Letting Go of Certainty

15 12 2016

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 





Love Yourself?

23 06 2016

Last summer, while visiting my brother in Chicago, I insisted he stop the car so I could take a photo of a yoga studio. Not because it looked particularly different from any of the other store-fronts or even yoga studios we had already passed. I wanted to take a photo of its name: Self-Centered Yoga. I wondered what the focus of this particular yoga studio was: Centering the self? Centered on the self? Selfishly self-referenced? It struck me as funny, and I wondered if the owners were knowingly playing on the irony of the name – that to many people who don’t practice yoga, those who do are entirely too self-centered.

I share this story to illustrate my own ambivalence about the topic of loving oneself. Maybe being self-centered has gotten a bad rap? How and how much are we meant to love ourselves?

Even the bible presupposes self-love: the second of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31) tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself”. We get ample instruction in loving our neighbors throughout our childhoods – share, be nice, “stupid” is a bad word…but very little information is forthcoming about exactly how we are to love ourselves.

A couple of months ago, a friend shared with me that she was responsible for chauffering a speaker for the day, and that he had been very inspiring. She sent a link to his Ted Talk, and I watched it. In telling his own inspiring story as a survivor of trauma, he shared that one of the most powerful things he’d done to bring about change in his own life was to love himself; to believe he is both loved and worthy of love. Looking himself in the eyes in a mirror, he tells himself he is loved.  (Here is the link to Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s powerful Ted talk: https://youtu.be/K_WL5iqvPlY)

A few weeks ago, someone I admire told a story about how using an affirmation of self-love has improved her energy, her relationship with her husband, and her ability to focus on her life goals. I admit, while I kept my skepticism to myself, I was doubtful. This story wasn’t about a healing response to trauma – it was about a young woman trying to live her best life. Hmmm.

I am currently reading a book which suggests ways we can make changes in our lives to live more in line with who and what we want to be. Every chapter ends with a list of “practical” steps or tools to take to accomplish this. Every list ends with “Love Yourself”. It took me several chapters to pick up on this, but then I went back and checked. Yep, every chapter ends with the exhortation. Love yourself.

And then last week I saw the video I shared at the top of this post. I was very moved, seeing this girl’s emotion upon realizing that the doll looks like her. She hugs it to her tightly and says, “I love you.” This simple phrase speaks volumes: you look like me and I love you; I need to believe AND express that I am loveable.

When the same message is repeated over and over again, and directed toward me (as opposed to being a repetitive cultural refrain or social media meme), I think it is important to pay attention. So, what am I supposed to be taking away from this particular thread in my life, popping up repeatedly and insistently over the last eight weeks?

Success coach and author, Jen Sincero (I’d like to take her name as my alter-ego!), says:

“We’re born knowing how to trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hair-dos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back. Then, as we grow and learn from the people around us, we replace many of these primal understandings with negative false beliefs, fear, shame and self-doubt…And while there are countless ways that we rip ourselves off, there’s one way in particular that is, without a doubt, the most rampant and the most devastating of all: we invest everything we’ve got in believing that we’re not good enough. We arrive here as perfect little bundles of joy and then set about the task of learning to un-love ourselves!”   (from You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life)

Fear. Shame. Self-doubt. If I am honest with myself, I’ve invested significantly more of my personal capital in these three than in self love. It is undoubtedly true that this has been to my own detriment, as it keeps me from taking risks, from moving forward with confidence, etc. More important, what I am beginning to understand is that it has also been detrimental to the world I live in and am helping to co-create. Fear, shame and self-doubt cause me to respond to the world by closing in on myself, shielding myself from the prying eyes of criticism or ridicule for being the loser-failure I think I might be. And that closing in (those months of binge-watching “Castle” reruns, the 750+ games of “Monkey Wrench” word search, the daily hours of retweets about politics) keeps me focused on anything BUT impacting the world by sharing my unique gifts and best self. And if I am truthful, harshly judging myself leads me to be much more judgmental about other folks. I want to start labeling them: idiot, moron, baby, coward.

