Lessons from the Journey

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During the time that I call Last Winter (the winter of 2012-13, spent living in the basement of our old house), I shared a great deal with you, about my journey and the challenges I faced.  I continued to share with you during our move and adjustment to our new life in Texas.

But what you don’t know is that the journey has continued since then.

I’ve been working very hard, for nearly two years now.  My journey began when one of my readers called me a Linchpin,and I would like to share with you the places it has taken me since then.

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Here are some things I’ve learned in my travels:

1. Reality is a very simple, painless thing.  If you’re experiencing anything other than that, it’s not reality.  When I read Linchpin, after being told that this term applied to me, it brought to light so many assumptions I had held about myself–so many limiting beliefs.  That was what started my journey.  I realized that I was not what I had thought I was.  I’ve since learned that anything that causes fear, anything that doesn’t “feel” good, is based on misunderstanding, not reality.

2.  Willpower is not the answer.  Like flowers turning toward the sun, we all are always turned toward the light.  We want to do what is “right,” and we are always trying our very best.  If we’re stuck in a “bad” habit, then there is a misunderstanding or a reason why.  We need to look deeply at that, and figure out what is preventing us from doing what we’re trying to do.  Forcing ourselves to do anything, ultimately won’t work.

3.  Your mind is likely stuck in a loop.  I had the same patterns coming up over and over again.  I thought I was unworthy.  I thought I couldn’t handle the intense fear I sometimes felt.  It was the same messages, over and over.  And the solution lie in redefining those messages.  Over and over.

4.  Never underestimate the power of a good teacher.  Learning to move beyond fear and to see reality is like learning to speak a new language, and it helps to have guidance from someone who has traveled the path already. While I had many mentors along the way, the smartest choice I made was to seek help professionally.  I ended up finding a counselor who works via e-mail and used a technique that I recognized as a variant on cognitive-behavioral therapy.  She worked closely with me and helped me learn methods for doing that repetitive redefining. After nearly two years of almost-daily contact, I am no longer experiencing those looping thoughts and am seeing a great deal of freedom from fear.  If you’re interested in pursuing a path in this direction, here is a good place to start.

5.  You are not what you think you are.  I have learned that I am more than the challenges I have faced, and I am certainly more than my reaction to fear.  We all face fear, and it manifests differently for each of us. Some people react with substance abuse, others become depressed or anxious, and others overeat or indulge in retail therapy.  These are all reactions to the same thing.  Don’t mistake your reaction for who you are.

6.  Self-love is always beautiful.  Early in my journey, my therapist said, “Your only obligation is to love yourself.”  I didn’t understand this at the time.  I thought caring for myself and turning inward was selfish.  But it is not–it is actually the opposite of selfishness.  It is through knowing, understanding, and loving our own minds, with their tendencies and misunderstandings, that we learn to understand and therefore love all of humanity.  If we misunderstand our tendencies, we are going to misunderstand the same tendencies in everyone else.

7.  Narcissism and martyrdom are the same thing.  Or, at least, they are manifestations of the same misunderstanding.  In both cases, the person sees themself as separate–from all of humanity and from God, the Universe, Love, etc.  Putting yourself before others and putting others before yourself are both based on the assumption that your “self” is separate from “others.”

8.  Nobody has an opinion of you.  We take what people claim to “think” of us as meaningful feedback about ourselves.   When people don’t really have opinions of us. They might misinterpret our fears and the way we act upon them, but that’s not a opinion of me. They might misinterpret our fear-based actions based on their own fears. But that’s not about us. And we’re probably not even seeing this window into their inner life. Because our minds are picking out bits of and pieces of their actions (which are based on their own fears, etc.) and using them as evidence for what it already believes. So “feedback” and “criticism” are just our mind’s way of proving itself right. The other person is just a messenger. 

9.  Labels are limited in their usefulness.  It would be easy to pick out labels from my experience.  “Anxiety” and “depression” stand out, amongst other things.  But how helpful is that?  These are all just names for manifestations of fear and misunderstanding.  We all face fear and misunderstand.  If it’s an “illness,” it’s one that EVERYBODY has.  That’s the journey through this life–seeing through the illusions.

10.  There is no past.  There is no accurate record of it, at all.  Everything I’ve told you, about my “back story” is just comprised of memories with meaning attached.  There is no way for anybody to know what REALLY happened.  It’s gone.  It doesn’t exist.  This moment–with all the baggage we carry to it–is all that we can ever have.

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I could go on with lessons, but I think this is a good starting point.  It’s been a very busy two years, and I look forward to growing–and resting–more in the years to come.

 What are some lessons that you’ve learned on your journey?

 

In Praise of my Mischievous Child

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I keep a secret from my daughter.  There is something I don’t tell her, when I’m giving her a time-out or discussing the reason for the bad report from her teacher.

I am secretly happy that she gets into trouble.

Beanie isn’t angry.  She doesn’t get in trouble for deliberately harming anyone.

What Beanie does is test limits.  She conducts social experiments.  She’ll put her hand on the fire alarm to observe her teachers’ reactions.  She’ll say a bad word, to see what happens. She hits her friends, because she thinks it’s funny.

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Of course, we show her what happens when she crosses a line.  We don’t encourage her to “misbehave.”

But I still like that she does it.  I like that she believes enough in her own worth to be unafraid of making mistakes. She’s not afraid to try new things, make mistakes, and learn.

Can we say the same for ourselves?

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I know that I have always been a people-pleaser.  I have always been terrified of doing anything that might offend, or lead someone to “not like me.”  Being socially shunned has always been my fear.

And because of this fear, I have been afraid to try. Better not to rock the boat, than to do something “wrong.”  And when I inevitably made mistakes anyway, it led to a ridiculous drama in my head.  I admonished myself for being so stupid, and spent more time regretting the fact that I tried something that didn’t work, rather than learning from it.

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Beanie is not a people-pleaser.  She doesn’t feel the need to do anything or be a certain way in order to be loved.  Yet she also has no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings.  She realizes that her experiments won’t hurt anyone’ feelings, at least not in a way that a hug and an “I’m sorry” won’t fix.

Beanie doesn’t freak out when she makes a mistake.  She thinks no less of herself.  She merely  learns from it, and, if not, she repeats the “lesson.”  

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And the most amazing part of it all?  While staying true to herself, Beanie DOES have a lot of friends.  In the three schools she has attended, she has been quite popular in all of them.  She is very successful, socially, even after being the “new kid” twice.

I think we all might have something to learn from that kid.

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Lesson #11: The Internet (It’s Complicated)

Note:  This post is one of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.

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It is interesting that this is the next lesson that I will be talking about, because it has been something that has been on my mind a great deal lately.

I have a complicated relationship with the Internet.

Two year ago, I gave up Facebook.  I found it sucking up my time, and I found myself drawn into non-productive political debates.  I desperately sought connection, and on Facebook I felt alone in a crowd.  So I deleted my account.

But that doesn’t mean I was never online.  I began e-mailing a number of other bloggers and developed some very close friendships.  And through these friendships, I found the courage to make some major changes in my life.  In that basement, I spend the vast majority of my time online.

And that was okay.

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After we moved, I found that I was kind of at a loss with my writing.  My personal journey became more private, and I found my inbox filling up with unanswered e-mails.  I spent more time reading, more time looking within.

A number of my blogging friends quit writing their blogs, and I wondered if this was the next step–if it were the “right” thing to do, when I reached a certain level of “maturity.”  I began to see my time online as a vice, and went through a cycle of forced digital breaks.

And that was okay too.

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And now, I kind of feel like I’ve reached a balance for the moment.  I’ve rejoined Facebook, so that I can check in with everyone, and save the more occasional in-depth discussions for e-mail.  I’m happy with the frequency of my blog posts, and I’m glad that y’all have come back to restart the discussions!

What works, is what works for me in this moment.

And that’s okay.

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So, my thinking is a little different than it was when I wrote that lesson #11 was “The answers aren’t online.”  I no longer think that a certain amount of Internet time is “good” or “bad.”

 But I do have a few thoughts on the issue:

  • Beware of using the Internet out of boredom.  Sometimes, I find myself refreshing the same 3 pages, just biding the time.  This isn’t “bad” or “immoral,” but it also isn’t something that I enjoy or something that makes me happy.  When I catch myself doing this, I ask, “What would I rather be doing?”  Sometimes, I’d rather write a book or take a walk.  Sometimes I’m just tired or hungry!
  • Online time can become an escape.   When something is bothering me, I often find that I get involved with discussions or search for a diversion online.  Again, that’s not good or bad.  There is nothing wrong with an escape, when your mind needs it!  But escaping is a short-term solution.  Eventually, we need to deal with whatever it is we are trying to escape.
  • You don’t need to try to change the world.  I have sworn off political discussion, because they only led to anger and hard feelings.  But I’ve found myself sucked into other discussions, feeling like I needed to advocate for something.  It’s good to inform and to share your ideas, but it’s also fine to bow out if the discussion becomes emotionally draining.  A great example of this for me has been all of the discussions that have started after Robin Williams’s death.  For my own mental health, I’m only engaging in those, in moderation!
  • Everyone you meet is on a journey.  Through my online interactions, I have met some people who have shared amazing ideas and completely rocked my world.  But it’s important to remember that these people are not fully enlightened beings, they are just people on a journey, just like me.  They have ideas, but they don’t have the Answers.  And they bring their emotional baggage to the table, just like I do.
  • Online interactions are great practice for “real life.”  While I don’t really buy into the whole introvert vs extrovert thing, I do realize that I haven’t fully developed the skill of being assertive.  So I practice online.  The conversation is slower, and there is time to think through my responses.  I’ve found this to be a great way to practice, and it does gradually transfer into my “real life” conversations.

I think the most important thing to remember is that the Internet and the many communities on it are tools.  Use them to help you in your journey and to get closer to finding your answers.

Just remember that then answers themselves are not “out there.”

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Lesson #10: Notice the World Around You

Note:  I don’t quite have an update on the boat or apartment for you yet.  It’s coming, since we have 4 days to get out of here!  Work has been slow since the last update, because I pushed myself so hard that I ended up getting sick with a cold or the flu or something.  We’re still plugging away, but we haven’t accomplished enough to justify an interesting update post.  So, in the meantime, I will share another of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.

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Life is fascinating.  It really is.

Living in the city in a warm climate, I have had less reason to stay inside and more reason to be out and about, exploring.  I really am an avid people-watcher, and amidst this sea of humanity that we call Houston, there is much to watch.

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Coming out of a challenging–yet very necessary, important, and beautiful–time in my life, I carry all that I have learned with me as I observe this world we live in.  I love to watch and to talk to other people and realize that each and every one of them is on a journey similar to my own.  We all see life through the clouded lens of our own perception, and our journey is one of clearing that lens.  And eventually removing it.

We are all on a journey to find and understand love, to belong.  We are all searching to discover who we are.  We are all emerging from the fog of perceived unworthiness.

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We all have a story to tell, and lessons that we’ve learned.

Watching everyone with this knowledge, removes the filter of judgement.  Yes, people do funny things.  We all do very funny things!  We get caught up in dramatic spats that are largely irrelevant.  We valiantly fight shadows and chase ghosts.  But seeing this in ourselves and in everyone else reminds us of our common humanity.

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When I rode my bicycle to work, Rob asked me if I would like to bring a MP3 player.  While I often do enjoy good music, I declined the offer.  The beauty of my ride is to be a part of everything and to experience it all:

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The singing of the birds in the morning

The lights on highway 3

The rising sun that greets me

The ducks swimming along the bike trail

The gentleman taking his morning walk

The crossing guards I see every morning

The smell of breakfast cooking at the local restaurants

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I used to wander through life, completely lost in thought and always seeking distraction.  When I read about the importance of “present moment awareness,” I laughed because this was something I was simply unable to do!  My mind was always busy, always noisy.  I couldn’t just force it to be quiet!

And I was right.  Quietness is not something that can be forced.  It was only through looking deeply into those thoughts, and into my mind’s reason for being noisy and seeking distraction, that I was able to find peace.  Peace was my reward, for my journey into the heart of my fears, my journey toward seeing reality as it is.

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So if you find yourself unable to put that phone away, or always wanting those headphones on, maybe just putting it away isn’t the answer.  Look deeply, and lovingly discover what it is that you are trying to escape.

Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self

Don’t worry, you’ll get an update on our adventures soon.  We’ve been working on emptying out the apartment, and this next week we will get started on the boat.  When I have significant progress or news to share, I definitely will!  In the meantime, I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, and the timing seems perfect right now.

Pictures are from a trip to Palm Beach in Galveston.

Pictures are from a trip to Palm Beach in Galveston.

Dear Bethany,

(Yes I’ll call you that, because I know that’s what you want to be called.  And here’s one little secret–in the not-so-far-future, they will!) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I know you feel hopeless right now, and it seems like life is an endless stream of rejection and self-doubt.  I will give you some reassurance, but, for reasons you don’t yet understand, I am not going to tell you what is around the bend.  You need this journey.  You need to see first hand the strength and wisdom that you already possess. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But I will tell you that there are changes, just around the corner.  BIG changes.  Within the next year, you will lose.  But, more importantly, you will gain.  And both of these changes will set the course for the rest of your life. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA At this juncture, you think that you know your future.  You are relatively sure you know the rather calm path your life will follow.  And I can tell you that you’re wrong. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You have already discovered the kindness that is a part of your very soul.  But you have yet to discover that you have an adventurous spirit as well. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You will not lead a pre-determined life.  You have more choices at every bend, than you can even comprehend.  You will be one of the few people to see all of the choices, and you will use this to create a life that is uniquely yours. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just wait until you see where you’re going to live when you’re 35!  You will never guess…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You want to know if it will get easier.  The short answer is yes.  The challenges you face now will not persist relentlessly. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I know you don’t want to hear this, but it will also get harder.  You will face challenges, but you will find the strength within yourself to not only survive them, but to thrive and grow from them.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You will survive, you will thrive, and you will contribute to the world in so many ways that you can’t even imagine.

The remaining pictures are from Clear Lake Shores, the current home port of Breaking Tradition.

The remaining pictures are from Clear Lake Shores, the current home port of Breaking Tradition.

You will have the opportunity to make every one of your dreams a reality. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You share a stronger connection to everything and everyone around you, than you realize.  You will make so many true friends, who will be willing to travel to the end of the earth for you.  You will experience unconditional love over and over, and it will become even stronger after you finally recognize its presence. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I am telling you all of this, that you may have hope.  But I don’t want you to do anything differently.  The mistakes you will make are only a part of the journey.  You will learn so much, grow more than you can fathom, and you will find no room for regret. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I love you, Bethany.  And the time will come, when you will find that love within.

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Love,

Yourself, 19 years later

(I can’t tell you my last name!)

Lesson #9: Just Listen

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Note: This is the ninth of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.

I have a strange tendency, in social interactions.  I get nervous, fidgety, and become very eager to fill the pauses in the conversation with fascinating and funny stories.

Now, telling a good story is wonderful, but it does nothing to ease my nervousness in the interaction.

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Did I talk about myself too much?  Have I made myself interesting?

Do they like me?

I think for most of us, conversations are a lot higher-pressure than we want to admit.  We’re planning out what we’re going to say, while the other person is talking.  We’re not doing this because we don’t value the other person.  We’re doing this, because we want them to like us.  We don’t want to be judged.

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And yet our efforts turn into a cycle.  We play our role, plan our words, and make it through one interaction avoiding judgement.  But then, we feel more pressure in the next.  We feel like we need to wear masks, and hide behind personas, so that we will be liked.

So how do we change this?  By realizing that we are misunderstanding the entire situation.

The people we talk to are not focused on us.  They are concerned about their own words, and about avoiding judgement for themselves.  They, too, are stuck in the illusion.  And if we offer them a way out, they will more than likely be grateful for it.

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The way out of the illusion is to listen.  Listen to what the other person says, hearing without judging.  When you inevitably begin to plan out what you’re going to say next, think of questions that you can ask.  Be genuinely interested–not because what you have to say is unimportant, but because your curiosity will be healing to both you and those around you.

I remember a time that I visited two friends, and they both spent the entire time talking to me.  It was as if a listening ear opened a floodgate for them–they were yearning to feel valued, to be related to without fear.  And at the same time, I heard their stories, and saw how we were similar.  Our fear of being judged comes from the misperception that we are different, inferior, vulnerable.  By listening to those around us, we can see are shared fears, our shared love, our shared humanity.

It is through seeing past the illusions of fear and judgement that we truly discover our connectedness and ability to love.

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Lesson 7: Love versus Unconditional Love

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Note:  This is one of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.

Like most people, I’ve spent much of my life seeking approval.  I wanted to be seen as strong, smart, driven, and responsible.  I made my choices based on this desire.

As a result, I had no opinions of my own.  I liked the same music as whoever I was with.  I went straight to college, after high school, and made that the primary focus of my life for 6 years.  I waited to get married.  I got a job in the area.  I left the trailer park we had been living in, to buy a house.

None of these choices were “good” or “bad”—there just were the choices I made.  There is no reason to regret any of them.  What does matter is that I made these choices with the goal of pleasing those around me.

I once read, in Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, that the phrase “unconditional love” is redundant, because all love is unconditional.  And that anything else is just approval, which is a judgment.  I liked this, and I wrote a blog post about love and approval, Last Winter.

But I don’t entirely agree with what I’ve written.  Because I now see that approval doesn’t even exist.  People grant and deny approval based on their own fears and projections.

When people approve or disapprove of others’ actions, it might be because:

  • They’ve chosen a course of action that has made them so happy, that they want everyone to experience the same happiness.

 

  • They are feeling insecure in their choices and are seeking validation, by having someone make the same choice.

 

  • They have regrets about past choices, and wish to make amends by advising you to choose differently.

We all do all of these things, so we need to be understanding when we’re on the receiving end.  But we also need to realize that there is something going on, that has nothing to do with us.  It is important not to take the other person’s words at face value, and to understand that our choices really do have no bearing on whether the other person loves or accepts us.

Realizing this is difficult, when the opposite seems to be true.  It’s hard to remember that the person who seems to be disapproving of us and our choices, is really just acting out of fear.  Making choices based on this fear will do nothing to alleviate it in the long term.  So it is not worth it, to sell ourselves out, to make choices that are not true to our deepest dreams and desires, just to put a Band-Aid on someone’s deeper fear.  In the end, we need to answer to ourselves, regarding our choices.

I remember something one of my blogging friends said in the comments, on one of his posts.  He said, “We do what society wants us to do.  But who is society?  People!  And people want other people to be happy.”

So live your life, be happy, and don’t let fears of disapproval stand in your way!