“I don’t get it,” you say.
“I really, really want things in my life to change. I mean, I am serious. I’m not joking. I’m sick of things being the way they are, and I’ve put my all into changing things. I’ve been willing to invest in workshops, to hire coaches or go to therapy, to write those hard letters where I say all the angry things that I’ve held inside and then burn them, to meditate, to look at forgiveness and acceptance. I want to stop feeling so [judgmental, controlling, disconnected, imbalanced, tuned-out, emotionally exhausted--insert the feeling state of your choice].”
This isn’t the rambling of someone who is all talk, with no willingness to take action.
This is the cry of someone who is frustrated because they sincerely desire change and are willing to take action, but they don’t see that their efforts correspond to the changes they’re working for.
This is the cry of someone who is exhausted by her own efforts. There’s a real sense of despair, in this place–it can feel about as stuck as you can get. At least when you haven’t tried to change, you can say, “The reason life doesn’t feel so great is because I haven’t really applied myself.”
Few things are harder than saying, “I really applied myself, and it still wasn’t enough.”
Just Relax? Nice Work If You Can Get It
It’s usually right about this time when someone will remind you to relax, to surrender, to accept, to go with the flow, to not fooooorce it.
I’m a huge fan of all of these things, and yet I’ve come to understand that there are pieces that come together to foster surrender and acceptance, and that surrender and acceptance are not “light switch” states of being that most people can easily flip on or off.
One piece to getting there? Understanding your own unique discomforts with freedom.
Freedom Can Be Uncomfortable
Any new and unfamiliar feeling state can be profoundly uncomfortable. Pema Chodron cites Chogyam Ringpoche as talking about how when we first practice courage, we are not all puffed-out chests of pride ready to walk into battle. At first, courage looks like “shaky tenderness.” It doesn’t yet feel like something you can actually use, or something you can lean on.
So many people think they’ve never arrived at courage, when in fact they were there–it just didn’t look the way they thought it would. They speak up for themselves, but their voices shake and their hearts pound in their “shaky tenderness,” and they assume that this isn’t what “real” courage looks or feels like.
The same experience can be true with freedom.
We often think of freedom as being a relief, a release that washes through the places in our bodies and souls where we feel tight and constricted.
Yes–it is–but not necessarily when it’s brand-new.
When freedom is brand-new, there can be a profound spaciousness, a sense of things being far too vast and out of control and open, like cresting a roller-coaster. Remember that only the person who believes that roller-coasters are fun has the faith that hurtling down at 100 miles an hour will be safe.
The first time any of us are on a roller-coaster, we aren’t quite so sure it was a good idea, until we’re unbuckling the safety belt and laughing with friends at what we just survived.
Freedom and Identity
When the new-found freedom is freedom from an old pattern, an old way of being, it feels like having lost an identity. I still remember the very first time that I ever–ever–responded to something from a different place than my old, habituated pattern.
My husband had unintentionally made some kind of mistake. My old pattern was running–judge him, blame him, tell him how he should have paid more attention so that the mistake didn’t happen, raising my voice, arguing, dominating.
I was standing next to a bureau and I distinctly remember holding onto the trim of that bureau, trying to slow.my.brain.down. because I was conscious that I wanted to do this differently, yet thoughts were going at warp speed with all of the arguments and justifications and the Stories.
I collected myself enough to say, “Hold on, hold on,” and to close my eyes, and breathe for a moment, and he let me do that, waiting.
In the next moment, somehow I knew that I was right in the midst of changing a very old pattern, and it felt so wide and open, like a new possibility had just been handed to me and I was going to be lucky enough to be able to take it!
–and running a parallel track to that was a sudden terror. I even felt slightly dizzy, and it was hard to articulate what to say, next. Yes, me–me!–having trouble with words.
I began to cry. Without the armor of judgment and blame, the identity I’d held for years of always having the snappy comeback was absent. Vulnerability was what was left. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, next. Finally, I just said what I felt: “Everything in me wants to make you wrong and yell at you, right now, even though I know that you didn’t actually do anything wrong.”
