Growth Stories

Dharma: Bringing Forth What Is Within You 767 1024 Thayer Fox

Dharma: Bringing Forth What Is Within You

What is it that you can’t stop being? I’m not referring to your job, your to-do list or your identity as a parent or partner. What are you unconsciously doing or being as you go through your daily routine? What grabs your attention? When do you feel clear and charged like you downed an espresso? These clues will help reveal your Dharma.

Dharma is a central concept in Hinduism and Buddhism that does not have one translation. “The path” is the most accurate nutshell definition. The implication of dharma is that each person has a right way of living for them. Once you inhabit your true nature and align your life with a path of expression, the journey towards enlightenment begins. Don’t tune out because the word enlightenment feels too lofty, enlightenment in Buddhism just means awake. When we engage in our dharma, our heart awakens, transforming our experience of the world around us.

Years ago, after reading Stephen Cope’s, The Great Work of Your Life, I set an intention to notice what I couldn’t stop being every day. Stephen said to look closely at your childhood. What did you love doing? What characteristics stood out in your personality?

As a child, I loved reading and writing poetry. Under the covers with a flashlight, I whispered the poems of Yeats and Arnold late into the night. In 5thgrade my English teacher noticed my passion and asked me to stay after class. We started meeting regularly, and I shared my journals with her. The memory is vivid because it was my first experience of feeling seen by another person. Observing the “Buddha nature” in someone and reflecting it back to them is an act of love that can change a life.

Writing is now an expression of my dharma, but my dharma is not necessarily to be a writer. What drew me to poetry were the emotions that the writers boldly displayed. The courage in their vulnerability gave me access to my shut down heart. Something inside me desired to be brave and open too.

The next time I noticed a glimpse of a path was at a soup kitchen with my mother. I was twelve years old, so it was suggested that I stay in the kitchen and make cheese sandwiches. As soon as things got busy, I snuck into the dining hall and chatted with the men and women seated there. Moved by their rawness and transparency, something dormant inside me was activated.

Assuming that being of service or a volunteer is part of my dharma is too basic a translation of the soup kitchen memory. Making a difference for the men and women at the soup kitchen did flood me with light, but it was who they were that made that possible. The same as the poets. What reached out and grabbed me in both circumstances was the purity in the communication. It’s the same reason I love attending AA meetings fifteen years later. Alcohol hasn’t been an issue since my first year of sobriety, but I can’t get enough of the brave people there who share from their hearts. I feel blessed to be an alcoholic, so I have access to those church basements.

As a parent, understanding dharma is essential. My greatest responsibility is to notice what my children can’t stop being. Burying them in my dharma would eventually cause them grave pain. My daughter sings as she brushes her teeth in the morning and as she reads in bed at night. My son uses two boxes of aluminum foil to build a robot at 6:00am. It’s not my job to interpret what any of this means, but I can keep exposing them to opportunities that may reveal the next step in their journey. I highly recommend a book series that I love reading to my children called Ordinary People Change the World by Brad MeltzerEach book describes a dharma journey, and I’ve never made it through one without getting choked up with tears of awe.

A quote in the Bible sums up the importance of connecting with your dharma: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  The destruction referenced in this quote is rarely cataclysmic. Most people destroy themselves slowly over a lifetime by making small unconscious decisions that lead them farther and farther away from their truth.

Being disconnected from my Buddha nature for fifteen years almost killed me. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to stop drinking. Without alcohol, far from the right path, my experience of the world was excruciatingly empty. Even without an addiction, the world is a distracting place, and most people get lost or coached away from their dharma at an early age by well-intentioned mentors and peers who are not fully expressed themselves.

But it’s never too late. Ever. Finally, at forty-four, I feel peaceful and fulfilled, closer than I’ve ever been to a right way of living for me. On days that I’m impatient because I want it all figured out, I remind myself that dharma is not a destination, it’s a lifetime of becoming.

 

The Hallway: The Space Between the Comfortable and the Unknown 1024 1006 Thayer Fox

The Hallway: The Space Between the Comfortable and the Unknown

Have you gone through a period where you no longer fit comfortably into your life? The old routines, relationships and ways of thinking that used to yield results and fulfillment no longer work? You are confused because you are doing everything right. You feel alone because you don’t know how to describe what you are experiencing to loved ones around you who may take it personally. If any part of this resonates, then you are or have been in “the hallway”.

The hallway is long, and there are many doors. Some areas are not well lit. Whenever I enter it, my reaction is to exit immediately through the door which led me in, return to what is comfortable. But I have found that staying comfortable comes at a high cost to my soul. At best, comfortable is the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz.

