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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

Bringing your body back into balance

Here are two things I know to be true.

First, things have been unusually hard for those of us here in the US since the inauguration of the Trump presidency. It seems like every time I look at the news there’s some fresh heartbreak splashed across the front page.

Second, the body’s natural response to fear is ultimately counterproductive in situations like this.

The highest priority of body and brain are to protect you from danger and remove you from stressful situations.

Unfortunately, there is no way to remove yourself from the situation of the Trump presidency.

For better or worse, we’re stuck with him for the time being. Which means that the brain, left to its own devices, will try and remove you from the situation not by changing your circumstances, but by removing your experience of those circumstances through numbing and apathy.

The problem with this approach is that there is no way to selectively numb the body or the emotions. They only way to stop ourselves from feeling the bad things is to stop ourselves from feeling everything. And if this happens to us, we begin to lose touch with our joys alongside our sorrows, and our lives become leached of their vibrancy and vitality.

My point is not that you shouldn’t be afraid — I personally think you should be at least a little bit afraid. Your fear is there to help you pay attention. Your nervous system has correctly identified a possible threat to your well-being.

The problem is that the Trump presidency isn’t an immediate and present danger you can physically fight or flee from. And when the body’s fear response is triggered in an ongoing way and the danger can’t be fought or fled, it has only two last-ditch responses: freeze or shut down altogether.

As we move forward we need to pay attention to our fear — but we also need to recognize that if our nervous systems remain highly activated in response to an ongoing situation, we’re going to end up feeling emotionally wrecked, physically ill, and possibly even traumatized.

Because when the body is locked in fight, flight, or freeze in response to fear it turns off a lot of key functions. When our fear-response is a short-lived response, a natural reaction to a passing danger this works beautifully. But in the presence of an ongoing threat, the system starts to break down.

The good news is that if we are conscious of what is happening in our brains and in our bodies we can take proactive action to protect ourselves from stress and to create a more productive response to fear.

We can begin to do this by noticing that the threat isn’t immediate and allowing ourselves to return to the safety of the present moment. Yes, the Trump presidency is awful and many heartbreaking things will probably come to pass in the next four years. And yet, for most of us, we are as safe today as we were six months ago. The worst has not yet come to pass.

So for now we can take refuge in the recognition of this fact. We come back to our body, to our breath, in this moment in which we are still safe.

This isn’t about hiding from what’s happening and it’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about returning our bodies to balance so that we can be strong enough to continue to fight.

When we return to safety in the present moment, it allows the nervous system to relax. The fight or flight response eases, the body returns to a healthy equilibrium, and we become more resilient and able to take constructive action in the future.

My preferred technique for bringing equilibrium back to the body is meditation, which is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for reconnecting with my body and engaging with the present moment.

But here’s the thing most people don’t tell you about meditation: it’s really freaking hard! It’s sort like the black-belt of mindfulness practices — highly-effective, but not necessarily for beginners. It took me years of off-and-on practice to really see a benefit from it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes it means it’s best to try a different approach. If you’ve tried meditation before and feel like you “can’t meditate” or you’ve benefited from meditation before but now find yourself struggling, here are a few simple things to try.

  • Focus on your heartbeat. I do this lying in bed at night sometimes when I’m having trouble sleeping. Just lie down flat on your back somewhere comfortable and put your hands over your heart and feel it’s steady thump-thump-thumping. I’m convinced there’s something primally comforting about the rhythm of a heartbeat left over from our time spent in the womb.
  • Try a guided body scan. This is a mindfulness exercise that is similar to meditation but gives the mind a task to latch onto — bringing the attention to the physical sensations in the body. You can find a ton of these on the internet, so feel free to google for one you like. If you’re new to the practice I recommend starting with a ~10-minute recording such as this one, which is technically intended to help you sleep but could be used any time.
  • Express yourself creatively. If you have a lot of stress and emotions flying about doing something creative can be really helpful. I’m a writer, so I turn to my journal for this, but you might try painting, coloring, dancing, singing — whatever you love to do, really.
  • Practice yoga. I really like yoga because it is fundamentally an embodied practice that unites body and breath. It can be particularly helpful in situations where you might be feeling too unsettled to relax easily into meditation. Yoga encourages the body to relax into movement and into the rhythm of the breath. If you’re looking for resources, Yoga With Adriene is my favorite way to practice these days.

