The place of our own from which we can never be dispossessed

Reveal as much as you can so you can get yourself to a position where you can reveal more.

This is the real artist’s journey. Revealing to ourselves and others what we love and who we are. With that authentic intention, nobody can take anything away from us. And while everything we create will not be celebrated or even noticed, we will still have built a place of our own from which we can never be dispossessed.

My first mentor comes to mind, who was a retired baseball player turned preacher, teacher and author. He was sixty when we first met, and I was only sixteen. Which meant he had already created enough art in the world to get into a position to trust his own willingness to be true to himself.

It was such an inspiration to me as a young artist hearing him speak and teach and write. There was this genuine watermark running through the background of his life that poured into every word he wrote.

One day, my teenage brain silently hoped, one day you will reveal enough of yourself to have that same kind of connection to your true voice. Too bad it took another few decades to find.

But it’s natural to want to rush that process. Our underdeveloped brains demand authentic creation now! But when we push our voice to unfold faster or more deeply than is natural, we thwart ourselves. Sometimes all we can do is keep creating and let the passage of time have our way with us. We have to trust that our creative life will unfold in good ways if we put the best that we have into it.

And the exciting part is, if we honor that voice and stay true to ourselves as creator, the clearer our channel gets. Not necessarily better, but clearer. That’s far more meaningful.

Quality is overrated. Honesty is what counts. Thinking back to my songs and books from my twenties, they don’t hold a candle to the ones from my thirties. Much bloodier, much truer. And twenty years from now, god willing, I’ll feel the same way about projects from my forties and fifties.

Maybe that’s all art really is. Paying for the privilege to be true to yourself. 

When was the last time you found yourself wishing that we had opted for authenticity?

Being happy will trigger something bad, so what’s the point? 

For many people, joy isn’t pleasurable, it’s anticipatory pain.

It’s a height to fall from.

Because clearly, right around the corner is something that’s going to be the end of everything. There’s no point in getting their hopes up, so they may as well deliberately avoid experiences that invoke positive emotions or happiness.

Here’s the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard in defense of this experience. Rollo’s book on the courage to create summarized the value of this divine experience beautifully:

Joy is the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities.

To me, that sounds like it’s worth the risk. Thinking back to times when the prospect of joy made my heart quicken with fear, I’m grateful for every opportunity that opened me to the world.

Each moment of joy proved to me that even though the more things we love and the more deeply we love them, the more vulnerable we are to loss and grief and loneliness when they’re gone, there is nothing in this life that doesn’t go away anyway, so we may as well take our joy while we can. Life is disappointing enough on its own.

Are you afraid of joy? If so, perhaps you have a case of cherophobia, which is the clinical term for the aversion to pleasure.

It means you think being happy will trigger something bad. That joy is a waste of time and effort. There’s a premier study on this psychological phenomenon that offers a helpful scale on how people conceive of, and experience, happiness across cultures. Here are several of the questions.

*Do you prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness?

*Do you believe the more cheerful and happy you are, the more you should expect bad things to occur in your life?

*Do disasters often follow good fortune?

*Does having lots of joy and fun cause bad things to happen?

*Does excessive joy have some bad consequences?

And there’s no right or wrong answer. Every culture is different in their collective urge to maximize happiness and to minimize sadness, and ever person’s family of origin story will have a profound effect on their ability to provoke and joy.

But to go out of our way to deliberately avoid experiences that invoke positive emotions or happiness, that sounds quite awful to me. Maybe it’s because my playful nature shimmers and sheds joy with the undimmed hope of a guileless child, but I can’t help myself.

And I’m sure that annoys people, particularly living in a city that is widely known as being the capital of western cynicism.

Are you afraid of joy?

With all the powers of hell at his command

My psychologist friends tells me that patients often come to therapy and say their problem is someone else.

Their assumption is that, not unlike the famous existentialist saying, hell is other people.

When the reality is, it’s actually them.

Sartre might agree that indeed, the cruelest form of hell is the one we create inside ourselves. It’s simply a continuation of the things that we choose, here and now, inside of our own hearts.

And so, before we start codependently rescuing people to keep the focus off us and onto them, perhaps we might look at our own reflection.

Reminds me of my favorite penetrating question about personal responsibility:

What are you pretending not to know about your role in the problem?

Because it’s never just one person’s fault. It takes two to tango, baby. No matter how good it feels not to take responsibility for our emotional reactions, the onus is still on us.

Michael sang it best:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror, asking him to change his ways, and no message could have been any clearer, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.

Jackson’s song is the perfect metaphor. Each of us can treat an uncomfortable experience as a mirror. Matter of fact, somebody should invent a smart mirror with facial recognition software that will ask you penetrating questions anytime you feel the need to take a good look at yourself. Next time overwhelming feelings flood your nervous system, you just walk into the bathroom and wait for the mirror to say in a warm, empathetic voice, things like this:

*How have you innately attracted this into your life?

*What might you have done to cause to this discomfort you now feel?

*What is it inside of you that might be contributing to this situation?

*Have you stopped to ask what role you played in this experience?

Therapists could install these smart mirrors in their counseling offices to use as patient exercise for taking personal responsibility for their emotions. After all, other people’s words don’t make us feel like shit, our interpretation and reaction to them does.

It’s not like sound waves are picked up by our ears then translated into a negative emotional response. We are the owners of our feelings. Someone else might have lit the pilot light, but we are the ones who pour gasoline onto the hell fire.

If we are feeling the need to talk to someone about someone else, then we should make sure to include ourselves as part of that discussion. 

What if hell wasn’t other people, but trying to change them?

We can’t just go and get rid of the one thing we want and then move on

What if we believed we could afford to relax?

What if we trusted that we had plenty of time to all the things we wanted to do?

Maybe we wouldn’t have to keep pushing ourselves beyond our natural capacity, and we could actually be present in this world that so many people take for granted.

My realization of this truth showed up on the day of my retirement. The time had come for me to walk away from entrepreneurship, aka, the unmanageable workaholic mindset that had become toxic to myself and others.

In the spirit of twelve step recovery, I created a fearless moral inventory of myself, specifically by writing a ten page letter of resignation to myself.

This document was an admission to me, to the universe, to my wife, to some trusted friends and family, the exact nature of my wrongs.

The whole experience was euphoric. Felt like being in the womb. For the first time in over a decade, there was a part of me that was finally resting. My body knew it was time to live in a new way, still doing the work that I was sent here to do, but from a place of love rather than fear.

But to my surprise, that inventory was only the beginning of my healing journey. Turns out, we can’t just go and get rid of the one thing we want and then move on. There are always layers.

To quote my therapist, it took your body a long time to get this way, and it’s going to take a long time to come out of it.

That’s the hardest part about any journey of recovery. Whatever dysfunctional habits we’re sobering up from, we can’t just clean up in a day, week, month or year. Hell, it might take multiple years.

Because there are so many other things underneath the core issue that require attention.

Reminds me of the popular study from the journal of social psychology about habit formation. Researchers showed that the time it took participants to break their habits ranged from eighteen to two hundred and fifty days, which indicates considerable variation in how long it takes people to reach their limit of automaticity.

Proving, that there’s a lot for our minds and bodies to unlearn. We have worn the groove of habit into our character, carving into our life over and over by repetition.

And so, it’s crucial that we’re patient and forgiving along our healing journey. As we figure out how to successfully unfuck ourselves, we have to take it one whatever at a time, having faith that eventually we’ll arrive at a place of wholeness.

And in the meantime, digging deep into ourselves to find the broken parts, seeing what kinds of love we might use to fill the cracks.

How long has your journey towards wholeness taken so far?

Take it one whatever at a time

Here are two descriptions of my morning routine in two distinct phases of my life.

The workaholic version of me woke up at dawn in order to achieve, get things done, medicate my loneliness with adrenaline, get a leg up on the competition, pack as many hours into the work day as possible, and prove my worth to the world before they discover that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

And during that part of my life, the motivation came from a dysfunctional place of insecurity, compulsion and isolation.

The sober version of me now wakes up at dawn in order to meditate, process my feelings, metabolize my experiences, nourish and nurture my body and mind, feel integrated in my community and equip myself to bring quality energy to my relationships.

During this part of my life, my motivation comes from a healthy place of contentment, lucidity and connection.

See the difference? The consciousness with which I approach my morning routine has transformed, although many of the activities are similar.

And it was iterative process, too. This isn’t the kind of thing that just snaps into place overnight.

But what happens is, you start making these small changes. Mental, behavioral, spiritual and otherwise. One at a time. For years.

Until one day, you look back and realize that you’re a different person. More evolved and whole. Doing the things you do from a place of love and care for self and other.

What shift in consciousness do you need to make in order to transform yourself?

Perhaps there is a certain routine that historically felt heroic in your past, but now is preventing your from working effectively. You don’t have to excise that routine from your life, but you might think about how to approach it in a way that’s healthier and more sustainable.

You could recite a mantra before or after doing your routine, or reframe and redefine your purpose for doing it. Any of these exercises will help you shift your posture regarding the process of change, which will impact the actual changes you themselves.

Some people might say, take it one day at a time, but you can think of it as, take it one whatever at a time. 

What could you do to assure the soil of your consciousness will never be the same?

Having an agenda of your own that pleases you

Our basic human needs can disgust or even insult us sometimes.

