“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” – Maya Angelou
My commitment to writing regular posts fell by the wayside some months ago, not because I wasn’t writing, but because I seemed unable to finish anything I’d started. While I felt I had a lot to share, I’d become frustrated at my non-existent output, until I realised that the best course of action was to do nothing, let things be, surrender to life as it is right now.
But what does surrender really mean? Is it like giving up? And where does acceptance fit into all of this? I knew that these were concepts that would be helpful in living a more balanced life, so I thought I’d explore these concepts further. Read more →
“At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer.”
Rachel Naomi Remen
Some time ago, a woman with an astonishing and uncanny ability to tune into my mind and heart, suggested I look at creativity as a way to promote physical healing. Despite her spookily accurately psychic skills, I politely thanked her for her advice, but long-standing physical health issues like mine, required a more aggressive approach like supplements, continuous mindfulness, mediation, eating all the “right” foods, and working with a naturopath and/or integrative doctor. Oh, and don’t forget a good dose of self-help books, workshops and courses. Sounds exhausting doesn’t it? And yet, for ten years, that was my modus operandi, and yes, I was exhausted on all levels. If you listen to the many experts, particularly the social media medical “experts”, mine was the textbook approach for holistic health and I, was its number one student. At times I made some progress, only to take one step forward and two steps back. It’s been slow and frustrating and didn’t really create the change I knew I needed.
In fairness, the one thing I didn’t do well was meditation. Sitting for 20 minutes or more left my legs feeling numb and I found the whole process painful. Chronic thinkers have great battles during meditation. I know, I know, the battle is a sure sign we need it more than most people, but this ongoing battle wasn’t getting me anywhere. That’s when I thought I’d try the other thing I’d been resisting and that was take the psych’s advice and try creativity.
Since leaving childhood behind, I became estranged from any form of artistic pursuit. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because my carefree childhood evolved into adulthood shackled by perfectionism. Like oil and water, perfectionism and creativity don’t mix. It’s basic chemistry and you can’t change that, but you can transform it.
Two years ago, my daughter began sewing classes. I watched with envy as each week, she brought home wonderful new creations, resplendent in vibrant and funky fabrics. I’ve never had a desire to learn to sew, and yet, something about the art of making, the attraction of beautiful fabrics and the joy of holding something you created kept pulling at me. I knew then that creativity, the thing I’d been trying to ignore had finally found a way to reach me, handcuffed me and wouldn’t let go.
Despite my chronic perfectionism issues, I found the courage to dive in. Things went well for a while because as a beginner, I could rationalise that mistakes were natural when learning a new skill. But as time went on, the mistakes naturally continued, as each new project had it’s own challenges, and some days my brain malfunctioned due to chronic insomnia. This is where the battle to transform perfectionism into creativity really began.
My programmed mind repeated it’s well worn howl that I was hopeless, incompetent and why couldn’t I remember things like everyone else. On and on it went, but something had shifted in me. A little voice said, “I’ve had enough”. There are times in our life when we reach a crossroad. We’ve learnt enough to know that these intersections represent the opportunity for deep, profound change. But do we have the courage to take the path never travelled, to step into the darkness of a new and as yet unknown path? I decided that I’d had enough of doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, and following the old road that got me nowhere. It was time for something different.
So in that moment of angst, as I sewed another row of stitching that had to be unpicked, again, I stood on the threshold and took a deep breath. I quickly processed the thoughts in my mind. “Here’s the chance for change kiddo”, my little voice said, trying to be heard over the perfectionist mind. “Take the stitch unpicker, breath deeply and in a meditative and mindful way, gently unpick the stitches. Go on, you can do it.” And so I did.
Two things happened here. Firstly, I found that I could use the “mistake” to not only rip the stitches out of my perfectionism trait, but secondly, I could use this as my kind of meditation. I know that mediation is very good for stress reduction and for general health, but with my hyperactive mind, I needed to find another entry point. Unpicking stitches did that for me, as did the process of sewing. This might sound strange to non sewers, but there is something therapeutic in the chugging rhythm of a sewing machine.
I won’t lie and say this process was easy because it wasn’t. With each stitch, my mind would try to derail me with constant little snide remarks. “Careful you don’t rip the fabric. Is anyone else unpicking their work? I can’t believe we have to do this again?” But just as we do in meditation, I watched the thoughts, let them pass and went back to work.
My process of discovery, of healing through creativity is just beginning. While I’ve never recovered my health completely, I have made progress. But more than physical progress, I’ve made emotional and spiritual progress. I’m better able to deal with physical ailments but importantly, I live a more peaceful life, regardless of my physical health. And that is the true gift I found in creativity.
