treasure

Once upon a time, I fell in love. But, alas, the promise of the happily ever after was never realized. I’ve been grieving that perceived loss for longer than I care to admit, and sometimes even shaming myself for it because my inner glutton for punishment enjoys judging a negative feeling. That period of grief has been punctuated by moments of anger that felt justified because I thought this man made me fall in love with him and believe in the possibility of a beautiful future together. After one of my recent, intermittent “woe is me” spells, I was reading a chapter in Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed, and she shared a piece of wisdom that resonated so profoundly it brought me to tears. She says that anger delivers important information about which one of our boundaries have been crossed, and when we restore the boundary, we honor and liberate ourselves to live with integrity, peace, and power. I would offer that any “negative” or provocative emotion is a response to an attachment, resistance, or both. On the heels of my 35th birthday, I don’t have a wish, but rather an intention for this next year of my life and beyond: my beautiful future, and my present for that matter, is not dependent or attached to any one person except for my loving self. 

Doyle describes a boundary as “the edge of one of our root beliefs about ourselves and the world;” and since what we believe we become, there is nothing more important than unearthing what we really believe to be true about ourselves and the circumstances of our life. Her hypothesis is that examining our anger is an effective way to do just that. When I take a hard look at my emotions, I recognize that I have held onto a belief that this novel feeling of love meant that it must have been the right love. Finally, I was convinced that I found the real deal – the one and only. He was my savior because he made me feel safe and protected.. I am angry because hindsight shows me that, in fact, I discounted my knowing self and renounced my power in order to capture and hold on for dear life to a feeling. That feeling was one of arrival; I found my partner to whom I bequeathed the authority to validate my lovability. Finally, I was somebody’s treasure and I was more than willing – excited actually – to give it all to him.

In reflecting back over previous relationships, I have masterfully guarded my heart inside of a protected treasure chest and I never allowed anyone to completely unlock it. Maybe all those Disney movies that idealize love ingrained some deep-seeded belief that Prince Charming was going to gallop up to the towering wall of my castle and free me. At last, my Prince did come, and I not only lowered the drawbridge, but I gave him the key to my treasure. I let down my hair and stretched out my hand so he could hoist me onto his horse and carry me away into the beautiful sunset of our future. I shed my armored warrior facade to reveal the delicate Princess yearning for salvation. I allowed him to open my chest, and I willingly gave him a piece of my treasure until it was clear that the real wealth was to be pursued elsewhere.  

As I reach the final chapter of this story and look towards the sequel, I am being called to make a decision: what do I want to believe now? Further examination shows me that my subconscious construct has been that love is finite; there is only so much of it and only so much time to experience it. My sense of betrayal exposed an assumption that any man could steal both my love and my time. My empowered self tells me that it’s time to change the narrative from someday my Prince will come and give me love to whichever Prince comes next better have a horse fast enough to keep stride with me. Perhaps we will define a new destination together. And if not, I really like the space of love where I am heading, despite the arduousness of the journey. I am observing the blessed abundance in my life and what I have created, and no one can rob that from me. The gift of that relationship was not the package inside of the box, it was the process of opening it. My treasure was finally exposed and now I must decide if I am willing to keep it out in the open at risk of being pillaged by some hypothetical future heart pirate. Truthfully, I am scared. But it is so much more fun to play with my proverbial fortune than keep it locked away. Perhaps my Prince Charming is out there on his own treasure hunt as we speak. In the meantime, I am going to bask in the glory of knowing that I am my ultimate source of wealth. 

house of mirrors

Lately I notice mirrors everywhere; not actual mirrors, but messages, metaphors and people reflecting an image of myself that I expertly avoid or manipulate to fit my perfect narrative. I dare say that image is not one of the impeccably coifed, collected and accomplished woman that I strive to be. In contrast, I see a flawed human being who has been impatiently constructing a model resume replete with the right education, the successful job, the unblemished aesthetic, and even awaiting an ideal love. In writing this, I am reminded of the classic story of Snow White, where the Evil Queen obsessively asks a menacing-looking head suspended in a magic mirror, “who is the fairest of them all”? As a child, this appeared to be a simple story of good versus evil; yet, age and maturity allow me to discern and even relate to the nuanced symbolism. The mirror served as a tool to perpetuate the Queen’s ego and evade a universal truth: there is always someone fairer. 

My mirrors are bringing into stark focus a notion that not only is there always someone that seems to have more or be more, but also that as humans, without exception, we are all inherently binary and vulnerable individuals just doing the best that we can on any given day. Ostensibly, mirrors reflect an image of reality; but in fact, they can only portray the beholder’s subjective viewpoint. And what is reality if not a mere projection of our brains’ clever inner workings? Albeit challenging in that it requires taking responsibility for the experience and results of our lives, we must acknowledge that reality is one of our own choosing. Speaking for myself, instead of facing, accepting and integrating the good, the bad and the ugly as part of the divine design, I distort or deny the unpleasant images. I strap on my metaphorical hard hat and build invisible walls to separate myself from the discomfort or perceived imperfections. Poignantly, the Universe continues to slap me in the face with the real truth. As speaker and author Byron Katie so wisely observes, “everyone is a mirror image of yourself—your own thinking coming back at you.” Every interaction and every person that enters our lives is a reflection of a particular quality or characteristic that we ourselves possess, if we choose to see it. After all, we can only recognize what we know.

As I’ve been masterfully sidestepping anything and anyone that embodies this less than perfect ideal, I am beginning to realize that I am not just missing the fun of the journey, but I am actively setting the bar so high that I am destined to stand alone on my pedestal. I might have a great view from the top, but it sure is lonely up there by myself. In a climactic scene between the Merlin and Arthur toward the end of Deepak Chopra’s The Return of Merlin, the wizard shares the secret of his power with the young king: “Have you considered what this world really is?…Wherever I look I see reflections of myself. Look into the mirror of the world and you will see only yourself.” If I can look acutely at the world’s beauty and ugliness and see myself in all of it, then there is nowhere to run and nothing to achieve that is any more perfect than what already is. 

When I really look at myself in the mirror – not in a fleeting appraisal of my appearance, but rather with an open curiosity and depth – I am faced with my real truth: that I am the good and I am the malevolent, I am Snow White and the Evil Queen. I am perfectly imperfect and just like everyone else on this planet, I long for love, connection and meaning while committing countless fantastic mistakes that will never be showcased on a resume. In this house of mirrors that we call life, the reflections are not always beautiful and very often they are frightening. But we cannot let our eyes or our egos deceive us. I suppose I am the fairest one after all, not because of my list of impeccable attributes or accomplishments, but because I am a reflection of pure love – if I choose to see it.   

twinkle, twinkle

One of the most fear-inducing conditions for me is a sense of being lost. As a young child, I remember being separated from my mother in a shopping mall and the sweeping panic that overtook my body. To this day, I can still feel the rush of adrenaline and the terrified narrator in my head telling me that my survival was at risk. Now, here I am thirty years later, and although that lost feeling is a bit less dramatic and visceral, I find it strangely familiar. To my knowledge, we all experience periods of time in our lives when we feel like we are on shaky ground; we are not quite sure where we are headed and it is an accomplishment to simply endure each day. What is it about that lack of clarity that is so disconcerting, and how do we recognize when we are truly “found”, or at least on the right path? 

The first time I recall facing the lack of a clear direction was upon graduating college. Up until that moment, there was always an expected and obvious subsequent move or goal to meet: passing exams, moving onto the next grade, until finally it was time to choose a profession. Naturally, in absence of any real certainty of my intended career path, I chose one that felt socially acceptable and equipped to provide me with ensuing options: consulting.  Nonetheless, looking back, I was more lost than ever in that position. I was working an unsustainable number of hours each week and encumbering myself with an unhealthy level of stress just to prove that I was on the correct and most direct road to professional success. 

Fast forward another fourteen years, and to some degree, I still feel as if I am at a juncture. As wise men often say, timing is everything. As if by divine intervention, I recently picked up Paulo Coelho’s famous book off my bookshelf, The Alchemist, to re-read for the first time in a decade. The entire premise of the story is the fulfillment of one’s “Personal Legend” or purpose. The central message is that the Universe achieves harmony if all, natural things continuously undergo a cycle of pursuing new goals and evolving into a higher being, in the process of achieving their Personal Legend. The notion being that the individualistic pursuit of a Personal Legend exists as life’s dominant spiritual demand. What stands out for me is how the protagonist, a boy named Santiago, is tested in his faith as he is lost in the desert in search of his treasure. He knows he has a goal for his life (represented by a dream of a relatively ambiguous treasure), but he also has to learn to be comfortable in not knowing how and when he will find it – and the possibility that he will die trying. Symbolically, Santiago didn’t use a map, just the North Star, which served as his compass. He was guided by a single star in a direction that he trusted was the right one based upon listening to the signs that were constantly reinforcing his path forward.