Frankly, I am not afraid of becoming a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, trumpeting statements like “I have a great mind, one of the best minds”. I don’t have that in me. But “imagine,” says Jen Sincero, “how different your reality would be (and the reality of everyone surrounding you) if you woke up every morning certain of your own lovability and your critically important role on this planet.” That might be a reality very worth investing in.

 





Hope in Darkness

3 12 2015

IMG_1444

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” — Brene Brown

Every year in this season leading toward Christmas, when the days grow shorter and the nights exponentially longer, I think about darkness. Usually, I am thinking about the literal darkness that greets me in the morning and also accompanies me as I leave work at the end of the day. The mere lack of sunshine is enough darkness to provide fodder for spiritual reflection. Usually, I welcome these “dark days” as an opportunity to pause, to think about darkness as a metaphor, to remember that although light is what we typically strive for, we need to acknowledge – even accept – our dark places as well.

This year feels different. The news is filled with stories of our “dark side” as a human family – from Syria to Paris to Minneapolis and Chicago, from Colorado Springs to San Bernadino – our blood pools in the streets and our anger rages out of control.  Compounding that, it is full-blown election season in Iowa and we are bombarded with political squabbling of dubious gravitas and there is nowhere to hide.  This is the year of Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy – at best – appears to be “lie, bluster, name call, repeat”.

This December, my experience of darkness is not about seasonal metaphor. It is more palpable, more pressing – certainly considerably more DE-pressing – than typical. Despite the fact that I am far from the front lines on any of these issues (except the barrage of political rhetoric), my spirit is buffeted by the waves of ill-will, argumentation, hatred.

Where do I (we) find hope in this season of darkness? Does light exist, even in those moments when it is hardest to see?

Barbara Kingsolver says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  In other words, hope isn’t something you have, it is something you do (like love, like faith). In this sense, finding hope begins by looking within.

What do I hope for? I hope that love and right and reason and civilization win, in the end. I hope that peace reigns in both our hearts and in our world. I hope that, when difficult choices are presented to me by the darkness of our human failings, my actions will bring light instead of an increase of the dark.

But how do I “live right in it, under its roof”, once I’ve identified what I hope for?

I suspect the answer is deceptively simple; easy to conceive of but hard to do. For example, one day a couple of weeks ago, in the heat of Minneapolis protests over the death of Jamar Clark, I read that a woman I’ve admired for several years, Lisa Bender, stepped between a police officer’s gun and a protester. “I’m a council member. If you want to shoot someone, shoot me,” she said.  I’ve seen enough movies, read enough stirring novels of courage, to imagine taking such a step as a noble gesture. But in real life, that step had to cross a giant chasm of fear and uncertainty. And here’s the important part: it came not as a single act of courage; it was no “one and done” behavior. It came as part of a daily commitment of presence and engagement with her community, aligning herself with those whose voices are most in need of amplification to be heard.

Living under that roof shows just what kind of radical act hope can be.

I am inspired by Lisa’s example. However, many days I feel I barely have the energy to keep the machinery of my life operational. Radical hope feels outside my scope. Until I realize that holding my authentic center while being buffeted by the cyclones and sand devils of daily life can also be about living under the roof of my hope. My Facebook friend, Shannon, is a woman I’ve never met (long story). Her husband is an American service man, and they are stationed in England. After the attacks in Paris, in the first flush of anger and fear, she asked her friends to talk on her Facebook wall about the dynamic between maintaining safety and expressing compassion toward Syrian refugees. As one might imagine, there were a wide variety of responses. What I appreciated about Shannon’s response was that she invited dialogue rather than invective. She posted articles that were well articulated but came to a variety of conclusions. She didn’t foreclose on a predetermined answer. One could say it was just a lengthy Facebook thread – but in today’s climate, it felt like a ray of welcome light.

I am coming to believe it is a radical act to keep the light shining in my heart, when darkness threatens to take up residence there. Some days, it is enough to remember what we hope for – we can’t learn to live inside of something we can no longer see in the darkness that is swallowing us. Some days, we find the wherewithal to do more. In our world, it can be radical to act from hope rather than from despair.  When we do this, we are able to contribute some measure of light to the world around us – whether that takes the form of activism, engagement, charity, compassion, mercy, love or laughter.

In this season of darkness, I have hope that it will be enough.

**********************************************************************************

Note: This morning, just before posting this reflection, Lisa Bender posted a lovely reflection on Facebook. In part, she said: “One of the things about being a parent of little kids is that I can’t get sucked into that magnet because they need me to try and make all this bad shit stop before they get big enough to really see it. They force me to have hope and to act on that hope day in and day out in every little way I can.”

 

 





A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

26 11 2015

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 





This is NO Time to be Un-Iowan

19 11 2015

When I was a child, I had a recurrent nightmare in which I was on a deserted country road, at the bottom of a long hill. As I looked ahead of me, toward the top of the hill, A Very Terrible Thing would appear. As the Thing (a giant, a tornado, a car full of bad men) crested the hill, I was overcome with panic. My mind (and my pulse) raced, attempting to find some way to elude the Thing. But there was no place to hide and I could not, I knew instinctively, outrun the Terrible Thing. I would wake from this dream breathless, sweating, my heart pounding furiously in my chest.

This week, my waking hours – and I’ll wager many of yours – feel like we’re collectively in the grip of this terror. We’re frantically searching for a way to be safe from the Very Terrible Things that have appeared, not in our dreams, but on our very real horizons.

It didn’t take long for the shock and sadness at the lives lost in Paris on Friday night to morph into angry, hate- and fear- based tirades. So on Sunday, I decided to get outside, to just stop watching the news coverage and following the social media sideshow. I got on my bike and rode around a mostly deserted city. Not far from where I live, I noticed a roadside sign pointing me toward a local Cedar Rapids landmark, so I followed it.

A few minutes later I arrived at the Mother Mosque of America, the longest standing mosque in North America – right here in Cedar Rapids! Iowa welcomed its first Muslim immigrants in 1885, I learned (though the mosque was built in 1934). It is a small building, with a mediterranean-blue dome. It gave me pause to think about the many ways the state of Iowa has, throughout its history, stood for what was right over what was popular:

  • in 1851 the Iowa legislature passed a law allowing the Meskwaki tribe to purchase land, a very unusual act among states of the time;
  • also in 1851 we were the second state to legalize interracial marriage;
  • in 1857 the University of Iowa was the first state university in the nation to open its degree programs to women;
  • 1867 saw Iowa outlaw segregated schools;
  • in 1869, Iowa became the first state to allow women to join the bar;
  • in 1934 the Mother Mosque was established;
  • 2007 we became the second state to allow full marriage equality.

One of the things people outside of Iowa don’t often realize is just how progressive we can be. But even in Iowa, change is rarely accomplished without fear – without real and/or conceived negative possibilities. That afternoon, I took comfort in the number of times my home state of Iowa has managed to set aside fear in favor of people.

Only a day or so later, Governor Terry Branstad joined thirty plus other governors in stating that Iowa refuses to accept Syrian refugees. But here in Cedar Rapids, where Syrian families have successfully settled for more than a century, this strikes me as a very un-Iowan stance – I’ll leave it to the many other commentators to say whether it is unChristian and/or unAmerican.

People of good faith can disagree about the right course of action to pursue, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, I do know that refusing to help people in need because we are afraid is not the right choice. My own faith and worldview tell me that protecting myself, my family, my friends, my goods,  should never be confused with the Highest Good.

Let’s make no mistake: this is one of those historic times when the highest good lies in the balance. Our history as humans is rife with examples of both those moments when we chose to shelter and protect, to stand up for what was right, and those times when we closed ourselves to the world’s great need out of fear. (If you can’t cite examples, you haven’t been on social media this week!) There’s a reason that, when we look back, some of those choices are lauded and celebrated while others are decried as shameful.

In history class, or on memorial occasions, we vow “Never again” to the shame. We say, “How could those people have done that?”  We say, “I would never…” But here, in THIS moment, even as our hearts whisper that we should rise to the occasion, the fear is real and really hard to conquer. Very Bad Things are out there, the evidence cannot be ignored. However, even in my nightmares, the answer is never to become a Bad Thing myself in response.

So today my response is to argue for openness. To argue that the highest good is the common good – encompassing all people, not only those who share my national or geographic or racial or religious designations. I choose people over fear. I have to say, regardless of our governor’s stance, I think that’s the Iowa way.

 

Poem Of The One World – Mary Oliver
.
This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite, beautiful, myself.





Throw Open the Gates

12 11 2015

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I don’t just mean physically; I mean emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. I don’t want to be afraid of bright colors, or new sounds, or big love, or risky decisions, or strange experiences, or weird endeavors, or sudden changes, even failure.                              —Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

 

I have this friend, B., whose approach to life is always full-tilt. He’s an artist, a musician, a bad-ass trickster on both his bikes and his skateboard. I often cringe at the ways he pushes himself physically, at the photos of scrapes and casts that show up on Facebook. But I usually can’t help being distracted from these sights by the huge goofy grin on his face.

Like the rest of us, B. has fears – I just don’t know what they are.

Whatever gifts he is exploring, whatever he is creating, B. doesn’t hold back – all of it is put out into the world, shared with others. We’ve never discussed whether he gets sweaty palms before he uploads his work to a music-sharing app, or if he stays awake at night fretting over how his family or friends might react to his lyrics, his latest artwork – or if his fear of physical pain ever gives him pause before attempting a new jump or trick on his bike. The key point is that, whatever fears he may experience, they don’t stop him.

Unlike B., many of us hold back, keeping all that beauty and energy locked up inside. For some, that holding back has been instinctual and strong – they’ve never broken through it to let their gifts and talents out into the world. For others, the holding back is a retreat: they’ve stepped out there and been roundly criticized, belittled, “put back in their place”.

Maybe you, like me, have experienced both.

When I took the photo, above, I remember feeling judgmental toward whomever had fenced in that glorious riot of color, assuming that it was about keeping the “riffraff” out. But as I’ve been thinking about it, I realize that it could as easily be an image of keeping something in, rather than of keeping something out. It could easily be an image of what it looks like to hold back our giftedness – an image of what the world needs but isn’t able to experience because of our fears.

“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” says Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian. Is our holding back the very thing that prevents us from discovering our own deep gladness? Our vocations? And how have we beggared the world by refusing to meet it’s deep need with the gift of ourselves?

I ask you, what “big magic” (to borrow the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) would happen if we opened the gates and freely shared that beauty with the world? If we took down our psychic “no trespassing” signs and just shared ourselves – our humor, our talents, our love – with someone, anyone or everyone, besides ourselves? True, we might experience pain or brokenness. But we might notice it less because of the huge, goofy grins on our faces!

 

 





Playing by Ear

21 05 2015

I’ve always admired musically talented people, especially those who seem able to hear any music and play it back without practice or written music to follow. It is as if their ear, hearing the notes, immediately translates them into a language that they know how to speak and, voila, the music flows back out of them almost magically. When I am around musicians who can play by ear, who improvise, who easily pick up a new instrument and bring forth a tuneful sound, I am often mesmerized. I feel awed by what they are able to do.

How do they first discover that they can do this?

