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Settling into the stillness

While I was a student at MIT I forgot how to be still.

I was so madly busy, so go-go-go that every time I came up for breath, I twitched restlessly, sure I must be missing or forgetting something.

I would go home for Christmas, and in the days that followed my arrival I was relentless. I fidgeted. I poked and prodded. I asked “What’s up?” over and over, helplessly, of anyone afflicted with my presence.

One year, in a fit of desperation I sat down to my mother’s piano (an instrument I do not play) and proceeded to teach myself Bach, one agonized note at a time. I played the same piece over and over and over for hours, for days until my fingers flew almost gracefully over the keys.

I played until every nerve in the house was frayed just like mine were and — in the moment when my sister finally yelled at me to stop — I thought that in their annoyance my family at last shared a trace of my pain.

This affliction was usually (thankfully) short-lived. Within a handful of days my anxiety dimmed from a pitched fervor to a disquieting buzz that settled in my bones and could be mistaken for “normal”. I could come to accept that for a few short weeks there might be nothing I needed to do — no imminent crisis that needed thwarting, no pending deadline I had somehow forgotten.

But I could not settle into stillness.

The first time I tried in earnest to meditate was the winter after I graduated with my Master’s degree.

I settled down on a cushion and dutifully crossed my legs. I set my timer for the recommended 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my breathing. I pressed “start” on my cell phone timer.

I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I was shifting again — my hand reaching instinctively to kill the timer as I rose to my feet and settled myself back at the computer.

Sitting in stillness with my thoughts was unbearable.

I tried again in the following days — setting my timer. I never made it the full 20 minutes, but sometimes I counted myself lucky to endure five as my thoughts raced in tight, anxious circles and I struggled to remember my breath.

I gave up eventually. I quit.

I decided meditation wasn’t for me; the way I’d decided it wasn’t at age 10 when I’d read about it in a book, sat down to try it out, and remained still for a (very patient) three minutes before deciding I must not be doing it right.

I guess I’d expected some kind of a mystical experience, but all I got was me — concentrated and intensified and uncomfortably near as I struggled to follow, not dictate, the rhythm of my breath.

But as we enter this particular winter — as we enter into the liminal space between winter’s first chill and the snowy onset of winter’s depths — I’ve noticed something in me has shifted.

No longer am I the girl who can’t sit still.

No longer am I the girl who found a 20 minute meditation stretched out like an infinite, bridgeless crevasse I was unable to cross.


These days I find myself sitting in stillness more often than not, in vast stretches of empty hours spent on the bus to and from work or on airplanes as I criss-cross the country with the alacrity of a hockey puck.

I used to fill these spaces with noise, with words, with pages and pages of the books I voraciously consumed — stuffing my head to the brim with thoughts and ideas. But these days, more and more, I find I’d rather just sit down where I am and watch and breathe and contemplate the world as it slips silently by out my window.

On the eve of this particular winter I’m finding myself settling into a new and yet familiar stillness, settling into the moments of soft introspection as my attention draws inward even as the trees draw in their sap.

I find myself welcoming, not dreading, the impending cold that will keep me hunkered down. No longer does the threat of this seem anything other than delicious as I settle myself down for a kind of inward-turning hibernation.

I find myself feeling, for perhaps the first time since I arrived at MIT, like I’m incubating the seeds of something entirely new.

I find myself returning to the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I’m sinking myself into the stillness now, I’m waiting into the winter.

Because I do not yet feel ready for thought as I settle, ever more deeply, into the person I find I’m busy becoming.

What about you — who might you be becoming? Let me know in the comments.


When it’s all just too much

In the past week I have crisscrossed the country by aeroplane for a wonderful weekend in California, spent a very brief night collapsed in my bed in Boston, and hopped on yet another flight to attend a planetary science conference in DC.

To say I am exhausted would be an understatement.

I knew going into this that my travel schedule in November was ambitious (I’m flying back to CA in a couple of weeks to spend Thanksgiving with friends and family) — but even though I knew it was a stretch I still found myself taken aback by my profound levels of exhaustion.

Which is why I’ve been doing everything I can to go to bed early and fit in the odd afternoon nap.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my recent re-commitment to prioritizing rest, and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been taking my own advice.

Because the thing about refusing to rest is that it’s a kind of perverse self-flagellation.

You think “If I were better/stronger/etc. I wouldn’t need to rest” and so you forego your rest in order to prove your own goodness or strength and in doing so you actually make yourself weak.

If there was a way to not need to sleep I’d be all over it. But there’s not.

I’ve tried just about every trick in the book and none of them worked — so I’m forced to the conclusion that rest really is a non-negotiable if you want to be happy. (Or at least if I want to be happy — maybe you are made of sterner stuff!)

One of the things I’ve been paying attention to since I started life coach training is where suffering shows up in my life.

Byron Katie says “No one can hurt me — that’s my job” and everything I’ve seen so far would indicate that this is true (at least for emotional suffering; I think there’s still an argument to be made for others causing us physical pain…).

No one can hurt me without my permission.

No one can ask me to hook a work trip up against a personal trip unless I say yes and no one can tell me I shouldn’t be napping right now except me.

That’s the power of coaching and of Byron Katie’s method of inquiry — because in noticing our suffering we get to make a new choice.

We get to choose to take a nap.

We get to choose to say no if we want to or to say yes if we want that instead.

We get to choose to make new rules for ourselves and our lives — instead of feeling like our lives are cruelly dictated by the expectations of others, the culture, or our boss.

When you question the cause of your suffering you step out of the role of the victim and into the role of the hero.

You become the leader of your life, not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Which is why I’ll be napping on my flight home tomorrow and why I’ll be spending an unsual number of hours in my pajamas this weekend.

There are times when life is busy and stressful and complicated and messy and exhausting and brilliant.

And when life gets to be too much, sometimes the only way through is to crawl your weary bones back into bed — knowing that your life will be right where you left it when you crawl back out from under the covers again.


What is life coaching?

Last week I announced that I had embarked on a new adventure and enrolled in the Martha Beck Life Coach Training Program. This week I want to give you my perspective on what exactly life coaching is, because had you asked me what life coaching was two years ago I’d have said, “Say what?”

So today, I’m taking the questions I imagine you might have about what it means to be a life coach. 🙂

(If I don’t answer all of your questions, please ask me in the comments!)

Here’s my take on when you might benefit from life coaching

Life coaching is for when…

  • You feel like some aspect of your life has become stuck or stagnant.
  • You need to make a big decision but your head keeps whirling in circles and you’re tired of not knowing what to do.
  • You feel a deep yearning for something more in your life but you aren’t quite sure what it is you’re yearning for.
  • You have a big, amazing dream but you fall flat on your face every time you reach for it.
  • You have a big, scary dream you’ve never dared to reach for at all.
  • You’re tired of feeling frantic and overwhelmed every day as you struggle to juggle a gazillion competing priorities and needs — none of which are yours.
  • You’re just plain old tired. (Trust me, I know!)

Working with a life coach is like hiring a personal trainer for your dreams.

Which isn’t to say that working with a life coach turns every aspect of your life into sparkles and roses — just like when working with a personal trainer there may be sweat and tears. But as a life coach my role is to support you gently but firmly as you dissolve the patterns and thinking that keep you stuck where you are and uncover the courage you’ll need to take big, scary leaps toward the life that you long for.

All of which brings me to an important caveat.

Life coaching is not therapy or a substitute for therapy.

Martha Beck likes to say that “a life coach is to a therapist as a personal trainer is to a doctor” — a doctor takes you from sick to well and a personal trainer helps you maximize your health and performance. As a coach, I can’t help you heal the psychological traumas of your past. I’m not qualified to do that kind of work and I won’t do you the disservice of pretending that I am.

However, with that said, if you’ve had trauma in your past and you’ve worked through it with a good therapist — if you’re already pretty well healed, then life coaching could absolutely help you put the last vestiges of that trauma behind you and take back control of your life.

Which brings me to the last question I want to address…

What does a life coach actually do?

This is a question that can’t really be answered because no two life coaches will do the same work, but what I can tell you is what I can do.

  • I listen with open ears and abundant compassion to your stories, your fears, your hopes, and your struggles.
  • I ask really good questions that dig deep into what’s got you frustrated and help you find the confidence you’ll need to take courageous action.
  • I use The Work of Byron Katie to help you investigate your stories about your life, your place in the world, what you do or don’t deserve, and what other people will think of you. Together we question these stories and discover what is true.
  • I help you reconnect with your physical body, your intuition, and your own innate wisdom so that you can navigate your world with all of the information granted to you by millions of years of evolution — Obviously, your rational-thinking brain is marvelous and important, too, but it evolved only a few tens of thousands of years ago! 🙂
  • I help you chart the course toward your right life and learn the tools that will get you there. And, when the road inevitably gets bumpy, we face those bumps together making it easy(er) for you to stay on track.

The cool thing about the Martha Beck tools, and part of what makes this skill so versatile, is that as a coach I’m not going to tell you how to go about achieving your dreams. I’m here to help facilitate a transformation that will leave you clear, confident, and ready to take the (often terrifying) leaps that really will get you to your dreams.

How you achieve your dreams is something we figure out together — not something I’m here to tell you how to do!

That’s a bit about me and what I can do with the tools I’m learning in the Martha Beck training program.

If you have a question I didn’t answer, I’d love to answer it for you in the comments.

If you read the above and feel like you could use this kind of support in any aspect of your life right now, please use my contact page to get in touch! I’d love to talk to you and see if my skills are a good match for your needs.

I’m working with people for free while I earn hours towards my certification and I work over the phone, so your location is never an issue. 🙂


Embarking on a new adventure

There’s always something perilous and exhilarating about embarking on a new adventure; a risk taken in the name of a hope always feels equal parts terrifying and exciting.

Which is why this week I am equally excited and anxious to announce that a few months back, I myself embarked on a new adventure.

It is an adventure that started more than a year ago now, at the moment I first read the beginning of Martha Beck’s book, Finding Your Way In a Wild New World, in which she writes:

“The mother rhino paws nervously, and I feel the impact tremor in the ground beneath my own feet. She is huge. She is nervous. She could kill me as easily as I clip my fingernails. But my mind is filled only with wonder, distilled into two basic questions:

Question 1: How the hell did I get here?

Question 2: What the hell should I do now?”

Those two questions have haunted me since I first read them because, though I have never faced down a consternated mother rhino, I found the questions equally well described how I have felt about my life since I graduated from MIT.

How the hell did I get here? What the hell should I do now?

These two questions have run over and over in my head like a mantra or a Zen koan that I couldn’t possibly solve.

The promise of finding the answers to those questions tantalized me, because the startling truth was that I found I did not know what the answers might be.

I knew in some sense how I had wound up as I had: two degrees from MIT and reading Martha Beck on the shuttle bus to and from work as I dreamed of a future free of the mathematical snarls I was daily expected to untangle…

The sequence of events of my life stretched out before me and I could see some sense in the way they connected as Point A led to Point B and Point C.

But the fuzzy spaces in between the bookends of my life plagued me.

Eventually, I began writing memoir as a way of understanding how the experiences of my past had shaped me into the person I am today and had informed the shape of the life I live today.

I started to find my answers to Question 1 in words laid down upon the empty page.

But days ticked into months ticked into nearly a year and I still had no idea how to answer Question 2.

What the hell should I do know?

I had half-baked dreams and desires but no plan and no real sense of direction…

Which is why earlier this summer I enrolled in the Martha Beck Life Coach Training Program. (And if the words “life coach” make you cringe, then trust me, I am cringing harder.)

At the time I couldn’t have given you a better reason for why I did it except that every time I thought about it my skin crawled with full-body tingles… and that seemed as good a reason to enroll as any (laugh if you like — but those tingles were well-correlated and strangely compelling).

As a scientist and a skeptic I was afraid that any program billed as “life coach training” could not possibly be of use and substance.

But here’s the thing, I’ve been in the program since the end of July (with a number of months still to go) and already I can tell you that it’s been nothing short of amazing.

So why am I only writing about the program now?

The answer is because at first I was uncertain. I didn’t know if I was making the right decision. I wasn’t certain the training wouldn’t be a smashing disappointment.

At first, I only knew that deciding to do the training felt big and scary and uncertain and I wasn’t ready to trust my fragile decision to the mercy of other people’s judgement.

But those ridiculous tingles crept over my skin and something inside of me kept urging me to do it.

And so I did.

I’m three months into the program now and I can tell you unequivocally that those tingles were spot on.

The skills I have been learning in the training program are some of the coolest I have encountered in my life and I am super excited to share them with you.

Which is why I’d like to make a gentle request…

A couple of weeks ago I passed the point in the training where hours spent coaching folks outside the student cohort count towards certification and I would love to share with you everything that I’ve been learning.

So if you’re a little bit curious, if you perhaps have a skin-crawling tingle or two, or if you find yourself wondering how the hell you got here and what the hell you should do now, then I want to invite you to work with me. I can work over the phone, so location is not an issue, and because I’m still in training I’m working with people for free 🙂

If you’re interested, or if you know someone who might be interested, please hop on over to my contact page and get in touch.

And if you have questions (I hope you have questions!) please feel free to contact me directly or leave them in the comments below. I look forward to answering them!


How do you feel about saying no?

It occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that I may have a dysfunctional relationship with the word “no”.

The topic came up this week as I was tasked to some new projects at work and while, on the one hand, I don’t mind (I like it when other people ask me to help and the tasks are useful, just not interesting), on the other hand, some of the tasks that I was asked to do aren’t things that make me feel zippy inside. Some of them feel more like a weighty ton of bricks.

There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I shouldn’t have said no.

This state of self-inquiry is particularly acute because I have been reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and it’s been really useful for crystallizing a lot of the ideas about priorities that I’ve been toying with for a while.

The basic tenant of his book is that we should do “less, but better” — i.e. say “no” to more things in order to focus on that which is essential. It’s a great idea, a great theory; I found myself nodding along with something on nearly every page as I read.

And yet this week I didn’t think to say no when asked to do things that I already know will not be my highest contribution.

There’s a lot packed up in this idea. On the one hand, I think saying no is just hard: it is an act of rebellion, a distancing of oneself from the rest of the tribe.

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of my personal baggage wrapped up in it, too.

I wouldn’t bother to share my baggage, except that I’m beginning to learn that it’s all the same baggage — we use different words and have different reasons, but our issues are usually the same: at the end of the day we’re generally insecure, worried that there’s something wrong with us, and that the rest of the world might find out. We therefore conclude that our wrongness means we’re not worthy of whatever good the universe offers to us.

For me personally, this means I’m often overly-eager to play the drudge. I operate from a place of “it’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it” and because of my feelings of unspecialness (my own particular flavor of unworthiness), I feel like that person might as well be me.

The consequence of which is that I wind up working on projects I don’t love and feeling like everyone else gets to solve problems that are cooler than mine.

My rational brain knows that to some extent “the grass is always greener”, and other people’s problems probably aren’t any more exciting than mine. But then I wonder — is that true? Or do I just think that’s true because I believe that important work is often unpleasant and has to be done anyways?

Our thoughts get slippery when we try to work our way around them.

I don’t know my answers yet. I know that it’s easier to agree than to say no when I’m at work. And I know that it’s easier to say no than to agree when someone invites me to a social outing (even if there is a part of me that wants to go).

And I know that, as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us… We often think of a choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice — a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.”

This week I felt myself not-choosing, rather than sincerely saying yes.

The point of this blog is not for me to whinge on about my inability to set boundaries around my time at work. The point of this blog is to perhaps help you think a little more critically about what it is you are or aren’t saying “no” to in your life.

My hope is that by shining a small light into my dark and nebulous corners, you might find the shadows a shade lighter in yours.

Where could you do “less, but better” in your life right now? What would you need to say “no” to to make your highest contribution — whether at work or at home? Let me know in the comments below!