Joy and sorrow

What’s Your Natural Disposition?

“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

PoohAs you start the New Year, do you see your life circumstances optimistically or pessimistically? What is your natural disposition? How do you really want to view yourself in the world? I think of myself as a relatively optimistic person, but as I write this, I ask myself, Do I always think positively? What about my doubts and fears? No; I am not a card-carrying optimist. Nor do I believe there are absolute pessimists. We are much more complex creatures. But our disposition can help us realize our goals and live a fulfilling life—or it can hinder us.

A movement known as Positive Psychology touts the benefits of optimism and positive thinking. Research has shown that an optimistic disposition helps us cope with stress and build resilience. Further, it affects our physical health (it helps strengthen the immune system and prevent chronic diseases). And our mental/emotional well-being (it might, for example, help us cope with bad news). It goes without saying that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But can pessimists flip to purely optimistic thinking? And should they?

Optimism/pessimism

Optimism is derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. For optimists even setbacks are viewed as learning experiences. Pessimism comes from the Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.” A pessimist has a cynical, hopeless, or fearful perspective; anticipates undesirable outcomes; and believes that life is full of hardship.

optimismAccording to psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., who is considered the father of Positive Psychology, and is the author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, pessimists have three thinking styles that surface when something bad has happened or didn’t go their way. They react automatically, believing the cause is either permanent (“this change can never be undone”; pervasive (“this will spoil everything”); or personal (“this happened because I made the wrong call and I have no skills”).

Wiring paradox

The fact is that humans are wired biologically to be fearful, which triggers the fight or flight response. While this negativity bias has helped humans meet hardships across the millennia, unfortunately, it has become the way many of us experience the stress-producing challenges we face in modern life. Optimists, on the other hand, respond to stress by focusing on the potential to create something better.

But there is a paradox because we are also wired for positivity. We are more likely to remember pleasant experiences than negative ones. We even remember neutral events as more positive than they really were. Being hopeful and trusting, optimists continuously create positive memories. Sometimes, however, this high level of trust can result in extreme disappointment.

scientistThere are actually advantages to being a pessimist. A pessimist who is naturally skeptical generally needs proof before he or she gets on board. Scientists, necessarily, are constantly questioning and reluctant to accept findings that cannot be duplicated. While optimists tend to be risk takers and may make fanciful leaps in thinking, pessimists may help keep their unrealistic ideas in check. Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Both perspectives help us to see the whole.

Realism, optimism with a caveat

None of us live entirely as idealistic optimists or fatalistic pessimists. There is a middle position: realism. William Arthur Ward, an often-quoted 20th century American writer, noted: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

During the Vietnam War, many US soldiers were held captive for long periods. Once the prisoners were rescued, the ones who made it were often realists. It was discovered that usually pessimists died first. Surprisingly, they were followed by optimists, who often lost hope over time and gave up. Mostly the realists made it because they lived one day at a time, making the most out of each day.

James Stockdale

James Stockdale

In the book Good to Great, author James Collins recounts a conversation he had with James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy commander who was held captive in Hanoi for seven and a half years, where he was tortured, locked in leg irons, denied medical attention, and kept in solitary confinement. Stockdale told Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked which prisoners did not get out, he replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. . . . they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’” And so on and so forth. Ultimately, said Stockdale, “they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale paradox

Though Stockdale’s outlook sounds optimistic, he emphasized that it was not. He remained realistic about his situation; he didn’t give up because he looked at the big picture, and he had no expectations about when he would be freed, whereas the optimists held on to unrealistic hopes. This is what is known as the Stockdale Paradox.

A realist is someone who sees things in the moment and takes each day as it comes. Realists are grounded and adaptable; they are able to cope with the negative while still enjoying the positive. A realist hopes for the best and is prepared for the worst. Like pessimists, realists base opinions and decisions on analysis, though they tend to be more objective.

Realizing the best you

best possible selfPositive Psychology believes people can boost their positive emotions, happiness level, optimism, and coping skills. It recommends this exercise: Visualize yourself at a future moment in time—such as six months, one year or five years from now—having accomplished your goals. Consider the character strengths you’ll need to make that vision a reality. Imagine that in this vision of your future you are expressing your Best Possible Self. You might think of it as reaching your full potential, achieving an important milestone, or realizing one of your life dreams. This vision should be attainable and within reason. Writing it down can help you grasp the character strengths that will help you realize your Best Possible Self.

I learned a similar approach in my coaching training, called “Future Self.” Meeting a vision of the Self I would like to become, I asked questions such as what important steps had she taken to achieve her goals. This exercise helped me create a positive direction for my life, with realistic steps that I am still taking to become what I consider my Most Satisfied Self.

 Mindfulness disposition

minduflnessIn my own experience, meditation and mindfulness practices have fostered my own realism. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Harvard University and author of Mindfulness, has conducted research that has found that mindfulness results in better health, more competence, and greater happiness. She suggests that mindfulness makes us more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities.

On the other hand, mindless optimism or pessimism may prevent people from being present with reality itself. For example, a pessimist may mindlessly relinquish control of his health to the doctor, accept whatever diagnosis is given, and take whatever medications are prescribed rather than participate in his own health care. Whereas an optimist may read about his symptoms online, question the doctor about the prognosis and what side effects the medications might have, or ask whether there are alternative treatments.

Langer’s approach to mindfulness includes five steps:
  • Seek out, create, and notice new things.
  • Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts.
  • Reframe mistakes into learning experiences.
  • Expand your mindset and perspective to gain control of emotions.
  • Be authentic.

Such a disposition of mindfulness encourages you to be an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. That process helps you learn what aspects of optimism, pessimism, and realism are beneficial for you and ultimately find fulfillment in life. So, what’s your natural disposition? As Oprah Winfrey once said: “When I look at the future, it’s so bright, it burns my eyes.”

holding space

Holding Space: Healing & Transformation

There are times when providing a supportive space (or holding space) for someone facing a challenge can be the greatest gift. The process of holding space means being compassionately present. And it may not be an easy thing to do—especially when the other is our child, aging parent, or intimate friend. Our tendency is to want to fix things or offer advice. But when we are instead able to just be there for someone, it allows them to dip into their own inner space. This allows for making sense of their circumstance and thus shift from feeling isolated, wounded, or victimized to feeling safe, supported, and connected. Ultimately, our holding supportive space fosters the other’s growth and empowerment.

tear dropHolding space can happen at ordinary and unexpected times. Have you ever had an experience of being suddenly and utterly present with a complete stranger? I remember when someone behind me in a grocery store checkout line. She mentioned she was buying nutritional shakes for her mom who couldn’t eat solid food anymore. Then there was the person sitting next to me on an airplane who shared that he was traveling to be with a dying friend. In both cases, I felt deep empathy; my heart spontaneously opened to them, and they poured out their emotions.

