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Freedom, Fear and the Art of Getting Unstuck
By Eric Klein
© 2011 by Eric Klein. All rights reserved. Help your friends leave their karma Send them to www.wisdomheart.org/50ways so they can get this e-book. Go deeper Get more teachings and practices at www.wisdomheart.org Facebook Wisdom Heart http://tinyurl.com/3klmp3t Follow on Twitter www.twitter.com/ericklein Get in touch Feel free to write with any questions, comments, or suggestions. email@example.com Dharma Doodles for your home and office The art in this book is available as art prints and t-shirts at: www.dharmadoodles.com What are you doing this Sunday? If you’re in the vicinity of Encinitas, California on Sunday, come to our Wisdom Heart Meditation. Learn more here: http://www.wisdomheart.org/programs/sunday-meditation/ Wisdom Heart 1455 Hymettus Ave Encinitas, CA 92024 USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 760-436-5535 Typo patrol You’re invited to join the typo patrol. If you find spelling, syntax, punctuation mistakes in the text, tell us: email@example.com Each month we will select one member from the typo patrol to receive a special bonus.
To Goswami Kriyananda for transmitting the teachings. Big Dave Blair (Goswami Kripananda) for the first draft. To Devi for walking the Wisdom Heart path with me. To Jann for editing and more. To Lynn for years of graphic beauty. To Jess for behind-the-scenes grace. To my Brain Trust—Jenn, Mark, Michael, Michele, Molly— for revealing the concealing. To all who have supported and shared this work—may we realize the blessing.
What’s karma and why does it matter?
I love rock gardens. So when a notice on Craig’s List offered free rocks and boulders, I jumped at the chance. For two days I hauled rocks from an excavated site near my house with the help of three really strong guys. On our second trip, the truck—laden with 3 tons of rock—got stuck in loose dirt around the excavated site. The driver gunned the engine to escape—throwing up clouds of dust and burying the tires deeper.
Sometimes life is like that.
You’ve got a heavy problem. You want to move your life forward. All your efforts spin you deeper into an all-too-familiar rut. There’s an ancient Sanskrit word for the way you spin yourself into a rut—karma.
Karma isn’t some mysterious energy or fate.
It’s not a cosmic Santa Claus process for handing out rewards and punishments. Karma is action and its results. Karma is what you do in thought, speech, and action to generate your life experience. When you’re spinning your wheels, cycling through the same problems in relationships, at work, with money, again and again—that’s karma in action. Your life is not happening to you any more than the loose dirt was forcing my truck to be stuck. It’s a result of karma— of your thoughts, speech, and action.
Imagine a friend comes to you all excited about her new relationship.
She’s glowing. You’re wary. You’ve seen her like this before. You’ve heard all the same words. And based on her history, you’re pretty sure where this relationship is headed— right into the same rut.
You can see the pattern of her karma.
You see the pattern of thought, speech, and action that keeps her spinning through repetitive relationship dramas. It’s clear to you that her problem is karmic—a consequence of this signature pattern in intimate relationships. As long as she perpetuates it, she’ll continue to get the same results—drama, pain, breakup.
You can see her situation clearly; she can’t.
You’re able to witness her pattern as it arises without believing this time it will be different. Not because you’re psychic or cynical. But because you can see clearly with compassion and detachment. As a compassionate detached observer, you see her pattern as a pattern. You’re able to witness the karma as it arises without being swept into the drama, without buying into it. But your friend doesn’t see her own karma. She doesn’t witness it arising. She gets sucked in and experiences the same drama over and over again. To leave her karma, your friend needs to witness her own karmic patterns.
She needs to step out of her karmic patterns in order to generate new life experience.
But, how can she do this, when the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that are swirling through her body and mind all insist…this is the one. She needs to observe with compassion and detachment her own thoughts, words, and deeds as a pattern, and then see the connection between that pattern and failed romance. And she can. She just has to learn how. But, here’s the rub—this isn’t really about your friend.
This is about where your life is like my truck—stuck in the sand.
It’s about how your patterns of thought, speech, and action keep you stuck. Because there’s some aspect of your life that’s not working. Some part of your life where you spin through repetitive cycles of struggle and drama, where you need to leave your karma. Take a moment and reflect on that.
This book is about how to get un-stuck.
How you can get un-stuck from that pattern. And you can. But not when you’re identified with your karma. Being identified with your karma means: • Not witnessing your patterns as they arise • Being swept up in repetitive thoughts and emotions • Reacting in ways that perpetuate the experience of struggle. Whatever you identify with—you can’t observe.
Un-observed patterns of thought, speech, and action continue to generate experiences without your conscious participation.
If you aren’t mindful of the connection between your pattern and its results, if you don’t witness patterns with compassion and detachment—the karma repeats. For example, if you’re identified with the thought, “Nothing comes easily for me,” that unobserved thought will automatically generate experiences that reflect, verify, and reinforce the unobserved thought. When you’re identified with your karma, the experience nothing coming easily continues to happen to you. When you observe your karma with compassion and detachment, you see how that thought propels your life experience, moment-by-moment. You witness this pattern as it arises with an open heart and clear mind.
Building your witnessing capacity is the key to getting unstuck.
This book provides you with 50 ways to do just that. These methods have been tested and refined for thousands of years by spiritual practitioners, yogis, and meditators from many wisdom traditions. Modern neuro-psychology is confirming a scientific basis for why these methods work. The bottom line: they work. They’ll work for you when you practice them. Then, when you find yourself spinning your wheels, you won’t rev your karmic engines. You’ll witness the patterns as they arise, and know what to do to free yourself and enrich your world.
Love and Blessings,
Does Your To-Do List Matter?
There’s so much to do. So many items on the ever expanding to-do list. How can you set priorities and focus on what matters most? How can you whittle the list down to the core so that your actions and choices align with your heart’s deeper dream?
The wisdom traditions from around the world suggest using death as your advisor.
These traditions view the awareness of death, far from being a morbid preoccupation, as the light that illuminates the sacredness of this moment. I remember teaching a meditation retreat on Maui and waking each morning to the most amazing spider web bedecked in glistening drops of dew. Each drop sparkled like a jewel in the morning sun. The very sun that would cause each radiant drop to evaporate within the hour.
Isn’t every moment as amazing and radiant as a drop of dew—and— as fleeting?
Yes, there’s a lot to do. And awareness of death—which is awareness of the sacredness of this moment—clarifies the relative importance of the items on your to-do list. Awareness of death brings into sharp relief this moment-to-moment choice: will you devote yourself to what matters most or pour your life into busy-work? Fidelity to your heart’s deepest dream isn’t a matter of self-discipline or following a complicated task management system. It’s more a practice of remembering that this life is jewel-like, radiant, and fleeting like the dew on a spider’s web.
Try this alternative to a long and complicated to-do list.
Several times each day, pause and ask the question that poet Mary Oliver poses: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And, I would add—“And what is a simple, direct choice that will move you in that direction?” Okay. Go do that.
How Success Limits You
When I was thirteen years old I learned to play blues riffs on the guitar. I practiced for hours until the patterns were ingrained into my fingers and I could play them effortlessly. Very cool.
It took practice, but now after decades of playing those same riffs, I’m unconsciously competent. I can play those riffs in my sleep. And that’s the problem. When I sit down, forty years later, to learn new riffs—it’s really tough. My fingers don’t easily cooperate. They automatically return those well-grooved patterns of notes.
That’s the problem with success.
I succeeded in learning a specific pattern of notes, which is wonderful—as long as the band keeps playing the blues. But when the music changes and my fingers don’t adapt, no matter how masterfully I play those old blues riffs—they don’t work. My well-grooved guitar habits are in the way of playing beautiful music. It’s the same with any successful pattern of behavior.
You’ve reached your current level of success based on patterns of thought, speech, and action.
You’ve mastered a pattern of mental, emotional, and physical riffs that are characteristic of…you. You can play the riffs-of-you effortlessly. These are your karmic success habits. You’ve practiced them for years and now they run on auto-pilot, which works well—until it doesn’t. When your automated patterns of thought, speech, and action no longer work, it’s a wake-up call. For most people, the wake-up call comes as unexpected failure: • A presentation you make bombs. • A conversation with a loved one turns sour. • A project you developed falls flat. • A skill that you’ve grown to rely on, no longer produces the same results. You don’t plan on the wake-up call. The music of life around you changes and your tried and true riffs no longer work.
It’s a shock.
I’ve asked thousands of people what kind of emotions they experience when their welldeveloped patterns of success no longer serve them. Here are a few: • Shock • Disappointment • Anxiety • Fear • Embarrassment • Doubt • Anger • Shame
It’s not the new skills or behaviors that are the challenge.
It’s these surging emotions. They can easily overwhelm. And when they do, your awareness fragments, your flexibility and creativity evaporate, and your connection to those around you is broken. The key to growth is to maintain awareness—consciousness—when these powerful emotions errupt. Because the tendency is to go unconscious and slip back into the patterns that you know so well. It’s soothing to the nervous system to be back in the familiar routine. It feels safe.
But retreating into karmic patterns, while temporarily soothing, only amps up the intensity of the wake-up call. As the disconnect between your outmoded patterns and the needs of the present situation grows—painful emotions magnify. And your capacity to deal skilfully with the situation decreases. Better to face the difficult emotions sooner than later.
How do you face—and transform challenging emotions?
By understanding that their true message isn’t—danger, danger, danger. It’s—wake up, wake up, wake up. Every emotion is a wake-up call. It’s a call for mindfulness and the need to infuse awareness into: • Your inner experience • The situation you’re in
There’s a difference between awareness and emotion.
Emotions arise within awareness. They’re objects of your awareness. Notice this and breathe. Awareness is the witness of emotions. Awareness is…um…simply aware, even as emotions jump around. Keep breathing and be aware. Your breath is your greatest ally as you strengthen your capacity to be mindful, present, and awake in the presence of strong emotions. Breathe, not to make the emotions go away, but to rest in the distinction between emotion and awareness. Really feel the distinction. Awareness is…simply aware. The emotions rise and fall. Developing your capacity to rest in awareness—while emotions move through your system—is the key to accelerated learning, growth, and development.
As your capacity to rest in awareness deepens, you can let every emotion be fully itself.
You don’t have to manipulate or manage emotions—reactively pulling some towards you and pushing others away. You experience, breath-by-breath, that emotions can’t threaten awareness. Rather, awareness provides the unshakeable context in which you can experience emotion completely—while remaining fully present.
To the degree that you are fully present to emotions, they naturally come to rest.
When your fear button is triggered, you aren’t swept away in a tidal wave of emotions. You surf the wave of emotions with a sense of compassionate and detached awareness. And within that uncontrived field of awareness, emotion, like a wave in the ocean, completes itself. Through the power of awareness you can naturally replace outmoded habits with wiser and more skillful ways of interacting with others and contributing to the world.
It’s not that you’re suddenly able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
That would be wishful thinking—not mindful awareness. Rather bringing awareness to inner experience frees you from the confinement of success. You’re not limited by what you’ve mastered in the past. Through the power of awareness, you open to untapped inner resources and to the world around you. You’re able to listen and learn without defensiveness. To experiment with new ways of being.
Your focus shifts from defensiveness to discovery.
You’re not concerned with preserving your past as much as curious about what’s possible. Soon, the very conditions that once threatened you and caused you to retreat—become reminders to wake up, be aware, and explore. Then while you can still enjoy playing the blues, you’re open to learning new riffs—and jamming along with the radiant melodies, rhythms, and radiance of life.
Lean Into Your Discomfort
When I was six years old I loved Roy Rodgers. I wanted to be a cowboy. I longed to sleep out on the range. But I lived in a New York City apartment. So in lieu of nights under the stars, my mother let me set up a tent and “camp ou”t in the living room.
The hardwood living room floor was uncomfortable.
But that very uncomfortable-ness was satisfying. Whenever I felt my bones rubbing against the hard floor, I knew I was getting closer to being a cowboy. What does sleeping on hardwood have to do with freedom and getting unstuck?
Getting unstuck is a learning process.
And all learning includes uncomfortable moments. When you’re learning a new way of being in the world, it’s inevitable that you’ll be clumsy
at first. You’re out of your depths; your nervous system is working hard to wire in the new way of thinking and acting. Whenever you take on a new behavior, new project, or a new way of relating to your life— you won’t have it mastered on day one. You’re at the base of a learning curve and walking your way up will include some stumbling. It’s not the stumbling that makes you uncomfortable.
Stumbling and bumbling doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable.
In fact, it can be very satisfying. It’s your interpretation that counts. When I rolled over onto the hardwood floor and bruised my hipbone—I took that as a sign of progress. I was that much closer to being a cowboy.
What makes being uncomfortable satisfying?
When you recognize that the discomfort is taking you closer to your goal. When you understand the discomfort as a signal that your body/mind is working intensely to build new patterns. Then you’ll gladly lean into your discomfort.
You’ll seek out experiences and opportunities where you can lean into your discomfort.
Not simply to feel the hardwood rubbing against your ribs but because you want to grow, learn, and develop. And opportunities abound. Think about a conversation that you know you’re going to have in the next three days. Pick one that is important and that will take both courage and skill on your part if it is to go well.
Let yourself sense the energy that starts swirling in your body.
When you bring the upcoming situation to mind—intensely picturing and feeling it— you’ll activate your body/mind. As neurobiologists tell us, even if the intensity seems to be less than when you’re in the “real” situation, the neural pattern is the same.
Because your neurology doesn’t distinguish between being in that conversation and thinking about it.
The same neurological patterns are stimulated whether you’re having the person-to-person encounter or imagining it. This is good news!! You can start to lean into your discomfort before you walk through the door. You can begin to change your experience—before you’re in the conversation. You can begin to develop new and more creative responses—in the privacy of your own awareness.
Explore through your imagination what it would look like for you to show up in that conversation with just a bit more courage.
Picture what it would look like.
What you would do, how you would move, speak, interact. Inwardly, push yourself just a bit. Lean into your discomfort and let your neurology system experience a new way of being in that situation. Remember—practicing this new way in your imagination builds actual neural pathways that support new ways of behaving and interacting.
You can do this in 60 seconds.
Make an appointment with yourself a few times a day. Just lean into your discomfort in the privacy of your own mind. By intentionally and mindfully leaning into your discomfort, you stimulate your body/mind and catalyze inner experiences that develop greater flexibility and choice. Notice how you approach the conversation differently.
Remember, the idea is to lean into your discomfort.
Not to radically transform yourself overnight. Learning doesn’t happen that way. You build mastery incrementally. By leaning into your discomfort not by leaping over it. Because you don’t have to become a full-fledged cowboy overnight.
Action is seductive. When you’re in action mode, a torrent of adrenalin runs through your body like high octane fuel. There’s no time for reflection—only forward motion, production, outcomes, and making it happen.
If you don’t take action—nothing will happen.
That’s how we’ve been conditioned. But is it true? The only way to find out is to be still. But stillness can be terrifying. Especially in a culture that confuses multi-tasking for meaning and staying-busy for being whole-hearted. But until you settle into stillness, you’ll never discover what’s guiding your actions.
Can you be still without getting restless?
Without feeling like the train is leaving the station without you. That you’re missing out or
falling short? Take a few moments each day to stop, settle into stillness, and find out what’s behind your busy-ness.
Feel the tangled web of disparate voices.
When you first slow down, you discover a chorus of contradictory voices giving you directions. Each voice has its own point of view and its own urgent demand. Each voice is fixated on its own survival. When I listen within, I hear the voices of: • Ambition • Self-doubt • Competition • Service • Creativity • Confusion • And more
When the voices keep insisting you do what they say, how can you be still?
You can’t make it happen. You can’t force yourself to be still. But you can just attune and open up to stillness. It’s a paradox of the spiritual life—finding what is ever-present. Stillness is always present. Even in the midst of intense activity—there is stillness.
The stillness is truly ever-present.
It’s your attunement that wanders. And your openness that contracts. Fortunately you don’t have to rush to catch the stillness train. Stillness is here, now, surrounding and interpenetrating every level of your being—right now—as you read these words.
Feel the stillness even as you read.
Notice what it’s like to read and simultaneously connect to that deep stillness. Let the stillness support you as you read, sit, breathe. Throughout your day, notice the everpresent stillness. Open up to it and discover how it can breathe life into your daily actions. Allow stillness to guide you.
Pull the Trigger
Our family cottage on Lake Canandaigua was built over 100 years ago and the foundation has settled unevenly over the decades. Hence the wood floors are not level. There’s one part of the floor where the planks form a slight bump that is barely visible to the eye.
You have to get down to floor level and look really hard to find it. And although I know it is there, when I’m walking along not noticing it can still trip me up. One summer it happened almost every day.
