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Holy Fear

What if fear is holy?

This thought came to me as I was overtaken by a recent trance of believing that I’m somehow not enough. I know this cluster of “lizard fears” intimately.

I’m not good enough. Or there’s simply not enough (goodness or happiness or pistachios, for that matter). And I do know these as big fat lies when I catch them. But circumstances can trigger the old dominant “lack and attack” beliefs (as Martha Beck calls them) and give the reptilian brain power.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time petting my lizard, naming my lizard, giving it a cozy place to take a break so it can leave me alone. But I’ve long suspected that there’s another understanding that is possible about fear and anxiety.  Anxiety has been my companion, off and on, for most of my life. It has brought me to my knees and taught me to surrender to deepening change.  Most of the risks I’ve taken, inside and out, have involved a dance, if not a tango, with fear. But my anxiety usually feels more like a mammal (say, a sabertooth tiger) than a lizard. A worthy opponent, a Big Force to be reckoned with, rather than a pet to be calmed.

So I was lit up when I discovered a different description of fear by contemporary rabbi Alan Lew. According to him there are two words for fear. One is  pashad, an over-reactive and irrational fear (or lizard brain fear, in today’s parlance). And then, according to Lew, there’s a second word that’s used in the Old Testament: yirah. This is sometimes defined as the feeling we have when we’re standing on holy ground. THIS, I thought, is that other thing, the anxiety I often feel when I’m drawn to do something bigger or scarier than my current way of living in the world, a new word to describe that familiar gut-crunch deep inside when I’m called to take risks that demand that I open up to being a bigger presence in the world. Avoiding yirah would mean that I’d limit myself from taking the next leap and arriving more fully at some unseen potential.

Since I came across this new definition I’ve been noticing I can let the anxiety simply be there. There’s something calming and strengthening when I have respect for this state of being that was first named more than 2,000-years ago. When I notice that I’m having that yirah feeling, I’ve found out that I can choose to do the thing anyway and see what happens. So far it hasn’t been terminal. Good to know.

To quote Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, “when any of us are stepping into our real voices, our true aspirations for our life, we feel yirah. And it can feel a bit uncomfortable because it is that tingling, high-energy, out-of-our-comfort-zone sensation.”  This is not necessarily a trigger that leads directly to panic.

Instead, it’s an invitation to get acquainted with the signals that come from a step into your deeper calling. It’s an opportunity to drop into the Self that is beyond the ego. Its voice may be almost indecipherable now, but that “still, small voice,” accompanied by a soupcon of anxiety, can become your new BFF. The very one that will guide you to your best life. See what you think.

What Does Life Want to Make of You?

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Parker Palmer, Letting Your Life Speak.

Since one of my (somewhat) official titles is Master Life Coach, I talk to people pretty often who ask for help making something of their lives.  They want an advisor, strategist, and a wrangler to help them get this unwieldy thing called Life back in control. At the very least, they’d like a lasso to round it up a bit. Nothing wrong with that approach, except the fact that Life usually has its own way with us when we’re fighting it. This is the source of abundant stress.

Sometimes asking the question what do I want to make of my life?  is just the thing. There’s nothing like awakening to the awareness that how I live this life is largely my choice. There’s a beauty and strength in being dynamic and focused in your relationship with life. In paying attention to the internal navigational system that tells you what is true for you and then acting on this understanding with integrity. In standing tall and owning the confidence to walk out the door and be yourself  in the best way. It’s a fine thing to find that strong spine and live upright in the world .

But there comes a time when asking what I’ll make of life is the wrong question. When the person who is asking the question is not the person who you are becoming. She still believes that the path of happiness lies in the successes of the past or the people around her.

Sometimes we just don’t know the right question to ask, much less the answer. And then we pretend. This can be a very lonely and anxious state. But this is an important and pregnant time. Because Life, at that very moment, is trying to speak. If we don’t have a lot of experience listening, this can be very confusing. We can learn to manage our anxiety through various helpful techniques. But underneath that, there’s a beckoning, a barely discernible direction.