Holding space with compassion

CompassionWe may think of ourselves as independent persons, but we are all interdependent beings.  Holding space for another is a form of compassion, but it is not a one-way gesture; it’s a shared experience. The American Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chödrön has stated this eloquently: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and wounded. It is a relationship between equals.”

Often, when we show compassion for another, our own dilemmas surface. We want to say, “I know exactly how your feel.” But do we really know how another person feels? You may think that this response, and even sharing a personal story, will help them. But more often than not it will diminish the importance of their struggle. How do we know when to simply listen and when to offer advice or share our own experience?

No agenda

Holding space has no agenda or expectations or the need to help someone overcome a problem. All judgment must be set aside. Sitting silently and listening—in other words, abiding—creates a safe environment that invites the other’s heart to make room for whatever wants to be present. Don’t be afraid of silence.

Abiding is not suppressing your own thoughts, feelings, or sensations, but rather inviting them to take a back seat for now. Though your relationship with the one you are holding space for is “between equals,” you may not occupy equal space. You invite the person to occupy as much space as they need. As a back seater, you may want to take up more prime space. Be mindful when this happens. Simply say, as Messengeryou would to a small child, “Not now; later.” Mindfulness is noticing your attention and what arises to distract you. It also is recognizing that whatever arises in your awareness is a messenger with something to share. It could be a self-doubt, judgment, or even fear. Rather than killing the messenger, we also must hold space for the message to be revealed.

Avoiding sympathy, favoring empathy

While holding space, notice when feelings of sympathy arise, as they can lead to disconnection from the other person. According to Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, when we feel sympathy for someone, we feel sorry for them but don’t feel their pain or understand their perspective. Feeling empathy as well as expressing compassion strengthens our connection. There may be a fine line between empathy and compassion. When we are compassionate, we are conscious of another’s distress and desire to alleviate it, but we are not invested in understanding their perspective. But with empathy, we are aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. As a result, we become more connected to them. Empathy is putting yourself aside, stepping into the other’s shoes, and walking their path with them.

EmpathyBrown views empathy as being at one end of a continuum of connection, with shame at the opposite end and vulnerability as the equalizer. Shame and blame close us off and cause disconnection. In stark contrast, an empathic ear offers another the opportunity to be vulnerable yet feel safe in sharing his or her weaknesses. While shame says “I can’t let you see this,” vulnerability involves courage, compassion, and openness to connection.

Journey towards feeling whole

As I reflect back on my life, I think of many times when I needed to share my struggles with someone I could trust, who would listen lovingly and even feel my pain. There have been losses—a job, intimate relationships, parents. There have been life-changing challenges to address and decisions to make. I am fortunate to have had others who supportively held space for me. Some things, I’m sure, may have seemed trivial to the listener. Yet I have learned the value of letting go and allowing my vulnerability to surface with the right person. I have been able to do the same for friends and family, as well as countless people in my coaching work. I believe this is an important skill we learn on our journey toward feeling whole.

If someone we care about has acted inappropriately or been dishonest or hurtful, how can we hold space for and support them? Is it possible to set judgment aside and offer unconditional acceptance? Many therapists have learned that they don’t have to like a client or approve of what they have done. But they accept the person and constructively encourage them to move forward in their life. We can learn that same approach.

Fundamentals of space holding

Learning to hold space for someone can be cultivated as a form of spiritual practice much like meditation. Key components of this practice are:

  • Letting go of judgment
  • Opening your heart
  • Allowing another to have whatever experience they’re having
  • Giving your complete undivided attention to the other person.

Holding space for another invites our best self into the relationship. We trust the process to unfold organically. In sharing a journey with someone with an unknown destination, we foster their healing and transformation—and often our own.

listening in nature

Listening as Presence: Learn How

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Listening to pianoI recently viewed a TV special with a segment from the PBS children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Nick, a young boy, was invited to play the piano. As Nick played a Bach minuet, Mister Rogers listened in a way that suggested he was not just hearing the notes but actually experiencing them in the same way his young player did. He watched Nick’s facial expressions, not his hands, and was thoroughly present and connected in his listening. Indeed, a Mister Rogers hallmark was encouraging kids to connect with others, especially those different from them. That passion for connection is reflected in the title of both the song for which he is best remembered and the recent documentary film about him: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Passive and active

How often are you really present with what is happening in your life? Do you find yourself easily distracted while engaging in activities or listening only partially when people are speaking? Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions have always had their power to distract us from the present moment. But nowadays texts, emails, and various social media have become all consuming, taking us away from what is before us, and even what is inside us. Yet with all this connectivity, research reveals that Americans feel more isolated and disconnected than ever before. All these electronic distractions interfere significantly with our ability to truly listen, focus, respond—and even to feel fully alive.

Hearing is generally a passive experience. We are bombarded with a myriad of sounds as we move through our daily lives and simply cannot be present to all of them. But how often do we really stop to listen?

Listening is not limited to hearing through our ears. We have the capacity to listen with our whole body, heart, and mind. Although hearing depends on the transmission of vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, sound vibrations also produce a felt sense in the body. I once attended a conference at which the entire audience was deaf. To my surprise, the event ended with a dance; the participants’ bodies moved with exhilarating joy to incredibly loud music. So loud it felt like my eardrums might burst. But I also felt its deep vibration throughout my entire body.

listening to cicadas

cicada

As I write this, the hissing sound of cicadas is present outside and I occasionally pause and listen. I feel it vibrating inside and around me. Listening can be an active inner experience that that requires our full presence and fosters openness and absorption.

