What an intense summer this has been. Just when you think it might settle down, it seems another threat is showing its fangs. Currently we in North Carolina are facing Hurricane Florence, which is predicted to sit on Wilmington until it begs for mercy. Many fearful people across hundreds of miles are fleeing.
As US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." As Dune's Muad'Dib might say, "Fear is the mind killer." Fear isn't just a response to a problem, fear is the problem. You see this most clearly in first-responders. Could you imagine a platoon of firefighters curled up in the fetal position as a house burns to the ground? That's not how fires get fought. It's not how problems get solved. Fear, it seems, is a problem.
Some people are brought up in homes where well-intentioned parents use fear for motivation. "If you don't do your homework you're gonna be homeless, and nobody will want you." "How are you going to get a job if you can't even mow the lawn right?" "Keep eating like that and you'll be fat and alone." These are just a few of my Dad's gems, delivered comedically, provoking me to laughter. Frankly, I didn't inherit the anxiety gene. However, I have clients raised in homes overcome with the anxiety virus, where relentless fear-mongering cultivated a constant fear of imagined disasters and unavoidable failures. It didn't matter that they rarely came to pass. Staying worried was the right thing to do.
Sometimes families impose fear only if one should consider straying beyond certain boundaries. Religious boundaries are a clear example, dooming you to hell if you don't conform to the parental expectations. Yes, God - whatever God is - expects you to do exactly as your parents believe or apocalyptic shit is going to hit the fan. In other cases the safe space requires going to college, or marrying within your race. You're fine as long as you stay within whatever the family boundaries are. Beyond that? Hopefully God won't smite you too hard, but nobody's in your corner when the lightning bolts start charging up.
How are you doing? Are you challenging the family's boundaries, daring the monsters at the edge of the Earth to show themselves? Are you stretching just one toe into the abyss, to make sure you're not the crazy one? Or are you diving in head-first, swimming in the pool of doomed insanity? Whatever courage you demonstrate, I want you to know I'm in your corner. You're not alone. There are many of us fighting the old ways of using fear to motivate people.
Yes, undesirable stuff is going to happen. But firefighters don't curl up and cry at the sight of a warm blaze. They dive in, get shit done, figure it out. Life goes on. There are no gold stars, no paper plates of macaroni and glitter adorning your family trophy room. It's just you and that damned abyss daring each other to make the first move.
Keep moving forward. Yeah, you're gonna have that tightness in the throat, that weird heart flutter that defies description, that loss for words. It's all gonna happen. Even so, you can push through. You can tell the abyss its mother is an ugly hag, then run the gauntlet, get where you gotta go, and hope whatever horrifying scenario you've dreamed up never catches up to you. Fear is the enemy. Life goes on.
Update: My wife hadn't seen this post, but has synchronistically written one on fear as well: https://www.sarahwolf.me/home/got-fear
Do what you will; this world's a fiction, and is made up of contradiction. - William Blake
Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth. - Blaise Pascal
When I start a new seminar I tell my students that I will undoubtedly contradict myself, and that I will mean both things. But an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking. We do have to use our minds as far as they will take us, yet acknowledge that they cannot take us all the way. - Madeleine L'Engle
As we peer into the real workings of our universe, we find an even greater demand for out-of-the-box thinking. It turns out this particular box of dust and fire is not exactly as it appears. It's a wobbly bit of magic, like you and me, inviting us to gulp an ocean of imagination. Or at least stretch bridges across uncertain waters.
In the exploration of our reality we often look to the nearest genius for answers. To me, the concept of genius is a term of appreciation, like saying someone smells great. One of the hallmarks of genius - as I appreciate it - is the ability to consciously hold thoughts that contradict. Such a mind employs its many oppositions the way a virtuoso draws a bow across her violin strings, each tension a portal for new experiences, unforeseen harmonies, revelatory moments. When we imagine such a mind, we recognize it must possess creativity for improvisation, the courage to risk cacophony, wisdom to offer harmony, and the strength to hold stillness. It's a mind worth striving for.
Thinking about contradictions of the mind, I often experience them in line with this quote by philosopher Simon Weil:
When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie,
then we know that it is really a door.
An idea we don't agree with seems to contradict our existing thoughts, creating a confrontation that entrenches us or opens us to new possibilities. Sometimes, true to form, contradictions do both. Instead of believing that holding one thought requires us to drop its opposing thought, we can choose to hold both and see what happens. Let's take this out of abstraction and use a really simple example of this.
"I only have one life to live" versus "I believe in reincarnation"
We need not insist on one over the other, but can instead say "I only have this life here and now, and there may have been others before this one." What happens when you hold this possibility? Now, some of you will have an uncomfortable tension because you are not sold on the reincarnation thing. That tension's a portal for new possibilities. You create something like a suspension bridge allowing new thoughts to flow. Hold it as long as you can. Days, weeks, months. See what new things flow through the mind when you hold that tension in place.
Other people will try to bypass the "may" of the bridging sentence I used, attempting to avoid tension by claiming they have memories or visions from prior lives, or a certainty about reincarnation. "There's no 'may' about it," they might respond. Thought you dodged a bullet, eh? To them I say this: what if you've only ever had this life, and these reincarnation stories are "all in your head?" There you go. Nice tension, eh? Let's say your mind had reasons for creating or grabbing onto those stories, reasons that serve this one life you've got. What new experiences/ideas might arise by holding that in place?
In either case, believer or not, you may experience a change in what "I" means.
You can consciously hold contradictions in your mind to bridge the imaginary oceans separating you from other people, and yet to have an identifiable location is to hold a position. To be something there must be something. We all have limits on how much we can embrace contradiction. You can't just go on building bridges to everywhere. Right? I mean, if you accept that everything is possible and everyone is partly right and you hold nothing too tightly, then what kind of identity could you possibly have?
This, my friends, is the beginning of divine creativity. To be able to hold any position, and choose. Once you are comfortable configuring your mind for any possibility, you become like a painter who can select any color in the spectrum instead of a child designated to paint with only a handful of colors granted them by parents and culture. Since your art is only visible from the inside, nobody else can know if this Self you're creating is fashioned through an unlikely collision of contradictory ideas, or you're a rebellious contrarian, or you're a genius artist creating a masterpiece.
It's all for you.
This is where I've historically made waves in various ideological communities. For I say you can be just as enlightened as the peaceful Buddhist monk even if you have a taste for screaming, stomping, and food fights. If you are conscious about what you're doing, and fully enjoying the ride, then enjoy the ignorant barbarian vibe as much as you like. For some of the most brilliant minds in your universe dwell in expertly crafted prisons of their own making, envying the fool who dares to be free.
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert's mind there are few.
- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
From Wikipedia: "Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind." It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would."
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Buddhist. Not in this lifetime, anyway. However, the various mental systems evolving from that stew offer a seeker many powerful tools. Zen's beginner's mind concept is certainly one of my favorite. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of beginner's mind is the letting go of status or esteem. We often want our body of wisdom and experience to be acknowledged by others. In my experience as an American, most people don't like feeling like they're being talked down to, and will do what they can - overtly or covertly - to convey "I know stuff, too, you know." The desire for connection is fundamental, yet clearly complicated by the obstacle course of one's own mind.
I was once at a pub where two men were talking loud enough for everyone to hear. If one said he was a pilot (he did), the other said he gave up flying for something better. If one said he had a house in the mountains, the other announced he had a large house at the beach. If one brewed beer in his spare time, the other guy brewed with a rare strain of hops only found in the jungles of...wherever. This kind of thing went on for ten minutes. At any moment one of these highly accomplished and clearly wealthy individuals could have said, "Oh really? What's that like for you? Tell me more about that." That would be an example of beginner's mind in a competitive culture like ours.
One could argue they actually were connecting in a hyper-masculine theater of Competition, like two rams smashing each other on a hillside. Let's just say the connection I'm discussing is a completely different animal. In the example above, those men could have connected by validating one man's accomplishments and experiences. They could have had a true meeting of the minds. The ego's demand to instead establish "I have value!" begs a question: who said you didn't?
Beginner's mind offers the priceless reward of communion only to those with the courage to be misunderstood, underestimated. It requires us to let go of our status, role, or notions of superiority. When two or more people interact with a beginner's mind, magic happens. With all the internal noise dialed down to a minimum, each individual's personality shines, and the particular power of their presence is made apparent to all. We stop getting distracted by what we think we know or what we think we are, and instead everyone experiences what we are for that moment. In a way, beginner mind's respectful awe is an act of service to each moment, our contributions unfolding freely in surrender. In effect, one's words, thinking, and behavior are simultaneously asking and answering the question "What is this moment about?" This process of discovery is only possible without preconception.
In the example above, the moment might have revealed a joyful celebration of one man's talents, but it might just as well slid into a moment of mutual admiration, or - if they possess the courage - into a shared understanding of the fears driving their success. We don't know. Obviously this author believes the connection offered through oneupmanship pales by comparison.
Perhaps ironically, you can be both an effective teacher and student while in beginner's mind. Flow freely in whatever truth is unfolding that moment, let go of the role you had thirty seconds ago to embrace this moment's new role. Avoid image-management and demands for validation. This kind of connecting requires courage and a lot of practice. Eventually you lose self-criticism, knowing that however it might look afterwards, no matter what the critics might say, you were flowing freely in beginner's mind. It was what it was.
Beginner's mind reassures us that we can be human together.
Note: this post was inspired by Ron and Lyssa Holt, who often co-create beautiful moments with others.
The clock keeps ticking. It's a constant. Relentless. Merciless.
A lot of Americans don't realize that in many parts of the world, the clock is a loose reference point. You expect someone to show up at eight o'clock? Well, eight-thirty or nine is good enough. Why get uptight about it?
"Well I'm supposed to be somewhere at eleven! Now you're going to make me late!"
"Why isn't noon good enough?"
"Because I'm affecting other people, as well!"
"So some of it will get done tomorrow. What's all the heat about?"
A British church pastor once spoke about his experiences giving a series of sermons and speeches in East Asia. If he announced that the speech started at ten in the morning, people often strolled in at around eleven or twelve. As they saw it, they were accommodating him in their natural routines, which had their own rhythm. As a guest attempting to represent a loving Christianity he had to check his anger and go with the local flow. Make no mistake - that was not his first inclination.
You can relate to this in many ways. I bet sometimes your mind is saying "I have to get this thing done" when your body or mood just stares at you, as if to say, "Who's gonna make me?" Sometimes you're a dynamo of productivity, solving a dozen problems on the fly, and your creativity or flexibility seems superhuman. Other times you lay in the dark silently daring someone to ask just one more thing of you, mulling over your weapon options. It seems as if the "best parts" of you show up when some committee in your subconscious decides they will.
It's like this with meditation, too, isn't it? One day you're in that legendary zone everyone's bragging about, and the next day all you can think about is the task list, or about an incident your mind can't stop chewing over. Psychic experiences are also notoriously inconsistent for most of us. In both cases it's the not-pursuing that gets you somewhere you didn't know you wanted to go. But you knew you definitely wanted to get somewhere, because you didn't want to be where you were.
And in all these cases, that acceptance is the whole point. We can choose to be a rubber ducky riding atop the ocean, naturally bobbing with the current or the breeze. If instead you're fighting to dive deep or get airborne, the ocean is going to be a very uncomfortable ride. Up should be down, down should be up, faster or slower, higher or lower. Anyplace but here. Anything but this.
As a therapist I notice it's often hard for unemployed people to enjoy their free time, and for busy people to enjoy feeling useful. Yet if you take these things away, they're greatly missed. I can't tell you how many unemployed clients have expressed missing having a reason to get up every day, and how many employed clients wished for a day to themselves. This kind of discontent also plays out among the therapists I've mentored who are new to private practice. Some days -- some weeks -- half the clients don't show up for their appointments. In these moments a new therapist can worry about money - at this rate, the projections don't look good. In the worst cases they'll start questioning and tearing at themselves. "Maybe I'm driving people away. Maybe I'm not going to hack private practice!"
Other weeks, every single client will show up, and need a lot of help. A therapist will crawl to the finish line sometime Friday afternoon begging the world to leave them the hell alone. Yeah, you made a shiny penny this week, but by god you hope next week has its share of cancellations. After a few years you learn to enjoy those slow weeks. You go for walks, listen to music, put your feet up, and immerse yourself in gratitude. You're grateful for the busy weeks, as well. "Thank God/Allah/My Dead Grandmother that someone thinks what I do is worth a damn. And hey, now I can afford to go out to dinner this weekend."
It's all about accepting the cycles of life, understanding it's unimportant that you're tired today, or a fantastic meditator next week, or that you can't do as many situps as last week. It doesn't have to mean anything. There's ebbs and flows, ups and downs. You're on time, you're late, they like you, they don't. You got a new car, oral sex, an ice cream sundae, an inspiring sunset. Maybe next week you won't.
I encourage you to be at peace with yourself whether the water is placid or the tide is out and your boat is grounded. Embrace your inner rubber ducky.
The world will want a particular part of you to show up at a particular time, and you may get the odd stare if you're not measuring up to expectations. This is where the courage thing really hits the pavement, isn't it? When, instead of making excuses or trying to save face, you just stare back. "This is who's here now. Fifty-percent of what you expected and still one-hundred percent fabulous."
Enjoying the ebbs and flows with immunity to our artificial society's delusional expectations is just the beginning of learning how to embrace reality itself. The natural world bears no resemblance to the absurdity of quarterly profit goals or mandatory Christmas gatherings.
The body, of all things, is our first initiation into this higher order of reality, its rhythms and hiccups subject to our manipulations only temporarily, and at a cost. Pay it now or pay it later, the body doesn't fuck around. Your rationales, deadlines and digital clocks are background noise in its reality. Annoyances the body endures in its never-ending effort to simply Be. Its joy is existence: active participation in the many natural cycles to which we are all subordinate. From your body's perspective, there's nothing else going on. Your anxious assertions to the contrary will all hit the wall, eventually.
In the twenty-first century West, developing comfort with your natural flow is no small achievement. Maintaining inner peace while you tell your boss, your spouse, or your family "Not right now" takes courage.
Sometimes life gets crazy. It feels like you have to deal with one thing after the other. Overwhelmed, our typical instincts are to work ourselves out of it. Do something.
Since the death of Henry David Thoreau, it seems American culture looks down on quiet reflection. Stillness and inner peace is projected as "some kinda eastern thing." This makes sense in a country dominated by task lists and a constant pressure to Do Something. Push your power into the world. Be somebody. Make things happen.
It can feel impossible, when feeling overwhelmed, to do nothing. And yet sometimes nothing is exactly what needs to happen. Sometimes we need to nap, stare at trees, take a walk. Sometimes the answer is to stop thrashing against the stresses of life, and bring everything to a cold stop. Stop fighting, scratching, clawing. Draw a hot bath, read a book, do nothing. Let time flow for a while.
Sometimes doing nothing is the right answer.
You walk into an elevator with two other strangers. One of them is complaining about how slow the elevator is. She goes on to describe how everything would be better if that other political party didn't have its head up its ass. Her body language is agitated and her gaze is intense. She leaves the elevator in a huff, and you continue on to your floor.
You later go down the same elevator and a man talks about how grateful he is for air conditioning. "It's a real scorcher out there." He's calm and smiles at you as he leaves the elevator. "I hope you have a good day," he says.
Notice how these people affect others around them. Now...think about the next meeting or gathering you will attend. Can you imagine how someone might aggravate you, or how you might feel insecure about what might be expected of you? Can you imagine ten ways it might go wrong? Of course you can.
Instead, a simple tool is to practice visualizing how you would like to affect the people around you, and how you might carry yourself to fulfill that vision. What would your tone of voice be? Do you make eye contact? Do you demonstrate interest in others?
The most common pattern I find in people with social anxiety is concern about how they will be perceived. What will people think of them? It can be surprising how fast things change when they begin to, instead, focus on their power to affect people around them in a positive way. "Can you be kind?" I ask.
"Well, yeah. I don't intend to upset anyone."
"And can you demonstrate curiosity about others?"
"Sure. I don't want it to be all about me. That's what's freaking me out."
"So maybe if you don't make it all about you, they won't. Most people love to talk about themselves. What if you use that to your advantage?"
It's not magic. Or is it?
We all have an effect on the people around us. If you spend time thinking about your presence and its power, you will eventually find an authentic connection with yourself that silences whatever the imaginary people in your head might be thinking.
As a therapist, I'm often working with people who feel overwhelmed. They may have anxiety or depression, stressful family situations, and difficulty in their relationships -- all at the same time. It's a lot to deal with! And they sometimes express how hopeless it feels. It's common to hear something like, "Sure, we can deal with my anxiety, but my marriage is a constant source of stress. I don't see how I can get better in this situation, and I don't want to leave my partner." This is often followed by, "Isn't here medicine that will just make me feel better?"
Medicine can certainly help. The problem with that strategy is that it only deals with the symptoms. The bad mental habits, unhealthy lifestyle, relationship issues -- it doesn't all go away just because there's pills/alcohol/weed. It's like treating cancer with ice cream. When reality catches up with you, no amount of ice cream in the world is going to make up for it. For this reason I recommend using medicine to ease the process of change, not to avoid change.
"How can I possibly change enough to make a difference?!"
You can guess how that goes over. Imagine a sales pitch for getting people to build the Great Wall of China. "OK, what we want you to do is pick up rocks from over here and haul them over there, then stack them twenty feet high. However, you, your children, and your grandchildren will all be dead from stacking stones before this wall is completed. Just keep going, though, and eventually someone will finish it. Probably."
This is how many people hear a therapist saying "many small changes add up over time." Nevertheless, people committed to change typically notice themselves getting better much faster than they thought. Will you have to make some tough choices? Yes. And if you have painful material in your past, you'll probably be better off dealing with that when you feel strong enough.
Whether you are working through difficult circumstances, painful history, mental health issues, or relationship challenges, it is often best to start with small steps. Some of my clients are surprised at how much of a difference it can make just to commit to a 20-minute walk outside every day, or to start their mornings with 15 minutes of silent visualizations.
Here's one of my favorite tools that people are always surprised by. At the end of every day, while you are in bed write three small, simple things about the day that you can feel grateful for. Maybe it was someone saying "nice job," or kindness from a stranger. Perhaps it was an interaction with a child or pet, or feeling good about the work you did that day. It doesn't have to be big.
Then, with physical relaxation and smooth breaths, connect with the beautiful and the good in these experiences. Linger on each one and extract true appreciation with your heart. Milk them for all they're worth. Feel free to exaggerate. No fewer than three gratitudes, each and every night, with this calm genuine connection to each event. You can talk aloud about it, even if only to yourself. Express your gratitude as big or small as you like, any way you like. "That guy didn't have to be so kind to me. I really appreciate that."
Eventually something magical will happen. You will have taught your brain to be on the lookout for things you can be grateful for. When this shift occurs, you will notice yourself pointing out small, beautiful things throughout your day. Which of them will you write about later that night? The person who appreciated something you did? That great morning moment with the sun streaming through the trees? Your friend's big laugh?
Sooner than you think, you will find your days filled with tiny treasures, and you will have shown your brain how to sort for things that make you feel good. If you take this exercise "seriously," your life will change. After a while you might decide to spend less time reading the news, criticizing a coworker, or complaining about money -- because you know these things don't make you feel good. You will see in a clear, undeniable way, how much control you have over whether you feel happier or more frustrated. Over time, this can change how you feel about yourself, as well. After all, you're the person who treats yourself with love. Why not go ahead and love that person with all you got?
