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!)


Take Heart

IMG_9958What do you think of when you hear the word courageous?

I think of someone being strong, brave, and trembling. They are not without fear; they are just with courage, which gives them the strength to face their fear.

When we are courageous or when we are encouraged we feel inflated, filled up, hopeful, inspired, and strong. When we feel discouraged the deflation is almost palpable.

The word discourage has the French root des, meaning away. The second part of the word, courage, comes from the Latin cor, which means heart.

To feel discouraged is to lose heart or to have our heart taken away.

The things that discourage us are numerous, but here are four that come to mind:

ILLNESS. When we fall ill or become injured we lose our ability to engage in the world in a physically healthy way. We become limited, dependent on others, and can perceive ourselves as weak.

Weakness is not a quality we’ve been taught to embrace. It makes us more vulnerable, more fearful, and requires submitting to the needs of our body instead of pushing our body to meet the demands of our minds.

REJECTION. Rejection discourages us because instead of receiving rejection as an opportunity to reflect and improve if need be, we tend to use it as a mirror from which we think our true value is reflected. Since our self seems to be of no value to the voice rejecting us, we lose heart.

LOSS. Loss feels like our heart is being torn out of our chest. It’s as if we lose a part of ourselves and not just a person we loved or an object we owned. It reduces us to our neediest and weakest state of being and it can feel like we will never recover.

SHAME. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” She explains that “there are specific memories that we can recall that can bring up shame for us, but there are also very insidious quiet messages that we just marinate in over a lifetime.”

Shame does the opposite of encouraging us to love and live freely. It makes us feel like we shouldn’t be taking up space in the world and discourages us from speaking our truth.

At their best these human experiences deflate us. At their worst they crush us. They make us question our worth, our value, and bring us face to face with our deepest needs and fears.

When we feel discouraged is when we need summon the courage from deep within to stay mindful, stay attentive, and stay rooted in our experience.

These experiences might appear to be more shadow than light when we’re in them, but just as a literal shadow changes depending on where you stand and how the light falls, so can the dark times in our life change shape depending on the perspective we choose.

The next time you feel encouraged, notice how your body seems to lift itself up from within.

When you are in need of courage, look within and listen quietly until the sound of your own breath is the only thing that whispers in your ears the truth of who you are; a truth no one can give you or take from you.

You were born with that truth and will die with that truth. The only question is what will you do with it in between.


What Song Are You Singing?

I’ve been struggling for some time with trying to find my voice.

You know the voice. Not the one that tells you to give up or that you need to be better. The one that is clear as a bell and won’t take no for an answer. The one you believe, not because of what it says but because you know deep down it’s your voice.

And it’s speaking your truth.

Sometimes I hear what sounds like this voice coming from other people’s writing, words, or life. It’s misleading because it makes me think, Hey, there’s my voice! I just need to say what she’s saying or do what he’s doing or live like they’re living and I’ll have it.

“The hardest journey is from your head to your heart, but once you get there, you’ll know who you are.”- The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers
“The hardest journey is from your head to your heart, but once you get there, you’ll know who you are.”- The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers

So I try that. I try subscribing to other people’s ideas, copying other people’s practices, living other people’s lives.

It always dumps me back in the same unsatisfied spot, feeling disconnected and wondering why.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to hear my voice is because there’s so many other voices out there trying to tell me who I should be. They’re so loud and authoritative. They come with bells and whistles. They shout at me from magazine covers and websites and billboards.

It’s hard to block them out without also blocking out my own voice. I try to lower their volume by lowering mine.

If I don’t speak so loud they won’t tell me to be quiet, simmer down, and live like everybody else. If I don’t speak so loud they won’t ask me to back up my words with some action.

I think that’s how we end up living lives of quiet desperation.

Lately though I’ve been hearing my own voice. It’s strong and clear and getting louder. It asks me tough questions and it doesn’t take cop-outs for answers.

It asks me what I’m made of and what I would do today if I was going to die tomorrow.
It asks me what really matters to me and what value I put on every moment.
It asks me to show up and when I don’t it asks me what was more important than being Here right Now.
Then it asks me to show up again.

This is the voice I’ve been trying to hear. This is the voice I’ve been terrified of hearing.

I’m beginning to hear it even through the cacophony of voices media and society throw at me. I’m beginning to listen to it even when it says what I don’t want to hear.

And I’m beginning to use it. To use my own voice that speaks my own truth that was always there that I’m just beginning to hear that has something to say.

It tells me to get ready for the journey from my head to my heart. It tells me it won’t be easy and I’ll want to turn back. It tells me I’ll have to get naked and vulnerable and leave all my shields and defenses behind. It asks me to get up close and personal with my unfiltered, unedited, unbreakable truth.

It asks me to speak that truth, even if no one will listen.

It reminds me that I say I don’t want to go to my grave with my song still in me, so I better get singing.

What is your voice saying to you?


photo credit: dullhunk

There’s No Prerequisite for Presence

I’ve been practicing Yoga Nidra (also known as yogic sleep) the last few months to help me unwind and rest. The tape I’ve been listening to has this instruction early on:

Bring your attention to what’s already happening.

I like to think of attention as being my full awareness, senses, and being. This is altogether different from merely bringing my mental attention to something. The first is a tangible, full-body experience, with the latter often being a distant, detached evaluation.

In the context of yoga nidra it’s referring to bringing your attention to a particular body part, but I love the phrase because it can be lifted out of my yoga nidra practice and applied to anything in my life.

Bring your attention to what’s already happening.

It does not ask me to change or fix anything. It asks me to show up for what is already there.

The most successful shifts, progress, and change I’ve experienced in my life have come from this simple act of being with what is. The more aggressive approach of trying to fix or change something has never worked very well for me.

But I forget that sometimes.

I forget that the most powerful healer, shifter, and connector is presence. I forget I have this tool with me at all times, and I forget how simple it is to use.

I like to make it harder than it is. I tell myself I need to meditate or I need to do yoga or I need to get outside or I need to rest before I can be present.

While those things make it easier to show up and soften the resistance I often bring to the present moment, the truth is they aren’t a prerequisite to presence.

There is no prerequisite for presence. It’s simply a matter of bringing our attention to what’s already happening.

When I step into my reality I find a unique clarity as what is comes sharply into focus and everything else fades away. This clarity and focus allows me to step consciously in the direction of my choice.

From Here anything is possible.

“You Reading This, Be Ready”

Antoinettes Yoga GardenThat’s the title of a William Stafford poem that contains this powerful question:

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? 

I’ve been contemplating how I hold space for others and how others hold space for me, mostly because I’ve recently been on the receiving end of people holding space gracefully and generously for me.

This concept of holding space I find most palpable in a yoga class. There is ambiance, there is energy, there is conscious movement and words. It’s easy to drop into the present moment because there is a safe, supportive space for us to do so.

I find it to be the same in life. When someone physically holds space for me by listening to me, accepting me, acknowledging me, holding me, or just being with me it becomes easier to drop in to my current experience. I feel supported by whatever or whomever is surrounding me, and it turns me from defensive or scared to receptive and soft. I’m guessing it’s not just me who finds this to be true.

I’ve experienced this in the form of a 30-second hug, a 2-hour conversation, and moments of silence. It’s more the intention and energy than the act. I find being patient with someone else’s process, experience, or moment to be a very nourishing way of holding space for them.

The wonderful thing about this is the more we practice it the easier and more natural it gets. I’ve found that while initially it felt awkward to extend myself to someone, even a stranger, who needed a hug, a listen, or sincere word, it also felt natural. At times I’ve felt compelled to reach out by something seemingly bigger than me. The next time I found myself in a similar situation, I trusted myself a little more easily, I hesitated a second less, I reached out a moment sooner.

