bedside candle each night and write, with a sense of gratitude and excitement, about what I created that day, what I learned, what surprised me, and whose support I'm so grateful for that I could weep.
I love that the path-of-deepest-darkness, which is also the path-of-longest-duration, is called the path of totality: as I write, people are hurrying towards this 73-mile-wide band that at once bisects and unifies the nation, not horizontally or vertically, but diagonally, from coast to coast, propelled and bound by that which makes us capable of evolving into our highest (total) potential as a species: curiosity and wonder. Wonder and curiosity are the seeds of innovation, awe, and reverence, which in turn spore connection, love, and redemption.
Could we, then, in the wake of the heinous hate crimes proliferating both at home and abroad, witness a timelier natural phenomenon?
Could we, while navigating our own messy lives—our griefs, longings, addictions, mourning, regrets, shames, and sorrows—pay homage to a more significant natural act?
Over time, the curiosity that once propelled us effortlessly outward (into conversation with strangers, contact with insects and animals, imaginary worlds, woods and streams, tidal pools and marshes, empty lots, dumps, alleys, abandoned buildings, and forts erected from the refuse of neighborhood curbs) often becomes inverted and internalized: primary questions that once led us into exploration and wonder are often replaced by questions about our own belonging, our worthiness, and our competence. What will I discover here? becomes Who am I to want more? How can I figure this out? gives way to What’s wrong with me?
By mid-life we might feel pulled apart by these seemingly antagonist energies: the quest to learn and grow, on the one hand, and the fear of doing so, on the other.
Either way, I can tell you that, if recognized and harnessed, this tension (often felt in our bodies as acute discomfort) can be a very good thing: it's the symptom of untapped potential. Of your aliveness. It's your gateway to growth, to healing, to intimacy, to innovation, and purposeful service to others.
The problem isn't the tension itself between curiosity and self-criticism, but the way we perpetuate competition between them by inhabiting one at the cost of the other.
Have you been feeling alternately anxious and elated? More swing-y than steady? Extra vulnerable? Fraught at times by uncertainty, by bouts of worry? I ask because, like me, many of my clients are also experiencing deep internal shifts right now, and what I know to be true is that without guidance, we can all too easily mistake these signs of what I call radical becoming—a deeply generative state of psychological/spiritual growth that is often, though not always, accompanied or catalyzed by an act of creation/change (making a piece of art, writing a book, having a baby, starting or ending a relationship, starting or ending a new job, launching a business, etc.)—for their opposite: symptoms of something gone wrong, of depression looming, of our own failure and ineptitude.
Over the years, I've come to recognize this state of being, in which we can feel both oddly at home and at sea, as the hot center of the creative process. Given the sometimes surreal and disorienting feeling of this state, a state that, in my experience, can last for weeks, even months at a time, it’s no wonder that many describe the creative process as otherworldly, a syncing-up of human and beyond-human forces (I think here immediately of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent book, Big Magic, which I loved). It’s also no wonder, given the often-uncomfortable symptoms of creation-in-process, that we resist this state. If unrecognized, let alone unmanaged, our resistance can sabotage the journey altogether, and foreclose the rewards that make the discomfort along the way worth every sob and ounce of angst: Innovation. Service. Enlightenment. Love.
But when we’re in the throes of new growth, we often don’t know it. What we do know for sure is that we feel a little (or a lot) crazy, or overly anxious, or overly sensitive, and we’re not sure why. We make those feelings, as well as the thoughts that generate those feelings (“I’m not good enough,” “What’s wrong with me,” “There’s not enough opportunity,” “Life isn’t fair,” etc.) mean something, usually something about our own insufficiency. That is, we believe them.
I'm afraid. Actually, I'm terrified. When it comes right down to it, I'm scared to death of that TED talk. Of writing the book that's going to bare my story to the world. Of claiming once and for all my message, not only the message I now preach but the message that's calling to me, that's urging me into and through the maw of uncertainty to where I haven't yet been but want—need—to go. Of creating so much momentum and energy around what I'm doing that daydreaming for hours on end about what I'm not doing is no longer an option.
Do your own dreams oppress you? Do you swing between feeling exhilarated by them and totally daunted? Do you find all kinds of ways to let yourself off the hook from your commitments, from the things you know will make you feel better, more productive, healthier, and more alive? I get it, if so. I've been there, believe me. But you don't have to choose between a comfortable (less fearful, less anxious) life half-lived and a life fully expressed (and borne on the back of panic attacks). In fact, this choice is an illusion. A delusion manufactured by the primitive parts of our brain that are grooved to keep us safe, risk-averse, and close to "home."
As I watched these new mentors of mine throughout the weekend, I kept thinking “okay, this is what it looks like—what it feels like—to accept yourself, all of yourself.” Not because you think you’re flawless, but because you’ve finally learned that self-loathing is the ultimate block to personal (and thus cultural) evolution, and not, as we too often believe, a catalyst to growth.
Humans are hardwired to focus on the hard stuff at the expense of the positive. The scientific name for this phenomenon is negativity bias: back when prey lurked in the bushes, it behooved one to assume the worst about a rustle or a foreign sound. Consequently, our brains evolved to notice and easily recall that which we perceive as a threat above and before that which doesn’t. Today, the negativity bias, and its amped-up cousin, anxiety, rarely serve us in ways they once did; there’s a gap, for the majority of humans alive today, between this aspect of our neurology and our lived reality. Indeed, what once saved us is now killing us.
As mammals, we instinctively face the cold dark by simultaneously conserving and sharing. By turning inside and reaching out. Like foxes and bears and squirrels, we stay put in nature’s darkest hour. We move inward. We shelter. We become quiet. We burrow into memory and reflection: prayer, the lighting of candles, rituals of silence and observation. And we also gather. Like penguins, who press themselves into a circle of contiguous heartbeats to counter the arctic night, we too draw our bodies nearer to others’ at this time of year: congregations of singing and sermon, feasts with family and friends, long snuggles under blankets and bedclothes… This pirouette from dark to light, from what hurts to what heals, is, I believe, the condition of gratitude: a deeply human, perhaps deeply animal, confrontation of our own fragility and mortality coupled with the recognition of our potential for tenderness, healing, and love.