The Million-Dollar Question About Grief

How do we give back to grief when it shattered life as we knew it?

The concept of survivors giving back is common in many support systems and organizations. Those that have found a way through to the other side return to support and encourage those still struggling.

Thankfully there are many individuals and organizations publicly embracing the unwieldy, uncomfortable, unimaginable thing that is grief; but how do we personally return to the land of loss when many of us escaped into the arms of life the first chance we got?

How do we offer our hearts to grief when our hearts are the very thing it tore from our chests?

This question was passed on to me and now I pass it on to you. And like the Olympic torch stays lifted and lit, I wonder if we can each do our part to keep the question alive and find our own unique answer.

Sometimes we have the resources and strength to revisit the land of loss and walk beside the people who still reside there, not as someone who has all the answers, but as a fellow human being who has loved and lost and still lives, still loves.

Sometimes we lend grief our voice or share our story of loss in writing, not because it fixes anything but because it helps others feel less alone in their grief. Sometimes we use our physical presence to stand at the side of another who has lost or to support the numerous and varied grief groups. Sometimes we create a safe space of our own with the abilities we have, the resources we’ve been given and our own unique experience of grief.

Sometimes we don’t give our hearts back to grief because just the thought of it breaks our hearts all over again. And that’s absolutely fine. Just because grief chose us doesn’t mean we have to choose it.

The thing is that grief is a language all its own. We, the ones who have lost, are privileged to translate it for the world and to speak to those who have just found themselves fluent in this foreign tongue.

This puts us in the unique position of using our voices to create a new paradigm for grief; to collectively lift the stigma from grief; to teach people who haven’t lost how to support us, how to walk beside us without trying to rush us or fix us or make us presentable.

We are the ones who will teach the world how to not turn away from grief and the grieving by not turning away from it ourselves.

I carry the torch of grief because in the darkness of loss it may be the only light there is. And when the day comes that I return to the land of loss as a resident and not as a visitor, I hope the flicker of the flame you’re carrying will light my way.

(I will be giving a voice to grief in my own unique way on January 27, 2017 at my Living With Loss event. Please join me if you can.)

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I Believe in The Human Heart

beliefin3words

What do we do when we see it coming at us too fast to escape, too strong to fight against?

Death, illness, trauma or tragedy.

Those things that bring us to our knees in prayer or in weakness, but leveled, hurting, imploding.

Human.

When we can’t hide the wail behind our walls of sanity, when there’s no civilized way out because there was no civilized way in, can we connect with each other here? Here in the mud, here in the muck. Can we who have not been leveled descend, not to dig them out, but to sit with them in their pain?

Isn’t this the ultimate honor, this holding our fellow human (with our arms or words or presence) in birth or in death, in grief or in gratitude, in sorrow or in success but with compassion?

Is this what it means to be human? To sit with another in this deep trench of vulnerability, beneath all the layers of what-we-thought-mattered and to finally know, on the level of our bones, the only thing that matters and has ever mattered is love.

Not the small love we only offer to those who love us back. The big love that does not require reciprocity. The love that asks the hard questions and listens to the uncomfortable answers. The love that is enlarged by our differences instead of threatened by them. The love that heals by seeing our weakness, acknowledging our pain, welcoming our humanity and loving us, not in spite of it, but because of it.

That’s the question for humanity. Can we love bigger? Can we at least try?

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Plan A

plan a

Somewhere in my teens or 20s I missed the turn sign that announced:
You are now leaving your Plan A life and heading for Plan B.

Who knew the path back to Plan A would be so hard to find,
be the journey of a lifetime,
a pilgrimage into the heart that would deliver me,
not to the golden gates of Plan A but to the starting line.

no map,
no compass,
just this heart,
just these questions,
just this knowing what it wasn’t,
just this commitment to staying the course.

The friends and teachers I’ve met along the way tell me their stories,
share a little bit of their soul to encourage me onward (or inward as the case may be.)
Often we travel together for a time and then diverge,
for we must each listen to our own calling.

This living is a learning, an unlearning, a growing,
a coming together and a falling apart,
a practice in loving. Not the soft kind reserved for kittens and babies,
the powerful kind that can heal countries and families and the humans who make up those families.

