The hidden messages of physical tension

In my own life and in working with massage clients, I’ve noticed a pattern: When we don’t create and maintain healthy boundaries in our relationships, it seems that our bodies try to compensate by creating physical “boundaries,” which we then experience as tension, constriction, or illness.

Here are just a few examples:

  • We say yes to plans that we don’t want to do, and then we get sick and can’t go.
  • We don’t speak our truth, we agree to things we don’t actually agree with, say things we don’t mean, and we lose our voice or feel tension in our neck and jaw.
  • We feel like we have to do everything ourselves or it won’t get done, so we take on other people’s stuff and our back starts to hurt.
  • We repeatedly ignore our intuition and walk into situations we know aren’t good for us, and our knees and feet start acting up.

Our bodies are wonderfully unique, so the ways in which your body compensates could be quite different from this list, but the basic concept remains: We need healthy boundaries to exist in this world, and if we’re not setting them in our relationships, our bodies will pick up the slack.

This might sound bizarre, but you are likely familiar with a more extreme example of this: trauma. Whether it be in your own life or someone you know, it’s all too easy to see the link between a traumatic boundary violation and the body’s ability to remember and “record” this violation in the form of tension, illness, hypersensitivity to touch, and so forth.

While this is a massive topic, too wide ranging to completely cover here, let’s talk about a couple ways to explore this concept in your own life and in your own body.

Find the tension

For starters, get in touch with where in your body you feel tension or discomfort. Quite often, we’re so used to feeling, say, constriction in our jaw or a dull ache in our knees that we don’t even notice it anymore.

Take some time to sit, stand, or lay down, and do a body scan, slowly moving your awareness from your head to your toes, sensing any tension or pain. If this feels difficult, try tensing each part of your body individually, and notice what it feels like when you release this tension. Can you sense that your body isn’t fully releasing in any areas?

To see what hidden tension feels like, try this simple exercise. If you spend a good amount of time sitting (like most of us do these days), you might be surprised by what you find in this pose. Lay on the floor, either on carpet or some other cushioning, like a yoga mat. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart, heels about a foot away from your butt. An easy way to measure this is to start with your feet directly below your knees, then scooch them another 3-4″ away from your hips.

Rest your hands on your belly or down by your sides, palms facing down (don’t bring your arms above your head or up by your shoulders as this changes the stretch). Take some time to get in touch with your breathing, slowing down the inhales and exhales for at least ten rounds of breath.

Now, shift your awareness to your hips. Do you notice any tension there, any sense that something is holding on to keep your legs locked in position?

Then, try this: move your awareness to your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs), noticing the length from the backs of your knees all the way to your glutes. If you imagine letting this length elongate or soften, like a wet noodle, do you feel any resistance, maybe tension kicking in to keep your knees from falling open or collapsing inward?

Play with this for a few more rounds of breath, and when you’re ready to come out, roll onto your side and rest in fetal position for a few breaths before slowly moving up to a seated position.

Bonus: In doing this exercise, you also gave your psoas muscle a chance to release.

Play with symbolism

Once you’ve located at least one area of tension, focus your awareness there. For example, if your shoulders are tense, you might choose to close your eyes and bring your attention to your shoulders. What does tension feel like in this area–how would you describe it? Do any phrases or images come to mind, even if they don’t make sense?

Start to play with any words or phrases, any images that arise in a more figurative way. For example, if you described your shoulder tension as “shrugging,” perhaps as you turn it over in your mind, you associate this with shrugging in indecision, which then leads you to the awareness that you’ve become disconnected from what you want, think, and feel because you’re overly focused on what other people want, think and feel.

You see yourself in a situation where someone is asking you to do something, and while you don’t feel excited about it you find yourself shrugging and agreeing: “Sure, why not?”

This leads you to the realization that you don’t feel like you have a right to assert your own wants and needs, that it’s rude or selfish to do so, and you start to see how every denial of your own experience creates a little more stress, a little more tension in your shoulders until you can’t remember what it felt like to have shoulders that weren’t creeping up towards your ears, aching for a massage.

Help a body out

Of course, finding the tension and uncovering the emotional and energetic layers is just the beginning. To release that tension, you’ll need to combine physical efforts, such as bodywork and stretching, with creating boundaries in healthier ways so your body doesn’t have to do that for you.

If you continue to rely on your body to create relationship boundaries, tension will persist, regardless of how many massages or yoga classes you’ve had this month. To deepen the healing, you might try reading books about boundary setting, codependence, and healthy communication. This is a great place to start.

But like any change, you have to actually practice it and live it, not just read and think about it. Therapy is an excellent tool for unlearning unhelpful boundary patterns and learning new ways of relating to yourself and others.

If you notice that trying to set boundaries feels uncomfortable–perhaps you feel guilty or selfish when you say no–therapy can help you uncover the “rules” you learned, likely as a child, that it feels like you’re violating by setting healthy boundaries. It can help you rewrite your life rules on your own terms in a way that allows you the space to express yourself authentically.

And the more space you create in your life through healthy boundaries, the more spaciousness you will feel in your body. It’s a win-win.

Why We Must Burn Away Our Fear

On the last New Moon (July 23), I performed a ritual to prepare myself for what is known as a Black Moon Cycle. A Black Moon occurs when two New Moons fall within the same solar month; the second of the two moons is known as a Black Moon. While New Moons in general are a potent time for setting intentions and starting new endeavors, a Black Moon ushers in a period of momentous change, which lasts until the next Black Moon (July 31, 2019). This period is marked by major transformations, transformations that can alter the very course of our lives.

My guides led me on a meditation during my Black Moon ritual, and in this meditation, I visited each of the twelve astrological houses to receive guidance relevant to each house. If you’re unfamiliar with astrological houses, you can think of them as different areas of your life. The first house, for example, is related to our sense of self, our identity. It’s very connected to our survival instinct, and often, many of the actions of the first house are instinctive and automatic unless we’ve done work to make these patterns more conscious.

And it is in this first house that I received a message related to fear and its effects, not only during this life but beyond.

When I entered the first house, I found myself in my grandparents’ house, where I lived for the first few years of my life. Traveling through the rooms, I encountered different family members, each engaged in activities ranging from curious to disturbing, and each with important messages. But it was in the living room where I met one of my ancestors, and I began to cry when I saw that his skin and hair were smoking and glowing, like the embers of a fire.

