On Scars

I just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. In it, a missionary moves his family from Georgia to the Congo in the late 1950s to convert the natives to Christianity. The experience profoundly affects his wife and children, each in a different way.

Near the end of the story, his daughter Adah reflects on the experience, saying, “If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear marks of the shackles. What you have to lose is your story, your own slant. You’ll look at the scars on your arms and see mere ugliness, or you’ll take great care to look away from them and see nothing. Either way, you have no words for the story of where you came from.”

I couldn’t help but reflect on how this is true in many situations. We all have injuries, some physical and some emotional. And in some way we are all marked by those experiences. Healing isn’t about erasing the experience itself, so much as it is about integrating it. Our hurts are part of us. They aren’t evidence of weakness. They can, in fact, be evidence of strength.

Later, she concludes, “The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes.” Thus, if we allow all of our experiences to become part of the tapestry of our lives, we can create something even more beautiful than we might by simply cataloguing our success stories.

There’s a lesson in here, too, about not holding too tightly to our own stories, to our “slant.” If we identify too strongly with a certain role, as victim, or if we cast others as perpetrators, we run the risk of getting too entrenched in our own stories, getting stuck in an emotional and psychological rut.

If we can find the balance, indeed if we can find words to weave our own stories, in full color and complexity, they acquire a richness that serves as inspiration for others, and a catalyst for our own growth and development.

“When will you arrive?”

“At a size 6?

At one million dollars?

When Mr. Right marries you?

When you find your purpose?

Maybe when you arrive,

you will realize

the trip is over…” – Brooke Castillo

When we don’t achieve what we’d like in our external lives, it’s really easy to get caught in, “I’ll be happy when…” It’s a dangerous place to be though, because when we pin our happiness on the external world conforming to our personal wishes and preferences, we may be consigning ourselves to indefinite misery. Sometimes if we can’t let go, we get dragged kicking and screaming.

I’ll be happy when I get that promotion at work. I’ll be happy when the kids go off to school. I’ll be happy when I retire.

I’ve been reading this great little book by life coach Brooke Castillo called It was Always Meant to Happen that Way. In it she says, “Everything that is meant to happen does. Everything that isn’t meant to happen doesn’t. “

Imagine that you believe that…what does it feel like? When things happen, you just know it was meant to be. Likewise, when things don’t happen, is it easier to let it go?

It’s kind of like the Taoist story of the farmer. Let’s face it, we never really know what anything is for, do we? Sometimes things that happen seem so good, and then later we’re not so sure. To quote Hamlet… “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

If nothing is good or bad, and things and events just are (or aren’t, as the case may be), how much mental energy does that free up?

And if everything is truly in divine order right now, is it okay to exhale and just…be?

Giving the Devil a Ride


“An old man at church once told me never to give the devil a ride. Because if he likes the ride, pretty soon he’ll want to drive.” – Anne Lamott

Some of our biggest regrets in life have the most innocuous beginnings. It’s often the little things, the seemingly insignificant choices we make, each day, that become the fabric of our lives.

How we spend our time: Where we go. What we do. Who we talk to.  And, what we talk about.

In a book called The Compound Effect, Darren Hardy discusses how our habits, the things we sometimes do without thinking about them, can make our break us. Simply deciding to take a fifteen minute walk every day on your lunch hour may not seem like much, but if you do so every day, after a year or two, you will notice the difference. After a couple of weeks, or a month or two, it may seem unimportant, but over time, the impact will be revealed. It is that way with so many of our little habits.

On the flipside, the little things we do that are not so healthy, like sipping on a sugary drink every afternoon at work, may reveal themselves as choices that seemed unimportant at the time, but had larger repercussions later.

When we adopt healthy habits and keep positive company, we establish a trajectory which will lead us to a particular destination, if we stay on course.  Small adjustments may mean arriving far from your intended destination.

It’s good advice: Be careful who you give rides to…and make sure you stay in the driver’s seat.

On Storytelling

I’ve been thinking about storytelling since I watched Life of Pi. (Yes, I hear the collective sigh from my former English teachers.) As several wise persons have noted, it’s not so much what happens to us in life, but our response to what happens to us, that reveals our character. And much of how we respond to what happens to us has to do with the stories that we tell ourselves, and others, about the events our lives.

