Happiness while not knowing

Happiness While Not Knowing

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”
–Emily Dickinson

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many clients have shared their fears and anxiety about living in a state of not knowing. Will we and our loved ones stay safe? How long must we continue with all the restrictions and safety measures? When will work, play, and life in general go back to normal—if ever? These concerns are especially relevant for active older people who may wonder if their lives will ever be full again. Is it possible to be happy while not knowing what will happen?

We are born not knowing—and we are quite content in this state, as long as our basic needs are met.  But as life unfolds around us, we begin to learn that certain conditions have to be met—by ourselves and others around us. Still, our young minds remain curious and we have a sense of wonder as we discover new things, like what’s around the corner—in spite of being told “no.” As we grow older, we learn that to make it in life we need a plan, and we are highly rewarded when the plan results in success. But many plans fail and alternatives must be found. I have personally had to abort or revise many a project, goal, or dream—and have been much better off with the way things turned out.

“Happiness is the absence of resistance to what is.”—Rupert Spira

Not knowing: fork in the roadCertainty and change

Our brains feel rewarded when we make choices, and it doesn’t matter if the choice will actually be rewarding. It may seem strange that we would choose something unrewarding but certain, over uncertainty. But when we fail to decide or are uncertain, our brain conjures up negative scenarios that generate doubt and fear. We distrust uncertainty and ambiguity. Not knowing makes us feel vulnerable. The more we ruminate over uncertainty, the worse we feel. In contrast, when we know the answer or have a plan, we feel both safe and in control. Having a sense of certainty, we feel lighter, freer, and more content—even happy.

Being safe and in control, however, is ephemeral at best, as change is inevitable. But giving up certainty requires us to examine the beliefs that define us. These are the stories we hold to be true about ourselves and our world that have helped us feel stable and secure. We may try to hold on to our stories about the way things have been and yearn for the fruition of long-held dreams. In doing so, we not only risk wasting the precious life we’ve been given, but also miss what we most desire. Letting go of resistance to what is may enable us to discover our true self—and, as a consequence, happiness. That is authentic security!

Declaration: Pursuit of happinessFrom pursuit to acceptance

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. Unfortunately, the meaning of that right is often misconstrued. Much of our culture is geared toward seeking happiness in the form of experiences, relationships, and the acquisition of things. We seek to make it big financially so we can live the good life. We’ll be happy once things turn out a certain way: we land a better job with better pay so we can afford better clothes, fancier cars, and lavish vacations; or we retire early and live the good life. When we do finally obtain such material trappings, our sense of happiness is likely to be short-lived and we become possessed by a desire for something else.

Happiness eludes us when we spend our time longing for things to be better—or at least back to so-called normal. When we allow not knowing to continue to gnaw at us, this uncertainty becomes a form of suffering, according to Rupert Spira, the author of many books on spirituality. In The Art of Peace and Happiness he defines suffering as resistance to the current situation and searching for an alternative future. Learning to accept things as they are, as opposed to resisting them, opens us to our true nature and the knowing of our own being, which unfolds as happiness. Rupert says, this is pure meditation and the highest spiritual practice.

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial
for answers to come to you.” –Eckhart Tolle

Uncertainty as helpfulUncertainty as helpful

While uncertainty may seem to dominate our lives right now, the core of our faith and spiritual traditions has always been cloaked in mystery. How can we knowingly grasp our place in the universe and the nature of all things? Yet research has revealed that most Americans believe in God or a higher power, even though this belief transcends reason.

Not knowing often makes us feel like we’re on shaky ground. How then can we feel grounded? Since the brain likes to be in control—and be rewarded for it—we can teach it to accept uncertainty about the future and actually be rewarded. Not knowing creates space for possibilities and opportunities to be revealed and for answers to be found. Remember when not knowing made us curious and we looked at the world with wonder and delight? Shifting our perspective can help us overcome our fears associated with uncertainty.

“To live in not knowing, or unknowing,
is to live in the joy of pure potentiality.”—Linda Hubbard

Walking in natureAcceptance

With simple practices like prayer, meditation, or walking in nature, we begin to appreciate uncertainty. The goal of embracing not knowing is exemplified by the Taoist practice of meandering meditation, which is simply following one’s thoughts without seeking a path. In all of these practices, acceptance can unfold into a kind of inner knowing where answers to our most pressing challenges can be revealed.

peace and happiness found in the most challenging circumstancesIn Spira’s view, not resisting not knowing leads to happiness, which he describes as “the simple knowing of our own being as it essentially is, that is not dependent on the conditions of the body, mind or world. It is our ever-present nature that lies shining quietly in the background of all experience and, when it is recognized, overflows into the foreground, pervading all experience with its qualities.” He says that peace and happiness are essentially the same—and can be found even in the most challenging circumstances and trying times, like those that all of us currently face.

do it differently like this impala

Do It Differently

We humans are creatures of habit—and for good reason. Habits help us live efficiently and do important things each day, like brushing our teeth. Our habits are formed by trial and error. As babies we learn to push ourselves up, roll over, and eventually pull ourselves up to stand. And we receive loads of accolades when we do. Our curiosity spurs us to constantly explore new things—until we fall or are told “No!” which can be confusing and make us feel bad. As we grow, the conditions of our lives begin to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions that can ultimately shape our destiny. We can remain creatures of habit or we can do it differently, try something new, move out of our comfort zone. When we do, brain science tells us we will be enriched.

