Creating Stuck

Posted February 8th, 2011

Have you ever had one of those days – or weeks or months – where you have a pile of work to do and yet you just stare off into space, stall and allow yourself to be distracted? Yeah, me too. More often than I care to admit, actually.

My friend calls it “chasing after shiny pennies”. A colleague used to call it “alphabetizing her rolodex” (yes, I’m that old). I prefer to call it purgatory. As a working mom running my own business, I need to be uber efficient. Caffeine is my friend and I admit I love that feeling of crossing things off my list (yes, I have been known to write down things I’ve already done so I can get “credit” for doing it…there, I said it)

There are plenty of references to this chronic affliction. It’s most commonly referred to as “wasting time” (what does that mean exactly?) Abby Seixas wrote about “The disease-of-a-thousand-things-to-do” and how it results in us chasing our tails. Carl Honore claims it is a logical consequence of the addiction to the “cult of speed” that has run rampant in our society. My sister, who teaches yoga to children, calls it “the monkey mind.” My clients – busy, fast-moving, women – visit this place of being stuck so frequently, I jokingly tried to make it a cooler place to by, saying “stuck is the new black.”

You know the place, right? That sensation of spinning your wheels and not being productive? Having nothing to show for your time? In a society that values doing, measuring, and moving, it’s only natural that we want to avoid this place. Wasting time=bad. I used to buy into this, but not anymore.

Last fall I saw an intuitive that totally reframed this notion of “wasting time” for me. She said, “Oh, you create ‘stuck’ for yourself as a way of slowing yourself down.” I create stuck? She went onto tell me “I do stuck really well”, meaning when I get stuck, I respond quickly by dropping down into it. I simply surrender. So this place – this purgatory – is apparently by design. My design. It’s not some fatal character flaw as I had long-since suspected. This was good news. In a bizarre twist, I began to actually take pride in my proficiency at “creating stuck”, rather than feeling shame and beating myself up when I had trouble focusing.

When I thought about it, it made perfect sense to me. I move fast through life – one person referred to me once as a comet. But what do we know about comets? They burn out. As I tracked back my thoughts leading up to this “stuck” place, I noticed I pattern. Right before that moment of disengagement, I was lamenting how tired I was, how much I needed a break, how I couldn’t keep going at this pace. So my body, mind and spirit, in all its wisdom, responded to my request and created some “stuck” for me.

Sometimes I would get sick. Sometimes we would have a snow day and I would have to cancel all my plans to stay at home with my kids. Those are the obvious ones and I tend recognize those easily enough.I gave myself permission because they were “good excuses.” But it’s the subtle ones that were tricky to sniff out. The times there was no apparent reason I wasn’t able to focus. I would try and muscle through those places, cracking the whip and berating my inability to produce one measly thing of worth. It used to turn into this long and drawn out day-long battle, complete with sweat and often, tears.

Now my sniffer is more attuned to those subtle hints that I am in a stuck place. I recognize them easier and have come to expect them. I actually – and this is the cool part – have come to value them. Rather than kicking and dragging my feet, I treat that “stuckness” as a menu item I have specifically ordered with my needs in mind. And I eat it up. Every crumb. Because it nourishes me at the times I need it most.

Could this be a massive justification for procrastination and sloth-likebehavior? Sure. But I think we both know it’s not. Try stuck on for size and see if it fits. They say it’s the new black.

Riding Two Horses

Posted January 28th, 2010

I’ve come to appreciate a delicate balance. And I assure you, I do not mean “balance” in the typical sense – that droll and droning work-life balance conversation that saturates most women’s media these days and bores me to no end (I’ve officially given up on that term, preferring “integration” these days, but that’s another topic I’ll write about in a separate post…).

No, the balance to which I’m referring to is much deeper than that, and I’ve come to see it at the heart of women seeking to creating change. What I’m talking about is essentially a paradox: it’s about taking yourself (your ideas, your needs, your intentions, your dreams) very, very seriously while at the same time not taking yourself too seriously. It’s about holding all of that as sacred and true, but loosely, knowing that at any moment you might receive new information or insight that changes your mind or requires you to shift your balance a bit.

Let me paint a clearer picture of what I’m talking about here. I was once working with this incredibly wise woman who gifted me with the perfect visual to describe the delicate balance I’m referring to. As I sat with her, wringing my hands, I shared my angst at managing my ego at the same time I was also seeking to honor the divine and serendipity. I now know what I was talking about was the age-old discussion of free will and fate. I recall my despair and confusion so vividly. I felt torn in two. Could I be myself – confident, self-assured and driven – and still be open and willing to surrender to the wisdom of the universe? What I was essentially grappling with was control. In my mind, it was one or the other – either I had the reins or the universe did; not both. And yet, I loved, trusted and wanted to honor them both. Thus my angst; I felt like I had to make a choice. I didn’t know how to have them both.

This wise woman smiled at me asked a simple question that changed my life: “can you be the powerful wave that rises up to a crest and then comes charging toward the shore, and at the same time look over your shoulder and see that you are a part of this massive ocean?”

With this beautiful image, she opened my eyes to how it would look if I held both of those truths – these two loves – simultaneously. In that moment, I saw how I wouldn’t have to shrink or play small to bow down at the feet at the divine and I also wouldn’t become an ego maniacal narcissist, thinking I was solely responsible for turning the world on its axis. I got how we – the universe and I – could work so beautifully in concert with one another. It was exhilarating.

I share my own story, knowing that it is far from original, in many ways representing the universal struggle of the human condition. Certainly our society does nothing to ease the tension, being a country built upon the principles of independence, self-reliance and freedom. So it’s only natural that I would feel torn and conflicted, right?

As my practice centers primarily around women – powerful, self-reliant, opinionated and driven women like myself – I have become acutely aware of just how relevant this story and, indeed, this topic is to our perception of ourselves as architects of change. I see this topic surface time and time again as I work with women. Most commonly, it comes up in one of two ways: women are either concerned about being “a control freak” or they are concerned their “ego is out of control.” No matter how you slice it, they are concerned and berate themselves for “white knuckling” their lives or their circumstances. In most cases, these women find their default response is to drop the reins, back-pedal or shrink themselves down to an almost minuscule version of the woman they know themselves to be. It’s like a reflex – one that I am all too familiar with from my own story. And yet, I see how it’s not a winning strategy for women, triggering resentfulness, bitterness and disengagement with life – essentially because they are acting in ways that are counter to who they truly are. I get it: it’s a tug of war and they have elected (albeit reluctantly) to drop the rope. Better to save face than to become your worst version of yourself.

But what if there were an alternative as this wise woman suggested? What if there were no rope? And we didn’t have to tug? What then?

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Eat, Pray, Love offers another powerful image that illustrates how this balancing act might look. Much as my wise woman did, Gilbert describes the interplay between destiny and free will as a relationship – “a play between divine grace and willful self-effort.” I personally gravitate to the notion of “play” here…much more appealing than “tugging”. The way she describes it, we are neither entirely a puppet of the gods, nor entirely the captain of our own destiny; we are a little of both:

“We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses – one foot is on the horse called ‘fate’, the other on the horse called “free will.’ And the question you have to ask every day is – which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?”

When I use this image in working clients in my women’s circles, I often will joke that I’ll be confidently riding along, like a powerful amazon with one foot on each horse, and I’ll look down and see that my “fate” leg has completely atrophied, meaning that my entire weight (existence) is being supported by my “free will” leg which is sculpted muscle but is locking up with the stress of it all. It always gets a laugh (especially with some good sound effects thrown in), but it illustrates the point that Gilbert makes about it being a DAILY question you need to ask yourself. Because without that daily check-in, you run the risk of sliding down that slippery slope of the ego.

So what does a daily check-in look like to you? I think you know. Is it a deep breath? Is it a favorite phase that pulls you back to center? Is it meditation? Prayer? Laughter?

Not to belabor Elizabeth Gilbert as an example (can you tell I’m a big fan?), but when I saw her speak recently, she gave some wonderful historical context for just how we came to be this way in western society. She spoke about the notion of “creative genius” and how it was originally thought of an expression of divine inspiration that would visit and flow through particular individuals. Then, sometime after the renaissance and the advent of rational humanism, “genius” was understood as something that actually took up inside certain people, rather than flow through us. So people were seen as “being a genius” instead of “having a genius.”

So in this context, it would make sense why we have such angst and fear around our own creativity and drive and inspiration. In this model, there is no flow, there is only a pile of internal pressure and expectations to have all the answers. In this model, all the doorways to the universe or divine grace have signs on them that read, “out of order”. So back to self-reliance we go.

But here is what I’ve come to appreciate: if you can hang out on top of the horses and keep your balance in check, there is a lot of ease and power than can find its way into your life. What once was a solitary slogging through a mine field, can become a graceful dance with a little cha-cha-cha thrown in to boot.

Simply put, the horses can ride together a lot better than we give them credit for. In fact, they were originally trained with just that in mind – it’s just that the damn rider got in the way so many times it messed up their once perfectly organic relationship.

So here is an invitation to play more intentionally with who you are in relation to the greater power you believe in. Reacquaint your horses with one another, adjust your saddle or get a new one. Experiment with loosening your hold on the reins but resist the urge to drop them all together. Recalibrate yourself daily as you teach yourself how to ride again and, as Gilbert suggests, you will eventually “assume custodial responsibility for the maintenance of your own soul.”

Ebbing

Posted November 20th, 2009

I have to say right off the bat: I struggle with this. I know in my head and heart that ebbing is part of the natural order – or rather rhythm – of things. I really do. I get that it’s natural and it should be expected. It’s the reason for our cycles and seasons. It’s how the wheel of the year – and our lives – keeps turning. And yet every month and every year I find myself resisting it – kicking and screaming and resisting the ebb tide after a good dose of flowing.

So you know what I’m talking about, right? We ebb and flow just as the tides do. As creatures that are made up of 80% water that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. We wax and wane, we have times of intense light and times of deep darkness. We extend outward and then retract inward. It’s the Yin and Yang of life and it just is – always has been, always will be. And here’s the clincher for me: we don’t have any control over it. The wheel keeps on turning – with our without our permission.

And yet when I hit a period of ebbing, I react in the strangest way. All at once, I am startled, angry, resentful, inconvenienced and thoroughly annoyed – like a petulant little girl stomping her foot saying “No!” And then comes the feeling of isolation. Of having been abandoned. That’s when my fight gives way to panic.

But here’s the weird part: I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I actually got called on it by my coach during one of my most recent hissy fits. I related my experience at the time of standing in the mud flats – not being able to move, feeling really isolated and stranded – with my back to the shore and the water way out ahead of me. The lowest part of low tide. From this perspective, I could sense others like myself situated at various points of the mud flats – some out further as I was, some closer to shore. It occurred to me at that moment that I chose this. I followed the tide out until my feet got stuck and slowed me to a stop. And now I was throwing a fit about it.

I recently listened to a Ingrid Michaelson song (The Chain) that perfectly described this sensation at the peak of low tide:

The sky looks pissed
The wind talks back
My bones are shifting in my skin
And you, my love, are gone

My room seems wrong
The bed won’t fit
I cannot seem to operate
And you, my love, are gone

Viewed from this context, the “love” referred to in this song is my own: self love. I’ve come to see that now. I realize that in the fight and resistance of my own ebbing, I have tended to abandon myself. In essence, I have become a ‘fair weather friend” to myself – truly loving myself only as I flow, but withholding love as I ebb. No wonder I tend to resist the whole journey. I’ve been unconditionally loving myself.

And here’s the thing: I’m not alone. As my practice centers primarily on working with women, I have come to see this is a common pattern among women. I suspect because, unlike our male counterparts, we are built to experience cycles monthly in addition to annually. So we get more opportunities and consequently more practice with the ebb and flow cycle.

