Coming Back to the Body

...the body actually holds our own enlightenment. Until we are willing to live through some of the wealth of information and emotions that have been offered to us but rejected, our awareness remains tied up and restricted.

--Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment"

Lately the body has been on my mind a lot. Several of my clients are dissociated from physical sensations, a disconnect that protects them from various kinds of pain. Others have medical issues that doctors have not been able to diagnose. If the traumas and additional difficult experiences they have endured have been stored in their tissues, muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood, and bones, such physical manifestations of pain make a lot of sense. To borrow from trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk, their bodies keep the score:


When people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain. They may visit multiple specialists, undergo extensive diagnostic tests, and be prescribed multiple medications, some of which may provide temporary relief but all of which fail to address the underlying issues. Their diagnosis will come to define their reality without ever being identified as a symptom of their attempt to cope with trauma.

My own meditation and yoga practices have revealed to me just how much my body has held onto denied and rejected experience. A tense neck, shoulders hunched forward, and difficulty engaging in belly breathing reveal a long-held defensive and tense stance. That position helped me to survive numerous years in highly competitive and evaluative settings, such as the research universities where I was a student and academic. It's also taken a toll on my body and stands in stark contrast to the "state of total relaxation and safe surrender" that van der Kolk names as an important part of trauma recovery.

Throughout his new book, van der Kolk shares powerful stories of individuals who have been able to come home to themselves through their bodies. Annie, for example, was terribly abused by her father and mother as a young child. Van der Kolk writes that as a 47-year-old woman, "[s]he often coped with disagreements and confrontations by making her mind disappear. When she felt overwhelmed she'd cut her arms and breasts with a razor blade." As her therapist, van der Kolk suggested that Annie try yoga. After her second class, she wrote the following:

Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things...After the class I came home and slept for four hours. This week I tried doing yoga at home and the words came to me 'Your body has things to say.' I said back to myself, 'I will try and listen.'

Annie slowly* came to realize that she held a lot of her pain and memories in her pelvic area. As she kept opening to her embodied experience through yoga (three times a week for about a year), Annie found she could speak more freely about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father. In a recent message to van der Kolk, she wrote,

I slowly learned to just have my feelings, without being hijacked by them. Life is more manageable: I am more attuned to my day and more present in the moment. I am more tolerant of physical touch. My husband and I are enjoying watching movies together cuddled in bed...a huge step. All this helped me finally feel intimate with my husband.

To soften and open to our bodies we need to learn how to accurately assess the safety of our environment and to trust our capacity to respond skillfully to whatever comes up, within and beyond ourselves. Why engage in this scary, vulnerable undertaking of touching enlightenment with our bodies? Because that is the path to becoming more fully alive and present, with others and ourselves. As Will Johnson asserts,

Many techniques can bring about a calming effect at the surface level of the mind, but if we’re sincere about wanting to truly awaken and become truly conscious, we really need to embrace the experience of the body as a focus of our practice and allow the deeply unconscious and unfelt sensations to start coming out of hiding. And yes, this can be a very intensive undertaking, one definitely not for the faint of heart! But what, really, is our choice? We either face our karma and release the accumulated tensions of the past, or we continue to avoid feeling the reality of the body and enshrine the tensions forever.

As Annie noted, our bodies have wisdom and knowledge to share with us if we can find the courage and support we need to listen to them. Given that I work with gender variant clients who desire to transform their bodies via medical interventions, I want to emphasize that developing more somatic awareness does not mean we cannot alter our bodies. The point here is to release the tension held in our bodies as well as the unconscious thought patterns that accompany that tension (such as Annie's belief that she needed to avoid feeling parts of her body that had been assaulted in the past) so that we can experience more ease and freedom in our daily lives.

It seems only fitting to close with a poem by yogi Danna Faulds:

It only takes a reminder to breathe,

a moment to be still, and just like that,

something in you settles, softens, makes

space for imperfection. The harsh voice

of judgment drops to a whisper and you

remember again that life isn’t a relay

race; that waking up to life is what we

were born for. As many times as you

forget, catch yourself charging forward,

that many times you can make the choice

to stop, to breathe, to be, and to walk

slowly into the mystery.


