If you know anything about Astrology, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “Mercury Retrograde” and you probably also know we’re smack dab in the middle of it. According to Astrology, Mercury influences (broadly) the area of communication. By extension, Mercury influences any field where communication is key; travel, technology, diplomacy, really almost everything.

Astrology websites usually feature a list of ‘don’ts’ or ‘avoids’ for Mercury Retrograde period. Don’t travel. Don’t make detailed plans. Don’t implement technology releases (actually, that one is just from my boss 🙂 ). I’ve even seen some caution against going out at all. There’s a perspective out there (not all, but certainly a few) that if you can hide in your house until it all blows over, more the better.

I used to be one of the doom-and-gloomers. Certainly, I’ve personally experienced the effects of a Mercury Retrograde from time to time. Recently, though, under this new Trickster paradigm, I’ve started thinking about this period a little differently. Before we get into that, though, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Mercury Retrograde, let me explain a little first.

What is Mercury Retrograde?

“Retrograde” is a term used by Astrologers, primarily, to describe when it looks like a planet is going “backwards” in the sky. All of the planets appear to go Retrograde at some point or another. Do any of the planets actually ‘move’ backwards in their orbits? No. However, most websites that champion science (like the NASA one) will explain this phenomenon in a way that’s mildly unfulfilling.

These websites often use the (very helpful, I think) example of people running around a track to explain Retrograde motion. They explain that, when a planet with a faster orbit laps a planet with a slower orbit, the planet with the slower orbit will appear to be moving backwards to the planet with the faster one. This makes total sense for the outer planets, but not at all for Mercury.

Mercury has a tighter and faster orbit than Earth’s, revolving around the sun in just 88 – 116 days (depending on the source). This is why Mercury retrogrades three times a year. The above race example doesn’t work for Mercury’s retrograde motion. Although when Mercury laps us, we will appear to be moving backwards to Mercury, Mercury will still appear to be moving forward to us.

So when would Mercury appear to be moving backwards in Earth’s night sky?

If we continue to use the example of people running around a track, the runner on the inside track would appear to be moving in the opposite direction of a slower runner on an outer track when they are in fact moving in the opposite direction.

They’re far enough ahead in the curve of their orbit that they’re ‘looping back around.’  This doesn’t mean they’re moving backwards, they’re moving forward for them, but in the opposite direction of us.

So, unlike the outer planets, where at least some of the retrograde motion is truly an illusion, Mercury’s “Retrograde” period does reflect an actual change in the energy of motion for the planet in relation to us.  The planet is not moving backwards, but it IS true that Earth & Mercury are moving in opposite directions which might be why the energy around this period feels so “oppositional.”

But Wait, Who Actually Believes in Astrology These Days?

Astrology is often the victim of the centuries old belief; if we don’t understand how it could happen, it must not be possible. But consider this, the gravitational pull of the Sun is so strong it keeps our planet in orbit. The moon dramatically affects the oceans on this planet via the tides, and the gravitational pull of Venus and Mars help keep our planet in it’s orbit.

Considering the observable impacts our space neighbors have on our planet at a macro level, it’s certainly possible that there are impacts at a micro level that we just haven’t studied closely enough to see.

So what does all this mean for me?

As noted earlier, Astrologers tend to strike a cautionary note around Mercury Retrograde period. This is warranted. It hardly feels like a blessing to be on the receiving end of delays, mix-ups, and miscommunications. However, if we approach this period from the perspective that we ‘learn more from failure than success’ it can be a time of incredible personal (and communal) growth.

Mercury (Retrograde) unearths the weaknesses in our systems and helps expose the areas where we aren’t paying attention. As a result, we are presented with opportunities to improve the way we do things.

As I write this, I’m also recalling a line from the Dao de Jing that advises us to be like the reed that bends in the wind, rather than the tree that stands against it. I can’t think of better advice for a Mercury Retrograde period. It’s a good time to work on our flexibility, adaptability, and (as featured in last week’s post) resiliency.

When things grind to a halt, how quickly can we get them started again? Do we get stuck or are we able to adapt, change perspective, troubleshoot, and move on? Remember that Mercury is a Trickster and one of the lessons the Trickster can teach us is to find value in disruption and uncertainty because of what they teach us about ourselves.

If you’re getting bogged down by the crazy issues that a Mercury Retrograde can throw your way, remember that, whatever the culture, Trickster stories are often funny, and the ability to laugh – especially at the self – is in itself a type of flexibility. If we can find the spirit to laugh during this time, we’ll weather it much better.

Happiness. It seems elusive. Perhaps we define it by a set of conditions in our life; love, family, success. But consistent happiness is more a state of mind than a ‘state of the union.’ Finding happiness and staying there on a daily basis is not about having the perfect life but developing resiliency in our current not-so-perfect life.

What is resiliency? The ability to ‘bounce-back’ when life sends obstacles and challenges our way; the ability to see those challenges as learning experiences and opportunities, and the ability to maintain our positive mood and outlook even in the face of the anger, fear, and frustration exhibited by those around us.

Below are five habits that I use to uplift my mood and maintain my happiness throughout my hectic corporate days as well as nights and weekends filled with two adorable, energetic, independent, and sometimes frustrating toddlers.

1 – Strategically use music to lift your mood

Scientific evidence is only beginning to corroborate what many of us have known for most of our lives; music influences mood. Music is so effective at influencing our mood and behavior that it is an extremely powerful, much underestimated (by consumers), marketing tool.

A study from the Netherlands, as referenced in a Psychology Today article from Dec 2012 asked subjects to “identify happy and sad ‘smiley icons’ while listening to happy or sad music. Music turned out to have a great influence on what the subjects perceived. Interestingly, even when a ‘neutral face’… was shown, the subjects often thought they recognized a happy smiley when listening to happy music and a sad one when listening to sad music.”[1]

If you’re not sure what qualifies as ‘upbeat’ music, how about The Romantics’ song, What I Like About You? Or the U2 song, Elevation? An upbeat, energizing song can leave us feeling ready to tackle anything that comes our way.

Listening to upbeat music can really enhance and lift our mood, but what if we’re not in the mood for upbeat music? For example, sometimes I hear one of my favorite upbeat songs and all I can think is Turn that off!

In such a case, the song is too upbeat for our current mood, and we need some help getting there. This is where transitional music comes in handy. What is transitional music? Transitional music starts at a lower vibration[2], or mood, and ends on a higher one.

A great example of a transitional piece is Sting’s Brand New Day. The song starts on an almost mournful note, but by the time the harmonica kicks in, we feel the corners of our mouth start to turn up. Another good example is the Madonna song, Living for Love.

If you’re not a Sting or Madonna fan, that’s okay. The best thing is to experiment with your own music collection as these are the songs you feel the most resonance with; notice which songs lift your mood and which songs lower it.

We have moods that can fit all the music in our collection, by understanding which songs have what effect on our mood we can move ourselves from a low mood to a higher one. This habit can be one way to help us recover from events or circumstances that have a lowering effect on our mood.

2 – ‘Stop & Smell the Roses’

Most of us are probably familiar with the age-old advice to ‘Take Time to Stop and Smell the Roses.’ Well, as it turns out, there may be science to back up why this is such a good idea.

Scientists used to think that when human beings were in a rest state in between active tasks the brain just shut down. It turns out, though, that particular regions of the brain remain active and interact with each other even when our attention is not engaged in anything in particular. This is no surprise to anyone who’s ever daydreamed. These regions, taken as a unit, are called the default mode network.

