The older I get the more I realize how significant it is to learn how to say No to some things in order to say Yes to others. And especially to learn which are the more important things to push back against and push forward toward. Here are two strategies for doing this well.
The premise was that four celebrity judges would try to guess which of the three contestants was the genuine character being described in an unusual and unique life story read out loud by the host. All contestants introduced themselves by the name of the true character. The two "imposter" contestants could lie with their answers, the true character had to tell the truth in every answer. After questioning each contestant, the judges would vote. The host would then say those famous words, "Will the real [name of the character] please stand up."
I used to love watching the show, trying to guess which was the real character. I sometimes got it right. But often I was completely surprised. And I've never forgotten the host's line at the end of the vote: Will the real ________ please stand up."
So what was the appeal to such a simple game show? The drama of trying to figure out who was who? Deception? Humor? Seeing judges voting? Unusual life stories? A competition of winning and losing?
Probably all of the above. But I think there was also something else at play. We are drawn to that which is true, to people who are able to stand up and truly be themselves. We call this Authenticity.
I'm inspired by the way Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, defines Authenticity:
"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are." (p. 50)
The "letting go" of this ideal self we think we're supposed to be (and even that can change depending on which environment we're in at any given time) is really hard. Isn't it? Why?
Why Living Authentically is So Difficult
Our external culture. We live in a world that strongly encourages, sometimes even demands, that we fit in, don't stand out too much, conform to accepted expectations and standards. Though our country was founded on individuality and the pioneering spirit, our culture has strong ways of limiting all of that.
We're raised to acquiesce to authority---the authority of parents, adults, institutions, people who know more than we do, power, position, status. We're taught not to trust ourselves or our gut instincts or to look too deeply inside ourselves. All true authority is outside ourselves, we're told.
No wonder we have in our culture an authenticity challenge.
Our internal Culture. Compounding this cultural squeeze is the truth that inside ourselves we often have another battle raging. It's a self-esteem and self-worth issue. So that whenever we feel shame or unworthiness or guilt that creates self-doubt, we can quickly and easily sell ourselves out and say, "I can be anybody you need me to be. Watch me!"
So we can allow our self-identity to shift with the winds and tides of our surrounding people---whatever it takes to please them or get their approval so we can feel good about ourselves.
We definitely have an authenticity challenge these days.
So how do we learn to choose authenticity more and more in our daily lives---to choose to be our real Selves in every context, living out the fullest and most confident expression of our true Selves?
Three Steps to Choosing Authenticity
Notice the three actions described in Dr. Brown's definition of Authenticity:
- Daily practicing
It's unrealistic to think that all of a sudden, one day we can simply declare, "Okay, I'm perfectly authentic now. I'm good to go."
"Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true Selves be seen." (p. 49)
When you consider that we are making this choice against everything that we've established through the course of life as being "true" about ourselves and what's really important---pleasing others at our own expense, living up to everyone else's expectations, letting every situation determine how "real" we should be, hiding behind masks, or trying hard to be someone we're really not---it's no wonder authenticity is a daily, even moment by moment, choice. We have to practice it regularly. We have to develop a new normal.
Authenticity is a process of becoming---a journey into being more fully genuinely ourselves. So our practice demands: "In this moment, faced with a choice of how I'll show up in this situation, I choose authenticity. In this moment, I choose to be real and genuine and honest. I will not hide myself. In this moment, I will not let fear of what others might say or think dictate how I show up. I choose to let my Self be expressed. In this moment, I will be Me to the best of my knowledge and ability and in a spirit of respect, love, and compassion."
- Letting go of who we think we're supposed to be
We have to stop living our lives based on other people's expectations and standards. We need to respect and honor their choices. But we don't have to emulate them. We are each unique individuals. We have to let our masks go. We have to let go of our attempts to squeeze into someone else's mold. We have to let go of our obsession with pleasing and seeking approval in order for us to feel good about ourselves.
For a trapeze artist to let go of the trapeze and fly through nothing but empty air takes courage. It's scary and even risky.
So is letting go of false identities---especially if we've lived them for a long time. We end up flying through uncertainty, even at times lack of clarity about who we are. We risk rejection and lack of acceptance. People close to us might actually like us the way we've been. We might "fail" at being Ourselves. Yes, it takes courage to let go.
But we can't grab a hold of the true identity (the other trapeze bar) without letting go of the false.
- Embracing who we really are
Think of a time when you felt really true to yourself, when you felt completely safe, loved, accepted, honest, when you felt really strong and energized. What was happening? How were you showing up?