Connection

We all have a need to tell our story and truly be heard. Our minds often ruminate over stories of our daily experiences as well as our life challenges, which can cause us to feel stuck or blocked. Sometimes just letting it out verbally can release some of what is pent up inside. But that may only provide a temporary fix. We all need a Mister Rogers–like listener. When someone truly listens to us, a powerful human connection is created. We depend on and thrive as a result of such inter-relatedness with others.

listening through journaling

Anne Frank

When no one is available to listen, journaling can be a meaningful outlet. Some people keep a journal as if they are opening up to another person. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank was forced into hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. For two years she kept a diary in which she shared her deepest thoughts and feelings with an imaginary friend she called Kitty. Kitty became Anne’s safe and intimate confidante. Her diary, subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl, has become a classic that continues to inspire countless readers.

How to listen to another

I believe that most of us listen to one another halfheartedly, or, more colloquially speaking, we are half-assed listeners! When someone is speaking, a transient thought may surface in our mind, and we stop listening. We may think we’re listening, but we get busy thinking about what we want to say in response and become focused on when we might have the opportunity to interject our thoughts. The result is a fragmented conversation that does not provide the sense of connection we all need.

How do we listen? You might practice the following exercise with a friend or partner. Choose a time and place away from conflicts when your stress hormones are not activated. As one person shares something important to him or her, you, the listener, should slow down and breathe deeply. Perhaps evoke Mister Rogers! Become calm and absorb what the other person says—like a sponge. Set aside judgement and assumptions; don’t analyze and don’t interrupt. This is especially important when listening to someone whose views don’t agree with yours. Notice if you become triggered by what is being shared. Stay grounded and present with your breath while continuing to remain open and accepting; maintain eye contact.

Rather than wanting to fix, change, or give advice, be curious. Respond with nonintrusive, clarifying questions. For example, paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Ask the speaker to “say more.” Ask about their feelings, which will allow them to know you care; they will feel validated, something we all seek.

Listening in nature

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “In listening in naturenature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Nature may be our best teacher for learning to listen. As the cicadas continue to hiss outside my window, I feel their presence subtly vibrating in my body, calling me to go outside and walk amongst the trees. According to biologist David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, “There is no such thing as an individual within biology…. Instead, the fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship.” A tree shares the sounds of its leaves rustling in the wind; the insects and birds inhabiting its branches make their own unique and beautiful sounds. Nature’s sounds can help lure you away from your busy thinking mind. When you relax into listening, it’s possible to empty your mind of unnecessary thoughts. When you are deeply present, you experience the sound of silence and feel its peace and equilibrium. Listening can become your best companion.

As the spiritual philosopher Jean Klein, author of numerous books including The Book of Listening and The Ease of Being, said: “When you come to innocent, unconditioned listening, your body goes spontaneously into deep peace.”

 

 

Loving kindness

Taking Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974

What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation and the teacher or speaker stops talking, you probably become intensely aware of the sudden empty space waiting to be filled. Your mind may try to fill in the space with what you assume is coming next, or you may also relish the uncertainty—remaining open to something unanticipated. During that notable pause, you may feel a special connection with the speaker, as well as with everyone else in the room. Had your mind wandered prior to the pause, you may suddenly find yourself very much in the present moment.

In written works, periods, commas, dashes, and colons force the reader to pause and better grasp what he or she is reading. Pauses can help you transition from one activity to another, and even shift your mood. And, pauses can help you experience moments of deep presence—nothing lacking and everything just as it is. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”

Beneath the surface

icebergHuman beings present themselves to the world much like the tip of an iceberg floating in the ocean. Beneath the surface of the myriad of distractions and busyness of life there is an enormous depth of being. Pauses can help you drop the facade and access this depth so you can listen to your own inner voice and connect with your true views and desires and even your intrinsic value system.

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Our body, brain, and spirit need periods of idleness, of non-doing. That’s how ancient hunters and gatherers lived. When they weren’t acquiring food for sustenance, they played, groomed, rested, and gazed at the heavens contemplating their existence in nature and the universe.

One can take pause in prayer, meditation, or simply a deep breath. Longer pauses might be spent in nature, on vacation, or on a sabbatical—from work or even a relationship. When a relationship grows sour, or an impasse ensues following an argument, it can be helpful for each partner to take a time out for inner inquiry and reflection. This creates space to examine beliefs and feelings related to the situation.

In his beloved classic The Prophet Kahil Gibran says this about marriage: “let there be spaces in your togetherness…” A healthy relationship needs spaces for separateness—space to grow individually as well as together. Knowing when to pause, as Jack Benny said, is at the heart of every person’s life. Gibran ends with: “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Like trees, we all need space in order to thrive.

walking pathWhen feeling stuck or blocked in trying to solve a problem or finish a project, shifting one’s attention to something else—taking a walk or breathing deeply—interrupts the brain circuits. You may recall times when you fail to remember a person’s name; the harder you try, the more it eludes you. But when you back away for a moment, it quickly pops into mind. I often take breaks when writing to move my body; I tend to have my most creative insights while walking or even driving. Not surprisingly yoga and meditation foster physical and spiritual opening up.

Practice pausing by noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions in the moment. Don’t analyze, criticize, or try to fix anything. Simply ask questions like “What do I believe right now?” “Are these beliefs really true?” “How would my life change if I letgo of this belief?” Notice how such pauses foster shifts in your thinking and feeling when you are experiencing a challenge, impasse, or even fatigue.

Selah

Selah is a Hebrew word that is used extensively in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, which is often interpreted as “stop and listen.” A national organization, Selah Freedom, is dedicated to ending sex trafficking and bring freedom to the exploited. They interpret Selah as to pause, rest, reflect. Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response to throw our weight.”

Selah Freedom has a residential program for victims of trafficking that provides needed therapy and life coaching to help the young women overcome the damage of past trauma and find new life paths. The program offers personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy (including equine therapy), education in life skills, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.

meditationI have the honor of facilitating iRest Yoga Nidra meditation programs at Selah Freedom’s Chicago residential facility. During iRest, the women, mostly in their late teens and twenties, set aside their dark past and whatever has gone on in their day. They lie down on blankets and pillows and slip into deep relaxation and even dreamless sleep as I guide them in mindfulness practices aimed at helping them feel safe. The practice teaches them to welcome emotions and self-limiting beliefs, which ultimately lose their potency. This clears the way to uncover their wholeness and worthiness.