* As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, for Annie to do certain poses too quickly might have engendered significant panic or flashbacks to the sexual assaults. Van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of trauma survivors not beginning with too intense of bodily poses as intense physical sensations risk unleashing "the demons from the past that had been so carefully kept in check by numbing and inattention."

Aspiring to Become Hootless

Recently, I have been wanting a particular thing to happen in my life. And I mean REALLY wanting it. My mindfulness practice continuously teaches me that grasping after desires creates suffering, whereas trusting events to unfold in their own way, at their own pace, generates ease. When we can relax into our life, as it is, we feel more peace and contentment. But this practice of letting go of hoped-for results is no easy task, particularly in the outcomes-obsessed present-day United States. I therefore am consistently on the lookout for tips about approaching life with open palms (i.e. not trying to control everything!). Happily, an acupuncturist  just introduced me to a new concept: becoming hootless. Credit to

Hale Dwoskin describes hootlessness as follows:

Hootlessness is when you do not give a hoot whether you achieve a particular goal or not. Contrary to popular belief, you do not attain your goals when you desire them strongly enough. In fact, if you honestly examine your past experiences, you'll discover that most of the goals you've achieved are the ones that you let go of wanting--even if not by choice...When you allow yourself to release to the point where you are hootless about getting your goal, two things may happen. Either you'll find that you abandon the goal altogether and feel lighter because of it, or you'll be much more likely to achieve the goal than you were when you wanted it...The more hootless you feel, the freer you are to enjoy whatever you have in this moment without the usual fear of loss or disappointment.

What hootlessness amounts to in my book is a deep trust in our ability to handle whatever arises in our lives. In short, fear does not run the show, wholeheartedness does. This does not mean NOT having goals. It means relating to our goals in ways that allow us to be present to our lives, the people in it, and our environment. Hootlessness also allows us to approach life more flexibly instead of with a ton of rigid expectations, rules, and regulations. As Dwoskin points out, our wanting mind is often seeking approval, control, security, or separation. When we are able to name what we want and release our hopes and fears about how we are going to get there, space appears and we experience more freedom.

I appreciate Dwoskin's attention to language when we set goals. In his words,

'I allow myself to...,' 'I can...,' or, 'I open myself to...' are good ways to begin a goal in courageousness. 'I have...' is a good way to begin a goal in acceptance. 'I am...' is a good way to begin a goal in peace. These ways of starting a goal statement enable the mind to use its creativity to generate possibilities of how the goal can happen.

Here are a few of his courage-based goal statements that I find particularly useful for clients and myself:

  • * I allow myself to feel like I have all the time in the world. (This one challenges the scarcity model dominating U.S. culture.)
  • * I allow myself to have a loving relationship that supports me in my freedom and aliveness. (This one frames the setting of boundaries with others as an act of self-care.)
  • * I allow myself to love and accept (or forgive myself), no matter what. (Hooray for self-compassion!)
  • * I allow myself to be at peace, relaxed in the knowing that all is well and everything is unfolding as it's supposed to be. (Enough said.)

When I follow Dwoskin's advice by being honest with myself about past experiences, I see that desperation and attachment to outcomes were not a central feature of realizing the goals that have been deeply meaningful in my life. For example, during my second year of graduate school, I grew increasingly uncertain about pursuing a doctorate degree, largely because my department did not feel like a good fit for me and my renegade goals. I spoke with my advisor about whether or not to again apply for a fellowship I had unsuccessfully sought the previous year. It would pay for the rest of my schooling and allow me to focus more intently on my studies. She asked if I would choose to stay in the program if I received the fellowship, and I was quick to say "Yes." However, I already had a plan B in place and no longer felt I needed the fellowship to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish vocationally. Lo and behold, I approached the application process much more calmly than I had the year before and had the presence of mind to do a little research about the professors who selected the award recipients so that I better knew my audience. I felt like the essay I submitted authentically represented my academic vision and let go of the outcome. Needless to say, I got the fellowship and ultimately completed the program and my dissertation in ways that honored who I was as well as my commitments to social justice and arts-based research.