Most of us in this modern world of stimulus and response aren’t very skilled at giving this voice a good listen. But this hasn’t always been the case. When I studied Spiritual Direction, I discovered the world of Ignatian spirituality. I’m not of the Catholic persuasion, and this is a very solid practice from that tradition (more at http://www.ignatianspirituality.com). There are many things I love about the inner work of this practice. Most important for me has been the awareness of how my life speaks. Or in Ignatian terms, how God speaks in my life.

It’s a process of beginning to grasp what Life wants from me. The access to those answers comes from asking good questions, as is almost always the case.  The way I’ve adapted the practice is in the form of a daily check-in. In the quiet of the evening or morning,  I ask myself three key questions:

  • Where have I felt the presence of the holy in my life today?
  • Where have I felt most alive?
  • What do I long for?

The yearnings of the heart are often subtle. It’s a spiritual practice to slow down enough to listen. To attune to this navigational system, I check in with myself during the day, in the middle of my life, using the tried and true Body Compass I learned from Martha Beck. The heart yearns for freedom. When I can locate that in my body, I can move in the direction. But first comes the research. So I slow it down. Write it down. Once a day, I add to the list in my journal.

It’s an amazing practice for clarity. So here’s your invitation.

Ask those three good questions. And listen for your answers.

What if the Food Thing Is Simple?

“It’s just that food…diet…food choices…are so complicated.” This was my stated conviction last week as I began a three-day Eating Peace inquiry retreat with dear friend Grace Bell.

My confusion about nutrition and diet has increased over the years, and that’s saying something given my birthright as a woman and my family issues with overeating . Ever seeking a fix for various bodily challenges (such as carrying twenty extra pounds, mostly on my hips and thighs), I have tried these “deep fixes” in the last ten years alone:

~ I’ve delved into Geneen Roth’s work, including attending two of her famous and powerful Retreats.

~ Hired a nutritionist for a lot of money (whole, plant-based foods are good, it turns out. So is adhering to a diet….say Paleo? Vegan? Raw? It’s a continuum toward enlightenment.)

~ Filled three shelves of valuable bookshelf space with large, heavy books, full of information and prescriptions. Tried every one out for a couple of weeks.

~ Hired a coach who specializes in Compulsion Inquiry to get further under my complex wiring and bring in some deep awareness.

~ Subscribed to various coaching programs from extremely well-known and successful, skilled coaches.

~ Attended Weight Watchers regularly for two years.

~ Ditto for strength training.

~ Done every inquiry-based worksheet I could think of on my body, food, sugar, carbs.

~ Had extensive (and expensive) food-based allergy panels run to catch anything I was missing. More than once.

~ Eliminated gluten for ten years (mostly), dairy, and corn/sugar for the last month.

~ Cleansed this way, that way, the other way. Juiced and Green Smoothied my way through more than one Spring.

It’s a fascinating hobby.

If this were a financial spreadsheet I’d be alarmed at the money I’ve spent (a quick estimate runs easily to 30 grand. And that’s conservative.) The net result has been a fluctuation of maybe ten pounds during that time, except for the 20 pounds I gained (and later lost) eating my way through a family crisis. This is not to say that I haven’t learned from each source. It’s just that the very biggest, most blaring thing I’ve been learning has created a “religion,” as one of my teachers calls it, a core, unexamined belief that I adhere to without knowing it.

Food and eating choices are very complicated. That’s the religion. And there’s been a whole lot of proof to fuel the belief; it’s a puzzle that gets more complex every year as research evolves and trends change. And as it has evolved I have felt more and more powerless over my choices. So for three days last week, I retreated to examine my thinking and my eating up close. I noticed how much time my mind spends searching its database for its current eating plan.  I noticed how elusive the answers seemed. And then how little of what happens in the mind has to do with what really supports this body.

By giving myself permission to eat what I wanted, stop when I was full enough, stay in my process with others who were doing the same, I noticed these things:

~ It doesn’t take much food to go from empty to full enough.

~ Kale is not my body’s friend. Ditto for too much salad. Especially in winter. My mind, following nutritional literature, had been ignoring evidence to the contrary.

So here’s the upshot.  It turns out (ta da!) as I question my old, stale beliefs, and examine a whole bunch of emotional conditioning and wiring:

It is simpleBut not always easy.

