Lean In

Last week I wrote about “moments of being” – those times when we are living consciously … fully aware and awake. After reading it, someone asked me a thoughtful question: what are some examples of moments of being, and how does one invite them?

My answer in two words is this: lean in.

Say YES. Dig deep. Dive into each endeavor; don’t shrink back. Instead of perseverating on the “why” and the “what if,” declare “why not?” and “I will.” Stop playing it safe – take a chance once in a while.

In the swimming pool of life, do you sit on the edge … at best, dangling your feet in the water? Or, do you get in, and let the cool water surround, sooth, and invigorate you? Will you move beyond the shallow end toward the deep water? Or try the diving board? Maybe even the high dive? Indeed there is danger, but what might be discovered in the diaphanous depths?

Leaning in involves being willing to dig into the messy parts – that which isn’t 100% predictable and known – but is rich with novelty and discovery. Delve into the gray areas; don’t simply tolerate ambiguity, appreciate it! There is mystery, nuance, and paradox in those matters we are not so certain about: an enigmatic beauty. Abandon the need for everything to be concrete, linear, and logical. You don’t have to calculate the answer to every equation. Let your right brain take charge once in a while. Move into meaning and purpose. Hug the essence. Play.

Cultivate the courage to take risks … in your career, relationships, hobbies, or life goals. This will require you to hone your sense of optimism. You’ll have to give up that whiney self-doubt that frowns and says, “Well, I don’t know, it might not work out.” It will require discipline to improve the quality of your thoughts: to recognize and challenge the negative ones, and replace them with more positive, self-enhancing ones. Develop the ability to manage your mind. Perhaps this verse from Philipians says it best: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philipians 4:8)

Adopting these truths and the skills to apply them was essential for me in overcoming depression years ago. While depressed, I embodied the worst extreme of negativity and inertia, entirely unable to do any of what I am advising you on now. But I am on a journey that has provided some lessons. Along the way I learned to stop approaching life like a fastidious hamster on a wheel. Caught unaware in a duty-bound and joyless existence, I was vulnerable for that dastardly illness to devour me. My Habitrail patterns of living had to be dismantled. I needed to break free of my cage.

C.S. Lewis, British writer and theologian, described this kind of learning, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

Leaning in is partly about exploration; exploration invites moments of being. One of my favorite ways to explore is to get into nature. I call it “going wild”. Maybe this is because I grew up in Minnesota, where treasuring and surviving the outdoors is a central part of life. Welcoming the unique challenge and surprising beauty of each extreme season was a way of accepting life’s seasons … in all their joys and agonies.

In my youth, I loved to be outdoors regardless of the conditions. Running, swimming, canoeing, tennis, biking, camping, cross country skiing, ice skating, hiking, or just sitting on a river bank under a weeping willow tree. In Minnesota, if you let the weather be an excuse, you would rarely do a thing. Let’s just say the conditions are rarely ideal. We did not simply cancel school, or a ski trip, or a bike ride. We adapted. We shoveled. We wore layers. We didn’t expect to be comfortable. The moments of being I have enjoyed while battling the elements are epic in number. I have always found “woman against nature” an exhilarating contest!

One of the qualities that made me fall in love with my husband is his ability to lean in. He has a spirit of adventure and heart for exploration of all kinds – physical, intellectual, or spiritual. Learning, new ideas, and novelty are his lifelong cravings. At times those around him (including myself) struggle to keep up as he marches into uncharted territory. He shuns sameness, stagnation and complacency – the antithesis of a couch potato. His moments of being are robust.

For example, when we got engaged he shared his vision with me: moving from Minneapolis to Seattle the day after our wedding for a year-long marital adventure. It seems at age 8 he had read about the Pacific Northwest in National Geographic, and determined then that someday he would live there. Would I join him?

“Why not?” I said.

We had an amazing year exploring the Cascade mountains, the Olympic coast, the Emerald city, and in the midst, ourselves and our developing relationship. It was a strong start for us.

