anxiety

Part 1 - If You Don't Lean In to Effective Energy Management, You Won't Make It: Two Ways to Move From Slavery to Freedom

Does it ever feel like your job is sucking the soul out of you?  Is your work environment fueling a sense of powerlessness where you feel you're being mastered rather than the other way around--you've become a slave to the master of your work--you're trapped in a never-ending cycle of demands from everyone around you, urgent needs and To Do's, so you're drained of all energy at the end of the day?  And this habitual pattern has repeated itself for years until you feel like there's no hope for anything better?  Do you feel like you're on the proverbial hamster wheel, running and running and running, expending all your energy but really getting nowhere? One of my clients was feeling this way in deep and profound ways when he came to me.  "What do I do?  Is there anything I can do to get out of this vicious cycle?" he asked plaintively.  "I've lost all of my passion and creativity!  Can I get it back?"

One of the first things I did was affirm his courage and gumption to come see me.  That in itself was a positive proactive step he was choosing in order to take back his life.

So many people get to that hamster wheel space and simply cave in to the feeling of being a victim:  "There's nothing I can do about it.  The never-ending demands are simply not things I have any control over.  I mean, if I want this job, I have to put up with this vicious cycle."

But here's the thing:  you are never a victim to your life!

True, you may work for an awful boss.  Your team members might all act like jerks.  You may never get affirmed and appreciated for your hard work.  Colleagues may steal your ideas and take the credit.  More and more work might keep getting dumped on you when you're already overwhelmed.

But you are never a victim to your life!

Here's what I mean by this.  There are always areas of your life where you can and must take back your power and control.  Let me prioritize the two most important ones:  your Identity and your Energy.  You simply cannot compromise on either of these without terrible consequences.

Identity

Our temptation is to equate our sense of identity with our work.

When someone asks us what we do, we typically say, "I'm a [and then state our job title or type of work]."

But notice that we're using an "I am" statement.  That's a statement of being which is woefully incorrect and unhealthy.

The truth is, our job is simply something we do in our lives.  It's not who we are.  Huge distinction.

Unless we get this fundamental identity issue right, we'll always feel we lack control over our lives since we spend so much time at work under the direction and often control of a supervisor or boss or manager.  Right?  Even if you're a CEO you're still under the direction of the Board--you answer to them, in the end.  Even if you're a self-employed entrepreneur, you're still answerable to your clients.

To take back control of your life, you must be clear on your identity and where it comes from.

Remember the Jews who moved to the land of Egypt in order to escape the terrible famine in their land.  They ended up being subjugated in slavery to Pharaoh for over 300 hundred years.  Their cruel task masters lorded control over their lives by forcing them to build bricks for the pyramids.

So what was their identity challenge?  Their temptation was to view themselves as no more than slaves to another master.  All they were valuable for was production and daily quotas.  They felt powerless because in many ways they were powerless.  They felt victims to their circumstances.  They were slaves.

When I told this story to my client, he immediately resonated.

"That's exactly how I feel--like a slave to another master.  I feel out of control.  My whole identity is consumed around my work and how much and how well I produce.  And so often I don't feel like I'm producing enough or I'm not producing enough quality and creativity.  I feel like a loser or imposter."

Can you relate to that?  I certainly can.  I find it easy at times to slip back into this mindset of, "I don't think I'm good enough.  I feel like a nobody.  I'm not successful enough.  I'm not producing value enough.  Therefore I am not enough."

So the Jews had to get clear about their true identity.  And in their environment, that was a gargantuan challenge!

What helped them get clear?  What did they do to take back control for their lives in the most fundamental area?

Here's the next significant issue.  It's engaging in strategies that empower us to align ourselves with our true identity.

Stay tuned for the next post.  Effective living is all about energy management, not time management.

Here Are Some Reflection Questions for You to Answer (try writing your reflections down on paper or computer):

How would you state your personal identity?  What words do you use to describe who you are at your very core, beyond what you do every day or the work or profession you have?  What gives you your value?  What are your true core values that drive your choices (the North Stars by which you navigate your paths forward)?  Finish this identity sentence:  "My value is in the truth that I am ..."

Be clear on your identity!

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Looking for a Speaker or Coach?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.

 

PART 2, The Final Three Steps to Living in the Present Moment

How Good Are You at Being In the Present Moment? Most people I talk to these days all describe their difficulty in being able to live more deeply in the present moment.  The ability to stay present at any given time is becoming a rare art.  We get caught up in the crazy and often overwhelming demands of staying alive and what we think comprises living life.  Consequently, time flies by without us ever really having lived in the moment.  And we either get fixated on the past or anxious about the future.

My last blog post told a zen story from which emerges six powerful steps to learning how to be grounded more deeply in the present.

The Parable

A monk is being chased by a ferocious tiger through the jungle.  He breathlessly comes to a clearing and is faced with a cliff right in front of him with a rope hanging over the side.  With the tiger catching up and no more options available, he quickly grabs the rope and shinnys down along the side of the cliff until he reaches the end of the rope.  He glances up and sees the tiger baring its hungry fangs.  He glances down and sees huge, sharp, jagged rocks beckoning to him 100 feet below.  What should he do?  About that time, two mice begin gnawing on the rope above him.  Now what?

strawberriesCaught between a rock and a hard place, he suddenly notices something that captures his attention.  It’s a bright red, delectable-looking strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff an arm’s length away.  Hanging on to the rope with one arm and both feet, he reaches out with his other hand, plucks the strawberry, and puts it in his mouth.  Eating it, he exclaims, “This is the most delicious strawberry I believe God has ever made and I have ever tasted.  Yum, yum!”

