One of the most crippling fears in life is stepping out of the old and into the new. Faced with the choice many will choose to stay in familiar territory because it feels safe and has become part of their identity. As humans we are very invested in our identities and we will go to great lengths to preserve them. The mere thought of stepping out of a comfort zone can catapult us into chaos. But here’s what I know after years of exploring and surrendering what no longer served me:
Staying stuck comes with a bitter taste and a gnawing feeling that won’t go away. It leads to emotions such as anger and resentment, affects energy levels and generally lowers our quality of life. Because here’s the thing – we’re here to grow. Here to step up and be all we can be, and deep down we know this. We know our salvation lies in reality, not illusion.
Now, more than ever before, the world needs change makers and it’s our responsibility to do the work and show up. If we don’t, we’ll be haunted by the shadow of what if.
As Marianne Williamson says so perfectly in her quote:
‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of [The universe]. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of [The Universe] that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’
It can be frightening to step up. But it is helpful to remember that life can only ever be lived in the moment. So stepping up is a moment to moment thing. One choice followed by another, and then another. All it takes is for us to send some kindness within and ask the question:
‘What do I need to do right now?’
The more we do this the more we realise that the fear that seems so real is just a story we have created based on something that happened in the past, or that we have projected into the future.
Stepping up is our destiny – so what is your heart calling you to do right now?
As I begin to write this post I find myself thinking of the man in the iron mask, who was imprisoned for thirty four years, and whose identity was never known as he always wore a mask of black velvet. Historians have debated his identity for years, and various theories have been expounded in books and films, such as the one released in 1998 starring Leonardo Dicaprio and John Malcovich.
Whilst fortunately we are not locked away and forgotten as that man was, all of us wear masks throughout our lives and are conscious of the varied roles we play in the world, and the expectations of others that go with many of these roles. Society would not function without the shared understanding of what it means to be, for example, a doctor or a teacher.
Most of the time, our feelings and behavior are not in conflict with the roles we are asked to play, nor with our inner selves. At other times however, the mask has become something else – virtual black velvet that protects a story, contains an identity, and stops us from feeling our own vulnerability. But it’s the very thing which stands us in resistance to living our truth and ends up attracting realities that conflict with who we really are. Because we are living inauthentic lives, we end up attracting the very things we are trying desperately to avoid.
So how do we begin to remove these masks, and how do we even know they are there? Are they so finely molded to us that we no longer perceive them as anything other than truth? To begin to explore we have to look at our inner and outer lives through the eyes of the witness. The part of us that is able to observe our own thoughts and psyche. Until we start to see that we are not our stories, we are unable to go into the darker deeper parts of our-self because we are too invested in our identity. We need a certain sense of distance from our own experience first, and there are many ways we can begin to achieve this, such as through writing, meditation, mindfulness and other practices.
Another aspect of releasing masks is that:
It requires us to feel.
Whilst most of us are willing to feel up to a certain extent, there are often deeper feelings that we will do anything to avoid because they hurt, frighten us, and often relate to deep unmet needs we are not consciously aware of. So we have to be kind to ourselves and understand that it takes time to unravel a lifetime of mystery, and gentleness to allow ourselves to feel and move from head to heart.
Feelings aren’t enemies, they are clues. Way points in an uncertain world, direction markers that guide us back into the brilliance of our-selves.
If we’ll allow it.
There is a beautiful stillness outside as I sit to write this post, a jumbled collection of musings which started to come together last night as I sat working on course content.
Is it ever personal?
I was working on a section entitled ‘the fictional self’ which looks at the different masks we wear and why we wear them. Uncovering and integrating the ‘shadow’ is something I’m fascinated by, and over the course of my exploration (which is ongoing!) it has occurred to me more and more that we fear our shadow because we make everything personal.
I realize this is not something new – I realize that spiritual teachers have taught throughout time that we are all one, that there is no ‘self’ with the little ‘s’ and that transcending the ego is the ultimate goal.
But still most of us insist on believing it’s personal. We decide on our identities, put on our masks, and spend our time grasping; building and clinging to everything we think we need to preserve them. We may let go in certain areas, but there are still parts we believe are exclusive and we fight tooth and nail to maintain them.
We want ownership, security, the ability to be able to say ‘it’s mine.’ You don’t have to look far to see this in our society. But it’s all an illusion we buy into, and it’s the illusion that’s maintaining the paradigm we live in and know at some level is dysfunctional.
It’s easier to say ‘it’s mine’ when it makes us feel good. But still there is this grasping because we know at any point it could disappear, leaving us faced with the nothingness that terrifies us. We see our pain as personal. Some of us fear joy and happiness and make the pain personal to protect ourselves. But what if it’s not? Of course we feel it, and it’s real and it hurts and sitting in it and allowing it to be can be one of the hardest things we ever do. But it’s not personal. It’s our pain. When we feel pain, others feel pain. When we feel joy and love, others feel it too. When we stop making it personal we open ourselves to feel more. To be more, to connect more.
Just as we don’t have to look far to see the ‘my, my, my’ paradigm, we also don’t have to look far to see the truth. We hear it in the space we inhabit when we stand on a beach and realize how small we are. It’s there in the restless feeling. It’s there is the niggling voice we try so hard to shut up with consumerism and projection. It’s not going to go away – so why not listen?
This morning I went for a long walk to help clear my head before working on lesson plans for my upcoming course. The topic I wanted to explore in today’s notes was self inquiry, and it occurred to me that whilst for some self inquiry might not be daunting, for others just the very thought can unleash a myriad of questions, doubts and fears.
I think often what can happen is that we just don’t know where to begin, and also, we think that it will be overwhelming. But self inquiry can be a very gentle therapeutic process of developing the capacity to witness ourselves without judgement. There is a great picture based on Joseph Campbell’s work called the circle of consciousness. It is a circle with a line through it. The part above the line is what we are consciously aware of, and the part below is our unconscious. To the degree that we are not aware of what’s below the line, is to the degree that it will control us. It is the automatic reactions we have, the flipping into anger, the feelings of not being good enough, the fears that we seem to have no control over, the mood swings and so on.
Self inquiry is all about shining a light on these parts so we become a more enlarged and whole being with an increased capacity to draw on our wisdom. It is shining a light on the places we haven’t been paying attention to, and developing a deeper understanding of who we are. This then has a ripple effect into the world around us, enabling us to have better relationships with others.
One of the important parts of this inquiry is to remember that what lies beneath the line is not personal. I think, and have certainly found through my own journey of self inquiry, that we can carry a lot of shame around the places within. But every single one of us has these reptilian parts, these raw emotions. It’s part of our inheritance, carried down through generations. So when we explore issues such as our own addictions, we see that its not ‘my addiction’ its ‘our addictiveness.’ It’s ‘our anger.’ Of course we express it on an individual level and are responsible for that expression, but its by no means unique to just us.
What happens when we don’t shine a light on the parts within us is that, in a sense, we forget who we really are and become cut off from the awareness that lies beyond any stories we have created. In exploring these parts we can wake up to the truth, and also realise that by including it we can deal with it.
In terms of feeling overwhelmed, I believe we know at some level what we can cope with. If we approach self inquiry from a place of trust, we allow what needs to come up to present itself at the right time. We live moment to moment, only enough for this moment will arise.
Self inquiry will have its painful moments, but if we don’t face whats under there, we will always know at some level there is something we haven’t dealt with. When we do deal with it, we are able to redevelop the sense of innocence we used to have, because we are no longer hiding unseen things.
I felt inspired to take the above photo yesterday because to me it symbolized an emotion I have been exploring a lot recently – vulnerability. Just seconds after I took the shot my daughter blew on the dandelion, scattering its seeds which were carried away on the breeze. But the core of the dandelion remained strong and upright, it had shed what it no longer needed in order for new growth to begin.
In relating this to vulnerability I found myself thinking how we hold on to parts of ourselves and protect them because we fear exposure. Many of us will go to great measures to avoid feeling vulnerable, myself included. But what is it that we fear? Judgement? Rejection? Failure? Losing control? Probably a mixture depending on the context.
It all goes back to programs we developed in infancy to make sense of our emotions and protect ourselves. They have been called by some teachers emotional programs for happiness. In our very early years we have no awareness of a separate self, but we do have needs and these needs come with emotional responses which are faithfully recorded in our memory banks. By the time we reach the age of reason we have in place fully functioning emotional programs for happiness based on emotional judgments we made as children in response to needs.
When we are born we have two instinctual needs – survival and security. As we grow and become aware of being a separate self we experience more needs such as pleasure, affection and esteem. If one or more of these needs is perceived to be withheld, it becomes difficult for us to believe in the goodness of life. None of us escapes the emotional fragility of childhood because as children we only have our feelings to go by and cannot discern the cause as we can as adults. But because we develop programs for happiness before we develop reason, they have no limits. So when we are older and, for example, the desire for security is not met and we experience the emotions of grief, anger, jealousy etc we identify the value systems we developed at a young age to cope with unbearable situations.
This is one side of it, the other is that not only do we identify with these childhood programs but as we grow up it changes. What starts out as needs develops into demands and then shoulds which we expect others and life to meet. We don’t know we have these deeply ingrained programs. In fact people can grow spiritually, physically and intellectually whilst their emotional lives remain at the level of infancy.
So how does this relate to vulnerability? It relates in that these emotional programs protect us from experiencing our vulnerability. We don’t want to experience the pain of childhood unmet needs that lie beneath. But in order to grow and live from a place of authenticity we must explore these deeply ingrained patterns and in doing so embrace our vulnerability. As Brene Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly:
‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose, or deeper and more spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.’
It is what connects us to others and to ourselves. In embracing and exploring it we can not only discover all of who we are, but we can also learn how to fulfill the needs we perceived as unfulfilled in childhood and also see that we no longer need to seek fulfillment outside of ourselves. We don’t need to control anymore, or have life look a certain way in order to satisfy our demands. What happens when we discover that is that we free ourselves up to being more creative, more loving towards ourselves and others, and as Brene Brown says, obtain greater clarity in our purpose.
The first step is inquiry. Turning inwards and exploring with compassion the tender places. It only needs to be a tiny step, but its a step that can see the start of a beautiful journey of self love.
As the year draws to a close, I find myself preparing for 2017. I love creating a vision board, and covering it with pictures, words, and other bits and pieces, that symbolise what I intend for the New Year.
As I was working on my board last weekend I kept thinking the words ‘Life by Design.’
I felt really inspired by the words, and used them as a heading. I knew as I pasted them carefully to the top of the cork board that everything I put underneath it would be part of my ‘Life by Design.’
For me, life by design means creating and intending from the heart. Letting go of the shoulds, coulds, and out to’s. Not thinking about what The Jones’s are doing, and intending a year filled with what is possible.
Do you write out intentions for the New Year? I prefer calling them intentions, as I personally think resolutions are too set in stone. The word Intentions feels lighter.
If you could design your ideal year, what would it look like? How would it feel?
Go on, try it! Let me know how you feel once it’s designed.
Something else I was thinking, as I created my board, is what if all we need to create our ideal life is within? What if all we need to do is listen to the small still voice within and take action? So often we think life and situations get in the way of us creating what we really want, but is that the truth? More and more I’m beginning to see that the only thing that ever stands in our way is our thinking.
One of the pieces of paper on my board reads ‘think less.’ This year I intend to be more present, not take my thinking so seriously, and take more action. The truth is we never ‘get there.’ Life is a journey, and we are meant to create our way through it and live ‘life by design.’
Would love to hear your thoughts!