A Rocky Night

This is a real story. I take liberties with grammar; the strangeness is intentional, as is how familiar this story can be even to those without experience of domestic violence (trigger warning). It speaks to an illusion and delusion that lives in each of us, and that lives in America’s conception of masculine, feminine, and partnership.

***

I keep thinking about that night in Missouri at Cedar Creek Campground, when a storm came in the early evening. I lay in my tent staring up at the fly, intermittently dozing off. Around 10pm the sound of crying roused me. I woke halfway, and then more fully, sitting bolt upright to make sense of the sounds. Within a few seconds I realized someone was in distress. I grabbed my headlamp, running out of the tent through darkness towards the cries, shouting “Are you alright? What’s going on?”, but before I got far someone yelled from behind me, “Let me take care of it, I was talking to that guy earlier”, and started in the direction of the noise. I stood there hearing his shouts of “Hey! Hey!” as he walked quickly towards the tent, and he must have unzipped the tent flap, I heard him say, “Get your hands off her, asshole!”, and a few seconds later a young woman is running towards me sobbing, wet and muddy, her hand over her mouth, and my heart is pounding, I’m saying “Oh god, oh god” as I rush to her. I ask if she wants to come into my tent and she nods, apologizing through tears as she muddies the tent, but I don’t care. She’s curled up hugging her knees and I’m sitting next to her, facing her, rubbing her back. At some point I ask, what happened, do you know that guy, and she says, yes, he’s my husband, and it’s hard, even now, to voice to my shock. She’s getting a little calmer, calm enough to tell me through her sobs that he was holding her down, had his hand over her mouth so she couldn’t breathe, that they had been drinking, that this only happened when they drank. That earlier, he had turned to her and said, shall we drink, and she had winked and given him finger guns and said, yeah. That she knew better, she knows this is what happens when he drinks, and that earlier, there she was, winking playfully and saying, yeah.

She tells me how she slept with some famous guy before she and her husband got married, and she told him about it, and ever since he’ll rag on her, bringing stuff up from her past to hold against her, like how could you sleep with him, you barely knew him, and she’ll get real upset when he brings it up, and then they fight. He had brought it up again tonight, getting down on her about it, and one thing led to the next and he’s suffocating her.

Later she’ll say to the tall thin guy who intervened, thank you, you were there just when I needed it, and he’ll say, I almost wish I hadn’t gone over, when the police are there and she’s tight-lipped, won’t say a word against her husband, doesn’t want to press charges. The officer shrugs, there’s nothing we can do if she doesn’t want to press charges, unless the tall skinny guy wants him taken in for taking a swing at him but he says no, gesturing over at the young wife, saying, it’s just for her sake, if she doesn’t want to, I sure won’t.

After she comes into my tent, her husband comes out, following the tall skinny guy and saying, what, you want to fight? You want to fight? And tall skinny guy is like no, I don’t want to fight, just don’t treat your old woman like that, and Jeremy swings on him, and then they’re fighting. Someone’s dog gets into the mix and is biting one of their legs, and we’re in the tent together and I’m gently rubbing her back, hearing them fighting. Another woman from a neighboring campsite has driven down the road trying to get cell service to call the police, but we don’t know this yet. The guys crash into my tent as they fight and I charge out, screaming, get away from my tent, and Chloe follows me yelling at her husband, “Jeremy, he doesn’t want to fight, leave him alone”, and then he’s on top of her in the grassy dirt, pinning her to the ground, their heads are away from me and I can’t see what’s happening. Someone manages to break up the multi-person brawl, and Jeremy goes back to his tent, drunk.

I’m asking Chloe, do you know anyone else here that you can go to, she knows another  couple, Marcy and her husband. They’ve been hanging out together the past few nights, so we walk over there, but Marcy is still up the road calling the police. It’s just the husband and he says Marcy would be the one to decide if Chloe can stay the night with us. He’s lighting all the tiki torches around the campsite, I think we woke him up, and I ask if we can wait there until Marcy is back, and he says sure, so we sit on a log together and chat. She’s saying how embarrassing this all is, and it turns out we’re both moving to the Carolinas, me to Asheville and her to Myrtle Beach. I’m asking her, what’s she going to do, and she’s saying, well, we just need to not drink, this only happens when we’re drinking, and she’s saying, you know, god intended for one man and one woman to be together, we need to make this work, and I’m thinking, I’ve never hated religion so much as I do in this moment.

