Big Lessons

Mountain top viewLife often seems like a steep mountain: we are either climbing up, with face forward and into the wind, or we are tumbling back down. There are some things I have learned, at this point in my climb, that I wish I could always remember, as though they could be written on some ever-present chalkboard in my mind. I find that when I forget these things, I start feeling dissatisfied, deflated, and discouraged. Instead of marching up the hill with courage I start sliding down again. Mercifully, these lessons have the power to lift me up, dust me off, and to help keep me climbing onward…if I will only remember them.

Nothing is Personal

“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.” ~ don Miguel Ruiz

Most everything feels personal: the way others treat us, what happens to us, what does not happen that we wish would, and so on. But I have learned that life is not out to defeat me personally and that other people’s behavior toward me really says more about them than it does about me. Life is really difficult a lot of the time. Sometimes things go my way and sometimes it feels like the entire universe has conspired to destroy me, but either way it is just life being life, flowing up and down as it always has for every person who ever lived. Moreover, other people’s behavior says far more about them than it does about me. Even if I should do something really mean to someone, on purpose, even still their response tells more about their character and emotional life, than it does about me or what I did. As I learn to depersonalize both life events and the behavior of others, I find more room for forgiveness, for joy, and for acceptance of both my own life journey and that of those around me.

My Life is My Responsibility

“Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” ~Tim Hansel

It is my job, and mine alone, to manage my emotions and I cannot blame anyone for the state of my life. Joy is much more of a choice than we like to think it is. Oh, how we love to blame others for our problems and pain: our parents, partners, bosses, clients, patients, coworkers, children, and friends. If only others would behave differently toward us then we could have a better life, then we could have joy. No! You are responsible, at all times, for your attitude and for your level of joy and life satisfaction. It is your job to do the work to heal the pain of your life, if needed, and to get your needs met in ways that honor both yourself and others. Blaming is what victims do and there is no hope or power in living the victim role. Personal responsibility is the hallmark of empowered maturity. No matter what has happened to you in the past or what you are struggling with now, the path to peace is responsibility which is a much more peaceful, empowered, hopeful way to live than chronic victimhood.

Only the Present is Real

“Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being. Feel your presence.” ~Eckhart Tolle

The only timeframe that actually exists, the only true reality, is this moment right now. The past only exists in our memories and the future only exists within mind-made imaginings of what might be. Only now is real. I have learned that living in the past (whether a positive past or a negative one) or worrying about the future robs this moment of its life and power. Only now can we exist and thrive, only in the now can we live and hope and love and struggle and learn. Now is the only time that can be lived so I commit to remaining present in this moment, even if it is painful or scary, remembering that it will soon be replaced by the next moment and that I will be stronger and more courageous for having lived “now,” with full presence.

Joy and Sorrow Always Exist Together

“I’ve come to realize that life is much more like a set of parallel train tracks, with joy and sorrow running inseparably throughout our days.” ~Kay Warren

In every single moment of life there is some joy and some sorrow. Even in the most joyful of moments there is a kernel of sorrow, if in nothing else but the fact that joy inevitably fades. Likewise, in the most sorrowful moments imaginable, there are kernels of joy, if we are willing to see them. I have had to release the lie that happiness will come once I rid my life of all the sorrow and collect only joy. This is impossible and is not life’s goal. The goal is to accept that both exist together, at all times, to be open to experiencing both as fully and openly as possible. And to avoid becoming too loyal to the sorrow, letting it cancel out or eclipse the joy. Joy cannot be diminished by sorrow, no matter how great the pain, but we can choose not to see it. I choose to be grateful, always, and to see the joy, allowing it to be just as vital and true as any sorrow this life may bring.

I Do Not Have the Power to Control Others

“We must learn to live well in a community of people who are sometimes wonderful, too often unspeakably evil, and usually somewhere in between.” ~Dan Allender, PhD

I have learned that I cannot control other people. Darn it! The world would be a much better place if I could! Ok, probably not, but it sure feels that way sometimes. So much of my life energy has been spent anguishing over wishing I could change others, whether it is their behavior, perspective, beliefs, thoughts, or feelings. What great relief it was to accept that I do not have the power to change or control others, and that it was never my job to do so. Accepting this opened space for me to love and accept people just as they are. Letting people be as they are is an extraordinarily loving thing to do and I have learned that trying to change or control others is actually an act of immense cruelty.

I Always Have the Power to Control Myself

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” ~Viktor Frankl

I do, though, have the power, at all times, to control myself. No matter what others choose, I have the ability to choose what I will believe and do and this gives me great strength. It means I do not have to be controlled by the expectations, behavior, or emotions of others because I am separate from them, I own my own mind, beliefs, feelings, and choices, even if those are in opposition to that of others. And, when I do have conflict with others because of differences or disagreements, I have the power to choose, at all times, how I will behave, who I will be, and how I will feel. I can be connected with others while not being controlled by them (try as they might) and I can use boundaries and even conflict to enhance my connection with others, if they are willing.

