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 marked 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 included), 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, 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 hostages to our own 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 I found 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 recognize 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 the process to successfully traverse the path burn-free. 80% was in the psychology of setting an intention and then letting go of the fear of experiencing pain. Triumph was achieved only by way of a 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 angst was simply a result of a projection of the rational brain’s story; the critical moment was simply deciding to do it (not just hypothesizing that I could, but determining 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 can we be certain that we 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 we 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 fair 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 text to me 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.

curiosity killed the critic

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who told me that he realized how often he was judging other people. He recognized that it was not only unproductive, but it was limiting his possibilities for connection. After a momentary flash of the self-defensive thought, “I don’t judge people like that”, this exchange compelled me to honestly assess my own inner voice. In reality, most of us spend so much of our lives in judgement – judgement of our surroundings, of other people, and often most detrimental of all, judgement of ourselves. Why is it that we spend so much of our mental and emotional energy in a state of critique, and is it ever useful? In evaluating my own life, I identified three principal circumstances under which my inner Judge Judy emerges.

If I consider the most primitive of reasons, I judge for self-preservation. My brain’s amygdala kicks into reflexive mode, I assess something or someone as good or bad, I make a decision about the potential effect on my life, and presumably, I am a safer for it. As an example of self-preservation judgement, I might be walking down a dark street at night and a man of a different race, dressed in a t-shirt and ripped jeans starts to quickly approach me. Immediately, my fight or flight response is activated. I feel threatened and immediately find a public space to retreat. Real danger or not, some combination of my common sense and intuition told me I was in an unsafe situation and propelled me to seek refuge. Arguably, this type of judgement can be deeply rooted in biases that have been engrained in us since childhood. If we never stop to reevaluate our preconceptions, we are indeed limiting our possibilities for connecting with unique people and experiences. On the other hand, I do believe strongly in tuning in and revering our instincts. It is truly a superpower if we choose to give it a voice.

Another reason for judgement that I have observed is buffering my own insecurities. Admittedly, I am fully aware that if I am able to identify a negative behavior or trait in someone else, it is because it is a direct reflection of my own vulnerabilities. We can only recognize someone else’s deficiencies to the extent that they also exist in us, but the judgement is our attempt at resisting and turning a blind eye to our own imperfections. Why? It’s so much easier to criticize someone else than it is to do the work on ourselves and acknowledge that we exist to learn and evolve, not to live on a pedestal of infallibility. While the more challenging path is to look inward, in doing so, we are never alone. And from where I am standing, it seems lonely up on that pedestal.

Lastly, I judge in order to defend my opinions and claim my power to choose my thoughts and beliefs. It is easy to forget, however, that every other person has the same right to choose their respective thoughts and beliefs. For example, I believe that it is so important to travel internationally and give my future children exposure to other countries and cultures because it opens their eyes to new perspectives and encourages tolerance. I might judge someone for never traveling outside of his city or even the U.S. because it is so contrary to my self-defined “noble” values. Nevertheless, is judging someone for having a different belief a productive use of my time and energy? If I believe that generally people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole (albeit at times a bit ignorant), then I acknowledge that I do not control their opinions, thoughts, or actions any more than they control mine. Another perspective I could choose to take instead is that the world is a more interesting place because of the diversity of thought and opinions. Maybe I have something to learn from the anti-traveler?

While humans are blessed as evolved beings with the capacity to make judgements in order to not only survive but also thrive via the fulfillment of our values, we are also cursed if we use that power to deflect our own deficiencies and try to manipulate other people into maintaining similar beliefs.  Is it really better to live in a world of homogenous opinions? What if instead of judging, we got really curious about circumstances, people, and beliefs different from our own? As I begin my journey as a professional coach, I am learning the art of the powerful question. Asking good questions requires setting aside personal opinions and judgement. Curiosity breeds empathy, trust, and opening to new perceptions. Why cling so hard to judgement when curiosity is always available to us? As children, curiosity served as our inner compass and the key to unlocking the mysteries of the world. At what point does judgement and self-righteousness start to trump genuine curiosity? Although we are clearly socialized to judge for a variety of reasons, I am declaring a crusade to bring back the curiosity and wonder. I choose to identify my judgements as they happen and replace them with a powerful question. It just might be the ticket to freedom.

 

 

what does trust have to do with it?

What does it mean to trust, and how do we cultivate more of it in our lives? Some may call it something different – faith, hope, conviction –  but regardless of the name, it requires an undeniable release or surrender to a force beyond ourselves.

Why is trust not just important, but essential? “Trust” comes from the Middle English word traust, which means “help, confidence, protection and support.” Wouldn’t anybody want more of this in his or her life? And if so, why is it so hard to just trust? Consider the opposite of trusting; it entails some concept of doubting and self-preservation. More often than not, we are convincing ourselves that we alone control the situation and the outcome, and the harder we grab onto it, the more we believe we are in the driver’s seat of life. The irony is that we expend so much wasted energy that could be put to more productive use, because in reality we do not control anything outside of ourselves.

That being said, why do we choose to believe that we are in control in the first place? Or better yet, what is wrong with not controlling? This makes me reflect on a time when I was very sick with a life-threatening infection. When I was ill, I was at the complete mercy of my caretakers, but when I recovered, I reacted by trying to control every aspect of my life. If something happened that I didn’t plan for, I rejected it immediately and took comfort in the predictable. Looking back on that experience, it makes me sad at how closed I was to life’s surprises. I had some delusion after feeling so out of control when I was ill, that I could somehow prevent that painful experience from ever happening again if I mapped out every moment of every day.

Since that time, I have lived and learned a great deal, including the fact that control does nothing but feed our egos. In truth, our egos only serve to separate us from everything else around us and from being one with the universe. I realize that it sounds a bit utopian, but shouldn’t that be the ultimate experience? If we could genuinely trust that the universe works for us if we surrender to being in complete union with its energy, imagine all of life’s possibilities.

I am not advocating for negating the agency that we have over our own lives and the power of our decisions. The challenge, rather, is to have an honest awareness about the why behind those decisions. Are we taking them from a place of love or from a place of fear? Those are the only two possibilities. When we make choices from a place of fear, we are not trusting but instead shielding ourselves from feeling pain or some other negative emotion. In doing so, we are actually denying ourselves of the human experience. To be human is not to feel good all of the time. It’s not even necessarily to feel good most of the time. It’s just feeling different vibrations in our bodies. When we choose from a place of love, we surrender to whatever outcome transpires. We believe in our own power that we can rise above any challenge. How liberating, right? If I had been able to detach myself from the pain of being sick and recognized it as an opportunity to live more fully instead of as a reason to cling to a false sense of control, I can only imagine how light and peaceful I would have felt. Instead, I chose the path of resistance, dragging a figurative self-imposed ball and chain behind me throughout my daily life.

I read a book recently by Gabrielle Bernstein called “The Universe Has Your Back” and in it she said, “You know you’ve surrendered when you trust that the universe has a better plan than you do. You no longer need to manipulate and force outcomes. You’ve surrendered when you don’t need to defend your need to control.” What a powerful statement – if I’m defending, I’m constructing a barrier and therefore separating and closing myself off to the world’s bounty. Personally, aside from evolving spiritually, my ultimate purpose is connection. If I don’t trust, I don’t connect. Period. Sometimes the cost may be failure (as in not achieving my desired outcome), and with that comes negative feelings, but I have to believe in a greater plan. Maybe the dots won’t connect for a long time, but time is not my construct to own or control either.

So what does trust have to do with it? Everything. Trust is oneness, trust is surrender, trust is peace, and most of all, trust is love. And is there anything better than love?

the fear factor

As I sit down to write this, tomorrow is the last day of 2018. There is something about a new year that brings inspiration, hope, and a renewed commitment to goals that were either previously abandoned or more recently construed. Each year on December 31st, a majority of the population (in my estimate) makes resolutions that promise to change their lives in a meaningful way, yet the sustainability quotient is overwhelmingly lackluster. Is the reason that we are a society of over-committal optimists who just don’t have the resources to follow through? Or perhaps there is some hidden saboteur whose mission in life is to intercept the ball beelining towards the touchdown?

My hypothesis is neither. I believe the reason we do not achieve our goals has nothing to do with lack of resources or some vengeful plot by the universe against our success, but rather due to our own fears: fear of overpromising (to ourselves and/or to others) and underdelivering, fear of outright failure, or fear that we don’t even have the power to set the ball in motion.

What is fear, really? Fear could be described as a lack of information or data, leading to a perceived lack of control. Naturally, when we set goals we are aiming for something greater; a new achievement that will elevate our sense of worth or well-being. That is the true objective, right? If we are not constantly challenging ourselves to evolve, to contribute, to elevate society as a whole (which may be rightfully within the realm of of our own families or friendship circles), then what is our purpose? We set goals and intentions that we expect will solve or help us avoid our future problems. If I only lost 15 pounds I would find my future husband and be happy; or if I got the job I would earn enough money to support my family and gain their respect and therefore I would be happy…

Could our goals be precisely what is setting us up for failure? While I acknowledge the power of setting intentions and language as a catalyst for action, fear has an incredible power to stop us in our tracks and convince us that we are incapable. Perhaps the fear is really a subconscious signal that we are seeking happiness in our external world when it’s actually wholly connected to an internal state. We need to somehow reconcile our true desires with the actual motivation, and detach ourselves from the outcome because our happiness cannot be tied to one result. We are only happy because we choose to be happy. We are only afraid because of past experiences that we project onto our future. If we can master living in the present with goals for a future state that help us evolve without defining our emotional experience of life, then we have really arrived.

Personally I am nowhere near this evolved spiritual plane (or whatever is required to overcome my own fears), but if I can at least achieve a conscious understanding of its origin and learn to set goals for myself that give me permission to change course without fear of judgement by myself or others, then I am on the path. Life is too precious to live wholly in the future state, believing that achieving a goal will make us whole or perfect. We also cannot live in the past, in which some experience we have witnessed or lived impresses a fear upon us so great that we are moved to inaction.  I propose we start each new year with gratitude for what the past has taught us, and with both optimism and drive to be better versions of ourselves – and if we fall off the goal wagon, we know we have the strength to get up, brush ourselves off, and smile because it reminds us that we are alive.

mission possible

As I close an important chapter in my life, naturally I am reflecting back on the reason I started this whole journey in the first place. The other day I even asked out loud, “why did I do this again?” By “this” I was referring to a class/experiential learning practice that ultimately gave me much more than a foundation in the fundamentals of Ontological coaching (translation: the study of the nature of being). I was reminded that before I made this 7-month commitment, I sought new skills that might support my career and more superficially, an outlet for my free time. I imagined making new friends and stimulating my brain with something aside from being lazy on Saturday mornings. Ultimately, this experience did all of that and more. Most importantly, it gave me a fresh consciousness about my sense of self and purpose. My most cherished lesson from this class was that my highest value and contribution is just to be the best version of me that I can.

Like many others, I am seduced by the collection of possessions, accomplishments and accolades. After all, in general that is what our society deems important. I admit that I was even preoccupied with my performance in a class that was not graded! In actuality, my achievement was mostly self-measured – and surely I was harder on myself than my teacher. But what does it mean to just be? I question whether I can every fully embrace who I am separate from my results, and much less coach someone else to do the same. What would a world be like without an emphasis on achievement? As a businessperson and HR professional, I reinforce the importance of performance and results on a daily basis. Isn’t that what drives humanity forward? I guess if there is no foundation in the being there is no obtaining or doing anything. But what is the right mix of the three domains (to be, to have, and to do)? Is there really such a thing as a purpose without action?

My judgement is no, but the root of the issue is where and how we measure our value. Acting on goals and objectives in order to advance is part of human nature. But there will always be someone smarter, richer, prettier, and more successful. How much of our awareness of that reality is a productive motivator versus a destructive reminder of our own deficiencies? I know I have been caught up in the comparison game plenty of times in my thirty years where I have felt like my successes never measure up. At times it drives me forward, but on some occasions it paralyzes me.

In the last class of the Ontological Coaching Diploma, we closed with an exercise to define our mission as coaches. After answering a series of questions through a guided reflection, I composed the following:

“My mission is to serve human development through constant exploration of myself and my external world, in support of my central values of wellness and balance.”

After writing this, I realized that I actually do have a broader objective founded in my being. The accomplishment I feel is a sum of small actions on a day-to-day basis that support my principles. No Nobel Peace prize  or Miss America crown required. I do not claim to know the meaning of life and the true purpose of our extraordinarily significant, yet minuscule existence considering the scope of the universe. Maybe its all a scientific miracle, maybe its divine intervention, and most likely I will never really know for sure. What I can appreciate is that as humans we have a unique capacity to observe ourselves and question our own emotions, judgements and beliefs. We can take action and learn from our mistakes in a very conscious and deliberate way. I cannot take that gift for granted and the power that it gives me to fulfill my mission, which extends beyond the realm of coaching and into that of just being.

a time for loss

It was recently called to my attention how long it has been since I have written a blog post and until that reminder, I did not realize how much time had passed. Ironically, now that I am inspired to blog again, I am writing about the ever so fleeting construct of time. More specifically, I have been grappling with time as it relates to death and loss. Perhaps it’s a morbid topic, but that is just a judgment – my judgment and perhaps your judgment too. Many cultures actually embrace and celebrate death. Here in Mexico where I currently reside, there is a huge celebration every November called Day of the Dead. The multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey. So why is death an idea that many of us refuse to confront? Why am I so afraid to face the reality that this life is a precious gift and I have no idea when it will end? A friend recently sent me a quote that sums up my thoughts:

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

—Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Sometimes I feel like time flies by, and other times I feel as if it just won’t move quickly enough. Ultimately, time is just a human construct and every individual is a unique observer of his or her own experience of it. What is considered fast for one person, may seem slow to another. But the clincher is that we never really know how much we have. I wonder, if we all knew how long our lives would last would we perceive the passing of time differently and make alternate choices about how we spend it? There is nothing like unexpectedly losing someone you love to jolt you back into the reality that there are no guarantees of any future moments other than the one you are living. And yet, I feel it is so hard to stay present and appreciate those moments. Cliché, I know. So why do I still take life for granted and even, on too many occasions, perceive it as mundane or unexciting?

One of my favorite new lessons from a movie I recently watched called The Peaceful Warrior, is that there is always something going on, even when everything around us seems dull and boring. It’s actually kind of mind blowing to contemplate. When I take myself out of my ego-driven mindset – recognizing that I am not the center of the universe – there are an infinite number of things happening simultaneously (and who knows, maybe even in parallel time frames) resulting in a constant, perfect exchange of energy.

Time is one of the few (maybe only) measurable “things” that cannot be bought, and yet I know I live so often as though I can. I am hurrying toward a future of which I am uncertain, and for what? As I have learned in the last few months and am still trying to incorporate, the future is overrated. Perhaps I am missing the full moon and it’s the last one I will ever see. We spend so much time mourning people that we lose (understandably so), but why don’t we mourn the precious moments that passed us by while we were not even paying attention? The multi-color sunset, the vastness of the ocean, or the missed interaction with a new friend or life partner – in a flash we miss it all because the future was for some reason a more valuable preoccupation?

I am sad, angry, scared, and overwhelmed by the recent loss of such dear people in my life, but I am also so grateful for the reminder of the value of now. Even now is hard to measure because it is so fleeting, but it’s always there – until it’s not. I am glad I do not have psychic powers to know when my time is up, because all that matters is knowing that I have now and it will always only be now. I look backwards with fond memories of people that I have loved and lost, but only because I built relationships with them over the course of time being present together. A compilation of incredible minutes, hours and days shared led to an even better now, and even though those people are gone in a physical sense, I have to feel comforted by all of the endless possibilities for beautiful moments to come, if I just stay present in this one.

