I’ve spent a lot of time worrying the past few days. My worrying always tends to be about the same, familiar topics and it feels involuntary — I’ll be fine one minute and then suddenly I’ll start with a familiar spiral of worrying thoughts. Like a well-worn path in the woods, my neurons have forged paths through my white matter where they trigger the same fearful thoughts over and over.
Most of my worries are about safety and security. I worry about my business being successful. I worry if I will have enough money when I retire. I worry where I will live in 20, 30 or 40 years. And I worry about my health and if I will have people to take care of me when I get old and frail.
But I’m sure if my life circumstances were different, I’d find different things to worry about. If I had kids, I’m sure I’d be worried about them. If I owned a house, I’d probably worry about a big repair that I couldn’t afford. Even if I had millions of dollars, I might worry about never finding love.
Worry does that. It finds something to latch on to, regardless of our life circumstances.
But I know better than to let my worries completely take over. I know that they have a sneaky way of amplifying themselves and consuming my day if I let them drive the narrative.
So today instead of letting worry take over or trying to forge ahead by forcing myself to push aside the worry, I took a walk in the park to have a conversation with my worry.
The worry started its chatter, “Why are you in the park? You should be working on marketing right now. How are you ever going to be successful if you don’t start doing more?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I hear you. What are you really scared of?”
“I don’t want to be destitute and alone,” said my worry “I don’t want to feel like I have to keep pushing and working and struggling when I’m 80 and too tired to do it anymore.”
“But I’m pushing and struggling now,” I replied, “I’m not marketing because you’ve put so much pressure on me and my success that I can’t possibly be lit up and excited about it. What if I didn’t worry about what I was building for the future and instead just did what I enjoyed, right now?”
I reminded my worry none of us know what will happen in the future, life is quite unpredictable, so trying to live there is actually a bit silly. All we can do is live in the now.
“I’m scared,” my worry said.
“I know,” I replied.
“I want to feel taken care of,” said worry, “I want to feel connection and warmth and like I don’t have to do this alone.”
Ah, there it is. My core wound coming up again.
You see, as a small child and all through my adolescence, I had to do some really hard things with little to no support. My mother had a severe personality disorder and if I expressed any need for help or care, it was met with anger, blame, and vitriol, so I learned to do everything on my own. I still struggle with this today, and when I worry, it’s that I’ll be alone on my own again, with my heart broken and no one around to hold me or help me through.
I’m not actually scared of any particular circumstances, I’m scared to feel that heartbreak again.
But I’m not 7 anymore, and I know if I feel heartbreak, I will make it through. It won’t be pleasant, but it also won’t kill me.
So I ask my worry to show me where that heartbreak is in my body. It’s a tightness in my chest and heavy like a stone. I walk through the park and I simply feel it. I don’t make a story about being alone and unsupported in the future, or let it take over my thoughts about work, I simply let the physical sensations arise in my body.
It hurt. I felt so, so alone and so desperate for connection and care.
Then, I turned to my inner caregiver, that part of my awareness that I’ve cultivated over the last few years as a source of love and care, and I asked her to show me what care feels like.
I felt warmth, connection, laughter. I saw times with friends where I’d felt so comforted and loved. I saw the world as a welcoming place. I saw future relationships with people that I don’t even know yet that fulfil me in new and amazing ways.
Suddenly, I heard the birds in the park and I stopped to listen. Had they been singing this whole time? The grass had been freshly mowed and felt like soft velvet under my feet. There were two girls on the swings screaming and laughing their heads off.
“Right now, this world is safe,” I thought, “and I am not doing this alone. I am connected and cared for by my friends, this planet, and even by people I haven’t met yet.”
I could almost feel my brain chemistry change in that moment. Like one set of neurotransmitters had been reabsorbed while another came flooding in.
I felt safe. I felt connected. I felt like all was going to be okay.
I know it’s different for those of us that grew up in severely dysfunctional or abusive situations. I know how our brains developed differently under the constant stress, I know our nervous systems do their best to try to navigate the patterns of extreme highs and lows, and I know that all of that is now a part of my physiological makeup, and why when my worry comes along, it feels so invasive and involuntary.
But you can get to a place where you can feel comfort, safety, connection and care, even with no one else there. You can change the way you perceive the world, and when you do that, it no longer seems like such a scary place.
It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a willingness to do some shadow work and let some intense feelings arise, but it can be done.
If you want some support in this, a sherpa to help you climb this mountain, then please reach out. You deserve to feel safe and comforted. You deserve to look at the world and see connection and care.