Jeremy finds us at the campsite before Marcy is back and he is wheedling, pleading for Chloe to come back with him to their tent saying, we don’t know these people, bad people are everywhere, it’s not safe for you to stay here, and all I can think and not say is, you’re the most dangerous person here. She’s pleading with him to go back to the tent, she’s fine here, and he’s saying, but what if you leave, what if I wake up and you’re gone, and I’m trying to placate him and get him to go back to his tent and leave us alone. At one point he sits down next to me on the log and goes to light up a cigarette, offering one to Chloe, and I’m telling him if he smokes he needs to stand farther away because I can’t stand the smell, so he’s back across the firepit from us, and they’re both wheedling each other. Finally he leaves, and Marcy still isn’t back. I’m afraid he might fuck with my tent and I’m thinking of going somewhere else for the night, so I check in with her to see if she’s ok waiting there while I pack up. Before I go I say, I’m going to stay somewhere else tonight, maybe a motel, do you want to come, and she says no, I’ll stay with Marcy tonight and then figure things out with Jeremy in the morning when we’re both sober. I leave and pack everything up, making sure to lock my car, and when I get back to Marcy’s campsite she’s gone. She went back to Jeremy, and I’m cursing myself for leaving her, for being more worried about my tent than her willpower.

A few women from the next campsite help me pack up, holding a big flashlight so I can see, and their guys keep an eye on us from across the road. They’re talking to the tall skinny guy, schmoozing. I’m grateful for the women’s presence, and finally the police show up and we’re all talking. I walk towards Chloe’s tent calling for her, and she walks out of the bushes on the path from their tent. She’s looking pleased with herself, and coy, and she says, as if she’s practiced this before, “No officer, I don’t want to press charges,” and we’re all arguing and she’s saying, believe me, I can see all of your perspectives, and eventually she goes back to their tent. The rest of us are still talking and the cop is saying, this is pretty standard with domestic violence, we can’t do anything unless someone wants to press charges or make a formal accusation, and we’re all shaking our heads. The cops get back in the car and drive off, and we split; the tall skinny guy goes to hang out with the group across the street.

I go to check in with Chloe one last time before I drive off. I’m standing with Marcy when Chloe comes out of the tent, and she’s walking funny, a little bow legged like they were just having sex. She’s trying to hide a grin on her face. I’m saying, are you sure you don’t want to stay over with me or Marcy, and Marcy is saying, yes, come stay with us, and Chloe is patiently refusing. After she goes back to the tent she shares with Jeremy, Marcy says, you now, we’ve been hanging out with them for the past three nights, they were so nice, you never would have known. We shake our heads, say goodnight, and I drive an hour or two, run over a raccoon, find a state park, and sleep in the parking lots for a few hours until it’s light out. In the morning I spread out my wet, muddy camping gear, brush my teeth, have a snack, call my boyfriend, and think many thoughts about guilt, shame, domestic violence, self-abuse, and God himself.

Certainty and Reality

“Blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

– David Foster Wallace

Transcript here for those who prefer text to audio.

Over the past year I’ve lost certainty and confidence in my belief system. Instead I have found inadequacy, doubt, and all too often, a gaping void of knowing. Realizing my political, social, and personal beliefs were made of unexamined assumptions destabilized my understanding of how to know anything. It also began a process of discovery and creation through which I learned to embrace a few great and humbling lessons, which remain open to correction by reality in a way my beliefs never were.

Lesson One: Confidence & Certainty ≠ Truth

Judging a book by its cover or a statement by its speaker is completely fine, unless you want to know whether the book is good or the statement is valid. The level of confidence and certainty of a speaker, whether myself or someone else, does not have an inherent connection to the validity of what they say. Judging a claim based on evidence rather than charisma or congruence with other beliefs really helps cut through the BS. Many people agree with this concept, but forget it applies to them too. It’s hard to face up to our own ill-construed beliefs.

For example, I was raised in a politically and socially liberal household, and George W. Bush was a favorite butt of jokes. I remember gaily repeating a story of how the president had visited a supermarket recently and discovered barcode scanners; I thought this a perfect demonstration of our dumb and out of touch president. You can read more about the story here, but regardless of the facts of W’s presidency, this story isn’t just inaccurate–it isn’t even about W. The story featured his father. I hear this kind of “reasoning via dumb stories” repeated ad nauseum across the political spectrum by people who seem to be adults.

