Escape from Fear—Part One

As human spirits, I believe it is our birthright to live in a state of peace and joy.  So each morning the first thing I ask myself is, “Am I feeling peace and joy right now?  If not, why not?”  Next I proceed to search my mind and heart for some thought or feeling that might be blocking my sense of serenity and jubilation.  Often the impediment is linked to some element of fear.

Lately, I have become aware of how I, and the individuals I meet with in spiritual direction, are held hostage by fear.  Easily and quickly I can enumerate a list of fears and how they puncture my peace and steal my joy.  As I reflect on my many apprehensions as well as those I hear in the sacred stories of others, I wonder how we all might lead lives of greater inner freedom.  In “Escape from Fear-Part One,” I will name and describe some fears and in Part Two, discuss potential antidotes.  The fears I address here include the fear to follow my heart’s desires, fear of rejection, fear of success/failure, fears associated with a psychological syndrome called “time urgency perfectionism”  and fears about the body.   Clearly, many people suffer with serious anxiety often requiring medication and therapy.  However, in the next two blogs, my focus is on the common fears that permeate daily living.

Many years ago, I started my career journey.  I knew I needed to take a year off after college but I was afraid I might never return to graduate school.  So despite my trepidations, I entered a PhD program.  I wasn’t particular happy studying social psychology because I had always been drawn to counseling.  I yearned to help people with everyday problems like loss of a job, divorce, or death of a loved one.  But I persevered because I had enrolled at Harvard University and I was afraid to disappoint my family or appear as if I lacked the intelligence or determination to finish their doctoral program.  As I prepared to graduate, I considered pursuing post-doctoral studies in counseling.  Completion of a few requisite courses and some internship hours would have led me to my dream.  Yet I was afraid to turn down the outstanding job offers I’d obtained at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Duke University, and UC San Diego.  I continued to walk this journey allowing fear to act as my oppressor.  I  permitted concerns about money, reputation, and living up to the perceived expectations of others pin me down onto a path of unhappiness.  It wasn’t that I lacked courage but I wanted certain and calculated outcomes.  I wasn’t a risk taker. 

Recently, I awoke panicked wondering if I was doing enough to promote the release of my new book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom.  Last summer, I anguished for several days about asking a prominent person for an endorsement.  I feared he would say no or worse yet, read my book and tell me he couldn’t endorse it.  I was experiencing the fear of rejection.  I prayed and finally summoned the inner strength to email him.  He was delighted to write a lovely endorsement. Later I realized what a senseless fear this was. 

Last month I spoke with a woman I hadn’t seen in years.  When Amelia heard that I was publishing a book, she shared her desire to write one as well.  After a recent speaking engagement Amelia was approached by a book editor about a potential book project.  Yet she never followed up.  I was shocked.  Writers send thousands of query letters each day seeking a literary agent or an editor.  I wondered about this bright professional woman—was it fear of success or fear of failure that was kept Amelia from pursuing her aspiration particularly when an editor had expressed interest in her work?

I find that fear of success and fear of failure are different sides of the same coin—fear.  Fear is the way in which the ego inhibits intelligent and competent people from expressing their deepest passions.  Fear of failure is often linked to concerns about making mistakes, being embarrassed or not living up to the expectations of others as I mentioned earlier.  Fear of success is frequently related to an underlying sense of unworthiness.  Sometimes we don’t think we deserve success and happiness because somewhere someone usually a parent, relative, teacher or supervisor, suggested we lacked some essential attribute; a skill, intelligence, physical attractiveness or other characteristic.

A close cousin to fear of success and failure is time urgency perfectionism.  I notice this fear seeping into my days and controlling my life.  Most people are familiar with the notion of perfectionism but perhaps not paired with a time component.   In Faster, Better Sicker, researchers identified a personality type associated with Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress (TUPS).  They write, “These are people who always like things to be perfect and therefore attempt to achieve perfectionism within a defined time frame.”  Such people constantly watch the clock, worry about deadlines and completing tasks perfectly.  The lives of time urgent perfectionists become encased in fear—they agitate over errors and fear there is never enough time.  Yet living from an inner world dominated by fear, experiences of peace and joy elude one’s grasp.  

