Updated February 2020
Our bodies are amazing things – they have so much rich information for us, if we choose to listen. We are all very familiar with feelings of physical discomfort, pain, hunger or thirst. Accidentally bang your shin on the edge of a table, or skip a meal, and your body will be very quick to communicate that to you. In many ways these signals are not at all subtle, yet I am as accomplished as anyone at ignoring them if the message that is being sent doesn’t suit my packed schedule (Body: “Hey! A granola bar isn’t lunch!”). According to many health care experts, we in North America are ignoring a lot of the obvious messages our bodies are sending us. From a near-chronic lack of sleep to unhealthy eating habits, many of us are moving along in our days, intent and focused on “what’s next”, actively sidelining our most basic physical needs. Our bodies are practically shouting at us all the time, if only we would hear them.
...our bodies hold onto other experiences as well, things that are less obvious, things that are subtle...
There are more subtle ways our bodies communicate with us, ways that allow us to tune in to the most nuanced and complex messages that are important for us to attend to. However, getting in touch with these messages requires us to do something extraordinary…it requires us to sit quietly and listen to ourselves. Our bodies are the physical warehouses for all our experiences, and the signals our bodies send to us are loosely prioritized along the lines of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Hunger, thirst and physical pain are the most overt, as these are the signals required to keep this complex human machinery we encompass healthy and alive. But our bodies hold onto other experiences as well, things that are less obvious, things that are subtle; like disappointment, anxiety, shame, well-being, hope and joy. Beyond being expressions that may grace our face, these are experiences stored within us, quietly living bodily in ways we are not wholly aware of, until we give ourselves the space and time to listen to them. Is giving ourselves a few minutes of peacefulness to reflect, to check in, to listen to our bodies, so foreign? The time and space to hear ourselves takes many forms; mindfulness, meditation, prayer, just sitting for a moments rest. Time to think quietly of ourselves - our needs and what will sustain us as we look to sustain others (through our love and/or our work). Want to try it?
Like a note just waiting to be released from a piano string, our bodies hold onto these things.
Most of us are aware of the need to slow down, even for just a few minutes, giving ourselves quiet time to reflect and synthesize what we have experienced in our busy day…being compassionate with ourselves. Still, it feels like a foreign concept in this day and age to take time to do…well…nothing. To sit quietly and let the spaciousness of time support you for a few moments, allowing you to listen to yourself, reminding you that the option to do nothing is always there, a constant caring companion, allowing you to feel held within the predictable rhythm of nature that provides sunrises and sunsets, everyday, all for you. Take a moment to sit quietly and reflect; you may feel the comfortable weight of your surroundings as they settle around you, like an old friend, not disturbing you in any way, letting you know what is here for you, always. It is not until we give way to this safe space that we may understand there is tension unknowingly carried in our muscles, a worry that is making our stomach tight; an intangible but solid yearning to fold into ourselves (making us visibly smaller) because we’ve had enough life coming at us for one day. Like a note just waiting to be released from a piano string, our bodies hold onto these things. Perhaps this is what we are avoiding and so we choose not to sit, not to check in, but then we also lose the ability to deeply feel emotions like anticipation and joy; looking forward to being with our children later in the day, or savoring a good book in the evening. By listening to ourselves we know we will enjoy holding, and being held, by our loved ones. Being “busy” keeps us from hearing ourselves and from being fully present to the joy that is in our lives.
It is worth it because it has the potential to provide you with so much rich information...
To quiet your mind, letting go of “to do lists”, “shoulds”, “what’s nexts” and “what ifs”…laying it all down (even if just for a moment), listening to the cadence of your own heart (beating just for you) is an accomplishment. It takes practice. It is worth it because it has the potential to provide you with so much rich information, a prelude to both joy and care. It gives you a way to support yourself that you may not remember you have, always there, ever-present, waiting for you to tap into it, allowing you to acknowledge, maybe even accept, what “comes next” with openness. It allows you to proceed gently from this point in your day with your eyes wide open, and a soft, compassionate heart. It allows you to know that you will enjoy reading your book tonight, as you relax, going to bed a little earlier (because you listened and found your body telling you that you were tired), giving yourself more of what you need.
You are worth listening to.
I love hearing about the aspirations of others. There is so much potential in each of us, and it takes the slightest effort to draw it out…a well timed question, genuine interest and then watch as other’s share their deepest callings and longings. It transforms a person when they speak about their potential; their body relaxes with the acknowledgement of this desired future state, or gets animated with fervor and belief in themselves. It is a beautiful transformation to behold. There are also those who know they have more to give, but are still seeking the right outlet, the right space to fill with their potential; these conversations follow many paths, concern because they “don’t know”, hopeful patience because they feel “it will come”, or fear that they cannot fulfill the longing for possibilities they know they hold within themselves, feeling their gifts languish.
Too often when I ask what steps they are taking to begin this path (whether that means taking steps to see their plans through or to figure out what is calling) there is silence…a silence filled with stillness born in fear. If I don’t react to what she just asked maybe no one will see I am too scared to move into this future unknown state. Excuses come, “I am too busy right now”, “My family is growing”, “My workplace is laying off staff”, “My parents need me”, “I wanted to have more money saved up”, etc. There is always a reason for “can’t”. Except that tomorrow is built on the lens of today, meaning that if your lens is composed of why you can’t do it, then it will not happen. Not for you.
Dejected? Good. It shows that your need to activate your highest future potential is strong within you, so take a deep breath and harness that strength; fortify it with intention. There are considerations to change that “can’t” lens into a path forward that do not include re-mortgaging your home, getting a small business loan from your bank or marching into your CEO’s office demanding a promotion. It is simply about changing the lens from one that says “I can’t” or “Not now” to “This is what calls to me” and “I am curious”. In other words, what are you building for your future self? What you begin building in your calling today becomes what you have in place to support your highest potential tomorrow. So how can you do that?
The first consideration is to evaluate your own self-awareness. How are you getting in your own way? Is your desired future state something you are really committed to or is it based on expectations and “safe” outcomes? Is it so big that it scares you away from commitment? Figure out what is getting between you and what you know you can do. I worked with a client who wanted to find his career passion, and when we began he was committed to getting his MBA as his next step and “entrance ticket” to wherever he wanted to go. As our work together unfolded he came to understand that the reason he had never enrolled in that MBA program (despite having the means and opportunity) was because while it was a solid dream steeped in reality, it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. He found the prospect of taking on a rigorous academic program was creating a level of angst in him that was not sustainable, and while he was more than capable of graduating at the top of his class, he had zero motivation to put the rest of his life on hold to do that. Our work together focused on what was really calling to him, and for him short term goals that built future opportunities turned out to be what he needed right now. He invested in a course he was very interested in taking, which, at some future point, could be accredited to an academic program but was much more manageable and would clearly help build capabilities and capacity in his current role and future career. He learned to rest in the unknown, recognizing his need to have a clear plan had been the driver for the rigorous MBA + high-powered career goal he had set for himself. That was based on an ideal, not on reflecting what he really wanted. So for now he is enjoying a deep exploration of career options, speaking with others about their career passions and taking academic courses that interest him, satisfying his curiosity. He is OK that he doesn’t have “the plan”, he has “a plan” and at some point in the future that MBA may happen, but if it does it will be because it is what he really wants and it will not require him to put everything else on hold to make it happen. When actions are part of a heartfelt plan to build what you need, even something as demanding as an MBA can be pursued with less anxiety, allowing it to be a supportive action that is pleasurable. Build your self-awareness, if what you have sketched out for yourself evaporates at the slightest hint of commitment, ask yourself “Why?” If you are unable to sketch something, and you don’t know why, getting help in your process could be the answer.
The next consideration is building awareness around your dream/passion/plan’s resiliency. Things that have deep meaning for us can come with all kinds of emotions. Tangibly taking steps (even small ones) that lead to the realization of your dream is never a straight line. It will involve disappointment and the need to be open and flexible to get you where you want to go. When we hold on to a dream so tightly nothing but the vision we had mapped out in our mind will do, the slightest setback will halt all progress and create stuck-ness. I worked with a client who had a flourishing leadership career ahead of her. She had a very clear and reasonable course mapped out for herself, and was working with me to help transition her into her first leadership position. Things were going well, when all of the sudden the wind went out of her sails and she was questioning everything about her plan. From deeply committed passion to hurt confusion in less than a day. This client’s place of work had offered 360-degree feedback to all of their emerging leaders, and she had expected to “ace” the results. She wasn’t prepared for the possibility that there was much opportunity for her to develop within her newly unfolding leadership skills (as the assessment pointed out) and was unable to see past her results to the benchmarks that demonstrated she was ahead of her cohort; there were no real flags beyond inexperience. What she saw in the data was that she wasn’t leadership material, and that meant scrapping everything to build a new plan, one that didn’t pivot on promotion. Eventually through our coaching work together she was able to embrace what the assessment offered, allowing it to inform some concrete developmental steps that built a solid foundation for her leadership career plan. Today she will tell you that assessment was the best thing that ever happened to her, and she carries the lessons she learned with her into her current development plan and the application of her accomplished leadership skills.