Is there something your heart has been calling you to follow that you might be ignoring? Perhaps today you can take one small step into exploring this call.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein
I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination – Jimmy Dean
Today, as I write this, the wind is blowing ferociously, the remnants of a tropical cyclone. The wind also acts as a great metaphor for this post because, today, I have let go of the need for a path or purpose, of a mind constantly searching, and instead have thrown myself at the mercy of the wind, allowing it to guide me. It’s a leap of faith.
In today’s world, not seeking direction sounds like madness. How can one be happy about not finding their purpose? Isn’t it the holy grail, the thing that will make us happy?” Well, yes and no.
Yes, we all like to know why we’re here, how we are to use the gifts we are given, and not waste time going down multiple “wrong” roads.
No, because seeking “the” path and purpose is not only exhausting, it can actually throw us off track, off our path. Confused? So was I, which is why it has taken me over a decade and a battle with poor health to get a handle on this.
Here’s what I’ve learnt. Years ago, a wise teacher told me that as a perfectionist, I wanted to know “every damned step” before I made a move. At the time I thought, well yeah, of course I do, otherwise how can I know which way to go, right? She also said, “The steps only appear, once you make the first move.” At the time, this made no sense. How can I step forward if I can’t see where I’m supposed to step?
Well the secret is in stepping where there is no step. Sounds crazy but stay with me. I’ve learnt that we often don’t get a billboard with arrows saying “Go this way”. Instead, we have to make the first move in whatever direction “feels” right and then the next step appears.
This is where intuition comes in. It’s that gentle sensation, like butterfly wings that flutter around your heart, hinting that you’re onto something. It doesn’t give exact instructions, just a feeling, a hint to use our soul as a weather vane, see which way it’s pointing, then head in that direction, no instructions, just follow the breeze. When we take the first step, if it’s in alignment with our soul’s desire, and not just our head, then the universe will reveal the next step. It’s our reward for being brave, trusting and using “feeling” as a compass, not just logic.
Intuitive Processes and Creativity
Here’s how this intuitive process worked for me. Regular readers know that 10 years of poor health forced me to examine how my thoughts were impacting my life and health. Perfectionism is bad for your health and your career. I could no longer work in my field of marketing communications, or do much else. On the advise of a stranger, I took up a creative pursuit. Mine was sewing. The stranger also suggested not doing it as a career or creating a business, but simply as an exploratory process. I had no idea what she meant. Perfectionists only do things that have useful outcomes, but being unwell, I had no choice but to do art for art’s sake.
Stepping into the creative unknown, I had no idea how or why it would help, just that I should trust my gut and follow this lead. Creativity restored my connection to my intuition, calmed my mind and allowed new insights to emerge. My health improved enough for me to consider my other passion, protecting our beautiful planet. But in what capacity? The next invisible step was about to emerge.
Recently I saw a story on the environmental impact of plastic bags, and decided to stop moaning, take action and find an organisation I could help lobby for a ban plastic bags. My search led me to the website of not-for-profit group, Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. They help protect wildlife, their habitats and campaigned against plastic bags. Something about their website attracted me, like a hidden force. It was a heart flutter moment that prompted me to call and see if they needed a volunteer. I spoke to the lovely manager who gratefully accepted my help. I felt an instant connection.
Remember, if we take the first intuitive step, the universe will reveal the next. It did for me. The manager said they welcomed all help, but desperately needed someone with marketing communications skills. Bingo! When I surrendered the need to know the path, magic happened. I was happy to help make coffee but instead, the universe gifted me the chance to use my work experience and do something purposeful. As an added bonus, and to confirm I was in the right place, I discovered that the manager and I both share a love of sewing.
While I still have poor health days, challenges managing teenagers and juggling the needs of a family, relinquishing the search for a purpose has led to internal peace. When I gave up the need to know, a purpose found me. And it’s not to say that this is “the purpose”, it’s what is right for me right now. It’s all about letting go, and letting be(come).
Intuition is your greatest gift. If you can’t feel guidance, make time to be still for at least 5-10 minutes every day, whatever time you can spare. Don’t discount the advice of family and friends and your own mind, but always check in with your internal compass and see which way it’s pointing, because your heart and soul will always be your best guides towards your next step.
Have you felt any flutters that might be trying to guide you?
As we approach the end of another year, I was tempted to do a review and re-examination of the past year, but this time I resisted the urge. As a chronic over thinker, I tend to review each waking minute of every day, and for once I decided that this practice was no longer necessary. It appears that the merry-go-round of examining outcomes, cost/benefit analysis and trying to extrapolate valuable data so as to prevent future mistakes was finally coming to an end. Why? Because I decided it had to stop.
