In previous posts, I wrote about the first five stages of change, as I’ve identified them: awareness; awakening; discovery; courage and action. The final stage, which is the goal, is flow. When looking at Positive Psychology, a flow state is the state of mind in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. And isn’t living one’s life a 24-7 activity where being fully involved, present and enjoying the process the ultimate goal for all of us?
Flow is the result of successfully moving through the previous five stages of change and finding yourself in a state of being that is, in fact, changed and comfortable in that change. Your new state of mind and your behaviors reflect the changes you have worked for and they are your new status quo – your new comfortable and reliable norm. Flow can be seen as a metaphor of water flowing with no resistance. You are no longer erecting barriers in your life or creating paths of resistance and know what to do and how to do the right thing. You are no longer “acting as if” and you’ve learned how to “let go and let live” as the saying goes.
“Life is like a river. The way of life is to flow with the current. To turn against it takes effort but the current will carry you if you let it. Float with joy and ease.”
It is July 2020 and I’m celebrating an anniversary – 13 years of sobriety. I’m so fulfilled today and so proud of this achievement that I often have to ask how this perfectionistic Atheist managed such a transformation? How did I go from feeling so angry, afraid and hopeless to being filled with such purpose?
When I agreed to enter treatment as the result of my husband’s relentless insistence, I felt a brief moment of true relief and peace because I knew I had become an alcoholic and was begrudgingly making the decision to get help. This moment was immediately followed by a tremendous amount of fear and shame. Fear of having to admit to being less than perfect, shamed by the fact that everyone would know that I had failed in every possible way and, of course, fear of the unknown. To make it easier, I told myself that I was just doing this to get my husband off my back and that I’d have a 28-day break from him – which I really needed. I had no intention of admitting to my alcoholism or to staying sober for the rest of my life.
However, when I was confronted with an assignment that asked me to consider the concept of a Higher Power, all I could say was, “Oh, God!” I was contemptuous about all things spiritual and religious, but I was also still quite the perfectionist and doing my homework assignments well and submitting them on time was my MO. An interesting thing happened while I was working on the assignment. I was outside and found a bird’s nest on the ground. Then I found several hazelnuts in the area, which became the eggs and then I started thinking about how I could clearly see a Higher Power at work in nature but that I was excluding myself from this realm. WHY? And why was I thinking about this instead of slamming the door shut on this concept? I was allowing myself to stray from my rigid thinking because, for the first time that I could remember, I felt safe and understood. I felt that I could explore this and, without realizing it, discovered the first inklings of spirituality. Did I have a have a Higher Power just waiting around for me to wake up and say “Grace?”
Eventually, I realized that I was equating religion with spirituality and that, in fact, they are very different. I was also beginning to realize that the comfort I was feeling was an awakening of my true spiritual nature – a spirituality that naturally exists within all of us, only needing connection to be ignited.
At that moment, I understood how I could believe in something greater than myself – through connection with others, my small spiritual flame could grow, and I would be able to be part of something much bigger and better – I would be part of the interdependent web of all existence. I no longer had to fake the assignment – I had actually completed steps 2 and 3 with honesty and integrity. I did not have to believe in someone else’s God or make one up for myself. The recognition of my spiritual nature was enough.
The realization that my life was not wasted occurred during my second month in treatment while on a Labyrinth walk. We attended a workshop titled, The History and Meaning of the Labyrinth. I assumed, as many people do, that labyrinths and mazes are synonymous and before the workshop began, I was engaging in morbid reflection, equating my entire life to the metaphor of being stuck and lost in a maze. The Workshop Facilitator began by explaining the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. She said that mazes have many entrances, exits, paths and dead ends. Labyrinths, although resembling mazes upon cursory observation, have only one path. In spite of the winding nature of the labyrinth, you cannot get lost if you follow the path. When I heard this my interest was piqued.
