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May we all be heroes in the dark

heroes in the darkI’ve been struggling to find the right words since the election. I don’t want this blog to become a political forum, and yet I feel like the election is something that cannot go unaddressed — we cannot just pick up and go on with business as usual because what happened on November 9th means that business is no longer as usual.

For many of us the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was devastating. I count myself among that number.

As a candidate, Trump espoused a platform built on hatred and intolerance that I find difficult to stomach. At this point, it seems increasingly clear that he intends to carry at least parts of this agenda forward into the White House and I fear what this will mean for those of us who are most vulnerable: racial minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities.

I do not want to shut out all possibility for hope, because I think that hope is crucial. Hope is what encourages us to keep trying, to keep fighting, to pick ourselves up and keep pushing on. So I remain willing to be wrong — but from where I stand right now it seems not overly-dramatic to say that dark days and hard times lie ahead of us, and that the next four years will likely demand more of us than did the previous eight.

In the absence of a government working to protect our interests we, the individuals, will need to stand up for the rights we believe in more vocally and more visibly than we did before.

We will need to be braver, to be stronger, to be kinder, and more compassionate than we knew ourselves to be.

We will need to be ready to stand up for each other, to stand beside each other, and to fight together for the rights we believe in.

We will, each of us, be called upon to be heroes in the dark.

However it may seem from where you stand today, this isn’t a fight we’ve lost yet. This is a fight that’s only just beginning.

So with that in mind, here’s what wisdom I have for you in these dark times.

First and foremost, care for yourself and your safety.

I can’t know what lies ahead for any of us and I don’t want to be prematurely alarmist, because I know how easy it is for the mind to slip into catastrophizing and catastrophizing (in my experience) only makes us panic and panic leaves us ill-equipped to face the needs of the present moment.

However, I also don’t want to tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid, that you shouldn’t pay attention, that you shouldn’t take whatever precautions seem helpful — because I think you should. You should prepare yourself in whatever ways you can for the days to come.

Do what you have to do to keep yourself safe.

Listen to your fear — it’s trying to get your attention.

Your fear has one and only one agenda: to keep you safe.

However, problems arise when your fear cripples your ability to act in a misguided effort to keep you safe. I have a theory about why and how this happens: I believe that fear cripples us when we are unwilling to feel scared, when we are unwilling to engage with our fear where we stand.

It is this unwillingness to engage with our fear that paralyzes us and leaves us unable to act.

So what to do instead? Be willing to be scared, be willing to listen to your fear when it’s screaming for your attention. When I ask my fear what it needs from me, most often I find that my fear just wants me to know that danger is present — it wants to know that I’m paying attention so that if action is required, I’ll be ready to act appropriately to keep myself safe.

Don’t try to push past your fear, don’t try to ignore it, and don’t try to shove it aside into an unused corner of your mind. Trying to set your fear aside usually only makes it scream louder.

Instead, honor your fear and invite it to make the journey with you — you don’t have to be fearless in order to act with courage.

Practice reconnecting with a sense of calm

Here’s a truth I’ve grappled with in my own life: while the urgency of panic may seem productive or even helpful, the truth is that if you spend your whole life swept up in a state of anxious urgency you dull your ability to discern the difference between true, helpful fear and the false, panicky urgency that naturally creeps in around the edges of our overly-scheduled, busy lives.

Because of this, one of the most important things you can do is to develop a habit of checking in with yourself, noticing what emotions and physical sensations you are feeling in your body, and offering yourself and your feelings compassionate witness.

My morning meditation practice is something I’ve turned to for support in recent weeks. Meditation is just a drill for this more important daily habit of exercising awareness and mindful attention to ourselves and our emotions: I spend 20 focused minutes practicing so that I can build the muscle I need to carry this skill with me throughout the day.

Please note: I don’t believe that meditation is always right for everyone. I spent years trying to “make myself” meditate because I thought it would be good for me. And until recently, it wasn’t. I think you have to be ready to begin a meditation practice and not wanting to is generally a sign that you’re not ready. This is *especially true* for anyone dealing with unresolved trauma, as meditation can unlock old traumas and can be re-triggering and damaging if you’re not prepared. I’ve written more about this here (scroll down to the note at the end of the post for my thoughts on trauma).

Regardless of whether or not a meditation practice is the next right thing for you, cultivating habits that return you to a calm and peaceful sense of being grounded in yourself (this could be writing, a hot bath, going for a walk, making art, etc.) will be a crucial mental and emotional support for each of us in the years to come.

Don’t disdain the power of small actions

I’m so guilty of this, so I want to make sure to mention it. Please don’t disdain the power of small actions. I know how easy it can be to feel that as an individual you have so little power, so little ability to influence anything of significance, that you might as well not even try.

And from where I stand, this belief is a lie my fear-based thinking tries to sell me in order to convince me that I shouldn’t bother risking failure. For me, that’s what it’s really about: my ego hates to fail, my ego hates to lose — and so my ego would rather quit than the run the risk that I might try and not succeed.

Do what you can and let that be enough.

If all you can offer is five dollars or five minutes, then do that — and let that be enough. If you can offer more, that’s amazing — but don’t hold back because you feel that whatever you have to offer isn’t enough.

Don’t discount the power of small actions taken in aggregate. Do what you can, especially if your mind is trying to tell that a gesture so small must surely be meaningless.

It’s really, really not.

Take action in whatever way is right for you

In the days, months, and years to come there will be many people who want to tell you how you should take action. “Come march with me in Washington”, they’ll say. Or “Sign this petition!”. Or “Donate to my favorite charity!”. Or “Call your congressperson about X!”

Not all of these actions that other people will want you to take will be actions that are right for you.

I, for one, will not be participating in marches. I dislike crowds and loud noises and I find the energy of large, excitable, angry groups of people to be utterly draining and exhausting. It’s not a way of making my voice heard that is right for me — I’d much rather sit behind my computer and type words.

I love that people want to march to express themselves — to take a public stand for what they believe in. But I will not be joining them.

This is absolutely okay.

There are other ways I can contribute to this fight: I can donate money to organizations that will fight for our rights, I can sign petitions, I can call my congressional representatives, I can use my voice to speak about my beliefs with others, I can read the news and stay informed, I can bear witness.

Here’s another thing I can do: I can listen to people whose opinions differ from my own, I can challenge my own assumptions about people who are different from me, I can work to build bridges between people who have competing interests, belief systems, or priorities.

There is no one right way to fight injustice. There are always many paths to the same goal.

You don’t have to let other people pressure you into acting in a way that isn’t right way for you.

If you want to explore some different ideas about how we move forward from here, this post might be a good place to start.

Be patient, be kind, be gentle with yourself

This, perhaps more than anything else, is the most important thing I have to offer. The world right now is asking us to step up, to become braver than we have ever been.

This is not something that will be easy.

Over and over again I catch myself in the belief that not only should I be able to do hard things, but I should be able to do them easily, effortlessly, gracefully.

This is not true.

As a former ballet dancer, I know that the appearance of grace is always the result of thousands of hours of hard work and sweat. You have to put in the practice, you have to push against your own edges, before you finally master something new.

The same is true of courage.

If you’re not used to being brave, if you’ve spent your life feeling small, silenced, hidden, or afraid — don’t expect yourself to become someone different overnight.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

So be patient, be kind, be gentle with yourself. You’ll get farther faster if you treat yourself with kindness and compassion than you will if you try to beat yourself into bravery with 10,000 judgemental sticks.

Courage is a muscle you build; it doesn’t happen overnight

Courage isn’t always something we’re born with. Courage is something we develop, it’s something we cultivate.

We grow our courage in the teeny-tiny steps, small acts of daring that slowly accumulate into the ability to move mountains.

Allow yourself to start small, to stretch your comfort zone out slowly. Don’t expect to be able to carry the world on your shoulders overnight.

But if you start small, if you build your courage slowly by taking actions that are just the tiniest bit outside your comfort zone and then the tiniest bit farther than that, your capacity to act bravely in the face of fear will grow and someday soon you’ll be brave enough to move a mountain.

And together we will need to move mountains.

Much love,
Jessica

You have to be willing to wobble

By Frode Inge Helland [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Frode Inge Helland [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Someone clever once said that “fear is excitement without the breath” (either Fritz Perls or Robert Heller, according to Google).

There’s a lot of truth to that statement — and I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week in that place, suspended between terror and exhilaration as I begin the process of finally, officially launching my coaching practice.

Which is to say that it’s been a great week. It’s also been a hard week, and in many ways an exhausting and stressful week.

For reasons which also have to do with things besides launching my coaching business, I’ve been living on the ragged edge of excitement.

I notice in myself the urge to flee the discomfort of standing balanced on the knife edge between fear and excitement.

I notice the urge to stop breathing, to hold tight to the breath I have as I power through and through and through until I reach the end of this discomfort.

Until I break free into the light.

But there is a wiser part of me that knows that this discomfort won’t pass quickly — that I will have to learn to breathe, to find my balance in this delicate place.

What I am trying hard to remember is that balance is an act of movement.

We think of balance as a moment of perfect poise, a place of stability — and this does occasionally happen momentarily when we balance. But what thirteen years of ballet taught me, is that real balance is a hundred million tiny adjustments as one tips left, right, front, and back. The wobble is an essential part of any balancing act.

True balance has more to do with allowing the wobble, than achieving a perfect, motionless moment.

Anxious. Happy. Scared. Delighted. Thrilled. Restless. Exhausted. Resting.

I’ve been wobbling all week, but I haven’t collapsed out of balance. I’ve just been teetering, teetering, teetering…

It would be easy to forget that this is what an act of balance looks like.

It would be easy to call my week of teetering “failure” and to tell myself that I should be managing to live my life more gracefully. But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we forget the the balancing is in the wobble.

In fact, the best way to guarantee you’ll fall out of your arabesque is to be unwilling to wobble.

The best way to fall out of balance is to hold tight, to stop breathing and tense up. We think that rigidity equals stability but in fact the opposite is true.

In trying to achieve that moment of perfect stillness, we lose the loose the willingness to wobble that is, paradoxically, the very foundation of our stability.

So if you, too, are struggling to maintain balance in the face of it all I’d like to invite you to notice your own willingness to wobble.

And if balance is feeling elusive, here are a few things that might help.

  1. Remember to breathe. It can be easy to think that holding onto the breath will increase stability, but in truth this never works. You can’t balance if you’re rigid. When you are truly balanced the balance moves with the breath — the breath becomes the rhythm that settles you toward stillness.
  2. Keep your focus. It’s much harder to balance if you don’t keep your gaze softly focused on a target. If you feel yourself beginning to topple, resist the urge to look wildly around for a way to save yourself! Remain calm. Remain focused. Breathe. You might need to set an intention to keep you focused in the right direction.
  3. Practice. You’re going to wobble. You’re going to fall off balance. The important thing to remember is that this is a part of the process… and that you’re going to get better with practice.

Much love,
Jessica

Permission to break the rules

Here’s how it happens. It starts when everything is humming along smoothly.

You’ve identified your goals, you’ve broken them down into next steps, you’re plugging away, you’ve got your self-care dialed in and everything is rosy.

Your schedule is full, but not too full. You’re feeling energized, excited. You’re having fun.

And then there comes a moment when it starts to shift.

Maybe it starts at work. Maybe your job becomes a little more stressful than it was before. Or maybe the shift starts at home. Maybe you get sick or someone you care about gets sick or maybe a friend asks you to help them with a project you hadn’t planned for.

Slowly, insidiously, the “extras” creep in — until before you know it, you’re not humming along smoothly at all. Instead, you’re running on a treadmill that just keeps going faster and faster and faster and things are suddenly not so rosy any more.

Or at least that’s how it happened to me.

Cue new year, new goals, fresh energy, and bright plans. Cue increasing work stress, an extra course I signed on for, and a radical commitment to show up differently in the world in 2016.

Lights, camera, action, and… epic fail.

I started off 2016 with the very best of plans and intentions. I was looking forward to taking big, bold actions and really showing up in the world in a more courageous way.

But, as usually happens when one makes a grand plan, a combination of unintended consequences and unforeseen circumstances conspired to help me fall flat on my face.

It wasn’t so much that I’d made a bad plan (in fact, I think it was a great plan!), it’s that plans never work out they way we expected them to when we made them.

My mistake was not in planning, but in failing to ditch the plan immediately when it first became clear that it wasn’t working. My mistake was that I struggled valiantly on.

I grappled with stressful deadlines all day at work and then came home to coach clients on the phone. I stayed up late writing blog posts and beat myself up for letting my meditation practice slip when it was pushing 11 pm and the choice was between meditation and rest.

My failure was my choice to engage in the struggle. And I’m going to admit that the results were less than pretty.

Due to heightened stress at work, I became less able to handle the stress of a packed coaching schedule outside of work. As my time filled up, my commitment to the routines and practices that replenish me waned, and as my ability to care for myself faded I got angry.

I got angry first at “everything” outside of me, my job, other people’s demands, and so on. I numbed my anger by staying up late catching up on TV shows I stopped watching years ago.

I transferred that anger to myself for “making bad choices” and for “not taking care of myself”.

And finally I got really upset with “the rules” — the systems and structures that I had created in my life. Systems and structures which I had put in place to support me suddenly began to take on an ominous and gloomy feeling.

In the end, I did the only sensible thing I could see to do. I took a page out of Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong, and wrote myself a freaking permission slip which read “Permission to break the rules”. And then I cancelled everything I had “committed” to.

I cancelled sending out my weekly newsletter last Friday. I cancelled keeping up with the telecourses I’m taking. I cancelled some of my available coaching hours. I cancelled everything that felt stressful and aggravating and horrible in my body.

I spent some evenings watching TV, yes — but when I’d watched an episode or two I went to bed instead of staying up until the wee hours. I went to bed before 9 pm some nights and I slept a few ten hour nights.

I started exercising again. I started meditating again. Because I was going to bed so early I actually started waking up in time to meditate in the mornings before work (which I have never before managed to do).

Suddenly I can breathe again. I’m writing again and exercising again and meditating again. I’m sending out my newsletter on Monday instead of Friday and you know what? I gave myself permission to break all the rules but in the end, I’m only three days late.

If there’s a lesson in this, I think it’s that there’s no shame in quitting. Sometimes the only way to start moving forward again is to stop trying so hard for a while. Sometimes the only way to figure out what you need is to stop everything you’re doing, so that you can get really quiet and tune in to what it is that you’d actually like to be doing.

I think we get so muddled in the rules that sometimes we wind up missing the forest for the trees. We tell ourselves painful lies about how we should be able to keep our shit together when we feel like we’re falling apart, about how we should be able to handle our situation gracefully, and about how it’s bad of us to skip our meditation or our physical therapy exercises or, or, or.

The kinder, more honest truth is that sometimes life gets ugly and murky and we don’t handle it as gracefully as we’d like to. And that’s perfectly OK too, as long as we’re not telling ourselves a story about how we’re bad people because we fell flat on our face and scraped our knees and now we’re feeling a mix of anger and shame and the petulant need for a cry.

So if you’re like me and you’re off to a shaky start in 2016, I humbly invite you to write yourself a permission slip that reads “Permission to break the rules” — and then go ahead and cancel everything.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what happens next.

Much love,
Jessica

Five strategies to get more done with less effort

I aspire to a life that feels effortless.

For this reason, “effortless” is the word I’ve put at the top of my to do list, as an often mocking reminder of how I would like to feel. Because in all the important ways I find I’ve lost the ease of flow.

It’s a problem that feels particularly acute right now; I moved last weekend and am coming off of twelve months of an unfortunate roommate situation which often cost me significant sleep. All of which is to say that I’m tired. Deeply, hopelessly, profoundly tired all the way down into the marrow of my bones.

But I’m sick of feeling mired in exhaustion.

I’ve felt like this off-and on (more on than off) since sometime during my junior year at MIT. I feel that around my twenty first birthday I tapped out and never really managed to find the way back in. And years later, I’m sick of feeling stuck because I’m too tired to manage more than my day-to-day — the cooking, cleaning, and working that eat up so many non-negotiable hours each day.

I’m ready for a new adventure.

And yet I’m so tired that every necessary step feels awful. Every necessary step feels like it requires a Herculean effort, even when it’s as small as writing up a new blog post to share with you each week.

I’m still working on healing the exhaustion, but it’s been years now since I graduated from MIT and I’m done waiting until I feel less exhausted to move on.

Instead, I’m choosing to focus my efforts on effortlessness.

When you’re tired, you only ever do the things that feel easy. If you want to get things done despite being tired, then each individual task has to feel absurdly easy — so easy you’d rather just have it over with. In order to get things done when you’re tired, those things have to feel effortless.

But here’s the secret about effortlessness — it’s not really about the difficulty of the task, it’s actually about the weight of resistance you have to doing the task. Which means that the problem I’ve really been tackling is the problem of resistance.

Whole books have been written on resistance (Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art is an oft-cited example). But most of those books focus on powering through the resistance with grit and determination — the “do it anyway” approach.

I don’t have the energy to “do it anyways” anymore.

I spent my “determined misery” allowance while I was at MIT. I bullied myself into powering through impossible mountains of homework, often staying up multiple days without sleep in a slap-dash effort to make the impossible possible. And for the most part, I demonstrated alarming success.

But this kind of energy is a finite resource — you only have so much to give and mine is all used up.

Instead, I’m having to find a gentler, more effortless way of getting things done.

And what I’m learning is a whole new way of getting things done that feels easier and even (sometimes) effortless.

Here are a few of the forces I’ve been harnessing in my life:

  1. Tiny tasks = momentum and completion. Martha Beck calls this taking turtle steps. Anna Kunnecke suggests we give ourselves the gift of completion. What they mean is that small wins build momentum and are easy to accrue. Hard things become easy when we break them down into tiny tasks so simple we’d rather do them than not-do them. “Finish writing book” is a huge overwhelming task that might be impossible and this brings resistance screaming into the picture. But “Write in bed for 20 minutes before sleep” feels cozy and lovely and so doable that I might do it even on a night when I’ve just moved and am exhausted.
  2. Play and celebration. When I was at MIT I almost never celebrated my accomplishments. Always there were so many pressing items still on my to-do list that I plowed straight from one into the next with hardly a moment for reflection and celebration. But when we celebrate our achievements it changes our to-do list from a gauntlet to be run into a game to be played. Like a game of “hot lava” every time we make it to a new surface without being “burnt” we give ourselves a little cheer — a cheer which bolsters us as we prepare to take the next leap.
  3. Honoring desires and joy. Here’s possibly my favorite trick. Move items from your “to-do” list to your “want to do” list. This was a big help with my writing practice. When my writing was a “to-do” I resisted it because I was tired and I didn’t want to do anything except rest. But I wanted to write, too, I just didn’t want to have to. By honoring my desire to feel prolific and my desire to write I reclaimed the task of writing and moved it from a duty to a joy. Are there things in your life that you love but that you resist doing? Is it perhaps because you’re not honoring your wants and turning joy into a duty? I invite you to ponder the question.
  4. Caring less. This one feels a bit like cheating, but it’s true. I’m not sure who said it first but this is the principle that encourages us to not let “perfect be the enemy of good (or done)”. It’s the wisdom in Anne Lamott’s suggestion to write “shitty first drafts”. It’s about taking a leap, taking a risk, fearing it won’t be good enough and doing it anyways. It’s about letting go of perfection and letting your successes be wildly, improbably imperfect and messy. It’s about making mistakes and not worrying too much about the consequences.
  5. Letting failure be ok. This is important because you’re not always going to succeed. I try to write every day but I don’t manage it. I try to make a plan for the things I need to do every day and I don’t often stick to it. These things don’t mean I’m a “bad” writer or that I’m doing anything wrong. They just mean that life is messy and often unexpected and no one can predict the future. One of my writing mantras has been to “tread gently” — to learn to take it easy on myself and to let it be ok if I don’t meet my own expectations. Because my expectations for myself are usually broken and unrealistically high. And that, too, is ok.

Now it’s your turn! How do you make the work in your life feel effortless? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

 

Father

Happy (belated) Father’s day, everyone! This week I’ve got a companion piece to the flash story “Mother” that I published in honor of Mother’s day. Enjoy!
–Jessica


Father.

The word spills from her lips and my gaze falls to the pregnancy test held in her hand like a weapon. She repeats the word but it falls on deaf ears as my stomach drops down into my shoes. It’s everything I thought I wanted and yet now I’m not so sure.

She stands before me, barefoot in her PJs, and she looks so rumpled and uncertain that she might as well be naked. And I — I am uselessly and incomprehensibly at a loss for words.

Father.

The word crawls its way hoarsely from my throat. My voice sounds breathless, restless, choked. I feel trapped in this moment as the silence just keeps expanding around us until we are two — alone and lost in a bubble of deafening quiet.

I don’t know what to say and I attempt to marshal my courage even as I feel my knees melting beneath me.

Father.

My eyes reach for hers and her whole body is trembling now in some kind of time-delayed reaction. I reach out, almost without thought, and haul her rattling bones into my own. And we lean in to steady ourselves a moment.

Father.

The word trips unsteadily from my tongue once more and I’m waiting for the arrival of joy.

I expected joy. I’ve always wanted kids. And yet here I stand, dumb, trembling and panicked — and joy is nowhere to be found.

My arms wrap around her and I catch us both in the silence.

I catch my breath.

“Hey,” I say. “Hey, it’s going to be alright.”

Her eyes turn to look at me and I can see moisture trembling in her lashes.

“We were planning this, remember? We were hoping for this.”

I can feel my voice picking up confidence with every sentence — slowly gaining strength.

“We’re going to be parents.” Warmth is creeping it’s way back into my bloodstream now, back into my tone.

“We’re going to be wonderful parents.”

I can see her expression lightening a bit now, I can feel her trembling begin to slow as she nods and buries her face unsteadily in my shoulder.

“I’m going to be a Dad.” The words fall from my lips unexpectedly. (Didn’t I already know?)

And there it is: the joy I’d been expecting.

Father.

I think I could get used to that.

 

Now it’s your turn! Let me know what you thought of this piece in the comments below.