The skeptic says, "Right, like writing three things every day is really going to change my life! Do you know what you're talking about?" Yep. Especially when you add it with all the other tools in the toolbox. One at a time. It takes commitment and time, but every client who used it eventually reported that they experienced its usefulness.
All around the globe you find people doing something much more impressive than stacking stones for the Great Wall of China. They're changing their world, one small step at a time.
While many cultures around the world engage a much more collaborative and collective process, the modern USA culture stands on the fantasy of "Rugged Individualism." It's the idea that a truly well and healthy being is self-sufficient. Doesn't need other people, standing confidently in their own way of understanding their place in the world. This thread within the culture can be a challenge in the development of intuition and in understanding metaphysics.
Lately I've had to deepen my willingness to see myself as part of a team, as opposed to an individual. This personal development will open up many more opportunities for growth, will help me accomplish a lot more in this life, bring a lot more peace and joy. I can choose to be a lone wrestler tying himself in knots in front of a large audience, or I can get into a huddle with my team and collaborate. The latter requires trust, faith, and intuition. It requires me to let go, then let go some more, and again some more, through all discomfort and anxiety, until this team consciousness becomes normal. A new default.
This means letting go of the phrase "I'm supposed to," as if I is the thing getting things done. Yes, this I, this Matt thing, is definitely moving and acting. Its effects, however, can only be understood as part of a larger team effort. One pair of feet running around the playing field, doing its part well. But as they say, "It's not about you." I'm much more effective in surrender to something bigger. More importantly, we are.
Asking for help is a necessary part of breaking through self-imposed obstacles and higher plateaus. Time for me to move up. How 'bout you?
Change. Almost everyone wants it and very few people really want to do it. Yet time grinds forward, bringing new opportunities and challenges, provoking us out of whatever stagnation may have crept in when we weren't looking. Or perhaps, with eyes wide open, we simply grow tired of being dragged to The Inevitable. Change.
I've sat in therapy with people who know change is overdue. They learn to hear the loud, bright scream that follows them everywhere they go, their life's unbearable soundtrack. I've watched people settle into that faraway stare, wondering what comes next. It's a moment forever frozen in time and memory.
I've seen something similar when providing intuitive services for people. Whether it's an Akashic records reading, a channeling from their invisible advisors, or we've made contact with a deceased loved one, I've become accustomed to the look that says, "I wish I could follow my heart, but I also don't want to." We all face this at some point, wishing the moment would pass so wouldn't have to change anything. Our instincts tell us to go backward to the familiar. The known.
That's about the time I ask the client questions. I'm mean like that. Because I see the beautiful, the strong, and the good in them. Their heart is weary of the same old crap, and is asking for help. In the end there's no avoiding the obvious: it's time for courage.
That's when one of two things happen. In the first case, the client signals some form of "I'm not ready yet." There's no shame in that. I've had obvious changes that I delayed for decades. In this case, we work on building clarity, confidence, and trust in the heart.
In the second case the person pulls out of that trance and asks, "What do I do?" We work together to forge a realistic and encouraging path out of their fear. Anything is possible once we commit. Yes, I've witnessed miracles. I've seen people determined to kill themselves eventually cry with joy. I've watched the lost and confused charge forward in confidence. People demonstrating courage have inspired me to create this website.
The most important thing I can say as you look inward is to be kind to yourself. There's no version of you out in the world doing a better job at being you. There's no race. It's just you, doing you.
When you're ready for change, reach out to someone. That's the next most important thing, really. Don't put all the pressure on yourself to go it alone. The universe is spilling over in its love for us, and will provide support if we commit to nurturing our potential. We just have to learn how to receive all that reality has to offer.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker and a regional Clinical Director of Psychotherapy Services for a private outpatient mental health partnership in the USA. I currently see between twenty and thirty clients per week as I also help other therapists create a successful and rewarding private practice. In addition to this professional role I have worked across six years to improve lifelong intuitive/psychic ability.