On my own journey through the darkness that has me questioning whether I am moving in the direction of fulfillment, I am learning two important lessons. One is summarized best in a line by the author Sue Monk Kidd: “To know exactly where you’re headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost.” The boy in The Alchemist technically “loitered” for years. Setback after setback, his option was either to return to where he came from, or to stay put and re-define himself. Only much later is it obvious that all the times he idled in place feeling lost were really the periods when he learned and evolved the most, appropriately preparing him for his next act. 

The other message, or reminder, for me is one of trust. We are constantly guided by a North Star (literally or figuratively) that ultimately leads to an oasis. Even on cloudy nights when it is impossible to see, it remains; the shining twinkle is just waiting for the perfect timing to reveal itself again. First published in 1806, the popular English lullaby, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, encapsulates the message beautifully. If only as children we had learned and integrated more than the first stanza…

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high,  Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,  When he nothing shines upon,

Then you show your little light, Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the trav’ller in the dark, 
Thanks you for your tiny spark,

He could not see which way to go,  If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,  And often thro’ my curtains peep,

For you never shut your eye, Till the sun is in the sky.

‘Tis your bright and tiny spark, 
Lights the trav’ller in the dark,

Tho’ I know not what you are, Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

enough is enough

Enough. It seems like such a benign, commonplace word on its face. It can simply mean sufficient; as much as required.  On a basic level, “enough” is also an expression of the impatient desire for the end of undesirable circumstances – most definitely a common sentiment these days. I cannot count the number of times I’ve felt like I’ve had enough of the challenging external events that have occurred over the last few years, and particularly the last few months. But the depth and breadth of the word is really exposed when I dare to look at my internal world. The pervasive fear of “am I enough?” surfaces; it is a sentiment that speaks to our fundamental value as human beings. Notwithstanding the cliché, we are living in an unprecedented time of unsettledness, and the nuanced definition and application of this unassuming word seems worthy of exploration.

Regardless of our job titles (or lack thereof), socioeconomic status, age, gender or ethnicity, it is evident that collectively, we are all suffering from some degree of fear of insufficiency. The hoarding of basic items ranging from toilet paper to chicken has become commonplace. I am ashamed to admit it, but the last time I went to a grocery store, I found myself waiting anxiously amid a group of people at 7:30am for the doors to open. When they did, I eagerly pushed my cart inside, competing with a legion of glove and mask-bearing customers. Adrenaline surged through my body as my primordial brain convinced me that I might miss out on securing the last of my basic necessities. Would Publix have enough of my favorite yogurt? Maybe. Did my survival depend on it? No. But it sure felt that way. 

If I zoom out and look at my life from a metaphorical balcony, I can’t help but feel just as frightened. Besides the threat of fulfilling my most basic needs for survival, the top of my Maslow pyramid is also crumbling; it is marked by the anxiety that I am being robbed of time, interaction, and opportunities to achieve. There won’t be enough resources to accomplish my dreams and consequently attain fulfillment and self-actualization because I am losing out on today and every day for the foreseeable future. However paradoxically, these circumstances just might be exposing a hidden gift. While I cannot find as much numbing comfort in the purchasing of things because they are either out of stock or I cannot justify spending the money (or both), I am compelled to look inside and rely upon myself – my internal state – in order to uncover a sense of sufficiency. Minor inconveniences aside, most of us currently have and will continue to have enough to survive. But how can we genuinely unearth our innate resourcefulness and believe that we alone are enough? 

I’ve been reading Dr. Brené Brown’s work for years and recently a friend turned me onto her new podcast, “Unlocking Us.” It reminded me of the researcher and author’s famous thesis: a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us feel unworthy of true human connection. The shame is derived from our perfectionistic culture, in which most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. As a result, we build up an armor and resist vulnerability because letting others see us as we really are might mean rejection and pain. I believe that now more than ever, we are being stripped of that armor. We are isolated, forced to really see ourselves and forgo all those things we used to be able to do and buy to fill the void. The call to action here is to get to know ourselves more intimately than ever, realize that we are now and will always be enough, and as such we can truly connect with each other no matter the extent of our physical social distancing. If this time – for all of its hardship and pain – isn’t unlocking a serious superpower in all of us, then I don’t know what else can. 