Years of analysis, doctors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, homeopaths, not to mention nutritionists, eating plans, exercise plans and hundreds of books on the mind and spirituality, all helped me gain an understanding and awareness of how my thoughts impacted my health. However, eventually you reach the pointy end of your journey where you choose to stay stuck or to step out, usually into unknown territory.
My foreign land is in the realm of feelings. I am unfamiliar and unaccustomed to letting go. Letting go of what I thought I was and how I defined myself, which was usually through the prism of work and/or the praise worthy demonstration of some unique talent. Chronic illness allows you to do neither of these. You loose your work and as for gaining lavish praise for your unique talent? Forget it! Some days, the best thing you can do is get out of bed gracefully. Believe me, when you’re sick, it’s a huge achievement.
And so, with identity stripped away, it seems there is little left but skin and bones and this is where the yucky void is to be found. Many of us avoid it like the plague by indulging in too much liquor, drugs, sex, food, worry, extreme sports, anything that keeps us from ourselves.
The point of no return
But I’d had enough. I wanted out of my old and battered life and to embrace something different -to try on a new coat, something technicolour and funky. It was my point of no return. Once you’ve seen a glimpse of your true self, you can never return unchanged. It’s like trying to fit into your old size 8 jeans when you have outgrown them by 3 sizes.
So what I glimpsed was an understanding about how I’m wired. I am a left and a right brainer. That means I have equal capacity to analyse (left brain) and to create (right brain). This is normally a good thing, except when your brain becomes unbalanced. I unwittingly let my left brain run my life. While the left loves knowledge it also loves to analyse, normally a handy skill, except when this is coupled with low self-esteem. In this case, the analyst can become a harsh critic and judge whenever a new activity is attempted. In my case, the critic became my ruler in all its definitions; both dominating, and in the way I measured myself and my work against others. My right brain has been trying for YEARS to restore the balance, seeking even the smallest crack in the wall that I’d built around my self-esteem to find release. It constantly sought opportunities to allow my creativity to spill forth and be expressed, but the harsh critic always shut me down. Any attempts at artistic endeavours were quickly abandoned because my first attempts were naturally never perfect. Sadly, it was through illness that I became aware of the imbalance. It’s the main reason this blog exists. I hope others will take heed and learn to honour and express all aspects of who they are.
So with this insight, I realised this imbalance was the result of hearing a few too many criticisms and not enough praise as I was growing up. No blame here. I know my parents had endured the same which is why they parented the way they knew how. So, knowing all this, where to from here?
Well, I know I have a kick-ass, pain in the butt critic but it’s my choice whether I listen or not. Perfectionism is an impossible master to please. In a recent attempt at a sewing project I made the same mistake twice. Truly a first world problem but to me, it triggered all the old feelings of shame and incompetence and I wanted to quit. But I dropped an arm into the ugly place of despair and pulled myself out before I hit the bottom.
Here’s what worked for me.
I call this process, “Project Hello Me”. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I was a beginner and began to hum a jolly tune as I unpicked the work. I repeated the process when I made the same mistake and actually had enough awareness to realise that I was being given a wonderful gift, an opportunity to really test my new commitment to change. Repetition builds new neurones and brain pathways, and I wanted a major highway in my brain that built loving acceptance of both my mistakes, and my achievements.
The bottom line is that I am choosing to change records. I want my life to a play to a different tune.
I won’t lie and say that I’m cured. This is like learning to walk. It’s just the first step. My other Achilies’ heal is comparison. I see the brilliant work of experienced artisans and feel pathetically inadequate compared to them, but again, I refer myself to Project Hello Me and repeat the pattern of demolishing the old and creating the new.
Uncovering the Real Me
But what I’m really doing is not so much creating the new me, but rather, uncovering the “real me”. Looking through a clearer lens. Stripping away dusty old walls that have kept my true identity hidden from myself and others. Like most children, I built up walls to protect myself. I realise now that when something means so much to us, we feel we cannot risk having it destroyed by unaware adults whose criticisms, although well intentioned, can be completely misinterpreted by young children. I never wanted to risk trying something creative in case it was a complete failure, hard to swallow when it means everything to you. But that’s a scared child’s interpretation. A loved and secure child will make and create just because they have to. And now, so will I.
I wanted to set up the change even before the new year is welcomed in. I wanted the river to begin flowing now, I’ve wasted enough time. So I’ve begun to dabble, explore and investigate new possibilities. Always with what the Buddhists call, ‘The beginners mind’.
So as we leave 2016 behind and allow the events and memories to be added to the cache of the collective experience, I say thank you to you wonderful readers and followers for listening to my rants and raves, to my highs and lows and providing me with a forum in which to share my experiences and insights.
New years are often a great opportunity for change.
How can you embrace a more authentic version of yourself in 2017? What new experiences can you try your hand at to help you to find your true self?
My wish for you in 2017 is that you rediscover and reconnect with your authentic inner magnificence. And to remember that we are all a glittering facet of a greater cosmic diamond, that Divine force that creates all there is.
Wishing for you a safe and happy holiday and many joy-filled blessings in the New Year.
Life is very interesting… in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths. Drew Barrymore
I’ve not posted for the past few weeks, due to a strained back muscle which made it hard to sit at my desk but that wasn’t the only reason. My usually overflowing pool of inspiration was empty, barren, devoid of a single drop of inspiration. Very unusual for me but there was a reason. It was the calm before the storm. This often happens just before “The big reveal”, a valuable lesson often hidden in a maelstrom.
This week’s lesson came courtesy of a couple of catch ups with wonderful friends whose company I enjoy and whom I greatly admire. I love listening to their stories of travel, of achievements at work and of their children and how they ride the ups and downs of life. Sounds pretty good you say, so where’s the problem? The problem was that once again, I felt awful because I felt I had little to share. Years of ongoing health issues disrupt careers, travel plans, adversely affect family life and as an unwanted bonus, can increase anxiety. Compared to most of my friends, I felt like a loser, especially when I allow my unconscious mind take hold of the reigns.
Those of you familiar with my posts are aware that I’m constantly doing an archeological dig in my mind. I hate feeling awful, inferior, shame, incompetent and it’s why I am constantly searching for hidden land mines in my mind and hoping I can disarm them before they blow up in my face. The little suckers are formed in childhood and so they are buried under tonnes of history and therefore hard to find.
So I wondered why I couldn’t allow myself to accept myself just as I am right now? And was my idea of who I am even accurate? Anyone who has suffered with long term physical health issues knows that it can turn your life upside down and yet, I continued to blame myself for getting sick in the first place. Ridiculous I know. I grew up with an anxious and constantly worried mother which deeply influenced my own thought processes. I know I got sick because of being overly worried and anxious and so I blamed myself, but I was unable to think any other way. So why couldn’t I just forgive my mother and myself, accept and just move on? Why couldn’t I find some compassion for us both?
Digging and delving into pain
Even though I’ve written about self-esteem before, like most sticky, messy beliefs, this one in particular, comes with many layers that need uncovering and healing. As long as there is pain and discomfort associated with a belief, there is still more digging to do.
With back pain as a great access point into a bit of self-pity and then into the self, I began to peel away the layers. I took a deep breath and said, “Ok, let’s go in boots and all. No holding back. Let’s feel the depth of this pain and see how far it goes. Let’s just wallow in it, completely cover ourselves in the muck and explore.
Here’s what I found. Firstly, I know that I feel inadequate around people who I believe are more intelligent than me and who seem to have their lives together. Despite hardships, which everyone faces, they seem to come out the other end wiser and just get on with their lives. I on the other hand, unknowingly suffered with anxiety since childhood and years of stress took their toll on my physical health which has never fully recovered.
So a) I felt like a loser because everyone else “seems” to cope with great difficulties but it doesn’t affect their health and then b) anxiety affected my memory and so because I struggle to remember a lot of information, I felt stupid. So as a result of getting sick I felt like a stupid loser. Great. Now that we’ve hit the cesspool at the bottom of this pit, where to now?
Well, I could either wallow in the muck and eventually drown, or find a way back up to the light. Not always easy, as my favourite Star Wars character, Yoda says, “Beware of the dark side. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…” Luke asks if the dark side is stronger. Yoda replies: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.” Despite the hurt, despite the pain, self-pity can be seductive. It gives us all the reasons in the universe to explain our failings, our lack of achievement. Easier to blame than heal.
Well, I’d had enough of pain, of self-pity and of seeing things from this distorted angle. The digging helped me realise that I’d created a ridiculous story based on false ideas. Firstly, I have completed post graduate study at university and before children, held a job that helped a great many people. My memory worked perfectly fine. Secondly, anyone who suffers with anxiety will know how debilitating it is both in mind and body. No one asks to be anxious. We sufferers will have inherited a genetic tendency from our parents, but importantly, many a happy child can become a hive of nerves if they are not raised with confident parents. Genetic tendencies will be amplified and once we are in fight or flight mode for long enough, we rewire our brains to be on red alert all the time.
