How to want what you have when it’s not what you want

IMG_5787Last year I found out, rather unceremoniously, that I had lost my job. I was a part of a small private practice that was bought by a competitor, a change facing many physician practices today. Unbeknownst to us, we were not going to be offered employee contracts as we had previously been told and instead, we were pushed out of town entirely. As the most recent hire and youngest of my group, I was the first to go despite four years of service. Not only that, I was given three weeks notice.

Three weeks.

The competing group had known for months in advance that they wouldn’t keep me on but they chose not to disclose the information. Of course, I was bitter. It’s not exactly easy to find a position as a pathologist these days. Even after accepting an offer, it takes months to get hospital approvals and state licenses. So there I was without a job for the first time ever in my life and I had no idea when I would be working again. I didn’t know how to process the shock of what had just happened let alone make decisions about the future.

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The Addiction No One Is Thinking About

columboWhen I was younger, one of my favorite activities was simply to think.

I remember laying on my back, on the floor in my room and gazing out the window, just thinking. I would think about my friends, about school, about books I had read…really anything. I imagined future scenarios, and reminisced about past ones. Lost in daydreams, I never would have thought that I was fostering an addiction.

I was a thinking addict.

Most of us are, in fact, addicted to our thoughts. Indeed, this is not an accident, but rather a result of neurological efficiency. Each thought, just like every action we take, corresponds to neurologic activity in our brains. And if there is one thing our brains are especially good at, it’s being efficient. This is ultimately the process of learning, although it may sound strange for me to tell you that you actually had to learn to think. But you did. What you learned to think about as a child and young adult is largely driving your thoughts today. Spend just five minutes observing your mind at work to find out for yourself. It’s an illuminating experience to catch our thoughts, and a forever life-changing one to start noticing our inner dialogue.

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5 Reasons Affirmations Don’t Work

file0001179129151Affirmations are very specific, positive declarations that are said and/or written in attempts to change a negative belief about ourselves. If you follow any of the popular self-help books, you’ll find references made to affirmations, and even specific ones you can use when struggling with a particular problem. You can create an affirmation for virtually any issue, whether it is finding love, overcoming illness, or becoming financially abundant. The theory behind the use of affirmations is that what we think and say creates our reality, based on how our neurons fire and wire together.

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The longing in every woman’s heart

file0001008154008Experiencing life as a woman is a gift, that I have heard many men claim they are glad not to have received. Our feminine bodies and minds flow with nature in a way, in lunar rhythms and cycles, that men just often don’t understand. Just as the moon pulls the ocean tides, so are we pulled in an ebb of flow of life. We create and build life, and we also release its potential with our very blood.

At our center, there is a longing. We are born into this world naked and alone, and spend the rest of our lives trying to find the right clothing to cover us, and the right partner to be with us. Even as our baby-girl-bodies emerge from the womb, we are longing for something, for some sense of connection to another. For some sense of connection to ourselves.

Social mores tell us that once we marry and have children, our role as women will be fulfilled. Is this what evolution had in mind for us, to be the vessel for more people? Or can becoming a mother also be a strong catalyst for another kind of birthing process?

What life are we really meant to bring forth?

Each woman has a wild, instinctive nature. There exists a part of her, no matter how tame she has become by society, that remains untouched, like a glowing white pearl hiding within a seashell. This is the gift she is born with, this gift of life, of creativity and wildness. This is what each woman struggles to protect throughout her life, whether she knows it or not. This is her true essence, a small indesctructible pearl that is born from the challenge and hardship of every woman who has come before her. The true longing in each woman’s heart is to take this pearl from deep within, caress it in her palms, and show it to the world.

We don’t long for children, for men, for material objects, as much as we long for ourselves. We don’t give birth to another human being as much as we give birth to ourselves. And we don’t nourish the life of another human being with our bodies, as much as we nourish the living planet with our very being. We are women, we are connected to the divine through our blood. We wax and wane with the moon, resting at times from depletion and then brimming full with abundance.

Only when we recognize the longing in our own hearts to be ourselves, to expose ourselves, and to birth our highest Self into being, will we be able to influence the course of humanity. Our men have done the best job they knew how to, until now. They have only known how to be men. What is necessary now are for self-realized, self-birthed women to step forward, unashamed in our femininity, and join them.

