Your heart’s desire

I recently read Being Ram Dass – his last published work before his death (spoiler alert, it’s the featured book this month). There were many insights, aha moments and powerful takeaways from this book. However, the real stand out message for me was the importance of following your own north star. By this I mean doing what you know is your heart’s desire and following your calling to live your truth.

This is not often the easy choice, but it is truly the only choice that will satisfy our soul’s longing for expression. Oftentimes we will face a series of challenges, tough choices and opposition when we travel the path of following our truth. This can be very disturbing, troublesome and scary to work through. It is even likely to cause us to consider giving up and settling for a life we have talked ourselves into wanting because it will keep the peace or be more palatable to our family, friends or society. But inside we die a little bit every day by making this trade. Our soul yearns for truth and expression yet our ego wants the acceptance, security and safety of the familiar.

This point was so clearly demonstrated in the transformational life of Richard Alpert. The safe path of a respected Harvard professor, transformed into a controversial polarizing figure of the 60’s, transformed again into the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Each step along the way was wrought with challenges, setbacks, self-discovery and adversity. But the one constant was the impetus to follow his own path.

We can never know where our choices will lead us, but if we stay committed to honoring our own truth, we can be assured that it will be a journey worth taking. Along the way without even trying, our life will be an inspiration and blessing to others. By witnessing our courage and fortitude to take the path less traveled it will instill belief and legitimacy for others to also take a leap of faith and embark on the journey of following their bliss.

Speak only if it improves upon the silence

In these polarizing, divisive times we are living in it can be hard to disconnect from the frantic, anxious energy that is so pervasive. Everywhere we turn there is a debate, argument or eruption of discord and negative energy. It is easy to get pulled into defending our views, positions and beliefs. We often feel attacked and misunderstood, then seek to set the record straight by telling our side of the story. In other words, the “right” way to view things – if we are honest, this telling of our position more times than not includes a lot of upset, anger and thinly veiled judgement on our part.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing our viewpoint, but doing it in this way rarely ends up resulting in us feeling better. If our goal is to eradicate angry, fearful energy and create more peace in the world, then this approach just doesn’t fit the bill. We can’t get to peace and harmony by arguing and making other people wrong. So, what are we to do with all the anxiety, outrage and anger we feel when we witness the atrocities of this world? We make our one and only goal the commitment to not add to the collective toxic soup of hatred, blame and finger pointing. We do this by keeping a keen eye on our reactivity, bringing a higher level of awareness to how we respond and react in every moment.

We need to be awake to our knee-jerk responses and our tendency to speak, post, or tweet as a means to make ourselves momentarily feel better but not ultimately serve the goals that we all so desperately want to see manifest in this world. This means that we all must be willing to trade what feels good in that moment for what we ultimately want. This is about impulse control, and it has become increasingly difficult in this instantaneous social media world we live in to mitigate this issue. But it can be achieved if we each begin to take responsibility for the energetic pollution we are adding to the mix.

We can begin to ask ourselves if our dialog, comments or social media post is adding anything positive to the situation or simply putting fuel on the fire. If we are honest, oftentimes we want to get something off our chest and in doing so add to the tumultuous chaos of the collective. The Buddhist concepts of right speech and right action are an appropriate corollary to this idea. When we take the time to center ourselves before reacting and speaking, it gives us the opportunity to take an internal inquiry and ask – What is my intention? I have personally decided to make Mahatma Gandhi’s quote the basis for such decisions: “Speak only if it improves upon the silence”. Explore this idea for yourself and see if you too arrive at the same conclusion.

Plant the seeds you want to harvest

The new year is the perfect time to think about planting new seeds. Not in the gardening sense, but in the realm of our beliefs and thoughts. The effort put forth to cultivate and care for our seedlings of “new thought” will reap a rich harvest if we’re willing to stay the course.

Many people try to use affirmations, mantras or meditation to shift their mindset and claim it doesn’t work. Well, the truth of the matter is that we can’t get the results we want by spending fifteen minutes a day being open, positive and centered – and then spend the remaining 23.75 hours in anxiety, fear and negativity. It will take a long time to make a shift with that approach.

The insidious patterns of a negative mindset represent a long-standing habitual way of looking at life. They have actually become affirmations that are actively working against the life we want. We typically also have strong emotions behind these old thoughts and beliefs, which can make them seem even more intractable. The key to having our new thoughts and beliefs take root is to prepare an atmosphere where they can grow. Just like in traditional gardening, seeds planted in poor soil yield poor growth. But planting in rich soil and tending to the care of the seedlings yields a bountiful harvest.