Safety versus changeability

Distress and anxietyAs our bodies grow, our brains also grow. Our brains are trained to favor familiarity and, from an evolutionary perspective, keep us safe from predators. Safety and comfort take on a whole new meaning with the seemingly predatorial pressures of contemporary living. Our distress and anxieties are often rooted in a fear of failing. Playing it safe and doing what we have always done seem to be easiest course—until a major change disrupts things. Then resistance and resentment may surface and we ask: Why did this happen? Why did they have to change things? Why can’t it be like it was? Why do I have to do it differently?

Neuroscientists tell us our brains have plasticity—i.e., they can adapt to newness no matter our age. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions light up brain circuits, or neural pathways, and establish new connections. These pathways are reinforced the more they are lit up, becoming deeper and stronger. Because of the brain’s plasticity, we can start a new path, make new connections, and develop a new habit by intentionally and consistently trying a new way.

Researchers have shown that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. If we are starting a diet or have the desire to change a self-limiting thought or belief about ourselves, we need to give it a fair chance so the new pathway can establish itself. It’s important not to resist, but trying to drop old patterns of thinking should be avoided as well, as it may strengthen the old way. The brain reinforces whatever we focus on—positive or negative. Research has shown that simply thinking and imagining a new way of being helps build new neural pathways.

Defying age

defy physical and cognitive ageAs our bodies age, we can accept, and therefore reinforce, the notion that physical and mental decline is inevitable. Or, our brains and our bodies can defy physical and cognitive decline by recapturing the spirit of curiosity of our early years, by letting go of habitual living.

We can defy physical and cognitive age by doing things or wearing things or connecting with things from the past that make us feel younger. In 1979 Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author of Mindfulness, carried out an intriguing experiment known as the Counterclockwise Study. She selected a group of men in their late 70s and, for a week, put them in a 1959 living situation. All accoutrements of their environment—furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies—were from the earlier time. They were instructed to behave as if it were actually 1959, like discussing historical events as if they were current. The results: the men’s physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision significantly improved—by a minimum of seven years.

Nearly thirty years later, in 2010, Langer collaborated with the BBC to recreate her experiment with six former British celebrities in their 80s. They were transported back 35 years—to 1975—by similar means, and they too emerged after a week notably rejuvenated—in some cases up to 20 years younger than their biological age.

Boosting the brain

In recent years a new field has emerged called neurobics. You may have seen advertisements for mental exercise programs to enhance memory and focus and even change negative self-talk. These programs claim that practicing neurobics regularly can keep your brain fit. Neurobics works to keep brain pathways active and actually create brain food molecules linked to memory called neurotrophins.

Research by Moses Chao, a psychiatrist at NYU Medical School, found that using nondominant hand activity like brushing your teeth with your “other” hand produces neurotrophins that boost memory. Chao also discovered the same enhancement of memory with physical movement and exercise. He refers to this as “Miracle-Gro” of the brain nerve cells. He says we should keep moving and be like children, always in motion.

Neurobics as mindfulness

giving your full attentionThere are three main components of the neurobics system. One is expanding the use of all our senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Sensory data generally pass through the thalamus en route to dedicated areas of the cortex designed to process them. Most of us use vision and hearing regularly but the other senses less so. We can use our senses in novel ways, such as closing our eyes while showering or eating or watching TV without the sound.

A second component of neurobics is giving your full attention to something, like trying an activity that is completely new to you, perhaps bird watching or learning a new language. And finally, a third component, is to break from your normal daily routines. Take a new route to work or to the supermarket. Shop at a new store. Rearrange your desk, workspace, or furnishings. Move art work in your home to different locations. Buy a new outfit that is not be your usual “style.” Let your imagination soar!

Neurobics has much in common with mindfulness practices like eating in silence and savoring the tastes and smells. One mindfulness neuroscientist recommends the practice of self-nurturing touch. Spend a few minutes periodically during your day gently stroking your hands, arms, and face in the most pleasurable way possible.

Langer defines mindfulness as simply “actively noticing new things,” which she says energizes and engages us and opens us up to new possibilities. We then become more aware of our environment and more sensitive, understanding, even compassionate. Langer recommends that we notice five new things about a partner, friend, or colleague. Noticing is also listening objectively to others’ viewpoints and being curious about how they came to their opinion.

Embracing change

Embracing changeBeware that the brain is always on guard to potential threats and therefore is resistant to change based on the perceived fear of failure. This fear is really our imagination, a fantasy run amok, according to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. The more we reinforce the fear “Maybe I’ll fail,” the more likely it will become “I’m going to fail.” Newberg, who is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, recommends practicing affirmations and loving-kindness meditation to reach a state of relaxed awareness where you can observe the fantasy for what it really is. You can then change the failure fantasy to “I might fail and I might succeed.” Ask yourself what it would feel like to succeed. Focus on that feeling and proceed with actions.

As I reflect on my life, there has always been a part of me that relished change and new experiences. My early years of solo foreign travel expanded my appreciation of people living in different cultures. Yoga, belly dancing, and Argentine tango have each created deep body awareness. My work as a recruiter, then as a coach and a facilitator of iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation has reinforced my compassion for people and their circumstances. My newest venture has been completing a Clinical Somatic Education certification training and empowering teaching and teaching people simple movements to relieve their own chronic pain. I’ve found that doing things differently than I had previously has greatly enhanced my confidence and courage.

Are you ready to approach your life differently? Try something completely new. Change a deeply rooted habit. Learn about and challenge your memory with neurobics. Then relish what you’ve done for yourself.

 

Resilience

Embracing Resistance, Igniting Resilience

I recently met my friend John, whom I know from Argentine tango dancing. Over lunch he shared with me that four years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease with Parkinson’s disease–which has been progressively impacting his life. He said that at a recent dance, his arm started shaking and his partner asked if something was wrong. His physician has now recommended he stop driving. Following the initial diagnosis, he refused to believe it; he resisted its reality. But currently he is embracing the physical changes rather than resisting them. How did he get there?

Meaningful LifeA life of sameness and predictability is far easier to accept than change and unpredictability, but the latter are inevitable. They happen in our work, relationships, and health, as well as our culture, laws, and, notably, weather. Sometimes the change is so dramatic that it can result in our feeling devastated, and thus we resist adapting to it. But there is a resiliency of the human spirit. In an e-mail after our lunch, John wrote: “The real lesson in this experience is the realization that you have Parkinson’s; not that you are Parkinson’s. When I overcame that obstacle, relationships became more precious, gestures became more meaningful, and life became more joyous.”

Resistance as a tool

Resistance often gets a bad rap. If you were offered a new job, you might feel both happy and apprehensive about accepting it. You might have doubts about whether you’re truly qualified to do the work. Uncertainty and fear about the new and unknown are a natural part of human existence. Our ancient ancestors were concerned about what was directly in front of them: Is this something I can consume or will it consume me? What if we were able to view doubt—and thereby resistance—as a guide instructing us to carefully consider before we choose the best action?

What causes us to both welcome and resist change simultaneously? Fred Nichols, managing partner of Distance Consulting, wrote in his blog: “Resistance is evidence that people care about something and want to protect or defend it.” Resistance often reflects real challenges we need to consider, and it can enable us to go within to find what is most important. Resisting, in fact, can be viewed as a way of defending and preserving our lives.

Gretta Thunberg

Gretta Thunberg

Resistance is prevalent in today’s society. One person who currently exemplifies resistance on the world stage is Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She started learning about climate issues at age eight and three years later became depressed and lethargic and stopped talking and eating. She was then diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. Rather than allowing her mental disorders to limit her, she now considers them her “superpower.”

Greta has embraced resistance as a tool. In 2018 at age 15 she made a commitment to protest every Friday outside the Swedish parliament. Her OCD has enabled her to be a tenacious demonstrator on the implications of climate change; she’s mobilized young people and adults to take action on a global scale. As a result of her persistence, on September 20, 2019, four million people protested in over 2,500 events in more than 163 countries on all seven continents!

Three days later, Greta addressed world leaders at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. She accused them of stealing her dreams and her childhood by their inaction on climate change: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. . . . Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Accepting resistance

When we recognize our personal resistance to change, or even to the status quo, it does not serve us to ignore it. We first need to be with the resistance—reflect on it and inquire What are we resistant to and is there a message we should heed? In questioning ourselves we begin the process of embracing the resistance.

Synonyms for the word embrace are accept, welcome, and take to heart. Accepting a new reality gives way to welcoming what is, thereby enabling us to take it to heart—and ultimately embrace it. When we embrace it, we bring it into the light, which offers a broader perspective. We then gain the wisdom to handle it. When we are stuck in resistance and fighting, we become locked into a counterproductive mode of perpetual suffering.

RelationshipsJohn slowly faced the reality of his circumstance; he accepted his resistance and ultimately embraced it. By doing so, he opened himself to his true essence—beyond the Parkinson’s. While limitations on his lifestyle are evolving, he’s not focusing on what he can’t do or won’t be able to do in the future. Rather he’s living each day mindfully and with gratitude for all the things he can do and for what he values most—relationships. He seeks creative ways to do things and remains open to new experiences. As for Greta, she accepted her diagnoses and then channeled her efforts into a purposeful mission.

From resistance to resilience

We are living in unprecedented times, with massive changes unfolding all the time. They are global, economic, social, and environmental—as well as personal. New technologies are taking the place of jobs. Environmental disasters are driving migration and causing species to become extinct. Our challenge is to meet these changes with equilibrium.

Our capacity to overcome adversity is innate. According to psychotherapist and consultant Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back, Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, resilience is the capacity to respond to pressures, changes, and even tragedies quickly and effectively.

resilienceThere is an innate drive for all living things to thrive. When a seedling encounters resistance, such as an obstacle that blocks its light and restricts its growth, it bends toward the light or finds an alternate path to it. When we humans experience trauma and setbacks, Graham encourages mindful awareness that shifts our perspective and enables us to discern options and make wise choices. She believes that we all have the capacity for resilience; by reestablishing centeredness, we become whole and have the opportunity to flourish. Embracing resistance ultimately ignites our resilience.