Chances are you were actually being your true Self. That's what you have to embrace and grab a hold of. That's the new trapeze bar you've been flying through space to catch.
That story you remember is a snapshot of your Authenticity. Remember it. Relish it. Visualize it again and again. Those powerful positive memories will give you courage to choose Authenticity again and again. Embrace who you really are.
Embrace vulnerability. Let go of the need for perfection, even in trying to be You. Give yourself permission to fail, to make mistakes, to not do it really well every single time you embrace You. That's okay. You're on the journey of Authenticity.
Embrace compassion for your Self and for others. Remember that you are made of both strength and struggle, as Brene Brown puts it.
Embrace that your greatest gift to the world---to everyone around you---the gift that God has given you and you alone, is You. No one else is or can be You. Stand in your Truth and that truth will set you and everyone around you free. Only Authenticity gives freedom. Don't deprive the world of your Authentic You.
So next time, when the situation arises and says, "Will the real You please stand up," jump to your feet, hold your head high, and with joy reply, "Here I am, you lucky people!" :) And the rest of us will the better because of it. So will You.
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!
In my last post, I introduced the concept about rivers being viewed by spiritual and religious traditions as metaphors and symbols for the spiritual life. I described the basic journey of the river, beginning in the mountains and ultimately emptying into the sea. Rivers and Spiritual Growth
So what does the river’s journey tell us about spiritual growth? Let me suggest four secrets.
First, The Source of life is Sacred, which makes all of life Sacred. The flow of life is Sacred. There is a holy purpose to our lives, to our journey. Everything we have done and do has a Sacred dimension to it.
That’s why for so many spiritual traditions the process of spirituality is awakening, paying attention to life as Sacred, learning how to encounter and embrace the Divine in every experience of life. St. Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Life is about connecting, reconnecting with—acknowledging, honoring—our Sacred Source.
Second, All individuals are from the same Source, which makes everyone Sacred. A River is a combining of individual streams into one flow. So if the Source is Sacred, then every individual is Sacred, too. Which means that healthy spirituality is about recognizing the Sacredness of every person we encounter.
That’s what giving the Blessing is all about—remember we’ve talked about that spiritual practice before? Giving the Blessing to another is acknowledging the divine goodness in that person, no matter who he or she is, and calling it out of that person by affirming it and honoring it. That’s what the Hindu greeting “Namaste” means—“The divine goodness in me honors and greets the divine goodness in you.”
Spirituality cannot be healthy and grow without this significant recognition and embrace. That’s why healthy spirituality must involve an outward focus, not just an inward one. We have the divine joy of looking at others and calling out, honoring their Sacredness. Life is about helping others embrace their own divine goodness. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone looked at others in this light, instead of constantly judging or criticizing or labeling or condemning.
That’s why the Bible ends with the beautiful picture of one God, one City, one River that nourishes one People—everyone being vitalized and revitalized by the same Source forever!
Third, Spirituality is not a straight line, it has twists and turns. It’s amazing how often we label the twists and turns of our lives as bad, harmful, negative, detours, even “not God’s will.” Right?
The reality is that no river runs straight. Every river has twists and turns. And here’s what really impresses me: according to the experts, “The twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping Her life-giving Waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the Water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the River for sustenance.”
The very things that we think damage us and therefore should be avoided at all costs in fact can keep us healthy—they aerate our lives—bring more oxygen into our system which actually revitalizes us.
What would it be like to approach what you consider to be a “twist and turn” in your life and ask yourself, “How can this experience aerate—that is, bring more life into—my spirituality? What can I learn about myself through this? How will I allow this to expand my life rather than diminish it?”
It’s interesting when it comes to rivers—there are those enthusiasts, like kayakers and rafters, who live for the mad and bellowing, raging rapids. I took a trip years ago, a rafting trip, right through the famed Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Wow, I gotta tell you—I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself anywhere close to a hard-core rafter—but that trip was high adrenaline and amazingly enlivening, to put it mildly. We went through one chute, our guide manning the rudder or back end of our raft, all of us paddling for our lives, and slammed head on into a huge boulder. One of the guys in the raft got thrown out. I about had a heart attack! But we finally got through and ultimately to quieter water. The guy who had been spit out of the dragon’s mouth beat us to the finish line, fortunately unhurt but emerging from the water shaking from head to toe.
There are people who love that stuff and go for class 6 whitewater rapids all the time! The twists and turns and rapids have a way of focusing you pretty quickly. You emerge on an adrenaline high from sheer gratitude that you made it! Colors look a lot deeper.
