The past several weeks have been intense, saturated by a strong but hard-to-articulate feeling that something beneath the surface is shifting. Have you been there, too?
For me, it’s been a space of inwardness and almost trance-like awareness, in which time feels skewed (or maybe, actually, hyper-real), as if the seismic shifts going on inside demand an energetic counterpoint at the bodily level: "inside," in the regions of mind and heart, intuition and dream, there's constant movement, a chronic rumble, sometimes subtle and sometimes sharp. "Outside," in the limbs and skin and eyes and ears, a radical slowing and honing, wherein colors are brighter, sounds are crisper, and movement feels akin to walking through water, thigh-deep.
Does this sound at all familiar to you?
Have you been feeling alternately anxious and elated? More swing-y than steady? Extra vulnerable? Fraught at times by uncertainty, by bouts of worry?
I ask because many of my clients are also experiencing deep internal shifts right now, and what I know to be true is that without guidance, we can all too easily mistake these signs of what I call radical becoming—a deeply generative state of psychological/spiritual growth that is often, though not always, accompanied or catalyzed by an act of creation/change (making a piece of art, writing a book, having a baby, starting or ending a relationship, starting or ending a new job, launching a business, etc.)—for their opposite: symptoms of something gone wrong, of depression looming, of our own failure and ineptitude.
Over the years, I've come to recognize this state of being, in which we can feel both oddly at home and at sea, as the hot center of the creative process. Given the sometimes surreal and disorienting feeling of this state, a state that, in my experience, can last for weeks, even months at a time, it’s no wonder that many describe the creative process as otherworldly, a syncing-up of human and beyond-human forces (I think here immediately of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent book, Big Magic, which I loved).
It’s also no wonder, given the often-uncomfortable symptoms of creation-in-process, that we resist this state (for more on resistance and how to overcome it, see Stephen Pressfield’s brilliant little book, The War of Art). If unrecognized, let alone unmanaged, our resistance can sabotage the journey altogether, and foreclose the rewards that make the discomfort along the way worth every sob and ounce of angst: Innovation. Service. Enlightenment. Love.
But when we’re in the throes of new growth, we often don’t know it. What we do know for sure is that we feel a little (or a lot) crazy, or overly anxious, or overly sensitive, and we’re not sure why. Our brains are still hard-wired to search out certainty, so that’s what we do: we create stories to explain our negative (uncomfortable) emotions. We make those feelings, as well as the thoughts that generate those feelings (“I’m not good enough,” “What’s wrong with me,” “There’s not enough opportunity,” “Life isn’t fair,” etc.) mean something, usually something about our own insufficiency. That is, we believe them.
We start judging our feelings as “right” or “bad” or “wrong” or “unhelpful,” and then we judge ourselves for having them.
You know what I mean? You feel unmoored, and then you blame yourself for feeling that way. And down the rabbit-hole of self-doubt we go, until, like Alice, we’ve lost our way.
Gripped by worry and second-guessing, we often react to the discomfort of our own evolution by shutting down, closing off the very systems that are yearning for fuller expression: our heart’s true longing, our self-compassion, our capacity to understand and forgive (ourselves, and others), our curiosity and wonder.
But as was the case for Alice, our opportunity lies in the act of surrender. In a willingness to be surprised, to see the familiar in the strange. To inhabit at once emotions that might feel at odds—fear and love, judgment and forgiveness, criticism and compassion—without exiling the part of ourselves (or others) that don’t seem to fit.
Time and time again, clients come to me at rope’s end, urged by the pull of their untapped potential while second-guessing the very indicators of their own unfolding—confusion, doubt, fear—emotions that can feel, in the moment, like warnings or red flags.
As a society, we don’t spend a lot of time equipping ourselves with the skills necessary to recognize the growth process for what it is, skills that help us embrace, not resist, the sometimes-acute discomfort that’s part of the creative process. And the consequences are costly: inexplicable and chronic fatigue, all-time high rates of depression and anxiety disorders, auto-immune diseases on the rise, ever-rising rates of ADHD and ADD, a fetishizing of “self-care” fixes that, despite our very best intentions, leave us momentarily sated but chronically discontent.
Over the past five years I’ve dedicated myself wholeheartedly to the study of these skills, and during the past few weeks I’ve needed to call on them over and over. What I’ve discovered this time around is the degree to which judgment and moralizing so easily creep in when we’re at our most vulnerable, and how “natural” these emotions feel. How navigating our emotions in times of uncertainty by way of “right” and “wrong” seems logical and helpful (after all, isn’t doing “what’s right” a good idea?), but that in doing so we moralize not only our choices, but ourselves. The result is that we make of our journey a super-high-stakes odyssey, one in which our very self-worth hangs in the balance. No wonder so many of us turn back before we’ve broken through to the other side.
But what if there’s no right and wrong, only more or less compassionate thoughts and actions? What if all choices are “good,” no emotion is “bad,” and every feeling is a portal to what psychotherapist/author/spiritual leader Tara Brach calls the awakened heart—the deepest, most essential part of ourselves that is always longing for love, connection, and truth?
My friend Leisa Peterson, whose podcast, “The Art of Abundance” I love recently helped me recognize my own blind spots when it comes to moving through this process (we can’t do this alone, folks!). I’d reached an impasse regarding a work decision that for the life of me I couldn’t see may way through, and Leisa helped me see my self-judgment, something I thought I’d let go of. Once I was able to recognize my judgment—my conviction that one choice must be right while the other must be wrong, and that the wrong choice was an indictment of my own failure—I was able to relax inside. In so doing, I came into contact with the real issue: my fear of being vulnerable. Of appearing as anything but the expert. Of being messy. And once I tapped into this fear, I recognized it as the source of my greatest strength: the more vulnerable we are, those more trusted we become, and stronger we feel, and the more effective we are at reaching and helping the people who need us most.