I have thoughts like that bump in the hardwood.
I can be cruising along in my day, doing my work and feeling good. When something happens. It might be a comment from a colleague, an email from a client, a certain look or tone of voice from someone I care about. And I trip.
For me, some people are bumpier than others.
These are my trigger people. You have yours, too. We all do. They’re the folks who can just show up, be themselves, and—wham—you’ve lost your balance. They don’t have to do anything dramatic. With just a glance, a phrase, or tone of voice, they can trigger doubt, fear, rage, anxiety, shame, or overwhelm.
So what can you do about these trigger people?
You can’t avoid them, really. Because even if you stop seeing a specific trigger person— another one will pop up to take their place. There will always be another trigger person as long as you haven’t turned around and smoothed out those bumpy reactions. It’s your inner bumpiness that makes trigger people so…difficult. By smoothing and softening your inner bumpiness—you become less trigger-able, less reactive. But here’s the secret—you don’t have to wait for the trigger people to do their thing in order for you to smooth your reactivity.
You can pull the trigger all by yourself.
And you can change your reaction—by yourself. You can do this in your own mind. Because from the standpoint of your neuropsychology there is no appreciable difference between the thought of the trigger person and the physical trigger person.
You can change your inner response—and learn to dance around that bump.
Then when they do what they do—you don’t trip, stumble, or react. Nice. Through a simple inner practice of meditation (which I will teach you on the link below)— you can learn how to stay balanced, clear, and resourceful when interacting with a trigger person.
Are you ready to stop tripping over those internal bumps?
Here’s the link to a short audio program that covers: • Where the trigger people in your life really live • How to shift your inner reaction • A guided meditation for re-patterning your neuropsychology. Here’s the link: Trigger Person Meditation http://www.wisdomheart.org/trigger-person-meditation/ Let me know how this works for you—and any questions you may have.
Are You on Fire?
We recently took three days off and went to a hot springs. There’s one bath there that’s hot enough to boil an egg. When I first step into the molten water, I cringe. I’m only in up to my knees but already it seems impossible to go deeper. My whole nervous systems is shouting “Get out of here!”
That’s what it’s like when you’re moving deeper into your life.
Everything heats up. Your mind, emotions, body, relationships…everything’s on fire. In the ancient language of Yoga, this fire is called tapas. It’s what’s burning in times of transformation when you’re moving to a deeper level of authenticity and embodied wholeness in your life.
You don’t light this fire.
The fire of transformation or tapas arises not through effort, will power, or goal-setting—
but through awareness. Effort, will power, and goal-setting generate improvement not transformation.
Transformation takes less effort and more awareness.
The fire of transformation is stoked by the naked, uncontrived awareness that sees— without blinking—that your old patterns of thought, speech, and action are outmoded. Seeing this can feel like stepping into incredibly hot water.
It generates a burning sensation all the way to the bottom of your soul.
And rather than allow the tapas to burn and the transformation to proceed—there’s a tendency to pull away. How? By moving into action. By doing something to fix, modify, or improve the patterns of the past. These strategies can be very useful. If what you want is to improve. But it’s not transformation.
To transform, you don’t have to know what you want.
You don’t need clear goals. Or steps. Or programs. Or even a vision. You only need to rest in the fiery awareness that emerges as you see that the patterns of the past no longer serve you.
The patterns of the past are…past.
That’s the simple—burning—message of the fire of tapas. Your past patterns have taken you this far but can’t take you deeper. Naked awareness heightens your sensitivity and illuminates the tension between the well-honed patterns of the past and the fiery imperative of your soul. Awareness turns up the heat.
And your whole system reacts.
Your mind starts spinning and kicking up dust, pebbles, thoughts, and emotions. You want to move out of the fire. The burning awareness that the life you have known is over—can feel too hot to handle. It’s true. The old patterns of identity cannot handle the fire. Your old way of being has had its day. Now it’s time for the fire to do its work.
The fire is there to teach you, purify you, and transform you.
This teaching, purification, and transformation occurs as you stay steady. You don’t have to do the transforming. You can’t. The fire of awareness does all the work. Your role is to stay present. To allow that which is burning away to do so.
What’s burned up in the fire?
Your outmoded self-images— ways of imagining who and what you are. As these selfimages dissolve away, the fire reveals a deeper teaching: You are not your self-images, not your personal or cultural history.
You are not the ideas, projections, hopes, or fears you have had about yourself.
As self-images fall away…you do not disappear. But the you that remains is not an idea or projection. It’s a living presence that has more in common with the fire of awareness than with thoughts of self. Discovering this fiery self, beyond words and ideas, you suddenly find that the hot spring isn’t boiling you alive. It’s healing you. So, you eagerly step in deeper. Deeper than you ever imagined.
Change Your Brain
When Devi and I ran the North County Yoga Center, a subset of our students were serious athletes—world-class runners, volleyball players, tri-athletes. It was amazing to hear an Ironman champion sweating away in downward dog say, “This is hard!”
Huh? What about swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles without a break? To me that’s beyond hard. Yet the same people who competed in the Ironman were challenged by a basic yoga class. How is that possible?
You get good at what you practice.
It’s really that simple. Whether you’re running up hills in the blazing sun, playing arpeggios on the violin, baking sourdough bread, or teaching kids to read—you get good at what you practice.
If you practice intentionally for about 10,000 hours you get more than good.
You gain mastery. That’s what K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues discovered. Now there’s more news on the power of practice. The practice principle doesn’t just count for externally observable skills. The principle also applies to inner states of mind. That’s what the research in the relatively new field of contemplative neuroscience suggests. Contemplative neuroscientists study the brain science of meditation. And what they’re learning provides hard scientific support for the discoveries that yogis, mystics, and meditators have said for centuries: meditation practices work. “We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways,” says Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin. Davidson and his research team have hosted scores of Buddhist monks and other meditators for brain scans. “Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different,” he says. “It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”
You can build your inner capacity without joining a monastery.
Contemplative neuroscientists say that the regular practice of meditation strengthens brain circuits responsible for maintaining concentration and generating empathy. But the study also found that expert meditators—those with more than 10,000 hours of practice— appeared to have permanently changed their brains to be more empathetic.
Now 10,000 hours may seem like a lot of time.
And it is. But every moment of intentional practice makes a difference. You don’t have to be a meditative Ironman tomorrow. There was a time when the Ironman champ couldn’t run a mile. Taking time to be still, focus, connect with your breath, and attune to loving kindness—builds your neural capacity. The key is practice. A little bit every day. Every journey is completed one step at a time. Here’s a link to a guided practice: http://www.wisdomheart.org/center-of-gravity-meditation/
I live in Encinitas, a town mentioned in the famous Beach Boy’s song “Surfin’ USA.” There are many wonderful surf spots along our stretch of the Pacific Ocean: Swami’s, Cardiff Reef, Stone Steps, Bamboos, Beacon’s, Grand View, to name a few.
When the waves are big, boards break.
Colorful, wildly decorated boards are snapped into pieces by the pounding surf. When the boards are broken open, what’s revealed is that they all have a foam core. Regardless of their surface design, the boards are the same on the inside. Just like people. Inside we are all made of the same motivations, emotions, and human concerns. In the day-to-day challenges of life, it’s easy to forget this and see only our surface differences.
The surface differences are real.
People can bring different values, perspectives, and agendas to shared problems. People do reach different—and equally valid—conclusions about what solutions make sense. Differences are real. But when you’re interested in resolving conflicts, reaching agreements, and moving forward together—it’s important to go beyond the surface and connect to what’s deeper.
To connect with others below-the-surface motivations requires empathy.
Empathy is your ability to feel and understand another’s inner experience. When you’re being empathic, you connect with another person’s experience at a deeper level. But to do this, you have to be connected to the deeper parts of yourself. When your perceptions, insights, and understandings come from your surface-self, all you’ll be aware of is the other person’s surface-self. And this superficial view will highlight your differences.
It’s your deeper-than-surface self that is able to connect with their deeperthan-surface motivations and needs.
Fortunately evolution has wired your nervous system to do just that. You’ve got the neurological hardware to be empathic, an empathy-enabling structure in the brain called the insula.
You’re wired for empathy.
Here’s one indication of how important this part of the brain is: the insula consumes 8-10 times more oxygen and glucose than even your major muscles. Here’s how it works: • When you feel basic emotions, your insula lights up. • When you see others in emotional states, your insula activates. Whether the emotional state is “inside” you or “outside” you, the insula lights up. The insula replicates the inner states of others—by generating interior bodily sensations within you, which allows you to “resonate” with another’s inner experience.
The more you’re in touch with your own bodily sensations, the more you’re able to attune to and understand the inner experience of others.
By strengthening the insula—you strengthen your neurological empathic hardware. By strengthening the insula, empathy gets easier. And also more precise.
A well-developed insula enables you to tune in more deeply and more precisely to another’s inner experience.
And when you are more tuned in, you’ll be able to respond skillfully to others’ inner needs. Without empathy, your attention is focused on what others are doing—without any connection to their inner experience, motivations, or needs. When what they are doing isn’t working for you, the tendency is to attribute all kinds of negative intentions or qualities to the other person: • “He’s not capable of collaborating.” • “She’s just a difficult person.” Instead of taking other people’s emotions personally, you become aware of the other person’s inner struggles. That she’s not just being a difficult person, she’s really a struggling human being. Struggling to adapt to change, navigate through difficult choices, and balance conflicting priorities. In short, dealing with emotional challenges just like you.
But how do you strengthen your insula?
By attending to your own inner bodily sensations you build your “insula-ability.” Sensing the temperature and texture of the breath in your lungs activates the insula. Noting the sensations in your muscles and joints lights up the insula. When you pay attention to your own inner bodily states, the insula lights up. It’s a simple thing to do— with huge pay-offs for your life. Who would have thought that simply by regularly attending to your breath and bodily sensations, you could get better at understanding others? But it’s true. The same neurological hardware is employed to do both tasks.
The simplest way to do this is through the regular practice of meditation.
Research shows that meditation dramatically—and positively—thickens the insula. Meditation literally builds your empathy hardware. This means that you can get better at empathy—reading and understanding others—with your eyes closed. Through mindfully attending to your breath and body sensations, you can improve your ability to resolve conflicts, manage differences, and influence others. Just by sitting still and mindfully breathing for just a few minutes each day.
It’s regular practice that provides the best results.
I’m including a simple practice with this chapter. Click here for a guided practice (that takes 3 minutes) you can download and use daily. http://www.wisdomheart.org/sensing-breath-body/ If you take time each day to pay attention to your breath and body, the next time you’re in a conversation and the emotional surf surges—you won’t have to break any boards. You’ll empathically hang ten, dude!
Can You Cross Invisible Lines?
I just recently visited my brother in Colorado. He lives on 22 acres that back up to thousands of acres of National Forest. Because there’s so much land, he has installed an “invisible fence,” so the dogs, Rama and Tandi, don’t wander off. An invisible fence creates an electric boundary line that keeps the dogs within a 12-acre area. The dogs quickly adapted to the “shocking” parameters.
The day before I arrived, my brother expanded the dogs’ territory.
He moved the fence line to include an additional five acres. More space, more exercise, and access the river. But when we went for a walk to the river, the dogs hesitated. They wouldn’t cross the previously established boundary. They “knew” what was in store for them if they did—shock and pain. And so they sat in the dirt. “Come on Rama. Come on Tandi,” we called in our most encouraging you-can-trust-us voices. But the dogs wouldn’t move. They were held in place by…memory.
Memory creates invisible fences.
Your memories of past events, relationships, experiences create invisible fences that shape your present thoughts, speech, and actions. Sometimes these memory-based fences are useful. They provide a sense of reliability, consistency, and coherence. You know who your allies are—based on the memory of past collaborations. You know who you need to be wary of—based on the memory of past difficulties. You don’t have to assess every situation or interaction in the moment.
You rely on your memory to guide you.
This reflexive way of engaging with your world works well—as long as the world doesn’t change. But when the world changes—like when my brother moved the electric fence boundaries—the memory remains.
But relying on memory can limit you.
Because even when situations change, the memory-based patterns of thought and action persist. Because they operate at a level of functioning that is faster than conscious thought, the patterns of the past assert themselves before you know it.
Your memory-based reflexes seem to have a mind of their own.
And in a very practical sense, they do. Having been deeply encoded and streamlined into your neurology, these reflexive programs of thought, speech, and action don’t have to waste time “thinking” before reacting. These reflexive patterns are somatic—woven into your body-mind at the deepest levels.
To communicate with this somatic mind, you need to use “language” it understands.
Wordy-words and logic won’t communicate with this somatic mind. You can’t argue with it. You can’t lecture it. It doesn’t respond to logic or words. You can communicate to your somatic mind through the breath. You do this by intentionally approaching the invisible fence. Simply activating a memory—of a person, situation, event where your memory-based habits no longer serve you, where you want to show up in a new way. But where you keep falling, reflexively, into patterns of the past.
Activate the memory just enough to stimulate your somatic reactions: tightening muscles, tension, anxiety—to initiate the pattern of tension—but not enough to get overwhelmed. Focus your awareness on the obvious place of tension in your body—where you feel the reaction percolating. If you can, place your hand there with a gesture of care and attention.
Feel the gentle warmth and reassuring touch of your hand.
Now communicate to that place in your body via the breath. Let your breath find its own natural, gentle rhythm. Let the message of your hand and the rhythm of your breath communicate care, safety, and acceptance. Notice how the touch and the breath allow the somatic reaction to relax. As the tension relaxes, feel the energy that has been locked up in the reflexive pattern spreading through your body—energizing and strengthening you.
You can free yourself breath-by-breath.
By communicating—via breath and touch—to the places of tension and reactivity in your body, you become the healer, guide, and liberator of patterns of the past. When challenges arise, rather than revert to automatic, out-dated, and unconscious reactions, you can respond creatively and step beyond your invisible fences.
When Devi and I first moved to San Diego, we lived in Ocean Beach, a neighborhood close to the ocean and the airport. I loved being close to the beach. But the roar and rumble of jets overhead tortured me…for about a month. Then I habituated. I didn’t just get used to the noise—I stopped noticing it. The noise didn’t register in my awareness. Through habituation, the roar had receded into the background.
It’s natural to habituate.
Habituation serves a function. It’s necessary in a noisy, information-glutted world to shut out the racket. There’s just too much input for your nervous system to absorb. So you dial down your awareness, habituate, and the din recedes into the background. This allows you to function. To not be overwhelmed. But you’re also not present, no longer in touch with what’s happening around you.
Habituation protects you and it blinds you.
Because whatever you habituate to hasn’t really gone away. It’s just moved into your psychological blind spot. It’s like those jets. After I habituated they were still roaring by. Their din was still pounding away at my nervous system. I just wasn’t aware of their effect.
When you habituate to a situation, you stop noticing the effects.
It’s still affecting you. It’s still there. You’re just not paying attention. The longer a situation persists, the more likely it is that you’ll habituate to it. And do nothing to address it. Until you bring the situation into your awareness—it will continue to affect you and your life. But how can you become aware of what you’ve stopped noticing?
Let’s face it—habituation has its benefits. Turning off your awareness protects you. So before you make any changes, appreciate what the habituation has done for you. And with the very next breath, recognize that habituation confines you.
Here are 3 steps to overcome habituation: Step 1. Go on a rant.
A very specific type of rant with a very defined goal. The goal of this rant is to bring into awareness those concerns, issues, conflicts, that you have ignored, given up hope about, and wish that someone would do something about. To perform this rant successfully you cannot be polite. You can’t be indirect. You need to unload. Put your politically correct persona aside and give your rant free rein. Here are some unfinished sentences to get you started: • I can’t stand it when… • I am so tired of… • Why can’t we… • I wish someone would do something about… • What drives me crazy around here is…
Step 2. Discover what you really care most about.
The rant brings up your raw material and releases a torrent of emotional energy. Don’t get swept away by the river of emotions. Breathe. You’re about to discover the creative impulse that’s below the surface of your emotional river.
Here’s how: realize that you wouldn’t rant about something you didn’t care deeply about. Your rant is actually an expression—emotional as it may be—of your deep caring. So turn your attention towards that caring. Shift your attention from the drama of emotions to the depths of caring. Become aware of what really matters to you, what you really want and care most about. Complete these sentences: • What matters most to me in this situation is… • What I care about is… • What I really want is… • What I am deeply committed to is…
Step 3. Determine a small, immediate action.
Now that you know what you care most about—take action. Do something small that allows you to demonstrate your care and commitment. Something you can do that: • Reflects what you care most about • Is relatively easy to start • Will engage others commitment Don’t take massive action or try to resolve the situation with a single move. This three-step process is not designed to finish the job. Just focus on breaking yourself out of habituation—so that you can be more present to the reality of your experience. Once you’ve broken the spell of habituation, the next move will become clear. Is that the sound of a jet I hear?