Pausing: make it a habit

You may not have a staff of coaches and therapists focused on helping you achieve your life goals, but you can do much of this work on your own by finding your own way to pause.

Pausing provides space to discover your deepest desires. When you do this regularly and intentionally, those desires become a motivating force, like an inner compass reminding you to stay on your path and sort out what’s right for you and what’s not…not this, not that, YES this!

Lily padsGetting in the habit of taking regular pauses can help you recharge and become more connected to life. What you do for yourself, you do for others. What you do for others, you do for yourself.

Your most healing pauses may be simply resting and being. You might start by taking a deep breath, expanding the whole rib cage and belly, then resting and letting go. Use this simple acronym as a reminder: TAP RIBTake a Pause, Rest in Being.

I would like to leave you with a few words from a poem by William Stafford titled “You Reading This, Be Ready”:…carry into evening all that you want from this day. The interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life.”

I hope you regularly take pause to note what you wish to carry forward in this day and in your life.

Bebriending

Art of Befriending

What does it mean to befriend? The dictionary defines it as: “to make friends or become friendly with; act as a friend to (someone) by offering help, support or aid.” Diplomats, politicians and businesspeople are successful when they befriend the powerbrokers within the system. Whether with competitors, peers or enemies, getting to know each other personally creates a foundation of common ground to help broker future deals.

The art of befriending can also be a powerful skill to apply in many areas of one’s personal life. One person wrote about befriending the country to which she recently relocated. Another, ordered an extra Starbucks for the homeless person she passes on the way to work each morning. How about befriending yourself—your thoughts and emotions, disappointments and regrets and health issues. The art of befriending can have endless applications.

Foes as friends

In 2017 Oprah Winfrey led a focus group for television’s 60 Minutes. Fourteen people were selected from a community in Michigan. Seven supported President Trump and seven were against him. As expected the discussion was spirited and emotional.

Following the show the fourteen people created a private Facebook page for further discussion and to stay connected. Then they took it a step further. BowlingThey started to socialize over pizza, bowling and even visiting a firing range—essentially befriending each other. When 60 Minutes learned about these remarkable happenings they decided to do a follow-up show filming some of their outings and once again having Oprah facilitate discussion. Interestingly, none of the members had changed their views. But they had learned to listen to one another and understand the others’ views–and they had become friends.

Befriending invites one to step outside oneself, and in an imaginative way, step into another’s shoes to experience his or her feelings and perspectives. In this way, befriending unfolds as empathy, which fuels connection, according to Brené Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Befriending encounters

Befriending isn’t a new skill to learn. You already know this naturally. But you can learn new applications.

Think about the people you shun who are different than you. How does it serve you to remain separate from them? What would happen if you were to get to know them and really listen—without judgement—to their views? Is it possible to be open, curious and welcoming so you might learn more ideas? Other befriending qualities might include: caring for, encouraging, and having one’s back. These are essential for raising children, and for showing up for a family member or friend who is in need.

WaterVery often befriending asks you to step outside your comfort zone. In the Academy Award winning movie, Shape of Water, a mute janitor befriends and eventually falls in love with an amphibious creature. One never knows where befriending might take you!

Sometimes you may befriend someone and then never see them again. Yet, you are both somehow enriched or enlightened by the brief encounter. This has happened to me many times when I’ve traveled. Some of my dearest friendships started this way.

For some people it is even possible to befriend a former partner or spouse. When my relationship with Tom ended a number of years ago, I really struggled. But with time and good therapy, I was able to accept that our romantic relationship did not work and no one was at fault. With a foundation of mutual understanding we later befriended each other and continue to share good times together. A deep trust and empathy have evolved between us.

Befriending yourself

 

YOU may be the most important person of all to befriend. There is much going on inside—thoughts, beliefs, stories and emotions. There are a myriad of things happening in the physical body at any given moment. How much of this do you take for granted…and possibly not treat very well?

The same befriending qualities such as curiosity, listening, non-judgment, etc., are equally applicable to knowing all facets of you. What sort of relationship do you have with your body: your health, your age? Is there something you want to change? Are there areas of disappointment or even disgust? Besides you, who really cares?

I love the title of Terry Cole-Whitaker’s book, “What people think of me is none of my business.” You can’t control other people’s thoughts about you—and sometimes your own. But, you can befriend the thoughts you think and the feelings and emotions that arise as well. Rather than block or resist them with sugar, shopping, TV or wine, take time to get to know them. Lovingly and tenderly befriend them.

Fear, for example, can be a rich source of insight. Rather than allowing fear to become an enemy that paralyzes you, befriend it. Sit with it and seek to understand it. Let your fear tell you what it wants. Let it show you what needs to be healed and let it become a companion to help you move forward. While this process initially takes courage, it also makes you stronger, wiser and more resilient.

Disappointments in life can often result in feelings of blame and guilt, especially when we didn’t meet our own expectations. Befriending can start by stepping back as an outside observer and witnessing the whole scenario or story about it. Make friends with the aspects that stand out, especially your beliefs and thoughts. Acknowledge what you have learned—which might even be a new skill that serves you later. The journey of life is filled with learning and growing from all experiences—positive and negative.

kindnessIt’s a law of nature that with every negative there is a complimentary opposite, which is often uncovered in the learning. Each informs the other. A line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness, reads: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

Live from befriending

Living from a place of befriending invites you to welcome whatever comes your way, openly, lovingly and without resistance. The art of befriending has a multitude of benefits that can empower you. It helps you feel more connected to life and frees you to feel more whole and complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Room in your heart

Room in Your Heart

“In a full heart there is room for everything, and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.” —Antonio Porchia, Argentine poet

Have you asked yourself recently if there are things you’d like to welcome into your life? Do you want to improve your career, finances, or relationships? Perhaps better health or deepening your spirituality is on your list. Or, maybe you seek a greater sense of meaning or purpose in your life, or more peace, joy, or love.

Just as you need to create space in your home, at work, and on your computer’s hard drive to function well, you also need a clear mind to be open to possibilities. These all have a finite amount of space. But the space in your heart is unlimited. This heart space, however, must be uncluttered and cultivated in order to experience the things you desire.