In contrast, when I decided to leave academia to pursue becoming a therapist, I did not initially have a job. Increasingly desperate to land work that would pay my bills, I accepted an offer for a position that had a good salary but that was in an organization with which I did not share several core values. Afraid of ongoing unemployment and its financial consequences, I pulled myself out of another job search in which I was a finalist to accept the offer. That second organization had felt like home during the interview process. Less than a year after I took the first job, I was fired. The job was a terrible fit for me, and I had taken several vocal stands against one of the projects the organization was pursuing on ethical grounds. Being fired was a humiliating experience, and, years later, I am still healing from the shame of it.

I do not mean to be polyannaish about hootlessness. Sometimes we've got to do what we've got to do to get by, even if several red flags are smacking us in the face while we do so. But we oftentimes give in to our deepest fears when our wanting mind takes over. We then go about our lives in ways that create a lot of unnecessary suffering. That suffering can be a great teacher, to be sure. Being fired from that job was what my supervisor would call "another fucking growth opportunity" that helped me realize a depth of clarity about my path that I might not have attained without the experience. Going forward, however, I can approach my wants with more awareness about the ties that bind me and, to the best of my ability, release them.

Aspiring to become hootless is akin to what Pema Chodron deems experiencing hopelessness: "giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death." Embracing the uncertainty of life and inevitability of death while pursuing our goals is damn hard. But the benefits of doing so certainly outweigh the costs. The late John O'Donohue captures the fruits of becoming hootless with his beautiful poetry:

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more


May I live this day


Compassionate of heart,

Clear in work,

Gracious in awareness,

Courageous in thought,

Generous in love.


Wild Awakenings Beckon

The basic assumption of Healing Rage is that unresolved rage from childhood trauma is still locked in our bodies and minds. This blocked energy manifests as disguises of rage in our adult lives--ways we cope with life while denying an intimate experience with living. These disguises become such an ingrained part of our existence that we forget that the origins are rage. While our disguises of rage attempt to protect us from the pain of our past, they more often re-create the past and perpetuate the very suffering we seek to avoid. Unresolved rage has been passed on from one generation to the next, contributing to rage inheritances that collectively plague the world, and each of us--whether we know it or not--is charged with transforming this legacy.

--Ruth King

Ruth King Photo

Most of the people with whom I work (including myself) have been or are seriously enraged. As King highlights above, when this rage goes underground, great self-destruction, violence, and even death may occur. Her book, Healing Rage, is one of the best resources I have found to help make sense of this rage and transform it into an inner peace that has the wherewithal to spread outward and, so, contribute to the healing of our world.

King asserts that trauma between the ages of 0 and 12 usually engenders this rage and offers a broad definition of trauma:

an experience of severe emotional shock that causes substantial and lasting damage to our psychological well-being. Trauma is experienced as being intensely overwhelmed by a perceived threat or actual harm. Trauma can be a single incident of devastating loss, violation or injury, or a chronic atmosphere of fear and neglect.

When I reflect on the adult suffering I witness, early trauma is almost always part of the mix. The notion that looking backward amounts to "dwelling on the past" misses the reality that we cannot resolve our rage and generate an "intimate experience with living" until we acknowledge the trauma trapped within us. Only then can we process and let go of the rage and shame, rage's twin emotion according to King. Said differently, when we bury emotions alive, they do not die. We do.*

I appreciate King's attention to how rage manifests in diverse disguises. She identifies six: dominance, defiance, devotion, distraction, dependence, and depression. For example, King writes about defiance,

We know we wear the Defiance disguise of rage when we have a life pattern of anger and battle. Sometimes we battle outwardly with another person, place, or thing. Other times we battle within our mind or against our body. Anger is our way of keeping others, including ourselves, from noting the shame we are feeling.

I picked defiance because it is deeply familiar to me and is common in the academic environments in which I have worked. Although many of us are fighting for social justice, we are still fighting. Although I am imagining the scathing criticisms from several of my colleagues as I write this post, I know King's words to be true:

Defiance has become a way of hiding our shame of needing to be loved. It diverts us from the rage we feel toward our own helplessness and the longing to be honored and respected. Yet we are unable to discern that not everyone is the enemy. We are the last one to know that some wars have ended, and that there are new ways to survive that allow us to remove our armor, rest in our own skin, and heal.

