Where does your mind go when you’re faced with frustration? Where does it go when all of your plans fall through and everything is outside of your control?
Years ago, I heard a mindfulness teacher say that mindfulness is about “learning to pay attention to your attention.” That’s all fine and good when you’re sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, but what about when you’re out in the chaotic world? What about when you’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, you’re alone, and everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable and falling apart? How do you stay mindful and keep “paying attention to your attention” THEN?!
This past week, the universe provided me with a great opportunity to see just how mindful I could be under those circumstances. I’m in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, a beautiful and somewhat remote area of the country. There are seventeen villages around the volcanic lake (that’s surrounded by mountains), and though there is lots of tourism, the local culture is still very much alive. It’s the kind of place I love to spend time – off the beaten track, but not so far off that it doesn’t feel safe to be a solo female traveller who doesn’t speak the language.
I am working while I travel (I have a book to edit; classes to teach on Zoom; meetings with clients, my publishing team, and my teaching team; blog posts to write; etc.), so I always check to make sure the places I’m staying have wifi. I didn’t think to check whether or not they have HIGH SPEED wifi that’s good enough for Zoom, however. For the first week on the lake, I was taking a break from being online, so it didn’t matter that I had little wifi. I had just enough to stay in touch with my kids (if I walked down the steep hill to the common area of the place I was staying) and that was good enough. Then I moved ten minutes down the lake by boat, from San Marcos la Laguna to San Juan la Laguna, to stay in a quaint and inexpensive hotel, and discovered on the first night, when I tried to FaceTime with my daughter, that the wifi wasn’t good enough.
The next day, I started searching online for “coffee shops with the best wifi in Lake Atitlan” and soon discovered that there was very little high speed wifi in the entire region. I had a webinar scheduled for two days later and hundreds of people had already signed up and were expecting me to be there, so I was on a mission to find something. One cafe in San Pedro looked promising, so I headed there. A seven minute boat ride and a 1.5 km walk (almost entirely up a steep hill) later, I found a sweet little cafe that was quiet enough for a Zoom call. I tested it with another FaceTime call with another daughter and it was okay but not great. I was pretty sure on a Zoom call full of people, it wouldn’t hold up.
I had one more day to find something, so the next day I set out with a plan. I downloaded a speed test app on my phone, made a list of coffee shops that had been recommended on various travel and digital nomad sites and were within a ten minute boat ride, and set out. The first one, in the town where I was staying, was slower than the hotel. The next one, back in San Marcos where I’d stayed the week before, was also slower than the hotel. So was the third one, also in San Marcos. (By that point, I was running out of beverage options that I wanted to drink that wouldn’t pump me full of caffeine.)
Back on a boat, I headed to San Pedro again. This time I tried the trendiest coffee shop that attracted the trendiest tourists, thinking they would cater to more North American and European expectations and probably have good wifi, and sure enough, the wifi was good. It was also very noisy, with a loud thumping drumbeat bouncing off the walls. I knew it would be too distracting for a Zoom call.
It was getting late by this point, and the boats would only run for another half hour, so I headed back to my hotel, resigning myself to Plan B. All of my research had pointed toward a hostel in Panajachel, a half-hour boat ride across the lake, with the only coworking space in the region and the promise of good wifi. I’d already checked online and could book a week in the coworking space and a bed in a dorm. I’ve stayed in hostels on this trip before, but I’ve always booked private rooms. I feel a little too old for a dorm, but I was willing to do it for a few nights so that I could get my work done.
That evening, the electricity was out in the hotel (not something that surprises me when staying in rural areas with less-developed infrastructure). When it finally came back on, the only bulb in my small room burnt out. It was too late to get maintenance to deal with it, so I groped around in the dark. The next morning I woke up early, and the electricity was out again. This time I had to grope around in the bathroom too, and discovered, after it was too late, that I’d run out of toilet paper. By the time I figured out how to deal with that frustration, I was too wide-awake to fall back to sleep, I grabbed a blanket and went to lie in the hammock outside my room, listening to the village wake up and watching the sun start to touch the mountain in my line of sight.