 Dedicated to Greg Weister, Kathy Weister and Johanna Gordin

minding the gap

We all have dreams and aspirations, usually with the idea that achieving them will make us happier or more fulfilled individuals. Whether professional, personal, economic or service-oriented, somehow if we could just accomplish (fill in the blank here), we would feel complete – or at least pretty darn close. But at what point are we using those goals to fill an internal void? How can we be so sure that we are not clinging to a vision of how we think things should be and blinding ourselves to other opportunities or signs from the universe that alternative and maybe even better paths are open to us?

Recently I saw a film called “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and one of Hector’s findings on a journey across the world find the key to happiness is that it’s a mistake to think that happiness is actually the goal. The movie reinforced a question that I have been struggling to answer lately: is it possible that our dreams are actually limiting us in some way? I am definitely not the cynical type who walks around thinking all dreams and goals are pointless. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that I am the master of my own destiny and that persistence in chasing my dreams is part of living life to its fullest. I suppose the honest question is, where are our dreams generated? Are they ego-fulfilling or truly calling us because they are aligned with our core values? Is happiness the goal or just a positive side-effect of living a full life?

This seems straightforward enough until I dig a bit deeper. What if family is an important value of mine and therefore I dream of a peaceful life filled by a doting husband and 2.5 kids? I suppose the true self-inquiry is, “would I be a whole and happy person without it?” and/or “will I punish myself in the form of suffering if life does not work out according to that vision?” If the answer is no to the first and yes to the second, then the next issue is what gap deep inside am I trying to fill through these external sources of happiness? After all, it is hard to have goals and dreams about a state of happiness that do not involve other people, places and things.

As I am learning (although struggling to embrace), true happiness absolutely must come from the inside – otherwise we are just fooling ourselves. We are putting a Band-Aid on a wound that will inevitably fall off over time and leave us exposed once again. No matter what we achieve, be they professional accolades, wealth or the “perfect” family, they are all just distractions from the real struggle: loving and accepting ourselves exactly as we are, in the here and now.

I am not claiming this is easy to do. In fact, it is something I wrestle with every day. In reality we have countless forces working against us, namely the other unfulfilled egos we interact with everyday that just want someone to pray on or commiserate with in order to feel better about themselves. It sounds blunt, but how many times do you find yourself in a position doubting your own self-worth based on the judgment (real or perceived) of someone else whom you deem more powerful or worthy of your credence? Hector’s first observation in his quest was that making comparisons can spoil your happiness. Traditional and social media are masters of reinforcing our comparison culture. They pray on our insecurity and send us subliminal messages that perpetuate this mental, emotional and psychological trap. It’s easy to become a victim of these forces, but often we are not even consciously aware of them. And while it is nearly impossible to live in a bubble, it is absolutely crucial to learn to filter out the unhealthy energies and interactions in exchange for those that encourage us to be our best selves, regardless of what is printed on our resumes or the balance in our bank accounts.

After a lot of contemplation and self-exploration, my sense is that true inner happiness is a process, not a magical state that suddenly hits us one day when we wake up. I’ve always been guided by goals and aspirations, but admittedly achieving them has not made me a better or happier person (as hard as it can be to admit it!). I managed to fulfill my goal of living and working in Latin America, and while I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment, I still find other areas of my life to lose sleep over because they are not exactly as I imagined them to be, right now. That hole or gap I am trying to fill will not magically disappear once the next goal is reached either. The challenge is to let go of any vested interest and trust that the universe has a plan. If I can surrender to it’s will, perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

So I return to the idea of setting a vision for a desired future and working to achieve it, but let it be a compliment to an already fulfilled soul. If we start from a place of abundance rather than need, than anything gained externally is just icing on an already sweet cake. No need to mind the gap.