The default mode network is responsible for such activities as mind wandering, self-reflection, planning or forward thinking, and – as mentioned earlier – day dreaming. The default mode network enables us to reflect on ourselves and others and is therefore a crucial part of our ability to relate as human beings. In fact, little to no activity within this network is associated with autism and sociopathic behaviors.

However, too much activity within this network is associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Logically, this makes sense, too much time spent obsessing over what happened in our day or feeling anxiety about the future takes us out of living in the present. We can’t live in the past or the future – so it’s probably unhealthy to spend most of our headspace there.

Contrast the default mode network with the task positive network. The task positive network activates when we’re engaged in a task that requires our concentration. Such as, you guessed it, smelling the flowers. 🙂 When we take time out to really observe our surroundings; the sights, the sounds, the smells – we’re activating our task positive network.

It’s not that the task positive network is good and the default mode network is bad, but if you notice that you’re spending too much time going over events of the day, it may be time to switch gears and engage yourself in a task that requires active concentration. This can be something as obvious and easy as noticing your surroundings.

If simply observing your surroundings doesn’t seem likely to knock you out of a funk, pick a neutral activity (ie, not related to whatever was causing you anxiety or distress) to engage in for awhile; something like cooking a new recipe or playing a new song on an instrument. Remember – the key here is that the activity require your concentration – if it’s something you can do without concentrating, it’s unlikely to engage your task positive network and switch off your default mode network.

3 – “Plant” things that make you smile or laugh in places where you’re likely to need them most

A study featured in Huffington post in April of 2014 (and surely there are more) provided evidence that laughter and humor don’t just make us feel better, they help us perform better. Participants in a California University[3] study were asked to perform a memory test and then given a break. One group was asked to sit silently and the other group watched funny videos.

While both groups improved their results on the memory test after the break, the “participants who viewed the funny videos had much higher improvement in recall abilities, 43.6 percent, compared 20.3 percent in the non-humor group.” If that isn’t enough, “the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone,’ after watching the videos.”[4]

I have a co-worker whose desk is filled with all sorts of little toys and gadgets. He has a desk calendar with funny sayings. If your work environment brings you down, you may need to think about where you can put inspirational or funny sayings so that they can help you when you’re feeling worn out and frustrated.

Anyone can hide away on a mountain and be ‘blissfully at one with the Universe’, it’s living and working with other people that challenges our happy, spiritual side the most. Recognize where you have the biggest challenges to your happiness and think strategically about how you can inject humor and uplifting material so that you’ll have it close when you need it; sometimes even having a Dilbert calendar on your desk to flip through after a frustrating meeting or e-mail can help you bounce back.

My husband and I are parents to two beautiful, adorable, and frustrating daughters. While we love them more than life, they take so much attention and time that sometimes it’s just too much. To keep our sanity we periodically read a funny parenting book together (examples; Parenting with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick and Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan)

We laugh with each other about the stories in the books and that helps us laugh at our own misadventures. It also helps us grow stronger in our parenting bond, instead of letting the times of conflict (and, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those) become the defining moments of our parental relationship.

4 – Schedule time-outs throughout the day

After a month back at my corporate job after a twelve-week maternity leave in early 2015, I told my boss, “Every day I come in like a rainbow and leave like a storm cloud, I’d be happy if I could just leave as a light drizzle.” After some reflection, I realized I was expecting too much of myself to maintain my bliss through hours of frustration on a highly challenging technology project.

When I started scheduling little ‘time-outs’ throughout the day to lift and elevate my mood, I found I was better able to face challenges with resiliency. What is a time-out? Well, it can be as small as a three-minute uplifting ‘song’ break (although, if your day has been really frustrating, you may need a transitional song or two first). A short walk (outside if possible!) combined with music could be even better.

If you have a fifteen minute break or time over lunch, use that. If not, even a few minutes spent strategically uplifting your mood will work wonders. Use the time to remind yourself of all the funny, happy, and wonderful things not associated with whatever the current challenge or frustration is.

Take a minute to call a friend or loved one who always makes you smile. If you don’t have one of those (and that’s okay, at times in my life I haven’t had one of those either :)), simply spending a few minutes engaging your task positive network may help give you the space you need.

If you recall from the earlier mentioned study on benefits of laughter – both groups in the study performed better on a memory recall test after a twenty minute break. This suggests that merely taking the break can help us recover from stress. When we plan short sanity breaks strategically throughout the day, and fill them with activities that uplift and empower us, it can make a world of difference in how the rest of the day goes.

5 – Recognize the Impact Diet has on Mood

This section is not going to be a lecture on eating healthy. Honestly, I don’t even know what that means anymore. The advice I have found most beneficial and helpful has been Michael Pollan’s manifesto, “Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants.”

So I’m not going to tell you what to eat and what not to eat, that is a way more political conversation then I want to have with anyone (including my immediate family 🙂 ). However, if you are interested in increasing your happiness and your resiliency on a daily basis, don’t underestimate the impact your diet has on your mood.

Katherine Zeratsky of the Mayo Clinic has this to say, “Depression and diet may be related. Several studies have found that people who ate a poor quality diet [defined by Zeratsky as] – one that was high in processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals, and high-fat dairy products – were more likely to report symptoms of depression. The good news is that people who ate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish were less likely to report being depressed.”

I am not a fan of eating fish and I love chocolate, by the way, just to underscore that I don’t intend the above quote to be a ‘guideline’ on what to eat and what not to eat, but just a reference that draws a link between diet and mood.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for a guideline on what to eat and what not to eat these days, there is an over-abundance of somewhat contradictory information. There is general agreement, though, that skipping meals is a bad idea for our blood sugar, which can be a big influencer of our mood.

From the perspective of this post, however, the advice here is similar to that in section one; pay attention to how foods make you feel 1-3 hours after eating them. When do you feel good after a meal? When do you feel crummy? Let that be a starting point to developing an understanding on which foods make you feel happier and which make you feel grumpy, depressed, or high-anxiety.

Bringing it Home

When we combine all the above habits, we have a number of tools to help us develop and strengthen our resiliency so we can find and maintain our happy place.

But wait – you may be thinking – these all seem a bit more like ‘tricks’ to keep me feeling good, than the sort of happiness I’m looking for. There are two answers to that concern. One is that regardless of our internal state, happiness is a ‘daily maintenance’ kind of experience. We can have deep internal happiness and not be resilient in the face of the anger, fear, and frustration of others.

Thus we let our environment drag us down. (This is the type of experience that makes happy people want to go live alone in the mountains) Rather than lamenting that everyone else is raining on our parade 🙂 or trying to reform them all 🙂 or isolating ourselves (and I’ve done all of those 🙂 ) we position ourselves better for growth and learning by building up our resiliency and improving our ability to uplift our own mood.

On the other hand, it is true that there is a deeper type of happiness felt in the heart (or soul, if you prefer) that can help raise our ‘default’ mood to a higher level. In that experience, provided our resiliency is decent, we can operate from a happy place most of the time.

The downside is that deep happiness is not a ‘quick-fix.’ From my experience, deep happiness can only be found in doing the deep self-work that comes with meditation, communion with the Universe (or the Divine if you prefer), and actively walking the Spiritual Path. If this is something you’re interested in, stay tuned, as there’s going to be a lot more on the blog this year about that.