“What is happening to you?” It was almost unbearable to see him this way, and he replied, “Burn away in life what does not serve or you will burn in death.”

We only had what seemed like brief moments to talk before he disappeared, but he explained that this burning is not a punishment, it is merely a necessary freeing of the soul from the baggage accumulated in life. He said, “In life, we use fear as an excuse to accumulate ‘protective’ baggage, from actual, physical things to rigid beliefs and patterns of being. This all must be burned away if our souls are to return to their original state after death.”

He explained that this is where our images of hell come from–this burning away, this purging of all that does not serve, the things we could have released in life but chose to cling to instead. Again, this burning isn’t done as punishment–it’s a necessary release of dead weight, but it is far better to willingly choose to release these things here, now, in life, so that our journey into death can be one of joy and peace.

Trial By Fire

How do we, as my ancestor described, “burn away in life what does not serve”? This advice reminds me of the alchemical step of calcination, the burning away of ego “detritus” that is preventing us from seeing ourselves and everything and everyone around us as Divine. A powerful way to engage the process of calcination is an exercise that I like to call Trial By Fire.

Trial By Fire can be performed anytime you are struggling with fear in its many forms: limited or rigid beliefs, procrastination, “over analysis paralysis” (aka, getting stuck in endless thinking and never doing), perfectionism, negative self-talk, shame, harmful competition and comparison, harsh judgement of self and others, and the list goes on.

While the antidote is simple, it’s not always easy: To perform Trial By Fire, you take action. End of story. When you’re afraid of teaching that workshop, you do it anyway. When you’re afraid of publishing that blog post because perfectionism would have you tweaking it from now until the end of time, you do it anyway. When you’re afraid to apply for that job because limited beliefs are convincing you that it can’t possibly work out, you do it anyway.

Take action. We burn away fear by dragging it into the light of reality, by putting fear’s loud theories to the test. Did we actually die as a result of giving that workshop? Did the internet explode because we published that imperfect post? Did our lives self-destruct because we applied for that job? Nope, nope, and nope.

Fear’s power lies in its ability to prevent us from taking action. It keeps us stuck in our heads, thinking that we’re somehow safe by not doing anything. But all this time, we’re accumulating layer upon layer of “protective” baggage; our souls are getting heavier and heavier each time we allow fear to dictate our choices.

Fear sounds awfully convincing, but it’s nothing more than a slick marketing campaign, designed to keep you numbed out and mindlessly consuming something–anything–to distract yourself from fear’s dire predictions.

To lighten your load, willingly choose to burn away the things that no longer serve you. Acknowledge your fear, and do it anyway. Stop waiting for some imagined “perfect” opportunity. Embrace what’s in the here and now; be willing to sacrifice the perfect fantasy and challenge the fear-based thoughts.

Put them to the test.

Subject them to a Trial By Fire.

What action can you take today?


Until August 17, 2017, I am offering a special Black Moon Session at my healing practice in Columbia, MO. Learn more here.

What To Do When You Feel Stuck

In the tarot, the suit of swords corresponds to the mental realm, for, just like a sword, the mind is double edged. It can cut through confusion and generate new ideas, but it can also lead us through a labyrinth of unproductive thoughts.

When we don’t know how to use our minds in a soul-aligned way, the mind ends up using us.

What does this look like? In a nutshell, we equate our thoughts with reality with far too little questioning of the leaps and assumptions the mind loves to make, and then we take action based on this faulty chain of “reasoning.” Or, just as likely, we take no action at all because we feel stuck.

The Ego Comes a Knockin’

An example from my own life: My husband and I just moved last month, and I’ve found myself more prone to ego chatter as I work to rebuild my healthy routines in our new home. In the midst of all of this, I went to a class taught by one of my favorite teachers, and I found myself ruminating on the way home over things that I’d said, wishing I hadn’t been so quiet and shy, and on and on and on the ego chatter went.

The following day, I ran into a friend who is also a student of this teacher, and he was telling me what a great experience he had connecting with our teacher over lunch, how the teacher had commended him on such and such, and so forth.

As soon as I said goodbye to my friend and got in the car, I could feel  my ego mind ready and raring to go–oooooh, baby! Let’s do this! My ego was practically foaming at the mouth as it dove head first into Comparison Hell, a realm it knows all to well.

Cue The Witness

But then, my Higher Self stepped in, and I was able, instead, to just watch as the ego splashed around in the mud, riling up emotions and churning out more cyclical thoughts. To be sure, I was still feeling all of the emotions and sensations–embarrassment, the sickness in my stomach, the heat rushing to my chest and face, jealousy, the ants under my skin–but I was also aware that there is a part of me that is not that.

The ego came up with a plan–it loves its plans–which, as always, consisted of only two options, both unappealing. Here’s what it offered me:

  1. I could break away from this teacher and the student group I was a member of, even though they was having an immensely positive impact on my life.
  2. I could obsessively compete with my friend, so my teacher would see that I was better.

Really, ego? That’s all you’ve got for me?

The thing is, me five years ago would have believed these thoughts through and through. I would have felt genuinely stuck, agonizing between leaving the group or trying to find a way to look better than my friend.

And while it might seem easy to spot the ego’s game, reading it here in black and white, how often do you find yourself in situations where you feel truly torn between two unattractive options that seem, legitimately, like the only game in town? How often do you listen to friends as they flip flop back and forth between alternatives they have no real desire to pursue?

How the Ego Keeps Us Stuck

Ninety-nine percent of the tarot readings I perform are about dilemmas generated from this ego space. It’s no wonder that we feel stuck–we don’t want to move forward in any of the directions the ego is presenting, and when we believe these are the only roads out of our situation, it makes sense that we stall or even try to move backward.

The problem is rarely our actual circumstances, as counter-intuitive as that might sound–the problem comes down to our information source.

Think of the ego as a news channel, like Fox News, for example. If you base your view of the world and the decisions you make on this one information source–well, you’ll have a very limited view of the world, and your decisions will reflect this limitation. You’ll find yourself facing similar circumstances no matter where you go or whom you’re with, because the lens through which you’re viewing and interpreting these different circumstances remains the same.

The ego likes to boil everything down to black and white, because it doesn’t have the ability to process more complex situations. The issue is that reality, by its very nature, is complex, so when we’re relying on the ego’s simplified snapshot of events, we are automatically disconnected from reality. We are living in our heads.