As I experience anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion throughout the indefinite duration of this pandemic fallout and ultimate recovery, I just want to scream ENOUGH! I know I am not alone in yearning for the return of my “normal”, and as much as I want to take the higher consciousness perspective and ascertain that I am not a victim, for goodness sakes, I’ve had enough. But when my resistance grows tired and my inner tantrum quiets, I get a glimpse of something beautiful. At any given moment, I am provided with everything I need because I am everything I need. That does not take away from the fundamental human necessity for connecting with others, it enables it. We must first remove our proverbial armor and get connected to our own true essence. To quote Brené Brown, “believing that you are enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic”; even if sometimes that means admitting to myself and to the world that I am authentically sad and afraid. 

somewhere…there’s always a rainbow

We are living through trying and even surreal times. As I write this, I am managing a flurry of emotions along with the rest of humanity amid the unfolding of a global breakdown. On its face, that breakdown is a rapidly spreading virus that has reached pandemic proportions. But dig a little deeper and the crisis is also one of shifting paradigms. As the author and spiritual leader Kute Blackson eloquently said in a recent video, we are being forced to stop and slow down, really connect, and undergo a process of authentication. What is real in our lives when we are stripped of all the business and noise? What is left when we are alone and still?  More optimistically, like a rainbow following a dark storm, what is seeking to emerge?

A few weeks ago, when I started writing this blog and before our lives were turned upside down, I felt inspired to explore the symbolism of rainbows. Although I started a draft, it remained unpublished because it was not connected to anything meaningful for me. Suddenly today, this theme makes sense on so many levels. Rainbows are one of those phenomena that are just rare enough – bright, elusive, and heavenly – that they make almost everyone stop and marvel. In part, I believe it has to do with the conditions upon which rainbows appear. You can be stuck in a rainstorm with the darkest of skies, and suddenly it ends and this beacon of light in a perfect arc materializes. Science tells us that rainbows are created when white light from the sun passes through the raindrops and the different colors change to a speed proportional to their characteristic wavelength. After scattering inside the rain droplet, the light reflects until it exits the droplet and a rainbow is created. Mythology, of course, tells a more vibrant story.

Whether as bridge, messenger, archer’s bow, or serpent, all different cultures have symbolized the rainbow for millennia and it plays a magical, otherworldly part in most ancient and modern belief systems around the world. The rainbow myth is far-reaching and even considered to be representative of human hopes and fears. One such story according to Genesis, is that after Noah saved the animals from the Great Flood, a rainbow appeared. The flood had killed all other living beings, and the rainbow came to indicate God’s promise that he would never send another flood to destroy the earth. The rainbow epitomized hope, faith, and survival.

With a bit more levity, the Irish legend tells the story of Leprechauns that bury pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.  But since a rainbow can only be seen at a distance, the gold is forever illusive. This might actually be a deliberate part of the myth, suggesting that the pot of gold is an unattainable goal and something that can never be found.

The hope for survival or the futile quest for the pot of gold might actually be one in the same. What is the promise the rainbow brings? Mythology aside, it is an interesting metaphor for the destination trap, or the belief that suddenly we are going to “arrive” at the ideal that we have defined in our personal or collective stories. The universe’s joke is that we will continue searching as long as we forget to look at the forest through the trees. Rainbows remind us to behold the miracle of life from a distance, recognizing that we are the observers. Our own eyes and brain work in tandem to perceive all the colors, the darkness and the light, and we get to choose to appreciate the present moment – even amid a crisis. Ironically, a rainbow reveals the spectrum of light that always exists, we just cannot detect it until the speed slows.

In these stormy times, it is so easy to hope and search desperately for the solution, or the proverbial pot of gold. Interestingly, from where we sit today, that hope is just a return to normalcy. We want our ordinary routines, our small conveniences – which we usually neglect to appreciate – back to being how they were. I would offer that in this uncertainty, fear, and heightened emotional state, we can choose to stop and see the rainbow anytime. It is always there; we just don’t see it. And life is forcing us to stop anyway, right?  What can we do to remember our place in this wide world of endless possibilities? How can we use this time to expand our consciousness and bring ourselves into alignment with what is truly important? Now is the time to ease our resistance to the storm – go play in the rain with loved ones and marvel at the mystical that is always surrounding us. And when the storm subsides, definitely don’t go inside, back to your daily grind, without looking out for the rainbow.

the completion condition

“Once upon a time…and they lived happily ever after” are arguably the most well-known first and last lines of any fairy tale. If only the creator of such fantasies realized the set of expectations that those simple words would ignite in the minds of millions of young, impressionable children for decades to come. An ending to any story implying that everything is tied up into a nice little bow is unquestionably satisfying. But why? As humans we share a culture of distinguishing endings – generally with celebration, unless it’s a funeral – and in my observation, it demonstrates a need for closing chapters before truly feeling prepared to start new ones. It’s as if the acknowledgement of completion gives us both permission and the endurance to begin something else. In the case of the fairy tale, of course it signifies the onset of the rest of the couple’s lives (which is of course, nothing but perfect). When we step outside of that ideal, however, a sign or an act of completion is a dualistic notion worth questioning.