I’d tried to cancel the rest of my nights in the hotel the night before but hadn’t been successful (due to language barriers and technical difficulties). I tried again after breakfast and was told to come back in an hour because the young woman at the desk wasn’t sure how to do it (juggling an archaic paper system with an online booking platform she wasn’t familiar with) without charging me for the nights I wasn’t using.
An hour later, I could finally check out, but only if I paid for one more night. Because I’d tried to check out the day before, I shouldn’t have had to pay for the extra night (according to the policy on the booking site I’d used), but I gave up trying to convince the young woman (and the older woman who appeared to be a supervisor but didn’t speak English) of that and just paid the bill.
Soon, I was back on a boat. Though there are often tourists on these boats, moving from one town to the next, the boats serve as the local transportation service, so it’s just as likely that there will be no other foreigners. This was one of those times. I was surrounded by mostly young men and nobody spoke English. I knew enough to communicate which town I was going to, but not enough to ask questions when the boat docked at another town and sat there for a long time, with no indication that it was going to carry on to Panajachel. Eventually it did.
Finally, I got to the hostel. It was too early to check in, but they let me store my luggage and I was given access to the coworking space. With only a couple of hours left until the webinar, I set up my computer and tried to get online. Nope. No wifi. I tried the coworking wifi and the hostel wifi, and both gave me only the spinning-wheel-of-death. I checked back in at the desk and the young man there assured me it was working and said to turn the wifi button on and off again on my devices, and to “forget this network” and sign on again… but nothing worked. I also couldn’t get onto the eSIM that I’d bought for emergency purposes. (Later I asked a couple of other people working at the desk and they told me the wifi was down and appeared to be down in the entire neighbourhood.)
At this point, I didn’t know what to do, but I’ve got a stubborn streak in me that doesn’t let me give up easily, so I headed down the street to find a restaurant or coffee shop. I stopped at the first restaurant that said it had wifi, ordered a salad, and got online to let my team know about my ongoing challenges and to say we might have to postpone the webinar. “I’ll try one more coffee shop down the street,” I said, and after my salad was done, I carried on.
I nearly burst out laughing when I got to the coffee shop and discovered that they had neither wifi nor plugs (to charge the devices that were, by now, nearly dead because of the lack of electricity the night before). I headed back down the street and stood outside the restaurant while I texted my team and said “I have no more options. We’ll have to cancel. Also – my phone’s about to die and I can’t stand here outside the restaurant indefinitely, so I’ll probably drop out of contact soon.”
Back at the hostel, I finally got onto the wifi, but only briefly and then it dropped off again. And then, for the rest of the day, it continued to function in weird ways. For awhile, I could get on with my phone but not my computer, then with my computer and not my phone, and whenever I went offline I couldn’t get back on. The weirdest was when my texts were going through to two of my daughters but not the third.
By now, there was a raging pool party going on, with lots of beer pong and loud, thumping dance music. I was more than twice the average age of the group (with nobody else in my age range), not in the mood for a party with young strangers, and could find no quiet space at the hostel. I moved my belongings into the dorm (which was close to the pool and therefore very loud), and headed out for a walk. If I couldn’t work or rest, I might as well enjoy the town. I bought a plastic cup full of sliced mangos and wandered toward the waterfront. It was peaceful there, the locals were out enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll with their families, small children were giggling by the water, my mango tasted delicious, and I felt my breathing slow and my heart swell with gratitude.
Nothing had worked the way I’d wanted it to, I felt disconnected from the world and couldn’t chat with anyone I loved, I had no language to speak with anyone on the street, I felt out of place at the hostel where I was staying and regretted leaving the quiet hotel across the lake with the hammock overlooking the water, and yet, overwhelmingly, it was joy that I felt at the end of the day. Joy, gratitude, and connection with the people whose language I couldn’t speak but who understood a shared smile.
This brings me back to the place where I started this post – with mindfulness and “paying attention to my attention”. While all of these things were going wrong, I made a special point to try to stay present in the moment, to witness my thoughts as they were happening and release those that weren’t helpful, to still be in awe of my beautiful surroundings, and to remember the commitment I wrote about in my last blog post – to orient myself toward joy.
Where did my mind want to go in the midst of all of these frustrations? Here are some of the thoughts I witnessed popping into my head: I am unsafe here. I have made a mistake coming to this area. This is all my fault. Why did I have this ridiculous idea that I could work remotely while travelling? Why am I not satisfied with staying home like other people? I should be in a place where I have more control over things. Why do I create so many challenges for myself? Why can’t I find anyone to talk to? I must be unlikeable. People must think I’m foolish for choosing to live this way. All the people who signed up for the webinar will be disappointed with me and are probably judging me. My team will be frustrated with me. This kind of travel is for people younger than I am. I’m letting people down. No, wait – other people are letting ME down. There must be someone else I can blame. Perhaps I can blame the people at the hotel or hostel. Or maybe it’s the wifi providers’ fault. This boat system is ridiculous and disorganized. Those people are looking at me funny – perhaps they want to steal my bags. Why do they have to play such loud music at this hostel? Kids these days!
That’s just scratching the surface of what popped into my mind, especially in those moments when my nervous system was the most activated. But all of those thoughts evaporated quickly when I noticed and intentionally released them. I’m happy to report that I never got stuck in any loops of rumination, blame, or self-flagellation. I held onto my intention to stay present and mindful throughout, and that’s what allowed me to end the day quite peacefully once the webinar was postponed. After wandering around with my cup of mango, I came back to the hostel, found an empty lounge chair, sat down with my e-reader, and watched the young party-goers enjoy each other’s company. Much like I used to enjoy watching my daughters with their friends, when they’d gather in our backyard when we still had a house in Winnipeg, I found pleasure in watching these young people, so full of life and joy and yet so clearly holding their own insecurities and need for belonging.
There have been many, many times in my life when I wouldn’t have been able to end the day as well as I did. There have been many times when I would have tumbled into victim mode or self-blaming mode and gotten stuck there. There have been many times when I would have curled up in my bed, resentful that there was a stranger sleeping in the bed next to me, and cried myself to sleep. None of those things happened though – I slept peacefully even though there was a young Danish man just a few feet away.
Here are some of the things that helped:
Practising mindfulness. Although I’m not the kind of mindfulness practitioner who’s spent many hours on the cushion, I try to bring mindfulness into my life in every way that I can. “Notice, label, get curious, release” is what my practice looks like. I notice the feeling, thought or sensation, try to label it as best I can, get curious about its origin or what it’s attached to, and then release it. I’ve found that my learning around things like trauma and Internal Family Systems has been immensely helpful in my mindfulness practice because it gives me more clarity about where my thoughts or feelings are coming from and helps me become less attached to them.
Opening to joy. When my mind starts to fixate on all of the things going wrong, it takes a special effort to open myself to joy… and yet it is possible. There are little joyful moments available even in the most frustrating days. When I was feeling the most exasperated, on the way back from the restaurant to the hostel with a nearly-dead phone and no connection, a man on the street started raving about the mango ice cream he was eating and INSISTED I needed to go try some myself. He was so joyful about his ice cream that it was infectious and I started to laugh with him right there in the middle of the street. I promised I would look for the little shop by the boat dock and try some of that amazing ice cream (a promise I intend to keep before I leave this village).
Being in awe. I was sitting in the boat, surrounded by young Guatemalan men, and we were going nowhere. I needed to get to the hostel in time to prepare for the webinar, but had no control over the fact that we were just sitting there, bobbing up and down in the boat. My mind started to hook into anxiety and impatience, and then I turned my head and looked at a boat not far from where we were sitting. On the side of the boat was the most mesmerising light pattern, reflected from the rippling water. My breath slowed and my anxiety eased as I sat watching, drawn into the magic of the dancing lights. I don’t know how much more time passed before the boat started to move, but I didn’t care anymore. I was in awe and nothing else mattered. The world was a beautiful place and would continue to be a beautiful place even if I didn’t make it to the webinar.
Assuming no blame. This is a tough one, but one of the most important. When things go wrong, my mind wants to find some place to attach blame – either with other people or with myself. There is some comfort in knowing that someone is responsible and can be the target of my rage and frustration. (In the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the author talks about how some of us are internalizers who blame primarily ourselves, and others are externalizers who look for others to blame. I tend toward internalisation.) But blame keeps us trapped in a victim narrative and that’s not a pleasant place to live, nor does it serve our growth or healing. There is much more ease and joy when we can let go of blame and assume that everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. When I stood in front of the young woman at the hotel, wanting to blame her for the expense of an extra night in the hotel, I released that thought and instead saw her humanity and the effort she was making to do her job well. I thanked her for her effort and paid the bill. As I left, she called out to me that she could arrange for a boat to pick me up closer so that I didn’t have to take a tuktuk back to the main dock. I thanked her for the extra kindness and we both smiled.
Practising tenderness. I cannot overstate how much my tenderness practice has changed the way I treat myself. Whenever my thoughts turn toward self-flagellation, I remember to extend tenderness to myself and to soothe the part of me that’s feeling threatened in that moment. I listen to the voices of my inner wounded child, who wants to belong, wants to feel safe, and wants someone to protect her, and I assure her that she is in good hands and I will look out for her. When my emotions start to overwhelm me, I hold space for what comes and extend an extra dose of tenderness to my body (often with a hand on my heart, soothing touch on my face, or a little crossed-arms self-hug). When I can, like I’ve done several times since having to postpone the webinar, I sit with my journal and tenderly allow myself to pour everything onto the page. Often I end my journal time with a message from Tenderness showing up on the page.
You can learn more about these practices (and much more) in my upcoming course, Know Yourself Free Yourself, which starts the week of March 13th. I hope you’ll join me, and the global community of people who are also seeking to live more free and joyful lives.
I’m writing this post poolside, at a beach hotel in Costa Rica. I feel like I’m in one of those commercials from the early days of smartphones, when the busy mom wouldn’t have time to take her kids to the beach because she had a meeting, but then she’d realize she could multi-task and take the meeting at the beach.
I’m not multi-tasking from the middle of a busy life, though. I’ve slowed down my life and reorganized my priorities, my business and my lifestyle so that I can work (and play) from anywhere while I travel. (I also no longer have to centre my children’s needs and desires in my choices.)
Moments ago, I was floating in the pool, blissfully alone, watching a hawk and a few butterflies drift through the sky above me while the palm leaves danced beside the pool. Floating – in a pool, the ocean, a river, or a float tank – brings me pleasure and peacefulness. The sound of the world is muted in my ears while the sound of my own breath is amplified. Time becomes irrelevant and my body feels light and carefree. Once I finish writing this post (or when I get stuck), I’ll be back in the water, floating again.
As I was floating, I was thinking about this journey I’ve been on – which I’ve dubbed my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. Since August, I’ve been wandering around the world with only a small suitcase, connecting with people, teaching in a few locations, and opening myself to whatever comes next in my life now that my daughters have all left home.
One of the questions that I held for myself as I walked away from the house I’d owned for twenty-four years was: “What if I more intentionally seek out what brings me joy?” I’ve been doing just that, trying to orient myself toward joy in all of the choices I make this year. Joy led me around Europe, brought me back to Canada to spend Christmas with my family and then brought me to Costa Rica. Later this week, I’m following it to other places in Central America.
It’s been a meaningful exploration. What I’ve discovered so far is that when I am more intentionally oriented toward joy, I make better decisions, I’m more able to be generous with other people, I’m more resilient, and I’m more creative. This past week, for example, I’ve written far more blog posts than I normally write in a week and I think it’s because I’ve been feeling grounded and joyful and can create from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.
A new awareness arrived for me as I floated in the pool just moments ago, and that’s why this blog post is showing up (even though I told Krista I wouldn’t write anymore this week). What I realized is that my quest for joy needs to be a holistic pursuit. I need to orient myself toward joy with ALL of me – my mind, my heart, and my body.
It’s taken the longest to bring my body fully into the quest. For many reasons (trauma, religion, social conditioning), I’ve spent a large part of my life cut off from my body, not loving it, not caring for it, and not listening to its wisdom. Being more fully in my body has been a work in progress, and, while I’ve come a long way, there is still work to do.
Despite my head and heart’s efforts, my body still has some discomfort with joy. In fact, the more I consider it, the more I feel like there is joy trapped in my body from years of having it shut down by a religion that told me that my body was sinful and that I shouldn’t dance or be sensuous or dress in ways that drew attention to myself or have sex before marriage or do most of the things that might allow embodied joy to find full expression.
My trauma tells me that embodied joy is not safe, and my body is hanging onto the vestiges of that belief system longer than the rest of me. My head and heart have worked through this with my therapist, but my body is still catching up.
Sometimes, when my head and heart feel joyful, I notice my body respond with fear signals or dissociation, as though it’s trying to pull my head and heart away from a dangerous precipice. One of my most familiar remaining “tells” is a tightening in my throat, lips, or tongue – almost as though my body is afraid it won’t be able to breathe if I lean fully into joy. (One of my trauma incidents involves being nearly choked to death, so the fear of losing breath remains present in my body.)
Fortunately, my mindfulness practice and my tenderness practices have brought me to greater and greater awareness of what’s going on in these moments, and, although I haven’t fully resolved this in my body to the point where it no longer happens, I know that I have resources to witness it, soothe it and sometimes even transform it. Sometimes it takes time, but I can usually bring myself back to a feeling of safety and, ultimately, embodied joy.
With every bit of healing I do, I am getting better and better at floating in joy the way I float in water. Whenever I float in the water, I have to give myself over completely to the water, trusting the water to hold my body up so that I still have access to the air that will fill my lungs. Unless I become anxious to the point of stiffening my body, or waves threaten to topple me, the water is always trustworthy in holding me there.
I want to trust joy the way my body trusts the water. I want to lean into it, relax all of the muscles in my body, and trust that it will hold me close to the surface so that I can always take another effortless breath.
The older I get, the more time I spend in a place called self-love.
It’s not a destination I have fully settled into yet, but at least I spend more time there than I used to. It’s not just a hotel that I visit a couple of times a year – it’s an apartment I’ve furnished with some of my favourite books, artwork and comfortable furniture.
There are moments when I want to stay in that apartment, but I get pulled back to old familiar locations, like self-criticism, self-doubt, body shame, insecurity and fear of abandonment. When I make a mistake that hurts someone, when someone criticizes me, when my old trauma is triggered, or when I haven’t been tending my membranes and I’ve extended myself to the point of exhaustion – those are all times when it’s harder to stay in my cozy apartment with my favourite things. That’s when I use my tenderness practices to soothe my body/mind/heart and eventually I find my way back.
Before I made tenderness an important part of my life, I used to go on self-defeating loops in my mind. First I’d get triggered into self-criticism and fear of abandonment. Then, because I’d read a lot of self-help books about the importance of self-love, I’d try to find my way back there. Because I was already in self-criticism mode, though, I’d start to blame myself for not being better at self-love. Of course, that loop never served me well because personal growth can not happen in a place of self-criticism.
When I interviewed her for Know Yourself, Free Yourself, my friend, psychologist Dr. Jo Unger told me that “we react to self-criticism with defensiveness, just as we would when receiving criticism from others. We try to protect ourselves and we defend our choices and behaviours.” In other words, we become our own worst enemies, creating a war within our own heads.
How do we get out of these loops, then? How do we find our way to self-love when the self-critical parts of us keep blocking the path? Once I started on this Liberation and Tenderness journey I’ve been on, I started to find a few answers to those questions.
Firstly, I learned about systems theory and began to realize that my own tendency toward self-criticism and fear of abandonment wasn’t just a personal failing but was designed into the systems I was born into. That was an important piece for me, because it meant that I was neither fully responsible for developing (or dismantling) the self-critical parts of myself, nor was I solely responsible for my lack of self-love. (It also meant that my family and community were not solely responsible – the systems were much bigger and more complex than that.)
Capitalism, for example (a meta-system that infiltrates every other layer), doesn’t want me to find genuine self-love because then I might stop buying things to try to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. Capitalism wants me to keep seeing my body as shameless, because then it can convince me to buy all the body-shaping clothes, all the age-defying creams, all the self-help books, all the beauty products, and all the diet plans. If I love myself too much, and everyone else does the same, we might stop feeding the growth that capitalism relies on to live.
Contrary to what some of the self-help books teach, self-criticism is not just an inside job. It’s been shaped by many forces, from our earliest days of life. Unless we understand that, it doesn’t matter how many self-help books we read. We might get better at self-care, and perhaps even self-acceptance, but genuine self-love will remain illusive.
Secondly, I learned that, though I’ve been shaped by systems and the systems are still alive in me (and I help shape systems), I still have the freedom to make choices. I am not a slave to the systems. I can choose to heal the trauma that has left me with a fear of abandonment. I can find community support instead of trying to face this challenge as an individual. I can choose to deconstruct the beliefs that the system has convinced me I can’t live without. I can choose to challenge the voices in my head that tell me I need to climb the ladder of acceptability to be worthy of safety and belonging and I can work with my community to co-create spaces where the ladder has no value.
As Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in The Body is Not an Apology, we can choose to collectively dismantle the ladder. “Divest from this ladder. It’s only real because we keep trying to climb it. We have no more use for it. When I don’t have the ladder to climb and I understand my natural birthrights, the ladder is imaginary. We already came here with everything we need to be destined to be who we came here for.”
Thirdly, I discovered that Tenderness was my path back to self-love (no matter how many times I get triggered into self-criticism or self-doubt). When I started to experience Tenderness as an external entity (as I wrote about in The House That Tenderness Built), something that was always available to me whenever I chose to receive it, I found I no longer had to rely solely on my own internal resources (resources that often got blocked by self-criticism) to get to self-love. I could simply trust in it, the same way I trust nature to hold me when I go for walks in the woods.
When I write conversations with Tenderness in my journal, she teaches me how to treat myself and how to divest from the ladder. When I soothe my body with Tenderness practices, she reminds me how valuable, beautiful, and sensual my body is even if it doesn’t measure up to capitalist beauty standards. She reminds me again and again that I am worthy of love and she silences the voice of self-criticism.
“Everything is a candidate for inquiry,” says Gabor Maté, “even intensely negative experiences like self-loathing. Rather than admonishing ourselves for hating ourselves, we can be curious as to why self-hatred arrived on the scene in the first place. A question posed in that spirit often illuminates. When the beauty in us can compassionately accept the beast – allow it to ‘be our guest,’ if you will – the latter may transform into a handsome and loving companion; at the very least, it can relax and stop hounding us so ravenously.”
That brings me to some thoughts about what self-love really is. Last week, during a lunchtime conversation at Brave Earth, British-Chilean artist and activist Felipe Viveros shared that in mapudungun (the language of Mapuche people, an Indigenous tribe in Chile) there is no word for hate. “Ayün”, the word used for love, means that there is a special kind of light in your eyes and that I can see myself reflected in that light. The only way to understand hate, then, is to say that the light in your eyes has gone out and I am no longer able to see myself reflected.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about that in relation to self-love. When I look in the mirror, I want to be able to see myself reflected back to me through the light of my own eyes. I want to stand in that light and nurture it for so long that it is never at risk of going out. I want that light to shine as brightly as it can so that everyone I meet can see themselves reflected.
Another conversation this week had a similar impact. My friend Michael was talking about wonder and awe, and how it’s easy to be in wonder and awe when we look at nature. It’s harder to do, though, when we look at ourselves. But if I am a part of nature (which I am), should I not be able to witness myself with wonder and awe? Since then, I’ve been trying to look at myself that way, witnessing myself as a beautiful and adaptable part of nature, the same way I look at the trees in the jungle on my daily walks here in Costa Rica (where I’ve been for a month).
A couple of weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the texture of leaves in the jungle. It was remarkable to place them all together in a collage and see how much variation in shape, size, colour and texture there was. Each leaf has adapted differently to its environment, doing its best to absorb whatever light is available to it in the jungle, to turn that light into energy. In a sense, the way the leaves respond to the light is just the way I want to respond to the light I see in my own eyes when I look in the mirror – to photosynthesize it into energy and to pass that energy down to the tree that holds me.
Since then, just the way I did with the leaves, I’ve been marvelling at my own body and the bodies of the people I encounter. What beautiful variations we all are! What wonderful ways our bodies have adapted to our environments! How remarkable it is to witness the ways we’ve all reached for the light, transformed it into energy, and helped to reflect it to others!
Today, as I write this in the shade of a circle of tall palm trees, I send a wish out to all of you, my readers. May you see the light in your own eyes and may you reflect it to all you meet.
I was walking through the jungle this morning, as I do nearly every morning when I stay at my friend Mary’s farm in Costa Rica, and I was noticing the beauty and variety of what has dropped onto the jungle floor. A couple of weeks ago, I photographed the endless variety of patterns in jungle leaves and, this morning, I turned my attention to what has fallen to the ground.
It was beautiful to witness the leaves, branches, fallen trees, and flower petals in various stages of decay. Some leaves were still green, some had turned various shades of orange, red, and yellow, and some were shades of brown. Those that had been on the ground the longest had deteriorated in shape and colour and were about to become one with the forest floor.
All that has fallen will serve as nourishment for the trees that continue to thrive and for those that have not yet sprouted. On some of the rotting branches and tree trunks, there were already the shoots of new plants sprouting from the decay.
Nature invites us to witness the cycles of life, and to recognize that death is built into the design. We don’t have growth without death. We don’t have new shoots without the rot of old leaves and branches to root themselves in.
Within many of our cultures, though, there is a great fear of death and a resistance to recognizing its inevitability. Our beauty industry sells us “anti-aging” products so that we can live in denial that our bodies are becoming wrinkled and worn, like some of the leaves on the forest floor. We turn away from conversations about death because we’d rather pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We sterilize the dying process and, if the body is visible at all, it is only when it’s been preserved so that it looks like the person hasn’t died that it’s acceptable.
Recently, I had the honour of walking alongside my friend Randy on his journey toward death. ALS was taking away his bodily functions and, in the end, he chose to leave his earthly body through medically assisted dying. In the year that I walked alongside him, I learned so much that I hope to someday write a book that contains the wisdom of that year. Randy was at peace with his dying and didn’t shy away from talking about it. Like the dying things on the forest floor, what Randy left behind will continue to nourish what can grow in me (and in others who were touched by his life) in the future.
This fear of death is not only a personal fear, it’s a collective fear, and we have embedded that fear into the systems we’ve developed and help to perpetuate. Within capitalism, for example, there is embedded a great denial that the system will ever need to die in order to serve as compost for the next system. We close our eyes to the destruction of a system that has completed its purpose and we pretend that it can continue to thrive and grow, because that seems safer for us to imagine. The death of capitalism seems too chaotic for us to consider, so we tolerate the harm it causes out of the fear of what is unknown.
As we all know, though, the kind of growth required to support our capitalist system is wreaking havoc on our planet and destroying many lives. It’s become a monster, swallowing up living beings in its hunger for perpetual growth.
I wonder what it would be like for us to lean into the wisdom that living systems need to die in order for new life to begin. I wonder how it would change us if we treated our systems like the trees in the forest, accepting death and decay as part of the process. I wonder what might grow if we stopped hanging onto the destructive, growth-hungry monsters that threaten to destroy us even as we feed them.
Perhaps, like Randy, we could even accept some form of “medically assisted dying” when we recognize that the purpose has been served, there has been joy in the lifetime of the system, and it’s time to let go. I don’t know what the future holds once we have allowed capitalism to die. Like everyone else, I am afraid of the chaos of the deconstruction process, and so I notice my own resistance rising up even as I write this.
Here’s what I do know, though… we are creative, resilient beings, living in a creative, regenerative world. We are not separate from that world. We are not set apart, better than, or worse than. We are in nature and nature is in us.
I also know that we have gained gifts from capitalism (just as I gained gifts from Randy) that will nourish us even as the system decays. It was not designed as an evil system, but as a system that sustained humans for many years. It was simply doing the job it was designed for.
AND I know that we need to resource ourselves so that we have the courage, strength and creativity needed for this great transition we’re entering. That’s why I’m committed to teaching people to hold space for discomfort, and why I have created the course Know Yourself, Free Yourself; self-exploration as a path to liberation and love (which starts in early March). I believe that embracing tenderness and liberation will help us find the resources we need in order to live through what could be a chaotic time.
It’s time for us all to imagine and co-create better ways of living together. I don’t know what those designs look like yet, but I know that we have the resources we need when we lean into our collective wisdom and courage. And I believe that there are clues on the jungle floor.
Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.