When I’m interviewed about courage (or anything else), it’s common for the interviewer to ask about any particular tips, tools, tricks, or advice that I have for how someone can…practice more courage. Feel more fulfilled. Experience more joy.
This is a delicate question to answer. There is no one tip or trick, that applies to all people, everywhere, of course. I typically end up answering with whatever seems to be the particular “thing” that I’ve been jiving with, lately, knowing that they really all seem to feed into the larger whole.
It’s never incorrect to say, one day, that “presence” is the practice, or to say on another day that “seeking laughter and joy” is the tool to use, because they all feed into the practices of attending to life and living in a conscious way.
But lately, the tool that I’ve been sharing most, is this one: crying.
Confession: I actually cry, quite a lot.
Most people’s misunderstandings and stereotypes about crying can jump into effect when I say this. If you cry quite a lot, does this mean that you’re not happy? We’re a culture that often equates crying with weakness.
But what I mean by saying that I cry is this: I cry, consciously. I cry with intention. I cry as a form of connecting to my joy. I cry as a way of opening my heart. I cry as a path to liberation from what would otherwise be bottled-up feelings within me, feelings that would otherwise stifle the creative impulse.
Crying, as a practice, is one of the most lusciously, fully-alive experiences for me.
Where I used to associated crying with victimization, I now associate it with freedom and liberation, of the highest order.
Crying As a Practice
Before this, I used to hate crying–within myself, or seeing anyone else. I felt condescension towards people who cried, precisely because I hadn’t yet reconciled the ability within myself. It was positively Freudian–Defense Mechanisms, all of that.
But then I started doing this really powerful, heart-opening work, and as part of that work, I was asked to cry–whenever and wherever it came up. I was invited to make it conscious, as part of a path to healing.
My first fear was that instead of crying consciously, I would becoming a “disgusting, wallowing vat of despair.” (That would be an exact quote from my inner critic).
I judged crying as being about “drama” and “attention-seeking.” I intensely disliked the discomfort I felt when others cried and I sensed that their tears were about trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty, so that they could get the result they wanted.
If that’s your context for crying, too? You feel me. And yes, there are people who use crying in this way, and it’s not responsible–but that’s not what I’m referring to, here.
To move beyond these internal judgments, I just had to…cry. “No way around, but through,” Robert Frost says, and I agree.
I needed to be conscious about crying, to take it on as a spiritual and personal growth practice.
How to Practice Crying
Mostly, I needed to notice that little second where something within me would tell me not to cry, and just not follow that impulse.
- When a sad moment happened in a movie, I needed to notice the impulse to fight it and keep calm, and I needed to cry.
- When a friend hugged me or said something I had desperately needed to hear, I needed to notice the impulse to fight it and keep calm–I needed to cry. (Yes. In front of someone else).
- I needed to go to powerful, life-changing workshops where no one would care whether or not I cried.
- I needed to book more sessions with my “counselor/coach/guru-man,” Matthew, and there I would need to cry.
- When devastating news occurred, I just needed to…cry. Right there, or wherever I was, or in the nearest restroom if necessary.
This practice of crying on the regular evolved until I would start actually “making” myself cry.
In order to heal and forgive things that had happened in my past, I would find time each day to sit down and think of them in a deliberate way, until I was good and worked up about them–and then I would (on purpose) do the crying over those hurts and wounds that I had not really been allowed to have, at the time.
This was immensely healing.
If I knew that I was holding a lot of space for others, juggling a lot on my to-do list, and otherwise feeling overwhelmed, I could make myself cry–listen to a song that always did the trick, or 9/11 footage, or something devastating.
The crying would connect me back to myself, to my humanity. The release I’d feel afterwards was of the kind that no person, no self-helpy book, and no external circumstances could provide.
When we cry consciously, with the intent to release that which is pent-up, and with the intent to express our truest emotions, the crying is catharsis. It’s bliss.
Fast-Forward to Today
I make a point of crying, as needed. I cry when I’m moved to my core. I cry when I hear about generous deeds. I cry when I watch the documentary, I Am. I cry when I’m on the phone with Tanya Geisler and she delivers just one perfect sentence, oh-so-casually, where I realize just how clearly she sees me and it feels so damned good to be so truly seen.
I cry when I hear about the tragedy of Newtown, CT, because if I weren’t crying all of that grief and shock and anger would stay stuck within me, rotting.
