For more than twenty years, the core of my spiritual practice has been a Lectio Divina (divine reading) of my own making. I read anything and everything that brings me closer to Spirit, Love, Truth — to the divine in me and in us all. Sometimes I just write the words down, searing them into my psyche; sometimes I riff and romance the limits of language into an intimate understanding with which I can dance. Words have been one of my most profound conduits to the divine. . .and therefore to the joy we all feel when we connect to something larger than us.
From time to time, when I am deeply inspired by someone I hear speak or whose book I have just read, I write a letter to them — one I never send. Composing these unsent missives is another way of engaging with someone's teachings and making them my own. Entering into a dialogue that makes their teachings more personal soothes me and can lead to a deeper wisdom.
I will be spending most of the next four months away from home. While there are many perks to my peripatetic life, sitting in a dust-filled house listening to the bludgeoning sound of jackhammers for three straight days — as I did this week — is not among them. BUT having that otherwise drop-dead gorgeous house overlooking Austin’s Colorado River be 15 minutes away from the beautiful auditorium where Brene Brown was speaking this past Thursday most certainly was!
I found out about Ms. Brown's talk from my friend Carly, and lucked out on tickets through Craigslist. Ms Brown is so popular that soon other people who had read my wanted ad were asking me to pass on any other offers to them. Five different people got their Brene Brown tickets secondhand through me. Meanwhile, we all texted back and forth about how “vulnerable" we felt while waiting to see if we’d get in. . .No doubt Ms. Brown would have found the whole thing hilarious!
As Thursday approached, Carly and I were also texting to firm up our plans. . . as well as about Carly's cold sore. I got the blow by blow of each of its ugly stages complete with photos! Since one of the ways in which Carly and I initially bonded was when we realized we share the same quirky blend of committed spiritual practice combined with self-deprecatingly snarky senses of humor liberally peppered with cursewords, I quickly volunteered to get her a paper bag that she could wear over her head so no one at Ms Brown’s talk would have to be grossed out by her disgusting face! To keep things on an equal playing field, I told her I would get one for myself too, since all I see when I look in the mirror these day is ONE HUGE WRINKLE. Truly, I see nothing else. I look in the mirror and scary old hag from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale looks back at me. Even the oldest woman alive doesn’t look as bad as I do, I hear myself thinking. Cold sore, schmold sore, Carly. At least those heal.
When my father died, my mom told me that she couldn’t bring herself to go to his memorial service because she hated how she looked. She couldn’t face all of his friends — my stepmother's best friend Joan Rivers in particular — feeling as ashamed as she did of her wrinkles. At the time, I remember feeling so sorry for her. I was Carly’s age, and I tolerated my few wrinkles then, because they gave me a “distinguished look”! HAH! Those of us who struggle with shame and self loathing have to learn it somewhere. I learned it from my mother, who, I have just come to understand, felt the same self loathing I do. Like me, she had a slender youthful body (she could do modern dance moves and climb scaffolding to the end of her life) and a face full of creases. (Catherine Deneuve famously said that women over 40 have to choose between their face or their ass. Inculcated into the trap of emaciation, my mother and I chose the lesser self-loathing — for us— of thin bodies and wrinkled faces! How that for a nasty deal with the devil!)
Now that I know how terrible it feels to look in the mirror and detest what you see, I feel so differently about my mother. I have so much more love in my heart for her, and I'm working on more for me. But I have become determined to heal this self-loathing, to stop this shame cycle — for us both.
One of the benefits of being friends with hip women who are twenty years younger than I am is learning about apps, music, and other cool things that I am happily still young enough in spirit to care about. When we got to Brene Brown's talk, Carly took a selfie of us and then introduced me to an app called Face Tune, which airbrushes your face, whitens your teeth, etc. (It can even give you boobs, but when Carly tried that on my photo, I looked like a had a chest tumor. So, we passed on that feature!) She airbrushed out her cold sore, whitened our teeth, and got rid of as many of my wrinkles as she could without actually removing my face altogether. It was awesome! I found myself wishing that I could virtually FaceTune my entire life!
