Tuesday, December 31, 2013

CAUTION: Don't Do This in 2014

“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.” Carl Jung
Accepting fully who we are will bring us naturally into balance 
While the tradition of making a resolution in the new year is a secular practice primarily in the west, it is practiced all over the world and considered a positive practice. But this practice not only robs us of our power, it can stunt our growth and can actually be dangerous. In order to effect real change in the self, we must accept that part of us fully. Every single aspect of the self is there to inform us. If we try to expel our bad behaviors before we understand them, they will surely return and latch on more stubbornly.

Sitting with our pain will inform us of our story
If we sit with the pain of what we term bad behaviors, lack of reaching our goals, or other desires, we can learn from it. Sitting with our pain is simply letting it occur without judgment. For decades I struggled with an eating disorder. While I went to therapy and went back to my past, I had a mixed bag of success. I harshly judged the behavior while working tirelessly to change it, which proved fruitless. When I let myself sit in my pain by allowing the feelings to come without judgment, I could ask myself why this behavior existed and what I needed to learn from it. I discovered that I ate when my mother and father would fight, when voices escalated and when anger turned violent in my home. The practice of filling my stomach up was my eight year old way of feeling safe. The deeper lesson was that I never learned how to handle conflict as a adult, slipping into the comfort of food to feel safe.    

Knowing the lesson of our story will naturally shift our actions
We cannot accept ourselves if we do not know ourselves. We cannot love ourselves if we do not accept ourselves. Courageously opening to look at our stories wholly instead of pushing the symptoms of our pain away is the only way to bring about lasting change. Once we understand our stories, we can acknowledge and have gratitude for the behaviors we may have called "bad" and lovingly release them. Once I learned I had not grown from my childhood way of dealing with conflict and began to deal with conflict in a mature way, the symptoms of that lack healed and caused me to have a healthier diet.    

Our struggles are important indicators of who we are. Focusing on that 20 pounds, our procrastination, or our deepest desires when we set a resolution in the new year is like turning off a valuable internal indicator. So this new year, instead of banishing bad behavior or vowing to engage in a favorable practice, ask yourself what is the origin of your story. The answer may surprise you, and the result of shifting into a healthy sense of self will be enduring.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Power of Vulnerability

“What happens when people open their hearts?...They get better.” Haruki Murakami 

Stephanie Circa 1974

This holiday season I have decided to give myself the gift of stepping fully and honestly into vulnerability. Before there was Brené Brown, before it was in vogue to be transparent with emotions, I drowned in mine.

When I was in Mrs. Emerson's fourth grade class in my progressive, public, elementary school in Los Angeles in the 70s, I felt myself hiding what couldn't be hidden. Despite that time in American culture when many post movements proudly sprang forth in Los Angeles and elsewhere―post-segregation, post-poverty, post 50s exclusionism―I knew it wasn't safe to show my true emotions. I pressed my face into the high-backed, green seat of our school bus as tears rolled down my cheeks. Our big yellow bus sat in the near-empty parking lot in the oceanfront town of Long Beach waiting for what is now called the Aquarium of the Pacific to open.

It was February and the California winter air filled with spikes of drizzle and the roar of the Pacific Ocean a rolling monster with angry waves. It was a day us LA natives dressed in sweaters and hats as the temperate struggled to reach 60 degrees. I saw a homeless man sleeping on a bench near the aquarium. He wore raggedy clothes and had an incredibly sunburned face―the skin on his ruddy cheeks hardened as if shellacked. Three newspaper pages were spread over his body for warmth and the remainder of that paper under his head as a pillow. His swollen feet were unable to fit in the filthy tennis shoes that sat abandoned on the bench next to his feet. A flood of compassion welled up inside of me as I looked, and then the tears. It didn't take long before my fourth grade peers were out of their seats pointing and laughing. I am certain the same compassion welled up in them, too, but they, unlike me, were better at donning their masks of laughter.

When I began this blog, it was with the intention to share my spiritual journey after a difficult 19-year marriage and harrowing divorce. Perhaps all divorces are harrowing, and all marriages difficult, but my wanting to share came from a place of joy, a place of learning, and a wonderful understanding that my marriage and divorce were gifts.

Recently, I received a negative comment. Yes, I am aware that when you wear your emotions on your blogging sleeve, some may point and laugh. I choose, however, to honor the girl who hid her tears and is now the woman who is beautifully flawed and wholly human. I boldly choose to let my disappointment roll down my cheeks for all to see. 

I remember tearing up in a New York City writing workshop when a fellow workshop member harshly commented on my short story. Later, our instructor, a celebrated writer, told me in private that I had to stand up for my work by developing a thicker skin. I am grateful for her advice. But over a decade later as a writing teacher myself, I stand up for my words by letting my emotions flow for all to see and choosing to point out to my current writing students that what is not perfected in us as humans and writers will simply fall away if we keep our eye on what is good.    

Sunday, December 15, 2013

3 Easy Steps to Magically Turn Struggle Into Joy

"What happens in our life is either a lesson or a blessing."

A shift in perception can change our feelings of being in a struggle to being blessed with something wonderful. As women, we put our attention on everything but ourselves-our work, our children, our husband or partner.  Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom calls it our "egg wisdom." It is our biological makeup, as Northrup explains, to make everything around us better. We "egg on" our men, our children, our co-workers. At some point we burn out feeling stripped and stressed, and as a result struggle. 

