Stay with the waves (on practicing stillness)

(from our Holding Space Card Deck)

In the movie, Sound of Metal, Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band, begins to lose his hearing. Fearing that he might slip back into addiction because of it, his girlfriend helps him check in to a facility for deaf recovering addicts. Joe, the man who runs the facility, encourages Ruben to find his way to stillness and acceptance, but Ruben is resistant, and much of the movie is about his determination to find his way back to his old life. In one scene, when he’s meant to be sitting alone, writing his thoughts in a journal, he smashes a donut as a distraction. Near the end of the movie, there’s a powerful moment in which Ruben finally surrenders to stillness and acceptance.

I am neither a rockstar nor in recovery, but I do have some things in common with Ruben and can understand some of his resistance. Here, for example, is a recent conversation that went on in my brain on a recent morning when I was sitting on the dock with my journal:

Voice 1: Oooo… look at the waves in the water! The way they reflect the light and sparkle! And the way they break up into pieces when they hit the dock and then bounce back to meet the oncoming waves!

Voice 2: It’s lovely! And… I can think of a blog post I could write, using the waves as a metaphor…

Voice 1: Can’t we just stay with the waves right now? A blog post can wait. Just look! And enjoy!

Voice 2: But if I don’t write something down, I might miss a valuable insight and… (grabs journal)

Voice 1: Stay with the waves. Put your journal down and just be present.

Voice 2: I should probably take a picture of it for social media, to go along with the blog post… (grabs camera)


Voice 2: Look! There’s a duck. Maybe the metaphor could expand to include what it’s like to be floating on the waves.

Voice 1: Take a deep breath. Maybe we can stay with the breath AND the waves? Please? At least try?

Voice 3: Oooo… I should write a blog post about how my brain works when I’m trying to stay with the waves! (grabs journal again.)

Voice 1: Seriously? Like we needed ANOTHER distraction? Can’t we just stay with the waves?

Voice 4: What a big waste of time THIS was!

Yup – that’s how hard it is for me to settle into stillness, even though I’ve been trying to be intentional about it for years and I try at least once a day to be in a place (like the dock) where stillness is hard to resist. If there is a spectrum for ADHD, then my busy distractible brain is definitely on it. I may not be an addict, but like an addict, my brain craves the dopamine hits it gets from creative ideas and shiny things and it’s hard to resist giving in to the cravings.

A few days later, I arrived back at the dock to find the water perfectly still. It was so still that you couldn’t tell the river was flowing at all except for those spots where there was something floating on the surface of the water. When I stepped onto the floating dock, the dock’s movement was the only thing that made ripples. After I’d settled down on the dock with my journal, the following conversation happened in my brain.

Voice 1: It’s so peaceful. Let’s just soak this in for a moment and be present.

Voice 2: But… I should take a picture of the water. And the clouds reflecting on the water. I could post it on Instagram. (grabs camera)

Voice 1: Look… every time you move on this floating dock, you’re causing ripples on the surface of the water. What if we try to sit so quietly that we cause no ripples?

Voice 2: But… I need a picture. And I should write in my journal about how peaceful it is. And… 

Voice 1: Maybe you should first EXPERIENCE the stillness before you decide to write about it? Take long slow breaths and don’t move any muscles – let’s see if the ripples disappear.

Voice 2: Ooo… the metaphor! When there’s no movement on the water, you get a clearer reflection of the clouds! It’s like a mirror! You can see yourself more clearly when you’re still!

Voice 1: Not that you would know, since you apparently don’t know how to BE still!

Voice 2: Okay, have it your way. I won’t write or take pictures until we’ve stopped moving enough to let the water settle into stillness.

Voice 1: (closes her eyes and takes slow breaths)

Voice 2: (opens her eyes) Oooo…. Look! We did it! The water is like glass again!

Voice 1: Maybe don’t be TOO proud of yourself. That kinda ruins the point of the whole exercise.

Voice 3: Hmmmm… you’re both giving me great material for my blog post about how my brain works!

Voice 2: I just thought of another metaphor!! The water in a river is only calm like this when the pressure on the higher end of the river decreases. When there’s been too much rain or melting snow, the river needs to move faster to try to get to equilibrium. So if you want stillness, you need to decrease input and wait for the water to settle!

Voice 1: I give up.

Voice 4: I knew it all along. You suck at stillness.

Does this internal dialogue sound familiar to anyone else or is it just me? This is why I have to WORK at stillness – it doesn’t happen naturally! It’s also why I sometimes disappear from social media for a week and hide out in a cabin in the woods when I really need to focus on an important project. I love my distractible, creative brain, but I need to give it some guardrails and point it in the direction of the right things.

This year has been especially taxing for my overly active brain. While building a business, launching a book, and creating several new programs has been fun for the part of my brain that craves dopamine, it’s also been exhausting to do it all in the unfamiliar landscape of a pandemic. My brain needs a break! And so does my body. And my heart.

So I’m taking a couple of months off, and I’m going to do my best to listen to Voice 1 and STAY WITH THE WAVES! I’m going to see if my body and mind can stay still long enough to smooth the surface of the water. And I’m going to reduce input and output so that equilibrium feels more like a possibility and the waves can settle for awhile before the next big rainstorm comes.

Before I go, though, I wanted to let you know that I will not be leaving you without content for the next two months! (In fact, it seems something about the upcoming sabbatical prompted my creative brain to go into a frenzy and I’ve created more content than ever!) Here’s what you can expect in the next 8 weeks:

1.     I’ve written a series of short posts that will go out to my list (and appear on my blog) every Monday for eight weeks. 

2.     I’m sharing a daily poem on my author page on Facebook. (I have an extensive collection of poems I like to read as openers when I host conversations and retreats – these are some of my favourites.)

3.     There will also be new content posted periodically on the Centre’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

4.     Though I’ll be mostly away from social media, I might occasionally post a photo or video of my summer wanderings on my own Instagram, likely with the hashtag #pauseandbenourished. 

5.     My business partner, Krista, has been creating fun daily Tiktok videos that are worth checking out. One of the things she’s doing is pulling a daily card from our Holding Space Card Deck. (@centre_for_holding_space)

6.     And, of course, you can always sign up for one of the self-study programs I’ve created, Spiral Path, 52 Weeks of Holding Space, Write for Love and Liberation or Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm.

7.     And… don’t forget about the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts in October!

Four kinds of fear (what the self-help books might be missing)

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 11.01.50 AM

Fear. It shows up in nearly every coaching conversation I have. Sometimes it’s bold and in-your-face and can’t be denied, and sometimes it’s sneaky and disguised as anger or laziness and has to be coaxed out into the light.

Fear fills a lot of pages in self-help books. Everyone’s trying to master it. Some tell you to befriend it, others tell you ignore it, and still others tell you to stare it in the face. Do an image search of fear quotes (see above image) and you’ll find endless memes about how you can conquer, befriend, embrace, or ignore fear. Or, if you’d rather, you can dance with it, kick it to the curb, or pray it out of existence.

The problem with much of what is written about fear in self-help books is that it is oversimplified. Diminish fear into only one dimension and it’s easier to give you a meme-worthy quote about it.

But fear is a multi-dimensional creature that requires a multi-dimensional response. It can’t be contained to a simple meme or a singular response.

Diminishing the complexity of fear can have devastating results for those who read self-help books. Sometimes clients come to me even more beaten down than they were before they read the books. Now, not only do they still have the fear, they have accompanying shame that they weren’t able to address their fears the way the self-help books told them to.

There are at least four kinds of fear that I have encountered in many conversations and much research. (I suspect it’s even more complex, but this is at least a start in understanding it.)

  1. Warning fear. This is the legitimate fear that shows up to tell us that a course correction is necessary in order to avoid injury or harm. It’s the kind of fear that makes sure we don’t climb into the lion’s cage at the zoo, and it’s the quick-reaction fear that tells us to swerve out of the way when a car is headed straight at us. It’s also the fear that nudges us out of bad relationships or bad business deals. This fear serves as a valuable protector and shouldn’t just be “kicked to the curb.”
  2. Ego fear. This is the kind of fear whose job is to keep our fragile egos safe at all costs. It’s the fear that tells us to stay small, to not ask for too much, to avoid shaming ourselves. It’s also the fear that tells us to protect ourselves from people who don’t look like us or who don’t share our belief systems. (Sadly, it’s the kind of fear that seems to be making far too many political decisions these days.) This is the most slippery of the fears. It’s hard to pin down and it’s got a million ways to lie to us. It’s the kind of fear that many of the self-help books are talking about when they tell us to befriend our fear or let it take the passenger seat in the car. This fear needs to be examined and deconstructed so that it doesn’t control us.
  3. Invitational fear. Sometimes, what feels like fear, is actually a message from our bodies that we are on the right track, that we are about to step into something important and life-changing. It’s an invitation rather than a warning. I often refer to this kind of fear as “the trembling” because, for me, it’s often accompanied by a physical vibration in my body. This is the kind of fear we befriend, because it leads us into our right work, art, relationships, etc..
  4. Trauma fear. Trauma has a way of embedding fear so deeply into our bodies that we can barely understand it or control it, let alone conquer it with a few tips from a self-help book. Trauma changes us so fundamentally, that it’s been known to alter not only our DNA, but the DNA we pass down to our children. Some of our trauma fear has, unbeknownst to us, been inherited from generations before us. Trauma fears are often irrational and can flare up at the slightest trigger, causing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that nobody who’s witnessing it can understand. To treat this kind of fear with a simple self-help book approach is to do an egregious disservice to the person who’s suffered from the trauma. That’s like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient and telling them to go home and think good thoughts. Instead, you need to seek out the right expert who can provide support, tools, body exercises, etc. to help you understand and cope with the long-term impact of the trauma.

So… how can you tell which kind of fear is showing up for you? There is no simple answer to that. Instead, there’s a life-long practice of mindfulness, discernment, and experimentation.

Here’s a place to start…

  1. Be quiet. Unless the fear demands an instantaneous response (ie. swerving out of the path of a car), give yourself a time-out when fear shows up and be quiet with it. Go out into nature or sit on a meditation cushion and let your fear know that you are willing to listen. Noise and/or the wrong person’s advice can intensify the fears, so find a place to be quiet and honest with yourself. Be alone or with someone who knows how to hold space for you.
  2. Pay attention to your body. Where are you feeling the fear in your body? What is your body asking of you? What do you need to do to be kind to your body in that moment of intensity? When I feel fear in the pit of my stomach, for example, I like to place my hands gently over my belly and hold the fear like I would a frightened child. Your body often understands things your brain doesn’t know how to process, so you need to learn to pay attention. (You may want to explore body-related practices such as yoga, reiki, or something more specifically related to trauma, such as TRE.)
  3. Ask what the fear is trying to protect you from. An honest inquiry can help you discern whether the fear is rational or irrational, a warning or an invitation. This is something I often do in my journal, by starting with a few prompts such as “I feel fear about… This fear is trying to protect me from…” Keep writing until the fears beneath the surface start to tell you their truth.
  4. Ask whether you can and/or should survive whatever your fear is trying to protect you from. If it’s a warning fear, then just because you CAN survive it doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Act accordingly. If it’s an ego fear, then what it’s trying to protect you from is probably worth surviving because it will mean you’ll move into greater freedom and/or authenticity. Again, act accordingly.
  5. Consider whether you need outside help addressing the fear. If you can’t understand or address the fear by doing the above-mentioned practices, it may be time to seek professional help. If the fear seems irrational and easily triggered, look for a therapist with expertise in trauma. (I would especially recommend someone who takes a wholistic, body-centred approach and who understands that trauma can’t simply be treated with talk-therapy.) If it doesn’t seem to be trauma-related but is instead connected to some old stories you’ve been telling yourself, coaching might help, but be discerning about who you choose for a coach. Someone who glosses over the complexity of fear will not be the right person.

There is nothing wrong with turning to self-help books (I’ve read quite a few myself), but if you find that those books make you feel worse about yourself instead of better, they might not be the right books for you. You have the right to toss them in the recycling bin, even if everyone else in your social media feed seems to be eating them up.

Seek out what’s best for you and do the work that heals you and makes you stronger.


Note: If you’re looking for a coach, perhaps I can help. Check out my coaching page and book an informal conversation (for free) if you’d like to explore what our relationship might look like.  I will be happy to work with you AND I promise that if your fears are beyond my capacity to support (ie. trauma fears), I will help you seek out the right kind of therapeutic support.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my weekly reflections.

The value of spaciousness


Last week, I was elbow deep in paint and knee deep in clutter. I was continuing the redecorating work I started in the summer (when I painted and decorated my daughters’ three bedrooms), and at the same time was de-cluttering nearly 17 years worth of accumulated stuff in my bedroom and the two bathrooms in the house.

Inspired by the KonMari method, I was asking myself, each time I pulled something out of a closet or cupboard, “does this spark joy?” Only when the answer was a clear yes did it make it back onto the shelf. There were 6 huge bags full of giveaways and an equal number full of garbage in the three rooms.

I am still a little dumbfounded by how much I carried out of those rooms. I don’t actually like shopping (especially for clothes), so how could I possibly have accumulated so many things that I don’t really enjoy wearing? I’ve always told myself that I’m at least being an ethical consumer by buying mostly second-hand clothes, but that doesn’t justify having so much!

Now that its done…. OH MY! I am SO in love with this spaciousness! I feel lighter, more free, and more agile (kind of like that pelican I just hung on the wall). I can look into my closet or dresser drawer and see instantly what I’m looking for. No more digging for treasures and forgetting what’s hidden at the back of the closet. I want to spend more time in my own spaces and have been working less often in coffee shops. And at the end of the day, it’s so easy to find a space for what needs to be put away because there is no clutter in the way. (Now I just have to tackle the rest of the house and put in the effort to keep it this way!)

I keep asking myself – if this much spaciousness feels so good, then WHY do I keep burying myself in clutter that doesn’t bring me any joy?

In fact, why has clutter become an epidemic in so many places where people have access to privilege and affluence? Just look around you (if you live in such a place) and you’ll see, sprouting all over our cities, football-field-sized yards full of storage rental spaces. And then look on the internet and you’ll see a myriad of courses and books on decluttering and organizing. There are huge, multi-million dollar industries whose sole purpose in the world is to manage all of the excess stuff we have.

There’s a similar pattern in our calendars as in our closets. We fill every space until things are bulging out and we’re too overwhelmed to enjoy any of it. We tell ourselves that if we’re busy, we must be valuable, and so we pack things into our agendas. And we do even worse where our children are concerned – making sure they have a sporting event or music lesson every night of the week.

Why? What is this all about?

What I came up with, as I lugged garbage bags out of my house, is this…

We have bought into a collective story that tells us there is no value in emptiness.

When we feel empty, we try to fill the emptiness with things and activities and vices. When there is too much spaciousness in our lives, we doubt our value and feel uncomfortable, and we go seeking that which fills up the spaces.

We forget that spaciousness actually feels good.

Think about the last time you had nothing to do on a Saturday night. Didn’t it feel kind of luxurious to curl up with a good book?

What about the time you cleaned your fridge and those empty shelves looked so clean that you just stood there and stared for awhile?

And even when the emptiness feels uncomfortable – like when your friends all have active social calendars and you don’t – aren’t you at least a little aware that time alone is good for you because you’re learning to appreciate your own company more?

Spaciousness – in our calendars, in our closets, and in our lives – can be a very good thing. Spaciousness creates opportunities for reflection, for prayer, for art-making, for deep breathing, for meaningful conversation, for healing, for self-awareness, for wandering, for healthy grieving, and for simply staring out the window at the leaves fluttering on the trees.

When we have spaciousness in our relationships, we listen more intently, we don’t rush to fix, and we allow for richness and depth and hours of meaningful conversation. In the spaciousness, connection happens.

When we have spaciousness in our calendars, we become more aware of what we truly love to do, we learn to say no to that which distracts us from our purpose, and we take more time for reverence and mindfulness. In the spaciousness, joy happens.

When we have spaciousness in our homes, we don’t let our possessions control us, we find greater value in the things we truly love, and we create less stress in our lives. In the spaciousness, peacefulness happens.

When we have spaciousness in our lives, we learn to listen to the voice of Spirit within us, we create room for personal discovery, and we feel a deep sense of freedom. In the spaciousness, growth happens.

Make it a daily intention to create spaciousness in your life, and watch what happens when you do.

September, a season in between

There’s something about September – the way it hovers in between seasons, reminding us of what we’re leaving and what is yet to come. 

September, season, between, birchI always feel a mix of emotions at this time of year.

I feel the melancholy of summer ending. I feel the sadness over school starting again (mixed with a little joy that I’ll have a quiet house again). I feel the dread of winter just around the corner.

I also feel the delight over the weather shifting and the vibrant colours showing up on the landscape.

When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I love September. It’s probably one of my favourite months. I don’t love the heat and I don’t love the cold and September is usually just right.

And yet… I don’t always let myself love it. I get caught up in the rush of trying to get the girls back to school and I get mired in that sinking feeling of winter coming and I forget to pause long enough to really appreciate the way the weather has shifted into a more gentle warmth with cooling evenings and the way the trees are adorning themselves in orange and yellow and red.

I love long walks in crunching leaves. I love campfires on cool evenings. I love the quality of light at this time of year. I love slipping on a sweater when the weather begins to cool.

Despite the melancholy it brings, I truly love September.

But… there’s something else about this time of year that I don’t love.

It’s the season when death feels close at hand.

There’s a pattern in my family. Most of the births happen in the first half of the year, and most of the deaths happen in the second. My dad, my mom, my son, my father-in-law, and most of my grandparents – they all died between August and November.

And so this time of year comes with reminders of all that I’ve lost.

And this time, September brings with it the possibility of another loss. My oldest brother, who’s been battling cancer for over a year, with multiple surgeries and lots of chemo, has been told the cancer is growing again and there may not be anything they can do. He was told he may have only months to live. (And then, a few days later, he was told they’ll probably make one last ditch effort to save him through surgery.)

When I let myself think of the possibility of losing him, desperation closes my throat and it’s suddenly painful to breathe and impossible to swallow. NO! Death can’t take another member of my family! It’s too soon! I NEED him! It’s not even two years since Mom left us. Please God NO! He’s my big brother. He’s always been a rock in the storm, a solid place to land – as dependable as the earth beneath my feet. I need something dependable in my life. He JUST. CAN’T. GO.

And then I realize… it’s just like September. If I focus only on the fact that I might lose my brother, I’ll forget to live in the now. I’ll forget to see the beauty. I’ll forget to laugh at the jokes he sends, forget to appreciate all that he’s been in my life, forget to recognize what a gift it’s been to grow up in a family so full of love, faith, humour, and wisdom.

If I rush through September, lamenting the summer that’s been and dreading the winter that’s coming, I’ll miss this month that I love so much. If I rush through my life, feeling sorry for myself over all that I’ve lost and dreading the losses yet to come, I’ll miss everything that makes my life so good and beautiful.

