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.