The Art of Allowing Part I

Have you noticed that when it comes to “life lessons,”  when you forget one, that somehow you get a sort of cosmic thump on the side of the head as a reminder that you need to pay attention?  That is how it seems to me, at any rate.

Last spring I was cashing in on a generous offer from a friend to come to her spa for a treatment called Healing Touch.  Despite being in serious need of some TLC, she reminded me repeatedly of her offer before I finally surrendered and arranged the appointment.

This made no rational sense because at the time I was really at a low ebb; drained and in a gray mood. I don’t like to think of myself in these terms, but I was burned out.  Physically I was vaguely symptomatic, but not sick enough to warrant going to the doctor.  She obviously recognized my state of being far more clearly than I did.

She showed me back to the massage room, and asked me to sit on the table.  She bent to untie my shoes and remove them, and I nearly bumped heads with her, trying to take them off myself.  She calmly said, “It would be all right for you to allow someone else to take your shoes off for you.” What a concept!

This is what I mean when I say “cosmic thump on the side of the head.”  After the session was over, and I was feeling relaxed, calm and then increasingly rejuvenated, I reflected on that small exchange. How many times had I turned down offers for assistance assuring the person offering that I could manage it myself?

The winter before when my friend Denny called me to offer to drive over to shovel the snow from around my car, I objected at first even though I was recovering from the flu and in no shape to go shovel snow! Surely I could hire the kid across the street, and besides, what if he hurt his back again? Denny was more persistent than I was, and arrived despite my objections.  Afterwards we enjoyed a chat over a cup of coffee, and I felt truly grateful for his help and his friendship.

So what’s the problem?

Probably like many of you, I was taught that it is better to give than to receive.  And socialized as a female, the expectations of caring for everyone else rather than oneself were greatly reinforced. In fact to say no, was selfish and not at all nice.  And lord knows that good girls are nice. In my work life I have met many men who are burdened by the same internalized message.

Like many great spiritual lessons, I think that one has been poorly understood.  I don’t think it means that receiving is selfish or wrong.  In fact nature herself demonstrates that there is ebb and a flow to giving and receiving.  The ocean waves come in, and they also go out.  The farmer prepares the soil, plants the seeds and after the sun and rain of the growing season, harvests the crop. 

In our human affairs, the cash flows in and as we pay our bills, it flows out. We can quickly see in this case that we are in trouble if we are giving and not receiving.  But the same is true for our relationships.  We share our thoughts and feelings with friends, and we also need to be quiet and allow them to do the same.   Speak and then attentively listen.  Help when they need it and also allow them to help us.

It’s an irony that what we secretly desire the most from friends and family is for them to attend and care for us.  But we may find it difficult to relax and fully allow their attention and help.  What is this about?  I think that when we are in a position to help others, we have a sense of being in control.  Or at least we feel more powerful or capable.  To stand by and allow someone else to take off our shoes means to be vulnerable.  To open our hearts and truly allow another human being to offer his thoughts or her love means being vulnerable.  We cannot control what may be coming our way.

What if it hurts?  What if it stops?  What if I don’t understand it?  What if I come to count on it and it goes away?  Sometimes it is a challenge to believe in the abundance of love in the universe, as well as an abundance of everything else we need and want.  We are so conditioned by our culture to feel fear and a scarcity of what we need.  Our habits of thought are initially shaped by our parents’ fears and reinforced by the hysteria of mass media and entertainment that we pay to watch.

Although we desire abundance and love and well-being, we end up resisting them when we can’t believe that we deserve them, or that they even exist. When you take a good look at your life and understand that what you see is the result of your beliefs and practices, your resistance to allowing what you desire will be apparent.

However, we can choose to become conscious of those beliefs and thought habits.  Through practice we can replace them and the behaviors that result, with healthier ones.  We can be helpful to others and also allow for our own rest, replenishment, nourishment and support.  There is plenty for all of us.

 

Lessons from Nursery School

“We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose the consequences of these actions.”
― Stephen R. Covey

 

There is a game category on a popular NPR show called, “Things I would have learned in school if I had been paying attention.” It is sometimes disconcerting to hear answers to those questions which would seem to indicate that maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.