I don’t want to miss September. I want to be present for what’s here. Now.

Winter might be hard and long, but right now is beautiful. Right now the sun is painting the tips of the trees with gold. Right now the birds are still singing, the butterflies are still dancing, and the sun is still warming my skin. Right now I have friends who invite me to campfires in teepees and other friends who don’t mind walking through the English gardens in the rain with me. Right now I have daughters who make me laugh. Right now I have a brother walking a courageous path through cancer, who’s crazy in love with his family, and I get to be part of that big love.

Right now is all I need.


If you want to be more present for what’s here right now, you might like Fall Reflections: A Mindfulness Journal.

10 journal writing tips that will help you connect more deeply with yourself

In honour of the release of Fall Reflections: A mindfulness journal, I’m sharing these ten tips. For some who are just beginning a journal writing practice, they may offer a place to start. For others they may offer enhancement to an ongoing practice.

1. Start with the facts, then move to the feelings. Begin by describing the details of your day. What did you do, who did you see? As you write, consider how you responded emotionally to whatever happened.

2. Try a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. Just write the next thing that comes to mind. If you’re writing about the conversation you had with your mom, for example, a question might suddenly come to mind about something your mom said. Write it down. Don’t censor. Just write.

journal writing - jo-anne3. Keep it simple and don’t edit. Your journal is not a place to prove you should be the next poet laureate. It’s about the process, not the product. Use simple language, and write what comes to mind rather than over-thinking what words to use.

4. Keep the “shoulds” out of it. Your journal is a place to be honest with yourself, not a place to try to reform yourself into what you think you should be. Simply write how you feel and what you think rather than filtering it with what you think you SHOULD think or feel. There’s enough of that self-filtering when you talk to others and it doesn’t belong in a journal that’s meant for your eyes only.

5. When you’re trying to work through internal conflict, try writing a dialogue with yourself. If, for example, there’s part of you that wants to go on a trip and another part of you that thinks it’s a bad idea, write as though those are two separate people having a conversation back and forth.

6. If the blank page scares you, use journal prompts to help you get started. Fall Reflections or Summer Lovin’ might be a good place to start. Or you could choose to start each day’s entry with the same simple journal prompt such as “My wish for today is…” or “Five words to describe this day are…” or “The things I want to remember about this day are…”

7. Try keeping a list every day. It could be a list of ten things you’re grateful for each day. Or five ways that you were kind to others. Or three ways that you stood up for yourself. Consider what would help you in your personal growth (gratitude, confidence, courage) and create a list prompt around that theme.

8. Find a routine that works for you. Some people write morning pages (filling 3 pages with stream-of-consciousness) every day. Others set aside half an hour each day for journal-writing. Sometimes I suggest to my coaching clients that they simply sit with a pen in their hand for ten minutes each day and see what emerges. (If it’s just doodling some days, that’s perfectly fine!) You have to find what works best for you, or you won’t sustain it.

9. Find the right pen and journal combination that works for you. I love sturdy, attractive journals, and so I give myself permission to splurge a little each time I buy a new one. I also love to write in colour (and change colours on a whim) so I write with fine tip Sharpie markers. You, on the other hand, may love expensive pens but are content with the kind of notebook you used in elementary school. Experiment until you find what makes you happy.

10. Take your journal with you. You never know when you’ll want to write things down, so it’s a good idea to carry it with you on the bus, to the coffee shop, on a trip – wherever you go. If your journal is too big, consider having a smaller secondary notebook in your purse or backpack.

Finally, just be yourself and write what you want to write. There is no wrong way to do this! Just start wherever you are, write in your very own style, and don’t do it to please anyone else but yourself.

Fall Reflections - mock coverp.s. For only $10, you can download Fall Reflections and you’ll have 60 journal prompts to get you started. If you want to go even deeper with your writing, my next Openhearted Writing Circle will be October 4, 2014.

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