It is difficult to discover the truth of something for yourself. We depend on experts for most data gathering because of simple time and resource limitations to gathering frontline data about, say, climate change. There are ways to get around our inevitable biases, like intentionally looking at sources of information that are likely to disprove our hypotheses or beliefs, and questioning our own motives by asking ourselves why we want something to be true or false.

So the question you should be asking is, how can I know if this is true? How can I know if it’s true that certainty and confidence aren’t a good proxy for validity? That’s a great question. Keep asking it until you know.

Lesson Two: Choose Beliefs That Create the World You Want to See

Without my old certainty, when I set out to form a conclusion, I can end up like a bird circling prey without ever descending to attack. Part of this is knowing that any belief I choose will be necessarily limited, partial, and incomplete. However, functioning without coherent beliefs isn’t a viable alternative.

This is where “functional” beliefs come in. In my first encounters with Buddhism in my adult life, I realized that I didn’t need to figure out whether the beliefs it proposed were “true”. I only needed to see whether holding them created more of the freedom I was looking for. And it did; for example, seeing people as “wielded by their beliefs” made me a better person in the context of my own life and my relationships with others because it elicited compassion rather than anger when people did things I thought were bad or wrong.

As my doubt has increased and my confidence decreased, functional beliefs have become increasingly important. Confidence often functions like a guardrail that keeps behavior in a certain groove, and without it, I am prone to settling comfortably into a sense of inadequacy that doesn’t help me create the kind of life I want to live. Here’s an example of a functional belief I use for this:

“You can reach into the cookie jar, or you can reach into the jar of f%#!”.

– David Goggins

This basically refers to how you orient your mind. When the going gets tough, you can call on internal resources that provide support and sustenance–i.e., the cookie jar. For me, this includes times I’ve experienced deep flow, people who have inspired me, accomplishments I have fought for, and hard times I made it through. I keep a list of these on a notecard underneath my computer for easy access, and they regulate my decisions and actions on a personal level. This is wonderful for me personally, but…

We also need beliefs that help govern the functioning of society, which generally are values-based. Here’s an exercise for generating guiding beliefs of a moral or values-based variety. Imagine the kind of world you would like to live in, and how people would act in that world. What values would guide their decisions? Then YOU act like that. There a many ways this can go wrong–we can act a certain way in hopes other will act that way, and then get mad when they don’t; we can choose values that don’t actually lead to the outcomes we’re seeking; we can become self-righteous and indignant around those who haven’t chosen the same values. History is a good teacher.

One belief I’ve had to work on a lot is: “Attempting to control the world is the best way to get what I want.” Wrong. I’ve had much more success releasing my vise grip.

Lesson Three: All Choices Come With A Sacrifice

In the 4th grade I wrote a short opinion piece about choices. It went something like this:

As far as I can tell, it is–especially when it comes to things that require long-term effort and dedication. It’s worthwhile to be aware of the nature of the sacrifices you accept, lest you come to resent them (and the choices they came along with) later. As an idealist, I can forget to look at the dark side of the coin. I always find out at some point, usually in great detail, what that dark side looks like.

In another vein, there’s also the sacrifice of any given stance. Nobody gets off free. Each position is based in chosen or preferred values, and prioritizes those values above others. The bullet you bite is the list of values that don’t figure into your position, and they will always be a weak spot for your case.

In the end, it’s not a set of beliefs that guide so much as an enduring philosophy or a functional process for creating hypotheses and testing them against reality. The hard work is getting to the point at which you become hungry to truly test your beliefs. Only then does genuine learning blossom.

What Does Your Courage Look Like?

Once I watched an “inspirational video” featuring Elon Musk. It worked. I felt inspired. It was this amazing rush of energy, like I suddenly had what it took to do anything. So I packed up my stuff at the library, walked across the street to Walmart, and got string cheese and crackers. I was hungry. While waiting on line to scan my snacks, a pang of sadness hit as I realized how my excitement had been channeled. I had gotten sucked into the doldrums of daily life with such ease. What happened to my good feeling inspiration? Where had it gone so fast? And why was the first thing I did when I got excited go and buy snacks?