[1] Quote from psychologytoday.com article The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation, Christopher Bergland, Dec 29 2012

[2] Sonia Choquette often talks about ‘vibration’ which is not the same as mood, but (to oversimplify) operating at a very high vibration would be coming from a place of universal love and goodwill whereas operating from a low vibration would be a place of depression, anxiety, and fear. I believe (although I have never personally spoke to her about it) that Sonia talks about it as vibration because it refers to a state of the underlying energy. If you think about something like the String Theory of existence (that the smallest element of the universe isn’t a particle, but instead a vibrating string) then understanding how energy vibrates and the qualities of vibration become very important. I only understand this experientially and conceptually so I am not a great person to explain it, but if you have further interest it’s worth exploring Sonia Choquette’s work. Incidentally, Esther Hicks (when channeling ABRAHAM) approaches this same concept in terms of discs “high-flying discs” vs. “low flying discs.” In this post I use ‘mood’ because I think it’s something most of us can relate to without having to get into a complicated discussion of the underlying mechanics which don’t really matter to the point of this post anyway :).

[3] Loma Linda University

[4] Both quotes are taken directly from the Huffington Post article, New Study Proves That Laughter Really is The Best Medicine, by Yagana Shah, April 22, 2014

Thoughts on Tarot

I came to Tarot on tentative feet. Over the years I have occasionally visited psychics who used Tarot and, although I found their help invaluable, some part of me felt a good amount of discomfort with using the medium myself. The lion’s share of that probably has to do with my Catholic upbringing. But, despite my cringing, I do recognize the importance of challenging these points of resistance within myself.

Periodically in my work on the Spiritual path, when I’ve gotten “stuck”, I have employed various strategies to unblock. One of my favorites is to walk through the library aisles with my eyes half-closed and just “feel” when I should stop and where I should look to find a meaningful book. As you can imagine, I have to be a little judicious in using this tactic to avoid alarming other patrons. 🙂

On one such jaunt in early 2012 I found Sonia Choquette’s book 22 life lessons. I decided to use the book much the way I treat the exercise in the library; flip it open to a random page and see where it takes me.

The page I flipped to happened to be the lesson, “Accept Death.” Immediately this resonated. Nine months prior my husband and I had celebrated the birth of our first child and when I saw this lesson I knew instinctively that it was speaking to the death of our old life.

With the new baby, our lives had transformed. She was extremely sensitive (Actually I’m beginning to think she’s just incredibly intuitive) and needed constant attention. As a result, many staple activities of our prior existence were no longer feasible. To me, this lesson was saying – recognize that that life is over. Stop clinging to pieces and living by half-measures. Cut the cord and embrace this new existence.

I worked with that lesson for about a month until I felt like I “got it” and then went back to the well. This time when I was flipping through the book a voice in my head said “turn to page 32.” I listened and found the lesson “Follow Your Inner Voice.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt in that moment. There are moments when things come together in such a particular way that it almost forces you to stop and take notice; your whole being goes on alert. In relation, I should note that not every page is a lesson in this book.

There is a ’front page’ to each lesson – like a chapter heading – and then several pages of text explaining the lesson in more depth. It’s interesting that all three times I have done this now my ’random’ opening has always landed on the ’front page’ of a lesson not somewhere in the middle of a chapter.

So, on the one hand, that was clearly a guided moment. The irony that it was in listening to my inner voice that I found the lesson to “Listen to your inner voice” is not lost on me. On the other hand, I have struggled with distinguishing between my inner voice and my ego for years and years.[2] But, as is the case with guidance[3], once given it’s ours to own or abandon and if the choice is ’abandon’ you’re going to be treading water for a while.

Ante Up

I grappled with this lesson for a few months before I made any headway. It’s impossible to pinpoint quite when it “occurred” to me that Tarot might help me bridge this gap. As I mentioned in the beginning, at first I felt significant internal apprehension about going down this road.

I do know that, at the time, I was reading a teeny-bopper pop culture novel that featured characters from Tarot, it’s possible that this provided the initial spark of interest. I think I felt something like – heck, if this is a subject of young adult novels these days what’s the harm in just looking at it?

I may also have been reading Jung’s autobio, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections at the time and, of course, Jung’s work places a high emphasis on the connection between symbols and working with the unconscious mind. It’s difficult to say two years on precisely how my path to Tarot unfolded. I do know that at some point I was curious enough to pick up a few books on Tarot at the library. At the time I told myself I was merely intellectually curious about the subject. I was not ready to accept that I would ever own a deck[5]

Reading the books helped relieve my internal anxiety over using Tarot. After all, on some level, the Tarot is just a deck of cards. Inflated histories aside,[6] it’s the energy and desire that’s brought to it that makes Tarot what it is. Historically, similar practices have been done with things as mundane as tea leaves, sticks, coins, etc.

From such a perspective working with Tarot was really just a different medium for type of work I was already doing. I reasoned that I could always get a deck and see how it felt to use it. If using it made me uncomfortable (in a negative way) I could just stop and get rid of it.

More than one book mentioned that “traditionally” a Tarot deck had to be “gifted.” The chances of that happening within my circle of family, friends, and acquaintances was absolutely nil. This didn’t really bother me though. Having decided on this course, I was excited about the idea of finding my own deck.

 At First Sight

I tried searching online, but quickly realized I wanted to physically hold a deck and feel if it was the right deck for me. I know many people are advanced enough to work with energy and intuition via remote channels such as the internet, but I’m just not there.

At first I thought I was going to have to wait until I could get to an occult bookstore – which would be awhile given my schedule at the time. Then I remembered that I’d been seeing tarot decks in Borders books and music stores for years. Borders is gone, but I knew there was a bookstore walking distance from my work – I decided to check it out.

Sure enough, they had decks! I knew I wanted a Rider-Waite deck. That seemed to be the ’standard’ that all the Tarot books I read went by. I didn’t want one of those “silly” non-traditional decks. One in particular caught my eye, called the Dreaming Way Tarot. The Art on the box looked like something out of a manga. I snorted derisively.

The store had two Rider-Waite decks. I excitedly grabbed the one that seemed most appealing, held it in both hands and closed my eyes. Nothing. Nothing? I tried again. Not a blip. I picked up the other Rider-Waite deck. Nothing. I sighed in frustration and turned the box over and over in my hands. Did I need to open the box and hold the cards to feel a connection?

One of the Rider-Waite boxes opened partially so I could see the art on some of the cards. No. This was not for me. I was so disappointed, I had thought for sure I was going in the right direction. Half-heartedly I picked up some of the other non-traditional decks.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Ugh.

Finally I reached for the Dreaming Way deck, the only one left. I turned it over in my hand and on the back was this beautiful picture of The Fool card. Snap. My breath caught. This was it. This was my deck.

Sigh. Of course it was. How could it not be?

When I experience something like this it always completely surprises me and yet makes total sense. I’ve been a closet manga / anime fan for some years. Not so much that I dress up (although, who knows? Maybe one day. At this point there’s not a whole lot I’m ruling out 🙂 ), but enough that I’ve spent more hours of my adult life than I care to admit to consuming products of this genre.

Since, at least in the US, there’s a sense that the audience graphic novels are geared to is younger (and by younger I mean like more than a decade younger than me), I’ve always been a little ashamed of this ’habit.’ The fact that this deck was the right one for me, to me, is a message of reconciliation. The universe saying, don’t even think you can hide; what resonates is what resonates. In a loving and supportive way, of course, but still sometimes it makes you want to yell “Seriously?!”

On the walk back to work my heart chakra was reacting like crazy. It’s a difficult sensation to describe (People experience energy differently, but those of you who also feel energy physically will understand what I mean, I think). It’s not painful, but it’s kind of like being tickled. Being tickled is actually a nice sensation, I mean it makes you laugh, but it’s incredibly, incredibly distracting. You have a hard time concentrating and so, even though it’s not unpleasant there’s a part of you that wants the sensation to stop.

For me, because it’s such a moment of connection and rightness whenever my heart chakra feels like that, I don’t necessarily want it to stop right away – but it is so distracting that it becomes hard for me to do things like carry on a normal conversation. So ultimately I do make an effort to dial it down, just so I can function.

 In The Cards

When I got home that evening, I found some space to meditate and do my first reading. It focused on a particular soul test I was really struggling with. In my heart I knew I needed to get out of my own head for guidance. I had gone to a psychic and a past life regressionist for guidance (over a year apart from each other and that timeframe is only about a third of the time that I struggled with this test) but the answers I received hadn’t really satisfied me because there seemed to be a gap in the guidance given and the magnitude of the experience.

For my first reading I planned a three card draw; current situation, advice, and outcome. Excited, nervous energy coursed through me. I wasn’t even sure how to shuffle. I am horrible at shuffling cards so I settled for a ‘loose’ form of shuffling, going to the place of ‘not-thinking’ and when a particular card stuck ‘up’ out of the deck, I pulled it out and laid it down; eight of cups, five of cups, seven of wands[7]. Before I even looked up the card meanings, my heart stilled just looking at the pictures. I got the guidance without needing to look up a single thing.

On the far left, in the position representative of the ‘current situation,’ the Eight showed a blond haired female walking away from eight cups that were standing on a sandy beach. In my heart I felt these cups were representative of past lives. The card was showing ‘me’ moving on from my past lives. This resonated because the particular situation I was dealing with seemed to have a heavy amount of past life influence. Additionally, I had resolved a previous past life situation several years before, so – interpreted the way I was reading it – it definitely represented a theme of my life.

In the ‘advice’ position, the Five of Cups, showed a brunette facing out of the card – the brunette actually resembled me – I have actually had that haircut – the height, the frame. She’s not a dead ringer, but there was enough similarity to signal that something powerful was going on here. The brunette held two cups in her hand. She was back-to-back with a woman with long blond hair who seemed to be dropping or spilling her three cups.

To put this in a clearer perspective, in the past life regression session I had several months prior, I witnessed myself as a young woman with long blond hair. In that lifetime – as remembered by me – I was somehow separated permanently and irrevocably from my husband and two children either by death or external conflict or something very tragic. It was strongly felt enough that it had me sobbing uncontrollably in the session.

Additionally, in that session, I had a very strong feeling that the separation was somehow my fault or that I had some guilt related to it.

In keeping with the cup / life theme, then, in this depiction of the Five of cups – the woman facing away represents my past life self who somehow was careless with the ‘lives’ (or cups) that she loved. The meaning of the Five of cups in general speaks of grieving that is ‘overlong.’ It’s an acknowledgement of loss, but can be advice to ‘notice’ the two cups you do have. So here, the brunette who resembles me in the current life is holding on to two cups – which I interpreted as my husband and (at the time) baby daughter.

Part of understanding how remarkable this experience was for me, and why it was so deeply personal requires an understanding that the Five of Cups from my deck does not at all resemble the Five of cups in the Rider-Waite deck. If you’re not familiar with it, you can find a picture and the meaning here at Biddy Tarot (a wonderful Tarot site that makes learning the Tarot really accessible).

If I had bought the Rider-Waite deck, this message would not have resonated so powerfully. If you’re unfamiliar with the Pak-Choi Dreaming Way Tarot, the ‘introduction’ card of the deck explains that the images for the cards came to the illustrator in a dream. This is one of those examples where it’s so good to keep the bait-thief lesson in mind (see my post Trickster Makes this Road for more on that). Clearly, the creator did not dream up this card just for me. However, things came together in such a way that his (her?) illustration could deliver just the deep and meaningful message I needed to hear.

Incidentally, although this message was not different from the guidance I had already been given, this delivery mechanism was finally successful because I felt recognition from my higher self / guides / universe that “yes, you are dealing with a past life situation that’s very difficult” and “yes, you suffered a loss in that lifetime through your own carelessness that has been difficult to overcome, but it’s time to move on from that now.”

Sometimes we just want our own struggles acknowledged (No, you are not imagining this is hard, it is hard) and when they are, we are ready to tough it up and keep going.

Over the last two years of owning a deck, I have used it only for myself (except once I did a reading for my husband – with his consent – for fun) and mostly for Spiritual Path related guidance[8]. Perhaps there are still some old vestiges of the Catholic upbringing that make me shy away from a strictly divination aspect, but, even so, the guidance and help I have gotten through Tarot have been invaluable.

It’s difficult to say whether I would ‘recommend’ Tarot to someone outright. Like any other tool in life, it seems most of its value is derived from the way it is used. If a person goes ‘fishing for particular answers’ in a Tarot deck, he or she is not likely to find it very helpful. Likewise, if you get guidance through your deck that you don’t want to hear, and you either ignore it or keep going ‘back to the well’ as I like to call it, the deck may exacerbate some already existing issues versus helping to solve them. If you can approach Tarot from a space of respect and openness, though, and allow[9] yourself to receive and ruminate on the guidance, it could become an indispensable tool for your spiritual path and other life work.

 

Footnotes

[2] At least I thought so at the time, I am coming to realize as I write this that I may not have been as abysmal at this as I believed

[4] Lewis Hyde mentions this in his book on the Trickster, Trickster Makes this World. Talk about finding a Hermaion in a Hermaion 🙂

[5] (footnote about alchemy)

[6] things like aliens transmitting the tarot or tracing Tarot to Hermes Trimegestus, similar to alchemy

[7] I don’t reverse cards in my deck. In fact, I actually make very sure that none of the cards are reversed before I shuffle. Because I go to the place of not-thinking when I draw I don’t even notice how I lay the cards, it just sortof happens, and thus some of the cards do end up reversed. When this happens I take the reversal seriously and treat it as a very intentional message.

 

[8] I did actually use it a couple of times in preparing for the birth of my second daughter – I truly believe that the guidance I received helped me have a much better birth the second time around and avoid a couple of potentially life-threatening (especially for my child) complications. Interestingly enough, I saw on Brigit Esselmont’s website this year (post-birth) that it looks like she actually did something very similar in preparing for the births of her own children several years ago.

[9] More about ‘allowing’ in an upcoming post

Trick? or Treat?

Firstly, I want to thank Chaitanya Haram from the blog A Journey to the Greyish Soul for nominating me for Liebster award. Full Disclosure, I should note that I was nominated last year by Char at Breakfast with Words (link is below) and I never properly thanked her for that – so a much belated and much deserved Thank You to Char as well.

To be completely honest, I have mixed feelings about this ‘award.’ On the one hand, I think it’s a wonderful idea. In case you are not familiar with the Liebster award, the sentiment behind it comes from a good place. The idea is to spread awareness and knowledge of lesser known blogs / blogs with lower readership so that those blogs can get more exposure. As such, depending on which source you check (and probably based on people’s feelings about the subject), either no one ‘wins’ the award or to be nominated is to win.

I am flattered and honored that, in the year and a half that I’ve had this blog, two people have found my blog worthy of nomination. At 88 followers, I could certainly use the exposure 🙂 . On the other hand, here is a synopsis of the rules (with my editorial comments);

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog (ok, easy and natural enough. Check!)
  2. Answer their 11 interview questions (ok, that sounds fun. Check! – see below)
  3. Come up with 11 questions of your own to ask (ok, more fun. Check! See below)
  4. Nominate 11 new blogs with less than 200 followers (wait – 11? Less than 200 followers? This just became a research project)
  5. Notify them using social media that you have nominated them (see above)

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to respond. To be completely raw and honest, the first time I was nominated last year it caused some amount of posting paralysis because I wanted to show my gratitude and participate, but the simple fact is that I don’t have eleven blogs on hand that have less than 200 followers to nominate.  I’ve done some research and many blogs don’t list their followers – the ones that do are often well above the Liebster requirements (I confess, I have wondered if that’s partly a strategy to stave off future Liebster awards 🙂 )

Around this time I began to feel guilty – it didn’t feel right that I’m scavenging around for blogs with less than the requisite number of followers just so I can nominate them for a Liebster award (not saying that anyone else has done this, just that this started to be what I was doing). It seemed like I had two choices, either break the chain or follow the Liebster rules and spend hours searching out blogs that meet the requirements for my nomination list. As a result I stopped posting for awhile .

Well… This time I’m going to take a different route. I’m going to pull a Trickster move and say ‘to heck with the rules.’ I don’t have to choose between the two.

First – I’m going to link to and post about the blogs I follow, regardless of readership, because I enjoy them and maybe you haven’t found them yet… and, at heart, isn’t that what this award is really about? There is no expectation that these bloggers follow the Liebster rules – this is simply my way of saying ‘Thank you’ for being there for me to read 🙂

Second – I’ve posted my interview questions below – if you want to answer them (regardless of readership) and post blogs you love to read (doesn’t have to be any particular number, just an open sharing), add a comment to this post.   Anyone who wants to participate (either based on the traditional rules or using this alternate idea) add your comment to this post. I will do a new post the weekend of June 21st with a little explanation and post links to the blogs of commenters who want the exposure and want to answer questions and bring awareness to some of their favorite blogs. I am happy to bring more awareness to blogs and bloggers, regardless of how many followers you already have. 🙂

So – first up – here are some blogs that I love – in no particular order;

  • Cristian Mihai – Cristian is a published author and writes about writing, inspiration, and all the other things that bubble up from the soul.  Most of you found this blog via a re-blog on Cristian’s blog, in case you aren’t familiar with it though, his blog is well worth checking out.
  • Breakfast with Words – I always appreciate the raw honesty with which Char writes
  • Dhamma Footsteps – Wonderful and insightful travel blog
  • Shift – a beautiful blog about teaching and life
  • Jessica Davidson – a thoughtful blog about writing, spirituality, and life

Next, Here are my questions for those who are interested;

  1. What is the ‘mission’ of your blog? (ex; self-reflection? Writing Practice? Building a community? Sharing knowledge? Etc.)
  2. What is one thing you wish people said about / knew about you?
  3. What is one thing someone has said about you that you think is unfair or untrue?
  4. What is your comfort activity / comfort food (ie, what do you turn to when you are hurt/ sad / angry / stressed)?
  5. What do you do to recharge?
  6. What makes you feel uncomfortable in life? (ex: pointed interview questions J, witnessing unkindness, going with the flow – even when you don’t want to, etc.)
  7. Who is / was your greatest teacher and why? (it’s okay if you put Jesus, but it would be nice if you thought a little harder – I promise you Jesus won’t be offended if you’ve had other teachers :).)
  8. What has been your most meaningful dream (meaning real, night dream – not like ‘goals’) and how has it impacted your life?
  9. Describe an event or something that you read that made you question your own understanding of reality.
  10. What do you find yourself ruminating on most often lately?
  11. What question do you wish I had asked you – and how would you answer it?

See below for my answers to the Liebster questions posed to me;

Thanks to Chaitanya Haram for providing such fun questions to answer! (Once I got out of the downward spiral above, I started enjoying the experience a lot more) 🙂 See below for my answers to the questions;

  1. If you were to star in a movie, what type of protagonist would you play?
    • This is an interesting question because we’ve seen some new levels of moral complexity in our television and movies. There used to be a time when we could, maybe, relate to Indiana Jones and see a clear ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ – but there seems to be much more resonance now with complex and nuanced characters. I think that’s a wonderful development because we are complex and nuanced beings… so that is the type of “protagonist” I would want to be.
  2. Out of nowhere you are given superpowers, which of the following would you choose? Super strength / Super intelligence / Immortality
    • This seems like a trick question. Let’s start with Immortality – does this mean bodily immortality? I already believe the soul is immortal, no super powers required :).   I don’t think I’d want to be stuck in this body forever, though… I mean, it’s a nice body, I like it, but forever is a long time. Super intelligence – I’d have to ask what this means also. Is this ‘mind chatter’ type of intelligence or the kind of deep, deep knowing that comes from the place of ‘not-thinking’? Also, I think intelligence is a tricky thing – it can be very subjective, based on what other people think. Not always, of course, there are people who have dragged the rest of society with them eventually… but usually they get burned at the stake in their current lifetime. That leaves me with Super strength –so I pick this one, choosing to interpret it as internal strength. I would want to have the inner super-strength to face whatever comes with compassion, love, understanding, and grace.
  3. On one fine day you, out of nowhere, get 10 million dollars. What would be the first thing you would do?
    • First thing? Probably faint. In terms of what I would do with the money, though, I’m an incredibly practical person – so I’d keep at least a million of it (post-tax) to set up my daughters’ college / vocational fund so they can pursue their dreams. With the rest of that one-million my husband and I could quit our current jobs and try to pursue our dream careers (I am already working towards that without the million dollars, honestly, more to come on that in future posts). I’d probably take another 1-2 million to divvy out among family members as seems appropriate (difficult to really say since I don’t really have the money). I would probably donate the rest of it to a charity – likely focusing on one that helps groups in the inner city build gardens where they can grow their own food as I feel like that has benefits on so many levels – developing a real connection to the land, having a sense of community ownership, and growing healthy foods to feed bodies and minds. Growing Power in Milwaukee (and Chicago) comes to mind.
  4. What is your source of inspiration for writing / blogging?
    • Whatever comes.
  5. Consider yourself to be the immortal Wolverine. What job would you do Forever?
    • Honestly, nothing. I am tempted to say “Spiritual Development Work” except that the other day I was thinking about the Dali Lama, doing that life after life after life – and I thought, I hope that guy gets to take a lifetime off now and then. I hope he gets to have a lifetime that features a couple of kids and a loving spouse / family and a regular job and live in a regular space, you know? An eternity only doing spiritual work – that doesn’t sound like a reward, it sounds like punishment (no offense meant to the Dali Lama). Maybe there are two Lamas and they switch off – that would be the smart way to do it, I think. Forever is a long time to do one thing.
  6. What is your future goal of blogging? What more do you want to achieve?
    • I want wider readership, I would be lying if I pretended that I didn’t care about that at all. However, I’m interested in how this part of my journey is unfolding. I have things clamoring inside of me to be written and then I do and then they’re quiet. So I’m interested to see what happens when there’s no more clamoring, what new place opens up. I’m really loving and enjoying being here, but also excited about what happens next.
  7. How do you think your life journey is? Black / White / Shades of both? Greyish?
    • This question actually recalls a song I’m really loving right now called Spectrum / Say My Name by Florence and the Machine. I’m specifically thinking of the lines, “Say my name, and every color illuminates / we are shining, and we’ll never be afraid again.” – of course in my mind this isn’t necessarily my name, but speaks to connection with the higher self / soul, the universe / divine and everything in between. So my journey is that – a spectrum – with every color of the rainbow.
  8. What is your all-time favorite movie?
    • Hands down, I Heart Huckabees, nothing better captures the simultaneous joy and ridiculousness that is walking the Spiritual Path.
    • Runners up –
      1. Stranger Than Fiction which is lovely and fun and reminds us how flexible “reality” can be.
      2. Shawshank Redemption for capturing the poignant and darkly beautiful side of life.
  9. What is your passion?
    • Life! (and love… the many faces and aspects of love)
  10. You are given a chance to change one aspect of your life. Which particular shortcoming would you change?
    • I don’t know that I mentally can ‘pick’ what I would change – it’s more like, an unhelpful pattern surfaces and I realize I should work on it. One that I’ve already worked on is trusting myself, one that I’m currently working on is my ability to receive, and the one that looks like it’s lining up next (although it may be connected with receiving, difficult to say right now) is this deep pattern of feeling unwanted – even from birth. I’ll probably write posts about all three (although the first will be embedded in a post about Tarot that is 70% done and will be coming soon).
  11. If you were given a chance to write your own novel. What type of genre would you like to write in?
    • I actually wrote 150 pages of a novel in 2007, it was sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno – which makes it sound way cooler than it was. I abandoned that project as I wasn’t happy with how it was coming together. I may pick it back up again and re-work it. We’ll just have to see how things unfold.

“Guil: It was chance, then?
Player: Chance?
Guil: You found us.
Player: Oh yes.
Guil: You were looking?
Player: Oh no.
Guil: Chance, then
Player: Or fate.
Guil: Yours or ours?
Player: It could hardly be one without the other.
Guil: Fate, then.
Player: Oh yes.  We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.” – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard

Thoughts on Fate, Chance, and Free Will

The Universe is made up of energy. I don’t intend to dwell on that because there is a large body of work in both the Spiritual and Scientific spaces that explains this concept far better than I can.[1] Instead, this post is simply going to start from that premise; the Universe is made up of energy.

Matter is a particular organization structure of energy. Like the previous premise, this may either sound strange or be staggering in its statement of the obvious. If you think about it, this understanding is really the heart of all the natural sciences – physics and chemistry most blatantly, but biology is rooted in this concept as well. The periodic table of elements, which many are familiar with from school, literally details energetic organization. From such a perspective, all solid matter is really just energy that has been ‘fixed’ into a particular form.

That idea leads into our next premise; Energy can be either fixed or fluid. Fixed energy is matter and fluid energy is – well – a myriad of energy types that are more mutable in nature; heat, light, sound, weather, electricity, thoughts[2] etc. I use the terms “fixed” and “fluid” to refer to the form and mobility of the particles, not to suggest that “fluid” energy can transition from one type of energy to another. Energetic organization structures can transition between a fixed and fluid state. Some do this more easily than others – for example water.[3] [4] Water can be fixed – as ice – or fluid – as a liquid or vapor.

All energy moves and, because it moves, the various individual pieces move in a particular way (sometimes even as a group as when energy is ‘fixed’ into a corporeal form). We live on a planet that revolves and rotates around the sun, in a solar system that rotates around the galaxy, in a galaxy that rotates around the universe; any perceived stillness is relative, not absolute.

Because everything moves, energy – whether fixed or fluid – has a flow and a trajectory. Units of energy move at different speeds and have varying amounts of momentum along a particular path. Fixed energy moving quickly is more difficult to stop or re-direct than fluid energy that has not gathered much momentum. Your windbreaker will stop some wind from reaching you, but it won’t stop a bus and it definitely won’t stop a tornado.

Wait, What was this Post about?

You may be wondering at this point what all this talk about energy and movement has to do with the fate vs. free will debate. That’s a fair question. Let me just note that my intention in this post is to explain (based on my understanding) how the physical properties of the universe work together in a way that resolves this apparent opposition. In order to do that, however, I wanted to lay out the basic premises my argument is built on in as logical and straightforward a way as possible. (more…)

 It could hardly be one without the other

The Trickster. Everywhere I turn I run into him. Everything I read, whatever I see, wherever I look; he’s winking at me. I used to think I could read the world pretty well, but now I’m seeing things in a whole new way. I’ve had a paradigm shift…and while this isn’t the only place to be, and it isn’t necessarily “better” than any other place, this is where I am.

On my way to work one recent morning, I ruminated (I love this word – a Trickster reference bringing together appetite and thought) on the infinite ways to apply the “&” stance from Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback (see post In My Reflection for more on this). My mind then jumped to how “AND” also allows us to engage thoughtfully with paradox. To use the example from the Trickster post, the signs and symbols are both meant just for me AND have nothing to do with me (See Trickster Makes this Road for more on this).

Suddenly, the little word “and” seemed to carry so much more meaning than the sum of it’s letters. In fact, it represents exactly where I am. According to Carl Jung, the subconscious operates in symbol. An image bubbled up from the deep; the Ampersand turned on it’s side. From such a perspective, it resembles the sign for infinity; “The Infinite AND” was born.

Engaging with the Subconscious

You may be thinking, OK, you just flipped the Ampersand on it’s side, what’s the big deal? I admit, i’m not going win any prizes for innovation here, but a closer study of this symbol and it’s meaning can reveal that there is something interesting going on here.

Part of the beauty of this symbol Is it’s simplicity. Yes, I merely turned an existing symbol on it’s side. Strangely enough, though, when I first show this symbol to people, they usually don’t even recognize the Ampersand. In that way, this new view on an old character is symbolic of the difference a mere change in perspective can make.

Further, on the left side of this symbol we can clearly see the “beginnings” of the infinity sign, but when we follow the lines to the right, instead of the two lines joining together to close the loop of infinity, we find another crossroads; an opening. The very same opening that ’AND’ often allows us to find. So, in a way, this character is a symbol of change – the opening that allows us to get out of a closed loop of thinking, being, etc. It is a symbol of opportunity and, at a deeper level, represents the opening to embrace paradox.

Another funny coincidence; the other mark commonly used for “and” in handwriting is a “+” which is visually reminiscent of a crossroads – the very place we can expect to find the Trickster. Sometimes this “cross” symbol is handwritten such that two of the perpendicular lines are connected (this is the way I write it) which suggests a boxy sort of infinity symbol that is, again, open on the opposite side.

For me, at the deepest level, this image represents the Trickster who governs the crossroads, opportunity, and (often) paradox. Incidentally the Trickster also governs “the lucky find” as this symbol was for me.

What’s in a Name?

According to Wikipedia the Ampersand was once considered a “letter” in it’s own right. Around the 1800’s students were required to recite their letters. After ’z’ the students would go on to distinguish “a” per se “a”, which meant “a by itself a” and referred to the use of “a” alone versus in a word (the same case is true for “I”).