Unearthing the truth
So, what my dig revealed was that I’d completely distorted my own perceptions of my life. What I thought was real, were warped truths. I’d turned a series of isolated events into the entire meaning of my existence. I blamed myself for something I lacked which could only come from my parents, a sense of self-worth and self-love. No blame here. My parents could not give me something they themselves didn’t have. And finally, anxiety can be running just under our radars, influencing all our decisions and behaviours, leaving us unaware until our lives start to derail and pain steps in. So when friends share their stories of adventures and good fortune, I’ll no longer feel sadness, envy or inadequate. Instead, I’ll share the joy in their achievements and also give thanks for mine. No matter how small they may seem, just getting through the day with the anxiety ball and chain around your ankle is sometimes the greatest accomplishment.
The skill in living a “good life” is in being able to identify the derailments as unconscious beliefs and that we have a blind train driver behind our locomotive. Rather than blame others, the weather or bad luck, if we can be brave enough to look closely, pain, sadness, depression are often signals alerting us that we may have to look within and only then, will we be able to steer our own lives down the right track.
If you know something isn’t working in your life, but you cannot see what is influencing your decisions, then seek out a counsellor or psychotherapist because we all need a little help sometimes. A fresh set of eyes can often help us see things differently and there is no greater gift than clarity, because it means that each insight brings us closer to our authentic selves.
Have you been able to use emotionally challenging events to grow in wisdom and understanding?
I always thought spiritual enlightenment sprung itself unannounced during long meditative retreats, drum beating workshops or arduous vision quests, but for me, it was the fluro-illuminated isles of a supermarket that lit the light of insight.
I used to hate supermarket shopping, the repetitiveness of it dulled my brain. While I love food, the thought of having to push a cold metal basket with directionally opposing wheels frustrated me, it seemed like a time waster, a chore and a bore. Something you just had to tolerate. One day, life gave my own trolley (body) a heavy push in the opposite direction to which I thought I was travelling. The push was a gift in the form of a sudden bout of very poor health, and with it, my view of supermarket shopping, and other similarly “mundane” tasks suddenly changed, they became highly coveted chores.
The Gift of Illness
How is being ill a gift? Because being sick for almost three months straight, helped me learn the art of appreciation. I know three months is nothing compared to the long-term illnesses faced by many, but it wasn’t the duration but the severity of the confinement that had me take notice. Bed and house ridden for weeks on end, I was unable to do more than sit up to sip soup and wait for the sun to set on what I thought was another empty, and completely wasted, precious day; where nothing was achieved other than being able to say I made it through another 24 hours.
It was during the darker moments, you know, home alone while the rest of the world buzzed away in never-ending hives of activity, that I had my own buzzy Aha! moment. I suddenly coveted those previously dull and repetitive activities like ironing, washing and yep, the once dreaded supermarket shopping.
Small achievements are important milestones
When getting out of bed is the greatest achievement of each day, a simple, previously annoying activity like supermarket shopping suddenly becomes a highly desired goal. A sign of progress, little signposts showing you’ve made it from bedroom, to lounge room, from indoors, to outdoors, from home, to shop. Progress, no matter how small, is progress.
Forget visualising sitting on a tropical beach eating coconuts, all I wanted was the familiarity of a visit to my local supermarket, a place where I could be “normal” and not that sick woman, hidden from the world. A place where I could smile at the friendly checkout staff, and know that when asked how my day was, I would reply with an overenthusiastic, “Brilliant!” and really, really mean it.
Suddenly, I felt joy at the prospect of gliding down each aisle, marvelling at the 20 plus varieties of crisps, or the ingenuousness of Banana flavoured milk, which contains only 1% banana and yet, can still be labelled Banana Milk. I would nod approvingly at the precision with which heavily laden shelves are stocked with the useful and the useless. I’d smile like an idiot at other robotic shoppers, carrying out the “dreaded chore”, but wanting to stop and say, “Hey, you should enjoy this because you don’t know how awful it is to have it taken away from you”. I’ve realised that to be able to do even the most mundane of chores really is a privilege.
So my first return visit to the supermarket called for some skipping past the pasta and a twirl into the table salt, ending with a backward twist and the skilful throw of a cereal box, landing smack in the middle of the trolley. OK, it landed in someone else’s trolley but the look of bemusement on the shopper’s face made it all worth while. At least, I’d awoken them temporarily from their dreary, repetitive chore. It made me realise that with appreciation, our everyday tasks, even the seemingly mundane, can be as precious as those more eventful moments in our lives. It’s all about perspective.
So what did I learn in the supermarket aisle of enlightenment? I learnt that a chore need no longer be a bore when you think you will do it no more! And finally, my advice is next time you go supermarket shopping, give thanks that you can, because there are so many people who simply can’t.