Creating an environment that supports our efforts is paramount. Some things to consider when cultivating a rich medium for growth are the following important questions. How can we stay more aware and present throughout our day? What changes would have to be made in order to make this shift?

Along those lines, it will be important to take a serious look at the things in our life that no longer serve us. This could be people, work, commitments, or our living situation. Anything that we personally define as not representative of the direction we want to go. We can be grateful for the time we interacted with these things and be willing to move on from them.

Sitting with these questions will serve to create a template and action plan that starts us on the road to successful, lasting change. By staying in connection to our own gut instincts and feelings, we can make adjustments and tweaks along the way and close 2021 with a plentiful harvest of growth.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

I am sure many of you know that we are the proud owners of an adorable Shih Tzu named Bella. In case you weren’t aware, she is the light of our life and the princess of the house. Bella wears a top-knot and can always be found sporting an adorable hair bow. She is also a competitive AKC Agility dog. This surprises some people.

They see the fluffy little white dog with the hair bow and make an assumption…probably a number of assumptions actually. Some about the dog and some about the owners. The point being that we all have a tendency to think we know the story, the situation, person or dog by what we see and observe at a quick glance. But we are often wrong in these assessments. Usually it is our tendency to categorize and judge that is at work in these moments. It isn’t our fault, our human physiology is set up to quickly scan the environment, decide what the deal is and then take action or in fact make a judgement.

But we are more than our physiology, and therefore we have the ability to step back and be willing to open ourselves up to the curiosity and exploration of not knowing. Not knowing can be the most exciting thing ever! Just look at how kids navigate the world. They are so excited to wake up and greet the day because they bring an open-minded spontaneous energy to everything they do.

The key to recapturing that energy in our adult lives is to be willing to admit we don’t know as much as we think we do. The question really boils down to this – Are we teachable and willing to be wrong? The truth is that many people would rather stay stuck in painful patterns then to admit they are wrong or that they don’t have the answers. Our willingness to get comfortable with the idea of “not knowing” is really the first step to recapturing the joy and elation of life.

As an interesting sidenote, Bella received an invitation to compete in the AKC Agility Invitational this month in Florida. The top five dogs in the country from each breed are invited to compete. When we started competing in agility with Bella, we never had any aspirations to reach this level. We had in fact made a number of assumptions about her, and the likelihood of her reaching this level of success competing as a Shih Tzu in agility. Bella has taught us an important lesson about not judging a book by its cover. She reminds us every time she steps in the ring to compete that she makes her own rules, lives life on her own terms and to expect the unexpected.

I’m on the edge with you

Two years ago, this month my father was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer. For the past twenty-four months I have taken a detour from life as I knew it into a tumultuous space of the unknown. In the way steel is tempered in fire, I felt life provided me the same experience – a burning away of the unnecessary to expose and leave only the essential.

As I look back now, it has felt surreal and dreamlike. So much living has been jampacked into this timespan – my dad’s illness, his death, my mother’s cognitive decline and placement in an assisted living, the dissolution of my parent’s life and selling of their home. The list goes on, but you get the point…it’s a lot.

It was so extremely paramount to stay in the present moment and deal with what was needed and required in the now. The future held too many unknowns to even entertain strolling down that lane. I just kept focused on being present to what life was putting in front of me at any given moment. What I am most grateful for is the way life supported me throughout this entire endeavor. The people, places and kind faces just seemed to rise up to meet every need as it was presented.

I realized that we are all there together, living on the edge. Life’s edge, the place where pain, joy and all emotions reside. It’s the very fabric of our lives. Woven together and bound by our common humanity, we will all walk down a similar path of loss, grief, joy and redemption. The circumstances may be different, but the result is the same.

By the fact that we all traverse this unpredictable journey of life together, we can be comforted in knowing that we are never alone. For better or for worse, we stand on the shoulders of countless others who have endured all that life presents and survived. Sometimes with battle wounds or scars but often, if we are lucky with a renewed sense of faith in the love and goodwill that exists inside every person.

Just Do It

More than a wildly successful tagline and advertising campaign for Nike, this popular slogan holds the key to unlocking us from the fear that keeps us in chains. The beauty of this sage advice can be found both in the simplicity of the message and its potency if heeded. So often in my own life I have let fear and uncertainty keep me from getting in the game of life. I relegated myself to the sidelines out of fear of failure and effectively missed out on opportunities for growth and expansion in an effort to play it safe.