That identity-armor of judgment, blame, distancing, and snappy comebacks? It was my protection from the world, from the judgment and blame of others, and most especially, from ever having to feel as vulnerable as I felt in that moment.
It was freedom. It was utterly beautiful, and utterly uncomfortable.
Trust the Wisdom in the Experience
When we release an old way of being, something new comes in to fill that space. When what comes in to fill that space is freedom, the spaciousness that accompanies it and the underlying recognition that freedom is a state of acceptance and thus one lacking in control, can feel overwhelming.
What do I do with this feeling?
Who will I be, if I behave in a new way?
How will I handle life?
How will others react?
These are all questions that an identity system asks. Here’s an example: If you’re the family people-pleaser, you’ve asked yourself what to do with feelings of discomfort (answer: people-please, as that pattern reduces anxiety); who you will be (my role: people-please to make others happy), how you’ll handle life (answer: in the short-term, maintain the peace through people-pleasing while growing resentful and disconnected in the long-term), and how others will react (answer: I notice that when I people-please, everyone else isn’t as angry. Sounds like a good route to take).
What happens when the feeling comes up again, without the identity of people-pleaser? Without knowing who you’ll be, how you’ll handle life, how others will react?
What happens? No one knows. Everything is suddenly up in the air, whereas before this it was pre-defined and you knew, more or less, how the chips would fall.
The more you drop the identities that keep you from freedom, the closer you get to true freedom–and the more you drop the identities, of course, the scarier it will be at first.
This is where courage comes in. Courage is the practice of trusting in the wisdom of the experience. You feel the fear that comes along with this new, shaky freedom, and you say to yourself, “The fact that this is coming up doesn’t have to ‘mean’ anything. Let me see where this goes. Let me see what happens next. Let me stop. Let me breathe. Let me take a moment. Let me trust. I can do this, even if there’s fear.”
Choosing Your Freedom
Funny thing, choosing to practice courage in that moment–notice that stopping to breathe, being open to seeing where things go, and trusting in the process sounds an awful lot like what most of us think of as…freedom.
Notice what happens when you arrange your life so that you can start a 30-day yoga challenge, and then suddenly you don’t want to go. Notice what happens when you swear to yourself that you’ll speak up at the next meeting, and then tell yourself you have nothing worthwhile to share. Notice what happens when you’re furious at your husband, and you have a moment where you take a breath, but then you say “Fuck it” and get the pot-shot in, anyway.
We’re either choosing the identity, or we’re choosing freedom. (Click to tweet: http://ctt.ec/bvdxb). So if you really, really–really!–want your life to change, it’s good to ask yourself what your identity systems are made of, how they operate, how they help you to navigate your life, and why you turn to them in the first place.
Then it’s good to ask yourself if you’d be willing to release even that–everything you think you’re so certain about, within yourself–in service to a new and unfamiliar change. You’re surrendering to…
Not needing to know.
Not relying on a pre-determined set of “answers.”
On the other side of that, there’s spaciousness. Openness. Uncertainty. Vulnerability. Courage. Freedom.
A year ago, I embarked on the Desire Map process, nestled into a comfy chair with tea and the worksheet pages spread out, around me. I scribbled away in the silence of my home office, excited for the new year to come.
I arrived at these core desired feelings:
- Sacred connection
- Sensuous Delight
The process of Desire Mapping is about using your feelings to guide your decisions, rather than setting an arbitrary list of goals that would might look good to accomplish but ultimately leave you feeling empty. Part of the delight of this process was realizing just how many things I was already doing in my life that supported all of these feelings–which had me excited about how I could up the ante.
If you had asked me in late 2012 which of these feelings was most important to me, I probably would have said, “Freedom.” Whether we’re talking Core Desired Feelings or personal values, freedom always makes the list and I’ve typically thought of freedom as my highest value.
To my surprise, what I’ve found in 2013 is that the feeling that actually brings me the most happiness, the greatest sense of ease, and the feeling that really ends up influencing the others, is the CDF of sensuous delight.
I wrote about living in the world of sensuous delight here, and with CDFs, it’s all about how you use them.
