Think for a minute of all the voices of authority that exist in your life. Your list most likely includes people you trust and admire, books by authors and experts, perhaps religious figures you know. We tend to put our trust (sometimes exclusively) in external authorities.
I have a picture on my desk I love looking at. It's of me when I was a small child, along with my whole family in Japan, with our Japanese nanny. Guess which one I am??
What are obstacles you’re facing right now? What might be standing in your way of fulfilling what matters most to you, tempting you with intimidation, striking fear and insecurity in your heart? What is challenging and eroding your sense of identity, impeding your calling, purpose, and mission in your life? Or what challenges are you facing in your pursuit of your Calling that may feel big and difficult? Let me suggest some ways to reframe these obstacles that will give you direction on how to face them with more courage, wisdom, and effectiveness.
How would you rate your performance on a day to day basis? I'm talking about how you're performing in the various areas of your life--your work, your significant relationships, your spirituality, other areas. Are you satisfied with your progress? Discontented? Proud? Ashamed? Indifferent? Maybe you don't even think about it? Or when you do, you feel guilty for not doing more?
I've noticed that for so many of us how we're doing isn't a huge reflection theme. People tend to allow themselves to be on "autopilot"--they just do what they need to do and, most of the time, when they need to do it. No real thought. Just do it.
Others of us do reflect or evaluate ourselves. But our focus tends to be negative evaluation--we never quite measure up to our expectations or what we think others expect of us. So we often feel guilty or less than--especially when we compare ourselves to others.
But we can't allow the meaning we attach to self-evaluation to keep us from the practice of self-evaluation.
Why? Because without self-reflection, we can never improve or gain momentum or achieve our deepest desires. We'll never accurately identify what it is that needs improvement.
Instead of letting our focus fixate on how we feel about how we're doing, we need to be willing to honestly look at our progress and then make strategic choices to learn and move forward more effectively.
I read a significant piece of research about what qualities set apart the most successful people from the rest (based upon surveying 50,286 360-degree evaluations conducted over the last five years on 4,158 individual contributors). I'm finding this to be true with the clients I work with, too. The research identifies 9 skills. I'm going to list the top two qualities ranked in that order--the top two skills that make the most difference.
#1--Set stretch goals and adopt high standards for yourself.
I'm finding that this is a theme many people just don't entertain. Stretch goals.
The challenge is that this skill assumes that you are already establishing goals for yourself in the first place (which is, by the way, vital to maximizing your entire experience of life).
What is it specifically that you really want to do in your life? How do you want to utilize and apply the strengths you have in your life? What specific things do you want to accomplish so that when you do reach those goals you actually know it, you can measure it, you can see it? If you don't know what you're wanting, then you can never know when you've gotten it. Right?
But this number one distinguishing behavior goes even beyond that. It's taking wants, desires, goals to the next level--stretching those standards for yourself; pushing yourself to go beyond where you've gone before.
For example. In my last month, I've set some big stretch goals for myself. I first made a list of people I know in corporations, businesses, organizations, and churches. I identified specific contacts I have within those groups. My goal: send them my strengths coaching one sheet that describes the work I do with leaders, teams, and groups in maximizing people and multiplying performance.
This is a good goal. But in itself, it isn't a stretch goal. So I actually took the next bolder step by stating: I'm going to make 3 contacts every day (15-20 every week). I've never been that intentional before in this area, giving myself numeric contact goals.
I can tell you, doing these stretch goals have created more energy and more forward momentum for me in this part of my work. I can measure my progress on the spreadsheet I developed to chart this process. I can evaluate what's working and what's not working and then make necessary changes to my process. And it also holds me accountable.
QUESTIONS: When is the last time you feel like you really stretched yourself, pushed yourself to a bigger or higher level/standard? Do you know what that would look like in any area of your life? Have you stated some expectations for yourself that go beyond what's normal for you or beyond where you've gone before or even beyond what others think you can do? What would that look like specifically?
Successful people have learned the strategic significance of working with other people in order to accomplish their big goals.
Successful people don't operate under the delusion that they have to make everything great in their lives happen by themselves.
Successful people don't buy into the omni-competent superman myth. They have developed a humble, honest, confident perspective about themselves that recognizes they don't have all the strengths needed to be successful.
So they bring others into their daily orbit who can contribute in the areas of their personal gaps, complementing their strengths with strengths they don't themselves possess.
For example. To achieve my own stretch goals I shared above, I realized that I couldn't do this on my own. I needed to collaborate with others. This is an area of growth for me.
So I chose not to begin with cold calls (although there's nothing wrong with cold calling and I will perhaps end up doing that, too). I began with people I already know and who know me, people who respect what I can contribute and who are willing to step forward and make connections for me.
For example. My wife Shasta is one of the most productive and effective people I know. She uses her strengths in remarkable and maximizing ways to accomplish so much good in the world. She sets stretch goals all the time.
Consequently, she is also very strategic and smart in how she goes about meeting her stretch goals. She collaborates and networks with a wide range of people. She has developed a large team of people in her life who believe in her and what she's trying to do and are willing to use their strengths to help her. She asks for their help. This collaborative mentality empowers her to accomplish way more than she could on her own.