In mainstream culture, we’re taught that this is the only way to go. We’re taught that relying on anything other than our heads is foolish, and this further strengthens our belief that our ego chatter is real and must be heeded.

The thing is, if this method was working as well as promised, we’d see it. We wouldn’t be riddled with anxiety and depression, feeling trapped in our own lives, stuck between a rock and a hard place. The proof is in the pudding. It’s time for us to see the limitations of the ego.

The ego mind is meant to be a tool. We are not meant to be a tool of the ego mind.

…And How We Can Break Free

In order to shift our relationship with the ego, it’s time to step into our power. We do this by:

  • becoming the Witness to the ego’s chatter, rather than diving in, participating, and identifying with the noise.
  • questioning everything the ego says. When it presents us with certainties, respond to everything with, “I wonder if…” and “What if I tried…”
  • recognizing that we have the power. In every moment, we have the option to listen to the ego…or not. Just because the ego is talking doesn’t mean we have to listen, much less do what it says.

To return to my example, here’s what this practice looked like for me.

While driving home, I watched the ego chattering away about how I should go about competing with my friend, and how I would have to leave the community if that didn’t “work.” The simple act of witnessing the chatter allowed me to see that the chatter is not me. I don’t have to identify with the chatter. It’s just chatter.

When we identify with the chatter, we’re left feeling that we won’t be okay unless we resolve the issue and hurryupandmakeadecision! The ego has to have a plan, pronto, even if it’s a disastrously shitty one, in order to feel safe. You have the power to resist the ego’s frantic planning.

The irony is that this planning actually generates anxiety, even though the ego thinks planning is its only ward against anxiety. Again, the proof’s in the pudding. If the ego’s planning was actually working to alleviate anxiety, why are we so damn anxious all the time, and why do we feel so much anxiety specifically when we’re engaged in this ego-driven planning–what should I do, what should I do, what should I do? It’s simple: because it doesn’t work.

Then, I questioned the ego’s assertions that I could either leave or compete.

“Hmmm…I see that you’re feeling really intense about this, and you’re feeling the need to make a decision immediately, but I’m going to stay open to possibilities, ego. I love this community and don’t want to leave it, and I also love my friend and don’t want to compete with him. I trust that there’s another way, even though I don’t know what it is yet. There’s no rush. I’m open to options that are correct and for the good of all to make themselves known.”

And then I rolled down the windows, breathed in the fresh air, focused on the sunshine, and felt my mind start to clear. In that moment, I noticed that I was driving by a park, and with the ego chatter turned down a couple of notches, I was able to hear my intuition’s guidance to go for a walk.

I pulled over and started to walk. I wasn’t trying to figure anything out; my only “plan” was to be present. To look at the flowers and trees, to feel the earth beneath my feet, and to trust that this was a valid alternative to obsessively planning and trying to figure everything out.

And then, about ten minutes into my walk, the truth washed over me like a calming wave. The truth that I didn’t need to do anything. There was no situation to fix. I didn’t need to leave or compete. That sick, uneasy feeling in my stomach wasn’t a product of the external circumstances; it was generated by my ego. It wasn’t proof that something was wrong and needed to be fixed. It was simply the bruising of the ego. A bruise. Nobody’s dying here. I’m safe.

The ego can convince us of anything if we let it.

It can convince us that everything is an emergency.

That we can only choose A or B.

That we aren’t safe until we decide.

But all this convincing and clamoring doesn’t make it true.

You can choose to shut down all forms of guidance and turn up the ego channel, believing that this will keep you safe and “on track.”

Or you can remain open.

You can trust that there are other ways of knowing.

That planning isn’t everything.

That a life well lived isn’t linear.

That you don’t have to know everything to be safe.

That you’re okay, right here, right now.

And in this space that you’ve staked out, free from the chattering of the ego, the wisdom and clarity you’re seeking…appears.

You Are Shaping Your Reality Right Now

The idea that our thoughts create, or at the very least influence, our reality is becoming ever more mainstream, but I’ve noticed an interesting disconnect happening for many of us. A disconnect between what I’ll call our real-time thoughts and our “special,” mindful thoughts. Let me explain.

Meet Sara…

Sara’s a big believer in the Law of Attraction and the power of thought. She spends time meditating and focusing on what she wants, and she has positive affirmations taped to her bathroom mirror.

Sara also has a really stressful job, and most nights after work she finds herself complaining with her friends over a glass of wine about work meetings, project overload, and irritating coworkers. Throughout the day, she finds herself resentful of the fact that she’s doing more work than the other people in her department, and she knows that if she tries to cut back on her work load, things will fall apart.

When we see this scenario described in two short paragraphs, it’s easy to spot the opposing forces at play, but often, when we’re in the midst of our lives, it can seem like the two are separate and unrelated.

All Thoughts Have Power

We often think that the thoughts we have when we’re consciously working to generate positive thinking are the true blueprint for our reality. They’re what I call the special, mindful thoughts, and they feel special simply because we’re paying attention when we create them.

But the fact is, all of our thoughts are shaping our reality. Our “real-time” thoughts that run throughout the entire day, whether we’re aware of them or not, are also woven into the blueprint of our reality. Our after-work complaint sessions that feel oh so hard to resist are shaping our reality just as much as those positive affirmations.

There is no separation between the thoughts we’re mindful of and the thoughts that mindlessly fill our minds. And I would argue that because the latter typically takes up the bulk of our thinking, they’re even more powerful.

Doing the Energetic Math

Think of this in energetic terms: If you spend a good portion of your day worrying about how you’re going to get everything done, resenting people for not doing more, mulling over fears about x, y, and z, focusing on things that trigger anxiety, feeling guilty because you’re not doing such and such–this is a massive amount of energy that is being generated and directed at unwanted things.

Is it any wonder then that these unwanted things take up so much of our lives? Our positive affirmations, done maybe a few times a day at best, are working against a tsunami of opposition.

So, while it’s tempting to think, “Well, maybe my thoughts don’t have that much of an effect on my reality, because those affirmations sure don’t seem to be working,” instead we discover that our thoughts are massively powerful–we’re just thinking way more about what we don‘t want than about what we do.

Waiting for the World to Change

Let’s look at this disconnect from another angle. We might think that if only we could change our external circumstances, then our thoughts would follow suit. If Circumstance A were no longer an issue, then we wouldn’t “have to” worry. If Annoying Person would just stop being so annoying already, then we wouldn’t “have to” think about how annoying they are all the time.

We wait for external situations to change before we are willing to change our minds.

And we will be waiting a very long time, indeed.

When we realize how truly powerful our thoughts and words are, we don’t take them so lightly. We see complaining for the powerful act of reality-shaping that it really is, and we aren’t as quick to indulge in a “harmless” complain-a-thon to blow off steam.

We see all of our thoughts and words as potent spells that create the world we live in.

We begin to see the connection between the ever-present, nagging thought that we’re not doing enough and the reality of our jam-packed work load. (If only I could get all of these things done, then I’ll feel like I’ve done enough–that I am enough.)

We see the connection between thoughts that our body is the enemy and hating all of the ways it doesn’t work and the reality of our health issues. (If only my body would work better, then I’d stop hating it.)

We see the connection between thoughts that we can’t rely on anyone else to get the job done and the reality of feeling unsupported and surrounded by people who aren’t pulling their weight. (If only people would step up and do their share, then I could stop doing everything myself.)

The Ego Always Wants Proof

The ego will challenge us when we work to change our thoughts in absence of “proof” that the change is justified. But our ego isn’t concerned with whether or not we’re happy; it just wants to feel safe and secure, and the best way it knows how to do this is to deliver up more of the same–even if more of the same is making us miserable.

Our ego will have us stick to our thoughts until the day we die, railing against all of the external circumstances that just never seem to change.

Our soul, on the other hand, is ready for something so much bigger.

While the ego is busy fortifying the walls of our prison, the soul is peering out the window, marveling at all of the wonders we’ve yet to experience.

The soul is ready to trust that life can be so much more fulfilling than anything the ego has to offer. That there are options in abundance, even when the ego feels defeated and choice-less.

The soul knows that no matter how impossible external circumstances might seem, there is always room to shift and change within ourselves, and that this is where our true power lies. Not in resentfully waiting for or trying to force others to change, but in changing ourselves. For when we do, we no longer see things in the same way. We can’t. We’ve changed.

When your ego is hellbent on focusing all of your energy on trying to change your external circumstances, press pause.

Allow your soul to speak. Your ego certainly has been allowed more than its fair share of air time. Your soul will invite you to change the way you think, to change the way you speak, even when the external circumstances remain the same.

Your soul is wise. Allow it to change your mind.

Permit your soul the honor of using your precious thought energy to create your reality. Trust me, your soul is much better suited for the job than your ego ever will be.


P.S. Check out this powerful method for nipping complaining in the bud.

The Secret Ingredient for Manifestation

These days, most of us have at least heard of manifestation and the Law of Attraction–but do they work? And if so, why aren’t they working for us as well as we’d like?

The good news is that, yes, manifestation works. It isn’t broken, and neither are you. You’re just overlooking a secret ingredient that’s vital to the process.

Download my free eBook here and discover what’s missing and how to get it back.

Can We Experience Flow Even in Crappy Times?

In spiritual circles, when someone says they’re experiencing a state of flow, they usually mean things are going well. Or, put another way, things are going the way that they want them to.

But can we experience flow when things are unpleasant? Or does unpleasantness signify that we’re disconnected from flow?

Flow, in my mind, is a neutral term. It doesn’t preference a pleasant flow over an unpleasant one. It simply means that things are, well, flowing.

Google tells us that the verb flow means to “move along or out steadily and continuously in a current or stream.”

So, flow implies movement of some kind. Movement of what? Energy. Energy in the form of our body, our thoughts, our emotions, the events we’re experiencing, and anything and everything in between.

If flow itself is neutral, how do we experience flow when events are unpleasant? The same way we do when events are pleasant: by allowing.

Is Allowing Weak?

The concept of allowing is often a hard one to cozy up to, especially in a culture that emphasizes taking action–even rash, dangerous action–over stillness, where stillness is seen as a weakness. But allowing is, at its core, an acceptance of reality.

Think about this: When we are in a situation, whatever we’ve experienced has already happened. So what we’re really debating is whether or not we want to allow something that has already happened to happen. We can debate this all day long, and the experience has already taken place. It’s done. Whether we choose to “allow” it or not is really just an illusion of control.

When we allow, we accept reality at face value. This happened. Now what?

Now, we can choose how to respond, and this is where our power truly lies. Not in wishing the past hadn’t happened. Not in pretending that if we don’t allow something into our reality it ceases to exist (this is called delusion).

This brings us to the two important skills that enable us to engage in flow. Think of these as the on/off switch for your personal life flow. If you’re feeling stuck, flip the flow switch on by engaging these two skills.

1. Observe what is.

This is a big part of contemplative practices from many spiritual traditions, the practice of simply observing reality.

Imagine that you are a reporter and your only task is to describe what is occurring as objectively as possible. You don’t need to add your subjective interpretation (“This is bad,” “She’s being mean”); simply stick to observable, factual occurrences. This might be external or internal.

  • There’s a baby crying in a row behind me.
  • My heart is beating faster than it was before.
  • That driver switched lanes without using a turn signal.
  • The grass feels cool between my toes.

The above told from a subjective, interpretive position might look like:

  • That baby is driving me nuts! Why aren’t the parents doing anything?!
  • I can’t believe he just said that to me! What an asshole!
  • Well, la di da–look who feels they don’t need to use their turn signal! *honk*
  • Oooh, that feels nice…

It might seem robotic to take in life through observations, but there’s immense power to be had in this process because it allows us to take in more of life than what our subjective filters allow. We’re able to receive details that don’t match up with our interpretations, and thus, our picture of reality and our place within it expands.

This practice is especially powerful when combined with…

2. Feeling our feelings.

In addition to our objective awareness, we also have our emotional experience, and when we learn how to tap into this skillfully, it becomes a wonderful asset.

Quite simply, feeling our feelings is just what it sounds like: allowing ourselves to have the emotional experience that is arising, as it arises. There is a vast difference between feeling our feelings and acting out or reacting to our feelings, and we are aiming for the former. I am not advocating lashing out in anger or giving someone the silent treatment–both are examples of acting out our feelings.