If two stories have the same events, and the same ending, which is true? This is the question in Life of Pi. And the answer: the one you like better is the one that’s true.

There’s a great deal of wisdom in that observation. While we can’t go back and change the past, we can change the lens, change our focus, and thereby also change our understanding and attitude about the things that happen to us.  Our beliefs shape the world and vice versa. The world shapes us, and we also shape the world. What we see we believe. And what we believe we live, and relive, over and over.

Every problem and every difficulty, when turned around, is an opportunity to learn and grow. The question is, do we allow our challenges to dictate our attitudes? Our treatment of others? Our goals and aspirations?

Often we get comfortable with familiar stories. Stock characters. Stories of good and evil. But real life is rarely so black and white. We all have within us capacity for great kindness and great cruelty. Whichever aspects of our consciousness manifest in our behavior is a direct result of the choices we make – the little choices – day in and day out.

Whether you grow your capacity for kindness is up to you.…because what you think upon grows.

The Heat of the Moment

“I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” – Anne Lamott

One of the important things I’d like to think I’ve (mostly) learned over the years is not to make decisions in the emotional heat of the moment.

Sometimes, in the midst of an emotional storm, it’s tempting to take some action, to relieve the pressure of the intensity of our feelings. We can start to mistakenly believe that if we take drastic action, we will arrive at the solution to the problem, whatever it may be.

Unfortunately, this is rarely (if ever) the case. In my own life, I haven’t yet made a decision in a state of emotional turmoil that seemed wise when I considered it later. As an adjunct to this, conflict resolution became much easier when I learned that every thought does not need to be shared aloud. Indeed, there are a great many better left unsaid.

One of the things I noticed when I started meditating was the sheer amount of garbage manufactured by my mind, on an almost constant basis. I daresay this power would be impressive if it could be put to good use – though I think that’s the idea behind affirmations and positive thinking. But sometimes the mind has to be left to just wear itself out spinning crazy, awful stories.

And they are just that: stories. Fortunately, a regular meditation practice helps make that clear, because when we start to believe our own stories we’re treading on dangerous ground.

Eventually the mind grows tired, and we can step out of the “thought-emotion-action” loop, thereby gaining access to our greater wisdom. If we can weather the emotional storm, watching it until it dies down, and acting in the calm after the storm, we stand a better chance of achieving the outcome we truly want.

It’s a process, and a non-linear one at that. In the words of Anne Lamott, “You can get the monkey off your back but the circus never leaves town.”

That’s why they call it a practice.

Getting Comfortable with Endings

Yesterday I went to a workshop on funeral pre-planning. I was by far the youngest person in the room. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating, informative, and thought-provoking seminars I’ve ever attended.

As a society, it seems like we are in denial of death. This doesn’t make sense to me. Death is a part of life. And our own death, too, is significant, in the sense that it is a reminder of the fact that we don’t have “all the time in the world.”

And since we don’t, isn’t the time that we have, by virtue of its very finite nature, all the more precious? Considering that few of us, if any, know exactly how much time we have, it seems even more important to not waste it in activities that don’t mirror our highest intentions for ourselves.

One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits is “Begin with the end in mind.” And thinking about your own death is one of the most effective ways to do this.

Imagine…your own funeral. Who is there? What are they saying about you? If you write your own eulogy, you will know how you really want to live your life, and what you want to do with the time that you have here.

Recommended reading – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

It’s true. There’s no getting away from yourself. You can go to the ends of the earth, but you can’t outrun your own fears, insecurities, or vulnerabilities. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how good your security system is, or how well-insured you are.

Sometimes it’s tempting to change things up. You may feel that moving to a new town, or getting a new job will change your life in a way that’s meaningful. While this might be the case, often the sense that life will be better following an external change is simply a reflection of an internal longing. And this seems to be particularly the case when it comes to moving away.

Personally speaking, in my various moving experiences over the years I found that whatever problems or issues I was experiencing in one location simply re-appeared in another. Sometimes they never disappeared at all.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make changes in your external life. By all means, if something’s not working for you, take steps to change it. At the same time, it’s important to realize that real change comes from within. And that much of what you see outside of you is a reflection of what’s inside of you.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Wayne Dyer

Recommended reading: Kabat-Zinn, John. Wherever you go, there you are.

