Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ask Gimme Bliss: When to make the leap?

Today's post will be in response to reader Erzsebet's question:
It seems to me that renunciation is an integral and necessary part of following your bliss. I don’t think that everyone has to “go into the woods” in a literal sense, but there has to be some giving up of old ways in order to get to the new. My question is: how do you know how much to leave behind? For example, I really enjoy my job, but it’s not in alignment with my gifts. My husband and I have been discussing our mid-term plans (5-10 yrs) and making financial preparations in expectation that I will take up my avocation full time (or much closer to full time). This has the interesting effect of changing my perspective on my current job. Now it’s not “just work”, but the foundation for a future more in alignment with my bliss. In short, not only do I like my job, I also value it… which makes me question the idea of giving it up all together. The conflict is that I believe that to not follow my bliss cheats not only myself, but also anyone who might benefit from my words. All of which leads me back to my question: How do you know when to say “when”?

I'll start by saying that you're very perceptive to realize that yes, there is always some renunciation, some sacrifice required in order to gain something else. It's kind of like the mystical version of the principle of energy conservation--you simply can't add or subtract in one area without affecting another. Campbell writes about this being the case in every culture's mythic system; to experience a rebirth, there must be a death. Mostly it is a symbolic one, but there is a loss.

So it's good to realize that, because then you can truly evaluate the value of what you will be giving up and what you may be gaining, since you know it will happen. That's an important first step. You know what the stakes are.

Now, you say you enjoy your work and you value it. If this is the case, you are in a good place. This means any decision you make, whether it's to stay or leave, won't be done out of a sense of needing to flee or escape, but instead from a place of exploration, of needing to move forward and experience growth. What's never a good idea is to jump looking back. You must always leap looking forward.

So the question is, what do you see ahead of you when you contemplate these two paths? Good work at a good job that contributes to the world in some way is a very honorable thing. Check in with yourself to see if you may already be utilizing some of your gifts there. If so, in what way can they combine with the gifts you feel are not being utilized? Is there any harmony between the two? Sometimes what you leave behind is a way of doing things, so that it's a new step, yes, but an evolution as opposed to a spontaneous generation. That's something to think about.

You asked when to say when. If you're looking forward and not back, I think you'll know. You'll know when you can see the kind of landing you've prepared for yourself. In other words, do as much preparatory work as you can, and as you do this, you'll know when you're ready, especially if you're able to check in with yourself and stay true to the calling you hear.

If there's significant doubt, find out where that's coming from. Something I'm realizing is that human nature has a tendency to want to concretize things. My bliss is X. My gifts are Y. It's important to stay open to changes in your bliss. You may want to be a writer at one stage of your life, and a yoga instructor in another. Maybe it's because your bliss is primarily about cultivating spirituality or healing.

There are many paths to your bliss, so be aware of the trap that tells you "I can name my bliss and point to it." Just as God is really that which cannot be named, putting a label on your bliss removes the nondualistic, transcendent element that attracted you to it in the first place. Stay open to finding the experience of bliss rather than attaining your bliss. The minute you think you're holding something in your hand is the minute it turns to dust.

I hope this has been helpful! Good luck as you make your decisions, and keep us posted. And the rest of you, feel free to ask your questions!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ask Gimme Bliss!

One of the reasons I started this blog is because I've spent an awful lot of time reading about bliss, thinking about how to follow mine, and also asking people I know to think about what their bliss might be.

I definitely feel one of my purposes in life is to guide people toward reflection so that they may discover their own path. I even had my freshman English students do a writing assignment on what Joseph Campbell's "follow your bliss" statement meant to them.

To that end, I'd love to hear your questions or thoughts on what you'd like to know more about. I'm curious about what you're interested in, and what you feel like you need explained more clearly or thoroughly.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, thank you for being patient with my somewhat erratic posting schedule. I promise it will return to normal in a short while.

Now, ask away!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why You Should Cultivate Patience

You know what they always say about things happening when you least expect it? 1) Why does it work that way? It's hardly ideal. 2) There must be something to that whole getting out of your own way thing.