Occasionally I feel heart palpitations.  In the past, my thoughts would immediately begin to race and descend into a downward spiral. I would tremble about what might be wrong with my body.  I’d wondered—did I need to go to the ER, urgent care or set up an appointment with my cardiologist.  Similarly, I hear about family members, friends of family members, and others who develop preventable health conditions.  Typically, an unwillingness to seek medical attention and then follow the doctor’s instructions is partially to blame.  Some people dig in with denial.  “Oh that pain in my arm—it’s nothing.  I was lifting heavy boxes.”  I cried as I read in Becoming, about Michele Obama losing her precious father.  He was afraid to see what was beyond his swollen feet, and nodule in his neck.  Her dad kept working until it was too late after which there was no possibility for recovery.  I have heard this story far too many times as I reflect on the losses of loved ones in my own life.  Perhaps underlying all of the apprehensions about the body is the fear of death.

Which fears are holding you hostage in your life right now?  When is the last time you felt some deep peace and how long did it last?  And what about joy?  Does joy feel absent in your life, more like an infrequent visit from a long lost love rather than being central to your life?  In “Escape from Fear-Part Two,” I will discuss how we might break the chains of fear.  Meanwhile, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on which fears keep you from feeling the peace and joy in your heart.

Antonio Rodriquez, Edward Wolff, Many Wolff, Faster, Better, Sicker-Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress, available on Amazon as a Kindle download.

Healing Current Hurts

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom.  I know if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison”…Nelson Mandela

The doorbell rang and there stood Jill.  Her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail flailed in the gentle early spring breeze.  Missing were her brightly colored workout clothes replaced by a pair of faded jeans and a t-shirt.  Next I observed that her typically ruddy complexion lacked a certain radiance.  Jill did not look like her bubbly, positive, effervescent self.  A certain dimness shaded her eyes and her mood was considerably more subdued than normal.  I sensed that she was either sad or depressed.  I smiled, welcomed Jill into the foyer and gave her a tight hug. I asked if she wanted water or a cup of tea.  “Tea,” she replied.  An exercise fanatic and strong advocate of drinking eight glasses of water each day, tea was uncharacteristic for Jill.  I knew our meeting today would be different.  We would soon listen to her sacred story during our spiritual direction time.

I walked into the living room with a tray filled with our tea cups and saucers, honey, small pitcher of cream and a pot of brewing tea.  “I think the tea might need about 3 more minutes” I said as I set the tray on the coffee table filled with burning candles and an array of spiritual icons.   I always placed a wooden box with a sacred dove carved into it, lots of hearts and bowl filled with water on the table I set for spiritual companioning.  A vase of daffodils picked from the backyard completed the arrangement.

“Let us begin today with a very brief reading by Howard Thurman called, ‘I Let Go of My Accumulations’ from his book, Deep is the Hunger and then we will take a minute or two for some silence.”  I began most spiritual companioning meetings with a short reading and some silence to help both of us center ourselves in the present moment.

As Jill opened her eyes after a few minutes and began to speak,  I saw they were brimming with tears.  “So as you know I married Rob, a man with adult children and I didn’t think it would be this difficult.  I mean I haven’t ever treated his children with hostility or negativity, in fact I’ve tried to be a good stepmother.  Actually I could hardly be their stepmother.  After all, they were in college when we married.  Well, anyway let me get to the point.  So my stepson, Chase and his wife, Alicia, live in Arizona and they announced last year that they were going to adopt a child.  Rob was a little lukewarm about the idea initially but I persuaded him otherwise.  What a miracle to have a child and to love this wondrous, beautiful baby.  Then, Chase emailed me and asked if I would write a letter, kind of a recommendation, to the birth mother.  You know this adoption thing is so different now.  I mean with some adoption agencies, couples and birth mothers connect, they sort of match them and the adoptive parents can be present at the actual birth.  There wasn’t a lot of time and they really needed a letter so I just dropped everything and worked on it—for almost two days.  I don’t know Alicia at all and I find it a little strange that we haven’t had much contact but you know I didn’t want to say anything that might upset anyone.  These relationships in blended families, I don’t understand them.  I feel like there are layers of complexity and sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.”

I nodded and poured the tea in the cup.  “Would you like cream?”

Jill shook her head “no”  and continued.  “Anyway, little Conner was born in June and we were scheduled to fly out there in July but I caught some God awful cold and I didn’t want to give it to sweet baby Connor so Rob flew to Arizona without me.  I was a bit envious when I saw the pictures but we re-scheduled for August.  Then on the weekend we were to go, Alicia threw out her back or something and the trip was postponed.”