The fact that our body needs to sleep for twelve hours straight, that our spirit needs stay in bed all weekend, or that our mind needs to go jogging in the rain until all the anger is purged out of our system, it can feel like a burden. To ourselves and to loved ones.

But a critical component of maturing and healing is learning to tolerate our own neediness. Accepting the fact that there are certain things we simply must do to take care of our ourselves, lest we go insane.

Unfortunately, this means we can no longer organize our life so that it is good enough for everyone else.

If you are a codependent, that can be very difficult to stomach. Which means you need to stay strong.

Tian’s book about forgiveness has a beautiful reminder about this:

Make decisions about how you want to lead your day. Having an agenda of your own that pleases you is a good thing, because without your own plan, you will lose a sense of self.

Not that we’re completely inflexible with our routines. We still have to maintain a sense of other, since we’re not the only people on this planet.

But the bottom line is, we have to act in a way that makes it easier for us to live with ourselves, as that makes it easier for others to live with us too. And as long as we can learn to meet our needs in constructive and not destructive ways, it’s all good.

Besides, what’s the alternative? Living somebody else’s life? Spending our precious energy speculating about other people’s needs and how they compare with ours?

No, our job is to become less dependent on others to satisfy our needs for fulfillment. To reduce our dependency on foreign oil, so to speak.

Because there’s nothing worse than watching our life depend on someone else’s lack of understanding of our needs.

If you want to be kind to yourself, accept that you have needs, and find creative and healthy ways to meet them.

Even if people think you’re crazy. 

Will you be vulnerable enough to state your needs to yourself and others?

The generative posture based on possibility

The cynics believe that optimism is merely tricking yourself into feeling happy.

But what’s so wrong with that? When did we decide that using the placebo effect on ourselves was a bad thing?

Just as honesty isn’t always the best policy with others, it’s not always the best policy with ourselves.

The story we’re telling about our situation might be an illusion, but it’s a helpful illusion, and it’s a more pleasant way to live, so we shouldn’t feel guilty or wrong about doing what we have to do to survive.

Besides, there’s no upside to not believing. May as well tilt the odds in our favor and adopt an attitude of optimism about the progress of our lives.

Because when we’re cynical, we risk nothing.

Henson, the legendary puppeteer and entrepreneur, famously remarked that if you drive people crazy with your relentless optimism, but it all works out for you, then it’s not your problem.

Sounds like my experience living in a big city. Locals are confused about my ability to consciously to keep optimism as my chosen attitude and the lens through which I view the world. Because they assume it means there are no bad days, no downbeat moods and no difficult feelings.

Untrue. All of those emotional experiences are part of my life by nature of being a human being, it’s just that I have faith that those things aren’t permanent, pervasive and personal.

Weiss, one of my top business philosophers, depicts it beautifully:

The question about optimism is, what’s the alternative? We live on a chunk of space rock traveling eighty thousand miles per hour around an exploding star. We influence and control none of that, and scientific and religious argument notwithstanding, we don’t actually understand very much of it.

Hence, it’s rewarding to be optimistic each day, canine like in our eagerness to exploit the new morning, because it’s the only sane way to live.

What things do you turn to each day to muster a sense of optimism? Personally, my strategy is to notice quiet signs and chance opportunities that the universe is on my side and trying to bless me. To constantly look deeper to find the gift in my daily experiences.

Doing so gives me a generative posture based on possibility, not scarcity.

Call it confirmation bias, call it seeing what you want to see, but if tricking yourself into happiness is wrong, they I don’t want to be right.

Remember, if you tell yourself a story enough times, you will make it true. And that story it’s a net positive on your life, but isn’t negatively affecting anyone else, then keep moving that narrative forward. 

Are you abandoning your own happiness because you’re afraid of telling the right lie to yourself?

Like watching a good lawyer defending a guilty man

During a recent interview on a mental health show, the guest psychologist made a comment that resonated with me:

Anxiety is a liar that predicts doom. And it makes a great case for why everything is about to go to hell and crumble before our eyes. But it’s simply not true.

What each person needs, the doctor suggested, is a good in house lawyer. Some archetype of our logical self who can notice and name our feelings of anxiety, and then calmly open up their briefcase and say, your honor, some questions for the defendant.

Can you rationally support this belief?
Is there any evidence that exists of the truth of this belief?
What evidence exists of the falseness of this belief?
What’s the worst thing that could happen if this believe is true?
Did you have sexual relations with that woman?

Okay that last one was just for fun. But these types of questions are common practice in the world of cognitive behavioral therapy. They give someone’s inner attorney a chance to challenge and change unhelpful distortions.

And one of the reasons they’re so effective as anxiety management tools is, they blow apart our brain’s prehistoric propensity towards black or white thinking. They hold up a mirror to the human absurdity of which we’re all guilty, and remind us that whatever is happening to us, we’re not engaged in a battle to save our lives.

It’s not the emergency our mind tells us it is. And things are not about to go to hell and crumble before our eyes. That’s just the lie our anxiety wants us to believe, lest we forget to fire all of our weapons at once, and get eaten alive by hungry animals.

Seligmen’s research on learned optimism says that the key to making our counter argument against the mind is remembering that most things are not permanent, pervasive or personal. Even if they are painful, powerful and preposterous.

What’s beautiful about this model is, it allows enough breathing room for us to notice, name and feel our feelings, but there’s a boundary around their long term impact.

We can announce to ourselves that we’re super pissed or disgusted or whatever, and really let those emotions course through our veins for a short time.

But also have faith that those feelings, like all feelings, are not our fault, they’re just weather patterns that have a beginning, middle and end.

To quote my yoga instructor, the brain is a bad neighborhood, stay out of it. 

How will your inner lawyer mount an evidence campaign against your lying mind?

Don’t worry, planks hate you too

The key to habit change is cognitive acclimation.

Whatever new thing you start doing, your brain needs to get used to the fact that this particular habit makes it feel good, and that you like doing that activity.

Here’s a case study from my own life.

Core strength has always been my weakness, and it’s caused me some moderate back problems since college. But after suffering an inguinal hernia about a few years ago, not to mention having surgery to remove it, the time had finally time to commit to strengthening my abdominal, low back and other core muscles.

And the goal wasn’t to have washboard abs, rather, to get into the habit of improving that part of my body.

The hard part was cognitive acclimation. Training my brain to feel good when doing those exercises.

Because at first, doing daily core work was painful and exhausting and embarrassing. It’s like that funny workout gym tshirt that reads, planks hate you too.

Does anybody enjoy that kind of thing? How could it be different for me?

But after several months, the ritual of doing crunches and planks not only made me feel stronger, but also made me feel proud of myself for being proactive with my physical health.

That was the key to the habit sticking. After all, one of my goals in life is to make myself proud. That’s not a sin or and indulgence or an ego trip, it’s just part of my motivational system, and it works to help me sustain habits that make meaning in my life.

Today, core work is something I actually look forward to doing on most days. Because that feeling of strength, but also pride, is waiting for me. I’ve allowed myself to have a simple relationship with this activity so that it may become a meditation.

Anytime I record another successful instant of that routine, it’s satisfying. And if a day or two go by without doing the core exercises, I forgive myself and move on.

What habit are you still struggling to uphold? Think about what story you have to tell your brain to make it feel good while executing that habit.

Find a way to direct the process in a way that regularly leads you to successful outcomes.

In time, you’ll get into the groove, you’ll lay down the right neural path, and you’ll wire your brain to want that good feeling as much as possible. 

How could you better lubricate your process of habit change?

See what it’s like on the other side of forgiveness

Because of our brain’s negativity bias, where we give more psychological weight to bad experiences than good ones, it’s easy to fall into an inward cycle of gloom over outward error.

Even the smallest gaff can compel us to start beating ourselves up for doing something wrong.

Like when we can’t get to sleep one night, so we toss and turn for hours, getting increasingly pissed at our body for not inhibiting nearly all of its voluntary muscles for eight straight hours.

This is bullshit, why can’t you just fall asleep like everyone else?

It’s normal to feel this way towards ourselves, since our bodies and minds can be incomprehensible puzzles at times.

But that thought pattern only traps us into an infinite regression of wakefulness from which it can be devastating to recover. What we need in this moment is to make a special effort to sustain our faith, trusting that our body and mind will get the rest they need.

It all starts with forgiveness. Forgiving our body for being a body, forgiving our minds for running rampant, forgiving ourselves for being human, and so on.

Want to read a beautiful example of how to speak to your body with loving and encouraging words? There’s a woman who writes about her journey to recovery from childhood abuse, whose blog contained a letter that someone wrote a letter to their body. Here’s what she says to herself:

Dear body, I am sorry for not listening to you, and I am sorry for hurting you when you needed me most. I let you down, because I thought you had let me down. But really you were just doing what you have been programmed to do. It was not your fault, like it wasn’t my fault. Today I forgive you, and I will allow you to feel your memories and I will hold them and I will accept them, and I will not cover them up by harming you. Maybe you can forgive me too, for never listening to you, for putting you in that situation, for not being able to get away, and for hating you for so long. My mind left when you could not. You had to endure the things that were done to you, and for that I am sorry.

If we can learn to speak to ourselves with even a fraction of this level of kindness and acceptance, fewer and fewer of our mistakes and failures will knock us off course.

And it might feel unnatural to be gentle to yourself when you’ve been harsh for many years, but once you get the hang of it, and once you see what it’s like on the other side of forgiveness, good luck trying to beat yourself up ever again.

How do you talk to your body when it betrays you?

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