I find this skill to be hugely significant for all my clients if they are going to be effective in moving their lives forward toward what they're truly wanting for themselves.
If you want to stretch, you have to collaborate.
QUESTIONS: So ask yourself, who are people you know who could contribute their skills and strengths to helping you accomplish some of your big goals? Would you be willing to ask them to collaborate with you? Would you honor their strengths by asking for their specific contribution in your life? Are there identifiable steps with your goals that you could actually delegate to someone else?
At the end of one of my coaching sessions recently, my client remarked, "Man, this process is so valuable for me. I haven't done this much reflection, evaluation, and strategizing for my life ever. I love the momentum I'm feeling and seeing. I actually think I'm going to make my vision for my life happen!"
That's the power of practicing strategic reflection and evaluation about what matters most in life. You start moving there. And in the end, isn't that what we all truly want for ourselves--to know where there is and to get there well?
If you'd like to have a short phone call to talk with me about how this could work in your life, email me. I'm happy to arrange that call with you.
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 email@example.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.
Last week's blog post described the hamster wheel kind of life that so many people find themselves caught up in. It's the vicious cycle that can't seem to stop. So we live in exhaustion, discouragement, lack of energy and inspiration, and a sense of being victims to our schedules and environments. A terrible and unhealthy way to live! The good news is that there are two ways to strategically move beyond this painful cycle. Last week's blog described the first strategy: get clear on your identity and what your identity is based upon. Click here to read that post!
I'm illustrating both strategies with the ancient story of the Jews' experience of slavery in Egypt under a cruel Pharaoh and his slave masters. Here is the second significant strategy.
Strategy # 2: Get Clear About the Difference Between Energy vs. Time
The Jews were giving most of their time to the Pharaoh via the slave masters. They were forced to produce bricks, at the risk of death should they stop. They were in a losing battle if time were the only resource available to them.
But every seventh day, they did something counter-intuitive. They stopped. They rested. It was called Sabbath. So what?
The way Sabbath was structured for them was that this was a very intentional time to remember their true identity. they were not primarily slaves to a human taskmaster. They were children of Yahweh, the God who had called them and claimed them--who had chosen them, not because of how "cool" they were, not because of how good they performed or how much they produced, but simply because God chose them to belong to the God of the universe.
Their identity was based upon a stable truth:
"We are chosen, valuable human beings simply for being. We are called for a special purpose. We are not slaves. We are free. And we're moving in our history toward the ultimate liberation of living in perfect congruence with our given freedom. Our task masters can take away our time. But they cannot take away our mindset, our identity, our humanness. We control that. And we choose freedom, even while we're having to work painfully for cruel masters!"
Develop Reinforcing Rituals & Practices
So every seven days, on the Sabbath, they remembered, they realigned their mental picture, they stepped into that reality. How? By engaging in practices and celebrations and rituals that reinforced the truth about themselves, that re-energized their sagging souls and aching bodies.
The power of this kind of regular ritual and practice is that the emphasis is not on time as much as it is on energy.
Time is a finite resource. We only have 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So if we based our experience on managing our time, no matter how important that is, we are in a losing battle.
But energy is renewable. When we learn to manage it, steward it effectively, we can not only sustain our capacity we can increase our capacity.
Engaging in Energy Boosters
So my client and I began a conversation that he described as the most important thing he's done. We identified rituals and practices he could engage in that would renew his energy. He creatively conceived of "mini-sabbaths" into which he could step and feel a boost, remember his true self, pay attention to his soul, renew his energy.
Energy boosters. Even if it was taking out his "dusty" harmonica and playing it for 10 minutes. Even if it was catching up on his New Yorker magazine for 10 minutes, reading what he enjoyed. Even if it meant going to the bar every week to enjoy Trivia night with his friends. Energy boosters.
When we neglect positive energy boosters in our lives, when we disregard positive rituals and practices that remind ourselves of who we really are, we degenerate into nothing more than "slaves to a task master" of our never-ending work or the demanding expectations of others in our lives. We give up control. And then we slip into a victim mindset. It's a losing battle, every single time!
Make Your List Now
So make a list right now. What are activities you can schedule regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly) that give you positive energy when you do them? If you can actually schedule them into your calendar, then you won't have to waste brain energy by always having to think through when you want to do them.
If you don't do that, I guarantee you your busy schedule will trump your rituals & energy boosters every time. Put them into your calendar so that they simply come regularly without serious planning and forethought so all your energy can be used in actually engaging and being present when that time comes.
You'll find yourself moving steadily from a "slave" mentality to a liberation mentality. You'll be in control again; you'll reclaim sovereignty over your time and energy and life. That's a far better way to live!
Baseball's Lesson It's fascinating to look at the sport of baseball and notice the greatest hitters in the history of the game---you can't help but see something profound immediately. The all-time best hitter, Ty Cobb, had a career batting average of .366. No one has been able to reach that level in a career before or since. That's .366 out of .1000.
What this means is that over 6 out of every 10 times Cobb got up to bat, he went out. And he's considered the greatest.
Which begs the questions, why is it that our expectations for baseball are so radically different than our expectations for ourselves and everyone else in the rest of life?
