5 Lessons From the Forest

I could have easily made this 100 Lessons From the Forest because nature isn’t one to skimp, but I do realize ain’t nobody got time for all that, so I’ve limited myself to five. Without further ado…

1. Things change. Often faster than you think.

I can walk the same trail everyday for a month, and it will never be the same. Just this morning, I was walking on one of my regular trails, and I paused to take in what had become a favorite view over the past few months.

The view was gone.

Or, I should say, it was entirely different. Shrubs had exploded in height with seemingly preternatural speed, and what once was a grassy meadow outlook was now a grove twittering with birds.

Everything changes.

This is good to remember when you’re not exactly thrilled with your current situation (it’ll change), but it’s an equally good reminder when things are going along swimmingly (it’ll change).

Accepting this fact can inspire us to be more flexible, less controlling, and more appreciative, because whatever it is…it won’t last. Soak it up, then let it go.

2. Living on autopilot can lead to trouble.

During my last hike, I encountered four different types of snakes. None of them were venomous, but it sure was nice to confirm this before accidentally stepping on snake face. Plus, it was fascinating to watch them, something I would have missed had I been zoned out on my phone or lost in thought.

On hikes, as in life, it’s smart to pay attention lest we go sailing over a real or metaphorical cliff.

While few situations call for hypervigilance, thankfully, most of us could benefit by dialing up the care and attention paid to the life that’s unfolding in and around us.

Our choices create our life, but too often we’re so distracted that we’re unaware we’re actually choosing. Life feels like it’s happening to us, not through us, and then we wake up one day, look around, and wonder–how the hell did I get here?

Why is my health suffering? Why do I feel unsatisfied in my work? My relationships? Where did my spiritual practice go?

Pay attention. Your life is happening right here, right now. You don’t want to miss it.

3. Life (and truth) is complex.

On a forest hike, everywhere you look you see multilayered life and complex interactions that boggle the mind.

Our ego deals in certainties. It doesn’t care if its beliefs are certainly wrong. It just wants to be certain. It will strip away facts with impunity in service of whittling things down to more manageable size. 

Life, on the other hand, is much more complex, which means that, ten times out of ten, we need to take action without knowing the full story. We have to do our best with the information we have access to, and that information is always incomplete.

The good news is that, while the ego flounders in uncertain waters, the soul/higher self/whatever you like to call your inner wisdom, thrives in it.

 The soul understands through and through what Joseph Campbell meant when he said:

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

When we embrace this, we build the courage to take that next step, even when we don’t know where we’re headed.

And we’re less apt to judge our fellow travelers when we understand that truth is never as neat and tidy and as-we’d-like-it-to-be as the ego insists.

4. You are inherently creative.

Life is constantly creating. Flowers bloom, turtles mate right smack dab in the middle of the trail (just saw this today), birds incubate clutches of eggs, and on and on it goes.

You, my friend, are no less a part of this whirling circus of life than the flowers, turtles and birds. You are creative (whether you like it or not).

You create thoughts, which create actions, which lead to the moment-by-moment creation of your life.

I always cringe inwardly when I hear someone say, “Oh, I’m just not that creative.”

To me, this is to deny the very mechanism of existence.

When we begin to see how very creative we are, and we own this, we take responsibility for our life. We see our creative mark on everything we experience, and if the scene before our eyes isn’t quite the masterpiece we’d hoped for, we know it’s up to us to break out the palette of paints, roll back our sleeves, and get messy with the work of creating.

Like painting, practice makes progress, and the “mistakes” are often the most beautiful features of the landscape.

5. Discomfort isn’t the enemy.

We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to get–and stay–comfortable.

We go out of our way to avoid uncomfortable conversations, physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, foods, people, sounds, smells, places, temperatures, and on and on it goes.

In the woods, discomfort abounds. Biting insects seem to love me best of all, thorns scrape, sun bakes, and mud cakes.

But then, just when you’re brushing off the seventh tick and untangling your shirt from a snarl of thorns, you see it. The fawn tucked away in the undergrowth, snow-colored spots and jet-black eyes. The waterfall just ’round the bend that utterly takes your breath away. The owl dozing in a tall oak, lazily swirling its head to lock your gaze.

Life is uncomfortable. It just is. But it’s also absurdly beautiful and abundantly rich.

We can spend vast amounts of time and energy trying to make life less uncomfortable, but we’ll have little to show for it besides spent time and less energy.

And discomfort comes with a gift: The realization that we can be uncomfortable and happy.

We can say yes to that difficult conversation, that annoying physical sensation, that weird smell, and when we give our resilience some space to show up, we learn how to relax. To breathe a sigh of relief that can be heard two states away.

Maybe we’re not as fragile as we thought. Hallelujah! Happiness doesn’t depend on micromanaging the discomfort away.

It was there all along, just waiting for us to stop chasing away the discomfort long enough to notice.

I can’t fix you.

Mind Shift is a blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


One of my bodywork pet peeves is the concept of fixing someone. “Yep, I can fix your shoulder!” “Sure thing–lemme get in there and fix that knee.”

Nope. Not happening. Sorry, folks. 

Here’s why this concept drives me nuts: The way you feel in your body did not happen overnight. Yes, there are exceptions in the form of acute injuries, but even in many of those cases, the injury was made possible by overuse, weakness, or other patterns. The injury is often the straw on the camel’s back, but because it’s the event we’re most aware of, it takes the fall.

The idea of coming in for an hour of bodywork and fixing an issue that might be ten years (or more) in the making is…well, less than realistic.

In that case, what’s the use of bodywork?

I’m glad you asked.

I see bodywork as a powerful way to temporarily disrupt movement and postural patterns. Whether or not that disruption leads to lasting change and healing is up to you. 

While this disruption can happen in a number of ways, here’s a common example. Let’s say that you, like just about everyone else on the planet right now, has a forward-head posture:

Image Source: https://jivanchakra.com/2017/08/14/forward-head-posture/

I purposely chose this image because to most of us, the view on the left probably looks normal, while the one on the right might look forced and unnatural. That’s how common forward-head posture is these days–it’s the new “normal.”

The next image gives us a peek at just a few of the internal structures affected by this posture (in reality, it affects the entire body, head to toe).

Image source: https://learnmuscles.com/blog/2017/08/11/forward-head-posture/

The majority of my clients come in feeling at least some level of tension in the muscles shown above. I could work on those muscles for 90-minutes straight, but if the client hops off the table and goes back into forward-head posture, the tension won’t be far behind.

Any bodyworker who says they can “fix” this, without the active participation of the owner of the neck in question, is overly optimistic and/or misguided.

What bodywork can do is give you a powerful head start in changing patterns like the one above. If your head is constantly hanging out in front of your body, certain muscles (and fascia) are going to be chronically shortened, others will be chronically lengthened, muscles in either camp might be weak/inactive, and your brain/body holds these patterns as your default position.

Bodywork can help lengthen short muscles and stimulate the receptors of lengthened and/or inactive muscles, like a wake-up call to encourage those tissues to return to proper tone and action, all the while reeducating the brain/body that this new posture is safe to adopt (assuming the bodywork isn’t too deep, pushing too far, too fast).

Temporarily.

Bodywork creates a window of opportunity, but what happens in that window is up to you. Whether you return to former postural patterns or mindfully reinforce new ones is your choice.

Of course, massage also just feels great, and that’s a wonderful reason to receive it. This feel-good factor isn’t anything to scoff at, even from the perspective I’ve taken in this post. Being free from pain, even for a short while, is another way to create that window of opportunity. Allowing your nervous system to experience a different relationship to a chronically wonky muscle or to your body as a whole is a potential game changer, if you take advantage of it.

Use bodywork as the amazing tool that it is–and heck, just come in because you want to let go of a stressful week and feel awesome–but please, don’t give your power away to me or anyone else. The key to your health and well being is you.

Is your exercise program missing this important ingredient?

Mind Shift is a new blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


In the previous Mind Shift post, we talked about shifting from an exercise mindset to a movement mindset, the first reason being time. Today, we’ll cover the second reason: variety.

An exercise mindset categorizes movement into things like yoga, running, or weight lifting, and within each of these categories exists a subset of movements.

For example, with running, your body experiences a series of movements that get you from Point A to Point B, and those movements are pretty much the same every time you run. Of course, we could get into the micro movements of running over lumpy grass versus running over flat, level pavement, but even taking all of those micro movements into account, we’re still left with a limited subset of movements, given the full range of movements a body is capable of.

You’ve likely seen the headlines, “Sitting Is the New Smoking.” In response, there’s been a big move toward standing work stations. And sure, there are benefits to standing more and sitting less, but the overall problem of being in a static position for hours on end remains; we’re just swapping the static sitting position for the static standing position, resulting in our bodies inhabiting a teeny subset of its potential movements and postures.

And this brings us back to running. Or yoga. Or [insert exercise program here]. These exercises aren’t bad—not at all. They’re just a small subset of the possible movements your body can–and needs to–make. Yes, even yoga with its bendy, twisty postures. If you were to break down various poses into movements like hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, etc., the average class consists of a subset of movements performed over and over.