My grand-daughter, Anna Grace, has begun her school career by attending a nursery school class for three-year-olds. It seems to me that the main purpose at that early age is to begin to tame the savage impulses and get the children to cooperate in a group. Not being the most compliant soul you ever met, she has had some lessons to learn, some more difficult than others.

The first was that her teacher frowned on her merrily racing away to the far corner of the playground when the class lined up to go inside from recess, and then dashing away as the teacher came after her in hot pursuit. (And since it was fall in the South, I’m sure it literally was hot pursuit). Another lesson was that it is not permissible to give a girl a shove, even if she did push you first. And it also isn’t okay to jump in line ahead of someone even when you say “excuse me” before you elbow them out of your way.

Her teachers use a method that I admire, which is to encourage the children to think about their actions and slow down the automatic impulses. They ask, “Do you think that was a good decision?” And the child has time to consider that they DID make a choice and what the outcome of that choice was. Tying together behavior and consequences…something that continues to be a life-long challenge for some.

The other day Anna Grace and her mom were going to take the dog out for his morning walk, and she wanted to bring Scout, a stuffed dog along. As they went through the neighborhood, Anna Grace asked to hold Mudslide, the greyhound’s leash. Her mom said that would be okay until they got to the end of the sidewalk and then she would take the leash back, because the street was nearby.

They proceeded to the end of the sidewalk, her mother took the leash back, and Anna Grace began to protest. She was clearly not ready to give up the leash. When her mother insisted, she started to cry and yell, and threw Scout down on the ground and stomped a few steps away.

Her mother (calmly), “Pick up Scout and come on.”

A.G. (yelling), “No, Mommy! I am so mad at you! YOU pick him up!”

Her mother scoops up Scout, Anna Grace and marches them and Mudslide back to the house and informs Anna Grace that she will have a time out. They get inside, Anna Grace still yelling, and she is deposited on the stairs in her time-out place to get herself collected.

Her mother asks, “Do you think that what you did out there was a good decision?”

Anna Grace (with renewed fury), “I am still so MAD at you Mommy!  I don’t WANT to make decisions!”

When I heard this story I chuckled but could understand her sentiments.  I don’t always like making decisions either. Or more to the point, I don’t like having to be accountable and deal with all the consequences of those decisions!

But one thing that I learned in school (and in the “School of Life”) is that we indeed are responsible for the consequences that we set in motion with our decisions, whether we thought about them in advance, or even intended them, or not.

And, like any three or four year old, most of those decisions are decided on the basis of our emotions. In many cases, our rational thinking is brought in later to justify or explain why we made that choice, after the fact. You can be sure that the red convertible being shown by the model in the mini skirt is not being purchased primarily for its fuel economy!

Or watch a home shopping channel for 15 minutes if you want to see the hypnotic emotional spell being cast over viewers who have their credit cards out to purchase items that suddenly they “need” but would never have thought of before sitting down to watch.

Everyone has likely had the experience of saying something in an argument that they later regret or felt embarrassed by. Who hasn’t regretted making a callous remark about someone or to someone who didn’t deserve the unkindness?

When we are stressed we are especially prone to make poor decisions. We are less likely to think things through, and more likely to strike out or act out on angry or desperate impulses. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are responsible and as such, need to make amends or clean up the mess.  And being human, we can have the grace to forgive someone else as well as ourselves.

Perhaps it is from the perspective of age that it occurred to me the other day that our lives are a sum total of the decisions that we have made. True, sometimes events happen to us that we cannot control. I’m not suggesting that we are to blame (ugly word, I think) for everything that happens. But even in those difficult or impossible to control circumstances and events, we go on making decisions about what to do and eventually, what those events mean to us.

Some people are amazingly resilient; they recover and live rich and full lives. Others become embittered or apathetic and give up or live reduced lives. Whichever path we choose, we ultimately are responsible for what we have made of the talents and resources we are given.

If you are not happy with yours, I recommend that you work on forgiveness and free yourself to change your life in ways that are meaningful and pleasing to you. After all, the choices really are in your hands.

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”
~Stephen Covey~

Beware the Pedestals!

