The World Within

Whenever I notice I’m beginning to drift into stagnant waters of despondent malaise or veer perilously close to a swirling vortex of panicked mania (not uncommon happenings in these times of political mayhem and imperial villainy) I know it’s time to take a deep breath and reassess some things.

Because if I’ve reached the point of spiritual lostness, despairing stuckness, or existential discombobulation, I’ve likely lost sight of the vision or strayed from my reasons why.

To get back on track, I often start with this: Am I giving to myself what I want for the world?

Since I began working in DV advocacy a few years ago – and especially since the election – I’ve been thinking hard about what I’m doing here and how I’m doing it.  Basically: Am I being who I want to be in the world?  How am I participating in, responding to, and/or divesting from systems of oppression?  What am I building, creating, and supporting?

The deeper I go, the more urgent and nonnegotiable these questions feel.  And also: the more I understand how we must absolutely find ways to give ourselves what we wish for others and what we dream for the world.

It can be tempting to overlook this part for all sorts of reasons, but I’ve found that if I bypass this crucial step on my way to resisting injustice and contributing to the effort of building something better, there is a pretty good chance (speaking from experience) that I’ll get tangled up in a manic, swirling charge of unproductive shaming that becomes a fractile of the very system of oppression I want dismantled.

Can we do it?  Can we make real in ourselves what we’re striving to make real in the world?  Can we prioritize and center our own flourishing, wellness, and liberation?  I think to be okay and have any modicum of effectiveness in what we’re trying to accomplish here, we have to.

This is basic integrity: holding myself to the same standard of care I want for others and for the world.

If I want clean air, land, and water, I cannot pollute myself with self-hatred.

If I want peace for others, I cannot speak violently to myself.

If I want every voice to be heard, considered, and valued, I cannot silence my own.

If I want an equitable distribution of wealth and resources, I must give nourishment, attention, and love to all parts of me, not just those I believe are worthy of it.

If I want all people to receive the resources and care they need, I have to be real about what I need and then give it to myself.

If I want white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and capitalism to end, I need to dismantle the hierarchies that live in me and silence, oppress, and kill what I cannot love and accept in my own being.

So let’s not forget to include ourselves as both active participants and worthy recipients of this beautiful thing we’re imagining and building together.  Let’s remember that we bring our dreams of liberation, justice, and possibility into being not only by what we create on the outside but by what we plant on the inside – what we cultivate in our bodies and nurture in our spirits.  So let’s do that: make our life-affirming, world-expanding visions alive, not only around and between us, but also within us.

Living from the Ground Up

I’m someone who likes to make a plan, set long-range goals, and hold to meticulously crafted overarching visions, but as I’m learning, sometimes life just needs to be figured out as we go.

In other words, living a life that makes getting out of bed each morning more an occasion for jubilee than a descent into drudgery requires a fair amount building from scratch, piecing together raw, unrelated materials, and flying by the seat of my pants.  The 10,000 foot view is great, but if that’s the only place I’m spending my time, I’m probably missing out on a vast array of creative opportunities, unpredictable misadventures, and bizarre detours that spring from the ground up, and if given the chance, could create something entirely unexpected, wonderfully weird, and oddly delightful.

Still, I have often been tempted to hold on to a lifeless goal, vision, or aspiration, even after it’s clear it’s no longer working.

Perhaps my best example of this is how hard I clung to my grand vision of earning my PhD and becoming an academic, even after it had become a miserable endeavor.  But I loved learning, and this is what I had always imagined for myself.  How could I give up now?  The day it became clear, I was walking in the woods, deep in the process of applying for doctoral programs after graduating from a grueling MA program a few months before.  As I passed through the trees, I noticed a sudden and strange feeling: the glorious absence of anxiety (and the sublime freedom that filled the vacuum it left behind), something I hadn’t felt in years.  In that moment, I knew I wanted peaceful walks in the woods more than I wanted a PhD, and that was that.

In an instant, my top-down approach collapsed.  The gap between the theoretical vision I held for my life and my actual life reality had become too wide.  And for a time after that, I had no big goal, no guiding vision beyond restoring my relationship with my body, spirit, and inner wisdom.  I was living bottom-up instead of top-down, allowing a new vision to rise up from there.

In my experience, living this way requires intuitive flexibility, attention to the small stuff, and responsiveness to my life as it actually is, rather than my theoretical ideas for what it should be.  It requires starting with the seemingly random and chaotic sparks of interest, alignment, and desire and allowing them to inform or even create the big vision from time to time.