Heed the Call
Have your heard the Call? The Call to a deeper life—to a more powerful expression of your gifts? Yes?
Something bigger than you has your inner attention. It’s knock, knock, knocking on the door of your soul, saying… “Hello…Anybody home? Let’s talk.”
You can turn up the volume on the TV to drown out the Call.
Or throw yourself into highly demanding—but soul-deadening—projects. Overbook your schedule so there’s barely a second to pull your head up, look around, and wonder, “What am I devoting my life to?” But distractions—even of the highly profitable kind—don’t contain the minimum daily requirements of spiritual vitamins that your soul needs. And when your soul is malnourished, every area in your life withers. Your soul wants to heed the Call.
How do you start to heed the Call?
You start by going into the desert. Not the desert desert. Just a place that’s empty of distractions. A place where you can receive the Call in an undefended way and let yourself be moved where it leads you. Rest assured where it leads you will thrill you and terrify you. Because the Call is all about courage.
Why does heeding the Call take courage?
Because to heed the Call requires: • Whole-heartedness: love, passion, deep caring • Whole-mindedness: savvy, smarts, thoughtfulness • Whole-body-ness: guts, sweat, and a visceral engagement with the world The Call asks for all of you—heart, mind, and body—to do what needs doing.
The Call needs your best stuff and your worst stuff.
Your well-polished skills and your clumsy bits. Your flair and your flaws. The Call doesn’t want you dressed-for-success. The Call knows that for you to serve fully—you can’t leave bits of yourself behind. The Call wants you to go “all in.”
The tendency is to wait.
To wait for a better time. For things to be sorted out. For the schedule to calm down. For your net worth to hit a magic number. There’s always something that could be a little clearer, safer, a little more certain.
But there’s no safe place to be courageous.
When you step forward whole-heartedly, that doesn’t mean you won’t be trembling. Bring the tremble with you. The doubt too. Bring it all—that’s what wholeness means.
Life is always in flux.
Always not-quite-right. It’s messy. And it’s in the midst of life’s not-quite-rightness that you step forward to follow the Call. It is within the unsatisfactory and unsettled conditions that you say “Yes!”
The broken nature of the world is your invitation to engage.
To lead. To live. To offer your gifts. It’s your own unfinished nature, your own not-quiterightness with which you act.
The incompleteness of the world and your own incompleteness fit each other.
That’s what the Call is telling you. It says, “Your need for wholeness and the world’s need for service complete each other.” Heed the Call.
Are You Playing Chicken Games?
I was heading for a showdown. Having finished my speaking gig, I was lugging a heavy box of books and my arms ached. The guy coming down the hall the other way was coming straight for me and wasn’t going to step aside.
My head was pounding.
The tension from carrying the books and getting lost in the labyrinthine halls—made my head ache. And now there’s this guy barreling down the hall right at me!?! The closer I got, the more it seemed that he was going to force me to move. We were locked into a weird game of chicken.
I plowed on.
I was going to force him to step aside and let me pass.
“I’m not giving into him,” I thought as I walked angrily into the mirrored wall at the end of the hallway— crashing smack-dab into my own reflection. The threatening man was none other than myself. I stared into my own angry eyes—now blinking with shocked embarrassment.
Even if you never walk into walls, you will confront people who oppose you.
It comes with the territory whenever you exercise leadership and take a stand that challenges conventional thinking. When you put yourself and your work out there, when you advocate change—not everyone will welcome it.
They’re coming from a different direction.
Often an opposite direction. When they don’t show any signs of budging, listening, or cooperating—you’re heading for a showdown. What started out as a conversation turns into a conflict and then a game of chicken. It’s no longer about exploring possibilities, seeking understanding, or collaboration. Once the game of chicken is underway—the conflict gets personal and your focus shifts.
When the conflict turns personal, the primitive centers in your brain fire-up.
Now you’re not interested in understanding. Couldn’t care less about feedback, possibilities, or collaboration. Nope. You’re in a game of chicken, which leaves you with only three options: • Overpower them. • Placate them. • Avoid them. Picking any of these options will only sever the eroding communication connection and perpetuate the power-struggle.
How can you turn the game of chicken around?
By embracing a basic psychological principle—projection. The concept of projection says that the qualities in other people that really bug you—are the qualities within yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge or own. Owning your own projections is as shocking as walking headlong into a mirrored wall. It means focusing less on what’s wrong with them—and more on your own reactive tendencies.
You use conflict as a mirror and ask, “Am I more prone to overpower, placate, or avoid the opposition?” Personally, I find myself using all three strategies. But mostly I avoid or overpower. Depending on whether I think I can “win.” Not elegant or particularly enlightened—but true. What about you? • What do you see when you look into the mirror of conflict? • What’s your preferred strategy when it comes to the chicken game?
The deeper you look into the mirror of conflict—the more you see your own reactive tendencies staring back.
Conflict situations that have degenerated into chicken games offer you a stark and soulpurifying mirror. It can be uncomfortable to look. But looking is one of the most powerful acts of liberation and leadership you can perform. Because when you look, it becomes clear that substantive change in the world around you hinges on whether or not you are willing to do most of the changing. As you own, integrate, and transform your own reactive tendencies, you reshape the world around you. This isn’t easy. It’s just the inevitable choice when you see how your own reactive strategies keep the chicken game alive and perpetuate the very situation/relationships/world you long to transform. So the next time it seems like someone is challenging you to a game of chicken, pause. Take a deep breath. And don’t crash into the mirror.
Don’t Wait to Feel Like It
Making significant changes rarely feels…comfortable. When your toes are hanging over the edge of the high dive, when you’re about to step off into space, when you’re about to do something that will take courage and skill, you often won’t “feel like it.”
Waiting to “feel like it” will only make the time delay between today’s sweaty palms and tomorrow’s satisfaction longer. If you’re waiting to feel like it, you’re in the wrong line. That’s the line that never moves.
Get out of line and start moving forward.
You don’t have to leap into the void. Just take a step. Inch your way forward if need be. But just start to move. Feelings of doubt, anxiety, and confusion are part of the package when you’re taking
actions that require courage and skill. They come with the territory. They are not the signal to run. They are the early indicators that you’re leaning into your discomfort, discomfort that is a necessary part of growth.
Where in your work or life are you “waiting to feel like it” before moving forward?
Take a deep breath and let it out. Now, what’s a small step you can take to move forward? Take it.
Don’t Be Positive
I was at lunch the other day with a friend. While I waited for my soup, I kept smelling the spicy aroma of Tabasco sauce. When my soup arrived I liberally dosed it with the spicy sauce. I went overboard. By adding too much of a good thing…I ruined the soup.
It’s the same with positivity.
It’s good to be positive. The research on the impact of positive mind states keeps revealing more and more benefits: from health to wealth. But too much positivity shifts you from actually being positive to being a Pollyanna.
Being a Pollyanna isn’t the same as being positive.
In the book Pollyanna the heroine—Pollyanna—receives a set of crutches instead of a doll in her Christmas charity box. She wanted a doll.
Her father tells her to be thankful for the crutches. Why? Because they’re reminders of the fact that she doesn’t need crutches because she can walk. Excuse me…?
That isn’t being positive.
It’s denying disappointment and degrading wholesome desire. It’s turning away from what’s real. And as the great science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, remarked, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Reality endures. Reality has a much longer life span than any Pollyanna spin. No matter how hard you try to cover over reality with Pollyanna spin—reality doesn’t go away.
Positivity that doesn’t face and embrace what’s really going on isn’t positive at all.
Turning away from disappointment, anxiety, upset…suffering…isn’t being positive. It’s denial. And denial just perpetuates and intensifies suffering. You don’t transform the causes of suffering in your life by putting on rose-colored glasses.
There’s another way to be positive.
A way that doesn’t require rose-colored glasses. It’s a healthy positivity that: • Embraces reality—whether it’s “good” or “bad” • Offers a way of working with life struggles and strong emotions • Transforms turbulent emotions into clarity and wisdom
Many people are afraid to approach strong emotions.
They’re afraid that they will be overwhelmed and self-indulgent. Valid concerns. But denying, avoiding, and turning away from strong emotions isn’t the answer. Rather, you need to develop your capacity to engage with powerful emotions—while sustaining clear, open, and all-embracing awareness. You can build this capacity through meditation practice. Because meditation practice strengthens your capacity to face reactivity with composure and awareness.
It’s not that emotions disappear.
This isn’t about developing the frozen smile of a Pollyanna or distorting your vision with rose-colored glasses.
Meditation doesn’t remove your neurological wiring. You still have natural human responses and reactions. But you develop the capacity to stay present even when strong emotions arise. Anxiety, anger, fear (and all the other emotions) can still arise. More than likely, they will. But with meditative awareness, you won’t need to deny, avoid, or override emotions— with platitudes like: “Don’t be negative”. You can infuse emotions with awareness. And this reveals something amazing.
In the depths of strong emotions lie deep life-giving values.
Emotions aren’t there to threaten and destroy your life. They’re there to gain your attention. If you’re experiencing strong emotions, it’s because at the soul level you care deeply about something. The emotion doesn’t tell you what that “something” is. It’s only an alarm bell, a signal to pay attention.
It’s your soul calling you to attune to what matters most.
Pollyanna positivity blocks you from receiving the deeper message, the deeper call. And there is a deeper message. At the heart of every emotion lies a life-enhancing value. By infusing emotions with awareness, you move below the surface drama of emotions to discern the life-enhancing values.
There’s no reason to hide from emotions.
No need to be Pollyanna. You don’t have to deny what’s real. You can let emotions be what they are—the ringtones of your soul. You can answer the deeper call, rather than react to the ringing. Simply through the power of awareness you attune to the life-enhancing value at the heart of emotions.
Soon the very emotions that scared you become reminders to slow down, attune within, and heed the deeper call.
And with this deepening awareness, you realize that rather than pretending that “everything is fine” you can take off those rose-colored glasses and allow what is real to guide you.
Open the Bag
A woman emailed me to ask: “Can I harness my power and still be nice?” The short answer is no. Because power is the ability to create and sustain what matters most in your life. And what is “nice”?
Nice is a knife.
It’s a knife you use to cut-off parts of yourself that are unacceptable to you. You started using this knife when you were young. Cutting off the parts that didn’t fit with family expectations. We all do this. It’s part of the human condition. But those dismembered parts are still there, are still part of you.
The dismembered parts don’t disappear.
They go into, what Robert Bly evoking the work of C.G. Jung, called the “shadow bag.” All the cut-off parts of your soul go into the shadow bag. Here’s how it works…
Imagine you’re a child feeling the buoyant energy of Spring.
You run into the living room. You’re feeling pure joy. But to your parents your being noisy, wild, loud. They tell you in no uncertain terms to cut it out. And, you do.
You cut out the buoyant, leaping, energetic parts of yourself and stuff them into the shadow bag.
Year-by-year the bag gets heavier, filled with the unacceptable parts of your life. The parts of your soul and self deemed unacceptable by powerful others—parents, teachers, leaders, friends, lovers, etc. Those parts aren’t gone. They’re in the shadow bag. You drag them behind you but don’t offer them to the world. You tiptoe along. You modulate your voice. You’re nice.
Every cut diminishes your power.
You can still proceed with your life with parts cut off. You can even do quite well—you’re nice after all, and people respond positively to nice. But there’s that bag and all those cut-off parts dragging behind you.
Sooner or later things start to stink.
You begin to notice a strange odor. At first it comes and goes. It’s bothersome but not persistent. If you neglect it too long, the stink gets stronger. Soon, everywhere you go you can smell it.
It’s the odor of your cut-off parts seeking to rejoin your life.
They’ve been reaching out to you for years. But you were trained not to notice. So you didn’t. You were taught from a young age to hide your deepest longings, to deny essential and sacred parts of who you are. In your family, school, and at work you’ve been encouraged to act as if you are complete while simultaneously cutting of parts of yourself and exiling them to the shadow bag.
When you cut off parts of yourself, you cut off the flow of your life.
To get unstuck and live a more powerful authentic life, start reclaiming what’s in the bag. This starts when you notice that persistent stink. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
The stink that is pursuing you isn’t a problem to make go away. It’s a call to live more fully and contribute more completely.
But it’s not easy to turn and face the stink.
Let me be the first to admit—I’d rather use air freshener than face my own shadow bag. But at a certain point, it becomes clear that turning towards the stink is the way forward. The path to freedom travels through the shadow bag.
It’s not a matter of being either nice or being powerful.
It’s a matter of facing your experience fully, truthfully, without leaping to conclusions or solutions. So how can you proceed? There’s really no road map. It’s a step-by-step process. Step towards the unacceptable places within you. You don’t need to do anything else. Simply step with awareness towards the shadow bag. Take your time.
As you step forward, your experience of the stink changes.
You begin to see how the difficulties you encounter (especially the really stinky ones) are precisely structured to call forth the cut-off parts that are waiting to be redeemed from your shadow bag. The conflicts that you face at work and in life point towards the unintegrated parts of yourself in order to return them to life. I don’t want you to think that this path is automatically strewn with flower petals. But I do want to encourage you to pay attention. Notice the stink. Step forward. Keep breathing. As you breathe, you’ll notice something strange. That stink—which had been so noxious— is starting to smell like flowers. Now, that’s nice.
How to Get into the Flow State
I was in my twenties, recently married, when my father-in-law invited me to join him for a Sunday morning golf game. I’d never played a round of real golf, only the miniature kind. But given that I was the hippy-new-son-in-law, how could I say no?
I stepped up to the first tee.
I swung. The ball lifted into the sky forming a perfect arc, bounced, and rolled within a few feet of the green. I putted onto the green. With the next putt, the ball was in the hole. Par!! My father-in-law shook his head in awed disbelief, “That meditation stuff must really work.” “Ha!” I thought. “That was amazing. He’s right. I’m going to meditate my way through the course.”
It took me sixteen strokes to complete the next hole.
On the first hole, I’d stumbled into the par zone. But I hadn’t developed the capacity to sustain play at that level. Shooting par, for me, was a happy accident.
You’ve had those happy accidents.
Times when your ability to think, act, and interact, leapt to a new level. Times of extraordinary performance when you tap into dormant, and often unexpected inner resources. It’s a heady, exhilarating feeling.
It’s called being in a “flow state.”
When you stumble into the flow state, as I did on the golf course, it can feel like an act of grace or a happy accident. But like all accidents, happy or otherwise, it’s not intentional. By definition, accidents aren’t chosen. They just happen.
You could be in a heated disagreement.
Voices raised. Fingers pointing. Then, as the other person lashes out, suddenly…it happens. Something in you shifts. You don’t react to their attack. You don’t get emotional. You still feel the initial burst of adrenaline but something else kicks in.
It’s a different state of mind.
You’re in witness consciousness: both in the conversation and not in the conversation. There’s a part of you, a skillful, non-reactive part, that shapes your perception and guides your behavior. You see the emotions and suffering that’s driving their behavior. You don’t take their words personally. And—here’s a biggie—you don’t judge them.
You’re present and engaged without being caught in the drama.
You listen and respond clearly. You’re focused and responsive—without needing to control or manipulate. You’re able to lay your cards on the table and let the chips fall where they may. Because when you’re in the flow, there’s a deep trust, a grounded knowing that by acting with integrity in the moment—the next moment will take care of itself.
These extraordinary states of flow are often happy accidents.
The question is how to become more accident-prone. What would make the flow state become more the norm than the exception? What can you do to unlock the door to this extraordinary state of performance and the joyful feelings that accompany it?
The key is to develop your attention muscle.
Well, it’s not really a physical muscle. It’s the capacity to focus awareness on a specific “object” and to sustain that focus without effort. If your attention muscle is weak, you can’t sustain focus. You will be easily distracted. This unstable bouncing-around quality of attention is called, in spiritual traditions, the monkey mind. Like a precocious monkey, undeveloped attention is in constant motion.
When your attention muscle is strong—you can focus awareness on a chosen activity, idea, problem, or person, and it will stay there.
This allows you to infuse your experience with full awareness. As your attention settles into effortless focus, the door to the flow state opens. But you will need a strong attention muscle.
How do you build a strong attention muscle?
Attention is like a physical muscle. When you strengthen your bicep at the gym, that strength carries over into daily life. Similarly, when you strengthen your attention muscle by meditating even for short periods of time each day, the capacity to focus, be fully present and aware, starts to develop in your everyday life. A strong attention muscle allows you to choose the flow state. You learn how to shift from effort and struggle—into presence and flow.
Strengthening your attention muscle opens this grace-filled door.