Almost any day you’d care to look, the news offers opportunity to reflect on humankind and the meanings of life. Just as the heat of a national election is cooling down, and the approach of the “fiscal cliff” is looming, we hear breaking news of the fall from grace of another hero.

Like other news flurries, the scandal and resignation of David Petraeus will eventually sort itself out and fade into the background of our collective awareness.  In saying that, I’m not minimizing the importance of his extramarital affair to him, his family and inner circle, and possibly even to national security. What occur to me are our general tendencies to make our heroes one dimensional rather than remembering that they are complex humans, as we all are.

Perhaps we want some icons to look up to.  Perhaps we are comforted in confronting the chaos of the world and our resulting feelings of fear and helplessness when we put someone up on a pedestal. We may enjoy being put on a pedestal ourselves and receiving the attention and adulation that comes with being considered a hero to someone…anyone. But I want to caution you about doing either one.

After all, there are many examples of this “pedestal practice” and what comes of it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. As does Sandusky and the whole Penn State debacle that once uncovered, revealed the dangers of the worship and adulation of a university football coach and the program he built. Many men who lived on pedestals in “Happy Valley” will topple before that scandal finishes playing out. Several years ago a well respected scholar and college professor was arrested for soliciting sexual contact with a female minor, and an entire community and church was rocked to the core. A highly regarded female pastor confesses that she has been having an extramarital affair with a parishioner, and the families and church are devastated in the wake of it.

On a smaller scale, married partners sometimes have this “Pedestal Practice” going on. If you marry someone and you regard them as more successful, smarter, more desirable, more powerful, wealthier or more competent than you, you may place them on the pedestal and never claim your own abilities and power in the relationship.

Taking the passive or submissive stance then results in an imbalance of power. The woman or man who is up on the pedestal isn’t seen as fully human, and true emotional intimacy is not possible as a result.  Not a true partnership. And usually, sooner or later something will occur that results in toppling the pedestal by an affair or deception of some other kind, and divorce.

Our first reaction to such news is, “That’s impossible!” Surely some terrible mistake has occurred!  He/she wouldn’t or couldn’t do such a thing!  Scummy, evil, bad people do this! Notice that the implication is that we are all one or the other: good people or bad people. Of course the truth is that we are neither. Each of us has our strengths, even great and wonderful qualities. And each of us has our “shadows,” unconscious beliefs and feelings that when they remain unacknowledged or unexplored, have the tendency to rear up and we act them out.

It seems to me that when we put someone else on a pedestal, whether that person is a sports hero, a national figure, a revered leader or someone you personally know, they will plunge off that pedestal by revealing themselves (albeit unintentionally) to be flawed.  Or in our resentment or disappointment at seeing them to be only human after all, we knock them off their pedestals with a resounding whack.

And if you are living up on a pedestal, watch out!

 

Facing the Lion

“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.”
~Anais Nin~

The events of the past week have provided an opportunity for me, as well as several million other people, to face fear and to observe how we deal with it. Hurricane Sandy, combined with a low flowing jet stream, created what some dubbed a “Frankenstorm” of gigantic and devastating proportions.

I must confess to being somewhat of a cynic about weather reports that are full of drama. It seems that even something as usually mundane as the weather has to bring in advertising dollars.  And on the local level, nothing very exciting has happened for months.

So when news of this threatening weather system began to build, I was not giving it much credence. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that I look at NOAA, the website for the National Weather Service, that I took notice.

After seeing that something certainly was brewing, and heading directly toward the mid-Atlantic, I turned on network news.  As I watched, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly anxious and alarmed.  Predictions of flooding and high winds brought back memories of hurricanes past, and some that really were devastating in terms of lives lost and property and environmental damage.

Talking with friends and family convinced me that I wasn’t the only one listening to the predictions, declarations of states of emergency, instructions for storm preparation, and making plans for coping with the worst. As I ran errands to buy supplies “just in case,” I found that many other people were on similar missions. Before the first drop of rain fell, shelves holding bread, water, batteries and flashlights looked like they had been raided by a proverbial horde of locusts.

