It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.
I’d be able to rehab both knees at once. In a year from the start of the project, I’d finally have enough mobility for anything I might want to plan. This, after all, was the ultimate, carefully calculated, reason. I had worked out the math story problem years ago: If a titanium knee lasts 20 to 30 years, when is the best time for a patient to replace it in time for the Grim Reaper to get the leftovers?
I might as well get it over with, my mind chanted. And so I did. It seemed like I’d made the right decision afterwards, too, until the power drugs wore off. And then came the real recovery. Lots of the last month has been spent noticing this thing called pain, keeping it out of the way when I need to move and when I need to sleep, and finding out that a good coaching session or class is the best pain reliever there is.
I’d feel more spiritually evolved if I could truly say that I was able to be a compassionate witness of my own pain, and used it as a fulcrum for spiritual transcendence during this process.
But did you notice that I didn’t say anything like that?
The reality is that a lot of the time I believed my mind, which was dang sure that I had abandoned my body, at least, and tortured it at worst.
“Beam me up, Scotty!” became my mantra. I watched a ton of movies and a couple of TV series. and read about a dozen fine books, mostly novels, cover to cover. The distraction technique had certain advantages, but it began to wear thin.
And then there were the other moments, or moments inside the moments, when the only option was to surrender. When I saw that there was nothing in the situation that I needed to escape or to resist, it occurred to me to simply relax. I especially noticed in those moments how very much I could trust everything around me, beginning with my husband of 45 years. How did he learn to be such a thoughtful caregiver without my knowledge? The more I looked, the more reasons I’ve had to just…let…go.
After all, that’s who I am without my story that I need to keep it together. It’s very, very simple.
I’m just now getting a tiny peek of the original sanity that led me down this thorny lane of pain and recovery. There’s lots of hope around the corner, just past the edges of the walker. But what I never expected, truly, is that it would be there all along, just waiting for me to notice.
Around the time I got kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions, I decided I’d have to answer them for myself by trying out other brands than the Southern Baptist variety.
During my early teen years of searching and angst, desperately trying to find even a partial answer to my mental confusion, I turned to my mother. Why are we here? What’s the point? I asked.
She looked at me with such sympathy and kindness. “Maybe you ask too many questions,” she said. “I just accept things, and I’m pretty happy.”
My friends said essentially the same thing as my turmoil turned to depression. I kept looking, convinced I’d find a more satisfying answer, that other people must know something that I didn’t. Seek and ye shall find. The words bubbled up from somewhere.
So I became a seeker. My senior year, desperate, I picked up The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith. I had found my manual.
Philosophy classes followed in college, featuring Existential Ennui 101. Then came a life-long fascination with the concepts and practices of world faiths, which offered snapshots of the truth and stories to back them up. Eventually these same questions led to more and more study of archetypes and mythology and contemplative practices. I learned to meditate and crossed paths with Vipassana, or mindfulness. I began to hear a few subtle answers at last, as I listened, and the Search was still on.
No matter what showed up on the mystical path, what I continued to notice is that the mind just kept cooking up new questions that could not be meditated away. Or medicated, for that matter. (I had already given that a good try in my twenties)
Thirty years of seeking later, I fell in love with inquiry when I discovered that some of the thoughts that present themselves simply want to be understood…not in the mind, but in the heart.
Now my business required asking questions of my clients. So much for my mother’s advice! I became deeply committed to this process, sometimes called the Great Undoing. During the past decade, I’ve questioned the thoughts of hundreds of people, if not thousands. Almost without fail, I’ve witnessed the radical freedom that comes as the old personal religions are questioned one by one. I also continue to notice for myself how much suffering is relieved when I stop believing those stale old refrains.
And what I’ve noticed is that new refrains still come all day long, like piped Muzak in the brain. The idea of bringing each of them up for inquiry can be (just perhaps) a bit overwhelming.
Which led to a new question. The big question. The scary question.
What if my mother was right?
What if I DO ask too many questions? The more questions I’ve asked, the more I’ve come to see that there is a mind below the mind that is just fine. All the muzak of random thoughts firing away can drown it out, but at a deep level, there’s an internal Knowing that is deep and true and beyond questions because it is at the root of being. And it would be asking one too many questions to inquire into the reality of that voice.
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.
“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.