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.
“She was always selfless, sacrificing everything for other people.”
How often have you heard something like that said at a funeral? I know I’ve heard some version of it at the funerals of many people in my lineage – aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents. It’s often the kind of thing we say to praise people once they’ve passed. “How wonderful these people were in caring for other people so well!”
In Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, he talks about regularly reading the obituaries in the newspapers and noticing that what’s said about people in their obituary is often one of the clearest clues about the maladaptive patterns that they developed to survive the trauma in their early lives. Those who sacrificed everything, for example, were taught by their trauma that they didn’t have a right to boundaries and their access to safety and belonging was directly correlated to their acts of service for other people. Those who abandoned their own needs for the needs of their families weren’t given the kind of unconditional love needed to develop healthy attachment systems.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I read it, recognizing the truth of what he’s saying. I can see it most clearly in my mom and in what she passed down to her children. She was one of those people who was praised for how much she did for other people and for how selfless she was. We grew up quite used to her always feeding people, bringing wounded people into our home to stay, and giving up her own time for anyone who needed it. On her deathbed, one of her greatest regrets was that she never figured out how to rescue the foster child we’d once had, who was believed to have disappeared into homelessness and drug addiction.
I spent much of my early-adult life feeling at least somewhat guilty that I’d never live up to the selflessness of my mom. When I became a mom, I struggled with a fair amount of self-criticism, thinking I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t giving everything up for my kids.
It took me a long time to recognize what Gabor Maté was talking about – that my mom’s selflessness was not necessarily a personality trait that I’d failed to inherit, it was a response to the trauma in her early life. Her own mom died when she was just six years old, leaving her with a gaping abandonment wound – it’s not hard to understand why she spent so much of her life trying to compensate for it and trying to prove, through self-sacrifice, that she was worthy of love.
Sadly, there are deeply embedded beliefs in our cultures around the value of self-sacrifice, which is why it shows up in so many obituaries. We revere those people (especially women) who are the best models of it, and, partly because we all benefit from it and it helps our systems and families to function, we rarely ask the question that Oprah asked in the title of her book on trauma… “What happened to you?” Those of us who see it in our parents and grandparents mostly assume it’s a personality trait and we don’t think to dig more deeply to see it as a maladaptive response to trauma. Many, like me, end up dealing with self-criticism because we feel the pressure to live up to that kind of example.
One of the ways that this Liberation and Tenderness Tour that I’m on is serving me is that I’m spending intentional time looking more deeply at my own patterns, examining which ones might be trauma responses and social conditioning rather than personality traits, letting go of those that I inherited and don’t want to continue carrying, and choosing the way that I want to live instead. Although I wish I’d done more of this work years ago, to avoid unintentionally passing this baggage on through the lineage to my daughters, I am grateful for the years that I’ve been doing it and grateful that I can talk openly with my daughters about it and let them know that I wish for something different for them.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in Costa Rica staying at my friend Mary’s farm. It’s a beautiful place in the jungle, with a workspace overlooking the river and a magical swimming hole not far away. There is currently a sloth in a tree about 50 feet from where I work, and about an hour ago, half a dozen red-tailed macaws flew over. Yesterday, we spent most of the day in an unbelievably beautiful natural hot springs in the jungle. It feels decadent to be here, enjoying this peaceful time, not having to look after anyone else’s needs but mine, enjoying deep rest, only doing the work that’s necessary and not overextending myself in any way.
Sometimes, the old stories in my head start to replay, and I feel guilty about not doing more, or I compare myself unfavourably to those people who spend more of their energy looking after other people. “Perhaps you’ve enjoyed more than your fair share of pleasure and rest this year already?” the voices in my head ask. “Do you really deserve to be in so many beautiful places this year without making a greater contribution to those who are suffering in the world?”
When those voices come, I pause for a moment to offer tenderness to the wounded parts of me that still think I have to prove my worthiness so that I can protect myself from abandonment or abuse. I know that there are many reasons why the worried parts of me have been so well-trained for martyrdom and selflessness. Not only did it come through my mother’s trauma wound, it’s also part of the way that systems like capitalism and patriarchy have helped to shape me and keep me in line. That’s a lot of baggage to try to unload – no wonder it’s taken me so many years to unload it.
I am determined that, when I die, a different story will be told about me. I don’t want to model self-sacrifice to my daughters. I want them to witness me loving myself and believing in my right to boundaries, rest, and pleasure. I want them to live rich and beautiful lives and to believe they have the right to those lives because they saw their mom claiming hers.
Next week, I’ll be in retreat, here in Costa Rica, in a circle of people who are gathering to explore these concepts of liberation and tenderness. While I haven’t done the resting and pleasure-seeking that I’ve done in order to be of better service to them (because that would still mean I’m putting their needs ahead of mine and only doing it because THEY are worthy), I know that I do my best work when I am well-rested, grounded in my own self-love, and in touch with my internal sources of joy and wisdom. That’s when I offer it from a place of generosity and love, not from a place of duty or sacrifice.
This I now know to be true: when I care for myself, I am caring for the collective. When I love myself, I am loving the collective. When I liberate myself, I am liberating the collective. When I honour my own boundaries, I am also honouring the boundaries of the collective.
The more I understand trauma, the less I am okay with the dismissal and/or glorification of where it originated.
I toured a medieval castle this morning. As I walked from room to room, in this massive stone structure that has stood for 900 years, I listened to the voice of the man on the earpiece telling me stories of the history of the place. “This is where they lowered people into the dungeon. Then, from this hole, they would dangle meat over the prisoners and yank it back when the prisoners reached for it.” “This is where people waited to find out what punishment they would receive for their crimes. Would they lose a hand or a foot, or would they have a screw put through their tongue?” “Down these stairs is the torture chamber. You can use your imagination to figure out what form of torture each of the things hanging from the walls was used for.”
The narrator seemed to relish the many stories of torture those walls held. In between stories of torture and punishment were stories of how the castle had been defended against the enemy. “Those gaps along the wall are where they would drop stones or pour hot oil on anyone trying to scale the walls.”
It was all a bit much. Sometimes I had to skip through sections of the recording, or turn away from the pictures or objects hung on display.
Ever since I started researching my own lineage on European soil, I have not been able to take lightly the ways in which people have been tortured here. In the 14th and 15th centuries, not far from this castle, my ancestors were being tortured for their beliefs by the dominant churches (Roman Catholic and Dutch Reform). A few years ago, I spent hours reading through the accounts in Martyrs Mirror about the many ways Mennonites were punished and/or killed – tongue screws, burning at the stake, drowning, etc. I am alive today because at least some of my ancestors were able to escape, first to Russia and then to North America.
We can laugh about the stories and treat them as entertainment, as the narrator enjoyed doing, but then we overlook the fact that these stories still live in our bodies and the trauma inherent in them still shapes our cultures, centuries later.
Resmaa Menakem wrote about this in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. Much of the trauma that lives in white bodies, he says, has its origins in the brutality of Medieval Europe. Bodies still carrying memories of torture brought that trauma with them to the lands they colonized and they passed that trauma on to brown and black bodies. Out of that, colonization, white supremacy and slavery grew, because traumatized bodies traumatize other bodies and then they create systems to carry on that legacy. Now here we are, with cultures that are still trying to heal and transform the ancient trauma embedded in our inhumane systems.
Once you see the through-line, it’s so easy to see the ancient trauma and mistreatment of bodies in nearly every system that exists. It’s embedded in what we euphemistically call our “justice system” which is really a system of judgement and punishment. It’s in our attachment to prison systems and policing. It’s in our education systems, healthcare systems and religious systems. It’s in the way we punish trans bodies, fat bodies and queer bodies. It’s in cancel culture on social media. It’s in our perfectionism and the punitive ways we treat ourselves and each other when we fumble.
We are not as far away from the days of excessive torture as we like to think we are. Our cultures are not as gentle as we pretend they are, especially where marginalized people are concerned.
The narrator at the castle didn’t see it that way, though. “We are no longer as vigilant as our medieval ancestors had to be,” he said, again with a chuckle under his breath. “Imagine walking past a wall like this and having to pay attention to whether a stone might be dropped on your head. Now the only thing I need to be vigilant about is whether the yoghurt in my fridge has expired. Last week I had to throw some out because it was a day past expiration.”
I beg to differ. We may know little of stones falling from castle walls, but our bodies are still vigilant. We are vigilant for the ways we have to perform in order to be seen as worthy within our capitalist systems. We are vigilant for the ways our bodies might be ridiculed and/or victimized. We are vigilant for the ways we might be canceled on social media. We are vigilant for the ways our communities might reject us if we fail to meet expectations. We are vigilant to the expectations of grind culture and perfectionism.
I am here in Europe on what I’m calling my liberation and tenderness tour because I want to be intentional about healing this kind of trauma embedded in my body and lineage and I want to divest myself of the systems that continue to pass it from body to body. Instead of punishment, performance, and perfectionism, I am embracing tenderness, rest, and imperfection. It’s much more that self-care – it’s disruption and resistance.
Walking out of the castle this morning, I stood in the sunlight and paused for a moment to shake the trauma out of my body. I couldn’t help but wonder… how do we build monuments of tenderness that help offset the balance of these castles where the glorification of our generational trauma is on full display for the sake of entertainment? Or, at the very least, how do we create re-entry portals through which to pass when we’ve been to historic sites where torture was part of the narrative? At the Canadian Human Rights Museum in my hometown, they’ve built a garden of contemplation where you can sit quietly to regain your humanity after witnessing so much inhumanity – perhaps we need more of that. But honestly? I think we need far more.
One answer to my question came when I crossed the street into the town square to wait for the tram. At my feet was a sign etched into the concrete: “These streetlights are connected to the maternity hospitals in the city. Every time the lights slowly flash, a new baby has been born.” Aaahhh… new babies have a way of bringing my tenderness back. I appreciate the collective care and celebration embedded in the act of notifying the community with flashing lights.
I think, on this journey of liberation and tenderness, that I will seek out more places like that – where new life is being honoured with flashes of light – and fewer places where objects of torture are fodder for entertainment. I believe that we must remember the inhumanity, the way we do in human rights museums, for example, but I don’t believe we should ever make light of it or forget that it still lives in our bodies and our systems. More than anything, we should work to heal it and disrupt it so that we pass less and less of it on to the generations that come after us.
I’m on my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. After selling my house and putting my personal things in storage, I set off on what is likely to be a 5-6 month adventure, starting in Europe. (You can follow along on social media – #liberationandtendernesstour.)
Perhaps you want to know what I mean when I talk about Liberation and Tenderness? I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long time, but I don’t always articulate what I mean by them. While sitting on the train yesterday, somewhere between France and Belgium, I started writing a list of what each term means for me at this moment in my life. Here’s what I have so far:
Releasing the expectations of other people;
Allowing all parts of me to be seen (when I want those parts to be seen);
Divesting from harmful systems and institutions that don’t have my best interests (or other people’s) at heart;
Recognizing the ways I’ve been socially conditioned to behave and letting go of those that are harmful;
Healing and releasing internalized oppression such as misogyny and fat phobia;
Healing codependency and letting others carry their own burdens;
Allowing myself to live according to my own rules (and breaking some that are imposed on me);
Testing my comfort/discomfort with certain things (like travelling alone) to see if I’m limiting myself based on other people’s fears and social rules or my own;
Walking away from spaces/communities/institutions/individuals that don’t care about me;
Believing in my own worthiness and right to care and comfort, despite the measurements for worthiness that exist in my culture;
Releasing all of the “shoulds” attached to being a middle-aged mother and caring for my daughters in the ways that feel right for me and for them;
Releasing the expectations of perfectionism, productivity, and all of the other pressures imposed by capitalism;
Accepting my neurodivergence and not putting pressure on myself to behave and think like neurotypical people do;
Reclaiming body trust and not accepting the restrictive eating that is part of diet culture;
Choosing adventure when I want it, and stillness when I want that instead; and
Making decisions about where I want to live and/or travel based on my own longings and my joy.
Loving my fat body without shaming it;
Loving and caring for all of the wounded parts of me;
Pushing back against the punishment and judgement of a patriarchal, colonial system, and choosing grace and compassion instead;
Refusing to allow the rules of the systems I am divesting myself of to be part of the spaces where I work;
Offering myself grace and forgiveness when I mess up;
Offering others grace and forgiveness when they mess up;
Making repairs when necessary and expecting the same from others, but not making punishment one of the steps to “righteousness”;
Recognizing and soothing the trauma caused by systems, generational pain, etc.
Trusting my body;
Making loving choices on behalf of my body and my heart;
Slowing down and being mindful;
Spending lots of time in solitude and contemplation, usually in nature;
Holding space for ALL of my emotions when they surface;
Honouring the complexity of holding both joy and grief simultaneously;
Being soft and honouring softness;
Recognizing that some of my resilience is born of trauma and letting myself be less resilient when I feel beaten down;
Soothing myself when my trauma gets triggered;
Having healthy boundaries that protect my tenderness;
Seeking out people who honour my tenderness and hold me that way;
Healing the parts of me that are reluctant to trust people;
Letting people care for me; and
Letting go of the dread that something bad is always waiting – just around the corner – to ruin my joy.
As you can see, there are several themes that overlap in the lists. I’ve come to the conclusion, as I consider these themes, that they are inextricably intertwined. You can’t fully liberate yourself (in the way that I’m defining liberation) without tenderness. And you can’t really be tender without holding a core value around liberation. They are companions, supporting each other along the journey.
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:
Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.
Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.