Paddling on the Neuse River brings me great joy. Last week I went out on my stand up paddle board at dawn. I watched the sun rise, the osprey fish and the dolphins play in the pink light. I paddled for over an hour, grateful for a healthy body, good balance and the cup of coffee waiting for me at home. Life was good.
But was it?
I went into work. A client recently diagnosed with ALS wiped her tears by lowering her head to the Kleenex in her hand; she could no longer lift her arms; another client recounted over twenty years of physical and emotional abuse beginning at the age of nine; a third was reeling from the infidelity of a partner. At the end of the day I reflected on my morning. How could I have been happy when there was so much suffering? Many of my clients rarely experience positive emotions. A good day may simply be a decrease in the intensity of their depression, grief, anxiety, or maybe feeling neutral but rarely something as positive as what I’d felt that morning.
Every few years I wrestle with this conundrum. How can I authentically express joy when I’m acutely aware of other’s pain? Is it OK to sing in the shower or laugh until I have a stomach ache when I know others can’t shower without help or don’t even remember the last time they laughed? And these are just the people I personally know. What about the struggles of the Syrian refugees, young girls sold as sex slaves, victims of the war in Sudan and of course I could go on. Often in a moment of happiness, guilt washes over me when I think of others coping with huge challenges. As I strive to be compassionate and decrease the suffering of others can I contain their pain, as well as my own, while simultaneously experiencing joy?
If I look to our society for the answer it seems I should pick joy or suffering. We live in a dualistic culture where things need to be either one way or the other: good or evil, same or different, liberal or conservative, happy or sad. As I gain life experience I feel this perspective contributes to suffering, both personally and globally. The answer lies in the non-dual approach, yes and, instead of either or. Yes I can be emphatic with my clients, and I can fully experience the beauty, love and happiness in the world. In fact I have to in order to be of use to others.
If I come into work overwhelmed with my clients' experiences and the atrocities happening around the world, I have little to offer. How can I shine a ray of hope into the lives of others when it’s extinguished in me? Mahatma Gandhi said it perfectly, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. If I want others to experience love, peace and beauty it’s imperative I also do this. Feeling guilty and overwhelmed turns the focus to me and my emotional state rather then outward to those people and situations I’m trying to transform.
Recent research supports the value of positive emotions in impacting change. The broaden and build theory, introduced by Barbara Fredrickson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, poses that positive emotions trigger broadened, curious, and optimistic patterns of thought, together with more spontaneous and energetic behavior. Emotional states such as joy, serenity, gratitude, love and awe improve our problem solving skills, help us learn new information, create greater social bonds, and promote resilience and optimism. These attributes give us the tools needed to create positive change at a individual and global level. The social contagion theory is another line of research supporting the benefits of a positive mood. It states that our emotions have the power to influence those around us. We can change lives for the better simply by walking out the door in a state of gratitude or peace. We’ve all experienced this when our mood shifts because of who we’re with.
The challenge here is that in order to authentically experience the full spectrum of positive emotions so that we have the hope and energy to help others, we also have to experience the negative ones. They come from the same source. We can turn down the volume on emotional pain but that also mutes our ability to experience joy. It’s important to allow ourselves to feel sadness, grief, and anger, knowing that the negative feelings will ebb and flow depending on their intensity, but eventually subside. As we allow the negative emotions to flow through us, rather than stagnate, we create the space for the positive ones.
Our natural instinct is to avoid pain, so without conscious intention we push our difficult feelings aside. Our busy schedules, Netflix and social media are only too happy to help with this. In order to process pain and create joy, we need daily practices that connect us with our feelings. These practices vary widely depending on the person but can include mindfulness, talking to a friend or therapist, gratitude, journaling, creating art, spending time in nature, exercising or spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation.
Let in the the joy and suffering and embrace the paradox that is life. Yes there is abuse, hunger and sickness in our world and there is awe inspiring beauty, acts of kindness and great love. Yes I can cry for a client on the way home from work and I can dance in the kitchen with my labrador while I make dinner that night. To live a meaningful life and positively impact others, we must not deny the pain or feel guilty about the joy. The pain tells us there is something wrong and the joy gives us the hope and energy to do something about it.