Quick Summary of the First Three Steps

I describe the first three steps in my last blog postFirst, notice the strawberry; pay attention to what's around you; Second, take a risk and reach for the strawberry; and Third, take it--don't just be a spectator, get involved, participate in life right now.

But if we stopped with these three steps, we wouldn't really be plumbing the present moment for all it can truly give to us.  The final three take us to a deeper, more fulfilling and satisfying experience.  Here are the next three steps the story describes the monk taking.

Step Four:  Eat the strawberry.

Had the monk simply hung there on the rope looking at the beautiful strawberry, or had he even just held it in his hand, admiring its beauty, he would have missed the most delightful potential of that moment.  He had to put it in his mouth and chew it.

I wonder how often we miss out on joy and delight by simply not partaking of what's in front of us?  We're great at analyzing and debating the pros and cons of strawberries.  We dissect the past and philosophize about the future--we're experts with this.  But could we be missing out on the deeper experience of the present, the eating of the strawberry itself?  We stop short of putting it into our mouths and tasting it.  We can talk about it until we're blue in the face, but if we haven't eaten it, we really don't know what we're talking about.

This is why sacred scripture makes this statement:

"Taste and see that the LORD is good."

No taste, no see, no good.  Without taste, everything else is only theory.

Step Five:  Savor the strawberry.

The fact that the monk, hanging on to the rope for dear life, is so present in his moment with the strawberry that he not only enjoys the taste but notices it enough to realize that it's the best strawberry he's ever tasted, shows that he has mastered the practice of savoring.

Savoring means you stay present long enough, you linger over something, that it deepens your enjoyment of it.

When is the last time you truly truly savored something?  When is the last time you stayed with an experience long enough to really really appreciate and delight in it?  When is the last time your lingering over something gave you an focused appreciation of the various nuances of delight caressing your senses in that moment?  That's savoring.

One of the reasons more of us don't savor is because savoring takes time in the moment.  We have to choose to invest more than a split second seeing and tasting something.  We linger and pay attention to what we're experiencing while we're lingering.  We develop vocabulary to describe what we're tasting or sensing or feeling.  And that takes knowledge and awareness, both of which take time to develop.

But if we practice it, we get good at it.  And consequently our delight and enjoyment and focus deepen and widen and profoundly increase.

Step Six:  Give Thanks for the Strawberry.

This is tying the bow on the gift we've just received.  Expressing gratitude.  The monk, in the throes of his culinary ecstasy while hanging precariously on a rope (with tiger above and rocks below), gives thanks to the God who could create such a marvelously-tasting strawberry.

Neuroscience research informs us that expressing gratitude is the strongest, most transformational activity your brain can engage in.  Brain function becomes more balanced, harmonized, and supple; your heart begins to pump in a much more coherent and harmonious rhythm; and biochemical changes trigger a host of healthful responses throughout your body.

Studies how us that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of other benefits:

  • Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More joy, optimism and happiness
  • Acting with more generosity and compassion
  • Feeling less lonely and isolated

What's so amazing about this simple practice, step six in living in the present moment, is that it in the end grounds us and anchors us to the delightful moment we've just experienced.  It seals it for us, physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually.  It ties the bow on the gift we just received.

We could learn a great deal from that little old monk who hung there on the rope suspended between a fearful past and uncertain future.  There's always a strawberry.  So look for it, risk a reach for it, take it, eat it, savor it, and express thanks for it.

Your present moments will never be the same again!

Personal Reflections For You:

  • When you notice something good in your present moment, do you take the time to taste it, to put it your "mouth" and feel it?
  • Describe an experience when you truly savored something, lingered long enough to relish the flavors or delightful nuances to your senses.
  • How often do you express thanks and gratitude for your positive experiences in life--whether it's to yourself, to others, or to God?
  • Do you have a regular gratitude practice?  What or Why not?

Six Steps To Living in the Present Moment

The Challenge of Living in the Moment I was leading a telecall the other day with people who participated in my first spiritual retreat back in January.  At the beginning, we shared with each other brief updates about our lives--one high and one low over the last few months.  Most of us, including me, were wrestling with the challenge of how to be able to live more fully in and enjoy the present moment without being so obsessed and caught up in either the past or the future or the extreme busyness and demands of every day life.

I don't think we're alone in this challenge.  The ability to stay present at any given time is becoming a rare art with so many people.  We get caught up in the crazy and often overwhelming demands of staying alive and what we think comprises living life.  Consequently, time flies by without us ever really having lived in the moment.  We lose opportunities to create wonderful memories and experience deep enjoyment because we're so focused on other things.  And not living in the moment means that we're more likely consumed by the past or the future and whatever those two represent to us.

I shared the following story on our telecall out of which emerged during our conversation six powerful steps to being able to stay more fully present and plumb the depths of life.

A Parable

You've heard the zen story of the monk being chased by a ferocious tiger through the jungle.  He breathlessly comes to a clearing and is faced with a cliff right in front of him with a rope hanging over the side.  With the tiger catching up and no more options available, he quickly grabs the rope and shinnys down along the side of the cliff until he reaches the end of the rope.  He glances up and sees the tiger baring its hungry fangs.  He glances down and sees huge, sharp, jagged rocks beckoning to him 100 feet below.  What should he do?  About that time, two mice begin gnawing on the rope above him.  Now what?

strawberries

Caught between a rock and a hard place, he suddenly notices something that captures his attention.  It's a bright red, delectable-looking strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff an arm's length away.  Hanging on to the rope with one arm and both feet, he reaches out with his other hand, plucks the strawberry, and puts it in his mouth.  Eating it, he exclaims, "This is the most delicious strawberry I believe God has ever made and I have ever tasted.  Yum, yum!"

The Parable's Point

What's the point?  If the monk had been totally preoccupied with the ferocious tiger (his past) or the menacing rocks below (his future) he would have missed out on the delicious strawberry (his present).  Right?

I often realize, when I'm reflective enough, that I tend to allow the guilt or regret or memories of the past to weigh in on me, which can overwhelm my present.  Or I tend to focus on the uncertainties of the future which inevitably raises my anxiety level in the present.

Why do we allow this to happen?  As one author puts it,

"The past is already gone, the future hasn't happened yet; the only moment we have is right now.  Why waste it?"

Notice what the monk does as he finds himself caught between his past and his future which empowers him to live in the moment in a beautiful way.  Six Steps:

Six Steps to Living in the Moment

FIRST, he sees the strawberry.  He notices it.  He's paying attention.

Do you realize how many "strawberries" you and I miss out on because we're simply not seeing or noticing or paying attention?  You can't enjoy what you don't see.

SECOND, he reaches for the strawberry.

It's one thing to see something.  It's another thing to reach out for it, to take an action to engage with what you're seeing.

Sounds easy enough.  But why then don't we do this more often?

Because reaching out for the "strawberry" takes a risk.  Think about the monk.  In order to reach out for the strawberry he has to let go of the rope with one arm.  That's risky.  Letting go is difficult.  But because he takes the risk, he ends up getting the reward.

I truly believe that nothing good in life comes to us without some risk.  You choose to love someone and you risk being hurt or rejected.  You choose

THIRD, he takes the strawberry.  You can't just reach for something, you have to take it to enjoy it.

So much of today's culture is a spectator culture.  People are satisfied simply sitting on the sidelines watching the game of life happen in front of them.

The tragedy with a spectator culture is that people actually delude themselves into thinking that watching is enough; that watching is the highest level of enjoyment and satisfaction.

It certainly might be safer on some levels.  If you're in the stands watching football, you're not getting beat up and tackled in the game.  But it's interesting, isn't it, that if the team we're watching wins, we feel really really good and satisfied.  But there's no way that feeling can match the exhilaration of the players who gave it their all in order to win the game.  Right?

"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."  George Bernard Shaw

We delude ourselves into thinking that spectating is good enough for joy and satisfaction.  But we're missing out on the deeper depths of truly worthwhile living.  We're robbing ourselves of real living in the moment.  We can't enjoy the strawberries unless we reach out and take them in hand.

Stay tuned for my next blog  the final three steps to plumbing the present moment for deeper joy and fulfillment.  "Six Steps to Living in the Present Moment."

Four Personal Reflections for You:

  • Which is your tendency more often:  living in the past or living in the future?  Why?  What is it about either of those that traps you there?
  • Describe a time when you simply missed seeing the strawberry in the moment--you weren't paying attention.
  • What are some risks you face in order to reach out to the strawberry?  Which risks are hardest for you?
  • Would you describe yourself more as a spectator or a participant?  Why?  Are there any excuses you have for watching more than participating?  What might be some fears you have of getting in the game more often?

Fear Comes From a Place of Inadequacy

I just recorded this video clip today to talk a bit about where our sense of fear and worry tend to come from.  The reality is, you and I can't control what happens externally in all the circumstances of our lives.  But what we can affect is our internal responses to what life dishes to us.  And therein lies one of the secrets to developing inner peace in an age of anxiety.  Here's a piece of this perspective: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSFDALeWeN8]

Here's the way this reality is stated in one of the lessons from A Course in Miracles:  "It is obvious that any situation that causes you concern is associated with feelings of inadequacy, for otherwise you would believe that you could deal with the situation successfully.  But it is not by trusting yourself that you will gain confidence.  It is the strength of God in you that is successful in all things."  (p. 75)

The Point of Spiritual Practices

As all spiritual wisdom traditions emphasize, spiritual practices are designed to focus our attention on our true identity as children of God.  The chaos, busyness, and ear-spitting volume of the world around us tend to divert out attention from who we are.  We are tempted to buy in to the subtle and not so subtle message that our value comes from an identity as producers, consumers, and all the various roles we play in our lives.  And if we play those roles well, we can feel good about ourselves.  But if we fail or are inadequate in any way, we cannot give ourselves permission to feel good.  And this battle is endless, isn't it.

So our intentional choice to regularly engage in practices, activities, and experiences where we are reminded of who we really are irrespective of our roles and what the world says about us is absolutely crucial to being able to maintain a place of calm, centeredness, and internal peace in the midst of life's anxious chaos.  I must come to the place where I put more stock in what God says about me than in what others or even I say about me.  I must choose to believe God's word, "I am enough."

Upcoming 3 Night Series

That's one of the reasons why I'm doing a 3 night speaking series on this topic beginning a week from tonight (Oct. 19, 26, Nov. 2).  The event will take place at Fort Mason Center, the Bayfront Theatre (BATS Improv) in San Francisco.  It will be 90 minutes of teaching, inspiration, centering experiences, even a little music--all designed to reinforce our sense of who we are, that we are enough, and that we have divine resources to ground us in confidence to face our everyday lives.  Check out this INVITE for more information.  If you register, feel free to use the special discount code GregVIP for 50% off.

If you can't be here for these 3 nights, there will be recordings made available.  So leave me a note in the comment section below if you're interested in the recordings so you can get in on these hugely significant spiritual reminders.

We are enough!

One of the important spiritual teachers of our generation made this statement:  “Our whole spiritual transformation brings us to the point where we realize that in our own being, we are enough.”

You and I need this reminder often!  And I can say from personal experience, when I'm living out of that deeply sacred and divine center, my life takes on a profound sense of both calm and confidence as I show up in the world.  There's no better place from which to live.

Click here for more information about this upcoming series and to RSVP.  Only 1 week left.

Peace Like War Must Be Waged: What It Takes To Develop Inner Peace

This week my wife and I were in New York City for some business.  We had never taken the public tour of the United Nations Headquarters before,  so we got our visitors passes and went.  I was very moved as the guide took us around the headquarters building and described both the history of the UN and the many initiatives the UN continues to work on around the world. One of the most impressive statements to me was on a plaque:  "Peace like war must be waged."  Turns out actor George Clooney used that statement in a public service announcement to highlight the important work of the UN Peacekeepers.  Here's the 60 second spot:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-2rv8s8Zmg]

"Peace like war must be waged."  We often don't think of peace in those terms.  We talk about fighting wars, waging battles in order to have territorial, national, and international victories.  War is synonymous with action and powerful initiative.

And yet peace takes the same kind of energy, intentionality, and powerful initiative.  Peace doesn't just happen.  You can't sit around and hope for it.  You have to work for it ... hard!  You have to want it so badly that you're willing to expend lots of energy and personal resources to obtain it.

Here's what Clooney's ad stated:  “Peace is not just a colored ribbon. It’s more than a wristband or a t-shirt. It’s not just a donation or a 5 K race. It’s not just a folk song, or a white dove. And peace is certainly more than a celebrity endorsement. Peace is a full time job. It’s protecting civilians, overseeing elections, and disarming ex-combatants. The UN has over 100,000 Peacekeepers on the ground, in places others can’t or won’t go, doing things others can’t or won’t do. Peace, like war, must be waged.”

Think of all the peace movements in history--the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., Indian independence and equality with Gandhi, the women's suffrage movement for voting rights and greater equality.  None of these or any others just happened.  Peace had to be waged just as hard and as strategically as any war in history.  Huge obstacles had to be overcome.  And those peace battles continue needing to be waged even in our present in order to build on the successes of the past and bring about ever greater levels of equality.

Peace like war must be waged.

I'm thinking a lot about this as I prepare for a public speaking series here in San Francisco in 10 days (3 nights: October 19, 26, November 2).  My  topic is "Living Worry Free:  Developing Inner Peace in an Age of Anxiety."  Here's the link for the invitation.

The reality is, inner peace isn't something that simply happens or shows up in your life, either.  You can't just sit up on top of a mountain like the stereotypical guru meditating peace into your life.  Since most of us have to live "normal" lives in the "real" world, we can't be on retreat 24/7 away from the hustle and bustle.  Meditation is, to be sure, a highly significant tool (I'll be talking about that in my series).

But for you to have the ability to live life in the midst of all the chaos, uncertainty, anxiety, worry, stress, and busyness with a deeper sense of calm, contentment, and nonanxious presence, you're going to have to work at it--develop the ability--wage the battle to experience and enjoy this deeper place.  You're going to have to battle all the forces in our culture and world and our own divided selves that can keep you from that inward attitude and experience.

So how are you waging for peace in your life these days?  What strategies are you utilizing to build a deeper inner peace?

It can be strategies as simple as thankfulness--keeping a regular gratitude journal--or mindfulness (the "be here now" mantra which says, "In this moment, I have everything I need").

Believe me, as simple as using those tools might seem, we all battle internal walls that make it challenging for us to utilize them.  I'm going to talk in the upcoming series about what these obstacles are and why they're so difficult to face.  But if we neglect these available tools and resources, we push away the possibility for lasting and meaningful inner peace.

Wars are fought in this world to protect something of great value.  Even the desire to expand territory comes from a place of fear to protect something.  Imagine how many human lives have been sacrificed for these causes.

Even so, peace--that inner place of sacred calm--must be established and protected at great cost.  But instead of being motivated by fear, the development of peace is motivated by love.  And the reality is, our motivations impact our strategies.

What are the ways we can proactively engage in this protective pursuit?  How can we protect our inner sanctuary where God's presence dwells so that we are empowered to show up in life with more calm and peace, grounded in the divine goodness?

That's what I'm going to talk about in my upcoming series.  And I'll blog about each session so those of you who can't be here in San Francisco in person can get in on this hugely significant content.  For some of you, some of the strategies will be new.  For others of you, they will be reminders.  But for all of us, we will be able to center on the truth that even in the midst of chaos both outside and inside us, we can clear the way for a peace which passes all understanding which radiates out to transform our worlds in profound ways.

Peace like war must be waged.  The United Nations is on to something here.  Maybe we need to emulate the passionate and intentional initiative in our spiritual lives.

A Simple Tool for Confident Living in the Age of Anxiety

The Scream Edvard Munch, who lived from 1863 –1944, was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker and an important forerunner of expressionistic art.  His best-known composition (painted in 1893) is "The Scream" which has become one of the most recognizable paintings in all art.

It has been widely interpreted as representing the universal anxiety of modern man.  With this painting, Munch met his stated goal of “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self."  Munch wrote of how the painting came to be:

“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood.  I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired.  Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord.  My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear.  Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

In the Norwegian language, the word he used for scream literally is "shriek."  Imagine the existential angst he was feeling to use that word.  He later described the personal anguish behind the painting:  “For several years I was almost mad…You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

Considering his childhood, that despair makes sense.  He grew up with a cold, angry and foreboding father who was a fundamentalist Christian who used God as a punishing and revengeful authority.  Little Munch was always being threatened by violent punishment for his forays into creativity, imagination, and play.  So even as an adult, Munch felt alone, isolated, and incapable of being loved.  He lived with the constant fear of rejection.

The Age of Anxiety

This painting is more contemporary to today than ever before.  Psychologists and sociologists are calling this new millennium the age of Anxiety.  Fear, they’re saying, is the defining emotion of our time. Think back on this initial decade.  First, there was the Y2K hysteria, which portended widespread computer failures and a massive breakdown in public services.  Next, uncertainty gripped the nation as we awaited the results of the disputed presidential election.  This was followed by the start of the stock market's protracted crash as well as a surge in unemployment.  Then came the California energy shortage in which the world's fifth largest economy and the most populous state in the country experienced the kind of rolling blackouts typically associated with developing countries.

Finally, there was the tragedy of September 11th, the anthrax scare, and a steady stream of government warnings that we are no longer safe. In the midst of this turmoil, major U.S. corporations such as Enron and WorldCom collapsed because of corporate malfeasance by executives and accounting firms, and tens of thousands of people lost their retirement savings. Now there is the threat of bioterrorism, the possibility of successive wars, and growing multinational, multigenerational hatred of the United States and of Americans.  And we’re in what is unarguably the worst recession since the Great Depression – everything is uncertain, including who to trust as a friend.  Fundamentalism in religion increasingly creates enemies and terrorism of all kinds.

In the midst of this environment, in my work as a coach and pastor, I hear stories often of people wanting to move in one direction for their lives but instead finding themselves moving in another; people who claim to be trying, but repeatedly finding themselves failing; people who are bored and stuck yet unable to make the changes they know they want to make and to make those changes sustainable.

Which raises significant questions.  If we know what we want (for the most part), why are we unable to act on it?  Why are we unable to follow the directions given by our conscious minds and reach our goals unimpeded?  And when we do try to do the right things, why are we often unsuccessful?

For so many people, this is a source of much heartache.  Whether it’s a tortured relationship or a difficult job situation, we often feel regretful after we realize we’ve made the wrong choice.  Why do we continue to make these choices, and what steers us toward them in the first place?

The Science of Fear

Experts call this the “rip current of human nature.”  A rip current is the very powerful surface flow of water that is returning to the sea from close to the shore.  It can turn an eerily calm-looking body of water into something extremely dangerous that has the power to drag swimmers out to sea.  Many people who get caught in rip currents eventually drown from sheer exhaustion of trying to swim against the current.

Say the experts, the unconscious is the rip current of the human mind.  From a distance, it’s calm, barely noticeable, and difficult to anticipate.  And at its core lies the threatening force of fear.  Much like a rip current is helpful to surfers who rely on its force to pull them away from the shore, fear may be helpful if it urges you forward toward your goal.  But like the unpredictable rip current, fear can also drag you away from your goals and destinations.

Significantly, our brains are wired to default to fear.  It's the survival mechanism in play - the need to instinctively and instantly respond to a threat or danger to our system to protect our species.  The brain picks up on a threat (via our senses through the thalamus) and sends an immediate signal to the amygdala, the part of the brain called the "guard dog."  When that amygdala switch is flipped, it instantly sends a signal to the hypothalamus which engages the whole body's fight or flight systems (the heart starts pumping faster, cortisol increases, the eyes dilate, the muscles contract, breathing rates increase) - everything is mobilized instantaneously for engagement to protect itself.

Research is now showing that most of this process is actually taking place beyond our consciousness.  Our brain picks up external inputs (like even a fearful expression on someone's face, even as seemingly insignificant as eyes that show more white than normal - the posture of fear) and interprets it as a potential threat - and the fear response kicks in.  The brain needs as little as 10 - 30 milliseconds of exposure to flip the fear switch (far beyond our level of consciousness).

Which means, as experts are now realizing, that many of us are living in an almost constant physiological and emotional state of anxiety (much of it not even in the scope of our awareness).  Falling asleep with the TV on, for example, impacts our brains response, and the amygdala still sends its fear signals picked up from the drama taking place on the screen that impact bodily response, even though we're "sound" asleep.

Imagine all the fearful input we're receiving every day - the news, people's reactions, TV, movies, music, dangerous sounds all around us.  But then add on top of all that our own thoughts - the perceived "threats" we insist are coming our way from others, even those close to us - our almost automatic assessment that other people are not liking us or are displeased with us or think we're stupid, dumb, or you-name-it.  Even though we might be making faulty assumptions, our brains still interpret these signals as "danger," kicking into gear the fear response via our highly trained and instinctually-wired amygdala.

So for one thing, we should do more monitoring of how much fearful and anxiety-producing input we're allowing into our brains.  Do we tend to listen to people who use fear motivation (e.g. so much of politics and religion these days)?

But in addition, the problem is that not all input is in reality something to be feared.  We make faulty assumptions all the time.  And unless we intentionally refuse to flip the amygdala switch, our systems go straight to fear mode.  And we end up living in high stress, unnecessarily.  No wonder so many of us feel drained and exhausted.  No wonder we so often find ourselves sabotaging our success or desires to move forward effectively with our dreams and goals.  We're flipping the wrong switches in our brains.  We're not living intentionally enough and instead are letting our default instincts control us.

A Simple Tool to Moving Ourselves Forward

Dr. Pillay, Harvard neuroscientist and psychiatrist, encourages a rather simple strategy to help us overcome this fear tendency.  It's not by any means the only strategy but it is effective.  Here's the way he puts it:

"Sometimes it helps to take a lighthearted look at what we're feeling.  Life is short.  Experiences do come and go.  And our brains, because their fast, unconscious responses are like barking dogs, are not always barking or frenzied for an actual reason.  If we take every physiological sensation and narrative seriously, then we are assuming a certain conscious responsibility that is entirely outside of awareness.  So if you are afraid, you might be able to calm yourself by asking yourself, 'Now what is my brain up to?'  It helps to give yourself this feedback because it can stop the vicious cycle of 'Oh my God ...' that then leads to a greater sense of catastrophe."  Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, Life Unlocked, p. 44.