Apparently, “&” was also recited in this way. “And per se and” to mean “and, by itself, and” – the thinking is that this got slurred over time to our modern day name, “Ampersand.” Ironically, if this etymology is true, then even the name of this ligature contains a bit of a fun paradox. “Ampersand” may literally translate to “And, by itself, and” – but (at least from a usage perspective) the purpose of “and” is to join things – so how can “and” ever be by itself?

Dreams AND Reality

Of course the Universe is always ready to step in and make sure I don’t get too full of myself. As I mentioned earlier, I found this symbol on my morning walk. The first blush of enthusiasm had not yet worn off by the time I got to work. So, when I got to my desk, I immediately opened Word and printed out the biggest Ampersand I could, filling the whole page. I then turned it sideways and hung it in my cube.

What I didn’t realize at the time, was that the printer printed out five more copies. Yep, five more copies of giant Ampersands sitting on the work printer. So the rest of the morning, I had to field questions about why I was printing out giant Ampersands. One such exchange went like this;

(Coworker walks to snack table which is located right by my cube and notices my newly hanging cube art)

Coworker: Oh! That was YOU printing out giant “and” signs. I thought the printer was malfunctioning.

Me: Yeah. No. That was me!

Coworker: What the heck are you printing out giant “and” signs for?

Me: Um… (Trying to determine if there’s any way i’m going to be able to condense exactly what happened that morning that resulted in the symbol -as well as the symbol’s significance to me- into a reasonable answer for an acquaintance-coworker. Nope!) ummm…. I find it inspiring.

Coworker: You find it inspiring. Ohhhhhh-K. (Coworker walks away shaking head).

I have to smile because this is an excellent example of how the Trickster operates. There’s nothing particularly magical about what happened here. Clearly, the last time I printed something form Word I had selected to print five copies of it and somehow the default setting stuck.

Nevermind that I don’t remember doing that or that whether or not Word would have saved that default depends on any number of uncertain variables; to try to make more out of the occurrence than it is misses the point. The point is – “pay attention or look like an idiot.” 🙂 A good reminder from the influence that leaves opportunities, traps, and lucky finds lying around. A good reminder and a good opportunity to smile and say “You got me” followed by “Thank You.”

A Dances with Bookspost featuring Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback

“Who can see your face? Everyone.  Who can’t see your face? You.”  Thanks for the Feedback (p81)

A good book changes the way you see a particular subject, a great book changes the way you see the world, but a really excellent book changes the way you see yourself.  Douglas Stone & Sheila’s Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback[1] is a really excellent book.

It is a wonderful irony of my life that some of the most impactful books on my spiritual path seem to have nothing to do with the Spiritual path at all.  This book is no exception.

Early last year, I received some feedback (although I didn’t think of it as “feedback” at the time) from renowned intuitive Sonia Choquette about my receiving skills[2] Basically, they stink.

I sat with that, observing it for about a year and realized that the signs of this were everywhere in my life, I just hadn’t recognized the underlying theme.

Early THIS year, I finally decided to do something about it. I started with a search on Amazon for books about receiving.  Most of what I found focused on re-balancing the lives of over-givers.  I’m not particularly selfish, but I can’t think of anyone who would classify me as an “over-giver.”  A little dabbling in those books demonstrated that they weren’t for me.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a lot of books out there for someone in my position.  I wanted to explore my receiving skills independent of my giving skills.  It’s not that I was only giving and never receiving; I was receiving all the time, I just wasn’t doing it well.

Then I found this gem, a hermaion indeed.[3]  Granted, at the time, I didn’t think my feedback receiving skills were so bad (boy was I wrong about that, by the way, lol), but I downloaded the sample and decided to give it a try.  As so often happens, when we’re willing to own our issues – the world opens.

While I didn’t necessarily find any ’magic answers’ to resolving my challenges with receiving, I did find a path that seems to lead in that direction.  This book provided some tools to work towards becoming an expert watcher of mySelf.  After all, I can’t change my behavior if i’m not even aware of it.

Trigger-fishing

“why is it that when we give feedback we so often feel right, yet when we receive feedback it so often feels wrong?” (28)

Feedback can be difficult to receive because it tends to do what the authors call ’trigger’ us. Basically, feedback causes an emotional response. One that is often, but not always, disproportionate to the objective content of the feedback.

“Our triggered reactions are not obstacles because they are unreasonable.  Our triggers are obstacles because they keep us from engaging skillfully in the conversation.” (17) They block our ability to listen and when we stop listening, we stop learning. The authors break down triggers into three categories; truth triggers, relationship triggers, and identity triggers.

Because of a particular kindle feature, I can see the aggregate highlighting of readers of a kindle book.  Intriguingly, 353 kindle readers highlighted the sentence that introduced “Truth” Triggers.  Slightly less, 329, highlighted the sentence that introduced “Relationship” triggers.  But there was not one highlighting recorded[4] of the sentence that introduced “Identity” triggers – not one.

As the authors put it “…Identity triggers focus neither on the feedback nor on the person offering it.  Identity triggers are all about us.”(16)  In the war for our attention – between truth, relationships, and our own identity, the clear loser is “us”.  This is lamentable because the way we engage with our own identity is the factor we have the most control over.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall….

When I read the section on identity, it strongly connected with a piece on attachment that i’ve had in draft for over a year now.  Our identity triggers seem to be directly representative of the ideas of ourselves that we are attached to.

Most of us have many layers of attachments.  It’s easy to spot the major attachments that loom large in our lives; loved ones, career aspirations, even a favorite sofa can be something we are emotionally attached to.  More surreptitious and challenging to identify are the subtle attachments; often attachments to ideas.

Not necessarily big ideas like “world peace” or our political identity (although that can definitely be one), but really small ideas about ourselves and our world both positive and negative that have crept into our hearts and minds, sticking there like chewing gum to a sidewalk.

Frequently these sorts of attachment  are coiled around our identity like a snake so that the slightest disturbance to them threatens an unraveling of our very idea of who we are, causing us to clutch them ever tighter.

We are attached to the idea of ourselves as attractive or compassionate or spiritual, as good writers, or dutiful mothers, or even just young.  Perhaps someone you respect once commented that you were intelligent and now you find yourself engaging in all sorts of activities to reinforce and validate this idea of yourself.  You may take Mensa quizzes or sign up for challenging intellectual classes.  You may give your opinion more freely than if you thought your intelligence suspect.

Conversely, as the underside of attachments is often fear of ‘losing’ whatever it is you are attached to, you may do the opposite; shying away from intellectual pursuits completely, afraid they may topple your tenuous confidence in your own abilities.  Or, that you will be revealed to others as ‘not intelligent after all.’

Usually these ideas about ourselves, while many and diverse as a collection, are quite simple on an individual level. Stone & Heen write, “…simple labels.. present a problem. They are simple because they are ’all or nothing.’ That works fine when we’re ’all.’ But when we get feedback that we are NOT all, we hear it as feedback that we are NOTHING.  There’s no ’partly all’ or ’sometimes all’…if we’re not good, we’re bad; if we’re not smart, we’re stupid; if not a saint, then a sinner.”(185)

We define ourselves by a myriad of singular, one-dimensional ideas, often without even realizing we are doing it, and then our inner Hulk (or sulk) breaks out whenever those ideas are challenged. Sometimes the rising tide of emotion when we’re triggered is the only ’tell’ that we even have a particular identity attachment.

Shortly after I finished Thanks for the Feedback, my husband sent me an article, written by Michael Pollan called The Trip Treatment, that appeared in The New Yorker (February 9th edition).  The article featured psilocybin (magic mushroom) treatment as a potential way to ease mortality fears in terminally ill patients.  Partway through the article I started working on a post[5] called “processed transcendence” that challenged the validity of a mushroom-induced mystical experience.

As I wrote, passion swelled in my chest and I felt righteously indignant.  Remembering this book’s recommendation to notice when we have strong emotional reactions to feedback, I checked. Wait. Why was I having such an intense response to this article?  I hadn’t even fully READ it and I was already firing up a response. My internal dialogue went something like this;

Rational Beth: (gently) What’s up? Do you really have a problem with cancer patients trying to ease their fear and suffering using a psilocybin facilitated mystical experience?

Emotional Beth: What? No! Of course not! That would be ridiculously cruel, of course I don’t have a problem with that! (Writes some language into the post to that effect)

RB: Okay…wait, stop writing…if it’s not that, then why are you so agitated?

EB: Well… (Reflecting) I think it’s the very idea that a magic mushroom trip is somehow a REAL mystical experience.  I mean just because the same things happen in the brain with a meditation induced mystical experience and a mushroom induced one doesn’t make it REAL!

RB: Hmmm….ok…so why was your experience so much more real than a “mushroom” one?

EB: Well…. (thinking) a lot of things had to come together to induce my mystical experience.  It took a lot of time and dedicated meditation practice.

RB: You mean you were actively TRYING to have a mystical experience?

EB: No…i didn’t even know what a mystical experience was at the time… it just sort-of happened…I don’t know exactly how…

RB:  Isn’t it true that at the time you were meditating for long periods of time in direct sunlight?

EB: Yes…I wasn’t eating a lot either. It was sort of like an unintentional, hybrid Native American vision quest.

RB: So…. sunlight gives us Vitamin D right?  And there are studies that show a lack of Vitamin D for an extended period of time can cause depression.  What if, in a few years, studies show that an excessive amount of Vitamin D can trigger a euphoric mystical experience… Does that invalidate your experience?

EB: (quiet for a long time)…No…I don’t know…I don’t think so…

RB: Okay then, does it really matter if the mystical experience is induced by sunlight or mushrooms?

EB: But….if all it takes to have a mystical experience is a mushroom trip anyone can do it.

RB: (sagely) Ahhhhhhhhhh….

EB: (somewhat dejectedly, but also cathartically)…hmmm… I guess my mystical experience makes me feel special.  I guess I’ve been secretly defining myself by that for a long time.  (After a spacious, contemplative pause) In retrospect, I guess it doesn’t really matter how a person achieves a mystical experience…well, I mean maybe there are some things that matter (like meditation and study may help prepare a person to better ’manage’ the after-effects), but it doesn’t have to matter so much to ME.

RB: Nice. 🙂 Let me share something else with you. (shared quite lovingly)  Because you’ve been so busy secretly looking back at that time and feeling disappointed and confused that you’re not really “there” anymore, you’ve been missing out on fully being where you ARE. And the truth is…where you are is pretty great too.

EB: (feeling a little bit cleansed after letting that go) yeah…that’s true…it’s okay to just be here.  In fact, you’re right, here is a really great place to be.

As Heen & Stone put it, “There are things about ourselves that are hard to accept, but when we do, we’re more grounded.”(188). Reading the feedback book[6] gave me the tools to notice my emotional reaction to the article and explore it with a gentle curiosity.[7]

As you can see from the above example, the advice to notice our emotional reactions has a broader application.  Although the article wasn’t technically “feedback,” it was an input, information I was taking in and comparing to my existing worldview.  As such, it provided an opportunity to explore a carefully hidden piece of me.

I was holding onto a simple, yet defining, idea of myself in relationship to the spiritual path.  “While simple labels help orient us in the world, they don’t hold up well against the complexity of the world.” (187)  This is especially true, i think, for an area of work as subtle and elusive as spiritual development.

When I was able unclench my attachment to my own mystical experience, the universe extended a hand to help me up.  The resulting fracture in my self-image (if i’m not this, then who am i?) allowed me to come to a whole new place and perspective on life in general and my own life specifically.

The authors encourage us to embrace nuance and complexity in our identities.  To recognize that we are not simply good or bad or smart or dumb or even “spiritually enlightened.” Our intentions and resulting behaviors are built on a composite foundation.

AND Then Some…

In a seemingly unrelated section of the book, the authors introduce the concept of the “And Stance” as a way of acknowledging and expressing conflicting emotions related to a particular situation. “When you share the complexity or confusion, you are adopting what we call the ’And Stance’… you can use it in any situation where you’ve listened to someone’s input and have decided to go in a different direction” (222).

But after finishing this book and re-reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster book, I’ve noticed that the “And stance” has a much more universal application. For example, the “And” stance can also be useful when approaching our identity.  We can be “spiritually enlightened” AND still have a ton of stuff to work on.  We can be smart AND do some very dumb things.  We can be a caring, compassionate person AND still sometimes say things that are unkind.

We can take this idea even further and see it as a way to understand and embrace paradox.  Tying it to the Trickster idea of “some third thing” we can see how the “And Stance” offers us an opportunity to escape the confining mentality of the either/or and consider a more mature, nuanced acceptance of duality.

For example, as humans we have a unified understanding of our “selves” (in general) and yet we are also a collection of living cells, bacteria (in our guts and probably elsewhere), and atoms.  Therefore, individually, we are both one AND many.

It’s impossible to build without destroying; a habitat, an old building, or maybe just an idea.  Thus, a nuanced understanding of building accepts that it is a process of both creation AND destruction.

And most fittingly, to reuse the hallmark Spiritual Path example from the Trickster post; the signs I’m seeing are both “meant” for me AND have nothing to do with me.  Speaking of signs, all of this “and” work helped me find a new one – or rather a new symbol.  I’ll be writing about it in one of my next posts.  In the meantime, I recommend checking out a copy of Thanks for the Feedback. 🙂

 Footnotes

[1] The full title of the book is:Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well – from here on out all quotes from the book will be noted by the page number in parentheses after the quote.  All quotes in this post are from this book.

[2] Full disclosure – this was a paid consultation, I am a great admirer of Sonia Choquette’s work – however, I do not want to mislead anyone that we are on a ‘first-name’ basis or anything like that. 🙂

[3] The term hermaion refers to a ‘gift of Hermes’ and is a reference to the Trickster as the ‘god’ of opportunity.  Here I am crediting that influence for ‘gifting’ me this book.  Read more about the Trickster influence in my post Trickster makes this Road.

[4] refers to highlighting on my kindle at the time of reading, obviously it may have changed since then (it hasn’t as of writing this post, but there is at least one highlighting out there now 🙂

[5]  By the way, this reference closes the circle that started the Trickster post. THIS is the post that sent me to the Trickster book.  Ironically, I’ll never end up actually writing that post now, because I’ve rooted out the underlying emotional reaction that drove me to do it 🙂

[6] plus my meditation on emotions work as discussed in ’Out of My Mind’

[7] This is not the same as berating yourself for thinking a particular way,  Approaching your deep emotional fears and insecurities with a stick is only going to make them more elusive.  You have to gently coax these things out… think of them as the wild animals living in your internal forest 🙂