“I see.  So just for clarification, how old is Connor now?”

Jill burst into tears and I reached for the kleenex box I keep under the coffee table for such moments in spiritual direction.  She started sobbing.

“That’s the problem.  They were supposed to come for a visit next week but they canceled and there hasn’t seemed to be a “good time” (using her fingers to indicate the quotes) for me to see the baby.  Now we’re invited to his first birthday party next month!  Can you believe that?  I am supposed to be a grandmother and I haven’t held or kiss this sweet grandchild of mine—I’ve seen him on a few FaceTime calls.  How is it that in a year there was never a “good time” for a short visit?  What kind of priorities do these young people have?  And I am the one who wrote them the damn letter.”

I had never heard Jill curse so I knew she was pretty upset.  “You’re pretty angry, aren’t you, Jill?

“Yes I am!  I mean they rarely call and wish me a Happy Birthday even though my birthday follows Rob’s’ by three days.  They manage to call him.  They would be hurt if I missed their birthdays.  It’s like I feel so disrespected and used.  I really don’t get it because I’ve never done anything—I’ve always supported Rob’s children like for graduations, weddings, even made certain all of the college tuition was paid on time even though I didn’t have any biological children of my own.  I know that God would want me to be forgiving but I am having a hard time with this one.”

As Jill sipped her tea she continued to sobbed.  “This crap has been going on for about 15 years.  Like I said I’ve  have always been kind to Rob’s children and I swear at times, you would think I was the Wicked Witch of the East or the ugly Stepmother.  Actually I could care less if I saw any of them again, really.”

“And Jill, under that rage, it sound like you are hurt, too.  You know hurt typically resides beneath all of anger, rage and resentment, “ I said gently.

Moving closer to Jill who sat on the other side of the long red jacquard covered couch which sits in my living room, I grabbed her hands and held them as she cried.

“Let’s take a moment and pray.  Let’s be still and listen for what the Spirit has for us in the pain you’ve brought to share today.”  We sat in silence for about three minutes.

As I opened my eyes, I sensed Jill relax a bit.  Her lip had stopped quivering and her eyes brightened.

“Did you hear anything in the Silence? “ I asked.

“I think this stuff is about their mother.  They’ve had quite a bit of difficulty with her, some emotional issues or something from their childhood.  I think they have limited contact with her.  I guess I heard that I shouldn’t take this so personal.”

“Yes, being aware that their behavior may not be about you might help a lot especially if you have been a loving stepmother or spouse of their father.  Quite frequently people project things on to us that have nothing to do with us or the current incident.”

I paused a moment before proceeding.  “I heard that perhaps you have some healing to do around feeling excluded, slighted or disrespected.  Have you ever felt this way before?”

Jill pulled out her journal and started to take notes.  “I’ll have ponder that idea some.  I am certain I have.  I don’t know what their behavior is reminding me of.  I’ve always felt different, even as a little girl and well into college and beyond.  I am a deep thinker, intellectual, very spiritual and lots of people don’t like to engage in those types of conversations.  I know in college sometimes girls would exclude me from parties because I often sat around with the guys and talked about politics, current affairs or sports.  I didn’t join a sorority or participate in cliques.   I think I intimidate insecure people who then try to create situations to exclude or ridicule me.   I will journal about it some more later so I can get to the bottom of this.”  She started to smile for the first time today.

“And if you are seeing a therapist right now, that sense of sadness that was triggered by the incident with Chase and Alicia is a perfect topic to discuss with her as well.  My suspicion is that the hurt, the sadness that you brought with you today didn’t begin start with Chase and Alicia.  It may be something you’ve been carrying around in your heart for years and you may want to explore it in a deeper way.”

“Maybe so.  I am not seeing a therapist right now but I promise you if I start to feel more depressed, I will contact her.  I am just feeling kind of sad.”

“I know you mentioned that you like to paint.  Have you thought about painting about this incident or your sadness about it?  It might be great for you to utilize your hurt and anger in another way.”

“That is a great idea!  I need to get back to my brushes and canvas.”

“Also, I know it may be a little early for this but have you thought about cultivating a forgiveness practice?”

“Forgiveness practice?  What is that?” Jill inquired.