Feeling our feelings is an inside job. When anger arises, we sit with it. We feel the accompanying sensations in our body, and we can use the tools of observation to name them, if we need help staying present. “My heart is beating faster. I feel a warmth in my throat. My hands are clenching.”

We resist the urge to tell other people about our feelings in the moment, waiting until we ourselves have felt the feelings first. This allows us to truly integrate our emotional experience, rather than distancing ourselves from it by venting, creating interpretive storylines, casting blame, etc.

This Is How We Flow

With these two skills–observing what is and feelings our feelings in response to what is–we are working with reality. We are allowing reality to be what it already is, and we are receiving information from both our objective mind and our subjective emotions with the purpose of choosing a mindful response, in contrast to mindlessly reacting to events and resisting reality.

This is flow. This is allowing life to occur as it occurs, and mindfully choosing how we want to respond.

And allowing, again, is not merely passive. When we choose how to respond, we alter the path of flow, and we experience that altered flow as the next batch of life experiences.

Thus, allowing and mindfully responding are the foundation for living in a state of ease. Not necessarily a state of easy, but ease. Rather than trying to force reality to be what it is not, we are accepting reality for what it is, and this ushers in a feeling of ease.

When we resist allowing reality to penetrate our awareness, we delude ourselves into a state of dis-ease. We feel disconnected from ease–we feel dis-eased– because, deep down, we know reality is not as we are pretending it to be, and we can never quite shake the discordance without fragmenting our psyche to a greater or lesser degree.

But when we allow reality to be as it is, we’re no longer funneling our energy into the impossible: changing what has already occurred. We’re laser focused on using the information gleaned from past occurrences to choose how we want to shape what is yet to be.

And this, my friend, is what it is to flow.

Breaking the Grip of Perfectionism Through Yoga

In yoga, as in life, it’s easy to get tangled up in the net of perfection. We see someone in the “fullest expression” of a yoga pose, and this becomes our end goal. Anything short of achieving this end goal is viewed as merely a way station to getting there.

But where, exactly, are we getting to? If we really stop and think, is it realistic to assume that once we’re finally able to get our leg over our head into bendy-pretzel pose, then, for real this time, we’ll be complete?

Of course not. Because life will continue on even after we’ve mastered bendy-pretzel pose. We’ll still have bills to pay and dentist appointments. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s book title captures this well: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”

But if we’re not reaching for perfection, what then? How do we approach yoga, and life, without the endless drive to attain some imagined end goal?

Attachment to Form

About a year ago, I was struggling with fear over starting a new business, because I was worried it might take away from my first business, which I still loved and had no intention of closing. My guides gave me a useful tool to help explore this fear and to transform it: the idea of attachment to form.

They explained that everything we perceive in the manifest world (i.e. the things we can perceive through our five senses) is a temporary form–our bodies, our jobs, that rock over there, my business that I was so afraid of ruining. Energy flows through these forms and is temporarily housed in these forms. As physical beings, it’s often easier for us to perceive the forms than it is for us to perceive the energy within them, just in the same way that it’s probably easier for you to feel your skin than your aura.

What this means is that we’re predisposed to thinking that reality consists of the form and the form alone. It’s harder for us to see that, even when the form passes away, the energy still exists, available to enliven another form. And thus, we get really, really attached to particular forms. For example, with my business, I was really attached to a specific form of experiencing the energy that was temporarily housed in my current business, and I was afraid that if that form changed, I’d lose my connection to this energy. In truth, the things that I love about my business can be experienced in a multitude of forms if I am open to that possibility.

When we become overly attached to specific forms, we often blind ourselves to the possibility of experiencing that energy in any other way, but by working on the fear and attachment, we liberate ourselves and see that we can experience that energy over here and over here…and over there, too.

What’s this got to do with yoga?

If we shift our thinking, we can see that physical yoga poses are forms. They are temporary forms in which energy can be experienced. Let’s think of down dog for a moment and pretend that the “ideal” version of the pose looks something like this (image from YogaJournal.com):

Think of this image like the container of the pose. You are not restricted, however, to only experiencing the energy flowing through this pose by achieving a posture that looks exactly like that. If you use the pose as a way to explore energy, perhaps your energy flows into your legs and you notice that you want to bend your knees. Or maybe you want to lift your heels off the mat. Or you want to feel the elongation of your spine but instead you want to drop down and do it on your mat, in child’s pose.

All of these are ways to experience the energy flowing through you in relationship to the container or temporary form of down dog. Your pose might not look anything like the one above and yet you’re experiencing that energy just beautifully, thank you very much.

When we release the belief that the ideal in our mind is the end goal and instead treat it merely as inspiration to explore, we don’t force our body into poses that might be doing more harm than good based on our unique anatomy and physiology. We don’t force ourselves into a variation of a pose simply because we were able to do it yesterday. Or because the person next to us in class is doing it. Or because the photo we saw in Yoga Journal looks so freakin’ cool.

We use the forms of yoga poses to have a conversation with our body, to learn what our energy feels like when it’s flowing this way or that, and it’s hard to hear the conversation when we’re busy shouting over it with our ideas of what the perfect pose looks like and the fear that we’re not doing it right.

Yoga can be a time to practice letting go of our habitual ways of relating to the world, a time to release the fear that if we’re not perfect, we’re unworthy. To experiment with variations of a pose and finding that even when it doesn’t match the ideal in our mind, hey, look at that–the world didn’t explode. We’re still fine.

Or it can be a time to reinforce the habits we exhibit in the world. We can use our practice to force and strive, to struggle and berate ourselves for not being perfect.

We have a choice. And no matter what we chose yesterday or five minutes ago, we have the power to choose differently in each present moment.

If you’re forcing your body into pretzel bend, even though you can feel a tweak in your lower back and you can’t remember the last time you breathed, choose now to pause. Breathe in softness and self-acceptance. Breathe out fear. Breathe in love.

Listen to your body. What’s your spine saying to you in this pose? Your knees? Your heart?

Remember what it feels like for movement to be fun and exploratory. We all did it naturally as kids and we can get it back–one breath, one pose at a time.

#perfectionIsBoring

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A Radical Perspective Shift for the New Year

What is an archetype, and, perhaps more importantly, why should we care? I like exploring the etymology of words, and Google tells us that “archetype” comes from the Greek arkhetupon, which means “something molded first as a model.” Like a prototype, essentially.

