Listening to Chronic Illness

Developing an illness has many ramifications, not least of course that the person afflicted has to endure a lot of physical pain and discomfort. Beyond that, he or she has been handed a new project: figuring out how to fit in doctor appointments, dietary changes, treatments that cause a lot of other physical symptoms, medications that need to be tracked and taken at specific times, explanations to family and friends, and so on.

They have also been handed a new trauma — they are displaced from their old role as “important person with important roles in life” to “sick person with no socially recognized identity,” and they have to determine who they are using this new perspective. Even more fundamentally, they come smack up against the fundamental questions of human existence — much as the Buddha did when he saw sickness, old age, and death — only through even closer personal contact.

Actually, you would have to be something of a hero to take on a job like this. If you were a soldier and somebody said, “This is a desperately dangerous job that has to be done,” and you stepped up, you’d be lauded and held in awe by your peers, not treated as so many ill people are — shunted off to some backwater space where you could deal with your unfortunate circumstances until you got better (kind of like being sent to your room when you were a kid).

Why are we so quick to ignore or dismiss people who are ill? Not only do we ignore their knowledge of their own illness, but we also seem to want to ignore the knowledge they have gleaned from their lives with illness. We dismiss it as unimportant, unnecessary, unrelated to our lives. Thus, we not only set them apart physically, but we also set them apart as less knowledgeable human beings whose experience is not relevant to the rest of us.

The most obvious answer for this shunning, and the one most often given, is that other peoples’ illness is frightening to us. If it’s them today, it might be me tomorrow. The fact is that nearly 50% of Americans have a chronic illness and the other 50% very likely will one day. But let’s not go there now.

Another answer is that we don’t know how to help or what to say. Maybe better to say and do nothing or offer a quick, “I’m sorry. Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” and then be done with it.

Another answer is that suffering is really painful to be around and getting involved might actually require something of us that could mess up our own relatively comfortable lives, and we don’t want any of that. In my experience, the last one is most often operative. This perspective leads us to put out ideas like, “You create your own reality,” whose underlying meaning is often, “It’s your fault and you need to recognize that and get yourself together and cure yourself.”

Sometimes one is forced to be close to suffering, unable to breeze off to some other happier, easier place (maybe you’re a parent or a sibling or a spouse), in which case most people decide that they need to make the other person better so everyone can get back to enjoying an ordinary life. This leads to fixing.

I was very good at fixing when my dad got Alzheimer’s, my mother had a stroke and broke her pelvis, and my son got ME/CFS. What this meant for me was that that I spent hours researching each of their problems so that I could come up with solutions (never mind that the actual experts had not been able to solve the problems involved). The research time meant that I spent less time with the actual problems and the people involved in them. Because I was in my New Age phase when most of these problems arose, it resulted in my recommending multiple alternative treatments, including trying to change the dietary habits of my otherwise quite amazingly healthy parents. To their credit, they ignored me.

Another tactic I employed to keep suffering at bay was optimism. Kind of like a more sophisticated version of “There, there, it’ll be ok,” I was filled with hopeful pieces of information I had gleaned in my research, positive thinking ideas, and unwillingness to acknowledge the actual misery.

I tried a number of other responses, becoming an activist, passing on words of wisdom as if the sick person were somehow a child needing my teachings, and so on, all of which only succeeded in causing the suffering person to feel more and more alone. To my current shame, I never really asked them how they were feeling and what they really needed in a way that allowed them to share deeply what was happening with them.

But finally, it seeped into me that the answer was not to push away suffering but to share it, to actually go toward it. In part, I have my husband to thank for this shift. He married into all my family problems, not grudgingly, but willingly, unafraid to be present to it all. His help also meant that I could take some of my focus off the practical and sometimes overwhelming duties of caregiving (and I do have to say in defense of myself and others in this situation that often there is very little time or emotional space for anything but managing) so that I could consider these deeper issues, could actually sit down and relate about suffering with someone who was experiencing it.

To do this can be profoundly revealing. Most of us have no idea what it is to truly suffer day in and day out, to be unable to be the person you used to be or the person you think you should be, to feel always inadequate to meet the expectations of life, to feel you are letting others down, to see the disbelief in others’ eyes, to constantly have solutions (often solutions you considered years ago) thrust upon you, and to have attitudes or judgments made about you that you have no energy to counter.

The tendency is strong among those who confront another’s suffering to want to avoid knowing, to ward off their own hopeless, helpless feelings by telling the person they shouldn’t feel that way, or that if they did or thought what you thought they should do or think, they would feel better. Or, even more cruel, to say that it’s not even true what they are telling you — it’s all in their heads.

But resisting our tendency to push away the suffering brings us closer to the actual experience of the other person, who doubtless has tried all these and many more things to shift his or her experience, and needs from us, not more things to do, not more ideas and judgments, but a real listening ear. As the Prayer of St. Francis says, “Seek not to be understood but to understand.”

Once you do this, you will learn a lot. In fact, what I found was that listening to someone who is ill is not only about helping another person, but about learning from and benefiting from their experience, actually mining this other world, this “Kingdom of the Sick” as Laurie Edwards calls it in her brilliant book by that name, for the treasures it contains.

People who are sick have explored a different country, and, like all explorers, are able to bring back new ways of seeing, different ways of doing things, new kinds of wisdom. Who might better help us to understand how to manage time, how to avoid stress, how to maintain relationships and connections when you can’t always be present, how to live without the distractions in which we are all drowning, how to perform acts of heroism every day just trying to get out of bed or take a shower, or how to live in silence, in stillness?

I discovered that not only are people who live with serious chronic illness heroes, but they are also often people with deep wisdom and amazing maturity. Over the time I have been a caretaker, I have also been a student of integral theory, from which I have learned a lot about adult development and spiritual growth. Adult development rests on a strong body of research but is surprisingly little known to the general public. The basic principle is that of evolution. We evolve as human beings, growing through stages from childhood (Piaget’s work is well known) to adulthood, and continuing to grow throughout our lifetime.

The stages through which adults grow are complex, but to simplify them greatly, we move from being egocentric and seeing the world only from our own perspective, to being “ethnocentric,” allying with a group of people like us and caring for them, to being “worldcentric” and seeing that all humans are worthy of basic human rights, and beyond that to high levels of altruism, self-actualization, and spirituality, like the description Abraham Maslow has of a grown up healthy person: someone with a “presence .. . toward unity of personality, toward spontaneous expressiveness, toward full individuality and identity, toward seeing the truth rather than being blind, toward being creative, toward being good, and a lot else . . .toward what most people would call good values, toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness.” ( Toward a Psychology of Being, 147).

Such a person has “a development of personality which frees the person from the deficiency problems of youth, and from the neurotic (or infantile, or fantasy, or unnecessary, or “unreal”) problems of life, so that he is able to face, endure and grapple with the “real” problems of life . . . e.g., real guilt, real sadness, real loneliness, healthy selfishness, courage, responsibility, responsibility for others, etc.” (109)

While people with illness are forced to be and may seem from the outside to be egocentric in the sense of having to care for themselves and focus on their physical well-being, their understanding of meaning of human life and their spiritual being is often way beyond the ordinary. Not everyone, of course, but many of the ill people I work with have a level of maturity that is quite amazing. In addition, they are often spiritually awake and aware. Living the life of a monk, living with physical and social deprivation, having to face deep questions (instead of running away from them by socializing, drinking, working, etc.), living with the “real” problems of life, develops in people a kind of core being that knows the truth of some of our deepest spiritual principles.