First Step Toward Joy - Understanding Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” We are intimately involved when our learning is tethered to struggle. It is important to understand that our struggles are lessons and bring us to a beautiful place of knowledge if we are open to learning. The story of the butterfly and the cocoon, attributed to Henry Miller, is the tale that helps me to understand the importance of struggle in my life:

 A boy is given a cocoon and brings it inside his home for safe keeping. When he sees the butterfly trying to emerge from the cocoon, at first he is thrilled. It is not long before his excitement turns to concern when the butterfly does not emerge after days of trying. The boy, in an act of compassion, clips the cocoon with a pair of scissors to set the butterfly free. What he finds is a butterfly that is deformed with swollen wings. The boy's act of compassion was to the detriment of the butterfly. It never soared. It could never be set free. Instead the butterfly suffered a grounded life with swollen wings that could never fully develop.  

Second Step - Redefine Struggle - I think of this story when I am in a difficult situation. I can shift that feeling of struggle to a feeling of joy, yes, joy with this simple question: What am I learning during this time? How will this situation help me to soar even higher in my life? I am actually giddy with the knowledge that I am being stretched and evolving, and it absolutely feels magical. It is the struggle to get out of the cocoon that gives the butterfly's wings enough blood to fully develop. We need our struggles to develop our wings.

Third Step - Practice Self-Care

In addition to understanding and shifting our thoughts by reminding ourselves that our wings are just getting stronger during a time of trial, we can "egg" ourselves on by practicing self-care. We can forgive ourselves when we make a mistake, and we can treat ourselves to simple pleasures like a ten dollar bouquet of flowers or scented salt bath. When we are struggling to feel good, that is the most important time to put ourselves on the largest rung of our inner-life tree.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thank You, Madiba, for the Gift of Your Life

"The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses."―The official Truth and Reconciliation Commission Website

Thinking of Nelson Mandela today as his soul departed his body, reminded me of the wonderful lessons I have learned in my life. Most of those lessons came through what I may have at one time called hardships. When my grown children were small, they were given a baseball card picture of Madiba by their father who had visited and briefly met the aging leader. The picture was proudly displayed in their bathroom for many years until it frayed and finally disappeared. I smile when I think of that picture. I smile when I think of all of the wonderful lessons that came from that time in my life, and I smile when I think of the gift Nelson Mandela has given us all by teaching us the power of forgiveness by his grand gesture as South Africa's first African leader.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee, erected by Nelson Mandela after apartheid was abolished, was an act of faith. The 39 page charter titled Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995 could only exist within the divine gaze of a man who transcended the hardship of Robben's Island by understanding that when one suffers, all suffer, and when one of our brothers or sisters in our community is wounded, we collectively need healing. Madiba healed his community by encouraging victims to voice their experiences through 19 internationally held public hearings, and to grant their abusers amnesty. The magic of giving voice through story coupled with forgiveness mended a wounded South Africa.

My understanding that nothing happens to me, but it happens for me is steeped in Madiba's grace of healing through forgiveness. The specter of the divine was at his right hand when he stepped into the position of leading a fractured South Africa. Madiba instinctively understood what I struggled to understand―that we act in harmful ways when we are wounded and that only love and understanding can bring about healing. 

Madiba's grace and smile remind me that every situation in my past, present and future is of my own creation. My ability to create love and harmony is tethered to the love and harmony Madiba cultivated in his country. When a spirit departs this earth, the gift of that life is infused in all who knew that person. We knew Nelson Mandela through his deeds, words, spirit, and smile. We all have been touched by the mighty Madiba's gentle hand. Let his passing this realm into the next embolden us, enrich us, and instruct us as he instructed a nation with one simple goal―unity―accomplished with one simple gesture―forgiveness.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

How to Change Negative Beliefs in 30 Days

Photo by Dusty

"Whether you think you can or can’t either way you are right." ―Henry Ford

Two years ago, I agreed to help a neighbor who recruits teachers for the adult continuing education community school in my area. One of her instructors was not able to teach her class and she asked me if I could teach a course titled: "Blogging―Writing Effective Content." I told her I would help, and then panicked. While I have been teaching writing courses for nearly a decade, I failed to focus on that fact. I focused instead on the aspect that I was not well acquainted with―Blogging. At the time I was new to blogging with only a few blogs under my writer's belt.

All of my insecurities rose to the surface the weekend before the course was to begin. I told myself that I was not qualified to teach this course. I told myself I was unworthy. A sense of unworthiness is a belief pattern that I had carried since I was child. I was not worthy of my father's love. I was not worthy of my mother's attention, and I certainly was not worthy of a partner who honored me as mother, wife and equal. 

Discovering our belief patterns is the first step toward changing those patterns. Once I understood that I carried that belief, I began to change it by developing new thought patterns. Psychologist Dr. Athena Staik tells us that:

"When you seek to replace a behavior, such as a toxic thinking pattern, your actions produce neurochemical and molecular changes in cells known as neurons."

Science is on our side when it comes to changing belief patterns with new discoveries of our brain's neuroplasticitythe brain's ability to change and adapt. Hospitals like St. Jude are now using this science in Twelve Step programs. So truly, as a man (or woman) thinketh ....  What is key, however, is to gain awareness of how we think and what we believe. A woman in my writing to heal workshop pronounced her inability to find success because she didn't have an education, or a fat bank account. A friend touted at a luncheon that all uber-wealthy people are unethical. What are your limiting beliefs? Let's change our negative and limiting belief patterns to positive signals in our brains. 

Be advised that acknowledging where we are requires honesty and a desire to change. Clinging to comfortable beliefs, even though they do not serve us positively, is the most common reason we fail to move forward. Change requires both facing our true selves and our fears. 

30 days toward creating positive belief patterns:  In the morning when you wake, and in the evening before you go to bed, say into the mirror:

Today, I release [want to release]* the need to view myself as [  negative belief  ]

[say your name], you are capable [want to be capable] of realizing your

 dreams just as you are!

*If you feel uncomfortable saying "I release," say instead, "I want to release."