When the wind and rain arrived, I was as prepared as I could be.  And I was also feeling pretty anxious. As it turned out, the worst thing that happened here was that I was without power throughout the evening until mid-morning the next day. The house was very quiet. Talk about being unplugged! I read my library book by flashlight (batteries had been on my list) and the place looked much warmer than it felt by candlelight.

Although some parts of the coast were hard hit and have sustained serious damage, my neighbors and I dodged the bullet. There will be some cleaning up to do, and some areas are still without power. Our lives will soon return to normal.

In thinking about fear and the power that it sometimes has in our lives, it’s easier to identify it when forces outside of us are threatening.  What I realized is that really it’s the thoughts that we have about those forces or circumstances that either build up the intensity of emotion, or dispel it.  Thinking of all the “what-ifs” sounds the alarm!  Imagining the worst causes stress hormones to course through your veins, even when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.

In facing fear, whether it is being evoked by weather reports or our own frequently visiting “inner demons” (usually habitual thoughts from the past), we need to face them squarely.  Ask yourself if there are concrete steps to take in order to ensure the best care possible for you and those you love. If so, make a list and do them immediately.  If not, then chances are you have a bad habit of negative thinking that has stirred up fear.

Give yourself what I call “Emotional First Aid” by taking 5 deep breaths and relaxing your muscles as you exhale.  Repeat throughout the day, as many times as you can think of it. Do a reality check with someone you trust and try to reframe your thoughts, or see them in a different light. You can also use EFT, a proven, effective method for releasing stressful emotions.

What really matters most in facing the Lion of Fear is that you are not avoiding it. Taking action will build your strength and resolve as you move forward through the challenges of life.

Photo: “Hurricane” by Victor Habbick

Mad as a Hornet

Growing up in my house meant getting mixed messages about anger.  I remember my Grandpa using the expression, “…mad as a hornet!” not to be confused with “mad as a hatter,” another mental state altogether.  This was clearly a description saved for occasions when he was full of righteous indignation.  Someone had done something that had truly offended him and he was furious about it!

Children and girls especially, were not supposed to get angry.  If you did and if you acted out in an angry way by yelling or hitting or arguing, or God forbid, back-sassing, you would be in for it.  You would soon see an adult being angry and learn pretty quickly that this would have an unhappy outcome.

While children were punished for being angry, adults (men especially) were allowed to be very vocal and sometimes physical, depending on whether they were annoyed, put out, highly irritated or frustrated or just plain mad. So expressions of anger depended on gender and where you were in the hierarchy.

To make it even more confusing, Christians were supposed to “turn the other cheek,” which my child’s mind took to mean if someone slapped you on the cheek (in anger, what else?) I was supposed to not only NOT feel angry, but should allow them to hit me again if they chose to.  We were pacifists, or at least aspired to be, but let me tell you that growing up in a tribe of 7 children, there were some fisticuffs from time to time.  The idea of allowing someone to hit me twice went against my little primal grain.

As an adult I have discovered that I am not alone in my confusion and struggle to deal with anger.  It seems to be as common as dirt.  As a result of our inner conflicts about anger, we learn to 1) squelch it altogether (“Who me, angry?”); 2) express it and feel very guilty; 3) blow up and make a mess of our dignity and our relationships; 4) suppress it and act like a doormat;  5) suppress it and use alcohol, drugs, shopping, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. to make ourselves feel better; 6) use it to control other people and situations by being either aggressive or passive-aggressive (slamming doors, showing up late, making sarcastic comments, sighing, etc.)

It seems that anger, a very energetic emotion, tends to highjack us and in the blink of an eye, we are carried away to act in one of the above ways.  Depending on temperament and life experiences and the messages from our family, we develop thought-feeling-action habits that seem to have worn grooves in the brain.  Just like driving on an entry ramp onto I-95 (my personal metaphor for the road to hell), we are off and driving like blazes before we know what is going on.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Rather than thinking of anger as a bad thing, remember that it is just an emotion such as joy, sadness, hurt, love, etc.  Like those other emotions, anger comes to tell us something that we need to know.
  • Anger, commonly translated, usually means that you feel that you have been unfairly treated.  You have been wronged and need to put some distance between you and the one who has wronged you.  You need to wake up and take care of you and your interests.
  • Anger, being energizing, can help you focus on taking action in a constructive way.
  • It is anger that helps us end toxic relationships, build healthy boundaries, stop behaving in a self destructive way, or stop abusive behavior.  We can use our indignation at injustice in the world to join others in finding remedies.  We can use our outrage over pollution to join others in saving the planet. You get the idea.