Once you build this muscle, you don’t have to wait for happy accidents to land you in the state of flow. You can go there volitionally through engaging your trained attention muscle. And when you’re in the flow state, you’re not reacting or lost in patterns of self-limitation. Your actions, choices, and thoughts all…well…flow. They arise from a place of inner clarity and stillness. You don’t have to “think things through,” you naturally respond from a place of uncontrived integrity.
You start to recognize that happy accidents don’t have to be accidental.
You see that the opportunity to flow, to be effortlessly engaged, to tap into the reservoir of wisdom and creativity is…ever present. The flow state isn’t some far away magical land. It’s right here, right now—available in the exact conditions of your life.
And you see that rather than struggle against conditions—you can meet them with effortless focus.
You can let go of efforts to control and manipulate experience to allow deeper and more skillful ways of being shine through. Your work, relationships, health…every domain of experience is enhanced as your attention muscle develops. It can also be useful on the golf course—as long as you’re not trying to impress your father-in-law.
Trust Not Knowing
The last page of O magazine has a short article titled “What I Know for Sure.” It’s where Oprah reflects on her experiences and extracts lessons and reveals insights into what she knows…for sure.
Knowing-things-for-sure is tricky business.
And there’s a lot of it going around these days. Consider the over-heated and combative rhetoric among politicians, pundits, and self-appointed experts that fills the airwaves, printed pages, and blogs. Why is there so much knowing-things-for-sure?
It means you’re right. That you see reality as-it-is. That you’ve got the answer. But as comforting as it is to know-for-sure, spiritual traditions have always valued questions more than answers.
The path of awakening is paved with questions not answers. It takes a deep faith to leave the smooth, well-traveled road of knowing for the unmapped path of the soul. The conditioned self believes that without certainty it will drift about lost in the world. So it clings to fixed views, to knowing-for-sure. The more it clings, the less secure it feels. Because deep down at the level of soul, what you really know-for-sure is that you don’t know for sure. That you are floating in a vast universe of mystery.
It’s not answers you need more of.
It’s the capacity to: • Be present, aware, and at ease in the mystery of life • Receive ever-deeper revelations and to gently let them go • Allow certainty to dissolve away without falling into unconsciousness Meditation practice builds this capacity and takes you, breath-by-breath, beyond knowing into direct communion with life unmediated by thought, emotions, or…answers.
It’s not that you don’t get to have any answers.
You do. Every time you let go of what you know-for-sure and rest in the presence of notknowing, an answer will arise. Life is filled with answers. When you let go of your old beliefs and rest in the unconditioned presence that is prior to any point of view, an answer comes.
What is an answer?
It is a point of view. That’s it. An answer is a particular way of seeing and experiencing self, life, and the world. It’s not definitive. Not the whole story.
It’s a rest stop on the spiritual journey.
A place you get to pull over to take in the view. To reflect on where you’ve been, see where you are, and maybe glimpse where you’re going. But mostly just to stop and look around. Sometimes the view is inspiring. Other times it’s disappointing. Regardless, it’s not something you have to know-for-sure. It’s not the end of the journey. It’s a rest stop. Just enjoy the view for what it reveals.
You don’t have to grasp for answers.
They come on their own. Points of view naturally arise. But here’s the key: the depth and transformative power of the answers that arise will correlate with your capacity to rest in the state of not-knowing.
Not-knowingness allows you to meet life on its own terms, not those devised by your mind, memories, or expectations. Breath-by-breath, as you meditate, you let go of knowing, fixed ideas, and points of view. You return to life as-it-is without needing to know-for-sure. Try it right now…let go of these words and what they mean to you. Feel your breath and rest…in the mystery.
Trust the Knowing
There something you’re here to do. Not just for today, this quarter, or this year. It’s not a project you can finish. Not even all those goals on your bucket list, quarterly goals, weekly action plans, or daily to-do lists.
It’s more fundamental. So fundamental, in fact, that you can’t think your way through it. You can’t you’re your way or plan your way through it. It’s the white-hot center of your life, not a project to complete rather a purpose to serve, experience, and embody…completely. Breath-by-breath. Moment-to-moment. How to find your way to this white-hot center? By letting go of all your inherited concepts of success, fulfillment, and enlightenment. As you strip your soul bare, you come to a place in you that knows. It knows fully and completely what you’re here to do. This place in you is totally focused on that.
You can trust that knowing. Because the knowing won’t abandon you.
No matter how many times you turn away: Distracting yourself with new toys, tools, and techniques. Pursuing what looks easier, more rewarding, or more prestigious. Overwhelming yourself with expectations, plans, and activities. Through all that—and more—the knowing won’t abandon you. It will wait for you seeking those quiet moments when you’re alone. And then it will tap you on the shoulder to say, “Over here. This is the path you came to follow. Over here,” Sometimes when you look into the depths of your morning coffee, the knowing is there staring back at you with unblinking, truthful eyes. Because, the knowing won’t abandon you. You could be driving in your car when you hear the knowing speak in a steady voice that cuts through road noise, radio, and mental chatter. Its message is always the same: “Come this way. Listen to your heart. This is the way to your true life.” Trust the knowing. It won’t abandon you.
Are You in the Yes-but Rut?
Have you ever fallen into the “Yes, but…rut? (I have many, many times). It starts like this: Your colleague or friend says, “I’ve got this problem. I’d like your advice.” You nod. They explain the situation. You ask a few more questions and then give them your best advice. As you do, you notice something…their eyes glaze over.
They shake their head.
“Yes,” they say, “but…” and explain carefully why your suggestion won’t work. You try again. “Yes,” they respond, “but…” It’s frustrating. They asked,but no matter what advice you offer—they push it aside with a “Yes, but…”
They don’t really want your advice.
I know they asked you. But notice what happens when you give the advice. They resist it. They push back. The more you try to explain, the more they dig in with “Yes, but…” It may be hard to face, but clearly they don’t want your advice. Even though you love giving it.
You want to be helpful.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this impulse. Just notice where it takes you. Because when it takes you into a “Yes, but…” rut —it simply isn’t working. You’re in a karmic vortex, a vicious cycle of: Your advice. Their “Yes, but…” Your advice. Their “Yes, but…” You both end up mired in emotional mud. Frustrated, with no real change.
How do you get out of the “Yes, but…” rut?
First of all, realize you’re in the rut. And that all you’re responsible for is getting yourself out. Not them. You. And learn to about these three mindset shifts that can break you out of the rut.
Mindset shift #1: Realize they don’t want your help.
Yes, they asked. I get that, but it doesn’t matter. Asking for help or advice is just their way of starting a conversation. It’s not a real request. It’s a red herring. They’re not really interested in your advice.
Mindset shift #2: Realize you don’t know.
You don’t know what they should do. You may have ideas. You may even think your ideas are wonderful. But the more enamored you are of your advice, the deeper into the rut you go. And you really don’t know what they need to do. Really. This shift can be difficult to swallow—and—an incredibly liberating move. Because if you’ve structured your identity, work, and life around being helpful and giving advice—it’s this very identification that sends you into the “Yes, but…” rut.
Mindset shift #3: See them as fully capable.
Instead of relating to them as needy—see them as strong, capable, fully equipped to
handle the situation and take action. Look past their furrowed brow and pleading eyes. Cut through their story of being victimized or lost. Look past these surface façades and see them as capable of turning the situation around.
After shifting your mindset—ask questions instead of giving advice.
Don’t ask questions that are designed to give you more information about the problem. Don’t dig into analyzing the situation. Asking those kinds of information-gathering questions will deposit you into the “Yes, but…” rut.
Ask them about goals.
Ask them: “What is it you want to accomplish?” “What is the result you want to make happen?” “What is the outcome you’d really like to create?” These kinds of questions put attention on their goal—not their complaint or their story. These questions focus on their creativity, strengths, and ability to make something positive happen.
Notice if they actually answer your goal-focused questions or if they revert to a litany of complaints.
They may repeat their well-rehearsed complaint. They may try to lure you back into the “Yes, but…” rut. Be alert. Don’t take the bait, even though it will be tempting.
After all, giving advice is quite seductive.
It can lure you in. But there is a simple way to prevent yourself from falling completely into the “Yes, but…” rut. Just be on the lookout for those two little words “Yes, but≥” Because those two words are your reminders. And when you hear them—stop. Take a breath and mentally step back. Readjust your mindset and realize that: • They don’t want your advice. • You don’t really know. • And they are fully capable. Then with a sense of real curiosity ask, “What is the result you want to make happen?” With a little practice, you’ll soon enjoy the freedom that comes from staying out of the “Yes, but…” rut.
Chew the Pickle
The first time my son, Nathaniel, tasted a dill pickle he was two years old and his whole body responded. He shook and shivered from head to toe. Nathaniel stuck out his tongue and spit the offending green morsel onto the table. Yuck. Sometimes feedback is like that pickle—sour, unwelcome, and difficult to swallow.
What can you do when you get this kind of pickled feedback?
Other than stick out your tongue and spit, I mean. The first and most important thing to do is focus is on your body. Why? Because receiving pickled feedback will send your body into fight-flight-or-freeze response: narrow vision, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, tense tight muscles.
In this state, you can’t process what you’re hearing.
Not when your body is in hyper-drive. And forget about trying to say anything helpful. Stick with your body. Because your body needs kind and skillful attention right now.
Start with taking care of your breath.
Breathe…all…the way…out. Then, feel your breath flow in. Take several measured and mindful breaths. Let your belly relax and breathe into it: Inhale—belly expands. Exhale—belly releases.
Soften your eyes and gaze off into the middle distance.
Don’t look at anything in particular. Certainly not at the person in front of you. Soften your eyes. It will relax your mind.
If you have a glass of water, take a couple of sips.
Feel the temperature of the water on your lips and pay attention to the sensation of the water as it glides down your throat. Do these practices to put the criticism aside and take care of your body.
Because until your body is back in balance—you won’t be able to respond skillfully.
All of this body re-balancing can be done in a matter of 10–20 seconds. Really. Just as a few pickled words can trigger a fight or flight response, a few measured and mindful breaths can produce a profoundly calming effect. It only takes a few breaths to return to balance. The challenge is that when your heart is racing, it can feel like you don’t have the time. You do. Give yourself the care you need to meet the situation from a position of wisdom and strength. Because once you’ve shifted your physiology from flight-or-fight to a state of equilibrium, you will be able to reflect on the feedback and address it in a balanced manner.
So what should you do when someone tries to get you to swallow sour pickled criticism?
Shift your attention away from them and what they’ve said. Attend to your body: • Notice where your body is tensing up and relax it. • Breathe. • Soften your gaze. Take 10–20 seconds to soothe your body. Once your body is back in balance—you’ll know whether it makes more sense to chew on this feedback and digest it—or spit it out onto the table.
Find Your Blind Spot
Imagine that you’ve been at a dinner party, laughing, talking, and feeling good. Then you go into the restroom, look in the mirror and see green. A piece of salad stuck in your front teeth. Just hanging there for all to see. You know everybody you talked to saw it. But nobody said anything.
You can’t see the green stuff that’s stuck in your teeth until you look in a mirror.
Or until somebody tells you. Here’s a karma liberating secret: there’s something about the way you show up in the world that’s like a piece of lettuce in your teeth. It’s not pretty. You can’t see it. Other people can.
It’s your blind spot.
If you think you know what your blind spot is—you’re wrong. The things you know about yourself—about your behavior, your foibles—aren’t blind spots. They’re on your radar. You’re aware of them. Even if you’re not able to change them easily, you know they are there. But blind spots are different.
You can only learn about your blind spot from others.
Their feedback is your mirror. It’s the magic mirror that reveals the assessments you’re creating in others. Read that last sentence again. Most people assume that feedback is the assessment others are making of them. But they have it backwards. When people give you feedback, they’re revealing the assessment you are creating in them. Are those the assessments you want to create? Does the feedback you’re getting mirror the way you want to relate to the world?
You’ll never be able to answer these questions without others people’s feedback.
And if you haven’t shown that you welcome and take their feedback to heart, people won’t tell you. They’ll work around your blind spot, compensate for it, and avoid talking about it—even when you ask. Particularly feedback that’s hard to hear, that contradicts your self-image. So, you may need to ask more than once.
Then when you do get feedback—take it in.
Treat it seriously. Make an out-loud commitment to change. Then initiate some changes and check back in to find out if you’re on track, if you’re changing the assessments you are creating in others, if you’re changing your relationship to the world. Until you ask for, welcome, and actively appreciate feedback from other people—you’ll walk around with green stuff stuck in your front teeth.
Name the Fog
It’s so easy to get lost in thought.
It’s what the mind does best—generate thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. And then the mind looks out at the world through these thoughts/emotions/words/beliefs and builds a matrix of words, a veil of language that separates you from direct communion with life. Words upon words thicken into a fog of thought. No wonder it’s hard to walk harmoniously through life. It’s hard to navigate when your perceptual windshield is fogged with thought.
How can you free yourself from the fog of thought?
The first step is accepting that regardless of how much it appears that you’re perceiving life directly—you’re not. You’re seeing, sensing, experiencing life through the fog of thought.
Accepting this allows you to take a step back in consciousness and notice thoughts as they arise and fog up your windshield. Rather than see the world through the fog of thought, you begin to observe the movement of the fog. And when you do, you see something important.
The fog of your thoughts follows a pattern.
You discern the repetitive patterns of your fog. You see how the same thoughts and emotions arise and dissolve away, arise and dissolve away. You observe thoughts conflicting with other thoughts.
You see how patterns of inner conflict generate a cycle of struggle.
Through mindfulness you realize that the struggles you’ve been experiencing are more predictable than a TV re-run. It’s the same storyline, the same dynamic, over and over. New actors may appear but the plot never changes. You see how your life keeps cycling through an unvarying sequence of struggle-release, struggle-release—all driven by thought. Just seeing this stops the cycle. Because when you see it, you’re not caught up in it. Awareness is the liberating principle. Don’t try to wrestle with the fog. (That’s just more thought-fighting-thought patterning). See. Breathe. Fog naturally dissolves in the light of awareness. Take a step back in consciousness, right now, and see…
Slow for Yellow Lights
I was riding shotgun—sitting in the passenger seat. Aaron, my 20-year-old son, was driving. He picked me up at the airport and we were now weaving in and out of the afternoon traffic. Up ahead, the traffic light went from green to yellow. Aaron gunned the engine and I let out a yelp.
To me a yellow light means slow down and get ready to stop.
To Aaron a yellow light means speed up and make it through the intersection before you have to stop. We both recognize yellow lights as a warning. But this warning triggers very different behaviors for each of us. Yellow lights aren’t only encountered while driving around town. Yellow lights are part of every conversation you have at work and at home.
Every conversation you have is dotted with conversational yellow lights.
Conversational yellow lights are warnings—signals that the person you’re talking to is: • Not following your reasoning • Not accepting your assumptions • Not understanding your point of view • Not connecting with your message
How can you tell if you’re approaching a conversational yellow light?
Whenever the person you’re talking to: • Disagrees with your opinion • Expresses doubt or concern • Asks a challenging question • Voices an idea that you don’t agree with Sends non-verbal signals of confusion, discomfort, disagreement, or disinterest These are all signs that they’re out of synch with what you’re saying. You’re not influencing them in the direction you’re intending.You’re not connecting with them. They’re flashing a conversational yellow light. How you interpret their yellow light will determine what you do next.
Many people interpret a conversational yellow light as a signal to speed up.
They see the yellow light as a threat to their agenda. They want to move forward, not lose momentum. They believe that slowing down the conversation will cause them to lose ground. So when a conversational yellow light flashes, they: • Talk more • Argue harder • Go into detail • Provide more evidence • Show more charts and graphs They do this because they’re afraid of yellow lights and they recognize that they’re out of synch with the other person. So they try harder and talk more in an attempt to accelerate through the yellow light. But here’s the problem. Whenever you blow past a conversational yellow light, you miss the opportunity to make a stronger connection with the other person, understand them better, and have the outcome you want for your conversation.
When you hit a conversational yellow light—slow down.
Every conversational yellow light is a gift. Every doubt, concern, objection, or question that the other person expresses is a gift. By flashing a conversational yellow light, the other person reveals exactly where they’re stuck, uncertain, and how you’ve lost them.
Their questions and disagreements tell you precisely what matters most to them.
Their non-verbal signals of confusion, discomfort, disagreement, or disinterest, highlight exactly what you need to understand them more completely. When people flash yellow lights, they’re telling you to slow down and shift from being convincing to being curious. When you’re curious, you naturally slow down to learn, investigate, and pay attention.
A great way to slow down is to ask questions.
