The invitation to move inward

Here in the Chicago area of the U.S., we are reaching the time of year where it gets dark very early.

Sometimes I turn a light on in my living room now before 4 p.m. because it’s become so dim. From my windows, I can see Christmas lights strung on the balconies of the condo building across the way, decorated trees lit up through the windows, and (my favorite!) the occasional dog or cat peering out.

I know some people find the darker times of year depressing, but I appreciate it when daylight ends earlier. It seems to me to be an invitation to reflect, to hush, to go within. And in this particular year, 2020, maybe more of us than usual are needing such an invitation.

During the pandemic, my partner and I have taken to longish drives on the weekends. I have come to appreciate, even to relish, these drives, which at first felt like acts of desperation (there’s nowhere to go!). Now they feel reflective to me, a shared activity between us where we simply notice. We listen to music on these drives, too (I rediscovered Fleetwood Mac!), and there is a quality of really listening, because our purpose is not to get anywhere. We are simply being, appreciating.

After these drives, more often than not, I feel renewed. And because we are covering more ground in the car than I would on my walks, I feel more connected to community-at-large, my place in the bigger picture, as the landscape flows by. It’s a good way of getting “out of myself” — noticing the specifics of the world around me — when I feel too “in”.

In that same way, during much of the pandemic I have been feeling too “out”. Is this true for you, too?

Less alone time and more coaching clients for me has meant more natural focus on others, and in many ways this has been very, very good. I’ve felt honored and blessed to be a part of a support system during this time for the lovely souls I work with, and it’s felt more important than ever to recognize that we all share this experience of being human, and that any issue a client I work with is experiencing is not solely “their own” — it is, in its essence, a universal thing, a part of existing on this planet.

And, for my introvert self, sometimes all this “out” is a challenge. I need to make sure I’m getting the alone time, the “puttering time,” that fills my creative well, that allows me to recharge and replenish.

That means that there are ways in which I’ve given myself permission to really slow down during this time.

Despite a couple of decades of practice of giving myself this permission, I have to say that it took me several months to recognize I needed it more than ever. A part of me kept exerting pressure to “keep to my usual pace”, with this particularly prickly voice within me piping up to utter things like, “You already go way too slow! And now you think you need to go even slower??”

Here is where I know that the “you need to speed up!” voice is not mine alone and part of a shared experience of being human (at least in U.S. culture): I have this conversation with clients a lot. The idea that they may need to move more slowly, to let some things go, triggers all sorts of fears. What if there won’t be enough? What if I won’t be enough? Who will I be if I’m “slacking off?What if I can’t keep up?

We talk about how this fearful voice is trying to help, but the voice ultimately doesn’t feel helpful.

We talk about noticing this fearful voice as a part of us, not the whole of who we are. It’s simply one part, often a young one that didn’t quite get its needs met way back when.

We talk about ways we can calm this voice, ways we can reassure it that we are okay, and we’re choosing a new way, a kinder way, to be in relationship to ourselves now.

Clients often say they are relieved to realize that this fearful, critical voice is just one part of them — just a voice within them — and that there are other, calmer voices within them, too. They’re just more used to focusing on the fearful voice.

As Kristin Neff teaches in writing about self-compassion, it’s vital to find equanimity when we are working with a part of ourselves that is fearful, that is suffering. We don’t want to overidentify with our suffering, but at the same time, we don’t want to dismiss it and pretend it doesn’t matter.

That fearful voice may have an important message for us — it’s just that, often, that message is amplified because the voice is so loud and demanding.

It can drown out other, quieter, less frenetic voices, like the voice that might say, “Hmm, yes, this is challenging right now, but we’ve faced big challenges before and figured out ways to handle them.” Or, “I’m sensing we need to rest for a while, and when we return to this issue refreshed, we’ll see it from another perspective.”

I notice that, although that frightened, frenetic voice really jumped out for me as the pandemic set in (and of course it did, why wouldn’t it?!), I am choosing to listen more to the calmer part of me, the part that knows the whole of me is capable of seeing creative solutions I might not have seen before.

And as darkness falls earlier these days, I accept the invitation to move inward and rediscover calm and quiet and the wisest part of me (who is also, by the way, quite fierce about setting boundaries around her time and energy). This will look different ways at different times, but it’s the underlying feeling of replenishing, of recharging and renewing, that tells me I’m on the right track.

For now, I am setting an intention to choose to respond when I notice a trend in my behavior of automatic reacting.

I am reminding myself that I can always access mindful presence, regardless of what I am “doing” at any time.

And that, if I am in a situation where I am really struggling to access mindful presence, I have permission to remove myself from that situation if I can. If that’s not possible, I can work toward acceptance of the situation. (And by the way, acceptance is not the same as resignation to things that are unjust! We can be in a state of acceptance of what is, and still take action toward the good.)

How can you welcome moving inward this season (whether your daylight hours have shortened or not!)? What permission can you give yourself to move inward and reconnect? How does this work for you right now? I’d love to hear from you.

Above images by Wonderlane, Debby Hudson and Renee Fisher on Unsplash, respectively

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Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

A few days ago while logging in my daily progress for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, I had one of those light-bulb moments where I got something, not just intellectually but viscerally.

One of the questions we group members respond to daily asks us what negative thoughts we noticed that came up around our writing. Time and time again, I find myself writing some variation of this: “My writing isn’t exciting or important enough. It’s not active enough. There’s not enough drama. No one will find it interesting.”

I’ve examined these thoughts for quite a while now. Are they true? Yes, sometimes my writing lacks drama. Sometimes it could be more active. But all the time? No, these things are not always true. As for “it’s not exciting or important enough” and “no one will find it interesting,” well, that’s all subjective. I’ve certainly gotten enough feedback on my writing by this point in my life to know that quite a few people have found it interesting. And, as any writer knows, the most important thing when it comes to writing is that you, the writer, are fascinated by what you’re writing.

But this particular day as I logged in these thoughts once again, cringing at their familiarity, I got it. BUSTED! I said out loud, practically snorting my iced coffee.

These thoughts about my writing are my particular form of resistance.

Here’s how I know this: There have been days when I’ve known, without a doubt, that what I’ve written has been exciting and dramatic. To me, anyway. My whole body felt engaged as I wrote; I could hardly tear myself away from the page. These days don’t happen all that often. When they do, they’re wonderful, but that doesn’t usually completely quiet my inner critic.

On these days, when I logged in my progress, what negative thoughts had I noticed? “This writing isn’t serious enough; it’s too active; it should be quieter and deeper; it moves too quickly.”

Yep, when my inner critic knew it couldn’t convince me the writing wasn’t exciting or active, it just went ahead and criticized the writing for not being other things.

Here’s what I realized: My inner critic just wants to protect me from putting my writing out there for scrutiny. So it dredges up anything it can find “wrong” about the writing that I just might believe. When it knows I won’t buy into the idea that the writing isn’t exciting or active enough, it criticizes the writing for having these very qualities.

My inner critic wants to convince me that unless I’m sure my writing is all things to all people, I shouldn’t put it out there — it’s not good enough yet, it’s not ready. And it’s a lose-lose proposition, a double bind. It’s like not showing up to the party unless you’re sure you can be every kind of guest. Since you know you can’t be, you don’t show up at all.

So I’ve finally gotten it: “Not exciting and active enough, not important enough” or any variations thereof, are my “usual suspects” when it comes to my writing. They’re my go-to thoughts that exist solely to keep me from having faith in my own stories, from investing them with enough importance to go all the way with them, to truly own them. 

Noticing these thoughts — my usual suspects — allows me to round them up, corral and question them. In fact, I’m getting so used to them I don’t even always have to question them anymore. I just notice them and say, ah, there you are again.

One time when I was in grad school, a well-known writer visited one of my writing classes and was asked her best advice for writers. “Know what kind of writer you are,” she said. She said she loved Dickens, but she was never going to write like him.

And I’m probably never going to write action-packed thrillers that pump you full of adrenaline. It’s not the kind of writer I am. Luckily, I don’t have to be every type of writer. Knowing that — finally getting it at a deep level — frees me up to trust in the writing that is mine and mine alone.

Do you need support in creating a daily writing habit? Tomorrow, Aug. 30, is the last day to sign up for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’ve been a member of this group for going on a year, and I’m also Jenna’s co-coach. It’s a tremendously powerful way to become aware of what keeps you from writing, and to get group support while you do it. Check it out here!

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