The one thing that will derail your New Year’s resolutions (and how to overcome it)

file4281249501933In January, most of us set some sort of resolution for what we hope to accomplish in the next twelve months. Resolutions are important, but more importantly, our intentions behind them speak volumes for who we dream of being. The difference between an intention and resolution is this: an intention reflects our deeper purpose in life, and our resolution is our decision to act upon it. The problem so many of us face when carrying out our resolutions is that we often lose the motivation or energy to stick with it, despite our intention. How is it that we can feel a deep desire and inner purpose to achieve some goal, and yet remain complacent in the status quo? I have written about the quality of grit, which is important to cultivate because it alone can make a huge difference in reaching our goals. But another piece of the puzzle is termed “resistance”, which will be the focus of this post.

In his book “The War of Art“, Steven Pressfield coins a term for that mysterious, invisible force that keeps us stuck where we are, especially when we pursue creative and self-improvement endeavors. He calls it “resistance”, and it can manifest as distraction, procrastination, anxiety or even as depression. Like gravity, resistance is a natural law. It represents the equal but opposite force in response to our efforts to elevate ourselves into higher levels of being. Said simply, resistance pulls us back when we try to push ourselves forward. It doesn’t matter what the activity is that we are engaging in either, just as long as it is something meaningful to us. It might be walking a few blocks around the neighborhood each evening, or sitting down to finish the next great American novel. Anything that we pursue in attempts to develop ourselves further than we currently are will be met with resistance. The more strongly you feel about pursuing a goal, the more you will feel resistance pulling you in the other direction.

Resistance’s purpose is to prevent you from changing. It comes from the ego, and is threatened by those things that connect you to your higher Self and calling. That is why the more you try to pursue those specific goals in the area of your gift and calling in the world, the stronger resistance will tug at you. It might seem unfair, but look at it this way: When you feel resistance, you know you are on the right track. When you start to recognize that it is becoming harder to push yourself towards your health goals or creative projects, you know without a doubt that you are on the brink of transformation. Resistance is your guide, and you will feel it more intensely the closer you get to the finish line.

Overcoming resistance is a matter of taking a strict approach with it. It requires setting a schedule, and sticking to it (there’s grit again). Pressfield writes that it’s about seeing yourself as a professional in whatever activity you are engaged in. You might pursue the activity out of love, but if it is important to you, then you must look at it like you would any other job. You show up, get the work done, and go home. It’s not a matter of doing it when you have time, or when you feel like it. It’s knowing that if you don’t do it, you aren’t living the life you truly want. You aren’t living. Ultimately, it’s a matter of life or death in the spiritual sense.

Be careful, because often resistance masks itself in perfectionism. You might feel that unless you do something perfectly, it isn’t worth doing at all. But this is what resistance wants you to believe. It knows that when you are tired, or having a bad day, that you’ll throw in the towel because you don’t feel like any effort you put forth is good enough. But it’s not about doing anything perfectly. Maybe you write a page of your book that you just end up throwing out. The goal isn’t to complete each task as you imagined you will on your absolute best day, but merely to look resistance straight in the face and get the work done anyway, even on your worst day.

Steven Pressfield doesn’t measure the day’s success by the work he accomplished. He measures it by the answer to this one question: How well did I overcome resistance? I’ve started posing this question to myself at the close of each day. The answer comes to me immediately and intuitively, and I find that keeping the concept of resistance in mind helps me stick to my creative and self-improvement endeavors the following day. If you want 2014 to be year of exponential growth, of achieving the goals you set forth in your New Year’s resolutions, become acquainted with resistance and how it shows up in your own life.

No matter what resolutions you have set for this year, the prerequisite to every one will be overcoming resistance. The way gravity pulls your foot back to the earth after each step, resistance wants to keep you standing still. Don’t let it.

A meditation to keep your heart open to those who have hurt you

1402529_43662915One of the biggest challenges we face in a relationship with those we love is the occasional misunderstanding or conflict that results in an emotional wound. We are wired to seek connection with others, and it feels so good when we find it. When we feel the rift of disconnection separate us from those we love, even if it is just for a moment, we can find ourselves wanting to close our hearts and retreat into ourselves. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means that we allow ourselves to get hurt. It seems like a paradox. On one hand, we work hard to treat ourselves well and expect the same from others; and yet, we know that by consciously allowing ourselves to be hurt by others, we often experience our greatest growth.