As you may have gathered, I've been working on getting closer to the professional life I should be living, but had been running up against wall after wall.

But, slow and steady, I've been persevering, trying to keep forward momentum. One step at a time. Bird by bird. Then, when I least expected it, I got some very good news. I'll remain purposely vague for now, since there is some reason to be circumspect, but I will say this: I am now a little bit closer to living the life I am meant for since the last time you heard from me.

Good for you, I can hear you saying. But what about me? When will it be my turn? All I know is that the more you can keep hope alive, keep faith that so long as you are engaging your gifts and staying focused on your goals, it will happen. You won't expect it. That just seems to be the nature of the way it works.

I wonder if this is some kind of cosmic lesson about patience and surprise. They seem to be two sides of the same coin--endless waiting and then the suddenness of creation, of something coming into being from nothing. I suppose this is kind of the point of Genesis (no, not that Genesis), and other creation myths.

It's a fascinating, frustrating, fickle mystery, that's for sure. But since that seems to be the way of things, I may as well embrace it. You may as well embrace it too. Keep moving forward, keep climbing the brick wall. You won't know when you'll succeed, but as sure as we are beings from nothingness, you will succeed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bliss Follower: Lyle Lovett

This photo is from today's Austin American-Statesman, credit to Michael Wilson. I think it's important to find people living their purpose right now, doing what they're meant to do. I think it's important to identify them as role models.

I suppose most artists able to make a living are following their bliss, but it was the way Lovett put it in this interview, the way he described his life and his passion, that so arrested me. I'll share a portion of his interview with the Statesman's Brad Bucholz below:

Lovett: You hear people talk about (how) their work really isn't their life, (how) they're able to leave their work behind at the office and have a life separate from their work. But if you have to segment your life in that way to deal with the different components... (a long, measured pause) I can understand it; there's nothing wrong with it. But in my case, when you spend 8 to 12 hours a day doing something you like, you don't punch out. And you never want to.

Statesman: Sounds a little bit like the Joseph Campbell axiom of "follow your bliss." Rather than pursuing a career, or undertaking a profession, you say, "I want to invest my days in something that has meaning to me, and have work and life intersect as one."

Lovett: The thing I've gotten from this is, "Everything you do is important." Every day you spend is kind of it. When you're younger, you look forward in a way that keeps you from being fully able to appreciate the moment in the time you're in. I got my record deal when I was 26. My first record came out when I was 28. (And I remember thinking), at the time, "Maybe this record will lead to..." or "If we do well with this, then..." But as you get older, you're more able to appreciate each thing you do as a unique experience -- which enables you to mroe fully explore, and enjoy, what's happening right now."

One of the things I've always wondered about is the desire to retire. When I'm writing, and things are going really well, I don't want to ever give it up. I can't imagine ever stopping. What the heck would I do with myself? If I stopped wanting to write, that would mean I was dead. So Lovett's words about never wanting to punch out really hit it on the head.

Find that feeling--that flow, that satisfaction--and keep making your way toward the life you know you should be living. That life awaits you--don't keep it waiting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Get a Teacher

I'm posting this picture just 'cause I like it. It makes me feel peaceful. The shimmer of sun, the leaves glowing yellow, the cool shadow of the ravine. Ahh.

Today I'd like you to consider finding a teacher. It could be an actual teacher--someone who has a class in your area of interest that you sign up for--or it could be a person who has wisdom to share. A relative, a coworker, a luminary in your field of interest. Or it could be the author of a book. Find at least one person who you can learn something from, and then be a student. Listen. Take notes. Digest what the person is telling you. (And think of it as digestion--allowing, over time, what you take in to become part of you, to become integral.)

I'll leave you with some insight from one of my teachers, Joseph Campbell:

Moyers: I like what you say about the old mysth of Theseus and Ariadne. Theseus says to Ariadne, "I'll love you forever if you can show me a way to come out of the labyrinth." So she gives him a ball of string, which he unwinds as he goes into the labyrinth, and then follows to find the way out. You say, "All he had was the string. That's all you need."