There are patterns in my life that take over as soon as I look the other way. I’ll make big plans, set a new goal, get on track to pursue something that excites me, and if I don’t stay absolutely on top of that thing, it is quickly cannibalized by banal normalcy: cook, talk on the phone, visit with a friend, read a book, watch a movie. These default activities come on stealthily, and only at my best am I present enough to notice the moment of giving up. “Things I often do” take over, and the eat-work-play-sleep film reel is back on replay. Seeing how often this happens, I start wondering: what does bravery look like in the trenches of daily life?

There is sneaky trickster bravery: giving a passer-by a big smile, being someone’s secret guardian angel, things that populate hope in a lonely heart. There is inner soul bravery: standing still with a soft belly, a clear mind, and sharing my gifts with the world. My bravery looks different from day to day; sometimes it’s passing by the snack shelf, other times it’s having a hard conversation. Whatever its form, the essence is steady: staying right against the edge of the blade of life and keeping self-doubt, self-criticism, and complacency at bay. Some days I do better than others, but day after day, I get up from wherever I’ve fallen and I learn.

The bravest thing I’ve been doing lately is having conversations about politics with my boyfriend where I shut my mouth and listen. Through this process, I’ve come to a singular, temporary hypothesis for a sane life: give up criticizing and focus on growth and understanding. When he talks, I listen. No formulating rebuttals, no assembling of judgment panels, just listening. I feel the tension in my body, I love myself, and I listen as he says things that set off all the alarm bells in my system. And surprisingly, I have survived. I have listened without telling “my” side of the story and I’m still here to write about it. I have stood by silently and left his beliefs alone, and the world did not burn. This may seem trite, small fry, or inconsequential, but it underlies what I see to be the most powerful act of bravery: loving people as they are, without trying to change them.

For me, releasing the need to have a say has been hugely empowering. I have been able to listen more closely and hear between the words. I have been able to try on a mind different from mine and relativize the imperial importance of my own beliefs. And significantly, I have been freed to choose whether or not I open my mouth and speak. 

Spoken words have generally come easily to me; sharing written words, for public consumption, poses a far more daunting task. Sitting down to write requires courage. It brings up a netful of uncertainty, insecurity, inadequacy, and self-criticism. I’ll sit down and begin, and a little monster creeps in after me: “What was I thinking? This is dumb. Other people know way more about this. I barely know anything. Why would I even try to write this. Maybe I’m wrong. I should wait until I know more.”

Often, I want to run away from all these feelings, and often, I do. But sometimes, when I’m strong, when I can train my attention directly on the target. I set aside “I can’t do this” and “I don’t know how to do this”, and I write. When I succeed, I can live the most intimate and satisfying art I have ever encountered: weaving together words to tell the story of an experience that lays upon the surface of my soul.

In this beautiful, messy world, I want to live in a way that brings me alive. This is the true function of bravery: it is the surest route to a fuller life. To value our lives, to know we matter, and to know that everything we do matters, is an act of bravery. To set aside the patterns that run our lives and remember spontaneity is an act of bravery. To lean into discomfort is an act of bravery. To wash the dishes with love is an act of bravery. Bravery comes in many colors–find the ones that suit you, and let them paint you a beautiful life.

Ten Lessons from A Decade of Work and Play

I used to be embarrassed that my career path required a three-dimensional maze to connect the dots between jobs. Nanny, software developer, waitress, yoga & meditation teacher, organizational consultant?! Can’t you just pick something and settle down already?! But looking back, something more like pride sneaks in. The one thing I’ve done well, if nothing else, was to follow the thread of my curiosity. It has led me through twelve jobs, four states, two degrees, and one monastery, to say nothing of the incredible and inspiring people I’ve met along the way. 

Save one of the last ten years, I’ve set my own schedule and structured my own time. That’s taught me a lot about productivity and time management. I’ve learned a number of hard lessons that boil down to a set of key principles. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you on this wild and precious ride. Here goes!

1. Say Yes To What Brings You Alive
2. Learn From Doing (but don’t count paperclips)
3. Clean Up Your Mind (master your emotions and learn to choose)
4. Get Inspired (find what lights you up, and feast)
5. Keep It Simple (maintain a vision and don’t multitask)
6. Build in Structure (that anchors but doesn’t strangle)
7. Find Your Believers (stay close to people who believe in you)
8. Be Fearless & Kind (but not stupid)
9. Let Go (and let stay)
10. Decide What Kind of World You Want to Live In

Let’s dive into each of these in more detail. Read in full, or scroll to the number that get you most excited! I’ve included many of the tools and practices I use to stay sane and live a full life, as well as examples from my own life to drive these each home.