I see women in my practice exhibit similar behaviors as ebbing occurs. These are the times that we are heavy with emotion, whether it be angst, anger or sorrow. It is at these times that I hear clients use phrases like “beating myself up”, “can’t get out of my own way”, or “so hard on myself.” It’s a raw time when things seem to lurk just under the surface of the skin. Women expresss a desire to “be gentle with myself”, but struggle to know how to go about doing just that.

Sound familiar?

In trying to understand this pattern – in myself and in my clients – I look to two primary forces: our society and the culture of “flowing” we clearly value and the innate wisdom of our bodies.

In Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slowness:Challenging the Cult of Speed, he maps out the culture we have created and the danger that lurks therein. Quite simply, he drives home the message that our “model” in modern day society is not sustainable. Forced to go, go, go – with little to no time to recharge and restore (let alone reflect), we deplete our internal resources and eventually break down. He uses countless examples to illustrate how this “culture of speed” is an addiction and is destructive in nature. He makes a case for the need to SLOW down – essentially inviting us to rediscover and harness the power of “ebbing.”

Dr. Christiane Northrup is one of my favorite people when it comes to honoring the nature of women’s bodies and women’s wisdom. She’s written countless books on the subject, but one of her recent PBS specials really stopped me in my tracks. She was inviting women – and society at large – to reframe the antiquated and erroneous assumption that P.M.S. (formerly “Pre-Menstrual Syndrome”) be viewed from an entirely different (and ancient) perspective. By reminding us of the power that lives within our bodies and of the inner guidance system that we have access to as a result, she reveals that women are a source of deep wisdom and knowing. In that vein, she suggested we look at PMS – often a time when we are mocked, trivialized or dismissed – with a bit more reverence, suggesting it is a time of “Pre-Menstrual Strength.” It is during this time – the pinnacle of ebbing – that we are closest to meaning in ourselves and the world as a whole. We come face to face with what is unfinished or lacking and gain clarity on what is most meaningful to us. In a way, Dr. Northrup invites us to see this time as “going to our well” – the place that holds our truth.

In my own experience, I have come to refer to this “well” as my Pit of Despair (that particular phrase is meant to be said in a uber-dramatic craggily-voiced sort of way, much like the Billy Crystal character from The Princess Bride.)

So every month, without fail, I pack my bags and head to into my Pit of Despair. Some trips are easier than others, but I’m beginning to take some proud ownership in that territory of my life. Here’s what I’ve come to appreciate about those trips:

  • Fighting, whining, dragging my feet, bitching and moaning…it’s all part of the process of me getting ready to go to the Pit. Each distinct emotion and reaction is like a rung on my ladder down.
  • The sooner I get down to the bottom, the sooner I can climb back up
  • There IS a bottom (my mantra when panic sets in)
  • The deeper I go down, the higher I soar up
  • There is something to be said for wallowing – it’s a fine art deserving of some distinction
  • This cycle will happen with our without my permission or help
  • There is a direct connection to the Pit and my creativity
  • The trip out of the Pit (flowing) is SO rewarding and fulfilling
  • There is a renewal of pride and resourcefulness with each trip down and up
  • There is no such thing as a “bad” trip to the Pit – something “good” always comes of it
  • Loving myself at the bottom of the Pit takes a lot of intention and is critical to my health

At its core, ebbing is about surrender – to ourselves, to the natural rhythms of our lives, to our higher power, to our wisdom. It’s about throwing down the reins and allowing ourselves to be restored and “held” by something other than our minds, our muscles or our sheer determination. It’s about letting it all hanging out. It’s about letting our sensitive underbellies show and be vulnerable. It requires a fair degree of humility and a bucket load of faith. It’s about opening our eyes and hearts to what we fear most, while continuing to love ourselves for our humanness and our capacity to feel those feelings and think those thoughts. Paradoxically, it’s a celebration of life and living that can feel like death and dying. Like the archetypal phoenix rising from the flames, we will be reborn from the ashes and once again flow as a high tide.

So at the ripe age of 41, I’m staking some ground around my trips to the Pit. I might still look as though I’m resisting them, but if I were to be really honest about it, my life is much richer as a result.