Yesterday morning I was in an emotional tailspin. The night before, at the end of a long day of coaching clients, I made a couple of mistakes that were pointed out by people and it put me in a shame spiral. And then, partly because I was already fragile, another person’s actions annoyed me and I landed in an anger spiral that resulted in me saying some words I shouldn’t have.
I could just chalk this up to jet lag and excuse myself for it all by saying that I’m still adjusting to being home and that I jumped into client work too quickly after the intensity of facilitating three retreats and I should have known better than to interact with people who challenge me after a full day of coaching… but that would largely be me letting myself off the hook for bad behaviour. All of those things are true… but there’s also something else for me to consider in this. It’s what I tell my clients all of the time…
My discomfort will not kill me.
Making mistakes won’t kill me. Getting angry won’t kill me. Having to clean up from my mistakes won’t kill me. If anything, those things will make me a little more resilient and help me grow. And I am reminded, once again, that when I insist on self-care and periods of quiet and introspection after doing intense work far from home, it’s not only for my own good, but for the good of those impacted by my moods.
Today I’m not talking to any clients and I’m going to be gentle with myself. And I’m going to make retributions for some of the mistakes I made yesterday. And I’m choosing not to hide the shame bits because there is worthwhile learning in them.
I used to run from discomfort – try to numb myself from it in any way I could. Shut down the anger, eat away the shame, distract myself from the pain, lash out when I needed to blame someone other than me. I was too scared to look inside of it, too scared I’d see only ugliness in the shadows.
I still hide sometimes (hello Netflix, my favourite distraction) but I’m learning, gradually, to stay more present in it, breathe/pray/dance/journal my way through it, until it begins to crack open and I find the gems in the shadows. It takes less time to shift than it used to – I still got a reasonable night’s sleep the night before last, despite the places my spiralling brain wanted to take me. I will survive. I can see my own shadow now without letting it consume me.
Though I might not like it, discomfort is one of my greatest teachers. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever learn anything worthwhile without at least a little discomfort.
Discomfort became fairly central to one of my retreats last week. It’s usually at least somewhat present at all of my retreats (because I encourage people to stretch themselves), but at this one we had an opportunity to go deeper with it than usual.
The retreat was about holding space for others, and each of the retreat participants had been given an assignment that, on the fourth day of the retreat, they would practice holding space for the group. On Saturday, each person signed up for a 45 minute slot when they could host a conversation on a topic that mattered to them, teach us a movement/art/meditation practice that would help us hold space for ourselves, or find some other creative and meaningful way of helping us explore what it means to hold space.
Few people go on retreat and expect to do some of the hosting/teaching themselves, so there was, not surprisingly, some resistance and discomfort. Some handled it with humour, some shut down with anxiety, and some pushed back against me. None of it was offensive (they were genuinely good-hearted and emotionally mature people taking ownership of their own responses), but I could sense the work they needed to do in order to step forward into their own leadership.
I assigned this work not because I wanted the easy way out (ie. a day of no teaching), but because I knew that they would leave the retreat with more skills if they practiced what they were learning in a safe and supportive environment. And I knew, from personal experience, that working through their discomfort would be good for them in the end.
At the beginning of all of my retreats, I introduce participants to the concept of “brave space”. “While we will work together to make this space safe for everyone,” I say, “I prefer to talk about ‘brave spaces’ rather than safe ones. Sometimes, when we focus on safety, we’re actually focusing on comfort, and we don’t take risks or face challenges with bravery. While you are here, I want to encourage you to be brave, to have conversations that challenge you, to face the shadow in yourself when it shows up, to look after yourself in radical ways, and to dare to re-engage even when things get difficult.” (Note: click on the link above to learn more about where this concept emerged.)
I follow that up by saying “this is also a consent-based environment. While I will encourage your bravery, and may nudge you past comfort, I also promise to accept ‘no’ as an answer. You alone know what you can handle and I invite you to take responsibility for where your boundaries need to be and what you’re not willing to consent to.”
Thirdly, I say (in the words of my teacher, Christina Baldwin) that “in this space, we ask for what we need and offer what we can. That means we are each invited to honour our own needs, look after ourselves, and respond as well as we can to other people’s needs. We will practice reciprocity, step into our personal leadership, honour boundaries, and do our best to make this space both brave and safe for all of us.”
When I assigned the participants at this retreat the task of hosting a 45 minute segment of our Saturday, I encouraged them to step into brave space. “This is your chance to push past your comfort zone, to try something that might feel too risky at home where you’re surrounded by people who know you. In this environment, where people are committed to holding space for each other, dare to push through your discomfort to find your bravery.”
When Saturday arrived, the air was charged with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear. I knew it would be good, but of course I also had moments of doubt, wondering whether it might backfire. Would people hate it and hate me and leave the retreat with a bad taste in their mouths? Would we have enough energy to support nine people’s individual steps into courage? Would it be repetitive if too many sessions were similar? Would those with anxiety simply shut down and not be able to participate? How would I support them if they did?
You can probably guess how it all played out. The day was brilliant. People were courageous and supportive and creative and inspiring. We had nine very different sessions, each one of them keeping us engaged and inspired. We made art, we learned movement practice, we had an honest conversation about creating more inclusive space in women’s circles, we learned a beautiful Maori greeting (hongi), we practiced mindfulness, and we played. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
On Sunday morning, after the last session, I invited everyone to participate in a ritual to mark what had transpired. On a piece of paper, each person wrote down what they wanted to honour themselves for and what commitment they wanted to make to themselves for the future. They then carried the piece of paper into the labyrinth, and placed it on a cairn of stones at the centre. When they emerged from the labyrinth, I offered each one a personal blessing, reflecting on something I’d witnessed in them during the week, and then, if they chose, they could step over a line on the ground that marked the crossing of a threshold into whatever would come next.
Standing at the edge of the labyrinth was a beautiful experience. There was energy and excitement mixed with contemplation and some fear. There was commitment and resolve and courage and fierceness. There were tears and there was laughter. There was humanity and humility and hope. That labyrinth served as the container for the complexity of all human emotions, while I “held the rim”.
Rhonda, one of the retreat participants, later said this of the labyrinth experience… “I realized at that moment, at the center of the labyrinth, everything that I had always sought, chased, pursued, agonized to find and discover in my own life and purpose was already within. I just need to accept it. I felt God look at me with the biggest smile and say ‘It’s about time.’ It was a most defining moment. I feel like I am no longer living ‘from’ my history.”
Later that day, it was time for us all to depart. As I looked around the circle of women, I couldn’t help but notice the difference from just a few days earlier. These were courageous, strong women who were now a little more aware of their own courage and strength. They had worked through their discomfort, trusted each other to hold space for their fear, and emerged triumphant.
The good-byes from that retreat were different from what they often are at retreats. People were ready to go home. They were ready and excited to step into what was next. Unlike what often happens at the end of retreats, they didn’t seem to have the need to cling to the comfort and warmth of the circle that had held them. Though they valued the support of the group, they stepped away with a sense of self-reliance.
They had come as learners and they were leaving as leaders.
They had chosen not to let their discomfort keep them from finding their courage. I can hardly wait to see what they are capable of!
Today, while I consider what to do with the discomfort I faced a couple of days ago, I make a new resolve to step into courage because I have the memory of those women to inspire me.
Sign up for my six month Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program to learn more about what it means to hold space.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.
Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.
This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.
It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.
But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.
Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.
I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.
First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.
Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.
At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.
What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”
I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.
I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.
The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.
This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”
Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.”
We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.
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“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~Maya Angelou
Last night I went for a walk in my favourite neighbourhood park, Henteleff Park, a long narrow strip of native grasslands and forest along the Red River. Just after entering the park, a movement at the edge of the woods caught my attention. I glanced over to see a dark animal, and because I could only see the top of its back and because I am mostly accustomed to seeing deer in that park, I thought it was an unusually dark deer.
I stepped off the path I was on and ducked through the trees to get a closer look and it was only then that I discovered that it was a bear. A BEAR! Within city limits! Just 5 minutes from my home! Just 20 feet from where I was walking!
Now, for many people, that would have been a rather terrifying discovery that would have sent them quickly back home. For me, though, it was quite exciting. I wanted more! Though I stepped back onto the path and didn’t go directly into the woods were I saw it disappear, I wandered the park for another half hour, hoping I might spot it again. I never did.
What occurred to me after wandering through the woods by myself (there are rarely other people in that park), slightly nervous but not overly concerned for my safety, is this…
Courage looks different for each of us.
After reading my story of bear-seeking, your thought might be “Wow! She is really courageous!” But the truth is, it didn’t take a lot of courage for me to keep walking in the park. I grew up wandering in the woods by myself, and I have always been a camper and hiker, so it didn’t feel like foreign territory for me. It felt familiar, with just a touch of adrenaline. Black bears are not particularly dangerous unless you provoke them.
You may never wander in the woods where you suspect a bear might be found, but there are probably things that you do quite naturally that would seem extremely courageous to me. Maybe you’ve grown up in a place where there are rattle snakes or tarantulas and they hardly phase you but would terrify me. Or maybe you’re way more comfortable wading into situations where there is conflict than I am. (I am admittedly rather conflict-averse.) Or maybe you’d go spelunking in a dark cave where I wouldn’t be caught dead. (Dark claustrophobic spaces are my version of hell.)
There are no universal yardsticks for courage.
There has been much hubbub lately about Caitlyn Jenner being awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award after making her first public appearance as a woman. There is at least one meme floating around social media where her Vanity Fair cover photo is seen alongside a photo of soldiers in battle, suggesting that REAL courage can be found on the battlefield, not on the pages of a fashion magazine. Now, I’m not interested in arguing whether or not she was the right choice for the award, but I do want to say that it is a false construct to try to compare one version of courage with another.
What looks like courage for one person may not be courage for another person.
Sometimes, in fact, what we interpret as courage may in fact be the lesser of two evils for a person. A soldier, for example, may be on the battlefield because he is running away from something that really scares him at home. Gunfire may feel less risky than shame, rejection, or family conflict.
For some, it may take more courage to come out as transgendered or gay than it takes to join the army.
For others, the most courageous act might be to take a leap of faith and leave a job in a toxic workplace.
For still others, it might take years to work up the courage to speak their truth in front of people who disagree with them.
Courage is a very individual thing and nobody can define it in your life except you.
If you try to measure your courage on someone else’s yardstick, you will never learn to be true to your own life.
Only you can decide what courageous step you need to take in order to be true to yourself.
Don’t try to take someone else’s step – take your own.
And don’t sell yourself short when you take that courageous step. Celebrate it!
I am carrying a huge basket of stories that I gathered on my trip. Each day I added new stories emerging from the deep conversations I had with people in my travels through Reno, Lake Tahoe, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Asheville, and finally Lake Lanier. I want to share all of those stories with you, but some of them need to ripen in the basket a little longer before they’ll be ready to be harvested.
First of all, let me tell you that this trip was all about love. Here’s what I posted on Facebook when I first got home…
After all of my travels in five states, after all of the deep and soulful conversations, after the early morning sunrises over the lake, after the sharing circles, after the ziplining, after the skinny-dipping, after the wandering in the woods, after the cracking open of many hearts, after my talk about the courage to lead differently, after bountiful feasts from the hands of many farmers, after the laughter, after the tears, after the deep body hugs and the tenderhearted kisses… after it all fades into memory, my learning can be boiled down to the words on the mug I brought home… Love more. Love fiercely and deeply. Love courageously. Love ridiculously. Love the sky and the earth and the dogs and the caterpillars. Love the wine and the music. Love the brave hearts and the fearful hearts. Love the ones that are easy to love and those who are more difficult. Love with wild abandon. Love until your heart cracks wide open and we all see the fleshy softness inside. Love more and let yourself be loved. Don’t be afraid of love.
It might sound rather pie-in-the-sky, but it’s the ground on which I stand. Love is what let me go on this journey when so many of you supported this dream. Love is what let me connect with beautiful people all along the way. Love is what inspired me to share from my heart on stage. Love is what gave me the courage to believe I had something to share. It’s all about love.
Almost as soon as I got home from my journey, reality smacked me across the face. There’s a huge crack in our basement wall that will probably cost us thousands to fix, my aunt died of brain cancer while I was away and her funeral was yesterday, I’m dealing with a nasty bug bite that I got in Atlanta that seems to be infected and I spent yesterday evening in urgent care, and there’s a little heartbreak in my relationship with one of my daughters. Any of those things individually could have sent me into a tailspin of despair, but they didn’t. I’m okay. I’m more than okay. I am feeling strong and courageous, and – more than anything – loved.
LOVE has made me resilient. LOVE has given me courage. LOVE has given me hope.
At Patti Digh’s Design Your Life Camp at Lake Lanier last week, Maya Stein and Amy Tingle did something so breathtakingly beautiful and full of love, I found my heart breaking wide open. First of all, they’d brought their vintage trailer MAUDE (Mobile Art Unit Designed for Everyone) along to camp and they were inviting everyone to visit to make art tags to hang in a tree. Secondly, they each had vintage typewriters, and if you offered them a single word, they would each write a spontaneous poem on an index card made especially for you. They did both of these things with beauty, grace and generosity, not asking to be paid or flaunting their brand in anyone’s face – simply offering this gift to anyone who would receive it.
The first time I saw them with their typewriters, I felt a little overwhelmed – not sure I could step forward and feel worthy enough of the gift. I was intrigued, but it felt somehow vulnerable and tender to give them a word and then simply receive. I had already received so much on this journey (and even before the journey in order to make it possible) that the gremlins were saying “You’ve received enough. You had the AUDACITY to ask people to help pay for this trip. How DARE you think that you are worthy of another gift?”
When I came out of the session the next evening, though, and saw them with their typewriters again, I knew I just had to do it. I knew I was worthy. I knew, deep down in my bones, that I wanted this gift and was ready to receive it.
I stood in line and waited… and agonized over what word was the right one. I wrote one word down, but then it didn’t feel right, so I scratched it out. Just before I got to the front of the line, I knew what my word was. Resilient.
Resilient is how I feel these past couple of months as I emerge into my work in a bigger way after the hard, hard year of losing Mom, watching my husband have a heart attack, breaking my foot, and then finding out my brother has stage 4 cancer. Resilient is what I’ve been in the past, after losing dad very suddenly, having a stillborn son, and watching the man I love wrestle with depression so powerful he attempted suicide twice. Resilience is one of my strengths and it’s one of the gifts I give to my clients in this work of being real and courageous and hopeful in this broken world.
And so I stood there, tenderly and anxiously, waiting to see what they’d do with the word resilient.
What emerged floored me and broke me open.
Here’s what Amy wrote:
The Amy she mentioned is Amy Dier, who had just shared a very personal story from the stage about learning to love and trust herself and allow herself to be seen. She was a former police officer who’d gone into law enforcement partly because she’d been raped when she was a teenager. She said she’d only shared the story of her rape with 8 people before saying it aloud in this room full of 150 people. After sharing the story, she invited us all to stand in a circle and she walked around the circle, looking into our eyes, and saying to each of us one at a time “I see you.”
What Amy the poet had no way of knowing was that Amy Dier and I do indeed share a story or two – the story of surviving rape, as well as the story of learning to believe we are worthy of being seen.
The second poem, from Maya, was the perfect addition, in a way that neither poet could possibly have known.The day after I was raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window, I was supposed to take part in a triathlon relay race. I was going to ride 40 kilometres on my bicycle, while others did the running and swimming legs. This felt like a courageous and fierce act for me at the time, given the fact that I’d never believed I was athletic enough to be in any competition of that sort.
I never completed that bicycle ride. My body was too sore after the abuse it took at the hands of the rapist. Plus I felt a strong urge to drive home to the farm to be with my Mom and Dad.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get back on the bicycle, again and again and again. My whole life has been an act of getting back on that bicycle, each time I fall down. Through all of the deaths, disappointment, and tragedy in my life, I keep getting back on my bicycle – both literally and figuratively. (Ironically, I was actually on my way into the garage to go for a bike ride with my daughter when I broke my foot in Spring. Another metaphor, perhaps?)
And that brings me back to love. I get back on my bicycle because of love. I stay in a marriage that has been challenging because of love. I keep showing up for funerals because of love. I drive across the country to be with my brother after cancer surgery because of love. I sit beside my mother and watch her die because of love. I show up for my teenagers even when they’re snarly because of love. I travel across the country and sit in circle with myriads of beautiful people because of love. I coach my clients and host retreats because of love.
I do what I do because I have been given a lot of love and because I have a lot of love to give.
I pour love into everything I do. And love is what sustains me and gives me courage for this work. Because love is worth it. Love has made me who I am, and that is a beautiful thing.
The next time you need courage or resilience, remember that it starts with love. Give love and receive it and you will be able to get back on that bicycle, no matter how many times you fall.
Go ahead, love more.