Like a page out of a book or, at the very least, a very finely crafted itinerary, I was off to the annual girl’s trip with great expectations. I was ready for a break. I was “crispy” in all aspects of my life. I thought maybe some time away would solve my quest for perspective. The plans were made, accommodations and transportation booked, and now it just needed to come together as great as it played out in my head.
My girl’s trip comrades shared the first of my three-part journey. We have been making these girl trips for more than 13 years, and they never disappoint. This trip would be the furthest we had ever traveled in search of forests of colorful trees. New England would be the backdrop, and what a destination it turned out to be; full of colors, small towns, great food, and crisp temperatures. This part of my trip delivered on every aspect of what I hoped to be my own “Eat, Pray, Love” adventure. We ate until we popped! We prayed in the solace of the quiet moments. We loved so hard it hurt.
I think it is fair to say that the expectation for every girl’s trip is written in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love.” Gilbert’s book would be the user manual for every nervous breakdown since it was first published in 2006. Women worldwide would be given the permission and courage to pick themselves up off the bathroom floor and leave their lives to go on a fiercely independent journey from heartache to healing. While the destinations would differ, the intention would not. How do we take a break from our lives with the hope that disconnecting would allow us to reconnect better?
The second part of my three-part journey would be a solitary trip to a retreat. I have ventured out on this journey many times. Last year would be the most dramatic of these trips as I ventured to Boone, NC, to participate in a Silent Retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center. It would be the most challenging spiritual journey that I had ever embarked on and one that, a year later, I am still reeling from. I learned a lot about myself; most importantly, I could do it. I could practice silence in full compliance and come out better for it.
This year I contemplated if I should partake in another silent retreat and decided against it. This year, I intended to be more gentle in exploring a new retreat center and program. My expectations are less, but my anxiety is high. I don’t expect this to be as hard as the silent retreat; however, I want to come out of this weekend balanced. This is a large ask for a weekend when I have not been able to manage it for over a year.
While I am not crying on a bathroom floor, I am so far out of balance that picking myself up will take renewed discipline and a bit of stubbornness to do what is right for me. I have traded meditation for Oreos. I have given up running for dinners in front of the television. I have remained silent long after the retreat, as my writing has become less and less throughout the past year. My health has declined, my patience has diminished, and my happiness has become a measurement of productivity that leaves me exhausted.
My expectation of what will become the third part of my journey, resuming life, is to practice what I know to be true for me. Allow my actions to be the judge and not define my actions by judgment. Allow my efforts to be worthy of all things in my life without sacrificing anything. I recognize these are significant asks, but I do not feel put out as I am only asking myself.
Today I sit in a quiet inn on the side of a mountain, preparing for the day ahead. Preparing to check into the retreat center and, more importantly, to silence “my” life, if only for a few days. This time, I will do silence on my terms. I have eaten more food than I needed. I have prayed, in my way, by setting the intention of what I want out of this retreat and worrying little about what I don’t. I will focus on self-love with the only expectation of walking away with a resolve that will bring me back to whom I want to be. The “me” stuck in this cycle will be given the silence and the freedom to redefine. It is the only thing I “have” to do for the next three days.
Quietly departing, silently slinking away, to get back to the core. Shhh, silence on my terms.
Arrival was abrupt. Unpacking my car and starting the klutzy balance of suitcase, duffel bag, yoga mat and other “essentials” into the building that welcomes you more like a prison and less like a resort. Three steps up into the foyer (very loose concept) and realizing it is 100 degrees inside and there are no elevators would be my first reality checks, this was not intended to be a vacation. I walk down the hallway to check that the “2” before my room number “200” would suggest that I am on the second floor, secretly hoping that these ground floor rooms were not numbered like hotel rooms. It is confirmed, I am on the second floor. Lugging my luggage (ironic the two words…ha!) up the stairs and down to the last room in the hall I find room 200 and I am not sure if I am relieved or reticent to see what lies behind the door.
I open the door to my room I am hit with a more intense wave of heat and am reminded that the website said there was no a/c but “there are box fans for your comfort”. I immediately open all of the windows and doors and find that luxury item, box fan, that I would power up on max. As I look around the room I am almost giddy with the realization that this is far from the luxury hotels that I sell for a living. It is vanilla and nondescript. This would be the last time I would recall anything about the décor of this room and instead would regard this space as a respite from the intense work we were doing. It would become a “retreat” indeed allowing me to ground myself and center myself once again.
The views were absolutely stunning and once the windows were open it was apparent why no a/c would be needed. The fresh air blowing in from the tops of the trees was magnificent and would have been missed otherwise.
I set up my laptop and iPad and put all of my notebooks and journals on to the desk as if I was getting ready to work. That would be the last time I would visit that space. As it turned out there is much to do in silence and none of it involves a desk, a laptop or books. Wow, what was I in for, this was going to be an experience for sure.
Here we go…
On day one I wake early and start searching on my Uber Eats app for Starbucks. Yep, there is one, but there are no drivers. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore! I get up and get dressed and decide I will drive down the mountain to get my two cappuccinos. This would inevitably become my new morning routine for the week. As with everything that has happened thus far, I would come to realize the gift of being able to experience the drive down the mountain and back up again. The familiarity of the winding roads and silhouettes of houses as the sun would rise brought me back to the many visits to my mom in Virginia. I would wake up in the coming days looking forward to this drive. The gratitude in places I was not seeking would become a familiar theme of this experience.