Show your interest, respect, and care for the other person by asking questions. And take your time. Ask real questions—questions that you don’t know the answer to. Take more time than feels “natural.” The more you slow down and ask questions, the more clearly, precisely, and deeply you’ll be able to address their doubts, concerns, and confusion. Shift your attention from making your point to exploring and understanding their doubts, concerns, and objections.
Next, time you’re driving your agenda forward—pay attention to those yellow lights.
When you see one, put your foot on the brake, not in your mouth. Slow the conversation down, listen more than talk, ask questions, and deepen your connection with the other person. When you slow down, you’ll reach your destination much more quickly.
Thunder and Lightening
My wife’s family owns several cottages on Canandaigua Lake. We’ve been spending summer there for decades. It’s green and serene, unless there’s a storm—like the other night. Brilliant flashes of lightening, booming thunder, and pouring rain woke us at 2 am. Natural drama. “It’s like a scene from some monster movie,” I remarked as the lightning struck again, illuminating our room.
My brain was making an association.
Dark and stormy night equals monster movie. The brain is always making these kinds of associations. This is both efficient and limiting. It saves time and energy because you don’t have to start every situation with a clean mental slate. You rely on associations to guide you. But when you’re filtering the present moment through memories and images of the past, you’re unable to respond in creative, fresh ways. You perpetuate the past.
Imagine you’re about to have a difficult conversation.
Think about sitting down with your boss, a friend, or family member—to talk through a complex, emotionally laden issue. Before you walk through the door, your brain is associating. By the time you sit down, all your filters, memories, and associations are shaping your thoughts, speech, and action. This is karma—the unconscious re-playing of past patterns. So how can you meet the experience of this moment in a more unfiltered way?
You start to notice the filters as filters.
Rather than look at others through your filters—step back and become aware of your filters. Turn your awareness towards the filters themselves. How? By infusing mindful awareness into your bodily sensations and tensions. Because the filters are encoded into the cells of your body. By becoming a student of how your body feels and reacts—you learn to discern the physical presence of these automatic filters. Here’s how. Think about that difficult conversation. Imagine the person that you’ll be talking to. Picture the setting.
And then pay attention to your body.
Notice what you’re feeling—physically—as you recall that difficulty. Just stay with the physical sensations. How does your body respond to that memory? Where is there tension? Heat? Discomfort? These sensations are the somatic indicators of the filtering process. They’re evidence that your inner resources and outer perceptions are being karmically determined by filters from the past. You don’t need to be in the actual situation to study your bodily reactions. You just need to think about it. The good news is that this somatic pattern doesn’t just relate to this particular situation or person. It’s a karmic pattern. A self-limiting reflex that you have reinforced each time you allow it to automatically play itself out. Any experience with a similar emotional flavor will activate the same karmic patterns in the body.
And this physical redundancy is good news for these reasons:
1. Somatic reactions are simple to observe. Figuring out your karma can be complicated. Noticing how your jaw tenses, shoulders tighten, or stomach churns—not so hard. You don’t need to understand anything esoteric to be aware of how your body reacts. 2. Somatic reactions are consistent. You can count on your body. You can trust it. Whenever the pattern of tension arises—it means a filter is being stimulated. The filters are in place and you’re about to go on karmic auto-pilot. You can count on it. So whenever this pattern of tension arises—STOP. Don’t make a decision. Don’t take an action. Don’t reach a conclusion. Just stop and be aware. Notice the bodily sensations and recognize that this means your system is entering automatic-reaction mode. Take a breath and feel the sensations. Do this for 15–20 seconds. As you breathe and infuse the sensations with awareness, they release.
When the bodily reactions release, the filters release as well.
They aren’t two separate things. Your karmic pattern of thought, speech, and action are supported and sustained by a signature pattern of bodily tensions. By becoming aware of and releasing your body tension—which is relatively easy—you become unstuck from the karmic filters.
Then you can choose to engage with life afresh.
You can open not only your ears but also your mind and heart—and begin to discover new insights, ideas, and options as you meet your life liberated from habitual filters of the past. Then, even when thunder and lightning strike—you won’t end up in a rerun of some old monster movie.
Read Your Gut
There’s a lot of teachings on trusting your gut. But your gut isn’t always trustworthy.
Imagine sitting in a meeting. You’ve just presented your thoughts on a project. A colleague looks over at you like you just coughed up a hairball on the conference table. Then someone makes a joke—a not-so-cleverly disguised put-down. You see another person trying to muffle a laugh. At this point you can feel a churning in your gut. It’s your inner Neanderthal waking up from a nap. Yes, there’s a Neanderthal napping lightly in your nervous system. He or she is on the lookout for danger. He’s monitoring the environment for threats.
Your Neanderthal interprets any challenge as a life or death scenario.
And while logically you may know better, your Neanderthal cares little for your logic. Your Neanderthal knows only gut reactions unmediated by nuance or reason. And he/she can’t tell the difference between the imminent attack of a saber-toothed tiger and a difficult conversation. That’s why trusting your gut isn’t always a good idea.
Not all gut reactions are created equal.
There are two kinds of gut reactions. There’s the Neanderthal Alarm and there’s the Congruence Alert. Let’s examine them one at a time.
The Neanderthal Alarm works well when something is threatening your very existence.
Your Neanderthal keeps things simple. If something appears to be threatening you, your Neanderthal assumes it needs to be destroyed or avoided. Your Neanderthal has only three options: fight, flight, or freeze. No gray areas. That’s why—unless you’re in a life or death situation—the best response to a Neanderthal Alarm is to breathe. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take your attention off the apparent threat and focus on soothing the Neanderthal with full, relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing. Despite the sense of urgency it generates in your body, the Neanderthal Alarm is not a signal to act. It’s a signal to stop, breathe, and re-balance system. It’s a primitive response that rarely brings out your best. The wisest response is to cool down. But there is another kind of gut reaction that you need to pay attention to: your Congruence Alert.
Your Congruence Alert is not focused on external threats.
The purpose of your Congruence Alert is to get you to pay attention to the alignment of your actions with your values. So it goes off when you are in danger of abandoning your core values. Here’s how it works: You’re in a meeting. The team is about to make a decision that will have long-term impact. Your boss has clearly stated her opinion and the rest of the team seems to agree. But you’re not so sure. Do you voice your opinion or do you sit quietly?
As you sit there, you feel restless. Your face is hot and there’s a churning in your gut. What’s going on? There’s no external threat. It’s your Congruence Alert letting you know that you’re teetering on the edge of incongruence, of potentially acting in ways that don’t fully reflect your core values.
You’re at a choice point, a fork in the road.
And you’re free to choose which way you want to go. Your Congruence Alert is just there to make sure that you pay attention. It’s there to help you realize that you can choose—even in complicated situations—to act in ways that are congruent with your values.Your Congruence Alert is your ever-present coach.
It’s built right into your body.
When you start to turn away from your core values—the Congruence Alert will let you know. The Congruence Alert feels distinctly different from the blood curdling rush of the Neanderthal Alarm. More like a nudge from your soul; a subtle, but definitely physical, alert that you’re about to sacrifice your values. The Neanderthal Alarm arises the same way in all human bodies. But the physical dynamics of your Congruence Alert are individualized. The key is to distinguish the difference between the two. Just because your stomach is clenching or your heart is pounding doesn’t mean that you’re feeling a Neanderthal alarm. Every intense bodily reaction doesn’t need to be soothed into submission with slow, rhythmic breathing. That churning in your stomach could be the still small voice of your core values trying to get your attention in the only way it knows how— through your body. It could be the call of your soul, which needs to be heeded not smoothed over.
Become a student of your gut reactions.
Learn to distinguish the difference between the Neanderthal Alarm and the Congruence Alert. They’re different. And your Congruence Alert will have a definite physical signature. Get to know it. Then, when you sense the Congruence Alert is active, focus inwardly and ask yourself: • What are my core values trying to tell me? • What would it look like for me to shift into deeper congruence with my values? Because all gut feelings aren’t created equal. Some are there to protect you from wild animals. Others are there to help you live in alignment with your core values.
Chuckle at the Truth
My grandmother used to say, “The truth will set you free.” And then she’d pause before adding, “but first it will make you very uncomfortable.” And she’d chuckle.
I didn’t find her funny.
Though over the decades, I’ve come to appreciate her insight more and more. The pathway to change, to creativity, to freedom tends to pass through Discomfort-ville. But, it’s a special kind of discomfort—the kind that comes with increased awareness. It takes awareness to instigate substantive change.
Superficial changes can be implemented without awareness.
Band-aid “solutions” can be applied to mask problems. Quick fixes can be instituted in reaction to unsatisfactory results. But the illusory effects of rearranging the deck chairs wears off and you’re left to confront the harsh reality of a sinking ship.
The truth of your situation becomes clear in the light of awareness. Such clarity, while liberating, can also be…uncomfortable. That’s why what happens next is the key to the transformation process.
The tendency is to spring into action.
Action has its place in transformation. It’s just not first place. Moving too quickly to action short-circuits the transformative power of awareness. The more you truly see what you’re doing—the more clearly you’ll realize what to do differently. New perceptions, new actions, new choices emerge as awareness infuses fully into your mind and body. You don’t need to think of a new strategy—rather deepen your awareness of habitual patterns. When unconscious habits are infused with awareness, they naturally transform.
Awareness is the secret to accelerating change.
One of my all time favorite books is a slim volume called Extraordinary Golf by Jerry Shoemaker. I don’t play golf, but his wisdom can be applied to any area of human life. Shoemaker points out that most golfers who come to his programs say, “There’s something wrong with my swing, and I must fix it.” Shoemaker explains that in order to change something you have to be aware of it. “How can you correct what you’re doing when you don’t have any idea what you’re doing? The best way to become aware of what you are doing is not to fix it.” Premature fixing inhibits the transformation that only awareness can bring.
To adopt an awareness-based approach to change is counter-cultural.
Most of us have been raised in a fix-it culture with a find the problem and make it go away orientation. The notion that awareness itself—not techniques and action—will give rise to substantive change seems absurd. It begs the question, “How can I improve what’s wrong if I don’t fix it?” But this question can’t be answered within the framework of the fix-it culture. All you can do is notice the consequences of the fix-it orientation. One of the first things you’ll notice is that the fix-it mindset is rooted in dissatisfaction and perpetually searching for what’s wrong. The awareness-based change isn’t looking on what’s wrong or what’s right.
Awareness illuminates what’s so—without judgment.
Free from judgment of right of wrong, awareness reveals previously unseen possibilities for thinking, speaking, and taking action. Awareness illuminates deeper and finer distinctions which naturally point the way to change. The fastest path to change is to let go of the need to change and instead to cultivate awareness of what is true.
You can cultivate awareness while performing any simple manual task.
This gives you an easy way to practice awareness-based change. Simply go about your normal activity. But instead of doing it habitually, infuse it with awareness. For example, when you’re walking, be aware of your feet touching the ground. Sense the swinging of your arms. Bring awareness to the rhythm of your breath. Washing dishes, chopping vegetables, pressing an elevator button, opening a door, brushing your teeth, and folding clothes are also great activities for cultivating awareness. By cultivating awareness in activities that are simple and “unimportant”—you build your capacity to practice awareness-based change with behaviors, habits, and situations that are more demanding. You’ll see the truth and it will, in its own time, reveal the path to freedom. Of course, it will probably make you uncomfortable first. Maybe you’ll even hear my grandmother chuckle.
Wait at the Crossroads
Imagine you’re walking down a dusty road in the hot sun when you come to a crossroads. The road divides in two and you have to decide which way to go. Creative work, often compared to a journey, includes many crossroads. Not physical crossroads, but inner, psychological, even spiritual situations that bring you to a crossroads in your life.
The crossroads is an uncomfortable place to be.
When you’re at the crossroads you know you’ve got to make a move. There’s pressure to get going, start doing, initiate action, and forge ahead. But what will inform, guide, and motivate your next step? That’s what the crossroads demands you clarify. The crossroads is a sacred place on the creative journey—a place where you can redirect your life.
At the crossroads you’re poised between the paths of Conditioning and Calling.
At the crossroads, you’re in a suspended state that endows you with a kind of stereophonic consciousness. In one ear you can hear the voice of your Conditioning. In the other ear, there’s the voice of your Calling.
Both beckon you forward.
Which path will you choose? That depends on how slowly you proceed. Yes, how slowly.
It’s important to take your time at the crossroads.
Slow down so that you can begin to discern the different flavors, textures, tensions, and qualities of your Conditioning and your Calling. The discomfort at the crossroads comes from both your Conditioning and your Calling. And it’s easy to confuse the two.
But these discomforts are very different from each other.
By taking your time, by slowing down at the crossroads, you’ll be able to distinguish the discomfort of Conditioning from the discomfort of Calling. On the surface, they’re similar. Both generate discomfort. But in fact, they’re not the same at all.
What is the discomfort of Conditioning?
Conditioning creates the experience of discomfort whenever you stop acting in accordance with your…um…conditioning. Growing up, you were taught what was expected, what you needed to do in order to survive and even thrive in your family, school, religious community, peer group, etc. You were given precise messages by authorities of all kinds—from parents, to teachers, to coaches, to media celebrities. You were given verbal and even more powerful non-verbal messages about how to act, how to fit in, how to win approval.
The underlying message of Conditioning is—you’re not enough.
No matter what you’re doing, achieving, realizing, or creating—it’s not really enough. At the crossroads, this not-enough message intensifies. Because when you’re at the crossroads you’re not doing anything. You’re waiting, being still, seeking to decide your next move.
Conditioning can’t stand waiting.
In the stillness, the pause of waiting, there’s the chance for you to choose a direction other than the one dictated by Conditioning. The forces of your Conditioning start to rattle inside you and make you very nervous.
Conditioning needs your attention to thrive.
The forces of conditioning don’t really have a life of their own. The forces of Conditioning feed on your attention. When you act in ways that give attention, validation, and life to Conditioning—it relaxes. You feel relieved.
When Conditioning is satisfied that you’re doing as you’ve been told— it relaxes.
It stops causing you discomfort. It stops reminding you that you’re not good enough, that you don’t measure up, that there’s more to do, and that you’d better hurry up. It stops putting pressure on you…as long as you continue to follow its dictates.
The discomfort of Conditioning comes from convincing you that you’re fundamentally blowing it.
That you’re a failure. A fraud. And that unless you get with the program—you’re goin’ down. And hard. It’s just too painful to hear that. So you take the blue pill, follow the dictates of Conditioning—to prove that you’re worthwhile.
Calling also causes discomfort.
But this discomfort is different. Calling’s discomfort isn’t imposed by outside standards. It’s more like the pressure that an acorn might experience as the oak tree inside it starts to grow. The shell of the acorn—that has provided structure, safety, and security for so long— is now in the way.
What’s your acorn shell?
It’s all of your skills, talents, ways of working, interacting, and being that have taken you to your current level of achievement and fulfillment. It’s what has taken you this far but isn’t designed to take you further.
There’s an oak tree inside you trying to grow into full expression.
There’s something that wants to be expressed through you—that’s yours alone to do. That’s why it’s a Calling. It’s calling you. And you can’t delegate this Calling. You can turn away from it. You can delay enacting it. You can even dull the pressure—through a variety of self-medication strategies—including following the promptings of your Conditioning.
But, your Calling will just keep growing.
From inside you. The work that is emerging won’t abandon you. The creative impulse won’t die. It will keep applying pressure. Which is why you need to slow down at the crossroads. So you can distinguish the discomfort that comes from: • Conditioning: which tells you that you’re fundamentally flawed and offers you a path of relief. • Calling: which tells you it’s time to allow yourself to be broken open by what is emerging and offers you a path of transformation.
Transformation…it’s a nice word.
Even a popular one in some circles. There’s a shorter way to spell transformation. It’s d..e..a..t..h. Not as appealing as the relief that Conditioning promises. At least not at first. But if you look down the road a bit, you see a different picture. Because while Conditioning offers you relief in the short term, it guarantees you’ll be caught in a perpetual struggle to prove your worth.
Calling has a different offer.
In the short term, taking the path of Calling offers the death of certainty, security, and clarity about who you are, what you do, and how you serve the world. But in exchange for this short-term confusion, Calling offers you: • An ever-deepening sense of your unique place in the world • An ongoing development of your gifts • An expanding horizon of awareness that dissolves the need for egoreassurance in the ocean of gratitude for the oak tree that is taking shape through you
So the next time you find yourself at a crossroads—slow down.
Don’t rush ahead. Take your time and allow yourself to experience the confluence of pressures that surround you. Pay attention to the voices in your head. Notice the emotions, the anxiety in your heart. Sort out the different discomforts and put them in two piles. One: your Conditioning. The other: your Calling. Remember, at the crossroads they both generate pain. But down the road they take you to different lives. One path, promises frustration and an endless struggle to prove your worth. The other breaks you open to experience the ever-deepening revelation of the creative energy of life expressing through you. Which will you choose…this moment?