Campbell: That's all you need--an Ariadne thread.

Moyers: Sometimes we look for great wealth to save us, a great power to save us, or great ideas to save us, when all we need is that piece of string.

Campbell: That's not always easy to find. But it's nice to have someone who can give you a clue. That's the teacher's job, to help you find your Ariadne thread.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It's All Up to You

Have you ever known someone who talked for a long time about doing something--losing weight, quitting smoking, buying a house--but it never seemed to be the right time, or it just didn't happen? And then, quite quickly, it did?

Did their circumstances change significantly? Did they win the lottery, or get new friends? Usually not. What did change was their mindset, and their determination to achieve a goal.

Sometimes this happens due to outside factors--when my father had heart surgery, he did not need to be told again to quit smoking. Based on what had happened to him, he had, after decades of unsuccessfully trying to quit, given up cigarettes in a few weeks with the help of a nicotine patch. Now, nearly 20 years later, he still hasn't picked up a cigarette.

Sometimes it's due to an internal shift. I recognized while I was in college that I was really unfit. Not heavy, but I couldn't run around the block without getting winded. One day I laced up the ancient, mostly unworn tennis shoes that had been lurking in my closet, and went for a run. It hurt like hell, but I did it again the next day, but for a tiny bit longer. And so on. Two years after graduation, I ran 26.2 miles in a marathon. I had just decided to be fit, cobbling together steps to make it happen. (What's great is that you often don't know what you're doing, but so long as you're doing something, it works anyway!)

When it comes down to it, in order to succeed at something, especially something difficult, you have to make up your mind that you will do it. While this takes a leap of faith, what I find is actually more important is a leap to responsibility. A recognition that absolutely no one else can stop smoking for you. An awareness that your efforts will fail or succeed depending on you--there's no one to blame. Excuses are an extremely easy way to let yourself off the hook, but ultimately that leads to failure.

It's too cold outside for me to run. I'm addicted to smoking and can't stop. It's too late for me to get anything done anyway. I can't afford to switch careers.

If not achieving your goals doesn't really bother you, than these excuses are no big deal. When they stand in the way of you fulfilling a higher purpose that you feel called to do, then they're a problem.

The good news is that they can be overcome. The bad news is that it may take time. Sometimes, you need to lay groundwork before your mind is ready for the kind of responsibility that jettisoning those excuses will bring. In my dad's case, he needed to land in the hospital with chest pain.

I believe you can speed up the process, though, by getting more reflective, which I've written about before. When you start to examine your own thoughts, impulses, dreams, excuses, you can analyze how to reinforce what's working for you and what's not.

Always making excuses about not enough time to exercise? Is it because you feel like you don't deserve to spend that time on yourself? Could you do something for five minutes, and go from there?

One of my writing friends once said that she felt like she needed to write, and that she hoped her husband understood. "Ultimately," she said, "we all die alone." She had kind of a blunt way of putting things, but I see where she was going. No one can do your deathbed accounting for you--when you get there, you and you alone must confront the kind of life you led.

What I wish for all of us is that the accounting is not a tally of excuses, but the sum of a life fully lived.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Teach What You Want to Learn

To paraphrase the wonderful writer Anne Lamott, today is one of those days where I feel like the latch on the door is barely holding, when the snarling dogs are threatening to get out.

In other words, today I am working hard to hold on to hope. Hope that I'll achieve my goals, hope that the bad guys don't win, hope that the struggle will be worthwhile.

So today I'm going to try to help you find and hold on to hope. While this may seem backwards--Eeyore trying to cheer Tigger up--I've found that sometimes it helps to teach what you want to learn.

Sometimes this happens accidentally, as when I had to teach Rhetoric 102 to college freshman, despite never having even taken rhetoric. But I learned enough to teach each class, and found that as I went along, I learned rhetorical analysis by teaching it. Of course, sometimes, you seek to understand something--the meaning of a poem, the process for using a piece of software--and so you talk to other people about it, and by trying to explain it, find that you're finally understanding it.

So back to hope. What are you supposed to do when you're not feeling particularly hopeful? When you feel like the clouds keep threatening?

Here are some ideas on how to maintain optimism:
  • Laugh at yourself. My husband has this great way of reminding me not to take things too seriously. Whenever I'm feeling angst-ridden or blue or upset, he tells me to stick my fingers in my ears, touch my elbows together, stick out my tongue and cross my eyes. If I go through with it, I instantly feel better.
  • Recognize that your mood is not permanent. Sometimes it can feel like you'll feel this way forever--blue and cloudy and sad. But you have felt happy and positive before, and you will again. Remember--this too shall pass. All you have to do is get through this low spot.
  • Think of one small thing that will help you keep hope alive. Now is the time when it's most crucial not to try to take on the world--it's much too overwhelming. So think of something small you can do to achieve a goal. Maybe I'll read a chapter out of a helpful career advice book, or send one e-mail to someone who can help you achieve your goal. Think atom small, because this you can do. Action is one of the surest ways to combat negative rumination.
  • Turn to art. Allow the large, powerful emotions of someone else influence you. Read a stirring poem, listen to your favorite power anthem, look at the beauty of a painting or watch an inspiring movie. Open yourself to art's transformative power.
  • Get some exercise. Fresh air and a thrumming pulse never fail to banish at least some of the cobwebs and inspire feelings of self-determination and capability.
  • Play. Goof around. Do you have silly putty? Make a silly putty animal. Do you have pen and paper? Doodle some nonsensical shapes until something takes form. Do you have a dog or a child? Play hide and seek and enjoy the simplicity of a game.
  • Do something nice for someone. This can be as simple as giving your spouse a neck rub or as large as driving donations down to the Goodwill. Serve someone else and that will help you return to feelings of hope.
  • Visualize your goal. Get yourself back into the mindset that you were so excited about to begin with. Once it becomes clear again, you will see the path you need to take to get there.
Okay, I really am feeling better already. Teaching what you want to learn can work. It takes strength to teach, but it gives strength. Whatever you do, don't give up because of something as transient as a mood. You do have power over your own life--not absolute power--but you can shape so much.

After all, talent is nothing without perseverance.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Let Nature Nurture You

I took this photo of a geological formation known as 'The Flume' this September at Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire.

It was a beautiful, serene, sublime place, and one that I feel blessed to have seen. I suppose one could look at it as simply a bunch of rocks, interesting maybe, but nothing worth writing home about. I know people who would certainly take this view.

But I disagree. We drove nearly two hours to see these rocks. When we looked at the guestbook in the information center, it had been signed by people from Michigan, California, Japan, Germany. People from Germany did not come to New Hampshire just to see a bunch of rocks.

People come to places like this seeking an experience. I suppose for each person it might be different, but for me, I'm certainly seeking the sublime, the transcendent, a place where the ego dissolves and there is only spirit and awareness and feeling.

The fact that this rock formation in central New Hampshire holds sway over people shows me that it is in our nature to seek and embrace beauty, and especially the beauty of the natural world. We clearly crave it, and it clearly nurtures us, or we'd never bother.

My friend, who taught in Japan for a year, commented that had this formation been in Japan, the path we were on would have led to a temple. At the time, I joked that once at the top, we'd probably find someone selling ice cream or t-shirts: "See the Flume--It's Gorge-ous!"

Fortunately in this case, there were no shops. No temples, either, but at least we had the opportunity to make what we wanted of it.

Find the place of natural beauty nearest to you that would have a temple if it were elsewhere. You'll know it when you see it. Spend time there occasionally. Go ahead and have an ice cream, if they sell it. But get quiet, and allow the mystery of its beauty to work on you.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way

As a teacher of creative writing, I always ask why people want to write. After all, it's not the easiest and certainly not the most lucrative pursuit. I always worry when someone answers me thusly: "To express myself." If the student is young or particularly naive about the satisfactions of writing or pursuing any artistic endeavor, I take heart. If the student is older and should know better, I worry.