What this points to is a call to action, not just a hope, a dream or a “future commitment”. While resting in the promise of what you will do or execute on in the future can be “enough”, it may also be where you are stuck (how long has it been since you created this future vision…are you any closer to it? Do you want to be?). There are always actions you can take today that build capabilities to help you tomorrow, even when you don’t have a plan. Give yourself permission, empower yourself to own your potential today and not become a passive traveller on the most obvious path (or the current one). Know that only you can chart the course of your future, only you can truly unlock all of your potential. If you are waiting for someone else to do it, it will not happen, not in any meaningful way. Pursue your calling with intention. If you don’t know what is calling (but you know you have more to give), then explore. If you know what you want but are scared to make it “real”, take small steps to build both courage and capabilities as you go. Don’t “boil the ocean” (think it all has to happen at once) and don’t wait for others to give you “permission” to pursue whatever is calling to you. Do you want to spend your time in life “going” somewhere, or do you want to spend it being there? When you activate your highest future potential it can take you to the places you long to go and to where you belong.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don't much care where—“ said Alice.
“Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
(Source: Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland Through the Looking Glass)
Many of my clients are familiar with the terms “mess” and “messiness”; it refers to anything that makes you uncomfortable. As beautiful human beings we really don’t like to be uncomfortable and we put a lot of energy and effort into creating distance between ourselves and what makes us uncomfortable. This “distance” takes many forms; it could literally be distance, like when you choose not to travel to see someone or do something because we are not comfortable with it (“So sorry we can’t make the escape room event this Saturday!”). It could be distance in terms of how present or engaged you are right there in the moment of your discomfort, mentally “checking out” so you don’t have to feel it or fully participate within it. Sometimes it may be putting huge energy reserves into “gearing up” to face the discomfort head on, white knuckling your way through it…but never actually resolving the source of the discomfort (just hoping you’ll never have to do that again...like presenting in public).
...remember taking “Mess Acceptance 101” class in school? Nope, me neither..."
Sound familiar? We all do this, none of us are immune to mess or discomfort. Everyone’s triggers for discomfort are different and everyone’s thresholds for mess are diverse (one person’s “mess” is another person’s sanctuary). One thing applies to us all equally; if you don’t attend to what makes you uncomfortable it will always be waiting for you. This reality is often inconsistent with our expectations; we are taught (here in North America) that if you work hard and do your best good things will happen. This is true, at least from the perspective that if you DON’T do those things it is likely nothing good will happen…but working hard etc. isn’t the complete answer. The complete answer includes becoming intimate with discomfort, being able to sit in the mess of unwelcomed feelings and sensations, overriding our Palaeolithic sensibility to “fight, flee or freeze” at the subtlest onset of discomfort. Don’t you remember taking “Mess Acceptance 101” class in school? Nope, me neither, so it is up to each of us to develop this ability for ourselves, which is made even more difficult when you may have bought into the fairy tail that “mess” is bad and “comfortable” is good.
...comfort can also enslave us, spurring us to defend this “comfort” at any cost..."
Discomfort and comfort are both good and bad. Mess, discomfort, the unknown, etc. are all places that induce a degree of anxiety, but without them we have no access to creativity, innovation and growth. As an example, it may be hard to link your dislike of a misogynistic boss with your creativity and learning, but look at it from the perspective that your boss will not be the last misogynistic person you have to work with or for. How empowering would it be to learn how to make the very best of this situation? To be able to rise above the discomfort of working with this awful individual, and be able to enfold them compassionately into your process, enabling greater outcomes? It doesn’t mean you have to like you misogynistic boss, only that you are willing to accept this circumstance and it’s implications, finding creative solutions that allow the individual to be who they are and not negate your gifts. This is not an easy path, but it is one that holds growth for you. It is something you will never regret that you learned how to do (and you can apply it in so many useful places in life). But, you need to be able to sit in the mess to get there. I mentioned that comfort could also be both good and bad. We love comfort and certainty; we love “knowing”; knowing we are doing the right things, knowing we are valued, knowing we are capable, etc. However, comfort can also enslave us, spurring us to defend this “comfort” at any cost, creating casualties out of new opportunities (making us aggressively resistant to any feelings of discomfort)…or entombing us in a static rut that cuts us off from our enjoyment of the status quo (boredom and under stimulation). Like the proverbial serpent eating it’s own tail, this continuum of comfort/discomfort has both opportunities and setbacks to offer.
You learn to control the effect the mess has on you, rather than allowing the mess to control you.
What this indicates is that in finding our own equilibrium in life we must be willing to balance all the variables that comprise mess, the positive and the negative, and to do what is needed to become one with the mess. This does not mean you have to become comfortable with discomfort; what it calls for in you is to build new capabilities that allow you to stay in something messy with an open mind and heart, allowing you to fully explore it for all it’s pitfalls and opportunities, even while you are experiencing discomfort. You learn to control the effect the mess has on you, rather than allowing the mess to control you. You will be better able to see the AND in each situation as it arises, no matter how stressful (i.e. I can be very nervous to speak in public AND still deliver a valuable presentation). It is only when you become more capable of staying with the messy things in life that you will experience greater access to self-assurance, worthiness and happiness. Discomfort will always be there in work and life - that is an inevitability. What are you willing to learn from it?
Find your happy-mess.