1. Say Yes To What Brings You Alive

Even if you don’t know why, how, or what if, be willing to say yes to opportunities that excite you. Say yes out of joy, challenge, curiosity, or any other value that floats your boat. Be true to the level of yes that you’re at. Are you at a hell yes? If not, find your way there. Maybe you don’t want to go on a date with that guy/girl, but you want to hold their hand and go for a short walk. Maybe you don’t want to commit to a full year, but you’re definitely down for 6 months. Be willing to offer and counteroffer, and home in on what it is that you want. The world needs people who are taking up their role in this life, doing whatever it is they are here to do, and doing it fully.

DON’T say yes out of fear, pity, or people pleasing. I’ve interviewed over one hundred candidates for a highly selective program with a very specific culture. One of the basic premises is that we are gatekeepers for the community. If we let someone in out of pity or obligation, we are both polluting the culture and doing a disservice to that individual who will inevitably be a poor fit. It’s either win-win or no deal. 

Be a gatekeeper for your own life. Who and what do you want inside of it? Who and what do you out? Make lists with two columns: “More of…” and “Less of…”. Keep them updated. Make your relationships and engagements win-win or no deal. That means that they’re a win for you, but it also means that they’re a win for whoever else is involved. Are you looking out for them? Do you know what they want and need so you can help them get it? Win-win or no deal. That said, you’re probably not going to get everything you want. Know what’s most important to you, and what you can let slide.

Whatever you’re doing, do it fully or get out. Which leads to the next principle…

2. Learn From Doing

The sage Clarissa Pinkola-Estés of Women Who Run with the Wind fame talks about a dangerous phenomenon called “counting paper clips”, whereby we sit around busying ourselves with useless tasks to distract ourselves from our real work. Let’s not do that.

I often get caught in indecision, and putter around avoiding my next step. I’ll find myself opening and closing random kitchen cabinets, pulling books off the shelf, or realizing I should do the laundry right now. I do these things to distract myself from the feeling of uncertainty, which is pretty uncomfortable for me. When I notice I’m feeling uncertain (or more commonly, I notice I’m opening and closing a bunch of cabinets or browser tabs), I pause and check in with myself. I find the root of the issue, and decide on an action plan, or at least a next step.

I have a habit of putting off completing applications, reaching out to someone, or finishing pieces of writing if I have even an iota of uncertainty. This has been immobilizing. Now, I keep moving forward. I send the email. I complete the application, I take the next step. Usually, these aren’t final decisions. I let myself get to the point where something has become a real option (like, once my application gets accepted and I’m offered a position) before saying no. And I’ll do things I’m uncertain about, because I often learn a lot in the process about what I do and don’t want.

You’ll learn a lot more from doing than from thinking about doing. Make time for reflection to learn from your experiences, and crack down on doubt. There’s helpful doubt, which shows you what we haven’t considered and strengthens your decisions. There’s unhelpful doubt, which stalls you out and keeps you from making a decision. Know which is which, and keep going!

3. Clean Up Your Mind
It’s critical to learn your mind. Our minds tend to be wild and crazy-making roller coaster rides. Becoming aware of mental and emotional experiences without acting on them is what frees us. Try a form of mindfulness practice: take a few minutes to notice the thoughts in your head and the emotions in your body, without trying to change them or letting them dictate your behavior. You might find this boring or difficult. I promise you it is worth it. You are looking at what is running your life. There is nothing more important than cleaning up what runs your life. It will change the way you interact with yourself, everyone you love and don’t love, and the entire world. It can free you from the tyranny of your own mind.

We tend to have deeply held stories like “Everyone else is better than me” or “I’m better than everyone else”, “I’m inadequate” or “I shouldn’t ask too much from life”. Look at how you act, and guess what beliefs would drive that behavior. I have a habit of wanting people to like me. I’ve looked at that one real hard and found a belief: “I must be adorable to everyone in the world in order to be safe”. Approaches like Immunity to Change are powerful ways to get below the surface; so are practices like Circling, where you get immediate group and interpersonal feedback on how you show up. Try choosing a better story and see how it goes. “I can choose love” and “I can do hard things” are two that have rocked my world. I am happier and a better person when I live by these two stories as inner guides (as opposed to inner autocrats).