The Commissioner of Baseball in 1991, Francis T. Vincent, Jr., made this astute observation:
"Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often---those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth."
Ironic--that errors are part of it's rigorous truth. Almost oxymoronic. But refreshing and true.
I grew up in a Church that rigorously fights an ongoing war against failure. Error is seen as a lack of spirituality and trust in God. If you simply trusted God more, you would overcome your tendency to "strike out" when you stepped up to the plate of life. With God's help, you can get better and better at hitting the ball whenever you're up to bat. And before the world ends, God expects you to hit home runs or at least hit safely every time you're up.
There's a word for this view: perfectionism.
For the most part in my life, I played the game pretty successfully. I knew the rules inside and out and was quite accomplished at fulfilling and living up to them well. I certainly received a lot of accolades for how successful I was, at least on the outside of my life--which is the only side of anyone people can really see, right?
So when you live in a perfectionist culture where mistakes and failures aren't accepted as the norm, there's intense pressure to measure up to the highest standard in order to feel good enough. Self worth becomes built upon performance.
Without realizing it, my sense of self was being constructed on a shaky foundation. I had to make sure I was successful and didn't fail; I had to constantly prove my worth by my performance. So if you're one of those lucky ones, like I was, who is able to be really productive within the accepted measurements, you're rewarded---you get praise and positive attention from others and therefore you can give yourself the same.
Until the big failure and fall. And I had it. Epic. My whole world collapsed around me. And in one fell swoop I was on the outside, no longer seen as successful, all my past accomplishments wiped off the slate of institutional memory.
Unlike baseball's radical paradigm in which the player steps up to the plate and strikes out, still maintaining his beloved stature as the valued and famed hitter even though he goes out 6 out of every 10 times---in my world it was, one big strike and you're out, for good.
Identity and Self Acceptance
Beyond the pain of the institutional response to me, my biggest personal challenge suddenly became, Now that I've blown it big time, what is my identity, where do my feelings of worth and value come from without that great reputation? Can I accept myself even in the midst of failure? Or am I simply a loser forever from now on?
My road back to a sense of deep personal acceptance and worth was long and difficult. But in the end, the opportunity to build my sense of self on a much more stable foundation, than the shaky one of performance and perfection, was the most important outcome that could have ever happened to me. It has given me a sense of confidence, security, and acceptance of myself in powerfully authentic ways like never before.
Perhaps baseball has a lot to teach us about life. Like the Commissioner observed, errors are part of the game and perfection is an impossible and unrealistic and not even expected goal. No player ever bats .1000 in a career. Ever.
So the ongoing questions for me in my life is that whenever I make mistakes (and I do, often), whenever I don't live up to my values in even small ways, whenever I try something and make a mess of it, whenever I feel the need to present myself to others as all together, whenever I am tempted not to feel good enough unless I do it all perfectly--whenever I'm faced with these moments, can I still feel a sense of value, acceptance, and okayness and refuse to place my worth in judgment?
A Spirituality of Imperfection
What would happen if we built our view and experience of spirituality on imperfection rather than perfection, that we would stop expecting no mistakes or failures and start expecting errors as a natural part of the game of life?
Would it mean that we would simply compromise away our values? Would it mean we're simply trying to rationalize and justify our mistakes? Would it mean that we would be embracing an "anything goes" philosophy, that it wouldn't matter any more if we failed or made mistakes, no matter how many people we hurt along the way?
That's certainly not the way it's worked with me. Re-establishing my sense of self and building it on the foundation of the reality of imperfection, and learning how to embrace myself in the midst of failure, has in fact increased my value for healing and wholeness, for showing up in the world in ways that elicit deeper trust and joy in others.
But I have done this on the unshakable foundation of self acceptance, not for how successful I am or am not, but for who I am as a child of God---fully loved and deeply accepted as I am, not as I should be.
When I get clear on this truth, I am much more empowered to grow, to take risks on my journey of transformation, knowing that when I step up the plate and strike out or ground out or hit a fly ball and go out, I'm still a perfectly loved and valued person who belongs on the team of life. My place is secure.
That freedom motivates me to be my best, to know who I am in every situation and live it out with confidence and courage, even if I don't do it just right every time. Because the fear of failure has been removed. I even allow myself to expect it from myself.
"Errors, of course, are part of the game. They are part of our truth as human beings. To deny our errors is to deny ourself, for to be human is to be imperfect, somehow error-prone. To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find a way to healing through the hurt. To be human is to embody a paradox, for according to that ancient vision, we are 'less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.' Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is: There is no one to 'blame' for our errors--neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else. Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing." (The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, p. 2)
What this means is that we stop theologizing and religionizing perfection and imperfection. Instead, we learn to embrace our humanity without negative judgment, simply what is. And we allow ourselves to go on the journey of life with patience as well as resolve to become more and more whole, while living with our cracks. And we ramp up our courage to actually admit, "Nobody's perfect. Neither am I. And that's okay. I'm still valued and loved and accepted as I learn to grow and develop into my healthiest self. I belong on the Team."
If I can do this, I can then step up and, using all of my growing skill and wisdom, boldly and freely swing away. I can let it rip more often because whether I hit it out of the park or into a fielder's waiting glove I am still loved and deeply accepted in who I am as a valued child of the universe, to myself and to God. Period. I'm on the Team.