Not being in possession of this gift myself, I don’t really know. But I imagine that, for some, the discovery comes in childhood, before they’ve been taught by life experience to doubt the possibility. But for others, there might be a moment when they decide to give it a shot. Perhaps they’ve felt the potential for a while, maybe even taken some music lessons, but haven’t had enough self-confidence to just break out and go for it. And then they do, and the whole language of music fully opens to them.

Of course, to be really good, to improve, they must practice. But what I’m interested in exploring here isn’t how a good musician hones his or her craft. Rather, I’m interested in that intersection of potential and reality, and of what it takes to cross that threshold.

We all have these thresholds in our lives. These places where we can either continue to live with our unrealized potentials or we can attempt to bring them forth into reality. How do we begin?

I discovered an Alan Alda quote that really speaks to crossing this threshold: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.” The wilderness of our intuition. For most of us, intuition remains a wilderness precisely because we choose not to explore it. In the age of Google maps and street views, we are very unused to making any move without mapping it out first. And that is in the physical world, where we operate most of the time with relative ease. Imagine, then, how much more difficult it is for most of us to move into the wilderness of intuition, where we aren’t comfortable being, where everything is unfamiliar at first.

Sure, there are those who seem to follow their intuition with ease. But just as I am not musically gifted, I am also not one of those who easily stepped into the wilderness, following the call of my intuition. Nor has it always been an easy path. Here are a few things I’ve learned on this expedition out of my own City of Comfort and into the wilderness of intuition.

Fear walks beside you.  Panache Desai, in his book Discovering Your Soul Signature, says “Life and life situations will call us out on our fear, every single time.” For me, fear comes in many forms – concern that I am not putting my attention where it needs to be; fear that something bad (illness, an accident, etc.) will happen and derail me; fears about lack (of money, of love, of time). The key, according to Desai, is to learn to allow. He reminds us that emotions are simply energy in motion. He says, “I have to learn, again and again, to catch myself…allow the fear to run through me like a river out to sea.” When I am able to breathe through my fear, then let it go, my sense of abundance and gratitude reasserts itself and I am able to keep moving forward.

Trust is essential. There are two types of trust that I have found important in the wilderness of intuition: trust in my own gut AND trust in a higher power. First, my gut. I ignored it for so many years of my life that I had to take what amounted to a remedial course in learning to heed it. I set small tests for it before making big decisions based on it. Each time – whether I listened to it or not – the lesson has been the same: my gut knows the way. And there are few feelings worse than hearing your gut say, “I told you so, but you didn’t listen.”

As for trust in a higher power, when I set my foot to this new path in the wilderness, I intellectually believed that God (the Universe, the Source of All Being) would provide. Believing that in my head is a radically different thing from living with it in my heart. It turns out that I suck at trust. Despite mounting evidence that trust is warranted, I regularly experience a crisis of faith – usually when I forget to allow fear to move through me and, instead, stop to live within it’s energy.

The wilderness is a teacher. When I was a teenager, I saw the animated film, “The Point”. In the story, the hero Oblio is the only kid in The Land of Point born without a point (his head is rounded). It is against the law to have no point, so Oblio is banished to The Pointless Forest. Where he learns, of course, that everything has a point. In many ways, leaving my City of Comfort to enter the Wilderness of My Intuition has reminded me of Oblio’s journey. Some of my lessons have been strange ones, gleaned from interacting with unusual people and experiences. Some have been emotionally difficult, while others have been truly joyful experiences. Following your intuition may lead you into odd places, but what you learn (about yourself, about your world, about your callings in life) is essential.

 

Which brings us back to the idea of practice. Just as musicians, however innately gifted, must practice to develop their skills, learning to follow your intuition requires practice. You will want to regularly return to your city of comfort, which is ok. It is your touchpoint, your safe spot where you are surrounded by support. However, to grow and develop as a person, you will need to also make regular forays into the wilderness. Seeing, then seizing, the moments when the threshold between potential and reality can be crossed is how we learn to get really good at playing our lives by ear. And that, my friends, is an incredibly gifted way to live.