Crying is one of the healthiest presence practices I’ve adopted.
If you’ve been holding your tears back, especially if you’ve done it for awhile, I can’t help but entreat you to try conscious crying.
A quiet room, 20 minutes. Cry it out, on purpose.
Try that on as a meditation for one week, and you will emancipate your soul–I promise.
“What are you doing for the holidays?” people ask.
“Mmmm,” I respond with a smile, “Absolutely nothing. Chilling out at home. It’s a very relaxed holiday.”
The common response: “Oh, god–I wish I could do that!”
Then they share the hectic weeks ahead of them, of catching planes or people flying in from out of town or the social events they have lined up, one after another, that they “have to” attend.
And I remember what that was like, and I nod, and I’m glad that I’ve chosen differently.
* * *
“Did you beat the crowds, this year?” people ask me. “Almost done with your Christmas shopping?”
The question always takes me almost by surprise. My brain has to catch up: “Oh, yeah, it is that time of year, isn’t it?”
The common response: “I wish I could do that” or “I wish I had thought of that.”
Then they tell me about how the stores were terrible this year, or how they got up early to make it to a special sale and how tired they are, or some other thing they “had to” do.
And I remember what that was like, and I nod, and I’m glad that I’ve chosen differently.
“What are you making for Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner?” people ask.
“Nothing!” I say, with delight. “We’re going to go to Whole Foods, get some takeout, and come home and watch movies, drink tea or apple cider, stuff like that.”
“I wish I could get away with that,” someone confides, before she explains that if she did, people in her family would judge her endlessly.
“Every year, I tell myself that I’m going to do that,” someone says, “But then it’s Christmas and I just feel like the kids are missing out if I don’t go all out.”
“Your plan sounds sooooo nice,” someone says, before outlining an entire day spent in the kitchen, cooking, and not with the enthusiasm of someone who actually likes to cook.
And I remember what that was like, and I nod, and I’m glad that I’ve chosen differently.
“Glad that I’ve chosen differently”?
I’m not being sanctimonious. I am, simply, glad.
I used to do all of that–catch a lot of planes, spend a lot of time in airports, wait in a lot of lines, succumb to obligation about how I’m supposed to participate in this or that event or gathering, spend money on junk just so that someone wouldn’t take offense, and generally exit the holiday season feeling like the “break” had taken me to the point of “breaking.”
Finally, after a particularly disastrous Christmas, I said: “Enough.”
- No more flying anywhere for Christmas. It’s a terrible, awful time of year to fly, in every single respect.
- No more running around, getting junk gifts for people, purely out of obligation.
- No more pressure to be part of some all-day cooking-fest, when cooking is something I don’t like to do.
- No more cramming three families into one house for a week straight, which always made my HSP/INFJ body shut down or start to get sick, all in the name of “We’re supposed to be together for the holidays, aren’t we?”
So I experimented for the first time with the quiet, pressure-free holiday season.
It was a smashing success.
I emerged from that holiday season feeling well-rested, healthy, sans resentment, and at least $600 richer, because I didn’t “have to” spend money on a plane ticket.
Instead, I spent money on plane tickets to visit family at less expensive times of the year, or they came to my neck of the woods. I donated more money to charity. Where I did buy gifts, I bought better gifts, because I could afford to.
A curious thing started to happen: I began to look forward to Christmas.
My husband caught me singing “It’s the MOST! WONDERFUL! TIME!, of the YEAR!” in a store.
When we were invited to a holiday party, I put on makeup and a nice dress, instead of reluctantly throwing on jeans and a sweater and wishing I could just stay home and rest, in my pajamas, because I was so tired from going, going, going.
The Point of Sharing This
The point is this: if it’s important to you that everyone is together on Christmas, and if you don’t mind the crowds or the lines, and if you feel no pressure about getting gifts for people, and if your idea of a good time is hanging out in the kitchen all day to prepare a meal for others, then–Bravo!
I completely support you in those choices.
But–after more than a decade of Christmas seasons where I tried, very hard, to fit into that model, I finally realized two years ago that for me, it just didn’t work. It didn’t make me feel happy, and it definitely didn’t have me feeling connected to anyone, least of all to myself.
If the point of the holiday season is to celebrate, to feel connected, to be merry–and the things that the culture at large has told you to do don’t actually have you feeling happy–why, oh why, would you continue to do them?
I know why–I was living the “why.” Because people will be upset. Because people will be offended. Because people will take it personally. And, the real kicker–because that’s how you show people you love them.
It wasn’t until I got out from under those ideas that I realized that there are a hundred other ways to show people I love them, none of which I felt very inspired about when I was wrestling with the weight of obligations that the holidays seemed to bring, and the heavy sickness and fatigue that always seemed to accompany it.
If the traditional model doesn’t work for you–if the thought of a holiday season spent mostly around the fire with a stack of books, and the kids playing, and hubby watching football and apple cider in a pot on the stove, and not having to spend an hour scouring pans at the end of the day all sounds like a pretty nice way to live…
- …then attend fewer holiday parties. Only go to the ones that light you up like, well, a Christmas Tree.
- …give fewer gifts. Or donate money in people’s names to deserving charities, and have a heart-felt conversation with them, after the holidays, about all the good that that money did for someone in a country where first-world problems like “I feel so overwhelmed waiting in long lines to spend hundreds of dollars” don’t exist.
- …plan ahead–shop in October, hide it all in the garage, and then don’t step foot in a department store during the month of December (trust me, you’ll feel ever so slightly…rebellious!).
- …arrange a joint gift-unwrapping via Skype, and use call recording programs and the dual-window feature to simultaneously record two families of children tearing into their gifts and shrieking with delight. Replay the video, later.
- …designate specific days that are just for resting and staying close to home, and refuse to get on social media, check your email, or get out of your pajamas, during that day. Plot for such days by going to the library and getting a big, fat stack of books to peruse–books on fashion or home decorating, something that’s not too overtly cerebral.
Tweak and experiment, until you find the thrilling combination that leaves you joking with cashiers at the grocery store, bringing hot cocoa to the Salvation Army bell ringers, and saying, “Merry Christmas!” to your relatives with true joy and excitement.
Remember: if it’s not leaving you feeling fully-alive, it’s not truly living. What will you do with your one, precious life?
It would be fair to say that I was born to live on my own terms.
That seems to be the major lesson in this incarnation. I can’t remember a time when I was not highly evaluatory, an odd sort of child who at a very young age could spot hypocrisy (“They say I shouldn’t yell at my sister. They yell at me when they say this. Why is it okay for them to yell, but not me?”). I remember noticing how often adults said one thing, yet did another. I especially noticed how adults didn’t like it when I was honest.
Thankfully, there is some way in which no one ever managed to break my spirit. Adults could make me do what they wanted me to do, but they could never make me agree. I was the one in charge of that, and I always knew it.
Freedom. Liberation. Spaciousness. These are all words to describe “life lived on your own terms,” and in my case, they’ve been the backbone of every good decision I’ve ever made.
My soul made it clear: I needed to do this go-around on my own terms. Perhaps that’s you, too.
But make no mistake–living on your terms is not without “costs,” in a world where there are the consequences of judgment from others. For some people, even reading the line “I had to do it my way” will make them seethe, wondering who the hell I think I am and conjuring up all manner of Stories that I must be a selfish person who thinks only of myself.
But here’s what I know about “doing it my way”–offered for those who would also like to “do it their way”:
1.) Doing it “my way” includes space for collaboration and cooperation. That is “my way.” It’s probably “your way,” too. It’s the way that brings a lot of love into my life. Most people–especially people who want you to do it “their way” and who are upset when you won’t–will misunderstand this.
In such cases–because they are invested in their Story–they won’t see all the ways that you ARE about promoting collaboration and cooperation. Any evidence that contradicts their Story will get ignored. It’s largely unintentional. People can’t see what they can’t see.
Note: This “invested in their Story” bit? Really important. Keep reading.
2.) Some people will have their own definition of “cooperate”: “Cooperative = doing things the way I want you to. Anything else means that you’re selfish.”
It’s an unfortunate misunderstanding for those of us who “do it our way,” because at the times when we don’t “cooperate,” selfishness (in the conventional sense of the word) is not the motivation.
What’s really happened is that I’ve given it thought and determined that to collaborate or “cooperate,” is really just not in alignment with my values or for my vision for a particular situation.
It’s never personal–but some people will take it that way, because they have invested themselves in a Story.
