Occupy: Yourself

“Lift your legs over your head into a handstand” instructed my yoga teacher from the front of the room.

I went to lift my legs as I had done hundreds of times and… they wouldn’t lift.

What had happened? Where was my strength? My flexibility?

A former gymnast who did backbends at the drop of a hat, I couldn’t understand how my body had let me down.

As I lay on the floor feeling flummoxed and, frankly, embarrassed, I realized it had been over 6 months since I’d done yoga. My life had gotten out of control. I’d gone from home to car to desk to home, non-stop. And all the while I’d been sitting at the computer navigating my life like a fighter pilot in training.

I hadn’t had a massage in months. I was eating crap, drinking too much and spending far too much time inside my own head. And on top of all that, I’d gained weight.

Somehow, without noticing, I had completely abandoned my body.

It was time to Occupy Myself.

I signed up for a Conscious Nutrition class and started drinking Kale green smoothies for breakfast and paying attention to where, what and how I ate.

I re-committed to walking the dog up the hill every morning, even if it was rainy and cold. Winter was no excuse. I started back to yoga, and got a massage.

And I began to notice all the places I was not in my body. That was scary.

Not in my body while driving. Not in my body while talking on the phone. Not in my body while busily hanging out on Facebook.

I was not there. No wonder things weren’t working like they used to.

I also had compassion for myself. Being here fully, showing up for ourselves and others is not always easy. There is stress to deal with, aging parents, managing the bills, making clients happy, the daily commute.

And we seem to be living in times of more chaos, more stress than ever before.

I notice my clients saying things like, “When life gets back to normal.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this is the new normal. And we are all going to have to learn to live our lives differently to accommodate it, rather than (as I had been doing) living the illusion that if I just work late one more night, work through one more lunch or give up one more weekend, I’ll get on top of my everything and be all caught up and then I can relax and we can go back to “normal.”

Not going to happen people.

So here is my Stand for the New Normal:

Chaos is a fact of life. Instead of running to catch up, find the places you can slow down. Connect with yourself and others. Listen to people. Go to bed early. Read a book. Take a bath. Close your eyes and sit still for ten minutes. Studies show that as little as ten minutes a day can have a huge impact. I found this little CD for ten-minute meditations

Nature has time management down. Learn from it. Walk among the trees, sit on a bench and notice the birds, lie on the grass, feel the earth’s rhythm. It’s a lot slower than our chaotic running about. Learn to entrain with that rhythm.

Go out and play BEFORE you finish your chores. I don’t know about you, but my childhood mantra was “Do your chores before you go out to play. Do your homework before you can watch TV.” Basically it was all about getting the work done. Have you noticed that when you grow up there’s always work to be done and chores to be tackled? They will never be finished and you will never play. Decide now to make playfulness and fun a priority. Go dancing, bang on a drum, play scrabble.

We all know this, we have heard this, but I will say it here again, to remind you and me: When we are lying on our deathbed we will not regret the things we didn’t get done. We will regret having been too busy to play Monopoly with our 9-year old niece and screaming at our husband that he forgot to take out the garbage and telling the dog, who was woefully looking at us, “just one more email and then I’ll take you for a walk.” I know you know what I’m talking about.

LIVE life. Don’t DO life. ‘Nuff said.

Now go Occupy Yourself.

I’m in a class where we’re exploring our story with money.

And rewriting it.

Quite an eye-opener.

Here are my earliest memories of money:

Dad spending all his time at school, working on his graduate degree.

My mom clipping Green Stamps at the kitchen table, pasting them in the little booklet to save money on groceries.

Mom selling Tupperware at our house to the women from the neighborhood.

Mom mixing in Carnation Instant Milk with the regular to stretch it.

Eating Spam for dinner. (I still like it! Crazy, I know).

Mom sewing our clothes for three girls. Hand-me down clothes from my cousin Kathleen in Florida.

Here was my revolution:

In the 7th grade I HAD to have that pair of pastel plaid elephant- leg hip-huggers AND the red and black plaid wool coat with the fake fur trim around the hood.

Those were not on sale at Kmart. They were at Lerner’s. It was time to up my game.