Let me repeat: This doesn’t make these exercise programs bad. I love yoga; it feels amazing, and I don’t plan to stop doing it anytime soon, but I do recognize that only doing yoga (or running, or cycling, or…) is the movement equivalent of only eating kale. Kale’s awesome, but on its own it’s not enough for a healthy life.

Shifting from the exercise mindset to the movement mindset allows us to tap into the fuller range of our bodies’ capabilities. When we think outside of the exercise box, we can grab onto a doorway and hang. We can start with our hands on the doorway at hip level, up a bit higher, a little higher still, hands above our head–each position adding a new movement variation.

While we’re at our spiffy standing work station, we can extend our foot behind us, top of the foot on the floor, stretching our ankle and foot in a way that it probably doesn’t experience very often. While we’re watching Netflix, we can sit on the floor and shift our arms, legs, pelvis, and torso into different positions, instead of letting the couch cast us into one or two predictable configurations.

Again, when we’re stuck looking at “valuable movement” only as working up a sweat while exercising, these smaller movements might seem insignificant, but so many of the issues we experience in our bodies are caused or exacerbated because we’re only moving our body in a limited number of ways and in a repetitive fashion.

In the next Mind Shift post, we’ll look at why this variety is so important, down to the cellular level. We’ll also see how areas of your body can stay stuck and unmoving even while your body as a whole is moving (e.g. while you’re running or doing yoga), and what to do about it.

Life Lessons From My Sewing Machine

I try to stay open to wisdom from a variety of sources, but it isn’t often that I receive it from inanimate objects. Last weekend, I was working on a sewing project when–bingo! Lightning bolt of clarity.

In machine sewing, you use your hands to guide the fabric through the machine, and when I first started sewing I was what I would call an “overly agro sewer” (if your bro-speak is rusty, agro=aggressive). With my leading hand, I would actively tug the fabric forward, and with my guiding hand, I would push the fabric toward the needle. (Accomplished sewers are probably shaking their heads as they read this.)

What’s the big deal? Well, my stitches looked like crap, because most fabrics will feed into the machine just fine by themselves, thank you very much; they just need a little guidance to ensure that they don’t go veering off to the left or right.

In a similar fashion, when we’re overly pushy or pull-y in life, the seams and stitches of our days start to feel (and possibly look) like crap. For me, this manifests most often in one of two ways:

  1. “Pulling on the fabric” equates to trying to drag other people along on my plans, overriding their natural direction and rhythm. I can also drag myself along, overriding my natural direction and rhythm. (If you hear yourself using the word “should” a lot, pause and check for fabric pulling.)
  2. “Pushing on the fabric” happens when I’m trying to force situations to unfold in a way or at a pace that doesn’t feel natural.

Does this mean I need to just sit back and do nothing? Not at all, but my role is more about guiding the fabric of my life than it is about pulling or pushing it through. If I completely removed my hands from the fabric, the seam would likely start swerving and eventually get completely off track, but through the choices I make, I can guide the fabric along.

When I’m trying to decide the next step, I can be wary of options characterized by “pulling on the fabric:” trying to bring people along who either don’t want to come or who wish to travel at their own pace, as well as subjecting myself to rigid timetables or to-dos that trigger procrastination or resentment.

I can also be on the lookout for options characterized by “pushing on the fabric”: forcing events in non-organic ways. Pushing is sometimes more tricky to detect than pulling, so what do I mean by “non-organic ways”? If you’ve taken action and it’s met with continual resistance, a slow-as-molasses pace, or a rising tension in your body-mind-soul, that’s often a red flag that fabric-pushing territory is up ahead. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to throw in the towel (fabric pun!), but it could mean that:

  1. The timing is off. This could refer to “not right now–try again later” or that the pace is going to move slower than you anticipated and trying to speed things up will only create bunched seams, aka suffering.
  2. The method is off. Maybe you’ve got the right idea but you’re approaching it in a way that isn’t working. Experiment; try a different angle. Still meeting resistance? Refer back to Point 1.

Of course, there is the third possibility: This just ain’t the way to go. Not now, maybe not ever, and pushing the fabric through will only leave you with a bunched up seam (can we draw a parallel with bunched up, tense muscles?).

Guiding, as opposed to pulling or pushing, requires a flexible, responsive approach. We might set out with an idea, but as the fabric of our days moves along and we meet resistance, we have the choice to start yanking, start pushing…or adjust.

Resistance can be a very helpful reminder to pause, check in, and see if we’re forcing things, people, or ourselves to do things that don’t feel organic. When we notice this, we always have the option to return to guiding the fabric through and allowing the natural flow of life to provide the momentum, a momentum that we can then shape with our choices.

When we try to create the force of Universal Momentum on our own, it’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed and exhausted. And more to the point, it isn’t necessary, nor does it help. It just leaves us with bunched seams.

So, leave the generation of Universal Momentum to, well, the Universe, and focus your precious energy on guiding that momentum with empowered choices–choices that don’t come from a place of pushing or pulling.

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.

The Upside to Not Having a F#&*ing Clue

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Dervish and the Mermaid, and Pace Smith, the show’s co-host, was recounting her and her wife’s six-month adventure of living in an RV, and specifically, what came up when they changed their minds and decided they were done living on the road. Pace struggled with a fear of looking flaky and inconsistent simply because life had changed and their minds had changed with it.

I’ve written in the past about the power of changing your mind (and the difference between that and being a flake), but here I want to focus on another aspect of mind changing: When we embark on a path, we don’t know where it will lead. We might think we know, but really, anything beyond the present is pure conjecture.

Hands down, the most common reason I hear when someone (myself included) is hesitant to take action is that they don’t know where it’ll lead. Yet, if we acknowledge that, in reality, we never know the future, this reason doesn’t hold much water. Not knowing how things will turn out is not a convincing reason for staying put.

Pace says:

If we had all the information up front we might not have made the same decision, but I think that would have been a shame because it was such an enriching experience. We might not have been bold enough to face up to the known dangers, but we were bold enough to face up to the unknown dangers. And I’m glad that we experienced them, and it was definitely the right choice.

This brings to mind the tarot’s Fool card, that necessary energy of curiosity and naïveté that allows us to take healthy risks and go with the flow rather than holing up in our house because we can’t anticipate and control every conceivable step.

This also ties into guidance. I have found that when we receive guidance from our Wise Self, spirit guides, etc. rarely are we given more than the next one, maybe two steps…and this can feel frustrating, to put it mildly. But while we might think we want the entire map, if we had it spread out in front of us it might be so daunting that we’d choose to stay in and watch Netflix instead.

When we’re only given the next step or two, we can take life in more manageable, bite-sized chunks, and this process is wildly effective if we take action on the one or two steps we’re privy to right now. But if we’re holding out, waiting for the entire map to appear before we take a single step, we’re likely to stay stuck and unsure.

Being okay with changing our minds is our secret weapon in this process. It helps ease some of the ego’s rising panic that every misstep will spell permanent doom and destruction. In reality, if something doesn’t work out we can pause, reevaluate, change our minds, and try something else.

And beyond the ability to change our mind, we will also benefit from the ability to not judge ourselves when we do. If we accept that the future is unknown, that we can only get information by interacting with life (and not by staying home thinking about what might happen if we were to interact with life), then there’s no getting around it: We will make choices, some of those will turn out differently than we thought, and we’ll change our minds.

It really doesn’t have to be any more epic than that, folks. We’re not expected to know the future. We’re not expected to stay and think and be the same from now until the day we die.

We’re here to learn, to grow, to experiment, to adapt, to change course, and to change course again.

While our culture might prize being consistent cogs delivering predictable, day-in-and-day-out performance, life has other plans, and we will be far happier, healthier, wiser, more creative, and more fulfilled if we give ourselves the freedom to evolve.

Save

Life Advice From a Demon

In a fantastic graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the main character is having a chat with a demon who gives her a piece of profoundly useful advice. The demon says:

It’s perfectly normal to bury a thing that you’d rather not admit…We–in my profession–definitely encourage humans to keep secrets from themselves. Nothing makes you sicker faster than that!

So, let’s cut to the chase. Many of us spend a massive amount of energy trying to distance ourselves from what we’re experiencing—our emotions, feelings, needs, wants, sensations, you name it. We might say, “Not true! I get together every Friday to hash out the week with friends over wine.” But I would argue that hashing out, while potentially useful, is not the same as being present with our experience.

Being present means sitting with the experience as it arises. It doesn’t mean texting a friend about it. Or posting on Facebook. Or creating a story in our minds about why we’re having this experience. We don’t have to “figure anything out” in these moments; we just have to be and allow whatever our experience is to just be, too.

Feeling angry? Be present with the anger. Feeling anxious? Ditto. Feeling elated? Ditto.

When we choose to be present, we are choosing not to engage in the multitude of distractions available to help us check out: shopping, eating, whipping out our phone, Instagramming, zoning out, complaining, criticizing ourselves, and the list goes on. We aren’t narrating our experience through thoughts or words, we’re just being with it.

When we practice in this way, we might become aware of just how much energy was previously being thrown at distractions. Spoiler alert: This could amount to nearly all of our daily energy that’s not being used for basic metabolic function. Seriously. We live in a culture of distraction.