I pay attention to what my body wants, make sure I have some of it accessible, eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. For me right now, that means writing it all down, to avoid my tendency to slip into brain fog.

Every other complicating thing is a feeling or a story or a feeling about a story I created as a part of my religion.

Who am I without all the entertainment that my hobby of fixing my eating and weight problem has given me? On a peaceful path of discovery which involves breathing, staying present, noticing.

Oh yes, and eating.

It’s that simple.

Now . . . A Pause from Self-Improvement

Who is this one who’s convinced she must improve me?

She tramped through the oxalis on a wet January evening, wondering at the recirculating advice device that seemed to be her brain.

A “retreat of solitude.” That’s the way she had described her coming week in the half-collapsed cabin, hunkering up to a leaky wood stove.

“Alone with my own thoughts” she had said. “Away from the breakneck speed of screens, terrorists, presidential candidates. (Really? Him? Again? She thought. That’s reason enough to hide in the woods for two years, not just a week.)

She had loved the packing for her one-woman, one-week Thoureau-esque sojourn.

Figs. Almond butter. Five kinds of tea. A dozen candles. One flower in a pot. Two soft, well-worn comforters. A quilt made by her Grandma Esther. Layers of warm, soft clothing and pajamas. Two pair of slippers and one pair of boots.

Chocolate. Now she had anticipated everything.  

And then, after a two-hour drive through the mountains, she had arrived. Unpacked. Lit a fire. Fondly surveyed the ambience. It was just as she had imagined it.

But now what?

There was a buzz in her ears. She’d never noticed that before. Was it the after-sounds from the drive there? Tinnitus? No matter, she thought. She decided to lie down, rest from the road noise.

And the internal voices weaved in and out, up and down. Full of their bad advice, she thought, remembering her favorite poem. She slept. When she awoke it was twilight. She grabbed a couple of figs and a handful of nuts. Drank the last of her coconut water, the fuel for the trip here.  Then she slept without dreams in the complete silence of the forest.

The buzz was still there when she opened her eyes at first light, an alto mosquito in her ears keeping her company. So much for the silence that brought me here, she thought.

After that, the buzz seemed to have set up a station in the center of her brain. It reminded her of the sweet, calm voice that had guided her to create her getaway. Only this drone was far more bossy.

First thing tomorrow you’ve got to start walking. Four blocks at first, then each day more.

When she opened her journal and picked up her gel pen, she noticed a list taking form.  She  scribbled away, in awe of the force that had overtaken her. Finally she had to pause to let her wrist unwind.

She re-read the words that had spewed over the page.

It was a bucket list for self-improvement.

Cut your hair.

Lose twenty pounds. Before summer.

Sign up for that Spanish class.

Adopt an Indonesian girl through the Save a Child Foundation that guy on the bus keeps telling me about.

Organize the photos of my family. My life.

Oh yes! My spiritual life! Meditate. Make use of this journal to find the rich inner vein. Get silent.

That’s why she’d taken the retreat! She’d almost forgotten.

After that, on and on. Someone inside her head had a very full agenda for her.

I’m my own makeover project, she thought.

She tugged on her boots, desperate to escape her out–of-control inner Pygmalion.

At once she was welcomed by the mist. As it settled over her hair and jacket, she felt an instinctive pull to the creek below. As she strode toward the creek she noticed she was walking faster and faster, as if she were trying to escape a stalker. She superstitiously glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. She stopped. Filled her lungs with the moist air. Exhaled. Filled her lungs again with the lichen-laced beauty of the surrounding scrub oaks.

Glancing up, there it was. A doe. The word floated through her mind. (A female deer, the voice sang).

But then, for a breath or maybe two, she stood, their eyes locking. And there was no word for the feeling. One being. And there was also no word for the Silence.

Aha! Moments and Epiphany

From the first day of the holiday season, even as I’m savoring the feasting, singing and celebratory chaos, my favorite holiday moment beckons.  I’m not of the religious persuasion that celebrates Epiphany at the end of the Advent season, so I stumbled on it by chance.  For a number of years I noticed that the season wasn’t really over for me until a few days after New Year’s Day.  Once tree was down, the last stale cookies were eaten, the kids were back at school, I dropped back into my own life with a sigh of relief.

