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.
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
Have you ever felt stuck? At a stalemate? Not sure where to go next or what to do?
Trauma, illness, unexpected life transitions of all types can leave us at loose ends, not sure how to pick up the pieces. Maybe even wondering if we want to. Transition, especially the involuntary type, calls into question who we are, how we relate, what roles we want to resume or release.
After life changing events, we often need to change priorities, evaluate time and resources, develop or re-gain the crucial balance that promotes clear thinking and productive effort. On some level, we know that. The problem is, how to do it?
The uncomfortable emotional states of transition don’t help. Some people get depressed. Others feel anxiety about the future. Old habits thought long conquered may re-assert themselves. Unfinished creative work may look stale and not worth completing. New ideas fail to materialize.
Sometimes what is nearest our hearts is the most difficult to acknowledge. After all, what if it isn’t possible? What if we can’t find meaningful work, a loving relationship? What if we try and fail to write the novel or poem or song?
As a transition coach, I’ve met people who spent years denying what they most wanted to do, be, or have in the interest of security, loyalty, or the need to stay compliant with family or community values. Without exception, when they made the leap of faith and started singing their own song, miracles happened. Not everyone was “successful” in the financial sense, but all experienced an upsurge in energy, in personal well-being, and self-confidence. Taking the leap is hard, but so worthwhile.
I’m no exception, and am quite capable of staying stuck while terribly busy doing things that are not quite right. I rationalize, explain how I need income, security, something to do that’s not too hard because I’m sick, upset, or lacking in confidence. All the while, the voice in my heart reminds me to look inward, to walk the inner path where wisdom lies, often buried beneath heaps of excuses.
When I’m stuck on a project or need to get myself out of a difficult place, I remember the North Star, the brightest star in the sky that always points to the same place. The Center. The place within us that is most authentic.
The North Star is the meaning and direction of my life. Although I’ve always known I’m a writer, how to express it has evolved. No matter if I worked in corporate communications, free-lance editing, fiction or nonfiction, the needle always pointed true. The North Star gives life a focus.
When I’m stuck for an answer, I pick up my pen and start writing. Write long enough, regularly enough, and you’ll find what everyone who uses this practice discovers. The creative self within. The Muse waiting patiently to offer her gentle guidance. The wisdom of the heart. The well, the watcher, spirit, the inner guide.
Journaling for insight and self-discovery is a tool for everyone, not just writers. It stops the mental circling that is never productive. Putting thoughts into words helps us understand them and come up with new solutions. It helps us work out how we feel about things. Pursued regularly, it leads us unerringly toward our own center, whatever form that takes.
Try journaling for a week or two, at the same time every day, for about twenty minutes, and you’ll begin to see the benefits. Keep going and you won’t be able to shut out the light of your personal North Star.
An irresistible urge to clean out a closet came up the other day. I attacked it with gusto and deposited in a cardboard box shoes I’ll never wear again, clothes that don’t fit, worn out bags, random books, and a lamp I hate.
After finishing, I realized I had been looking for something. Not that elusive black shoe to match the one in the box. Something more important. I was looking for my point of power. The place of stillness. The present moment.
I’ve often been stymied by resistance, which is a great catch-all for negative ideas and beliefs—the programming that lives in what some call the subconscious mind. It’s taken years to understand that what stops me from 1) starting and 2) finishing projects is hiding inside me.
Every spiritual teacher I’ve encountered, in person or books, emphasized the importance of the Now. In the sixties and seventies, as meditation and eastern philosophies integrated into western culture, it became an often-spoofed catch word. Be Here Now! Allen Watts exhorted us.
The truth is, he was right.
The only way to create anything new is from the present. If we try to create from old patterns and memories, we end up re-creating old situations, even if dressed up in new clothes.
If you prefer dwelling on the past, you may identify yourself with childhood experiences, past wounds, slights, or resentments. Hold beliefs about how limited you are, how it’s too late (or too early) for what you want. Think you need more security, money, or free time before you create. You tell stories of what happened.