I read this statement recently from Gregg Levoy’s book Callings. He’s quoting philosopher and psychotherapist Karlfried Graf Durkheim. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” (p. 258)
Every myth or legend has a hero or heroine who ends up facing some kind of a dragon or monster that represents what they deeply fear. They have to face it and fight it before they can fulfill their destiny. The fight is always brutal and fierce. They don’t know if they’ll come out victorious but they fight on. We wouldn’t watch movies or read books if the stories didn’t have these twists and plots, right?
The author is referring to the importance of facing our fears and risks associated with following our purpose in life. When you are able to face your fear, which often involves a fear of failing or, as the philosopher put it, the feeling like you’re going to be “annihilated"--the fear of losing yourself and being forgotten--you allow the courage inside you to emerge. You find out that you are in fact bold. You can face life and encounter what you didn’t think you had it in you to survive. That’s not only focusing, it’s empowering! Not only does facing this fear cause you to not lose yourself, you actually end up finding your true self.
Levoy says that “Fear is a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your calling is worthy of you.” (p. 257)
The twists and turns and rapids of life produce fear which informs us of what’s truly important to us. And they give us opportunity to do something about what’s important to us—to act on what is vital to us.
Healthy spirituality is about being willing to embrace every stage of and section of our Life River—to learn more deeply about ourselves and the nature of life from the quiet times, from the broad, open expanses like lakes, as well as from the twists and turns and swirling eddies. Spirituality involves all of those sections and times and stages. Just like with rivers, life without all these diverse experiences keep our spirituality from stagnating (as opposed to the river ending in a pond with no outlet). Our health demands all this diversity for growth.
And four, Spirituality is learning the art of effective change management. Have you ever stood on a bridge over a river and looked down at the flowing water? It’s almost mesmerizing, isn’t it. Has a kind of hypnotic effect. One thing you can’t help but notice is that you never see the same water twice. That’s where we get the euphemism from: “It’s all water under the bridge.” In other words, everything changes so let it go.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, famous for his doctrine of change being central to the Universe, wrote: "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."
Change is inherent in life and spirituality. Healthy spirituality is about learning how to steward change effectively. It involves two vital choices. One, letting the old go. And two, embracing the new. Just like we do when we watch a river—we see water go, and we see new water come. We really don’t have any control over that flow. We simply accept what it is and choose our response to it.
This is why many of the effective spiritual practitioners tell their adherents to do their spiritual practices by the river—so they can observe this flow and learn the art of acceptance. Like we have to do with our thoughts during meditation—we observe them and then let them go, without paying undue attention by focusing on them and obsessing on them. Letting them go peacefully and respectfully. It’s all water under the bridge; nothing you can do about it; let it go.
Isn't this what the Serenity Prayer is all about? Those in recovery have learned to repeat this prayer regularly, sometimes even hourly and even minute by minute to stay focused: "God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”
So to build a healthy, vital, growing spirituality, we learn to ask ourselves some very important questions:
- What do I learn about myself through my responses to the different ups and downs of my life?
- What are the stories I tell myself about loss and grief and pain that end up shaping my responses to them?
- What does my fear tell me about what in that situation is important to me?
- How can I allow these “whitewater rapids” to produce greater spiritual health in me, to aerate my life?
I would invite you to spend some alone time, reflecting on these questions. Perhaps even journal your responses. It helps to bring thoughtful intentionality to your spiritual path.
I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, both fighting to exterminate the threat of the other. Both fighting to prove their God is the stronger god. Life in those days is all about the battle of the Gods.
Namaan ends up getting leprosy, a horrible skin disease with no cure. He’s horrified and ashamed and fearful. The little servant girl in his home is and Israelite girl who sees his condition and tells her mistress that Namaan should go see her prophet Elisha who could heal him.
So he swallows his pride and ends up going. The Hebrew prophet tells him to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times and he would be healed. Namaan is infuriated! “What?? Who does this Jew think he is, asking me to go to the Jew’s sacred river, a dirty river at that, when we have our own more beautiful, more sacred rivers than theirs!!! “I don’t care if he is a holy man! Forget this business! I’m going home!”
But his officers reason with him, saying, “Come on, sir, how hard can it be to do this simple thing? If the prophet had asked you do a great thing, you’d have happily done it. You should go to the Jordan River!”
So Namaan again swallows his pride and goes. He stands there watching the dirty water flow by. He’s angry inside. His ego is strong. He says, “This is not the water I want! But it’s what I have. Here I am. So I will step into the flow of this river, trusting in the Sacred Invitation, this Sacred moment right here, right now, and immerse myself in it, and then I’ll leave.”
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God has instructed him. And his flesh became as healthy as a young child’s, and he was healed!” (2 Kings 5:14)
The very thing that Namaan was repulsed by, the very thing that represented something he didn’t want any part of, something he thought would humiliate him, that which seemed the most humbling thing for him to do, was the instrument of healing and transformation for him. The Sacred River of life.
The River of Spirituality is about laying down our egos, embracing that which often we cannot understand or have a difficulty accepting, and with courage choosing to step into Its flow and immerse ourselves in that Water. Who knows what kind of healing and transformation might result? Acknowledge the Sacredness of life, honor the Sacred in all others, accept the twists and turns as tools for growth, and choose to step into the flow of Now with peace, courage, wisdom, and hope.
What do you think?
“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?
My wife and I recently watched the Academy Award-winning "The King's Speech." It was research for the March series we're doing in our spiritual community Second Wind ("Looking at Life Through the Oscar Stories" in which we're using four of the Oscar-winning movies to talk about life, spirituality, and transformation). The King's Speech was one of the most inspiring movies I've seen in a long time. I laughed, cried, cringed, hoped, committed - all in one movie. I was pleased that it won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Well deserved! If you haven't seen it yet, by all means do. The implications from the story are profound. "The King's Speech" tells the story of a man compelled to speak to the world when he doesn’t feel like he’s ever found his voice his entire life – when he feels he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say and whenever he does say something the words choke in his throat and emerge at times with a stammer. To face a radio microphone and know the British Empire is listening must be terrifying. At the time of the speech mentioned in this title, a quarter of the Earth's population is in the Empire, and of course much of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia would be listening — and with particular attention, Germany with its charismatic and powerful speech maker Adolf Hitler.
The king is George VI (Colin Firth). The year is 1939. Britain is finally entering into war with Germany. His subjects long for reassurance and hope. They require firmness, clarity and resolve, not stammers punctuated with tortured silences. This is a man who never wanted to be king. After the death of his father, the throne was to pass to his older brother Edward (Guy Pierce). But Edward ends up renouncing the throne in order to marry the woman he loves. The weight and duty of the royal throne suddenly fall on the lagging shoulders of Prince Albert, Bertie as his family calls him, who has struggled with his self-esteem and speech from an early age.
With England on the brink of war and in desperate need of a leader, the King’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, arranges for her husband to see an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a rough start, the two delve into an unorthodox course of treatment and eventually form an unbreakable bond. With the support of Logue, his family, his government and Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), the King has to face himself, his insecurities, his lack of confidence, his painful speech impediments, and claim his true voice in order to deliver a radio-address that will need to inspire the people of his empire and unite them in battle.
This is the true story of one man’s quest to find his voice and of those closest to him who help him find it.
As the red light in the King's broadcast room begins blinking to signal the momentous moment for the royal global broadcast, Lional notices how nervous the King is and says to him, "Forget everything else and just say it to me."
Over the next three posts, I'd like to unpack that statement in terms of the process of both finding your individual unique voice and expressing that voice with courage and effectiveness.
"Christina's World" Andrew Wyeth (who died in January 2009 at 91 years of age) was one of the best-known U.S. artists of the middle 20th century, and was sometimes referred to as the "Painter of the People," because of his work's popularity with the American public. He learned art at an early age from his father, who inspired his love of rural lan
dscapes, sense of romance, and a feeling for Wyeth family history and artistic traditions.
In October 1945, his father and his three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. Wyeth referred to his father's death as a profound personal tragedy and a formative emotional event in his artistic career. Shortly afterward, his art began to be characterized by a subdued color palette, realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged, symbolic objects and people.
One of the most well-known images in 20th-century American art is his 1948 painting, “Christina's World,” currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The woman of the painting is his neighbor Christina Olson who was 55 at the time of this painting. She had an undiagnosed muscular deterioration that paralyzed her lower body. Wyeth was inspired to create the painting when through a window from within the house he saw her crawling across a field.
He described her as being "limited physically but by no means spiritually." Wyeth further explained, "The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless."
"In the portraits of that house, the windows are eyes or pieces of the soul, almost," he said years later. "To me, each window is a different part of Christina's life."
So the painting depicts Christina’s journey of hope to get back to her house, the windows to her soul – the journey to reconnect with her true self in the midst of her disabilities, to hang on to the hope that she can fulfill her true soul’s purpose no matter what obstacles she faces.