 Cluttered heart

Cluttered heartThe physical organ the heart holds our deepest truths. The simple placement of your hand on your heart can be a powerful way to tune in to these truths—unless your heart is closed or cluttered inside. Dark feelings such as fear, shame, guilt, and inadequacy can take up a lot of space. Avoidance or even acceptance of these feelings keeps them alive. Thus your deepest desires may become obscured, resulting in a stifled life force.

The poet Rumi encourages us to: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” “Your task, writes Rumi, “is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” The love that fuels our lives already resides at the heart of our being. But it can become buried beneath the rubble of dark feelings and emotions. Unconsciously, that rubble is a barrier expressed in our outer experience: we think and behave in ways that support what seems to be lacking in our lives. We then become stuck, which may be reflected in our inability to attract or maintain loving, supportive relationships; to find satisfying work; or to live a generally happy life.

Wanting versus allowing

Attempting to get rid of, deny, or just live with the barriers only lodges them in further, intensifying our suffering. A better way is to allow them to surface and then to fully feel them. We must bring them into the light and allow them to speak their truth. Rather than seeing them as enemies, allow yourself to befriend them. Ask what they want or need, or what actions you might take in the world to help them—and you. This befriending helps release the ego from being the gatekeeper of your heart, allowing the heart to know its truth.

Given this freedom, the heart is able to embrace our deepest longings. In the process, we learn that whatever the barrier, there is a desire for its complement or opposite. When we experience pain or frustration, we deeply desire relief or satisfaction. Food is more pleasurable when we are hungry. A tender touch or compassionate ear is most welcomed when we feel depleted or alone. Becoming conscious of what we don’t want in life paradoxically provides clarity about what we truly desire.

harmonious pathFor many years I struggled to find a fulfilling life path. I engaged in a number of successful business ventures along the way, yet never felt satisfied. Things started to shift as I lovingly inquired into what was blocking me and listened to my heart’s deepest longings. Allowing this acknowledgement helped me learn from what wasn’t serving me at the time. I now understand that each endeavor helped me acquire skills that are serving me well today. I feel blessed with the ability to manage a not-for-profit business. I also help people heal from trauma, discover wholeness, and uncover purpose and fulfillment in their lives. Living harmoniously and in sync with life—and helping others do so—has become my true mission.

What we desire desires us

magnetAt our very core, don’t we all desire love, peace, and happiness? How can we long for something unless we know what it feels like? Love is like a magnet that attracts positive things. Love is infinite and timeless and already present within our hearts. As we open our hearts and clear out the debris, space becomes available to welcome in profound peace and gratification.

To explore your own heart, ask questions like: What is my heart feeling at this moment? Is there a song that it wants to sing? Something it longs to express? What will bring my heart into harmony? When do I feel fully alive? Listen for an answer. Notice when thoughts like undeserving and other negative feelings surface. Make friends with each feeling. Learn what it wants to share. Shift from asking your ego’s point of view to allowing your heart to express its deepest longing.

Room for everything

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” —Mary Oliver

Over time you will find yourself living more and more from your heart. You’ll discover there is more space there than you ever could have imagined. There’s abundant room for forgiveness—especially self-forgiveness. There’s also room for making mistakes and experiencing grief, which help us build resilience. And we must allow room for feelings of empathy for people with differing values as well as for ourselves. Remember, your heart’s capacity is limitless.

Make a vow

Lotus flowerAs you become more at home in your heart, it’s helpful to harness its capacity to engage your imagination. Ask: How do you want your life to be? A helpful concept that can be borrowed from yogic philosophy to keep you on target is sankalpa. This is a sacred vow that you make in support of your deepest desires. A sankalpa requires your mind and body to be in harmony. It is not focused on something outside of you, such as your desire for a new home, better health, a romantic relationship, or a job promotion. Your sankalpa should be a brief affirmative statement that helps you realize your best self. Examples are:

  • I appreciate and accept myself.
  • I am whole, healed, and healthy.
  • I am deeply connected to myself, to others, and to life.
  • I am a compassionate and kind person.
  • My thoughts, words, and actions are aligned with one another.

The practice of tuning in to your sankalpa helps keep it alive, strengthens it, and brings more clarity to it. With this heartfelt intention as your foundation, your everyday and long-term goals will be more easily realized.

May you explore the intimacy of your heart tenderly and lovingly in the coming year and live from its limitless potential.

 

 

Connection in the Midst

Feeling Connection in the Midst of…

When we are confronted with difficult circumstances, such as enduring a hurricane, witnessing acts of terrorism, having relationship conflicts, or facing serious health concerns, it is common to react with anger, hurt, or feeling separate, isolated, or victimized. Or maybe we shut down and become numb. But we live in an interconnected world and we are wired to be connected—with the environment, other people, and various aspects of ourselves. Connectedness can also be with something larger than we are—a calling, the universe, God, or another higher power. It essentially is connectedness to a deep peace within.

connection in natureAnd we are not separate from nature. The sun, the air we breathe, plants, and animals all provide humans life-giving nourishment. As Alan Watts so eloquently put it: Each one of us, not only human beings but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable.” What’s most available to us at any moment is our connection to life and others through our senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching.

Bodily connection

Most of us take our body for granted and are disconnected from it. We stretch it, strain it, and often abuse it. We don’t get enough sleep. We consume food and substances that compromise our health and well-being. The body is a web of interconnections and is continually seeking balance and wholeness via signals to and from the brain. But we often don’t pay attention to messages it may be sending in the form of pain or exhaustion. Our bodies can also speak to us through our feelings, emotions, and thoughts. We forget, or maybe never learned, that our bodies are constantly speaking to us. This is why we have been endowed with our senses and ability to perceive.

Social connection

We are making connections with others every moment of our lives—with every person we meet, every colleague we work with, every stranger who opens a door for us or sits down next to us on the subway. Let’s not forget the connections we have with all the people who plant, tend, transport, and sell us our food. Yet, we tend to be unaware of this multitude of connections.

social connectionResearch has shown that social connections strengthen our immune system, lower rates of anxiety and depression, heighten self-esteem, and increase empathy toward others. When we hear of a major disaster or tragedy and the suffering of many, most of us feel empathy and compassion. In fact, according to Brené Brown, best-selling author of The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage, “empathy fuels connection.”