King not only points out the ways that these disguises harm us; she also reveals the wisdom of each disguise, thereby emphasizing the great value embedded within it. About defiance, for instance, she asserts,

When Defiance is not ruled by a pressing anxiety for justice, its bright, warrior spirits can show up with more heart...Truth-telling, courage, freedom of expression, and choice flowing from a compassionate heart--these are the necessities of our spirit. Our keen sense of justice can give us a life of independence and self-respect, and be a gift that unites the world.

Needless to say, I recommend this book to all of us trying to better understand the suffering of others and ourselves. In addition to providing clear explanations, such as the excerpts highlighted above, King offers varied, concrete exercises for healing our rage. I particularly like her chapter on "looking in before acting out." In it, she provides instructions for distinguishing our observations from our interpretations, our pain from our suffering, and projections from feared and denied parts of ourselves. All of these tasks help us to reclaim our rejected experience and, in so doing, to heal. In King's words, "It is our response to what life offers that causes us suffering--not what life offers."

* I'm borrowing this idea of burying emotions alive from Tara Brach's talk "Accessing Innate Wisdom."

Manifesting Peace*

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

In the movie The Interpreter, a fictional ethnic group, the Ku, who live in a fictional country, Matobo, engage in a thought-provoking practice. As protagonist Silvia Broome says,

The Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There's an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He's taken out on the water, and he's dropped. He's bound so that he can't swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they'll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn't always just...that very act can take away their sorrow.

Silvia also utters the statement opening this post about vengeance being a lazy form of grief. Regardless of whether the above description comes from someone's imagination or a "real" practice (after all, they are both human constructions), I find her words about revenge and the Drowning Man Trial to be instructive. They suggest that we tie ourselves up in knots, and sometimes cause great harm to others, when we become mired in thoughts about how we have been wronged.

Domination, oppression, and injustice are prevalent and very real, particularly for the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Like many others, I would like our world and society to devote more energy to cultivating dignity, compassion, and empathy so that we may create more peace and less war, within ourselves and between people. But how do we do this?

Tara Brach often says, "Where our attention goes, our energy flows." If our attention goes to avenging injustices, our energy will flow toward strategic planning and violence. If our attention goes to alleviating the suffering caused by injustices, our energy will flow toward understanding the matter more fully and clearly before choosing our response. After all, reaching for a weapon, whether physical or verbal, suggests we do not have other tools at our disposal to restore a sense of well-being and peace.

But this "peace work" is so much harder than abstract language suggests. When we feel wronged, we want our lives restored to "rightness." And that is the rub. Oftentimes, without recognizing what has happened, we insert a lot of expectations into the restorative process that are rooted in a moral philosophy of rightdoing and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this good/bad view of the world automatically deletes a lot of context and history that could assist us in gaining more clarity about the various forces contributing to the situation. Those forces need our attention if we aspire to restore a sense of wholeness, of integrity, with our response. What is more, this narrow view takes us away from the present moment and into our stories of how life "should" be. In contrast is "living without an agenda":

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we're not entirely certain about who's right and who's wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make the person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are? It is powerful to practice this way, because we'll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again--to make ourselves or them right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.**

As usual, my own personal experience has drawn me to this topic of manifesting peace. Back in June, I wrote about my upcoming wedding. Since that time, I have come face to face with old family wounds and realized just how much sorrow I have been carrying around. I most certainly have turned to vengeance--in the form of lashing out with harsh words--when the grief has felt too overwhelming or shameful, and particularly when a lot of external stressors are present. Inspired by Old School, I have been only half-joking about carrying a horse tranquilizer gun at the wedding so I can take action if the going gets too tough.

But I have found that when I allow myself the time and space to dig below the anger, frustration, and judgments, the vulnerable sorrow at the root of things becomes a conduit for connecting with family members and the human experience more broadly. As uncomfortable as it is, I have been attending to and befriending my grief. As a result, I am better understanding the intergenerational nature of my family wars as well as the conditions that foster a sense of separation and brokenness. That understanding, combined with my aspiration to pay "wholehearted, intelligent attention,"**  has allowed me to begin to grow peace within and with individual family members. In conversations, that peace-making has involved attentive, non-defensive listening and generated validation of our own and the other's experience as well as compassion for the suffering that is present, regardless of whose suffering is there. Slowly but surely, I am arriving at the expansive freedom beneath the mourning, to which the Drowning Man Trial speaks. When I am able to stay present and arrive at that open space of "true communication," I encounter the love and tenderness that were there all along.