I would start my mornings with that drive, those cappuccinos a sunrise every morning that reminded me that there is always a reason to rise again. New beginnings and new horizons are always ours for the taking; every 24 hours.
As I make my way down the stunning walk to the place we would practice silence for the week I was joined by 36 other silent-seekers and one eclectic couple that would become our spiritual guides. The room was brimming with anxious energy as we all sat pensively on our yoga mats. I realize now coming out on the other side how naïve I was on that first day. As I sat there staring at our instructors I had no way of knowing how hard the next three days would be and the range of emotions that we would go through. In hindsight, I find the courage of our instructors to be inspiring as they were the only ones in the room on that first day that knew what was going to happen…and they did it anyway.
After orientations and breathing practices we were partnered up with a “buddy” that had been chosen for us based on proximity. Our first introduction to our “buddy” would be to tell our life story in ten minutes in the third person. What. The. Heck! My initial response was fear of telling my story to someone that surely could not understand where I came from, how was I going to tell a complete stranger my choices and consequences in this life and still be respected? It was decided that the person in the pair with the longest hair would go first, whew, I was off the hook, at least for ten minutes. She (my buddy) began to tell her story in the third person and I was wholly impressed at how good she was at this and then her story started to wash over me and I found myself sitting, paralyzed by her words. How could this be? Her story was so similar, yet so different. Could it be that this person that had been chosen for me was more like me than different? This would become another proof point that I was exactly where I was supposed to be; on that mountain, in that room, on that yoga mat, sitting in front of her; another moment of divine intervention as my buddy was surely chosen FOR me.
All of this chatting created a cacophony of voices, laughter and nervous energy that of course would lead up to the announcement that we were going to step into silence. We had been in session for 24-hours and now were presumably ready to be thrust into silence as the session was ending. We walked out of our class into silence with little instruction outside of “stay in silence”. There were hints during the day of the more obvious “rules”, no talking, no phones, no tv, but we were mostly left to our own devices, or not. I walked back to my room in the dark, wondering where in the world I was that I could be instructed to walk the half-mile up the mountain to my room alone. As with previous themes, this would be the last time I would worry, let alone think, about walking alone in the dark. This mountain was washing over me like a security blanket and in safety, vulnerability is allowed. As I entered my room I was immediately aware of the sounds around me. We had only started this journey and it seemed as though everything was amplified. As I turned on the water to brush my teeth I was acutely aware of the faucet and powerful flow of water. This heightened awareness of sound would continue throughout my time in silence, at times revealing nature’s wonders and other times annoying the shit out of me.
I would go to bed without tv as I had done the night before only as a trial and now as a sentence. These would be my first victories as I have always fallen asleep to tv as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, I remember there being a black and white tv in my room that had no reception, I would fall asleep to the sound of “snow” every night. I am not sure what my parent’s attempt was in that added “amenity”, but it set a habit in stone for life.
When I woke in the morning, still in silence, I would begin to see the range of emotions that would become a roller coaster ride as warned that it might. My trip to Starbucks was uneventful. Our mornings would always start the same with yoga and then breakfast with some alone time in between the break until our 10a session would start. Somewhere in that “break”, the emotion of the few hours of silence realized and the days of silence pending in front of me hit like a ton of bricks. As I sat on the side of the hill in front of our classroom I would completely lose it, crying until I was sobbing. I was grateful that we were in silence as I could not explain where the emotion was coming from or why I was crying. I just was and at the moment I knew I was “in it”.
As the days would go on the meditations would as well. We would meditate for hours on end. Meanwhile, emotions were on a roller coaster that ranged from the rockiness of a wooden coaster to some, few, that was as smooth as silk. When you sit in meditation you are doing the “work” you are inevitably here to do. You are training the mind. Sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in…and we’re off! I would spend hours fighting back the thoughts that would flood in like a tsunami of randomness, contemplations and plans for the future. I would try to swat them away like the flies that they were but realize that when the flies are in the ointment your swatter is defenseless.
I would find that range of emotions at its height on Day Two as I was ready to quit. Was this normal or was it my typical “MO” of always finding an escape hatch when things got uncomfortable? I was pissed that we were going to meditate again and again and again. I would submit a question for that night’s Q&A asking why we were meditating so much to which our instructor would offer his wisdom after reading the question out loud. His answer was, so appropriate, “Well, you did sign up for a meditation retreat.” HA!!! I would find the ridiculousness of the question and his answer the comical break I needed to let it happen. As the meditations wore on I would come to realize that this is the process of finding the “self”. It does not happen in a few meditations. It happens from the constant practice, one right after another, of quieting the mind. This realization would happen days after this Q&A and when it did it was existential.
Embracing the present
One of the things that became very clear early on was the amount of control that one has to turn over to truly be taken (sometimes dragged) into this process. The only way to get to the “self” is to allow yourself to be guided by trusting the process. For many of the people in the room, this was an effort in itself. “What are we going to do next?” “How, why, when…” “What do you mean I cannot go to the bathroom when I want?” Control; is a bitch. You come to realize (or you don’t) that you have to relinquish it because all that you are wielding in your own hands prevents you from seeing what you can become.