When our lecture was finished, we were invited to walk a large labyrinth painted on canvas in an adjacent room. I cleared my mind and set an intention of just being open-minded. As I began my walk, I found myself, reflecting on my life and letting go. Each turn in the labyrinth seemed to represent different times in my life. When I reached the center, I was calm and able to receive an intuitive message that my life had not been wasted and that I was not at a dead end. The paths I had taken were the ones I needed to travel in order to be at the center of that very labyrinth, right then and there. I felt the freedom of a release of psychic burdens that I had been carrying for a very long time. I meditated, mindfully, in the center of the labyrinth and when I felt ready to leave, I experienced a mounting sense of energy, forgiveness and joy. In the space of three hours, my whole perspective had changed from one of despair to hope. I had experienced something transformative.
Buoyed with my newly discovered spirituality and filled with hope, I was able to admit to my alcoholism and to leave the safety of the treatment center willing to do the hard work that I knew would come. I wanted to strive for the ultimate goal – emotional sobriety. That meant taking a look back and identifying the changes I would need to make. I needed to accept responsibility for my behavior and quit blaming others. I needed to be humble and teachable. I needed to change my thinking, work with others and learn to love myself.
With these goals in mind, I began to tackle huge issues with chronic and clinical depression, shame and codependency as well as developing a supportive community that would allow me to be an Atheist and not try to force anything upon me. It wasn’t long before I realized just how consumed I was by the “would’ves, should’ves and could’ves.” They were like a very large dysfunctional family taking up space in my head and each of them had “or elses” attached. I know now how they found what they thought would be a permanent home in my head but I’m happy to say that they received eviction notices a while ago and when they try to convince me to let them move back in, I’m strong enough to respect myself and my boundaries and say “no.”
During these last thirteen years, I’ve moved through many highs and lows and have experienced the beautiful process of deep change. I now find myself in a loving and supportive relationship, I earned an MA in Psychology as well as certification as a Labyrinth Facilitator and as a Life Coach. All of these profound transitions have not only given me much joy but have also provided me with a purposeful life allowing me to work with others in deep and meaningful ways as well as knowing that physical and emotional sobriety are possible when in spiritual connection.
Action begins with the first small step and then another. One day at a time. Action begins with belief in yourself, the support of others and spiritual connection. Once one muscle is moved another is engaged and so it goes – momentum follows as long as we stay in the present. Retreating to the past or trying to control the future will slow or even stop the actions that must happen now, today.
There are important things to consider during this monumental stage of change. The actions you take and the goals you set for yourself need to be attainable, realistic, and healthy, holistic and kind. Staying in touch with your mentors before making any significant decisions will help keep the process moving smoothly and prevent unnecessary detours and also provide necessary moral support and connection.
Keeping your expectations in check and somewhat fluid is important, too. Expectations must be open-armed and not rigid for too often our expectations don’t resemble the actual outcome. Staying detached from the outcome allows for the acceptance of what is and the realization that even though things turnout differently from what you envisioned, all is as it should be.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Deep change and the actions necessary to facilitate this type of work is hard. It’s rigorous, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Take time to reflect on the progress that is being made, no matter how small. Forgive yourself often. Share with others frequently and accept their praise completely – no ifs, ands or buts about it!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr., P.S. I Love You
Where do we go to find courage? I know for a fact, that we can’t look outside of ourselves – we have to find courage within. And how do we embrace the fledgling courage we find there when fear is working very hard to slam the door on it?
In my previous posts, I wrote about awareness leading to an awakening and the discovery that change is possible. In combination with these early stages of change, a growing realization and acceptance of our spiritual nature is the key that unlocks the door that has kept our courage hidden. Spirituality cannot exist in a vacuum and is not true and authentic if corrupted by a narcissistic ego. The spirituality, of which I speak, occurs in a state of humility with a supportive and understanding community.
Before I chose sobriety, I experienced an actual visceral feeling of internal emptiness – a void that I couldn’t explain. As I surrounded myself with those who understood me and supported me, that void literally began to fill up. It was as if my spiritual pilot light was finally beginning to burn properly. I was beginning to feel myself glowing from within.
