“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.