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The art of beginning again (and again)

The truth is this: I don’t think I’ve written anything more serious than a journal entry in almost six months (not counting academic publications, that is).

And even that truth is something of a lie because I have written some things, I have an unfinished draft or two of a blog post hanging out on my computer that I never polished up and published and an even longer list of possible blog titles I liked enough to jot down, but never followed through on.

I haven’t written for a long list of reasons — among them, I’ve been focused on healing several chronic health issues (progress has been mixed, but there has been progress) and that lately the time has never felt right (hint: the time will never feel right).

All of which is to say that this blog post is about beginning again (and again). Because as much as I like to tell myself the story that it is enough to begin something once and then to keep going — the truth is always that I begin something once and then life derails me and I find myself needing to begin over and over again.

So today, I thought I’d share just a few tips for how to begin again with grace.

First, honor the truth that this is how life is.

Life is full of difficulties you failed to account for: a bad night’s sleep, an unexpectedly dead phone, a serious illness. These difficulties come in all shapes and sizes and their most important shared feature is that, no matter how carefully you planned or how diligently you agonized, you could not have accounted for them.

The important thing isn’t that these things happen — it’s how we choose to respond when they do.

If we sleep badly do we slack off because we’re exhausted and then feel guilty about how little we’re accomplishing? Or do we take a cold, hard look at our plans for the day and say, “Here’s the two key things that I have the energy to accomplish today. Everything else will have to wait for tomorrow” — and then we follow through on that: we do our two things and are done for the day.

The way to more forward with grace when life throws up an unexpected roadblock is to keep coming home to the truth of our reality in each moment.

Today my reality is that I am tired. Today my reality is that I have needed to scale back on some of the things I had hoped to accomplish.

But today my reality is also that I have managed to do many of the things that I intended to do — and that this is cause for celebration, not punishment. In my own way, I am triumphing despite adverse circumstances — should I choose to view my actions in this way.

Second, offer yourself compassion instead of judgement.

This is the one thing that has made the biggest difference in my life.

I used to have this terribly toxic inner dialogue where every missed deadline was a disaster and every broken promise (to myself, mostly, but sometimes to other people) proved what a terrible, unreliable person I was.

But the truth about living this way is it makes you feel hunted.

Your own scathing inner voices haunt you, until you are terrified to drop the ball on even one small thing for fear of the furious criticism that will issue from the bully that lives inside your mind.

Being constantly on the run from your own inner critic doesn’t work very well.

When you’re on the run, nothing you achieve feels like a victory — it feels like a commuted death sentence or a bullet dodged — a terror-tainted relief, unworthy of jubilation.

Happily, if you are also guilty of a toxic inner dialogue, this is a pattern that can be shifted with mindful awareness and the conscious development and regular practice of self-compassion.

It is possible to recognize that our terribly mean inner voices are fueled by nothing more than our fear: fear that we are not good enough, fear that we will be rejected, fear that others will shame or abandon us if we dare to let them down.

These fears are natural, normal, healthy human fears.

We’re afraid of being alone. We’re afraid of feeling vulnerable. And the fear centers of our brain are working overtime to try and keep us safe and out of danger.

But it is possible to honor our instincts and our fears without succumbing to them.

It is possible to hold our instincts and our fears with compassionate witness and to choose to take a different path. It is possible to choose to honor and navigate our fears with compassion. To offer the smallest, most frightened parts of ourselves our love and protection.

Third, safety is what makes change possible.

The strength needed to begin again (and again) is so much less when we feel safe.

In meditation we come back to the breath over and over again. And we become distracted over and over again — because it is the nature of the mind to wander.

But with practice, we learn that what matters the most is not preventing distraction. What matters the most is how we choose to come back to the breath.

When I first started meditating, years ago, I came back to the breath like this: “Oh, shoot, thinking… Thinking. Again! Argh!… Crap, still thinking…” Needless to say, I often finished my meditation frustrated with myself, my mind, and my own lack of concentration.