With this support, courage can grow, and the balance begins to tip in the stand-off between fear and action. The determined realization that change must occur, no matter what, starts to grow, overshadowing the fear that has always won out before. Fear of the unknown is powerful and without the conviction that spirituality brings, it’s easy to talk yourself out of moving forward with changes. It’s easy to convince yourself that things aren’t so bad, and the voices of our personal gremlins start getting louder and louder, trying to drown out the nascent and weaker voice of courage.
During this stage of change, I remember frequently wanting to return to what I knew – the familiar – even though it was toxic and soul crushing. My newly recognized spirituality and belief in myself helped move me through these feelings and my weak courage “muscles” were exercised. And so, the courage grew and was strengthened and allowed me to see the next stage – action – as a true possibility.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ― E.E. Cummings
In my last post, I wrote about the second stage of deep change – awakening. As we awaken, the awareness of our spiritual nature grows as well as our awareness of what needs to happen to transform our lives. This leads to the very important stage of Discovery.
Discovery is, in part, personal as well as practical. The discovery that you are worthy of positive change and that your life will be better as a result is important, certainly, but the practicalities of how to facilitate the changes that are necessary loom large. This is the time you find yourself making statements like, “I’ve got to do something about this – this is serious”, or “Something has to change.” But how do you actually do it? Where do you go? Who do you talk to? These questions are huge and often create overwhelming emotions. Giving up and retreating seem like reasonable options during this time.
It is also during the stage of discovery that we often become aware of our interconnectedness and spiritual nature. I had already moved through the stages of awareness and awakening when I agreed to enter treatment for alcoholism. I knew I had a problem and was receiving intuitive messages that I was worth saving but I was yet to discover how many people were able and willing to help me and that I was not alone nor unique. As I sat in groups with many other women suffering from addiction, I was amazed to feel so understood. I felt safe and was able to be vulnerable and to speak the truth for practically the first time in my life. In those early months of recovery, I found a willingness to be willing to continue the process of discovering more and working on uncovering the person I was born to be.
I know now that it takes time to know it takes time. Recovery, like life, is a process of ongoing discovery and the key is to be open to receiving the gifts that discovery brings.
In my last post, I wrote about awareness and the beginnings of the realization that I needed to make some big changes.
As my awareness increased, an awakening of sorts began to occur. There were the beginnings of general and even clear understandings of why I was disturbed, but the primary realization was that these unsettling feelings weren’t going to go away and that fear was creating my discomfort.
I remember having long conversations with myself during this time. Conversations where I berated myself and worried about what others would think if I made the changes that I truly knew were necessary. Conversations where I actually had good insight into what was happening but the fear of being found out always kept me in place or in retreat. Conversations where I blamed everyone else for my problems and justified my actions, vindicating myself completely. Conversations where I contemplated suicide, but my fear of what others would think always pulled me from the brink.
Awakening is exhausting!
And yet, my awareness kept growing and my awakening to the fact that I needed to do something about all of this continued to the point of feeling a sense of impending doom. Awakening is such an aspirational word – one filled with possibility and hope. I would not have chosen that word then. I can only use the word, awakening, in retrospect.
At the urging of another, I said “yes,” this is what I will do, these are the steps I will take, and I will take them now. I felt immense relief at having made a decision, an action in and of itself, and then I was once again plunged into the fear of the unknown. What will happen? What will everyone think? How can I explain this? But, I had said, “yes,” and I couldn’t take it back or was it really that I didn’t want to take it back? I think the latter.
As I look back, I feel grateful for the discomfort and the exhaustion because pain is the primary motivator when choosing to change. More was to come for me, but I think this quote from Carl Rogers says it all, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
I’ve been in a fairly steady process of deep change for quite a while now and can honestly say that even though this has been heavy duty and sometimes painful work, I have experienced remarkable and transformational change. I’ve reflected on and analyzed the processes that I needed to go through in order to make these changes and I came up with a name for it and with identifiable stages that occurred. I call it Move into Flow.
I’m going to write about each of these stages over the next few weeks and I hope that my experience resonates with you.