Why? Because after a certain point in your life, you realize that gratifying the ego is, for the most part, a treacherous path to be on. When you pursue work, possessions and relationships as a means of making yourself feel important, something negative happens. What is that something? I've observed that things begin to fall apart--living a life for yourself just doesn't hold together. It's as though the things achieved have been gained through the wrong reasons, and so any hold is like one stuck with the wrong glue.

Now, this is not to say that you--as a unique personality with something to share--may not come through in your art, or work or relationship. But the paradox is that the only way you can truly come through is by thinking first of serving others as you pursue your goals.

When I was a young, geeky girl, hopelessly uncool and in love with books, I found that writers--and other artists, but writers especially--spoke to me in such a life-affirming, soul-saving way. I felt a boundless gratitude that someone had taken the time and made the effort to write these books that spoke to me, that taught me, that comforted me. When I first realized that I had been blessed with the ability to write, my intention in writing was to reach people who needed me, as I had needed the authors I read.

If you are not already conceiving of your bliss as something with responsibility and as a means to serve others, then you need to figure out why you want what you want. If you think you want something because it will make you happy, it will not. In fact, it may even torture you. But the brilliant, simple and amazing thing about serving others is this: When you stop worrying about your own happiness, but engage your gifts to serve, you are suddenly most likely to get on the right path and succeed at it. In a sense, you really just need to get out of your own way.

If you think of using your unique gifts as a means of vitalizing the world, of making a difference in your sphere of influence, congratulations--you're on the right track.

If, however, you think: if only I could write my novel, then I would be happy--no. Just as it is flawed to believe that getting married will make you happy, believing that achieving your goals is about making you happy will also not work.

In yoga, it is a common practice to dedicate your efforts to someone or some ideal--something beyond your own benefit and gratitfication--as a means to find extra inspiration, to draw on hidden resources. Imagine who or what you can dedicate yourself to serving with your gifts--whether it's the young nerdy girl in the library, or whether it's the folks who enjoy the sensory pleasure of a lovingly crafted beer--and you will stop serving your ego and start serving something much, much better.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Language Day: Raise the Stakes

Raise the stakes. What does that mean? In my writing class, when a story is lacking drama or conflict, it is often because the we don't know what the character has to win or lose. If we don't know what it means for him to get the job or lose the girl, then we don't know how much to care, how much to invest in the outcome of the story.

One of the ways you raise the stakes in your life is to find what is really important to you, and go after it. If you really want to own your own design business or if making a film is where your heart returns, time after time, then following that raises the stakes of your life.

Now, you may be thinking: Wait a minute, Tiffany. Isn't that where you just said drama and conflict come from? Isn't drama and conflict difficult?

Um, yes? But did I also mention how much more thrilling life is for the characters of our novel, or the characters in our lives, when they achieve a big goal--something they really want? Or when they get rid of a terrible burden? Don't we cheer at the end, transported for a moment into the glory of attainment, of atonement with what the heart desires? Don't we root for them all along their journey?

But maybe the struggle and the difficulty sound like too much. Consider these lyrics. They're from the song "Small Stakes" by the band Spoon.
Oh Yeah Small Stakes Ensure You The Minimum Blues
But You Don't Feel Taken And You Don't Feel Abused
Small Stakes Tell You That There's Nothing Can Do
Can't Think Big, Can't Think Past One Or Two
I hope you read these in the same depressing way I do. Do you really want to live the kind of life with minimum blues? That it's better to just coast on along? To protect yourself from the risk of failure or struggle?

My guess is that if you're reading this blog, the answer is no. If you keep your life small, safe, with nothing big wagered, you're still a worthy human being. But what do we have to root for? What can we truly know about you? If we don't know your largest, greatest desires for your life, how can we help you?

And we want to help you. Give us something to root for. Raise your stakes.

Monday, October 1, 2007

How to Make a Big Decision

So much of how our lives turn out hinges on our ability--or inability--to make decisions. After all, decisions are essentially the moments before action--or inaction--meaning that over time, what you choose accumulates into a path for your life.

Mostly, these are small decisions: Should I cook or go out? Should I buy the blue or the red sweater? Should I get cable?

While these decisions are small, they are worth paying attention to, because the ripple effects can be quite big. (This is why we don't have cable--the time I could waste watching the Food Network alone boggles the mind!)

So, while it's important to be mindful of some of these smaller decisions, today I'm interested in the big ones. So, for example: Should I quit my job? Should I get married? Should I get married to her? Should I start my own company? Should I move to the West Coast?

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us are keenly aware at the impact these big decisions can have on our lives, and so we can become paralyzed by indecision, afraid to act at all for fear of making a huge mistake. For some, this may pass, and you will find that you are able to decide. For others, the decision simply gets put off: first for days, then months, then maybe even years slip by with no action taken. Inertia becomes the only thing propelling your life.

As you may have already guessed, this is not ideal. Any power you do have over your own life is going to waste.

So how to break free of this kind of paralysis? I have used very focused visualization in the past to great effect. Perhaps this will seem obvious to many of you, but I know that it seemed like a revelation to me at the time. I hope you find this technique helpful.

Here's what I do:
  1. Find a place you can lie down and be totally alone. This is likely to be your bedroom, but so long as you're lying down and no one is nearby, it will work.
  2. Lie down, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. You need to calm your mind, relax your muscles, let your breath rise and fall from your belly and not your shoulders. You need to get into a near-meditative state, really. This can take several minutes. Be patient.
  3. Once relaxed, with your eyes still closed, focus your mind on the decision. Put it in either-or terms. As in: I can either stay in Texas, or I can move to Arizona.
  4. Pick one, and begin to construct the movie of that decision in your mind. So you decide you will stay in a certain place, in a certain job, with the social network you have. What does that look like? What do you see next week looking like? Next year? Get down to the details. Who will you be seeing often? Which bars/restaurants/offices will you be spending time in? How does this make you feel? What do you like and dislike about this option? Again, imagine this to be as real and visual as possible.
  5. Pick the other decision, and create that movie. Once you feel like you have really explored both the images and the feelings of one option, switch to the other and do the same exercise over again. If, in this example, it's imagining something you aren't familiar with, recognize that. Imagine the moving van, and the drive into a place that's only sort of fuzzy. Imagine that you won't know who your friends will be, and so you'll have to talk to people on that getting-to-know-you level. Get down to all the practical ramifications of making that decision. Does that excite you, or fill you with dread?
  6. Pinpoint your emotions. Try to put into language the emotions you felt in each scene. Get up and create a list of words that apply to each visualization. Come up with as many that apply as possible.
  7. Analyze the emotions. There will likely be positive and negative emotions in each decision. But now you can figure out why you feel the way you do. For example, you may feel fear at both the prospect of staying and of leaving. But is that fear exactly the same? Is one the fear of missed opportunity, and the other the fear of loneliness and unfamiliarity? Which one scares you more? Which emotions excite you more?
  8. Meditate on what you've discovered. You likely won't have a "Eureka!" moment when you've finished this exercise, though it is possible. But having gone through the practice runs in your head, the identifying and analyzing of emotions will certainly give your subconscious something to chew on. When your mind explores a decision, you may feel a tightness in your throat, or a feeling of calm. Pay attention to that. Also pay attention to your dreams. Listen to all the signs of your body and mind in relation to each decision.
As I've said before, and I'll say again, trust your self. If you need to, repeat this exercise. But if you are able to be honest and open with yourself, you will soon find that you know what it is you need to do.

If you think of your life as a movie, be the director. Your movie should be directed by you, not by inertia. So start storyboarding--soon, you'll be ready to yell "Action!"

UPDATE: I've recently expanded on this topic in this post, titled "How to Live With a Big Decision." If you liked this one, I think you'll get a lot out of that one, too!

UPDATE 2: Another entry in the decision-making category for your perusal: "How to Make a Decision, Period." I hope you find it useful.

UPDATE 3: Another decision-related entry, this time on "The Consequences of Delaying a Big Decision."