Being pushed out to the edge
When you’re a Pathfinder – when you follow your own path instead of the norm – you often feel like you’ve been pushed out to the edge – by society, by circumstances, by other people.
The edge is uncomfortable. The things that work for most people don’t work for you. You feel different, alone, unsteady.
And then someone starts talking about ‘finding your path’ and you think to yourself, “Whoa, hold your horses. I’m doing my best to survive out here on the edge. If I do have a path, it would surely lead me even farther out, even farther away from the comfortable center, and I don’t think I could handle that. I’m barely getting by where I am.”
“I’m only out here on the edge because I was forced here. And now you’re asking me to choose to go out even farther, to even more distant, perilous, unfamiliar territory? No thanks.”
Why it really sucks to be a Pathfinder
The truth is that it’s not like that at all.
Yes, there is a center of what’s commonly accepted in society. The tried and true, the paths well-traveled. Yes, it’s true that you don’t fit in there – even if you can fake it. Yes, the center exists, and yes, you are on the edge.
But that’s not why the edge is uncomfortable.
The edge is uncomfortable because you aren’t in touch with your center.
When you find your own center, you redraw the map. You stop orienting your heart’s compass toward – or away from – what “they” do, and start orienting it toward your own path. The mainstream becomes just another territory on the map. It loses the power it currently holds over you.
What you resist persists. True freedom is defining yourself as yourself, not defining yourself as anti- anything.
Finding your own center
Finding your path makes your life more comfortable, not less comfortable. Finding your path relieves the pressure of trying to define yourself according to standards that don’t fit you – or trying to rewrite those standards.
To find your path, join the Pathfinding Group. Only 2 more weeks left to join!
Shauntelle Mystral, famous explorer, slices through the thick jungle vines with her trusty machete.
She wades through swampy muck, trudges through the tangled undergrowth, and carries on until the light begins to dim.
Slung across her shoulder is a huge burlap bag she’s been dragging for miles.
It’s huge, but not heavy – because what’s inside it is a whole bunch of…
Shauntelle Mystral, famous explorer, prepares to set up camp.
She doesn’t need a fire. She didn’t need to bring along a co-explorer and set a watch. She doesn’t need to set any traps, or find a safe spot to rest.
Instead, she builds a pillow fort.
“I’m totally safe from snakes. There’s no way one could wriggle between these pillows,” thinks Shauntelle Mystral.
“I’ve got pillows under me too, so there’s no way any of those nasty ants can get at me,” thinks Shauntelle Mystral.
“I can’t see a jaguar, so I’m not even worried that one might pounce on me at any moment,” thinks Shauntelle Mystral.
The harsh truth about Shauntelle Mystral’s pillow fort
Those pillows aren’t going to protect Shauntelle Mystral.
In fact, the pillows are going to blind her to any real danger.
Without the pillows, she could see any danger and respond to it.
With the pillows, she feels more safe, but she is actually less safe.
Are you building a pillow fort in the jungle?
Here are the most common pillows that people build their forts out of:
- “I can count on my job security”
- “I don’t want to hurt anyone”
- “Spiritual practice will make me feel okay, so I don’t have to act”
- “I can’t”
- “I don’t want to rock the boat”
- “But I love my partner”
These are all nice, comfortable-looking pillows, each a fluffy wrapper around the hard truth:
It’s okay to be afraid. Shauntell Mystral, famous jungle explorer, is afraid too.
But she’s safer with her eyes wide open to potential danger than she is inside her comfortable-looking pillow fort.
If you ensconce yourself inside the pillow fort of job security, you’ll be caught unprepared if you’re laid off.
If you bury your face in the “I don’t want to hurt anyone” pillow, you might be avoiding responsibility for your own choices.
If you hide inside the pillow fort of the spiritual bypass, you hide from the discomfort of standing up for yourself.
If you cover yourself in pillows embroidered with “I can’t”, you opt out of taking the helm of your own life.
If you nest inside the pillow pile of “I don’t want to rock the boat”, you say that avoiding conflict is more important than your own needs.