When I need a five-minute breather, and I don’t want to zone out with Facebook? It’s off to my sensuous delight board on Pinterest, which contains everything from nubby sweaters to photographs of ocean spray to bold hues of color to chubby babies to photo stills from the movie Marie Antoinette.
When I notice that I keep ruminating on something and need to get out of my head? It’s time to make soup. Chopping carrots, sautéing the onions until they caramelize, the smell of fresh cilantro, or even the trip to the grocery store beforehand where I consider five different kinds of olive oil–all a delight to the senses.
Just honoring this one CDF of “sensuous delight” is an honor to the others. I feel affluent as I chop the vegetables that are splayed abundantly across the counter. I feel powerful when I consciously choose to take a moment to breathe and feel the breath move through my body. I feel sacred connection–to myself and others and the world–when my senses are engaged and I’m noticing the unique sky that never will be, again, at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.
What I love best about the process is the simplicity of it. There aren’t fifteen things to do; there’s one: honor that one Core Desired Feeling. Things start arranging themselves with more ease, from there.
What I see happening in 2014:
My business is growing by leaps and bounds. I looked at my year-to-date PayPal sales records the other day and went, “Holy Shmoley–made more money this year, and worked about half as much, including taking the summer months off of work, entirely. Wow.”
The big vision is to bring the world of sensuous delight into my business’s growth and daily operations. Writing is love, and I love to write, but other than that, I don’t want to be attached to an electronic device–computer, phone, email, ipad, whatever. My preferred writing space is the white-on-white design of my home office, with its coziness and silence–so I’ve got that covered.
The challenge: Needing to respond to emails or deadlines leaves me feeling distant from “sensuous delight,” and I’m still working out how I want to have a different relationship to both. I constantly debate about whether or not I want to hire someone, weighing the pros and cons of training, working styles, and time needed to communicate back and forth (does this add to, or detract from, a feeling of sensuous delight? Does this augment feelings of being free, or create more obligations?).
I share this little window into both the vision and the challenge of it all to bring transparency to the fact that this is such an active process. When Danielle calls these your Core Desired Feelings, it’s truly that–they’re feelings. When we feel, we’re conscious, we’re present, we’re engaged.
I love planning and action steps–my own Courageous Living Planner is coming out on December 12th–but it’s got to be paired with the feeling. In fact, the feeling needs to be in the driver’s seat (they’re what are driving things, anyway, whether we’re aware of it, or not). Feelings and actions in communion create something revolutionary.
“Small, deliberate actions inspired by your true desires create a life you love.” –Danielle LaPorte, The Desire Map
In my mid-20s, I had an unexpectedly profound experience that changed me: I saw a documentary on people living in Appalachia. The documentary profiled a family of “hillbillies,” including their kinship networks, how they survived financially at the bottom of the financial food chain, how they made their way in the world with limited education and in some cases illiteracy, and their struggles and their triumphs.
They had an ease and understanding with each other, a familiarity. They had loyalty, willing to share their already limited resources with one another for the survival of all.
What was striking was this: despite being poor and uneducated, these people had something that I didn’t have, despite all of my smarts.
* * *
A decade ago, all I thought I wanted in life was a tenure-track professorship. I spent the weekends scouring the clearance aisle at Banana Republic to find suits; I joined eight different academic committees (most full-time professors are on maybe 2 or 3); I signed up for time in the campus tutoring labs.
I was working so hard so that I could get the job so that I could have the things so that I could validate the accomplishments so that I could live a good life–and to do that, I thought, you needed to be smart.
Everyone adopts certain “identities” and uses those identity systems to navigate the world. In my case, “Smart” had become the armor and shield to protect me from life’s failures (If I was just smart enough about things, I wouldn’t make mistakes–or feel pain).
“Smart Person” had become an identity–one that I needed to maintain at all costs. I feared looking like a fool if I made a mistake in front of the classroom. I wanted to read all of the right books, so that my faculty cohort wouldn’t know that I had never studied “the canon.” I sought out friendships with other like-minded people who would also make high-minded conversation at dinner parties. I wanted the intellectual debate and discourse.