To get what I wanted I needed M-O-N-E-Y.

So I took whatever jobs I could – spending hours scraping off dried food from the neighbor’s dishes (a single mom in med school) and cleaning her house.

Babysitting for my parent’s friends.

Selling parking spaces on my friends front lawn to the out-of-towners coming to the University football games.

And the list goes on from there.

Here’s what I learned: Money = Freedom.

I could buy what I wanted, when I wanted, where I wanted.

The catch? I’ve been working hard ever since. Really, really hard.

(Well, except the year I took off to South America with a backpack, but that’s another story).

What I didn’t realize is working for your freedom is a cruel and heartless joke, like that sign over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp that says “Arbeit macht frei” translation: Work Will Set You Free.

This system I adopted to set me free has become my prison.

Over 4th of July weekend this summer I read the 4-Hour Workweek. Cover to cover. I was mesmerized, spellbound. It was like someone had found the secret code for true liberation. Sentences like “de-couple time and money” “take a mini retirement now instead of waiting until you’re too old or too tired or too sick to enjoy your actual retirement” and “you can work from anywhere in the world with an internet connection and a cell phone” called off the page to my weary soul with promises of a brighter, freer, stress-free future.

Since then I’ve been like one of those men imprisoned at Alcatraz who felt it was in some ways worse than any other prison because it was so painfully obvious how close and yet far away they were from freedom.

I hear the laughter wafting off the boats in the Bay at sunset, the champagne glasses clinking in the starlight, and see the twinkling bright lights of the San Francisco skyline. I’m no closer to freedom, just more acutely aware of how far away it is.

Until now. Today I’m re-writing my money story.

Today I am trusting that the universe will support me to follow my dreams.

That money comes abundantly and unexpectedly, especially when I’m not paying attention and simply doing what I love with all my heart.

That by doing what I love I will be paid my worth and I can then be uber-generous with those around me in need.

And that yes, when I love my work, it will set me free.

What’s your money story?
Does it hold you back? Go rewrite it. Now.

(PS Here’s the class I’m in)

What I’ve noticed in this series of Do What Scares You is the sneakiness of my fear. Just when I think, “I’m bold, I’m courageous, I take risks – nothing can stop me!” Something comes along and pokes at me and says, “Yeah, but what about this scary place right here?” Ouch.

This week a couple of very wise women pointed out where I was holding back, playing small, not stepping up to the plate. I see how I’m afraid to be “too much” stand out, be seen. As a girl I always felt my energy was a little too big for those around me, that I was too enthusiastic and overwhelming for people. I learned to tone it down, keep a lid on it.

Well, it’s time to take the lid off. That feels scary! As I contemplated what it would look like to do what scares me, what it would require of me, I came across this.

Watch it. Then come back and tell me why you can’t do what you came here to do. Why the cards are stacked against you and why you don’t have enough time or money or support to be who you’re truly meant to me. Watch it and report back! (Trust me it’s worth the less than 5 minutes of your life!)

One thing I know about fear is that when I let it stop me, it has a lasting impact. I remember the times I let fear hold me back. They are the fuel that propels me.

Like when I was in the 12th grade and Mrs. B., my high school art teacher, felt she had taught me all she could about painting and figure drawing. She was passionate about supporting my creativity and suggested I sign up for a class at Syracuse University to learn how to draw live models. On the first day of class there was a model sitting in the middle of a circle. We sat around her holding our wooden easels covered with heavy sheets of blank white paper, sticks of charcoal in our ready hands. There was no teacher. No instructions. I froze. I had no idea where to start.

I turned to the young woman sitting next to me, “What do I do?” I asked. She pulled her board away from me and hissed, “Do your own work!” I was stunned. I don’t even remember what happened next. I’m pretty sure that was my last figure drawing class. When I graduated high school later that year I majored in psychology. I stopped drawing. Every time I think of that story and how afraid I was to do it wrong, to make a mistake, I feel such regret. This is my pledge to myself: to never again let the fear of not being good enough stop me from doing what I love.