I love a routine. It helps me get things accomplished, helps me maintain healthy habits like exercising, getting eight hours of sleep, keeping regular meal times. If you ask me what I’m doing at 10 a.m. on a particular day, I can usually tell you: Tuesday I’ll be with a client; Wednesday, writing; Saturday cleaning the house. On most Friday nights my husband and I will be eating pizza at The Silos in Oriental.
Having a routine keeps life predictable and safe. In times of heightened stress or during a crisis a solid routine can maintain our sanity, but like anything, moderation is key. Safe and predictable also keeps us in our comfort zone. We don’t grow, change or learn if we linger here long.
Too rigid a routine and life can dull and lose its luster. I often have clients say, “My life is so good. I don’t know why I’m depressed.” Further exploration reveals all their basic needs are being met. They’re even enjoying themselves on occasion but there is no challenge, no spontaneity. Life is most fulfilling when we have moments of living at the edge of our comfort zone. This is sometimes referred to as the flow state, where a challenge meets or slightly exceeds our abilities.
Since moving to Oriental I’ve become an avid stand-up paddle boarder. When I began, simply standing on my board and paddling in calm water put me at the edge of my comfort zone. I was quickly captivated by the sport partly because every time I got on the board I had the opportunity to push myself into new territory. Soon I increased my distance, paddled in white caps, competed in races. I felt invigorated, even when I was scared.
In the cold last winter, a warm, sunny paddle around Key West in the spring sounded inviting. In January, I signed up for the 13 mile Key West Classic and May seemed a long way off, until it wasn’t. I read the course description again: start in the Atlantic Ocean then enter the Gulf of Mexico! What was I thinking? This was a far cry from Smith and Green Creeks in Pamlico County. They’re protected and close to home, in other words, in my comfort zone.
Two weeks before the race I couldn’t sleep imagining ocean swells, waves, and strong winds. Would I finish? Would I fall off every five minutes? Would I end up in Cuba? I’ve counseled people through more difficult issues, but I needed help I called a sports psychologist friend and we talked about visualization and calming mantras and he reminded me that, "It’s only a paddle board race.”
Finally it was race day. The gun went off and I paddled. I paddled over bigger swells then I’d ever encountered. I paddled on my right side for an hour because of the wind. I paddled through fatigue and muscle cramps, never fully certain I would finish. I was literally at the edge of my comfort zone.
Three hours later I rounded a corner and saw the finish line. Music blared from the speakers and the crowd cheered. I’d done it! I cried, hopped off my board and ran under the arch of balloons on the beach. When I look back at that day I remember the color of the water, the angle of the sun at the finish,, the feel of the sand on my feet, the hugs from my husband and paddle friends, and the extreme joy and pride at accomplishing my goal. My experience was captured vividly in memory because at that moment I was fully alive, something that doesn’t occur in a predictable routine.
Pushing my physical limits comes more easily than stepping outside my comfort zone in other areas. Thankfully the success I’ve had in this realm contributes to my overall self confidence and emboldens me push myself in other areas: to say no because I want to, ask someone I’ve just met to lunch, or follow through with new avenues to promote my novel, Hungry Mother Creek. Who knows, one day I may even order something besides pizza at The Silos.
My experience and the wisdom I’ve gained from counseling my clients has revealed strategies that may help propel you out of your comfort zone.
Once you’ve successfully expanded the limits of your comfort zone, celebrate! Savor your success and enjoy the gifts your change has brought but don’t become complacent. Be alert for the nagging feeling that something is missing in your life. That’s your signal it’s time to grow again.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
This week I’ve been coming off the high of an amazing weekend, Chattajack 31 paddle board race. For those of you not familiar, this is a 31 mile paddle race on the Tennessee River. It starts in downtown Chattanooga and winds through the Tennessee River Gorge, dressed for fall in red, orange and yellow. For the past 6 months this race has been a primary focus. I’ve planned weekends around long training paddles, gotten advice from veteran racers, shared fears and expectations with other first timers. The weekend itself was intense, fun and best of all shared with fantastic people. Now that I’m back to real life I’m experiencing Chattajack depression or post event let down (PELD). Obviously I’m grieving the end of something highly anticipated but I was curious about the specific causes contributing to my PELD.
As a counselor I’ve noted that many of my clients with depression suffer from a lack of connection. They may be disconnected from themselves: their purpose, passions and body and from others: intimate relationships and the community at large. Most are also disconnected from the natural world due to excessive time in front of screens and erratic sleep patterns. Their disconnect could be a root cause or symptom of their depression but either way, one of my goals is to help them stop living in fear, make healthier choices and reengage with the world. These changes may start with small steps like journaling, calling an old friend, or time in the sun but little by little as clients reconnect their mood improves.
I think my transient depression after Chattajack was due to withdrawal after a weekend of intense connectivity. Connection to people was the most profound. During the 8 1/2 hours the race course was open, 300 racers and a similar number of volunteers, sherpas (people providing support to a specific paddler) and race organizers were focused on getting the racers safely across the finish line. People from different states and countries, different career paths, different socio-economic status were connected by a common purpose. My role was to get myself to the finish line while helping and encouraging other competitors and showing gratitude to all the volunteers. The flow of support went both ways and I received cheers and shouts of inspiration from people I didn’t even know.
In the midst of this I’m paying close attention to my natural environment, the current in the river, the wind, air temperature and cloud cover. A change in one of these factors would necessitate a change in paddle technique, dress or hydration so couldn’t be ignored. The entire race I’m also acutely aware of the beauty of the Tennessee River Gorge, the slope and height of the mountains, the rock formations and of course the fall leaves. In the last few miles when my body was ready to stop, I focused my attention on the trees lining the riverbank, lingering on the ones with exceptional yellow, orange or red. These vibrant colors were the inspiration I needed to get around the last corner where the finish line was in sight.
Finally while being mindful of other people and the natural world, I’m dialed in on my mental and physical status. Am I hungry? Have I been drinking enough? Are my feet numb? My mental state fluctuated throughout the race, the first and last 5 miles being the most challenging. During these times I used a positive mantra and focused on my gratitude for the opportunity to have this experience.
All the connections I experienced during Chattajack 31 made me feel alive, engaged, part of something greater than myself and so the absence of this intensity created passing depression. I know it’s unrealistic to maintain the stoke of last weekend every day, but we certainly have room to improve the connections in our daily life.
"We are water people and the water connects us.” John Beausang, The Distressed Mullet
I didn’t schedule a book launch party for my novel, Hungry Mother Creek, because it felt self centered, a celebration just for my accomplishment? No need for that. Several months later a dear, wise friend asked if she could host a reading of my novel in her home and invite some of my closest friends. Honored, I agreed and a few weeks ago I was at a celebration just for my accomplishment. It’s hard to put into words how grateful I was that thirteen amazing women took an evening to share their love and support with me. That night I felt like I was plugged into an electric socket and barely slept. My heart was overflowing. As I lay awake with my buzz of good energy I realized I was full because I’d been able to receive the love, congratulations, support and complements that had been shared with me. The impact of that evening was profound and I questioned if I’d ever been that open to receive before.
How many time had I deflected a compliment, discounting the credibility of the person for surely if they thought well of me they must not know what they’re talking about. Many times I felt uncomfortable receiving a promotion, raise, or award, like an impostor; if only they knew who I really was they wouldn’t have given it to me. Based on talks with close friends and my clients, I know I’m not alone in this. Why do we have so much trouble receiving the positive while simultaneously complaining about no one appreciating us, feeling drained and burned out? I believe a combination of factors contribute to our difficulty receiving.
Sense of worthiness. The greatest impediment to receiving is our sense of worthiness. When the outside world is sharing something positive and it doesn’t resonate with our internal beliefs, we discount it. Many of us have the core belief that we are not enough. So even as the world is trying to fill our cup, we don’t fully receive because the good slips out the crack of unworthiness.
How do we fill that crack? How do we feel worthy of love, success, happiness? This is a complicated question and the answers are as individual as each of us. Asking the question is the first step. The next step is reviewing our past for the messages we received as a child and young adult that reinforced our unworthiness. Challenge those messages. Maybe we had a parent who could not provide unconditional love or required “perfection” before bestowing praise. These experiences plant the seeds of unworthiness. Now imagine our best friend in the same situation. Are they unworthy because of the actions of their parent or because they are not perfect? NO, of course they are still worthy and that same logic applies to us as well. At some point we have to accept that we are worthy of love, joy, happiness and stop sabotaging our success; start enjoying periods of happiness and peace in our life without focusing on what bad thing is about to happen and accepting love and kind words from others. Feeling worthy will mend the crack in our cup and allow us to receive and hold onto all the good that life is trying to bestow on us every day.
Mindfulness. A second potential crack in our cup that inhibits receiving is our attention. Our brain is designed to focus on potential threats and negative circumstances. Rick Hanson PhD, in his book Buddha’s Brain, says that our mind is like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive. Our brain is hardwired to scan for the bad, immediately store it and make it easily available for recall. In contrast we must consciously focus on something positive for 10-20 seconds for it to sink in. It’s difficult to receive the good in our lives if our brain is not even allowing it to register. To overcome our physiology we need to be mindful and look for the joy, beauty, and love that is always available. Once we are aware of the gorgeous sunrise on the way to work, the smile of the barrister in the coffee shop, the compliment from our co-worker, the feel of our partner’s hand in ours, we need to spend just half a minute reflecting on this and appreciating the positive experience. The simple steps of increased awareness and reflection go a long way in filling our cup and allowing us to receive the good that is always there for us.
It is better to give then receive. This is a tenet of many cultures and most spiritual traditions. I believe it is better to give but that doesn’t mean to never receive. Continually giving without receiving empties our cup and when empty we feel depressed, resentful, burned out. Many people think that if they only give more they will feel better without realizing the problem lies within them. Serving as the giver keeps us in control and in an active state of doing which feels comfortable and is more socially acceptable in the Western world. Being on the receiving end requires vulnerability and a state of just being, something we have less experience with.
Continue to share your time, energy, love and money but be aware if you want to continue to give with compassion and joy, you need to keep your cup full and allow yourself to receive. Remember that as we receive gratefully, we allow others to experience the joy of giving. In healthy relationships there is a balance of giving and receiving.
I challenge you to improve your ability to receive: begin to accept your inherent worthiness, be mindful of the positive experiences available to you every day and challenge the belief that it is always better to give then receive. You will find that by receiving, your cup will fill with love and compassion and you will have more to pour out into the world.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Goals have been on my mind this week. Since May 1, I have been participating in the 100/100 paddle board challenge with the goal of paddling 100 hours in 100 days. On Saturday I completed this challenge with my longest paddle of 3.5 hours covering 13.3 miles. Having this goal over the summer motivated me to paddle more often then I would have otherwise. The end result was I achieved something I would not have thought possible a year and a half ago. Achieved something I would not have thought possible, THAT, is exactly why setting goals, both long and short term, is important. We cannot realize our true potential by sitting on the couch, doing the same old thing. We have to set goals that push us beyond our comfort zone.
I believe that most everyone understands the concept and value of setting goals. Everyday I see people setting goals of managing their stress, exercising more regularly, ending their procrastination, finishing school, leaving an unhealthy relationship. Many people never achieve their goals because they get overwhelmed with the enormity of it or frustrated because it isn’t happening fast enough. They give up, only to start again in the future.
Through the course of my life and my work as a counselor I have found the following tips enhance the probability of achieving your goals.
As part of a blog hop I am posting seven lines from a piece of writing I am working on. This comes from a short story based on a true story in Oriental.
