‘Who will teach me to write?’ a reader wanted to know. The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity. The page which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch, but touching it nevertheless because acting is better than being here in mere opacity. The page which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut, the page in the purity of its possibilities, the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all of your life’s strength. That page will teach you to write.
-Annie Dillard, “The Writing Life”
It is not the writer alone who struggles to find meaning in her work or life.
I think Annie Dillard’s advice to the writer in the above quotation could be tweaked a bit and read—who will teach me to live? And the answer would be life.
Life itself is our greatest teacher—life with its questions and surprises, life with its tender moments and desolate moments, life with its beauty and life with its wretchedness. It is not the guru or teacher or master who can teach us how to live. They may point a way but not the way, because we all come to life with different histories and DNA and hopes and desires. And life, like the pages of a book Dillard points out, has an ending point. While we may plan and scheme and create, all we really have is the present moment. And it is this moment of life, however it presents itself that is our greatest teacher.
So trust in your experience, your feelings, your perceptions, and continue to question yourself, push yourself and open yourself to your greatest teacher.
If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever…Everything you’ll ever need to know is within you; the secrets of the universe are imprinted on the cells of your body.
We know so much more than we give ourselves credit for. How many times do we find ourselves in the same situation—fighting about that same thing, being attracted to that same kind of dysfunctional personality, putting ourselves in situations where we are uncomfortable or unhappy? Way too many times…
A friend once told me, “Deep down, there are no secrets”. Deep down, we know. We know when a relationship is doomed, when our heart is uplifted, when something tastes good. We know our hearts. This, I believe, is what Dan Millman is referring to when he writes, “the secrets of the universe are imprinted on the cells of your body”.
It’s already there. We don’t need to go through that same thing a dozen times to know that. We don’t need a guru to tell us. Or a loud pundit or wise author. Or even a friend. We know our own hearts.
And let’s be honest…when we honor ourselves, doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel good to be real? Life is way too short to live someone else’s life; start living your own life by befriending your own heart.
With every act of self-care your authentic self gets stronger and the critical, fearful mind gets weaker. Every act of self-care is a powerful declaration: I am on my side, I am on my side, each day I am more and more on my side.
-Susan Weiss Berry
Whose side are you on?
All too often we put the needs of others above our own. We give to ourselves only if there is enough time at the end of the day, and even then we feel guilty. And at times, we are so disconnected from ourselves that we don’t even know what self-care looks like.
I think a good place to start is to ask yourself: “Whose side are you on?” It might take a while to accept that you actually are on your side. Once you do, you can begin to explore what that looks like. What does it look like to love yourself, believe in yourself, nurture yourself with enough sleep and good food and healthy relationships? What does it look like to pursue your passions and take rests when you need them? What does it look like to pause and put your hand on your belly and ask your inner being—what do you need right now?
Give yourself permission to be on your side. And then, with all the love and care you have given yourself, you can give love and care to others.
When we are in pain, we need to hear, “I hear you, I see you, I am sorry, what can I do, I am here for you” and not “Think of how worse it could be, be grateful for all the good things in your life, and even this too shall pass”. Because truth be told—none of that helps. The hidden message behind all these well-meaning statements is—you should get over it; it’s really not that bad.
But maybe it really is that bad.
And maybe what you really need is a hug. And maybe what you really need changes from moment to moment. And maybe that just has to be ok. Maybe you need to make space for your grief and the variable ways in which you deal with your grief. And maybe you need to be very selective about the people you let into this process.
We all know grief. And if we don’t now, we will at some point, because that is just the nature of life. Love and loss. So, do we stop loving because the grieving hurts so bad? I don’t think so; that would be a terribly grey and sad existence.
So, maybe we can come to a gradual acceptance that grief is part of the life experience, and when we do suffer—we can create as much space and comfort and loving people as we need for that pain. And maybe we can also strive to care for our loved ones who are grieving. We can listen, offer hugs, and as much space as is needed.
This, I believe, is true compassion.
Our obsession with our happiness has contributed to our unhappiness.
-Tal Ben Shahar
I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I dislike suffering. While I might theoretically understand the benefits of suffering—the wisdom gained, the empathy learned from connecting to the collective human experience, and the deep and personal growth available on the other side, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d trade it all in for sunny skies and healthy children. But life isn’t like that.
While there is suffering we are responsible for, I think most of our suffering is simply the result of being human. There is joy and loss; there is birth and death; there is kindness and cruelty.
But in our obsession with happiness, we have denied the existence of suffering, thereby creating a culture where those who suffer are ridiculed, pitied, and scorned. So we, in turn, master our defense mechanisms to deny, deflect, numb or fly away from our suffering.
But, let’s be honest…this never works.
We need to give ourselves permission to be human–to have the full range of the human experiences and not to judge ourselves for times of sadness, fear, anxiety or even hopelessness and panic.
The truth is—if we turn to our felt experience of pain, and if we name it and accept it and allow it and honor it and send it compassion and love, rather than doing our best to rush away as quickly as possible, we will actually be able to allow those very real and very human emotions to pass through us. As they say, what we resist, persists.
