outward thrust of joy

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.

The Rainbow Cow

“The rainbow you see is different than the rainbow visible to all other observers, because an entirely different set of drops refracts and reflects the light in alignment for each observer’s eyes. The falling drops are only in position to perform this function for that very moment when they pass through that single ray of light. They continue to fall away, and other drops pass in place to refract and reflect light again. Falling rain suspends the rainbow in the sky for the short time that the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen and thus for this creative phenomenon to exist.  –Kyna Leski The Storm of Creativity

There are days when the whole world feels gray and close. Days when there seems to be precious little breathing space, and sunshine feels like a distant memory (even if it shone only yesterday). It was on one such day that, discouraged and disheartened, I stopped by a friend’s house for a glass of wine and a little companionship. When I arrived, sitting on the island in her kitchen was a coloring book page which had been carefully removed from the book. The pre-printed picture was the outline of a happy cow standing in a flower-strewn meadow. The cow had been colored, painstakingly, with thin-line markers in a rainbow pattern (heavy on green and orange sections).

As my friend poured me a generous helping of cabernet, I picked up the colored page and said, “Wow! Someone has been busy!”

At that moment, my friend’s five-year-old daughter Kate walked into the room, intent on some mission of her own. As she passed me she said, “I drew that for you,” and continued through the room and out the door on the other side.

“Thank you, peanut,” I called to her retreating back.

The rainbow cow picture now hangs on my refrigerator, and I thought of it immediately as I read the passage (quoted above) from Kyna Leski’s book on creativity. First, it struck me that every rainbow exists as a function of a particular observer being in that particular place at that particular moment. Leski asserts that this means every rainbow we observe is different from the same rainbow seen by someone else. I had thought that Kate’s rainbow cow was a little strange because of the preponderance of green and orange, but now I wonder if it might not be a reflection of Kate’s observational experience. Or it may be that, in translating her experience through her own artistic vision, a rainbow come alive in cowhide would naturally seem to be shaded in such a way. In any case, the one thing I am certain of is that only Kate would have produced this particular rainbow cow. We all know what rainbows look like, yet every one of us would express that collective understanding differently, due to our own alignment.

As I thought more about the passage from Leski’s book, I cast my mind back to the night Kate gave me the cow drawing. I remember sipping my wine and chatting about the day. Kate and her little sister, Anne, periodically interrupted the adult conversation with giggles or tears; there were hugs and tickles. Within me a change took place: I began to view the gray, sunless day through new eyes. From this new perspective, the hours appeared less uniform in their gray-ness. There had been bright spots and hopeful signs, which I had missed or dismissed before. I realized that a shift in perspective could completely change my view, and in turn could completely shift my experience. More importantly, I saw that such a shift was entirely within my own power. Take a step in any direction (including a mental step or shift) and it is possible to have a clearer, brighter, or simply different, view of things.

Leski goes on to say “the relationship of sun, rain, and observer are aligned for the transformation to happen”. In the margins of my book I wrote, “relationship makes transformation possible”. Certainly, on the night I received Kate’s rainbow cow drawing, relationship offered me that possibility – the opportunity to create a new mind-set as I looked at my day from a different angle. Being with people I loved, held in their positive regard and hospitality, I was able to feel myself renewed and the day/my world view transformed toward the positive. How many times in my life has it been true that relationship has made transformation possible? There are countless examples, from small ones (transforming a momentary mood from gray to sunny) to significant and memorable ones (transforming an unengaged life into a vibrantly engaged one).

In light of these ruminations, glancing at my refrigerator has become an opportunity to check in with myself. First, I remember that I am loved – and usually even the grayest of clouds lightens with that thought. Second, Kate’s rainbow cow reminds me that, not only is my vision of the world unique to me, but it is within my power to shift that unique vision when it isn’t serving me well. Third, it reminds me that relationship (with earth, others, Creator) makes transformation possible. This last may be most important of all if it serves as an impetus to allow my energies to flow both outward and inward. That exchange of energy is where transformation becomes possible. That exchange of energy is how rainbows, and rainbow cows, are made.

Renewable Energy: Tapping our Inner Resources

I continued to focus on my breath, exhaling forcefully then inhaling again without a pause. Inside, I began to feel a buzzing, humming sensation similar to standing next to an electrical generator. It began at my diaphragm and radiated upward. I could feel the energy expanding and filling my body, sending electricity through my arms and up through my chest, my neck, my head. My facial muscles began to twitch involuntarily, until suddenly there was a huge pulse of internal light and I felt as if the energy that had been building inside me had just burst forth. It leaked out through my pores, and shone in a beam of light out the the top of my head. 

At least that’s how I pictured it in my minds eye.

I felt radiant, expansive, and more than usually ALIVE. After a few minutes, I spoke quietly to my friend, Melissa, who was standing next to me. “Can you feel that?” I asked.

“Your energy field is about out to here,” she said, holding her hand roughly 16 inches in front of me. “I can see it.” Truthfully, I could feel her hand before I opened my eyes, even though it was more than a foot from my body. 

Last summer I volunteered to assist my friend, Melissa, who has been getting her certification as a facilitator in guided breath work. The experience described above was from our tenth and final session last week. What I’ve felt during these sessions has varied, but the best ones have led to similar high-voltage experiences.

It’s got me thinking a lot this week about energy: how we get it, how we make use of it, how we replenish it.

As a starting point, let’s consider that Albert Einstein said energy “cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form into another.” While Einstein’s words carry the weight of scientific genius, they remind me of another quote that I have seen attributed to various famous individuals: we can be miserable or we can be happy – the amount of work is the same. I take these statements, together, to mean that we are expending energy no matter what. Whether that energy is spent procrastinating, complaining, creating or exclaiming is up to us. It is all energy.

If energy can only be transformed, then a good place to start is with fear and love. Fear is an energy that makes us smaller, causes us to contract. It vibrates on one frequency. Love is an energy that enlarges us and our world, that helps us to expand beyond previous boundaries and expectations. Love vibrates on a different frequency than fear. It seems a fairly safe bet to say that connecting with what we love is more likely to produce positive energy, and positive results, than connecting with our fears.

In my experience, authentically engaging with others and with the world around me often leads to feelings of increased energy. Authentic engagement is a form of love energy. It calls for openness and vulnerability – you have to share some true part of yourself for this to come about. With others, this can mean lowering your defenses and/or pretenses. With the world, I believe this means being open to possibilities, allowing our guarded hearts to be cracked open by beauty or the ineffable. There is a quality of permeability that is called for. We have to be willing to let what is outside us touch us on the inside, as well as to allow our deep selves to come out of hiding.

For example, risking authenticity with others has recently led to offers of mentoring and support for my creative endeavors. It has also yielded the opportunity to brainstorm with a friend about a new business venture she is contemplating. Risking authenticity means I am now actively feeling that internal buzz that signals high energy frequencies. My creative juices are flowing and I can’t seem to find enough hours in the day to address all I want to accomplish.

Another important factor that allows our energy to be transformed into something powerful is the simple step of taking action. I would never berate wishful thinking, daydreaming, or hoping – I believe that spending time in these activities allows us to open up to new ways of seeing the world and to new possibilities. However, it can also lead to an energy build-up that, if we give way to procrastination or just move on with the mundane tasks of life rather than implement some portion of what we dream about, dissipates without transforming. Worse, habitually doing this leads to negative energy – we feel like failures who have wasted our time and our talents. Feeling this way adds to the inertia we were already fighting.

The opposite is true, though, if we begin to take action. If you’ve ever spent time dreaming or wishing you could conquer some obstacle, then taken even a small step toward resolving the problem, creating the solution, or achieving the goal you’ve seen it can lead to an incredible upsurge of positive energy. Suddenly, you find you’ve moved farther faster than you thought possible. That higher energy frequency you’ve attained is allowing you to experience what has been described as “flow”. Or, as motivational speaker Tony Robbins has said, “The higher your energy level, the more efficient your body. The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results.”

Now, I’ve been talking about the kind of energy that can be generated from within, from attuning your heart and your mind to things you love, things that you think of as positives. There is also the kid of energy that is generated by a healthy body – one that is fueled well with clean eating and good hydration, moves well due to exercise, and is rejuvenated by restful sleep. This kind of energy cannot be overrated in any way. However, that’s another post entirely!

In thinking about my expanding energy field during my last breath work session, it occurs to me that we all have energy reserves we may not be aware of – that these reserves are available for our use should we choose reach for them, and that they are inexhaustible. This doesn’t mean that if we begin to practice using them we will never feel our energies flagging (sometimes this happens for reasons beyond our control, such as illness). Instead, when we do feel our energies vibrating toward fear, procrastination, inaction, or isolation we have inner resources we can tap. All we need do is remember to engage with our love instead of our fear. That, and breathe.

 

Don’t Be Sucked Dry

storyteller

On my first trip to New Mexico, I discovered storyteller dolls. These pottery figurines represent storytellers surrounded by children (and occasionally other beings) who are literally hanging on the storyteller’s every word. Knowing nothing about the history of these pieces, and not bothering to ask at the time, I thought they were images of women with way too many children and pets to care for. In my mind, I equated them with the nursery rhyme of “The Old Woman in the Shoe” (after all, she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do).