The Power of Hope
Experts tell us that hope is one of the most powerful emotional attributes in helping us move our lives toward where we truly want to be. Without hope, we die. As author Brennan Manning wrote, there are three ways to commit suicide: take our own lives, let ourselves die, and live without hope. In those terms, consider how many people there are among us who are in reality committing suicide - they're letting themselves live without hope. Perhaps they're afraid of hoping (for fear of getting disappointed). Perhaps they don't even know what to hope for. Perhaps they don't think they're worthy of anything good to base their hopes on. In any case, they're taking their own lives by living without hope.
Hope is an optimism that believes something is possible, even when the reality we see appears to contradict the possibility. Hope not only refuses to let go of the possibility, it chooses to take action to turn possibility into reality.
So how does this work in real life? Think of people like former South African President Nelson Mandella and world-class athlete-cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. They represent countless everyday people who have done the same thing: rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
Here's what Lance Armstrong once said: "If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from the. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: Give up, for fight like hell."
The power of hope is in its ability to help us create new facts about our possibilities - to chart new directions, to establish new behaviors, to take bold action in the face of odds and obstacles. That's what successful people do.
Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, Harvard neuroscientist and psychiatrist, describes the difference between successful and unsuccessful people. The study of successful people reveals that they “rely less on existing facts about any given situation to get what they want. Instead, they recognize the challenges, and rather than giving in to the relative impossibility of achieving their goals, they seek out routes that will allow them to achieve them. In other words, successful people do not lead statistically sensible lives. Rather than asking questions based on what is probable, successful people train their brains to focus on what is needed to accomplish the less likely of two options.” (Pillay, Life Unlocked, pp. 49-50)
How Hope Works the Brain - the Four Steps to Creating Your Reality
And the power of this Hope Approach is that it actually taps into and leverages the way the brain has been wired to work. “When the brain thinks that something is possible, it will stretch out the route for achieving it. It will chart a path toward your goal that is radically different from the course it would chart without hope. We call these motor maps and they are action plans based on information that we give the brain. They are highly dependent on what we imagine. If we remain fearful, fear will disrupt our imagination. If we focus on our goals instead of on our fear, the brain can use what we imagine as a guide for sketching out motor maps. This imagining is tied so closely to doing that expert athletes can literally make improvements in their performance by first imagining them and then practicing them. We call this motor imagery (or imagery of action), and it precedes actual movement or action. So, if you want to make a change in your life, first imagine yourself making that change so your brain can determine the route that will take you to your goal. Hope is necessary for action.” (Pillay, p. 51)
So what’s the process of using hope to create your new reality?
- Start with hope – believing that something is possible
- Then imagine yourself doing it (motor imagery)
- And your brain creates motor maps – action plans – to help your whole body mobilize into action
- Then ACT on those plans.
And the good news is that it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. If we continue to take those steps, it becomes a self-perpetuating process and creates its own momentum. Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, calls it the flywheel principle. With every simple turn of the wheel, it begins to pick up speed. Every turn creates more turn, until it finally has its own momentum. Our part is to keep turning the wheel - to keep doing the simple actions, keep taking the small steps that move us forward. The flywheel reminds us that our actions will ultimately generate a sustainable momentum.
Keep affirming your hope - keep imaging yourself doing what you're hoping for - and then keep stepping into the actions your brain creates to bring your imagination into reality - keep acting - and then keep on repeating those steps.
I'm a firm believer in this process, having seen the reality of it take place again and again for myself. Hope generates belief, which generates vision, which generates action, which generates reality. As long as I keep turning the flywheel, momentum keeps building. Don't stop turning the flywheel, don't stop hoping and acting!
Christina's World, Your World
Go back to Andrew Wyeth's painting. Notice Christina's body language. She's paralyzed from her waist down. She can only get around by crawling. There's a cross wind blowing - notice the strands of hair on her head. Her arms have an emaciated thinness. What's more, she's off the beaten path. See that? In the middle of a barren field. And her house stands on the top of a hill that for a paraplegic must seem starkly unattainable.
And yet what is her body language? Does it describe defeat? Hopelessness? Resignation? No, she's leaning forward, toward her home, what Andrew Wyeth describes as her soul, her true self. She hasn't given up. She's focusing her life on where she truly wants to go. She's about to mobilize all of her strength to move up the hill and get home. One crawl forward at a time. Putting one arm ahead of the other, pulling her lifeless legs behind. One crawl at a time.
Now that's courage. That's the power of hope.
So what do you find yourself afraid of? What feels hopeless to you at times? What do you tend to despair about? What are the obstacles you face that stand in the way of your dreams?
What does stepping into hope look like for you? What is the new reality you want to imagine? How can you affirm that vision to yourself and others again and again? Are you willing? Are you willing to take action, to create new facts and act on them in ways that move you forward? And are you willing to keep hoping, keep imagining, and keep acting, refusing to stop turning the flywheel?
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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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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?
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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"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive - the risk to be alive and express what we really are." Don Miguel Ruiz I spent some time this morning at the Federal Building for Immigration downtown San Francisco supporting one of my gay friends, a dear colleague in ministry and one of our leaders of Second Wind. He appeared in front of an immigration judge this morning to tell his story in order to apply for legal asylum here in the States. His request is based upon the real dangers of being gay in the religious subculture he lived and worked all of his adult life within in his home country. When he emerged from the court room with his lawyer and we debriefed the experience, I asked him what it felt like to retell his story in great detail. "It was cathartic in many ways but also very painful - remembering all the awful things I encountered when I came out as gay: the ostracization from my church community, the loss of my pastoral occupation and reputation, my marriage, the pain for everyone including my kids who had to put up with ridicule from their friends and others, living with the fear of rejection every day, often experiencing it in painful ways. But I feel good about how clearly and openly I told my story to the judge." His son was there to speak to the judge on behalf of his father, too. "I want for us both to be able to live here in this country and build our lives here," he told me.
Now my friend (along with his long time committed partner) waits for two weeks to hear the immigration judge's verdict. And we wait with them as their friends and spiritual community who love them and are committed to the journey of life together.
And I'm reminded of the great courage and bravery he's manifesting to take the risk to be genuinely alive, the risk to express who he really is in spite of the consequences he's both faced and continues having to put up with even in this country. I admire him for his honesty and his integrity to live with transparency and congruity.
It's not easy choosing to be alive and really live life in alignment and integration. It takes risks. We have to encounter our fears. We have to be willing to fail from time to time but then to pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. It's not easy.
Have you ever asked yourself what your biggest fears are to living the life you feel deep inside you're called to live? What does the cage look like that might tend to keep you from being really alive?
Maybe that's why in my work with people I encounter so many who are simply trying to survive, to make it to death safely, not pushing the edges of their lives, simply maintaining the status quo. It's easier that way - it appears less risky. But notice I say "appears" because in actuality, it's more risky. When you live your life out of alignment, not being who you really, trying to live someone else's life instead of your own, when you're not living your calling and purpose, settling instead for status quo, your inner spirit and physical body pick up on this lack of congruity and create what we call dis-ease - a restlessness inside, a lack of ease. Experts remind us that this condition is a condition of stress. And when you live with this state of stress for a long time it becomes chronic. And chronic stress has been shown to be terribly debilitating to the body, leading to a susceptibility to disease and illness on multiple levels, including depression. Our human systems are designed to experience maximum status when there's complete alignment between our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, and our behaviors - when we're living within the integrity of our true selves, when we're using how we're wired with boldness and confidence and purpose.
As I listened to my friend's lawyer giving a thumbnail sketch of the process this morning and where it goes from here, I felt deep admiration for her as a professional who is so committed to helping people enjoy the opportunity to live life deeply and freely in this country. I was reminded of the profound statement of mission and purpose Jesus stated when he began his ministry. He quoted from Isaiah 61, applying the mission of God to himself: "God's Spirit has anointed me and chosen me to bring freedom and liberation to the captives, to proclaim this as the year of God's redemption and favor for all."
In my opinion, this powerful and professional lawyer who is helping our friend and all her other clients has stepped into the legacy of the great prophets of old and Jesus himself who came to give all people the joy of freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive.
Filming the event this morning was another of my friends here in the City. He and his wife (both leaders in our Second Wind spiritual community) are producing a documentary about gays who are trying to reconcile their sexual identity with their religious and spiritual orientation. These two courageous people are sacrificing everything they have to travel the country (carrying their 20 month old daughter along) filming stories to highlight this tremendous need. They, too, have stepped into the legacy of Jesus' mission of announcing the freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive, for all people. I admire their persistent passion and boldness.
It takes courage to take the risk to be alive no matter what your orientation - "the risk to be alive and express what we really are." This isn't about sexuality. It's about being human on every level. We all face it. And it's risky business. We have to take intentional steps forward every day, choosing to live deeply and purposefully instead of letting the days go by without any thought or awareness or momentum. It's about choosing to live our God-given life, not someone else's.
But in the end, for those who are willing to take that risk for themselves and on behalf of others, the reward of living in alignment, of living with purpose and mission, of choosing courage and boldness instead of fear and intimidation will far outweigh the risks. There's certainly stress in taking risks. But this kind of stress - eustress - always trumps distress! It's actually good for you.
I love the way George Bernard Shaw describes this kind of life. This is the way I want to live. This kind of life is the highest level of spirituality and it produces the most profound kind of transformation possible (Jesus' life showed this to be true). Here it is:
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a might one; 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.
"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
"I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
So here's to taking the risk of being alive and expressing what we really are, for our sakes and for others and for Life itself!
[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.] Do you ever struggle with the challenge of trying to balance all the different commitments in your life like work, family, personal development, spirituality? You perhaps want to pay equal attention to every area but then feel frustrated and sometimes guilty that you simply don't have the time or energy to do it all good enough?
In an article in the latest Inc. magazine, Nancy Rosenzweig, a serial entrepreneur and CEO and the mother of two small children shared a profound insight. That fact that she also devotes significant time to volunteer work has sometimes caused tension at home. In responding to criticism about the potential of neglecting the most important things in her life by simply being too busy, she paraphrased the poet David Whyte and said, "The antidote to buyness is not rest but rather 'wholeheartedness.'" She says that her community commitments, for example, don't deplete her - they energize her. "Nurturing ourselves by doing things we're passionate about in turn allows us to 'wholeheartedly' nurture others - including our families and our companies."
It does raise the significant spiritual question, How are you replenishing your body, mind, heart, and spirit? Is there anything you're involved in that you're engaging in "wholeheartedly?" Are you paying attention to what really energizes you, to what taps into your deep passion? Or are you simply going through all the right motions in all the areas of your life, giving whatever you have to give to all of them, but your heart and soul are not being utilized or plumbed or stimulated? You're working really hard (lots of activity) but you still don't feel like you're getting anywhere? You're dissatisfied deep inside? Are you simply busy, working diligently and with great effort, trying to be successful in everything, but experiencing a slow burn leading to a slow death inside? You're losing track of who you really are?
David Whyte, in an excerpt from "Crossing the Unknown Sea," describes this reality with the words, "Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermentation. You are beginning, ever so slowly to rot on the vine."
What a tragic picture. The grape is designed to grow on the vine, to mature to the point of being able to be harvested and ultimately turned into something that brings great joy and satisfaction to others. But if it is left too long on the vine, it experiences a slow rotting from the inside out. And ends up being discarded.
The word courage in English comes from the old French word cuer, heart. You must do something heartfelt, reminds David Whyte, and you must do it soon. Which begs the question, what are you doing in your life that is truly heartfelt? What are you doing that speaks both to and from your deepest soul, expressing your inner longings and desires and God-given passion? To do that takes courage - a movement in the heart to bold action and risk. That's why so few people truly possess courage. It's sometimes easier to simply maintain the status quo and not rock the boat and try to please everyone. But that kind of heartless living ultimately leads to a busyness that little by little destroys the soul and ends up useless to blessing others. It's not easy living with courage.
This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes through what is not done, reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to every day, is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down into the water, which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him, wave after wave, while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown, more like a king, further and further on. (Rainer Maria Wilke, "The Swan")
In commenting on this poem, applying it to a friend who comes to see him, Whyte says, "You are like Rilke's Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn't cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown."
No wonder the word courage means "heart." Much of what we do in life (and God knows we are all extremely busy doing much) has nothing or little to do with our true powers, our truest sense of self, our God-given purpose to which we feel empowered to devote our whole heart. We often relegate those issues to impracticality ("that's just not the way life is; we can't afford that luxury!"). We judge people who try to live their heartfelt passions as neglecting real life, shirking responsibilities, trying to live in a fantasy world, or having a midlife crisis. So we end up going through life like a swan that refuses to enter the water and simply waddles around on dry ground - awkward, expending unnecessary effort, and worst of all, not living out its true purpose.
But when the swan chooses to step into the water the whole picture changes. We use the swan as one of the ultimate symbols of gracefulness, coining the phrase, "as graceful as a swan." It's a picture of inspiring beauty when a swan behaves like a swan.
What are you and I robbing the world of when we don't have the courage to live the way we were designed by God to live - a life of wholehearted purpose? What are we robbing ourselves of? We all need something to which we can give our full powers. And only we individually know what that is. Our heart, our deepest soul will tell us if we stop long enough to listen to the swan song.
Okay, I admit it - I'm drawn to cities ... always have been! I was born and raised through my teenage years in Tokyo, at that the time the world's largest city. Ever since then, whenever I go anywhere, I always want to get to the downtown of any city. Among many things, I especially love the skyline of huge, tall skyscrapers. I love driving home to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and seeing the massive skyline of downtown getting closer and closer, and then suddenly being right in the middle of it all, feeling awe, inspiration, wonder and excitement that I live here. Is this weird? I think I know why I love this, though. Read on.
My interest obviously got piqued when I read about the world's tallest skyscraper officially opening way over in Dubai last month to a spectacular fireworks, laser, and water extravaganza choreographed to music.
The characteristics are quite impressive: The Dubai Tower's 160-stories reach 2,716 feet. It's so tall that it's visible from 60 miles away, reports say, and the temperature drops 6 degrees from base to peak. Winds at the top can reach 90 miles an hour. The highest floor offers views of Iran. Its elevators will travel the world's longest distance, operating a speeds of up to 22 mph. Its nightclub on the 143rd floor is the world's highest; above it, on floor 158, the world's highest mosque.
The skyscraper is not only a testament to engineering and architectural genius but also to a bold and courageously counter-intuitive vision that gave birth to the original idea. Phil Anderson, managing director of Economic Indicator Services, an economic forecasting service based in London, blogged recently about the beginning of this modern phenomenon:
"Bradford Lee Gilbert designed and built the very first so-called skyscraper in 1887 as a way of tackling a client's unusually shaped six-and-a-half meter plot on Broadway in New York. The solution was to build an iron bridge truss, but stand it on end so that the real structure of the building started several stories above the curb - producing the best design to maximize occupancy and rentals.
New York's press ridiculed the idea. Fellow architects pronounced the building unsafe. Building experts said it would blow over in the wind, if it ever got off the ground. New Yorkers themselves were aghast at the notion of a building that would tower above their side-walk to a height of 160 feet. A fellow engineer and friend begged Gilbert to abandon the idea, pointing out that if the building really did fall over, his legal bill would ruin him. Lawyers confirmed this.
But Gilbert knew better, arguing that the building's structure, with wind bracings from top to bottom, meant that the harder the wind blew, the safer it would actually become. To put the matter to rest Gilbert requested the top two floors of the new building for his offices. And the rest, of course, is history."
I'm always in awe of people who have a vision to do something that is often ridiculed or thought impossible, a vision that is counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom, a vision that takes boldness and courage to live out. When those visionaries refuse to give up, when they build their dreams based upon their best research and understanding and end up producing something transformational, the world is left a little bit better for it. Little did Lee Gilbert know the global legacy he was leaving because of his act of courage and vision!
One of the things I love doing is walking into San Francisco's downtown financial district, right into the middle of that urban forest of monolithic, giant trees. I crane my neck and allow my eyes to follow the path straight up to the top of the skyscrapers. Especially when those tall glass-encased structures, glimmering in the sunlight, stand against a dark blue sky, the feelings I get every time are a mixture of awe, wonder, and hope. There's an instant elevating of my inner spirit and passion for life. Almost a sense of transcendence ... in the midst of the hubbub of activity and life all around me.
Interestingly enough, ancient cathedrals were designed to evoke similar emotions - the human spirit was being led to look up toward the divine as a person's eyes followed the upward lines toward the tops of the spires and high, vast ceilings. A place where the divine and human meet.
That's the way I feel when I'm in the middle of our urban glass "cathedrals" in downtown. I realize that I'm in direct contact with the amazing human spirit of creativity and vision and skill that put these buildings first on paper and then on the streets. It's awe inspiring to me when I think of everything that went into making these dreams reality. All of this helps explain why I love being right in the middle of big city downtowns.
Skyscrapers are by design symbols of the willingness to break normal limits, their peaks pointing to the limitless sky of possibility. Their existence stands as monuments to courage and boldness in the face of ridicule and doubt. In some ways, they're our urban cathedrals for the elevation of the human spirit toward the divine life of creativity and possibility.
I want to challenge myself and all of us urban dwellers to embrace skyscrapers this year as one of our symbols of hope and courage. As we each forge into new territory, I want to live a life of possibility, I want to keep dreaming and planning and working to help make the world a better place. I want to create sanctuaries of hope, where people's inner spirits are elevated and drawn to transcendence, where bigger dreams are dreamed, and profound transformations take place, even when others might ridicule or doubt. And I want to be a part of a community that helps others embrace their highest possibilities, too.
Hey, here's a great idea: maybe we should all take a trip over to Dubai to soak up some of Brad Gilbert's inspirational legacy. If you book me a ticket, I'll fly over there with you! Or just as good for me, come on over to San Francisco and we'll take my favorite walking tour through downtown together ... and see what happens to our spirits.