How to be Coachable
When I was learning to ride a bike, my father would run along side of me holding the back of the seat to stabilize my balance. At a certain point, he would let go. I’d be riding on my on—for a few seconds. Then my balance would wobble and he’d take hold to stabilize me again.
All learning involves wobbling.
You are clumsy as you integrate new ways of being and doing into everyday behaviors. You get it partially right and partially wrong. Sometimes you over correct—like a kid learning to ride a bike. Sometimes you fall down and skin your knees.
That’s when a guiding, coaching hand is so helpful.
Life is your ever-present coach, teacher, and guide. Life offers you this guidance through people. Every person in your life is your teacher and coach. They teach you by responding to you. Their moment-to-moment response is your coaching.
But sometimes the way people respond is challenging.
Even though you’re making decisions and taking actions with the best of intentions, people can react in ways that challenge you. They push back, dig in their heels, argue, or avoid you. They resist what you’re trying to do until the situation gets contentious.
That’s when your old patterns aren’t helpful.
Relying on your old patterns will only perpetuate their resistance. You need to do something different in order to break free of this karmic cycle. And that means you’re going to wobble a bit.
Wobbling isn’t a problem.
It’s a sign that you’re exercising a new way of being, embodying a new pattern, and stepping out of your habitual karmic cycle. Wobbling is intrinsic to growth.
When you’re wobbling—you need a guiding, coaching hand.
And you’ve got one—in the very person who’s challenging you. Their responses, reactions, and resistance are your coaching. They provide you with customized timely feedback.
The key is to be coachable.
The key is to experience their resistance to you as feedback about your behavior. To accept their reactions to you as teachings illuminating the limitations of your patterns of thought, speech, and action. This can be tricky. Particularly when the way they react seems unreasonable, illogical, and difficult; when their response seems to clearly be about them. It is about them. They have their own karmic patterns. But, first it’s about you. Because, your first job isn’t to change them—it’s to be coachable. To receive life’s teachings and guidance coming through this other person. Life will respond differently when you listen to life’s guidance, adjust, adapt, and change.
“But, it’s not my fault! They are being unreasonable!” you may think.
And I’m not arguing with that. I’m just suggesting that holding this thought won’t help you receive life’s coaching so you can transform yourself and your situation. The more you focus on their unreasonableness, the more off balance and ineffective you become. The key is to be coachable—to sit at the feet of life and allow it to teach you.
How can you receive their resistance as feedback not judgment? How can you accept their reactions as life’s guidance? What will help you allow their responses to guide you into new ways of being?
Try this: 1) Take a giant step backwards.
Inwardly shift your perspective outside of the situation so you can see both yourself and the other person. Observe the scene as though you were both in a movie. Notice which of your behaviors triggers their resistant response. See how your actions get those unwanted reactions.
2) Take a deep dive inwards.
Having observed yourself from a mental distance, move into your heart—not your head. From the heart of your being, ask what you really, really want and why it matters to you.
3) Get curious about them.
Now staying in your heart, turn towards the other person. Let go of any desire to convince or change them. Attune through your heart to their heart. Connect with what they really, really want and why that matters to them.
4) Stay curious.
As you interact, spend more time listening than you would normally. When you feel like you’ve listened enough…stay with it. Remember, you’re letting life guide you. You’ll know you’ve listened enough when you see them shift and the signs of their resistance begin to soften.
5) Let your heart speak.
When you do talk, share what matters most to you. Reveal that you’re struggling with how to let go of old patterns, that you want to communicate in ways that build connection.
6) Inch forward.
Moving the situation forward will proceed more quickly if you take it an inch at a time. Don’t look for a major breakthrough. An inch will do. Remember, you’re learning how to act differently—in order to get a new response. And you’ll tend to wobble at first. So small moves are better. They allow you to practice your new way of being and receive life’s coaching as you go.
The next time you encounter resistance, think, “Ah, life is coaching me.”
Become coachable. The more you open yourself to the coaching that life provides—in the form of other peoples’ responses—the more quickly you’ll rebalance yourself and peddle smoothly on.
Love the Goo
Before a caterpillar can become a butterfly, it must become goo. Within the cocoon, the caterpillar dissolves into a liquid that is rich with nutrients and potential. It’s super goo. All transformations include this gooey phase. Whether the transformation is individual or collective, goo is part of it. Whether you’re seeking transformation or it’s seeking you—get comfortable with the goo.
You can’t skip the goo.
There’s no skipping steps on the transforming journey. Every phase of the process has a purpose and must be completed before you can move on. You can’t leap from newbie to expert in a single bound. There’s a developmental sequence that you must follow. It’s an organic process that moves according to developmental time.
The cadence of developmental time contrasts sharply with the pace of contemporary life.
We live in a nanosecond culture where most of us are what author Sue Monk Kidd calls “quick-aholics.” We’re addicted to the instant response. This speedy tempo is ill-suited to the goo-ification process. The goo phase can’t be rushed. It will dissolve the addiction to speed along with everything else.
How can you tell if you’re in the goo?
You know you’re into the goo when an old form has completely dissolved—but the new form has not yet emerged. But let’s make this practical. Consider your life. Specifically an area in your life where the old “form” is dissolving away. It may be that your business is turning into goo, or if not the business itself, your motivation and engagement. Here are some common areas of life where people experience goo-ification (check all that apply to you at this time): Identity - I can’t go on being the person I have been, but I’m not sure who I’m becoming. Work - The work is changing—but I’m not sure into what? Is it dying or being reborn? I can’t tell. Role at work, family etc - My old role and my old skills no longer work. But, I’m not sure what I need to do next or how to continue? Relationship - Our old ways of being together no longer make sense. But how can I be in this relationship when I don’t even know what it is anymore? Motivation - The needs and values that used to drive me don’t anymore. I’m not sure what matters or how to even reconnect to a sense of passion and purpose. Beliefs - I’ve outgrown my former beliefs. But now I’m not sure what I believe. I can’t go back. But I’m not sure how to go forward.
Only by letting go of the old forms can you make space for something new to be born.
In spiritual literature goo-ification is called the dark night of the soul. When you’re navigating through goo, your old ways of staying on track no longer work. It’s like you’re adrift in an inner sea without stars overhead to guide you. All you can do is let go. It’s time to become a mystic.
Goo is the natural habitat of the mystic.
You’re being called to be a mystic in the area of your life that’s undergoing goo-ification. This means being called to: Let go of the known and the past. Trust the darkness. Recognize that “those who dwell in darkness shall see the light.” You allow the old structure of identity to dissolve into formless goo. It doesn’t matter whether you used to believe I-am-a-success or I-am-a-failure.
Whatever form your identity used to take—it’s over.
You’ve outgrown the beliefs, attitudes, images, structures, and goals that defined you in the past. The vision that inspired you no longer works. The self that you identified with has become outmoded. This is the time of profound letting go. Your work is to consent to goo-ification without knowing how you will be re-formed. To hold yourself together now is to fight against your own destiny.
The way forward comes through letting go and surrender.
As you consent to goo-ification, you shed layer upon layer of thoughts and beliefs. These layers have insulated you and comforted you. Now is the time to discard all coverings. It’s time for stillness—not action.
As your old identity dissolves, the stillness deepens.
When you rest completely in the goo—without clinging to the past or straining towards the future—something that you can’t plan for happens. Within the stillness, the creative impulse of your soul stirs. Just as a butterfly emerges from the goo, your renewed life arises from stillness. But, now freed from out-moded identity structures, it breaks forth with fresh energy and renewed purpose. Love the goo.
Feed the Mouth
Feed the mouth
Once upon a time there was a hand. The hand lived a busy fulfilling life… typing, playing the guitar, digging in the garden.
Then one day, the hand was hungry.
So the hand went into the kitchen and grabbed an apple. The hand squeezed the apple. But that didn’t take away its hunger. The hand opened a yogurt container and plunged in…still hungry. Really hungry.
In the midst of its hunger, the hand heard a voice.
The voice said, “Feed me and you shall be fed.” “Who’s that?” asked the hand. Looking up, the hand saw that it was the mouth talking.
The mouth smiled and said: “If you feed me, you’ll be fed.”
The hand wasn’t sure. It didn’t want to just give away its food and get nothing in return. Using its thumb and index finger, the hand opened up the mouth and peered in. “Oh, I see,” said the hand, “It’s the tongue and the teeth talking. You just want the food for yourself. I’m not going to let you take what’s mine.”
The hand pulled away from the mouth and grabbed a croissant.
The almond pasted oozed out but the hand was still hungry. By this time, very weak and hungry. “It simple,” said the mouth, “if you feed me, you’ll be fed.” Seeing no other options, the hand reached up and put the rest of the croissant into the mouth. The food disappeared inside. The mouth smiled as it chewed and swallowed. The hand was livid. “I was right,” the hand cursed, “the mouth just wanted all the food for itself.”
Then something strange happened.
The hand felt a surge of energy, of strength and vitality. The hand looked up at the mouth. “It’s true isn’t it? If I feed you, I’m fed.” “Yes,” the mouth said, smiling, “By the way, do you have any more of those delicious croissants?” “Certainly,” the hand answered. Commentary: Hand = you. Mouth = life. Teaching = Feed life and you’ll be fed.
Break the Chains
When you look deeply at what’s in the way of fulfilling your dream, reaching your goals, experiencing the bliss of being it’s simple: your mind has latched onto and identified with self-limiting thoughts.
Your mind has fashioned its own prison comprised of thought, memory, language, and belief. How to get free? Unlock yourself from thought chains with the key of mindfulness. If you’ve seen movies involving lock pickers, than you’ve seen mindfulness in action. As the lock-picker begins working, he becomes very still, focused, and completely absorbed. He listens closely and feels deeply into the structure of the lock. He moves slowly with full awareness. Breath be breath the lock opens. To pick the lock of self-confinement, develop these same qualities.
Develop your capacity to be still, focused, and completely absorbed.
You can do this by meditating on an object of beauty (link to guided meditation on object of beauty is at the end of this chapter). The advantage of meditating on an object of beauty is that the mind more easily inclines itself towards forms and patterns that generate pleasant feelings. You can than apply your strengthened capacity to be still, focused, and absorbed to picking the locks of your limiting thoughts.
No thought can remained locked when it is infused with awareness.
Start the lock-picking by reflecting on those recurrent thoughts that get in your way. Often these thoughts begin: I can’t… I must… I should… If I don’t… Finish these sentence stems and determine which represents a thought that is currently limiting your life. Then gently repeat the phrase in your mind until you feel a pattern of tension or contraction in your body. Then shift your attention from repeating the words to feeling the feelings in the body. Don’t try to fix, correct, or adjust what is arising in the body. Be a lock-picker…and simply focus your attention…infuse the pattern of contraction with awareness. Emotions may come. Images may flash. Remain mindful and allow awareness to more and more completely infuse your experience. Thoughts, tensions, and emotions naturally rebalance as they are bathed in the healing waters of mindful awareness.
Link to guided meditation:
Love is much more demanding than Law. Desmond Tutu knows. He lived in a country where Law dominated Love. And he fought back with love. Intense. Indomitable. Encompassing love.
Law is easier than Love. Law follows instructions. Love heeds the Call. Law says, “This far and no further.” Love propels you into unmapped territory. Love pours it on. Law takes a number.
Love throws you into the deep end of the pool and then says, “Go deeper.” Law gives you a job description. Love says, “Now.” Law punches the time card. Love says “No” to what limits you. Law sets up barriers. Love demands your own voice. Law hands you a script. Love sweats. Law requires temperature control. Love acts before it’s safe. Law gets insurance. Love shows up—even when there’s no audience. Law measures your value by the numbers. Love is much more demanding than Law. What’s Love calling you to do?
Spell Dog Backwards
Think about someone you’re at odds with. It could be a family member or a member of congress. Someone you know or someone you’ve only read about. Pick someone who’s really bugging you these days. Someone who causes your stomach to clench when you merely bring them to mind. Notice what you call that person—in the privacy of your own mind. What qualities do you ascribe to him or her?
These inner judgments are less about them and more reflections of your own mind.
You don’t see the person—in truth. You see them through your emotionally colored lens. There is a person out there. But not the one you see. What you see is the person filtered through your personal history and cultural conditioning.
You’re lost in the mirror world of your own projections. So you’re not connecting with them. And you’ve lost touch with your deeper being as well. You’re in the karmic maze of thought, emotion, and memory, which perpetuates the image you have of them and blinds you to who they (and you) really are. Here’s a poem by the 17th Century mystic poet Tukaram that offers a method for seeing through the colorings of your mind and removing the emotional labels that blind you to the sacred nature of everyone you meet: I could not lie anymore so I started To call my dog, “God.” First he looked Confused, Then he started smiling, then He even danced. I kept at it: now he doesn’t even bite. I am wondering if this Might work on People?
Nice poem. Are you ready to try it? Here’s how:
Think of someone you’re at odds with. And inwardly see them as God (if the word God doesn’t work for you—substitute some other term that has sacred resonance).
What does it mean to see them as God? It means:
• Seeing—and more importantly feeling—past the labels that your mind places on them • Recognizing their basic humanity—independent of any particular cultural, ideological, emotional, or behavioral expression • Empathizing with their struggles • Feeling the ways in which you are both caught in suffering • Sensing a palpable connection between your heartbeat and theirs
• Synchronizing your breath with theirs • Experiencing the sacred presence that surrounds and interpenetrates both of you—and all life Here’s a video of my conversation with Ram Dass describing how he does this very practice: http://www.wisdomheart.org/2010/love-everybody-ram-dass/
Are your thoughts raining on your parade or encouraging you to move forward towards your deepest dream?
When you begin to move forward towards your dream—it’s inevitable that you’ll stir up doubt, confusion, and uncertainty.
The creative process inevitably calls out all the hidden emotions that kept you from moving forward in the past. These hidden emotions need to be brought out into the open, into the light of consciousness—so their energy can be released and re-channeled towards your dream.
If the emotions of doubt, fear, and uncertainty remain in the shadows— they will keep you from moving forward.
You’ll unconsciously identify with them and they’ll drive your life in directions that are more congruent with fear and doubt than with your dream’s fulfillment.
Put mindfulness in the driver’s seat instead.
Be aware of the doubt, be conscious of the fear, and witness the uncertainty. In this way you shine the light of awareness on those shadowy emotions. Basking in the light of awareness, emotions naturally transform. Fear melts, doubt dissolves, and uncertainty evaporates. What is left is creative potential—energy that is available to be re-formed into thoughts, words, and actions that support your cherished dream.
So the next time you find yourself raining on your own parade—pause.
Become aware of the thoughts that are raining down. Sense the emotions that get activated and course through your body. Thank them for making themselves known and lovingly shine the light of awareness upon them. Don’t seek to change, improve, upgrade, or repair them. Just allow them to bask in the sunlight of awareness and witness these emotions transform into creative energy all on their own.
Tune Your Instrument
Creativity in sports, the arts, at work, or in daily life comes about when you balance effort and effortlessness. You need effort, focused, intentional action to achieve any kind of result, whether it’s cooking a meal, writing a report, or making a presentation. But too much effort, while it may get the job done, rarely produces great results.
Too much effort tightens you up.
Your capacity to respond flexibly and readjust to the call of the moment is hampered when you’re fixated on following your plan or achieving a specific outcome.
Sometimes what appear as obstacles aren’t really in your way.
Whether it’s a bottleneck in the system or an objection to the logic of your presentation from a colleague, these obstacles may not be in your way at all. They may be signposts, not
barriers. They’re pointing you in new directions that seem “off plan” but can lead you to something better than your highly focused, effortful mind can envision.
Openness is as necessary as having a laser focus.
Being loose, flexible, and adaptive is as necessary as being decisive, determined, and deliberate. Rather than developing a watertight perspective, let your attention be more porous so that ideas, insights, and information can leak into your mind and enrich your understanding in unpredictable ways.
But too much openness doesn’t work well either.
It disperses attention and causes you to lose focus. In the words of Virginia Gildersleeve, "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."
Effort and effortlessness, focus and openness, need each other.
Creativity, greatness, arises when the balance is right. Getting the balance right is, as the Buddha suggested, like tuning a stringed instrument. Too tight and it’s out of tune. Too loose, you have the same problem. You need to tune your body/mind in the same way.
Because your body/mind is an instrument.
It’s the instrument you play every day of your life. It’s precious, irreplaceable, and it needs to be kept in tune.
When situations, projects, relationships in your world are not working well, it’s likely that your “instrument” is out of tune.
You’re either pushing too hard or not being engaged enough. You’re either over-focused on doing it one way or open to so many alternatives that the path of action is obscured.