To be present is sometimes not knowing what will happen next. You are aware that there is more on the horizon and you pick your head up for brief checks to make sure you are still on the path otherwise you keep your head down and focus. This thought of keeping my head down occurred to me many times on my journey into silence. When I went on hikes, which is one of the very few things we were allowed to do, you had to keep your head down to avoid tripping on a rock or a root, and would only look up to make sure you were still on the path. Head down = Good. When I would walk around the grounds I would keep my head down to avoid eye contact, since simply pleasantries would threaten my silence. Head down = Good. Keeping your head down became a “good thing” and as with all things in life what is good is also bad, but in these moments “head down” equaled “focus” and that was “good”.
Breaking the Silence
As the final moments of the retreat had arrived we were prepared to “break the silence” in a ritual that would bring value to the first words that you would speak. It would be ceremonious because after all of the silence surely you would have something to say that deserved to be heard. We gathered in a circle and were asked to say one word that would break our silence. This would be the most powerful moment in what had already felt like millions of powerful moments. As we went around the circle each person would reveal their voice in a word and then share why they had come to the silent retreat. The last part of sharing was not asked of us but something that seemed to come as a release and felt natural after spending hours of silence together. We had gotten to know each other through wide eyes hidden on masked faces, passing each other back and forth between breaks, finding safety in our silent numbers. Now we were hearing the voices of those that had come to be our brethren and felt a responsibility of sorts to share. As the stories came flowing into the circle it created a centrifugal force that was apropos for the roller coaster to come to a final stop.
My “word” changed numerous times as the emotions of their stories came tumbling out in front of me. “Acceptance”, “fear”, wait…no, the words, every one of them said by the 22 people that stood in the circle before I applied, how could I choose one? When it was my turn, I stood up holding on to the column beside me and said the only thing I felt at that moment “OVERWHELMED”. It is not only what I was feeling at that moment but inevitably what brought me to that circle. Overwhelmed by my thoughts and my emotions now in front of these warriors and ironically also the reason I had driven up the mountain originally. I was overwhelmed by life, my life, thoughts that had no longer become a choice to act on but instead, had become a directive summoning emotions and reactions at a dizzying pace, literally as I was suffering from vertigo brought on in silence.
There I stood and spoke my testimony. “My word is “overwhelmed” because that is how I feel right now. I am brimming with energy feeling a tingling sensation throughout my body. My word is also “acceptance”. I realized I was in good company on Day One and that allowed me to be vulnerable to this process. My word is also “responsibility” because I owe it to myself to carry everything I have learned into my life and I take the responsibility of each and every one of your stories as mine to keep in solace. My final word is “fear”. Fear is what I felt when I was driving in and realizing that the last time I was in silence was as I sat at my mother’s bedside the last three weeks of her life until she took her last breath. I did not know if I could ever sit in silence again, but I did.” …and then I sat down into a puddle of my own tears. This must be the definition of cathartic…
This word has always fascinated me and at this moment of release, I fully came to understand not only the definition of the word but the weight of it. This word would become a defining word for the “silent” retreat to be used for me and only me. It is not a word I would repeat or use to describe my experience to others but acknowledge deep within. We use “heavy” words to express our emotions, to place emphasis on our stories without ever truly understanding the true meaning. I realized in this moment of “catharsis” that there were very few times in my life that I had been here, truly.
Everyone has one, a story, your story, our story. All of our stories begin with “Once upon a time…” and inevitably we spend all of our lives seeking our “…happily ever after”.
So many themes revealed themselves this week as a final conclusion to a novel that had more ups and downs than a harlequin romance. Your story is my story and my story is yours and by telling my story I share OUR story. We have all been through something, everything and ironically nothing. Every single one of us can tell a tale of tragedy in our lives as easily as one of victory. The degree to which that story affects us is personal. Your story is no less tragic, better or mundane than mine, it is simply your story, which is ours collectively.
“When all you have is eye contact, devoid of speech you see yourself through the eyes of others.” – Lori Kiel, silent retreat revelation.
I saw myself in the exuberant girl so full of energy she could barely contain herself in silence. Her giggles, moans, grunts and loud motions drew the attention of the room. At first, what felt like a distraction soon came to be a mirror of myself. I recognized myself in her “bull in a china shop” persona and immediately knew why she was there.
I saw myself in the woman two yoga mats over from me that would look at me as if she could see into my soul. She was just a bit older, a tad wiser, summoning me with her gaze that told me “she saw me”. As we broke the silence she would come to me to sit and share, of course, she would because surely she felt that energy as well.
I saw myself in the “buddy” I was assigned the day I first laid eyes on her on Day One. Tattoos, gorgeous skin, long flowing hair and a fierceness to her eyes that let you know, she was not to be messed with; just like me. As we were tasked with sharing our life story (in the third person, in ten minutes) her words would flow so eloquently from her soul revealing a life that was shattered, shocking and leaving me absolutely speechless. It would be my turn to tell my story and I would fumble for the words, not even sure of my name in the third person. What she could not know is that as she told her story, it was mine as well. How could that be? I am immediately reminded that we are all more alike than different. She was as shocked as I revealed that I too had walked a similar path. Her assumption of me, my appearance, my demeanor, never let on that I too had seen life like hers, we were safe, together.
I saw others, those familiar to me my mother, my friends, my kids, in those warriors that surrounded me in silence. I saw my friends in the eyes of three others as we were tasked with a “gazing exercise”. We sat in front of three people and could only stare into each other’s eyes to reveal if we were ready to come out of silence. The first two people I sat in front of were new to me. We had not come into contact during the retreat and in gazing into each other’s masked faces I recognized their eyes. The first was younger, scared, kind eyes that were holding back. So familiar to me and reminded me that the kindness behind those eyes should not be confused with weakness, I know her and she is fierce. The second was familiar. She looked like me, 35 years of me. Round, soft, sweet, flowing hair and a gaze that seemed to create compression on my heart. It was physical. I could feel her squeezing my heart, how, what was this…later when she spoke her final word I would come to know her name. Of course, it was that of my childhood best friend. Of course.
Driving Down the Mountain
I thought a lot about what the departure from silence would look like, would I talk, would I stay silent, turns out much like life, it just happened. When you are in a cocoon, enveloped in silence, safe on the top of a mountain, the idea of driving out of that space is daunting. I had been warned before going that how you come out is as important as the work you do during the retreat.
As I got into the car to take the 9+ hour drive home, I was incredibly energized. This again was to be expected, or not, as expectations are “the thief of joy” as one of the many lessons I have learned this last week. Having experienced the range of emotions and feelings I had come to know I was grateful that today I was energized where days before I was exhausted.
GPS set, water in the cup holder and let’s roll!
I call my husband first to tell him I am out of silence and find my first attempt to explain what I had just experienced. I had already decided that I would not share, at least not verbally, this experience with many others as putting it into words would only fall short. He of course knows why I went and was ready to listen and of course support the changes I am coming away with. He is relieved to hear that my resolve is much of what he has told me, begged of me and offered in wisdom through the years. Ironic that it takes a silent retreat to get it to sink in.
The next phone call comes in from my youngest son interrupting my husband and I’s call to tell my husband that he has locked the keys to his car in the trunk. AND HERE WE GO, cue the song “…back to life, back to reality” – Soul II Soul.
After solving his crisis my youngest son, who is now driving the long ride home from his friends, calls and just wants to talk. This is golden. As a parent of three sons, you come to learn that conversations like this one are precious. They are not the “What are you doing today?” calls, they are not trivial, these are the ones that when they happen you cherish and stay present. This time I am present on an entirely different level, good for him, awesome for me. This is a gift.
The last call on my drive home is my oldest son and his wife to “check on me”. They are always light-hearted and make it easy to share without effort. As he is the quieter one in our family his first question is if I made it through the silence without talking. We share some laughs about my experience and I am left feeling loved, as always. He is so gentle with me. This word “gentle” is one I would hear many times throughout my meditations and would remind myself again and again. This is a tattooable word…not that I would…but noting in the case I ever get the itch.
She’s SAFE, Sliding into Home
In between the calls from my family, the best call I had on my drive home was from the one person I had just experienced this retreat with, Jill.
She and I met 15 years ago when working for the same company. We came fast friends and long after going our separate ways and career paths we have remained close. We have an affinity for wellness and Buddhism and we are each other’s “go-to” for retreats. When this idea of going on a silent retreat came to me she was the first one I called to see if she wanted to join me. Of course, she said “yes”.
It’s interesting going through a period of silence with someone as you cannot communicate verbally yet you soon realize that knowing each other is all the communication you need. The energy, the eye contact, the moments…are as comforting and telling as the words you cannot say. We would hike the mountains around us every day using sign language and caveman-like grunts to communicate. We laughed, a lot! We would even get into a bit of trouble as we accidentally wandered off of a trail and onto the land of a very disgruntled man and his two very loud dogs! Uh Oh…
As we were not able to speak until the very end of the retreat we had a lot to talk about in downloading our shared experience on our long drive home, she back to DC and me to Orlando. Jill had left before me and had already experienced “life” in her new mindset. She shared her few experiences with me as a warning of what was to come.
As we downloaded it was a resolve in closing the experience and unexpectedly necessary. My very wise friend and fellow meditator dispelled her wisdom and takeaways with me with her best advice being…
“You can now access silence anytime you want it.” Ironically I always could.
As it turns out silence was always available to me. Accessing it was not. I have now been equipped with tools to truly access that space in which the quiet can resolve and ready my mind for the noise as I decide to allow it access.
What I am taking away
There were many lessons through stories that were told to us throughout the retreat. Again the facilitators had a captive audience; we sat like kindergarteners on the floor looking up at them as our teachers. We were captive indeed, voices silenced and seeking wisdom by the two that seemingly knew how to find peace. I would later tell them (when granted my voice again) that I was in awe of their courage to take a group through this process as the emotions that would bubble up would sometimes be focused on them; anger, disbelief, love…yes by end of this retreat I would come to love these two courageous humans.
While we were not able to use pad and paper during silence I would have to remember the lessons I learned based on what resonated and “stuck” versus what I voraciously consumed in notes. This as many that know me is tough. I rarely sit and do anything without a keyboard in front of me allowing all that enters to produce on the page in front of me. Again, another blessing in disguise as I realized that much of that notetaking was more about keeping “busy” so I did not have to simply sit within myself. Lessons learned. One at a time. Here are some that were taught and others that I came up with within my own observations of the “self”:
When the water hits the rock, the water is not interrupted, it is not harmed by the rock, it remains unfazed. It simply splashes back unto itself and proceeds to flow around the rock. The rock does not stop the flow, it changes it ever so slightly but it still flows. Be the water, not the rock. I am the water.
When you walk like a flame everything you come into contact with becomes fuel.
The body is the wick and the mind is the glow.
What we resist persists.
Vicious cycle involves thought that evokes emotion that elicits reaction. Allowing the thought to present itself dismiss itself without emotion or reaction is the key to peace.
Jill’s favorite story of wisdom is that of the “empty boat” and I have been regarding it since coming home as well so I share it here as taken from the web for better clarity:
There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first, it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.
The other boat is always empty, even when there’s someone steering it. There is never anyone to get angry with. Even if the person steering the other boat deliberately rammed our boat, his behavior had nothing to do with us. Anything anyone else does is done for their own reasons, and much of the time they don’t even know the reasons. When we see life as it is, rather than our thoughts about it, we see that every time we look for an enemy, someone to hate, someone to blame, there’s never anyone there. Just an empty boat on a foggy lake.
My own epiphany occurred on the final sunrise. Of course, it did. As I was sitting at the very top of the steps of the main meditation hall, two cappuccinos beside me, shivering from the 40 degrees of cool air blowing I took these pictures and the following came to me…
HBR article “In Praise of Extreme Moderation” spoke to me this morning. This is an article that will resonate with every one of us regardless of where we fall; moderate or extreme. It calls out the new norm of practicing extremism in all that we do. It calls out the “new” need to do everything to a level of excess. Earning badges of courage and worthiness is where we find our value in today’s society. A society that reveres everyone as “something” whatever the label or title. A new world where competitiveness is a label that has become the norm and when lacking it speaks to ones drive, or lack thereof.
We are swept up in extremism so easily as companies push their products and services as only best consumed in excess. The tell us to:
Only write if you have an audience and are working on a bestseller.
Only run if you can get a PR every time and not only win a medal but rank.
Only eat what you are prescribed via a specific diet and track to prove you are doing it.
Post everything you do publicly as proof that you are doing what you say you are and therefore validating.
It is so easy to sucked into this way of living, or at least attempted living. It is maddening when we are in it and it is reckless when we are not.
The article brings us back to what is “enough”. When is enough enough. That is as personal a decision as it is public. It is when one-by-one we start removing the value assigned to extremes. It stops when we applaud those living in the middle and calm the accolades around those that are pushing the bar so far that reaching for it threatens everything you are if you don’t land on top.
The best way to conclude is to quote the author who sums it up perfectly.
But I have spent a lifetime honing my daily practice, worshipping at the altar of “good enough.” Today, I am neither superrich nor superfit nor supersuccessful. But I have just enough of each to qualify in my own personal marathon, the race for a balanced life. In the end, maybe this only really matters to me and my dog, who does get a lot of good walks out of it. To me, that’s enough. – Avivah Wittenberg-Cox
“There’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering should not be ranked, because pain is not a contest. …by diminishing my problems, I was judging myself and everyone else whose problems I had placed lower down on the hierarchy of pain. You can’t get through your pain by diminishing it.”
Lori Gottlieb “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone”
Great quote and thought-provoking indeed. It elicited the following thoughts and questions. Somebody always has it worse and someone else will always have it better. It is not about somebody or someone else it is about you. It is about how you are affected by your life. Does your life serve you? Despite the past are you moving beyond what “was” to what “is”? Is this really about validation? Is it only “real” if someone else acknowledges how bad, how good, or how unremarkable “it” is?
Your normal is all you know and is your baseline for all definitions. My pain is my pain and better not defined as a comparison of yours. So often we diminish what we are going through because someone else has it worse. However, that we are acknowledging that someone else has it worse is again only defined by our own baseline, and in reality not real.
I have had to explore this concept in my life as I attempted to “fix” my own concept of normal, pain, and pleasure. This is the foundation of self-care. There are so many people that do not care for themselves and do not put the work in because they blow it off through the ideal that somebody else always has it worse or that their experience is less than another’s. Ultimately your experience is the only one that matters and diminishing it, pain or pleasure takes something away from you. It robs you of the full experience. I think about this in terms of both sides; perspective is my drug. Come along with me while I go down in “it” for a moment!
Let’s start with pleasure as it is less “one-upped” than pain. It is simply not as often that someone will take away your pleasure through their own grander experience as it does not serve them to be a braggart as easily as it does to be the victim.
My experiences are not worldly as I have never traveled outside of this country. While I do not know the pleasure of seeing the Louvre or sailing on the Mediterranean, I do know the absolute elation of sitting in front of the ocean, 40 miles outside my door, smelling the salty air, hearing the crashing waves and feeling that all is right with the world. While I have never known the pleasure of owning a million-dollar mansion I know what it feels like to have owned a modest home in the middle of the woods that I have created and adore and respect for all of the things it gives to me. This is a pleasure as I define it and can never be made less for those things that I only know, as better, because of someone else’s “one-up”.
Tough as it is to swallow there is indeed someone that always has it worse than you. For the ultimate “worse” is death; or is it? (That is a topic for another blog.) Pain, physically and mentally, seems to be the ultimate test of one-upmanship. I think it can best be told as recited by my husband’s story during a recent “man-trip” with his friends and one “friend of a friend” that was invited to come along that unbeknownst to them was a “one-upper”. After a long day of driving my husband had remarked that his back was hurting and lamented that it was because of previously breaking his back from earlier-in-life “race-day’ injuries. While my husband was in no way attempting to elicit a response other than to lament on his own pain the “one-upper” immediately spoke up and said, “Well, I died!” …to which my husband laughed as if thinking this guy was trying to be funny. He wasn’t. He proceeded to bring photos out of him near-death with tubes running from him. An intensely dramatic response to someone’s simple lament of a backache. While this example is laughable the reality of physical or mental pain is not humorous at all and only made worse by the denial of treatment because you are diminishing your pain as not being as bad as another. Better said a “suck it up” approach. I attempted this approach for many years of my life and finally realized that sucking it up had gotten me to nearly 300 pounds. It was in finally reaching for both the mental and physical help that I needed that I would resolve this pain and live the life I was meant to live all along. Regardless of how bad someone else I knew had it. In truth, it was the idea that I did not have it “as bad” as others or had faired better that I allowed “it” to go on for so many years.
I would be remiss to not include the one area of my life that has been affected by all of the one-ups that life has to offer. I have not struggled with pain or pleasure by my definition or yours; the defining moments of my life have always felt diminished by the “norm”. This is truly where growing older has been my therapy. I spent so much of my 20’s and 30’s feeling less-than all of those around me that had gone “off” to college and would speak of the tales of those college days. My college experience was much less about “tales” and far more about “torment”. I would work full-time, raise a child, and study in between it all to earn my education. I would hold back on reciting my alma mater as it would not be as revered as the Ivy League colleges that many of my colleagues had the benefit of attending. The greatest tale of this blog is that somewhere in my 40’s I realized…”Wait…I am sitting in the same boardroom, with the same or better title than “them”. Could it be that my small college education ended me in the same exact place without the sorority stories, without the tales from the dorms and ultimately without the expense of a fancy education? YES!!! It did! It was in this revelation and many more that I would realize that my life experiences were not “less than” and instead come to acknowledge that they were richer, they were grander and they ultimately were unlike anything you could pay for in therapy, education or experience.
I was thrust into this world diminished on the surface but defined on the inside. I would never be a product of my environment. I would never be diminished by the trailer I grew up in, the status of my parent’s dysfunctional relationship, or my teenage choices. I would, however, be defined by all of them proving to myself and anyone that cared to take notice that I was going to be greater because of it, not despite it. These are not one-up stories you tell to the masses, they are pulled out like the gems they are to lift others up that have “assumed” that you and your current state are “more than” theirs. It is in these moments that I revel in the story of “one-undering” someone by motivating them with the idea that “If I can do it you CAN too!” It is the ultimate opposite of “one-upping”.
I have to respect where I am at any moment in time and that means that I acknowledge my pain and my pleasure equally as I define it, I no longer diminish it. I am empathetic by nature and will always listen to others’ stories of worse or better however I will always keep in check that their journey is not mine and my journey is the one I am here to live and define as worth living. I know pain, I know the pleasure it is not learned or defined by any other standard than my own. Own it…I do.
I watched a TED Talk featuring Nigel Marsh on “How to make work-life balance work” and thought it was worth sharing as it inspired so many of my own thoughts and opinions on the topic.
Never has there been a time in our world where work and life have collided as millions of us are working from “home”. Gone are the days of punching in and out at the office as the office is now where we wake, where we eat our meals, where we live. It is fair to say that if you didn’t have balance before you are lacking it now…immensely.
As a leader I have preached work-life balance to my team and have worked hard to find it. I absolutely practice what I preach although not perfect I know the foundational points of the TED Talk are true and so I share them and my exponential thoughts on each with you.
If you don’t design your life someone else will design it for you and you may not like their idea of balance. #word
Never put the quality of your life into the hands of a commercial corporation. (It is not your companies responsibility to provide you balance. It is their responsibility to find the best candidate for the job to get it done efficiently.)
We have to be responsible for setting the boundaries we want in our life. #word
You have to elongate the time frame beyond a day; approach balance in a balanced way.
The small things matter.
The smallest investment in the right places can radically transform the quality of your relationships and life.
Six transformational statements, profound. This is what it is really all about. I have succeeded at some of the six and are learning how to solve where I have failed. The point is that I practice, I take a run at each of these on a daily basis.
The responsibility of having freedom is the act of choosing. Then why do we choose and then begrudge that choice? As if we can’t make yet another decision to change courses?
You decide, ultimately. If you don’t want to work in an office, don’t. If you don’t want to work weekends, don’t. If you don’t want to “drink the kool-aid”, don’t. Find what works for you. Don’t begrudge others that DO just because you don’t. You make everyone miserable when you DO what you DON’T want to…you decide for YOU.
It is YOUR life, YOUR journey, make sure you are getting more out of it then it is getting out of you. I give this career advice often. I believe that if you go about work, career or truly any task with this mindset everyone wins. If you are getting out of it what serves you best, you will serve the job better. If you are a slave to the job or task, nothing is achieved. You lose and so does the benefactor.
Last but not least is the idea of balance in your day, week, month…life. Decide what you want it to look like and then execute that vision. Understand that every day will not look the same and allow time to find the equilibrium. Sometimes in attempting to balance we realize that we have to remove from one side or another as all that we want is simply not possible. Again this is where choice is your responsibility. Right-side your ship to allow for smooth sailing.
I am reminded frequently by the wise duo that I call “The Aunts” that we all have the same 24 hours in a day; how we spend it is ours to decide. You will ALWAYS have the time however what you choose to do with it…well that is your responsibility. Own it.
And just like that it occurs to me. That I have indeed manifested this, the life I always dreamed of without realizing I was heading right for it. It just occurred to me this morning as I was finishing a 12-week program via the “The Artist’s Way”, that everything that I have done for the last 49 years has prepared me for the next chapter. I always said that when I turned 50-years old that I wanted to teach, I wanted to transition into a new chapter; and while I struggled to see the forest for the trees along the route today I have walked out of that forest, at the end of that path and turned around and there it is…every single tree, every sapling, every seed that was ever planted is now the forest. It is a wealth of experiences, paths and journeys; thorns, bites and equal amounts of sun shining through that will catapult me into my dream. Wow, I am in awe as I write this and the realization shows itself clear as the day that is beginning.
The irony is that I realize now, in this moment, that all of the work in raising my children, cultivating a partnership and friendship that has served as my marriage to the very best partner for me and building a career that can sustain it all has brought me to this place that I can realize the next chapter that lies in front of me. All along I thought my dream would not come to pass because of my lack of realization that the additional education I thought i needed was being attained all along. I dreamed of being a Professor and yet I am. I thought it would be teaching hospitality however I have just realized that it is that and so much more. I thought it would require another degree and yet I realize that there is no more that I can be taught in a structured environment that I have not learned through experience. It is taking what I have learned on these paths that will now be my next chapter. I have learned how to share, I have learned from the masters and I am not afraid. For the reality is that I have earned a doctorate in life studies, learned in a classroom that has been my last 49 years of life.
The epiphany is so profound, the realization that it, all of it, that I have worked for has lifted me to the place that I dreamed of, the place I wished to be, and now it is my only task to take the next steps. So now I walk back through the paths that I have beaten and worn and now reminiscing those walks with eyes wide open, I am able to see in hindsight those things that were beneath the surface. I will feel those things all over again with renewed senses and the benefit of maturity. The only task left “to do” is to simply to release the constraints that I have allowed to weigh me down through my own imprisonment and realize that I am free to go, to soar, to realize this new life, reality and existence without obstacle.
This is real, this is how it occurred to me on this morning as I was doing my “Morning Pages” and had this immense realization and thought enough to capture the moment in my writing. There are so many themes in this realization that are worth pointing out to avoid anything going missed.
The epiphany is simply as defined, “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.” I have been doing the work and through the work it suddenly appeared, my future, my dream in realization, in full color, right in front of me.
The power of manifestation as defined, “being able to harness your true destinies and desires in life, subconsciously put into vision, and then into reality. Everything you want of the universe is already yours the clearer your thoughts and thinking on the matter, the more timely and precise the delivery will come.” Put whatever it is out there, a goal, a FINISH LINE, a dream; whatever you want to call it simply put it out there and return to it often, doing the work along the way that you believe will bring you to that place…and it will be yours.
The faith as defined, “complete trust or confidence in something or someone.” If you believe in yourself and trust that what you want will be yours as long as you are willing to do the work, walk the path and have “faith” despite a guarantee that it will be, it will come, if you only believe.
I give this to you as my gift. A glimpse into my soul, my beliefs, my heart. I give back to myself the gift of documenting this moment to allow myself the privilege of revisiting this moment in all of its power. I look forward to the hindsight it will provide in ten years when I will be grateful that I took a chance on myself and willingness to share with YOU.
As I write this I am 72 hours from my 49th birthday or maybe better said, 72 hours from the completion of my 48th year on this earth. I am still searching for a lot of things but most ominous is the search for contentment.
There is something about the “9”s that get our attention as we recognize that it is the last year of a decade. It makes us think back about our 20’s, 30’s, or in my case my 40’s. What did you do? Who did you become? What changed? It also forces us to consider what is coming next. I am going to be 50 in exactly 368 days…what? 50! I am not even sure that I know what to feel, only that it is yet another place to start. Start what…well that is still to be determined because I first have to finish up the last three days of 48 and conquer 49. It is in these words that I find my greatest challenge. When will I stop conquering? When will I worry less about finishing and starting? In my mind this is likely where contentment lies; in the being and less in the doing.
I am reading “Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss and in his concluding chapter he offers a passage from the “Zen in the Art of Archery”. It is wise so I offer it here…
I must only warn you of one thing. You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself. Perhaps you have hardly noticed it yet, but you will feel it very strongly when you meet your friends and acquaintances again in your own country: things will no longer harmonize as before. You will see with other eyes and measure with other measures.
I too have changed, but who doesn’t in 49 years. Some of those changes have been easy and adaptable and some I am still struggling with, but again who isn’t? This is likely where contentment lies. It lies in the release of the struggle, releasing the need to change and truly being content. Content with what you do, what you think, how you act and ultimately who you are…content because the only measure that you consider is your own.
I will always “seek to understand” as I am curious by nature. I will always study as I am hungry for knowledge. However to resolve what I know allows for the rest to be enjoyed and not labored. Reading, writing, running and all other things I do are not tasks that require deadlines and tracking. Instead understanding that they are what I do, when I want to do it, how I choose to do it. This applies to everything I do. This is what “49” will be about…releasing the “must do” discipline and replacing it with a more forgivable understanding of what I do because it is right, because it is me, because it fits. Wiser and content that is my goal for this year. Let’s do this thing!
The prompt is a long-one this morning so I set the question above and offer the entire prompt here. Admittedly I do not like the way I originally wrote the prompt so I am revising as I rewrite it below. 🙂
Everyone’s normal is predicated on their upbringing. There is no “normal”, this is what we all come to realize early in life as we are introduced to people outside of our household. If you come from a wealthy family, your “normal” may already be planned for you, while if you are from a poor family, you may be working to leave that “normal” behind for you and your family.
Based on how you were raised, you define your first concept of normal. This quickly becomes what you are used to and when you see examples of normal that our outside of what you “know” you are left with a condition to compare against. These early realizations occur when we are young. I remember realizing that what I knew as “normal” was very different than my friends in the neighborhood and in elementary school. At that point I did not know better from worse, I just knew it was different.
As I have become an adult I have come to realize that what may appear from the outside as a “better normal” is tested as when you look beneath the surface you come to realize that normal is not defined by wealth, health or relationship status. There were many years, especially through my 20’s, that I attempted to hide my “normal” as I felt it made me “less than” those around me. As I continued to evolve as an adult I was fortunate to realize that my childhood experiences served me extremely well in the varying environments I would experience throughout life. I was better equipped than those around me because of the early-experiences in my life.
To answer the specific prompt, “What is your level-set? Why?” My level-set or normal is very different than the way I was raised. This was a normal that was created intentionally as I was determined to live it different. It is hard to change your normal because the very act of changing what is normal in your life requires a path through uncharted territory. I had the courage to do it because I knew that what I experienced early-on was not the life I wanted to live as my “forever”. I knew this because I had the benefit of observing other lives that were more appealing and if I am being honest, less devastating.
I still work on this life that I now consider my normal, daily. It takes a great deal of discipline and sometimes that discipline feels like “force” because it is. I have a great deal of fortitude and summon it often. My weakness is where I am not able to control the environment because I rebel and am hesitant to follow. I revel in controlling my fate, which in itself is an oxymoron because the very definition of “fate” is “the development of events beyond a person’s control“.
This prompt created discord from the moment I read it. I didn’t like the way it was written, I didn’t like what it represented and ultimately it forced me to seriously contemplate. It is when I am pushed into a place that is uncomfortable that I find my reveal. I learn things and ultimately admit things about myself that I may not have readily seen previously. The example of this is in the last paragraph where I actually use the word “rebel” in describing myself. Many years ago when taking a Personality Test it described me as “rebellious” to which I was almost offended. When discussing it with those that had also taken the test I told them that the test was wrong as I was not “rebellious”. They quickly corrected me…ha! Over the years I have also come to realize and own my rebellion.
Rebellious is defined as:
“…showing a desire to resist authority, control, or convention.” or “…(of a thing) not easily handled or kept in place.”
Yep…that is me…try to hold me down…but be ready for the fight…rebellious is my level-set/normal.
How do other people affect your normal? How do you control those affects? Do you choose who’s in your life and what role they play?
Other people affect our lives in all roles we play. While we would like to believe that we can control everything, we know better, and in this case there are too many external factors that ultimately limit out ability to control who is in our lives. For example, you cannot choose your family, your coworkers, your neighbors or even the most remote of interactions like who gets behind you in line at the grocery store. For this reason the effort and practice that we need to deploy is about controlling how we react and what we tolerate.
In my life there are people that have and do ultimately affect me negatively however I have made a concerted effort to remove those people from my life. Where I don’t have the freedom to choose I have chosen to limit my interactions and ultimately to control my reaction. I have learned that people will show themselves without my assistance and my intervention can appear to be part of the problem versus a solve. I have also learned that saying nothing at all, or in this case not reacting, makes more of a statement than words ever could.
The reason this prompt is important in the discussion of “normal” is that if you do not take steps to control your reactions or continue to allow people in your life that do not serve you well, your reaction becomes your normal. A normal over time makes you a victim of those people. Becoming a “victim” in any sense of the word is never okay especially when you can control and deny the victimization.
The more I write about this topic and others the more I realize that the common denominator is ALWAYS your ability to DECIDE. You decide everything in life. You decide if you stay, if you go, who you go with, how you go…YOU DECIDE. It is the power of that decision that ultimately affects everything. This is a topic for another day but I must say that it is where I have seen people NOT decide for themselves that they play victim to their environment. NOT deciding is also a decision and if that is the choice you make, own it, don’t make excuses, don’t blame others, own it and where you don’t need to explain, don’t, just decide.
Is crisis normal for you? Are you creating crisis in your own life? In the lives of others? Are others creating crisis in your life?
How do you begin to change that?
Crisis is not normal for me. I am someone that has anxiety without crisis so to feed into it is counterproductive. When crisis hits in my life I find myself swimming deep in it. This is not a negative but more of an aggressive approach to dealing in it. I can handle crisis better than others as I naturally organize and use my resources optimally.
I do not create crisis in my own life nor in the lives of others. I am actually accused of solving for others; before they even know they need a solve. Again I think that is likely because of my fortitude. I have been through more “than the average bear” and have had to find resources to get where I am mentally and physically and therefore I want to pass that on to those that are standing on that START LINE where I have made it through.
On the last question, this is where I have the most to contribute. Yes, others try to create crisis in my life but the difference is that I no longer allow it. I have been tolerant for many reasons for too many years and I have finally gotten to a point in my life that I simply will not allow it. If I don’t want it then I am not going to tolerate it, not for the sake of anyone or anything. It’s a decision; everything is!
This is a great prompt for our days of COVID-19 because it has caused crisis. It is life or death, it is the most legit crisis we have ever known and I hope will ever know. How you deal with it, how you survive it will be your story, the memory of a time gone by that you will recount for years to come.