From Your Head, Through Your Hands, To Your Heart
The longest journey in the world is the one between your head and your heart – and it goes through your hands.
There’s a saying that the longest journey in the world is the one between your head and your heart – transmuting knowledge into action and habits, which ultimately leads to wisdom.
There are literally millions of books, written by psychologists, life coaches, self-help experts, spiritual teachers and self-proclaimed gurus who offer advice on how to improve your life, attain happiness, attract money and whatever else we as humans yearn for – and the majority of those books have wonderful insights and profound truths in them. The advice they offer most likely works – IF you take the actions recommended by the author.
Just before we go any further, I’d just like to pause a moment to touch on the topic of giving and receiving advice. Especially when it’s unsolicited (yeah, I do get the irony of trying to give unasked for advice about the topic of advice – but it is something I have to point out.) As a Life Coach, I don’t give advice, I might make suggestions of possible actions, but I firmly believe that only the individual knows what is right for him or her. People will only take advice when it confirms what they already believe or supports an action they’ve already decided upon. Advice, while often well meaning, tends to tell people “act like me, do what I did, this is what I do and look how successful I am.”
Look, I’m not saying there isn’t some great advice out there – but, as Baz Luhrmann says in his wonderful song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), “advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Having said that, it’s still one of the best pieces of advice on how to live a happy life. J
When you’re looking for answers, searching for meaning, desperate to change your less than perfect existence into the life of your dreams, there are a myriad of avenues and approaches to explore. For years, I read one book after the other, filling my head with the most wonderful and enlightening ideas. Much of what I read made perfect sense to me and I could almost feel myself physically changing every time I read something that resonated deeply with me. ALMOST. Yes, the ideas – many of which, by the way were not new or earth shattering, but remember, the Soul loves to hear what it already knows – rubbed off on me, changing the filters through which I saw the world, but the real changes I was looking for remained elusive.
I had a lot of theoretical knowledge about how to create the life you want, and a wide array of tips and tools to increase joy and lessen suffering, but it remained in my head – it was theory that I suspected might be true, that felt true and sounded true but it could have been a map to the mythical city of Atlantis for all the good it did me.
Without taking the actions, without doing what needed to be done – weeding out negative and limiting beliefs, replacing them with positive and empowering beliefs, getting to really know myself and learning to unconditionally love myself – all the money I had spent on all those books and all the time I spent reading them, were a complete and utter waste. (Okay, okay, there’s not really any waste in the journey to self-discovery and self-mastery – but I’m trying to be melodramatic here, so indulge me!)
Admittedly, I did try some of the tips. I repeated positive affirmations until they came out of my ears (more about affirmations in a while), I meditated (only occasionally, when “I could find the time”), I appreciated the beauty around me (appreciation is one of the key ingredients for creating and increasing joy), I learnt and internalized the laws of the Universe, I questioned every single limiting belief that I could identify, I took steps to heal my body to become healthy and fit – in fact, I actually did a lot of the things suggested by my favourite authors. And look, I’m not saying taking those actions didn’t worked. In fact, I shudder to think what my life would look like if I hadn’t taken those steps – but the dramatic, almost miraculous changes I were expecting remained ever so elusive…
The thing about miracles (which in my frame of reference is the same thing as magic) is that they only work when you’re not looking. You know, that old adage of a boiled pot never boils? Yes, you can try to monitor the process of change every single second, but it become s boring after a while – because one of the magic ingredients of transformation is time. If you plant a carrot, you don’t dig up the seed every day to see how far it has developed (for the agricultural purists out there – I’m not really sure if you can plant carrots from seed, and it’s not important enough for me to look up, as it’s really not the point J). If you dug up a seed every day, you’d most likely not only significantly delay the process of growing the carrot, you’d possibly even kill the poor developing plant.
The same with change – apart from doing the work, we have to give God time to work His magic. There’s an old Arabic saying, “Trust in God but tie the camels” – we have to do our bit, we have to tie the camels, but we also have to step away sometimes and allow the process to happen.
About affirmations – look, they do work for some people, but they require extreme self-discipline: you have to repeat the affirmation EVERY DAY for months, sometimes years. The best I could do was about four months of diligently saying my daily affirmation that I’m a TV journalist, and then, when nothing in my reality changed, I started to doubt the process and my daily affirmations became more and more sporadic until I completely dropped them. On top of that, it took massive amounts of self-discipline to continue saying the affirmations while I was racked with limiting beliefs (“I’m not good enough” being the prevailing one) and my inner critic was having an absolute field day with the lack of evidence that the affirmations worked – which gave that seemingly ever-present self-sabotaging voice even more ammunition. Ironically, many years later, I am a TV journalist, working for one of the world’s biggest news organizations and having appeared on news shows watched by hundreds of millions of people. The reality looks a bit different from when I envisioned myself with a microphone in hand, talking to a camera while some or other dramatic scene played out behind me – or when I visualized myself in a news studio, with a blue headband in my hair. I mean honestly! I don’t even wear headbands – but this image was one of the ones I fervently clung to while I was diligently saying my affirmations. The fact is, somehow almost two decades later, I am living a reality that includes a slightly altered version of those affirmations I chanted while I was still driving a little red Volkswagen, earning what in today’s terms would be considered as a minimum wage.