When you find yourself feeling “mad as a hornet,” stop and pay attention to what you are experiencing.  Take 5 deep slow breaths.  Check out the frontal zone of your body from throat to chest to solar plexus to abdomen.  Any tightness, butterflies, heat or cold?  Just breathe some more and relax your body.  If you can, walk away from the triggering situation and find a quiet place.

Now bring your thinking or reasoning mind into the mix.  You recognize by now that you are feeling some degree of anger.  Take a little time to think it through.  What has triggered your anger?  Does it really require an immediate response from you, or could you take some time to decide the best response?  Does it really require a response at all from you?  Remember to keep breathing and observing yourself.

A highly effective method for accepting anger and working through it to discover how it might benefit you, is EFT or Meridian Tapping.  Especially when you notice repeated patterns that keep bringing anger up and disrupting your life, tapping can be a great psychological tool.  You may access it here http://www.coach4lifechange.com/tryitoneverything

Sometimes learning new patterns with anger takes awhile to work through.  Find someone to talk with and ask them for feedback or suggestions.  Use your journal to write about your emotions and thoughts and options for any further action.  Ask yourself (my favorite question), “what am I supposed to learn from this?”

By not acting out immediately on the anger, you can usually come to a decision that will serve you well.  There’s any number of constructive action steps you can take.  Harness the energy of the emotion, and use your reasoning mind to find a solution.  Very often it will be to just let it go.

 

Mountaintop Experiences

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back
to its old dimensions.”     ~Oliver Wendell Holmes~

 

When I was a kid I heard an expression that caught my ear and my imagination.  An adult (whom I don’t remember) was talking about “mountaintop experiences,” and how life-changing they could be.  Growing up in the Midwest, Colorado was my family’s favorite vacation spot, so I knew the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.  One summer while riding up above the tree line on the Fourth of July, my dad let us out of the car to have a snowball fight.

So anything compared to such mountain tops made a clear connection in my mind to something pretty terrific.  In the years that followed I had some experiences that were indeed life changing because they opened my mind to something new…a perspective that I had been completely unaware of before.

What experiences have you had that “blew your mind,” as the expression goes?  Perhaps it should be called “blew your mind open.”  Can you point to experiences that have turned out to be pivotal points in your life?

While listening to “From the Top,” a public radio program featuring accomplished young musicians, I heard a teenaged opera singer say that she had been amazed as a 10 year old when her parents took her to hear an opera for the first time.  When she heard the music, she said, “That’s what I want to do!”

A woman who had grown up in a small sleepy town in Alabama attended a church program with her family one summer evening.  The program featured a slide show of the work of a missionary couple who had come stateside to raise money for their cause.  The pictures and lecture illustrating the landscapes and cultures of Africa fired the little girl’s imagination.  Showing her a world radically different than her own, she was truly amazed.  Years later after leaving Alabama for a college in New England, she chose a career with the State Department and has traveled the world, working in many posts, including one in Africa.  She credits that “mind blowing” experience in the church basement as opening the door to a fascinating life.

Recently while talking with a man about living in the wheat belt of the Midwest, he told me that his brother, who had always lived on the East Coast, had roomed with a kid from Kansas while he was at college.  Hearing about the wheat harvest and days and nights in the fields, and about the family farm culture, his brother accepted an invitation to go home with his roommate for the next harvest. He was so taken by the experience that he immediately moved there after graduation, got involved in wheat farming and the small community and has lived there ever since.

Sometimes these mountain top experiences don’t involve a change in geography or occupation at all.  Probably one of the biggest influences of new ways of seeing something is as close as your library or bookstore.  Or it could be looking at a photograph or painting that fires your imagination and inspiration.  Reading the work of Joseph Campbell and listening to his interviews with Bill Moyer was life altering for me.  Watching the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” was another paradigm changer.  What have you read, heard or watched that has inspired key changes in your way of thinking or being?