Everything is Not So Serious

“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” ~Woody Allen

Sometimes everything starts to seem just so intensely important when really very few things in my life are actually matters of life-and-death. More to the point, I am not really as important as I sometimes think. Nothing is more unbecoming or obnoxious than a person who is excessively self-important. Of course I matter, and so do you, but every event, every thought and feeling, everything we set our mind to does not have to be a matter of grandiose success or utter failure. Sometimes life is just funny or weird or unpredictable and sometimes things just do not go at all the way we want them to. I have learned the value of laughing at myself, I can be pretty hilarious though I am rarely trying to be, and I often find myself faced with the choice to either get upset about something that does not really matter that much…or just laugh.

There is Always a Reason People Are the Way they Are

“Here is a tough truth to swallow: people behave the way they do because they are doing the best they can given their circumstances, skills, and abilities. This is a good thing to remember when you are trying to forgive someone.” ~David Hafter

If we knew where people had been, what they had been through, how they grew up, what they have had to overcome, the demons they fight everyday…we would not be so judgmental. The human soul, in my view, wants more than anything to be at rest, to have peace, to feel joyful and whole, and to offer kindness and love to others. When that is not happening there is a reason. I have learned that the more frustratingly difficult, the more aggravating and hateful a person behaves, the more pain they live with. This is not an excuse for their behavior since we are all responsible for healing the pain of our lives and for protecting others from the wrath of our internal dragons, but it does provide an explanation. And it can increase our ability to offer patience and kindness to life’s difficult people…and to ourselves when we are hurting.

I Do Not Have to Be Perfect

“Perfection is self-abuse of the highest order.” ~Ann Wilson Schaef, PhD

I have learned that the obsessive need to be perfect that rises up inside of me is a symptom of shame and fear. The unspoken, implicit lie is that if I can be (or appear) perfect then that will make me valuable and loveable, both to myself and others. What a bunch of horse manure! Our lovability and performance have absolutely no rational connection to each other. That is, our performance impacts our lovability and worth zero percent. At some point we learned they were connected, that is, someone taught us whether through their words or actions, but as adults we can expose this despicable lie for the malarkey it is, and accept that our worth and value come from a much deeper, more spiritual place than our perceived skills, abilities, or achievements. Once your sense of worth is disconnected from your performance, then you will have freedom to do your best, to honor your efforts, to really love yourself and others in a way that is accepting and healing.

Relationships Matter More than Anything

“I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships, so will our healing.” ~William Paul Young

Nothing in all of life matters more than our relationships. They are the way we grow, heal, learn, expand, and become all we were created to be. Both the positive and negative relationships have tremendous power to teach us about ourselves and about the nature of true, selfless loving. The awesome, supportive people in my life are great gifts and I rely on them as anchors when my soul aches. But I am grateful, too, for the people who have hurt and angered me. They have given me the greatest gifts for they have challenged me to look at myself, who I choose to be, how I choose to behave, and the heart I want to have beating inside my chest. Difficult people are just hurting, whether they know it or not, and they remind me of the parts of myself that are hurting, the parts I am always working to love and heal.

Perhaps some of these lessons speak to you, but my deepest hope is that you are able to learn your own best lessons, the ones your challenges, pain, and problems are trying to teach you. Those hard-earned, personal lessons are the ones that will mean the most to you, and will have the power to give you new breath at just the moment you think you cannot take one more. Learn well!

How To Survive Anything

bear gryllsI will never forget the first episode of the TV show Lost when the plane crashed on the (not so) deserted island and all those city people had to figure out how to survive. The basic necessities for physical human survival are food, water, adequate shelter, fire, safety and so on. If you have the basics, you can survive in almost any situation. It made me wonder: what are the basic survival needs for emotional health? What are the basic necessities for emotional survival when the plane of our lives crashes on some wacky island and life begins its continuous assault on our soul? So here are some specific skills we can learn that, if well-developed, I believe can enable us to successfully survive and even thrive in the face of any difficult life circumstance.

 Achieving Acceptance

“The present moment is as it is, always. Can you let it be?” ~Eckhart Tolle

 Acceptance means allowing life to be as it is. It is allowing people and situations to be as they are without trying to fix or change them. It means accepting the things about yourself that cannot be changed. It means allowing others to be as they are (obnoxious as they may be) without trying to make them be different. Acceptance does not mean passively letting life defeat and flatten you, neither does it mean never trying to change negative situations, it means avoiding the trap of obsessing about people or situations that we have no power to change. It is surrendering to life as it is rather than fighting against it.

Practicing Presence

“Healing is being present in this moment.” ~Lisa Schwarz, EdD

Presence is the ability to remain mentally and emotionally available, open, and present in the midst of difficult moments or circumstances or with people who are behaving badly or being difficult. It means being attuned to yourself (your body, thoughts, and emotions) and to those around you. It means facing–not avoiding–fears, pain, or reality. It means releasing all the things we do to numb our pain and divert our attention from our short and long-term problems. It means facing life as it is with our head up, eyes open, face-to-the-wind, fully present with all of our attention, focus and courage.

Accessing Resilience

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” ~Dalai Lama

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from failure, disappointments, mistakes, or difficult life circumstances. It means that the problems of our lives neither define nor defeat us. Rather, we become able to re-frame negative circumstances as opportunities to evolve, grow and learn important lessons about ourselves and others. It involves “using the challenge,” making it your friend, choosing to see the blessings hidden within the pains of life, which are always there if we will only look for them.

Developing Tolerance of Uncertainty

“Stop hoping for a completion to anything in life.” ~David Deida

Uncertainty is the cold reality of being human, and emotional health is found in the ability to tolerate and graciously accept uncertainty, even considering it a good teacher or friend. It is also important to be able to emotionally tolerate that nothing is ever really finished and there will always be ongoing problems and struggles. Would our lives be better if we could be absolutely certain about the future? Perhaps and perhaps not. It is uncertainty that teaches us to have faith in ourselves, and in God, and prompts lessons and creates treasures we would not have had unless we took a leap into the unknown. And the ever-evolving, never-ending nature of problems provides us the opportunity to develop and access our resilience, to be creative in our problems-solving, and to personally evolve and grow as we learn to live in co-operation with the challenges of our lives and develop a grateful acknowledgment that meeting challenges helps make us who we are.

 Finding Inner Stillness

“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” ~Lao Tzu

There is a still, quiet place inside of us all, but few of us take the time and effort to find it. Like the stillness at the bottom of a raging ocean, this quiet place inside lies at our core, though usually the blustery tempest of our problems, thoughts, and feelings sap all of our energy and attention. But the ability to become still, to be at peace with ourselves, to embrace alert stillness, to breath deeply into the calm of just being, this is where peace and centeredness are found. This stillness become accessible when we stop “doing” so much and learn the art of “being.” Living, in increasing measure, within the embrace of this stillness creates a powerful love, a peaceful knowing of the truth, and a settled hopefulness that no raging life storm can shake.

Taking Personal Responsibility

“Some would like to learn to be happy grown-ups; others would prefer to magnify their misery and find someone to blame.” ~Frank Pittman, MD

 It is exceedingly difficult (and scary) to take responsibility for our lives, especially if our lives are not what we hoped they would be. The cold truth is this: there are no victims. While all of us have been “victim-ized” at various times (hurt, treated poorly, judged unfairly, etc) we all have a personal decision to make: will we take personal responsibility for how we will respond to the events of our lives or will we crumble into victimhood and blame everyone else for our problems? No personal problem can ever be solved until we take complete personal responsibility for how we are going to respond to it. In contrast, there is absolutely no personal problem we cannot solve (despite how tough and challenging it may be) if we choose to take responsibility full ownership of both the problem and the solution.

 Letting Go

“It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!

Let it go, let it go…” ~”Let it Go” from the movie Frozen

Before Elsa ever sang her famous song into the winter night, it has long been known that the ability to release negative experiences and emotions is connected with positive emotional health and increased life satisfaction. It involves the ability to let go of the anger we hold toward those who have hurt us and to let go of our compulsive need for life to be fair. It is also the ability to self-forgive, that is, to let go of self-criticism, mistakes and disappointments. It means releasing shame. We must let go of the things about ourselves and our lives we cannot control or change, the things that happened in the past that should not have happened and the things that did not happen that should have.

 Loving and Being Loved

“We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” ~Brene Brown, PhD

The entire point of life is to give and receive love. A large amount of human emotional anguish has roots, in one way or another, in a disruption of the flow of love either to/from and others or to/from ourselves. Healthy loving means to both give love unselfishly to others and receive and accept the love others offer to us. We must let love in and project love out in a continuous flow that cleanses our souls like a warm breeze. Appropriate self-love and self-acceptance are also crucial, especially since we will only be able to give to others the same measure of love and compassion that we offer to ourselves.

Building Hope

“In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope.” ~Michael Jackson

As oxygen is to physical survival, so hope is to emotional survival; without it we suffocate. Hope is the belief that, no matter how dark it may look right now, circumstances can and will get better. It is a deep conviction that the future will be brighter, and that we have the power to make choices that will improve our lives. Hope does not depend on the circumstances or the way things seem; it is an internal, deeply held core belief that as long as we are breathing and fighting there will come a better day.

 Embracing Spirituality

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ~Teilhard deChardin

Spiritual health and emotional health are intimately connected. That is, people who develop a meaningful sense of spirituality tend to be more resilient, build more hopeful, and have more peace and higher overall life satisfaction. It is important to say that this is different from religion. Certainly many people find significant meaning in specific religious traditions, but it is not religion per se that enhances emotional health, but rather a deeply personal sense of connection to God, or that which is transcendent or divine.

Life is constantly challenging us but any circumstance can be survived with these tools. And more than mere survival, we can learn the art of using difficult life circumstances to grow and expand our inner lives. Such is the art of thriving.