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”


  1. This reminds me of how I lived when I was younger and how well it worked. I have struggled to keep this up in this middle aged “each day looks more the same than different” stage of my life. It can feel impossible to expand again once you have allowed yourself to contract. Like you said though, it takes work and that’s where the hope comes. We work everyday, that’s not hard. All we have to do is make sure that what we are working on is the stuff that keeps us inspired and awake.

  2. Beautifully said Mat. Very true. One advantage we have as we get older I think, is a greater capacity for depth of understanding about what matters most in life … when we choose to pursue such a path of wisdom. They say “Youth is wasted on the young.” I simultaneously agree and disagree with that, but can grasp something true in the comment. What do you think?

    • I agree that the notion is true and not true at the same time. Certainly the wisdom that was gained through these years of experience would have been very helpful in our youth. Now that we have that wisdom maybe we don’t need the same energy to survive the stages of learning we needed to go through to get it. Overall, I would not return to years gone by. The things I am accomplishing now in terms of my inner work are far more fullfilling and bring much greater peace than the “excitement of youth” did.

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