Don’t be your own worst enemy, but if you can’t avoid it, learn from it. There’s a neutralizing voice in my head that counters every desire, motivation, or urge that arises, effectively halting any action. I have a very strong inner critic that loves to condemn almost anything. If I believe these voices, I’m done for. I’m miserable. I’m in analysis paralysis, and feel terrible about myself, the word, and everything I do. Through learning the many flavors of my self-handicapping tendencies (basically, listening to the voices in my head without believing them), I can choose something different when they start to get loud: I can choose to validate and support myself, and I can make choices apart from what they say. I can make choices that create a fuller life.

Learn to work with your emotions skillfully. If you aren’t one of the golden children born or raised with this skill, find a modality that suits you and get to work. I use Bio-Emotive, IFS, and a conglomerate of my own self-devised systems along with wisdom from a hundred books and articles to work with my emotions in a healthy way. Basically, learn to feel your emotions without getting overwhelmed by them. It can help to become more aware of the body sensations associated with various emotions. It can help to simply name the emotion you’re feeling. It can help to simply start saying “pain pain pain pain pain” out loud when you’re feeling hurt, to take a page out of Brené Brown’s book (Daring Greatly). If your emotions were a big dog, imagine a future in which you were walking the dog, instead of the dog walking you. This is the goal. Most of us spend our lives avoiding discomfort, reacting to discomfort, and doing anything we can to keep discomfort at bay, including forsaking our deepest dreams and most profound relationships. Be willing to face the beast and free yourself from the chokehold of your thoughts and emotions.

4. Stay Inspired

Listen to people’s stories and learn from them. Find your way towards what inspires you, and then keep it easily accessible. I post notes all over my walls with quotes that lift me up. I keep a notebook where nearly everyday I write down quotes from people who inspire me. Do what works from you. When I’m inspired, I act more like the person I want to be; I’m happier, more loving, and more free. Books change my life on a regular basis, so I keep reading. I subsisted on Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and Dave Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (wiki full pdf) for at least a year each. I watch this clip of Jennifer Nettles and pray that I will do something, anything, in my life with the level of mastery and dedication evident in every note she sings.

Keep track of your small wins. It helps to see clearly what progress you are making each day. Make a big, non-virtual calendar and cross off each day that you accomplish something you’re working on.  Check out Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast episode on Burnout for more on this (NY Times article, podcast episode).

Despair is also powerful. It shows you what you’re yearning for. It shows you what you love. It shows you what is important to you. We only feel despair and sadness because we have experienced something wonderful and significant, which now feels lost. But that feeling itself can be our way home. I was in a relationship with someone whom I love and care for dearly, and we decided to break up because our values were out of sync. When we parted, my reservoir of love for him popped and filled the whole world. I walked through this world of profound love and sadness for weeks. Right within the sadness in his absence was the incredible love from which it emerged.

Feel the sadness and despair fully, and it will break you open to the joy you think you’ve lost. When we become more able to feel sadness and grief, we also become more able to feel joy and love. Practice feeling the full range of emotions, and the energy behind them will become the sea that keeps you afloat, regardless which emotional wave you happen to be surfing in a given moment.

Let disappointment and suffering be the keys to your salvation. Let them breathe your world alive. Feel them fully in your body. Pain can be a different form of inspiration that feels nothing like the classic American happy-go-lucky version, but is nonetheless powerful. It helps you understand every other person in this world who also suffers, who also feels pain and struggles.

5. Keep It Simple

Know where you’re headed. If you don’t know where you’re headed, know what you’re doing right now. Do one thing at once. Thinking about all the other things you have to do just makes you feel busy. Get it all down on paper so you’re not juggling everything in your head, and proceed down your list. Do the next right thing (sometimes Disney gets it right). Doing the next thing is often what reveals the step after it; for some magical, mysterious reason, we generally don’t get to see the whole plan at once, but we can walk it step by step.

Particularly when you have a big task that may feel like too much, break it up into doable chunks or you’ll probably end up putting off the whole thing. Do things bird by bird, as Ann Lamott would say. Make a list of what you need to do, and then go down it, as David Flores Wilson one wisely reminded me when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed. Friends are good for this. Often bigger tasks feel looming until they’re broken down. Rome was built one brick at a time, &c, &c.