There is not a single person alive today who does not know what it is like to have their feelings hurt by someone who he or she loves. We all have various coping mechanisms when this happens, and some of us are better at moving forward than others. How we deal with it depends on the person who hurt us, the degree of hurt we feel, and the nature of the hurt. Often, our suffering comes mostly from our own minds and attachments to what we think another person’s intentions are. Our egos can use moments like this, when we feel vulnerable, to rise up and reinforce certain illusions like “I am not worthy”, “Why does everyone end up doing this to me”, or “I should have known better”. We then project intense feelings of bitterness or disappointment onto the person who has hurt us, often out of proportion to their true intention. It is so important to catch ourselves in these emotional states, because we can lash out or withdraw from the person we love to such an extent that we in turn hurt them.

So the question becomes, how do we keep our hearts open to someone we love, who has hurt our feelings?

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, the answer will come as no surprise. It is to simply breathe. It’s a hard thing to remember when we are caught up in our emotions, but becoming aware of your breath when encountering hurtful situations will help you get through them. Taking even, deep breaths during these times might even feel like you are actually breathing in the hurt, and this is ok. In fact, allowing yourself to breathe in the hurt, to feel it fully in your whole being, is the first step in letting it go. Breathe your way through the conflict, and then when you can take some time to yourself, consider the following meditative practice.

The Buddhist meditation called ‘tonglen‘ focuses on breathing in your suffering, and breathing out your happiness and blessings to others. This might feel counterintuitive at first, but it is a way of connecting yourself to anyone and everyone who might be feeling just as you are in the moment. And I can assure you, there is no hurt that you have ever felt where you have been alone. Someone, somewhere out in the world, has felt the exact same thing. In the depths of any suffering you might be experiencing, you are not alone. Ultimately, the situations that hurt us the most with others are the ones that make us feel suddenly severed from them, cut off from the warmth of their understanding and love. Whether this occurs in a new friendship, or with a spouse of fifty years, the nature of the hurt is the same. It is rooted in disconnection. While their words or actions might legitimately have caused us pain, it’s the feeling of disconnect that comes from it that creates the emotional wound. Practicing tonglen during these times is difficult, but reminds us we are not alone. We are never truly disconnected from anyone; we only perceive that we are.

Below are the steps you can use to keep your heart open during times of conflict with a loved one:

1. When you feel the familiar sting of emotional pain, acknowledge its presence.
2. Identity where you feel the pain in your body, and then take a deep breath in.
3. Breathe in the pain, deeply, visualizing it entering your heart.
4. Breathe out from your heart your blessings to everyone feeling as you are right now.
5. Allow any emotions to arise, and any physical reaction you might have to them, such as crying.
6. After several breaths, give thanks for yourself and the courage you showed in allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

As you work towards staying vulnerable and open, especially when you want to close yourself off and retreat from the world, be kind to yourself. It’s important not to judge yourself and your reactions, but to merely observe them. By practicing vulnerability in the face of emotional wounds, you are actually opening yourself up to feeling deeper levels of joy and love. This is ultimately the gift in our pain – it is the key that unlocks the hidden rooms deep in our hearts that have been empty and gathering dust, simply because we didn’t know they were there. Keeping yourself open to those who have hurt you will allow you to consciously inhabit your own heart.

The importance of emotional rest

file0001218052971Monday’s post on emotional numbing resonated with many of you. One of the gifts of life is being able to feel both pain and joy. The two stroll hand in hand, like lovers, down whatever paths we take them on. It is only our perception and conditioned beliefs that label one as bad and the other as good. Those two, however, have never known each other this way.

The reason we have labeled feelings like disappointment, grief or sadness as negative is partly because we don’t like how it makes our bodies feel. Emotional pain can be very physical, and since we have decided that certain physical sensations are “bad”, we then label the emotional counterpart in the same way. This is completely understandable, but if we can change our perception of what is “bad” and “good”, we might find a much greater value in accepting all emotions as they are. By throwing those labels out the door, we might stop resisting those feelings we don’t want to feel, which ultimately limits our ability to feel those we do.

I believe it is these darker emotional states that carry the most potential to fuel our personal growth. These are times when often we find our lives in conflict with our dreams, or our actions in conflict with our words, or our choices in conflict with our best interest. No matter what the circumstance is that triggers painful emotions, there is an immense possibility of growth if you are willing to see it. But equally important as allowing yourself permission to feel these emotions, is allowing yourself the time to recover from them.

Imagine you are in the gym, lifting a heavy weight. You know that the burn in your muscle, the burn that makes you want to quit, is necessary to feel if you want to get stronger. While many people quit when they feel the burn, the ones that continue to lift the weight often gain the benefit of those “golden reps”, the ones that carry the most potential for growth. These reps are creating small tears in the muscle tissue, which then initiates inflammation and repair mechanisms that ultimately lead to muscle growth. But the key is that the muscle cannot grow stronger unless the period of work is followed by rest. It is the weight that breaks down the muscle, and the rest that grows it stronger. Without adequate rest before the next workout, you risk temporarily, or even permanently, injuring your body.

In the same way, when you allow yourself to fully feel your painful emotions, it’s as if you are lifting a heavy weight that is breaking down some part of your ego. Likely, you are being forced to let go of something that you had an attachment to so that you can show up in life in a different way. Whatever it is, know that you are doing very important emotional work that is necessary for improved emotional health. When you start to feel the emotional “burn”, you are in the golden zone. See the process through, and then follow it up with emotional rest.

Emotional rest is a period of time after having acknowledged strong, painful emotions where the true growth actually occurs. I believe it occurs naturally after intense emotions, and is characterized by an emotional landscape that is calm and even. It’s when we absorb the experience we just went through, and it becomes integrated in our system. Micro transformations occur during these times, a subtle evolution in our life experience. If we are engaged in numbing behavior, we can never fully take advantage of emotional rest. And if we manage to avoid numbing, but never allow ourselves the time to recover from the painful emotion, we might miss out on the full potential for growth that is available to us.

One way to ensure you are resting emotionally is to rest physically. Get more sleep, take time out for yourself, and do something that centers you. Take a walk in the woods, meditate, or listen to soothing music. Try to avoid any intense emotional encounters if you can, and avoid negative people at all costs. Simply be, and allow life to gently sink into your soul, into your bones, and into your heart. You’ll know when you have had enough rest and can move forward.

My hope is that by allowing yourself these rest periods, you will adequately recover from any painful experience you might have so that your perspective on them can slowly change. It’s not always easy to love those things that help us grow the most. But it is easy to love the rest we can find afterward.

Numbing the pain is the antidote to joy

file1701347712205I want you to think about your vices. What do you turn to during times of discomfort, that have become habits in your life? These are things that generally provide temporary pleasure at the cost of your long term goals. It might be eating “comfort” food, shopping for something you don’t need, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, or spending hours in front of the TV. Your rational mind tells you these things aren’t a good idea, but some other, stronger, force takes over and you engage in these behaviors anyway. Usually, after you are done, you don’t feel too good about yourself. And what’s worse, the emotional discomfort you tried to run away from not only sticks around, but it often gets a lot worse.

“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Why do we repeat this pattern over and over again? The answer is that we are engaging in emotional numbing. Emotional numbing is a concept that Dr. Brene Brown discusses in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. She describes this action as something we all resort to as an attempt to escape emotional pain. Think about your vices again. Can you identify triggering events that lead to the behavior? Maybe it was a stressful day at work that you coped with by going on an online shopping spree. Or it was being cut off in traffic and nearly getting in an accident that preceded going home and ordering a pizza, that you ate by yourself. Our numbing behaviors are mechanisms we have developed in order to cope with difficult emotions. This, in and of itself, isn’t the problem – it’s the behavior we choose that becomes the problem, often leading to long term unfavorable outcomes with no resolution to the original pain. Not only that, the process of emotional numbing limits our experience of joy in our lives.

This last point is especially critical to understand. Dr. Brene Brown’s research has shown that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. If we numb the bad, we numb the good. By trying to escape our feelings of being overwhelmed, scared, hurt or fearful, we also end up escaping joy, love, fulfillment and passion. We become numb to life. Emotional numbing is a vicious cycle we get caught up in. It’s a positive feedback loop for the destructive numbing behaviors. We feel bad so we numb with a behavior; we can’t feel as good as we want when something good happens, so we supplement the experience with the behavior as well. Pretty soon, our lives are the ebb and flow of our numbing addiction.

Emotional numbing is not something over which to be critical of yourself. We all do it. It’s the mind’s way of coping with extreme discomfort. The thing is, usually what is triggering the numbing behavior is an area of your life that needs your attention, ultimately for your greater good. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is meant to be an awareness mechanism for deep healing, and if you are open to it, spiritual growth. If you sustain a physical wound, you know that you need to take measures to make sure that wound heals and doesn’t become infected. Small wounds can heal on their own. Larger wounds need your help, otherwise you risk much more damage to your tissues. Similarly, emotional wounds need to be addressed and cared for, otherwise they will fester. Ignore a bad gash on your leg, and you might need an amputation. Ignore a bad gash on your heart, and you might amputate your ability to feel love and joy. We must understand that pain of all types has a higher purpose.

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. 
It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

C.S. Lewis

The first step in stopping the numbing cycle is to be aware that it is happening. When you find yourself engaging in your numbing behaviors, stop and consider what event triggered your feelings of discomfort. That emotional pain is demanding your attention for a reason. Use your tools of self-compassion to heal the emotional wound. Figure out what behaviors you can engage in that would actually make you feel better about yourself, not worse. Acknowledge your feelings, and even though your instinct is to escape, be with those feelings intimately. Breathe. Accept what the moment is giving you with courage, knowing that what you are feeling are growing pains. It is by feeling these difficult emotions that joy can become a greater presence in your life.

Are you ready to exercise your self-compassion?

self-compassionBefore we talk about practicing self-compassion, it is important to first get a sense of where you fall on the spectrum. On Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, a tool I love to use is the self-compassion quiz. Take the quiz, answer the questions as honestly as you can, and then write down your scores before reading on. These scores are only for you, and come with no judgement at all. Think of it as a fitness test prior to beginning a workout regimen. The only way to measure your progress accurately is to know where you started from.

Are you ready to exercise your self-compassion? Here are three exercises below that, if you commit to them over this next week, will definitely increase the strength of your self-compassion muscle.

Pick one area you tend to criticize yourself about. Whether it’s your weight, your job, your parenting skills…just pick one area and spend five minutes meditating on that thing. Bring up scenarios that you have found yourself in when your self-criticism was at its peak. Notice how you feel, and where you feel the discomfort in your body. Put your hands on the part of your body that aches the most when you criticize yourself. If you feel it throughout your whole body, or you don’t feel physical sensation at all, then simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.

Now visualize a time when you have been your most kind to yourself about something difficult. How did you feel? What part of your body comes alive when you feel self-compassion? I often smile when I do this exercise. If you feel like it too, go for it! Become acquainted with the physical sensation of self-compassion. Put your hands on the part of your body where you feel this the most. Again, if you feel sensation all over, or not at all, simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.

Common humanity:
For this next exercise, find a picture of yourself, and one of someone you really care about. It might be a picture of your friend, parent, child or even a well-known person you have never met like an author of a book you love or a religious figure. Set the two pictures upright, side by side, where you can see them. Now, I want you to write down on an index card the most common self-critical things you say to yourself (“I’m too fat” or “I’m ugly” or “I can never do anything right”). After you have written down at least three statements, I want you to set this card next to the picture of the other person. Visualize how you would respond to them if you heard them say these things about themselves. What would you tell them? Write your response on another index card, and set this one down next to your own picture. As you look at the two pictures and two index cards, recognize that everyone feels upset or down on themselves at some point in their lives, and that we are all worthy of self-compassion. See the two beautiful people in the photos, linked by a common humanity. And then, take the index card with the critical statements and tear it up. Place the other index card with the compassionate statements between the two pictures and leave this up for at least a week. Throughout the week, when you catch yourself being self-critical, look at the pictures and read the statements.

Set aside about 15 minutes a day for the next seven days for this letter writing exercise. Think about something that happened during the day that you struggled with. Maybe it’s something that happened at work, maybe it’s anxiety about upcoming plans, or feelings of insecurity for no reason at all. Write a letter to yourself as if you were yourself from the future. This future you has already overcome the challenge and wants to help you. What advice would the future you give to the current you? What would he or she write about the process of going through something difficult, and coming out the other side? Start off each of your letters with this statement:

“Dear (Your name here),

I know what you are going through today, and I want you to know, you are not alone.”

Continue the letter with anything that comes to mind, and write as long as you would like. They key here is to stick to a daily writing schedule for seven days, so if writing a shorter letter helps you stay committed to the exercise, that’s perfectly fine.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, self-compassion is an important trait to develop not just because it makes us feel better subjectively, but because it is associated with numerous objective benefits. We are more likely to be resilient to stress and to stick to positive health behaviors, which means we can enjoy healthier lives. Practicing self-compassion is rewiring your brain for the better! So commit to at least one week of the exercises, and revisit them as often as necessary. Retake the quiz to see how you have improved, and be sure to let me know what changes you have started to notice in your life!