Pema Chodron gets the final word on how, in our daily lives, we can turn toward and foster peace-making:

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.**

* This piece draws heavily on Tara Brach's September 11, 2013 talk "Peace Work."

** These quotes come from Pema Chodron and appear in The Pocket Pema Chodron.



The Possibilities Engendered by Opening and Softening

We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.

--Thich Nhat Hanh

Once upon a time, a very wise woman said to me, "The primary goal of open systems is to understand. Closed systems, on the other hand, aim to protect." These words profoundly changed my life. As usual, I'm starting from the end of the story and need to back up.

For starters, what are open and closed systems? I like Ludwig von Bertalanffy's portrayal of an open system as a system that permits interactions between its internal parts and the surrounding environment. Ultimately, this exchange allows the system's components, and so the larger system itself, to be transformed. In contrast, closed systems establish and maintain isolation from their environments. Because "no material enters or leaves it," a closed system is easier to predict and control. Importantly, von Bertalanffy concludes, "Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components." Every living organism is essentially an open system.

Perhaps you see where I'm going here. In my line of work, the distinction between open and closed systems seems to capture a lot of what is ailing clients and the spaces in which we live and work. Given that we human beings are open systems, things tend to go awry when we block interactions with each other and the environment, such as when we do not allow external resources to come to our aid or cut off our connection with others.

When I meet someone and discover how hard she works to keep most everything locked inside, or encounter a family system and learn of its many secrets, or inquire into organizational practices and find out that transparency is virtually non-existent and decision-making lies in the province of a select few, my closed system alert goes off. Usually a bit more digging reveals that these closed systems are trying very hard to protect themselves from perceived invaders, and fear is driving the show.

Unfortunately, the achieved safety of closed systems is more often than not a mirage, created from stories of enemies, scarcity, and powerlessness that may feel real but are not actually true. What is more, a natural effect of closing a system that aspires to be open is that it hardens into a fragile, shriveled cast of its original self and severs its connections with the surrounding environment, including the living beings residing there.

The words opening this entry changed my life because I had recently awakened to the idea that love is synonymous with understanding. When love is about listening with an awake heart and embodying the present moment, we can perceive others as they are, rather than as projections of who we want or think them to be. Such understanding is not possible when we seek to isolate ourselves or throw on layers of armor in the service of protection. To borrow from Thich Nhat Hanh, "When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace, and love."

Acceptance, joy, peace, and love. Most people I know want to experience more of these in their lives. I also imagine that most people do not associate these states of being with feeling under siege, diving behind a barrier for cover, or withdrawing into turtle-like shells. Softening and opening to what is actually happening are actions that keep us vital and able to sustain nurturing relationships, not only with others but also ourselves. They also are scary as hell if we have devoted a great deal of energy and time to thickening our shields and sharpening our weapons. So we often need to give ourselves permission to start slowly and keep practicing these courageous acts with patience and kindness. At least I did and still do.

Please do not mistake me as saying that all dangers are a figment of our imagination. Living in an unsafe environment for a prolonged period of time seriously undermines our systems' ability to function and thrive. Moreover, our fight, flight, and freeze responses to aversive environmental stimuli are natural and help us to survive when we are in actual danger.

What I am arguing is that we often could stand to pause when we feel fear or discomfort. If we realize we are confronting false alarms and external forces beyond our control, we could soothe the "inner iguana" living in the ancient part of our brain so that we could return to the present moment and reinhabit it, with awareness and kindness. As Rick Hanson wrote,

Keep helping your body feel less alarmed...continually softening and opening the body, breathing fully and letting go, sensing strength and resolve inside. Alarms may clang, but your awareness and intentions are much larger--like the sky dwarfing clouds. In effect, alarms and fears are held in a space of fearlessness. You see this zig-zaggy, up-and-down world clearly--and you are at peace with it. Try to return to this open-hearted fearlessness again and again throughout your day.