How often do we make judgments about other people because they appear different from us? It might be their race, religion, nationality, politics, or maybe just how they are dressed. So much in our society tells us to distrust others. In his book, The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Living a Compassionate Life, Piero Ferrucci writes of two worldviews. One is pessimistic and the other is optimistic. We can distance ourselves by suspicion, or we can draw nearer to people knowing we are linked to one another. Kindness brings us closer to people.

Empathy connection

My friend Ann was taking her daily walk when she saw a man she’d never seen before walking several dogs and headed towards her. She noted that he was quite overweight and was wearing torn, disheveled-looking clothes. Not the kind of person she would want to connect with, she thought. She became aware of fear and anxiety rising within her. But then something shifted inside her, compelling her to make a connection. Ann said hello and commented about one of dogs, which was quite small, saying how cute it was. Tom, who introduced himself, responded that he’d only had him three days and had found him on the Internet. He was a rescue dog from Houston made homeless by Hurricane Harvey. He said he and his wife decided they had room for him in their home—and in their hearts. Ann found her own heart melting and opening wide.

Peace connection

I recently found the following simple yet poignant definition of peace from an anonymous source on the Internet: Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” Even though this calmness can be buried beneath the ruble of accumulated life experiences, it is there and it is free and accessible to us all.

Not long ago I helped lead a six-day iRest Yoga Nidra meditation teacher training. Participants came from all over the country and as far away as Hong Kong. Short for Integrative Restoration, iRest is highly experiential practice that helps one achieve, or restore, groundedness and deep calm. Regular practice helps one live a connected life as this place of peace becomes naturally integrated into one’s daily life. A participant in the training I assisted in last year, a psychiatrist, told me that iRest helped her feel more present in her body and less stuck in her thoughts.

iRest is a simple guided meditation practice of mindfulness and deep relaxation. It helps us systematically and somatically move through the boundaries of feeling separate from others, from life, and from ourselves. It invites us to embrace our best qualities, which are already present, though obscured by conditioning.

Jacqui facilitating iRest

Jacqui facilitating iRest

iRest offers a toolbox of practices that teaches how to notice whatever sensations, feelings, or thoughts arise as the body-mind’s way of sharing messages. A physical sensation such as pain may be calling for us to inquire into its source and, in some cases, seek medical assistance. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are also explored in a way that allows us to learn from their messages. Thus we become more aware and conscious of whatever may be arising in any given moment. Rather than allowing a negative reaction to form, we can feel back into our inner resource of peace and well-being and choose a more favorable response.

Other body-mind practices such as yoga, tai chi, and types of meditation are ways to access and deepen our connectedness. The same is true with activities that foster a connection with nature.

Peace within the midst

A core teaching of Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was that our power to choose our response is the source of our growth and freedom. He also said, “If you don’t go within, you simply go without.” In other words, we lose our sense of connectedness.

We all have the capacity to feel grounded in peace. We can learn to live that way in the midst of whatever circumstance we encounter. When we experience this profound peace in the midst of turmoil, our connection is infinite.

connection in nature

Being Aware: Live Joyously, Drunkenly, Divinely

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” —Henry Miller

Are you aware of all the thoughts in your mind at this moment? One research study revealed that humans experience as many as 60,000 thoughts each day, one for every second of waking life. Thoughts are like corn kernels popping in our consciousness one after the other. Most of our thoughts are transient and many are recurring. But thoughts are only one thing that occupies our attention. Feelings, sensations, memories, and perceptions all intermingle with our thoughts. Behind all of this activity in the mind is an infinite stillness. Being aware of this stillness can have a profound effect on our lives.

Out to lunch

worm on leafEach part of nature knows what its job is, usually performs it to perfection, and amazingly, knows to do it. Take, for example, a worm patiently edging and nosing and fitting a fallen leaf into its hole for a later meal. It’s totally present to its experience and doesn’t dillydally. The worm ultimately may become lunch for a robin, or be consumed by lesser creatures after it dies naturally. Either way, it’s lived in simple awareness and purposely fulfilled itself. Worms, robins, and the rest of the animal kingdom live purposeful lives, are never absent-minded or “out to lunch.”

We humans are an exception to most of nature. We are born as fully present, curious creatures wholly absorbed in each moment. As we grow and adapt to our world, we learn to create boundaries and determine where to direct our attention while the outside world bombards us with way more than we can possibly focus on. At the same time, a continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions floods our minds, keeping us separate from our present circumstances.

robin with wormWhile working on writing this article, I watched YouTube videos of a worm going about its business and then a robin snatching it up, and my imagination took flight. I wondered what it might feel like to be the bird and the worm in these circumstances. I was repulsed by the worm’s demise but immediately felt a pang of hunger and wondered what I would have for lunch, and then I thought about what I needed to prepare for a picnic/concert I was going to that evening. Then the phone rang. Confronted with something of more urgency, my writing project got pushed aside. At that point I realized that I’d been unfocused and “out to lunch” for a good part of the afternoon.

Being occupied

occupied with TextingWhen I was growing up we didn’t have many activities to engage in outside of school, though we had lots of free time to play with friends, be creative, and explore. By contrast, the lives of today’s children are often highly structured with many activities. For most kids, school is demanding and parents and society push them to achieve. Beyond school, they may play sports and take music and dance lessons, where the performance pressure can also be intense. In what little spare time they have, a large majority of youngsters are engrossed in social media, playing video games, texting, shopping online, or surfing on the web—oblivious to the presence of family and friends. Spending time just being, playing for enjoyment, or just thinking is virtually unheard of among youth today.

Of course, adults are not immune to this busyness obsession. We are conditioned to be constantly doing. Even practicing yoga can become just another form of doing rather than being a way to experience inner peace and awareness. The idea that our happiness and fulfillment are only achieved through engagement with the outside world has become the norm. We don’t know how to tap in to an internal sense of being, much less be aware. And why should we?

Realm of awareness

The truth is that true peace, happiness, and love can only be found internally. Searching outside always falls short and never offers long-lasting joy. Recall any situation that brought you happiness or exhilaration—a roller-coaster ride, first kiss, landing the ideal job. The feeling—real as it was at the time—eventually faded.

Take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I aware?” You may be mildly aware of your body, the flow of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and the sights and sounds around you. But what is the source of that awareness? Free yourself to be an observer.

