A clothespin clasped to a friend with words of encouragement, handwritten notes, and painted rocks... last week, students at Eastern Mennonite University beat the winter doldrums by spreading words of appreciation, gratitude and encouragement with these simple tools. Today as I walked across campus, the rocks' simple messages got me out of my hectic brain and made me focus on this moment.
Thank you to artists for slowing me down and being in the moment. It's really all we have. Moments, one after the other. Fixating on what happened yesterday or a decade ago and obsessing about what will happen tomorrow or next year occupies too much of our brain space. In The Joy Diet, 10 Daily Practices to a Happier Life, Martha Beck, PhD, provides a recipe to achieve the immediate gift of joyful living in the here and now.
Coach training was transformative for me in this simple way. I learned that when my brain swirls with thoughts of "what if" or "if only," I run on a vicious hamster wheel to nowhere. When I stop and tell myself, "Hey, I am okay right now, in this moment," my anxiety plummets... at least for the moment.
Let me not imply I have mastered this or rid myself of anxiety. This remembering that I am okay this moment is a discipline. As human beings, we get dozens of opportunities throughout the day to practice. We are bombarded with messages that send our brain into lizard mode -- fight or flight; scarcity is coming; we don't have enough; we're doing this all wrong.
Those messages aren't true and don't help us. One turtle step you can take toward managing anxiety is simply being aware when your thoughts are focused on the past or the future... call yourself home to this moment. Notice the painted rocks and other messages along your path that bring contentment and awareness that you are okay, right now.
And while you're at it, listen to any nudge you feel to share a note or message or hug or words of appreciation with a friend to let them know they too are okay, in this moment.
Whether it's rearranging furniture or dreaming of a move to South Africa, my energy pumps when I think about change. Some people I know (even live with) are wired precisely the opposite: They avoid change. An affinity toward change is neither right nor wrong; it just is.
But like it or not, we all go through changes -- mammoth and mini -- throughout life. I learned about a helpful framework for understanding the change process in life coach training. Martha Beck's change cycle model uses four quadrants and a butterfly metaphor.
Square One is the chrysalis, a time of melting down. In fact, rip open a chrysalis and you will find goo. Sometimes we feel like goo on the inside during a change, even if it's a healthy, longed-for, anticipated change. A mantra for Square One: I don't know what is going on... and that's okay.
In Square Two, we begin to dream and scheme without the limitations of practical boundaries. What is my ideal day? What would I do if money weren't an issue? What do I do that I completely lose track of time? Could I do that instead of my day job? As people move deeper into Square Two and ideas begin to take shape, they often change their hairstyle, redecorate or find a new clothing style. It's a healthy exciting time. Beck's Square Two mantra is: There are no rules, and that's okay.
Square Three is implementation time. It's the real world and both exciting and terrifying. In fact, it can throw us easily back into square one. The butterfly is emerging; if you've ever witnessed a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, you'll see the process; if a human interferes and tries to help, it will kill the butterfly. It's a process that has to happen at its own pace. Similarly, chicks hatching from eggs have the same work to wrestle out of their cozy cocoon . Square Three's mantra? This is harder than I thought it would be, and that's okay.
In Square Four we are in full flight as a glorious butterfly. We soar. We inevitably encounter challenges and roadblocks. The square's mantra? We recognize that we are in constant change, and that's okay.
My personal square
Right now -- post job of 12 years with a clear identity and focus, and learning about being a "solopreneur," gaining confidence as a coach, doing my own work daily -- I am firmly in Square Three... and Square One. It's a bit of a whiplash experience. And that's okay.
Part of doing my own work or "living it to give it" as we learned in coach training, is daily reflection and meditation, figuring out "turtle steps" to take each day toward my goals, paying attention to my inner racing thoughts and being aware of how those thoughts -- and my lizard Rico -- can cause unnecessary suffering.
Jan L. Richardson, artist, writer and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote about change in her book, In the Sanctuary of Women, which I have found particularly helpful as I flop between squares one and three in my change process. Quoting Kim Chernin in her book Reinventing Eve, she says change is like this:
"It circles around, snakes back on itself, finds detours, leads us a merry chase, starts us out it seems all over again from where we were in the first place. And then suddenly, when we least expect it, something opens a door, discovers a threshold, shoves us across."
Richardson closes her chapter with this blessing which I embrace for today and offer you...
Editor's note: Two days after this original post I changed my lizard's name from Coco to Rico, this being the namer's prerogative. Rico was the name I wanted to use all along (which will become apparent in his story). I wanted a female lizard and Rico didn't work. So I am at peace with a "he" lizard as I decided to listen to my inner voice and go with the name that first came to me. More on listening to that inner voice in future posts.
Meet Rico. He’s my inner lizard.
I discovered found him slinking among the ruins in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, last summer.
Actually, Rico has been with me all along… I mean ALL along. It’s only recently that I named him and captured an image to help me visualize, talk to and calm him.
Rico is my amygdala, that part of my reptilian brain which makes me focus on “lack or attack,” according to Martha Beck, PhD. On one hand, Beck notes, our reptilian brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: We don't have enough love, time, money, everything. On the other hand, she says, our reptilian brain is also sure that something terrible is about to happen. It’s why so many people are stressed out, burnt out, anxious, depressed and, well, miserable.
Our lizard brains were beautifully created to keep us safe. In STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) training at Eastern Mennonite University, I learned how it kicks us into fight or flight mode. Long ago, the extra zing of adrenaline it provided to help us run from, say, tigers, was a good thing.
However today, this same system is triggered by all kinds of non-life threatening stimuli like traffic jams, rushing from one activity to another, a zillion emails we can’t answer, the bing of a text coming in. We don’t have the physical release of running off the stimuli and the rest that should come after the surge to regroup. Instead, we hunker down in office cubicles, behind the wheel, in front of a screen... I like this video depiction of how fight or flight can play out in modern day life.
During life coach training through the Martha Beck Institute over the past year, I got quite familiar with my inner lizard. Our mentors encouraged us to name them and draw, capture or find an image of them. Thus, Rico was born.
Now, when my thoughts spin, heart races, fear creeps, I take a deep breath and say, “Well, hello Rico. Thank you for visiting. I know you mean well. But I don’t need all you are offering right now. Take a chill pill.”
This simple act of becoming aware of your inner lizard -- of what is happening to you physically and physiologically when he or she jumps to attention -- is a first step in easing unhealthy anxiety and stress.
Rico has been especially active in recent weeks since I left full-time meaningful employment and decided to launch my own life coaching business. Thanks to the many tools I learned during my life coach training -- and the network of coaching friends who I can contact for a coaching session when needed -- I’ve been staying on good terms with Rico.
I look forward to sharing tips, tools and reflections on thought work in future posts as my understanding and my business grow.
For now, consider getting acquainted with your inner lizard. Let me know if you name him or her and how you’re doing together.
A 50-something life coach living in the Shenandoah Valley. Grateful. Growing. Giving... and receiving.