All of this reminds me that life is an unfolding creation rather than an unchanging assignment.  So these are the questions I’m asking of my visions, goals, and intentions in 2018: are they organic and dynamic or rigid and stagnant?  Are they life-giving and expanding or life-constricting and confining?  Do they show up as obligations or as invitations?  Do they allow space for unexpected variables, surprising detours, and extended pauses?

If this sounds interesting to you, here are some ideas and practices to play with:

  • Think of your big vision and aspiration and instead of focusing on what it would look like to achieve it, notice what it would feel like.  What would it give you?  Why do you really want it?  How would it change your life, and how would that feel?  Notice and tap into that feeling or energy and ask yourself: What small thing or action step fills me with that same feeling or energy?  Maybe it’s related to the vision or goal, and maybe it’s not.  Let it surprise you.
  • Carve out an empty block of time – 5 minutes, an hour, an afternoon – to play with no goal in mind.  Ask yourself: What would feel delicious?  What would feel like freedom?  What is pulling you forward?  And see what arises.  Do that thing.  And perhaps challenge yourself to allow more of this thing into your life, even if it doesn’t directly move you toward a particular goal or objective.

Accepting the Gift

I received a generous and surprising gift this week. As I opened the box and unwrapped its contents, I was filled with delight, excitement, gratitude…and nervous discomfort. It’s not always easy to be on the receiving end of generosity, and in this case, staying with it felt like an act of sustained spiritual concentration.

This is what I know: living a meaningful, grounded life requires being available for the unexpected, the abundant, the generous, and the grace-filled, but actually living this way often feels like an uncomfortable challenge, in part because of the systems we live in.

Like capitalism.

Free generosity violates its rules and logic. In it, everything has a price tag and our worth (and very survival) is tied to our labor and reduced to our productive output – our existence spins around monetary exchange; resources and power are distributed inequitably; and our intrinsic worth is not an inherent given.

So when I received my gift this week, I immediately asked myself: what have I done to deserve this? Nothing, of course, and that made me nervous.

It has me thinking: how much goodness am I tempted to shut out because I’m afraid (subconsciously, probably) that it will reveal my innate unworthiness? How many gifts do I reject (from loved ones, strangers, or life itself) because I’m afraid I’ll be found out as “not enough?”

All of this goes deep, and it seems the first thing has to be finding a way to agency, freedom, and enoughness. This is what creates space for goodness, grace, and beauty to pass through – those things that already belong to all of us: the gifts that surprise us, defy convention, and maybe even challenge but we thought we knew about the world and ourselves. There will be voices that say you don’t deserve these gifts, that they’re not meant for you. Unwrap and enjoy them anyway.

Claiming Creative Energy

For several months now, I’ve been swept up in a tidal wave of creative energy, a force that seems to be steadily rising in both power and momentum.   Which is awesome (and super fun!) but also sort of feels like bad timing, mainly because I’m in the middle of moderately concerning health crisis that will presumably, at some point in the near future, require ample doses of rest, slowness, and restoration.  So what am I supposed to do with all this energy that wants to act, build, and expand?  Couldn’t we have saved it all for a more convenient time?

But then a friend helped me see how I was needlessly making this into a mutually exclusive paradox.  Because while creativity often pushes me outward and forward, this is not the only option.  Creativity also pulls me inward.  And channeling my creative energy into my own healing, internal process, and personal catharsis is a perfectly suitable use for it.

I share this because it reflected back to me an important lesson and an obvious truth I was missing.  Basically, I am a worthy recipient of my own best energy, and my creativity is not just for the world; it is for me.

It is entirely okay to give what is most energizing and electric in our lives to ourselves first.  It does not need to be channeled into some external, productive something; it does not need to be for others first (or ever); it does not need to result in a tangible, sensible outcome.

So rest and creativity want to co-exist in my life right now, and that’s brings an interesting set of questions: Like, how can I both rest and create at the same time?  How can I invite creativity into my healing?  What new and unexpected thing will be born of this seemingly paradoxical fusion?

So where are your creative energies taking you, friends?  How is creativity blazing your trail or lighting your way?  What is it calling forth or asking of you?   What unexpected, beautiful, and mysterious spaces it is opening up in your life?

About a year ago, I was halfway through my first Vipassana meditation retreat.  Nine days of 4 a.m. wakeup calls and repetitive stretches of motionless perching atop my rotund biscuit of a meditation cushion.  This was basically how all the days went: Oh, let’s see what’s next on the schedule…surprise! More meditation!  Literally the exact same thing I just finished doing!  Also, there was no talking, no reading, no writing (I admit I cheated on this one), no running, no phones, no communication with the outside world.

And it was pretty good actually.

I quickly realized there were infinite layers to the quiet stillness – endless depths of dark intensity and mesmerizing mystery to sink into and explore.  It was quite mystical really, and I was never bored.

But nine days was a lot.

There was also the butt numbness (lord, the butt numbness!)  I couldn’t even look at my meditation cushion for months after, and it took several weeks for full sensation to return to my tailbone-pelvis region.

But through the good and the painful, there were lessons to be had, and this is a brief story of the one that was most impactful:

There was a day, mid-week, when I was doing my daily 30-ish minutes of walking meditation outside and feeling an internal struggle about that. Because even though, yes, this was technically meditation, it was also in violation of the rules. We were supposed to meditate seated and indoors only. And my desire to be a good student and follow the instructions exactly right was beginning to haunt me. But…these blessed minutes outside and moving were one of the few things keeping me tethered to my sanity at that point.

So I had a decision to make: How was I going to do this?  Bend the rules and do what I wanted, or adhere to the clearly outlined authoritative directives?

The answer came in a flash (all that meditation must have opened a portal or something). I remembered that I was in convenient possession of an internal guidance system, and I could find my answers by reading my body.

Basically, my heart is a trustworthy barometer.

And when I thought about it, I saw there was no way around this.  Generally speaking, there are too many voices competing for my allegiance and too much noise demanding my attention to discern the answers from external sources alone.

It was a defining moment, not just for my meditation practice, but also for my understanding of my place in the larger collective moment.  This was November 2016.  The election had just happened, and I spent a lot of the week sitting (literally) with my fear, shock, and uncertainty, feeling flooded and overwhelmed.  There would be so many causes to support and issues to confront, infinite things to say or not say, do or not do, in the months and years ahead.  And I felt completely ill-equipped, lost and unsure how to be in this world that always existed but that I was now seeing for the first time.

So I decided this was what I would take back with me into the noise, commotion, and conflict: a steadfast trust in my own self.

This doesn’t mean I can do it alone.  I need other people – their wisdom, their voice, the truth of their experience.  But rather than conceding to another’s perspective uncritically, I take it in, hold it in my being, filter it through my center, and allow it to change me.  Reliably, good things come through this process of integration and alchemy.

In the case of my meditation conundrum, I kept walking.  It was a beautiful, sort-of warm day (the last one of the year), and my heart knew: that was reason enough.

Allowing Anger

As a sensitive empath, anger (others’ and my own) used to scare me.  It felt too loud, intense, and violent.  But my emotional excavations have revealed anger’s vital – and healing – role in naming wrongs, restoring boundaries, inspiring change, and initiating reparation.

Sometimes, I get angry with my clients at work, and lately, I’ve been trying to give myself full and intentional permission to do that.  Yes, these are people who have experienced domestic violence (and often a myriad of other traumas pertaining to abuse and oppression).  And yes, while I know that anger and frustration are common and understandable features of direct service work with folks in high-stress, crisis situations, this is still super uncomfortable.

Which is why I never used to allow it.  Also, because I believed anger was callous and cruel, a violent force wanting to take possession of my body and turn me into an abominable, havoc-wreaking monster of epic proportions.

But no, anger is just a thing we feel.

It’s a powerful energy, sure, but it need not be channeled into explosive action or hurtful judgment.  And it does have to mean wishing someone ill, making them wrong, or denying their worthiness.

Allowing anger in the context of my DV work is important because if I’m going to honor and allow the fullness of others’ humanity, I need to honor and allow my own.  Pushing away anger is really just a feeble attempt at transcendence and emotional bypassing that separates me from the people I’m with and distances me from our shared experience of messy real life.

None of this means I turn to aggression (or passive aggression, the greater temptation being that I’m from the Midwest) to express myself.  Instead, anger is my ally in forming a grounded, assertive space from which to respond and proceed.

This happened recently.  I was angry with a client and was stuck in the same room with them for over an hour.  So I poured that anger into my energetic boundary (Karla McLaren writes about this practice in her book The Language of Emotions – highly recommended) and put my focus there, which allowed me to speak and act from my soft, true center, since it was grounded in and protected by my anger-fortified boundary).

And this is usually all my anger wants from me: a stronger boundary, safe space and comfortable distance, personal power and sovereignty.  But even before any of that, I think my anger, like any feeling, just wants to be felt – and recognized as the valid (and quite ordinary) human emotion that it is.

I recently returned from a vacation that was absolute perfection – nothing fancy, but a couple days in the paradise that is autumn in Door County, the luxury of a hotel stay, and a plate of cheesy nachos paired with cheesy reality TV – filled my soul and restored my body in ways that felt downright miraculous.

And now, having returned to the Grim Reality of Life, I am suffering from a classic case of post-vacation blues – lamenting the fact that tomorrow, I will be spending 8 hours in a windowless office instead of an enchanted forest.

Thankfully, I know that despairing moods like these are my reliable cues to take my own medicine and do some self-coaching.

So I looked more closely at what I was feeling: dread – and noticed how that was showing up in my body: as sharp ice cubes in my throat. Then, because I believe all emotions and feelings have benevolent, useful messages, I imagined myself stepping into and “becoming” the ice cubes to see what they might have to say and how they might answer questions like: why are you here, what’s your purpose, and how are you trying to help?

As I was channeling the consciousness of these metaphorical, imaginary ice cubes (as one does), I suddenly flashed on the ice castles built each winter near the town I grew up in Minnesota.

The ice cubes wanted to be building blocks and tools of creation, apparently, and they wanted me to build a (metaphorical) castle. They didn’t want to be swallowed or shoved down, and they didn’t want to cause pain. They just wanted to be put to good use, in service of my imagination.

So, what if instead of dreading my return to ordinary life, I brought the magic, joy, and freedom of my vacation back with me tenaciously, intentionally, and imaginatively? What if I found a way to fold that goodness into the whole of my life?

It’s so easy to believe that what I most want can only exist in perfect circumstances far from the messy realness of daily life – that I need to escape to find what I’m truly looking for. But I have a hunch that allowing the good stuff to be present and alive in the here and now, along with my yearning for more of it, in whatever form that takes, opens the way for creativity, ingenuity, and all kinds of magic.

Jonathan and I recently purchased and moved into a beautiful, elderly home (built around 1930) that requires some loving attention and repair. The impending winter means we will soon be putting several of these projects on hold – an expected delay that had me spiraling down a vortex of anxiety nonetheless, as I created doomsday visions of our house literally collapsing around us due to our careless neglect, poor project management, and apparent ineptitude.

It took me about two minutes of moderately perceptive inquiry and self-coaching to realize I had fallen, yet again, into the all-or-nothing trap.

Gets me every time.

My earnest, clever mind created two categories (which it does so well): perfection or disaster – and temporarily convinced me of both their absolute truth and absolute separateness.

I don’t blame my mind for this. The labels, the dichotomies, the categories and contrasts – all of this helps me navigate the world, identify desires, and make decisions.

But either/or thinking is mostly a lie, and when I believe the thoughts that emerge from this paradigm of reality, I mostly suffer.

So in cases like these, I try to find my way back to the both/and space by playing with language and shuffling words around, stepping outside of rational thought, and cavorting with paradox. I try to lull my mind into a confused, contented stupor with illogical, weird absurdities until it shrugs, gives up, and says, “okaaaay, I guess I’ll be seeing myself out then. Let me know when you need me.”

In this instance, I took the scary thought: it might all be for nothing – and turned it around to: it might all be for everything. I don’t really know what this means, but that’s kind of the point. In any case, the process of getting there plugged me back into wholeness, connection, and that something bigger I’m always chasing but can never quite grasp. Also, it feels better, but even more than that, and in a way I can’t really explain (and don’t really need to), it feels truer.

Trusting Ourselves

I was chatting with a client recently about her struggle to set boundaries. As she recounted a recent interaction that felt icky and discombobulating, I was struck by her clarity.

From the very beginning, her body was sending her loud and clear signals: constriction in her gut, blocked energy, overall aversion. When I pointed this out and asked why she chose to continue to engage this person, she sighed, and said, “I just wanted to be nice.” And I could certainly relate – being tempted to give more than I want, saying yes when I wanted to say no, letting others into spaces I want to keep clear – all because I believed it was the kind and nonjudgmental thing to do. But as I’ve come to understand, discernment is a different thing than judgment.

Deciding what’s right for me is not the same as declaring what’s wrong with others. And trusting myself does not mean I’m saying that mine is the only and absolute truth. Does there have to be a grand reason to say no other than not wanting to say yes? Are our preferences, desires, and intuitions reason enough? Do we need to justify or explain our boundaries? Do we even need to understand them perfectly ourselves?

I hope for a culture grounded in consent and personal autonomy, and I want to contribute to its formation. This starts with me. This starts with me setting and respecting my own boundaries and holding to the truth that no one is entitled to my time, energy, presence, and attention. Those things are limited, and I get to decide how to spend them. And yes, I have responsibilities to others too, but this does not mean slackening my boundaries for their benefit. It means honoring their boundaries in the same way I want mine honored. It means asking for permission instead of making assumptions. It means not making demands their energy or emotional labor. It means not entering spaces or conversations that are not for me.

In my own quest to strengthen my boundary-setting muscles, these are some of the practices I have found helpful:

Listen to Your Body

Since we experience reality and receive information through our bodies, our embodied sensations and visceral cues hold and communicate a lot of essential information. When you’re considering a boundary and weighing your options, notice: How do I feel in my body when I’m around this person? Do I feel clenched, heavy, or queasy when I consider letting them into my space? What would make me feel open, relaxed, light, and free?

Create Space for Your Emotions

Our souls and intuitions speak to us through our emotions. Anger, resentment, and fear often point to a need and desire for space, voice, and stronger, clearer boundaries.

Honor Your Needs and Desires in Small Ways (So that You can Honor Them in Large Ways Too)

Since the messages from our bodies and emotions are often subtle, it’s important to tend to the basics – taking bathroom breaks when we’d prefer to keep working, remembering to drink water, allowing anger rather than stuffing it down, taking five minutes to cry – in order to hear them. The more we acknowledge the obvious and follow basic instructions, the more we’re able to hear and use this information to set boundaries when we need to, even when it’s hard.

Name and Unwind the Lies of the Culture

We absorb so many messages and internalize so many expectations from the culture(s) around us. Setting boundaries and saying no may very well violate social expectation. Systems of oppression (like patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism, etc.) are especially challenging, as they try to convince us that our worthiness must be achieved through privilege, productivity, and/or adherence to their standards of beauty and respectability.

Dismantling these lies is an important step toward reclaiming our personal autonomy, as well as an act of profound political resistance. Being willing to say no and disappoint others, claiming our time and space, and spending our attention and energies in ways that are right for us are all important skills in creating a life of intention, meaning, and grounded-ness. And in the end, it all starts with and comes down to this: hearing our inner wisdom, believing our truths, and trusting ourselves.


The Both/And Space

For a while now, and especially since the election last year, I’ve felt pulled between two divergent understandings of reality:
1. Times are dire, and things are profoundly not okay. People are being hurt. Oppression continues to roar in old and new and imaginatively reinvented ways. And also: we’re heading toward ecological collapse that will mark the end of humanity on planet earth.
2. Everything will be okay and is already okay. There are deeper forces at work. We can heal. We will turn this around.

I’ve vacillated between the two, trying to figure out which story is most true, effective, and helpful, and to be honest, I’ve not been particularly impressed with either. When I step into the not okay version of reality, I quickly descend into manic despair, despondent self-loathing, and/or fatigued paralysis, all the while torturing myself with visions of apocalyptic hellscapes I’m convinced loom imminently and ominously on the horizon. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I turn to the everything-is-okay story, which feels better until I begin to look away from truths that ask something of me, slip into spiritual bypass, and run from pain (mine and others), none of which is in my integrity.

But in the rhythm of this back and forth, I began to notice brief flickers of peace. I realized they existed in the transitory moment when the pendulum passed through the middle on its way to the other side.

And the more I saw this, the more I felt pulled back to that middle, the space in-between my stories, to the very center of…something – the both/and space, where two or more things are true at the same time. Paradox. And this is the only way I know how to be in the world right now.

So life has sort of become a journey of descending deeper into: “wow, the world is really fucked-up, beyond what I ever imagined. How do we even bear it?” But also and at the same time: “wow, the world is a truly magical place, beyond anything I ever hoped for or imagined. How do we even stand it!?” Both may be true, but either by themselves feels like a lie.

I’m convinced we are living in a both/and time, a time in which we are being called to expand to hold more pain, more truth, more mystery, more paradox, and more magic – to make space for the multiplicities calling our names.

So I’m going in, looking hard at the world and letting the pain of it swallow me up, reaching, at the same time, for a loving stillness I don’t quite understand that meets me there and asks me to move in generative cycles of blended contradiction rather than in straight-lined, back-and-forth pendulums. And sometimes, in this quiet space stilled by paradox, I can almost feel something like hope, an unknown yet familiar thing, stirring under the surface.