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018: Podcast on CHALLENGE

This podcast is a reading of a couple of excerpts from Part III of the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019, Amazon) called “Challenge.” To know oneself deeply, to express oneself authentically, to be fully present for yourself, even in your pain, is a difficult path, but it is the way to a meaning-filled life of wisdom and wellness.

Grappling with our unique forms of suffering and problems, whatever that entails or however it manifests uniquely within each person, directly opposes our modern cultural values that are about promoting happiness, getting people to literally buy into the story that they need comfort and pleasure (permanently) and encouraging a dependence on everything outside of themselves rather than within. Guess what? You are enough and you can “fill” your life by getting to know who you REALLY are through facing your fears and challenges. It requires honesty as well as building courage and personal discipline, and that’s exactly why most people take pills, develop unhealthy dependencies on others, retreat to or stay forever in their comfort zones, and live lives of “quiet desperation” in the words of HD Thoreau.

Our sources of pain are diverse, but we are all flawed and we all suffer– in our own ways, great and small– because we are human. It’s scary and challenging to face our insecurities and vulnerabilities, but doing so is exactly the path to freedom. You can learn tools and practices to get better at suffering and to suffer less and live with more joy in this very struggle.

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Teaching & Learning About the Places That Scare You

The following quotes are taken from The Places That Scare Us by Pema Chodron where she describes the exploration of the inner landscape that I believe is sorely needed as part of kids’ education more than ever before:

“We’re encouraged to meditate every day, even for a short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves… As we continue to sit we see that meditation isn’t about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It’s about being able to stay present with ourselves. It becomes increasingly clear that we won’t be free of self-destructive patterns unless we develop a compassionate understanding of what they are.”

How can young people learn to nurture and guide their own lives, to take responsibility and learn to be honest, if they don’t spend any of their time or attention getting to know who they are—or to their interior world, which includes both their bodies and their minds and the union between the two? Are they too over-scheduled? Are they too distracted with social everything– media, their friends, socializing, bullying, copying, and comparing– to travel their inner landscape?

“One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your mind, it’s easy to forget that you even have a body. When you sit down it’s important to relax into your body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you come to places that are hurting or tense you can breathe in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you can stop, or if you feel like it, you can repeat this body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back in to the overall sense of being in your body. For a moment you can bring your awareness directly back to being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds, smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you—maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then return to the technique.”

Kids who sit in hard chairs all day get bored, restless, and fat and inflexible. Very little attention is paid to their bodies, as schooling is about the development of thinking and acquiring information; it’s a busy day of processing data and internalizing it long enough to show that you “know” it on some sort of assessment. The body merely carries you around from class to class.

“In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.”

The mindfulness movement and meditation being incorporated into schools is great– I hope it helps; I bet it already has; however, when meditating becomes another activity in service of schooling, that is– achievement, performance, and grading then it’s inauthentic and counter-productive. I hope schools don’t co-opt a very helpful opportunity for kids to explore the inner landscape in order to get them to settle down, behave, and perform as a high achiever — to meet the expectations set for them by some well-meaning or some ignorant adults.

It’s important that adults not steal such uncomfortable experiences away from kids as they grow and mature into adulthood, but instead introduce and mentor them with this more interior form of education. We could educate teens about the important life-long processes of cultivating a steadfastness with oneself, understanding our self-destructive patterns (thought-patterns, emotional body responses and reactions to stress etc), developing compassionate understanding of oneself, learning about oneself in order to understand what it means to be human and therefore be better and more equipped and insightful about other people.

Rather than controlling the external environment to prevent trial and error learning, rather than relying on safe spaces where scared victims remain for protection and see the world through fearful eyes, students need to practice facing inward- toward themselves and all of their catastrophe– as a more authentic curriculum, as a more authentic and foundational learning experience for life not merely for succeeding at school.

 

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Plateau or Vista? Storytelling about Limits & Potential

Lately I’ve been focusing on limits. And transcending them. The clinical psychologist and university lecturer, Jordan Peterson, often talks about human potential, and he insists that we human beings are capable of so much more than we think we are. We do not know our own limits nor the limits human consciousness. Among his many videos and lectures, his Tedx Talk about potential and his lecture called “The Necessity of Virtue” have got me thinking about my own limits. What are they? Where did they come from? Do I want to transcend them? If so, how? And why? And why now?

I am consistently coming up against my own physical and mental limits in my yoga practice. You can only fix what you pay attention to, so I have begun to listen to the stories I have been habitually tell myself while practicing— most of them reinforcing limits that I know I am completely capable of transcending.

The usual story goes like this:  

I am not young anymore. I am an older woman who is reasonably fit but not super flexible; I am good enough for my age and stage in life. I lack incredible endurance and strength and lung capacity; I am consistent about my practice and overall fairly healthy; I am someone who tries hard (a relative term that I define and redefine as it suits the day or circumstances– in other words, I can make excuses for why-not anytime I please, and I do). Compared to other people, I am doing pretty well.

There are both negatives and positives within that story, but that’s not the most important point. The crucial point is that I have been believing this story; I have accepted it as true, and so have been living it out, most of the time unconsciously. As a result, I never push harder to challenge my own thoughts or my body’s capabilities. I don’t think in terms of my potential—- what I might actually do if I believed in my own untapped power and went beyond what my mind was telling me. Instead, the theme of my story is that what I am doing in my practice is just “good enough.” I have settled for “pretty good” because it’s easy to maintain. It’s comfortable. As a result, I have plateaued— mentally and physically.  

My thought processes both in my yoga practice and in my life have lulled me into a dangerous place of security. I feel in control and safe. I can predict the future for the most part, and I am settled. My parents would be proud of me for obtaining said security. For some people, settled might sound pretty darn perfect, but I have finally figured out that it’s exactly what’s making me, not discontented exactly, but itching to change. Optimal performance and meaning are lacking when I remain floating, treading water, fearfully hiding? in this kind of static, safe state.

An implicit assumption within the story I mentioned above about limiting myself in my yoga practice and elsewhere is due to my faulty perception that reaching one’s potential or focusing on one’s potential is something only young people do. I have been erroneously convincing myself that tapping into one’s potential is something limited to the young– people who are just starting out their lives (as if life begins at some specific age that is culturally or socially appropriate?). Young people are busy planning, choosing careers and partners to marry, having a family and so forth. Young people are ones who “have their whole lives ahead of them” and they are more apt to continually grow, move forward, and be busily realizing themselves and making something out of themselves. Their bodies are strong, capable.

I am not certain when I stopped believing in my own unrealized potential. Maybe because I work with young people and have been raising children for so long, I have come to think of myself as an old person— closer to retirement and therefore done with most of my “life-planning” or “life-making.” As the elder, perhaps I have been spending more time looking back at my life rather than forward, and so consumed with other people’s learning and potential that I have neglected my own.

At any rate, this implicit belief, a conclusion really, that I am no longer a person who has to reach her potential has made me act as if I have arrived— you know, the place where you can brag that you “made it.” But the more I think about this, I wonder, is this place a vista or a plateau?  Well, the answer to that question is that I get to decide. I get to decide which words to use, which story to tell, which sort of life to live.

Here’s the plateau story:

I have a family, a career, success, financial stability. I have worked hard to reach my potential, so why work so harder or strive to be more or something different? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  I can hang out with loads of people at this very plateau and party my ass off, drink my wine after work, travel and lie on a beach somewhere amazing, and post pictures online of all the fun I am having until I die. I can spend money on “stuff” and have a great time immersed in the pleasures of consumerism, having worked hard my “whole life,” and I can  “just relax” because I’ve earned it! I could sit back and enjoy watching my kids make their lives instead of continuing to make my own.

But why should I settle for the story that I’m doing pretty well at middle age? Why should I blindly accept that maintaining the status quo is entirely acceptable, respectable, appropriate? Why should I settle because that’s what everyone else appears to be doing? Why should I accept that there’s probably not much more I need to do or to be? Why should I cease making my own life alongside all the young people who are making theirs? Perhaps the story our culture tells us at midlife needs revision.

I’d rather tell a vista story, a story about looking ahead, exploring my future prospects, about seeing what’s just up ahead on the road, tapping into my limitless potential, even if the path is mysterious or unclear and less than secure.

vista luxembourg

I have accomplished a lot that I am proud of when I look back on my life; It is meaningful because I worked toward meaning; meaningfulness and purpose in my life resulted from hard work and dedication and passion. It came from having an aim, and then another and another; it came from the challenges, and the burden-bearing, and the blood, sweat, and tears. It came from working to my potential, not just at a specific age, but again, and again, and again.

So, after thinking about limits and potential, I have decided I need to climb the next mountain, to throw myself back into the young-man’s game of goal-setting and potential unleashing because I am capable of so much more than I think.  

But here is the truth about this decision. When I first looked at my own limiting beliefs and decided to change them and reached this epiphany about the need for more climbing, I instantly felt tired, overwhelmed, and intimidated. I resisted the notion, even though I knew it was the right and best and truest thing for me I could do.  I thought, do I really want to work hard to ascend the next peak? And, what is that “next peak” anyway— it doesn’t seem clear to me at all.  I questioned: Do I have the stamina, mentally and physically? Shouldn’t I be more realistic? Is this how I want to expend my time and energy? Change is hard!

Typical fear-based thinking. 

And so, I continue in my yoga practice to watch myself, to observe my thoughts, without latching onto them as truth; to acknowledge them and then move past them. And I trust that my will, the deep core of me that is strong and good and honest, shall combat the lies and limits that my habitual thinking tempts me with.

Learning about limits and potential has helped me come to the conclusion that I am not at all unhappy with my life, what I have done, or who I am. In fact, I couldn’t be happier and more grateful. But I don’t think I want to just sail along through life—coasting, or maintaining this sort of  unconscious auto-pilot state. I don’t want to stay at this plateau, and maybe you don’t either.

Maybe you have been wondering what’s wrong lately and haven’t been able to articulate your intuitions exactly. Maybe, because like me, you have been in the same place, surrounded by the same people, with the same or similar lifestyles for so long that you accept that this is the only or best path— the upside being that it’s familiar and safe. It’s a nice way of living; There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with it. But it’s complacent, a static state of being, and perhaps that’s why it lacks deeper meaning. (Too often when people feel something missing or not quite satisfying in their lives, they make radical decisions to “spice  things up” and so cheat on a spouse or do some other crazy things that define the mid-life crisis. Looking outside of yourself isn’t the answer. Dig deep and explore what’s going on inside and address the problem there.) 

Taking a year away from my job and the day to day life I have known for many years now is the first step in tapping into my potential. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a step toward facing my limits– my limited thinking, choices, attitudes, and behavior and pushing beyond them. So far, I am learning that I am actually way more than what I had been thinking I was; I am realizing that, as the famous American traveling poet Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself,  “I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

I am living beyond my comfort zone and my own safe, self-created status quo; I am facing the unfamiliar– crossing into unknown territory to see what I can learn about landscapes without limits.

Definitions

Vista: a view or prospect, especially one seen through a long, narrow avenue or passage, as between rows of trees or houses. (2) a far-reaching mental view.

Plateau: a period or state of little or no growth or decline; (2) remain at a stable level of achievement; level off. (3) Psychology. a period of little or no apparent progress in an individual’s learning, marked by an inability to increase speed, reduce number of errors, etc., and indicated by a horizontal stretch in a learning curve or graph.

 

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Waiting to be exposed, I mean, publish.

shakespeare-inner-critic-2
Rationalizing voice: I have to wait to share this site with friends until I can produce enough perfectly awesome perfectly revised and perfectly edited content that can withstand criticism and ridicule.
Fear/ Inner Critic: (My ego isn’t ready! I can’t be that vulnerable!)
Rationalizing voice: I will have to wait until I figure out what this project is supposed to be. There needs to be a single point of focus. I have to establish my audience and purpose. You are an English teacher for Christ’s sake! All you have is a domain name.
Fear/Inner Critic: (I am interested in too many things! It’s a collection of uninspiring disconnected ideas! It’s too soon! I have no idea what I am doing!)
burden-of-inner-critic-2
Soul Speaking: Stop rationalizing. Stop making excuses. Fuck Fear. Drown out the Inner Critic. Do my bidding. Trust the process.
(To find the courage to follow your heart and excavate your buried creativity, please read, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, referred to me by Joe Rogan; and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, referred to me by Tim Ferriss).