Resilience

Meet Life on Life’s Terms: Learn to love what is

Sunflower“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.”

—Oklahoma!

There are those days when everything is going your way. Your intentions, plans, and expectations are being fulfilled just the way you want them to be. And then there’s a glitch that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Suddenly the beautiful feelings drain away. You may ask, “How could this happen? Where did I mess up?” Perhaps you put the blame on someone or something else as you are overcome by negative emotions like anger, disappointment, or sadness. Life goes on in spite of your emotional tailspin. You can remain here and suffer. Or you can step out of the event and into the present moment—meet life on life’s terms and do what’s needed most. As the Rolling Stones’ song says: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you just may find/You get what you need.”

Life continues

“If only I could arrange my life in such a way that there is less drama and stress in my work and relationships.” “If only my spouse and kids would do their part.” “If only the politicians could get their act together.” Sound familiar? If only…if only…. We constantly live in a state of “I want” and “I don’t want.” Yet, what we don’t want shows up anyway and what we want is short-lived or never happens, leaving us with The laundreyunfulfilled desire. The title of one of meditation teacher Jack Kornfield’s books is After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, which neatly sums up our inability to control our circumstances.

In spite of what happens to us, life moves on in myriad ways. The cycles of nature teach us that change is constant and the future unpredictable. It’s a fallacy to think we are in control of much of anything in our lives, except our response to situations. Resisting or fighting life’s terms only blocks us from living fully.

While we can’t change the world around us, we can change ourselves. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have visions of how we would like life to be—for ourselves, in our relationships, at work, and even in the world at large. Essentially we want to feel safe and cared for—physically and emotionally. Anything that threatens this can set off internal alarms in the form of fear-based thoughts and feelings. The best thing we can do is to become aware of these alarms and stop the fear-driven reaction in its tracks—and then respond appropriately.

Loving what is

loving what isThe German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described his formula for human greatness as amor fati, which is Latin for a love of fate. This concept is rooted in Stoicism, a school of philosophy that began in ancient Greece and was later adopted in ancient Rome, with Emperor Marcus Aurelius being a key proponent. Nietzsche wrote: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it. . .but love it.” Now that is a tall order: to love whatever happens to us.

As fate would have it, I was given the perfect opportunity to test this wisdom shortly after I started writing this article. It was Saturday night and a part of a tooth broke off and I swallowed it! I became incredibly anxious. I recalled that during my last visit the dentist said that old fillings were breaking in that quadrant of my mouth and that I needed crowns. I told him then that it was not a good time.

I sat quietly, breathing for a few minutes, first observing that there was no pain. Trusting this problem could be addressed on Monday, I calmly—even lovingly—accepted my fate. And I even went out dancing. When I realized this wasn’t a huge fateful occurrence, I was able to regroup quickly, which was far different than my reaction would have been in the past. When I finally saw the dentist I told him I was ready to love my fate. This phrase became my mantra subsequently as he drilled away (though I admit I wasn’t fully loving every moment of that experience).

Another opportunity

Our guide Paz

Our guide Paz

I had another chance to witness this loving acceptance of what is recently while vacationing in the Mexican city of Puerto Morelos. I joined a tour that took us into the Yucatan jungle. The Mayan guide, Paz, was well versed in the medicinal applications of various plants and tree barks as well as the habits of local wildlife. There still are jaguars in the jungle and Paz explained that they are nocturnal and very catlike. Then he shared that a jaguar had actually eaten two of his dogs. Yikes! He said he lives in a rural village in a typical Mayan home with no doors and sleeps on the upper level. One morning he came down to find one dog missing. The next week he caught the culprit in action with his other dog—but was too late. “You must have been horrified,” I said. He smiled with near amusement, saying that the jaguar was simply fulfilling its nature. At least it appears that Paz knows how to meet life on life’s terms—and, he got another dog.

Meet and learn

Finding true personal satisfaction and contentment requires us to give up our desire for life to always be a certain way. The Buddha referred to this as “cooling the fire of desire.” To meet life on life’s terms doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action to change things personally, or even globally. Instead, our starting point becomes life as it is in this moment and simply being with what is rather than reacting to it. In addition, we learn to meet life without clinging to pleasant experiences, which inevitably don’t last.

MessengerRichard C. Miller, Ph.D, founder of the iRest Yoga Nidra meditation protocol, has written, “Everything we experience is a portal that can bring us back home to our intrinsic wisdom, love, equanimity and contentment.” When we meet life on life’s terms—even doing so lovingly—every experience becomes a messenger that we can learn from. These messengers show up whenever we feel powerless, constrained, imperfect, or lacking in any way. They also show up as periods of ecstasy—and the laundry. When we catch the reactive messenger and allow it to share its message, we gain intrinsic satisfaction and wholeness.

Stoicism, Buddhism, and other philosophic traditions place the responsibility on the individual to act from a place of love and compassion. The Stoic sage faced with misfortune would be emotionally resilient, with “virtue” sufficient for happiness—thus bearing a “stoic calm.” For Buddhists, it’s coming to terms with the way things are, not imposing optimism and hopefulness on them.

Allowing life’s terms

Allowing everything to be exactly as it is from moment to moment allows peace and happiness to surface. With clarity and stability of mind and body we are then able to meet life on life’s terms with the most appropriate response.