Moving past my judgment in this way also enabled me to see the fallacy of one of my favorite aphorisms—one that has a lot of purchase these days in the self-help/coaching/spiritual worlds—that we can’t inhabit fear and love at the same time. We’re either in fear, or in love, but never both at once.
Not true! Not true at all!
In fact, a major take-away from my quasi cocooning-of-the-soul has been the realization that growth and innovation (the creative process) is in fact generated, or milled, or propelled by the experience of contact, of contiguity, between thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and perspectives that we’d heretofore sensed within ourselves as at odds or simply distinct. I think we feel a kind of psychic exhale in these moments, consciously or not, wherein energy is freed, our organs relax, synapses fire more quickly and efficiently, and solutions and innovations come more easily. The gridlock of either/or softens into a proliferation of possibility. And with this expanded sense of possibility comes a more integrated sense of self and, therefore, an expanded capacity for connecting with that which might feel hostile or other.
And isn’t that where all of this is headed anyway? Aren’t we as a species evolving away from a way of life orchestrated by the need to survive into one directed by a need to thrive? This is what I believe. Because what once enabled us as a species to stay alive—fear of difference, negativity bias (the propensity to read situations as potentially harmful instead of beneficial), avoidance of pain and discomfort, the pursuit of pleasure—is now killing us, as well as the planet and many of the other creatures with whom we share its bounty.
In order to thrive, we need to engage the pre-frontal cortex in order to override the dictates of the limbic brain. We need to move away from reaction into responsiveness. We need to seek connection where once we emphasized disparity. In order to thrive, to reach our full potential as a species, we must, that is, cultivate the skills needed to see through the creative process, skills that just so happen to be the same skills championed by spiritual leaders and healers for centuries.
So, let’s return, then, to the supposed opposition between love and fear.
Fear urges us to recoil. Love urges us to connect.
Fear wants us to self-protect. Love wants us to open.
Fear tells us to fight. Love tells us to forgive.
Fear compels us to avoid. Love helps us to feel.
All true. But if, when gripped by fear and conscious of the fact, we believe that fear and love are odds (a belief we often choose to think, as it’s an expression of our primitive wiring), we may be moved to push that fear and its attendant unpleasant emotions aside. To resist it. And if there’s a self-help aphorism I do stand by, it’s that what we resist persists. In this instance, the well-intended opposition between love and fear is more of a hindrance to our growth than a help.
What, then, if we situate the two emotions as in relationship? What if we invite our feelings of fear—lack, scarcity, worry—to take up all the space they need? To unfurl like a sail. What if we simply accept them, then gather them close, and offer them understanding and care. Reach deep within ourselves to the source of love, beauty and harmony that’s always coursing through us to offer refuge to what smarts. What if we summon our love to tend to and soothe our fear?
Well, what I’ve discovered over and over, both in my own process and when ushering my clients through their own creative processes, is that when we do this, the fearful part of us feels safe enough to drop its armor.
And behind that armor is nothing but sheer vulnerability—exposed, raw, unprocessed. A potential source of pain, yes, but also the source of our greatest potential.
Because isn’t vulnerability the condition of genuine intimacy? I don’t mean just sexual intimacy (though that, too), but the kind of communication and presence to both ourselves and the other that allows for true understanding, what Thich Nhat Hanh describes so beautifully as the portal to compassion? Isn’t vulnerability, then, the condition of sustainable love? And isn’t love—for ourselves, for each other—what we thus need to thrive? To realize our full potential individually and as a species?
By shining our internal love-light onto what the great poet Walt Whitman calls our “dark patches,” we free ourselves. Because we heal ourselves. We alchemize expansion out of constraint. And when we learn to do this for ourselves, we are compelled to help others do the same: we greet strangers with warmth. We feel filled up by the cashier’s smile. We see beyond our beloved’s anger into his shame, and our hearts soften instead of harden. We care less about surviving (preservation) and more about thriving (creation).
In contrast, when we exile or judge as inadmissible those parts of ourselves that don’t feel good—imperfection, doubt, shame, fear, worry, anger, anxiety, blame—we amputate ourselves from ourselves. We walk through our days half-in, half-out, surviving but hardly thriving. And we grind to a halt the amazing mechanism that cranks the creative process: Connection. Synergy. Cooperation. Expansion.
And in so doing, we foreclose our full potential.
The creative process, by which I mean both the act (sometimes slow and prolonged) of creating, and the process of recreating ourselves (also often slow and prolonged), is at once exhilarating and scary, fraught with uncertainty and therefore fear. We are, after all, ushering something into being that has never before existed, whether it’s an artifact like a book or a business, or something less immediately tangible, such as a mindset.
Growth requires vulnerability, which means that our evolution as a species from surviving to thriving depends upon honing our ability to stay present to the emotional byproducts of intentional, not just accidental change.
Boy, is this sometimes hard. Like, the hardest work I’ve ever done. But the rewards are so worth the effort—freedom, resilience, joy, inner peace, fulfillment, and being of genuine service to others. Not because I’m happy all the time. Far from it. But because I’m less and less deterred by my own dark patches. If they are no longer at odds with my best self, but portals into my fullest potential, I can welcome all of who I am without fear. Which means I’m far more capable of welcoming you, in all of your you-ness, into my heart as well.
Thanks for reading this, my friend. Thank you so much for your time and attention.
P.S. If you found this helpful, you may be interested in the guided meditation I created to help people move through the glitches of self-doubt, worry, judgment and fear that inevitably arise during the creative process. In the next few weeks I’ll be launching a new page on my website where you can access this, as well as other guided meditations. But if you’d like to listen to this mediation now, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will happily send it to you personally, my gift to you.