Being aware, said philosopher and writer D.L. Harding, is “living from one’s space instead of from one’s face.” Living from one’s space means bringing attention and presence to everything we experience in life. The result is that we do a better job with whatever we engage in, and with more ease and joy. Fear, pain, and life challenges lose their intensity. We experience more peace and serenity and heighten our capacity to meet whatever life presents responsibly.

Becoming divinely aware

Let’s face it, it’s practically impossible for us humans to eliminate our thoughts, memories, and perceptions, which cloud our true awareness. In fact, we don’t need to get rid of anything. Instead, we can welcome whatever shows up in our awareness. At the same time, we can learn to move our attention beneath the veiled surface of the mind and body to a place where we find stillness that is changeless.

sensory-gardenThere are many ways to get to that stillness. Formal mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation help us align with this deepest core of our being. We can also practice by simply listening with all our senses. This can be done while walking or practicing pranayama (breathing techniques). Slipping into a warm bath helps to access awareness. I find that the Chicago Botanic Gardens is a good place to practice cultivating stillness and awareness, especially in the wonderful Sensory Garden. There you experience being fully aware while seeing, touching, and smelling everything you encounter—plants like soft furry lamb’s ear and fragrances of curry and dark-maroon chocolate cosmos! You experience how deeply rooted nature is in stillness.

Try this exercise: Look at an object in front of you. See it in its entirety—shape, color, texture, etc. Then soften your gaze and take in the whole landscape before you without paying attention to any one thing. Try this with your eyes closed, concentrating on hearing just one sound, and then allow the whole spectrum of sounds to permeate your awareness. When thoughts and feelings arise, set them free. As a witness, experience all that is present, and then allow deep stillness and peace to encompass you. See your core of awareness shining out as your true Self–God’s infinite being.

Broaden and deepen your awareness in all you do—work, play, experiencing solitude. Rupert Spira, spiritual teacher, author, and potter, has written, “When doing slows down, the thinking that is at its origin is exposed; when thinking dissolves, the feeling that is behind it is uncovered; when feeling subsides, the Being that is at its heart is revealed.”

Being aware is like inhabiting a home built for living and loving, which has no room for hurts, fears, or regrets. Inhabit this home and let yourself become joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware!

 

 

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handpring on back

Who’s Got Your Back?

I recently was a staff presenter at a four-day retreat in Chicago for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Each veteran brought a support person—partner, family member, or battle buddy. One afternoon an art therapist at the School of the Art Institute led the group through expressive art projects. To begin, they were given old button-down shirts to protect their clothing. Then they were asked to place one hand into a puddle of colored acrylic paint, plant their handprint on the back of their partner, and say, “I’ve got your back!” This experience was a powerful way for people to feel connected—and to experience things we all crave: feeling safe, supported, and cared for.

Basic need

I work with survivors of war and other traumatic experiences who continue to suffer long after the traumatic event. Vietnam was a highly controversial war. In addition to the traumas suffered abroad, those who returned home were not welcomed back. Many stuffed their memories and feelings just to get on with life. Those who have suffered childhood, domestic, or other forms of abuse or traumas generally harbor feelings of being unsafe, vulnerable, insecure, helpless, and alone.

Just as warriors need to protect one another in combat, we all need people in our lives who are there for us, have our best interests at heart, and will stand up for us. Yet, loneliness, isolation, and depression are now highly prevalent in our culture. A 2005 report published in the American Sociological Review found that one in four Americans felt they had no one they could talk to. According to Lynn Smith-Lovin Professor of Sociology at Duke University, that number has dropped to two. The proliferation of social networking over the last decade has changed the society in many ways but hasn’t offered a replacement for the kind of connectedness true friendship provides.

ConnectionCare, support, and protection are fundamental needs of infants, children, and even teenagers. Most young people have the assurance that their parents will always have their back. It would be wonderful if we all had that sense of security. The fact is, we are social beings, and our need for connection continues throughout our lives; such connections give us the resiliency to live fulfilling lives.

Trust and support

“Problems carried alone are problems doubled, while problems shared are problems cut in half.” David A. Grant, Founder/Publisher TBI HOPE Magazine

Even if we haven’t experienced war or abuse, we all have suffered—the death of a loved one, loss of a job, disappointment in a relationship, severe illness. When times are tough, who is there for you? Is there someone you can turn to who will listen, comfort you, and help you resolve or cope with your situation? If not family, who else can you lean on? Who really listens to you with a compassionate ear?

Even though we want to be accepted and loved, sometimes the prospect of letting another see us our flaws, failings, and weaknesses can be scary and make us feel vulnerable, not knowing if we can truly trust that person. We need people who can make us feel good about ourselves, not those who are negative or judgmental. While opening the trust door may seem risky, the alternative—being alone, anxious, and powerless—will not alleviate our suffering.

SupportSome of us are most comfortable one-to-one with a friend, partner, or counselor when baring our inner soul. But support can also be found in groups. Support networks for people with health challenges and addictions have been shown to be highly effective in helping reduce anxiety and depression. They provide safe spaces in which individuals can voice their struggles, listen to the challenges of others, learn from them, and realize they are not alone. Groups can also provide healthy peer pressure, nudging others to take steps that will help them. Learning to trust helps people feel better, develop better coping skills, and ultimately live happier, healthier lives.

I have greatly valued the informal networks of support I’ve formed over the years, both professional and personal. I cherish my lifeline of intimate friends whom I know will have my back when I need them, as I will have theirs. When it comes to writing these articles, I know I can depend on people who will honestly critique and edit my musings and let me know when I’ve missed the mark. When I teach courses or make presentations, I’ve learned to approach them with the understanding that my audiences want me to succeed—they want me to inspire or enlighten them. Why else would they be there!

Being independent and self-reliant is highly touted in our culture. But we are never truly separate or independent; we all depend upon our interactions with other people. We are also responsible for our actions and their impact on others. Life is give and take. While our life journey is individual, we thrive on healthy relationships; quite simply, we need one another.

Cultivate your inner resource

“There is no real security except for whatever you build inside yourself.”
–Comedian Gilda Radner

flower and stonesOpening our inner selves to supportive friends and loved ones can provide a pathway to uncovering an inner strength. As an iRest Yoga Nidra meditation instructor, I help individuals cultivate feelings of security and ease. We spend time in each meditation experiencing what we refer to as our “inner resource.” Let me guide you through this experience.

