We’ve talked a lot about different ways to listen, to try to pick your own wise voice out of the crowd of other things clamoring for our attention.
If the world were a perfectly lovely place, being able to hear that voice would be enough to enable us to move towards it. But in our real, messy, complicated, paradoxical world, this isn’t always the case: often enough, we also need to be able to make change in order to heed that wisdom. And the first step towards making that change is knowing that we can, that we are the ones who make our lives happen.
When this is hard to believe, or when change feels too scary to countenance, one of my favorite things to do is practice. If I can’t stand changing what I eat, I change the order of my morning routine. If I’m paralyzed by the idea of switching jobs, maybe I can put my pants on starting with the other foot. Maybe I can remind myself in subtle, concrete, physical ways that there are things I can change and that doing so is okay.
Anger shields us from pain. As long as anger is predominant in our feelings, sadness and hurt and everything else have to sneak in around the edges. Sometimes, staying angry feels easier or less scary than facing our full emotional reaction, even when the events in question are long past and we’re safe in the present.
Anger helps us legitimize how we feel. If we tend to question whether our perceptions are true or our emotional reactions are valid, anger can help us stay connected to our original perception of the event. Conversely, letting go of anger can sometimes feel like saying our pain wasn’t — or shouldn’t have been — real. Sometimes, it helps to remember that feelings are automatically okay.
Anger is one of the ways that we indicate that our boundaries have been crossed. Letting go of the anger can sometimes feel like we’re saying that crossing that boundary was okay, at least sort of, and in cases where we can’t agree with the boundary-crosser about what happened, that can feel anywhere from bad to dangerous. Unfortunately, once someone unrepentantly tromps on your boundaries, you can’t guarantee that you staying mad about it will change their behavior, or even make them feel bad, and so you’re stuck carrying the pain and your anger.
Anger is one of our heart’s warning signals, and sometimes holding on to that feels like the only way to ensure that we don’t get hurt again in the same way. It can take time to trust that a lesson has become part of us, even without the anger that initially fueled it.
When I was in my early twenties, I thought of will as mostly meaning willpower: the drive to push myself to get through it, get things done, whatever it took.
In a way I now find entirely predictable, this didn’t work out so well. It turned out to be unsustainable because I based the use of my willpower on a whole pile of shoulds, and that pile turned out to come almost entirely from two places: my intellectual self and other people. Oops.
Eventually, after some machinations, I came to notice how this way of using willpower to make myself do things wasn’t exactly working out in my favor. I invented some stopgap measures, like the Crying Rule, which stipulates that if the idea of carrying out an obligation actually makes me cry, I’m automatically granted permission not to do it.
Later, I also noticed how twisting my own arm was eating up a great deal of my energy and came to be curious about the kind of will you’ve seen me writing about here: seeking my own desires and the ease that comes from moving from a place of alignment. I worked hard on being gentle with myself, and on not engaging in the kind of punitive, disciplinary, obligation-based thinking that hadn’t worked before. I tried to make sure that all the pieces of me — my intellect, my emotions, my body, and my spirit — were on board with the things I wanted to do.
The challenge with this is that every good thing has bad parts: there’s no such thing as a dream with no dirty work. Also, no matter how good something is, you sometimes just don’t feel like doing it. (I’m sorry to tell you this; it’s so nice to think that if only we were acting 100% from our will and desire, we’d absolutely desire to take out the trash or balance our checkbooks, but so far, no one I know seems to be alleging that this is true.)
And so, I’ve come to another place about will: seeking my desire, yes, but also seeking the desires that lie beneath my momentary desire for distraction or sugar or to hit the snooze alarm one more time. When I find my desire for physical well-being, it can make me willing, if not eager, to get up and take a walk. When I encounter my desire for peace, it can make me willing to pick up the objects that clutter my space.
How about you? How do your larger desires motivate your small actions?
I don’t really like the word “goal.” It makes me think of pressure and achievement and power ties and childhood soccer games in the rain. I do like the words desire and intention, which make me think of the positive kind of wanting and hope and trust and competence.
