A good question, posed in a graduate social psychology class, and an eye-opener for me.
I had recently moved from Philadelphia to California to escape an abusive relationship. What I wanted for the past year was crystal clear. Get my affairs in order, plan the move, and get out of town without my partner’s knowledge. That mission was accomplished. I left my job, shipped my belongings to storage, and drove cross country in my Toyota hatchback. Without an address or a deadline, I never felt so free.
After I found an apartment and settled in, grad school was my first attempt at reinventing myself. I had been a vocational counselor, a humdrum job in a shabby bureaucratic system, but given the volatility of my personal life, it worked because it was safe and easy.
Entering school again did not answer the question, what do you want to be? Keeping my options open, I soaked up the information offered, acquired organizational and leadership skills, and figured it out as I went along. That was just the external, though. Inside, quietly, I knew I was a writer.
I wanted to tell stories, maybe write novels. The kernel of the novel I would eventually write was already swirling in my mind. Finally, I had the time and opportunity to write, which I did, but sporadically. School work, extracurricular activities, and jobs pushed creative writing lower on the list of priorities.
Later, I worked in corporate communications and training, and free lanced as an editor and ghost writer. The novel grew in fits and starts. I took creative writing classes and got positive feedback, but my confidence didn’t grow. I compared myself unfavorably to everyone — other students, teachers, published writers I admired.
Suffering from residual childhood trauma, I didn’t realize how deeply I’d been affected by the paralyzing fear of my early years. I knew something was wrong, but not what. Resistance offered opportunities to heal my wounds. Many I missed, but occasionally, patterns were too blatant to ignore. I started reading metaphysics and eastern philosophy, and began changing my ingrained, negative beliefs. Still, resistance plagued me
What I wanted to have was the easy one. Material possessions never meant much, but I wanted a decent place to live, a car I liked, enough money to pay my bills and support my writing habit.
What I wanted to do never changed. To communicate. I loved working with people, helping them move through transitions in their lives. I began to teach. I always wrote, and eventually finished the novel. Wrote short stories. Took writing workshops. Joined groups.
What I wanted to be was not about career. As a career counselor and coach, I worked with people unhappy in their jobs, who wanted to express themselves in new ways. I saw myself as a motivator, a facilitator, a cheerleader. I loved watching my clients and students grow into new understanding. But as time went on, my work identity took second place to a growing search for my spiritual identity.
Now, in 2020, as we look out in horror at the pandemic ravaging the world, staying safe in our homes if we’re lucky, and wondering about the future, these questions re-emerge.
- What I want to have is simple. Groceries delivered, cleaning supplies, a mask, a strong Internet connection, my books.
- What I want to be is simple. Who I am. A writer, a teacher, a child of God. I want to be brave and confident in these turbulent times. I want certainty to outweigh fear and doubt.
- What I want to do is even simpler. Talk to friends. Wave to my neighbors. Hold my classes on Zoom. Bike through the neighborhood. Walk along the river. Mostly I want to write.
The excuses have faded as do all denials when faced head on. There is enough time. More than enough. No reason not to finish the new book, churn out a couple of short stories, write a blog post every week.
The faces of resistance dance in my mind.
- I’m too busy.
- Work takes all my time.
- I need to have fun once in a while.
- I’m tired.
- Tomorrow is soon enough.
- It’s too late to start.
- The project isn’t worth finishing.
- It turns out I have nothing to say.
- I’m not good enough yet.
- No one cares if I tell my story.
But this time is different. It’s like being given all the resources you thought you needed to complete a project and they turn out to be irrelevant. Now all that stuff is strewn around me in a circle, none of it useful. I walk from room to room, kicking it aside. If I look at the issue sideways, what I want to do and what I want to be are the same.
I want to heal/change/transform that which stops me from being who I am.
Put it like that and things fall into place. There’s journaling and sitting in silence and listening to the wisdom of the trees and playing with my old dog and young cat. There’s writing and listening and being honest. There’s faith and trust that the forces of change turning our lives inside out are the birth cries of something new.
That’s how we grow in spirit, and also how fear catches us. We don’t know what’s coming. So it’s back to basics. Write it down. Show up at the page. Tell the truth. Listen for guidance.
You have to listen hard though, because sometimes spirit whispers.
Well, here we are. It’s been a month since I’ve attended a meeting outside my home. A month since I’ve taught in a classroom. Since I’ve had lunch with a friend, gone to a movie or stood in line at the grocery store. Even for an introverted writer who loves solitude, staying home this much gets weird.
Every day I bike through my neighborhood with my dog. She’s well over a hundred in people years, so we don’t go far. Lots of stopping and sniffing. I want her to keep her muscle strength as long as possible, so I persuade her even when she’s reluctant. She gains enthusiasm as we progress and on our way home, she trots along beside me, wagging and smiling. I put her inside and go out for a longer, harder ride. Sometimes I walk a Bosque trail. Most days I visit the local park to sit under a Ramada and watch people playing with their dogs and kids.
Everywhere I go, people greet me. They wave from cars and porches. We exchange anecdotes about our dogs, our shopping challenges, the weather. I know twice as many of my neighbors as before the pandemic. Maybe because more people are home. Maybe because community is our only bulwark against the waves of tragedy and fear sweeping our land.
It’s so odd that now we express our love for each other by keeping our distance.
I’m one of the lucky ones who can work at home and order what I need. And suddenly there was plenty of time. The perennial excuse evaporated overnight. Without appointments, errands, and classes, I could be wildly productive.
But it’s a month in and I’m just beginning to settle down. I have written. I always do. But my productivity did not escalate with the additional time. I found myself dithering, staring into space, watching shows on Netflix I didn’t even like.
My old responses to stress—procrastination, obsessing on unimportant details—re-appeared. My thoughts and fears about the pain and suffering hovering over the world like a black cloud was the culprit.
I meditated and prayed about it. Took the practical steps feasible for me. Reminded myself that I am safe. I am healthy. At this moment, I have a place to live, food to eat, beautiful animals to keep me company, friends to call and zoom with. And now, I’ve started offering writing workshops via zoom. Why not? Virtual training may be the new normal.
Finally, it occurred. This is the time. To stop making excuses. To look at my reactions to the changes in our world without flinching. To walk the talk. Be honest. The reason I’m not working on my new book for six hours a day is because I’m nervous!
When I’m nervous, I procrastinate. I read every email, news reports, the latest statistics. Being informed is fine, but knowing all the details doesn’t help.
So what does? What helps us live with uncertainty? This is what I came up with
- Acknowledge feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, impatient, depressed. Feelings denied only pop up later. Now is the time to admit that I’m human. I’m upset. I don’t like this. I want it to end.
- Make self-care a priority. A walk, a bike ride, a yoga tape, an online exercise class. Deep breathing, meditation, stretching, dancing around the living room. Now is the time to move—bodies and emotions so those negative thoughts don’t dig in
- Keep in touch. Call, skype, email, zoom, wave from the porch. Make a new friend while out walking the neighborhood.
- Help someone. What can I do? Who needs help?
- Tolerate uncertainty. There’s no telling how any creative project will turn out, so that’s nothing new for a writer. It’s a good skill to master. Now is the time to let go of trying to control things. It was mostly an illusion anyway.
- Take small steps. Now is the time to say, I don’t know, and move forward. The best cure for paralysis is action. One foot in front of the other.
- And most important, notice negative thoughts. The what if’s. The it might’s. None of them are real. They’re just thoughts. And thoughts can be changed. Dissolved. Replaced.
I am safe.
I am healthy.
I have what I need.
I can adapt.
I can create.
I can do my work.
I can love.
Yes, we love the holidays. Family, food, out of town guests, parties, long lunches, shopping, and evergreen trees in the living room. Of course we do. But it can be overwhelming. Too much family, food, guests, parties, lunches, and shopping. What happened to the tree? Is it still tied to the roof of the car?
When November arrives, we go on alert. The pumpkin is still sagging on the porch when it’s time to plan the Thanksgiving guest list and find the perfect tree. We have to do it all on top of our regular jobs, family responsibilities, and creative work. And guess what? Sometimes we can’t.
The best response to overwhelm is to back off. Let something go. Scratch a few items off that to-do list. Decline an invitation or two.
Failing that, here are some simple methods to relieve holiday tension. They don’t require long periods of time, gym memberships, or complicated shoes. When you feel overwhelmed, out of sorts, pressed for time, or frustrated, try one of these exercises.
Remember to breathe. Nice and deep. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. Bring the air all the way into your body. Imagine it as golden light filling your organs, spreading through every muscle, nerve, and tendon. Release your breath as golden energy out your hands and feet. Do this for five minutes.
Go outside. Stand or sit and observe what you see. A tree. A patch of grass. A squirrel. Your neighbor’s dog chasing the squirrel.The FedEx truck parked down the block. Stars shining through the bare branches of a cottonwood tree. Do nothing but observe your world for five minutes. (Can be combined with deep breathing.)
Remember who and what you love. People, animals, places. Ideas, books, that action movie you saw last week. Bring your attention to your chest at the level of your heart as you remember how good it feels to care about someone or something besides yourself.
Mentally step back. If you’re judging yourself or another, stop. Notice that everyone is doing their best with the resources they have. Forgive yourself. Forgive them. Notice that you may not have the whole story about why people act the way they do. You may never have it. Forgive them anyway.
Laugh at yourself. It’s the holidays and you’re the only one who can make them great.
What are your tips for decompressing? What can you add to my list?
Meditation is an easy, simple way to calm down, reduce mental chatter, and take more pleasure in life. For many years, my meditation practice has formed the foundation of my creative work. It helps me listen better, understand what my body needs, and stay present for the inevitable setbacks of life.
My friend, Caroline Orcutt, teaches Mindful-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at UNM Continuing Education. I attended her last class and found it helpful even for an experienced meditator. Taking the time to learn to slow down and breathe mindfully is a wonderful gift to give yourself. It may even rewire the brain to improve decision making!
Mindfulness helps us to tap into our own inner wisdom to cultivate a different relationship to our challenges. With this practice, we develop the ability to respond consciously rather than react automatically to situations, even stressful ones. Many who participate in the program report that the experience has helped them not only with stress and challenges, but with all aspects of their lives.
The MBSR program was developed in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, professor of medicine and long-time meditator. He wanted to see if mindfulness practices would help patients with chronic pain who did not respond to medication. The results exceeded all expectations. Since then, interest in MBSR has grown over the years and is now offered in hundreds of locations across the country and the world.
Benefits of MBSR include increased awareness and concentration, an ability to cope better with stress, a changed relationship to problems and pain, improvement in health, and a greater enjoyment of life. Devote some time to yourself this fall and join us for a potentially transforming experience.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
FREE Orientation/Information Session: Mon, Sep 23, 6–7:30pm
Fall 2019 / 8-week class / $275
Mon, Sep 30–Nov 18, 6–8:30pm and Sat, Nov 9, 9am–3pm
Instructor: Caroline Orcutt, MA, Qualified MBSR Teacher, UCSD MBPTI
Call 505-277-0077 or go to ce.unm.edu to register.
Discounts for seniors, students, Agora, groups. UNM tuition remission accepted.
Vein of Gold, metaphorically the hidden treasure of our lives, is the title of a Julia Cameron book on journaling our way to creativity and spirituality. Her books are for people seeking to uncover their art, who may be stuck, or lack confidence in their ability to bring forth their ideas.
Since I perceive little difference between creative and spiritual endeavors, her work appeals to me. Also, the book is subtitled “A Journey to the Creative Heart,” which has been my journey.
When her first book, The Artist’s Way, came out, I assembled a group of women to do the work, a recovery process for blocked creatives. Every person in the group (I was the only would-be writer) made significant changes in her life. The process worked.
When the chance arose to work on The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart, I spontaneously said, sure, why not. Let’s get a group together. Afterward, I wondered at my motivation. After slaying the dragons that had stopped me from writing fiction, I wrote and published short stories, essays, and three novels. So I asked myself, what do I expect to get out of Vein of Gold other than interesting interaction with like-minded people (not a small thing!)
Part of my practice is to follow my impulses, so I started working with the book. Whipped through the first few chapters. Yes, regular writing. Yes, walking is meditation. Yes, play invites the creative spirit. Then I got to the part about writing about my earlier life. There, lightning struck.
For several years, I’ve been toying with how to write a book about healing. Much of my life has been devoted to healing–physical, emotional, and psychological. After a recent difficult period, I broke through another veil. I understood what I wanted to say and how to do in, in broad strokes.
Broad strokes are the easy one. The work is in the details, and I found myself sitting in fear and trepidation about reviewing earlier parts of my life. Considering past experiences is not always pleasant. Remembering can be painful. Putting them into perspective is daunting.
Illumination comes from unlikely sources. This morning on the radio I caught a discussion about how memory, rather than being fixed and immutable, is a creative process. According to neuroscientists, when we remember, we re-create the experience. The more often we remember, for example, our disappointing sixth birthday party, the farther the memory gets from the original experience, and the more different it is. Emotion, judgment, and later experiences all influence it. The influence can be positive or negative.
This explains why one of my therapists helped me re-envision difficult early experiences mentally, through imaginative journeying. It explains why energy healers can go back in time and heal physical and psychological patterns active in a family for generations.
MEMORIES CAN BE CHANGED!
Of course! I knew that! But it’s fascinating when science discovers the mechanism by which mystics, healers, shamans, and psychics (and some psychologists) assist us in changing our lives.
Now I know why I’m working on Vein of Gold. As I review the phases of my life, I can change the experiences I choose so my present can be more creative and fulfilling.
Today, the book seems a lot less daunting.
If anyone is interested in joining the Vein of Gold group that is still forming, please contact me.
If you’d like to listen to the radio lab broadcast, here’s the link