There is a koan which goes, “What do you do when you can do nothing?” Most of us spend our time frantically avoiding this question with our “ego projects,” projects that will prop up our ego and our views of life. But people with illness have to face this koan in every moment.

In this uncertain world, we need every bit of wisdom we can get. It’s time we brought people with illness into the family of humans, gave them respect, and listened to the wisdom they have to offer.

What Are the Four Quadrants and How Do They Apply to Chronic Illness?

What Are the Four Quadrants and How Do They Apply to Chronic Illness?

The Four Quadrants model comes from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, a metatheory of what it is to be a human being in this universe.  The four quadrants are the four different aspects into which we can divide our reality:
  1. Our personal individual interior experience.  We all have thoughts, dreams, beliefs, hopes, worries, and plans.  Our experience of these takes place inside us, in our minds or psyches.
  2. Our physical bodies and behavior and the world around us.  Unlike thoughts and dreams, these aspects of life are things we can see and measure.  We have temperatures and blood pressures, ways of behaving, things that we interact with.  All of these take place in the physical world.
  3. Our relationships – our internal collective experience.  We have friends, family, and other groups (religious, social, work-oriented) that we interact with.  We also interact with and are influenced by our culture as shown in movies, TV, books, ethnic norms, and so on.  All of these interactions take place in a “we” space.
  4. Our systemic world – another collective experience but this time with the exterior systems of the world.   Examples are the political system, the economic system, the transportation system, the medical system.

Here is a picture of these quadrants

The Four Quadrants model comes from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, a metatheory of what it is to be a human being in this universe. The four quadrants are the four different aspects into which we can divide our reality:

Knowing about these four quadrants is important. Whatever problem we are trying to solve, we need to look at it in all of these dimensions. For example, if we have a problem with our significant other, both the other person’s and our own interiors will be active: thinking, imagining, fearing, hoping, and so on. We will share a physical (or in some cases virtual) space with things in it that may affect our ability to get along such as other people, clutter, behavioral habits, and so on. Whatever is going on with us is also influenced by our social world, our friends, family, cultural expectations for someone of our gender, age, and so on.  And finally, we will both be affected by the systems around us; for example, if work is stressful, we may come home too irritated to engage in a reasonable discussion. We will be much more successful in negotiating any issue if we take all of these areas into account.

You are probably already noticing how these quadrants may affect illness. Even a simple cold or flu will take place in all four quadrants: you will have physical symptoms (runny nose, cough, trouble sleeping, etc.), you will have interior feelings about it (oh no, I can’t have this now, I feel so miserable), you will have relationship considerations (am I infections, do I look awful to others) and you will have experiences that relate to the systems in your life (can I go to work, is it serious enough that I need to go to the doctor?).

A major illness actually requires you to take these quadrants into account.  If you don’t acknowledge your feelings about it, you can develop psychological issues that interfere with your health; if you don’t take care of your physical body, you may get even sicker; if you don’t deal with the changes that illness wreaks on your relationships, you may find problems arising in your social world; and if you don’t deal effectively with the insurance system or the hospital system, you will experience negative financial and physical effects.

The more you can see into these quadrants and the effects they are having on you, the more ability you will have to manage your illness.

The integral model offers many other ways to view and manage illness which are covered in the course series called The Koan of Illness:  An Integral Approach.  The next course, Healing the Trauma, begins in August.
For more information, go here

For a quick $17.00 self-paced course on how the quadrants relate to chronic illness, see

For a look at how Ken Wilber, who himself suffers from a serious chronic illness, uses these quadrants, see


Perfectionism starts very early in life. 

 Our parents probably had fixed ideas about how we should speak, what we should wear, and what we should eat. Maybe they wanted us to be a banker or a priest or nurse. Maybe we were handed down a political point of view or a religious tradition. It’s likely that we inhaled these ideas wholesale and diligently worked to make ourselves into someone who would make our family proud. 

 Or maybe we rebelled against our parents’ ideas and just as slavishly adopted ideas of other people. Whatever our new heroes did or wore or said or thought – that’s what we wanted to do or wear or say or think.

 Maybe you were more thoughtful about what role you wanted to play, what rules you wanted to follow. Perhaps you crafted your own idea of who you wanted to be. That is pretty admirable, but it can still lead to perfectionism because once we have any idea of what is the “right” way we be, we set out to be most perfectly that.

What is your goal in life? To be a perfect copy of someone you admire? To be a perfect creation of your own? Or to be an imperfect but authentic self?  Many of us might say we prefer the latter, but we seem to put an awful lot of effort into being one of the first two.

 Let’s think about being the perfect copy for a moment, because that’s what many of us do.  We don’t actually know ourselves very well (except just enough to know that we’re not good enough), so we pick out some examples of what is good enough and create an artificial life form made of them that we can step into.

We parade this model around, hiding deep inside it, hoping that others see only the outside.  We touch it up regularly by making sure it reads important news stories, hangs out with the right people, and gets to be an expert in areas in which it is supposed to excel. In addition to wanting it to show off well, we also want to avoid having it get out of control or do something to embarrass us, so we monitor it constantly. This is a full-time job. 

 It is also a useless job. It appears we have one shot, at least with this particular incarnation, and yet we spend half our lives trying to be someone other than what we are, whether that someone is other-determined or self-determined.

 There are many reasons for this, of course, all forms of conditioning.  As a child we want to be loved.  As an adult, if our social group rewards certain things like wealth or education or rebellion or charitable work or nihilism, we will strive to become the best at this that we can be (something of a challenge in the case of nihilism J ). Or perhaps we are so done with all that, so against conditioning of all kinds that we strive to do the opposite of what is expected of us. Sadly, being oppositional is just another form of not being ourselves. 

 So how do we escape this hall of mirrors?

 Let’s assume you don’t want to turn yourself into a carbon copy or an anti-carbon copy. Once we discover that we are just living out roles, we often strive to become authentic. But getting beneath our conditioning is difficult, especially if all the pressures in our life are pointing us away from such self-investigation. Even if we have a supportive environment, self-discovery is a life long journey which involves a lot of willingness to see ourselves clearly and determination to allow that self to flower.

 Once we embark on this journey, we may worry about what will happen if we are not acceptable as we are. What if we find we want to do and be something very different from what we had thought we should be?  Will we be a societal outcast, unable to make a living, unable to find friends and romantic partners? That, of course, is another layer of conditioning to wade through until we are comfortable with our differentness and can integrate it into a meaningful life.

 Unfortunately, this inner search can also be coopted by our perfectionism. I am going to change all my bad habits. I am going to express myself as the real me. I am going to eradicate my ego. I am going to fifty workshops in the next two years, I am going to read forty self-help books, and I am going to join seven support groups. I am going to free myself from all my conditioning.

 Or, we can go beyond that, too, and let go of our concern with being anything at all.