If you cover the ground with “But I love my partner” pillows, you turn your face away from the fact that you’re not happy, effectively telling yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy.
Don’t you deserve to be afraid?
Don’t you deserve to be truthful with yourself?
If you’re afraid, say, “I’m afraid.”
There’s no need to build elaborate pillow forts to hide from the truth of your fear.
It’s okay to be afraid. Change is scary. Even thinking about change is scary.
But at least be honest with yourself, and admit the truth about what’s stopping you.
Say, “I’m afraid.”
Shauntelle Mystral, in the jungle, without pillows
Shauntelle Mystral, famous jungle explorer, says, “I’m afraid.”
She stands up, still afraid but newly empowered. Pillows go flying everywhere!
Shauntelle Mystral walks on, with eyes open. She spots movement from up ahead – could be a jaguar.
She pauses, then changes her route to avoid the danger.
1 week later, the newspaper headline reads:
SHAUNTELLE MYSTRAL FIRST JUNGLE EXPLORER TO RETURN ALIVE
SURVIVED WITHOUT PILLOWS
Once you step out of your pillow fort, the true work of Pathfinding beings.
Now that you can see the true landscape, no longer obscured by illusions, you can find your true path.
The reason I’m so hype about the Enneagram is that it unifies my two main interests in life: psychology and spirituality.
I remember the moment when I realized I was interested in psychology.
Kyeli and I had recently published The Usual Error. I had just given a speech to my Toastmasters Club about one of the chapters, “I am not green.” It’s about how you can create peace in your heart and in your relationships by not taking things personally.
My speech evaluator said, “Psychology, what a great topic to choose for a speech.”
“Psychology?” I thought to myself. My speech wasn’t about psychology. It was about communication, relationships, and managing your thoughts.
Oh. I guess that is technically psychology.
I had never thought of communication, relationships, and self-work as psychology. Psychology is this dry, stuffy, academic, official degree that you get. It’s not lively or fascinating. It’s not wild.
But what if it could be?
That was the day I started thinking of myself as a wild psychologist.
I remember the moment when I realized I was interested in spirituality.
I used to be a die-hard skeptic and measurementist, but I was curious about spirituality and the supernatural.
I took a class called “Geek Spirituality”, which built a bridge for me.
The teacher explained spirituality and magic in scientific terms that made sense to my rational brain.
This bridge was sturdy enough to convince me to open my mind just a little bit and try some of the magickal experiments we did in class.
I experienced magickal things that made absolutely no sense to my rational brain. I could rationalize them afterwards, but in the moment, I had to believe in the magick for it to work.
This experience basically broke my brain, and was the first step on my spiritual path.
I remember when I discovered the bridge.
It was the moment when I read this quote:
[…] saying that one is interested in spirituality but not psychology (or vice versa) is like saying that you want to learn to be a writer but are not interested in spelling or grammar, or that you want to be a doctor but do not care about biology.
Psychology that does not address peoples’ spiritual hungers is not going to lead to any complete and satisfying result. It is like climbing only half way up a mountain, or taking a dish out of the oven when it is only half-baked. We still get some benefits, but do not achieve the final goal.
Psychology without spirituality is arid and ultimately meaningless, while spirituality without grounding in psychological work leads to vanity and illusions.
Either way, disappointment and deception result. To be most effective, spirituality and psychology need to go hand in hand to reinforce the best in each other.
When I read this, I literally smacked myself in the forehead and said, “So that’s why I’m so hype about the Enneagram! It’s a bridge between psychology and spirituality!”
So that, my friend, is why I’m so hype about the Enneagram. It’s a bridge between psychology and spirituality.
In other words:
Illustration by Kelly Kingman, graphic recorder
The Enneagram is a system for identifying which path your soul is on in its journey toward Oneness. There are 9 possible paths that a human soul can take (“ennea” is Greek for “nine”), and once you know which path you’re on, the Enneagram can point you in the right direction for your own personal and spiritual growth.
Here’s a very brief overview of each of the 9 paths.
Path #1: The Jewel in my heart is Goodness. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Goodness into the world like Gandhi, in service of rightness and justice. When my Jewel is obstructed by self-hatred or by the voice of my harsh inner judge, my essential Goodness can come across as self-righteousness or nitpicky perfectionism. I’m trying my best to find my essential Goodness, and I need to remember that I can’t get that by living up to my impossible inner standard of rightness; I can only find true Goodness by learning to be present with myself as I am.
Path #2: The Jewel in my heart is Unconditional Love. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Unconditional Love into the world like Mother Teresa, embodying kindness and wholehearted generosity. When my Jewel is obstructed by my own need to feel appreciated for everything I give to others, my essential Love can come across as codependence or passive-aggression. I’m trying my best to find Unconditional Love, and I need to remember that I can’t get that from helping others or being needed; I can only find true Unconditional Love by being honest with myself about my true motivations.
Path #3: The Jewel in my heart is Value. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Value into the world like Oprah Winfrey, using my own gifts to inspire others and help them realize their own value. When my Jewel is obstructed by vanity or ambition, my essential Value can come across as deceit, manipulation, or self-centeredness. I’m trying my best to feel worthy and valuable, and I need to remember that I can’t get that from achieving success in the world; I can only find true Value by being open, vulnerable, and authentic.
Path #4: The Jewel in my heart is Depth. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Depth into the world like Alanis Morissette, diving into my own heart to unearth the treasures buried within, helping others know themselves more deeply through my own vulnerable self-expression. When my Jewel is obstructed by envy or melancholy, my essential Depth can come across as moodiness, self-consciousness, and haughtiness. I’m trying my best to find my essential Depth, and I need to remember that I can’t get that from escaping into my emotions; I can only find true Depth by being the eye of the hurricane, centered in myself.
Path #5: The Jewel in my heart is Clarity. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Clarity into the world like Albert Einstein, exploring an area in exquisite detail until I grok it in fullness. When my Jewel is obstructed by fear of being unsafe, my essential Clarity can come across as aloofness or detachment. I’m trying my best to find Clarity, and I need to remember that I can’t get that from the outside; I can only find true Clarity by being willing to jump into life and experience it as a participant, not just an observer.
Path #6: The Jewel in my heart is Guidance. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Guidance into the world like Ellen DeGeneres, building connection so we can all work together for the common good. When my Jewel is obstructed by anxiety, my essential Guidance can come across as skepticism or blind obedience to authority. I’m trying my best to find my essential Guidance, and I need to remember that I can’t get that from any person or organization outside myself; I can only find true Guidance by learning to trust the inner wisdom of my heart.
Path #7: The Jewel in my heart is Freedom. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Freedom into the world like Jim Carrey, bringing a childlike joy and playfulness to everything I do and everyone I meet. When my Jewel is obstructed by fear of missing out, my essential Freedom can come across as franticness, planning the next exciting experience instead of being fully present in the moment. I’m trying my best to find Freedom, and I need to remember that I can’t get that by enjoying as many things as possible; I can only find true Freedom by savoring the joy in the present moment slowly and thoroughly.
Path #8: The Jewel in my heart is Strength. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Strength into the world like Martin Luther King, protecting those I care about. When my Jewel is obstructed by fear of being taken advantage of, my essential Strength can come across as aggressiveness or vindictiveness. I’m trying my best to find Strength, and I need to remember that I can’t get that by seeking out intensity for intensity’s sake; I can only find true Strength by being strong enough to be vulnerable.
Path #9: The Jewel in my heart is Wholeness. When my Jewel shines clearly, I reflect Wholeness into the world like Kofi Annan, seeing all sides and using my empathy to promote peace and understanding. When my Jewel is obstructed by disconnecting from the world, my essential Wholeness can come across as disinterest or laziness. I’m trying my best to find Wholeness, and I need to remember that I can’t get that by daydreaming; I can only find true Wholeness by taking action.
In other words:
I have a secret.
I have a tool (codename: E9) that’s so ridiculously useful to my Pathfinding work, it’s not an exaggeration to call it my ace in the hole.
And I’ve never written about it before today.
Why not? Because I was intimidated. I’ve only been learning about E9 for 3 years, and I still feel like a noob compared to some of the E9 experts I know. Take your own advice, Pace.
Why not? Because everyone I know who teaches about E9 teaches exclusively about E9, and I’m afraid to open Pandora’s Box. I’m afraid of becoming just another face in the crowd of E9 coaches instead of the one, the only Pathfinding Coach. Take your own advice, Pace.
Why not? Because up until this point, I’ve prided myself on learning from many schools of thought, but not belonging to any of them. It fits my image of myself as a rebel, an outsider. Maybe belonging is your edge, Pace.
I’m ready. Let’s drop the code names and pull back the curtain.
It’s the Enneagram.
Illustration by Kelly Kingman, graphic recorder
The Enneagram (pronounced ANY-a-gram) is a system for identifying which path your soul is on in its journey toward Oneness. There are 9 possible paths that a human soul can take (“ennea” is Greek for “nine”), and once you know which path you’re on, the Enneagram can point you in the right direction for your own personal and spiritual growth. These 9 paths are called “Enneagram types”, “enneatypes”, or simply “types”.
How I found the Enneagram
Back when Kyeli and I lived in Austin, Susan Piver taught a workshop on the Enneagram and she invited us to attend. Before the workshop, we met for dinner at Mother’s, our favorite vegetarian restaurant. We sat in the garden, with a nice view of the koi pond.
Susan did an impression of the communication style of each of the 9 Enneagram types. When she came to Type 3, she made bold sweeps with her arms as she said, “Here’s what I’m going to tell you. You’re going to love it. Okay, now I’ve told you, and it was totally awesome, right?”
Kyeli burst out howling with laughter, saying, “You just did a perfect, spot-on Pace impression! That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”
“No way,” I harumphed, and crossed my arms. “I don’t talk like that.”
“You totally do,” said Kyeli, struggling to speak through the laughter. “Especially when you get into Pace Explains mode.”
I harumphed once more, and asked Susan to carry on to Type 4, which would be Kyeli’s opportunity to harumph.
But Kyeli was right. I do talk (and gesture) like that. And Susan hardly knew me at that point, so how could she do such an accurate impression of me?
I was hooked – and I only got more hooked from there.
I learned more by reading books.
(I have lots of copies of The Wisdom of the Enneagram because I give a copy to each of my new Pathfinding clients.)
I learned more by observing.
I began to notice patterns in myself, in Kyeli, and in others. Then I looked more deeply to see if I could discover what drove those patterns from underneath.
The Enneagram is not just about the surface-level behaviors of people, it’s about our underlying motivations. Understanding the motivations of others helps me relate to them more deeply, which helps me feel compassion instead of confusion – and it helps me make the usual error less often!
I learned more by talking about it with anyone who would sit still for more than 30 seconds.
Even though I haven’t written about the Enneagram, if you’ve had a conversation with me in person any time in the past 3 years, I bet I brought it up, didn’t I? (:
I learned more by teaching.
Last year, I taught an in-person workshop about the Enneagram and the Desire Map, and it was an amazing experience. Preparing for it and teaching it taught me a lot about the Enneagram and about myself.
I learned more by creating a tiny study group.
Kyeli and I are currently studying The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram in depth by reading it out loud to each other, discussing it, and making copious notes in the margins.
And that brings us to today.
All of this learning and practice has been happening behind the scenes, and it didn’t feel right to hide such an integral part of my life’s work.
So I worked through my resistance, and I’m sharing my story: I’m here to help you find your path, and the Enneagram is chock full of insights that empower me to do an even better job at it.
So what’s next?
A new podcast called Wild Crazy Meaningful Enneagram. There aren’t any Enneagram podcasts currently active; it’ll be a great way to deepen our study of the Enneagram and share the knowledge with you, too. We’re still in the planning phase, but we’ll let you know when we’re on the air!
What else is next?
Pace Explains the Enneagram.
What other else is next?
Enneagram Explorations! One-on-one sessions with me where we’ll explore your Enneagram type and how it can help you live a wild, crazy, meaningful life.
Could there even be a fourth thing that is next?
Yes indeedy! After studying the Enneagram for three years and not writing about it, I’ve got a lot to say that I’ve been bottling up. So you can look forward to reading more about the Enneagram, and how it can help you find your path!
p.s. After I wrote the dramatic line “And I’ve never written about it before today”, I realized that I have actually written about the Enneagram once before; I told the story of how I admitted that I am actually an Enneagram Three. Oops! And that reminds me, I still owe you the story of the second time the Enneagram changed my life!
The paradox of change
It’s hard to love and accept yourself the way you are if there’s something about yourself you wish you could change.
Changing yourself without acceptance leads to self-hate, to temporary fixes that come back to bite you in the ass, to wearing uncomfortable masks that never truly fit you, even if they do manage to fool everyone else.
It can be scary to love and accept yourself the way you are because to do so, you’ll have to let go of your goals. You’ll have to let go of the things you want to change about yourself, and the things you want to change in your life.
It’s okay. It’s safe. Those goals never really came from you in the first place. They’re not your goals. They’re the goals you think you ought to want.
Accepting yourself as you are gives you the freedom to discover what you really want.
But what if there’s something you cannot accept about yourself?
When I was 25 years old, I crashed headfirst into the paradox of change. I discovered a truth about myself that I simply could not accept, I simply could not love myself as I was.
I was born a bouncing baby boy. I lived the first 25 years of my life as male. It didn’t even occur to me that I could be anything else, or that I might want to be anything else.
But as I came to know myself in all my parts, I realized that there were an awful lot of parts that felt a lot more female than male. I noticed that a whole lot of subtle things that just felt somehow off all clicked into place when viewed through the lens of a different gender.
My internal gender identity was shifting toward female. The more I thought of myself as a woman, the happier and more right I felt inside. It simply made sense on a deep level that I cannot convey with words. But I’m a writer, so I’ll try anyway!
You know that feeling when you’re sitting around and fidgeting and fidgeting and you’re uncomfortable but you’ve been uncomfortable for so long that you fidget unconsciously and don’t even realize you’re doing it? And then you stretch and turn in juuuuuust the right way, and your back pops into place and suddenly ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, everything feels perfect, and that aching discomfort you had somehow swept under the carpet is finally gone, gone, relieved, and all you can do is bask in how gloriously right you feel at last?
Imagine that times a hundred, and instead of my back, it’s my whole life. That’s how it felt to realize that I was female.
But as I started to feel more and more of that glorious rightness, I also began to feel more and more uncomfortable dissonance, because my body was male and everyone I knew treated me as male.
Something had to give.
I had to either squish my newfound gender identity back into Pandora’s Box, or change my body and my gender role in society to match my identity. In other words, I had to either change my inside back to male, or change my outside to female.
I read the stories of other transsexuals, others who had made the courageous journey across the gender gap. The phrase that was burned into my mind was “Transition or die.”
They wrote that the process of transition – of changing one’s body and gender role – was so painful, so traumatic, and so irreversible that it must not be undertaken except as a last resort to suicide.
I wasn’t feeling suicidal. I could easily imagine how I would be feeling suicidal if I had been feeling dissonance between my inside and my outside since I was young, but grace had gifted me with the bliss of ignorance until 25.
I could also easily imagine how, if I didn’t take action, I would feel more and more uncomfortable, more and more dissonant, more and more miserable.
So I asked myself that most beautiful and dangerous question:
Why wait until I’m miserable enough to be 100%, absolutely, positively sure that I’m really truly honestly definitely female?
Why wait until I feel enough pain to make the “choice” dead obvious?
Why wait until I hit rock bottom?
I decided not to wait. I began my transition from male to female.
And that was when I crashed into the paradox of change.
If someone had come up to me at that point and said, “Pace, you need to love yourself and accept yourself as you are,” I probably would have punched them. (And then blamed it on my brand new hormones.)
I would have said, “That’s crazy talk. I don’t love the way I am, I don’t accept myself as I am, that’s why I’m trying to change the way I am.”
And I would have been wrong. If I had used self-hate to fuel my transition, I would not be the person I am today. I would be bitter, scarred, and resentful.
Instead, I embraced the paradox of change and dared to love myself.
When I noticed self-hate, I loved and accepted the hate as part of myself. And through an amazing sort of emotional alchemy, the hate dissolved and was purified, transformed into clarity and motivation.
When I accepted myself exactly as I was, I accepted all of me – and that included my true desire to change.
The false desire to change – the part that was rooted in hate and fear – melted away. But the true desire remained.
So I changed. I changed my body to female. I changed my gender role to female. It was painful. It was traumatic. It was fascinating. It was messy.
And it was wonderful.
In other words:
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re struggling. Frustrated, stressed, everything seems like an obstacle.
Then something seemingly insignificant happens. A bird flies by, a song comes on, a phrase casually dropped in conversation… and everything slows down.
Your perspective shifts. You see things in a new light. The obstacle that looked like an immovable mountain ten seconds ago now looks like a medium-sized rock that you could totally push out of the way.
And then you smack yourself on the forehead as you remember:
You had this exact same epiphany four months ago, and then forgot all about it.
Learning is hard enough. Learning the exact same thing over and over again is frustrating enough to make you want to give up.
Yeah, yeah, we all know that growth occurs in a spiral, not a line, but can’t we tighten the spiral up a bit?
Can’t we find a way to remember these hard-won lessons more quickly, instead of reinventing the wheel every time?
Here’s how I do it.
A couple of years ago, I took on too many projects in my business all in one 5-week period, and I forgot that April was tax time, so I was dealing with the stress of that, too.
I pushed myself too hard. I didn’t leave enough time for myself to rest.
And I burned out.
But after I burned out, I didn’t let myself recuperate. I kept pushing myself because I needed to MAKE MORE MONEY NOW to pay that huge-ass tax bill.
And then I snapped. I don’t even remember what the trigger was. A bird flew by. A song came on. Kyeli casually dropped a phrase in conversation…
My perspective shifted. I saw things in a new light. The obstacle that looked like an immovable mountain ten seconds ago suddenly looked like a medium-sized rock that I could totally push out of the way with patience and cleverness.
But then I didn’t let my epiphany fade away into mist. I caught it between my hands, placed it into a jar, and pickled it – so that next time I could open the jar and remember instead of facepalming.
I wrote a love letter to my future self.
I imagined feeling the way I had been feeling yesterday. I felt that pain and struggle in my heart. And while my epiphany was fresh, I knew exactly what I would need to hear to pull me out of it.
Dearest, most beloved Future Pace,
I love you. I love you so much. Right now you’re probably reading this because you’re afraid of running out of money, or you’re tired, or you need some inspiration. Here you go.
Money comes from doing awesome things that are worth paying for. Keep your eye on the awesome things. If you focus on doing awesome things, you will do awesome things and you will make money in the process. Double-check your business model. You didn’t forget to put “make money” in there. It’s in there. You just need to have faith, and do the awesome things, and trust that the people will come. When the people come, the money will come. Everything will be okay.
If you’re feeling tired, you might want to get rid of some of the things that are tiring you. Focus only on the bits that light you up, and figure out more ways to outsource more things, or just let them go. But what you really need right now is rest. Start out with some stupid rest, like playing on your iPhone. But then do some nourishing rest. Go do 15 minutes of Remembrance right now. It’s okay if it’s inconvenient. Go do it.
I love you with all my heart. Trust me.
p.s. Just keep crying, and everything will be okay.
But the most beautiful love letter is useless if you don’t remember to read it.
I thought about how I would be feeling when I would really need to read this letter next time.
On the virtual envelope, I wrote, “Read this when you’re feeling tired and depleted.”
I put this love letter in a place where I could find it easily the next time I needed it. Since I’m a geek, my place was my private wiki.
Now, whenever I log in to my wiki, I see “Read this when you’re feeling tired and depleted,” so I can read it again when I need it the most.
As backup, I asked Kyeli if she could please remind me to read it when I’m feeling tired and depleted, and she said yes.
I read it just yesterday, and it brought me back to exactly where I needed to be.
A collection of love letters
This love letter was so powerful for me, I’ve started a collection.
Put on Winter by Breakbeat Heartbeat, and read the rest of this love letter.
Inspiration is perishable
The next time you work through a hard-earned lesson, don’t let it expire. Write a love letter to your future self, and make a plan for how you’ll remember to read it the next time you need it.
In other words:
You’re drowning, and then you’re afloat.
Write down how to swim in a note.
Remember to read it
The next time you need it;
Take comfort in what you once wrote.
Fear #1: Tiger Fear
OH MY GOD THERE’S A TIGER RIGHT BEHIND ME!
Run. Run away fast.
When you’re safe, the fear will pass.
Fear #2: Neurochemical Fear
Sometimes, nothing touches the fear. No amount of running away from tigers, no amount of emotional processing, no amount of spiritual practice makes the fear subside. This type of fear can be caused by chemicals in your brain, and can be treated by a professional.
Fear #3: Anxiety
When the fear isn’t an immediate threat like a tiger, and when it’s not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, it’s anxiety. Anxiety is fear that you experience when nothing’s wrong in the present (no tigers) but you fear that something might go wrong in the future.
This fear is either rational, or irrational. In other words, what you’re afraid of is either something that might actually happen, or it’s not.
If your anxiety is rational, you can say this to your brain: “Thanks, brain, for pointing out this potential threat. It’s a good thing to notice. I’ll take reasonable precautions. Now please turn off the ‘red alert’ alarm so we can think clearly and work together to solve this problem.”
If your anxiety is irrational, you can say this to your brain: “Thanks, brain, for being alert to potential threats. This one is okay. It’s not going to hurt us. You’ve done a good job and you can turn off the ‘red alert’ alarm now because we’re safe.
Anxiety is like a barking dog. Either the dog is barking at a burglar, or at the mail carrier.
Rational anxiety: dog version
If the dog is barking at a burglar, you can say this: “Thanks, dog, for barking at this potential threat. I’ll call the police right away. You can stop barking now; I’ll take it from here.”
Irrational anxiety: dog version
If the dog is barking at the mail carrier, you can say this: “Thanks, dog, for being alert to potential threats. This one is okay. He’s not going to hurt us. Good girl. You can stop barking now because we’re safe.”
Your fear is not your enemy. It’s a really stupid friend.
Your fear is trying to keep you safe. It’s just going about it in a profoundly unhelpful way.
Just like yelling at a dog for barking doesn’t help, being angry at your fear doesn’t help. Your fear is a part of you, and it’s trying to protect you, even if it’s doing it in a really dumb way. Trying to squash or deny your own fear is a form of self-violence.
So instead, say to your fear, “Thank you, fear, for letting me know about this potential threat. I’ll take it from here.”
Then fill up your heart, and act from fullness instead of fear.
In other words:
This panic with which you contend,
You’d like to erase or transcend.
But that’s a doomed feud.
Just treat it as you’d
Treat a nice but incompetent friend.
I examined a row of spiked strips, all of different colors. Each strip was labeled with an emotion.
“These are the heart of the village,” he replied. “The feelings encoded on these strips are our emotional DNA. New children born into the village will only be able to feel the feelings on these strips.”
He pointed at several of the strips. “Joy, strength, love, perseverance, excitement, anger, delight… I wonder what delight feels like.” He stroked his long, grey beard. “I created delight when I was but a young man. My granddaughter tells me it’s somewhat like joy.” He beamed.
“This one looks new.” I pointed at the blue strip labeled ‘melancholy.’ “Did you create it, too?”
