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On Finding Courage

Instead of a New Year’s resolution, I like to pick a word. This year’s is courage. From David Whyte:

Courage is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire, to do something under besieging circumstance, and perhaps, above all, to be seen to do it in public—to show courage, to be celebrated in story, rewarded with medals, given the accolade. But a look at its linguistic origins leads us in a more interior direction and toward its original template, the old Norman French, coeur, or heart.

Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a professional future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on. To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.

There is courage in leaving home and traveling to unknown places, but there’s greater courage in venturing inward. It takes bravery to investigate our own hearts—to hold up our most deeply held beliefs for questioning.

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I’ve operated on fear most of my life. Fear told me that people would reject me unless I never ever ever ever messed up. It told me that my dreams probably wouldn’t work out, so why bother? Fear swallowed my self-trust and sent me scouting for danger even when—especially when—everything seemed to be going my way. It made me critical and cynical.

I’m over it.

But undoing habitual patterns is hard. Freakishly hard. I designed this trip to help shake me loose—to propel me inward as much as forward and to force me, with so much unfamiliar, to notice and question the parts of my inner dialogue that hold me back from doing the things I really want to do.

Every day you get to choose. You can accept knee-jerk, fear-based reactions and you can blame something or somebody else for how crappy you feel. You can berate yourself for not doing or being better, and you can wish that things were different.

Or you can look for possibility. You can sniff out a learning. Laser your attention on how much you already have and what you can give to a situation. Then you give it. This is courage.

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Tomorrow I head to my brother and sister-in-law in Virginia. After a few days with them I officially leave my comfort zone for Tennessee.

 

*I should probably put it out there that this is not a “proper expression” of Warrior III—my head, hips, and heel should be in a straight line—but the photo had so much more feeling than the “correct” one, I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes correct is boring (except when incorrect gets you hurt, so please be careful with your body).

 

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On Intrusive Thoughts

#HonestyAlert: I have these things called intrusive thoughts. My mind will hit upon a worry and then bring it up over and over and over and over again, whether I’m cool with that or not. The negativity piles up and piles up until wham, panic attack.

When I experienced this for the first time last year, I had no idea what has happening. It was total paralysis.

But the internet is awesome, and I found a counselor who works with this particular sort of obsessive anxiety.¹ From her I learned that the conscious mind prefers to panic over things that it perceives as within its control rather than deal with the muddy stuff below the surface—the stuff that really hurts.

Panic is an indication that it’s time to get quiet and investigate on a deeper level. Easier said than done—we avoid stuff for a reason—but when I accepted the idea that my anxious thoughts weren’t 100% true and started looking underneath at what was really causing the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, things got really interesting. They also got much, much better.

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My left hamstring’s been feeling a little funny for the last two weeks, and a few days ago my anxiety latched onto it hard, panicking over the chance that it might get worse and render me useless for farm work. I did due diligence in ruling out injury, and then I realized just how relentless and negative the thoughts had been.

Oh, right.

It’s way easier to obsess over physical symptoms than drop down into the big groundlessness that comes with leaving home.

Seeing the chiropractor did help. But so did a big dose of self compassion. Taking some photographs. Talking to Mark. Cooking up a vat of sausage-tomato soup with my cousin at the shop. Sitting on the porch this morning, listening—being here, rather than camping out in an imaginary future. The hammy feels great today.

This won’t be the last anxious thought of the trip, and that’s a good thing. When we stop being so scared of it, anxiety becomes a pretty awesome teacher.


¹ If you are any combination of anxious, sensitive, and creative and have ever experienced intrusive thoughts, do yourself a favor and visit Sheryl Paul.

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We Could All Use A Little More Woo-Woo

We’re taught mythology as part of ancient history. Gods and goddesses, astrology, prayer, shamanism, mysticism, ritual, spirituality—anything that breathes of the supernatural gets relegated to the past that we’ve left behind. We’re “better” now, more “advanced” without all that. We roll eyes at New Age and scorn woo-woo as a bunch of emotional nonsense. Why?

Every advancement in technology has been a step away from the primitive. As our clothing, homes, travel, and work have gotten more comfortable and convenient, we’ve distanced ourselves more and more from a reality that humans used to live closely with: Death. This is nowhere more obvious than in the (awesome) advancements of modern medicine. We just don’t die like we used to. It’s gotten easier to pretend like we might not have to die at all.

Capitalism preys on this denial—couldn’t exist without it—since everything that the free market preaches is worthless when we’re gone. If you want to be accepted by the culture, you’d better hop on the death-denying train and start making some money. The life you can’t yet afford but that will definitely make you happier is waiting.

It’s a promise that offers control. There’s a reason we pursue wealth and status for decades, sometimes our entire lives. The path is straightforward and safe. It’s material, external. You can walk it forever and never have to face the messy stuff—you know, feelings. And yet we still hurt. We’re unhappy and we don’t know why.

Woo-woo work is emotional work. It’s healing, and healing—the confronting and stripping away of self-limiting beliefs—involves the death of how and who we used to be. Feelings and death? No wonder we write this stuff off. It’s straight up ego murder. It’s terrifying.

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For most of my life, I’ve snubbed all things spiritual. No chanting in my yoga classes, please, I’m here for the pushups kind of deal. The idea of God made me squirm. Love and peace was for delusional hippies; I was after progress and a raise. I hurt all the time with depression and anxiety, but I was achieving all the right things and so I told myself that my pain was wrong.

Pain is never wrong, and it’s not for sissies. We all have it, and pretending like we don’t doesn’t make it go away. In fearing and ignoring our hurt, we feed it. In facing it, we heal. That’s where woo-woo comes in. The tools ask us to reflect on our emotional world so we might make it a more hospitable place. And when we heal, we make room for others to do the same. We find compassion.

I’ll take that over a Cadillac any day.