 I spent an evening with a friend of my husband who was an expert in body language, spoken language, facial expressions, and everything that can reveal a person’s deepest self.  It dawned on me that therefore whatever move I made or word I said would tell him something about me.  For the first moments, I felt utterly paralyzed. I noticed that I moved my hand to my face – oh dear, what was I revealing? I wanted to say something about an experience I had had, and I realized he would know everything about me if I did. I thought perhaps I would remain expressionless and silent, but then realized that that, too, was an indicator of my insecurity and fearfulness and self-absorption. It was if I were stuck in glue, until suddenly I realized that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, I was going to be revealing myself in every moment.  So, I dropped it. It was the only thing to do. I gave up trying to monitor myself.  It was one of the most freeing moments in my life. I could just be me and the hell with it because that was what was going to show anyway.

 Bob was an expert, but most of the time, others pick up on our cues pretty well. We are much more obvious than we realize. Most of us know if someone is trying to pretend they know more than they do, or is angry and trying not to show it, or is trying to be liked. Even if not everyone knows, there is usually someone around who does, possibly because they themselves have been working with the same kinds of fears.

 My ex-husband liked to say, to my great annoyance, “Excuses only satisfy the people who make them.” But it’s true. In the same way, trying to hide our imperfections also only satisfies the one who’s doing the hiding. It’s like a cat sticking its head under a chair and thinking we can’t see it, while all the time the back end and long tail are saying, “Here I am.”

 Most of the time, we might think we are fooling others but, unless we’re a practiced sociopath, someone who lives to manipulate others, we are probably not. Also, most of the time when people can see through our games or fears, they are somewhat sympathetic. After all, they know what it’s like.  

 So, the question arises, what are we getting out this subterfuge, this attempt to become inhumanly above reproach in every way?

 Perhaps we hope it will bring us money or status or acclaim or respect or love or self-esteem. If we impress the right people we might get these things. The question then arises, are we being loved for ourselves or for an image? An uncomfortable thought.

 But I think most often, the person we really are trying to convince is ourselves. It’s really our own self-image we don’t want to let go of. If I have the idea that I am intelligent, loving, knowledgeable, competent, classy, socially adept, and so on, the person invested in keeping that image is me. God forbid that anyone should see me being abrupt and unkind, or not knowing the answer to a question, or doing a presentation with errors in it, or wearing something dowdy, or saying something stupid in a social situation. Others don’t expect me to be perfect (unless I’m doing something that reflects on them in which case their own perfectionism might get projected onto me). Actually, most people don’t want me to be perfect. It’s very hard to be around people who are perfect.

 So, if you’ve decided you don’t want to be an imposter, living out a storybook image instead of being real, and you don’t want to be a person constructed out of a patchwork of ideas you’ve picked up along the way, then who are you going to be?  If it’s the real you, you need to get to know who that is. This can be a long and often painful – and never ending – process through which you discover, as all of us do, that you are not perfectly competent, perfectly kind, perfectly accomplished, a perfect conversationalist, a perfect lover, a perfect parent, a perfect employee, a perfect friend. You’re not even the best at what you do the best – at least most of the time.  Each time you notice, really notice, one of these imperfections it can feel like a dagger to the heart. How can I bear this? What can I do to hide it? I’m such a nothing, useless, mediocre, unlovable, and so on. How can I show my face? 

 Modern culture has brought us a lot of benefits, but it has also brought us the most impossible models for our behavior. If we’re a pianist, we’re not trying to be better than the local church music director; we’re trying to be better than Horowitz. If we’re in business, we’re not trying to satisfy our small-town customers, we’re trying to be another Bill Gates. If we’re in sports, we want to be Olympians or NBA stars. 

 So, what to do? 

 First, be realistic about what you can accomplish (in terms of product or appearance). 

 You think you can finish your taxes in one afternoon. But you are forgetting that you will probably have to search through files, maybe order another copy of a statement, go online to figure out what the heck alternative tax is and how to use it, and so on. 

 You think you can create a painting that will be worth thousands and gain the acclaim of the art world. How often does that happen? Work hard to make it good but allow yourself to be happy with something nice enough to give to your elderly aunt. 

 Okay, you say, I won’t be salesperson of the month this month – I’ll be second or third.

 Once you have a more reasonable estimate of what is possible, cut even that in half.  Give yourself two days to do the taxes or give them to someone else. If you’re wrong in your estimate and you finish early, what a delightful surprise! If you’re not wrong, you have saved yourself a lot of self-flagellation. Tell yourself you’ll be ok if you just finish the painting – it will be good practice. Let yourself be fourth or fifth in the sales line – at least you will have sold something! And remember that you will continue to improve. As Anthony Robbins says, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10.”

 Second, give yourself deadlines to curb your perfectionism.  I have exactly one hour to finish this report. I have half an hour to get dressed for the party. I have ten minutes to decide which humidifier I’m going to buy. Set a time. If you find yourself going over that time, make a note of it.  Then come back a week later and ask yourself how much difference it made to spend the extra ten minutes, hour, ten hours. 

 Did It really make it better? If so, then you know that you need to set timelines that are more realistic. Remember lesson one and give yourself two hours for the report, an hour to dress, twenty or thirty minutes on the humidifier.

 Did it really not make a difference to take more time?  Write that down and post it in a place where you’ll see it. “My report was not significantly better because I fussed over it for an extra two days.”

 Third, stop worrying about the outcome.  Do what you’re going to do and let fate determine how it is perceived. As Annie Lamott commented in Bird by Bird (an excellent book for perfectionistic writers), “God, I’ll take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”

 It is one thing to make an effort to do something well, to look nice, or to speak clearly.  It is another to be primarily focused on the effect these actions will have on others. If your goal is to write a good article, and you apply yourself to doing that without thinking about whether it’s the last word on the subject, whether your friends will read it and think you are brilliant (or stupid), or whether it Is absolutely the best you could do, you will likely produce something adequate and perhaps even good. If you are focused on outcomes, however, you will likely tie yourself up in knots and produce either nothing or something much less that your capabilities would indicate.

 Says Brené Brown, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” [1]

I wrote my favorite short story as part of a game in which we were given half an hour to write a piece that contained twenty required words (all of them of course bizarre and unconnected).  What plot line could possibly include them all without being absurd? When I finished, it all seemed to hold together, it was funny, and it was something other people enjoyed, too. Expecting it to be ridiculous freed me up to be creative.

 So, let yourself make mistakes. Glorious mistakes. Silly mistakes. Mistakes that make other people laugh. You never know what will appear. Even mistakes that create all kinds of trouble and need effort to clean up can be good for you. Learning is never useless. And, after all, what is life for, if it’s not to experiment?

 Fourth, reduce exposure to situations where you cannot be yourself.  Why take yourself to the social event of the season if it’s going to produce a tortured self-analysis of your social skills, appearance, finances, status, accomplishments, and so on?  There are 7 billion people on this earth.  Choose someone you don’t have to impress.

 If your job is too pressure-filled, ask yourself if the problem is you or the job. If it’s the job, look into changing it. If you are dating people you feel are out of your league, why? Maybe it’s not that they’re out of your league – you’re more likely just in the wrong league. 

 Be with other people who want to be themselves. Be with people who want you to be yourself. People who expect you to strive to meet their standards are not people you want to have as friends.  

 Fifth, ask who wants me to be perfect?  Is it your boss? Is it a reasonable expectation or do you need to have a discussion with your boss about your workload? Is it your parent still speaking in your head? Consider telling them politely to keep their opinions to themselves. 

 Is it you and your idea of your ideal self? Try describing that ideal self in writing. What are its characteristics, behavioral requirements, appearance, social manners? How many hours a day should it work? How much should it produce? How much acclaim should it get? From whom?  Put in anything you can think of. You want to know who this person is that you are supposed to be.