Cotton Sykes was born mean. He came into the world breech, ass backward. Bout killed his Momma because that was back before ultrasounds. Well maybe some people were getting them but not the wife of a fisherman from Pamlico County, North Carolina. Anyhow, Cotton was colicky and cried and cried as a baby. His Momma never did have any peace. Once he was old enough to walk, all hell broke lose in their house. He would break things, throw his food on the floor and pinch his baby brother Tony, lying quiet as you please in his crib. Can you believe that? Anyone who’d hurt an innocent baby just for meanness, well there’s no hope for him. I won’t even tell you what he did to that old tabby cat that hung around his Daddy’s dock, it being close to super and all. Might ruin your appetite.
Check out these wonderful Indie authors who are also sharing parts of their work this month.
As I continue to grow as a writer, I seek advice from those with more experience. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received so far was from Zelda Lockhart, leader of a weeklong writer’s workshop I attended. She told me, “It is your job as a writer to get your story out to your readers. The writing process is not done until this has happened.” She was vehement that if you had the inspiration to write something, fiction or non-fiction, there was always a reader out there who needed to hear your message. This advice stayed with me as I continued writing and kept me motivated as I figured out the maze of publishing options.
Since publishing Hungry Mother Creek, readers have shared how my novel touched them. Some were entertained by the story; some gained a new perspective on their marriage or relationship with their parents; others realized they needed a community of supportive women in their lives. Getting this feedback reinforced the time and effort it took to publish and made me grateful I hadn’t let my fear and self doubt stop me from sharing my work.
My life has also been influenced by writers. Sarah Addison Allen’s novel Garden Spells, inspired me to begin writing Hungry Mother Creek; Maya Angelou’s memoirs taught me about strength, self confidence and persistence and John Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley was the catalyst for my bicycle trip across the United States after college graduation. I’m thankful these writers finished the job and shared their story with me, their reader. My life would have had a different trajectory if these writers had not chosen to publish their work.
I believe the directive I received to “get my story out there” applies to everyone, not just writers. We can all make a positive difference in the world by sharing our unique gifts. It may be a novel, song, or piece of art but could also be the ability to teach a special needs child, to help a client find the perfect house, or to secure a loan for an entrepreneur. Pay more attention to what evokes passion and enthusiasm and less attention to what others expect of you and you will be lead to the “story” you are meant to share.
I encourage everyone to follow the advice I received. When you are inspired to do something new or innovative in your personal life, creative life or your career, overcome your fear and follow through with this inspiration. Your work here is not complete until you share a part of yourself with the world.
I'm participating in a blog hop this month. I will post seven lines from my most recent writing and links to seven other authors who are doing the same.
Maya awoke just a millisecond before her alarm went off at 5:00 am. She slid up in bed and looked out the french doors leading to the second floor porch. Dawn was just a glow in the East. The peepers and frogs were welcoming the solstice with their song while Doodle Bug’s doggie snores provided back up accompaniment from the floor beside Maya’s bed. Maya slid the pillow up behind her and propped up in the large wrought iron bed, letting the impact of the day settle in. Today was the solstice and the longest day of the year. Well officially it was yesterday, but today was Saturday and the day her women’s circle would meet at the Mother Tree to celebrate the solstice. Today also would have been Hazel’s 80th birthday. Maya’s throat tightened and tears pricked at the back of her eyes.
Click on these links to learn about the new work of some wonderful Indie authors!
This past weekend I had the pleasure of competing in The Carolina Cup, a stand up paddle board (SUP) race. It's a well known race that attracts professional paddlers from around the world as well as hundreds of SUP enthusiasts from across the country. I participated in the 10K intermediate race. This was my second race at this distance and since I came in last at my first 10k SUP race, I was hoping for an improvement.
When the race began I was ready for the quick start and fast cadence, but it didn't take long for most of the pack to pull away from me. Around the halfway point I looked behind me and saw a short string of paddlers. I was feeling strong, and paddling hard but still near the back. My friends were long gone in front of me and I felt defeated. I wallowed in my pity for a few minutes and snapped out of it when I passed a support boat whose captain was playing the ukulele for the racers. He cheered for me like I was in first place!
I realized that my angst was caused by comparing myself to others. I felt slow compared to the folks in front of me. I wondered why I couldn't pass the man beside me because I felt sure my stoke was better and I looked at the paddlers behind me as potential enemies, putting me in very last if they passed me. I pulled my focus back to my board, into my body and onto my race. I realized that I definitely felt stronger then past races. I reminded myself that my focus had been on building endurance so hadn't trained yet to be fast. I was successfully navigating with tide and current, variables I don't have in my local paddling waters. As soon as I stopped comparing myself to others and focused on my performance and personal goals I was back to enjoying the experience of the race and even felt proud of my improvements over the past 6 months.
We can get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves to others which usually results in not being enough; not smart enough, fast enough, thin enough, pretty enough, rich enough. You get the picture. If we do this too often we feel self defeated and insecure as I did during the race. Constant comparison inhibits the true expression of who we are because we are so worried that we aren't enough. Several times after reading a book by an author I admired, I would stop work on my novel, Hungry Mother Creek, because my writing seemed so amateurish compared to theirs.
It is important for each of us to resist the temptation to compare ourselves to others and focus on following our passions and living life in a way that makes us happy. When we stop trying to measure up to others and just be ourselves, we ensure that the unique gift we have brought to this world will be expressed. It might be making others laugh, creating a beautiful piece of art, starting a successful business or writing a novel. Most likely if you are doing things just a little bit differently then the people around you, then you are doing things exactly right for you!
For the past six years I've been working on my novel, Hungry Mother Creek - writing, going to writing workshops, editing, seeking advice, figuring out the maze of publishing options. Three weeks ago Hungry Mother Creek was published!! A dream come true. It is overwhelming that the story and characters that have been in my head for six years are now being discovered by my readers. As I've reflected on my journey from inspiration to publication three important lessons stand out to me.
First, to achieve anything that pushes your limits, you have to believe in yourself. As soon as I decided to write a novel self doubt set it. that harsh inner critic said, "Who are you to write a novel"; "You'll never finish"; "Nobody will want to read it". And on and on. I did my best to ignore this voice but sometimes I wouldn't write for a month or more because it was so strong. As time went on I got better at ignoring my inner critic. My mantra became, "Keep writing. Just keep writing." I began to pay more attention to the calm and steady inner voice saying I could to this. As I sit here with my novel in hand and some positive feedback from readers, I see which voice was correct. I believe ignoring my tough inner critic allowed me to achieve something I was meant to do. I challenge you to do the same!
Secondly, writing Hungry Mother Creek reinforced the power of patience. I didn't know how long the whole process would take when I started and I certainly got frustrated along the way when I didn't feel I was making fast enough progress. But what was fast enough? It was mainly my inner critic again saying I was going too slow. I keep writing when I could and celebrated the small steps along the way, scences developing into chapters, chapters printed and put in a notebook, unedited rough draft, first edited draft, second edited draft and so on. I held onto the vision of holding my book in my hand and trusted all the small steps would get me there eventually. The day I completed my first draft there was a motivational post on my Facebook page. The picture was a pile of small turtles and the quote was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience."
Lastly, writing Hungry Mother Creek showed me how interconnected we all are. Nobody achieves anything without the influence of others. Hungry Mother Creek would not be here without family and friends believing in me when my self doubt flared, teachers helping me improve my writing, other authors inspiring me with their words, my editor providing me with grammatical and plot feedback, technical support helping me with formatting and web page design. Reaching out for help, support and advice allowed me to achieve a dream that I would never have attained alone and I am eternally grateful for everyone who was on this journey with me.
As you pursue your dreams, believe in yourself and learn to quiet your inner critic, have patience and faith that small steps will lead you to your goal and finally embrace our interconnectedness and let others support, inspire and teach you. The stronger your web of connections the more likely you are to reach your goal.