As we slowly and persistently practice bringing our attention back into the physical sensations in the body and to an awareness of the present moment, we accomplish two important things. We learn to find a visceral experience of safety in the body in any moment which allows the activated nervous system to relax, and we increase our tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable sensations.

We begin to teach ourselves that fear or sadness or pain are just sensations we experience in our physical bodies in response to stimulus. A lot of the struggle we experience around these emotions is our own resistance to feeling what we’re feeling.

When my chronic pain flares, I make it worse by believing that pain is something “bad” and that I shouldn’t be feeling it. The truth is that pain is just a sensation — a hot, stabbing, fire in my nerves.

When I drop my story about it and just feel the sensation in the present moment, I learn something that is obvious, but easy to overlook: I’m always able to handle my pain; I’m always already doing it. In each moment, I’m already feeling the full intensity of the sensation and I’m still breathing — I’m still fundamentally okay.

When I remember this, I find the pain eases — the sensation might remain but my resistance to feeling it diminishes and the pain becomes easier to bear.

This is what I mean by returning to a felt-sense of safety in the present moment: I might be scared or hurting, but if I sit down with myself in the moment, I realize that I can feel these things and still be okay. In fact, I’m always already doing it.

I believe that being able to return to this felt-sense of safety, to being grounded in our bodies, and aware of the present moment is the foundation from which all courage is born.

When we learn to see that we are always already handling our difficulties in the present moment, it becomes easier to see how safe we really are, to see that “bad” things can happen, that we can be hurting, and still be fundamentally okay.

It is this belief in our own safety, even in difficult situations, that makes it possible to act in ways that require our courage — because courage always requires taking the risk that things will end badly.

The coming years are going to ask each of us to be as brave as we have ever been.

The courage that we will need starts here: it starts with paying attention to our fear, returning to our safety in the present moment, and helping ourselves feel safe from the inside out, so that we can show up in the world with all the courage as we can possibly muster.

Much love,
Jessica

The willingness to suffer is… the secret to meditation

I started a new practice a few weeks back — on the surface it looks like meditation, but it’s really an exercise in what I’m calling radical discomfort.

I’ve written before about my struggle with meditation. It was a struggle I’d never satisfactorily resolved. I always meditated sporadically, doing it more because I felt like I “should” than because I really wanted to.

Until a few weeks ago, when I started reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and the following passage caught my eye:

“If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.”

Those few lines hit me really hard.

There have been so many times in my life when I’ve let restlessness move me — and in doing so I have often felt myself become disconnected from the truth of who I am.

Restlessness has shown up in so many ways in my life: as procrastination, as a short attention span, as physical fidgeting, as a kind of semi-permanent muscle tension that kept me braced against painful sensations and emotions I was unwilling to feel.

The contemplation of those lines lead me into deep inquiry as to what exactly restlessness is.

Here’s what I concluded:

Restlessness is the unwillingness to feel discomfort.

We feel restless when we’re bored or agitated or stressed or in physical discomfort.

But in avoiding the experience of our own discomfort we avoid the truth of who we are in that moment.

For the past two weeks now I’ve been practicing a daily meditation that looks just like every other seated meditation I have ever done. I set my timer for 10-20 minutes, I seat myself cross-legged on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, I place my palms on my thighs.

And then I remain still in the face of my own restlessness.

I stare my discomfort in the face.

I endure each aching and relentless second that fills the 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes that I have committed myself to.

I used to think that the discomfort was a distraction from the point of meditation.

After all, wasn’t meditation about feeling calm and peaceful? Wasn’t meditation supposed to help me reduce anxiety?

And the answer to those questions is yes, and yes.

But I’m increasingly convinced that meditation doesn’t do this by turning down our experience of suffering — it does it by helping us to turn up our willingness to suffer.

In meditation we meet our pain on the floor.

We have the opportunity to observe, to witness our pain, our discomfort, our restlessness.

We have the opportunity to witness our resistance to the reality of things.

And we have the opportunity to choose a new path:

A path of willingness, a path that invites us to really ask ourselves “this hurt, is it so bad? is it a problem? is it really troubling me right now?”

When I asked these questions of myself I found, to my surprise, that the answer was no.

I noticed that when I chose to sit and witness my restlessness, my uncomfortable emotions, my physical pain — I found that none of these things were so bad as I had imagined them to be when I was trying not to look at them.

Therein lies the real secret to meditation, I think — the secret I’d been missing.

Meditation is an opportunity to meet our discomfort with open curiosity and warm friendliness and seek the truth of whether or not the discomfort we’ve been avoiding really is as bad as we’d thought. (In my experience it’s usually not.)

But in order for the process to work we have to be willing to really look at our discomfort.

We have to be willing to stare our suffering in the eyes.

Now it’s your turn! Do you meditate? If so, do you practice a radical willingness to witness your own discomfort? How do you interpret those lines from the Tao Te Ching? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

“It’s not that bad” and other lies we tell ourselves

I want to say a few words about toleration. About putting up with the aspects of your life that “aren’t that bad”.

“It’s not that bad” is how we stay stuck for years in situations that make us miserable.

“It’s not that bad” is a lie that we tell ourselves, usually because not telling the lie means facing a scarier truth.

“It’s not that bad” is the lie I’ve told myself for years about my chronic back pain.

And you know what? On the one hand, I’m so right. My pain is really not that bad.

Compared to all of the people out there suffering from truly debilitating chronic pain, my wimpy little back pain is barely a blip on the record. It really is not that bad.

But the thing is that when you play in the Suffering Olympics, no one wins — why would you want to when the prize is nothing less than abject misery?

And yet the ego longs to play. The ego longs to be the best at everything — including being the best at suffering.

For years I’ve used this as an excuse. I’ve told myself this lie that my pain doesn’t deserve my attention because “it’s not that bad”.

It’s like saying that poverty in America doesn’t deserve our attention because “it’s not that bad” compared to poverty in Africa. It’s an equation that really just doesn’t compute — surely both are tragedies in their own right?

The same is true of our personal suffering. All suffering deserves our attention, from the smallest ache to the fiercest agony — our suffering deserves our attention, our compassion, our tender care.

This is what I’ve learned about suffering.

Tolerating our suffering doesn’t make us martyrs. It doesn’t make us kinder, more loving, and more generous people.

Toleration isn’t adequate to transmute pain into love.

To enact such a feat, an act far more courageous than toleration is required — an act of acceptance, an act of surrender is required.

Putting up with the places where we chafe against the edges of our life doesn’t make us any kinder or more noble than our fellow man.

Because the real truth is that even if “it’s not that bad” — it’s also not that good either.

When we’re willing to suffer “not that bad”, we deny ourselves “good”, and we shut down our ability to witness our suffering compassionately.

Putting up with our dissatisfactions almost always does exactly the opposite — it makes us discontented, more easy to anger, less able to extend compassion to others, and more apt to wallow in our righteousness.

When we’re wallowing in our suffering we can’t be of service to those who need us.

Which is the real reason why we have to look at the places where we’re tolerating — the areas of our lives that don’t suit us. We have to look at the aches and the pains and the discontents and the frustrations — because only when we do this can we move into a kinder, more beautiful, and more generous life.

The kind of life we always knew deep in our hearts we were capable of.

The kind of life we’ve yearned for.

The kind of life we thought we’d never be lucky enough to have.

The kind of life that is available to each and every one of us when we’re willing to look our discontents square in the face and fight our way through to the something more we’ve always dreamed of.

Because healing begins when we dare to tell ourselves the brutally honest truth.

All of which is a rather long and dramatic way of saying that I’ve gone ahead and signed myself up for some physical therapy and have been taking a deep dive into mind-body coaching techniques because I’m done tolerating being in pain all the time — even when it really is “not that bad”.

What kind of life do you yearn for? Where in your life are you done tolerating a situation that causes discontent? I’d love to hear from you in the comments! And if you’d like to take this conversation deeper, I invite you to work with me.