Although I sometimes wish it weren’t true, it turns out that I am the kind of person who likes little goals. Not insignificant ones, but ones that I feel confident committing to. A big part of the power of a commitment, for me, is about this confidence: knowing that when I say I’m going to do something, I am actually going to do it. That means I’m practicing the same level of integrity towards myself that I want other people to practice towards me.
Little goals also help me avoid overwhelm. An intention that makes me feel overwhelmed is one that paralyzes me and keeps me from doing even the things I already know how to do, while one I know I can accomplish (even if I don’t know how yet) helps me move forward.
And lately, I’ve noticed that I like to work on one desire at a time. I am reminded a lot these days that I cannot focus on everything at once, and so choosing one thing to work with is a way of honoring both my abilities and my limitations. In a day-to-day way, I’m finding it useful to attend to finding one thing I can do to make my life better at that very moment. On a larger scale, I’ve been working with one-word intentions. These intentions seem to me to encapsulate the feeling of what I want, which sometimes has the lovely effect of bringing that thing into my life in ways I wasn’t anticipating, just by the power of my attention being focused on it. They let me focus on the big picture without worrying about whether I’m setting the bar too high or too low. And they also provide a really useful yardstick for smaller decisions: does this thing I’m about to do (or not do) support my fill in your intention here?
This happens to all of us:
Something happens. It’s not something fun, and we’re hurt or upset. Or we’re stuck resisting something that seems like an obviously good idea on the surface.
And just when we’d like to be dealing with what’s happening in the moment, some not-so-helpful corner of your brain pipes up with some stories:
You don’t really deserve that good thing anyway
You shouldn’t try that and then there will be no chance you’ll fail
You’ve never been good at that
Havi calls them monsters. Kelly calls them bears. I’ve decided to call them tribbles, not least because tribbles are small and fuzzy and not scary, and also because their original job was to alert someone to bad things. Which, it turns out, is actually what your tribbles want to do.
Now I am going to tell you a secret about tribbles: they are actually clever little beasts* who want to help you. Sometimes — usually, in fact — it turns out that the way they want to help you is not exactly the way you want to be helped, but tribbles are pretty much never crazy.
So when You-Don’t-Deserve-That Tribble starts to give you the what-for, it’s usually worth a bit of a closer look. What is she really trying to protect you from? If you’re like me and you talk to yourself, you can actually ask her this. Or you can just think about the idea that you don’t deserve things, trying to be as curious as you can. Sometimes the phrase I wonder can help you with this: I wonder why I don’t deserve that. I wonder what would happen, what kind of person I think I’d be if I did deserve that. (Tip o’ the hat to Thorn Coyle for the I-wonder trick.)
For me, often shining a little bit of light on the subject is enough to start a tiny shift: once I hear the story that You-Don’t-Deserve-That Tribble is telling me, I have the chance to respond. The story she’s whispering to me goes like this: If you think you deserve those things, you will stop thinking you need to work and will become lazy and self-centered.
(Important note! It is important to talk nicely to tribbles. Your tribbles probably feel about like you do about yelling and meanness.)
So what helps once you know the tribble’s story?
Acknowledgement: you’re worried I’ll never do a lick of work again if I think that I deserve lovely things.
Reassurance: You can remind the tribble that you don’t intend for the bad things to happen. Maybe there are even things that you know are true that you could remind the tribble about? Does it help to remember that there are lots of worky things that I love to do? Or that one of the reasons I think I deserve lovely things is that I think everyone deserves lovely things?
Negotiation: Sometimes, I can agree with my tribbles that I can try something. Other times, I can refocus them: usually the thing they’re afraid of is actually something I don’t want, and so they can sometimes help by focusing directly on that thing, rather than on things they’re afraid might lead to that thing. The tribble who is afraid I’ll become lazy can help me see when I’m avoiding my work with my favorite frittery distractions. The one who is worried that I’ll be self-centered can help me remain conscious of the wide-spread ripples that my choices make in the world. And so on.
How about you? Which tribble is riding on your shoulder today, and what does she want to keep you safe from?
*Of course, tribbles are actually you. But they’re a part of you that doesn’t necessarily operate according to the direction of your conscious mind — which is what we usually mean when we say you — and so sometimes it’s helpful to pretend that they’re not you in order to figure out what they’re about. Also, it helps you avoid going all Fight-Club on yourself.
I’ve been working a lot with this question lately: what’s the one thing I can do that would most improve my life right now?
This question has a bunch of important parts.
It’s only about one thing. It is usually true that there are lots of things you could do that would make your life better at any given moment — often so many that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or confused by them! Focus on just one.
It is a thing that you can do. Because there’s pretty much no such thing as too many reminders that there’s usually something within your control that will help, right? Right.
It focuses on identifying the most important things you can do. It turns out (kind of famously) that in most cases, doing a small number of the most important things will get you a large number of the most important results. It’s kind of genius, because it means that you don’t actually have to do everything perfectly all the time. (Cautionary tale: it’s easy for me to re-stick myself by obsessing about which thing is the very, very, most important. This is a trap. If you can’t decide between two or three things, you have my permission to just pick your favorite.)
It helps us think about right now, but in a way that points us towards the rest of the time. Sometime last year, I noticed that 90% of the time, my answer to this question was “take a nap!” That set me on a months-long project of rearranging my schedule so that I wasn’t so tired all the time, which turns out to have wildly improved my life! I had a similar experience with “get up from my desk”; eventually I noticed I was always saying that and started using a timer to reminder me to take breaks.
I’d love to hear about your answers to this question and how fulfilling them works out for you!
What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world?
As you have probably guessed, rewriting stories is something I’m a big fan of. I started off my young adulthood with a story about how no one loved or supported me, which led me into some pretty bizarre convolutions as I sought out that love and approval. I’ve tried on a bunch of more helpful stories since then. Here’s the one I’m using now, partially courtesy of Martha Beck, and with tremendous gratitude for the help of my teachers over the years:
My great-grandmother taught me that my work is to tie things together. Because this is my destiny, the creation of connections, the re-telling of stories, I have been given the opportunity to re-create myself, again and again. With each creation, I come to know more deeply the process of becoming, the imperfections that are part of being alive, and the fluctuating, shimmering, mysterious, glorious being that each of us is.
This month, gifts and gift-giving can seem inescapable. What’s the most memorable gift, tangible or emotional, you received this year?
This year’s most memorable gift is clarity: my own clarity about both myself and others, and the clarity and compassion with which others have been able to see me.
But my new fancy-pants bathrobe is pretty good, too.
Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.
Quite possibly the single most defining moment of 2010 for me was the one where I knew that my longstanding relationship was finally over. It cascaded into a series of events wherein I gained a clearer sense of who I am without a partner to lean on for support or to act as a mirror of who I expect myself to be. That series of events also led me to wrestle with which of the compromises I had made to maintain that relationship — which I valued tremendously — were good ones, made from integrity, and which were poor ones, made out of fear.
The whole experience turned out to be kind of a classic trial by fire for me, and one whose repercussions I doubt I’m entirely done with, but I’m enjoying feeling their reverberations less and less strongly.
What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.
The thing I most want to be next year is, really, happy. I don’t mean this as a cop out: I have plenty of concrete things I want, too, but the end goal of all of them is to make me happier.
One of the things I’m especially interested in this year is cultivating my long-term, baseline happiness. Things that will help with that:
- Moving my body
- Getting enough sleep
- Sticking with my practice
- Eating foods that are tasty and nourishing
- Drinking plenty of water
Other things that I can do that will cultivate my happiness:
- Taking (and scheduling!) as much downtime as I need
- Reminding myself that happiness is not a scarce commodity
- Snuggling my extremely silly and very adorable kittens
- Seeing friends I adore
- Leaning in to the gratitude I feel for the simple, every day facts of my life: I live in a lovely home in a beautiful place; I have family and friends and teachers that I love; I am healthy; I have lots of choices and opportunities in my life
How about you?