Go for quality over quantity. Let one small thing change your whole life. I took four tai chi classes above a wonderful tea shop in Burlington, VT one summer. We learned a practice called “shifting sand”. It is very simple. You stand with your feet a foot apart and shift your weight slowly from one foot to the other. I did that practice on my own for months. It changed the way I relate to my entire body, and helped me relax fundamental patterns of tension in my hips. This one takeaway was immensely impactful, even though I’ve forgotten everything else we “learned”.

6. Build in Structure

It’s insanely helpful to have strong morning and evening routines. Once you have a steady container, you can swap in and out anything that you want to do more of on a daily basis. It will take time to find routines that work for you. Let it. It is worth it. 

My morning routine is something like this: wake up, brush teeth, meditate, exercise, eat breakfast, work. My evening routine is something like this: quick work checkout to reflect on the day, organize desk and books, turn down lights, make tea, brush teeth, get cozy on the couch. Sometimes I’ll read. Recently, my knees have been bothering me, and I’ve started doing PT exercises again. I tack them onto my morning exercise block and my evening routine. Having the structure there already makes it way easier to add things in. I take weekends off from my schedule so it doesn’t start to feel too oppressive. I’ll take random days off when it seems better to do that. However, consistency really does make a difference. If you can’t do the full hour of exercise you planned, at least do 10 minutes. It will help cement the routine even if you just do 5-10 minutes of a practice. If you’re curious about the process of learning from a routine, check out Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, it’s fantastically inspiring and deliberate.

It’s important to notice what works for you, and what doesn’t. Let the things that work for you guide how you shape your life. For me, having a very clear (and extensive…) ritual for starting work in the morning was very helpful and made me love starting work. I would do a written check-in, read an inspirational note I wrote to myself, and watch a few kickass youtube videos. Planning out what topics I would focus on each day of the week was overboard and made me hate everything and rebel. Forcing myself into a tight schedule that doesn’t align with my natural ebbs and flows is a great way to make myself miserable. Encouraging myself to follow my schedule when I don’t want to helps me stay sane, focused, and grounded. And please–take breaks! If you don’t do it on purpose, you will do it badly and burn out (unless you are totally in touch with your natural rhythms).

Prepare things in advance so it is as easy as possible to make the right choice in the moment (and in moments of weakness). Tape up the snack cabinet, close all your non-essential browser tabs, hide your phone across the room in a drawer, give yourself a pep talk, and begin. Be kind to yourself.

7. Find Your Believers

Let people support you and believe in you, and pick you up when you’re struggling. Find people who are willing to believe your vision is possible, and work with them to make it come true. 

Phone a friend when you’re struggling, or when you’re on the verge of making a bad decision. Let other people hold you accountable. Share yourself with others, make it known what you aspire to, so others can see your beacon and come forth.

8. Be Fearless & Kind

My meditation teacher Soryu Forall tells of a teacher who would sleep with one leg out of the mosquito net to give the bugs something to eat. Two of his students were before him one day, and one of them asked, “Wouldn’t it be kinder to sleep with no net at all?” and the other monk burst out, “He’s compassionate, not stupid!”. Be fearless and kind, but don’t be stupid. Use your discernment, and have courage. It’s okay to get hurt and learn from it, but if you keep getting hurt in the same way, you might have something to do with it. 

Another teacher of mine, Dr. Ellie Drago-Severson, knows this principle well. She is one of the most absurdly welcoming humans I have ever met, and it makes a world of difference. She’s no pushover, either. Often we are afraid to be kind and welcoming because we feel insecure and we are afraid others will take advantage of us. Default to kind, but don’t be a doormat. Remember, win-win or no deal.

Fearlessness comes in many forms. I like to keep in mind that I may die at the end of any day. Really, I could die with any breath, but considering it that way doesn’t tend to support the fullness of my life; it just brings up anxiety. Memento mori, “remember you must die”, is a powerful tool for shattering complacency. Be willing to make use of it. If you were to die at the end of this year, how would you want to live it? What would be most meaningful and significant to you?

9. Let Go

I used to think that “letting go” meant “watching leave”, as if letting go of something meant it would surely cease to exist in my life. It’s more like “letting go of the outcome”, and opening myself to the infinite possibilities that may emerge. I have let go of relationships that I didn’t understand or didn’t like, and they have come back alive and flourishing in a way I couldn’t have planned. I have let go of relationships, and they have transformed in beautiful ways. I have let go of relationships, and they have died out. Letting go is accepting that I don’t know what the outcome will be, but knowing I will do my part (no more and no less) to move towards my dreams. The universe does the rest.