Next time I'll talk about some of the significant implications of the spirituality of imperfection and building on this unshakeable foundation of Self. Stay tuned.
E.E. Cummings once wrote, "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself---means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight---and never stop fighting."
Wow! That statement really hits me deeply because I know that to be true in my life experience. There's a reason so many people don't go on the search for their authentic self---because it's so hard, sometimes even painful, definitely difficult. You're often battling against your own powerful limiting beliefs, against other people's expectations of and choices for you. It's easier to deny that nagging thought that we might not really be living our authentic selves.
No wonder it often takes a crisis to shake us off our pedestal, forcing us to go on the search for authenticity. When we choose to push against the system of our own beliefs and others' expectations, the system pushes back. You've felt that, haven't you? The systems in our lives use shame, guilt, religious dogmas (which in essence is using the "God" card---"you're going against God's will for you!"). We're told we're being selfish and narcissistic, thinking only of ourselves. "You just need to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. After all, didn't Jesus say, 'Take up your cross and follow me?' Remember, life isn't just about you." Those messages are deeply personal and painfully powerful to go up against.
Talk about strong push back. It always happens when you choose to practice authenticity, stepping into the full expression of your true self.
I remember walking the streets, sometimes in the middle of the night, wrestling and struggling with the implications of my choice to live my life rather than the life so many others I looked up to were telling me I was obligated to live. I felt so alone. The weight of the world burdened me down, sometimes even literally, as I felt the loss of so much I had valued in the past. The push back on every level was intense.
But little by little I began to realize that the alternative was even more potentially damaging. Even medical experts these days are recognizing this truth. Here's the way Dr. Brene Brown states it, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are:
"If you're like me, practicing authenticity can feel like a daunting choice---there's risk involved in putting your true self out in the world. But I believe there's even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don't just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. I think we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief." (p. 53)
Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think we should be just isn't worth it. There might be some short term pay offs (like superficial and conditional acceptance, affirmation, kudos). But the long term damage, as she points out, are brutal.
So what do you do when you're experiencing the Big Push Back? Brene Brown says she repeats three simply phrases to herself:
Don't shrink. Don't puff up. Stand on your sacred ground.
That's right. Your true Self is sacred ground. It's who God sees you to be and believes for you.
That's why Jesus, when the Devil tempted him to doubt his true Self, refused ... three times in a row ... in the middle of the hot desert ... when he was at his tiredest, hungriest, weakest.
"I don't need to do anything to prove myself to you, Devil, or to please anyone else's expectations for me. I know my truth because it came straight from the mouth of God when He told me, "You are my Beloved Son; I believe in you; I'm proud of you! Period!"
So next time you're feeling the Big Push Back, whether from your own inner doubts or other people or powerful institutions, remember to do three things:
Don't shrink! Don't puff up! Stand on your Sacred Ground!
And when you do, remember you're in good company. Even Jesus did that.
So here's to choosing authenticity. Here's to fighting the good fight. Here's to all the health and well being that come from standing in your truth.
And if you need some support to do this, write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll suggest some ways I can be helpful. GregoryPNelson.com
What Is the Roar of Awakening? In my last blog, I told the story about the tiger who grew up thinking he was a goat but who finally discovered he was a tiger. Read the story if you haven't already. Upon his discovery, he let out a huge "roar of awakening."
The roar of awakening is the discovery that we are more than we think we are; we have taken on identities that incorrectly or inadequately express our essential being. And when we arrive at this divinely-inspired realization, we experience a totally different reality that expresses itself in a new kind of personal power, passion, and confidence.
One of My Roars of Awakening
One of my roars of awakening came when a highly respected leader in the church I was pastoring years ago deeply yet firmly affirmed my leadership style and effectiveness. I had just downplayed myself to him, making an observation about myself that I had held to be true for years. I had been retelling this narrative to myself every time I encountered a difficult, and potentially conflict-inducing leadership moment.
He stopped me and said, "Greg, I never want to hear you say that about yourself again! Ever!"
"Why?" I pressed back. "I'm just being honest about myself."
"No!" he countered. "You're not! Because it's not true. You're stating an identity that simply has no basis in fact." And then he spent the next five minutes describing all the things he had observed about me in my leadership position which clearly countered my own self-perception.
As he boldly and articulately described what he both saw in and believed about me, the light of truth began to dawn in my mind. I saw it for the first time. He was right. I had been living and believing both an incorrect and inadequate picture of my essential being. I had been living as a goat instead of the tiger I really was.
As I look back now, I can see that that awakening was a watershed moment. My leadership, the owning of my true leadership capabilities emanating from my unique essence, took on a new kind of power and confidence which resulted in profoundly effective outcomes as a spiritual leader and pastor. I had found my "roar."
Obstacles to the Roar: What Is the Narrative You've Been Living?
Have you considered what narratives you've been living in your life that might be incorrect or inadequate? Have you ever taken the time to evaluate the truth about those personal narratives?
We don't only tell inadequate stories about ourselves. We also hold incorrect narratives about others--perhaps our spouses or significant others, our colleagues, our bosses, our friends and family members. The destructive power here is that as we keep retelling these perspectives they grow stronger. They end up seeming truer and truer. So this becomes the reality at the center of our relationships. And we wonder why these relationships can never seem to improve or get better or be fixed.
Painful Consequences of a Wrong Narrative
It is astounding to me how many people are not living their own truth or the truth about others and so have not been able to step into their personal or relational divinely-given power to show up in the world with clarity, confidence, courage, and contentment.
Over the years of living in this unreality, they become satisfied with bleeting like goats instead of roaring like tigers. After awhile, they actually come to believe that they are goats (imagine believing, for example, that you're in a "goat of a relationship" instead of a "tiger of a relationship"--how would that impact how you show up in that relationship?).
Consequently, they never seem to arrive in a place of alignment and congruence with who they really are or what the essence of their relationship truly can be. There's a form of timidity or aggressive conflict they end up manifesting to themselves and to the other. They might not even be aware of it. But there's this subtle hesitancy they often seem to feel in many situations--an inability to really land and be grounded where they are.
In the religious world, we often tend to label this as humility, on the one hand, or righteous indignation, on the other. Truth is, ironically we are actually spiritualizing this sense of inadequacy or conflict by giving it this spiritual attribute in order to feel okay about it.
But it never completely works for us--deep inside we long to be free of this timidity, hesitancy, and sense of personal and relational inadequacy. Without being aware of it at times, we are actually hearing our tiger nature calling out from deep inside us to be embraced.
We cannot allow ourselves to be content with being a goat if our nature is actually a tiger. We must embrace our tiger. Only then will we awaken the roar. Only then will we and our relationships exude a confident, genuinely compassionate presence in the world. And we will be like Jesus, who with a boldness that comes from unconditional acceptance of his truth, loved others shamelessly and tirelessly.
Next time, What does it take to awaken our roar?
The Tiger/Goat Once upon a time* there was a tigress who was about to give birth. One day when she was out hunting she came upon a herd of goats. She gave chase, and even in her condition, managed to kill one of them, but the stress of the chase forced her into labor, and she died as she gave birth to a male cub. The goats, who had run away, returned when they sensed that the danger was over. Approaching the dead tigress, they discovered the newborn cub and adopted him into their herd.
The tiger cub grew up among the goats believing he, too, was a goat. He bleated as well as he could, he smelled like a goat, and ate only vegetation; in every respect he behaved like a goat. Yet within him beat the heart of a tiger.
All went well until the day that an older tiger approached the goat herd and attacked and killed one of the goats. The rest of the goats ran away as soon as they saw the old tiger, but our tiger/goat saw no reason to run away, of course, as he sensed no danger. The old tiger did not know what to make of this full-grown tiger who smelled like a goat, bleated like a goat, and in every other way acted like a goat. Not particularly sympathetic, the old tiger grabbed the young one by the scruff of the neck, dragged him to a nearby creek, and showed him his reflection in the water. But the young one was unimpressed with his own reflection; it meant nothing to him and he failed to see his similarity to the old tiger.
Frustrated by his lack of comprehension, the old tiger dragged the young one back to the place where he had made his kill. There he ripped a piece of meat from the dead goat and shoved it into the mouth of our young friend.
We can well imagine the young tiger’s shock and consternation. At first he gagged and tried spitting out the raw flesh, but the old tiger was determined to show the young one who he was, so he made sure the cub swallowed this new food, and this time there was a change.
Our young tiger now allowed himself to taste the raw flesh and the warm blood, and he ate this piece with gusto. When he finished chewing, the young tiger stretched, and then for the first time in his young life, he let out a powerful roar--the roar of a jungle cat. Then the two tigers disappeared together into the forest.
The young tiger’s roar is called the “roar of awakening." This “roar of awakening” is the discovery that we are more than we think we are. It is the discovery that we have taken on identities that incorrectly or inadequately express our essential being. It is as though we awaken from the dream, look around, and become aware of a totally different reality.
* excerpted and adapted from the prologue of Embracing Ourselves, by Drs. Hal & Sidra Stone (1989)
Spirituality and Identity
Every major spiritual tradition has at the heart of its spirituality the process of coming to know your true self, who you really are, your divinely given identity. I'm inspired in Jesus' story how many times God "roars" from heaven to affirm his true identity: "You are my son, the one I love. I'm so proud of you."
And in one of the more poignant vignettes, Jesus looks at his disciples and asks them an identity question: "Who are people saying I am?" And then driving it closer to home, "Who do you say I am?"
It's the "roar of awakening" to this truth about ourselves that empowers us to live like the tigers we are (not the goats we think we are). When we're confused or in the dark about our spiritual identity, we get stuck, we live in the shadows of our truth, and false selves rise up to control us. We become insecure, uncertain, anxious, fearful, allowing other people and circumstances to control our sense of value and worth and direction. Our roaring turns to bleating.
In contrast, when you know who you are, you have an internal confidence and courage to live with deep compassion even when it looks like weakness.
Jesus' Radical Example
Jesus reveals this self-assurance and engages in his most radical and unselfish act in the upper room the night before he's executed:
3 "Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him." (John 13)
Jesus lives in perfect alignment with his essence, his identity as Son of God. He's completely clear about who he is, why he's here, and where he's going. So he acts again and again in courage and boldness, even in the face of tremendous opposition which ultimately leads to his execution.
In the next few blogs, I'm going to talk about how we get back our "roar of awakening." What tends to keep us from seeing ourselves as the tigers we are and instead thinking we're goats? How can we wake up to our truth, to God's truth about us? And how does that truth empower us to live boldly? Stay tuned.
A Year of Awakening the Roar
What do you say you and I make the year 2012 "the Roar of Awakening." Let's choose to step into all the power of our true essence not just some of it. Let's do whatever it takes to clear away the obstacles keeping us from being our Truth. Like Jesus, let's be so clear on who we are that we are radically empowered to live a world-transforming compassion. Because that's who we really are! It's time to awaken our roar!
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.
The Commercial Have you seen the 30 second TV commercial with actress Betty White and Snickers candy bars? It was introduced during the 2010 Super Bowl. It's an interesting portrayal of personal identity. Watch it:
The Snickers Identity Paradigm
The ad's a great example of how so often we see others by what they're doing on the outside. Their identity is their performance. If you're not playing football very well we see you as a Betty White (although I would have had second thoughts about playing ball against a younger Betty White--she's got the spirit!). "Come on, man, don't be such a wuss! Get it together and start playing like a man!" If you're really good (which is to say, proficient, skillful, aggressive), then we see you as your "real" self. Our culture bases everything about identity on externals. Get that real job! Drive that real car! Make a real salary! Date that real woman or man! Buy a real house! Wear that power suit! Carry that real purse or wear those real shoes! Show your stuff (whatever "stuff" is) and stop wimping around!
And if you're just not "manifesting" it rightly, then eat a Snickers bar and turn yourself back into a real man or woman! Notice the interesting solution to being your "true self": a candy bar (or whatever external things the advertisers are offering).
You and I are tempted every day to buy into this perspective on identity and reality. If we can just manifest the right outside and external world, we can be satisfied that all is right with the world, we are who we're suppose to be. So our identity is held captive to what we can or cannot manifest on the outside.
But here are a couple of big dangers with this paradigm. One, if you base your identity on what you can manifest in your life (the externals like people, things, circumstances), then you never have a solid foundation for your self esteem. Your identity is dependent upon what happens on the outside. And so your self esteem fluctuates based upon circumstances created by either you or others. Your self esteem and personal identity are victimized by the fluctuations of whatever's happening to you or by you. Definitely not a very secure way to live.
And two, it becomes easy to put yourself down or to put others down who aren't manifesting everything you think you or they should. You can guilt people by saying, "If you just would get your thoughts right, you should be able to do it. So if you're not doing it, there's something wrong with you!"
It's so subtle how our attitudes impact our sense of self and our expectations of others.
An Alternative Paradigm: Secure Identity and Inner Peace
There's an alternative way to live that produces far more confidence, assurance, and solid peace. Notice this statement from scripture:
"Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace." (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Now considering the context of this statement, the significance of it increases dramatically. The author is writing to people who have developed the insidious belief that your external world validates who you are. The worldview was that if you were experiencing a life of success, ease, and prosperity that was a sign that you were being blessed by the divine universe. And being blessed by God was always manifested by a life of prosperity. They claimed that the condition of your external world indicated your personal identity and your status with the gods.
But author Paul is trying to counter that popular paradigm by describing his own life. When he talks about looking like things are falling apart, he's painting a pretty graphic picture of his life experience:
"You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at. We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus' sake, which makes Jesus' life all the more evident in us. While we're going through the worst, you're getting in on the best!" (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
Notice his juxtaposition of external circumstances and internal attitude and identity. Even though his external life would appear to be a complete failure, falling apart at the seams, his sense of identity and security with himself and with God are completely secure. There's an internal sense of peace and certainty that pervades his mind and heart. He is describing himself as possessing true life in its deepest and most meaningful sense, a life that God is continually creating and recreating in him. And the more centered he finds himself in this internal life, the more grounded he finds himself in how he faces his external world.
And he ends that paragraph with a sentence describing another truism (did you notice it?): our internal attitude does impact our external environment with others. As Paul centered himself on inner peace that he allows God to create within him in the midst of external chaos, he blesses others with that environment of peace, too, giving them opportunity to experience inner peace for themselves. It may not still the storms swirling all around, but it does provide inner calm and centeredness which is contagious.
Our True Miracle
That's the true miracle we all are needing. Being able to live life with the continual unfolding of divine grace within us, where God is making a new life every day--not based upon what people think about us or even what we're tempted to think about ourselves based upon what we have or don't have, do or don't do, but based upon what God gives us inside--an nonfluctuating identity as a child of God embued with eternal value because of that stamp of love on our souls. The ability to live in love rather than fear is the greatest miracle of all. That should be our highest manifestation in life. And it certainly has the power to impact others with a spirit of peace and love, too.
By today's standards based upon the Law of Attraction, Paul would be considered a real failure. And yet Paul is completely confident in who he is, what God is doing in his life, and his courageous living of his purpose.
