Transcendent (adjective) [tran(t)-ˈsen-dənt]: exceeding usual limits; extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience; being beyond comprehension; a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities
Every year at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it happens at least once – I have a transcendent experience. It usually happens at one of the smaller stages, tucked away under the trees, while I’m listening to an intimate concert with a singer-songwriter. It’s a combination of things that align to bring together this exquisite moment – the cotton-ball clouds in the gentle blue sky, the towering pine trees, the poetry and emotion woven through the lyrics, the notes of the guitar, the tenderness of a receptive audience, the sun on my face.
Suddenly, I feel my heart soften and expand in my chest as though it can simultaneously blend into and hold the entire universe. I become both expansive and small – a tiny part of a big world and also bigger than I’ve ever been. As my eyes fill with tears, I look around me and know that I am connected to everyone I see, connected to the trees around me, connected to the music, and connected to myself. I am fully embodied, fully present, and fully alive. Any anxiety or self-consciousness I held just moments before dissolves in this moment of tenderness, connectedness and expansiveness. It’s blissful and as close to perfect as any moment can be.
The moment never lasts very long – soon I land back into the ordinariness of life and my mind starts to wander – but it stays with me throughout the day, and I can bring some of it back days and even weeks after it happens. Even now, I can close my eyes and reach back into my memory to touch that moment and remember the way I felt when it happened.
In his study of awe, Dacher Keltner gathered stories from people in 26 countries and distilled the stories into what he calls the “eight wonders of life”. People find awe, he says, in moral beauty (people’s kindness, courage, and ability to overcome obstacles), nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, and the beginning of life and its end. Perhaps that’s why there is such a strong likelihood that it will happen for me during my annual pilgrimage to the folk festival – because that moment always combines so many of the things on the list.
Awe, Keltner says, is transformative. “It’s hard to find something that is better for your body and mind than experiencing a bit of awe. Studies where people look up into the trees or take in vast views or think about somebody who is morally inspiring find that brief experiences of awe calm the stress response and make a person feel more connected and less lonely. Awe has been seen to reduce depression, reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans, and is also good for cardiovascular health and the immune system.” (Listen to Dacher Keltner talk about awe on this podcast.)
In studying the science of awe, Keltner’s team found that there’s a certain kind of tear that happens during an experience of awe (like the tears that always fill my eyes when I have my transcendent moment at the folk fest) that’s produced by the lacrimal gland which is activated by the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. Instead of activating fight or flight physiology, it activates calmness and connection. In other words, awe soothes and calms our bodies and gives us that feeling of oneness that I always feel with other members of the audience.
This past year, while I was traveling, I was lucky enough to have many experiences of awe, like when I swam in cenotes in Mexico, or took a train into the snow-covered Alps in Switzerland. I know that those moments helped to heal and transform me. I feel more at peace, more grounded, more in touch with myself, and more able to live with the liminality of life. I know that I am less reactive, less activated by the wounds that were once easily triggered, and less burdened by stress.
Of course it’s not only the awe moments that changed me (I’ve also been doing a lot of somatic and therapeutic healing work over the years), but I have no doubt that they mattered. I have now become much more intentional about seeking out awe moments, so that I can tap into some of what I experience while sitting under the trees listening to music at the festival. As Keltner teaches, I find ways of experiencing “everyday awe” by bringing more of the eight wonders into my life as regularly as I can. This morning I experienced awe watching a swarm of ants on the sidewalk.
It can seem frivolous, in a world that feels more and more chaotic and unjust every moment, in which political divides and climate change are becoming more and more palpable in our everyday lives, to go out in search of awe, and yet I believe that this is a crucial part of what makes us able to cope with and respond to the many challenges in our lives. Awe makes us more resilient and more grounded in the wobbliness of liminality. It connects us with each other, ourselves and the earth. It is the opposite of frivolous – it is essential.
Awe is one of the things we’ll be talking about in A Full-Bodied Life. We’ll also talk about embodiment, empowerment, liberation, love, joy, and connection. I am looking forward to the conversations we’ll have and I hope you join us!
In my luggage, I carry two birds – a grey stuffed owl and a yellow clay bird whistle. Most of what I carry with me from place to place, as I travel across Central America, is functional, but these two things are purely sentimental.
At the beginning of this journey, just after I’d sold my house, I flew to Nova Scotia to be with my friend Randy one last time. While I was there, his wife and I loaded Randy into their wheelchair-accessible van so that I could drive to the small seaside graveyard where Randy’s body would be put to rest in the not-too-distant future. Randy had chosen that graveyard specifically because it overlooked the water, and he wanted me to see it so that I could picture him there once he was gone. While we sat at the edge of the serene graveyard, we listened to the song that Randy had chosen for his funeral, “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” by his favourite musician, Chris de Burgh.
After the song had played, I turned to Randy and asked “If you can come back to visit me, to remind me of your presence after you have died, in what form can I expect to see you?” He paused for a moment and said “I’ll have to think about that for awhile,” and I knew he would, because it was just the kind of question that would inspire Randy’s thoughtfulness and playfulness. Although I never heard him use the term for himself, I would say that Randy was a mystic. He had a deep and contemplative spirituality that inspired me and made me feel safe.
The next day, Randy had an answer for my question. “I think I’ll visit you as an owl,” he said. “My eyes look a little like an owl’s do, plus I like the way owls sit and watch things so quietly, with what looks like wisdom.” It was perfect. Yes, Randy’s eyes were big and clear like an owl’s, and he had a wise way of witnessing the world. A few weeks later, after I’d arrived in Europe, Randy and his wife sent me a video of the owl they’d attached to the top of a fence post at the edge of the graveyard, near Randy’s burial site.
In mid-October, a month and a half after I arrived in Europe, Randy died. I knew the day was coming, and, because he’d chosen to die with medical assistance, I even knew the hour. By then ALS had taken much of his movement and speech capacity and he was ready to go. Randy wasn’t afraid of death – in fact, he anticipated that it would be a release into “pure joy”.
The day before Randy’s death, my friend Brenda arrived in Brussels to meet me for a week of traveling together. I’d warned her that I might not be a lot of fun on our first full day together, and she took it in stride. Brenda was the perfect person to be with on that day because she too was dying. Like Randy, Brenda was a deeply spiritual and contemplative person and she too had been intentional in preparing herself for death. She’d been living with cancer for several years by then and knew it would likely take her within the next year or two.
“I brought some candles,” Brenda said when she arrived, “in case you want to light them in honour of your friend. You do whatever you need to do, and I’ll be here to listen when you want to talk about it. We’ll create a little ceremony if you want to.”
When it was time for Randy to die, I left Brenda in the hotel and took a candle to a nearby park. I lit the candle on a bench and sat with my grief, knowing that one of the most beautiful people I’d ever known was leaving this earth and I’d never get to have another one of our meandering mystical conversations.
After the candle had burned for awhile, I blew it out and then did what I so often do when the emotions feel too big to hold or even name – I walked and walked and walked. While I was on the path through the park, the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on me through the trees. I took it as a sign that Randy’s soul had parted from this earth and he’d been released into pure joy. Surprisingly, I felt some of that joy in that moment, and when I turned onto another path, I was delighted (and somewhat confused) to see a tree full of parakeets. One doesn’t expect to see bright green parakeets in Brussels, but there they were. Apparently the city has been flooded with them for several years, since somebody released their pets into the wild.
The next day, before leaving Brussels, I bought a stuffed owl to keep Randy close as I traveled. That owl later became part of the circle’s centre when I taught workshops in Belgium, the Netherlands and later in Costa Rica, to honour the fact that Randy will always be with me and his wisdom will always be woven into my work.
From Brussels, Brenda and I traveled to Ghent where we wandered through cobblestone streets, took a boat tour, and sat in sidewalk cafés eating waffles. I talked about Randy, she told me about her love of all things Mary (stopping to take photos of every Mary statue she could find, usually next to old cathedrals), and in the evening, we watched the sun set over the city from our AirBnB window. Chemotherapy had taken a lot out of Brenda by that time, so her energy reserves were limited, but she was up for almost anything, as long as she could break it up with rest time. Often that rest time looked like her finding a park bench or coffee shop where she could pull out her sketchbook and work on a small water colour painting while I continued to wander the streets.
From there, we took a train to Luxembourg, the destination that had been Brenda’s reason for flying to Europe from her home in the U.S. Through her family line, Brenda was entitled to naturalized citizenship in Luxembourg, and she’d long dreamed of making another trip there to sign the final paperwork. She’d once hoped that she could use that citizenship to allow her easier travel in Europe or perhaps a year of living there, but by now, her only wish was that she’d complete the process before she died. Her friends and family had helped raise the funds to make this possible and I’d offered to travel with her to carry her bags when her energy flagged.
In Luxembourg, we stayed with Brenda’s relatives and they took us to explore parts of their beautiful (and small) country. We visited Brenda’s favourite castle and made a few stops in gift shops and galleries so that Brenda could share with me some of the local art and culture. In one gift shop, she delightedly picked up a clay bird whistle and told me how these birds, the peckvillchen, are traditionally given out at Easter in Luxembourg. Brenda has a collection of these little birds at home. I asked her to pick one out for me and we each took one with us.
Brenda’s citizenship papers arrived from Luxembourg a few weeks ago. A week later, almost exactly six months after she was with me in Europe, Brenda died. Although her friends and family knew it was coming, it still arrived more suddenly than anyone anticipated.
On the morning of her death, not knowing that she was departing, I woke up feeling unsettled and sad, even though I was on a beautiful island off the coast of Belize and could think of no reason for my emotions. I walked to the seashore and did two things that almost always help to soothe my nervous system – lay in a hammock and watched the waves and shorebirds. Above me, pelicans and frigatebirds floated effortlessly in the air, occasionally diving down to catch a fish. Later I found out that Brenda had joined Randy in that place of pure joy and I thought it fitting that it happened while I was watching the birds.
The day after Brenda died, I went snorkeling. It seemed a strange thing to be doing, while holding the grief of my friend’s death, and yet it also felt right. Like me, Brenda delighted in exploring the world’s beauty, and I knew she would have encouraged me to keep on finding beauty in the world and keep on seeking joy, even while I cried. Once again, grief and joy were my side-by-side companions.
A few days ago, I lay in another hammock on another island (in Mexico this time), watching Brenda’s memorial service online – the second such service I’ve watched virtually in six months. During the service, the spiritual leaders at the front led the group in singing the Beatles song, Let it Be. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
In the week since, I have continued to be in this liminal space, betwixt and between the beauty and the loss, the joy and the grief. Sometimes one is more present and sometimes the other, and sometimes both show up at once.
The more I live with these seemingly contrasting states, the more I know there are no clear lines between them. There is room for both in my heart, and there is less and less uneasiness in allowing them to coexist. One doesn’t need to chase the other away. In fact, each enriches the other. The beauty is even more vibrant when it stands next to loss, the joy is even more potent when it stands next to grief. On the flipside, loss and grief feel richer and easier to bear when their companions offer them balance.
Like the yin and yang symbol teaches, two elements that are seemingly opposite can exist in one cohesive whole and each holds within it elements of the other.
Last year, after Randy told me he was dying and we started having weekly conversations that centred, in part, around his upcoming death, I started asking myself what it means to live at the intersection not only of grief and joy, but of life and death. Now, since Brenda died, those thoughts have once again risen to the level of my consciousness.
Is there a way to stand on that curvy line of the yin and yang symbol and hold both death and life in the same circle of wholeness within me? What if death is not the opposite of life? What if death is part of life, life is part of death, and each enriches and gives balance to the other?
If those things are true, and I can hold both, what does that look like and how does it change me?
I am still at the early stages of this inquiry, so I expect that more will evolve in my consciousness, but one thing I do know is that I want to do what I witnessed both Randy and Brenda do – make peace with my death before it arrives.
For starters, I’m asking myself a series of questions about what feels most important to me, if I truly believe that I am dying. What do I most value and love? What things do I want to stop doing if my time on earth is limited? What self-consciousness, fear, judgement, etc., ceases to be important if life is short? What relationships need repair? How do I want to treat myself? How do I want to treat others? Where will I invest my time, resources and money?
These questions don’t threaten any drastic changes in my life, since I’ve already been on this intentional journey this year to get clearer on who I am and how I want to live, but they have clarified some things for me. I know that I want to continue to orient my life toward joy. I know that I will continue to write, teach and speak with more and more courage and clarity and less and less concern about how people will judge me. I know that I will prioritize the relationships that matter most to me and make repairs to heal those that are worth investing in. I know that I will no longer abandon myself or martyr myself in service to harmful systems. I know that I will always pause for beauty.
Both of my friends wanted to be at peace with their deaths and to spend their final days living joyfully, and with as little anxiety, disappointment, or regret as they could manage. To do that, they both embraced their spiritual practices, prioritized what they valued most, and embraced those they loved and wanted to hold close. I will do what I saw modeled, and when it is my time to go, I will invite death in, knowing that I have lived well. Then, when my last breath has left my body, I will step from this life into pure joy.
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.
“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”
If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.
As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.
At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.
When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.
But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.
Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.
Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.
That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.
(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)
Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.
In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.
We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.
Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.
Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)
I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.
I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.
I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:
If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.
“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.