Why ask why?

I’ve been reading Mira Kirshenbaum’s book Everything Happens for a Reason.  It’s a thoughtful exploration of how we assign meaning to events in our lives, particularly as to the way that challenging events give us opportunities to grow more fully into ourselves.

One of her key points is that the meaning is not in the event itself, but rather the meaning is within each of us. So, while two people might experience the unexpected loss of employment, they may each tell a different story about how that event was a catalyst for some sort of personal growth. According to Kirshenbaum, when we look for meaning in a life event, we can place it in one of ten categories/stories:

  1. To help you feel at home in the world
  2. To help you totally accept yourself
  3. To show you that you can let go of fear
  4. To bring you to the place where you can feel forgiveness
  5. To help you uncover your true hidden talent
  6. To give you what you need to find true love
  7. To help you become stronger
  8. To help you discover the play in life
  9. To show you how to live with a sense of mission
  10. To help you become a truly good person

Of course, the alternative is to believe that everything happens at random and nothing has any meaning, ever. In that paradigm, it’s easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as hapless victims in a series of events we have no control over.

While it’s true to a great extent that we can’t control what happens to us, what we can control is our response. If we allow the challenges we experience in life to shape us, to change us for the better, that says a great deal about the development of personal character.

To take it a step further, if we actively participate in the process by viewing these events as opportunities for growth, and we maximize the value of each in helping us become more fully who we really are, we may find a greater sense of peace within ourselves and a greater sense of purpose in our lives.

Serenity Now

Seinfeld has long been one of my all-time favorite television shows. And one of the best episodes, in my humble opinion, is Serenity Now.

Admit it. You clicked on the link, didn’t you?

Serenity now….Insanity later. There’s some truth to that.

And here it is. Affirmations work. But they’re not a magical spell. Sometimes you’re just angry. And it’s ok to be angry. Pretending you’re not angry when you are is not going to work very well. That’s not what affirmations are for.

Affirmations are about working to change core beliefs. And core beliefs usually exist in the subconscious mind. Walking around bellowing “Serenity now,” while amusing, is not likely to lead to much except, well, insanity. At the very least, it’s creating quite a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Someone I know who works with affirmations regularly once likened the use of unbelievable affirmations to putting sprinkles on dog poo. If you can’t make rent, repeating “I am wealthy” is really not going to do you much good at all. Putting a few sprinkles on the dog poo might pretty it up a little, but it still stinks. We’ve all been there.

Any affirmation that you decide to use is going to be more effective if you find it at least 50% believable to begin with. So, for example, if you are working to improve your finances, perhaps “My wealth is increasing” is a more believable option.

I’d love to tell you that you can change your life overnight. The truth is that real change takes patience and dedication. But the rewards span your lifetime.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Take the first step today.

On Letting Go, Part III

How do we know when to let go, and when to hold on?

Sometimes when presented with a challenging person or situation in our lives, it can be difficult to determine what constitutes right action.

If what we’re facing is unlike anything we’ve experienced before, can we evaluate it on the merits of our previous experiences? If we do so, we run the risk of devaluing it, or of evaluating it based on a set of outdated criteria.

When something, or someone, so different from our previous experiences comes into our lives, it’s an opportunity for learning about our ingrained beliefs, habits, and patterns. And an opportunity to reflect upon whether or not these are serving us. Sometimes they are, and other times they are not.

That’s the funny thing about identity. We construct it over time, and we can deconstruct it as well. But if we throw out everything we know to be true every time someone comes along with a new idea, we run the risk of losing ourselves entirely.

On the other hand, if we are so concerned with building castles within ourselves that we cannot allow anything new to come in, we are closing ourselves off to growing, to experiencing our lives – and ourselves – more fully.

 And the difference is not always easy to discern.

Sometimes (actually more often than not) there are no easy answers. Through remaining in a space of watchful awareness, and cultivating a heart of compassion for everyone involved in a situation, we can ease the discomfort that is often so much a part of being in the midst of not knowing. When the turmoil within us subsides, we may discover a space of calm, quiet, and peace which holds the answers we seek.