Taking an inventory of your vices is a great way to determine if you choose comfort over growth regularly. Staying stagnant requires numbing agents because it goes against our ever-evolving nature. For years, I was engaged in a ferocious game of whack-a-mole, using different vices as anesthesia to numb my instincts. After I quit drinking, my smoking took on a new fury. Then I stopped smoking and picked up food. Obsessive exercising eventually replaced overeating. After injuring myself multiple times, I turned my focus to shopping/accumulating stuff. Simultaneously, I filled my schedule with social commitments that didn’t align with my core values. As a result, I often felt awkward and relied on gossip as a way to connect with my environment. And busy is a vice too, being busy ran my show for years.

Running out of vices was the best thing that ever happened to me. Without them, I couldn’t squeeze myself into a life I’d outgrown. I was tired of being Alice in Wonderland crammed into that house after she ate the cake.

Without vices, my pain and longing became acute.

The first time I entered the hallway was when I stopped drinking at age thirty. Not picking up a drink was the easiest part of getting sober. The struggle was waiting in the hallway between my old life and a new life that had yet to reveal itself.

One night, when I was around ten months sober, I went out to a group dinner at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. Some people at the table were friends, others acquaintances. I had been laying low, doing my best to avoid environments that could trigger me, but these dinners had been the bulk of my social life, and it was time to re-engage. After settling in, I was relieved that the wine on the table didn’t tempt me. But as the evening progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable. The music in the restaurant was loud, so it was impossible to carry on a conversation. Hot and crowded, the waiters bumped into my chair. No one at the table drank heavily, but they were buzzed, swaying and smiling.

I was bored, lonely and longing for something I couldn’t identify yet. I ate to quell my unease and ended up eating everything that I could get my hands on. The void  I felt was the same one I used to flood with alcohol. Food was less effective, but it did the job. Hazy and bloated, I excused myself as soon as the check was paid.

The next day I felt horrible, physically and emotionally. I called my AA sponsor and described my non-alcohol induced malaise. She laughed and told me I was suffering from an emotional hangover. Emotional hangovers occur after spending a lot of time vice free (this is the key part) in environments or with people who do not align with your core values or even worse, trigger old trauma. Symptoms of emotional hangovers include circular thinking, self-doubt, low energy/depression, and anxiety.

But what was I supposed to do? Those were my friends, and this was my life. Something must be wrong with me. That’s when my sponsor told me I was in the hallway. Naming my location made waiting in the unknown more bearable.

That wasn’t my last group dinner, I continued to return to old patterns, hoping that something would click into place. Nothing did. I became willing to try some of the other doors in the hallway. Placing myself in different environments was scary and exhilarating. I met new people inside each door. People who appeared strange at first, and now I can’t imagine my life without them. The more risks I took, the less attached and afraid I became.

I am in a hallway now, growing impatient and wanting to force results. But after many visits over the past fifteen years, I know that if I stay open and curious, the next phase of my life and development will be revealed.

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Look for the Heroes

Last week on Lexington Avenue I witnessed a new breed of hero.  I was walking with my ten-year-old daughter when we heard yelling behind us. We turned around to see a man in a suit cursing at three construction workers. He continued to yell profanities as he walked down the block towards us. One of the workmen, sick of his bravado, called his bluff. “Let’s go” he yelled, and the two men walked towards each other, fists up.

The workman grabbed the man by his suit collar and threw a punch. The man in the suit fell to the side, his ego hurt more than his jaw. He recovered quickly, ready for round two. One of the other workmen stepped in and shoved him hard down to the ground. People started gathering at the edges of the brawl, including a few strong-looking men, but no one intervened. I took my phone out, planning to film the fight if it escalated. My daughter’s safety was my priority so that was all I could think to do.

Then, bursting through the crowd of gawkers leaped a petite, twenty-something woman screaming “Cut it out!” She fearlessly placed herself between the three male bodies pumping with adrenaline. The man in the suit tried to dart around her and resume the fight. She shifted her stance to block him.  “Stop” she screamed again. It was awesome to behold. No one in the crowd moved to back her, but it didn’t matter, she had it under control.

I started crying as we walked away, the emotion catching me by surprise. “What are you crying about?” My daughter asked annoyed. I told her that I was crying with joy. In just a few moments, that feminine powerhouse gave me immense hope for the future.

We all love heroes. They inspire us to step up in our own lives. They make us feel the world is good and that we are safe. So why do we spend so much time focusing on the villains when what we focus on becomes our reality? When I look for the heroes, I expand into something mightier than the collection of opinions that form my identity. How much time do you spend looking for heroes?

The word hero traces back to Ancient Greece. Heroes in Greek mythology often had divine ancestry and were men and women of special strength, courage or ability. Many of the greatest Greek heroes were also deeply flawed. If your definition of a hero doesn’t allow for anything less than perfection, it’s no wonder everyone resembles a villain.

Most of us look up to the well-known biography worthy heroes. We forgive their flaws because they are dead.  My top two are Mother Teresa and Gandhi because they devoted their lives to causes greater than themselves. I once placed them on pedestals and stood paralyzed nearby in awe. Their contributions were too sizable to replicate in my mundane life as a mother. I believed that if I couldn’t move to Calcutta, my impact would always fall short of substantial. Once I awakened to the fact that we all share energy, all the time, I realized that anyone who strives to serve others with kindness and compassion is a hero, including me.

In New York City, I live near a small fire station. I pass by it on purpose when my schedule allows. Pausing across the street, I have watched the firemen work together to complete simple tasks like hoisting the flag or painting the façade. I have also seen them rushing to a fire, becoming one organism as they grab equipment and ready the truck. It’s bold and beautiful and easy to miss amidst the cacophonic New York City landscape. On the days I unhook from the endless stream of Thayer radio and get present to the lives of the men who are willing to rush into a burning building, something transformative happens. The awe-inspiring nature of their commitment shifts my thinking and my day.

So many of us are already heroes or heroes just waiting for an opportunity to rise. You can catch glimpses of heroes in small gestures. The kindness of a tattooed skateboarder who offered me his subway seat after I tripped in high heels, cracked my heart wide open the other day. And once you start to look for the heroes instead of the villains, you will realize that you are surrounded. It’s a beautiful feeling.

 

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Gratitude: The Best Meal To Serve Your Hungry Ghost

Gratitude is wishing for what you already have. For most of us, this doesn’t happen naturally. Good news is that our brains can be re-wired. Daily practice carves out neural pathways that will routinely lead us to fresh ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Grateful people are happy ones; there is nothing complicated about this equation.

Gratitude is a trendy word today. The star of self-help books and Ted talks, like the beautiful one given by David Steindl-Rast, gratitude’s power is undeniable. Gratitude challenges are prevalent on social media, people post lists for a period and then stop. Schools discuss ways to instill gratitude in children. Gratitude journals are sold at toy stores near the Uno cards.

The mass effort to bring gratitude to the forefront of our collective thinking is a positive step. But when something becomes familiar, we stop noticing it. It’s the reason we forget to wish for what we already have. The concept of gratitude has reached the tipping point of overuse, and people feel like they are cultivating gratitude by attending a lecture at their children’s school or highlighting paragraphs in a book. Engaging in a practice and understanding a concept are worlds apart.

For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t have an ounce of gratitude. Growing up in an environment that kept my fight and flight response activated, the hungry ghost was strong inside me. I craved and schemed to obtain what I wanted as quickly as I could get my hands on it. It was never enough. Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. There is no appreciation or relief in the world owes me mindset.

So how did I transform from an entitled wretch to someone who feels deeply grateful for my life? Slowly.

Gratitude has been a focus in the rooms of AA long before it surfaced in the mainstream. Fourteen and half years ago, after not drinking for ninety days, my sponsor told me that my thinking was now the source of my misery. She suggested that I email her a gratitude list every morning containing three items. I asked her how she expected me to be grateful sitting amidst the rubble of my life? With few people left, no job, depressed and over-weight, making a gratitude list felt like a cruel request.

When I would call my sponsor to complain that I had nothing to put down on my list, she would calmly ask me, “Did you have a bed to sleep in last night? A warm meal for dinner? A roof over your head?” Annoyed that she would suggest these necessities for my list, I was desperate to feel differently, so I did what she said.

For the next few years, I made gratitude lists daily. The lists became effortless as my life grew. They still included simple things like a great yoga class, walks around the reservoir in Central Park, a delicious meal at City Bakery, and a job that paid my bills. On challenging days, I would put down the three items that my sponsor mentioned when I started the practice. I didn’t just scribble them down anymore, I sat with each one, finally understanding that they weren’t as elementary as I initially believed. They were and still are enormous blessings.

My baseline well-being shifted with my thinking. There is always something right in front of me to be grateful for, it just requires a shift in perspective. I no longer write lists, but I end my two daily meditations by saying thank you for whatever blessings I am present to at that moment. What I focus on is my choice and choosing to focus on the abundance in my life always improves my mindset.

 

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In My Quest for Meaning I Discovered the Power of Lipstick

In the name of growth, I have listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and workshop leaders and I have read countless books, articles, and course material. A month ago, during a walk in the Maine woods, I stopped abruptly in the middle of a Tim Ferriss podcast. I couldn’t absorb another word from well-intentioned people spinning verbose webs to claim a corner of the rapidly expanding personal development business. When something becomes an industry, even when the origin is pure, a land grab becomes the inevitable next step. We race each other up hills as children and continue to do so in more sophisticated ways as adults.

Two questions emerged as I finished my walk in silence: What is true? How do I stay close to what is true? I have been sitting with these questions the past few weeks.