Awareness: The First Stage
You know the feeling – that internal pang – that momentary flush that only you can feel. It signals guilt, or shame or embarrassment or something you can’t quite put your finger on. If it’s related to guilt, healthy shame or embarrassment, you know the source. If it’s about someone else or some event outside of yourself, it’s clear, but if it’s something illusive and coming from within, it’s easy to dismiss – unless it keeps happening.
This is how the awareness that something needs to change begins. There’s a felt internal dissonance or even a sense of something lacking that can’t be described. When this keeps happening, it can be uncomfortable and disconcerting. Those of us who are more enlightened, pay attention to the discomfort and try to understand it, or, if you’re like I was thirteen years ago, you assume it means nothing, or you try to avoid it, push it away, or distract or numb yourself.
I’m amazed how long it took me to pay attention. Years and years, actually. I’ve learned a lot since I became aware of these discordant feelings and I’ve also learned that my avoidance was solidly rooted in fear. Fear, that there was something terribly wrong with me. A fear that I’d never live up to everyone’s expectations, or that I wasn’t likeable or lovable, or that I just didn’t fit in. A carried and unhealthy shame permeated my being, reinforcing all of my fears.
Awareness is an early signal. It’s an early sign of things to come – sometimes, good and exciting things but most likely things that send us into retreat because acting on these signals might open up the proverbial Pandora’s Box, and who wants to do that? I remember feeling this way and knowing that if I opened that box, nothing would ever be the same and what would that future look like? I preferred living the life that I had and with what I knew, even though it was dismal and even though I felt as if I was simply enduring my life. The future was an unknown and something that I couldn’t control or predict. Fear kept me cemented in place.
These uncomfortable feelings continued and grew in intensity for me, and thankfully, I finally paid attention. I was afraid, I was unhappy and even angry about all of the personal work that I needed to do but when I chose to face my fears instead of avoiding them, I was able to begin the process of moving into flow – living in harmony rather than in resistance.
Pay attention, be present, listen to your inner most thoughts and be honest with yourself – that’s the mantra. I think Gloria Steinem’s famous variant of this quote from the Bible, John 8:32, is very appropriate here: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
I know I’m not alone when I say that every day seems like the last. Covid-19 has kept me confined to my home with occasional outings to walk my dog, forays to the local market, masked and gloved, and lots of time spent in my home office attending Zoom meetings.
I began complaining that it seemed like Groundhog Day so last Sunday, just for fun, I decided to stay home, of course, and watch Bill Murray’s 1993 movie, Groundhog Day. A fun diversion, certainly, but a diversion that kept my attention with important messages about the human condition.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Bill Murray plays a smug and selfish weatherman, Phil, who is tired of his job at the local TV station, imagining himself a national celebrity. He is sent to cover the annual Punxsutawney Groundhog Day event which he considers annoying and beneath him and he makes no effort to hide his disdain. The crew is stranded there because of a snow storm and when he wakes up the next day he discovers that it’s Groundhog Day again, again and again. As each day repeats itself, Phil realizes that he is doomed to spend the rest of his life there, seeing the same people doing the same thing every day. As the plot progresses, he tries to control and manipulate the situation to his advantage, using and abusing everyone around him. When none of this behavior changes anything, Phil finally decides to let go, to relax and to accept what he cannot change.
Isn’t this where we all are right now? We are part of a global pandemic and we can’t change this. All we can do is to accept this and follow the protocols that will ensure our safety and the safety of others. Railing against this will only make my life miserable and will take me away from seeing what really matters. Does it matter that my long-planned-for garage renovation project has been put on hold? Sure, I’m annoyed, but what can I do? My health, my partner’s health and the health of everyone around me matters more.
My project will be completed someday, so for now I’m focusing on what’s going on right now. It’s Spring and everything is in beautiful bloom. I’ve planted seeds in my vegetable garden and can already see little sprouts emerging for what will become a lovely salad. I’m noticing many little birds, enjoying a bird bath, completely unaware of this pandemic. And, I’m engaged in the process of change.
I’ve accepted the reality and I’m discovering the world of on-line, virtual connection and I’m summoning up the courage to face my fear of cyber-space! I had planned to present a workshop titled, The Spirituality of Change, and it was to have been held on March 28th. Of course, I had to cancel the event and I planned to present the workshop another day – but when and how long to wait? Just yesterday, I had an on-line Zoom appointment with my coach and found myself agreeing to diving into the deep end by doing the workshop on-line. Okay, I’ve made the commitment to face my fear and to let go of my need to stubbornly stick with what I know, so now, I have to find a bit more courage to get into action, to prepare, to learn how to use this format and to focus on what matters.
I’ll stay in touch and let you all know how everything is progressing, but, for now, I’m going to engage in some deep change, stay in the present, and practice what I preach!
Recently, I received a newsletter from Marjorie Schuman, Ph.D., with some insightful reflections on existential shock. This is what we are all experiencing right now as COVID-19 has caused everything to change, upending our world and our lives.
In her newsletter, Dr. Schuman says, “I see that existential shock arises as a consequence of being dislodged from the ongoing-ness of life. We are psychologically reliant on what feels ordinary and routine, on the structures of meaning that define our lived experience. When this structure suddenly changes, our felt sense of the continuity of being is disrupted. And because, as the famed psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was the first to emphasize, going-on-being is the subjective center of our human world, interruptions in our experience of going-on-being are traumatic.” Dr Schuman continues by saying, “The existential impact of such an experience can be profound. Crisis can be an important threshold experience and a portal to personal transformation. It poses an existential challenge: will we be broken down and defeated by our reactivity and resistance to change, or will we be broken open and transformed.?”
Two years ago, well before the existential shock of COVID-19, I experienced a traumatic disruption in my subjective world. A job that I loved ended in a way that challenged my identity and feelings of self-worth. I was shaken to my core and the old feelings of self-loathing and just plain not being good enough rushed back with a vengeance. I was experiencing an extreme existential crisis. As Dr. Schuman says, I stood at the thresholds of either personal collapse or transformational change.
With the help of others and knowing that I’d successfully weathered many other life crises, I chose the portal of transformational change and today, I can see clearly that my heart broke open. I went back to school, earning a Masters’ Degree in Psychology, became a Certified Life Coach and now I’m working with others who are navigating the change process in their lives.
Today, COVD-19 is forcing us all to take a break, to reevaluate, to appreciate what matters and to be present to what is instead of railing against the things we cannot change.
I’ll end with a poem that Dr. Schuman included in her newsletter and that has been making the rounds on the internet:
Yes there is fear. Yes there is isolation. Yes there is panic buying. Yes there is sickness. Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again. They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes, but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares. Keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound. Today a young woman is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood, so that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.
All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way, with empathy and compassion.
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality – To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that –
Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be selfishness.
Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again, the sky is clearing, spring is coming. And we are always encompassed by love.
Open the windows of your soul. And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.
– From Richard Hendrick (Brother Richard) in Ireland, March 13, 2020
Covid-19 is here and we are all being forced to change. My reactions have been changing, too. At first, I was dismissive, then annoyed, then worried, then I felt neutral followed with resignation and acceptance. I indefinitely postponed a workshop that I’ve been working on for a long time and felt relieved. I suddenly had free time and no performance anxiety. Now with reality sinking in, I find myself feeling as if I’m on the precipice of change. The trajectory of my new career did not include a pandemic – this wasn’t supposed to happen, right? But, it did and now I have a choice – I can sit in paralysis or I can move into the new flow. For me, this means that I have to get comfortable with the virtual world of platforms such as Zoom. I have to walk through the fear of these new technologies believing that I can learn how to successfully and proficiently navigate these waters.
When I was doing my prep work for my workshop, I was directed to the graphic design site, Canva, and created the poster that is included in this post. I had planned to use this as a visual aid outlining the six steps that lead to successful change. So now, I’m going to practice what I preach. I’ve moved through the steps of awareness and discovery and find myself in an awakening – I’m becoming willing to be willing to learn something new and to let go of my fears of the unknown.
I’ll keep you posted, sharing what I learn, accepting tutorials and assistance of any kind and together we can weather this storm.
Take care, be healthy, practice safe social distancing and wash your hands.