The word “completion” has two connotations. First, it means that something is finished. There is a measurable result and no further action to take. The other significance is one of wholeness or being filled up. Doesn’t everyone want to look into their partner’s eyes and say with conviction, “you complete me”? Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but to some degree or another, we often yearn to be filled by someone or something outside of ourselves. Maybe it’s a person, or perhaps it’s a job or material items like a car, house or jewelry. Speaking from personal experience, we may even seek fulfillment from traveling the world, with its ascribed romantic allure of foreign people and places. The duality in the meaning of the word “complete” makes it easy to confuse wholeness with a final destination. If I only achieve X (fill in the blank here), then I will feel complete inside….but the real Cinderella is surely shaking her discerning head.

This week I finished a yearlong program to become a professional coach, and we marked the end of each class and finally our last, weekly group call with a closing remark followed by the statement “I am complete.” It was a ritual of sorts, and it felt so satisfying to really mark the end of each segment of the journey. What I noticed is that it allowed for reflection of what we learned, recognition of what we accomplished, and a renewal of energy for the next phase or chapter. It felt important to tie up that bow, even knowing there was more road to traverse ahead. And that’s the paradox: there is always more road ahead. The natural order of life is cyclical; there is never really an ending. In the grand scheme of the world, it’s just a continual forward movement and evolution. But perhaps our human limitation is that we can’t always grasp what’s beyond our ability to see, touch and feel: the infinite. Thus, we create tangible endings, not because something has really come to an end, but so that we can feel complete or whole. One meaning begets the other. The act of ending is a condition of feeling complete. There is a satisfaction in the finality because it means that there’s no uncertainty or obscurity. We are in the driver’s seat controlling the pedals of the car that is our life.

I recently found myself yearning for a sign of completion in an area of my life that I perceived to be floating in the space of the unknown. I desperately wished for a marked ending of a relationship, just to escape the ambiguity that I was feeling. I believed that it would give me the closure that I thought I needed to re-open myself. The Universe, true to form, divinely intervened. I listened to a message about cultivating personal power, and it reminded me that my power comes from my ability to decide what I think. I realized that I can choose to think that I create my new beginnings, not my circumstances or anyone outside of me. I can also choose to think that I am complete and whole, no matter what. I do not need a signal of closure to give me permission to open. I do not need an end to begin again. All I need is me and the consciousness that I am on an endless road of possibilities. And with that, I am complete.

burning desires

Last week I walked on fire – really. No, you do not need to adjust your reading glasses and I did not suddenly turn into Marvel’s newest superhero. I attended a seminar appropriately titled Unleash the Power Within with 13,000 other energetic self-development junkies aspiring to take their lives to the next level – or at least glean some new insights that would result in a moderate improvement. The first night of this event entailed a “fire walk,” which in technical terms meant that we were going to walk barefoot across about twelve feet of burning coals. I was strangely unfazed in my anticipation of this endeavor. I was more concerned with surviving four, 12+ hour days that required me to step into an outlandish, energetic version of myself who sings, dances, chants and meditates surrounded by thousands of strangers…but I digress.

I actually walked into this event contemplating the elusive notion of surrender and how I could set extraordinary life goals – fire walking not being one of them – yet detach myself from the how and when I achieve them. How is it possible to desire something or someone so profoundly in our lives, but remain indifferent in a sense to its ultimate manifestation? As I learned over the course of the seminar (or re-learned through a new lens, rather), we achieve our goals through the power of momentum; and that drive is fueled by our mental and physical state, a clear passion and purpose (or as Simon Sinek would call it, our “why”), and finally, through taking massive action. Massive action entails modeling the success of those who have already reached the end zone, making a game plan, and doing something immediately while the goal is in sight. This differs from passive action like reading, thinking or strategizing alone. Conceptually, this formula makes perfect sense. But where does the action-measurement-assessment-new action system begin to clash with trusting in a higher power and letting go of controlling details once the intention is set and the ball is in motion? Is there a litmus test for massive action versus massive control?

It’s curious to me that the word “surrender” in many contexts is associated with giving up. If you consider a war between two nations, the one who surrenders is the loser forced to release his agenda because the cost of fighting has become too great to outweigh the potential upside of winning. In that vein, perhaps the idea of surrender is actually symbolic of an act of love or peace. The true question might be what is the war I am waging internally as a result of wanting a particular experience, result or outcome in my life? After all, the First Noble Truth of Buddha is “to live means to suffer” and Second Noble Truth is “the origin of suffering is attachment.” In other words, we suffer when we resist experiences that we deem uncomfortable and when we attach to expectations or experiences that we judge as “right” because of a temporary feeling of happiness or pleasure. In that sense, we are our own hostages to our best-laid plans.

I read a book recently by Michael Singer called “The Surrender Experiment” in which the author tells the story of his experiences when after a deep spiritual awakening, he decided to let go of his personal preferences a let the natural flow of life dictate his direction. I was indeed skeptical as I read the book clinging fiercely to my belief that we must have agency over our life decisions and take responsibility for the results. Yet the further I read, the more compelling the argument. This man led an extraordinary life spanning from being a complete hermit with no more belongings than he could fit into a small duffle bag, to becoming the CEO of a wildly successful, publicly-traded medical software company. As he so eloquently puts it in his closing paragraph: “The flow of life had served as sandpaper that, to a great extent, freed me of myself. Unable to unbind myself from the incessant pull of my psyche, in an act of sheer desperation, I had thrown myself in the arms of life. From that point forward, all I did was my very best to serve what was put in front of me and let go of what it stirred up within me. Joy and pain, success and failure, praise and blame –they all had pulled at what was so deeply rooted within me. The more I let go, the freer I became…It was not my responsibility to find what was binding me; that was life’s job. My responsibility was to be willing let go of whatever was brought up within me. At some point there’s no more struggle, just the deep peace that comes from surrendering to a perfection that is beyond your comprehension.”

I accept with a twinge of internal protest that when I believe I am controlling the outcomes of my life, I am only fooling myself. Maybe the choice to set my goals and then surrender is the only one I really control. One lesson of many that I took away from the fire walk experience was the following: most of our limitations are self-imposed and we can achieve the unthinkable to the degree that we can trust beyond what our practical, intelligent minds tell us. Yes, we deliberately prepared our bodies and minds in a way that enabled us to technically walk on burning coals. But that was only 20% of successfully crossing the path burn-free. 80% was the psychological process of setting an intention and then letting go of the preconceived beliefs of what would happen or the worst-case scenario. Triumph was achieved through the confident walk towards the cool grass waiting on the other side of the fire with a complete surrendering of the moment-by-moment technicalities. All fear was simply a result of assumptions or a projection of evidence from the past, and the critical moment was simply deciding to do it (not just that I could, but that I would). As I consider all that I aspire to achieve in my life, I see that I am in charge of deciding, committing, preparing and taking the action. But the magic comes with surrendering to the process and trusting my power. Now if that doesn’t light a fire under me, I don’t know what else will!

all for one, and one for all

Life is hard. They don’t teach you that in school, although maybe they should. Why do we spend the formative years of our lives learning mostly information that we need to pass an exam and then immediately forget, yet we are never formally taught a basic understanding of our own minds – the same minds that create our entire human experience on this planet? Until there is a fundamental paradigm shift in our education system, we are generally on our own to explore the nature of our feelings and how they impact the decisions we make and the results we manifest.

Like most human beings, I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to feel good. In fact, I realized that everything I do and we do as a species is in essence driven by the desire to feel a certain way: accomplished, loved, admired, beautiful, chosen, strong…the list goes on. Our formal and social education communicates and rewards these standards for being. Yet, they completely ignore or deny that the only reason we can recognize and comprehend these feelings, is by living and understanding their opposites, or the contrasting states.

A retreat I attended a few weeks ago brought this reality into sharp focus for me. I knew very little prior to the event other than it was recommended by a trusted advisor. While my expectations fell somewhere on the gamut between revolutionary self-discovery and empowerment to simply learning something new about myself, what I experienced was a completely sobering (figuratively and literally) emotional immersion. Although I’ve always considered myself relatively in tune with my inner world, the workshop unlocked a new understanding about what it is to really feel the entire spectrum of emotion and express raw, unabashed vulnerability in a group of complete strangers. That act of stretching my range of feeling was the embodiment of the concept of contrast, which has been showing up repeatedly in my awareness and interactions over the last few months.

While we live in a world of perceived contrast, the irony is that although that contrast is what allows us to appreciate the “positives,” we generally want to drown out the “negatives” – at almost any cost. We armor up by resisting, hiding, deflecting or numbing out the experiences and emotions that we deem bad or uncomfortable, as if the ultimate goal is to live in a world where everything is “good” – an oasis of sorts. As Pema Chodron says in her book When Things Fall Apart, “Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.” What I am starting to comprehend (and slowly learning to accept), is that overall, life is on average about 50% positive and 50% negative. There are no alternatives no matter how thick your shield.

In her book, Pema references the concept of the eight worldly dharmas – four pairs of opposites, four things that we like and become attached to, and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, and finally, gain and loss. She observes that we cause ourselves to suffer immensely in the avoidance of the negatives, when in reality, all these concepts are inseparable compliments, one cannot exist without the other. I cannot know real pleasure – that ecstatic feeling of complete joy and rapture – without having felt the darkness of agony and sadness. Her point isn’t to cultivate one thing as opposed to the other, but rather the capacity or awareness to relate to where we are. Our sense of being alive lies in this fundamental understanding and appreciation for our human experience, one in which these conditions of “good” and “bad” are subjective judgements contained within our singular selves.

Following this premise then, conceivably we do not actually live in a world of contrasting feelings – we just live through cycles and hopefully learn to judge ourselves and our feelings less, while trying not to disassociate with them. What if instead of a spectrum, we saw life as one continuous circle of events and circumstances where the goal was to just stay awake to the solidarity of the experience? Universally, everything is cyclical; endings are just the beginning of something else, judge it how you will.

While I am still struggling to accept – much less appreciate – the harsh reality that life is hard by design, I resonate with the unity versus the duality of this view. In essence, we can think about our emotions like the famous quote “all for one and one for all”, united in the common cause called life. Instead of struggling with our feeling of being bad or wrong, with our guilt and shame for our darkness, we have to befriend it. Pema says, “the point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.” German philosopher Nietzche exemplifies this notion in saying that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. As noted in the book Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, “in this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. Your vision is your home, and your home should have many mansions to shelter your wild divinity. Such integration respects the multiplicity of selves within. It…allows them to cohere as one, each bringing its unique difference to complement the harmony.”

In sum, a hard life is also a harmonious one. Reality is often uncomfortable. These concepts are the closest I can find to universal truths, aside from the fact that all living things eventually die. Instead of focusing on the discomfort of these notions, rejecting the opposing forces that encourage us to expose only a small part of ourselves to the world and show up for only half of the journey, my pursuit – perhaps one that requires infinite practice – is to see them as evidence of a life well-lived and a cycle that is ready to start anew.

the business of being human

In an age where we as a species, even from the time we are children, are judged and measured on all of our “doing”, it is curious that we continue to identify ourselves (albeit not always consciously) as human “beings”. Who created and institutionalized that label in the first place? And what has changed socially in such a profound way, at least in Western culture, that the “being” side of the being/doing balance of life has become the predominant focus and measure of success?

In the wake of a significant and unexpected life shake-up both professionally and personally, where I find myself continents away from where I imagined I would be at this stage of my life, I am faced with the harsh reality that I can no longer hide in my busyness – in all of my doing. The last 12 years of my life have been consumed by the hustle. Although I have not always moved in a straight line and experienced setbacks along the way, I’ve been sprinting towards the goal: my dream of living abroad, climbing the corporate ladder, marrying the right man, etc. Although that journey has been valuable and fulfilling on many levels, where does it leave me when the seemingly solid ground beneath my feet crumbles? Great resume, check. Great stories, check. But who was I being to get there? And who am I to persevere through the mucky terrain of ambiguity now that my identity, anchored to all those accomplishments, is coming loose from the sand?

As I watch yet another magical yet ephemeral sunset over the Miami horizon, I can’t help but feel both incredibly blessed for the day and all its gifts, but also anxious about what tomorrow brings without a structure and schedule. Guilt washes over me as I realize I don’t have anything in particular to do…on a Monday. Cue the foreboding music. While I realize to many people this may sound like a good problem to have, for me it is genuinely uncomfortable to just be. I’ve written a lot in the past about presence – which is really the state of being in the moment – and how illusive it is for me. Some part of me believes that the quest to just be is the ultimate challenge and purpose. If we don’t know who we are being in the doing of all the “things”, what is the point?

“Who are you being?” is not an easy question to answer and it’s one that is showing up in my life frequently these days. But perhaps if I already knew how to answer it, I would be denied of the journey ahead to figure it out. As much as I want all of the answers now – what is my life purpose? will my true love ever come? will I be successful? – deep in my soul I know my ship is destined to sail in the unknown, open waters for a while. In disconnecting from the grounded-ness that was my routine for so many years, I’m free to explore the limitlessness of what life has to offer. Some days the open ocean feels choppy and lonely to the point of desperation. Other days, it feels liberating and serene; full of possibilities.

As Pema Chodron states in her book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, “it’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we are going to die that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of okayness. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom – freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.”

I infer then that the “being” in human being is about recognizing and embracing that the apparent ground beneath our feet – the accomplishments, the worldly possessions, and even the literal terrain – is merely a mirage. It is what I want to believe as the foundation for my identity, but in attaching myself to it I am denying the very meaning of identity and my own freedom. Are you ever really free if you can’t just be? I’m far from enlightenment but I am cautiously climbing aboard the ship without a chartered course. It feels unstable and regularly makes me queasy, but in the vastness of the uncertainty of just being, I gaze up at the stars and I know I am home.

 

 

love in the time of cholera

What makes one love the true love? How do we ever know that it is right? Although I sincerely believe that we are on this planet inhabiting these bodies to understand and learn to be manifestations of love, I am struggling with the concept of whether or not there is only one true love. There are certainly different ways to feel love: between family members, parent and child, friends, and of course romantic lovers. Considering romantic love, are we really supposed to find “that person” with whom we create a life and stay happily faithful to for the rest of our days? Even though we are socialized to believe in that construct thanks to Disney princesses and happily-ever-after rom com movies, in reality, life often leads us down a different path.

First, I am curious what defines a soulmate and at what point are you certain that you have found him or her? So often, we have these feelings and make declarations in the early stages of relationships that put our partner on a pedestal where he or she can do no wrong. Everything he does is enchanting, everything she says is smart or witty or hilarious, and you can never get enough of him. We are seduced by the stories that we were told at such a young age of what love and family should look like and then naturally, we search for the evidence that we’ve found The One. Later, those beliefs are reinforced by carefully curated Facebook pages and Instagram stories. If at some point we have not found our prince charming or princess, it is common that our priorities and practicality step in to dictate our decisions and force us to settle on good enough. Love is blind – or so goes the expression – but is it really? Remembering the love that I have experienced in my life, although I could identify each partner’s perceived “faults”, retrospectively each person gave me something truly special at a time I really needed it. Love has been my teacher of compassion, intimacy, vulnerability and my own areas for growth.

Although I acknowledge that I want to believe in the concept of soulmates and the possibility of a sustained feeling of being in love, what happens when your heart deceives you? What if it believes that you found your person but for any number of reasons life doesn’t allow you to be together? It feels like a cruel trick. Could it be that the person I thought was my soulmate was just a stepping-stone on the path to finding my actual soulmate? Was he my teacher reminding me that I am not perfect and I must learn to fail forward? Finally, how can I be sure that I am making the right choice for the right love?

As I write this, I am exchanging messages with a former significant other who remains a cherished friend. The timing of his reaching out was beautifully synchronous. Our conversation leads us to look back at what could have been between the two of us and wonder where we might be today had we made different decisions. Although it can be enticing and even romantic to think about those sliding door moments, I do not believe life should be lived in the past. Arguably, it should not be lived excessively in the future either but given my nature as an obsessive planner, I have a difficult time walking that talk. Maybe soulmates exist but timing never aligns, or it does when the two people are in a late stage of their lives (a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, Love in the Time of Cholera). What a tragic story. However if you actually believe that we are eternal souls just inhabiting these mortal bodies, then maybe it’s not so tragic and our soulmate will be waiting for us in another lifetime where there is more “time” to be together. Conversely, maybe we are meant to love openly and freely, evolve with our lovers and let time dictate if we can grow together or if our paths lead in different directions. In that case, it is conceivable that we can meet multiple soulmates as our souls evolve.

I may never really understand how and why love strikes when it does, nor do I know if most people are meant to be with the same partner forever (divorce statistics definitely paint a different picture), but what I do know is how grateful I am to know my capacity to love fiercely and be loved – in all of its permutations. Love deserves to be embraced and lived to its fullest in the present moment, with a commitment by both partners to make the effort to continue to grow and evolve together for as long as it serves the two people. If we are so fortunate to accomplish that – to synchronize our soul’s evolution with that of our partners, even for just a fraction of our corporal existence – then maybe happily ever after does exist after all.