Recently, I’ve noticed a theme coming up in my conversations with friends and clients — we’re all sick of being nice. By being nice, I mean doing the emotional labor to make sure our message is coming through in a pleasant way, while also scanning our conversation partners to make sure they’re not feeling misunderstood, offended, or disempowered. Being nice is a complex dance of thinking of what you want to say + crafting it so that it sounds nice + making sure the other person is feeling okay about what you have to say + readjusting on the fly if they are not okay. It’s a dynamic that takes so much more effort, intuition, and mental energy than just thinking of what you want to say and saying it.
Why is this happening now? My take is that it’s a byproduct of complex trauma from the pandemic. We’ve all had to expend so much more mental energy to get through this (reconfiguring work and childcare, worrying about getting sick, spending 24/7 with our families, etc) while losing access to so many of the things that allow our nervous systems to return to a calm baseline (connections with friends and family, activities outside the home, alone time, etc). Since all of this leaves us with less mental and emotional energy, we’ve been rethinking where we should spend our energy, and where it’s necessary to put up boundaries so we can protect and conserve the energy we do have.
And one of those boundaries seems to be around being nice.
But this can often be hard, especially for women, because there’s a social cost to it, or we feel guilty. And most of us like to make sure people feel heard, validated and understood.
But I think we need to reframe this. For those times when we don’t have the energy to do the extra emotional labor of being nice, I’d like to propose an alternative that’s still in line with the value of helping people (including yourself!) feel heard, validated and understood, but doesn’t take nearly the mental gymnastics of being nice.
You can be kind.
What’s the difference? Well, let me present to you — Mother Teresa.
I think we can all agree that Mother Teresa did some amazing things to help the poor. She created hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and homes for the dying. She spent her life doing her best to help those who otherwise would not have had access to health care, food, and a place to die with dignity.
I remember watching the news when she died in 1997. There was a panel of journalists who were talking about her achievements, and all she did for the poor, when one of them interjected, “But you know, Mother Teresa was, rather famously, an asshole.” All the other journalists stopped and stared. The first journalist continued, “I mean, she did miraculous things in her lifetime, but she was notoriously difficult. She would fight for what she thought was right, tooth and nail, and she could be quite hard-headed and difficult about it.”
Mother Teresa was kind, but not nice.
There are other examples of folks who are kind, but not nice. I think Anthony Bourdain and the character of Roy Kent from Ted Lasso also fit the bill. They’re not nice people, and could be described as assholes, but they both have such obviously kind and caring hearts. I think the reason I particularly love the Mother Teresa example is because we don’t have many role models of women who are kind, but not nice.
So when I notice that I need to create a boundary around my emotional labor, when I notice that it would take more energy than I have at the moment to think about what I want to say and figure out how to be “nice” about it rather than just saying it, I find myself repeating this mantra in my head:
“Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole.”
And then I just do or say the thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m nice about it, as long as I know that it comes from a place of kindness or compassion, either for myself or others. Sometimes, there’s backlash and people seem a bit shocked that I’m so straightforward and uncompromising, but after a lifetime of people-pleasing, I’m practicing not caring how other people view me. It’s much more important that I prioritize compassion for myself and others over tone-policing my own words and actions.
I invite you to imagine a life where you are kind but not nice. Where you do and say what you want, when you want, and live from a heart-centred place where you’re free from worrying about anyone else’s opinion of you. Because remember, what other people think of you is none of your business.
“Before we can be with one another we have to learn to grieve with one another” – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. At the time, he was speaking about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the fracturing in our Western society in the last few decades, the widening of the ideological divide and the vilification of those on the other end of the ideological spectrum that’s happening on both sides.
I’ve realized it’s not productive for me to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about all the ways the people I disagree with are wrong or incorrect. I could list myriad ways that I think pro-lifers are wrong or that gerrymandering is a calculated, racist effort to destroy democratic safeguards. You may or may not agree with me — I’m sure there are some of you out there who are just as certain of their differing opinions as I am of mine. The problem is, that type of thinking doesn’t get us any closer to understanding each other. In fact, it does the opposite and only makes me feel more entrenched in my “rightness.”
It’s not productive for me to ask what’s wrong with those who I disagree with, but it is helpful for me to ask what they are grieving.
What is it that makes them feel sad or outraged?
What is it that makes them feel misunderstood or dismissed?
What is it that is changing in their world that they’re not ready for, that feels like it’s being forced upon them with no way to stop it?
I know for me I feel sad and outraged by watching systems of oppression in action. I feel misunderstood and dismissed by daily misogynistic microaggressions. I am watching the world change from one that respects experts as sources of information to one that respects social media as sources of information and I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it, and that I don’t know how to stop it.
So you see, I am grieving. This is the substance of my grief.