So, when I am suffering, I have a practice of putting my hand on my heart (I adapted this from Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion) and I acknowledge my suffering. I name all the emotions. I talk to myself as I would talk to a therapist. And somehow by naming everything, by getting it out—at least to myself—the monster in the closet doesn’t seem quite as big. And then as I acknowledge the painful thought or emotion, I ask myself—can you stay with this right now? I breathe into it, and I just name it and stay with it. Sometimes there are moments of pain; sometimes there are periods of pain. But regardless of the length of the suffering, we need to give ourselves permission to feel whatever we are feeling and not judge ourselves.
And that is just the start. Talk to good friends, safe friends who can handle your vulnerability, and maybe find a good therapist who can help you address some of the deeper issues that might be coming up.
Be gentle and loving with yourself—always. And, give yourself permission to be human.
I have come to believe in fact that Creativity and Fear are conjoined twins; they share all the same organs, and they cannot be separated without killing them both.
I think fear gets a bad rap. The minute that creeping, dark and sticky feeling sinks into our gut or whispers in our ear, we usually shut down and we take it as a sign that we are venturing into dangerous and forbidden territory. So, we play it safe, make a u-turn and head back to the known.
Don’t get me wrong—there IS good fear! There is the walking in a dark alley fear and the I think she’s talking behind my back fear. But the fear that keeps us small and limited, the fear that keeps us from living a fully creative life—whether we are writing songs or raising children or writing legal documents or creating public policy—is not good fear.
That fear wants us to play it safe. That fear says—don’t do it, you aren’t strong enough, wise enough, talented enough, experienced enough. That fears shuts off the conversation between you and your higher self. That fear feels dark and scary. Because the worst thing we can do in this life is play it small, and not step into the fullest expression of the selves we came here to be.
So stepping out and living creatively means that we WILL take risks and we will make ourselves vulnerable, and there will be naysayers, and we will fall flat on our faces many times, and there will be moments of confusion and scary solitude and feeling lost, but if we are taking these steps in the service of our highest self, our full and creative self, we are truly living.
Elizabeth Gilbert also says, I love Creativity enough to accept that Fear will always come along with it. So, that is the question we should ask ourselves every day—how much do I really want to live a Creative life? What am I willing to risk? How fully do I want to live?
I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
I admit it. I’m a binge-reader, and whether my current fascination is with Sylvia Plath or narcissism or the global economy, I read everything I can get a hold of. Lately, it’s been fear, which probably has something to do with my son (whom I am extremely proud of!!) enlisting in the IDF…
So I found myself reaching for everything from “how-to” books to psychological and spiritual books. And, what I discovered taught me a lot more about the different ways we process life’s challenges rather than about fear per se.
I turned first to the psychological books, which initially offered a great deal of comfort. However, in their exploration of the root causes of emotions, many of these books delivered the fatalistic message that you are the sum of your parts, and no matter how much work you do on yourself, you will probably always have these particular issues, anxieties, and neuroses.
So then I turned to the positive motivation and uplifting spiritual books. Many of these books offered promises of success, happiness and the realization of all your deepest desires and dreams, either by repeating slogans like just think it and it will be or by providing how-to lists.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love affirmations and believe in the power of positive thinking. I’ve got positive affirmations taped to my fridge. And I love lists! Anyone who knows me, knows that I’ve got dozens of lists—from the big life goal lists to my running shopping list. But when it comes to dealing with deep emotions like fear or facing challenging situations in life, I agree with Brene Brown, who said, “How-to doesn’t work. If how-to’s worked, we wouldn’t be struggling.” Just saying a positive affirmation or making a list won’t make the emotions or the thoughts or the challenging situation go away.
So, what do we do?
I think we need to start by accepting that life is a mysterious and beautiful and often challenging and sometimes terribly painful journey; and simultaneously by accepting that we are fluid, imperfect creatures, capable of the highest highs and lowest lows. Maybe we’d find life a little less stressful if we let go of any idea that life is or should be perfect and that we are or should be perfect. And maybe we need to see ourselves, as Carl Jung states in the above quotation, as “I am what I choose to become”.
We can’t look to positive affirmation books or psychological books or spiritual teachers to erase life’s challenges or answer all of life’s questions. In the end, I believe it’s up to us to find a method, or what I call “life strategies” that work for us. I’ve found that what works for me is to begin everyday with a time of meditation and prayer, when I remind myself of three truths that are the foundation for my life:
1.I am a spiritual being created by a loving God;
2.Everything in my life offers me opportunities for growth and I remain grateful for these experiences and people;
3.I understand deep desire as the Divine seeking expression through me.
When I ground myself in these three precepts everyday, I feel equipped and empowered and energized to face the day.
There’s no quick fix. There is just living—mindfully, lovingly, and maybe in the words of the well-known Eagles son, we should “Take it easy…”
By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops:
Nobody blinks a lid, gapes,
Or cries that this raw flesh
Reeks of the butcher’s cleaver…
-Sylvia Plath, from “Street Song”
My heart breaks as I read this. My heart breaks for Sylvia Plath, for me, for anyone who has ever exiled their pain.
This poem may look nothing like exile. Yes, Plath wrote openly and viscerally about her depression, loneliness, and sadness, as do we often talk openly about our pain. But it is possible to exile our pain, even while we are expressing it.
We exile our pain by vilifying it, by shaming it, by finding remedies to “get over it” rather than listening to the wisdom it has come here to teach. No, pain doesn’t feel good. So it’s no wonder that we wouldn’t want to “get over it” as quickly as possible. But think about it, if our child or friend or parent were crying in pain, would we shut them up? Would we say, “You are annoying me and I just don’t want to deal with this right now”? No, we’d sit and hold our loved one and wipe their tears and listen to what they need to say—regardless of how rational or relevant or raw it might be. We would just listen.
The next time you find yourself negating or shaming a feeling or thought, take a step back and envision yourself as your best friend. Throw your arms around yourself and invite your feelings out of exile.
I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave the speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.
-Laila Lalami, “The Moor’s Account”
While Laila Lalami’s beautifully written fictional memoir about a Moroccan slave explores the themes of racism and greed, what struck me when I read this sentence, was the power of storytelling, the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
We think our thoughts are true. But are they? Certainly not all of them. Not the ones that shame us or blame us or make us feel icky and lost and confused. But those are most often the ones we cling to.
But what if we stepped back for a second, and thought about some truths we’d actually like to believe, ones that are filled with hope and confidence and love? Is it so hard to think positive thoughts? To create truths that make us feel good?
No, I don’t think it’s hard, but too often we have the habit of seeing the worst and believing the worst and making stories out of these things.
Let’s change that! Let’s see our lives as blank slates. Let’s see every moment as a golden opportunity to start anew. Lets challenge ourselves to feel good by saying good things to ourselves. And maybe, baby step by baby step, we will create new beautiful stories, new beautiful truths.
I used to spend my nights out in a barroom
Liquor was the only love I’ve known
But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom
And brought me back from being too far gone
You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time
-Chris Stapleton, Tennessee Whiskey
We’ve all looked for love in the wrong places. In fact, I think we spend most of our lives looking for love in the wrong places.
We think that the love of another or the perfect job or even the feeling we get from a chemical addiction will satisfy a deep craving for love or meaning. But anytime we look outside ourselves, we will never be satisfied.
The only sustaining love and sense of wellbeing can be found within. Our regard for ourselves, our love for ourselves, our sense of what is right and wrong can only be found within—not at the bottom of a bottle or in the arms of another. So maybe it’s time to dig deep within and stay stoned on your own love.
Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrow, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the pictures of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.
-Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I think many of us belong to this clan—the one filled with deeply-feeling and empathetic people who are affected by their surroundings, by the feelings of others, by sights and smells, and by world events.
But is this necessarily a good thing? Does it actually serve us to be so affected by so many things?
Compassion is one thing; it’s a conscious choice to care for another. But oftentimes, for those of us in this clan, our wellbeing is not a conscious choice, and is as ephemeral as the weather. We wake up in the morning, open the blinds and ask—will the sun shine today? Similarly, we wake up in the morning and ask—will I be happy today?
As if we have no part in the matter. But we do.
We can choose our thoughts. We can choose our emotions. It’s not always easy, especially if there is a lot of trauma from our past or if we have the habit of feeling powerless. But just as we have to exercise our muscles and work our way up to push-ups and sit-ups, we can also exercise our positive-talk muscles.
We can remind ourselves that life is a beautiful journey, a glorious and mysterious gift. We can remind ourselves that the glass is half-full.
…When you move
I’m put to mind of all I wanna be
When you move
I could never define all that you are to me
So move me, baby
Shake the bough of a willow tree
You do it naturally
Move me, baby
-Hozier, from “Movement”
This morning I watched a man hug trees.
Just north of Gordon Beach, there is a part of the boardwalk that is lined with palm trees. Yesterday, I watched as a man went from tree to tree, hugging each one for about ten seconds. Surrounded by body builders and joggers and volleyball players and alterkakers playing chess, this man quietly hugged his trees.
What struck me most was how others responded to him. Either he was ignored because they were engaged in some beach-related activity, or they seemed curious, respectful, and kind. There were no looks expressing, “This guy is nuts!”
Later in his song, Hozier sings, When you move I can recall somethin’ that’s gone from me; when you move Honey, I’m put in awe of something’ so flawed and free. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was put in awe of this man. There was something flawed and free in his tree-hugging.
And I felt inspired to dig deep within and rediscover parts of myself that felt gone or inhibited or stuck. Our perfectionism–even well-intentioned–can often disconnect us from our authentic selves. So maybe hugging trees isn’t your thing, but ask yourself what would make you feel flawed and free, and explore how to nurture that part of yourself.