This simple stopping and phrase-speaking is enough to delay the amygdala's instinctive fear response.  The interruption is just long enough and strategic enough to allow the secondary brain signaling system to be fully engaged.  Upon sensory input, the thalamus sends the signal to the cortex (the more advanced outer layer of brain cell connections that are involved in evaluating and processing the signal).  Because the cortex takes longer to process the visual information, its assessment is more accurate than the amygdala's.  When you see a coiled rope, for example, out of the corner of your eye (or perhaps aren't even realizing it), the amygdala would automatically assume it's a coiled snake and kick into gear your fight or flight response.  But when your cortex is allowed evaluation, it assesses that the object is in fact a coiled rope (not snake), and it calms down the amygdala and turns off the body's fear response.

For this reason, it's important for us to often take the time to ask ourselves about the fear we're feeling (unless of course we're being chased by a mugger, in which case we're better off letting our bodies react instinctively and instantly into the fear mode).  Is this is a legitimate threat to our system?  What is the nature of this fear?  Is it simply my self-defeating feelings and self-thoughts that I've accumulated and chosen to hang on to through the years?  Is it worth allowing to control my entire system?  Is there any truth to this fear?  And even if there is, is it necessary for me to cave in to it?  Am I allowing this fear to flip the amygdala switch too automatically instead of sending it on the cortex where it can be accurately evaluated and I can develop a more proactive response?

"Now what is my brain up to?" instead of "Oh my God ....!"

"Knowing that fear can turn on your amygdala without your conscious knowledge may help you feel more certain about the need to develop new neuronal connections" by using tools like this simple one.  "If you are feeling limited in your life in any way, examine your life through the lens of 'Am I afraid?' even if you don't feel afraid" (Dr. Pillay, p. 45).  Our instincts are wonderful - we're wired to protect ourselves from real danger and threat.  But our instincts can also lead us astray if they're not based on reality or if they're not helping us go where we truly want to go.  We can take control of them.  It's nice to have the choice!

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Three Ways To De-Clutter Your Life

I came across a news story from Las Vegas, Nevada several weeks ago that was quite stunning and sobering.  As husband Bill James told authorities this last month, he woke up from a nap back in April and couldn't find his wife anywhere.  He assumed that she had wandered away. She had recently had a mini-stroke that left her disoriented, and he worried that she had suffered another.  So authorities launched a massive hunt for the woman, using sniffer dogs and even helicopters equipped with infrared to search the desert.  Husband Bill even set up a Facebook page to promote the search and offered a $10,000 reward. According to the report, four months later, on August 28 the search came to a terrifying macabre ending when the husband spotted her feet sticking out from the pile of junk that filled the room in their house from floor to ceiling.  She had been buried beneath a mountain of garbage and clutter in her own home.   The collected clothes, trash and knicknacks in this woman's house was so extensive that the police sniffer dogs had searched the home without finding her corpse.

"For our dogs to go through that house and not find something should be indicative of the tremendous environmental challenges they faced," police spokesman Bill Cassell said.

Apparently, according to family friends, Billie Jean was a compulsive hoarder, with a passion for shopping for trinkets and clothes. One friend said that Billie Jean referred to the room where she was found as "her rabbit hole."  Sari Connolly, a friend of' Billie Jean's, said she had become so obsessive in her hoarding that she kept people out of her home, even refusing to let them use the bathroom.  The police spokeman told the Associated Press that the house had only small amounts of clear space so that people could get around, and that the home was filled with strong odors from animals, garbage and food.  So who would think that her body would be decomposing right in her own home, a victim of her cluttered life.

Apparently, this isn't the first time this kind of terrifying story has taken place.  This last May, an aging Chicago couple was trapped for two weeks after being buried in their belongings. When they were rescued, they were found to have rat bites on their bodies.  In 1947, police found a body inside a Manhattan row house. Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer had filled the house with possessions, including a Model T chassis, 14 pianos and more than 25,000 books.  Both brothers were found dead among the clutter.

Imagine dying underneath your own clutter - losing your life in every possible way, even before physical extinction.

I'm reminded how important it is to regularly evaluate our lives and de-clutter when necessary.  Have you ever considered what kind of "clutter" you might have in your life, "junk" you might be hanging on to that is in reality extinguishing your life little by little?

Emotional Clutter

Perhaps it's emotional clutter.  Resentment.  Guilt.  Shame.  Insecurity.  Anxiety.  Lack of confidence.  Sense of failure.  Anger.  Addiction to conflict.  The more I go through my own personal journey, and the more I work with people, the more I realize how easy it is for us to hang on to this clutter - to simply let ourselves live with these feelings or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs - to refuse to do the hard work of processing these emotions and resolving them in effective ways.

An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, who commented on Billie Jean's tragic story, observed that people often hoard because they find it impossible to make decisions, organize themselves or focus on immediate tasks.  In other words, they have the inability or lack of internal strength to address the current chaos in their lives.  And ironically, all the things they end up accumulating provide a twisted kind of comfort while they're being gradually smothered to death by them.

By hanging on to our emotional clutter, we become "slaves" to our automatic reflexes, those brain functions involving conditioned feelings and thoughts (most of which, according to experts, revolve around fear, our instinctual response to perceived danger, our ego's sense of threat). And we all know that often our instinctual fear reactions are not based on reality - they're only ego survival tactics.  Often when we choose to face our emotional fear, we end up discovering that there wasn't any basis to that fear or that we had the necessary strength to push through that fear-producing experience into the light of emotional freedom.

But many of us live our lives on auto-pilot, allowing these emotional clutterings to control us and corral us in self-defeating ways.  And unless we de-clutter, we end up losing life bit by bit, suffocating under the load of our junk.  And unfortunately, the gradual decomposition of our own lives emits a painful stench to those around us, too.

Decluttering Our Emotional Clutter

So what does it look like to declutter?  What are proactive ways to declutter?  Here are a few ways experts emphasize.

1.  Identify your clutter.  What are the negative emotions or thoughts or limiting beliefs that you are hanging on to?  Are they serving you well?  That is, are they helping you live a life of freedom, moving you forward toward the kind of person you want to be?  Are your relationships filled with joy and hope and warmth as much as possible?  Be honest with yourself.  Is there a more healthy and effective way for you to live?

2.  Harness your attention.  According to brain experts, our natural, instinctual, first response to life tends to be fear.  This is because our brains were designed to instantly activate under threat for our survival - the fight or flight response central to the amygdala, the small front part of the brain.  But no longer having to live with the threat of extinction by dinosaurs or bears or lions, that instinctual brain response gets redirected toward less obvious threats - like threats to our ego survival, our sense of esteem and self-confidence - fear of being rejected or ridiculed or failure.

The problem is that we tend to allow our brains (by choosing to simply "float along") to keep stimulating our fear response when we don't need to, causing our whole physiological system to live in a high state of stress.  And this constant distress damages both our minds and our bodies.  No wonder it's simply easy hoarding stuff - keep everything external to distract us from our internal chaos.

Here's the way Dr. Pillay, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and brain expert, in his latest book Life Unlocked, describes the powerful way out:

"Fixing your attention stops the frontal cortex from randomly provoking the amygdala.  The frontal cortex is like an electrode that can buzz the amygdala, but if we occupy it with other thoughts [positive, hopeful, honest thoughts], it will not randomly shoot current toward the amygdala.  If your attention is scattered and chaotic, though, the frontal electrode will randomly activate the amygdala and cause fear.  Harnessing attention allows the amygdala to react to other high-impact positive and negative emotions, and in the absence of fear, even negative emotions can feel less unpleasant.  Similarly, fear can make even positive emotions feel overwrought or too activated, and we often come to regret these states of forced happiness.  Thus attentional depth is critical to overcoming fear.  One way to develop this depth is by using the power of intention."  (p. 66)

What are you giving your attention to?  Dr. Pillay is showing us that unless we intentionally direct our attention to dealing with our destructive emotions and limiting beliefs, and unless we work to resolve and let go of those feelings and thoughts, and then apply our attention to the positive outcomes and hoped for states of empowering feelings and being, we will continue to be overcome with fear.  We will destroy ourselves from that fear.  And we will then do whatever it takes to distract us from that debilitating fear - by hoarding or medicating or dying.

3.  Choose to become a minimalist.  Once you harness your attention on what needs to change and on what you want to change to, you can summon the courage to let the "clutter" go.  And here's the power of it:  decluttering inspires more decluttering.

Blogger Joshua Becker described the dynamics of his physical cluttering and decluttering this way:

"Clutter attracts clutter.  It just takes one piece of junk mail, one article of clothing left on a chair, or one receipt not filed properly to get the clutter momentum started.  What I have found over the last three weeks is that the opposite is also true.  When a surface is left clean, that one piece of clutter seems out of place and calls you to put it away.  Since I minimalized my office and removed all the clutter, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one piece of paper sitting on my desk – and so I put it away.  Since I minimalized my wardrobe, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one shirt laying on the floor – and so I throw it down to the laundry.   Since we minimalized the living room, I can’t stand the idea of leaving my shoes in the corner or a book on the table - and so I put them where they go right away."

The power of attention placed on both confronting and changing (decluttering) is exponential and transformative.  Our higher brain centers are called into action and stimulated, the amygdala fear center is deactivated, and the nerve pathways toward powerful action are electrified.  Positive motor skills kick in.  And we begin to live the life of freedom, forward momentum, and transformation we want.

Ambrose Redmoon once wrote:  "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."

Billie Jean, hoarding stuff in her house, never learned that truth.  And finally succumbed to her clutter.  A tragic lesson to the rest of us to declutter and learn how to really live life.

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The Spirituality of Stress: Gender and Sexual Orientation Inequality

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is considered one of America's leading scientists doing work on the psychosocial and physiological effects of stress on human life.  He began his ground breaking research back in 1978 by studying baboon troops in Kenya.  One of the things he noticed was how a baboon's status in the troop impacted it's physiological condition.  He noticed, for instance, that the males at the bottom of the hierarchy were thinner and more nervous in general. “They just didn’t look very healthy,” he said. “That’s when I began thinking about how damn stressful it must be to have no status. You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.” So he would shoot these baboons with anesthetic darts and then, while they were plunged into sleep, quickly measure their immune system function and the levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in their blood.  What he discovered was stunning.  These lower status baboons were living in a state of chronic stress - they had to fight for everything and continually "bow" to those males at the top of the totem pole.  And this chronic stress, measured by Sapolsky via their blood samples, revealed that it was a profound chemistry problem that he and other specialists have shown to be true over and over again since that discovery.

Here's how a recent article in Wired magazine described it:  When there's stress like this, "a tiny circuit in the base of the brain triggers the release of glucocorticoids, a family of stress hormones that puts the body in a heightened state of alert. The molecules are named after their ability to rapidly increase levels of glucose in the blood, thus providing muscles with a burst of energy. They also shut down all nonessential bodily processes, such as digestion and the immune response. 'This is just the body being efficient,' Sapolsky says. 'When you’re being chased by a lion, you don’t want to waste resources on the small intestine. You’ll ovulate some other time. You need every ounce of energy just to get away.'