Especially at first, this is painful to experience.
3.) But–another thing I’ve learned–being disliked or called selfish will not be the worst thing in the world.
You will actually survive, and eventually come to see that people don’t dislike YOU, they dislike experiencing the Story they tell themselves about you.
You will probably go through a period where you require a lot of second-guessing, because you’re a smart enough cookie to know that sometimes, you do behave selfishly–just like everyone else does, at times.
The second-guessing will be about determining those times when “selfish” is your truth to reckon with and make amends over, and the times when it’s someone else’s accusation, designed to manipulate your behavior to their liking.
This is okay. This time of second-guessing will feel awkward, but you will become increasingly familiar with what is yours, and what is not yours, and that will be powerful.
4.) If you “live on your own terms” long enough, you will start to see themes emerge with the people you interact with. The themes will have some consistency to them, regardless of content.
Here’s an example of how these themes would play out, using the instance of someone feeling that you might have been “selfish.”
The people who are not invested in their Stories about you will, if they have a judgment that you are Selfish, ask questions to clear up their own miscommunications, take ownership of their judgments rather than making it your responsibility to change/fix their feelings, and make requests that are aimed at connection that works for everyone.
Their requests will not be oriented around getting an apology from you or a specific result–again, their requests will be aimed at what promotes connection.
The people who are invested in keeping their Stories are going to continue to run those Stories even when presented with evidence to the contrary, to use them against you, and they will not ask questions to clear up their own misunderstandings.
They are walking with the belief that they have no misunderstandings, and that you alone are the one who misunderstands.
The people who are invested in their Stories get on the phone or arrive at the coffee shop with a distant energy that lets you know that you have already fucked it up in their mind. They’re trying to manipulate you into seeing them as the injured party, and you into being “sorry.”
This manipulation actually has nothing to do with you. It’s their wound. It’s what they think they need, to be okay.
5.) If you “live on your own terms,” you’ll need to learn a sort of internal, ninja jujitsu with such people, because the answer is actually *not* to write them off just because they are practicing unkindness.
The second you think that the answer is to tell them to fuck off, you’re joining them where they’re at. You’re investing in your own Story, and that Story will imprison you, even as you look to live “on your own terms.”
Freedom can be caged in many ways, and the most pernicious cages are those that we put ourselves in. Retaliatory disconnection is such a cage.
The ninja jujitsu is to simply pour on the love–without trying to fix them. Take responsibility for them. Be different for them.
Just keep pouring on the love. Do your best.
6.) Living “on your own terms,” paradoxically, also includes *not* doing things on your own terms, in a way that is… “on your own terms.”
There are times when you’ll realize that doing something that you don’t particularly want to do–but doing it for some reason that supports another one of your values–will end up being another expression of living “on your own terms.”
You’ll eat the food you don’t like. You’ll go along with the family plans, when you really feel like staying home with a book. You’ll burn the midnight oil to meet a deadline and wake up the next day, and do it all again. These wouldn’t be your first preferences.
–you’ll be doing this from a place of conscious choosing, not from obligation. You’ll do it knowing that resentment will come up, and with a willingness to deal with it as it arises, and release it, because you’ve chosen–and chosen consciously.
This is really what “living on your own terms” boils down to.
It’s not about always doing what you want.
It’s not about never doing what anyone else wants.
It’s not about rebellion or bucking a trend.
It’s not about being a loner who isolates because the only other (perceived) option is to bow to the needs of others.
Living on your “own terms” is really about consciously choosing your terms, rather than accepting terms by default, or just doing what other people want so that you won’t rock the boat (note: that’s just manipulation). It’s about consciously seeing the times when “terms” are helpful, and the times when they are not and it’s time to say, “No terms for me. Sorry. Gotta go renegade on this one.”
Yes–there are consequences. Some people are going to have none of it, and you might be sitting there, thinking that this is not an acceptable trade-off. You might be incredibly fearful that you will lose people you love.
But I have this hunch that if you muster up more love than you can imagine, and you’re ferocious and fierce about that love, and unwilling to get sucked into anyone else’s drama as you stay true to your own internal compass, something really lovely actually is possible.
They don’t need to see it.
Only you do; your love will carry you both, it its own strange and mysterious way.
That choice? To love anyway and to align with your own values? That’s the best way of “living on my own terms” that I know.