The scary part is that when I let go of something, I have no idea what will happen next.

Many spiritual traditions talk about attachment and renunciation, which is also part of this. We’re generally crazy attached to what we think will make us happy, and we’re often very wrong. We think eating that cake will make us happy, and we’re right for a few minutes, and then wrong for the rest of our lives about that cake. We think this relationship or that relationship will make us happy, and then we find out that they’re imperfect too. Part of letting go is finding a wave to surf that includes the entire ocean, finding a kind of joy that is underneath all of our fixing and doing and becoming. We can practice this with our breath, letting the breath go freely with each exhale, long and comfortably. We can practice this with our minds, noticing when we tense up, and breathing calmly to relax our bodies. Letting go means finding ease, even in dis-ease, and being totally willing to face whatever is happening in this moment.

10. Decide What Kind of World You Want to Live In

David Foster Wallace describes this best in his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech (transcript here). He says, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” We have many freedoms in our modern age, but “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

What we choose to focus on becomes our reality. If I focus on food, that becomes my reality. If I focus on my appearance, that becomes my reality. If I focus on what other people think, that becomes my reality. What we focus on balloons to fill our lives. I want to live in the kind of world where people flourish and grow, where people are inspired to pursue their wildest dreams, and where people are wise and loving towards all of life. So every day I ask myself, how will I flourish and grow? How will I pursue my wildest dreams? How will I be wise and loving towards all of life? And then from there, I anchor my attention in my body, and I go forward into the day.

Jean Gray, story of mine

Jean Gray, story of mine,
heroine gone mighty wild,
fearsome dark dark sadness roots,
horror yields the golden fruits
of care love impact, shining bright,
leaves of dust and fiery might
when it blows the walls come down,
illusions meet their breeding ground
showing bare the plain white walls
these murals they do strive to shroud.
can we listen loud and clear,
hear the voice we hold most dear?
Oh how we fight what we most love,
how deeply caring, lasting hope
so does endure our darkest doubts,
finding life within the heart
close to softness, heaven-bound.

Nurture, yes do nurture that,
that which lingers out past doubt,
a deeper sense of what is true,
what must be done, what must come through
our efforts weaker than they must be
to dispel the dark spread through me
light to counteract the might of
wanting wishing hoping fight
(the violence even palpable
whose each does meet with heavy feet)
winding downward towards the light,
hoping dearly, fighting might.

vow to stand strong stay upright
moving lithely, stinging might
keep going, never stopping til
you see what’s true and ever will

we go forth blindly never knowing
what will come or what will find us
wishing deeply having faith
that guiding us is just a taste
of what deep beauty, life, and love
does lie beyond the useless drugs
that calm us lift us help us kill us
trying never dying till “us”
breaks apart and then we see
the truth thus shattered, mighty, meek.

i sat out on a rock one night

I sat out on a rock one night
and told the stars about my plight
we whispered back and forth, delight
did pour between us in the night.

We giggled, cackled there together
sharing secrets hither thither
nestled in the cleansing light
making one, the same, together.

all around us whirled the sun
uniting space, separation undone
we clothed ourselves in witness, one
together-minded in the sun.

I sat there on the rock that night
closed my eyes and wondered why
in wondering, came faced with nigh
spinning, spinning in the night.

Oppernockitty, splish splash

Oppernockitty, splish splash,
a bow down to the dock
three lilies and a pilgrim, starfish wide.
Lake falls, pond ripple,
wide-eyed hope meets faithful dawn 
whose toes, rosy glow of devilish light, emerge as laughter’s twinkling eyes. Never again will I forget 
the life that broke me miles wide–to see! Again, 
the joyful smile of love’s sweet tender mocking eyes. 

The noose too tight, most loosen now, 
running fields to free the might;
trailing fingers flowers’ height.
Dress does blow in meadow’s nile
sun-drenched ripening virgin child–to see! Oh growth, 
that fickle time 
when hope meets death and trickles down.

Now! To see! The mourning light, 
turning turning fires bright
through ever-moving quiet night, 
still as ever, greatest height.

Inspired by Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek