My favorite workout ever was something my trainer Bryan put together a thousand years ago. He called it the Construction and Destruction of Western Civilization. Suffice it to say that many a sandbag was hauled and many a monkey bar traversed.
Anyhow, one of the stations involved a run from the parking lot to what we used to call the rainbow sherbet house down the street from the studio. That station was the time limiting factor for the rest of us: all of us would keep sledgehammering, flipping tires, swinging kettlebells until the person on the run would go to that house and back.
Anyhow, there was a woman there that day who had never worked out with us before. As she took off on the run, we swung and hauled and carried. And swung and hauled and carried. And swung and hauled and carried. At one point, Bryan actually went out to find her, and she was nowhere to be seen. He returned, and gave us permission to move on. Maybe 15 minutes later, she huffed her way back into the lot, explaining that she thought she’d known where the rainbow sherbet house was. The house she was thinking of was about a mile and a half away (easily a 20 minute run there and back for a fit non-runner). The actual rainbow sherbet house was less than a half mile away; it took most of us 5 minutes to get there and back.
That chick was the limiting factor. The surprise was that it wasn’t in fact her speed or fitness that was the ultimate limitation on the system, which was usually the case. It was her knowledge, her understanding, of where she was actually headed and when to turn back that ultimately limited our ability to move onto the next round, until Bryan intervened and broke the system.
Catch this principle guys: every system, including you and your life, has a limiting factor—one resource or trait that most limits how much the system can grow. If you want to push your life and your leadership to new levels in 2017, the single most powerful way to do that is to accurately identify what your limiting factor is, and focus every ounce of your being on deactivating it.
When you do this, you expand your capacity versus changing your conditions. This is super critical. Most of what we do when we set goals is make lists of conditions we want to change. I want to launch this business. Grow this business. Get a new job. Get a new boss. A new mate. I want my kid to stop acting up. I want to lose 15 pounds.
Here’s the truth: conditions are never the things that really limit your happiness. Think about it: millions of people already have the conditions you think would make your life better. And they’re still unhappy.
When you focus on limiting factors you grow your capacity to do two things: (1) to master the ability to change whatever conditions you want, whenever you want, and (2) to experience limitless love, joy, enthusiasm, ease and flow right now, where you’re at, regardless of conditions.
These two things will change your life. They definitely changed mine.
Writing/Feeling/Thinking Prompt: What are your top 3 limiting factors? I’ve listed some examples below, to get your mental juices flowing. As you visioncast your 2017, think about what SINGLE limiting factor you could explore releasing next year that would create the biggest change in the way you feel, think and show up in your life and your work? Which single factor would expand your capacity the most?
12 Common Limiting Factors
Low levels of physical energy/exhaustion
Fearful thinking habits
Apologizing for taking up space
Scarcity beliefs/don’t believe big things are possible
Depleting relationship patterns
Inability to speak up for yourself/speak your truth
Inability to ask for what you need
P.S. That day, I made note of the actual address of the sherbet house. Anytime we had a new workout friend, I made sure to whisper it to them, just in case.
Think about how your body metabolizes food. It chews it up and starts releasing enzymes to break it down while it’s still in your mouth. From that very moment begins the process of extracting what will nourish you. And also from that moment begins the process of eliminating the waste, discarding what doesn’t serve you, or what might even be actively harmful to you.
That’s how we can and should metabolize 2017. Keep what nourishes you. Eliminate the rest.
This approach is a powerful first step to stopping the spiral of fear and panic that has been so pervasive this year. And that is a powerful first step to walking into what you are called and put here to live and be and do—in your life and in the world—in 2017.
Here’s the prompt: Even if you think 2016 was The Worst Year Ever, list out (in writing) the things that happened, lessons you learned, experiences you experienced this year that made you healthier, happier, wiser, more clear or more tuned in to who you want to be in this life.
Our brains are wired for and alert to negative, fearful or terrible events at a rate 5x the bandwidth they devote to happy, lovely or joyful things. So you might have to devote extra intention and effort to coming up with the spiritually nutritious takeaways from the last twelve months.
And on the flip side, what did you discover this year that no longer serves you, or that you are ready to move on from or release? Relationship patterns? Thinking or emotional habits? Things? Fears?
Here, it’s helpful to keep this in mind: you do not minimize the very real issues in our world by electing to release panic and fear, get grounded in your own calling and move forward, full steam ahead. In fact, it’s kind of the only way you can really, truly help.
My friend Ann and I were chatting a week or so ago about a project she was thinking of doing. Ann is one of the smartest chicks I know – she’s a technical writer and an extremely engaged parent, whose sweet, gleeful children could converse with heads of state and leave the diplomats craving more.
Ann has been pretty shell-shocked by the election fallout. She spent the first week assuring her ½ Filipino, ½ white, 100% American kids that they would not be deported. Then, during Week 2, Ann was personally on the receiving end of a racial slur by a neighbor who expressed his pleasure at the prospect that “people like you” (Filipino Moms, apparently) will be “going back” (where? to Manhattan? SMH/shrug/ignorant/whatever, dude). In that same moment, she was on the receiving end of alliance and defense by a bystander.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a mixed bag.
Ann’s been spending a lot of time thinking about how to convert frustration and sadness and anger into thoughtful action. She’s done this in a bunch of ways, being a very proactive participant in school district communications around the election and teaching the Girl Scout troop she leads about tolerance and alliance.
But when we were messaging the other day, she sent me the photo of this sign, told me she was thinking of having her Girl Scouts sell them, and asked for my honest take on whether I would put one front of my house:
My house is elevated off the street level by about 40 stairs, so it’s not the best place to showcase messages if you want anyone else to see them. But I liked the sign and the intention behind it. Even more, I liked where her impulse to do this project came from. I honor and appreciate her internal character and love, the things about her that would even make it occur to her to be involved with such a project. And I wanted to tell her so.
Ann is analytical, so she had run some numbers. Our chat thread went like this:
Ann: If I sell this many signs and donate this much from each to the ACLU, we should be able to donate $200. Does that make sense?
Me: No. It doesn’t make sense that you would spend that much time selling and delivering signs to give $200. You could just write them a check for that.
Ann: I know. I did already. To them, and Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Clinic, and, and, and.
Me: I know you did, girl. What I’m saying is I don’t think it pencils. But I think you should do it anyway. The math doesn’t matter. Whether it makes sense or not is the right decision rule.
You should do it because you feel an urge to, and I think that’s a sign you’re onto something. Do it because it’s just a pure and beautiful thing to do. And because it’s out of love that you’re doing it. And because it’s so powerful and will be such a memorable thing for these little girls, to be a part of this. But also just do it because it’ll make you feel so good, Ann.
But, no it doesn’t make sense. And I think you should do it anyway. And please set two aside for me, thanks.
Ann: *thumbs up
So she did it. She just started doing it a few days ago. And she is really, really onto something.
Within a couple of days, I started to see dozens of Facebook posts from people I know putting these in their yards. Not only had Ann made herself feel good, she’d created this gorgeous upswell of connection and love and conversation and emotion. It’s given families who didn’t feel they had any other way to be heard a way to voice their love, and to connect with each other. People were posting photos, other people in their circles were asking to order signs, and within a few days she had cut the first $400 check to the ACLU. And she’s just getting started.
Image: Some of Ann’s Signs, in Action NOTE: If you want your own, email inthishouseproject at gmail dot com.
Here’s the principle: the older I get, the more I realize how important it is to feel good about a decision or a project, before I move forward on it. I say this not because I’m selfish, or a hedonist. I say this because once I worked a lot of old outdated triggers out of my system, and my emotions were grounded more often than not, I started to notice that my emotions are an incredible, instant, God-given source of wisdom, clarity and direction.
If I feel bad about something, it’s not the right thing. Even if everyone else thinks it’s a great opportunity or idea. And if I feel great or expansive about something, even something that doesn’t seem like the best use of time or resources, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
We have this idea that good things must be hard, or that the struggle is real, or that there’s great honor in doing things that we don’t want to do because someone else thinks they are responsible or worthwhile.
But I’ve found that the things I just plain old want to do, love to do and desire to do, are often worthwhile and wildly more fruitful than things I’m doing out of obligation.It is in-built in the human spirit to want to do things that serve something bigger than you. Often even very hard work on these sorts of projects feels easy and energizing to do. I’ve learned basically all of my love-driven activities and decisions elevate my emotional state, and they elevate those around me, though, whether they’re for the Benefit of Humanity or they’re purely for fun.
Allow me to correct the messages you might have received from culture. Joy, love, fun, I just want to, I feel called to: these are all worthy reasons to do something. Let this guide you. On behalf of the world, I beg you, let this guide you.
By the same token, internal turbulence, tightness and discord are a beautiful guidance system. This, I’ve seen and learned over and over again. I’ve seen it so often, in fact, that now I just listen and make the needed adjustments, quick-like and without attachment. Without upset. Most of the time, without complaining. I’ve learned to see it as a treasure when I get these sorts of feelings, because I’m grateful for the guidance and I know it will pass.
And so many beautiful things have come into my attention and focus and life, as a result of making these adjustments.
Let’s take this Inaugural Writing Challenge, for instance. Issuing it was an impulse, which felt so strong and so good that I just followed it. I followed it even though people were like wait: are you charging people for this? Nope. I followed it even though it took probably close to 75 hours of extra time out of this last month or so.
And I would do it all over again, right now, in a heartbeat. It has been one of the most delightful, juicy, free-flowing work experiences I’ve ever had. And it’s been FRUITFUL: I’ve gotten to share in the shifts people have experienced while participating in this, I’ve been able to connect with people around a lot of previously untold bits of my own story, and I’ve had incredible new insights into what I’m being called to do.
Long/short is, your emotions can be a wise divining rod for the projects, decisions and relationships you choose, if you allow them to be, and if you tend to them so that you start from a baseline of grounded-ness, not triggered-ness. Then, when you get a leap in your spirit about something, please follow it. And when you get a gut warning, follow that, too.
Remember the last time you bought a new car? It can take days, or even months, of exacting internet research, agony over final decision-making, then going to the dealer to pick out the uniquely right one for you? Let say you do this, and the Perfect Car for You turned out to be a sky blue Toyota Prius. A car in perfection, unlike any other car you’ve ever seen.
Until you drive off, that is. The moment you leave the lot, you see nothing but sky blue Toyota Priiiiiiiiiiii everywhere you go.
This phenomenon is brought to you by a little circuit in your brain we call the reticular activating system. Your reticular activating system is a personal relevance detector: when something becomes highly relevant (connected, related) to you, your reticular activating system alerts to it, and that thing becomes highly salient (noticeable, important) to you, too.
I’m certain that I have an RAS circuit for pug puppies. I can spot them from miles away.
The principle is this: what you focus on grows. And it grows in two ways. First, it grows in noticeability. You get more evidence of the thing that you are noticing, that it exists all around you. But then, once you notice it, you are likely to act, subconsciously and consciously, in ways that expand that thing, create more of that thing, multiply that thing, or bring more of that thing into your experience, in a very tangible way.
You start looking at pug puppies on rescue sites online. Then you see pug puppies everywhere you go, on the streets. Then you adopt pug puppies.
You start reading the reviews about Priuses. Then you buy a Prius, triggering your RAS. Then you see Priuses everywhere you go. And then you may, if you’re happy with the car, join an online discussion board of Prius owners, or even choose another Prius when your mate is ready for a new vehicle.
Here’s the fun part: this post is not about cars. It’s about energy, joy, enthusiasm, boldness, confidence, healing, miracles, love and every other thing you want in your life.
Here’s what I mean. Do me a quick favor. Take 73 seconds and watch what is, to my mind, one of the most life- and love-affirming minutes in film:
Repeat after me:
Love actually is all around
Love actually is all around
Love actually is all around
I know it doesn’t always feel like it, and I know right this moment, it really may not feel like it. But love actually is all around. It’s all around you. Right now. And if you look for it and focus on it, you’ll experience even more and more of it.
Let’s break it down: Love. Actually is. All around.
Love. Real love is what David Richo, in How to be An Adult in Relationships, calls the five A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing. It’s warmth and caring. Even if you feel unloved and aggrieved, or you crave a certain type of love, you are remiss to not look for the places in your life where people you know already show you these 5 As.
We all have our moments. When I have moments where I’m not feeling the love, I do a mental inventory of my life. I look for warmth, for caring, for little love evidence and big love proof points. Who are the people (or animals) in your world, past or present, that give you attention, accept you, appreciate you, show you affection and allow you to be who you are? Most of us can honestly say they are all around us.
Are things other than love around, too? Of course. In fact, part of how we know love is actually all around us is by the occasional contrasting experience. Think about the example Hugh uses in the voiceover: a most hateful event, 9/11, sparked a bunch of love calls, not hate calls.
It’s excruciatingly easy right now to get pulled into the spiral of fear and anxiety about the hate that we’ve seen rear and raise its ugly head here lately. This post is me urging you, begging you, to guard your heart against that. Deal with the issues before us and do the actions before you, certainly. But whatever you do, do not spend your days, your energy, focused on hate. It’s a hard spiral to pull out of.
Actually is. When you are looking for it, you will find it. You will see it and you will grow it. You will notice and feel it in places it already exists in your life, more than you do now. And then you will also behave in ways, subconsciously and overtly, that attract in more love, from the people you meet on the street, from people with whom you have difficult relationships and even from people who
All Around. You might feel like you get love from your kids or your mate, and that the rest of the world is insane.But here’s the thing, love is actually everywhere around you, and it’s for you. In small ways and large. The people in your life who give you the 5 A’s, definitely. But also the friend who picks your kid up when you’re sick. The women I passed on my dog walk today who were so excited to finally meet the girls, and had even given them nicknames. Think about the divine, big picture love that allows your cells to function, the trees to grow and your cell phone to charge up when you plug it into the wall. And look for the smallest little loves, too, because they’re all the same energy: your neighbor who jumps your car when you let it sit too long, and the barista who makes your daughter a sweet little new milk cartoon in her hot chocolate every morning.
Truth part B is this: you have to be on the lookout for it. Like Hugh was, at the airport. In fact, if you struggle to get the momentum of love flowing in your energy on a daily basis, I invite you to use the idea of the airport arrival as a go-to image that can bring you back. Or use the visual of your dogs when you get home. Or use the visual of your grandmother or your garden or your husband or your favorite teacher. Whatever works.
To set your reticular activating system for love, you might also need to starve all of love’s opposites of your energy. Refuse to give them your precious, precious bandwidth. Do not spend your time fixated and focused on hate, on disgust, on criticism, on things that make you feel bad or things that are the opposites of the 5 As. This will be difficult, in our culture. This will be especially difficult if you spend a lot of time on Facebook.
But it’s not impossible. Focus on the baby photos and puppies that come up in your feed. Opt-out of push notifications for pressing world news. It’ll still be there when you get there. You know those friends who are always sharing the tragic, the worst of humanity and the travesties of justics? You don’t have to unfriend them. But you can unfollow them. And you can follow a bunch of pages like Upworthy and A Mighty Girl, Brain Pickings and other pages that are much less likely to be broadcasting the opposite of love. Then click to make sure you see all their posts. In no time, you’ll have rehabilitated your Facebook feed in the direction of love.
You can actually decide to give less and less and eventually no airtime to anything but love. Does it mean other things won’t come up? No, of course not. But when they do, you’ll even see the hateful people as wounded children of God, and you’ll respond to that stuff very differently: without rumination, without depression, you’ll treat their actions as the sport of the day, and you’ll be able to see all the love all around you on that same day.
Many people have told me about the days or weeks of their lives they’ve lost to depression and fear since the election. Worrying can make you feel like you’re doing something in a world where you otherwise feel out of control. It can also be a way we bond with people, and it can feel comfortable. It can also feel like to do anything but fixate and stress means you don’t take the problems seriously. I get it.