So, when Ms Brown affirmed at the start of her talk that the number one shame trigger for women is body image, you could feel the collective heartfelt nod from the room. Since Carly and I had ultimately opted not to wear our brown paper bags, we nodded vigorously along with everyone else. (And when she shared that for men it is weakness, the guy next to me was nodding just as vigorously as we were.)
For those of you who don’t know Brene Brown’s work, she is a shame researcher (let’s face it — she brought shame into national discourse!) whose story-based methodology has led her to recognize the importance of vulnerability and courage in the healing of shame. She is smart, funny, vulnerable, courageous, and such a great public speaker that her Ted talk has 21 MILLION views! She’s one of Oprah’s go-to gurus, and yet she still struggles with shame like the rest of us. She admits she still has a lot to learn, which is a good good thing, since she has a lot to keep teaching the rest of us about vulnerability and courage in our own healing.
In her newest book, Ms Brown takes this work to the next level. Thursday’s talk introduced us to the next steps in healing our shame.
For those of you who read my post-vacation blog about learning to love falling, you will recognize how much I loved hearing her say that we all must and will fall. . .over and over again. And that that falling will hurt. That this is living. It is how we get back up that matters. In Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution., Ms Brown gives us those tools.
Unsurprisingly, in less than twenty four hours, I had the opportunity to use these tools multiple times as I was pulled into some shame spirals that would have served Ms Brown well in her research. Just like the two stories she shared with us on Thursday night, my shame was brought on by innocuous remarks that triggered my awareness of some heretofore unconscious old, dark, deep place in me. (Those old dark deep places are a little closer to the surface these days, as you read in last week's blog. All toxins HAVE to come to the surface to be sloughed off, after all. Mine appear to be periscoping up to consciousness these days in myriad ways! Truly the good, the bad, and the ugly of committing to this daily practice of joy.)
It was during a moment of deep deep discomfort that I pulled out the voice recorder on my phone and started a letter to Brene Brown. Writing it proved the balm to this week’s Gilead.
In it, I tried to sort out what she was asking us as way of finding my way out of my emotional impasse.
I started with The Reckoning: This is all about feeling. For those of us who grew up in families where emotion was off limits, just feeling that we are feeling at all is the sometimes unimaginable first step. But once you realize that you are feeling, it is often wildly uncomfortable. When you’re used to being as buttoned down as my dad’s Brooks Brothers shirts, feeling, well, it can feel really scary. Like being thrown off the edge of a cliff. Actually, if I really have to be honest, being thrown off the edge of a cliff might be preferable to the massive level of anxiety in my chest that I have no idea how to tolerate, let alone soothe.
In her book, Ms Brown writes, “Rising strong requires getting curious about our experience”. Now I’m big on curiosity. I grew up with a dad who constantly told me, and anyone else who would listen, which in his case — as the second most popular lecturer in the country for almost 30 years — was a lot of people: “If you are always curious, you will never be bored.” As his child, he liked to add (with emphasis), “I just don’t understand boredom. There is too much to be curious about. Boredom is the eighth deadly sin."
So, I’ve been curious my whole life — about everything and anything. Except these feelings. These wildly uncomfortable feelings. Haven’t really been curious at all about them. Nor was my dad about his feelings. . .I might add. In our family, curiosity meant being interested in the early drawings of a Dutch Baroque painter or how much butter it takes to make the perfect risotto. Even the mating habits of a praying mantis (and none of us really cared at all about insects of any kind) would have been preferable to being curious about our feelings!
As she remind us, “What gets in the way of reckoning with emotions is exactly what gets in the way of engaging in other courageous behaviors: fear.” Hell yeah. So, her definition of curiosity one-ups my dad’s: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty.”
Do we have to?
The reason I started this daily practice of joy was because I needed it, needed to find a way out of the workaholism that masked the foundational messages that have been my lifelong blocks to Love. Practicing joy is a complicated dance — every day I read the poems, listen to the music, take the walks, and look at the birds that give me hope and connect me to life and my heart. But joy is not an aspirin that we take to mask lifelong pain. Joy is transforming pain by taking it to a higher vibration. And to do that, sometimes you have to be willing to sit with the pain.