I am not sorry for one second of those four months, or the time I spent learning, growing and loving since. If I look back, I can see how much better my life is now than I had ever imagined – and I can also see how Divinely protected and guided my path has been. A few years ago, I had a nervous breakdown following a particularly harrowing news story, preceded by months and months of absolute senseless and atrocious violence that I had to report on. If my life followed the path I so desperately wanted in my early twenties, I have no doubt that I would have either have lost my sensitivity – which is an essential ingredient to being a great coach, or my heart (which is the part of me I value most) would have completely broken and possibly never have mended.
But back to the path between the head and the heart… so after all the books, half-hearted attempts at following other people’s recipes for change and thousands of Rands, I had a lot of knowledge, a bit of wisdom and a whole lot of frustration that my life isn’t unfolding the way I wanted it to. It’s not that my life was horrible – absolutely far from it! I had an amazing life with a wonderful husband, adoring children and the most supportive friends anyone could ever ask for! It’s just that I had this nagging feeling that I’m here for a purpose and that I’m missing some deadline, that my life is going to slip past me without me having fulfilled my destiny.
I had two extremely important lessons to learn here: firstly, there’s no deadlines in life. As a radio news reporter, I was so used to deadlines that I could not imagine any other way of being. On particularly busy news days, I sometimes had half hourly deadlines, where I had a file a new story every half hour. It took me months to get the message from the Universe that life doesn’t work on the same frantic timeframe, that in life, the only deadline is death – you can make changes, create the life you’ve always dreamt of and live your purpose until your very last few minutes on this planet.
The other lesson I had to learn is that we’re put on this planet for two reasons: the first is to learn and grow from our experiences and the second is to serve the our Creator – and the only way we can serve God is by serving His creations, using our unique gifts and talents.
Since we have a responsibility to serve others, we also have a responsibility to look after ourselves – to use the analogy of an airplane emergency, we have to put on our own oxygen mask before we can help others put theirs on. I have found that it’s by taking care of myself (my body, my thoughts and my heart), honing my talents and skills and diligently taking time to plan, to dream and to write down my goals, that I’m slowly starting the process of putting all that knowledge into practice. It’s by doing – small things, like writing a paragraph – that I’m traversing that longest journey between my head and my heart. Do something – anything – that you know is good for your soul! And if I can give you advice on what to do (J), it would be to start a gratitude journal, because gratitude and appreciation are the quickest ways to connect to that realm of infinite possibility that we tap into when we manifest our dreams. Don’t just make a mental list of things that you’re grateful for – write it down! It’s by doing that we become adept and it’s by repetition that we become great – so continue doing whatever it is you’ve decided on until it becomes part of your being.
Finding Your Troupe of Cheerleaders
Growing up I was definitely not one of the popular kids, so if you had told me that I would write a blog about cheerleaders I would have laughed in your face – yet here I am, cheerfully writing about something I know virtually nothing about.
That’s not completely true, though. In fact, most of us have, in one way or another, experienced the value of a cheerleader – someone who rallies support and unites people in their passion for a singular goal. Whether that goal is cheering the team on to win, or supporting an individual to reach greater heights, a good cheerleader can help us muster the courage or summons the last little bit of energy to carry us over the winning line.
You may have heard the analogy of life as a race in which you, ultimately, only compete with yourself, but just like a marathon runner might need some encouragement to continue, we all sometimes need a little bit of support when we hit an uphill in the race of life – we all could do with a little bit of cheering on, and at times, cheering up.
And while you’re at it – consider those people who regard you as their cheerleader. They too will benefit from your team of mental supporters…
This is one of the primary functions of friendship – to support our friends when things are tough, to encourage and inspire them when life throws them a curve ball. Just like some friends will help you make lemonade and others will bring tequila when you’re dealing with the proverbial lemons of life, different friends play different parts in our lives.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect your shopping buddy to share your passion for animal welfare or the environment – although I personally expect my friends to care about these issues and I not-so-silently judge them if they don’t. The point is, we have different friends for different reasons, as each person we resonate with fulfills some role in our lives.
Anais Nin put it beautifully when she said, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
As much as we try to ignore the opinions of others, those opinions always seem to find their way into our heads. The trick here is to prevent them from strengthening your inner critic’s snarky messages but rather to listen to the positive feedback we do get – after all, research shows that it takes ten positive comments to cancel out one single negative comment.
One of the ways to deal with the (sometimes negative) opinion of others is to grow a rhinoceros skin – or to cover ourselves in duck feathers so that criticism can simply glide off us. The unintended consequence of this approach can be that we disconnect ourselves from others. If we have a wall around your heart, it becomes very difficult for other people to truly connect with us.
As a life coach, one of my favorite interactions with clients is to question every single thought doesn’t serve that client – limiting beliefs as well as the opinions of others. Is it really true? How does your body react to the thought – does it expand or constrict? Can you find any evidence to suggest that the thought might not be true? Is there a way you can rephrase that thought so that it better represents your own truth?
Another way of dealing with what “other people” say or think about you, is to dissect your mental image of those “people”. If you visualize “other people”, whether they’re your family, friends, random strangers, the members of the local bowling club or whatever other group of “other people” you envision, how many faces can you identify at any one point? I’m betting no more than a handful, right? The rest of the “other people” are a bit like computer-generated images (CGI), replications of the faces you can identify.
So what would happen if you change the faces in the front seat? If you choose your own personal cheerleaders to represent the opinions of others to you, how would that make your body react? I’m guessing if the “other people” are in our corner, their opinions feel less judgmental and more supportive. It might even energize you – the way in which only a team of dedicated cheerleaders could.
And while you’re at it – consider those people who regard you as their cheerleader. They too will benefit from your team of mental supporters…
Failure, Fear and Freedom
I was raised with a deep seated fear of failure. Without going into to much story fondling about my childhood, failure was regarded as any behavior outside the conformities of a very repressed society. Standing out and taking risks were more than frowned upon and failure was punished with the ultimate sanction – rejection and withholding affection. As a result (remember, my superpower is stating the obvious), I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that it’s ok to make mistakes, that mistakes are part of the curriculum of life.
Luckily, life has a way of teaching you – whether you’re a willing participant or not – so, despite my best attempts to blend in, to avoid failure, I’ve messed up more than I care to remember. It’s just… you know, I can’t help but feel that if I had embraced failure and not have been such a reluctant student, I might have learnt the lessons and succeeded in ways I can now only imagine.
The first time I became aware that this absolute aversion to failure might not be the best way – or even the only way – of being in the world, was when Mary, a former colleague of mine, resigned to start her own business during a very tough economic time.
Because I was operating from this fear based paradigm, I asked her how certain she was that her business would succeed. I remember how shocked I was by her reply that if she fails, she fails – it would only be a stepping stone on her path to success. She also told me that most of the successful people in the world, had several failures under their belt before they finally reached their dreams. I almost got the idea that she was looking forward to failing – because she had already seen what she would do next.
It took me years to finally understand her gay abandon and the way in which she accepted – even embraced – the possibility of failure. Her business did fail, we lost contact and I met other people who also shared her appetite for risk. I ran into Mary at an airport earlier this year. Today she is a massively successful business woman and the lessons she learnt from failing at her first business, – and several others since – still serve her to this day.
Mary knew the secret of Robert F Kennedy and millions of other people who harnessed the power of failure. Kennedy said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” It pains me to think that I could have reached far greater heights if I had engaged with this fear of failure earlier in my life – but I’m learning… slowly, but I am learning.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley
“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres
Possibly the word most closely associated with failure is fear. I sometimes think that fear of failure is a bigger hurdle to overcome than dealing with the actual act of failing. Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. That threat doesn’t have to be real to trigger the fear emotion – very often it is the scenarios our imaginations conjure up that create fear, and when it comes to the imagination, the sky is the limit.
Fear is generated by the ancient, reptilian part of our brain, the amygdala. Martha Beck calls this part of the brain – the one that keeps on sending us “lack or attack” messages – the Inner Lizard. This Inner Lizard comes in very handy when we truly are in imminent physical danger – it literally kept our ancestors alive when they were under attack from a Sabre-Toothed Tiger, by triggereing their fight-or-flight response. The cocktail of hormones secreted once the fear response kicks in, oftentimes enable ordinary humans to perform quite astonishing and heroic acts to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. These days we have a decided lack of Sabre-Toothed Tigers so most of our fears are generated not by imminently dangerous external circumstances, but by our minds – our thoughts to be specific.
A big part of my coaching practice is helping people to face their fears. More often than not, examining our fears makes them disappear – the same way shining a torchlight under the bed made the monsters vanish. Other times, when the fear does not quite pass into oblivion, scrutinizing it makes it shrink into a manageable challenge. Of course that is far easier said than done but there are several tools to deal with this Inner Lizard.
One of the ways to deal with fear is questioning it. How realistic is it? What is the worst thing that could happen? Is that really so bad? As an expert in experiencing fear, I’ve come to realize that fear and excitement are felt in the same part of my body. Both of them kind of creates a fluttering in my stomach – and depending on the severity of either the fear or the excitement, the intensity of the flutter increases or decreases.
I cannot for one second claim that this realization is a new discovery. One of my favorite quotes about fear and excitement is attributed to self-help author Peter McWilliams who said that the only difference between fear and excitement is our attitude towards it. Author Robert Heller pointed out that fear is excitement without breath – so if you want to stop fear from stopping you, take a deep breath and jump!
The nature of fear is such that it often stubbornly resists all our efforts to root it out – but once we’ve managed to dislodge it, we can stop it the Inner Lizard from dictating to us and step into freedom. Kris Kristofferson said that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – and if our fears are the last thing we shed, I fully agree with him.
Freedom from fear is listed as a fundamental human right according to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nobel Peace Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi says in her book Freedom from Fear that: “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
I’d like to think of myself as civilized and thus – understanding that fear is ultimately a choice – I’m choosing to engage with and control my Inner Lizard to stop fear from stopping me. As I (cautiously) throw my fears to the wind, I plan on failing spectacularly in the near future – stay tuned!
“If you’re feeling helpless, help someone. ”
― Aung San Suu Kyi (from Freedom from Fear)
I sometimes get the impression that we as humans are no longer interested in experiencing the full range of human emotions – that we only want to have pleasant experiences. When we’re angry, we suppress it, when we’re feeling sad or anxious, we try to find ways of lessening the intensity or avoiding the emotion altogether. I’m not talking about clinical depression – I’m not qualified to have an opinion about the use of anti-depressants to treat a medical condition – I’m referring to the use of substances, whether it is prescription or self medicating with food, alcohol or drugs to avoid feeling emotions that are uncomfortable, or deemed inappropriate.
To be human includes a whole spectrum of emotions, ranging from euphoria and joy to guilt and shame, and it’s the ones that hurt us or make us feel uncomfortable that we try to avoid, sometimes at all cost, but in avoiding those strong emotions we have somehow decided are unwanted, we often also stint our own emotional and spiritual growth.
I strongly believe that the human spirit has two main ways of learning and growing; the one way we grow is through pain and fear and the other way is through love. Unfortunately, it seems that by our very design, our default way of learning and growing is through pain and fear.
Think about a time of tremendous growth in your life – I’m quite sure there was at least a measure of pain or fear involved.
Let’s take the example of Hester*, a client who was trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. Even though she knew she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life married to a man who belittled her at every opportunity and used money to manipulate her, her fear of the alternative prevented her from mustering the courage to walk out. In her mind she was powerless and would end up on the street with no roof over her head and no food to eat.
Hester spent months in coaching agonizing over her decision to leave her husband – struggling to muster the courage to take the plunge. It was only once she realized her true value (and came to understand how her husband was trying to detract from her value in order to prevent her from leaving) that she finally filed for divorce.
The journey to healing was slow and painful, and there were many times when she doubted herself and the wisdom of her decision – but, as a compassionate bystander, I couldn’t help but notice a tender beauty throughout this entire process. There was something profoundly precious in Hester’s pain – something I, to this day, find difficult to describe in words. While I was witnessing her death, rebirth** and transformation, it almost felt as if I had a glimpse into the sacred act of creation – as if I was a part of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into an exquisite butterfly.
You might know that cutting open a cocoon or chrysalis renders a butterfly’s wings absolutely useless – it needs that struggle to crawl out of the protective casing in order to strengthen its wings. In the same way, I could see how Hester’s struggles to extricate herself from her marriage strengthened her belief in her own worth. Today, six and a half years later, Hester still looks back on that time as one of immense growth – a time she would not have had differently even if she could. She could see the valuable lessons she had learned from that pain and fear.
Pain, loss, anger, guilt, shame. All these emotions are part of the human experience, and despite our efforts to avoid them; they have a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. Our unwillingness to experience the darker, less pleasant emotions is also taking away our ability to fully feel the wonderful ones. I’m not saying that we don’t feel, happiness, excitement etc., but if we don’t have the lows, how can we fully appreciate the highs?
I often advise my clients to undertake a little experiment – to sit with their emotion, whatever it might be, and to fully feel that particular emotion to manifest in their bodies. Try it for yourself, if you’d like. Emotions are a little bit like needy children in this respect – they want your undivided attention. Once you allow the emotion to be “heard”, to manifest in your body, to be fully felt, you’d be amazed how quickly it dissolves.
By allowing painful emotions to manifest and to be fully felt and experienced, we start transmuting them into their polar opposites – the opposite of sorrow is joy, the opposite of anger is gratitude, the opposite of bitterness is forgiveness. Of course when we talk about the alchemy of transmuting emotional baggage into pure emotional gold, there is some work required from our side – like facing the emotions we fear to show.
We frequently resist going into what Martha Beck calls the Ring of Fire***. Imagine your emotional reality as three concentric spheres or layers. The outer layer, Beck calls the “Shallows” – the world of form and physical objects and the thoughts clustered around them. This is the material world in which we live and for some people it is the only reality.
The inner core of these three circles Beck calls the “Core of Peace” – that deep seated knowingness and peace we sometimes glimpse when we are fully relaxed and completely in the moment. According to this theory, the only way to move from the “Shallows” to the “Core of Peace” is to go through the “Ring of Fire”.
Some maternity ward nurses refer to that moment when a baby is crowning as the “ring of fire” – because it hurts like hell – but just like giving birth, once you’re in that process, there’s no turning back, and as soon as it is over, there is the wonderfully blessed reward of a new-born baby.
Many people choose to stay in the “Shallows” because they fear the “Ring of Fire” but the point of life is to grow and learn so often we find that life either nudges or pushes us into the “Ring of Fire” to burn away our pretences and self imposed delusions. Just like the Yin-Yang symbol reminds us that there is the seed of sorrow in our joy and the seed of joy in our sorrow, we know that even in the throws of emotional pain, as the fire cleanses us from beliefs and thought patterns that no longer serve us, there is a beauty and the promise of a brighter future.
* Not her Real Name
*** Beck M 2008, Steering by Starlight, Piatkus, Great Britain
Onions, Manure and Compost Heaps
If you view life as a classroom in which you have certain life lessons to learn, you might agree with me that some lessons are significantly harder to learn than others. Sometimes it feels as if we have been handed a big old pile of turds – and if we don’t have the ability to transform that waste material into something useful, we remain stuck with a rather crappy load (and outlook) on life.
Most people (in fact, I’d like to say everyone, but the journalist in me refuses to allow absolute generalizations without substantiation, so I’ll stick to saying “most people”) have some painful issue that has been festering in their hearts and minds for years. It could be a childhood trauma – and most of our life lessons do originate in childhood – or it could be something that only happened to us much later in life, but somehow, somewhere, we all sustain emotional injuries that, if left untreated, could scar or even cripple us for life.
Very often, the people that hurt us had absolutely no intention of causing us harm. These people, who actually are our teachers in this school of life, do the best they can with what they have and know. In many cases, our first teachers are our parents.
As I and most other parents have had to learn the hard way, there is no textbook to prepare you for parenthood. We all just seem to make it up as we go along and we often, subconsciously or unwittingly, repeat the patterns we had been raised with – unless we are aware of the pattern and have the emotional wherewithal to change it.
No parent would harm their child on purpose, unless there is something seriously wrong, but for many people the hurts caused by their parents’ words, actions or choices continue long after they’ve grown up and left their childhood homes. I once voiced my belief that all parents mess their children up in one way or another to a woman who claims to have had an absolute idyllic childhood, with no conflict whatsoever. She was horrified by my opinion that parents should make peace with the fact that they are, in one way or another, causing their children some emotional discomfort or distress.
I was quite taken aback by her vociferous insistence that, as a life coach, I am behaving unethically if I tell parents – and especially women – to cut themselves some slack as most of us harm our children (unintentionally, of course) in some way or another. As a coach, it is my job to help people examine their beliefs and to help them reformulate or change beliefs which no longer serve them – so of course this incident made me take a very critical look at this belief and gave me the opportunity to refine it.
The way I see it, if you want a plant to survive, you have to give it enough water and sunlight – but in order to grow and thrive, it needs food. For me, the emotional bumps and bruises caused by our parents’ particular way of raising us serves as manure, which can help us to grow – if we allow it. You don’t have to accept or embrace the way you were treated as a child – but you don’t have to suffer as a result of it either. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
I’m not a particularly adept gardener – but my brother is a soil revitalisation expert and he tells me the best way to use manure is to first compost it. I’m speaking under serious correction here, but if I understand the process correctly, bacteria and microorganisms break down the manure, causing a heat reaction. If you want the raw material to be turned into compost sooner, you have to turn it, to give it oxygen.
If we equate this process of turning waste material into usable plant food with emotional transformation, the heating up of the compost heap can be likened to those times when – as adults – we think back about those incidents in which we were hurt (whether it was by our parents, a teacher, a school ground bully or whoever). This process of thinking back gives us the opportunity to “turn” the rotting material by adding air (in some esoteric traditions, the element Air represents our intellect, our ability to think, so by thinking about the incident, we are already helping along the process of breaking it down).
Airing our emotional manure also helps us find the lessons we can learn from it – if we are open to this process and are looking for the lessons. Speaking to a psychologist, life coach or even a compassionate friend might make the “composting process” a little easier – but in the end, it’s up to you whether you end up with emotional compost or manure.
I’m not pretending for one moment that this is an easy process – and it most certainly is not a once off event either. In fact, I often describe dealing with emotional baggage as similar to peeling an onion. Once you’ve dealt with a particular issue (or person), another layer or aspect of the same matter crops up when you least expect it. Then you deal with that aspect and think the matter has been settled – merely to find that you’ve only uncovered another layer of the same issue.
As with peeling a real onion, this peeling away of layers of emotional pain is very often accompanied by tears. Allow them – as Dr Judith Orloff explains in this article in Psychology Today, crying helps us in more ways than we can ever imagine the health benefits of tears
Travel Tips for your soul
I’d like you to come on a road trip with me. Imagine you’ve packed your bags, we’ve decided on a destination, the soundtrack has been selected and the car has been loaded with everything you and I would need for our journey. Before we depart, we drive to the nearest filling station to have the tyre pressure and oil levels checked and to fill up with fuel. We both get out at the filling station to stock up on snacks, water, cold drinks and perhaps some coffee to keep us awake on our drive.
Now if you’re thinking you do not know me from a bar of soap and would rather chew your toenails than to get in a car with me, much less go on a long journey, I promise I won’t be offended, as I too am reluctant to get in the car with strangers – but just go with the analogy for now, or imagine someone else in my place, someone you actually know and like. Better yet, leave everyone else at home, or at the office or wherever and go on this road trip alone.
As much as most of us are reluctant to think or talk about it too much, as self-aware creatures, we humans know that our existence on this planet is temporary. Regardless of our religious beliefs or life view, most people know that our physical bodies are going to die. Whether or not you agree with the French Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when he says that we are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience, there is a sense that what animates us, our thoughts and emotions, what some would call the soul, is separate from the physical body.
This inner you can be likened to the driver, and the car is the body. The body is a flesh and blood vehicle for the soul – taking us to our ultimate destination. For many, this final destination is Heaven but we can also break up this trip into shorter journeys where perhaps the destination would be that corner office, or a white picket fence or a deluxe apartment in the sky. Whatever you aspire to achieve; we cannot get away from the duality of existence – a physical body and an invisible essence or soul.
Just like a car, which requires regular maintenance, our bodies also need to be looked after. That obviously includes taking care of our outward appearance but it also involves taking responsibility for our health. Knowing our key numbers for heart health – cholesterol, blood pressure and waist size – as well as our risk for diseases like diabetes, cancer etc. and, most importantly, doing something to reduce and manage those risks, increases your likelihood of getting more mileage from your body.
Talking about optimizing your body, the kind of “fuel” we put into it is also a key component. Our relationship with food is so complex that fuelling our bodies is only one of its roles – food is also a major source of pleasure, worry and stress. Food can be seen as a form of social currency. We offer others food to show them that we care. We reward our children – and ourselves – for a job well done with a special treat. We use it as a bribe; if you clean your room, I’ll take you for pizza. Food plays so many roles in our lives – we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re sad, we eat when we’re bored.
I’m told that if you put petrol in a diesel engine, or vice versa, the entire engine seizes. Likewise, the right kind of food leaves us feeling energized and full of life, while the wrong kind leaves us feeling sluggish and can even make us sick. My father once said about someone that she is digging her grave with her teeth, a mental image that made an indelible impression on my young mind.
Unlike (most) motor vehicles, which can run for hours and days on end, only needing to stop to refuel, our bodies need physical rest to perform at its peak. Getting enough, quality sleep is crucial for:
- Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
- Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
- Safety: Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.
- Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
- Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
I’m no mechanic, but it seems to me that controlling the temperature of the engine is quite important. Antifreeze not only prevents the engine from freezing but also protects it against overheating (it makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I’m told this is the way of the car and for lack of knowledge, I shall accept it). Relaxation would be the body’s version of antifreeze as it prevents us from overheating emotionally. If you aren’t getting enough time to relax, you may find yourself feeling tense and stressed out. The long-term effects of unaddressed stress on our health include chest pain, headaches, digestive issues, anxiety, depression changes in sexual desire and the ability to focus.
A lack of relaxation also sucks the fun out of life – you know, “all work and no play makes (insert your name here) a dull boy/girl. But what if you struggle to relax, or find it difficult to find the time to relax? A quick way to lower the stress hormone cortisol and increase the feel good hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin is to pet an animal for 15 minutes. Physical touch does the same – so book that massage, or even just hug it out with a caring friend or relative.
Deep relaxation, like meditation, when practiced regularly not only relieves stress and anxiety, but also is shown to improve mood. Meditation also has many other potential benefits – it can decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems.
My father is a lifelong member of the Automobile Association, so I grew up with this idea that there’s this entity called the AA, which will help you out in your hour of need. When I started driving, a friend’s father insisted that she becomes a member of the AA before he would agree to buy her a car, saying one never knows when one might need their help. I cannot recall the first time I heard about the other AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but it kinda made sense that this entity too would help our people in need. What both these organisations have in common (apart from their abbreviations) is that they offer help – but only to those who ask for it.
Asking for help is something many of us struggle with. We’re afraid we might look weak, or foolish, or incapable, or somehow less than perfect. Yet we all need assistance at some point or another. No one on this entire planet knows absolutely everything or can do everything. There comes a time when we all need advice or assistance (get it? AA) and the only way we’re going to get it, is to ask for it. The auto guys would have no idea that you’re stuck next to the side of the road unless you called them – and likewise, the other AA wouldn’t know you needed help unless you take the first step and ask for help. I fact, as far as I know, admitting that you have a problem and asking for help is a prerequisite to becoming a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Before technology came and saved us from ourselves – you know, with men being unable to ask for directions and women being unable to read maps – you would have to plan your route carefully to make sure that you reach the next filling station before your fuel tank ran dry. Whether you are one of those people who only stop for fuel and body breaks or whether you like to meander through the countryside, stopping at every little town and village, you have to have a plan of sorts to get you to your destination. Even though GPS technology makes it easier – showing us exactly which road to drive, how far the next stop is, how long the drive is – we still have to have a destination in mind.
The type, model and colour of the car you drive should actually be irrelevant – as long as it gets you where you want to be – but, living in a material world and buying in to the false myth that we can measure our own worth by our material possessions, we as humans have attached value and judgement to the brand of vehicle in our driveway. In much the same way, we tend to judge people by their outward appearance.
As unfair as it is, study after study has shown that attractive, slim and young people get preferential treatment over their less attractive, fat and older counterparts. If you don’t believe me, Google it – I tried to cite a few studies, but there is just so many that choosing which ones to include became tedious. Many of them are summarized and discussed in the 2011 book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, written by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas in Austin.
The problem with this is obvious; we get so fixated on outward appearance that we overlook and undervalue people who have a great deal to offer – like loyalty, honesty, empathy, kindheartedness etc. etc. etc. And while we can trade in our old jalopy for a new(er) vehicle, we cannot trade in our bodies (just yet) – so judging people by something they had absolutely no control over is not only unfair, it’s also cruel and unkind.
Having said that, there are cars – and people – who are faster than ours and I think anyone who’s ever driven on a highway would agree with me that there are few things as frustrating as a slow driver in the fast lane. The saying ‘stay in your lane’ comes to mind – in other words mind your own business. It’s often so tempting, standing on the outside looking in, to judge and offer unsolicited advice. As a Life Coach, I firmly believe that the only time people really listen to advice, is when it resonates with what they already know is best for them.
In South Africa, the golden rule is “Keep left, pass right”. In life, the golden rule is “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve taken these from the Bible – but every religion has similar tenets. The Bible quotes the Torah, while the Quran states “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”
For me, there are three components to this; Love, your neighbour, and yourself. So much has already been said about the first two, but I would like to briefly stand still at the third. We are taught from a young age to put others’ needs ahead of ours – especially us women. We spend all our energy looking after the needs of others, very often at the expense of our own mental and physical health. I often say to clients that we allow other people to be the main characters in the story about our lives. It is your story. You have to be the main character. Don’t be a supporting actor in your movie! There is a difference between selfishness and self-love or honouring yourself. My best friend is a very wise teacher who uses a lovely analogy to explain how we give our energy to others. She explains: “The heart is a cup, which God fills with love. That which is inside the cup is for you. That which overflows is to give to others. What we (especially us women) do is to turn over our cups and pour out every last drop for other people – and then we wonder why we feel so empty! When our cups are turned over, God cannot fill it. Keep what God gives to you for you. There is always abundance, there will be more than enough overflow to give to others.”
The fuel we put in our cars – whether we drive a gleaming sports car or a rusted tin bucket with only one working window – determines whether we will be able to drive it. There’s also interplay between the type of fuel, the make and age of the car and the speed we drive that determine how far a tank will take us. Our bodies obviously need physical fuel, in the form of food, and the type of food and our bodies’ individual reaction to it obviously determine how much energy we have to go out and achieve the goals we’ve set out for ourselves.
Just like motor vehicle maintenance is an important factor to keeping our cars roadworthy and in working condition, we have to maintain our physical bodies. I’m not a health expert (see how nicely I’m staying in my lane?), but we know that looking after our health is a key component to making sure our bodies serve us as long as possible. As I mentioned before, we cannot trade them in (yet), so it makes sense to look after them as best we could.
Life is a highway – buckle up!
The Change Cycle
The changing seasons are some of the best reminders that nothing is permanent. Just take a look out of the window… the scenery you’ll see is decidedly different to that of six months ago, and in another six months’ time, it will look different again, as the wheel of time rolls by steadily.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus hit the nail on the head more than 2 500 years ago when he stated that “the only constant thing is change”… or something to that effect.
International best selling author and Life Coach, Martha Beck (PhD), describes the change cycle as a square, divided into quarters. The first block represents the impetus for change, or as Beck calls it, the “Death and Rebirth” square. This is where the change is initiated. Whether it is a physical death of a loved one, or an emotional death – like when you lose your job – this first step of the change cycle can be extremely traumatic.
It’s not to say that it always has to be painful, though. The change can be a wildly exciting event, like getting married or being promoted. The point is, to a greater or lesser degree, there is a sense of loss. Take Sarah, who is getting married in three weeks’ time. Yes, it is undoubtedly a tremendously exhilarating time in her life, but she has to give up a few things to obtain that ring around the finger… like her surname (although this is happening far less nowadays than only a couple of years ago).
She also has to give up her status as single, available, master-of-her-own-destiny girl and forge a new identity as wife. The same goes for entering the physical and emotional rollercoaster of motherhood, being promoted… or any other significant milestone in life. Some part of the self has to die for the new-and-improved version of you to emerge.
According to Beck, the mantra for square one is: “I don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s okay.”
The second square, according to Beck’s analogy, is the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase. This is what happens when you’ve accepted the fact that your life is changing, and start thinking what you would like out of the situation. Let’s take the example of Joe, who is struggling to deal with the fact that he’s been retrenched. After the initial shock, Joe goes through the different stages of mourning as he grieves not only the loss of income and stature but also his ability to provide for his family and his identity which he so closely associated with his job. Once the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (in other words, the entire cycle of grieving) is completed, he starts to make plans again and daydream about what he wants out of life…
Maybe he dreams about being an artist… or going back to university to study archaeology. The sky is the limit here. In this phase, anything is possible…
It’s also in this second square that we start to make plans how to attain those goals. It might not be a complete, fool-proof plan, the details might still be a little foggy… but the first outlines of what your future life could/would/should look like is slowly starting to emerge… a little bit like those buds and leaves in early Spring. In fact, if “Death and Rebirth” is seen as representing Winter, this square undoubtedly represents Spring.
The mantra for square two is: “There are no rules, and that’s okay.”
An interesting trend amongst people in the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase, is the physical changes that occur, like losing weight, changing your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorating your living room. (Actually, there are thousands of physical manifestations of change – but seeing as we don’t have all day, I’ll leave you to find a few examples of your own). We’ll return to this square a bit later…
The next step in the change cycle is what Beck calls the “Hero’s Saga”. This is where you actually have to do the work to realise those plans you dreamt up in the previous phase. Now, I consider myself as quite well-read, and I’ve never come across a story in which the hero sets out to attain some glorious goal, gets the job done (and gets the girl) and is back in time for dinner and the seven o’clock news. Oh no! Its not called a saga for nothing. There are obstacles to overcome, monsters to defeat, calls of sirens to ignore… basically, for the first three quarters of any story worth reading (or repeating) it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back.
But a hero is not a hero if s/he does not have more than a bit of tenacity. (I’ll admit, a stroke of luck also plays a part sometimes – but I believe we make our own luck… and that’s a story for another day). The point is, in this phase, we have to stop dreaming and actually do something. If the plan does not work, we refine it, or redefine our goals. This is where you knock on every door and work like a slave to get to your goal. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between this square and the “Dreaming and Scheming” square as you try out your plan, find it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board to dream and scheme and come up with a new plan…
The mantra for square three is: “This is much worse than I expected, and that’s okay.”
It might sound tedious and like a never ending uphill battle, but if you have found what it is you love, and you are doing it, the line between work and play becomes very blurred and you might end up having so much fun that you forget about the heartache you experienced in square one.
Which brings us to Beck’s fourth and final square: the “Promised Land”. This is when you get what you wanted – like the Israelites who traversed the Middle East for how long? Forty years if I’m not mistaken. (Which again shows you how hard you sometimes have to work in Square Three). Enjoy it – you’ve earned it!
But don’t get too comfortable… remember old Heraclitus? The wheel of change can turn at any minute – and you can be catapulted back into Square One before you have time to savour the sweet rewards of your journey. If you’re lucky, you might spend years in the Promised Land… but be assured, whether its through boredom with all the wealth you’ve amassed, or a personal tragedy, change will happen again.
The mantra for square four is: “Everything is changing, and that’s okay.”
Before we return to the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase, its worth noting that different aspects of your life can be in different phases of the change cycle. You might have an awesome run at work (Promised Land stuff)… while your health or personal life might be in Square One… or Two… or Three. It helps us understand the proces and have patience with ourselves if we can identify which areas of our lives we are dealing with and where that area is in terms of the change cycle.
Remember I mentioned the physical changes frequently noticed in people who are in Square Two? An interesting occurrence is how people who have a physical make-over, (whether it’s to satisfy your bossy older sister or a scissor happy hair stylist), get thrown head first into the change cycle. Linda expereinced this first hand when she lost a significant amount of weight. People started responding differently to her, which forced her to look at herself differently – which catapulted her straight into a Death and Rebirth (with the death of her shy, overweight former self). If this is happening in your life – brace yourself, baby! You’re in for one hell of an adventure!
Martha Beck, 2001, Finding Your Own North Star, United States, Piatkus.
Liezl Thom is a Martha Beck certified Life Coach. If you are battling to deal with change, or are unhappy with certain aspects of your life, you can e-mail her at email@example.com to set up an appointment.