Your goodness doesn’t cancel out your darkness nor the other way around. As Thomas Lloyd Qualls says, “Believing you are good is like believing in the half moon.” The unlit side of the moon is always there, whether we see a sliver or full, creamy sphere.
I'm one of those annoying people who never shuts up about books. And it's not because I've read so much (I haven't, relatively) but because words are my primary map for life. There are hundreds of books that made a mark on me, but the ones on this list are those I return to again and again and recommend to others most often.
I struggle with other "non-substance" addictions. I'm constantly worrying about who likes or doesn't like me, if I am attractive or thin enough, if I am a good mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend. It's consuming and I liken it very much to an addiction to alcohol, pills whatever. You're blogs have made me cry because they resonate. I'm trying to realize it's "ok" to fail or be imperfect, but it's been almost 37 years of thinking it's not ok to be these things.
It's easy to understand why we're anxious, depressed, or terrified when our circumstances are chaotic. It's far more confounding when the outsides are smooth and we've got no good cause to point to for the struggle. I spent most of this weekend trying to find a reason for my rawness. Something to explain my pounding heart, clenched jaw, flipping stomach and throat that keeps threatening to close shut.
But there wasn't one. There isn't.
Except there is.
I'm a human being. Who's probably at least a little mentally different. A canary in the coal mine. But mostly, I'm just a human being. I have energy. It's not here to destroy me, but to guide me, if I can listen to it and feel it and watch it, like the weather.
Finally, today, after a big rainstorm cleared, I walked to my desk and grabbed "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron from the stack of go-tos.
I opened the book to this:
"Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what's going on.
It's counter-intuitive to give up hope, no? But think of it like this:
"Giving up hope of all alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship to with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death."
So what if I stopped trying to feel something else other than exactly what I'm feeling? What if I stopped seeking an alternative? What if I stopped looking for a reason? What if we never need a reason?
This is not a new lesson, but I needed to remember. And once I did, for the first time in three days, I felt a crack of relief catch in my chest.
There's a reason I call Pema "The Mothership", lovelies.
You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. - Stephen Covey
Last week I wrote about a yoga retreat I attended last fall and one of the big lessons I took away from that weekend: the necessity of starting where you are.
The second big thing I took away from that weekend was the concept of “non-negotiables.”
The teacher, Seane Corn, talked about how in her life there are a handful of things that are absolutely non-negotiable. They are not things that are nice to do, when there’s enough time, money, space. They are not things she does now and then or when in an emergency state. They are daily doings. Every day (more or less) practices. They are the core things that sustain her, allow her to stay sane, centered, and most importantly, to do her life work and serve others.
And if they go by the wayside, shit starts to fall apart, quick.
For Seane, they are: asana practice (the physical practice of yoga), meditation, prayer, good nutrition, sleep and therapy.
Many of us might look at that list and think, Well, that would be nice. If I could do yoga every day, cook perfectly nutritious meals and the extra hour or two each week to go to therapy my life would be… someone else’s life.
What about those of us with kids, really demanding jobs, rough travel schedules, ill health, or a spouse or a kid with ill health, mental illness, financial issues, no time? What if our “non-negotiables” are showing up to work, feeding our kids, taking care of our sick parent and paying the bills? In other words, what about the rest of us?
The thing is this: the circumstances of your life don’t exempt you from being a human being with physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs. Ever. No human on earth is an exception.
But we forget this. We are so caught up in doing our lives that we forget who we are, all the time. The non-negotiables are all about remembering who we really are, daily, so that we can help others do the same. It’s really that simple. Could there be anything more important than that?
“Remembering who we are” can sound squishy and privileged, but it’s the exact opposite. Remembering who we are is the underlying mission of all good self-help, spiritual and religious texts since the beginning of time.
It is the real purpose of yoga (not to have a nicer ass or be really bendy) and talk therapy and meditation and creative expression and relationships.
Remembering who we are is really about remembering who we are not. We are not the big job, the alcoholism, the failed marriage, the sexual abuse, the cancer, the mother, father, the various roles we play as parent, child, wife, friend. We are all those things but they are not who we are. Who we really are is timeless and perfect and whole already. Who we are is “the diamond in the shit,” as my friend and teacher Zoe Wild puts it.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
(Side rant: The thing I loved most about Seane’s workshop is how not woo-woo it was. While in the past decade we seem to be churning out yoga teachers by the hundred-thousands and it’s all very pop culture to be carrying a yoga mat around and practicing “mindfulness,” Seane was doing her thing long before all that. She’s a New Jersey girl with a foul mouth, a fierceness and urgency in her delivery, and a passion for social justice. Her shtick is that this work – the business of twisting our bodies, balancing chakras and deepening our awareness – that some of us get to do on the mat is an utter gift and it’s our responsibility, our duty in fact, to carry that work into the world. To raise the collective vibration. Not so we can all ohm and hold hands and hug while we sip coconut milk lattes, but so that we can save the earth and each other in a very real way. Hunger. Child prostitution. Poverty. Violence. Addiction. These are the things she tackles.)
Hearing this concept allowed me to solidify my own non-negotiables, and more importantly, gave me permission to have them. I’ve also taken notice of the myths we have about a concept like this in observing myself and talking to others about it.
For the record, my non-negotiables are: prayer, recovery (meetings), physical activity (I must sweat), alone time, creative time (usually writing) and sleep. The recovery process has laid a good foundation for this type of thinking because I’ve learned without staying sober, everything – like, every single thing – will fall apart. The starkness of that has forced me to prioritize, but I’ve also learned that being “sober” isn’t just the absence of booze. It starts there, but also includes emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, which is where the other non-negotiables come in.
Before I got sober I would have told you “me time” was one of my non-negotiables, and my version of “me time” was going out and drinking and shutting the world out (or being at home and drinking and shutting the world out). But real non-negotiables don’t have downsides, which I cover below.
So here’s the deal with non-negotiables.
- THEY ARE NOT LUXURIES. It is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Women, especially a lot of the moms I know, feel like they’re pampering themselves if they “take time for me.” BULLSHIT. Buuuuulllllshiiiiit. You must take time for you. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself; it’s selfish not to. When I don’t take care of myself the version of me that other people get – especially my daughter - pretty much sucks. I repeat: it is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Okay?
- THEY'RE NOT COMPLICATED. Non-negotiables are almost always very, very simple. Difficult, maybe, but not complicated. For example, it’s difficult for me to sit down and write most of the time, but it’s never complicated. It requires a pen and a paper or my computer and some attention (the difficult part). It’s definitely difficult for me to run some days. Never complicated. They are the building blocks for your foundation on which all else can be built. James Altucher, one of my favorite nutty writers and thinkers, covers his version of non-negotiables in what he calls The Daily Practice. He attributes all his failures and successes to whether or not he's follwing his Daily Practice (He is great and funny, I recommend.)
- YOU HAVE TIME. You do.
- THEY BELONG TO YOU. Your non-negotiables are yours. They don’t belong to your partner, your kids, your co-workers, or your mom. Your list might involve them (e.g. time with your children) but I would argue you could explore that part of the list. Is time with your kids or partner really part of your non-negotiable list, or is it something you put on because you feel guilty if you don’t? I love and need to spend time with my daughter but she’s not on my non-negotiable list. My list – and your list – is about filling up your own tank, putting on your own life preserver. Your list belongs to you.
- THEY ARE NOT SELFISH. This is related to all the points above, but worth stating on its own again. It is not selfish to take care of yourself.
- THEY ARE DAILY (OR CLOSE TO DAILY) PRACTICES. These aren’t things we do only in an emergency. I have a good friend Matt, who when he was going through a really rough period, got into meditation. It helped immensely, along with other things. A few months later he came to me feeling like shit again. I asked about the meditation, and he said he had got away from it when things got better. This is so common; I do it all the time. But it’s funny, right? And so indicative of how we live. We only pay attention when we are in an extreme state of despair or discomfort, and then the second we escape that state we go right back to what we were doing before that got us to that point. Hellooooo, wine *raises hand*!
Which brings me to my last point.
- REAL NON-NEGOTIABLES HAVE NO NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS. Aside from the perceived side-effects of opportunity cost and possibly disappointing others by taking the time, real non-negotiables don’t have a down side. Even if they cost money (e.g. travel). Real non-negotiables are not about pleasure, although they can be pleasurable. They are about happiness (what we often confuse with pleasure as Mark Manson so defly points out). You might say sex is a non-negotiable – and perhaps it is – but I’d challenge you to examine what it is about sex that you need every day. The connection with another human? Physical contact? The stress release? Maybe it’s sex, but maybe what you need is to feel your body. I don’t really know. But I’d stretch to say that if we really dig down our real non-negotiables don’t rely on other people. They may involve them, but not rely on them.
That’s it, lovelies. Consider your non-negotiables. Write them down. Commit to them. Take them so seriously. You are amazing. I love you.
If you missed part one of this, where I talk about the necessity of starting where you are, it’s here.
I've had these words bangin' around in my head for the past few days. They're from the one and only Pema Chodron in her book "When Things Fall Apart." I first came across her and this book back in the early days of my marriage, when life was throwing us one massive curveball after another, and I myself was gasping for air daily. I was in an unrelenting state of not wanting to be where I was. Wishing for things to be different than they were. Wishing I could disappear, runaway, and save everyone around me from the pain that would cause. I had no idea how to proceed.
I would listen to Pema on my iPod every night in bed, on my walk to the train, on the bus. Her words were oxygen. She told her own story of her marriage, how her husband approached her on their porch one hot, dusty summer day in Arizona and announced that he was leaving, that he was in love with another woman, and that she threw rocks at him and spit words of hate. She described the hot anger, the frightening rage she felt towards him and this other woman, the plans she made to hurt them, the arresting thoughts of violence and how her own mind attacked her moment after moment.
She also described how that experience set her life on a different course. Not immediately, and not easily, but it cracked her open in such a way that the former version of herself and her life were annihilated. In an attempt to find some way out of her pain, she was talking to a friend who recommended she read an article written by Chögyam Trungpa. The article was about how we relate to negative feelings - and that it's not the negative feelings that hurt us, but the stories we tell ourselves about them, which are often filled with thoughts of shame, self-hatred and blame. It awakened something in her. The possibility that there was another way to move through this. This set her on the path to being a student of his and eventually becoming the first Tibetan buddhist nun, a prolific author and one of the most renowned spiritual teachers of our time.
In my own case, working through her books and workshops and listening to her words helped me navigate the next several years. "When Things Fall Apart" is one of the seven ten books I keep on my desk at all times. As with all big lessons, they take different meaning over time. You could study buddhism until the day you die and never grasp it all -- the lessons never end. But there is something pure and essential about the idea that sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart.
Two years ago this concept meant letting go of my marriage without having any guarantee of what the future would hold. Letting it all fall to the ground without knowing if I would be forgiven, if I would be loved again, if I would be able to support myself, if I would have to fight to keep custody of my daughter, if I would one day regret my decision and if I could even make it through the next day, and the next, and the next without being swallowed whole by the fear. It meant telling the raw, honest truth about the mess we'd created and my own part in it. It meant not knowing a fucking thing but letting it happen anyway.
Today, the story has different characters and circumstances, but the lesson is the same. I've found myself thinking, again? We are here again?Really? But this is the part of the lesson I missed or ignored the first time around.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
Until we learn something the universe will keep feeding the lesson to us. This is the good news and the bad news. We are given a lot of chances. As long as we wake up, we have another chance. But we have to do the work to actually change. We have to jump off the cliff.
Two years ago, I jumped off the cliff that was my marriage. It turned out to be okay, but it was not okay for a long time. There was a lot of free fall.
Today, the characters and circumstances are different, but the concept is the same. I'd avoided jumping off the cliff into sobriety for a long time. Really jumping off; not just peeking over the edge or hanging from it looking down while still clutching onto the rocks and dirt. I'd asked others to push me off (they cannot). I'd even hung some limbs out there in hopes that maybe a big wind would just scoop me up and throw me over (also does not work). Turns out the only thing that works is actually closing your eyes, taking a breath, bending your knees and launching yourself forward. Only when you've jumped do you need to fly. I'm remembering I can fly.