Softening and opening in the face of fear amount to honoring the open systems we are and strengthening them (contrary to the popular idea that softening means weakening). As we soften and open, we stay connected and interact with the world in ways that promote our growth and well-being. We also deepen our understanding of this world and those in it, thereby enlarging the pathway to acceptance, joy, peace, and love.

Charles Bukowski gets the final word with his poem "Bluebird":

there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you. there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he's in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay down, do you want to mess me up? you want to screw up the works? you want to blow my book sales in Europe? there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too clever, I only let him out at night sometimes when everybody's asleep. I say, I know that you're there, so don't be sad. then I put him back, but he's singing a little in there, I haven't quite let him die and we sleep together like that with our secret pact and it's nice enough to make a man weep, but I don't weep, do you?



Stop shoulding all over yourself!

A favorite moment in a women's support group of which I was a part involved one of the members imploring another, "Stop shoulding all over yourself!" Those "shoulds" sure do like to creep around, crawling through the openings of our conscious and unconscious minds and oftentimes spilling right out of our mouths. And they come in slightly masked forms to do so. Sometimes they sound like, "I have to..." or, "I need to..." or, "I'm supposed to..." One of the most harmful ones I have heard sounds something like, "I should be different than I am."

Lately, I have been imagining those shoulds as cords of belief that became attached to us along the paths of our lives. Perhaps they came from our caregivers or further back in the ancestral chain, such as our great great great grandfather. Or maybe they became attached to us during interactions with our peers or teachers at school, in the middle of a religious sermon, or after watching a movie.

The cords themselves are not a problem, but how we relate to them sure can be. They can trip us, entangle us, choke us. In so doing, they keep us from realizing an internal spaciousness that allows for greater peace, joy, and freedom. If we let them. And there is the rub. I like to ask others and myself, "Is it possible to turn this 'I should' into 'I want to...' or 'I choose to...'?" That inquiry oftentimes helps to clarify what expectations are at play so that I can more freely decide how to live the daily moments of my life and wake up from the limited and limiting belief that a "right" and "wrong" pathway exists.

Importantly, I do not wheel and deal in a lot of the "choice" talk dominating the scene these days. When choice is attached to the idea of "free markets" and based on a model of scarcity--in which there are clear winners and losers--fear and shame often result, as do greater inequities between the haves and have-nots. I like Lynne Twist's depiction of scarcity as "the great lie":

We spend most of the hours and days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.*

How many of us spend our days living inside the story, "This ______ is supposed to be better than it is!?" Major inequities exist and warrant our close attention and action, yes. What I am suggesting is that bringing a sense of curiosity and wonder to our thoughts about what is supposed to be different allows us to perceive the nuances of situations--how many factors are at play and how many of those factors are impermanent and beyond our control. When we can distinguish what is real (our beliefs and feelings about a situation) from what is true (the situation's many moving parts), we can start to let go of the "shoulds" that are dragging us around and jump more fully into this moment and the next one, even when those moments are messy, hard, and without easy remedies. This life, after all, is made up of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. We cannot get rid of the inevitable pain of life, but we can choose to more fully experience the present moment. Whereas those pesky shoulds reinforce a sense of separation, leaping into now helps to maintain our sense of connection with others, the world around us, and ourselves.

At the women's support group mentioned above, the facilitators shared Isabel Bauche's poem "I Choose" as an alternative to "I Should":

I Choose... to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity; I choose to listen to my inner voice, not the random opinions of others.

We also handed out Pamla Ashlay-McPherson's commentary on this poem. I particularly like her interpretation of "I choose to be motivated, not manipulated":

Yes, it is easier to allow someone to lead you around in life. To tell you what to do, to say and be. At times the path of least resistance is the one where someone else forges the way through and all you have to do is follow. How many people have followed their great leaders into death because they allowed themselves to be manipulated into believing the leader's truth. They never took the time, energy or even interest in learning their own truth. People who walk in their own truth are motivated by it. Those who do not are manipulated by the truth of others.

I wonder how much creative energy would be freed up if more of us stopped shoulding all over ourselves and comparing our situations to others'. What if, instead, we recognized, "Everyone is flawed and strange; most people [including ourselves!] are valiant, too"?**

* I borrowed this quote from pp. 25-26 of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. ** This quote comes from p. 18 of Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree.