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To practice one’s pleasure (I do believe pleasure, like love, is a practice we can and must cultivate) in service of a life that’s all-in is above all an act of exquisite vulnerability, because at the heart of what’s pleasing about pleasure is honesty; pleasure is not something we can fake. It’s not a performance. When we inhabit our pleasure we exhale into our authentic selves. We are laying aside self-consciousness and worries about what others think, and we are, for however brief a moment, suspended in oneness with life itself. We are bared. We are open.
This is why nothing hurts quite like being rejected while inhabiting our pleasure—nothing, that is, except living in fear of such rejection and therefore deciding over time that our pleasure doesn’t matter, or worse, that it’s a contagion.
Whether you are celebrating today, or grieving, or aching... Whether you have children, have lost children, chose not to have children, wanted children and could not birth or otherwise raise children of your own... Whether you are with your children, or estranged from them ... You are, yourself, born of a mother, and you are, yourself, called every day into the profound life's work of learning to parent yourself.
When we make a mantra out of overcoming our comfort zones in search of our best selves, we predicate transformation on a lie: that we don't like to strive, that thriving is hard, and that it doesn't feel good. (All of which feels surprisingly and interestingly Puritan, don't you think?)
In contrast, I'd like to suggest that we drop the rhetoric of the "comfort zone" and cut to the chase, call it what it really is: the zone of fear.
When we're stuck, spinning our wheels, not sure how we got here but quite sure we don't want to stay, we're not comfortable—we're afraid.
Am I (with the best of intentions!) gearing up to survivethis season? Or am I setting myself up to thrive?
Maybe the answer to this question is obvious to you, but if you're like me, you're not always sure; survival-mind is so deeply normalized by our culture today that we often don't realize when we're caught in its grip. Hyper-consumption (the f.o.m.o. fomented by Black Friday, Cyber Monday... the belief that eating and drinking well past the point of our body's comfort or health means we're in sync with the "holiday spirit"...), overspending and over-commitment, and habitual people-pleasing are just a few ways in which we perpetuate and naturalize survival-mindset, that deep-grooved network of beliefs that whispers there's not enough, more is better, and that's just the way it is.
You know you're in survival mindset if you're bracing for the days ahead. You know you're in survival mindset if you're letting yourself off the hook with regard to self-care (eating well, sleeping enough, honoring your boundaries and priorities) in the name of being festive, fun, a "good friend" or a "good host." You know you're in survival mindset if you're striving for perfection, if you're spending more time thinking about what others will think of your efforts than you spend enjoying those efforts along the way, and if you're responding to feelings of overwhelm by shifting into auto-pilot, that slightly numb state of being in which we tell ourselves that the delayed reward of "getting it all done" justifies the edgy cortisol high we're riding through a sea of seemingly endless tasks.
This year, the coming of fall means the advent of intention. As the Buddha once said, the whole of conscious life unfolds on the tip of intention. And I want my intention to be strong, focused, and clear--just like the bright fall air, the cool mornings and crystalline skies. I want to wake every day with an overarching vision of what it is that I want, above all else, to feel--in my body, my mind, and in my interactions with others. I want to light my bedside candle each night and write, with a sense of gratitude and excitement, about what I created that day, what I learned, what surprised me, and whose support I'm so grateful for that I could weep.
I love that the path-of-deepest-darkness, which is also the path-of-longest-duration, is called the path of totality: as I write, people are hurrying towards this 73-mile-wide band that at once bisects and unifies the nation, not horizontally or vertically, but diagonally, from coast to coast, propelled and bound by that which makes us capable of evolving into our highest (total) potential as a species: curiosity and wonder. Wonder and curiosity are the seeds of innovation, awe, and reverence, which in turn spore connection, love, and redemption.
Could we, then, in the wake of the heinous hate crimes proliferating both at home and abroad, witness a timelier natural phenomenon?
Could we, while navigating our own messy lives—our griefs, longings, addictions, mourning, regrets, shames, and sorrows—pay homage to a more significant natural act?
Over time, the curiosity that once propelled us effortlessly outward (into conversation with strangers, contact with insects and animals, imaginary worlds, woods and streams, tidal pools and marshes, empty lots, dumps, alleys, abandoned buildings, and forts erected from the refuse of neighborhood curbs) often becomes inverted and internalized: primary questions that once led us into exploration and wonder are often replaced by questions about our own belonging, our worthiness, and our competence. What will I discover here? becomes Who am I to want more? How can I figure this out? gives way to What’s wrong with me?
By mid-life we might feel pulled apart by these seemingly antagonist energies: the quest to learn and grow, on the one hand, and the fear of doing so, on the other.
Either way, I can tell you that, if recognized and harnessed, this tension (often felt in our bodies as acute discomfort) can be a very good thing: it's the symptom of untapped potential. Of your aliveness. It's your gateway to growth, to healing, to intimacy, to innovation, and purposeful service to others.
The problem isn't the tension itself between curiosity and self-criticism, but the way we perpetuate competition between them by inhabiting one at the cost of the other.
I'm afraid. Actually, I'm terrified. When it comes right down to it, I'm scared to death of that TED talk. Of writing the book that's going to bare my story to the world. Of claiming once and for all my message, not only the message I now preach but the message that's calling to me, that's urging me into and through the maw of uncertainty to where I haven't yet been but want—need—to go. Of creating so much momentum and energy around what I'm doing that daydreaming for hours on end about what I'm not doing is no longer an option.
Do your own dreams oppress you? Do you swing between feeling exhilarated by them and totally daunted? Do you find all kinds of ways to let yourself off the hook from your commitments, from the things you know will make you feel better, more productive, healthier, and more alive? I get it, if so. I've been there, believe me. But you don't have to choose between a comfortable (less fearful, less anxious) life half-lived and a life fully expressed (and borne on the back of panic attacks). In fact, this choice is an illusion. A delusion manufactured by the primitive parts of our brain that are grooved to keep us safe, risk-averse, and close to "home."
As I watched these new mentors of mine throughout the weekend, I kept thinking “okay, this is what it looks like—what it feels like—to accept yourself, all of yourself.” Not because you think you’re flawless, but because you’ve finally learned that self-loathing is the ultimate block to personal (and thus cultural) evolution, and not, as we too often believe, a catalyst to growth.
Humans are hardwired to focus on the hard stuff at the expense of the positive. The scientific name for this phenomenon is negativity bias: back when prey lurked in the bushes, it behooved one to assume the worst about a rustle or a foreign sound. Consequently, our brains evolved to notice and easily recall that which we perceive as a threat above and before that which doesn’t. Today, the negativity bias, and its amped-up cousin, anxiety, rarely serve us in ways they once did; there’s a gap, for the majority of humans alive today, between this aspect of our neurology and our lived reality. Indeed, what once saved us is now killing us.
As a kid, I lived down a long dirt road, far away from other houses, and dozens of miles from take-out fare of any kind. Moreover, I grew up with a mom who cooked everything—including bread, tortillas, and mayonnaise—from scratch; take-out for dinner, especially on Christmas, would have been the ultimate act of unloving indifference. So, when I suggested one year (after the birth of my second child), that we order Chinese food for Christmas eve (a break from cooking for me, with no extended family within 1500 miles), then drive around looking at lights (kids strapped into car seats—oh mercy of heaven—and the blissful chance to sit for an hour), while drinking hot chocolate (tiny hands busied and mouths delighted), I felt downright liberated. Bold. Revolutionary. And, as the years passed, delighted with our new beloved family tradition.
As the Romantic poet John Keats so beautifully reminds us, melancholy is native to joy (“Ay, in the very temple of Delight/Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine”), but not because there’s some universal law that taxes us with a measure of pain for every dollar of pleasure we spend: as Keats suggests, the mournful emotions are inherent in, not a complement to, the emotions of ecstasy and delight. This distinction—between “inherent in” and “complement to”—is key to cultivating a life of full potential, a deliberate way of thinking and being that fosters active engagement, expansive happiness, and genuine purpose. If we can understand the mournful emotions, in all their aching and sometimes baffling intensity, as inherent in, not anathema to happiness and pleasure, we will go a long way towards short-circuiting the symptoms of self-doubt and second-guessing that tip us from embracing our “wakeful anguish” into indulging our fearful wish to stay small and safe.