Marianne Williamson, author and spiritual teacher, puts it this way: "We're not asking for something outside us to change, but for something inside us to change. We're looking for a softer orientation to life...Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we're frantic, life will be frantic. If we're peaceful, life will be peaceful. And so our goal in any situation becomes inner peace. Our internal state determines our experience of our lives; our experiences do not determine our internal state." (Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love, p. 66)
So build your identity, your sense of self and esteem and worth, on a foundation that remains secure, that outside circumstances and people cannot destroy. So whether you have much in life that you truly want or have very little, you still are rich--you are grounded on the eternal truth of your being as a child of the God of the universe and nothing can take that away.
What are the internal changes and transformations you're experiencing in your life these days? Are you clear of your identity and what it's based upon? Do you possess a centered and grounded sense of who you are and where your value comes from? Do you have that "softer orientation to life" that comes from living with love instead of fear? Do you have a peace and security regardless of what's happening in your external world?
Next time I find myself face down on the muddy football field, and others think I'm playing ball like Betty White, I think I need to stick something more substantial into my soul than a Snickers bar.
“The King’s Speech” is the powerful, Oscar-winning true story of one man’s quest to find his voice and of those closest to him who help him find it. For a description of the story, read my post. As the red light in King George VI’s broadcast room begins blinking to signal the momentous moment for the royal global broadcast, his speech therapist and friend Lional Logue, knowing how nervous the King is, says to the King, “Forget everything else and just say it to me.”
So I've been unpacking the three parts of that statement--what they say about discovering your unique, personal significance (your voice) and how can you use your voice to put your unique stamp on the world. My last post described the importance of not letting the past define your present and future. Now for the second part of Lionel's statement to the King.
And just say it …
This too is a challenge. One of the problems is, as our internet-based society is showing us, there is no lack of voices shouting stuff all the time. Much of the time it's just noise. People think that because the web gives an instant global platform, all they have to do is shout out and the world listens. Not true. We have to know what we’re trying to say; and to say it so that people truly listen, it has to come from inside us and express who we are so that there's genuine alignment; which means we have to know ourselves, to believe ourselves, to have confidence in who we are.
This is a 3-step process and journey: self-awareness that must be followed by self possession that produces authentic self expression.
I like the way Stephen Covey, in his powerful book The 8th Habit, defines Voice: “Voice is unique personal significance--significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and which makes us equal to them.” (p. 5)
Here’s how he describes finding this Voice. Voice lies at the nexus between four areas of our lives: Talent; Passion; Need; and Conscience.
Talent – your natural gifts and strengths; Passion – those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate, and inspire you; Need – a problem in the world that speaks to you and that you can effectively help solve, including what the world needs enough to pay you for; and Conscience – that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right, truth for you, and that prompts you to actually do it.
“When you engage in things that tap your talent and fuel your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to help meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” (p. 5)
Here’s the truth: there is a deep, innate, almost inexpressible yearning within each one of us to find our voice in life. King George VI (Bertie) felt that yearning. The reason he acted out in such anger and rage often was because he couldn’t understand his Voice – he didn’t think he had a Voice or certainly wasn’t worthy of a Voice or simply wasn’t capable of expressing his Voice if he had one – he was stumped, paralyzed by the many impediments in his life, speech being only one of them. But the longing was there. He had a conscience that was prompting him. He began to develop a passion. He certainly was aware of the need in his Empire that the King was called to meet. And little by little he developed and embraced his talents, his unique strengths and gifts. Until finally he expressed what ended up being a very powerful Voice not only in his Empire but also in the world.
Jesus, who was called the Word, spoke with such power because he spoke with his true voice, the voice that came from his personal truth, his identity as the true expression of God. The New Testament writers referred to him as the Word of God. And when Jesus spoke, people were drawn to him, they listened, they were moved, inspired, and transformed. He wasn't just making noise. He had captured his voice and spoke it with authority because it came from his core identity. "I am the truth, the way, and the life," he said. He not only spoke his voice, he lived his voice. His voice found its highest expression in action. The two were perfectly aligned. And people followed, finding their own voice along the way, too.
So I have to enter into self-awareness – to look at these four areas to see what my unique truth is – what the expression of my core self truly is. Have you ever noticed like I have that the closer we get to this truth, the more our conscience begins to activate – I start feeling strongly in my inner spirit about expressing this truth. I feel dis-ease unless I'm expressing this truth. That’s conscience – that’s the spirit in me that is tapping into the Divine Spirit and Fingerprint within me. That Spirit is calling out to be expressed in my personal, unique way. And when that conscience speaks and pushes strongly enough, I have to do something about it. I have to act.
And the first action is the courage of self possession of that truth. I must embrace myself with confidence. I accept myself for who I truly am. I begin to see clearly my uniqueness and I start falling in love with it.
So much so that then I compelled to the next action - authentic self expression – I have to do something tangible about it. I know--I speak--I act.
The Hebrew prophet named Jeremiah described this undying urge to express his Voice. He was a prophet with an almost impossible task: speak truth to people who had lost their voice and their identity and had wandered far from God. His challenge: they didn't want to hear him speak truth. So they persecuted him, laughed at him, ridiculed him, refused to listen to him, and ultimately killed him. He faced the temptation regularly to give up, to stop speaking his voice from God, and take an early retirement. But whenever he was tempted, here's what happened to him:
9 Sometimes I say to myself,
"Forget it! No more God-Messages from me!"