Because I was so attached to the “Smart Person” identity, I wanted to surround myself with really smart people. In those communities, as Dr. Brene Brown puts it, I “hustled for my worthiness.”
Ugh–the arrogance! I feel compassion for the woman I was, who didn’t know that it was okay for her to be herself without striving to appear so smart, in the hopes that that would bring her connection.
As you can imagine, it was empty. I could make conversation at a party, but I couldn’t get truly vulnerable. The comparisons and one-upmanship were mentally exhausting. Sometimes, the dark side of the ego that was driving me to protect and maintain my “Smart Person” identity did so at all costs, making me judgmental of someone else’s conversational faux-pas or their mispronunciation of a word.
The thing is, “smart” doesn’t get you anywhere, if where you’re trying to go is being smarter than everyone else. (Click here to tweet that).
It’s like trying to be forever youthful and gorgeous. Eventually, the mind fades–and eventually, the skin sags. Eventually, someone else has the new and innovative idea, or inevitably, you’ll arrive at the party tired and unable to keep up with the conversation.
Furthermore, everyone can see someone with that “Smart Person” identity as they are hustling. Everyone. The more they hustle, the less anyone wants to be around them. Few people like being corrected, or having someone bring up a devil’s advocate position purely for the debate. Few people like sharing what they know about a topic and having someone contradict them to get their own point of view in.
The very thing that someone’s using their “Smart Person” identity to get, ends up being the very thing that drives people away. I wanted connection more than anything, yet for all of my smarts, I couldn’t “figure out” why people distanced themselves. Yet, the people in that documentary with 1/5 the education that I’d had, already had that connection, with ease.
* * *
I had to learn a few things, to release my attachment to the identity of “Smart Person” and all the behaviors that went along with it.
One, I’m not nearly as smart as I used to think I was. Sure, I’ve got smarts–I’ve just stopped over-inflating my capacity in comparison to others, stopped using it as the “Smart Person” identity that justifies all of my choices or how I’m better or what they should be doing, differently.
I feared releasing this identity–I’d built an entire existence around it–and yet now, this is a relief. It’s far less work to just be in a conversation, fully, than it is to be thinking of the next witty thing to say in the hopes that it will be impressive and thus have me be liked, and it’s far less pressure to admit when I don’t know or don’t understand than it is to keep nodding and pretending as if I do.
Two, I’ve found that if you observe others who are using their “Smart Person” identity to navigate the world, you’ll find that it’s the same for them. They aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. I don’t say that unkindly or as a put-down. I say it to share that if you feel intimidated around them, there’s no reason to. When someone clings to any identity system, they’re going to do what they can to defend it because “that’s who I am.” We all have identity systems that we cling to. Part of the “Smart Person” identity system is maintained through intimidation and perfectionism. Instead of finding that intimidating, find compassion in your heart. It’s a painful place to live.
Three, I actually don’t care about intellect as much as I thought I did. Once the “Smart Person” identity started to fall away, I realized that part of the fallacy of the “Smart Person” identity is that what you know is the prized position, and what you know is your only limited currency.
When I meet someone who desperately needs everyone to know that she’s smart because she clings to the “Smart Person” identity, I immediately understand that I may learn fascinating things in my conversations with her, but unless she’s willing to drop deeper than the intellect, there will be limits to the connection in that relationship.
What you know is far less important than who you choose to be. (Click to tweet).
It’s far less important that someone is smart, than it is that they are kind. (Click to tweet).
Your intelligence drops drastically in value, when it’s used to serve internal mental dysfunction (comparisons, “better than” mentalities, hierarchies, “putting people in their place”), rather than creating internal peace and external connection.
The truly brilliant minds of this world are the ones that use their brilliance to contribute, not the ones that need to be right in a conversation. (Click to tweet).
The measure of someone’s true intellect is in how she uses it to create good in the world, starting with the world that begins in her home, at her dinner table, in her job, with her family, in her community.
That’s the kind of intelligence that matters.