What I eventually came to realize is that fear and confidence weren’t opposing traits – where some lucky candidates got blessed or born with one over the other. They were traits that existed simultaneously and were essentially connected. The mistake I made for years was waiting for the fear to be gone before I acted. Confidence is cultivated by taking action in the midst of fear. I recently saw a great example of this while watching an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In this particular episode, Jerry Seinfeld spoke with Eddie Murphy about their early days as new comedians on the scene. Each complimented the other on their confidence and fearlessness while on stage, only to then have each one admit they felt anything other than that at the time. In fact, they talked about how the fear of knowing you might bomb up there is actually still present and is a vital part of the whole process. They said that fear and failure are essential ingredients for success.

It is a story heard time and again from successful people in all genres. They felt the fear and did it anyway. They failed, were told no, faced insurmountable setbacks and pushed forward anyway. It seems Nike knew what they were doing all those years ago in 1988 when they crafted this slogan. So, take this advice to heart…Just Do It – go on ahead and push forward in the face of fear, you’ll be so glad you did.

Transform Preference into Peace

Ditch preference, Discover peace

We learn pretty early in life the inclination to run away from things that scare us and cling to things that soothe us. What no one ever told us was this approach to life was not only flawed, but absolutely incapable of ever producing the peace, harmony and joy we hoped it would deliver. “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences” – This quote from the verses on the faith-mind by the Third Zen Patriarch captures the essence of why this seemingly natural approach to life is doomed to failure.

If I have a particular way I want things to be, that means I also have ways I don’t want things to be. Since I have very little control over other people, places and life events, the likelihood things will unfold the way I need them to be to feel safe and secure is highly unlikely. This means that whether I consciously realize it or not, I will be spending my life attempting to manipulate, control and arrange things to be a way that makes me feel okay. These attempts rarely work of course, which creates what we call stress and problems.

The key to our freedom resides in shifting our focus from “how can I get things the way I need them to be?” to asking the only question that will unlock the chains that bind us, which is “why do I need things a certain way to feel safe, peaceful, loved etc.?”. This shift in our approach to life completely changes our interactions and is a totally different way of transacting with life and the world around us. One way seeks to get things how we define them as satisfactory and the other way lets life unfold without taking it so personally.

Afterall, we are basing what we want, like, approve of and agree with on our limited set of experiences. In the face of different experiences, we would have different likes and dislikes. When we encounter an experience that exposes us to a new point of view or impacts us deeply, we often shift or change our point of view. This very truth should tell us that the process of how we decide what we like or dislike is based on the flimsiest data set ever.

It is exactly why the Buddha said all of life is suffering, caused by preference. When we accept life on its terms, we can truly receive the gifts it has to offer us. That means we can feel joy, sadness, elation, grief and all other emotions without seeking to push away the scary and grasp at the soothing. We realize that it is all part of what life is offering us and we get the honor of taking this wild and crazy journey for a few decades, if we’re lucky. All we really have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Calm, Kind and Resilient

A robust debate would likely ensue when getting an opinion poll on the most desirable traits a human being can possess. In my humble opinion, the trifecta of traits would include being calm, kind and resilient. The reason behind the importance of these traits stems from the power and personal agency created by their expression.

Truly holding the space of calmness means trust. For there are a plethora of life experiences we encounter that can’t be solved or navigated unless we truly trust and believe that a power greater than our own best thinking is supporting us and has our back. When we deeply believe this, then calmness under pressure begins to be our natural state. While the torrential winds and rain of “life” beat against us, we suddenly find ourselves able to hold an inner state of calm amidst the storms and rising tides of change.

Being kind is the next all-important trait. For to be kind is to understand that gentleness, love and mercy are truly gifts we give ourselves. We realize that the very expression of empathy, generosity and kindness we extend to other people, animals and the earth is in direct proportion to the belief we hold about our own worth and how deserving we feel to be on the receiving end of all good.

It may sound counterintuitive, but our stinginess to bring kindness to all situations and circumstances is in direct proportion to our internal judgements we hold about ourselves and others. The doling out of kindness based on virtue or earned merit means we subconsciously feel that it is a response based on worthiness versus a way of being that is our default position, regardless of the person or situation.

Lastly, I think the most important trait of all is the ability to be resilient. For without possession of this trait we lose the ability to pick ourselves back up and try again. Life can often leave us feeling so exhausted, beaten down and hopeless that we opt out of even trying. When this happens, we essentially stop living a fully engaged life and decide to make ourselves as small as possible to mitigate the damage of enduring any further trauma and tragedy.

Being resilient enables us to get back in the game of life quicker, easier and with an understanding that the ups, downs, setbacks and unexpected detours are all part of the plan. Every seemingly impossible obstacle along the way is seeking to fortify and build within us the muscle of resiliency.

Throughout the deepest and darkest chapters in human history, individuals that were triumphant over unthinkable adversity had these essential traits. We are in the midst of deeply trying times once again. And history will remember these times as being another defining moment in which the people who not only survive, but thrive were those amongst us who were able to access the calmness, kindness and resiliency within them and to share it fearlessly with the world.

The Wisdom Within

We can often find ourselves searching for teachers, mentors, gurus or other forms of sage wisdom in the midst of life’s most difficult moments. It can feel so reassuring to have someone wiser provide us with a direction to take or an answer to our problems. Particularly when we are feeling confused, tired and uneasy about the best course of action. There is nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, these special figures in our lives can often direct us toward or help set us on the path of personal unfoldment. Their support, encouragement and teachings can be instrumental in unlocking our own latent potential.

The only caveat is that we can grow to become too dependent on this outside guidance and begin to subjugate our decision making to others. When this happens, we are entering dangerous territory. What was once helpful can quickly become a crutch. We can even become unable to act or make decisions without getting guidance, consultation or assurance from whomever we deem as wise and knowledgeable. In essence, we perceive them as better suited to handle or advise us in the current crisis du jour. The truth of the matter is the presence of all teachers or gurus in our lives are meant to serve as a wake-up call and reminder of the power we hold within ourselves.

We come into these human lives with everything we need for the journey ahead of us. Life is tailor-made to provide each of us with just the right circumstances, situations and people to take us where we are meant to go. Our individual paths of self-realization are varied and unique, but the commonality is that we carry everything we need within us. From this perspective, it is less about seeking for the right guidance from outside advisors and more about turning within. In fact, the best mentors and teachers reinforce the idea that we should always honor our own inner knowing above any advice or guidance from an outside source.

When we find ourselves staring down a seemingly immovable problem or faced with another intractable situation, we can pause, breathe and turn inward. We take our inquiry within, not to the analytical or rational mind, but to our own heart-centered wisdom and inner compass of knowing. The simplicity of the process should not be confused with its power. The steps themselves are quite easy. We start with quieting our minds, then make our inquiry, next we let go of any agenda and become open to the guidance, we wait for an answer knowing that it will surely come. Our job is to be aware that the answer may come in an unexpected way and typically with a solution that we had never considered.

We build the muscle of connecting with our own wisdom and begin to trust ourselves in the most beautiful, genuine and natural way. From this vantage point of deep connection to our own selves we can see how every experience, encounter and person along the way helped to unearth the wisdom we hold within.

You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them

In the midst of challenging times both personally and globally most of us find that our minds are in a very unsettled and anxious place. Typically, this results in one of two outcomes in our behavior. We either go into shut down mode and retreat into a lethargic depressed state or we move into overdrive and attempt to channel that energy into a to-do list of action. While neither one of these is the right or wrong approach, the key is staying aware and connected to our bodies and feelings in either scenario.

So often we slip into auto pilot and find ourselves being driven by old behavior patterns and this is particularly true when we are in survival mode and dealing with fight or flight energy. One way this presents itself is in the push energy of overdrive. We want to complete the task, check the box, and often ignore signals from our bodies that we need to slow down. It can feel unsafe to stop because all of that energy we are channeling into efforts and results has to be felt instead.

We essentially have to stop running our favorite program of coping and become willing to titrate our experience with life in a new way. That “new” way may look like exploring how it would feel if we didn’t finish the project, push to get all the chores done, be there for everyone whenever they have a request or need. What if we were willing to follow our impulse to take a pause, say no or God forbid, not complete a project that we started. By tuning into the body’s wisdom and cues we can begin to create this new way of being.

This works equally well if our pattern is to move into shut down mode. By retreating in defeat, we are telling ourselves a story that we can’t handle what is being presented. But is that really true? Again, we can be willing to titrate our experience, listen to our inner wisdom and become interested and curious in exploring a new way of being. When we interrupt these automatic programs with awareness and curiosity, we create the space for new explorations and unchartered territory to enter our lives. This is a good thing because life is movement. Stagnation and patterns of behavior and thinking are not where we experience growth, evolution or resolution to the dilemmas of life. As Einstein famously said, you can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them.

In order to get to that new thinking, we have to be willing to notice where we can begin to introduce new options for responding and dealing with challenges that are outside of our rote patterning. As with all change this is a gradual and incremental way of working with ourselves and the world in the most healing way possible. Because what the world truly needs most is awake people living awakened lives.