Recall a place, or one you would imagine, creating it in your mind’s eye as though painting a canvas. It may be a place in nature—resting on a beach, in a forest or field. It may be a place you remember from childhood or on vacation. There may be other people here, an animal or spiritual figure—or you may simply be by yourself. Most importantly, there is a sense of being grounded, safe, and comfortable here. Visualize the colors, forms, and textures you would see here. Then begin to feel yourself in this place, seeing 360 degrees around you. Feel the touch of air upon your skin and any smells that may be present. Most importantly, become aware of the feeling of being fully supported and a sense of ease and well-being. Like a coming home to your true self.

Our inner resource helps us access deeper levels of our being that have never been hurt or broken and don’t need fixing. In iRest Yoga Nidra meditation, as in many forms of meditation, we must be open to Infinite Awareness, also known as Eternal Presence or God, which allows us to know peace, happiness, and love—and to rest assured that our back is always covered!

comfort zone

Your Comfort Zone: Time to Let it Go?

Comfort, ease, and safety are core elements that contribute to our overall sense of well-being. We are wired to seek comfort, and familiarity feeds this neutral state of being. Our habits help us move efficiently through our daily activities and feel mentally secure. Getting too firmly set in our comfort zone, however, doesn’t necessarily free us from worry or depression. Rather, it can cause us to function on autopilot. As a result, we miss opportunities to grow and create and experience authentic joy.

Stress and risk

Our comfort zone can be defined as the space where our activities and behaviors minimize stress and risk. Sometimes, though, we’re not truly comfortable in our comfort zone; yet the thought of stepping outside it can cause anxiety and stress and even panic. Since stress is considered the cause of many illnesses, it makes sense to want to minimize it.

Child risk-takerChildren, in their innocence and fearlessness, are natural risk-takers. They know nothing about a “comfort zone.” They experience life with a sense wonder and curiosity. A leaf, an animal, the sky, a shadow—all can delight them. Beyond childhood, however, most of us succumb to conditioning that pushes us to seek a safe and familiar path.

Feelings of stress and fatigue are often caused by the constant discourse buzzing inside our minds. If you stop to listen, you’ll notice how that discourse is generally uninspiring rumination. When allowed free rein, such ruminating thoughts can become an internal tyrant telling us how flawed and incapable we are. Over time, we become psychologically conditioned to fear failure, though that’s what we expect of ourselves. We find ourselves stuck in a treadmill-like existence until a crisis occurs, forcing us to act or make a change.

Fear and growth

On the other hand, instinctive rather than conditioned fear can save our lives. It’s in our DNA to recognize a threat and self-protect, as did our ancestors. We are designed to move naturally between threat, action, and comfort. The space just outside our comfort zone is called “optimal anxiety,” where stress levels are slightly elevated—a healthy state. Venturing into this space motivates us to act. We build the flexibility and resilience not only to meet adversity but to take advantage of opportunity—as long as we to return to a state of comfort with relative ease.

Taking risks can be very frightening. While we tend to like things that are easy, even a path with a seemingly low resistance can be strewn with unknowns. Experiencing trauma such as death of a loved one, job or financial loss, or abuse can cause us to retreat into our default comfort zone and remain there. Yet, isn’t this life we’ve been given meant to be lived in a way that enables us to bring our best self into it? Allowing our best self to flourish requires courage.

Our lives are all about learning and growing. The more we learn to flex between comfort and action, the easier and less stressful life becomes.

Two courageous women

I’d like to share examples of two women I know who are in the midst of moving beyond their comfort zones. These women have taken risks to bring greater meaning and purpose to their lives.

Maria was recovering from the recent loss of one of her two war veteran sons to suicide. After several months of attending the iRest meditation program I teach, she shared how she was able to integrate the practices into her life. She now sleeps well and is able to fulfill her responsibilities as a speech pathologist for autistic children. An organization I’m affiliated with wants to videotape testimonials about services that have helped veterans and their families. When asked if she would participate, Maria said, “So you’re asking me to go beyond my comfort zone?” After a long pause she said that if it would help just one veteran she would do it.

Undertow bookDiane Madden Ferguson is a survivor of sexual trauma that occurred during her five-year tour in the Navy. When she got out, she married a man she knew from high school. During their 38 years of marriage, she raised two children, got a master’s degree, and had a successful career in law enforcement. After retirement, her life fell apart. She had never told anyone, not even her husband, about the sexual abuse. Two years ago she finally had the courage to step out of her comfort zone. Her healing journey began with therapy and culminated with the publication of her memoir, Undertow: A US Navy Veteran’s Journey Through Military Sexual Trauma, in 2016.

Fear and love as allies

fear and loveI am the least likely person to venture beyond my comfort zone, having been a shy, introverted child. Yet, as I reflect back, I’m amazed at how many times I have gone far outside my comfort zone… and how many ventures (many of which did not pan out) and adventures have enriched my life.

Long ago a co-worker challenged me:, “Why don’t you travel?” I proceeded to make a hobby of traveling to far-off lands—usually alone. A friend said, “Let’s take a belly dance class.” I later became a principal dancer performing with a dance company for more than 20 years. Later a colleague said, “I have space in my office. Come start your own business.” And I did. Another colleague suggested joining a Toastmasters club to overcome my fear of public speaking. Now teaching, coaching, and speaking are second nature to me. Fear has been my companion along much of the way. But it always arose with a message compelling me to take the leap and experience the rewards—even when the chance of failure was great.

As I have learned to move beyond my comfort zone, I have found that fear always brings along its unlikely companions—love and joy. Somehow I knew that if I did that thing of which I was fearful, I would ultimately do what I love and enjoy what I do. I was inspired to embrace life and bounce back even when things didn’t work out. The words of two famous writers truly capture this message for me. In You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” And the poet Rumi wrote: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Taking the next stepThe next step

It’s never too late to recapture some of the innocence and fearlessness of your inner child and become comfortable outside your comfort zone. Rather than waiting for others or circumstances to push you into action, start by making small changes in your routines, traveling different routes, or trying new things. Notice when autopilot thinking is occurring, and relax with deep breaths to quiet your mind. Shift your attention to something you love or something that challenges you.

In order to grow and be transformed, you musk risk failure. But your life will be richer and more rewarding when you allow love and joy to be your allies, right along with fear.