Amor fati may be a bit stringent for most of us, but we can at least befriend its terms, learn from it, and move forward meaningfully.

The next step

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

We live in a culture that views success as a process of steadily moving forward, while moving backward implies failure. The title of this article was a phrase used by President Obama in his farewell speech to the nation; he was referring to the historical forward and sometimes backward movement of our country’s progress. Let’s put aside the debate as to whether the U.S. is currently moving forward or backward and consider the phrase as a metaphor for our personal lives. While time marches on linearly, as much as we may wish it to be different, our lives often fail to progress in the same manner, and discouragement may prevail.

Just as tides ebb and flow, there is a continual back-and-forth movement in the ebb and flowtrajectory of our lives. Our best-laid plans can fall short or, for whatever reason, not come to fruition. Taking a step back periodically is a natural and sometimes necessary component of life. It can help us replenish and build the inner strength and courage to meet life circumstances. The key to our growth as human beings is the ability to welcome the backward movements when they come—as they inevitably will—and learn from them, rather than allow discouragement to stifle our spirit and motivation.

As Oswald Chambers, an early 20th-century Scottish Baptist evangelist, wrote, If you are going through a time of discouragement, there is a time of great personal growth ahead.” 

Backward resistance

Backward steps, as well as side steps and twirling, add intricacy and enjoyment to social dancing. But when it comes to our personal lives, going backwards generally doesn’t feel good. We may even try to avoid it at all costs. It may be a cliché, but whatever we resist persists. Resistance in fact may be hazardous to our well-being and ultimately cause much pain and suffering.

resistenceWhen obstacles block our path, a knee-jerk reaction may be frustration, anger, dismay, or outright grief. There are times when the backward movement seems far greater than just one step. Many people are bitter about the outcome of the recent election. But losses are inevitable and come in many forms. We have all faced the loss of a loved one or relationship, a job or opportunity, or an investment in a dream. I’ve personally had my share of such losses. But rather than let our losses put us into a tailspin, I’ve learned that at least initially it is best to surrender to the emotional plunge rather than resist it.

In the midst of a backward movement, old beliefs and fears may surface. The situation may require not only a step backwards but also a side step into uncharted territory where we don’t feel safe. We may become overwhelmed and think “I’m not good (smart, capable, strong) enough.”  We may ask “How did this happen?” “Why me?” “What did I do wrong?” We may feel alone, unloved, unseen, unheard, or unappreciated.

Worst of all, we may succumb to being a victim and just give up. But giving up only stifles the spirit. When we surrender to the “poor me syndrome, which can give rise to addictive behaviors as we seek ways to numb our pain, we tune out from life.

Uncovering courage

heart The Latin word for courage is cor, which literally means “heart.” The original meaning of courage is “to stand by one’s core.” The prefix dis signifies a moving away from or a reversing force. When we continue to feed our discouragement with negative thoughts and emotions, we move away from our core, our heartfelt values, and aliveness.

When fear and other negative emotions take over, we “disour courage. Power is taken away from what truly wants to emerge—our inner wisdom and strength. While our physical body constantly seeks the homeostasis of health and harmony, our emotions and thoughts can be examined and soothed to enable them to reestablish harmony. We can benefit deeply when we step back and just be present with what is. When we take this opportunity and set judgment aside, we create space to be open and understand what is getting in the way of our emotional harmony.

Mark Nepo, author of Facing the Lion, Being the Lion: Finding Inner Courage, teaches us how to face the lion, our inner core of courage, and then stand by it, live through it, and encourage others to do the same. We admire those people who summon up the courage to help in life-threatening situations, stand up to an abusive partner, or bounce back from a major life setback. Those people, Nepo says, have an inner courage. “By inner courage,” he writes, “I mean the ground of quiet braveries from which the more visible braveries sprout.”

We all have this inner courage that can help us meet the disappointments in our life without overreacting to them. When we connect with our inner core, we are better able to meet our life circumstances in a grounded way. We stay open so that we can be engaged with life.

self compassionHeart of courage

The human spirit has an amazing resiliency; we truly want to be happy.  Yet, it’s easy to get stuck in the muck of our setbacks.

One clear way to access our inner core is through love and compassion—not just through our feelings for others but through self-compassion. Many of the people I work with find it a tall order to be kind to themselves, especially those who are struggling to recover from trauma. But by accessing our inner core of courage and learning to stand by it and live from it, we honor our values and can be true to ourselves.

Having learned to step back and both face and listen to my core of courage has enhanced my ability to encourage others to do the same. You too can find your heart of courage and once again take big steps forward.

beginnings from endings

Beginnings from Endings: Hope for Something Better

Every ending creates space for a new beginning to emerge—a seedbed of potentiality and hope for something better. It’s a law of nature that life continually seeks places to germinate. Beginnings from endings can be an exciting time for us with opportunities for change. A time to establish a new habit, relationship, city, or a completely new way of life. But it also means saying good-bye to what we have known, loved, or lost.

“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”—Lao Tzu

“We grin and bear it ’cause the nights are long. I hope that somethin’ better comes along.” — The Muppets

hope for something betterExperiencing an ending, loss, or defeat can cause us to become immobilized. We might grieve for what once was or might have been, as Lao Tzu (ancient Chinese philosopher) and the Muppets realized.