Are there people whose relationships have influenced or changed you?  You may be fortunate in having an elder member of your family whose life example shaped you.  Or you may have had a teacher whose wisdom and teaching provided a mountain top experience in your life.  Sometimes it’s a brief and chance meeting with someone who says or does something that really sticks with you.  These brief encounters can turn a light on something that can guide you to a different way of thinking and a perspective that may change your life in big or small ways.

And of course, bear in mind that YOU may be that person whose ideas or life example may provide inspiration to someone else.  You may never be aware of it, but that doesn’t lessen the influence that you have.

You can increase the likelihood of “catching” inspiration by opening your mind to noticing possibilities around you.  Be willing to expose yourself to a point of view or opinion that is radically different than your own.  Getting entrenched in your own ideology may be a comfortable rut, but that’s not an enlivening or energizing way to live.

Start simply by taking alternate routes or back roads on your commute.  Get out and walk or bike ride through a neighborhood or country road that you usually drive.  Tune into an unfamiliar radio or television channel.  Browse through the library and choose a biography or novel by an author you have never read.  Reading biographies is a great way to catch inspiration or fresh perspective from someone you will never actually meet.  Take a trip to somewhere new to you.  Sign up for a class in a subject that is unfamiliar.

There is no end to the possibilities around you once you open yourself to them.  Your mind and your life will expand and never be the same.

 

Tip for Building Self Esteem: Appreciate Yourself

 

“There is that part of ourselves that feels ugly, deformed, unacceptable.
That part, above all, we must learn to cherish, embrace, and call by name.”
~Macrina Wieder Rehr~

 

In other blog posts I have written about the power of gratitude and how practicing gratitude by writing a daily list of those things that have occurred or that you noticed that evoke appreciation, will help build optimism.  There is a solid body of research that indicates that when we practice gratitude, our health improves.  People suffering chronic disease feel less pain and show improvement in their symptoms when they are able to see what they have to be grateful for instead of staying focused on pain and fear.

Many of those who are experiencing depression or anxiety will find that as simple as it may sound, developing a habit of recognizing what is going right is a great antidote to their unhappiness. 

Recently I had occasion to reflect on how much low self esteem and a lack of confidence seems as prevalent as the common cold when it comes to human emotional ailments.  Sometimes we are clearly aware of this condition that is underlying another problem.  Getting over the loss of a relationship, for example, is made more difficult because our self esteem usually takes a hit, no matter what the circumstances of the breakup might be.

In fact our failures or our fear of failure may keep us paralyzed because what is hurting is our self esteem.   Really it isn’t failure that is the problem.  Failure can be a great teacher, and if we care to ask ourselves the hard questions, we learn much more from failure than we do from success.  But no one enjoys failing.  And children often hear negative messages at home and school when they fail a test or task.  This is unfortunate, especially when self esteem suffers for the long term.

So many of us may be in recovery from an injured or hurting self esteem.  The good news is that we can change this and become more effective and confident human beings. The key to building your self esteem is to take note of every good thing that occurs, and most importantly, those positive things that you make happen during the day.  It is perverse that we tend to remember the negative, frustrating or difficult things that happen, more than the good ones.

I often remind clients to write a daily gratitude list and to be sure to put their action steps or positive qualities on it.  For instance when someone gives you a compliment, be gracious in accepting it (a simple thank you will suffice!) and make note of it.  Take time to relish and appreciate it. 

Any action step, no matter how small, needs to be acknowledged by you.  Often we want recognition of our hard work or accomplishments by someone else, whether it is a spouse, boss or parents. We are often disappointed because no one seems to be paying attention, or the acknowledgement doesn’t come in the way we would like it.  Rather than putting your self esteem eggs in someone else’s basket, so to speak, take care of them yourself.  Write it in your gratitude list and share it with someone you care about. 

Take some time to develop a healthy sense of pride in you and your accomplishment.  This is an effective antidote to theshame of not feeling good enough or acceptable.  Remind yourself daily of your goals and express confidence in your ability to reach them.  Acknowledging those small steps will build your self esteem faster than you might imagine.