Not surprisingly, research on long-term marriage shows that what helps keep marriages happy through many decades is continuing to have novel experiences together. Neuroscientists explain that fun, exciting, and new experiences get the dopamine and norepinephrine flowing and reward the brain. Novelty is also the building block for brain elasticity, essential for adaptation.* Like all middle-aged couples, my husband and I have had some inevitable tough times in our 28 years together, but one quality we have always nourished is novelty. Give me high dopamine levels over diamonds anyday!

My husband quoted poet Robert Browning on our wedding day, both men reaching for the sublime:

“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be….”

Discover your own ways to lean in and invite moments of being. They may look nothing like mine or my husband’s – rather, they will reflect the uniqueness of you. As you explore and take a chance on something new, I predict you will be delighted with the results.

 

* www.PositScience.com “Your Brain in Love”

Moments of Being

Does your life ever feel a bit stale? Are you bored, impatient, or finding that your relationships and daily routine have become tiresome? Are you walking around in a state of listless malaise?

Maybe you need an infusion of vitality. Something that gets you feeling pumped, juicy, and motivated. Just a little fun and laughter. A glimpse of beauty. A touch of passion. A sound of harmony. A taste of pleasure. Oh, to recapture that youthful wonder, approaching your day like a child skipping through a meadow with a new butterfly net. That would do it. But you’re an adult, with so many worries and responsibilities. How can you get a break from the drudgery and let go like a child?

VirginiaWoolfPerhaps you need to locate some moments of being. The great English novelist Virginia Woolf writes beautifully on this subject.* She speaks of life as having both “moments of being” during which one is aware, engaged, and living consciously and “moments of non-being”, which is filler, the “cotton wool” of our lives, non-descript – doing what has to be done. It may include washing clothes or fixing the vacuum cleaner. “Every day includes much more non-being, than being. When it is a bad day, the proportion of non-being is much larger.” This is the normal experience of life and its rhythms.  But sometimes those moments are rare, or escape your notice entirely. Maybe you feel smothered by cotton wool.

There may be another explanation for your weariness. It is possible you have fallen asleep – figuratively I mean.

Those who have had the cursed blessing of an awakening experience know what I am talking about. These come in many forms: a life threatening illness, a major accident, or a significant loss. Any “close call” can initiate your awakening, opening you to your own mortality … waking you up! Maybe you have endured such, but have forgotten the lessons. Time has a way of obscuring what was once so abundantly clear.

Winston Churchill commented on this kind of learning, “Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth, but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.”

That truth, once discovered, and actively remembered, can be a passage to a new way of living.

It happened to me. Coming out of major depression ushered in my awakening. I had confronted deathly despair, and after a sublime moment of hope, began actively choosing life, minute by minute, hour by hour. My turning point would be barely noticeable to any observer, yet to me, in the condition I was in … it was monumental. This spark of hope felt earthshattering because of its sheer contrast with the bleak underworld I had been trapped in. I could suddenly feel the acute distinction between life and death. This awakened me with a jolt.

I quietly pushed through … emerging like a germinating bean coming forth from the ground. In an instant I was above the soil – in the land of the living. I was alive. I had been dead and now I was alive.

What was happening? It was some form of metamorphosis: I was quickly and slowly, awkwardly and gracefully, cautiously and courageously … moving from one form of existence to another.

Woolf describes coming of age at Hyde Park Gate in the following passage, which poetically describes my unfolding process: “… I was thinking; feeling; living … with the intensity; the muffled intensity, which a moth feels when with its sticky tremulous legs and antennae it pushes out of the chrysalis and emerges and sits quivering beside the broken case for a moment; its wings still creased; its eyes dazzled, incapable of flight.”

Sitting beside my broken chrysalis … I knew my days of flight were coming.

I discovered on that day, in that hour, that my new life had begun.

To fully heal, I had to embrace living with every cell of my being. During that intense recovery phase, there was no cotton wool, no moments of non-being. Even the mundane felt pleasing and deserving of gratitude. Maybe I was like one of those annoying “too happy” people, smiling incessantly, apparently without a care in the world. But my smile was about celebrating the life I had reclaimed, the love I felt, and the beauty that surrounded me. It wasn’t a Pollyanna outlook, oblivious to the reality of pain. Rather, it was authentic joy – the result of being delivered out of the depths.