Three Rules for doing what scares you:

1. It has to be scary to YOU. It doesn’t matter if no one else on the planet thinks it’s scary. For it to be your life-changing experience, you need to feel that butterfly-in-your-stomach feeling, that hesitation before leaping. Because once you make that leap, it’s incredibly freeing – I did something I was scared of, I pushed my edges, I faced fear head on and did it anyway. And, oh yeah, I didn’t die!

2. Once you commit to jump off the cliff, you need to jump! No hedging. Embrace the experience fully. You can’t embark on this scary thing and drag your feet the whole time, whining. Either you do it or you don’t. I was feeling anxious packing for the my trip into the Australian Outback to work with an Aboriginal Healer. I was almost in a panic before going to San Quentin prison. I was physically nauseous driving to the woods for a solo three-day vision quest. But once I arrived at my destination, I fully embraced the experience. I took all the setbacks in stride, I didn’t use them as an opportunity to say “See, I knew this was a bad idea, I should never have even done this in the first place!” Every setback on the journey is part of the learning experience.

3. Be willing to be imperfect. Doing what scares you doesn’t mean doing it perfectly right out of the gate. It means experimenting, being willing to be a beginner and make mistakes and actually learn something. It means being more committed to your own growth than feeling comfortable. And it takes lots of practice. The other day my niece showed me her violin and I said, “Ugh, I failed violin.” “Shut up,” she said. (She’s 9). “You just didn’t try hard enough.” She’s right. When I was learning violin, I just wanted to play and sound amazing. When I studied piano I didn’t want to practice scales, I wanted to play Jazz riffs. When I took gymnastics I wanted to be Nadia Comaneci. I didn’t want to have to spend years learning how to do these things. But that’s what it takes to be good – practicing, experimenting, trying things out, and being really bad before you can be good.

What fears are holding you back? Where do you let your fear of not being good enough stop you from starting?

One thing I’ve learned is that in order to stretch myself out of my comfort zone and grow, I need to regularly and consistently do things that scare the crap out of me. Just last week I posted a blog about my experience visiting 22 convicted murderers in San Quentin prison. That was scary, and an incredibly moving experience.

This summer I went camping in the Australian Outback to learn from an Aboriginal healer. Packing for the trip I kept wondering, why am I doing this? Why am I traveling half way around the world with a sleeping bag shoved in my suitcase to camp in the middle of nowhere with what could be a crazed man? My husband reminded me that there are over 26 deadly critters in the outback. “You better not die out there,” he said. And yet, he supported me to go, because he knows that when I follow my heart it’s for an important reason. And it was an incredible trip.

Experiences like these are my rites of passage, initiations into a greater sense of self. Indigenous cultures around the world have teachers and healers who regularly lead people through such journeys in order to help them evolve on their path.

Several years ago I did a Vision Quest. I was terrified of spending three days alone in the woods. I was fearful I’d be attacked by a mountain lion, but mostly I was afraid of having to be by myself for three days. An extrovert, I thought the silence would kill me. But I learned that the forest is all but silent, and that I like being by myself.

The actual activity is not as important as doing what scares me. I know that if I’m afraid of doing something, it’s an indicator. The fear I feel is different than the fear of walking down a dark alley. I’m not talking about doing stupid things. I’m talking about the things that you know you want to do, or maybe have always wanted to do, but are afraid. For example, this month I took on the challenge of finally committing to paper the book I’ve been writing in my head for years, starting with 50,000 words in November.

Every time I sit in front of the computer to write, I feel the fear in my gut. In that moment it’s like I’m jumping off a cliff, taking a risk – but the risk is with my ego. Am I being too vulnerable? What if people don’t like it? What if they judge me? Do I really have anything new to say?

The ego wants us to have all the answers, have it all figured out, do it perfectly and get the good grade. By thumbing our noses at our ego we lessen its power over us. Stepping into the unknown and learning that I can live to see the next day is incredibly liberating. And remember, doing the scary thing is not comfortable. If it were comfortable, it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Now go do something scary, and then come back and tell us how it went!

My Time in San Quentin

I stood in front of my closet trying to decide what to wear. I was supposed to be at the prison in a half hour, and if I didn’t get dressed soon, I’d be late. Flashbacks of movies like Shawshank Redemption ran through my head as I flipped through the hangers for the third time. What does one wear to prison? I finally decided on a black top that was not too tight or low cut, plain black khakis and black shoes. I pulled my hair back in a severe bun, no jewelry, no makeup. “You look like an undertaker,” my husband said as he kissed me goodbye. “Just the effect I was going for!” I laughed as I walked out the door.

I live close to San Quentin and drive by it regularly, but somehow I missed the turnoff. I finally found the entrance and parked my car. When I got out of the car I dropped my keys, as I picked them up, I dropped my phone. I was shaking. I looked for Rochelle where we’d agreed to meet, half hoping she wouldn’t be there.

“You must be Laura,” said Rochelle Edwards, as she pushed back a lock of brown hair from her face. She looked relaxed and comfortable in a breezy white cotton blouse and a calf-length linen skirt. Now that would have been nice, I thought, admiring her outfit, as I stood there sweltering in the hot sun in my Johnny Cash -plays-Folsom-Prison getup.

Noticing my tension, she gently took my arm, “I’ve been coming to this prison for years,” she said. “I know it can be scary the first time.” She led me through the main gate, chatting comfortably with the guards, explaining her Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) to help prisoners emotionally connect with the consequences of their actions. “Our goal is to create healing and forgiveness on both sides of a crime.”

The heavy metal door swung shut with a loud clang behind us as a uniformed guard in a bulletproof vest waved us through. I took a deep breath as I stepped into the bustling courtyard, officially entering San Quentin prison, home to some of the most violent offenders on the planet.

The prison itself is hot and crowded, an imposing three-story structure with cells stacked on top of each other. Originally built for 3,000 men, it holds over 5,000. Two men are housed in a cell built for one. San Quentin’s death row has been described as the largest in the Western Hemisphere. At one point as we were walking the yard, an alarm went off, blaring from the loudspeakers all around us. Every prisoner had to squat to the ground, holding still until an announcement released them. “Before, they had to lie face down on the ground,” said Rochelle. “This,” she added, indicating the men around us, “is a little more dignified.”

I’ve always had a fear of prison. When I go through customs I worry I’ll be arrested for bringing something into the country that I didn’t even know I had. Maybe it’s my Catholic school upbringing… never knowing when a wooden ruler would come flying through the air, landing on the back of your hand for some infraction you hadn’t realized you’d committed.

Rochelle guided me into a chapel on one side of the courtyard where 22 prisoners in their denim blue outfits gathered chairs in a circle for the meeting. I smiled nervously at the men as Rochelle introduced me. She shook their hands, hugged them, asking about their children, their families and recent parole hearings. She clearly had a strong bond with each of these men who were white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American.

The men looked at me expectantly.

“Thank you for including me in your group,” I said, sitting down in a plastic chair, shoving my hands under my legs. “I have to admit, I’m nervous to be here. I’ve never been in a prison before.”

A young-looking Asian man sitting across from me gave a knowing nod. “That’s exactly how I felt when I first came here 20 years ago. I was 19 and real nervous. But you get used to it.”

My heart stopped. Here I’d been worrying about spending 3 hours in San Quentin while most of these men had been there for over 20 years with little chance of leaving any time soon. My tension began to subside as they went around the circle and introduced themselves. The first man told me “I’ve been sentenced for 25 years to life for murder.” He named his victim and said, “I know what I did was wrong. I wish I could undo what happened that day, but I can’t, I’m paying for it by being in prison, but no amount of time in here can erase what I’ve done.”

Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to their stories. They were raw, honest, vulnerable, and most of all, remorseful for what they had done and the pain they had caused to the families they had hurt. Most of these men had committed murder while on drugs or alcohol or in a passionate rage and they could not turn back the clock.

It made me think how many times I’d lashed out in anger at someone with a desire to hurt or get revenge, wanting to see them suffer for the suffering I felt they were inflicting on me. When the men were done sharing, I realized I was no longer afraid. I connected with each of them on a human level beyond their prison blues and murder convictions to see who they really were in their hearts. And, as I usually find when I drop my judgments and preconceived ideas of others, they were not dissimilar to me. It seems odd to say it now, but my visit to San Quentin prison was truly a transformational experience.