 Now read the description and ask yourself whether you really do want to apply for that job after all.

 Sixth, and most important of all, love yourself.

 The ridiculous twist to all this perfectionism is that the most lovable people and the ones we find it easy to be around are the people who make mistakes and freely admit it, can laugh at themselves, and are comfortable in their own skin whether they’re wearing Dior or a fourteen-year-old out-of-date sweater. They are simply themselves. They can trip over their feet, say something inappropriate, stumble around trying to explain something they don’t understand very well, speak too loudly or too softly, and forget to bring something to a meeting. If they can laugh at themselves, acknowledge their errors, apologize if needed without going into paroxysms of self-flagellation, others are going to like them. So, let yourself be vulnerable but also lovable, be wrong but also be comfortable to be around, be silly but maybe also a source of joy. 

 Love yourself as others might love you – indulgently, with a sense of humor, as a pal. As my friend Terry Patten likes to say, “You are bound to make wrong decisions. Forgive yourself in advance.”  Love yourself when you do something stupid, when you don’t know what you’re doing, when you can’t finish something, when it all looks wrong and bad and hopeless. God knows that’s when you need love, and who is closer by to give it to you in that moment than you are? 

 I’m not at all sure what my life is all about, but it makes sense to me to get the full experience I can out of it. I may not be exactly the person I want to be right now, but that’s the vehicle I’ve been issued this go around and that is its current condition, so even if it’s got some problems, I might as well enjoy it. I might even be able to fix some of the problems with a little tender loving care instead of launching a frontal assault on them or making a quick attempt to paint them over so others won’t see them.

 Now, even though I wrote all this, and I completely agree with it, I still have trouble with my own perfectionism. But I have to forgive myself that as well. I’m human – not perfect –  even about handling my perfectionism. I have to tell myself that being human in fact means being imperfect. Am I never again going to trip and fall?  Am I never again going to say something really off point and stupid? Am I never again going to be rude or irritable or critical? There are no perfect humans. It is not possible as long as we are in these bodies on this planet. 

 So, if you want to be authentic, why be anything other than the beautifully imperfect being that you are?  Can you make that your goal?  To allow yourself just to be ordinary, inexpert, socially awkward, wrong, clumsy, irritable, reclusive, loud, and emotional –  and also brilliant, kind, joyful, insightful, aware, and loving? Can you be your whole self?

 Are you interested in recreating your life so it is perfectly you?  Try our course It’s Not Too Late.     Read the book here.  Only $6.99 as an ebook.

Or for a quick look at procrastination, one effect of perfectionism, try our course I Should Have Done It Yesterday.  Only $11.00!

[1]Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Photo by Edward Webb

Has Your Life Gotten Off Track?

Has Your Life Gotten Off Track?

Do you ever feel like your life is so far off track that you don’t know how you’ll ever get back on?  Maybe you’ve lost your job, maybe you’re in recovery from an addiction that has cost you everything, maybe you have an illness that keeps you from following your dreams, maybe you’ve gotten divorced.

 Well, take a big breath and read this.

There is no track you are supposed to be on

There are 7 billion people on this planet and all of them are doing something different.  They’re supposed to be doing something different.  That’s why they’re individuals, unique.  Whatever you choose to do with your life or wherever life takes you, that’s where you’re supposed to be right now.  You are having an adventure – a spiritual being in this body for this lifetime.

Now, you may not like the particular adventure you’re having at the moment.  You may want more:  more money, more friends, more health.  You may want less:  less panic, less guilt, less shame, less loneliness.  That’s ok.  We’re designed to want some things and not others – without that we wouldn’t create new adventures.  But the important point is that at each moment in this lifetime, you get to choose a new adventure.  (Some of you may remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from years ago.)

The idea that there is a particular track for you is something that is part of our social conditioning.  A couple of hundred years ago the track was supposed to be:  Get a farm, have a family, slog it out for 50 years, and then hope one of your children did the same thing and took care of you when you couldn’t do it anymore.

That isn’t most people’s track anymore.  Today the track is something like:  Go to college, get a good paying job, get promoted, slog it out for 50 years, and hope you have enough savings or pension to keep you going in retirement.

If you’re not doing that, people tell you you’re not on track.  But who says you have to want that track?  Plenty of people do other things.  Some people are minimalists.  Instead of making more money, they scale back their needs so they can enjoy other aspects of their lives.  If you want to earn money, you might decide to be a pearl diver or a scarecrow.  Yes, these jobs exist along with a lot of other really unconventional ones.

There are many advantages to being off track

 If you’re not on the standard track, the past doesn’t create your future.
It may have created your present and it may take a little pushing to steer the ship in another direction, but you can start turning the wheel now.  Ulysses S. Grant was derailed by drinking, depression, and business failure.  He ended up as President.

 If you’re not on the standard track, you can make room for your limitations.
If you’re ill, choose a path that allows for that.  If you’re grieving, give yourself time to grieve.  If you have a bad credit record, give yourself time to get it in better shape.  When things go wrong, we want to right them all tomorrow, but that usually leads us into worse troubles.  As Anthony Robbins has commented, “most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year – and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.” Relax into a slow first year or two.

 If you’re not on the standard track, you get to see that life about appreciation as much as it is about production.
If no one existed to appreciate art or purchase useful items or listen to music or go to a library, what would our world be like?   Listening, seeing, hearing, appreciating, reflecting on – these are all what our human self is created to do. The rush to “do, do, do” is not inherent to being human – it’s a value of a particular modern western worldview.  Other worldviews often do not value it as much.  For example, studies done on primitive cultures find that people work enough to produce their sustenance and then spend the rest of their time simply experiencing their lives.  Eastern cultures are more about being than doing.  Doing has its place but not at the expense of other aspects of human experience.  Try enlarging the space you give to the appreciation of life.

If you’re not on the standard track, you aren’t too old.
Age matters to organizations who don’t want to pay benefits and higher salaries to people who may not be there for the long haul or to people who have built up higher costs due to seniority.  However, if you have your own business or are working with a small group that needs your expertise right now, it only matters that you bring value to the venture.  That value can be experience, maturity, stability, creativity, and many other qualities you have had time to develop.  Grandma Moses started painting at the age of 78.  Colonel Sanders started his finger-lickin’ chicken company at the age of 70.  I met and married my soulmate at the age of 65, and we started our company the same year.  It’s been a grand adventure.

If you’re interested in finding a better track for yourself, the course It’s Not Too Late may be for you. You can buy the book here.


Escalating levels of Consciousness.

I made a few changes and adaptations of some models and this is my version of four possible escalating levels of Consciousness.

Many people never find their way out of a level and that’s OK because the universe/spirit/God has given us free-will to fall down and get back up as many times as it takes for us to figure it out. AMEN !

1. Unconscious Unconsciousness

At this stage we are not even aware that we are unconscious. We attract negative things into our life at a rapid pace, as if we have developed a negative ball of energy rolling downhill. Nothing is ever our fault and we are always looking for someone to blame. We become a virtual ‘Poster Child’ for ‘Co Dependency’

2. Conscious Unconsciousness

Here we are aware of our thinking, both negative and positive, and the consequences they might bring. We begin to see our  patterns, in particular our negative ones, and have become more aware of what it is we are attracting. We may not like what we are attracting, and we begin to take responsibility — by learning from it.