These days, I come back to the breath more like this: “Oh, hello thinking…. Planning, thank you for your concern… Past — how good to see you today…” And in between this friendly noticing of what my mind is up to, I generally experience calm and peace.

And when I feel agitated, restless, bored, and uncomfortable  — when peace seems farther away than anything — I notice that with friendliness and compassion, too.

The critical thing that changed was this: I stopped judging myself for becoming distracted and, in doing so, I turned my meditation into an experience that was safe.

Safe to fail. Safe to forget. Safe to start over again.

Because truly, I believe that when make our lives safe for ourselves to live in anything is possible.

And the good news is, most of creating safety for yourself is an inside job.

It’s learning to listen to your fears and outrages and desires. It’s learning to separate your scary story and your insecurity from what is really happening. It’s learning to trust yourself to navigate change and hardship capably and with as much grace as is possible.

It’s the simple (and yet amazingly difficult) commitment to be the one person who will never abandon you. To stick with your body, your feelings, and your circumstances no matter how rough the seas or how fierce the winds.

And if you can do that, you can do anything.

Much love,
Jessica

You’re going to need a really strong foundation

Here’s the thing that no one tells you: if you have a big, crazy dream you want to make come true you’re going to need to focus on your fundamentals. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising in a way that feels good in your body — these things aren’t just glamorous distractions; they’re the nitty, gritty details that make success possible.

This is a lesson that has been really hard for me to learn.

In part, this is because our hardest lessons are always more about unlearning than they are about learning.

The places where I struggle the most are the places where what I need to do to move forward runs counter to that which worked for me at some point in the past.

My habit of sacrificing the needs of my body in order to achieve my goals has worked incredibly well for me in the past. After all, I powered my way through a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT under the steam of 100,000 unmet needs.

I denied my body the sleep that it craved, week after week and year after year — all in the name of getting my work done so that I could be a “success”.

I denied my body the healthy movement that it craved, because the honest truth was that I was too exhausted. 

And so on. And so forth.

This approach worked okay for me for a few years. After all, I was young — I had resources to burn.

But eventually my resources ran out and I fell apart.

By the time I graduated from MIT I was utterly exhausted, suffering from chronic back pain, on my way to developing multiple food sensitivities, and so profoundly anxious from five years of constant, severe academic stress that I was pretty much living my whole life trapped between fight-or-flight (see this comic by the delightful Gemma Correll).

A post shared by Gemma Correll (@gemmacorrell) on

If you think that all sounds a bit overly dramatic, I promise you it’s not. All of those things really happened to me. But my point isn’t to solicit your pity or to trash MIT — after all, I was complicit in all my choices.

I was the one who chose to take five classes most semesters when three or four would do and I’m the one who chose to graduate with two majors and a minor when just one degree would have been plenty.

The culture at MIT also played its role — the institute has a culture of one-upmanship that I feel encourages students to stretch themselves beyond their capacity. But ultimately, I’m the one who chose to participate in that culture — and if you’d tried to talk me out of taking on so much, I don’t believe I would have listened.

I am as much to blame for my suffering as anyone and I’m not particularly interested in trying to point the finger of blame at MIT.

What I’m trying to say is this: I no longer believe it’s possible for anyone to live this way and that we only ever wind up hurting ourselves when we try.

If you refuse to care for yourself, eventually your body will give out on you — probably with terribly inconvenient timing.

If you refuse to acknowledge your needs, eventually you will be humbled.

Because at the bottom of it we are all human. We all have bodies and our bodies have needs that we are required to meet if we want to continue to function.

If you want to be strong enough to do something incredible, you need to start with the things that are most fundamental: as much sleep as your body desires, good food that nourishes you, a movement practice that feels good in your body without being overly stressful, and if you struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, or other health issues you might need a regular meditation practice or other mind-body practice to help you bring mind and body back into balance.

And, the more precarious your health is the more important it is that you know the core building blocks that make up your foundation.

These days my health has improved significantly, but it’s sometimes still annoyingly precarious. A bad cold or two is still enough to bowl me over and the road back to well-being can be long and fraught with setbacks and frustration.

But the thing that saves me is that these days I know my fundamentals.

When I’m not feeling well I know what I need to focus on. Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Eating good food. Joy.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to know that if I focus my attention here — on listening to my body and paying attention to my fundamentals — eventually the tide will begin to turn. Slowly energy will find its way back in as exhaustion and pain recede and I will begin to feel better.

I know that in time, everything else will follow.

My energy for writing will return. My desire to do more than crash on the couch after work each evening will return. Soon, I’ll tidy my bedroom after weeks of neglect.

But for now I’m clear on what I really need and I’ve learned the hard way that everything else (chores, my job, my dreams) has to be optional.

Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Food that nourishes and doesn’t make me sick. Joy.

Cut my life back to just what is essential, and these are the things that I need more than anything else.

If you want to do hard things or make your big, scary dreams come true you have to start here. You have to find your foundation and stick to it like glue.

None of which is to say that this will be easy — your foundation is unique to you and no one can give you the recipe. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself through months or even years of trial and error (and even then you’ll need to stay flexible, because what was working will stop working and you may be asked to start over).

But having a good foundation isn’t optional.

You’re always going to need to have your foundation in place to support and sustain you through the days, months, and years to come — so when in doubt: start here. Because caring for yourself is always the kindest thing you could do.

Much love,
Jessica

You don’t have to be fierce to be strong

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage and strength the past few weeks. Like many of you, I’ve felt called to step outside of my comfort zone in new ways — in forms ranging from contacting my congressional representatives to beginning work on a new ebook.

I used to have a really narrow definition of courage and strength: a definition in which both of those things revolved around fierceness and speaking up and striving.

But this isn’t the kind of courage and strength I’ve felt called to lately — instead, I’ve looking toward a quieter, gentler kind of strength.

A strength that endures instead of burning out in a fiery blast of fierceness.

This kind of strength seems different to me — it is equal parts fierceness and kindness, strong but also gentle.

This kind of strength checks in to notice how I am doing.

When I am tired, this strength listens and rests. It doesn’t push me beyond my own limits, it doesn’t tell me that I have to finish, that the work isn’t done, or that I have to keep going.

This strength puts me to bed when I am tired and feeds me when I am hungry and it asks me to take a break and move my body when I am stiff and aching from too many hours at the computer.

This strength wakes me up in the mornings and chooses to take time for my meditation because it knows that I am stronger when I dedicate some time to calming myself, to noticing my thoughts and feelings, to offering myself my own attention and dusting out the cobwebs so that the light can shine through.

This strength knows what I myself have long struggled with: that a life is more than just the sum-total of words written or Senators called. That a life is ultimately a taking-care, an act of devotion to the needs and desires of a single human body bearing a single human soul.

This strength knows that both body and soul require nourishment if they are to remain healthy — that the heart can be strong only when the body that carries it is not aching with hunger, pain, or exhaustion.

And finally I have come to a place from which I cannot see these things as anything other than what they are: the necessary things that strengthen me.

This taking-care is not a frivolous waste of time that could be dedicated to more important activities.

These are the more important activities.

Not because the other things are not important — but because without taking time for the things that strengthen me, my fierceness will burn out and when I am nothing but ash I will have nothing left to offer to anyone else.

So I’m going to say it again: You don’t need to be fierce to be strong.

A fire is fierce and strong but it burns its fuel and dies.

A tree is not fierce, but it is strong, and it may survive hundreds or even thousands of years.

Always in the past I have been the fire, burning out and then healing and rising again from my own ashes. But this time I wish to endure — to be more like the tree.

I think that now more than ever we’re going to need this new (to me) kind of strength — a strength that endures instead of burning out. A strength that takes punches and keeps going. A strength that can see through dark days without losing faith.

Because I’m sitting here with my eyes wide open. I’ve been reading the news. I see what we’re facing. But I want to believe there’s a possibility for goodness to be born here, that there is possibility that those of us who (like my favorite sign from the Women’s March) went to sleep on November 8th, 2016 Democrats and woke up Activists.

I believe that where we were asleep now we might choose to be awake. And that in our awakening we might be strong enough to change everything.

But it starts here.

It starts with us and our strength — not the fiery fierce kind that burns but the gentle, enduring kind that’s capable of standing, not just for a day, or a month, or four years — but the kind that might support us for the rest of our lives.

This kind of courage and strength starts with us.

It starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: our fears, our anxieties, our needs. It starts with each of us meeting ourselves with kindness: soothing our fears, quieting our anxieties, and tending to our needs so that we are strong enough to show up day after day after day — not just for ourselves, but for ourselves first and then for everyone around us.

Because where we were a nation divided, we will need to be a nation united. And I don’t know how exactly we get there, but it starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: the fears of those who are “other”, the anxieties that keep people awake at night, the needs of those who are different than us.

And so the question I want to leave you with is this: what will you seek to create in the coming days, months, and years?

Because this kind of strength doesn’t feed on fear, it feeds on the possibility that even darkness can be transmuted into light — if only enough people are willing to open their hearts and take a stand.

This is one those moments when we all have to choose: not just how we will fight, but how we will heal.

We get to decide what new goodness we will bring into the world to meet the ugliness around us — so that this might not just be an ending but also a new beginning.

Much love,
Jessica

One day, one hour, one breath at a time

Once again I find myself sitting before the blank page trying to find something helpful to say on a day when everything seems hard. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, it’s been a rough January.

I started off the year full of ideas and enthusiasm (as one does), and rapidly succumbed to a cold that I’m still fighting off traces of. But it hasn’t just been my health I’ve struggled with. It’s been hard to read the news, and last week it was hard to watch the Trump inauguration.

All of which combines to mean that I spent the first part of January mired in a haze of illness, exhaustion, and anxiety.

But I can’t help but suspect that maybe it’s been a hard month for you, too — if not for all the same reasons.

And if that’s true then I want you to know that you’re not alone, that it’s been hard for me too — and I want you to know that it gets easier.

Because this haze of exhausted anxiety is a feeling I’m familiar with; I’ve been here before.

So if this month has been hard for you and in the wake of the inauguration you’re feeling understandably anxious and fearful, here is the process I’ve been using to navigate difficult times.

Step One: Offer yourself compassionate witness

The first step in navigating any hard time is always to notice you’re having a hard time (I know this sounds silly, but bear with me). This can be as simple as offering yourself a thought like “Wow, I’m feeling really anxious right now”.

The point is to take a step outside of the direct experience of the feeling (“I am anxious”) to create space between you and the feeling (“I am experiencing anxiety”). In the first instance, anxious is what you are and in the second anxious is only a feeling that is happening to you.

This creates space which allows you to work with the emotion instead of being overrun by it.

So if you haven’t already, or if you’re presently feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and notice exactly what it is that you’re feeling — and then notice that that feeling is simply a sensation that is happening to you right now.

And as you do that, offer whatever it is you may be feeling compassion. Don’t try to make it go away; don’t tell yourself that the feeling shouldn’t be there.

Just step outside of the feeling a little bit and notice its presence. That’s all you need to do right now.

Sometimes I like think of my feelings as unruly children who are seeking my attention, care, and affection. But feel free to choose any metaphor that works for you.

Step Two: Slow everything down

When I’m struggling I never have the same capacity to accomplish things as I usually do (be they grand visions or small mundane things like folding the laundry).

It’s important to understand and expect this because it allows you to give yourself permission to slow down.

When I forget to do this I invariably get lost in a shame-spiral that starts with letting things I’d meant to do slip, at which point I judge myself a “bad person” for not doing things I meant to do, and get mired in guilt and shame, which exacerbates my anxiety, which leaves me with even less energy, and causes things to slip even farther.

If you have this tendency too, then I invite you to skip the spiral. Start with permission to accomplish only as much as you have already accomplished (and, hey, some days that might be literally nothing if you’re really struggling).

I invite you to let being where you are be exactly enough.

I promise all those things that you’d planned to do will still be waiting for you when you’re feeling well enough to tackle them again — and, maybe more importantly, the world probably won’t have ended between now and then just because you didn’t get around to folding the laundry.

And anyway, I’ve found that somehow the truly critical stuff always manages to get done.

Step Three: Create a sense of safety

When you’re mired in a hard place, the journey to the other side begins with safety. It begins with creating a place where you can face into the storm while remaining anchored in an internal felt-sense of safety.

How exactly this sense of safety is created will depend on you and the storm you are facing.

Meditation and mindfulness practices are my favorite approach — I can face into mental or emotional turbulence while remaining anchored in the safety of the breath. But the effectiveness of this approach depends a lot on how well I am able to separate my sense of self from the immediate experience of whatever I am feeling — and how able I am to offer myself kindness and compassion instead of judgement.

If you feel like exploring this kind of approach, I particularly like the practice of RAIN which meditation teacher Tara Brach describes here.

Beyond meditation, other ways that you may be able to face into the reality of your experience from within a safe container include confiding in a journal, expressing yourself in any sort of creative activity, going for a walk, taking a bath, or rolling yourself up in a blanket. Sometimes working with a guided meditation can also help you create a safe space for yourself.

Feel free to experiment and get creative here and, if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no shame in asking for help.

A really important note: if you are really struggling or dealing with any sort of unresolved trauma you may be so caught in your experience you are unable to separate from the emotional experience without the presence of another person to hold safe space for you.

If this is true for you, then please don’t pressure yourself to keep trying — if you can’t confront your feelings while staying rooted in a sense of safety then it is kinder to seek the help of someone who can hold a safe space for you while you navigate the issue. Depending on your situation, this person might be a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach. If you feel like this might be true for you I’m always happy to talk with you and help you find the help you need, you can contact me here.

Step Four: Have patience with the process

This process isn’t a miracle cure (I wish it was, but it’s not). There’s no straight line from suffering to peace… it’s never going to be once-and-done.

You’re going to continue to struggle. You’re going to have good days and bad. You’re going to have days where it feels like you’re right smack back where you started.

You’re going to need to have patience and trust the process.

You’re going to need to trust that by offering yourself compassionate witness in the murkiest depths of your struggle and by calmly, gently, kindly turning inward to face the storm, that strength and courage will ultimately prevail.

This process isn’t magic. It’s hard and gritty and it usually takes longer than you’d like.

And when you’re in the middle it can be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable because the ego likes guarantees and it wants a promise that things are going to get better. But in the middle of a profound transformation everything feels uncertain and nothing feels like a guarantee.

But the truth is that this is okay, too. You don’t need to be comfortable if you just keep gently nudging yourself toward facing into the truth.

Just take it one day, one hour, one breath at a time.

Much love,
Jessica

Healing has its own timeline

As I’ve been watching the seasons change here in Boston, I’ve found myself unexpectedly at odds with the Earth’s natural rhythm: as the world slips into the dark winter months, my energy finally seems to be returning.

I feel hesitant to say such things out loud because this isn’t the first time I’ve hoped I was recovering only to find myself slipping back into familiar lassitude.

And yet, here I am again, quietly announcing that this time I hope it’s true.

You might think that after however many months (has it been four or five now? I’ve lost count…), I’d be used to the slowness with which this healing has proceeded, but it’s still so easy to trip over my own impatience.

I’ll have a really great day where I feel amazing and get a lot done… and then I’ll spend the next three days recovering.

But here’s the thing: this is just what healing looks like.

As much as I wish that healing was a straight line from unwell to well, a steady climb from rock-bottom to dazzling new heights, the reality of it seems to be that healing looks more like a rambling mountain road filled with unexpected twists, sudden turns, and jarring bumps.

And, just like when driving that winding road, it is easy to get frustrated.

It is easy to feel that after months of malaise there hasn’t been any real progress. But if I take the long view — if I compare where I am now to where I was three months ago, or twelve — it becomes easy to see how different things are now from how they were then.

I think that the changing season serves as a really good metaphor for how change proceeds in our lives. I can predict the first snow of winter no better than I can pin the day on the calendar when I’ll be “better” or “ready” or “healed”.

As much as my mind might wish to do so, there’s no line to be drawn in the sand — no well-defined boundary to cross between “when I was there” and “now that I’m here”.

At the change of the seasons, the weather is often volatile and contrary — a dizzying tour of hot, then cold, then hot again. And yet, there’s an underlying trend: summer’s heat yields inevitably to winter’s cold, and eventually cold will yield to warmth again. But the exact progression of days and temperatures that will lead us from here to there is impossible to guess.

I’m increasingly convinced that all change proceeds like this: a dizzying tumult of ups and downs, that mixes us up until we’re not quite sure how far we’ve come or how far we’ve yet to go. A series of largely-random fluctuations that catches us so off-guard it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

And my mind hates this.

My mind hates being unable to predict, because what I cannot predict I cannot control, and what I cannot control seems dangerous.

My mind wants to say that if I cannot predict when I will be well again then there is no way to know I will ever be well. And yet when I look at the trend over the past few months, it remains clear to me that I am getting better.

And here’s another truth: it’s when I let my fear run away with me and forget to trust the process that I trip myself up.

When anxiety wins I stop listening to the needs of my body, I overdo things, I relapse.

When anxiety wins I lose patience, I become unable to remember all the reasons there are to hope, all the evidence I can see pointing to signs of improvement.

When anxiety wins I slip back to where I was a month ago, or two — I slip back until I fall into something familiar. A pattern, a rhythm, a habit that I recognize because we’re old friends now: I spent my summer becoming intimately acquainted with their shape and heft.

And so now when anxiety wins I slip back, but in backsliding I find myself once again on solid ground. Familiar, well-worn ground I’ve walked four dozen times before.

When you think about it, it’s almost magic: the process itself catches me.

Over and over I return to where I began and each time it gets easier to crack the puzzle because I’ve practiced this now. This place is familiar but time has moved on and I’m not the same person I was the first time I landed here.

The more times this happens, the more I trust myself to hit the bottom and rise up again.

It is this trust that offers us real freedom, I think. When rock bottom is something we fear hitting, fear holds us prisoner. It becomes impossible to do anything that might trigger any sign of collapse for fear it might grow into an inescapable, all-consuming collapse.

When fear holds us prisoner, we inevitably find ourselves unable to risk anything at all.

But when we trust in our own ability to bottom out and pick ourselves back up and try again, the paths that used to seem too risky might begin to seem more enticing.

And if we can learn to navigate the dark days with kindness, with awareness, with compassion and gentleness — then we can learn to bring these qualities to the bright days, too — and ultimately everything gets better.

So if you’re muddling through a dark time right now, I’d encourage you to make friends with the process. Learn how to comfort yourself through the dark times.

Because falling apart is inevitable. 

No matter how much we try to control things, no matter how hard we work to protect ourselves — our hearts will always be vulnerable to life’s bumps and bruises.

But if you can learn to greet the dark days with gentle curiosity instead of fear or anger, if you can learn to comfort yourself with compassion instead of beating yourself up with self-judgement — then I really believe that you can do anything.

Much love,
Jessica