“No,” said the chief. “No one knows where it came from. It just appeared this morning.” He smiled, shrugged, and walked on.
“Interesting,” I replied, trying to keep the edge out of my voice, hoping the chief would not notice that my hands had begun to tremble.
Later that night, I returned to the visitor’s yurt and feigned sleep, trying to make sense of what I had seen.
The villagers sometimes got angry, but it passed quickly. They felt sad, but it didn’t linger. No one in the village had ever suffered from depression. No one had ever been unable to force themselves to face the day.
What kind of villain would poison these healthy people with melancholy?
I must take matters into my own hands. I will steal the melancholy strip, and destroy it.
“…and that’s the last entry.” I sighed, closed the journal, and brushed the remaining dirt off its cover. I handed it to Emory, who had assisted me with the dig.
“I guess she didn’t succeed, then,” Emory said.
“No, that much is a matter of public record. She was caught attempting to break in, imprisoned, and died during her third escape attempt.”
“So what’s it like? Melancholy?” asked Emory.
“It’s like sadness, but… deeper. And… grey instead of blue, if that makes sense. It doesn’t have an obvious reason and it doesn’t go away easily,” I replied.
“Do you ever wish she had… you know? Destroyed it?”
“I’ll answer your question with a question,” I said. “Have you ever felt like your life was all wrong? Like there was something missing, something just out of sight out of the corner of your eye? And at first it drives you crazy, and you think there’s something wrong with you, and then after years and years you realize no, there’s something right with you and there’s something wrong with the whole world? That this feeling of wrongness was, after all, not a curse but a red alert, a warning bell, trying its best to take you by the shoulders and shake you awake?”
Emory looked at me with her big round eyes, and smiled. “Nope! Can’t say that I have.”
“Would you want your child to experience that feeling?” I asked her.
“Heavens no! It’s good to have a warning bell when there’s actually something wrong, but to have it go off when everything’s perfectly fine? That sounds horrible!”
“So everything’s perfectly fine in your village?”
“Yes, of course! It’s perfectly fine, it’s always been perfectly fine, and it will always be perfectly fine!”
“Of course it is,” I replied, reaching into my pocket and running my thumb across the blue spikes of the strip that was going to mysteriously appear in Emory’s village tomorrow morning. “Of course it is.”
Photo by Kyeli Smith
Does your heart feel empty? Do you feel like you’ve given so much and tried so hard that you don’t have anything left to give? And in the emptiness, fear and doubt arise, running around and around in circles?
I hear you. It can be really exhausting, can’t it?
May I share with you one thing that has helped me through some tough times? It’s a question:
What if this empty feeling was not a problem to be fixed?
What if this empty feeling was like an empty stomach, like when you get hungry or thirsty? When I get thirsty, I don’t worry that my whole life is in shambles and that I’m doing everything wrong. I just go get a glass of water and I drink.
When your heart feels empty, you don’t need to worry that your whole life is in shambles and that you’re doing everything wrong. You just need to let your heart drink. To connect with Spirit. To meditate. To breathe. To practice yoga. To do Remembrance. To pray. To drink from the deep river of Love that has no beginning and no end.
Your neediness, your thirst, is not a problem. It’s a magnet.
It pulls you desperately toward what you need so you can receive it until your heart overflows with it – and then that overflow will spill out onto others and fill their hearts.
But you can’t overflow until you’re full. You can’t give when you’re depleted. How can you – you don’t have anything in there to give!
If you want to give, first give to yourself.
Give yourself the gift of a nourishing, heart-filling spiritual practice that helps you feel sated, loved, enough.
Then pause, and notice how you feel moved to act.
And the next time you notice your heart fuel meter reading “E”, don’t panic. Remember that it’s just a signal to remind you to fill up, like a rumbling belly or a thirsty tongue.
In other words:
Sometimes you feel like you’re sinking.
“I’ll pray, then be sated,” you’re thinking.
But that’s not the end;
What you should intend
Is to thirst so you never stop drinking.
(with apologies to Shams-e Tabrizi)
Photo by Kyeli Smith