3. Conscious Consciousness

We realize clearly that ‘Free Will’ means: we choose our own reality and deliberately decide to focus pure and positive intention with feeling and thought on our evermore clear dream — purpose. At the same time we learn to embrace all resistance to its arrival as an opportunity to grow as a human being. We begin to learn that creation is a manifestation of our Inner connection to Presence. That our intentions, as they become more in alignment with the increasingly felt Inner Presence, are more real. We can acknowledge the opportunities as they present themselves, and we are equipped to overcome difficulties.

4. Unconscious Consciousness

When we get to this point, we do not have to work so hard to create things in our life; in fact in this stage there is less and less effort, just gratitude. We have formed the habit of being aware. We are present and One with Inner Presence. We have found Unity with All that IS. We live moment to moment in the eternity of the present with no opposition to what IS already the case Here and Now. We have an understanding based on Intuition, Faith and Innocence and not in mental elaborations. Instead of looking for the sense of life we now for sure that life makes sense. People call us the “LUCKY ONES.”

Remember: “Consciousness”

  • Knowing WHAT we are DOING and WHY we are doing it
  • Knowing WHAT we are FEELING and WHY we are feeling it
  • Knowing WHAT we are THINKING and WHY we are thinking it
  • Knowing WHAT we are SAYING and WHY we are saying it
  • Knowing WHO We are
  • WHY we are Here and WHY Now

The big discovery: I AM

Why It’s Important to “Grow Up” before “Waking Up.”

Click here to see a presentation in Sedona

Adyashanti said in a recent talk that some people are “big experiencers” and others are not but that neither was a determinant of a higher state of awakening. I found this reassuring since I have never been a “big” experiencer. My growth has been a gradual awakening to a more expanded way of seeing the universe, more serenity, more ability to be in this world but not “of” it, greater ability to be in the present – basically a life filled with increasing beauty, truth, and goodness.

For much of my life, I have focused on “growing up” more than waking up, both in my work (teaching, coaching, writing) and in my life. My pleasure in intellectual exploration and my decision to get a lot of education fed my cognitive development, family tragedies helped me to acknowledge and learn to master my emotional self, long term responsibilities helped me to grow morally, etc. Often, however, I felt I was “behind” others on the spiritual path because I didn’t have the overwhelming state experiences they had even while I could see that my level of peace and joy and perhaps even experience of the numinous was greater than theirs. At the same time, I could see that people who had had many of these experiences struggled a great deal with integrating them.

Today there is a great push out there for people to “wake up.” Thousands flock to gurus hoping for transmission, meditate to escape into a world of peace and love. Books are written about how important it is to wake up.

And it is important. However, it is also important not to forget about “growing up,” that process that leads us to develop mastery of our bodies, our environment, our emotions, and our minds in this world, that requires us to get to know and manage our ego sufficiently to work with and care for others, that asks us to take ever broader perspectives (time, space, culture, context) through which we see the world, and that gives us the ability to act with more tolerance and understanding.

Having seen many people in various stages of waking up and growing up, I have come to conclude that those who “grow up” before “waking up” have an easier time of it. There are several reasons for this that I go into below, but fundamentally, it’s because growing up gives you a container for holding non ordinary experience, unusual perspectives, and a self that may not be all you thought it was. Without having grown oneself into a person of considerable depth, sanity, openness, and balance, waking up can overwhelm a person.

Growing up is about developing increasing perspective-taking ability, emotional capacity, moral understanding, and other traits associated with mature adults. It is about creating a life that is sane and balanced, even, to use a word from Cindy Wigglesworth (The 21 Skills of Spiritual Development) noble. In short, it’s about developing both more wisdom and more compassion.

Waking up is about going inward and becoming acquainted with Self. It is about disidentifying with the personal self/ego and reinhabiting the physical from a nonpersonal self. One becomes lived by Self rather than living with one’s ego in control.

States (waking up) and stages (growing up) can seem to progress independently of one another, particularly through the levels of development which most people achieve in the world today.[1] For example, nonordinary states of consciousness can be experienced temporarily at any time and at any one of the growing up stages,[2]. One can be mature and balanced without experiencing nonordinary states. However, the full possibilities of either require development of both.

A model of state and stage development which shows the full interrelationship of these developmental processes is Terri O’Fallon’s StAGES model, which she built on the work of Ken Wilber and Susann Cook-Greuter. In her model, growing up IS waking up since the higher levels of development are in fact about living from causal and nondual states.

In this model, growing up, a sequential process in which one transcends but includes the learnings of the earlier stages, requires us to develop (or evolves us into) deeper state understanding.

Tier Development in the four stages of each tier Approximate correlation with Wilber and Cook-Greuter stages
Concrete Tier We learn about concrete things and ideas, learn to work with them alone and with others. We see ourselves as a body in a world of other things. We arrive at a stage in which we can live in the world as a responsible adult, adhering to the rules and norms of society. Wilber’s Infrared, Purple, Red, Amber/Cook-Greuter’s Symbiotic, Impulsive, Opportunist, Diplomat
Subtle Tier We recognize a world of ideas and concepts with no referent in the physical worldspace, develop facility with them, and become able to visualize and plan for the future. We see ourselves as a mind in a world of other minds. Toward the end of development in this tier, we can understand and interrelate complex social, economic, scientific, and other systems across vast realms of time and space. Wilber’s Orange, Green, Teal/Cook-Greuter’s Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist
Causal Tier We become aware of a place beyond the mind – a more diffuse, omnipresent consciousness (often called the Witness) and come to live from this consciousness rather than from a rational one. We see ourselves as awareness in a world of awareness. Toward the end of this stage, we come to a place where we are able to collapse our individual self into Oneness with the Kosmos. Wilber’s Turquoise, Indigo, Violet, Ultraviolet /Cook-Greuter’s Magician (Construct Aware), Transpersonal, Universal, Illumined
Nondual Tier We become aware of the unity of all of these levels within the Absolute and live transcendence and immanence at once. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” says the Heart Sutra. Awareness and what arises in awareness are one and the same. Wilber’s Clear Light /Cook-Greuter’s Unitive


Most people do not develop beyond the middle of the subtle tier stages, and many live well-respected lives without going beyond the concrete tier. Causal and especially nondual stage existence (living consistently from this orientation) is very rare.

But regardless of where one is in this process of development, one can be suddenly thrust into subtle, causal, or even nondual states of consciousness. Depending upon the person’s level of development, these sudden openings or “awakenings” can be a blessing or be highly disorienting and frightening. If the experience is too great or they have not developed beyond the concrete or mid subtle stages, they may experience

– Fear, overwhelm and disorientation. People may question their sanity or find themselves trying to deal with material that has thrust itself unbidden into their psyches.

Physical symptoms including changes in the endocrine and nervous systems.[3]

– Inability to deal with understandings that conflict with what may be rigidly held views (a narrower perspective on what is true is characteristic of lower stages).

Hijacking of the experience by the ego resulting in an overblown ego that is convinced it is enlightened.

– Spiritual bypassing, where the person uses spiritual experience to avoid handling real world issues.

However, those who have reached the higher subtle or even causal levels (and have largely dealt with developmental issues at the lower tiers[4]) are more likely to experience awakening as a welcome expansion of their already wide open consciousness. Particularly if they have cognitive understanding from reading and study, the experience can be not so much a break from ordinary life as a recognition, “Oh, this is what they meant.”

One reason is that there will be less of a gap between this new reality and their ordinary one. The ordinary state of people at the causal stages may not look so different from what people describe as peak experiences. Maslow’s self-actualizing people are described as spontaneous, autonomous, aware, accepting of self and others, loving, creative, open to ecstasy, wonder, and awe.[5] They may already be comfortable with a Witnessing experience.

Because the causal level is a place of revelation instead of one of increasing personal control, one who has accepted that life is a mystery, that predictability is not to be had and he or she is not in control will not be so disoriented. Causal experience is about being lived by spirit, not about harnessing spirit to one’s personal agenda. As Adyashanti put it in an interview with Tami Simon, “I woke up and discovered I was not there.”

Qualities that are developed during the growing up process such as accepting things as they are, the ability to take multiple perspectives, openness to not knowing, a willingness to rely on the workings of the universe instead of needing to work out everything logically, and comfort with paradox and complexity are all helpful in managing this lack of control. More mature people also have the ability to reflect on their own growth and thus know that growth can be expected to continue and that it can be disorienting.

Grown up people are able to accept and navigate the difference between a harsh and even insane outside world and an inner focus on wholeness and peace. When we develop in the concrete tier and move from the concrete to the subtle tier, society is already there to accept us. Our relatives help us to learn the concrete world, our educational system is geared to helping us move to the subtle. But at the causal level, we have no universities and few communities or spiritual teachers, so we are left to function in a concrete and subtle world despite seeing possibilities beyond it. Without capacities for acceptance and giving up control, this gap can be very frustrating.

At higher stage development, people are more likely to be able to maintain the natural human drive for growth instead of retreating from what seems like too big a jump to make. If they feel too much fear or confusion, people may feel hopeless and give up. For example, I remember in 8th grade being asked to decide what I wanted to major in in college so I could plan my class schedule for the next four years. Given I had a future perspective of maybe a year or two at the outside, no idea what I wanted to do, and no ability to plan, the project seemed impossible. Fortunately, I had parents and teachers to help me begin to deal with these subtle capacities and assure me that they would be helpful to me. Without such support, however, people can find learning about the subtle world so difficult that they give up and retreat to a safer concrete existence.

Similarly, one can give up on causal experience if it is encountered too soon, and there is no one to help you navigate it or even explain why you might want to. Just as overwhelmed young people look for authorities and join cults, so people who encounter the causal before they are ready to let go of control or rationality or when they have no support or people around them who have already walked the path can suppress the experience (sometimes) or develop unhealthy coping strategies.

With higher stage development, one can better hold and stabilize the experience. With a mature consciousness that involves the ability to concentrate, take multiple perspectives, and live with expanded awareness, manage the physical body wisely, and handle emotions with greater facility, there is a more adequate container for causal experience.

I came across this poem recently by Constantine P. Cavafy which encourages us to take on the journey of growing up before pushing to enter Ithaca (a metaphor for enlightenment) before we are ready.


When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.

            *            *            *

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.

Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean.


[1] Obviously neither is fully independent: according to Ken Wilber, meditation can speed up growing up (The Eye of the Spirit, page 219 and elsewhere) and dealing with shadow psychological issues can help spiritual growth. According to Anadi, “To seek is the most challenging endeavour in human existence.  Therefore it is critical that one will develop certain essential qualities such as sincerity, maturity, inner strength, patience, determination, purity of intention, humility, as well as discriminative wisdom, sensitivity to the realm of I am and the ability to meet oneself.

Only by possessing the virtues we have described here can one persevere in the face of the unknown and unravel our final destiny.” Summary quote on Anadi’s website from the Book of Enlightenment pp. 42-43.

[2] For more information on this lattice and a detailed description of the stages of development, please see the article How to Wake Up and Grow Up at

[3] Jeff Warren cites Willoughby Britton’s research at Brown University on symptoms in “The full range of symptoms, from mild to intense, include headaches, panic, mania, confusion, hallucinations, body pain and pressure, involuntary movements, the de-repression of emotionally-charged psychological material, extreme fear and – perhaps the central feature – the dissolution of the sense of self.” (Enlightenment’s Evil Twin, Psychology Today January 2014) Others who have commented on the physiological changes are David Hawkins, Discovery of the Presence of God: Devotional Nonduality, pp. 113-115 and Igor Kufayev who has spoken many times on this issue, e.g.!letter_to_a_siddha/c1tbn

[4] Psychological problems at early stages, e.g. attachment issues or a tendency to act as a victim, will repeat in later stages until they are dealt with.

[5]Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc. l962, p. 23.

Laying the groundwork for spiritual realization

Meditation is a technique with the aim of realizing the ultimate (God-Awareness-Love-Reality-Spirit-Brahman-Atman-Buddhata-Tao-AinSof-Allah or whatever your idea of it is).  Most meditators come to the practice in search of some version of Self-realization or spiritual realization.  However, before full Self-realization (not just occasional experiences) happens, we need to traverse through many stages and states of growth and awakening.

The spiritual path is as complex as humans are complex. It takes time and effort to progress.  However, there are those who promote quick fixes and others who postulate that there is nothing to do – we are already enlightened.  Others claim it is not possible for an ordinary human to self-realize.  Neither is true.

Some teachers claim that since only consciousness is real, nothing in the manifest world is real. In this interpretation, you do not have to do anything to get enlightened. Its adherents who have touched on ultimate reality say that despite many years of practice, the practices were not needed because the reality was always there. However, they are discounting the fact that it took all those years of practice to reach that conclusion.  Thus they falsely promote the idea that they are saving us time by telling us that there is nothing to do — except of course listen to them and buy their books.

The opposite point of view, that it is impossible for the average human being to attain self-realization, is also a false statement that can hinder the seeker’s progress. Fundamentalist religions would have us believe that only special ones that can attain this state and that only by the sanction of the “church,” the state of sainthood or enlightenment can be achieved. For the rest of us, only adherence to the religious canon will, in some special cases, result in salvation after death.

The truth is that there is something to do, and that it is possible to attain the ultimate expression of the incarnated life. However, it does take proper guidance and proper effort[i].  The primary effort is meditation.

Meditation is both the key to the inner realm, our true nature, and the inner realm itself. Let me illustrate this with a metaphor:  let’s suppose our true nature (the inner realm) is like a diamond that keeps its purity and beauty independent of the rock formations around it. In order to uncover the diamond, the miner and the jeweler (the meditator) need to remove the surrounding rock with a tool — a tool usually made of diamond itself. In the same way, meditation is the tool and the goal itself.

For the human being, the surrounding rock includes his or her physiological make up and hampering beliefs and cultural tendencies. So is important to understand that initially, and depending on our level of maturity and adaptation, we will need to deal with those issues before we can begin to have a direct experience of our true nature.  Thus our meditation may seem frustrating at the beginning as we expose and heal these issues.  But that frustration does not mean that the effort is not accomplishing something.  The very effort to work on our limitations and obstacles in meditation is part of the path and in fact meditation.   Sometimes, depending on our stage of growth, we need to emphasize certain practices and tools over others at the different stages of spiritual-realization.

In my years of practicing, teaching meditation, and researching the field, I have found that the great majority of the questions people have in meditation classes are more related to their psychology than to their spirituality, because they are primarily interested in external achievement and acquiring of skills that will result in success in a competitive world. It also accords with what we know about the stages of human development — that personal development moves from the concrete to the subtle (mental) to the causal to the non-dual.  Depending upon where we are in this development, we are more or less able to hold and stabilize higher (causal and nondual) states of consciousness.

For some the conditions of life, inheritance, and culture may facilitate the path; for others, it will may make it more difficult. So, before we can expect meditation to be an experience of transcendence we need to identify where we are and then move from there along the stages of human development, develop concrete skills, purify our psyche, heal our neurotic tendencies, and learn how to love.

Along the way in the removal process, we might hit some part of the core diamond, and a bright light might shine, a peek into our real nature that we experience as a temporary state of bliss. Such states will not be permanent until we stabilize them and integrate them into our daily life.

However, most people will be very happy once they uncover the first glimpse of that raw diamond and will stop there.  So, beyond growing ourselves up and cleaning up our psyche, we need to ignite in us the thirst to go beyond our human identity. Only those with a profound desire or thirst for the divine will continue polishing the facets of the diamond, allowing the pure Self to emerge in all its glory and divinity. Once this is achieved, our old identity, represented here by the rock, will “die” to this life and be “born again” as our true nature[ii].

So in the beginning of our meditation practice, we need not feel we are not progressing when we encounter our most limiting elements: those shadows and impurities of our psyche, our phobic, fearful anxious, irrational and obsessed tendencies. Up to now they have taken precedence and are in center stage of our consciousness.  We have believed up to now that we ARE this self.  In the practice of meditation, we need to allow ourselves to work with these tendencies, so we can learn to take a distance from our reactive mind and personality.  As we do that, we increase our awareness and eventually free ourselves from that identification which obscures our true nature. So expect turmoil and restlessness in the beginning if you are a true seeker and know that most of the initial years of meditation are preparatory but necessary steps.

Increasingly, as we deal with our shadow and stop identifying ourselves with the limited self, we become able to make our true nature the object of our meditation and keep our attention in that inner truth. Like the jeweler we have always in mind the final jewel.  At this point, our mind will forget its concrete and subtle surroundings, and our meditation will be greatly accelerated and our mind will be filled with the image of our true nature. As the poet-Saint Surdadas said:

The mind that continually takes refuge in the Supreme eventually becomes That.”[iii]

[i] It also includes a physical and neurological rearrangement that will be the theme of another article

[ii] That does not mean that we will renounce our existence in the body; instead we will live from a newborn perspective, that of the being who knows that “I and my father are one.” This again will be theme for another article

[iii] Meditate, Swami Muktananda, State University New York Press, 1980-p25

Ten Principles #3. “You Could Be Wrong, Lynn”

This was one I really needed to hear.  To accept that we could be wrong means we have to take off the blinders, to let go of our tunnel vision, and to begin to accept into our consciousness the perspectives of others.  It also means we accept our failings instead of trying to justify them or cover them up.   Says Susan Thesenga,”[We] need to avoid the traps of projection, self-justification, self-righteous exoneration, blaming of others, and making excuses for the self, or the traps of self-indulgence, denial, repression, and evasion [and] be willing to feel the pain of our real guilt for abandoning or rejecting others . . .  “This is hard to do and initially feels like a blow to one’s self-esteem.  And yet there is no pain that is more fully releasing and transforming . . .  The pain of real guilt, true remorse, is also different from the pain of false guilt, which results from not living up to expectations. . . “ (The Undefended Self, 240,244).

And of course we are wrong!  We are wrong all the time.  We don’t have enough information to know everything.  We don’t have the wisdom to interpret it all.  Consider that every event in life is surrounded by a constellation of events reaching back in time and out in space, affected by people all over the place who are making individual decisions that impact it.  We make our decisions based on what we can see, read, and maybe intuit right now.  It’s always a guess and the “right” answer is always changing.  Even something so simple as knowing the best route to take to work involves processing a knowledge of traffic patterns, current construction, holidays and conferences in town that could change patterns, our own moods, the condition of our car or the availability of public transport, weather, etc. etc.  But so what?  We do the best we can with what we know and so do others.  Why should we get upset with them for having limited information and skill?

We are particularly wrong about our opinions, since not only are they based on necessarily limited information, but they are also shaped by our personal history and culture.  Our individual moods, attitudes, and wounds all tend us to bias in one direction or another and can change from moment to moment.  Our desire to be liked by people we admire, or to be different from people we don’t, cause us to become even more locked in to one position or another.  Our level of development gives us a worldview that limits our ability to see beyond it.  It’s no wonder we disagree; what is a wonder is that we agree at all. 

Even the old aphorisms are dependent on context.  For example, it seems to be a truism that the way to get what we want is through hard work.  But that’s just a worldview.  Some people would say the way to get what you want is to take it from somebody who has it (whether by stealing or by legislating a different tax structure).  Someone else would say that if we are in flow, things will come to us.  Other people might take issue with how we define “work” –  maybe if we are doing what we love, it isn’t ‘hard.’  Some might say the whole problem is with the idea of “want” which implies scarcity and can be addressed at a more fundamental level.  So many ways to view the same simple statement!

So, being “right” is in itself a subjective interpretation and one that is constantly shifting depending upon the state of my knowledge, the state of my development, the effect of my listeners (who may antagonize me or encourage me), my emotional experience, or what I saw on the news five minutes ago. 

The past many years have given me multiple opportunities to recognize ways in which I have been wrong and how self-righteous I can become in the defense of my mistakes.  Catching myself in my dogmatism is a daily practice.  But I have to be careful not to beat myself up for it, too.  Along with our willingness to admit our wrongs must come a willingness to forgive ourselves as well.  When we can do that, it’s a lot easier to forgive others, too.

There are still those absolute truths common to the world’s great spiritual traditions – love, compassion, truth – but even these, of course, are subject to interpretation by the one expressing them.

Last night I sat down to think of what I really did think was true and I came up with two things: “love comes out of stillness” and “I exist.”  Those resonated with me at such a deep level.  But I couldn’t think of more at the time  – do I really know so little? – and even those are an interpretation of the particular experience I was having.  My comments on what I felt then to be true are still qualifiable, modifiable, and rewordable; I know they would be expressed differently on another day in another context. 

These days, something is barely out of my mouth before I want to say, “Well, no, it’s not quite that.”  Getting from experience, no matter how deep or shallow, to communication to another is not easy.  Music and the great poets do it sometimes.  Most of us mortals are lucky to get close once in a while.

So, instead of searching for “the truth” and then defending it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I might as well just accept that it’s rare for me to have it.  That leaves me open to other people’s ideas and feelings, frees me from defensiveness, and gives me peace.

 All the more reason to let go and trust.


Ten Principles: #2 Trust

 It was hard for me then in the fall of 1995 to trust in the basic goodness of the universe, even to accept that there was a divine purpose to it all that we may not understand.  But over the years I learned many things about trust:  that if we trust in a beneficent universe then we do not need to worry about whether or not an individual person is trustworthy.  Because they are human, human beings will inevitably disappoint us, hurt us, and betray us.  If we put our faith only in people, we will be eternally disappointed and endlessly searching for the one who will not hurt us –  or the one we will not hurt, for we cannot trust ourselves either.  Trust in the universe also allows us to love people better since we no longer need them or ourselves to be perfect. 