I learned about it through a book, Making Peace with Your Parents, I read many, many years ago written by a guy named, Harold Bloomfield.  I needed to forgive my father because at age 30 or so, I couldn’t stand to hear his voice on the phone. That’s a whole other story but I started this practice each morning and evening, by saying, “I forgive you, Dad” and each time he came to mind during the day, I would say the same thing,  “I forgive you, Dad.”  It took nearly three years but I finally got to a point where I could think of him and feel neutral or positive.  I learned a lot about him during those three years that helped me understand why he acted domineering and distant.  Once I felt a certain peace when I thought about him, I knew I was done.  Perhaps when you are ready, you can begin the practice with Chase and Alicia.  I think Spirit will be able to heal some things about you and them in the process.

Jill’s smile grew broader.  “Wow, I wasn’t anticipating talking it through like this, I mean I don’t quite know what I expected.  I do feel better already.  And maybe after some journaling I will try the forgiveness practice.”

“It is vital that you start where you are so if you have to say, ‘I forgive you, you damn Chase’ then that’s where you start.  It is important to acknowledge everything you are feeling—that includes the rage as well as the sadness.  Whatever words you choose, if in your heart you want to let go of the resentment and hurt, you’ll discover that it will happen.  It may take some time.  Eventually, you will be able to feel more peace and joy in your heart.”

Jill stood up and began to walk toward the door.  She turned to me and we hugged for a moment.  “Thank you and thank God for spiritual direction.  It is truly transforming my life.”

“You’re welcome, Jill.  I look forward to seeing you next month.  I’ll be praying for you.”  I waved as she walked down the brick stairs on the path past the rose garden toward the driveway and her car.

This fictionalized portrayal of a spiritual companioning meeting illustrates how it can facilitate the uncovering of Peace in one’s hearts.   As Nelson Mandela points out, if you carry around hatred and bitterness in your heart, you might as well be in prison.  Quickly new or current hurts can become smoldering resentments if they remain unacknowledged.  Is your heart imprisoned by some new hurt that is ripe for developing into a bitterness?  What do you need to do to relinquish it from your heart? How can you let your heart be free to feel the Peace that lies within?

Where the Journey Begins

“What are you doing to maintain a peaceful heart?”

I like to talk.  I especially like to tell stories.  There is a lot of talking in the world these days, and I believe an even more relentless desire to connect.  I suppose that’s what social media is all about.  Yet I still don’t think people truly feel connected even when they are tweeting and addicted to their Facebook pages all day.  I wonder about all of the mindless and heartless babbling (read that as hatin’ talk).  “What is the purpose”? “Why am I doing this?” are the questions I pose to myself more frequently these days.  These questions particularly pertain to my speech and my conversation.  As Miquel Ruiz ask in his book, The Four Agreements, is my speech impeccable?

So I decided to start blogging.  This is not the first time.  I tried blogging several years ago in an attempt to encourage my students to write more.  It seemed that they expressed a desire to become better writers (especially after they received feedback on their college papers from me). But when I asked them how often they wrote, it appeared that writing was a required pastime.  To encourage my students, I told them that if they blogged I would blog.  The issues that emerged from a course on Race and Ethnic Identity were ripe for commentary and I also promised extra credit.  None of us blogged for very long, quickly losing steam as the semester rolled along.  However, not surprisingly, the best final grades in the class went to those students who blogged until the end.

Now I have a topic that I am passionate about and perfect for a blog.  How does one acquire and maintain a peaceful heart?  Having a heart transplant eighteen years ago set me on a path to understanding that possessing a peaceful heart is the key to happiness.  Most people believe that happiness is linked to having things; a nice car, big house, large bank account, fame, “having the life” if you will.  If there is one thing I learned recovering from three heart surgeries (one of them the transplant) and a kidney transplant is that none of things I listed could prevent the suffering I experienced nor could they help much in my recovery.  Yet there are lessons to be learned and resources and people everywhere that helped me uncover the peace in my heart and the subsequent joy that emanates from it.  Peace and inner joy are inextricably linked and they both reside in the heart.

Thus, I will be blogging about what I’ve learned and continue to learn about this “secret.”  I wish I could say that I will blog every day but that is creating certain expectations and “stress” both of which are likely to disrupt the peace in my heart.  I vow  to blog as least once a week hoping to get that frequency up to 2-3 times a week.  My commitment and goal stems from an urging in my spiritual heart to help others find and maintain the peace in their hearts.  Let the journey continue.