There are two things I know: when I am in the presence of purity, and that to stay close to the truth inside me, I must find time to sit quietly throughout my day and allow the layers I continuously accumulate to peel away. During periods of simplicity and silence, what’s needed for the next step of my journey surfaces. If I am attached to a fixed set of circumstances in my life, the process is not easy or comfortable. Inflexible thinking weighs more than armor.

After reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I understood what it is I crave, now, and throughout my entire life, it’s the same thing you crave: meaning. During Viktor’s time at Auschwitz, as everything was ripped away, he became acutely aware of his insatiable desire to find meaning. An Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor observed a pattern in the men who refused to get out of bed or eat their daily ration one day with no explanation. What appeared as a random decision was, in fact, the result of a much deeper one. The men had lost or abandoned the meaning that had been motivating them to carry on in excruciating circumstances. All of these men died within twenty-four hours, long before much sicker men surrounding them.

In Viktor’s words, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Locate meaning and find your reason to embrace your existence, no matter what happens.

Meaning in our culture has become a singular objective. I bought into the “find your purpose” conversation for years and the pressure it created only added to my discontentment. Viktor had a different point of view: “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Creating meaning, moment to moment, day by day, is an attainable aim for all of us.

Certain sounding people delivering concepts packaged as researched data spin me in circles. My honest quest for meaning can devolve into a striving for significance in minutes. Creating pockets of peace every day is essential so I can stay close to my intention. In these lulls, my meaning is obvious.

Last week, I listened to my first podcast, since that moment in the woods. It was Oprah interviewing Zainab Salbi on her Super Soul podcast. Zainab is the founder of Women for Women International, and her work is astounding. But it wasn’t her contributions that captured my listening, it was her beautiful, true soul. She spoke with freedom and love that carried me to my own truth.

Later that day I saw three twenty-something-year-old girls walking down the sidewalk near my New York City apartment. They were wearing bright lipstick and walking confidently in high heels. Instead of thinking my usual thought, one day they will know that nothing you put on will make you happy for long, I thought about an epiphany Zainab had when she started working in war-torn countries to advocate for women.

During the Seige of Sarajevo, women in Bosnia asked Zainab to bring them lipstick. Zainab assumed that they would be desperate for vitamins or some other necessity. Surprised by their response, she asked why? Their answer changed her thinking forever. “It’s the smallest thing we put on every day, and we feel beautiful, and that’s how we are resisting. They want us to feel that we are dead. They want us to feel that we are ugly.”

After that conversation, Zainab let go of her judgments and assumptions about what women she sought to help needed. She understood that paths to joy and freedom are as diverse as human beings themselves.

The girls I passed may have found a deeper meaning in their lipstick and high heels than I find there. Someone else’s meaning is not ours to know or judge. The only way to help loved ones find meaning is by fully inhabiting our own. When we do this, we give people the courage to unzip an outdated identity and connect with their true nature.

 

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Transcendental Meditation Is Not as Boring as It Sounds

Do you meditate regularly? If so or if not, are you sick of hearing about meditation? That makes two of us. Listening to anyone describe their meditation practice is on the same level of tedium as someone telling you about their dream. But meditation is an essential habit in my life that produces results. This post is about how I went from being a New Yorker brain NEVER meditator to someone with a forty minute a day Transcendental Meditation practice.

Similar to my belief in God, meditation is my own thing, I don’t need anyone to support or understand it. What you get out of meditation may be different than what I do, and if you practice it regularly, you will get something, guaranteed. As promised, I won’t wax poetic about my profound meditative experiences, but I strongly suggest that you read David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. It’s easy to digest and will get you excited.

For twelve years I listened to people discuss their meditation practice at AA meetings. Meditation is part of the 11thStep in the 12 Step program. If you take on recovery the way the founder of AA, Bill Wilson intended, you will come face to face with it at some point. Some people listen to the Headspace app, others have cushions, some meditate on a subway for five minutes during their morning commute. I used to pretend that my park walks counted as walking meditation but after learning TM, I feel the difference.

I am an all or nothing gal which leads to my main reason for signing up to learn Transcendental Meditation: I do well in structure. The four-day course is designed as a springboard to help you create a new habit in a supportive environment. It’s not free, and after plunking down the fee, you feel obliged to see it through.

Pain has always been my greatest motivator, so I signed up for a TM introductory course in the Fall of 2016 after a rough summer with my son.  If you read my previous post about Expansion and Survival Mode, then you know that I experienced post-traumatic something after he had an accident as a four-year-old.

Up in Maine, a year after the doctors declared my son recovered, he cartwheeled down a narrow stairwell while running. I lost it. Thankfully the area was carpeted, and after five hours spent in the ER for observation, the doctors said we could head home. My son barely had a bruise on him, but I wept for days. I use the word wept on purpose because it wasn’t conventional crying, it was frenetic trapped energy passing through me in the form of non-stop tears. My hands shook, and I could barely sleep. Jolted awake periodically by visions of my son rolling out of bed, I started checking on him throughout the night and lining his floors with pillows at 3am. Sleep had been a “thing” before my son’s accident, but this was drastic.

Whatever mental and emotional flooring I had installed that past year fell out from under me. I knew I wasn’t my old self, but I had no idea that I was on the verge of a breakdown. Friends and family asked me if I was getting help in impatient tones. Their empathy had long expired. My husband was the only one concerned. We are both stoic creatures, and he knew my behaviors were far outside my baseline character.

A week later, on a playdate with a new mother friend, I opened up and explained why I couldn’t focus on a conversation with her while watching my son fly around the yard with her boys. She asked me if I had ever heard of Transcendental Meditation and suggested I check it out when I returned to New York in the Fall.

A month later, I was seated in a comfortable chair at one of the centers on Madison Avenue. The instructors are out of central casting, talking slowly in soothing tones and I felt like I was in a meditation documentary. To my relief, I didn’t have to sit in the dreaded lotus position, or even entirely still. This has been a past meditation deal breaker for me. You are allowed to wiggle your feet, stretch your arms, and do whatever movement comes naturally to you while you are meditating. In TM, you are given a “mantra”, a meaningless word that produces a sound that helps your mind focus and settle. Your word is your secret, I have never told anyone my mantra.

Overall, the course was simple and relaxing. I did not experience any WOW moments like I had in other workshops but I was intrigued by the data. Nonetheless, after investing the time and money, I took on my new practice wholeheartedly. After a few months, I noticed that I wasn’t as reactive and that doomsday scenarios weren’t domineering my headspace. Navigating daily life felt less weighty, which freed me up to enjoy it more.

Some days I feel like I am fake meditating, using my mantra as a hammer to break up the chatter in my head. Other days I fall asleep in the first few minutes. Occasionally, I sink into a boundless space where my mantra disappears, and I experience a chill that runs up and down my spine. In my assessment, these are the days that I am meditating correctly but my TM teacher Donna said that they all count just the same.

When people ask how Transcendental Meditation differs from other forms of meditation, I don’t have an answer. Whatever works for you regularly is the right form of meditation. For me, TM’s structure and group aspect were essential in getting started and developing a sustainable habit. Included in the initial TM course fee is a lifetime membership to all TM facilities so you can go to group meditation events, lectures and one on one check-ins if you feel frustrated or need the extra support.

I love my mantra. The random word comforts me. I reach for it when my nervous system gets overloaded. If I wake up at 2am with a ticker tape of thoughts, my mantra puts me back to sleep. At the risk of sounding corny, it’s gives me access to a safe place inside myself that I never knew existed. That alone is worth it.

 

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Expansion or Survival Mode: Where Are You Located?

Do you experience stretches of time when your brain feels like an old English manor filled with dozens of doors leading to unexplored rooms? Other times, does your brain feel like a cramped studio apartment? And like a Twilight Zone episode, you can be transported from the manor house to the studio in minutes? You can also spend years in the studio due to one traumatic event.

After my son fractured his skull three years ago, I spent two years in survival mode. Once the initial triage period spent focusing on my son’s recovery ended, I realized that the landscape of my brain was different. Assuming that my head would heal with my son’s, I sunk to a new depth when the doctor announced, “he can officially resume all normal 4-year-old activities” and all I felt was a claustrophobic dread.

When I am frustrated or threatened, my default setting is to use force so I picked up every heavy object I could find and banged it against the studio walls, trying to create an exit. When this didn’t yield any results, I reached for my AA tools. Surely I could coach myself out of this space after so many years of personal development work. This approach failed too because I still lacked acceptance.

Finally, a year later, I surrendered and saw a trauma specialist after reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. This book is easy to digest and should be on a universal required reading list. After a traumatic event, there is no returning to an old way of existing, the trauma must be integrated. If it isn’t, we subconsciously customize our life around it or numb out with the vice of our choice.

I was instructed to give up my warrior way and simplify my life so my brain could relax. Taking a break from triggers like crowded playgrounds was required so my brain could settle. Growth wasn’t possible if I was always cycling through some stage of recovery.  I started to read fiction again, upped my AA meetings, drank tea, walked daily and consciously reframed the way I spoke about my son’s accident. Internally and externally, I had said “the time my son almost died” hundreds of times. Trauma cannot be healed by talk therapy, retelling the dramatic version of the story creates deeper brain grooves, not relief.

I started meditating which was a never for a New Yorker like me. Desperate, I took a friend’s suggestion and signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. I will write a thorough article about that experience next because the subject warrants more than one sentence. Slowly, something started shifting, and some days I was able to stop by the manor for an hour or two.

It doesn’t take a traumatic event like my son’s accident to activate our reptilian brains. They can switch over into survival mode at any time, registering small events as significant threats. Our amygdala’s get hijacked regularly by everyday occurrences. My children press all my buttons and by 8 am some mornings, I am already seated smack in the middle of the studio. Other days I am there due to a bad night’s sleep or an argument with my husband. What makes the difference is re-orienting myself as quickly as possible.

By identifying my location regularly, I can usually avoid prolonged periods in survival mode. Because my thinking is curtailed in the studio, delaying decision making as much as possible and scaling back on potentially triggering activities ensures that I don’t unknowingly extend my lease. Once I settle into the cozy simplicity of the studio, my journey back to the manor can begin.

I love feeling expansive and long to inhabit my manor house brain always. I have to watch my tendency to feel entitled to permanent residency due to my optimal routine and habits. Shouldn’t daily meditation, exercise, healthy diet, and service work provide consistent access? Doing these things regularly guarantee that I will one day return, but it’s a day by day invitation. Time in the manor house is a gift that I can never take for granted.

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Thank You Negative: My Version of a Super Positive Post

Do you find the word positive vague like I do? Does it make you feel like you are falling short of some golden state of being? “Stay positive”, “try to be more positive”, “practice positive thinking”. There is something unobtainable about the word positive when it is used alone. Are there people who wake up smiling and sip herbal tea instead of coffee because their natural enthusiasm for life takes over when their feet hit the ground? Do they speak in calm tones to their whining children and get ready for work while brainstorming ways that they can be of service in the world? God bless anyone who is wired like this, but for me staying positive is grueling work at times.

I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot control my first thought about a person or situation. My default setting has improved over the years, and it’s still short of something resembling positive. When I am centered, I am able to recognize my warped thought and construct a second thought with a broader perspective. I don’t have to curl up next to that first thought and share a meal. Being positive is about reshaping my thoughts to serve me and everyone around me. The way to gauge if this is working is by tracking my progress and mental state. Positivity feels good and moves me forward, negativity feels cruddy and keeps me stuck.

The other night at dinner, my husband told me that I should write a post that focuses solely on the positive. My mental reaction was composed of three rapid-fire thoughts: aren’t my posts already positive? Do readers think I am negative? It’s annoying that he is saying this at a relaxing Saturday night dinner date. Before I could verbally respond, he continued that I often illustrate my positive points with negative examples so why don’t I try using a positive to support a positive. The pressure in this equation almost made me gag on my beet salad.

Now it’s Sunday morning, and I am seated on our porch in Maine with my coffee and laptop. It’s a glorious day with birds singing and sunlight gently filtering through leaves stretched out above me; the kind of day I feel lucky to be alive. My husband just left with the kids for a long bike ride so I can have time alone. All is right with the world; perfect timing for my super positive post. I am going to milk this space for everything it’s got.

Scanning my brain for a shiny topic, the minutes start ticking by. I never write with an agenda like this, I just expand on whatever shows up. As I stare at the blank Word page, the pressure from the night before returns, collapsing the magical moment with its weight.

What’s wrong with me? Why is it a struggle to tap out a purely positive article when I feel so good? I am no longer on the porch, I am in my head, flailing around like a fish on a dock. How did I get here? With that thought, I return to the porch. Present again, it dawns on me that the reason I am able to recognize and appreciate the beauty I mentioned earlier, is due to the years I spent shackled to a cement block at the bottom of the sea. A sunny day couldn’t reach me there; I had forgotten they even existed.

True positive is identified by contrast. The bad stuff, what we interpret as the negative experiences in life, pave the road that leads us to the magical moments. I wouldn’t value the stillness this morning, had I not listened to my children arguing over breakfast. I wouldn’t appreciate my Yeti of bulletproof coffee if I didn’t go without it for a few days due to a broken blender. I wouldn’t be looking forward to a hike with a friend tomorrow who shares from her heart if I didn’t have friends who are guarded.

Then if I raise the microscope lens a bit higher, I can see that the negative has given me this porch at this rental house. The value I place on my husband and children, even when they drive me nuts and I dream about buying a one-way ticket to Africa, is due to years spent in the isolation of despair. Human connection is the most precious resource to me.

When I reference stories in my past, about my childhood or addiction, I do not hold them as negative, but I understand how they could be filtered this way. I am so happy that it all unfolded exactly the way it did, every ugly detail because I don’t want any other life than the one I am sitting in the middle of right now.

Trying to curate what happens to you day in and day out is not only exhausting but dangerous. When we shun our dark sides, we will eventually walk off a cliff; imbalances in nature always right themselves. The positive rapidly mutates into the negative when we use it to flog ourselves like I started doing this morning or make other people wrong. I am not suggesting that you speak to your cousin every morning who has been complaining about her marriage for two years. Consistently exposing yourself to negative vibrations will affect your thinking. But it doesn’t mean that you are better than she is because you’re positive. If you follow the energy forward, what doesn’t serve you will fall away. You won’t need to cut people out, the world will start organizing around your frequency.

My husband’s feedback is always valuable to me and what he said gave me this awareness. I no longer see the negative and positive as individual categories, they are ballroom dance partners who move as one entity. My work is to stay present to the dance.

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How to be Terribly Imperfect and Get Started Anyway

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us.” Steven Pressfield

Is there something you want to do but you don’t feel ready yet? Maybe in a year? Maybe another class or degree will prepare you? If that’s your current thought process than Resistance has you in a headlock. I learned about the force of Resistance in a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Two friends gifted me this work of genius within a few months of each other, so I finally sat down and read it. After reading it a second time, I decided to buy it on Audible to listen whenever I lose my luster, which happens a few times a month.

Resistance kept me from writing for twenty years. The War of Art taught me that an enemy identified, can be overcome. If there is anything that you dream about bringing into the world than I suggest you buy this book today.

For years my coach, Jeff, told me to start a blog. “Not my thing”, I always responded. “Blogs are for millennials or vanity projects for bad writers with hidden fame agendas.” On my birthday this past January, Jeff set up a rough Word Press site to house my writing. I had taken a writing class in the Fall and was enjoying it again. Since no one knew the site was there, I viewed it as an online journal. Based on past experience, I knew that working in a closed loop with selective feedback was imperative. Random feedback early in a creative process is never useful, per my article from last week.

After starting the unofficial blog, I began to realize that I would never be ready and that training happens on the court as I handle the ball. Action awakens magic, which then creates better next steps than I could’ve ever premeditatedly plotted out. Action, however, does not silence the voice in my head for long. Many believe that the goal of meditation and mindfulness is to quiet that voice. Not getting sucked into what the voice says is critical, but if you succeed in silencing it for long stretches of time than you are way too comfortable. The more risks I take, the more my upstairs tenant yaps away.

When I officially launched the blog, every new post registered as an embarrassment. Until one day after hitting publish, the fear of what people thought of me didn’t enter my mind. I was finally bulletproof. In the War of Art Book 2, Steven calls this “turning pro”. Now, I not only embrace the value of doing something that makes me cringe, but I seek it out. Placing myself in situations that stretch me is Miracle-Gro.

Because I never had a clear intention to launch a blog, I didn’t research the blog world extensively until after I got started. Positive feedback from friends and family confirmed transmission of my Why and gave me the courage I needed to do research that could trigger “compare and despair.”

I was already making some critical errors. I was not writing in standard blog format or using titles that were favored in Google searches.  All the tips and tricks to receive Google and social media love made my head spin. Posting selfies of me blending my morning coffee was not an option, but my scrappy side said that I could walk a line between my mission statement and selling my soul. I contemplated hiring Instagram and Blog marketing specialists; rigging results in this field are not hard if you pay up.

Book 3 of The War of Art, Beyond Resistance/The Higher Realm made the next step of my journey clear. Steven talks about the importance of knowing your territory and the difference between territorial and hierarchical living. I know that creating authentic value for my reader by sharing openly is my territory. I love giving away everything I learn in the form of articles. Tailoring my posts for short attention spans seeking instant gratification would get me worldly (hierarchical) results and maybe a temporary buzz but inauthenticity never leads to long-term fulfillment.

Once I staked out my territory, the concept of success became malleable. I never knew that I could create my own metric, I thought there was one set of standards, and according to those I win or lose. I decided that being the recipient of three emails a week from people who got value out of something I wrote would be my unit of measurement. Create your own definition for success and getting started won’t carry the weight it does in your head. Why are you borrowing a standard made up by someone else who may have entirely different values?

Since starting this blog I have gone through a few phases- excited, inspired, disgusted by the positivity I pass along. Many days I am a hostage of my perfectionism and judgment. Some days I feel like a fraud. After a fight with my daughter, it crosses my mind that there are areas of my life that are incongruent with what I write about, maybe I need to stop writing until I handle them. What I do in spite of all the internal and external feedback, is write. Writing no matter what is my only rule. I have the mission of the blog posted by the computer to stay on track because how I hold what I am doing changes daily with my mood and sleep patterns.

Getting started is about picking up all your broken parts, throwing them into a backpack and moving forward. Be terribly imperfect and start anyway.

 

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Feedback: Who You Listen to Is Just as Important as Who You Ignore

Over the past year, feedback has played a critical role in my growth. Seeking feedback has been a system of mine since I stopped drinking. So why did it take thirteen years for me to see any results? A glitch was sabotaging my feedback system. I was jogging 5 miles a day and eating an extra-large fat-free/high sugar frozen yogurt covered in rainbow sprinkles for dinner wondering why I couldn’t shake the extra few pounds. One blind spot can derail an entire system. Feedback is either a tsunami wiping out miles of beach or rocket fuel that can blast you to the moon, there is no in between.

After thirty years of doing things my way and ending up with a suicide note in my side table drawer, I became open to feedback. This was my first experience taking advice. Without alcohol as anesthesia, I was swallowed by the pain of poor choices and unprocessed emotions. A flesh container filled with impulses and fears, it was amazing that I had survived for thirty years without listening to anyone. Desperation gave me the willingness to try a different way. As the AA old timers say, I took the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth.

My life grew exponentially as I followed suggestions from my sponsor and other sober women from AA. I met my husband, we had our daughter, bought an apartment, settled into the American Dream. A year after the birth of my son, my ego started whispering, “we can take it from here.” It’s easy to locate the periods in my life when I allowed this thought to be my driver; dragging myself out of a burning vehicle is always the next scene in the movie. Eight years sober, with every box checked I hit a spiritual bottom.

With pain as my motivator, I returned to AA and started working with Jeff. Yes, is a gift of willingness and I started saying yes again to whatever was suggested. The feedback system was successfully re-instated; I began to feel better.

Widening the feedback circle with my expansion, I noticed how a casual comment could deflate me. Negative or careless feedback can destroy an embryonic idea in a sentence. Yet, I kept bringing dreams to intelligent people with clipped wings and walked away believing that flight was not an option. Unaware of my blind spot in this pattern, I thought I needed to keep working on becoming a better me who would produce better ideas.

Rarely did I strategically select the source of feedback because unbeknownst to me, information wasn’t my objective, I was looking for approval and love. Proximity also made a lot of my decisions. It was easy to be lazy with a ton of well-educated friends who will give me thirty minutes of their day. I would share whatever idea was percolating with whoever was next up on my calendar. A stopped clock is right twice a day, so sometimes I got lucky.

At the two Tony Robbins events, I attended this past year, my blind spot was uncloaked. First, I had to separate love and approval from my feedback loop. Next, I had to get clear on what I wanted to accomplish. If you want useful answers, then you need to carefully construct your questions. Then I had to look at how I selected a feedback source. Tony says that mastery is doing something every day, taking a course or reading a book doesn’t make you a master of anything. The key to feedback is finding someone who is living and breathing the topic, so it is integrated into their bloodstream and not an extraneous subject they study. For example, seeing a shrink who is single to discuss your marriage because she has a degree from Columbia on her wall is the wrong determining factor. Going to a friend who still giggles and holds hands with her husband fifteen years later will always yield superior results.

The other day on a plane, I was able to help someone who was struggling with addiction. I know I have a black belt in this area, so I spoke up confidently when the young man across the aisle asked me if I thought he drank too much. I also know when to keep my mouth shut or recommend another feedback source. If I am giving boardroom advice based on Adam Grant’s brilliant presentation philosophy in The Originals, the only thing you should consider is purchasing the book. I haven’t given a business presentation for over fifteen years. Yesterday’s work doesn’t qualify when considering a feedback source.

If you choose to casually share a new endeavor with a friend or colleague, be prepared for unsolicited feedback. Knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is an essential skill. Always ask yourself before the wind leaves your sails “Is this person qualified to give me feedback in this area? Better yet, be conscious about what you share with whom. Just because someone is a good colleague or mother friend doesn’t mean they will understand your creative vision.

Positive people who always agree with every word you say are great fuel sources, but they aren’t ideal for feedback either. If your heart rate hasn’t picked up when you request feedback, then you are playing it safe. I showed three people preliminary blog posts before starting The Growth Project: one person for quality, another person for content and then my husband who I can count on to say it all. Building a site without this due diligence would have been wasteful if all three of them declared that my articles didn’t align with my mission.

Here is my Feedback hit list as a take away:

  1. Feedback is critical, but who you choose to receive it from more so.
  2. Don’t default to the easily accessible. Your smart and available friend who attended Princeton twenty years ago isn’t qualified to coach you in many areas. Doing extra research and finding the six degrees of separation source is worth the effort.
  3. Ask yourself before approaching any source “Why are you qualified to give me feedback on X.” The answer should be as evident as the color of the sky.
  4. If you find yourself a recipient of unsolicited feedback, don’t mistake certainty for sage wisdom. Knowing what to ignore is just as important as your great idea.
  5. Feedback is only valuable if you implement it. Don’t waste people’s time unless you are ready to go the distance.