But it’s not the most powerful way to be. And you know what else? It feels terrible. Terrible. It does nothing to diminish real concerns to choose not to fixate on hate and all the things that are wrong with the world. The most powerful way you can be is to click into the way of love. That is your nature. Let that drive your identity and your actions. It’s literally everywhere around you. Just look.
Today marks Day 27 of the first 30 Day Writing Challenge I’ve ever issued publicly. I’ve done such Challenges before, privately, issued to and from myself, several times. I’ve had a daily writing practice for a long time, though it has ebbed and flowed in strictness over the years. After what I call the Not-So-Great Recession, I wrote my way out of debt and made about half my living blogging. At one point was under contract to write about 14 blog posts per week. So I wrote every day.
Once that season was done, I struggled to get back into writing daily. I’d kind of written myself out. I’d made it a grind; a job.
I did NaNoWriMo one year, somewhat halfheartedly. I’ve written a book or two in relatively short order, having taken on the project in a structured Challenge format.
But somewhere along the way, I learned about Morning Pages, the practice of free-writing 3 pages longhand every morning. These pages are to be a total brain dump: completely unedited, completely uncensored, completely private, so as to get rid of the need for them to be great (or even good, or even coherent, for that matter).
I started to do what I call my Pages, but I did it in Google Docs. And those Pages became the landscape on which I rebuilt my life. Post-recession, post-divorce, post-trauma, I worked all kinds of stuff out on those Pages. And I found a series of post-traumatic breakthroughs there. They’ve never stopped coming. I found a lot of new skills and elements of my grown-up operating system there, too.
In my Pages was where I learned how to practice boundaries; when I was faced with a situation in which I’d normally do some dysfunctional enabling, when I’d normally swoop in and save the day for someone who’d actually created the crisis, I’d write about it, and I’d find my own patterns and the clarity to stop them, in their tracks.
In my Pages was where I developed the capacity to be a wholehearted, conscious leader of my life and of the businesses with which I work. When I was twitterpated about something, I’d write it out on the Pages. When I needed to have a hard conversation, I wrote it all out in my Pages first. And oh, how my capacity to engage in grounded, thriving relationships grew as a result. Sometimes, I’d actually have the conversation later on, but minus a lot of my own BS, having seen it in black and white in my Pages.
Back when having hard conversations was so stressful to me, back when I didn’t have the skills to just do that off the cuff, I’d write them out first in my Pages and realize that some of those conversations didn’t need to be had at all. Sometimes, I needed to exercise way more aggressive boundaries and actions to remedy a broken dynamic than just a conversation. And other times, the issue was not the other person or the relationship at all; it was me.
And I could spot that in my Pages, before I ever acted out my own mess on anyone else. In my Pages, I developed these skills that are now encoded deeply in the way I think and breathe and interact with others. And it has leveled up the type of human I attract into my world these days. From employees to clients to friends and sweethearts, I am able to communicate at a level of wholehearted, joyful freedom and clarity with people these days that I never even saw modeled in my younger years, even though I now have many more relationships than I ever did before.
When I needed to work out a complex business problem, understanding the impacts on all stakeholders, and cultivating the clarity to make decisions based on first principles and values (vs. profit over all), I worked it out first in my Pages. In my Pages was where I’d empty my brain and my mind and my spirit of all the chatter and irritations of a normal day, and beneath that was where I’d find solutions to business and life and relationship challenges that were so elegant, so inspired, they actually surprised me.
And you know, I learned a lot about myself in my Pages. I could spot my own patterns there in a way that was hard to do elsewhere. Or my therapist or my coach and I would work on something together in our hour here and hour there, then I’d write about it over the subsequent days or weeks in my Pages. It was like increasing the return on the investment I’d made in therapy, doing my Pages, because I’d continue to connect dots, have a-ha moments and integrate lessons in my Pages for days or weeks following the therapy convo.
I also fell in love with my life, and with myself, in my Pages. In my Pages was where I learned that I love adventure. That I’m a stellar decision-maker, when I let my gut have the wheel. That there are literal, and I mean literal, miracles happening at an incredible rate, inside me and all around me, 100% of the time. If I look for them, that is.
In my Pages was where I realized that it’s 100% true that 100% of the Very Best Things in my life are things that came into my life with relative ease, because they were meant to be mine. I have worked so hard in my life. So hard, guys. And I believe in work. But if the work I’m doing doesn’t feel like play, or if the things I’m are trying to make happen are just really, really excruciating to bring together, I now have the Pages-found wisdom to release those things and thank the experience for the guidance back to the realm I call Effortful Ease.
In my Pages was where I developed an incredible clarity about what I’m here for, and what is and is not on purpose for me. In my Pages is where I cultivate and maintain that clarity everyday.
Of course, there’s still ebb and flow to my Pages. The more I have going on, the more I’m challenging myself in my work or in my life, the more interior work I’m doing, the more there is to write.
ButI no longer see my Pages as a Challenge. They’re now just a luxurious spiritual space, where I have the privilege of going (anytime I want!) to work things out and think things through and say crazy stuff and play with new visions. They’re where I go to document miracles small and large. And they’re where I prime my mental mechanism, to churn up my daily flow, so I can write formal projects everyday, from books to strategies to business plans and even emails.
So, I’ve issued this Challenge. And it’s literally the most fun I’ve ever had with a work project, probably because I issued it with no expectation. I issued it because I know how healing and joy-bringing my daily writing practice has been for me, and because I wanted my people (that’s you) to have that experience, too. I issued it because I know a lot how to build a container for having a breakthrough-finding experience of daily writing, and I was constantly fielding daily requests for wisdom I knew I could deliver via this container.
So now, I’m working to level this thing up into its next iteration. Trust and believe I’ll let you know what that looks like. But in the meantime, I wanted to take one moment to say that if you’re ever thinking about doing a writing challenge or taking up the practice of daily writing, you’re feeling that urge because it’s for you. It’s calling you.
There’s something of yourself to be found in the practice, and I hope to have given you some inklings or ideas of what they could possibly be, in sharing about my own Pages. Of course, the time you’ll need to write everyday will have to displace some other thing you’re currently doing. (I’d like to put watching TV or scrolling Facebook on the table. Just some ideas.)
I think of it like this: writing in my Pages is the equivalent of having one conversation a day. One deeply rewarding conversation, that you don’t even have to leave your home (or your bed) for. You wouldn’t say, “eh, I don’t have time for one more conversation.” So don’t say you don’t have time for writing every day.
I have this friend who is always reminding me that I’m human. I know this to be true, and I’m grateful that it is.
But I don’t always love it when she says that. Sometimes, what I hear her say when she says that is: watch your perfectionism, it’s getting out of hand. But other times, I hear her say: it’s ok to slack off. It actually makes me feel better when you don’t go quite so hard.
So sometimes, I listen to her and appreciate her for the intervention. And other times, I leave that comment – you’re human – right where it comes from.
At the root of this disconnect is the truth that she and I have fundamentally different ideas of what being human is and what being human means.
Real talk: one can never 100% know what someone else thinks or feels. But as I perceive it, she thinks it to be human means to be irrevocably flawed, imperfect and, sure, to try to get better all the time, but also flawed and imperfect.
I think that to be human is to be a child of God, is to be an heir in the lineage of perfection. Does this mean that I expect or want to be perfect? Definitely not. But it does mean that I hold myself to a spirit of excellence at all times, that I push myself at times others would give me a big old hall pass to take a breather, and that I have bold expectations that grace and supernatural forces will take my intentions and my actions to a level closer to perfection than I ever could have taken them under my own steam.
I learned that my work is to every day, be more and more unapologetic and bold about claiming my inheritance as a child of God. My inheritance is everything. Yours is, too. We just forget sometimes. And my work is also to every day, more and more, approach my own flaws and humanity with ease, compassion and humor, while still working constantly to elevate who I am and how I am to a standard befitting of a child of God.
Maybe our difference of opinion is simply a matter of the conclusions we reach from the same st of facts. We both agree that to be human is to be flawed. But she feels that our flaws let us off the hook, and make it silly to set super strict standards for ourselves. I see it differently: our flaws simply create the landscape for us to experience growth and healing and to act out our craving for the divine, trying to edge ever closer to the supernatural from right here, on this ball of dirt we call ours.
Last night, I went down an Internet poetry rabbit hole. Of all Internet rabbit holes, I recommend this one, perhaps, the most. I came across this beautiful short poem called Romanesque arches, which touched on precisely this issue of being human, and being proud of it.
by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly
Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
Don’t be ashamed to be a human being—be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,
together with Mr and Mrs Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini—
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.
Maybe two years back now, I was walking Aiko and Miko in the hills up the street from my house. One corner house we pass every day had a new addition, a well-built wooden version of a real estate flyer box, nailed securely to a tree in the front yard. There was a bright pink post-it note on it that read:
Neighborhood Poetry Box: Take a poem, or leave one!
For the last two years, that box has always been full of print-outs of poems.
I rarely take them. But I always read them, and I occasionally take a snapshot of the ones that really resonate. They’re often seasonal, or relevant. They’re always sweet, probably sweetened in my mind by the idea that my neighbors are going out of their way to keep the box full.
Once, sometime last year, the tiny, vibrant, white-haired Asian woman who lives at the house was in the yard when I walked by. The girls and I stopped to thank her for investing the time and effort to turn such a lovely idea into reality, and to let her know that we read it everyday. She was so excited, so thrilled, that the box has become part of our daily routine.
This afternoon, we walked by the Neighborhood Poetry Box, and found this poem inside:
Here’s what to do during war:
In a time of destruction,
A moral principle.
One peaceful moment.
It’s common that the poems in the box are attributed to their authors with a note at the bottom. This one, however, was signed in handwritten script—Maxine H. Kingston—and then attributed to a work titled The Fifth Book of Peace.
I took a photo of it. And later sent it to a friend. Because I think this is what we’re doing right now. We’re in a time of chaos, and we’re creating something. We’re creating lots of things. We’re creating bonds and love and moments. We’re writing and writing and writing. We’re committing. We’re building community at a level of depth I’ve never before witnessed firsthand. We’re creating farms and schools and movements and moments.
There’s something about the elegance and sparsity of this poem that I especially loved. I mean substantively, it was for us and about us. Obviously. But it didn’t seek to explain why or how or to make a case for what’s to be done in times like these. It was simple instruction.
Loving instruction, from someone senior to us: Children. Here’s what to do.
When I sent my sweetheart the photo of the poem, I again noticed the signature. I was inspired to Google the name, Maxine H. Kingston, and what a treat I found when I did. Maxine Hong Kingston is my lovely, tiny, neighbor, the proprietress of the poetry box! I read a few profiles of her incredible history, life and career, which started with her 1976 publication of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Over the years, this book alone has sold over 1.3 million copies.
A lauded UC Berkeley professor (now Emeritus) and White House humanities medal awardee, she’s spent the last few decades in peace activism, and was once notably arrested with another literary giant, Alice Walker, for protesting the Bush Administration’s plans to invade Iraq. Ms. Hong lived here 25 years ago, when the Oakland Hills fires swept through these streets through which I now walk the girls, and her home was burned to the ground, along with the manuscript of what was to be the Fourth Book of Peace. (In Chinese legend, the first three books of peace are said to have held the secrets to ending all war and, as such, to have been burned by the powers then in charge.)
So I’ve just ordered the Fifth Book of Peace. And soon, I’ll reach out to my neighbor to thank her again. But this time, it won’t just be for the poetry box.
In the US, it’s Thanksgiving today. And while I know this year has been trying for so many, I can’t help but be intensely thankful for so, so many things. I’m grateful that I was born when, where and to whom I was born. I’m grateful to know God up close and personal. I’m grateful for my extraordinary friends, the life I’ve led, my son, the incredible healing I’ve had, and for the incredible thoughtfulness of the lovely gent I’m seeing these days.
I’m a little under the weather, which always makes me a bit existential. So I’m even more acutely grateful than normal, today, for the extraordinary health of every cell in my body. I’m grateful that God has prospered and protected me, all the days of my life, and I’m grateful for what’s ahead.
And OH!, I can almost not convey with words the extent of my gratitude for the experiences I’ve had. Travel, work, life, love: you name it. I’ve cycled the islands of Croatia, boxed with the Muslim boys of Brussels, worked to bring healthy food to people who’d otherwise not have had access and executive-ed a Silicon Valley startup, all the way to acquisition. Unbelievable.
The teachers I’ve had along the way have unlocked a lot of my capacity to live into—and revel in—these experiences. Most of the celebrity teachers I’ve had, I’ve learned from via their books or online work. But in the last 8 weeks I’ve had the honor and privilege to be in the same room as a number of those people I’ve learned from, from afar; people like Deepak Chopra, Anne Lamott, Brené Brown and Marina Abramović , each the undisputed best at what they do.
Brené changed my life, Anne cracked me entirely up and Marina opened my eyes. But Deepak? The thing is, Deepak and I go way back. Perhaps the first personal growth or “wizlit” book I ever read, besides the Bible, was his book Quantum Healing, which I read when I was about 14. I had several of terminally ill relatives I was watching experience their illnesses, and some of the ideas he suggested rocked my world, in that context. The idea that the cells of our bodies renew entirely ever 7 years, for one. The idea that there is a literal, proven connection between our mental state and the health of our bodies, for another.
These concepts were not just revolutionary to me because I was a child; they were quite revolutionary in the world at large, in 1989. And they were certainly revolutionary in the setting of my childhood, good old Bakersfield, California.
I found these ideas deeply exciting and comforting, at the same time. They felt like a gift, like an endowment of a new level of understanding of how our bodies heal, and a new sense of control over my own body and my own health outcomes, something that had previously seemed so mysterious and opaque it was almost terrifying, given the stakes.
I recently attended a Deepak lecture in San Francisco. Sometimes, I’m intentionally negligent at documenting these things on social media, mostly when I decide to stay all the way present in the moment, where I am. I did manage to post this photo and somewhat cryptic caption to Facebook, though:
A photo posted by Tara-Nicholle Nelson (@transformationaltara) on
This post was met with two, really different reactions. The people I know who have done a lot of workshops and personal growth work in the East-meets-West realm, their reaction was something like this:
Translation: PREACH, Deepak.
But the other people in my world, many of them thinking, wisdom-pursuing people themselves, had a slightly different reaction. It looked more like this:
So I thought I’d break it down a little bit, because these principles are eye-opening and mindset-shifting.
First, Part A: “There is no such thing as a thing. Nouns are a convention of language. Everything is activity.”
At a scientific level, smaller than our cells, really at the level of atoms, nothing is an actual, solid, fixed thing. Even the wood of the table before you consists of trillions of atoms in constant motion, moving so fast that we perceive them as solid. Places are in constant flux, too. Climate change is one example, but just one. A map of the world 5,000 years ago would be nearly unrecognizable, and the pace of change is actually witnessable even ore easily when you look at places like Venice or the coast of Malibu.
The only constant is change. This is even more true with our bodies, where cells are constantly dying so that new ones can be born. And even more true when we look at the landscapes of our lives, who we are, with whom we co-exist, what we do, and how we operate.
My pal Deepak was just saying that this idea that we have about nouns, that there are people, places or things that are constant, is just a linguistic hack we use to help simplify the world and the way we talk about it. But really, we’re all—everything is—a verb. We are in constant motion, constantly in action, at every level of being. There’s something peaceful about acknowledging that. It helps begin to un-click the attachment we can have to the way things are, which can often be at crossroads with the inevitable flow and motion of life.
Part B is related: You: Born this day. Dead this day. Birth and death every day in between.
The cells of our eyes regenerate every 48 hours. Colon cells renew every 4 days. Our livers? Every 6 weeks.
On one level, Deepak was saying that we are literally dying and being born, at a cellular level, literally every single day of our lives.
But the more esoteric elements of our being are also dying and being born continually. Our traumas and hopes. Our fears and memories. Our daily routines and life partners, our housemates and what we do. Our identities: literally, how we see ourselves and who we are in this life we live. All of these things are extremely malleable. They change all the time, but we often feel at mercy to their incessant change, terrorized by time. When we decide to accept this change, learn about them and be intentional about how we operate vis-a-vis this constant death and birth, things get very fun and possibilities begin to unlock that we never might have seen when we were fighting the flow.
Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn once said that “You can’t fight the waves. But you can learn to surf.” That’s what I think Deepak was ultimately saying a few weeks back, when I saw him speak. That the waves of life are constant activity and constant change. Learn to surf them, and you’re in business: the business of an intentional, joyful, well life.
I started this writing challenge thinking I’d spend a lot of time cracking myself open, pulling out the blood and guts and carcasses of my old traumas, mucking them out publicly. I felt like I needed to do this to be more vulnerable and transparent about my journey, as so much of it has only ever been revealed in a relatively polished, “After” picture sort of way.
So I went there. And for the first few days, I spent a lot of time revealing old messes in a way that I thought would replicate the resonance, relatability and uplifting connectedness I’d experienced in one-on-one conversations about these subjects.
But then, naturally, I noticed my posts evolving in the direction my spirit and mind have over the last few years. I just wanted to write from my experience. And my experience is driven by this super woo-woo, cosmic principle that goes like this: “That was then, this is now.” My now experience is incredibly fun and delicious. It’s not a perfect life, in terms of circumstances, but it’s perfectly beautiful to live. And I’ve discovered how to let life unfold easily, and how to be in and savor the delectable moments and experiences of it with love and joy, even when things aren’t going the way I thought they would, because I know things are all working out for me.
So my posts naturally veered into that tone, the tone of my current life and experience.
I was talking with my coach about this this morning, just expressing how many things I worked on, nose-to-grindstone, for so many years were not the right things. And how so many of the best things in my life have been the things that came with ease, sometimes with effort and other times not, but they weren’t the hard things, was my point. And how I’ve learned to see “hard” as a flag that the thing is probably not the right thing. And how I’ve learned to even be grateful for that “hard” as guidance, and as necessary.
And she reminded me about science. About how contraction is necessary for expansion: think of your heart, as it beats. All your muscles, really, and how they work. About how our bodies contract in order to give birth to our young.
Even a seed must crack open and die in order for a seedling to emerge.
This is a brilliant principle, if you can catch and apply it to your world. There are really two premises built into what she was saying here which, if you accept them as true, can change the ease with which you experience life, eliminate fear and shift your experience from depleting to constantly, continually energizing:
That life grows, grows and expands, always. Things grow, markets grow, people do, too.
That contraction is required for expansion to occur.
If you accept both these premises, you can find incredible peace and energy in their combined meaning. Things will grow and expand, and generally in an upwards direction. But some contraction must happen, at seasons, between seasons of growth. If your investment accounts were looking down in 2008, but you’ve held onto them, you’re in good shape with those same investments now, in 2016.
This principle means you can be a reasonable, wise adult and take a peaceful, long-term view of your life. It means you can focus on setting a conscious, general idea of what you want to be about and create in your life, and then have a lot more ease and expectation and patience and peace as you do your work and see what options show up. It means you can say no to things without fear. It means you can release the depletion that results from being constantly worked up and wound up over The Drama of the Day and instead make it the Sport of the Day, and handle it like an expert, infinite game player.
This principle means you can sit rooted and grounded in your clarity and confidence that things are working out. And it means you’ll make better decisions, take the risks involved in being a fearless, wise communicator and experience life more abundantly, as a result.
Contraction must happen for expansion to occur. Science says so. Spirit does, too.
A teacher of mine once said that the advice we give others is actually the advice we most need ourselves.
This is always in the back of my mind when I share what I’ve learned or what I think with people who’ve asked for my advice. I try to think of it as though I am my own, amazing, free advisor, but that the sport of the day is to figure out which of my own issues the advice I’m giving at any given moment might apply to. And almost always, life presents me with a rich opportunity to apply it.
The other day, I was doing the four-hour drive to see my parents, in Bakersfield. My family celebrates Thanksgiving a week in advance of the actual holiday, so I get to miss traffic and a few other folks and their spouses always get to see both sides of their families.
While I was driving, a young relative of mine called, and we caught up while I was driving. She shared that she had a lot of anger with her parents for preparing her for a post-college world that no longer rewards education the way it once did, and for constantly pestering her about working several (great) part-job jobs, versus getting a “real” job and staying at it until pension-time, the way they did.
I shared with her from my experience as offspring that I think the issue is generational, and that it’s certainly not limited to her parents. My parents, too, worked the same jobs for 30 years, and have looked at my own career path with equal parts concern and awe. For their parents, success was just making ends meet. For her parents and mine, success was having a “good” job, ideally with a governmental entity or a large corporation, and staying at it long enough to get a pension. One of her parents and one of mine had actually made it to college, later in life, and managed to elevate beyond their own expectations, at their “good jobs”.
The incremental increase our parents hoped and worked to real-ize for us was that we would go to college and get great jobs, but ideally still with a government entity or big company, and ideally still with a pension. They simply could not have foreseen, I told her, the Great Recession and the devaluation of a basic college degree. They could not have foreseen that their daughters, she and I both, would go on to get master’s and doctorate level degrees, and then pursue something other than the traditional career path from those degrees. They could not have foreseen—and still don’t understand—the massive disruptions to what a “good job” is that have been driven by Silicon Valley, the Internet, the death of the pension and the gig economy.
She expressed frustration that her mother wouldn’t stop criticizing her path, even after she told her Mom in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t choose a career like her mother’s, even if she did have the choice. To that, I told her that she should feel free to express herself, but also should know that her mother is not in a position to share her mental frames for “good job”. I told her that trying to control others’ behavior or allowing it to dictate our own emotional states is a losing battle. And I shared with her that she has lots of choices for how to handle this that she might find much more emotionally satisfying, including expressing her POV, minus the anger and vitriol, without the expectation that her mother will change her behavior. And also including just no longer having that same tired old script of a conversation with her mother.
I told her the developmental stage of disindividuation is only successful when we see and feel those boundaries, the distinctness of what we want and are as separate from what are parents want and are. I told her from that perspective, the system has worked, in her case. And in mine.
In fairness to her Mom, I told her I know from experience as a parent just how hard it is to stop giving unsolicited life advice to your children based on your own mental frames. Even when your own thinking no longer applies to your kids or their peers. I told her parents do this because we are concerned for our kids, and want the best for them and, because the only ways we can see the situation from is through our own lenses, our own mental frames, for what is good and right.
Shortly after she and I hung up, I pulled into my mother’s driveway. “Ah, so,” I thought. “Here’s the part where I’m going to have a bunch of ‘rich opportunities’ to take the advice I gave Henrietta (names/changed/protect/innocent/etc).”
But you know, a funny thing happened. Maybe because I was thinking this advice was really well-timed for myself, or maybe because that conversation with Henrietta had put me into parental compassion mode, my parents didn’t get to me on this trip. There were tiny seeds that could have caused friction, but I dealt with them in a bold, decisive way. I dealt with them with clarity, honesty and no expectation in the moment, based on what seemed right.
My Dad said some things I disagreed with, and I told him so, but gently and without any expectation that he would change. I explained why I disagreed and shared my own experiences that were the basis for my disagreement. I added a little dose of humor, without self-deprecation, just to lighten the mood. He respected my opinion and even agreed with me.
My Mother refused to do some things I’d have liked her to. And I just let it go, instantly. Her “important” and mine don’t have to be the same. When someone asked me about it later, I’d actually forgotten the incident had even happened.
I had some conversations that should have been challenging with my Dad, but approached them thinking about the advice I gave Henrietta. I didn’t just hit him with my opinion. I shared my appreciation for his journey and his sacrifices, and shared with him my 10,000 foot view of the situation, offering him the clarity of an outsider’s perspective. I asked him to have a little more compassion and generosity with himself in a hard situation, and encouraged him to make some choices that don’t jive with his mental frames for “good” and won’t be popular but are the right thing to do. I told him I’d back him up. And he could hear me.
This time, it was real that the advice I’d given was the advice I needed. But there was something bigger than this principle at work here. Something in the energetics of having released the desire to change the situation, of having accepted and allowed my parents to be who they are and need to be, and of remembering how many times wise adult Tara has made great choices in terms of engaging in non-mission-critical battles with my parents actually shifted the whole atmosphere around these relationships. It defused it entirely. People behaved better, way better, that normal.
And that felt good. It actually felt great.
Call me woo-woo if you want to, but during Thanksgiving, there was a moment when some of my relatives were getting into some stressful, turbulent, conversational topics. It was cranking up to be one of those conversations that gets gossipy and outraged, but goes nowhere. I dreaded it, because it would either suck me in or put me in a position to have to figure out how to be the wise adult Tara in the conversation. But a funny thing happened. Just at that moment, my 4-year-old cousin Bella popped up. She basically flew at me with open arms, yelling “COUSIN TARA!!!!!!” She marveled at how my hair was braided like her hair, and how we were basically the same because she’s 4 and I’m 41. We took a selfie. She asked me (to my horror) if I had Snapchat. She grabbed my phone and started voice searching for songs to dance to on YouTube. She insisted that we dance. She said “Let’s dance!” and I looked over at the crazy conversation people, looked back at her, and said “Ok! Let’s dance!” And so we danced.
Finally she yelled out—no joke, ya’ll—“I LOVE CHALLENGES!” Challenges, of all things. I almost said, “Hey, that’s my shtick!”, but I thought better of getting into that with a four year old. So instead, we made a whole bunch of videos of her “show,” wherein she introduces herself and tells viewers all about the “Princess Book Challenge” or the “Gymnastics Challenge.”
By the time she was done, and released me from my service (!), the crazy conversation I’d dreaded dealing with was naturally breaking up. It was over, and I didn’t have to engage or break it up. It was as though the decision to accept, allow and change my own behavior vs. trying to manage anyone else’s had gone ahead of me and paved the path for that trip with ease and calm, at least in my experience of the trip.
I share this in hopes that it reaches you before your own Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s or other holiday family gathering that might normally make you crazy. I dare you to try on this new possibility, the possibility of extending compassion and acceptance to the hard nuts to crack, in advance. There’s a very real possibility that doing so might shift the entire atmosphere from fraught to freedom.