If you’re oriented to the future, you’re always planning. You have goals, vision, motivational tools, a to-do list. You’re so focused on what you will do that you don’t notice what is happening now. You tell stories of how great things will be.
If we don’t question where our ideas come from and if they are still true, we risk repeating patterns we don’t understand. A stuck pattern is a lens of perception.
If you feel at the mercy of time, other people, or your responsibilities, and can’t seem to start that novel, exercise program, or job hunt, maybe it’s time to look inside. The inner way is not often valued by the outer world, but it’s essential if you want to know yourself.
Here are some simple ways to start:
State a clear intention.
- Decide what you want.
- Write it down.
- Don’t share what you’re doing with anyone. Make this a private space, just you and the contents of your mind.
Spend fifteen minutes a day alone.
- Sit quietly with yourself. In nature. In your favorite chair.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe, and notice what thoughts come up.
- Listen to the voice within, even if it sounds like your dad.
Get a notebook
- Commit to three sessions a week, twenty minutes each.
- Write what’s going on in your life and how you feel about it.
A practical way of clearing the mental residue is to look around at your living space to decide what you don’t need. Cleaning out closets, bookcases, attics, and garages is a physical correlate to cleaning out old ideas. It’s satisfying to cart away physical objects. Plus, it gives your resistance a heads-up that you mean business!
And who knows, you may find your point of power hiding behind that old tennis racket!
Language shapes our concepts about who we are and what we can do. Even idle words tossed off without thinking can be taken to heart and turned into beliefs. Hiding beneath the notice of the analytical mind,these beliefs govern behavior even when the person has opposing conscious beliefs.
I was once told by a healer that I was acting on ideas about having the “right job”, the “right clothes”, and the “right car.” Indignantly, I protested. Not true, I said. More interested in leading an authentic life, material possessions approved by the common culture had seldom interested me.
“Yes,” the healer said with a smile. “But your mother held those beliefs, and she gave them to you.”
My mother had passed on several years before, so I could not question her about it, but lo and behold, when I examined my own beliefs, using a simple muscle testing system, sure enough, I was holding onto unconscious ideas that conflicted with my value system.
Beliefs can be tricky, since those that most affect us most are often buried under layers of experience. They must be coaxed out, with meditation, journaling, or whatever healing method works for you.
A simple way to start examining our beliefs is to notice how we talk to ourselves and others. Do we use a lot of judgmental words? You should. I ought. That’s hopeless.
If you use judging words every time you make a minor mistake, is there a way you can substitute kinder words?
- I forgot again! Could be changed to I am working on remembering
- I’m so stupid! Could become I made a mistake, but that’s okay because I’m human.
- How could I have done that! Could transform to I am learning from my experiences
If you try this exercise, it may feel awkward at first, but with some practice, you’ll soon learn to catch those automatic judgments and start speaking to yourself like a friend.
James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer in research on expressive writing for healing, discovered patterns of language typical of those who get the most benefit from expressive writing. He used a software program to analyze both written and spoken communication and found that pronouns (I, he, she, we, it) are a key to change.
When people who have experienced trauma write about the event, they can create a more coherent story which leads them to new understandings of what happened to them. The use of causal (because, why) and insight (realize, understand) words predicted how well the writers recovered from the trauma.
The most interesting and unexpected result came when he found that people who changed the pronouns they used (from first person to third person, for example) improved most in mood, health, and sociability.
By counting pronouns, Dr. Pennebaker found that people whose health was improving tended to decrease the use of first person pronouns. They gained perspective and the ability to see the situation from more than one point of view.
If you’d like to learn more about his research, he has written a popular book on the subject.
His original research, which inspired my own investigations into the benefits of writing for healing, is discusssed in his first book.
Wbat about you? Have you noticed how you talk to yourself? Have you tried journaling to uncover beliefs and stuck patterns you want to change?