I keep an eye out for the sign that says I am detouring back to Plan B,
because while both paths begin at birth and end at death, one only requires I live while the other demands I come alive.

Soul Work

To get right to the point, Why are you here?

Let’s put our learned answers aside for a moment because I’m interested in your answer, not something you learned from a doctrine or a book or an authority figure.

And I’m not even that interested in your answer. I’m interested in your asking the question and sitting with that space in between the asking and the answering.

That space, that’s what I’m after. For you, for me, for all of us soul-seekers and truth-speakers.

A few weeks ago my teacher posed that question to a room full of yogis high on meditation and asana: Why are you here?

Tonight I ended up at this same question oddly enough through what I thought was a very innocent analysis of why Rich and Strong are so sought-after in our society. To put it another way, why Weak and Vulnerable are what we try to hide away from the world. Not what we try to deny – because deep within, in our most private of moments all of us surrender to weak and vulnerable. What is interesting to me is why we try to hide it away.

Here’s what I came up with (non-scientifically speaking):
If we reveal to the world that we are weak or vulnerable there are a few things we fear will happen:

We will get hurt.
We will be outcast and not accepted.
We will feel embarrassed.
We will look pitiful.

Wrap these up into one line and it sounds a lot like this: We will not be loved.

Follow me into this hypothetical world of We are not loved. What are our options then?
Some people avoid their reality.
Some people kill themselves.
Some people confront their reality.

Why do these drastic measures seem the only option in a world where we don’t feel loved? Because many of us would ask in that moment, Why am I here if I am not loved?

Feeling loved is powerful, healing, and vital to our thriving. But in our hypothetical world of not being loved we aren’t concerned with thriving.

We are concerned with surviving.

So the more important question in that moment seems to be not do we feel loved, but Do we love ourselves?

What I observe is that most of us don’t wrestle with these two questions – Do I love myself and Why am I here – until we have no other choice. Until life takes everything away from us that matters and strips us of every label, identity, and story we ever had.

Then all we’re left with is that question, why are we here, and the haunting echo of nothingness.

Our minds will give us answers, just as they do with the other powerful question – Who Am I? – but while the answer would be helpful, I believe the transformation happens in between the question and the answer, in the darkness. In the silence.

In the absence of knowing we bathe in pure being. The answer doesn’t matter and the question doesn’t matter. This matters. This being. This wholeness.

If we are lucky enough to get an answer, to learn our dharma, then we are both privileged and tasked with the obligation to live it.

Maybe that’s why we don’t ask the question in the first place until it’s the only thing we have left to hold onto. Maybe it’s why we cling to what we know and what other people think of us. Maybe it’s why we spend our lives trying to prove we’re strong enough, good enough, and just plain enough. Because if the world takes away its good impression of us what do we have left?

We have ourselves. And we have questions. Questions that have no answers. Darkness everywhere we turn until we look within. There we find the ember of being that is the only light that ever mattered.

Stoke that ember. Stoke it like your life depends on it.

Because it does.

Rewriting The Story of More

This month I had to choose between my life and my livelihood.

The details don’t matter anymore, but in the end I had to choose between keeping a job that would require me to work 50 to 60 hours a week or losing that job.

I chose my life over my livelihood because if I fast-forward 40 years and ask my 80-year-old self which choice I should have made, I know the 80-year-old me will put more value on the hours I spent with my loved ones than the hours I spent making money.

The hard part wasn’t making my decision. The hard part was standing up and saying no to a society that routinely asks us to choose making a living over living our life; that gives greater weight to money and things than it does our health, our families, and our well-being; that values how we look over how we are, how we function over how we feel, and insinuates that those should be our values as well by praising us when we spend more, buy more, do more, achieve more, and subscribe to The Story of More.

We’re told this story our whole lives and often don’t realize we are fully capable of writing our own story and our own happy ending.

The Story of More undercuts our inherent enoughness. It tells us we are empty without more. More things, more activities, more money. It’s not enough to have enough. We must have more than enough. When we buy into The Story of More we slowly lose touch with our true needs because we are up to our heads in our wants.

I ask myself and I ask you, how much is enough? If commercials, magazines, and friends didn’t tell us we needed that bigger house, that new car, that better job, that new outfit, would we think we were lacking anything?

After getting to know indigenous people in sync with their habitat, photographer Cristina Mlttermeier distills it down to this:

“If you have clean water, a net full of fish, and a warm fire, that’s basically all people need to be quite content.”

We make a mistake thinking we have a lifetime when the reality is we only have this moment. We only have Now. Hopefully we’ll have 80 years of Now if we’re lucky, but it often happens that we only have 20 years of Now or 40 years of Now or even less.

The Story of More keeps gaining momentum and it’s hard not to get swept along with it. I experienced how difficult it is to swim against the stream in my work situation, but how can I teach my son to stand up for what he believes in if I don’t stand up for what I believe in? How can I ask him to walk his talk if I don’t walk my talk? How can I expect him to follow an example I don’t set? If I only stand on principle when it’s convenient how can I say I stand for anything at all?

At some point in our lifetime we will all be asked if we’re ready to walk our talk. The question might come from an employer as mine did or it might come through an illness or loss or some other radical life circumstance that sobers us up to the brevity and fragility of our lives.

I believe if we’re asked the question it’s because we’re ready to answer YES.

If I’m lucky, in 40 years when I look in the mirror at my 80-year-old self we will smile at each other knowing we wrote our own life story one precious moment at a time.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

A New Year’s Resolution

As this year is winding down the phrase New Year’s Resolution has been skipping through my mind.

It occurred to me that there is one approach to new year’s resolutions that most of us don’t take. That being to adjust our resolution. Not as in I resolve to be healthier. Resolution as in the ability to sharpen our focus and adjust our vision so as to see a clearer, more accurate picture of our lives and ourselves just like the resolution on a new computer or TV would be crystal clear.

My 11-month-old baby has been great at guiding me in my effort to enhance my resolution. His face often looks at something and lights up in a fall magicsmile as if he’s just seen the most magical, amazing thing. I turn to see what he’s looking at and I see nothing. It’s a box or a corner of the wall or the ceiling.

However, when I look closer I see that my adult eyes have missed the magic. On closer examination I find a tiny bug crawling on the wall or a swath of light on the floor. A small dancing monkey on the otherwise boring box of diapers. His mind is so in the present that he sees exactly what’s in front of him.

I stopped making new year’s resolutions years ago. They remind me a lot of diets that people start and give up on when they don’t see quick results. I prefer slow, long-lasting growth to quick fixes. Goals are wonderful tools, but I find it’s easy to get so focused on where I want to go that I forget to start where I am. When I step into my present body and mind I can take legitimate steps in my direction of choice because I can see where I’m actually going.

Enhancing the resolution on our life does not happen overnight. It takes continuous effort, consistent focus, honest introspection, and an ability to readjust over and over again. It is not a quick fix and things may get blurrier before they get clearer.

This time of year I renew my resolve to stick with my process, to keep removing the veil of judgement that often obscures my perspective, to step back on the path of presence when I lose my way and to look for the light that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary and allows me to see clearly what is right in front of me.

3 Ways to Redefine Your Relationship with Failure

Have you ever heard anyone praise failing?

What a great job you did failing! I wish I could fail like that. Or, I heard you failed, congratulations!

Failure and me have a long and troubled relationship. I keep trying to ditch it and it keeps chasing me. It makes me feel less than and not good enough. It holds me back from trying new things (because I failed the first time) and keeps me from living freely, authentically, and whole-heartedly (because I’m afraid of failing.)

As it turns out, I owe failure an apology. One of those It’s not you, it’s me apologies, because it actually turns out the problem in the relationship is not failure. It’s me.

I know it’s counterintuitive to think failure can help you succeed, but here’s 3 ways to turn your relationship with failure around:

1. Try to fail.

Steve Levitt, professor of economic at the University of Chicago says, “I always tell my students — fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at.”

At first glance it seems Levitt is a posterchild for success. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006 and is co-author of the best-selling books Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. However, in a recent interview on failure he states, “I’ve mostly failed at everything I’ve ever done.”

Failure has a profound and powerful stigma associated with it. Developing a healthy relationship with failure is challenging. What I’m finding is the more I fail the more comfortable I’m getting with it, the less attached I am to the label and the idea that it defines me somehow. By putting myself out there to fail or succeed I’m having to dig deep for that nugget of self-confidence that can withstand both failure and success.

Thanks to Levitt, these days I can’t fail fast enough. What a relief. I get to throw myself into everything I love because I’m actually trying to fail.

2. Do a pre-mortem.

A pre-mortem is like a post-mortem, where a medical examiner figures out what killed a patient, except it’s done before. Before the patient theoretically dies, but for our purposes before your project fails, before your big effort disappoints, before your product falls flat.

Pre-mortem is a phrase coined by Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist practicing since 1969 who studies decision-making. Klein illustrates this by having listeners envision a hypothetical failure of a six-month effort at the beginning of the project. The project doesn’t just fail, it’s an outright disaster. He then has participants spend two minutes writing down all the reasons this project failed.

By doing this at the beginning of a project we get clarity that hindsight provides before it’s over. Instead of focusing on all the ways our project (yours, mine) is destined to succeed, he’d have us reverse that process and see all the ways it can fail. He calls this “prospective hindsight,” imagining that an event has already occurred, and says it reduces over-confidence, something most of us have too much of at the beginning of a good idea.

Klein asks participants to come up with one thing that would help the project, which drums up helpful ideas that would have never come to the surface otherwise.

Doing a pre-mortem on a company level takes away the fear of individuals not looking like a team player because everyone is being asked to assume failure instead of one person trying to find the courage to speak up. It also reduces the likelihood that a postmortem will have to be done on a failed project.

3. Celebrate failure.

Our economist mentioned above, Steve Levitt, suggests that celebrating failure is the only way to make it acceptable and shift the stigma.

Yes, celebrate as in throw a party. Tell your friends. Post it on Facebook. I failed!

If that’s too much too fast, try exploring the feelings failure draws up for you from a nonjudgemental perspective or making a list of the positives that come from failure, such as an opportunity to improve the next time.

If we allow for Levitt’s concept that “failing gets something out of the way that keeps you from finding the thing that you’re actually going to be good at,” that’s definitely a reason to celebrate if you ask me.

(As a sidenote I failed miserably in trying to publish this article. I submitted it to two major online sites and was rejected by both. Thankfully it helped me revise it about ten times to make it a piece I’m really proud of. Cheers to that!)

The Secret to Staying Free

Rachel's skeleton
the spine

My chiropractor once shared with me that he took part in a study that observed what happened to the bones after a chiropractic adjustment.

What he saw was that 30 minutes after being adjusted the muscles pulled the bones back into their old, incorrect spot. Then 30 minutes later the muscles moved the bones back into the correct position.

It’s as if they were reminded of where they were supposed to be and then the body corrected itself.

This reminded me of what happens through yoga. We go to yoga for a metaphorical adjustment. We intentionally adjust our bodies and minds to realign them and we leave feeling great.

But our ingrained habits and traits are very strong. Yogis call these habits samskaras. They’re like the muscle that pulls what we’ve just aligned back into its old patterning over time.

Years of reacting in a certain way can reach out and grab us just when we think we’ve left them behind for good.

Longtime yoga teacher Christina Sell puts it this way: “One fun (and humbling) thing about growing up is seeing how many times I thought I was changed only to realize what I thought was lasting change was simply a moment of freedom.”

Years of practicing yoga, instituting good habits and cleaning house internally can improve our lives externally so much that we sometimes think we’ve been cured. We’re past whatever it was we wanted to get past. We’re free of whatever it was that had us in its grip.

Life has a way of testing the new-and-improved us to see if we’re really walking our talk. How we respond when life meets our expectations is not as revealing as how we respond when it doesn’t.

The practice of yoga is a unifying one, not one of disunity. Through yoga we begin to unveil the inherent unity of our mind and spirit, of our head and heart, of our body and soul.

It’s not that we create the union, it’s that we become present and still enough to observe what’s already there, thumping in our hearts and rushing through our veins.

We are already whole. We are already complete. We are already free.

The more we remind ourselves how to stay aligned, the easier it is to return there when our samskaras pull us out of alignment. This is how we find the freedom hidden in the most compressed situations and how we maintain that freedom when life becomes challenging and intense.

We keep reminding ourselves. We keep creating healthy samskaras. We keep holding space for our self to grow in, whether that means digging through dirt or blossoming in the sunlight.

When our old habits show up we allow for them, we forgive them, and we learn from them. We bathe in the freedom of being ourselves.

#SetYourAngelFree

davidIf you’ve followed the blog for a while you might recall I wrote about this a while back.

I so love this quote, this concept that every time I revisit it, it takes on another layer of meaning. Or perhaps it is another layer removed that allows me to see more clearly.

I’m referring to a quote by Michelangelo, where he comments on his creative process and how he was able to carve statues such as the David and breathtaking art like the Sistene Chapel.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

This just speaks to me. It doesn’t just speak to me, though… it melts me, it invites me, it begs me to step into my own creative process, to unveil my own unique beauty, to commit to the process of digging deep to reveal my inner magnificence.

On first glance it seems a little presumptuous, a little conceited, a little egotistical to use the word magnificent. I want to back off from it and use a smaller, more diminutive, more hide-in-the-shadows word.

But I don’t. As Marianne Williamson reminds us, Your playing small does not serve the world.

And at the end of my life I’d like to say I served the world. Not that I hid from it.

That’s what #SetYourAngelFree is all about. Serving the world by freeing yourself. Digging deep and revealing your angel to the world, in whatever form she or he may take.

I hope you’ll contribute your words, your pictures, your dreams, and your visions on your social media of choice.

When I see other angels flying it reminds me to keep working on my wings.

photo credit: fincher69

4 Ways to Be More Authentic

“At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.”-Albert Camus

I feel porous lately. Life is sinking in, not just rolling off of me as I rush through it.

I don’t want to lose that porousness. I want to soak up more of life, even though it means I’m opening myself up to great pain as well as great joy. I made this list for myself to remind me to be accountable, vulnerable, authentic, open, and honest. I hope it serves you as well.

1. Stop pretending you have your shit together.

This one always makes me think of a friend of mine who can do anything. She could probably fly if she wanted to. Every time I see her I feel this need to prove I can do anything too. It’s subtle but it’s there. We have a regrettably superficial exchange and I leave wondering why I always fall into the trap of pretending I’m something I’m not.

The backstage of our lives is never as refined and beautiful as the act we put on for the world. When I compare my insides to other people’s outsides I feel inadequate. When I put on pretenses I feel inauthentic.

I’m trying to notice when I feel the urge to prove myself or protect myself and soften a little instead. Soften right where I feel the urge to harden.

2. Become accountable for your life.

When things are going along great, I like to take all the credit. Then things start getting uncomfortable or what I label as “bad” and I want to put the blame anywhere except on me.

I’m trying to become accountable with the small things. When I’m accountable I take back my power to respond instead of react, to participate in my process, and to choose what my next step is. The more accountable I become with the small things, the easier it is to own up to the big things.

3. Speak your truth.

And listen to other people’s truth.

In order to speak my truth I have to know it. Which means I have to listen to that small voice inside of me that too often gets ignored.

You know the voice. The one you tune out because you’re afraid it will ask you why you’re living your Plan B life instead of your Plan A.

These days I’m trying to have the tough conversations I’ve avoided my whole life, with others and with myself.

4. Show up for the people in your life.

Starting with yourself.

The other day one of my parents was talking and I literally felt myself shutting down. I didn’t want to listen to it, let alone deal with it. (This is where No. 3 comes in handy.)

Those moments I want to tune out what’s happening, I’m trying to tune in instead. I use the mantra “Honor the present moment” to help me stay focused on whatever or whoever’s in front of me, no matter how small or unimportant it seems.

This isn’t a recipe for a easy life. It’s a recipe for an authentic life. Season it will love and compassion and feast on your life.

 

Post originally published on elephantjournal.