Solitude

“The antidote to loneliness is solitude.” – unknown British author

Is there a difference between loneliness and solitude? If so, what value could understanding that difference add to our lives?

Loneliness is associated with rejection or abandonment. It relates to our relationship with the outside world. The feelings generated by loneliness may include sadness, fear, or shame. They are very real. Shunning is still one way that society punishes those who don’t go along with the majority view.

Solitude, on the other hand, represents a conscious decision to cut off the normal hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Historically, mystics in all cultures and all major religions have practiced the art of solitude. They chose solitude in order to connect with themselves and with the universe in ways that we don’t normally take the time to pay attention to.

Solitude cultivates a felt sense of silence that supports our psychological and emotional well-being. It moves us out of our ever-chattering mind and into the presence of our bodies. Solitude is not about isolation, it is about connection to our sense of being and to the world around us. It allows us to suspend our normal preoccupations and defenses in order to rest in the wholeness and interconnectedness of life. This is one way that we access our innate wisdom.

Practicing solitude does not require spending long stretches of time in the wilderness. How can you practice solitude today?

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Comfortable with Ourselves

The more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more comfortable we are with others.” —Kevin Manders

What does it mean to be more comfortable with ourselves? In the past, for me it meant picking out the things that I liked about myself and feeling good about that.

However, the deeper I looked into “myself”, the more I came across things that I didn’t like – I didn’t like my quick anger, I didn’t like feeling shame, I didn’t like being judgemental… the list went on and on. So how do I become comfortable with the items that are on my ‘negative list’? That is where the process of inner work comes in to play.

It is a well-know principle of psychology that what we don’t like in ourselves becomes something that we cannot accept in others. For example, if I can’t deal with my own anger, I won’t be comfortable with yours. In my own practice, as I explore what is prompting anger to arise in me, I discover old wounds and deep feelings that need to be attended to. I begin to understand and take responsibility for my old patterns of reactivity and I become less driven by them.

When I am able to make friends with my own underlying emotions of fear, shame, or whatever, your expression of anger becomes more nuanced for me. On the days when I am feeling good about myself, I can become curious about what potentially lies beneath the surface of your anger? In this way I then become more tolerant and compassionate. I become more comfortable with you. I can begin to see all of you, not just your anger. We become just two people caught up in an old dance.

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Listening to the voices inside

“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” – Natalie Goldberg

It has taken me some time to find my own understanding of the voices inside. For me it is not as if I hear a booming voice in my head, like: “Attention Walmart shoppers”. The important voices in my head have been elusive and mostly jabbering away at an unconscious level. I find them when I pay close attention to the thoughts attached to intense emotion.

In my early twenties, I remember my mother causticly telling me, “Your problem is that you want everyone to love you!” Like most sons probably, I simply discounted my mother’s irritating observation. It took many years for me to realize that I had been a people pleaser all of my life. The old reflex is still there today. It is related, in part, to a childhood belief that I must do what I sense other people want in order to be accepted. I had to be a good little boy for my parents in order to feel accepted by them. I am part of the ‘children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard’ generation.

I have since learned the benefits of paying attention when I am feeling the shame of ‘not being good enough’. The feeling could arise relating to doubt in starting a new project, or in comparing myself negatively to others, or whatever. This old pattern can get triggered in many ways. But I am no longer afraid of what arises in me when this happens.

I can allow myself to go to a place of deep shame. Woven into shame’s fabric I hear a voice relentlessly whispering, over and over again, “I am not good enough”. When I allow myself to rest in this place and to accept that this is what I am feeling in the moment, a small miracle happens. The shame itself gently lifts and I feel once again connected and balanced. I also experience compassion for myself.

So when the critics outside of me, real or imagined, trigger that old wound, I now have a different response. I allow the shame to arise knowing that because of my old patterns, it is I who am generating the shame. Sometimes I can catch this as it is happening; sometimes it takes longer. But always it ends with me accepting where I am. Then, without effort, I release back into an open and compassionate state.

If I pay attention, the critics outside of me are a gift because they remind me that my serenity is my responsibility, not theirs.

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Silence

Silence can be an emptiness that is, paradoxically, full. You do not occupy this silence; it occupies you. —Mark C. Taylor,“Hearing Silence”

 

As I write this, most of us are living through a couple of months of self-isolation. In my case, I am grateful that I am in my own home and with my wife. However, cut-off from my normal routines, I often find myself looking for some kind of distraction. It could be books, music, a Zoom call, television, food, etc.

 
While these are all necessary parts of my life, sometimes I use them to avoid boredom, or perhaps, to avoid some sharp emotion or disturbing thought that is running undetected through my psyche.

 

When I become aware of an underlying pattern, I can fall back on my meditation practice. I can address the suppressed energy. Then, I can pause; I can focus on my breathing; I can drop my awareness into my body; and I can let my mind relax. Let all of me relax.

 

It is then that I open to the present moment. It is then I am occupied by silence.

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Falling In Love with Life

What does it take to fall in love with being alive?  Being willing to see the end of what you love.  – Stephen Jenkinson

 

I have spent most of my time on this earth taking life for granted.  I expect things to continue on; at least the things that I love and that are important to me.  Even though there are constant reminders, I forget about the fragility of life and that all of this is temporary.

I don’t think it is necessary to continually dwell on impermanence; that would probably keep me in a heightened state of anxiety or depression.  However,it seems that being out of touch with this reality has a tendency to put me to sleep.

I had a recent ‘brush with death’.  It was an infection that could have been fatal but for the intervention of modern medicine.  Throughout the healing process I developed a deep sense of gratitude.  At first I was grateful to those who helped me heal but the gratitude slowly expanded.  First to my wife and the rich deep life that we share; on to friends and family; and outward still to the very fact of being alive, to having this life.   I did indeed “fall in love with being alive”.

And still a few months later, i forget to remember how grateful I am.  I pause as I write this to look out the window at how the sun is illuminating the leaves of the forest; the play of light and shadow, the warm late summer air, the birds signalling. When I pause to remember, my heart fills with love all over again.

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Fears are a Doorway

“Our fears are a doorway”.    Reginald Ray

This quote is a good reminder for me.  I have had a lot of experience in life being frozen by fear.  I tend to shut down when faced with things that scare me or seem too difficult.   However experience has shown me that when I can find the courage to step into my fear, something positive has always resulted.

Being frozen with fear happens for me with big issues and with small ones.   One example came early in my career as a civil servant.   I was working in a client services area and my boss used to handle all of the media interviews.  It was something that I would have liked to do, but I was frightened about making mistakes, especially in public. When I became aware that my fear was stopping me from trying something that I really did want to do, I asked permission to do media interviews.  My first experience was a bit of a disaster, but I kept at it.

Doing media interviews became a doorway for me to change my career path. But more importantly it proved to be a doorway into courage.  I discovered that for me, confidence isn’t about having all of the answers; it is about being prepared and then showing up.  If I had not stepped through that particular doorway, I would not be a coach today.

 

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Life is a brief excursion

“Life is a brief excursion; death is always the destiny.”    – Graham Woodhouse

 

I remember many years ago standing at a classroom window overlooking a day care centre watching children at play in the yard.  A person was standing next to me and for some reason the conversation drifted to a discussion about death.  I shared with her that that I had been a volunteer at a local hospice.  Her response was, “Oh, that must be really depressing.”   Still looking out the window, I replied, “No, for me working in a day care would be depressing.”  Each of us is drawn to different aspects of life. Death has been a great teacher for me.

I didn’t used to think about death and dying much. This changed when as a young man I visiting a dear uncle who was dying of cancer in a hospital some distance from where I lived. I felt awkward and didn’t know what to say to him. He passed away not long after my visit and I was never able to tell him that I loved him or that I was grateful that he had been in my life. My first experience of someone close to me dying had closed me down. Afterwards, feeling ashamed, I made up my mind not to repeat the experience.

The passing of my uncle was what led me to involvement in hospice work. Since then I have learned that keeping death as part of my life is a very valuable tool.  Keeping in mind that life is indeed short and that each day is a blessing, reminds me to focus on what is important.  Who is most precious to me and how have I treated them today?  What do I really want to accomplish with my time here on earth?  Taking death into consideration helps me feel more alive and more involved in living.

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