Being alive was electrifying and mobilizing. I was greedily stuffing the goodness of living into every day. There was no heaviness, weariness, boredom, or doubt, at least until I got used to this new way of being. Having been profoundly depressed for over a year, I was not yet accustomed to happiness, nor could I take it for granted. I was filled with love and meaning – precious moments of being.

This was the perfect recipe for my healing. I prefer to describe it not as “recovery” (for I did not go back) but “procovery” – moving forward and allowing the emergence of a more enlightened and stronger self. Although ten years have passed since my illness, I reflect daily on the lessons it provoked. They have helped me become a better version of myself. I like the new me, so I’m determined to never go back.

I am committed to staying well. This requires me to engage in thoughts and behavior that support my wellness. Each uplifting thought I entertain serves to strengthen my mind toward optimism. Every productive, positive endeavor I get involved in serves as another “insurance policy” for my health.

What lessons have arisen from your struggles? My guess is that the most powerful ones were born of some form of suffering, maybe even a brush with death. Having to look into the cold face of death can give you a mega dose of compassion, a connectedness to others, and a sense that we are all in this together. You may have a heightened authenticity and some recognition that we are all fellow travelers. I hope that you may be fully restored from the pain of your struggle.

But as for the lessons? Keep nourishing the wow of their initial discovery. Marvel at them. Remember their truth deep in your bones.  When you have an opportunity, share them. These lessons will produce triumph from your tragedy. And, in no small way, they will open your eyes to moments of being.

 

“Man always dies before he is fully born.”

-Erich Fromm, German Psychoanalyst

*Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing by Virginia Woolf, Edited by Jeanne Schulkind, Harcourt, 1985.

 

 

 A Curative Connection

Our society seems to be on an infinite quest to find a cure for what ails us. It turns out one of the best forms of medicine for many mental and physical health problems is not available from the pharmacy, doesn’t come in pill or liquid form, has no side effects, and a trip to the doctor isn’t required. No, it is more likely to have four legs, soft fur, and a wagging tail. Fido triumphs over big pharma!

Researchers have coined the term “the human companion animal bond” to refer to the curative connection that develops between people and their pets. These relationships are notable for having some of the best aspects of human relationships. Pets are loving, nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, welcoming, and attentive. And they don’t criticize, talk back, or issue commands. Taking care of a pet helps a person feel needed and wanted, less lonely, and provides an avenue for physical contact. Dog owners know the pleasure of being treated as the most fantastic and important person in the world. This sentiment was aptly described on a t-shirt I saw recently: “Someday I hope to be the man my dog thinks I am.”

The therapeutic value of animals has been well established and it has become a common practice to incorporate pets into the treatment of a wide variety of health issues. The Western Journal of Medicine reports “Studies suggest that companion animals, in addition to their well-known role as helpers to the handicapped, may alleviate depression, provide solace for the lonely, facilitate psychotherapy, socialize criminals, lower blood pressure, increase survivorship from myocardial infarction, and ease the social pain of aging in our society. *

Pets can also extend the lives of people with organic illnesses. A University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society study showed that among 92 victims of heart disease, significantly more pet owners survived for at least one year than did those without pets. Twenty-eight percent of those without a pet were dead in a year, whereas only 6 percent of those with pets had died.**

But pets can also bring on problems and stress, so careful consideration must be given before heading to the animal shelter to rescue one. They require time and care, a financial commitment, and can even stir up family conflict. If the timing isn’t right or family members are not in agreement about acquiring a pet or responsibilities for its care, the result can be devastating.

My family’s experience is a good example of how getting a pet can be a bane or a blessing. The first two times we had a dog were difficult and didn’t end well, primarily because of poor timing and lack of shared decision-making. Not surprisingly, although the dogs were well loved, there was unexpected pain and turmoil. But the third time we got it right.

In my recent post “Create for Life” I described using Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way as a renewal process to recover creative vision through the practice of “morning pages,” I referred to an emotional block that was removed as I did the writing exercise. The context of this was that my family wanted to get a dog for years, but I had been unwilling due to several previous bad experiences, especially the events that occurred when I had severe depression. I had been carrying some bitter residue related to having to give away our Schnauzer puppy because of my illness-induced anxiety symptoms.

That day while writing my morning pages, suddenly, a unique sensation began flowing through me. It was a strange kind of epiphany. The effect was powerful. I sensed a newfound forgiveness about our troubled doggie history. Simultaneously, I felt the removal of a block. Was the block creative, emotional or spiritual? Perhaps it was all three; each represent forms of energy that need to flow. The bad feelings were lifted up and out in one fell swoop … an incision-less surgery. And in their place was a profound feeling of love, tenderness, and openness. Out of forgiveness, I was prepared to take a risk for love.

In that moment I knew – that for Christmas, which was only four days away, I would be giving my husband Steve and our children Johnny and Grace …  a new puppy. I could see him clearly: a yellow lab whom we would name “Winston.” Named after the mighty Winston Churchill, he would be a symbol of forgiveness, protection, and peace.

As I contemplated getting a puppy, I felt a calm readiness. Yes, it was a risk, especially as I considered my previous difficulties with dogs. But I felt able to rise to a higher level of health and to let go of the past. I was empowered to make a new choice: I chose love over fear.

I said to Steve, “I have an idea. I would like us to get a Yellow Lab for Christmas. I’ve done some research and found a good breeder in Loma Linda. She has a puppy ready for adoption.”

“Is it true?” he asked. Do you really want to get a puppy? I can’t believe it; I’m so happy. Thank you so much Lisa, love of my life. You won’t regret this … it’s going to be our best Christmas ever. This will bring us happiness for years to come.”

Maybe it was no coincidence that the breeder’s kennel was called “Meant-2-Be Puppies.” When we saw this adorable creature it was “love at first sight” for all of us. Our attachment has has only grown stronger in the subsequent three years.

Winston is shimmery gold with plush curly hair and velvety ears that flop this way and that. He greets us by dancing around and wagging his entire body. His old soul brown eyes give silent comfort. If he detects sadness he comes close and nuzzles gently. He is always thrilled with the food and attention we provide, and he continually reminds us to run and play. When we take him on his daily walk, he flushes through the wild grasses as if to say, “I was born for joy, and joy I will bring.”

Winston has provided a curative connection in my family – a sublime example of the “human companion animal bond” described above. More than that, he has been an extravagant blessing, like a treasure chest overflowing with gold, enriching us with love, laughter, and pleasure. Winston has been a noble companion, an instrument of peace, and a surprising lesson in grace.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

– Winston Churchill

Winston

Winston

*Fitzgerald FT: The therapeutic value of pets (Commentary). West J Med 1986 Jan; 144:103-105

**New York Times: August 11, 1982, “Owning a Pet Can Have Therapeutic Value,” Brody, JE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let Your Heart Be Broken

Nobody wants a broken heart – this is an organ we safeguard protectively. But as I sat in the pew recently at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, listening to a powerful challenge by Marilee Pierce Dunker, daughter of World Vision founder, Bob Pierce … I decided I was hearing the best advice I had heard in a long time. She urged us, “Let your heart be broken – by the things that break the heart of God.

As she spoke, I felt a stirring inside me, and thought, “What breaks both my heart and God’s? And what might this require of me?”

Marilee described growing up in the 1950’s, with a father who was heartbroken by the suffering of children in impoverished countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Somalia. He didn’t simply indulge a mournful compassion for them or feel satisfied after fervently praying for them. No … he put hands and feet on his prayers.

He made it his life work to create and administer a humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting poverty and injustice – one that would eventually support the transformation of the lives of millions of children and communities in underdeveloped countries.

In the 60 years since its inception, World Vision’s work has prevented countless deaths from preventable causes such as hunger and treatable illnesses. In 2010, sponsors around the world cared for over 4 million children by providing sponsorships of children. These sponsorships provide basic necessities that help children achieve their potential by offering access to clean water, better nutrition and agricultural assistance, basic health care and immunization, school fees and materials, and economic development opportunities.