"But glucocorticoids have a nasty side effect: When they linger in the bloodstream, as they might due to chronic stress related to low rank, damage accumulates. It’s the physiological version of a government devoting too many resources to its defense department, Sapolsky says. The body is so worried about war that it doesn’t fix the roads or invest in schools. Interestingly, the effects of stress appear particularly toxic to the brain."

One of the profound impacts of Dr. Sapolsky's research was to show how even one's status in a social group led to a state of chronic stress with the related physiological symptoms being able to be clearly measured and repeated.  The long term impact was hugely negative:  increased heart rate and blood pressure, a rise in arterial plaque even when fed a low-fat diet, and more than twice as likely to suffer from heart disease and a correspondingly premature death.

Numerous studies among humans since those early primate studies have reconfirmed the powerful negative effects of stress caused by subordination in position and status.  When people have a sense of control and power over their lives, stress decreases and health increases.  When they don't, stress with all the negative effects, especially when it's chronic, impacts the entire system - and the system ultimately dies.

Here's the way Wired put it:  "The moral is that the most dangerous kinds of stress don’t feel that stressful. It’s not the late night at the office that’s going to kill us; it’s the feeling that nothing can be done. The person most at risk for heart disease isn’t the high-powered executive anxious about their endless to-do list — it’s the frustrated janitor stuck with existential despair."

Or, it's the person who because of gender or sexual orientation feels consigned to a "lower status" in society - who feels a sense of powerless because the policies or practices of an organization and laws of the land conspire against their ability and opportunity to rise to higher levels of position and acceptance in their environment.  The tragic result of creating this state of imposed potential helplessness and powerlessness is that we as a society, whether intentionally or not, are reproducing experiences of chronic stress and sentencing such people to the risks associated with major health problems.  Inequality and prejudice do impact stress levels.

In my opinion, this makes our contemporary religious and social issues of women's ordination and same gender marriage hugely spiritual issues.  The fact that in our religious and political organizations we've developed a hierarchy of acceptance and status, denying equality in position and power and therefore rights and opportunities based upon gender and sexual orientation, means that we are also denying a quality of life with its proven and profound health benefits and longevity to some and not others.  We are ironically mirroring the baboon troops that live purely instinctual survival existences.

Isn't this in distinct contrast to the model of life Jesus described himself coming to bring to all?  "I have come that people will have life, the abundant life!"  (John 10:10)  Jesus was about lifting people up, increasing their quality of life, empowering and building up people in an atmosphere of equality and acceptance.  As opposed to the thief, he pointed out, whose sole purpose is to steal, to kill, to diminish and destroy life for others.

When we develop pyramidal hierarchies where there's an "upper" and a "lower" based upon gender or sexual orientation, and then we develop practices and policies that ensure that the value of that "status" is chronic (and then we top it off by using religious / spiritual language to justify our pyramidal laws and values), we are no better than thieves, stealing from them the abundant, free, and high quality life Jesus came to give them.

Research has also shown another tragic outcome of the state of chronic stress.  The stress response can get hardwired into our system especially when it happens at an early stage in life, making people more vulnerable to stress-related diseases and conditions.  Here's how it works:  "The physiology underlying this response has been elegantly revealed in the laboratory. When lab rats are stressed repeatedly, the amygdala — an almond-shaped nub in the center of the brain — enlarges dramatically. (This swelling comes at the expense of the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory and shrinks under severe stress.) The main job of the amygdala is to perceive danger and help generate the stress response; it’s the brain area turned on by dark alleys and Hitchcock movies. Unfortunately, a swollen amygdala means that we’re more likely to notice potential threats in the first place, which means we spend more time in a state of anxiety. (This helps explain why a more active amygdala is closely correlated with atherosclerosis.) The end result is that we become more vulnerable to the very thing that’s killing us."

Meaningful and effective spirituality is about empowering ourselves and others to experience the highest quality life possible.  It's being faithful to the kind of life Jesus said he came to give freely to people - the abundant life - a life where people can become the very best they can be at every stage of life.  And genuine spirituality involves facing the structures, policies, practices, and beliefs that people put into place that are diminishing and destroying life for others - facing them and changing them.  Equality and justice are spiritual issues that impact the quality of life for all people!  To fail to address them is to diminish our own souls, our bodies, and our whole lives - for when even one person in this world is diminished we are all.  And when one person is lifted up, we all are lifted up, we all are enhanced.

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A Secret to Living in the Moment and Enjoying More Peace

[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right.  If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] So what does it take for you to live in the moment - to be truly present in a place of peace?

Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world's foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list.  She is also the recent creator of the "Charter for Compassion," whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world.  She was recently asked by Oprah's O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day.  She replied:

"Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, 'Life isn't fair. I've got too much to do. I'm too put-upon.' It's a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person."

It's amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything.  Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead.  It's kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks.  The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well.  But as the plates get added, we're running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces.  It isn't long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be.  So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.

I like Karen Armstrong's perspective - what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion - having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others.  Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit.  It's almost like we were designed to live with compassion.

And actually, we were!  Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure.  Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response.  In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.

And the compassionate act doesn't have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all.  Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote:  “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When's the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else?  How difficult is that?

So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully.  The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress - the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind.   And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.

Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too.  According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:

"Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust.  Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems."

The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers.  No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God's kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6).  Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.

So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress?  Have you tried compassion lately?  As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.