Rock climberWhat if fear is holy?

This thought came to me as I was overtaken by a recent trance of believing that I’m somehow not enough. I know this cluster of “lizard fears” intimately. I’m not good enough. Or there’s simply not enough (goodness or happiness or pistachios, for that matter). And I do know these as big fat lies when I catch them. But circumstances can trigger the old dominant “lack and attack” beliefs (as Martha Beck calls them) and give the reptilian brain power.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time petting my lizard, naming my lizard, giving it a cozy place to take a break so it can leave me alone. But I’ve long suspected that there’s another understanding that is possible about fear and anxiety.  Anxiety has been my companion, off and on, for most of my life. It has brought me to my knees and taught me to surrender to deepening change.  Most of the risks I’ve taken, inside and out, have involved a dance, if not a tango, with fear. But my anxiety usually feels more like a mammal (say, a sabertooth tiger) than a lizard. A worthy opponent, a Big Force to be reckoned with, rather than a pet to be calmed.

So I was lit up when I discovered a different description of fear by contemporary rabbi Alan Lew. According to him there are two words for fear. One is  pashad, an over-reactive and irrational fear (or lizard brain fear, in today’s parlance). And then, according to Lew, there’s a second word that’s used in the Old Testament: yirah. This is sometimes defined as the feeling we have when we’re standing on holy ground. THIS, I thought, is that other thing, the anxiety I often feel when I’m drawn to do something bigger or scarier than my current way of living in the world, a new word to describe that familiar gut-crunch deep inside when I’m called to take risks that demand that I open up to being a bigger presence in the world. Avoiding yirah would mean that I’d limit myself from taking the next leap and arriving more fully at some unseen potential.

Since I came across this new definition I’ve been noticing I can let the anxiety simply be there. There’s something calming and strengthening when I have respect for this state of being that was first named more than 2,000-years ago. When I notice that I’m having that yirah feeling, I’ve found out that I can choose to do the thing anyway and see what happens. So far it hasn’t been terminal. Good to know.

To quote Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, “when any of us are stepping into our real voices, our true aspirations for our life, we feel yirah. And it can feel a bit uncomfortable because it is that tingling, high-energy, out-of-our-comfort-zone sensation.”  This is not necessarily a trigger that leads directly to panic.

Instead, it’s an invitation to get acquainted with the signals that come from a step into your deeper calling. It’s an opportunity to drop into the Self that is beyond the ego. Its voice may be almost indecipherable now, but that “still, small voice,” accompanied by a soupcon of anxiety, can become your new BFF. The very one that will guide you to your best life. See what you think.

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Question mark“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Parker Palmer, Letting Your Life Speak.

Since one of my (somewhat) official titles is Master Life Coach, I talk to people pretty often who ask for help making something of their lives.  They want an advisor, strategist, and a wrangler to help them get this unwieldy thing called Life back in control. At the very least, they’d like a lasso to round it up a bit. Nothing wrong with that approach, except the fact that Life usually has its own way with us when we’re fighting it. This is the source of abundant stress.

Sometimes asking the question what do I want to make of my life?  is just the thing. There’s nothing like awakening to the awareness that how I live this life is largely my choice. There’s a beauty and strength in being dynamic and focused in your relationship with life. In paying attention to the internal navigational system that tells you what is true for you and then acting on this understanding with integrity. In standing tall and owning the confidence to walk out the door and be yourself  in the best way. It’s a fine thing to find that strong spine and live upright in the world .

But there comes a time when asking what I’ll make of life is the wrong question. When the person who is asking the question is not the person who you are becoming. She still believes that the path of happiness lies in the successes of the past or the people around her.

Sometimes we just don’t know the right question to ask, much less the answer. And then we pretend. This can be a very lonely and anxious state. But this is an important and pregnant time. Because Life, at that very moment, is trying to speak. If we don’t have a lot of experience listening, this can be very confusing. We can learn to manage our anxiety through various helpful techniques. But underneath that, there’s a beckoning, a barely discernible direction.

Most of us in this modern world of stimulus and response aren’t very skilled at giving this voice a good listen. But this hasn’t always been the case. When I studied Spiritual Direction, I discovered the world of Ignatian spirituality. I’m not of the Catholic persuasion, and this is a very solid practice from that tradition (more at http://www.ignatianspirituality.com). There are many things I love about the inner work of this practice. Most important for me has been the awareness of how my life speaks. Or in Ignatian terms, how God speaks in my life.

It’s a process of beginning to grasp what Life wants from me. The access to those answers comes from asking good questions, as is almost always the case.  The way I’ve adapted the practice is in the form of a daily check-in. In the quiet of the evening or morning,  I ask myself three key questions:

  • Where have I felt the presence of the holy in my life today?
  • Where have I felt most alive?
  • What do I long for?

The yearnings of the heart are often subtle. It’s a spiritual practice to slow down enough to listen. To attune to this navigational system, I check in with myself during the day, in the middle of my life, using the tried and true Body Compass I learned from Martha Beck. The heart yearns for freedom. When I can locate that in my body, I can move in the direction. But first comes the research. So I slow it down. Write it down. Once a day, I add to the list in my journal.

It’s an amazing practice for clarity. So here’s your invitation.

Ask those three good questions. And listen for your answers.

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What if the Food Thing Is Simple?

February 12, 2015 Body or Aging

“It’s just that food…diet…food choices…are so complicated.” This was my stated conviction last week as I began a three-day Eating Peace inquiry retreat with dear friend Grace Bell.

My confusion about nutrition and diet has increased over the years, and that’s saying something given my birthright as a woman and my family issues with overeating . Ever seeking a fix for various bodily challenges (such as carrying twenty extra pounds, mostly on my hips and thighs), I have tried these “deep fixes” in the last ten years alone:

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Now . . . A Pause from Self-Improvement

February 3, 2015 Getting Unstuck

Who is this one who’s convinced she must improve me?

She tramped through the oxalis on a wet January evening, wondering at the recirculating advice device that seemed to be her brain.

A “retreat of solitude.” That’s the way she had described her coming week in the half- collapsed cabin, hunkering up to a leaky wood stove.

“Alone with my own thoughts” she had said. “Away from the breakneck speed of screens, terrorists, presidential candidates. (Really? Him? Again? She thought. That’s reason enough to hide in the woods for two years, not just a week.)

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The Wildish Truth

January 29, 2015 Confusion to Clarity

Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar. We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.

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Starting Close In

January 22, 2015 Confusion to Clarity

To learn a poem by heart is to feel it in my body. To learn a poem by heart is to live with it in my pocket. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. For a time I forgot how it feels to stay close to my own marrow with a poem as my guide.

But sometime a couple of months ago, Irene, one of my beloved yoga teachers, read a David Whyte poem I’d never heard before. (Wonder of wonders!)

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When Liminal Time Meets Technology

January 6, 2015 Confusion to Clarity

It’s Epiphany morning. Here’s what I wrote at earliest light, following my purest intentions and my personal tradition of defining Epiphany as a time-out-of-time. Just before a tiny techno glitch grabbed me and shook me by the heels:

I love this liminal time. The time between dark and light. I resist electricity and grope my way by candlelight before meditating each morning.

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Major Gratitude for Shelter from the Storm

December 16, 2014 Body or Aging

What’s the difference between major surgery and minor surgery? I’m at a special pre-op session led by the hospital physical therapist. I had no idea. Didn’t care. Hospitals aren’t my thing. I just wanted to get this knee replacement over with without breaking stride in my full life. I know. I missed the irony at that moment, but I get it now. I get the punch line to the joke, too. Minor surgery is someone else’s. Major surgery is mine.

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Navigating the Sacred Spiral Path

November 19, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

I’m traveling with my friend Siri, she who is the little sister of Garmin and the daughter of Mapquest, the maker of all directions. Sometimes when I believe her, we go straight from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner. And sometimes I end up making three left turns when I wanted to go right…or entering a freeway to go to another exit altogether, only to get off and find that I was where I wanted to go just before I got on the freeway in the first place.

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Wise in This Lifetime

November 11, 2014 Identity

Last week I made a lovely connection with a young woman by surprise. We were participating in an event where the leader requested my very least favorite group exercise: gazing in the eyes of a stranger.

I realized it would be far easier to drop my opinion and see what happened than to keep my story. As it turned out …(drum roll)…

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Slow-Mo Life in Mid-Mo

November 4, 2014 Fall

Last week I made a cross-country plane trek to visit my family in Mid-Missouri. It’s nearly impossible for me to make the trip without leaping into high gear. From the details of preparation beforehand to shuffling bags from car to fight to shuttle, by the time I arrive at my mother’s “gracious adult retirement center,” I leave skid marks.

And then I’m there. With my mother and about a hundred other folks in their eighties and nineties. At first it feels like I’m moving underwater or become a character in a slow motion movie. My mind leaps and bucks at being so tethered. It seeks a job.

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The Last Blast of Summer (or of Anything)

October 7, 2014 Body or Aging

It’s October. Last week I built fires in the woodstove to take the nip out of the early mornings. And then the last few days, here it is. Indian Summer. Temperatures in the eighties, hawks soaring above in the balmy breeze. The sun offers its light on a slant, making it feel even more stunning and precious.

And how very precious it is, this Last Blast of Summer. Called by different names in as many cultures, humans have long celebrated this brief but intense return of the warmth of the growing season.

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A Mind-Clearing Habit

September 30, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

I have a habit of throat clearing. It seems there’s often a froggy sensation that simply must be cleared. Until the other day, I’d never thought of the possibility of clearing other parts of the body…or the psyche, at least in any kind of routine way.

An idea came up last week when we co-hosted a couple of amazing musicians. Their names are Gina Sala and Daniel Paul. Both are highly respected for kirtan, a kind of meditative music most people associate with yoga classes. Kirtan is sometimes described as “yoga for the voice.”

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Salmon, Autumn and a Return to the Wild

September 23, 2014 Fall

A small, hopeful group is gathered here in anticipation of the event. Indian summer, and we’re poised over the impossibly picturesque mountain stream, cascading and rivuleting and pirouetting downhill.

Each of us has our own opinion about what we’re waiting for. All we know is that it’s called a Salmon Release, and each of us has a vague idea about what that means. And it’s an hour late.

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Morning Ritual: Rinse and Repeat

September 2, 2014 Noticing

6:30 a.m. Last day of August. My favorite: time of day, time of year, spot on the planet. Most early mornings are spent in silence and solitude. These moments are improved by the beauty that is summer. I watch from my garden deck overlooking the oak savannah as a buttery sunlit field gradually spreads over the meadow. There is deep peace in this little spot of glory. Deep gratitude finds a similar spot in the center of my body.

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My Inner Slacker vs. My Self-Improvement Junkie

August 19, 2014 Radical Kindness

This has been the perfect season for my highly competitive inner slacker. I’ve put up my feet and sipped ice beverages with the best of them. “Manana” has become my favorite word. All was good until I noticed that September is sneaking up behind me. And now Slacker Sue and Serious Susan have come to a face-off.

I sit right now in the mountains, savoring the summer air, listening to the nearby creek. I want to write about the stuff that folks from my home state Oregon are known for. Boring old Nature and mountains and beaches and stuff like that. The stuff of life.

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The Purpose of Life

July 31, 2014 Noticing

What All Animals but Man Know is that the Purpose of Life is to Enjoy It. -~Samuel Butler.

This bittersweet moment arrives every summer. The calendar flips and we’re in August. Not yet! We cry. There’s another month until Labor Day.

Some of us (as in me) wear blinders to the darker fall colors and school supplies subtly reminding us of what’s coming.

And yet. (And this is important): Fall is not here yet.

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The Grace of the Sea Stars

July 22, 2014 Body or Aging

Sea Star is the name of a watercolor in my office, painted by a friend years ago when she was traveling in India. She was on the beach in Goa watching the sea when a local woman, arms full of colorful, dancing scarves, swept up to her: “Sea Star, You want to buy? “ It took her a minute to realize that the woman was calling her “sister,” not selling her sea stars or starfish. Sea stars, or “sisters,” my dear women friends, have held me in kindness, given me tea and sympathy and laughter my whole life. The painting is a vivid reminder of the strength of this tribe of love.

And then there are the other Sea Stars, the variegated, orange and purple creatures of the sea that are also called starfish.

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A Burn Center and a Kind Universe

July 1, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

Einstein famously said that the most important decision we can make as humans is whether or not the universe is kind. As I’ve practiced Positive Paranoia in my life, I’ve looked for evidence of a kind universe for the last forty years. Based on lots of evidence, my own jury has pretty much already decided. But my mind is still open to new proof.

A few years ago my son awakened in the night with his bed on fire. He got out alive, even though the Burn Center doctor said he shouldn’t have awakened because of lack of oxygen to the brain.

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Positive Paranoia

June 24, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

1975. I’m 26 years old and my life is just what I always dreamed it would be, yet I’m raw and desperate. I’ve achieved all the things I set out to do: travel, happy marriage, a meaningful job. I’ve somehow proved myself Successful in conventional ways and unconventional ways, taking on all the tasks of being an acceptable member of the Counterculture of the time. And then, without knowing why, I hit a dead end.

It happens in a moment. I’m walking down the street and I suddenly feel flat and hollow inside. Not there. It seems like a dead end: there’s no exit in sight. I’m deeply scared, and my bed seems like the best refuge.

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