Not everyone can take on such an ambitious vision. But everyone has a heart, one that can be broken for the benefit of others. What cause, problem, or purpose is your heart breaking for? And what are you willing to do about it? As the famous African American preacher T. Garrot Benjamin is fond of saying, “Find out what makes you cry, and pursue it. This will be your life’s work.”

What makes you cry? What inspires your passion to get involved and engage in change to improve the lives of others? This is precisely the issue that will compel you to do whatever it takes to succeed and to overcome every barrier in your path. The world will then be a better place because you lived.

When you let your heart be broken … you care so deeply, commit so passionately, sacrifice so freely, and give so generously that anything is possible. Eventually, you improve the world around you, and equally important, you improve yourself.

You might be arguing, “But, I’m not that talented; I have real flaws.” When you allow yourself to be fueled with what I call “pit bull determination,” your inadequacies and weaknesses become irrelevant. You simply transcend them.

Consider Moses. An awkward man with a speech impediment, he asked of God, “Who am I . . . ?” Despite his exile and refugee status, Moses had something important to do, he accepted the challenge, and God equipped him.

It took me only a moment to answer Ms. Dunker’s question: What breaks my heart? My heart is broken by the suffering of people living with mental illness … especially when it results in suicide. Suicide surely breaks the heart of God. Depression is a treatable illness, and suicide can be prevented. Thousands of lives are cut short every year by suicide. More people die by suicide in the world every year (883,715) than by war, murder, and forces of nature combined (669,956). [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease 2010].

I have been trapped in that dark and desolate place, believing there was no way out. Yet, by some miracle, I was blessed with recovery. In a chapter of my memoir on my experience with depression, I write about how in the short period since writing the book, my life has been touched by 3 suicides. Tragically, each time I go back to edit the manuscript, I have had to increase that number. After a mother of a 16-year old who hung himself on Thanksgiving presented at my office and shared her anguish with me, I had to change that number to 6. God’s heart is breaking. What am I willing to do?

Having gone through severe depression myself, I have found that this is an area that my own testimonial can be used to help others. Public speaking does not come easily for me; in fact I have struggled with public speaking anxiety for decades. But, despite that, and because I care about this issue so profoundly, I have found the courage to speak out on this subject.

I have a wonderful quote hanging in my office, “Speak your mind, even when your voice shakes.” I enlist this sound advice when I share my depression story to educate the public about mental illness and to help overcome the stigma associated with it. So what if my voice shakes? I have an important message, and though my struggle to speak eloquently humbles me, it won’t stop me. Is it difficult? Yes. Am I tempted to say, “Let someone else do it, someone who is more polished and poised?” Absolutely. But, when you feel a calling about something, you just do it. And somehow, every speech I have given  has gone surprisingly well.

This week was intense for me, and I am bone tired. But mine is the satisfying kind of tiredness – the result of worthwhile toil. I had two occasions to “speak my mind” and share my story of depression to reach out to people living with mental illness and the professionals who treat them. It was exhilarating to feel such an intimate connection with members of the audiences, and discover how deeply I was able to help them. Our shared stories, our united quest for dignity, and my  own triumph over depression provided hope and encouragement. It made me feel that my devastating illness had some redeeming value for others. In this, my long held prayer was answered, “Lord, let my life be a reflection of your power to restore the broken.”

Paradoxically, when I let my heart be broken, it is healed in the most powerful way.

Beware Your Shadow

The lyrics from a song by Imagine Dragons called out an eerie message from my iPod today, “It’s where my demons hide … don’t get too close.” This modern Indie tune was delving into an ancient mystery. Theologians, philosophers, poets, psychoanalysts, and biblical writers have long wrestled with the subject of humanity’s dark side.

While my blog is dedicated to advancing ideas for staying well and living a life of beauty, it is illuminating to have an honest exploration of the darker corners of human nature – for this may be the central paradox of man.

On this earth, we are not guaranteed a glowing, giddy Guideposts experience. Life is rarely like that. The old Sunday school song, “I’m in-right, out-right, upright, down-right happy all the time” never rang true. The world is filled with inexplicable pain and hardship. But even so, the prospect of transcending it remains. This truth led the biblical writer to proclaim “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

This is the case not only societally, but in the heart of every person. We all have a shadow. And the more we hide it or deny it, the greater its counter-force on the part of ourselves we want to believe is “the real me.” The energy we spend repressing the shadow causes the pressure to build, threatening to blow the lid off of our idealized self-image and public persona.

An individual’s shadow side can also have a caustic impact on intimate relationships, especially marriage. In the early stage, when a couple is newly in love, they tend to only show their best self; the shadow is hidden, and the thrill of budding love makes the partner blind to the lurking shadow as well. Reflect on your own relationships and I think you will agree.

Doug and Naomi Moseley are therapists (married to each other) who wrote a fascinating book entitled The Shadow Side of Intimate Relationships.  The book suggests that our “shadow side” is made up of sub-personalities or inner characters. These characters often have a voice, feelings, urges, and thoughts that are incongruent with the way we perceive ourselves. The Moseley’s, with a decidedly Jungian bent, provide many illustrations. For example, often a man can be overall, especially on the surface, a “good boy.” He is sensitive, caring and loving. However, he may have a hidden shadow side that is steely and judgmental, with a callous disregard for others – one who would gladly subjugate everyone in sight.

Another classic example of a sub-personality presented by the Moseley’s is the “emotional child” – that part of the self that refuses to grow up emotionally. We all have this to some degree. The attitudes, expectations, fears, and coping strategies of a child still exist, yet we refuse to admit it, even, and especially when, another person points it out to us. When the emotional child takes over we withdraw, withhold, lack boundaries, control, become egocentric, put up walls and defenses, fail to fulfill commitments, and engage in power struggles. These are all childlike behaviors. Marital discord results when both partners operate from their emotional child and refuse to become aware of or change these destructive patterns. Intimacy becomes impossible; the relationship stagnates, and divorce is often the final result. Without deeper work, subsequent relationships are destined to produce the same outcome.

Shadow side aspects, when denied and repressed, get covered over or disguised in favor of masks – designed to present a more acceptable self. But behind the mask, we lack full awareness of who we are or what we feel; it is a false existence. For example, we pretend that we don’t have petty jealousies, self-centered motives, or vengeful fantasies. We buy into the grand self-deception that our weaknesses don’t exist. The control and stamina needed to keep the mask in place, always on guard to hide the parts we don’t want to show, can leave us numb and without genuineness, vitality, or passion.

Facing up to the reality of my shadow was critical for me in becoming the person I am today. In the aftermath of my depression eleven years ago, there were many parts of myself I needed to look at honestly and change. Anger is one example – uncomfortable with expressing it, hating to contend with the conflict it was bound to stir up, and seeing it as incompatible with my nice girl persona, I stuffed it.

Depression is often described as “anger turned inward.” I discovered that I was much healthier when I let my emotions flow (even the agonizing ones) rather than clamping down on them. Now when I am mad as hell, I admit it, express it appropriately, and move on. For me, this has been an ongoing process of growth and self-discovery.

The notion of the shadow is compatible with a biblical view of human nature: namely that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, created good, but with an undeniable capacity for bad. This failure to be what we want to be, and even perceive ourselves to be, is described in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Judeo-Christian theology argues that we are a precious but fallen humanity. Overall, we can be competent, well-developed, fine human beings, but parts of us, often the hidden parts, are highly problematic and in need of attention. Light must shine on these dark places to expose them. Only then can they be repaired.

Regardless of your religious, psychological, or philosophical orientation, I would argue that your life will be enhanced if you beware of your shadow, and look upon it with clear eyes and courage. Only then can you work on these parts and mature into a fully developed person … infinitely more capable of having satisfying intimate relationships. The process can be daunting, but in my experience, as you advance, it becomes exciting and terrifically liberating.

I believe God is our greatest source of help in this challenge. With sustained effort, we become more likely to achieve our potential, and develop the quality relationships that we desire. We are then able to fulfill our purpose, and be the creatures we were intended to be.