This was the time to recap the holidays and decide what might work better in the future.  This was the time to imagine possibilities for next year. I began to notice how many insights would come as I sat with my journal and tea, waiting for resolutions to emerge from detritus of Christmas past.  As it turns out, year after year this magical day was nearly always about Jan. 5th or 6th.  Curious, I looked up the date on a liturgical calendar and discovered that it’s a celebration of the Three Wise Men, the Persian travelers who showed up to acknowledge the divinity of the Christ child in human form.

Following from that origin, the word Epiphany is about an Aha! on any level, a sudden realization or comprehension of the essence of something.  Aha! I thought.  No wonder I had discovered clarity over the years, had recognized my own essential direction every year about this time.  It was a time honored tradition! So for the last ten years I’ve entered the Epiphany date in my calendar along with some extra private time for contemplation. I invite all my friends and clients to do the same.  Sit. Be still. And listen for direction. My wish for you on this, my favorite holiday.

Happy New Now!

This cry resonated in the ballroom on  New Year’s Eve,  where I was attending the Mental Cleanse, a five-day event with Byron Katie. The event is an annual Love Fest where participants spend the last days of the old year challenging the beliefs that imprison them and taking off the chains, one thought at a time.  As always, Katie was unconditionally loving with every person and thought she invited into her “parlor.”  And we’re always invited, each moment, to finish the past and begin again, in a new now.

Over the week I noticed all the beliefs I had been acting out in my life that were no longer relevant and had caused harm to myself and to others.  Decisions about what to do in 2009 just kept making me as I watched others undo their own painful beliefs and questioned my own.   A very different way to make New Year’s resolutions, from a place of what is truer and kinder for my world.  I’ll be continuing to explore what this looks like in future blogs, I’m sure. I just find I want to share as much as I can about my own work with anyone who’s interested.

On New Year’s eve there’s a No-Talent show where participants challenge themselves to do things that would bring up fears and beliefs.  This year was my first year to take the stage, and I shared a couple of poems I’d written about what happens when you question thoughts.  Now you should know that I’m a closeted poetry writer who has never (and I mean never) shared my work. This It was scarey.  I watched my mind compare myself to the person before, convinced I could never be as funny or perfect for the occasion.  And when I read what I’d written  in front of 300 people about half of what I was on stage was me. The other was a totally freaked out lizard, victim of the reptilian Flight or Fight brain. Afterward the applause (and one person even cheered!), I was still pretty scared. It was after that biochemical cocktail of limbic wore off that I felt freer, more open to whatever is next.  To whatever that scares me. A new year. A new Now.

Snow Day and Time In

Snow Day!  The Winter Fantasy of teachers and students alike. Today a highly advertised and long-anticipated Winter Storm hit. Where I live, this happens once, maybe twice, a year. Instead of heavy investing in snow-clearing devices, we try to avoid driving altogether, fearful for the frightened and inexperienced drivers creeping here and there.  Most of us just stay at home.

I no longer work or have children in the schools, but I awake from hibernation dreams with anticipation. Every year I’m more and more likely to override the seasonal imperative to shop. When I’m not singing holiday music in a choir, I’m writing, reading, dreaming.  But today…I have company. It’s like we all have a Time Out of the frenzy. A time In. To watch the wintery winds, drink cocoa, savor the season.  A Time In.

And I wonder. Will this spread?  When was the last time you had a Time In? No matter what the culture tells us, our bodies know it’s time. Time to be still, to dream hibernation dreams and listen to the still small voice.  We can choose to make this time, even if it’s just for a day. It’s time for a Time In.

My Not-So Silent Night and How I Recovered

Years ago, when my children were small, I set a modest goal of celebrating the return of light as it is practiced by most of the people of the world. My thought was that Winter Holiday was a chance to give my children an appreciation for global diversity at the same time they honored their own religious heritage. By Christmas Eve, what they had gained was a deep respect for Mother in Meltdown. Read More>>

To Gratefulness Leaves and Life as It Is

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I live far away from my blood kin, so we  created a new extended family right where we are. The same eight adults and eight children have celebrated Thanksgiving and other holidays for over twenty years together. We’re larger now that most of the kids have partners and some have babies. We’re pretty much like any other blood kin of aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents, complete with both beloved and annoying traits. On a holiday these are often one and the same. Read More>>

My Economic Meltup

“Economic melt down.” The words have been reverberating for more than a month now.  When it all began, I went right back to the amusement park in my mind, but I ended up taking the Roller Coaster from Hell. Come to find out, I wasn’t alone there.

“The mind is a place unto itself. It can make a hell of a heaven or a heaven of a hell,”  John Milton said. The news of the last week, as well as the month before, has placed a whole lot of folks in the latter, direct from the thrill ride of the election ups and downs, regardless of which candidate they favored.

As in any crisis, my first response was to think of myself. Shameless ego. First question: So what does this mean to my life?  I noticed the  second thing I did was to envision my family and loved ones with nothing. Very uplifting.  Whole lives in the gutter. Pain and helplessness. This image soon dissolved, fading into photos of soup lines in the Depression. Grapes of Wrath. Superimposed with the faces of everyone I know and love and millions I don’t know but might love. In a new technicolor release. Twenty-first century hell. Read More>>

2015 Visualization

Ever since Election Day, I’ve noticed my mind’s been a carnival or an amusement park. There’s the roller coaster, with emotional highs (mostly) and lows (some), based on my beliefs about whether the best candidate won or whether the ballot measure is just. Then there’s the spinner,  which mixes the news up with my opinions about it, twirls it around and around until my brain is dizzy. And then there’s the House of Fear, which replays scenes from past elections and leaders, re-playing all the scariest images of political assassinations from my youth.

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a soothing email suggestion. It puts my mind at ease and helps me find a seat on the bench, watching all the amusements from a peaceful distance.  I have no idea who the author is, but I’m grateful, and it’s simply too good not to share with you.

The year is 2015.  You glance at the television one morning and see Obama having another of his many press conferences.  He has now been in office for almost 8 years. Read More>>

Letting Go of Encumbrances

Fall has long been my favorite season. Once I came across these words (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), and they seemed to encapsulate everything I love about the season.

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. The fall season allows us to see our lives reflected in the beauty of the land all around us: the rolling hills, the harvested fields. The sturdy trees and the thrill of their colors, the harvest moon, the intoxicating chill in the morning air, the farm animals as they seek shelter from the cold. As the trees let go of their leaves so we too must let go of our encumbrances. And as we let go of all that is superfluous and unnecessary in our lives, we receive the gift of inner peace. Ultimately, this is autumn’s greatest gift to us.

Today I canvassed door to door to remind voters of tomorrow’s election. As I crunched through the fallen leaves,  I noticed my mind racing with fear and anxiety about the outcome.   I could see the purpose of trying to get out the vote, but how was my  obsessive thinking helping my candidate get elected? I decided to see my fearful thoughts as encumbrances that were falling with the leaves. Within a couple of blocks,  I noticed my mind grew a little calmer. It didn’t slow me down in my efforts to get my candidate elected, but it was a much more peaceful walk.

What encumbrances of thinking would you like to release this fall? If you’re in the mood, take a walk and watch them fall around you, along with the autumn leaves. See what you notice. The ones that don’t want to let go, the ones that are ready and surrender easily. They’re all there to help you on your way.

A Celtic Beginning

November 1st. The Halloween ghosts and goblins have gone home to divvy up their treats and  harvest festivals are upon us. Today (which actually began last night at dusk) is  Sawhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The word “bonfire” comes from the fires that were lit everywhere for safety from wandering spirits. The bones that were left after the New Year’s feasting were cast on the fire to burn.

I love all the pieces of ancient folklore I picked up in the twenty years I taught mythology. Every year at this time I celebrate coming indoors. In the shelter and protection from the rain and cold, I am grateful.

The first month of the new year was called Samonios, meaning “seed fall,” a reminder that from the seeds of darkness, new life will spring. Today I wonder what seeds are being nurtured within me.  It’s too soon to tell but I notice the mystery lives in that not knowing.

It’s in that spirit that I’m writing my first official Oasis blog. So instead of a post-sugar hangover this year, or in spite of it, I light a morning candle wondering and waiting, committing to the patience and curious to see what will come of this new beginning.