 I learned the converse as well, that we can trust in others, largely by not expecting more than they are capable of and having tolerance for their small betrayals as we hope they are tolerant of ours.  Trust is not a black and white thing.  We can trust in increments:  some people we can trust in a few areas (they won’t lie outright to us, they’ll usually do what they say) or in a few situations (around legal matters, in casual interactions like going to the movies or getting work done on time).  Others we can trust more deeply because we know they have our best interests at heart and they will go out of their way to ensure that we are treated fairly and kindly.  People in this category might be a longterm friend or a person with a well-known reputation for trust.  A very few fall into the group of people in front of whom we can fully lower our barriers, knowing that it would take either an enormous mistake or a serious tragedy for them to let us down in any way.   Many of my problems with trust in other people had come from confusing what I should share with which people.

Most importantly, though, I learned that trust is about letting go.  I used to cling to my problems, like a drowning person holding on to a flimsy plastic swim ring that is steadily losing air.   To let go seemed like certain death, but in fact, was the only way to look up and see other possibilities.  If I assume that what I have and what I know now are the only ways to solve problems, I will seriously limit myself.  Opening up to the fact that I don’t know and that others (and, since I have a belief in a higher power, God) will present them to me is absolutely freeing.  I have realized that I don’t have to do this all alone – that there are people and forces in the universe who can help me.  I have also seen how God/All That Is/Ground of Being can orchestrate amazing things for me if I cease shutting myself into the box of my own opinions about things and truly open to whatever He/She/It wants to see manifested through me.  [I should note that this is not the same thing as visualizing what I want and expecting it to show up which I see as just another way of defining, and thus limiting, the solution]

I have learned that there are many layers to trust (as there are many layers to each of the principles in this essay).  In December 2012, I had a volcanic demonstration of what could happen when I was able to drop into a deeper level of trust.

For some time, I had been taking my morning meditations as an opportunity to surrender my life and my will to God.  I was feeling much greater peace and was content with my life even though there were some serious problems I had been contending with for decades, among them my children’s serious illnesses and my unfulfilled desire for a deep committed relationship.  One morning I suddenly realized that although I had adopted a willingness to surrender, I wasn’t trusting that good things were possible for me.  I was going through life rather drearily accepting what was, not realizing that perhaps even those things that seemed most intractable could somehow be changed.  As the Course in Miracles says, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” 

So, I sat down and wrote out my three primary negative beliefs.  After looking at them for a moment, I realized that it was possible for each of them to change.  So, I wrote a second sentence for each which countered this belief – along the lines of “My son could get well.  Someone was the first person to be cured of other illnesses that we can now cure.”

To my shock, within a week, a beautiful person appeared in response to an ad we had placed for care giving help for him, one day after that I met my soulmate to whom I am now married, and over the next few months, my daughter improved so much I could hardly recognize her. 

I had not only surrendered my life but I had done so at a new level.  I had surrendered it in full trust that anything could happen – even something good!

The word “Trust” has served me as an ongoing mantra, along with the next principle,   


Ten Principles: #1 Love Is the Only Transformative Thing

Over a period of two years beginning with Thanksgiving 1995, ten guiding principles “dropped” into my mind accompanied by an electric ‘felt’ sense (a feeling I have sometimes that heightens my awareness and powers my body in some way) and a ‘knowing’ that these were absolutely true and very significant to me. I continue to find them a source of inspiration and wisdom and have more or less lived by them ever since. In hindsight, I see them as the answer to a kind of unspoken prayer, a desperate need to make some sense of my life, which at the time was not making much sense to me.

In the 1980s, as an effort to deal with my young son’s serious illness and my corresponding dawning realization that my previous certain worldview (that life was fair and if you were a good person things would go well for you) was crumbling, I had become interested in concepts such as creating your own reality, changing beliefs, the power of positive affirmation, and many others that might be called New Age beliefs. However, I couldn’t seem to create a new reality, and the subtle “blame the victim” message which seemed to be so much a part of the literature seemed to heap a conscious cruelty on top of an already cruel fate.

Then one day in August 1994, I decided as an exercise to record what I knew to be true. I found to my surprise that I could not come up with anything. It was actually an appalling moment. What was I to live by then? I wandered along in a rudderless boat for a time and finally, desperate for answers, in December 1994, I expressed to myself and to (my idea of) God or the Universe a deep intention to grow spiritually.

Over the next year my life as I knew began to fall apart, culminating with a particularly intense six weeks in the fall of 1995, during which time my beloved father died, a friend died, my daughter left home, I started a doctoral program, and my husband of twenty-seven years left me. It was not the first earthquake I had experienced over my lifetime (I was then forty-nine), but it was a dramatic one.

Marianne Williamson, a spokesperson for the Course in Miracles, suggests that when we call God into our lives, we think He’ll come in and make a few adjustments here and tidy up a few things there, but then, one morning, we look out and see a wrecking ball outside our window. God wants us to start from the ground up. “Sometimes people think that calling on God means inviting a force into our lives that will make everything rosy. The truth is, it means inviting everything into our lives that will force us to grow – and growth can be messy” she says (A Return to Love, 35).

At first, the upsetting events of my life took away any ability I had to reflect. Mostly, I just reacted, mostly badly. A friend suggested that I had been “deconstructed.” Another, more encouragingly, said it looked like I was on the verge of a breakthrough.

Finally, as I began to get myself together, some understandings began to develop, and I started to develop a system of beliefs about the universe that were qualitatively different from those I had had before. Instead of beliefs about how one should live and how the world should be (ethical principles, I suppose) these new principles had (as I saw it) more to do with the underlying workings of the universe.

Since then, I have returned to them often, trying to apply them to my cognitive understanding and my behavior, and attempting to integrate them with my sense of both spiritual and ordinary life. They have seemed increasingly important to me and I have a lot of gratitude for their emergence in my life. I don’t pretend to have plumbed their depths or to be fully able to apply them at all times, but they have guided my path.

The first principle came to me when I was visiting my brother in Michigan for my first Thanksgiving alone after the divorce and my father’s death. What I “heard” one night sitting alone in their guest room was:

1. Love Is the Only Transformative Thing

I had a number of situations in my life that I wanted to transform. I had been applying effort, persuasion, strategies, everything I knew how to do and activities that had in the past resulted in some success. I had raised a family, run a home, obtained several degrees. I had done well as a professor, writer, and community leader. I had moved my family from state to state. I had dealt with numerous crises. I knew how to change a tire, paint a room, deal with my finances, and teach a course. But the problems I was facing now were of a different order – and I had to admit that not one of them was transforming, at least not in the manner I had hoped they would. Love didn’t seem like an immediate solution, and I didn’t want to believe that it was the “only” one.

However, I had recently seen the film Dead Man Walking in which Sean Penn’s character (a death row inmate) needed to be loved before any change was possible for him or for others. This movie had affected me deeply. I saw it as an embodiment of the statement that love was the only transformative thing and kept that in the front of my mind and tried to apply it.

But, oh, was that difficult. As I worked with this phrase over the next many years, what happened most was that it became painfully obvious to me just how unloving I was. In all of the issues I faced, I saw myself filled with resentment, desire to control, lack, and fear instead of forgiveness, trust, and an attitude of abundance.

I will come back to this fundamental principle later, but for now I’ll continue with the story. The next principle I “received” only a couple of weeks later was … (In next post)