We don’t want to do this, as Ms Brown helps us understand with her list of common avoidance techniques to which we all resort instead of having to face our uncomfortable emotions. We all have them. Given the choice of tapping our feet to the music or facing it, most of us are tappers. But if we want to dance to the music in true joy, face the music we must. And when we do, we get to. . .The Rumble:
“The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity."
In the preface to my biography of my dad, I quoted Adrienne Rich, who wrote, “The stories of our lives become our lives.” By that I meant that my dad’s gift as a storyteller — and he was one of the most incredibly entertaining and funny storytellers I have ever known (and with that voice!) — had enabled him to storytell much of his own life. At some point, his stories became his life.
I learned from the best.
Ms Brown tells us that when we encouter those uncomfortable feelings, we usually respond by telling ourselves fables in our heads. When this happens, we need to remember to STOP! Breathe. (She very humorously introduced all of us to “square breathing" in her talk, and I actually used it yesterday. It works!) Instead of running for the refrigerator, surfing Facebook, bitching someone out on our heads or in person (customer service people are my top victims!), or imagining our demise on the nearest imaginary suspension bridge, she exhorts us to Let It Be. Do not talk, text or type. Just sit with the emotions. And then — taking a page from the wonderful Ann Lamott — she tells us write a sh&*%tty first draft. An SFD. About what we are feeling.
From that place, we get to begin to parse, pare, edit, throw out, rethink, re-feel, remember, undo, breathe, and eventually we get to our truth.
She writes, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”
As you can all tell, I love to write. So, this blog is a two-parter. I spent yesterday writing a SFD. OK. At first it was a RFSFD (remember what I said earlier about my love of cursewords, and you’ll get there). And now I’m sitting with it.
Ms Brown has urged us all to get help. Don’t sit in our shame stories by ourselves. I called my friend Mary. Not much she could say would break through yesterday's darkness, but when she told me how many people love me, I felt it. I felt it! I took Christianne Northrup’s advice for finding joy, and I ate a delicious dinner and went to a funny movie. I laughed. This morning I took a great hike to a fishing hole with Carly, where of course we took a fabulously FaceTuned selfie. I reached out to my spiritual director, who filled me with more tools for my journey.
Now I find myself at Brene Brown calls the Delta. It’s a place with which I am familiar. In fact, it’s one of my favorite places. I’ve just used a different metaphor.
When I was in my early twenties, I drove cross country one summer. It was one of the hardest, most miserable, and eye-opening summers of my life. I loathed and loved it. I will forever be grateful for that summer. Wherever I drove that summer, I noticed that there were always wildflowers blooming by the side of the road. I mean way more wildflowers than in the fields. This struck me as odd, even wrong. Why were they growing in such an ugly place? Why not in some more picturesque meadow! And then I learned that all flowers grow best where the soil is disturbed. At that place where the tarmac (the human) meets the earth (the Source), there they are, such great beauty, in such joyfully riotous profusion.
It has become one of the life-affirming metaphors of my life, and the core of both my design and spiritual practice. In design, I often put two seemingly incongruous styles or shapes or colors together just to see what ideas will bloom there. They always do. And they are always the most interesting! It is the same with my spiritual practice. It’s just a little harder.
So this week, I have decided to end this blog at the place where my RFSFD has morphed merely into a SFD. (Last week, after all, I remind myself to remember, I was thick in with those villains.) It’s all good. It’s exactly where I need to be.
So, now I Let It Be. I square breathe. I reach out to Love. I practice joy by seeing friends in Austin, going on hikes, reading my beloved books, writing this blog, listening to music, exploring new neighborhoods, trying the food trucks recommended to me by one of Austin’s long time food mavens. And even by working — but in gratitude instead of -aholism.
In gratitude for it all, as a matter of fact. Because this, too — this maybe most of all — is the daily practice of joy I most need right now. To know that the seeds of joy and love and hope have been sown in the disturbed earth between my past human history and my continuing spiritual grown, and then to watch as the wildflowers begin to bloom right here where I most need them. On the side of the road of my life.
According to Brene Brown, after the Rumble comes the Revolution. I'm ready. Bring it on!
For those of you who have not heard one of Brene Brown’s talks, here are a few: