Wednesday 28 July 2010

Finding the turning point

My favourite play as an undergrad was Le Voyageur Sans Bagage.  It was about a man who lost his memory and grappled with who he was when he had no identity and no history on which to draw.

Our history makes us who we are.  The interweaving threads of our experiences create us.  Without our history, who do we become?  Who are we? 

But as with anything, history has its limits.  The experiences that make us who we are can either imprison us or set us free.  More than what happens to us, how we understand - or interpret - those experiences, shapes our character.  We can choose the story we tell about our lives, the lens through which we understand our experiences, the world, and who we are. 

It seems to me that so many of us are walking around with grievances - long held anger - about events in the past.  Anger is an emotion that hardens and constricts us.  Anger and resentment limit us, and close us down. 

I'm not saying that all events are good.  But when a past event is used to define who we are today, it seems as though we're living backwards - with our faces turned to the past, ignoring the present.  We are giving a person in our history, or an event in our past, more control over our daily thoughts and emotions than we allow ourselves.  We are holding ourselves to ransom.  And the only person who has the ability to change that is us.  Only we can release the past. 

I don't really know why I write about forgiveness so much.  Perhaps because it is one of the most complex human acts.  To forgive requires us to go beyond our Egos, to reach past our hurts and 'I'm right because...' 

But Forgiveness is not about the other person: it's about us.  It's about releasing ourselves to live in the present, rather than in the past.  For me, it's about finding a deeper perspective, an emerging potential that goes beyond the event or person, and using that wider perspective to redeem the event. 
Otherwise, we live with a victim mentality, and so we become victims. 

I believe that key events in our lives, whether they are positive or negative, hold immense potential to open us up to even better versions of who we are.  A great example of this was Christopher Reeve: the actor who was known for being Super Man had even the most basic of powers stripped out of his life.  He could have focused on the cruel irony that left 'Super Man' paralysed from the neck down.

Instead, he used what was undoubtedly a tragedy as a turning point, an opportunity to become bitter or to reach deep inside and find another, deeper dimension to himself.  In doing so, he provided us with an altogether more profound definition of a Super Man: a definition that goes beyond the stereotypical cliches of physical ability, and shows how inner qualities, such as courage, acceptance and determination are even more admirable than physical ability and beauty.  

Taking painful events and transforming them, using them as the fuel to move beyond who we think we are is, to me, the most inspirational of all human qualities.  It is what creates truly outstanding human beings.  Just as the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, so too can we take what we feel is ugly in our lives and synthesise it, to reveal our true splendour.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Is it truly better to give than to receive?

I have trouble receiving.  I'm very good at giving: if one can say that.  In fact, it's my natural groove, my habitual pattern.  I'm really comfortable being the person who supports, who's dependable, who's comforting, nurturing and empowering.

But what happens when I'm the one who has to accept support?  When I'm not giving support?

I feel exposed.  I feel out of control.  I hadn't thought of it before, but perhaps there's a subtle power in being the person who gives support.  I feel so much more vulnerable being the receiver of support. 

Yes, there is the argument that in order for me to operate in my comfort zone of giving, there needs to be those who receive.  But that doesn't have to be me receiving!  And, I acknowledge that, as human beings, we need balance: to give and to receive.  But that's so much easier said than done.

For me, recognising my need to control, my need to be the one who cleans up the mess is a significant insight. 

Perhaps even more significant is understanding that I do this in order to escape an even more subtle fear that I'm 'not enough' somehow.  Unconsciously, I think I have a belief pattern that states, "I'm most worthy as a person when I'm helping others..."

If I'm not helping others, what value do I have?  The answer to that question evokes fear.  In my head I believe we are all born worthy and deserving, with unlimited potential.  But my heart fears that may not apply to me.

Coming to terms with that understanding, and hopefully finding a way through it, seems so important now: how can I bring up a child to believe in themselves, if I can't quite muster that belief for myself? 

I could look at this as a limitation - a character flaw.  We all have failings and weaknesses.  The challenge is to discover the potential in any limiting situation, to find a bigger perspective that inspires me to move beyond my own limitations - enthusiastically rather than shame-facedly.

Suddenly, being utterly dependent on Dirk financially takes on new meaning.  It offers me the opportunity to heal a limiting belief, so that I can inspire genuine confidence in my child.  It is an opportunity to explore gracefully the vulnerability I feel when I'm not in control, so that I may appreciate the flow of life through giving and receiving. 

It's the beginning of a new journey of discovery...

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Getting out of my own way

Yesterday we put in a bid for a property... Perhaps we will finally step onto the Property Ladder.  For the past three years we've been living in studio flat. This is a huge leap, and a massive stretch on many fronts.

As I write, I'm waiting to hear if our offer has been accepted.  This potential property is a house.  Well, almost!  It dates from before WW2 and is a flat on top of three garages, so it requires conversion.  It's got character and is located on a lovely leafy road.  It has massive potential.

And even as my mind sees the potential, my fears have erected roadblocks and cordoned off the area!  This timing could not be worse, from my point of view. 

If we were to get it, we'd be moving in around my due date: that means packing, unpacking, coorindating a dozen support services (from electricity to phones), finding a new hospital to give birth in, organising builders to convert the downstairs, learning how to care for a baby, coordinating the conversion process, and developing a support network from scratch... Ah yes, I've created an impressive list of Fear Factors... And we don't even know if we have the house yet!

But this is indicative of how my mind works - and perhaps others experience similar reactions...  When big change looms, our previous lives can seem very comforting and inviting, like a warm duvet inviting us back into bed on a frosty morning.

And what's even harder to admit is what I've done with my fears.  I've projected them onto Dirk: 'It's his fault.'  Doesn't he see how scary this is for me?  And, given the hours he works, what a massive commitment this requires in every aspect of my life?  Why can't he like something more.....?  I've created a little drama in which he's to blame and I'm the victim. 

Now, I want to be very clear here as well.  He has said we can retract our offer if I want to, if I feel that this is too much to take on right now.  Moreover, as the business is currently 'on hold', I have the free time to commit to organising this process. 

This is my drama, my creation.  What is interesting to me is the opportunity that this presents to me to walk my talk.  How do I - when faced with quite big fears at a time when I'm already anxious about the prospect of birth/raising a child without family and friends around - experience my fear, my drama, and find a way through this?

Massive changes can evoke massive fear and resistance.  And I could choose to stay here, in my drama.  But would that be honouring the contractions of fear, or the expansion of spirit?  Would that be moving towards the potential?  Or would that be giving into the fear?

Sometimes fear is a valuable friend: it can be my intuition warning me to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.  Other times, it is counter-productive: it's trying to keep me 'safe', according to the guidelines my mind developed to keep me safe as a child.

But I don't think it's intuition.  Last night, I had a brief moment in which I felt, deep inside, "I can do this."  So I have an sense that this is the 'right' move.  My challenge now is to step into that process (if we get the house!), not as a victim, blaming Dirk for bad timing and a 'distant' location, but as an active co-creator, shaping the life that we wish to create for our family. 

Monday 12 July 2010

Baby-steps role models

I love the idea of role models.  People I look up to, whom I aspire to learn from, to whom I pay attention.  Their qualities, values and growth reignite my passion to live a richer life, to become more than I dream I can be.

But very often, my role models are famous people.  People onto whom I can project all kinds of idealised qualities, goodness and perfection.  As I read my friend Susannah's email today, I realised that my friends are also role models.  I am attracted to them for the very fact that they embody characteristics that I aspire towards.

Maybe friends are baby-steps role models.  I know them well enough to know that they are not perfect, so they are realistic.  Just like me, they strive and they succeed, they strive and they fail... sometimes they don't strive at all, it's just who they are that inspires me to be more like them.

Susannah had been searching for purpose, her passion, her path for many years.  She had done degrees, changed jobs, changed careers, even crossed the planet in her search to feel as though she was utterly aligned with her most magnificent self.  To feel that she was living her greatest potential.  For years, it ellueded her.  She sometimes caught elements of it... whispers of where she felt most alive, but the core vision, the deepest knowing that 'This is Me', seemed distant and ephemeral. 

When we live a life that tries to embody the spiritual path in our daily lives, the whispers of our intuition become our guide.  And she knew there was more, so she kept searching...

18 months ago, Susannah decided to go to New Zealand.  She didn't really know why, but she left her job and her flat, and followed the intuition.  At first, it seemed as though nothing was changing.  Then, a few weeks into her journey, she was walking back to her camp from a wine tasting evening.  It was an inauspicious evening, the moon was shining, she was a little tipsy, and a new friend walked alongside her through the vineyard. "What do you really want to do?" he asked her.

She'd been asked the question before.  But in that one instant, she knew.  She felt the tug of knowing so deeply inside her that she knew she was now on 'Her path'.  She wanted to work in psychology.

Discovering her dream isn't what inspires me, though her perserverance does, it is what came next.  Susannah doesn't enjoy the life of a student - it's not her thing.  But despite all the obstacles (and they have been considerable) she has persevered, first doing one course, then the next, and the next... all leading towards the qualification she requires to fully live her dream.  What is utterly inspiring is that Susannah has had the courage to dive into her 'Achilles Hell', to grapple with the challenges that have plagued her, just so that she can remain true to herself. 

And here is what is truly amazing... over the past 18 months, she has managed to not only face her greatest fears, but to walk through them and, ultimately, to begin to find joy in the study that once terrorised her.  She shows me that we have some much more inside us than we care to believe, that we are greater than our perceived limitations, and that if we are courageous and compassionate, there is nothing that we cannot do.  Not only is she on the road to her purpose, she has found a way to embrace a dragon that once terrified.

Susannah reminds me that life's path can be mucky, but that's no reason to abandon the trail.  We are imperfect, and we can continue to walk towards our dreams, in spite of those imperfections, even on the days when it seems as though we're taking two steps backwards.

Friday 9 July 2010

Do we Really 'have to'?

"But I have to do the washing up this evening," objected Alan, a participants on a programme I recently facilitated. 
"There are consequences if I don't", he said.
 "Yes," I replied, "but you can't equate doing the washing up with dying.  We have to die: it is the one certainty we do have in this life.  Washing up is a choice."

He was on to something, however.  Very often, we weigh up pros and cons, the consequences of different actions and, choosing one set of consequences over another, we feel that we 'have to' take a certain course of action.  We don't.  We choose to take a certain course of action or, we choose a specific set of consequences (as far as we can predict outcomes).

The complication is that many of the choices we make - to stay in a certain job, to leave a certain job, to pick up the children from school, to care for an elderly relative - are unconscious choices.  We may feel that we have an obligation to perform these actions, but they are, 99.9% of the time, choices that we make. 

If we see these choices as 'have to', we rob ourselves of our own power.  We fail to acknowledge how much choice we do exercise in our lives.  Yet we can always become more aware of why we make certain choices and, from this place of deeper understanding, make different choices.  But if we assume we are powerless, then we make ourselves powerless.  We rob ourselves of the possibility of choosing differently.

'Have to' really is qualitatively different from 'Choose to'.  Try this simple exercise Georgeanne shared with me.  Tell someone (even yourself) about the rest of your day, and put the words, 'I have to...' before every action you need to perform between now and when you go to bed tonight.  E.g. I have catch the bus, I have to stop at the shop to pick up some milk, I have to...."

Now, repeat the exact same exercise, but this time, replace 'I have to' with 'I choose to...'.  E.g. "I choose to catch the bus, I choose to stop at the shop to pick up some milk, I choose to....' 

How does that feel?  It's much lighter and more freeing to choose.  Even though the actions are the same, our relationship to those actions changes when we choose to undertake them, when we no longer see them as obligations.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

How to be happy

Yesterday morning, I was sitting Gaby's restaurant with Roger.  Although the conversation had moved on, my mind was still going back to our previous conversation thread... 

Someone had disliked an article he had posted entitled How To Be Happy: and they had emailed to tell him, in no uncertain terms.  I could see where Roger's article was coming from, I could also see that this reader's criticism was an invitation to re-examine the idea.  And re-examine the idea, we did!  So here, minus the coffee-stained shirt and calorie-laden pastries, are some everyday thoughts on how to find happiness in life.

By community, I mean anywhere that we find kinship, love and kindness.  This may be through friends, family, a relationship, the community in which we live or our colleagues.  Our community is where we feel accepted for who we are (more or less!), and where we are able to give and receive support. 
Most importantly, our community is where we are able to expand our hearts, to experience that warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging, care, and nurture, at least some of the time.

Meaning and purpose
For me, this is about the feeling that 'I matter'.  It is about seeing and acknowledging our own contribution to society.  Some of us find in through career, some of us discover it in a social cause, others live it through caring and supporting... through mentoring... parenting... or even checking in with an elderly neighbour. 
The essence of Meaning and Purpose is, for me, an acknowledgement that 'Who I am, and what I do benefits others'.  My life makes a difference.  Now that may just be to just one other human being or it may be to millions.  The scale is not what matters - what matters is the care and integrity we bring to what we do, however large or small. 

It's one of the great paradoxes of life: we hate change and yet it's the one enduring, consistent feature of all our lives - from waistlines to aging, from relationships to income - change is eternal.  But in the midst of this, developing a sense of acceptance about our worth, about what we are doing (even if it's accepting that we don't know the answer right now) is a relief.  It can release some of the pressure that grinds us down. 
We can fight reality.  We can fight change.  But it will always win.  Acceptance allows us to ride the storm waves and the dead-calms more easily and gracefully, knowing that this too will change.

A bigger picture
For me, this is vital.  It's all too easy to become sloppy in my thinking, to see the worst, and to notice what goes wrong more than what goes right.  And believe me, I can be pretty good at this!  The advantage of having 'bigger picture', whether that is a religion, a spiritual practice or a philosophy of life, is that helps me see my life in a larger context. 
I believe that, if something goes 'wrong', then it is offering me an opportunity to learn more about myself and life.  I believe in a divine force that is benevolent, that has a great sense of humour and that stretches the definition of love beyond my limited understanding.  Those beliefs give me comfort when I feel alone; they give me strength to get up again when I feel miserable, and they give me something to aspire towards when I get tempted to live in anger instead of compassion.

Beauty lifts our spirits.  It helps me move beyond my rational mind and connect with the poetry of the soul.  It reconnects me to a wider world.  It can be any form of beauty: music, art, reading, comedies, nature, a child's laugh...
I think it's invaluable to know what lifts our spirits, where we find beauty, and to incorporate that into our day as much as possible.  Whether it's candles on the dinner table, buying a plant or bunch of flowers, listening to a piece of music you love... the more times we can touch upon beauty in our daily lives, the happier we are.  Beauty soothes our minds. It even recharges our batteries and nourishes our hearts.

There are many ways to feeling happy.  Following our own joys, what nourishes us, is always the surest way.  The challenge is that many of us have been socialised into listening only to our minds... and away from listening to our hearts.  Our delight, laughter and sense of well-being are the hallmarks of our hearts' whispers.  Following them will inevitabling increase our Happiness.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Our soul speaks to us through our hearts...

It is my belief that each and every one of us is born with a soul agenda, or a soul-vision: an outline of the experiences we wish to have in this lifetime.  I believe this soul vision creates the broad brush-strokes within our lives, but the details - how we choose to live these experiences - is up to us.  We have free will.*

It's not a widely held belief, however, and for this reason, we are not equipped with the tools necessary to tap into into that soul-code, or soul vision.  I think that's why we have so many unhappy people on our planet.

We are, instead, programmed by schooling and society into the 'rational' mould.  The mind and the intellect are valued above the heart and creativity (the voices of the soul).  But that lack of balance may well create distortions - if we take actions because we 'ought' to, because they are logical, rational, well-thought out, and balanced, we may be moving further away from our highest good, rather than closer to it.  Rational thinking has its place, but it's one voice in the choir: it's not the soloist.

As a result of this bias, so many people have taken on roles, jobs and even personalities that are not a true reflection of who we genuinely are.  They are just masks that represent who we think we should be in order to fit in, to be accepted, and to succeed.  But underneath the mask, there is anxiety, stress, pain and grief, quietly burbling away.  We have tried so hard to silence the whispers of our hearts that we have lost sight of who we truly are.   

I suspect that much of the culture around psychotherapy and coaching is based on the desire to find more balance between 'the Mask' and 'the Self'.  It's an attempt to learn, as adults, the tools we need to truly know ourselves.  If we have been taught to disregard the language of the heart, we forget how to communicate with our heart... we lose our connection to what we lights us up, what we truly love... Our heart and our creativity are the voice of the soul and without this exquisite voice singing in our choir, our lives are emptier.

*This point goes back to the idea of paradox as an underlying truth of our reality: we have free will to create almost any experience we choose, and yet we are also quietly nudged, or inspired, by our soul vision towards such experiences.  The more balance we can achieve between Head and Heart, the more gracefully we can have these experiences.  We don't get violently catapulted of into an unforeseen direction, but rather, the path delicately unfolds before us.