Holding space for others is the ultimate gift, both to others and to ourselves, as the last line of Stafford’s poem reminds us:

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

photo credit: Robert Bejil

Body & Soul

I’m in search of a little bit of soul lately. The kind you find by going in and not out. It’s an itch I can’t ignore, and it usually grabs me when I’ve been neglecting myself for one reason or another.

This soulfulness I seek feels a lot like groundedness. I know it when I’ve got it and when I don’t have it I find myself walking around in a fog like I’ve forgotten something and can’t remember what it is.

It’s my true self that I’ve forgotten, and when I find it I feel connected, free, and simply alive again, regardless of my external circumstances. It’s like I land again into my own body, into my own soul.

The last few months I’ve been taking care of a new, tiny little body and soul that needs lots of love and attention. This beautiful little baby has flipped my world upside down, and I’m not just talking about my outer world. He’s rocked my inner world in ways I never imagined, much like a wave that pulls you out to sea. You’re grateful to come up for a bit of air, but other than that you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Not knowing what is up and what is down feels terrifying. My mind wants to know what’s coming. It wants to be able to control it.

When I stop trying to find a way out of the storm is when I find an inner calm. I find silence, stillness, my ground, my center, my truth, my self, my soul. Here in the solace and shelter of my own soul I can rest.

This going within is a road we all must travel alone. Someone else’s map won’t show you where your treasure lies.

There is so much information available nowadays. It’s so easy to go online and find a How-to for anything. How to be happy, how to find peace, how to get healthy, how to live better. We want someone else to give us the answer, to fix us, to tell us what the next step is.

We often exercise or go to yoga to get out of our body, to get out of our mind. It seems so much easier out there, outside of ourselves. Sometimes it is easier out there, but it’s only a quick fix.

Whether it’s tomorrow or ten years from now, through choice, illness, injury or loss, we will all one day find ourselves sitting in a room with only ourself. It might feel awkward and sobering to realize this body and being we’ve lived in for decades is a stranger.

Through this body I inhabit I find my soul every time. Sometimes it’s a pleasant journey and sometimes it’s a painful one, but the one thing I always learn is there is no other way home than through the door to my heart.

The authenticity and vulnerability I find within is sometimes blinding. I’d like to turn away but I know I can’t. If I can’t look myself in the mirror and see the true me, how can I ask anybody else to. More importantly, how can I authentically step out into the world if I can’t authentically step into myself.

That’s my question to myself and my question to you.

Find your treasure. No one else will.

Death & Breath

20140211-160143.jpgA friend of mine died this week.

She was 41 years old and left behind two small boys and a husband.

Some months ago I invited her to come with me to a Yoga for Cancer workshop. She had advanced stage cancer and I was pregnant. Our seemingly opposite points in life didn’t seem so opposite at the time.

More like two sides of a coin: The beginning of a life and the end of a life.

Even though we knew she would pass, death never fails to strike a tender, heart-wrenching chord. I think this is because it is an inevitable part of each of our lives. It is the other side of our coin; and whether it happens to our spouse or a stranger, it always hits a little too close to home.

I find something so stifling and sickly about the way we as a society deal with death. It’s like we try to be polite about it, as if an invitation to a funeral was an invitation to dinner. I am just as guilty of perpetuating this pattern as everyone else.

When faced with death our hearts are ripped out of our chests and handed to us in pieces; yet we try to hide the blood and guts under a black suit and tie and think our chosen brand of religion or belief system will change the raw, wild, fearful thing that is death into something packagable, something palatable, something acceptable.

Belief systems don’t change death. What they can change is life. This raw, wild, fearful thing that is life.

To the extent that we let death inform our lives, empower our lives, and inspire our lives, it is not the end of the road. It may be the end of our road, but it can be the beginning of someone else’s awakened, enlivened, empowered road.

As someone who has held both death and life in my arms and watched the breath exit and enter a human body, I can tell you it’s a doorway.

It’s a doorway for those of us still living. We can choose to walk through it, but more often are pushed through by the crumbling ground beneath us. It opens up for us the possibility of a more authentic, focused, meaningful life.

I like to think every breath is a doorway, not just our first or last breath on earth.

Modalities like meditation and yoga focus on the breath as Prana, or our life force. To the extent these practices teach us the value and the power of each breath we take, they are useful and life-enhancing. They are called practices because we must keep practicing. We must keep remembering. We must keep tuning in to our life force because it is so easy to forget, to take it for granted, to think we will check death off our list when we’re good and ready.

May each precious breath propel us deeper into our fragile, full, tender lives with our hearts, arms, and eyes wide open.

The Art of Shedding Our Shell

lobsterEcdysis is a Greek term used to describe “the art of escaping from the old shell.”

A shedding, if you will.

It’s specifically used in reference to lobsters, who undergo a fascinating transformation process throughout their lives so that they can continue to grow.

Because their shells are hard, in order for the lobster to grow its current shell must be broken open and abandoned.

Throughout their lifetime lobsters are continually preparing for or recovering from this molting process because they have unlimited potential for growth.

Not unlike humans, no?

To prepare for this transformation the lobster prepares a new soft shell that will replace the old one. It withdraws blood supply from certain appendages that will be lost in the molting process and any heretofore lost limbs begin to recreate themselves.

The lobster’s water intake just prior to molting causes the new shell to swell, breaking open and pushing away the old one.

Without its old shell the lobster is soft, vulnerable, and exposed. It hides itself while its new shell hardens, allowing transformation and growth to take place in safety.

The last 10 months have felt like a kind of ecdysis for me, as I’ve prepared for the transformation to motherhood. It is one of many transformations we humans are privileged to encounter during our lifetimes. Although an experience unique to women, the process of transformation is common to us all.

We all possess an exoskeleton; a shell, both literal and figurative, from which we engage with our worlds.

In animals their shell is used for protection, allows for sensation, supports and frames their musculature, and provides defense from predators.

This is much the same for us humans. Our shells protect us, create healthy boundaries and structure, and can be used as a defense.

What often happens is that as adults we are still wearing the shells from our childhood. Our emotional scars or losses we experienced in our younger years have never been allowed to regenerate.

We engage with the world from a place of lack or longing, when really what needs to happen is a healing from within.

We humans are unimaginably resilient. Like our lobster friend we can regrow parts of ourselves that were injured or lost: a broken heart, low self-esteem, fear of failure, or losing a loved one.

In order for us to heal and grow we must be willing to change. We must be willing to break out of our old shell, expose our soft, unprotected insides, and through this process grow into a new shape, a new shell, and a new stage of life.

We lose a part of ourselves in this process. We are never the same again because we are transformed from the inside out.

Honoring this process means we honor whatever stage we are in and whatever stage we witness our fellow human beings in, whether that be grieving, growing, or shedding.

Whenever the opportunity for growth presents itself to us, may we courageously rise to this occasion in our lives. May our transformations allow us to explore our unlimited potential for growth and authenticity and our true capacity for love and life.

photo credit: The Ernst Mayr Library

What It Means to Be Fearless

“Fearlessness is not a state of being without fear. Rather, it is the experience of fully feeling the fear, naming it, getting to know it, taking it by the hand, and even making friends with it.” -excerpt by John Milton in Be The Change

Over the years I’ve noticed that the more I attempt to live my fullest life, the more fear seems to sneak in the back door.

It whispers questions I’d rather not answer.

What if I lose it all?
What if I lose the best parts?

I watch my mind somersault through fear and joy and back again. I remind myself there’s nothing to fear. I will never lose it all because I never had it all. Even when I hold it in my arms, it is not mine. It is not mine to lose.

Our lives are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless.

They hold at once everything and nothing. I’ve seen how the sea of life closes quickly over loved ones who pass and I know it will close quickly over me when I pass.

This simple truth demands that I live fully and fearlessly while I am privileged to walk this earth. It reminds me to fear neither failure nor success, but to marinate in the lessons they offer me.

We are only held back by our mental limitations. We are only limited by our fear that arises from the misconception that we are something or that we are nothing.

We are neither. We just are. Briefly we are. Briefly we hold it all in our arms.

Quickly it is gone, so Love from the bottom of your heart and Speak from the bottom of your heart.

Embrace your fear, examine it, and learn it as you would an old friend that offers you deep wisdom if you are willing to sit with it.

I find facing my fears to be a simultaneously terrifying and liberating experience, allowing me to emerge from the darkness softened, courageous, and more grateful for this life than ever before.

The Truth About Yoga Teachers

IMG_1071Not so long ago two of my longtime yoga teachers moved away within months of each other. I felt strangely lost and began looking for a replacement teacher to attach myself to. As I searched I started to practice at home more. I tried a variety of yoga studios and classes. I took a yoga teacher training.

After a while I realized that instead of finding a new teacher, I had found myself. Being “on my own” forced me to trust myself more. There was no one leading the way, so I had to find my own way. I had to learn to be my own cheerleader, my own coach, and my own compass.

Practicing on my own allowed me to spread my wings, listen more deeply to my own body, and connect with my inner teacher. This is challenging because sometimes I go to yoga to get out of my body or to get out of my mind. At times my goal is to get out of my current state of discomfort, disease, or distress, and into an easeful, blissful, serene body and mind.

While these are often wonderful side-effects of yoga, they’re not always present. In the words of Richard Freeman:

“Yoga is almost a way of looking for trouble. You may be feeling pretty good, but then you start doing postures and all of a sudden you discover there is a holding pattern that goes way deeper into your very being. You have to breathe into it and observe it as it is. The postures and the breathing, or pranayama, are like a fine-tooth comb that take out all the buried stuff you don’t need anymore.”

Not long into my practice of yoga I saw this happening. There were poses I liked and poses I didn’t like. In general, I liked the ones I was good at and disliked the ones that made me feel uncomfortable, trapped, or physically inadequate.

I sometimes choose faster classes because I get into a rhythm with my breath and my body and it just feels so good. I feel really accomplished afterwards because I release tension in my body, increase my strength, and feel balanced energetically.

YogaIn contrast, when I do a deep hip-opening practice at home, holding pigeon for three or four minutes with the intention to observe and release deep-seated tension or judgement, the experience is very different. I notice the effect of my practice less in a yoga “high” and more in the way I relate to myself and the people in my life.

One of my teachers would often say, “You know your practice is working when your relationships improve.” This was a philosophical stretch for me early in my practice because I couldn’t grasp how an hour of yoga a few times a week could transform my life.

Thankfully, I just kept practicing. And it did transform my life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, said “Do your practice and all is coming.” I find this reminder especially relevant when I don’t feel like practicing.

Like any transformation or growth process, sometimes it’s beautiful and spacious and sometimes it’s uncomfortable and hard-going.

This is the deeper potential of yoga that all of us experience at some point in our practice.

Whether your yoga is clearing up your life or clearing out your life, trust your practice and trust your process. Trust that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Don’t be surprised if that teacher turns out to be you. At times our teachers are our injuries or some other limitation. Perhaps your teacher shows up on your doorstep instead of your yoga mat, in the form of a life experience instead of as a yoga teacher.

I like to think of my yoga practice as a path with detours, alleys, and bridges. Sometimes I follow a certain teacher down one path until we reach a fork in the road. When the detour takes me to what seems to be a dead end, I realize it’s not a dead end at all.

It’s time to build a bridge or learn to spread my wings and fly.

May we all travel our unique yogic paths that lead us home to ourselves, connected in our common journey from who we think we are to who we really are.

*Originally published on YogaOneBlog