The good news? When we choose presence over distraction, we suddenly have access to this previously tied-up energy. Ever wish you had more time and energy to do the things you want to do? Start making deposits in the bank of Being Present, and you will likely be surprised by just how much energy you actually have.

[Cue infomercial voice over.] But that’s not all!

Remember what the demon said about keeping secrets from ourselves: “Nothing makes you sicker faster than that!” When we choose distraction, we create secrets. Instead of being conscious of our experience, we shove it away and add it to the Bank of Secrets, where it acts like a toxic sludge to our system.

All of those emotions, feelings, needs, and wants don’t simply go away because we’re not consciously aware of them. Oh my, no. Instead, they build and expand in our unconscious, and they dictate our lives from beyond our awareness, yanking us around like a puppet on a string. To paraphrase Jung, when we fail to make the unconscious conscious, we project it onto the world around us and we call it fate.

Today, what can you remain present for? Can you allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, want what you want, need what you need?

Each moment you have a choice: You can be present, or you can choose distraction.

Your experience is valuable. It deserves the space to just be. And the more you allow yourself to be, the more energy you will have, the less secrets you’ll keep, and the less you will feel yanked around by factors beyond your control.

Not too shabby a return for simply allowing what already is to exist.

Save

Following Your Fault-Lines Home

Flipping through an old journal, I came across a passage I copied down from the book Cave: Nature and Culture:

W. H. Auden, who so loved the karst shires of the Northern Pennines, adored limestone. What most moved him about it was the way it eroded. Limestone’s solubility in water means that any fault-lines in the original rock get slowly deepened by a process of soft liquid wear. In this way, the form into which the limestone grows over time is determined first by its flaws. For Auden, this was a human as well as a geological quality: he found in limestone an honesty—an acknowledgment that we are as defined by our faults as by our substance.

In my own personal work, I have seen a gradual transition, mapped in the pages of my journals, from trying to eradicate my perceived faults to learning how to simply be present with them and to see what they have to teach me. And in my clients, the most striking transformations I have been lucky enough to witness have taken place, not as a result of further self-denial and hard-handed discipline, but from a compassionate acceptance of self.

It seems that the main challenge to self-acceptance is the fear that if we accept these “awful” things about ourselves, they’ll run rampant and ruin our lives.

The ego believes that our rejection of these faults is the only thing keeping us from destruction; it’s the dam holding the waters at bay. And all the while, we search and search for a feeling of wholeness, yet, as long as we continue to reject aspects of ourselves, this wholeness eludes us. It is only when we accept ourselves, fully–wholly–that we can feel whole. So, rather than serving as gateways to our destruction, these faults are our ticket home, our return to a state of wholeness.

There’s another interesting facet to these “faults.” I have found that, hidden in their core, these faults contain my greatest gifts, unique creations wrought by my history, my individual fault-lines, and erosion patterns worn by the waters of my life (water being symbolic of emotions and the unconscious realms). These ingredients interact to shape the gifts that I, and I alone, have to offer.

So, too, your gifts are a unique alchemical mix of your fault-lines and their interaction with life. When we accept these faults, they teach us. They teach us about our weaknesses, yes, and this can trigger feelings of vulnerability and shame, but they also teach us of our greatest strengths. If we can be present with the uncomfortable emotions that arise when we witness our fault-lines, we can penetrate the veil, beyond which lies our hidden gifts.

And as Auden intuited, “we are as defined by our faults as by our substance,” so even if we choose to shun these qualities, they shape us nonetheless, but in this shunning we lose the precious gifts they contain. Far better to embrace these fault-lines, weathering the discomfort (and it will pass; it always does), so we can reclaim the gifts they bring.

And if you are feeling adrift, unsure as to what your soul is being called to do, tracing your inner fault-lines will lead you back to your purpose. Remember, these lines are unique to you and you alone, and they contain gifts that require activation in order to fulfill your soul’s purpose. Like a spiritual scavenger hunt, the more of these gifts you assemble, the more their purpose will be come clear. If, metaphorically speaking, you unearth a whisk, a book of pastry recipes, and a bag of flour, perhaps yours is the path of a baker.

My path has led me from being painfully shy (as a child, I cried when people–my own family–gathered around to watch me open birthday presents, and later in life, I agonized over quitting jobs that required me to stand up in front of even the smallest of groups), to sitting with the extreme discomfort that arose in these situations, to eventually uncovering a powerful desire to teach, to speak, and to lead. What clues and gifts do your discomforts contain?

Follow your fault-lines. They will lead you home to yourself and to the wholeness and purpose that awaits.

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.