This misunderstanding on my part led to a powerful dream not long after that trip. I dreamed that I was the woman depicted in the pottery. I was a giant, sitting in a featureless room naked (sorry, folks, dream imagery doesn’t follow our conventions). A long line of people, some of whom I recognized as friends or family members of my waking self, were waiting impatiently to breast feed. My breasts were bloated and painful, so full of milk that at first it was a relief that there were so many hungry mouths to feed. As the dream wore on, the milk kept pouring forth but I was dwindling. I became exhausted and emaciated. Yet the hungry kept coming to be fed.

When I woke from the dream, I immediately grasped its implications. At that point in my life, I felt like I was surrounded by people who were emotionally needy – friends, students, family. I tried to be nurturing toward them all. But I wasn’t finding ways to replenish the source of that energy, so while I continued to (figuratively) feed others, I was starving myself. And while I was pretty quick to understand the problem, solutions were in short supply. I had never been taught that there were limits to a person’s ability to nurture others. Scratch that – I was taught that one gave everything she had until it was gone. Then, depleted, she would self-isolate in a dark place until forced to return to the light. I didn’t want to perpetuate that cycle, but I had no tools for gently disengaging long enough to replenish my own energy. That, AND I lacked the basic understanding of reciprocity:  that I could expect to rely on others to nurture me sometimes, if need be.

Allow Others to Nurture YOU

I’ve been thinking about this idea of reciprocity between friends for two reasons. First, we don’t all have the same skills or personalities, so what we have to give won’t necessarily be an exact exchange for what we got. A friend told me recently that she isn’t much help to people having emotional crises. “I’m good at practical advice. I jump right to how we can fix it.” Yet, this same friend freely admitted to appreciating her friends who could be right there with her during emotional melt-downs.

Second, on the receiving end, we each have our own interpretation of the ways others relate to us. For example, an old friend of mine became concerned that he might have offended me when I didn’t respond to an email from him in what he considered a reasonable time frame. When I said no offense had been taken, he told me, “Email is my love language. When I don’t hear from someone I assume something is wrong.”

Regardless of the potential miscues and misunderstandings that result from individual differences, allowing ourselves to accept love, understanding and nurturing from others in the manner in which it is offered is important to maintaining your own reserves.

Watch out for cognitive distortions

Sometimes the way we think about what is taking place has as much (or more) to do with how depleted we feel as the actual energy being exerted. If you fall prey to any of these cognitive distortions, you are more likely to feel burnt out as a “caring other” than if you are able to maintain a distortion-free viewpoint:

  • Personalization: when you start to think that the issues at hand are all about you, rather than about the person you are attempting to care for, things can get crazy pretty quickly. With this distortion, you either feel you are responsible (blame yourself) for the other person’s issues OR you begin to experience the paranoia that your friend blames you. Tell yourself, “This isn’t about me.” Repeat as necessary.
  • Jumping to conclusions: if you decide, without deep listening or empathy, that you know what your friend is thinking, feeling, or is in need of, you will find yourself experiencing a great deal of frustration as you attempt to offer care or comfort. After all, they would feel better (be more successful, be happier, etc.) if they just listened to you, right?
  • Should-ing: How often have you felt you “should” be more available to a friend, even when you didn’t feel emotionally ready to do so? If you are overtired, overstretched, burnt out, stop should-ing on yourself. You’re already depleted, and likely to be less than helpful – perhaps even cross over into actively harmful instead.

Boundaries

You, too, can have personal boundaries my friends! Set parameters – especially if someone is so needy he or she has become an emotional vampire (“Come closer, I vant to suck up your energy!”). A little secret: we are all bad at setting boundaries – until we actually practice setting and keeping them.

Look for ways to fill YOURSELF back up

Sometimes, we get in the habit of looking to others to fill our emotional buckets. We not only allow them to nurture us, we demand that they be available to us for that purpose. But each of us has inner resources – even if we’ve gotten rusty at exercising them. Prayer, journalling, yoga, bike riding – any activity that puts you into a semi-meditative state is great for refilling your own decimated reserves. Be aware that, for most of us, a semi-comatose vegetative state in front of the television does not produce the desired results. Couching-it, while it has its uses, is not the same as actively reinvigorating our emotional and psychological energy.

For most of us, being available, helpful and generous toward those we love is second nature. We want to be there for them; we hope to be a positive light in their lives – especially on their darker days. We can’t do that if we have lost our own will to live and give – if we have allowed an endless parade of others (and their neediness) to suck us dry.

Ever since my original dream of myself as the breast-feeding storyteller who literally dried and shriveled up before my eyes, I’ve practiced re-imagining the story. In the updated version, I welcome all who wish to join me in a place of warmth and supportive energy. However, it isn’t a 24/7/365 feeding frenzy. I imagine myself posting a schedule: I say who, when, how much. Not because there is a finite amount of love or caring within me – but because my energy IS limited. When I offer support, I want to be TRULY present – it is, after all, the only real gift I have to offer others.