You’re being too tight or too loose.
You need to re-tune. Here’s how: Think about a situation where you’re not getting desired results, where you’re frustrated by the progress or the interpersonal dynamics.
Now consider: Do you need to tighten up? Or loosen up?
Have you been straining to control the situation, insisting, or stonewalling? Those are examples of being too tight. Or have you been avoiding the tough conversation, smoothing over differences, or sidestepping difficult decisions? Those are ways of being too loose.
To get yourself back in tune, you need to either tighten up or loosen up.
Once you’ve decided which it is, you can begin to re-tune your mind/body by doing the following: • Sit in a comfortable position. • Close your eyes. • Take some deep breaths to release excess tension. • Feel the quality that you need—the quality of more tightness or more looseness— spreading through your nervous system. • Get a sense of what being in tune feels like in your body. Then visualize yourself stepping into the situation in a way that is “tuned up.” Picture yourself taking that “tuned-up” action. • Feel what it’s like to act in this way. • Finally, let go of the visualization and open your eyes. Keep the feeling of being “tuned up” as you step into the rest of your day.
Try Chopped Liver
My grandmother loved to serve chopped liver on crackers. I couldn’t stand the stuff. “This is horrible,” I’d tell her. “It’s delicious,” she’d respond, popping another cracker into her mouth. “In every argument there are four truths. My truth. Your truth. Our truth. And THE truth.” “If you insist on your truth and I insist on my truth, we’ll never find our truth,” she smiled, “But, I don’t think we’ll ever know THE truth. Particularly about chopped liver.”
Where are you stuck in a chopped liver argument?
What’s the idea, project, decision that you think tastes great and someone else can’t stand (or vice versa)? Where you argue over who’s right. You’re stuck in your truth and they’re stuck in their truth. To move forward, what’s needed is a shared truth: an understanding that supports mutual action.
What’s needed is our truth.
You’ll never get there as long as you take your truth for THE truth. And when they’re doing the same.
It’s easy for the mind to confuse strong opinions with facts.
The mind holds that your truth is THE truth, which is why it’s hard for you to see things any other way. Loosening your grip on your truth, even a little bit, feels threatening. The mind equates loosening with losing. And not just for this specific argument but for its total grasp of reality.
It’s not that having strong opinions is wrong.
Just be able to hold them lightly. Because grasping your truth too tightly shuts down your ability to connect with others. When you cling to your truth—they cling to theirs. When you dig in your heels—they do too. It’s a stand-off. If you want to move the conversation forward, hold your position lightly. You don’t have to let go of it completely. Just hold it more lightly. Consider your truth to be one perspective, one angle on the situation.
The first step is gently relaxing the mind’s insistence on your truth.
Become aware of how the mind holds on. Notice how defensive thoughts, emotions, and tensions arise when you begin to loosen the mind’s grip on your truth. Tell your mind that what’s happening is no more drastic than taking off a favorite pair of sunglasses. You’re not tossing them away. You’re just setting them down or slipping them into your pocket.
Your point of view is still close by.
It’s just that you’re not totally identified with it. So you can temporarily adopt alternative views. Take a breath. Pause. Try on other perspectives. Learn what the world looks and feels like from these different angles. You can safely encourage your mind to sample other versions of the truth—knowing that your truth is close at hand. Temporarily letting go of your truth isn’t a magic bullet for creating harmony and accord. It’s a way to inject movement and flexibility into a stuck conversation. It’s a way to stop arguing and start exploring, listening, and learning.
When it’s time for you to pick up your truth again—it will be enriched.
Your truth will be informed by the other perspectives you’ve explored. And most powerfully—the emotional tone behind your position will be softened. You can still support the value of your truth. But you won’t mistake it for THE truth. You’ll hold your truth more lightly which encourages others to hold theirs lightly too. And this replaces the struggle to determine who’s more right with a mutual exploration for a shared truth that will allow you to move forward together. Even if the menu calls for chopped liver.
Back Away from the Desk
Sometimes your work can become so intense—it feels like your life depends on it. Not just your rent, mortgage, meals, tuition, clothing, and utilities. But your life.
Fear and hope cloud your eyes.
You can’t see what you’re doing, where you’re going, or what matters most. When you’re lost in fear and hope, the signs and signals around you are all muffled and distorted.
And the tendency is to dig in and try harder.
Digging in and trying harder are reactivity masquerading as productivity. Because when you’re being spun around by the competing force fields of hope and fear, you’re no longer even doing the work. You’re sinking into emotional quicksand. The more you scramble, the more stuck you get.
It’s time to back away from the desk.
That’s right—as difficult as it may be—back away. Slowly now…and nobody will get hurt. Just slide back gently and release your fingers from the keyboard. Good…now keep moving your chair back until you can stand up.
The next step is to leave the area.
Get away from your workspace and do something that has nothing to do with work (but everything to do with life). Move your body. Make a cup of tea. Take a walk. Prune a plant. Breeeeaaaaathe.
Regain your perspective.
When it seems like your life depends on your work, it’s time to back away from the desk. To remember what your life really depends on. Because if you insist on trying harder, working longer, and digging in more deeply— somebody is going to get hurt. Think about it. Now, please, back away from your desk.
Talk with God
How do you feel about the G-word? What were the messages, teachings, ideas that you received growing up about…the G-word? Because whether you were raised in a religious family or not—you did inherit layer upon layer of meaning when it comes to the G-word. Why am I calling it the G-word?
Because it is a word—like orange or kiss.
If you take the word orange for the thing itself—you’ll never feel the sweet sharp burst of flavor come alive in your mouth. If you confuse the word kiss with the experience itself…you’ll miss the thrilling intimacy. Same with the G-word. If your connection to the G-word is as a word only…you’ll never feel the sweet sharp burst of love permeating the cells of your body and lighting up the petals of your mind. In short, you’ll miss out. Because there’s more to God than words can say.
The G-word is also a symbol.
As a symbol, the G-word contains many levels of meaning. It’s a rich, multi-leveled metaphor, an image that can be explored for a lifetime. Unlike a word, which masquerades as the-thing- itself, a symbol functions as a portal—inviting you to touch and taste the reality that is deeper than words.
The G-symbol transmits energy and meaning.
God-as-symbol functions as a meeting place where you can touch and be touched by qualities, energies, and perspectives that lie beyond the boundaries of your personality. Words dwell inside the boundaries of your personality. But symbols carry you into the spaciousness of the soul.
Your G-symbol appears in the form of your deepest longing.
The G-symbol that ignites your imagination and opens your heart—reflects what your soul thirsts for. Symbols contain and transmit energy. When you touch the symbol, it touches you back. There’s an exchange of vitality and meaning. As you commune with your G-symbol, it becomes a vehicle for healing.
But there’s something deeper than words and symbols.
To talk about this deeper dimension, I have to use words and symbols. But let’s be clear— it’s beyond all descriptions and metaphors. It’s the G-silence—the silence from which all words and symbols arise and into which they return.
The G-silence surrounds and interpenetrates every dimension of your experience.
You’re already in that silence right now. It’s also in you. Every breath you take is the rhythm of that silence. That silence is breathing you.
To talk with God you can use words, symbols, or silence.
When you communicate with the sacred dimension of your life using words—it can feel like making love with your clothes on. You know something good is happening, that something real is there… but you’re not making full contact.
When you talk with God—using symbols—there’s a surging, intense, energetic exchange.
The energy of the symbol feeds you, heals you, and completes you. If you’re in the dark, when you touch the sacred symbol, the light goes on. If you’re thirsty, contact with the G108
symbol quenches and satisfies your thirst. If you’re fearful, your heart is filled with courage. The G-symbol is a catalyst of completion. When you attune to it— healing happens.
Then there’s silence.
Father Thomas Keating says that silence is the primary language of God. And by extension, the primary language of your life. Every word and every symbol that has defined or energized your life is an expression, a version of the primary language—silence. Become a student of this primary language—silence. Don’t get caught in symbols or words. Go deeper. Let the syntax of silence renew you. Become a student of the primary language. Listen to the silence. Bathe in it.
The deeper you sink into that silence the more your words come alive.
As you rest in silence—words flash forth like sparks from a fire. Words come alive and transmit more depth, power, and meaning when infused with the presence of silence.
As you enter more fully into silence—symbols appear everywhere.
To the silent heart all life is rich with meaning and energy. Everything and everyone in your life appears in its conventional form and as a portal to the sacred dimension. The light streaming in the morning window is just light—and also the blessing of the sacred. The water glass on the table is just a glass of water—and also a blessing from the source of all healing. The world—your world—is alive with meaning and energy. Through this symbolic interchange, you actively talk with God—with the sacred dimension —in every moment.
The communication—the communion—is ever-present.
If this sounds too fancy-pants-spiritual for you, remember this—don't stop with words and symbols. Go deeper. Return to your primary language—silence. And then allow that silence to breathe into your work, your relationships, your daily life. Let silence animate the words and the symbols of your world. As your life is infused with silence, everything you think, say, and do becomes a sacred ritual of awakening.
Widen Your Listening
My mother-in-law has been visiting. She’s a Cornell graduate, retired from the family’s lumber and hardware store; and a party girl whose favorite song is Mack the Knife. She was fun to be around until she started listening to Fox News.
Now, when she gets on a roll—I start imaging that Bill O’Reilly is in the house. This makes it hard for me to listen to anything she says. Why would I want to listen to someone I disagree with so vehemently?
Because I want to keep learning and growing
I want to strengthen my capacity to stay open, curious, and attentive when faced with ideas and values that differ from my own. To expand my horizon of awareness and not drink my own Kool-aid.
One way to do this is by having conversations with people who don’t think like me. I want to keep an open mind—not to believe as they believe—but to be able to deeply and truly hear what they’re saying.
It’s not easy.
In fact, it’s uncomfortable. It’s easier to put up defenses. Erect cognitive barricades. Argue and make snide remarks. All these strategies—which I’ve honed over decades—protect me from the uncomfortable discipline of loosening my grip on the belief that “I’m right.”
Which doesn’t mean that I’m wrong
The attitude that promotes optimal listening and learning is epitomized in philosoper Ken Wilber’s phrase everyone is partially right. No one is completely wrong. Everyone is partially right. Imagine what it would mean if you adopted this perspective the next time you’re facing someone you habitually disagree with. Try it for yourself—right now.
Think of a person whose views you disagree with.
Take a mental step back and imagine you and the other person sitting next to each other. (It’s like you’re in the balcony of a theater looking down on two people having a conversation). From this observing perspective hold the thought that both people—you and the other person are partially right. Say to you and them, “You're partially right.” Notice what that’s like. How it feels different. Take the next step: Identify what’s partially right in their point of view and in your own. Acknowledge the partial rightness in your opinion and theirs. Be specific. Focus on a real, concrete, aspect of their perspective that is partially right. Do the same for your point of view. Appreciate the partial validity inherent in the opposing points of view.
Don’t try to resolve anything.
That’s not the point of this exercise. Just develop your capacity to appreciate the partial truth in opposing views. The more you appreciate the partial truth inherent in widely divergent views—the more you can flexibly shift perspectives.
It’s your capacity to enter diverging perspectives—with curiosity—that builds your capacity to learn from life. Particularly from the people life presents you with that appear most different from you.
Who can’t you learn from?
How do you protect yourself from people with opposing points of view? Consider how you might use these challenging conversations as a chance to strengthen your listening and learning muscles. It’s good for your health, your work, and the world. It also makes mother-in-law’ visits a lot more fun.
We had gathered to celebrate our friend’s 60th birthday. Between sips of chai tea and bites of dhal, I was catching up with the woman sitting next to me. She was relating her recent relationship adventures.
“When I met him,” she told me, “I knew at some level that he wasn’t a fit. But I thought ‘it’s better-than-nothing.’ So I started dating. After a few weeks I began to wonder, ‘is this really better-than-nothing?’ After another month I decided that nothing was actually better than better-than-nothing. And now that I’m experiencing nothing…it’s not bad.”
This is the choice that we confront at the threshold of change.
It’s the choice between nothing and better-than-nothing. Nothing is the unknown. The void. The uncontrollable mystery that awaits you on the
other side of the threshold. To step across the threshold is to enter into uncharted territory...into nothing.
Better-than-nothing is the known.
It’s the recognizable choice that allows you to preserve the strategies, behaviors, beliefs, and identity of the past. To choose better-than-nothing protects you from the anxiety of fathomless nothing and perpetuates the world you know. The mind recoils from the unknown…from nothing. But what it recoils from isn’t the experience of nothing.
It’s the ideas and images of nothing that terrify.
When the mind thinks of nothing—it’s not really nothing. It is the images and ideas of nothing. The mind creates a story of what it means and what it will be like to cross the threshold into nothing.
The mind tells a scary story.
A story that is designed to keep you from letting go of the known and opening to that which lies beyond the threshold.
It’s a story that’s activated whenever you approach the threshold of change.
Whether that change is focused on work, relationship, money, your body, health, children…it matters not. The mind’s strategy of telling scary stories is the same.
What causes you to pull back isn’t nothing.
Just think about crossing the threshold into the unknown…into nothing. Now watch how the mind reacts. It will quickly fill the open, undefined experience of nothing with ideas and images. Here are two common examples:
• As you approach the threshold of change in terms of your love/relationship life—the mind flashes warnings.
“Step away from the threshold,” the mind screams “Warning, warning…if you cross over you will doom yourself to a life of loneliness and isolation. You’ll wander endlessly down draughty hallways wishing for a companion…Do not proceed any further. Stay with the known—no matter how painful it’s better-than-nothing.”
• As you move towards the threshold of change in terms of your work—the mind sends up flares.
“What are you thinking? Do you really want to lose your house, your reputation, the respect of your kids and your peers, as well as all your savings? Stick with what you know, regardless of how deadening and soul-sucking it may be. All the propaganda about living your dreams is just that—propaganda. On the other side of the threshold is endless failure. Stop while you still can—it’s better-thannothing.”
It’s the thoughts of nothing that your mind uses to maintain its sovereignty.
The mind uses its powers of memory and projection to keep you from experiencing nothing. Because the mind is a big fan of better-than-nothing. But if you follow the fearful dictates of your mind, all you’ll experience is versions of the past. You’ll never open up to the richness and limitless potential that is waiting within nothing.
Nothing really isn’t nothing.
It’s the untapped potential of your being; the beckoning embrace of a deeper, fuller, more authentic life. The realization of that life comes out of nothing. You don’t create it—you open to it. Which is why it’s so important to pause when you’re considering whether to choose nothing or better-than-nothing. Take your time. Find your breath. Be still and gently open your arms to nothing. There’s so much waiting for you there.
When I was thirteen years old, I capsized a canoe and swam 100 yards to shore with all my clothes on. It wasn’t an accident. I was at a Camp Takajo and this was the test I had to pass before I could to take out a canoe on my own.
If you’ve ever had to swim 100 yards fully clothed, you understand a basic idea from physics called drag. Drag is the mechanical force that opposes your body’s motion through the water. When you’re fully clothed you experience a lot of drag. Contrast this image with that of a dolphin. Dolphins slice through the water. Evolution has honed the dolphin’s body to minimize drag. Even when we’re skinny dipping, the human body can’t match the dolphin design.
The world’s fastest swimmers only convert 9% of their effort into forward motion.
That means that 91% of their effort is spent moving water out of the way. That’s why great swimmers focus much of their training on reducing drag. What does this have to do with your life, your karma, getting unstuck? Well, drag isn’t just a matter of physics.
Drag is a factor of life.
There are many forces—within you and around you—that consume your energy, energy that could be channeled into creating what matters most to you. These forces create drag on your psyche, your relationships, your work…your life. The more you reduce drag—the more efficiently you can translate your energy and activities into meaningful results. If you want to create art, strengthen your relationship, build wealth—you need to understand and reduce drag.
Drag is created by both internal and external factors.
There are psychological, biological, behavioral, interpersonal, and environmental factors that create drag. Some of these can be easily reduced. Some take persistent attention. Other aspects of drag are part of life. Struggling to reduce them just wastes more energy. The idea is to reduce the factors that are reducible. Remember, drag is inevitable.
Water is thick—but life is thicker.
You’re not going to reach 91% efficiency. Don’t even try. But you can reduce drag by:
1) Aligning your goals with your values
Some of the goals you’re pursuing may not reflect your core values. You may be working really hard and pouring lots of energy into achieving goals that aren’t congruent with what matters most to you at a deep level. They’re discordant with who you are and how you want to contribute to the world. These goals may be fine for someone else. They’re just not your goals. They don’t reflect your core values. Pursuing discordant goals takes a lot of energy. You have to pump yourself up, hype yourself up, threaten yourself with consequences, cajole, bribe, and beg yourself to move into action. Discordant goals create soul-level drag.