Beginning a new year in the North, with its long winter nights and bitter cold, can be trying. What I’m most motivated to do is snuggle up by a fire, sip hot tea, reflect, and turn in early. Nature turns inward at this time of year to conserve energy. I believe we should as well.

Moving through any transition means allowing space for self-reflection. This space invites our heart’s deepest longings to be revealed. Being fully human is to learn from what has ended, find something that gives us inspiration for the future, and take action by cultivating new seeds. But we must also be prepared for future endings.

Learning from endings

Every ending is ripe with messages to learn from. But how can we learn from endings that cause disappointment or grief? If we simply try to bypass our emotional reaction to the ending and get on with life, we miss the chance to honor the best parts of those experiences or find closure through acceptance or forgiveness. We also risk stuffing unresolved emotions that can plague us in the future.

new beginningThere is a Buddhist story about a woman whose only child had died. Unwilling to accept his death, she sought out the Buddha and pleaded with him to bring back her child. He promised to create a medicine for this if she would gather mustard seeds from all the neighbors in her village who had not been touched by death. She, of course, discovered that everyone had been touched. She was then able to accept the death, find peace, and move forward with her life. When we acknowledge the sorrows from our loss, we can begin to cherish a new beginning.

As humans, no matter what our religious faith, beliefs, ideologies, or values, we have much in common. When we attempt to gather “mustard seeds,” we find that everyone experiences some kind of suffering.

Everyone experiences losses and disappointments. Everyone has fears, including fears of getting sick, getting old, and passing away. Everyone has desires and unfulfilled dreams. Everyone wants to be safe and secure and experience peace. Everyone wants to be happy and feel loved and cared for.

Choosing one’s own way

With the increasing disharmonies and divisiveness in the world, isn’t it time to rethink our connection with others and value the things we have in common? Isn’t it time to learn how to live our lives with less effort and more ease rather than great effort, stress, and dis-ease? Isn’t it time to reflect on what is really important in our lives and contemplate our spiritual nature and maybe even how we fit into the bigger scheme of things?

Search for meaningVictor Frankl, who survived two Nazi death camps, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning about the men who walked through huts at the camps comforting others. He said, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances….” He went on to say that to choose one’s own way is a spiritual freedom that can’t be taken away—and it makes life meaningful.

Emotional suffering from circumstances in our life and in the world can compromise our physical, mental, and spiritual health. In spite of what is going on in and around us, this concept of spiritual freedom can help us shift our perspective—and our health. When an individual can face death and still find purpose, imagine what we can do when we take time to contemplate our deepest longings. Uncovering what we value—what we believe in and care about and what brings us joy—can give us  hope and inspiration. While this may seem like a lofty process, when we regularly take time for self-reflection—through journaling, meditation, a solitary walk, or a talk with a trusted confidant, the answers begin to become clear.

Hope, Inspiration Action

InspireThe root of the words “inspire” and “spirit” is spiritus, which means to “breathe.” Living in harmony with our core values inspires us to breathe in hopes and ideas and animates us to take action.

Whether changing a habit, identifying a new life direction, or beginning a new project, it’s important to be aware of obstacles and find ways to overcome them. What may block you from living in alignment with your values—lack of time, resources, distraction? Taking action requires not only letting go of the past but also controlling the outcome. Remain open and curious about future possibilities, and the hope for something better.

When endings leave us feeling broken, we may also feel isolated. Hope and faith can help build an inner sanctuary of safety to help us move beyond our own condition. Having human connections provides us essential support and the security of community. These connections may even “conspire” to new help us find a meaningful path. Conspire means to breathe together in harmony.

Embrace the light

The poet Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” When we embrace the light of hope, faith, self-confidence, and compassion for others, we move beyond our own condition.

Desmond Doss

Desmond Doss

Desmond Doss is an example of someone who exuded this approach. He was a 145-pound World War II medic of the 77th Army Division who served at Hacksaw Ridge (also the title of a book and recent movie) on Okinawa, Japan. As a conscientious objector, he refused to carry a gun. Yet, following battle, but still under enemy fire, he single-handedly rescued 75 men and lowered them to safety below the ridge over a 12-hour period. He continued to say, “Lord, let me find one more.” If you can stomach the war scenes, it’s an incredibly inspiring movie.

Whenever plagued by inner anxieties and self-doubts, take time to reflect on your deepest values. You’re bound to find a spark of hope. Savor each step forward, each accomplishment, and every tiny pleasure. Draw inspiration from your endings your new beginnings to flourish.

interconnected with nature

Surrender to the Season

Let me share an amazing story of a relative of mine who recently passed away peacefully in her sleep at the ripe age of 94. Ruth not only lived in the flow of life, she danced in it! During her lifetime she had four husbands. She knew how to pick good ones, since they all danced. However, the first and second marriages were short-lived. One died in the war and another died of a brain tumor. Raising three small children she was a single working mom focused on building a strong, loving family bond. Continue reading

Liminality: Navigating Life’s In-Between Spaces

We’ve all had this experience.

inbetween spaceThings are moving along in a natural progression. Life is good. Then something happens that turns your whole world upside down.  You may feel overwhelmed, confused, or you may feel euphoric. Perhaps you’re not sure how you feel. You’re in a state of liminality.

Navigating Liminality can be challenging and requires great courage.
It can also be a time of deep inner reflection.

Rites of Passage

DSCN1232The word liminality, originally coined by anthropologists, referred to various rites of life passage. The root is the Latin word, “limen,” meaning “threshold.” It’s the crossing over from one state to another, as in the space between wakefulness and sleep.

A change of place, social position or age can precipitate this condition. Liminality has three stages: 1) Leaving where you’ve been or experiencing a loss 2) Passing through an ambiguous stage 3) Emerging into a new realm with renewed resolve.

Life passages are often celebrated through formal rites or rituals.

In an indigenous culture, an adolescent moving into adulthood performs a vision quest to find himself and his intended spiritual and life direction.

In modern culture, ceremonies are performed for graduations, engagements and weddings. One’s entire life is recognized and honored at a funeral or memorial service.

Often these events are led by elders, shamans or clergy. They help guide us through these transitions, offering wise counsel and encouragement to pass through the liminal threshold for what lies ahead. Wise guides are not always present for our passages, though.

Navigating loss

Alice meets caterpiller

Alice meets caterpiller

“Who are YOU?” asked the Caterpillar. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present –at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

~Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Some life changes come about through an unexpected circumstance or catastrophe. There is little, if any, time to prepare. Whether experiencing a natural disaster or a personal loss, we can never know how we are going to feel or react. This can be the most challenging liminal state of all.

Losing a loved one, even when it is inevitable,
creates a void and can leave you feeling empty.

When my mother died, I felt like an orphan. As I dwelled in the liminal cave of healing, I began to rethink who I was and what was my purpose in the world. With the help of a strong support system, I emerged at the other end inspired and with a huge amount of creative inspiration and lust for life.

Loss of a relationship can be a blow to your self-esteem. Thoughts like, “what did I do wrong,”  “I’m not lossloveable”, “I’ll never find another”, appear and cloud your mind.

When this happened to me a few years ago, I made the decision not to take it personally, trust that it was for the best. Beating myself up or holding anger served no healthful purpose. I’d been through other losses and always bounced back. I needed to forge a new path. A surprising healing takes place over time for most of us, especially those with a strong support system.

Job transition

With job loss, however, the longer one is without a job, the more likely one’s liminal period can include anger, depression and loss of self-esteem. A plummeting sense of self-worth can paralyze.

Yet, this can be a real opportunity to reevaluate your life. Examine your gifts and talents and uncover your true passions. Discover how you want to live the next chapter of your life. I have led many people in transition through this process.

Transformation

A liminal period can be life-transforming – for better or worse. It may be short or long-lived, even permanent.

Sometimes people drop out of society. Some vow never to be in relationship again, living with anger, guilt and resentment. Some accept jobs at less pay or status. Others heal, seek new relationships, start businesses, and re-enter the social whirl in a new form.

This can be an opportunity to step back, to review your creative foundation and life purpose. A time to test your potential.

I move into liminality every time I begin to write these articles. I may think I know what I want to say. Then, through research, introspection and extemporaneous writing, new ideas emerge and flow onto the page.

Inner Work

Liminality can be the rich soil to grow creative ideas,
a new road to travel or even a new identity.

IntentionOur lives are constantly in flux. We’re absorbing new information, reflecting on the past, aspiring towards the future. Discomfort with transition can cloud our perspective. Anxiety and fear may try to divert us. Know it is just your fragile, threatened ego trying to block change.

Liminality can be taken into meditation where you can step back and reflect. Watch your mind, your thoughts and feelings. See problems as objects floating inside your head based on your perceptions, not who you really are.

Invite the ego to sit in your guesthouse of awareness, while you explore with openness the vast potentiality available to you. Explore the liminal space between thoughts, between breaths. This clears the pathway to commune with your Source where truth, peace and love reside, bringing you to a place of wholeness and enabling you to reenter the world anew.

“From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be…….but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.”Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

Welcome liminality to help you decide where that will be. ~ Namaste

How to Get High on Your Life

Will the economy ever return to providing the good times we once took for granted?  Greed and mismanagement have shown their ugly face and, as a result, millions in our nation are suffering. Those who can still afford the high life are a privileged elite.

getting-highActually we can all live the high life – in a natural humanistic way – with the “Givers High.” The good news is that the means for experiencing this high, in terms of body-mind health, better relationships and spiritual well-being, is available to virtually everyone. Plenty of research studies support how performing acts of kindness contributes to a longer, healthier, happier life.

Getting the “givers high” doesn’t require money, drugs, material possessions, or expensive entertainment. In fact, even if you’ve had to downsize, minimize and simplify, you can still enjoy a richly rewarding and meaningful life. This elevated state can be easily realized by showing concern for others, being a good empathetic friend, reaching out to help a neighbor, mentoring, or volunteering in our community.

Change of heart
|I sense that our society may very well be at a tipping point for positive change. Perhaps this is a time for cleansing and moving from a society enveloped in secrecy, power and greed, to one that recognizes the basic human values of truth, transparency, compassion and interdependence. We are, after all, social beings here on Earth to help one another.

This change is evident in a new breed of humanitarian warriors. A remarkable journey is portrayed in Eric Greiten’s book, “The Heart and the Fist: the Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.

Before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Greiten volunteered in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Bolivia serving war-affected children. Integrating his studies and experience with deployments as a Navy SEAL fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, he learned that without courage, compassion falters, and without compassion, courage has no direction. Returning home, he started Mission Continues, an organization to help empower wounded and disabled veterans start new lives as citizen leaders here at home.

Our wired nature
Lots of research shows we are hard-wired to commit acts of kindness and generosity We are all natural born givers—it’s a primal urge. As early as a baby’s first birthday, she demonstrates the need and ability to empathize, connect, care and share. Her soothing and caring expressions melt our hearts, reigniting the joyful, caring child within us. Hanging out with babies can bring out the best in us.

The Dalai Lama says that “our primary purpose is to help others.” He believes that a major paradigm shift of this millennium is from the belief that “parents raise children” to one in which “children raise parents.” There does seem to be a trend among younger people toward getting high by living more consciously, as vegans, protectors of the environment, doing good deeds and finding new ways to connect. Whatever negatives may exist with social networking, the younger generation is living with greater transparency and interconnectedness than previous generations.

This natural givers instinct undeniably blossoms most clearly in the roles of parent, friend, mentor, worker, teammate, and creator.  Similar to the “runners high,” Greitin sees that, in the process of giving, the brain releases natural opiates, endorphins and calming hormones such as oxytocin.

In our next article we explore more benefits to “getting high on giving,” and inspiration for giving of your best self.

IRS + OM: Rewiring for Positive Change

IRS omOur New Year’s resolutions of starting over and embarking on a healthier, wiser path often tend to fade when we discover how difficult it is to change our behaviors. Yet we do have the ability to rewire our circuitry—our patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—by engaging IRS’s positive change agents (Intention, Repetition, and Self-compassion) and linking them to the powering force of OM (One-pointed Mind). Let’s explore this.

Outmoded wiring
We are born with powerful patterns in our brain circuitry—mental, emotional, neural, physical, and behavioral. From those patterns, along with our early conditioning, habits are formed. Once negative habits or misperceived patterns of anger or mistrust are firmly established, we have almost no choice but to continually repeat them.

neuroplasticity1The good news is that science has discovered that the brain is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity. It has the ability to regenerate and change and is capable of creating both flexible and rigid behaviors, good and bad. We can release outmoded beliefs and behaviors, change the way we think, respond and act in our lives to help us manifest goals, and thrive with more joy and fulfillment.

OM: One-pointed Mind
Our minds by nature are many-pointed. Our senses, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are working constantly, pulling our attention in many directions. A focused mind helps us connect to our True Self or Higher Power to regenerate and create new neural pathways. This process of rewiring enables us to move beyond a perpetual treadmill existence. Meditation and yoga (including chanting OM) are systems that help us train the mind, allowing us to make this deep connection.

I:  Intention paves the way
graphic burstA powerful first step in the rewiring process of our neural pathways is in creating and holding intentions. You may have the desire to lose weight, find a new job or a new relationship, or grow your business. However, for long-lasting change, it’s important not only to put a specific target on each intention—such as ten pounds or increasing sales by 30%—but to delve inside for a deeper desire and motivation for your life to support your intentions.

Sit quietly and inquire into your True Self for your deepest desire – what you truly value, care about and love. Feel your desire as though it’s already happening. The mind knows no past or future, only the present.

Keep your mind one-pointed by starting each day or each endeavor aimed at achieving your goal tuned in to your heartfelt intention. Self-discipline then becomes a natural outpouring of this process as the desire to achieve your intention creates its own neural pathway.

R: Repetition creates the link
Repetition, such as with affirmations, is an important key for creating new patterns in the brain and furthering the intention process. Mohammed Ali constantly recited rhyming couplets as though they were mantras, and then topped it off with a self-affirming, “I am the greatest!”

Clinical psychologist and integrative yoga therapist Bo Forbes found that Repetition with only 15–30 minutes of twice-weekly breathing exercises and restorative yoga, her clients became more emotionally settled. In her book, Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practice to Relieve Anxiety and Depression Forbes writes that the nervous system, the body, and the practicing of patterns are primary agents of neuroplasticity. Calming the body through a body-centered practice, such as yoga, chi, or meditation creates a foundation for the creation of new patterns.

S: Self-compassion fortifies
lotus pink smallAchieving long-lasting change requires more than self-discipline. It’s important not to beat yourself up after a few unsuccessful tries at changing habits or behaviors. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat a thought or act in order for the pathways to coalesce, allowing for the positive change to begin.

When self-criticism, self-judgment, or self-doubt does surface, understand that being hard on yourself makes you less resilient after setbacks and more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Practicing self-compassion helps to strengthen and fortify your desire. It’s about caring and wanting the best for yourself, wanting to heal, be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. Using your one-pointed mind along with consistent repetition of your deepest desire helps your brain to create new pathways for positive, long-lasting change.

Let the awaking energy of spring’s new life invigorate you as you practice Intention, Repetition, and Self-compassion with a One-pointed Mind to help produce positive change.

~ Read full article from this adaptation in March/April 2011 Yoga Chicago