And I also know that those with whom I vehemently disagree are grieving, too. They could answer all of those questions in ways that are just as meaningful to them as my answers are to me.
If we’re going to try to be with one another, if we’re going to try to find a way back to mutual understanding, we have to start with learning about each other’s grief.
This is the root of compassion. This is the root of understanding.
Now, I’m not suggesting that I should lose my opinions and give up my ethics. Quite the contrary, I’m not willing to compromise or acquiesce to things that, in my opinion, are morally wrong. But I am willing to ask of those who disagree with me —
How are you suffering?
What would make you feel more understood?
What are you unhappy with in your life that feels out of your control?
What are you grieving?
And I am willing to acknowledge that although I may not agree with the substance of it, their grief is just as valid as mine. I’m not the grief police, I don’t get to decide what’s worthy or not.
So, before we write someone off as “brainwashed by the other side” let’s understand what they are grieving, and then listen to them from a place of compassion and awareness, because one thing I know is that when people truly see the humanity in another being, they don’t wish that being to suffer, no matter how different they are from you and me.
One of the most difficult things I’ve done is learn how to love the person who abused me.
When I was 26 years old, I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut my mother out of my life. In child abuse survivor circles, this is often called going “no contact” or NC and it was not a decision that was made lightly. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
I’d tried everything I could think of — writing her letters, talking things through, therapy for myself, and family therapy with her and my sister. I desperately wanted a relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to go through life without that type of support. The idea of not having a mom in my life felt so freakish and lonely, so I was trying anything I could to salvage a workable relationship so that I could have her in my life.
Finally, after a typical abusive episode at a restaurant where she loudly told me what I was wearing made me look fat, repulsive, hideous, and disgusting and she couldn’t imagine how I could let people see me in public like that (for the record — it was a nice skirt and blouse that I often wore to the office), I decided I’d had enough.
I was at a loss. How do you go about divorcing your mother? How do you deal with the guilt, the anger, the loss, and the intense emotional pain?
When I asked people who I thought of as older and wiser, the response was often, “But she’s your mother! You can’t cut her off. I don’t care how horrible she was to you, she’s still your mother.” I was told by so many well-meaning people that once I’d had my own kids, I’d understand how you simply CAN’T cut your own mother off. Then, they’d give me suggestions for how to work things out that I’d tried 1000 times before.
No one I knew seemed to have any answers.
And while I know they didn’t understand the depth of the abuse, and the lengths to which I’d gone to salvage the relationship, they were right about one thing. She was still my mother. I needed to figure out a way to relate to her in my own psyche, even if she wasn’t in my life. So what could I do?
About a year later, I found myself at my first meditation training. The instructor was B. Allan Wallace, a Buddhist monk who seemed like he may have some answers. One day I asked if I could eat lunch with him and talk to him about something I was wrestling with, in my life. I gave him a brief account of my childhood, my mom, and all the things I’d tried to do to repair our relationship. To my surprise, even after that brief account, he didn’t try to suggest new ways to repair it or even question my decision to go no contact. He paused for a minute and then said, “Sometimes the only way to have people in our life is to send them compassion from afar. And that isn’t nothing — sending someone the energy of compassion can be very healing.” At the time I thought he meant healing for my mom, but I’ve now come to realize he meant healing for me, too.
So I practiced sending her the Buddhist prayer of Mettā each time I thought of her (which was still many times per day).
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”
I repeated this over and over, through tears, through rage, through confusion, through grief, and through loneliness.
Finally, I started to understand. I could be furious at how she treated me and also have compassion for her suffering. I could be brokenhearted and also have compassion for how miserable she clearly was. I could hate her for what she did to me and also have compassion for what had happened to her to create such psychological instability in her own mind.
And I could do the same for myself. I could feel broken and depressed and also have compassion for myself. I could feel shame and also have compassion for myself. I could hear her abusive voice in my head, now my own inner critic, and also have compassion for myself.
Compassion can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. Fondness or affection is not a prerequisite for compassion. In fact, seeing someone in their wholeness, both the “good” and “bad” parts of them, is a huge part of compassion.
And beyond that, once you feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, even love can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. You can love the part of them that hurts, the part that is suffering, and in this way, you can move towards healing the pain.
“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”
― Ram Dass
What Ram Dass is saying here is essentially the same thing that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It is possible to have love in your heart, no matter what someone has done to you.
It took me YEARS to get to a place where when I thought of my mother, I was able to send her love. Now, don’t get me wrong — I was still angry, sad, confused, and traumatized (sometimes all at once) but at the same time I was feeling all of that, I was also able to feel compassion for her suffering, and then from there, eventually, I could feel love for her.
My mother died earlier this summer. I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, but when I heard she was dying, I went to the hospital to say goodbye. It took 30 minutes of meditation in the hospital parking lot to regulate my nervous system so I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but once I felt centered, I went in.
I told her I loved her, and I meant it. She asked what had happened, why we hadn’t spoken in so long. I looked at her and said, honestly, “Our relationship caused me too much anxiety. I couldn’t handle it, so I pulled away.” She said she wished it had been different. I cried and told her I did, too.
And then I held her hand and told her all the things I loved about her. And I told her all the things I knew others loved about her, too.
She denied it all. She said, “Oh, come on” and waved me away.
I know mom. I know you never felt worthy of love. I know that’s why you tormented me, and I can see that through the eyes of compassion now. Hurt people hurt people, until we break the generational cycle.
So, I’m here to break that cycle. I’m here to “be a statement of love and compassion.” In many ways, mom, you were the hardest place to do that work. You were the person who did the most damage to me and so you were also the hardest person for me to love. But I thank you for that lesson because you know what? Now that I know how to feel compassion for you, I can feel that same love for everyone I meet.
I understand that loving someone has nothing to do with agreeing with their actions, their beliefs, or their words and, instead, has everything to do with seeing them in their wholeness and that simple Mettā prayer of compassion:
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”
I had so many responses to my last essay, “You are the boat”, that I wanted to tell you a bit more about what I know about the phases of spiritual awakening. And of course, talk more about the boat!
The metaphor of a kayak navigating the rapids and how it relates to spiritual awakening first came to me when I learned to kayak about 15 years ago, just after finishing chemotherapy for cancer at age 32. I was going through an intense physical, emotional and spiritual crisis and was looking to understand more about why all of this shit was happening to me. At that time, I had an epiphany where I finally understood the idea of myself and the boat as two parts of the same being — my human self and my spiritual self. My understanding of the other phases came later, as I deepened my spiritual practice.
There are four phases of spiritual awakening in this metaphor. Progression through these phases takes you from being ego-bound and unable to escape your own suffering all the way to understanding that you are both everything and nothing (the manifest and unmanifest) and that, in fact, there is no “you” there to suffer through anything at all.
So, let’s go through the phases, one by one.
Everyone got your kayak ready? Got your paddle? Got your desire to be one with the universe?
Excellent! Let’s go.
When you first learn to kayak, you’re constantly flipping over and it’s hard to control the direction of the boat. This is phase one – where our emotions and belief systems about the world feel out of control, just like the kayak. In this phase, life seems unpredictable, unfair and it feels like no matter what you do, there’s always someone or something that gets in the way. Maybe your boss is really difficult or you’re always rehashing the same fights over and over with your partner. Maybe you just can’t get a break and it feels like the world is against you. There’s also an internal struggle going on as well, and you often worry about what other people think of you or how they will react to your choices. You worry about if you’re good enough and fear people will see through you. Life feels uncertain and precarious and like you’re stuck on this emotional rollercoaster where trauma and drama keep happening in your life, over and over.
Phase two is when you start to learn to control the boat. You learn how to steer the boat right and left, how to back paddle to slow down, and how to shift your weight so that the boat goes where you want it to. In this phase, you’ve learned some emotional regulation skills so that when you feel like life is going off the rails you can do something to “control the boat.” This could be tools like deep breathing, guided meditation, or going for a walk. You’ve been to therapy or learned how to do some thought work, like Byron Katie’s The Work and can now understand that you shouldn’t believe everything you think. You’ve done a lot of work to address the trauma in your past and look at how your thoughts, behaviors and choices come through that lens of your trauma response. Life seems calmer now and you understand that while you can’t control much of what happens to you, you can control how you react to it.
Phase three is when you realize that successfully making it through the rough rapids isn’t about trying to control the boat much at all. It’s about learning to listen to the boat and follow its lead. The boat is designed to float, so if you react to what the boat wants to do instead of trying to control it, you’ll make it through with much less effort and a sense of partnership with the boat. This is when you start to understand that you are a spiritual being having a human experience. There are two parts to you – the human self (passenger) and the spiritual self (the boat). Once you let the spiritual self lead the way, life becomes a whole lot easier. In this phase, you’ve had some experiences with ego dissolution through meditation or with plant medicine and you’ve come to understand that you have a soul or spirit. You also understand that the idea of “you” as a separate being is just a temporary illusion you’re experiencing while you’re incarnated here as a human. In this phase, intuition becomes much stronger and you have a good sense of your “spiritual compass” or karmic area of study you’re supposed to explore during this lifetime. There’s also often a sense of comfort or peace as you deepen your awareness of universal consciousness and know that as an eternal being, you are always safe and nothing can ever really hurt you.
Finally, we get to phase 4. At this point you’ve realized that not only are you both the passenger and the boat, you are also the river. And the rocks. And the trees. And the birds and the wind…. You are everything, all made of the same stuff, the unmanifest made manifest. This is when you’ve reached enlightenment or awakening. At this point, you can easily access a blissed-out state of feeling connected, and all feels right in the world. Even when things are going “wrong” you see that there is a rightness there. You accept all as right and good because if it’s happening, it has to be right and good. There is equanimity to joy and pain and everything in between, it all loses its meaning other than, “it is”. In this phase, there’s a heightened level of intuition and an opening of deep reservoirs of compassion and love for everything around you. Once you understand that you and everything outside of “you” is the same thing you understand that all there is to do is be love, emit love, and receive love.
Is there a phase 5? There could be! At my point in this journey, I’ve only been able to experience these 4, but I know that I am an ever-evolving, ever-changing being and I don’t yet know what I don’t know.
It’s important to note that these phases don’t necessarily go in order and that we often cycle through the phases depending on the day, our mood, our past experiences, and so on. We can also be in one phase for months or years before we experience the next one, and many people never go past phase one or two in this incarnation. This is as it’s supposed to be, there is no here that is better than there, it all just is as it should be.
I’m curious — tell me how you’ve experienced these phases. Where are you and your boat today?
I’m sitting in my red kayak, paddle across my lap, staring at the class 3 rapids just ahead of me. I’d pulled over to a calm spot on the river to mentally map my path through the rapid. Three days before this was the first time I’d ever been in a kayak in my life. Six months before this, at 32-years-old, I’d been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer.
I was on a weeklong program through the non-profit org First Descents where young adult cancer survivors learn to whitewater kayak. We were also learning how to face fear again after having one of the scariest things imaginable happen at a really young age – a cancer diagnosis.
Looking out over the rapid, I calculated which course I should take to try to avoid flipping the kayak. In whitewater kayaking, you’re “attached” to the boat by a rubber skirt, so if you flip, it’s no fun to try to find the ripcord to get out of the boat while upside down, with no air, in the middle of a rocky, turbulent rapid. Like I said – I was facing fear again, but this time it was my choice and not some shitty cancer diagnosis that life had dealt me.
As I stared at the rapids, I had a realization. I was in a boat! (I know – not the most profound realization. Stay with me.) The boat was designed to float, so instead of trying to control the boat, I needed to listen to the boat. The boat knows how to stay upright in the water, all I had to do was feel into which way the boat wanted to go, try my best to be one with the boat, and follow its lead.
So, I did. And it was so much easier than trying to control the boat. I had faith in the boat’s design and its ability to do what it needed to do, I was the passenger and I let the boat do the floating.
I made it through the rapids unscathed and with a newfound understanding. As the adrenalin of the rapid run wore off, I knew that this was about more than just a boat. This was a lesson for life.
Here’s a spiritual truth – if you try to push, resist or control anything in your life, it’s going to be much harder. If you simply trust “the boat” of life and follow where your experiences, intuition and karma lead you, it’s much easier.
One of the secrets of a peaceful life is to respond to what’s in front of you rather than trying to push, resist or control. There are so many aphorisms that teach us this: “What you resist persists” or, “People make plans and God laughs.”
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals or go towards what makes you happy, fulfilled and inspired. It means that you should detach from HOW it’s going to happen.
When I was in my boat, I knew I wanted to get through the rapid. But HOW to get through – which path I take – that’s better left up to the boat, the boat knew how to stay afloat.
I started to use this perspective shift in my life when I got home from my kayaking trip. “Trust the boat,” I would think as a new obstacle came my way. I would lean into what felt right, or what was the easiest path forward right in front of me, and just do that, without overthinking it.
It was so much easier.
Now, the easiest path forward wasn’t always how I’d wanted things to go. I had to release a lot of feelings of control or preference about how things unfolded. But knowing that there was a larger force in my spiritual self that knew how to stay afloat through this “life” thing and having faith in that awareness was simpler and felt more right than trying to push and control.
As I’ve learned more about myself and the nature of our existence, I now know that the reason I can trust the boat is because not only am I the passenger, I AM the boat. And the river. And the rocks, and the sky and the birds and the trees. I am all of it, one consciousness.
As you deepen your intuition and your ability to communicate with your spiritual self, you can feel this too. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of switching from trying to control and plan to sitting and listening.
Feel into what your life wants for you.
It’s right there, waiting for you to listen.