Concordant goals, in contrast, do reflect your core values. They’re expressions of what matters most to you. When you’re pursing concordant goals you’re naturally motivated. Every step of the journey—from idea to implementation—is a chance to embody and express your truth. What are the goals that you’re working towards in your work and life? And how can you refine/edit your goals to be more reflective of your core values?
2) Setting priorities
Even when your goals are aligned with your core values, there is still the question of prioritization. In a given day, week, quarter, you’ve only got so much mental, emotional, creative, and financial energy to spend. How will you allocate your life energy? What matters most?
If you fill your mind/life/day with too many goals, you create drag.
Some goals need to be set aside—for now—so you can focus on what’s most significant at this time.
To do this prioritization, you need criteria.
What are the criteria you’ll use to prioritize your concordant goals? Here are three questions to use: • What will make the biggest difference? • What’s simplest? • What’s most joyful? Using these three criteria, sort your concordant goals and determine where you’ll focus your time/attention/resources.
3) Letting go of old habits
When I’m swimming, I have a hard time turning my head to the left. Why? Because I learned to breathe by turning my head to the right when I was six years old. I developed a habit that was reinforced every time I went swimming for decades.
Habits from the past can create drag.
Just because you’re comfortable repeating your pattern doesn’t mean it’s not eating up energy, time, and resources. The good news is that habits are not inevitable.
They’re learned. And so new habits are also learnable. (But, you’ll need to go through a learning curve—before the new habit reveals its true benefits.) What habits from the past are limiting your progress? What habits do you want to develop that will be more fulfilling, meaningful, productive?
4) Enrolling other people in your process
The people in your life are used to the way you’ve been. Even if some of your habitual ways of acting aren’t the most delightful or effective—other people have adapted to them. They’ve figured out what to expect from you and have developed complementary patterns of their own that “work” with your patterns. You and they make up a complex system.
When you change your habits, the system gets disrupted.
Some people may celebrate when you change. Others may not. Because your change places pressure on them to change as well. In subtle (and not so subtle) ways, these people will encourage you to return to your former habits.
What can you do?
First you can explain to the people who will be affected by your change what you’re doing and why it matters. Enroll them in the process so that they support the changes you want to make. And if they honestly can’t get on your side, look for ways to minimize their impact on your life.
5) Taking time for reflection
A key to reducing drag is to stop doing and take time to simply reflect. Reflection is as important as action. Through regular reflection you are able to self-correct your attitudes and actions. You re-calibrate your goals to ensure that they are still concordant expressions of your core values and that you’ve enrolled others in supporting your change process. As you reduce drag, you move towards meaningful goals like a dolphin slicing through the warm Hawaiian waters. And with a big dolphin smile on your face, too.
Be Where You Are
When you listen to the Wisdom Heart, you’re present. When you listen to the reactivity of mind and emotions, you’re not. Here’s a guided meditation for returning to the present moment. http://www.wisdomheart.org/i-am-here-practice/
Get in the Car
A reader who has left the corporate world and is embarking on a new entrepreneurial venture sent this question: “At what point does being ‘responsible’ shift into just being caught in a negative mindset where it’s all about avoiding risk and liability? When does due diligence change into just putting your energy and focus into the negative?”
Imagine you’ve landed on the island of Maui and you’re at the rental car lot.
The smiling attendant points out your car and tells you to check it for dings, dents, and scratches. You take the little piece of paper with the drawing of a car on it and start circling your vehicle.
Your purpose is to see what’s there—to make notes about the dings—and then get into the car and on the road. If you’re still circling the car after 15 minutes, going over the same dings, and leaning in really close to look for variations in the paint color—you’re missing the point.
The point is to be clear about the condition of the car and then to start driving it.
Granted, starting a new business (or new relationship or new project) has more risk than renting a car. But the process of checking and re-checking can trap you just the same.
It’s important to complete your “due diligence”—to see what there is to see, before you move forward.
But if you find yourself revisiting the same concerns and same issues again and again, you’ve moved past diligence into the hamster wheel of your mind. No matter how hard you run, the hamster wheel won’t move you forward. And that’s what you need. To move forward. Either get in the car (business, project, relationship) and start the engine or walk away. Both choices move you forward.
Re-checking won’t help.
Because you’re not going to find anything new by re-checking—just further reflections of your own anxiety. The same old reflections, the same doubts, fears, and questions.
Some of these doubts can be answered.
These are the technical, practical, issues that you can investigate using logic, analysis, and expert advice. And if you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve answered these questions.
Then there are the questions that can’t be answered.
Questions that start the hamster wheel of anxiety, doubt, and fear spinning faster and faster. You can’t find answers for these questions through logic, analysis, or expert advice. There really are no answers to these questions. They are reflections of the inherent uncertainty of life and the creative process. If you want to live more fully and create more intentionally—you’re going to experience anxiety.
Not that anxiety is bad.
In the words of Fritz Perls, anxiety is “excitement without breathing.” You don’t handle anxiety with more checking, more due diligence, more analysis. That just intensifies it.
You transform anxiety by accepting it and by breathing.
Accept anxiety as an asphyxiated form of excitement. Appreciate that you’re excited and breathe.
The breathing itself will naturally convert the anxiety into enthusiastic energy.
Enthusiasm is a good feeling. But it’s not the same as being certain or in control. The future is inherently uncertain. That’s what makes it exciting (keep breathing). It’s the uncertainty of the future that makes it capable of being shaped by your creativity and actions. But only if you stop circling the vehicle, get in the car, turn the key, and start driving.
What Are You Waiting For?
Once you’ve felt it, you can’t forget. I’m talking about your path—the way of living, being, working, breathing, and creating that expresses your True Life.
When you’re on your path, you can feel it.
It’s grounding and energizing. Serene and sparkling. Each step you take on your path re-connects, as Parker Palmer puts it, ‘soul and role.’ These two need each other.
Your soul needs your role.
And your role desperately needs your soul. Soul without role is a disembodied ideal, a tenuous emotion, an abstraction with no staying power. Role without soul is a deadening routine of culturally conditioned responses that—regardless of external accolades—never satisfy.
Your role is the form through which you express the energies of the soul.
Whether as parent, partner, artist, or leader. The role provides structure and context through which the deep qualities of your soul can touch and be touched by the world.
Walking your path binds these two together.
But not all at once. It’s a step-by-step process. With each step you risk and open to a deeper dimension of your soul. And with the next step you embody that dimension in the details, relationships, and routines of your daily life.
Each step on the path is a discovery.
You can’t predict what will happen—not in the external world, at least. But because there’s uncertainty and unpredictability, there’s huge creativity. You’re never really ready for the next step…before you take it. You can’t embody the next level of your path before you take the step.
You can delay your next step.
You may say, “I’m waiting for a better time to take the next step on my path.” There is always something that could be a little clearer, a little safer, more certain. Waiting for a better moment can be a long, long, wait. It’s in the midst of life’s not-quite-rightness that you step forward. It’s within the uncertain and unpredictable conditions that you act.
You can’t wait until you feel more together.
Because this very togetherness comes after you take the step. It’s with your own unfinished nature, your own not-quite-rightness that you act. The incompleteness of the world and your own incompleteness fit each other. Your need for wholeness and the world’s need for service complete each other. What are you waiting for?
Watch Your Step
How aware have you been over the past week? Have you noticed reactivity as it begins? What are the signs? What did you do instead of react? Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feel the Gratitude
A reader sent this email:
I've been practicing the morning meditation for a month or two and it really functions great. My days are more aware, my reactions to situations that in the past would make me nervous or stressful—now are surprisingly quite peaceful reactions. I wanted to ask you about mixing gratitude in the morning meditation. Just wanted to check with you and also to give you some feedback. Best regards, Ridvan
Thank you for writing and asking a question. I’m grateful :) Attuning to gratitude is a powerful practice. Incorporate it into your morning meditation
and recall it throughout the day. As you attune to the feeling of gratitude, you’re giving your consciousness a massage. The places that are tight, tense, and constricted begin to loosen and relax and open—to receive the blessings that are ever-present.
You’re surrounded by beauty.
As you enter into the feeling of gratitude, it becomes apparent that you’re surrounded, embraced by the beauty, bounty, and boundlessness of Life. You’re like a fish in the ocean—only you’re immersed in an Ocean of Being, a boundary-free Sea of Awareness.
Every possible experience is here.
Love. Health. Success. Wisdom. Everything. It’s all within the Ocean and available when you open and allow it in. Life is absolutely gracious in this regard and will never intrude. Life will never force you to have more happiness than you’re willing to enjoy. It is as though all the great sages and saviors are standing at the door of your house. They’ve brought gifts of wisdom, compassion, loving kindness, and freedom. But unless you open the door and allow them in—they’re stuck outside.
The door opens on the inside.
In the same way, the fullness of Life resides at the threshold of your consciousness. There’s a door between your current level of fulfillment and the unbounded Ocean of Life. But Life won’t rush in uninvited.
Life might slip notes under the door.
“I’m here. Please let me in. It will be so much fun!!” Life might wave at you from outside the window, “See I’m smiling. Open up, my friend.” Life will send you reminders of the possibilities and the richness that’s available. But the door opens from the inside. And the degree to which it opens is your choice.
A closed door feels safe.
There’s a certain security living behind a closed door or just opening it up a crack. There’s a feeling of being in control and of managing things your way. But there’s also an unresolved longing. By protecting yourself from what you can’t control, you’re denying yourself what you most deeply long for. Opening the door pulls you more fully into life. It’s what your soul wants.
Still, there's a tendency in the mind to hold back. To only let in those experiences that conform to the past. To keep you barricaded within the rooms of your personal history. So how can you open the door and begin to live more fully and more creatively?
You don’t have to open the door directly.
You can simply attune to gratitude. You can forget about opening the door and making yourself vulnerable to the unknown. Just attune to the feeling of gratitude and let that feeling do all the work.
Your attunement can start with the known.
In your history there are experiences that connect you with the feeling of gratitude. Start there. Remember a puppy, a smile, a sunrise—and allow yourself to feel grateful. Breathe in the sights, sounds, and energy that is encoded in those memories. Breathe it all into your heart and let the memory of that beauty organically open your heart.
Memories of beauty and blessings incline the mind towards gratitude.
That’s why you begin with the known. With what’s already inside the house of your history. The goodness, the blessings that you’ve known activate the mind of gratitude.
Then you shift the focus of awareness from the memory to the feeling.
As your attention becomes more and more absorbed in the beauty of the memory—allow your mind to shift from focusing on the content to resting in the feeling of gratitude. Let go of the sights, sounds, and particulars. Just breathe the feeling of gratitude. Without content or memory allow your attention to become more and more absorbed in the feeling of gratitude. Let it permeate your body, mind, and heart. Rest in the quality of gratitude. This will open the door of your consciousness.
Because the grateful mind perceives that Life is good, friendly, and beautiful.
The grateful mind readily opens wide to explore, embrace, and realize ever-deeper states and experiences. So you don’t have to force openness. As if that’s even possible! All you need to do is cultivate the feeling of gratefulness. As you attune to gratitude, the defensive postures of consciousness relax. The cells of your body and the petals of your mind open to receive the ever-present blessings of Life.
Many people are chanting the if-only mantra. Day-by-day they’re chanting away: if-only, if-only, if-only. Lost in regrets of the past and fantasies of the future—they chant if-only, if-only and miss the radiant, open invitation of this moment. They miss the purpose of life.
You came into this life with purpose. Your purpose isn’t an abstract idea. It’s an aware, breathing force field that gently and persistently seeks full expression. The if-only mantra obscures this expression and traps your attention in stories of unfulfillment. Attuning to your purpose connects you with a living state of consciousness that knows your path to greater creativity, meaning, and joy. When you touch this state of consciousness, it touches you. In that communion you dissolve all hesitancy and open to that which you are here to realize. You bid the if-only mantra goodbye and live your purpose— now.
What Can You Rely On?
Whatever arises in your experience—the highs, the lows, the in-betweens—it is all arising in awareness. Even those aspects of your life that you've forgotten, even forgetting itself, has its home in awareness. Right now, as you read these words—the very process of reading, reflecting, understanding is arising in the unbounded field of awareness. Your breath, the sensations in your body, the sounds in the room, your thoughts about what you'll do next…all are arising in awareness itself. Of course in a moment, this blog will be done, and you'll have moved on to other activities. But whatever you do next, whatever experience captures your attention—work, relationships, health, finances—everything you experience arises and dissolves in awareness. You can rely on that.
All is Welcome Here
As you build your capacity to witness thoughts and emotions, they don’t go away. Reactions still arise. But now rather than scatter your attention and degrade your awareness, you observe the arising.
Whereas before you may have only noticed the reactivity when you were deeply entrenched in struggle, now you can discern the pattern as it begins to form. You watch the thoughts and emotions take shape—fearful, angry, doubtful. And you smile, realizing that they’re uncomfortable, scared, and anxious. You see them for what they are—parts of your being that need mindful attention and loving kindness. You welcome them into your heart and teach them to meditate with you.
In the climactic scene of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana must pass three final tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his dying father. In the first test, called the Breath of God, he must bow down at just the right instant to avoid being decapitated by revolving metal blades. In the second test, called the Word of God, Jones must walk on just the right stones to spell God’s name in Latin and avoid plummeting through the floor to his death.
In the final and most challenging test, the Path of God, Indiana comes to the ultimate learning edge—a chasm one hundred feet across and a thousand feet deep. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. He is told, “Only a leap of faith from the lion’s head will prove your worth.”
He steps into the void and is upheld by an invisible force. Leaving your karma and embracing your possibilities is comparable to Indiana’s final trial. Like the hero in the movie, you can choose to take the risk and step forward into thin air. Through the practice of compassion and detachment, you’ve learned that the emptiness beyond thought is not void of life. Rather, it is filled with the creative energy of life itself. Energy that animates every cell of your body and every petal of your mind. Life is on your side. Life is relentlessly supporting you to awaken to wholeness and to transform unconscious and self-limiting patterns of karma into life-enhancing creativity. Life calls to you at every moment and you, by how you live, answer that call.
Wisdom Heart Home Study Programs:
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• Present powerful teachings that you can apply to your life—now! • Provide you with practices to transform difficulties, open your mind, and awaken your heart. • Support you in living with awareness, courage, and compassion. These potent teachings are guaranteed to open your mind and awaken your heart.
Healing Family Karma
Whether you grew up with Ozzie and Harriet or the Addams Family—you have family karma. It doesn’t matter if you’re the “most beloved” or the “black sheep”—family karma still limits your capacity to create and love. It is possible to heal family karma and live with greater awareness, freedom, and creative choice. Click here to learn more: http://www.wisdomheart.org/programs/healing-familykarma/
Mantra & Emotional Freedom
Do negative emotions interfere with your life? (How can you balance these emotions and experience sustained peace of mind?) Discover how to convert the energy of emotions into a creative force that nourishes your life. Click here to learn more: http://www.wisdomheart.org/programs/mantra_emotions/
I’ve been a doodler since I could hold a pencil.
I’m both an ordained swami in the Kriya Yoga lineage and a best selling business author. I’ve practiced and taught meditation since 1970 most recently through www.wisdomheart.org Since 1989 I’ve worked with over 20,000 leaders to infuse their work and workplaces with spirit, meaning, and purpose. My books You are the Leader You’ve Been Waiting For, Awakening Corporate Soul, and To Do or Not To Do have sold over 200,000 copies. The 50 Ways to Leave Your Karma project brings all the elements together: doodling, spirituality, writing and teaching. It’s been such a joy to bring this to you. My wish is that these images and words support you in opening to the ever-present blessing that is Life. You can read more about how I found meditation, met Devi, and what we do here: http://www.wisdomheart.org/about/thelonger-story/ Listen to our band here: http://www.wisdomheart.org/free/sacredmusic/
Dharma Doodles are now available!!
Every dharma doodle in this book (and more that aren’t in the book) are available as fine art prints for your home, office, or meditation cabin. (If you have a meditation cabin please send photos!) www.Dharmadoodles.com Every image is signed by the artist. And some are available on cool doodlewear t-shirts. Special Discount As a reader of 50 Ways you get a special 10% discount on your first purchase. Here’s your secret discount code: lovethedoodles Go to the gallery and start your dharma doodle collection at:
Eric, your dharma doodles always catch me. They make me stop, breathe, smile, and then almost always something in my heart -clicks- and I can relax and trust. Thank you for cutting through the guff and helping make such timeless wisdom accessible and helpful. You've got a gift, man. Mark Silver Heart of Business, Inc. Designated Master Teacher in the Shaddhilliyya Sufi Tariqa www.heartofbusiness.com
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