If we move to the world of Jungian psychology, we take this idea into the realm of the psyche. Jung understood archetypes–these prototypes upon which other things are based–as residing in the collective unconscious, which you can think of like a huge soup pot of information that we’re all swimming in, even though it resides outside of our conscious awareness in ordinary, waking life.

I like Wikipedia’s description of Jungian archetypes as “inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world.”

Say what, now? In other words, when these archetypes are floating around in the giant soup pot of the collective unconscious, they exist as pure potential. So, for example, we have the archetype of the Mother or the Saint or the Victim floating around in our collective soup. Each archetype represents the sum total of the potential that the Mother or the Saint or the Victim represents–all the different ways that we could express the energy of the Mother, the Saint, or the Victim in our own minds; in our interactions with others; in art, like movies, myths, and books; and so on. And these are just three examples–there are countless others. There’s an archetype for Love, Power, Justice…and the list goes on.

So, why does this matter in our lives? Well, you can think of these archetypes as the universal paint palette. We all have access to the full set of paints, but how we use them (or don’t use them, as many of us paint with a limited set of colors), dictates the ever-evolving painting that is our life. It dictates whether we experience our life as a puddle of muddy colors or a multi-dimensional masterpiece.

I love this definition of archetypes taken from a fascinating novel, The Seed Collector: Archetypes are “every possible shape an ego can inhabit.” And because our egos are typically front and center when we’re interacting with the world (and when we’re interacting with ourselves), the shapes our ego inhabits defines how we experience life.

In short, our relationship to these archetypes is mega important.

How to Work with Archetypes

All right, so now what? We know the archetypes are super important, but what are we supposed to do with this information?

I’m glad you asked. There are enough answers to this question to keep us busy for multiple lifetimes, because you can explore your relationship to the archetypes through magick, therapy/psychology, religion, ritual, meditation, bodywork, tarot, astrology, etc. But I want to leave you with a very powerful exercise given to me by my Guides. You can explore this exercise in meditation, in journaling, and while you’re going about your daily life. Combine all three approaches and you’ll be treated to rich insights that can propel your personal growth like you wouldn’t believe.

Recall the last time you fell in love or in lust with someone. Really try to put yourself in that space where you couldn’t wait to see this person, where your thoughts were consumed by them, where you felt electric and alive in their presence.

Give yourself time to really embody this experience. And if you’re in this place right now, lucky you! This exercise will be even easier for you.

Now, identify one quality that you perceive in the other person that really lights you up, a quality that you really, really love about them. If this is someone from your past and that love is now in the past tense, recall back to the honeymoon stage and identify one of the qualities that made you fall for this person.

Do you have a quality in mind? All right, now imagine yourself in a situation with this person when they are exhibiting this desirable quality. If it was their sense of humor, imagine being with them as they’re making you laugh. If it’s their ability to listen, imagine being with them as they’re listening intently to what you’re saying.

Staying in the scene, shift your focus internally and take your time as you home in on what, in you, is being activated by the other person’s amazing quality. Perhaps their sense of humor activates in you a feeling that life is fun or safe or enjoyable. Perhaps their ability to listen activates in you the feeling that you’re interesting or smart or worthy.

If you’re visual, you can imagine this quality in them traveling in the form of colored light into your body. See what happens when it enters your energy field. See how you feel. Do any images or memories come to mind? Any thoughts or sounds ? Any physical sensations?

When the experience feels complete, write down your impressions and ground and center yourself in the present.

Dancing With Archetypes

Okay, so what just happened in this exercise? One of the most common ways that we interact with these archetypes is by projecting them onto other people and events. While there are a host of reasons, depending on your views, as to why we do this, my personal experience leads me to believe that one primary reason is it feels safer and more manageable to perceive these qualities as “out there.” If they’re projected onto another person or situation then they’re not our responsibility, and we don’t really have to do anything about them.

When we’re falling in love with another person, I believe that one of the reasons this experience is so intoxicating (beyond the potent cocktail of chemicals flooding our bodies and brains, of course) is that we are able to project all of these idealized images onto the other person, and in that honeymoon stage, we selectively filter out anything that might contradict this ideal. We’re able to take this ideal we hold in our minds and believe that it really exists in the world in the form of our beloved.

These idealized images, though, have very little (and at times, absolutely nothing) to do with who the other person is; they have much more to say about who we want to be. Notice, I didn’t say who we want the other person to be but rather who we want to be.

When I met my husband, I wanted to feel safe and secure, not only because this is a pretty standard human desire but because my past was anything but. My internal world felt like a chaotic brew of fear and instability most days (and my external world was a mirror of this internal state), and I wanted to find my safe harbor in the storm. The calm amidst the chaos.

And so, I projected that stability and calm onto my husband. He was the rock in the relationship.

Until he wasn’t. My husband, of course, is human. He can’t always be stable and calm, nor should he have to be in order for me to feel stable and secure within myself. He’s his own person, not a projection of who I want him to be. Or, more to the point, who I want to be but am afraid to own.

By projecting the qualities of Safety and Stability onto my husband, I absolved myself of the responsibility to activate and cultivate those experiences for myself. And herein lies the trap of projection: Sooner or later, the repository of our projections reveals themselves to be a person in their own right, someone who exists far beyond the bounds of our ideals, and the illusion shatters.

Where we become stuck is when we assume that this is the fault of the other. They’re such a jerk. They aren’t who I thought they were.  To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, when the honeymoon period ends, we often snatch back our precious projections from our partner and go off to find someone else to project them onto.

When we begin to recognize what we are projecting onto the other person, which the above exercise helps to uncover, we can then ask ourselves, where is this quality lying dormant in me, yearning to be awakened? In my example, how can I create my own sense of Safety and Security, rather than expecting my husband to create that for me? For me, the beginning of that journey toward self-activated Safety and Security involved therapy, meditation, journaling, spending a lot of time in nature, and yoga–all done with the intention of getting to know those parts within me that felt unsafe and insecure and welcoming them back home.

When we take back our projections, we are then able to see other people as people in their own right. I’m not sure that we can ever get to a state completely free of projections (while we’re physical beings leading human lives, at least), but my experience says that the more projections we reabsorb and integrate, the more empowered we feel, because we’re owning our ability to interact with and channel these archetypes ourselves. And we are better able to love others for who they are and not merely for their ability to mirror back the qualities we want to see in ourselves.

The Button Pusher Technique

Here’s one more dimension to this practice that is truly life changing: Not only do we project desirable qualities onto other people and situations, we, of course, also project undesirable qualities, such as Selfishness, Pettiness, Hate, and Anger–all of those archetypes that feel like a hot potato we can’t wait to pass off to someone else.

In the same way that we can take back our desirable projections and reintegrate them so, too, can we own the projections that are less than desirable. A powerful way to start this process is to use what I call the Button Pusher Technique.

Imagine that you have a giant console of buttons inside your head. If you’ve seen the movie Inside Out, you have a ready-made visual. In order to feel anything, we push buttons on our internal console. Here’s the key: We are the ones doing the button pushing. No one else has the ability to climb inside our heads and wrestle the console out of our control. If a button is getting pushed, you can know, with 100% certainty, that the finger on the button…is yours.

Let’s say I’m talking to my dad and I feel like he’s uninterested in what I’m saying and, by extension, uninterested in me. For most of my life, I would feel one of two things in this situation: unworthiness, which spurred an almost manic need to figure out how to be what I thought my dad wanted me to be so I could then be the object of his interest, or rage, which felt so overwhelming that I would start to shut down emotionally and feel hollow and…adrift is the best word I can think of.

In either case, I experienced this as my dad pushing the Unworthy Button or the Rage Button, when in fact, there I was, standing at the console, pushing buttons.

There’s an important distinction I want to make, and please hear me on this: Taking back your projections does not mean that the other person is this pure, innocent saint who can do no wrong and we’re simply projecting any perceived poor qualities onto them. This line of thinking tends to lead to resisting the process of taking back our projections, because it feels so unfair that the other person isn’t “on the hook” anymore, and/or putting up with shitty behavior because we think everything the other person does must just be our own projection.

Nope.

When we take back our projections, we do this in order to see ourselves and other people more clearly, and what we see with this added clarity might, in fact, be that the other person is acting like a turd and we don’t want to be around it anymore. Perhaps we see that we’re being a turd and we need to clean up our act with a huge helping of radical self-acceptance. Either way, we become clear on what is ours to deal with and what is the other person’s domain.

The archetypes are universal sources of immense power, available to each and every one of us. The more we explore our personal relationship with these powers, the more we are able to channel them in effective ways. We’re able to paint the picture of our life with more brilliant colors, and in so doing, we feel whole and integrated.

We’re no longer scattering these powers around us, projecting them here and there and hoping that other people and events will be the way we want them to be in order to maintain our relationships with these powers.

We bring the powers within.

We cultivate those archetypal relationships from the Inside Out.

And we reclaim our wholeness.

How Self-Acceptance Makes You Energetically Stronger

the missing piece

One night, about a month ago, I asked my Guides a question before bed. I’ve been intensely exploring my relationship to money, something I’ve written about quite a bit already on my other blog, from different perspectives. Whereas before I was feeling the strain of perpetual brokeness, I’m now enjoying more financial stability than I ever have in the past…and yet my old money relationship habits still crop up, and there’s a very real sense that the subconscious agenda is to bring me back down to a level of brokeness, because it feels more “comfortable.”

And so, I’ve been searching for a reframe, a new way of relating to this internal conflict that will allow me to be both financial stable and feel comfortable with that.

But back to the dream. Before bed, I asked my Guides to show me the next piece in changing my relationship to money, and here’s what happened…

In the dream, I was watching a group of people eating at a picnic table. They all had large holes in their bodies in various places, and as they ate, the food slipped right out of the holes (very similar to the concept of the hungry ghost in certain forms of Buddhism). And when one person would talk, their words would enter the hole of another person who would then turn red with rage or blue with sadness.

My Guides then began to speak, and they said, “Too often, you expend effort trying to control these universal flows of energy, like money (think of all of the self-help materials designed to help you manifest or attract what you want). This is very difficult. Instead, your efforts would be better spent increasing the strength and integrity of your container. Those universal energies don’t need your help to flow; they do that just fine on their own. Your challenge lies in how you relate to that flow, which you do, in large part, through your vessel, your container.”

This brought to mind a teaching by the Reiki Master Hiroshi Doi, speaking on the universal nature of Reiki: “The sun gives out its energy equally to all beings but not everyone benefits equally. If one believes that sunlight is bad for his health, he closes the door to refuse the sun, although the sun is still sending energy to him. If we set up limitations with ourselves, we will receive limited benefits.”

So, too, we don’t have to earn these universal energy flows, but it is possible to lock them out, and when we forget that we hold the key and have the power to open the door at any time, it’s easy to adopt a story of, “These energies are passing me by because I’m unworthy,” and then we spend all this time trying to exorcise the aspects of ourselves that we deem unworthy, only to feel even less connected to the universe, because we are disconnected within ourselves.

The Power of Your Container

My Guides went on to explain that energy, like the energy of money, will take on many of the qualities of the container it’s in, so if my container has woven into its structure an association between money and the feeling of being manipulated or the fear of manipulating others, then it’s no wonder I don’t want to contain that energy–it feels gross! And more to the point, manipulation is one of those qualities deemed unworthy by the inner judge, so I’d better not associate with it, lest I, too, be judged as unworthy.

My Guides further explained that things like learning how to budget and other practical aspects of money management are important, too, but their successful implementation still depends on those structures’ ability to contain. If they can’t contain, as soon as energy starts to flow in, those structures (e.g. the budget) get washed away.

So, what does this containment look like? In large part, it comes down to being able to sit with what is, and in this context, what we’re referring to by what is is typically feelings–being able to sit with whatever feelings arise in response to life. When we aren’t able to sit with our feelings, we do a lot of things to distract ourselves, and those things are usually the habits we’re trying so very hard to break: compulsive eating, shopping, self-criticism, judgement of others, spending hours on Facebook, you name it.

If you think about those distractions, it’s interesting that we often conceptualize them, in some form or another, as a drain on our energy. “Man, if I hadn’t spent three hours on Facebook, I could have…” or “If I could just stop tearing myself down, I’d be able to…” In a very real sense, this inability to sit with our feelings is an indication of energy flowing out in an undesirable way–in other words, of “holes” in our container.

In the month since the dream, my Guides have given me more information in meditation, dreams, conversations, and books, and the tipping point was finally reached this morning when I made the connection between this ability to contain and something else I wrote about recently: radical self-acceptance.

Container Yoga

How do we increase the strength and integrity of our container? Through radical self-acceptance.

In that previous post, I talked about self-acceptance as a way of expanding our view of who we are. The more we accept about ourselves, the bigger our self-view becomes. Combine this with the underlying assumption that you are already whole, that you have simply forgotten that you are whole, and self-acceptance becomes a way of continually seeing more and more of your innate wholeness. A way of returning to the knowing that there’s nothing broken about you; you have been and always will be whole.

Let’s bring this together with the concept of building a strong container.

Think of one of the dream picnic goers sitting at the table with big, gaping holes in their body. Let’s think about how those holes may have gotten there. Yes, some of them may be due, in part, to the actions of other people, but I strongly believe that the greatest damages we incur are the ones we inflict on ourselves. Even when other people are involved, how we internalize their actions are more defining than the actions themselves.

So, if we focus on the holes that are self-inflicted, what might that process of hole making look like? Well, the opposite of radical self-acceptance: self-rejection.

Let’s get overly literal and imagine that there’s an aspect of yourself you don’t like, and it’s residing in your right hip. At first, you might do things to distract yourself from being aware that this aspect is there, but eventually (or quite quickly in response to more traumatic triggers, perhaps), you reject that aspect of yourself. You deny its existence. If energy flows where attention goes, this area is now cut off from your attention, and the flow of energy trickles. Is it such a leap, then, to see how, over time, this area of your energetic field could cease to exist–a hole could be formed–through continual rejection and lack of attention?

Now, this calls into question our idea that we’re already whole and that we cannot lose this state of wholeness. If that’s so, where does the energy that was once in the hole go? I think that the energy doesn’t “go away,” it simply gets pushed to another layer of reality, what, in psychological terms, we’d call the subconscious. It’s still part of our being, it’s simply residing in an area that we don’t have conscious access to, and thus we have this nagging sense that something is missing, that something is wrong with us.

As Jungian analyst June Singer writes, “Wholeness can only be achieved when nothing is left out.”

So simple, yet so mind blowing.

If we long to remember our wholeness, we don’t get to choose which parts of ourselves are acceptable. They all are.

We don’t get to choose which parts of ourselves are worthy of love. They all are.

And to respond to the common fear that self-acceptance will lead to inner anarchy, that our bad habits will simply take over and lead us to ruin, I offer this passage from a wonderful book by Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting:

“Imagine the situation: A child is yelling, obviously upset, and when she quiets down her daddy lies in bed with his arm around her and reads her a Frog and Toad story. In response, the proponent of conditional parenting exclaims, ‘No, no, no, you’re just reinforcing her bad behavior! You’re teaching her that it’s all right to be naughty!”

‘This interpretation…reflects an awfully sour view of children–and, by extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance, kids will take advantage of us. Give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile. They will draw the worst possible lesson from an ambiguous situation (not “I’m loved anyway” but “Yay! It’s okay to make trouble!”). Acceptance without strings attached will just be interpreted as permission to act in a way that’s selfish, demanding, greedy, or inconsiderate. At least in part, then, conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.”

Trust in your innate goodness, and entertain the possibility that the aspects of yourself you have deemed “bad” are simply feeling rejected and don’t know how else to get your attention.

Rather than fearing they will overtake you if you send even the slightest bit of love and acceptance their way, explore what happens.

See for yourself. Feel for yourself.

Wholeness can only be achieved if nothing is left out.

The Power of Radical Self-Acceptance

cottage-in-the-woods-scotland-980x693

I was out hiking with a friend who was going through a tough time, and as she was getting things off her chest I couldn’t help but notice how harsh she was being with herself. “If only I would do this, “If I could just do that,” “I don’t know why I can’t just do x, y and z already!”

As we talked about this self-judgement her fears surfaced, and they were fears that I could very much relate to: If I stop pushing myself, all of my vices will crawl out of the closets and overtake me. I have to be vigilant.

I had a strong sense that accepting those parts that she was most afraid was the key to my friend’s (and my own) healing, but I couldn’t fully articulate how that process might work. The fear that acceptance of our vices would lead to defeat by those vices was still too strong, so I decided to meditate and ask my Guides for clarity.

When in doubt, get the meditation cushion out! 😉

My Guides explained it like this. Imagine that you are a round dinner plate (stay with me; this will all make sense, I promise). By your very nature, you are already whole and complete; there’s nothing missing from you, there’s nothing broken.

Many of us, though, only accept a part of ourselves. So imagine, now, that there’s a sandwich sitting on part of the plate. The sandwich represents what you’re willing to accept about yourself: the “good” parts; the parts that ensure people keep liking you, that you keep liking you. The problem is that you now only see one part of yourself–the sandwich–and you forget that you’re the whole dinner plate.

Somewhere, deep down, you remember that feeling of wholeness, though, and you want to get it back. You sense that there’s something missing, so you go about getting fancier bread for your sandwich and better toppings, but you still can’t shake that sense that you’re not enough.

Where we get stuck is thinking that this sense that we’re not enough is an indication that we really aren’t enough, when it’s simply a sign that we’ve forgotten that we’re enough. The dinner plate’s still there; we’re just not seeing it because we’re busy trying to perfect our sandwich.

Imagine, now, that you are willing to accept those parts of yourself that aren’t so easy to be around: your judgement of self and others; those times when you’re not feeling compassionate and you’re feeling downright spiteful (we all have them); and any other part of you that you think might elicit shame, blame, or judgement.

With each of these qualities you see and accept, you are widening your vision of who you are. You’re no longer just the sandwich, you’re the sandwich and a little bit of the plate over here…and over here…and a little more over here. Before you know it, those shadow aspects you’ve been spending so much energy trying to disown are the very means through which you are able to see the whole dinner plate: your innate wholeness.

We have to trust that we won’t devolve into awful people when we start to accept ourselves.

We have to trust that, at our very core, we are acceptable. We are worthy.

We have to trust that the parts of ourselves we have rejected are integral to our return to wholeness; they’re not trash to be thrown away.

We have to trust ourselves.

And the paradox? Those things we have been trying for years to change, to get rid of, the moment we begin to accept them is the moment they begin to change of their own accord.

In our fear, we locked them up in cages and then wondered why they never got better. Would you flourish in a cage?

Let them out.

Welcome them home.

And come home to yourself.