But then the Words becomes like a burning fire inside me,
deep within my bones.
I get tired of trying to hold it inside of me,
and finally, I cannot hold it in.” Jeremiah 20:9
Once I find my voice, my true voice that comes from deep inside me and reflects my personal truth and identity, I am compelled to speak it, even at great cost. That's my conscience working, nudging me to speak, empowering me to confidence and courage. And that conscience won't stop until you and I speak and live our voice, just like Jeremiah, just like Jesus, and even like King George VI.
PERSONAL REFLECTION: Take some time to define and flesh out what each of those four areas Covey refers to would look like in your life. Where do they all converge for you? How does that describe your Voice – your unique personal significance?
Next post, we'll look at the last part of The King's Speech: what do we need in place to be empowered to speak our voice courageously?
"The King's Speech" is the powerful, Oscar-winning true story of one man’s quest to find his voice and of those closest to him who help him find it. For a description of the story, read my last blog post. As the red light in King George VI's broadcast room begins blinking to signal the momentous moment for the royal global broadcast, his speech therapist and friend Lional Logue, knowing how nervous the King is, says to the King, "Forget everything else and just say it to me."
In the next 3 posts, I want to unpack the three parts of that statement. What do they say about discovering your unique, personal significance (your voice) and how can you use your voice to put your unique stamp on the world.
1. "Forget everything else."
This first part of Lionel's statement might be the toughest for some of us--“forget everything else." In this context, it’s forgetting all the obstacles and challenges that tend to intimidate you into silence or timidity or hesitation or staying with the status quo, taking the easiest route ahead.
For King George VI it was the huge audience of millions around the globe; it was the fear of not being able to speak, to have his words choke in his throat and not come out; the fear of failure; the fear of not being enough; fear of now having anything of substance to offer his people. These are HUGE obstacles for the King.
Salon’s review of the King's history put it in perspective: “For all the pomp and privilege of his upbringing, Bertie was essentially an abused child, tormented by nannies, plagued by childhood ailments and raised in isolation from the outside world. He barely knew his parents (Michael Gambon plays King George V, his father), had no real friends, wore painful leg braces and suffered from early childhood from a chronic stammer that made his public appearances painful for everyone. Perhaps the last monarch reared in the old aristocratic style, with a father who ruled at least nominally over one-fourth of the globe's population, Bertie was literally a man trapped between worlds. As Firth plays him, the prickly prince (who spent his early career as a naval officer and teacher) is eager to take offense yet painfully shy, fully aware that the monarchy has become a defanged symbolic contrivance in an age of radio and motorcars, yet halfway convinced that divine right is still involved somewhere.”
He's a man of ambivalence and conflict--unsure of who he really is and unsure of what his real role as King is suppose to be in this new era, and definitely unsure of whether he can fulfill it or not. He's a man with a painful past that's still destructively shaping his present.
So when King George VI finally stands in front of the mike to deliver the most important speech he’s ever delivered and the nation has ever heard, his therapist and friend says, “Forget everything else.”
The Christian scriptures echo Lionel Logue with this significant perspective: “12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which God has shaped me. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God is calling us.” Philippians 3:12-14
Considering the author of these words, this counsel is particularly apropos. St. Paul had quite a colorful past on both sides of the scale. He had achieved great religious significance in his Jewish community--PhD in theology, schooled in the most prestigious schools of religion, impeccable family tree, considered at the top of the religious pyramid. He was so zealous for the Church's religious cause that he was point person for the persecution, arrest, and even in some cases, execution of heretics and dissenters of the Jewish faith. Until he had a dramatic conversion experience and suddenly was convicted that he needed to join the very team he was trying to exterminate. A dramatic turn around, to say the least!
So when he writes about the importance of forgetting the past (both successes and failures), not getting locked in the past, in order the speak his voice in the present with authenticity and truth, he knows what he's talking about.
Forgetting the past isn't about denying it. It's not about pretending it never happened. It's actually about being willing to honor your past, to embrace its reality, to learn from it, to grow from it, to acknowledge that it's forever a part of your story and your journey. It's about letting that past inform you and seeing how it has shaped you. And then it's about letting it go enough to keep it from holding you back in guilt or pride, and moving boldly and confidently into your future by finding your true voice and speaking it.
This is my story, too. I have to let go of the chains of the past in order to courageously step into my truth, in order to stand in the power of my unique authority and show up boldly in the world.
There is no one else on this planet who has my voice, who has my unique experiences from the past and present, who has my individual truth learned from those experiences, and therefore who can speak just like I can. Right? If I don't find my true voice and speak it courageously, the world loses out. And if I can't let go of the chains of the past enough to step into my freedom and personal authority, I deprive myself and the world of important truth. The same goes for you, too.
PERSONAL REFLECTION: What are the obstacles or challenges that tend to hold you back from standing in confidence of who you are and giving voice to your truth and convictions? What tends to keep you from living and speaking with YOUR voice?
Any thoughts about your own journey of "forgetting the past" and what that process has been like for you?
In the next post, I'll talk about what it takes to find your individual unique voice.
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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