This morning in meditation I got to that point where there are “no thoughts.” As soon as that hits I usually think no thoughts and back to thoughts. Nothing. Then Buddha appears in my mind. Wow, I’m thinking, this is some next-level spiritual meditation shit. This is new for my meditation but okay let’s roll with it.
I asked him “What are you doing here.”
The Buddha responded, “I don’t know.”
Then he sits on my chest.
Immediately it tightens and becomes hard to breathe. Something I’ve never experienced in meditation.
I joke and say, “Buddha, your rolls are beautiful but you know you aren’t light. I’m having trouble breathing. It hurts if I’m honest. Can you tell me why you are sitting on my chest?”
Buddha responded, “I don’t know.”
“Okay, well if you are going to sit here, do you have any idea when you might leave?”
Buddha responded, “I don’t know.”
“Well, Buddha since you aren’t leaving. I’m calling you Buddha Don’t Know.”
I looked up and saw his stupid grin.
“Lesson learned. Well played Buddha, well played.”
I laughed for a bit but the Buddha didn’t leave.
The heaviest space of all is the “I don’t know.” The space of not knowing how things will play out has a weight. Sometimes the scariest place feels like the pause button. When we reevaluate things with questions of “is this working?” or “is this worth it?”
This is the space in life, work, relationships, and health when nothing makes sense. When the final destination seems murky at best, things tighten and breathing becomes labored.
Right now we are sitting with I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like Buddha wants to get off my chest or anyone else’s. Even the leaders of the world don’t exactly know how this will play out. This “I don’t know” is weighing on every leader, business person and every health care worker right now.
I don’t know when this feeling will go away but I do know you are not alone in feeling this way.
Maybe that’s what anxiety is, the space of Buddha Don’t Know 😉
Can you relate?
Mike Allebach is a business owner and portrait artist at Allebach Photography in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My anxiety and panic attacks began when I was in college. I don’t know if it was from the pressure of my schoolwork, of graduating without a job, or what, but I began to find it difficult to drive or leave any type of “safe space” without hyperventilating. I spent years gathering up information, trying to understand what was happening to me. Self-help books and online forums became my lifelines and over the years I’ve gradually learned to work through this disorder using mindfulness and a slew of cute little acronyms.
This is why when I began reading Tara Brach’s Radical Compassion, Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of Rain I came in with the belief that I would be looking at it through the lens of my anxiety and panic disorder.
Radical Compassion is about using mindfulness tools to teach yourself self-compassion and kindness. She does this by introducing us to the acronym RAIN.
“Simply put, RAIN awakens the mindfulness and compassion, applies them to the places where we are stuck, and untangles emotional suffering,” the author writes.
Its goal is to cut through the dense fog of our everyday lives, the trance that we find ourselves in when we begin to worry incessantly. When we’re caught in the thick of daily life, when we’re stressed, anxious, angry, terrified or numb, we can’t be present with ourselves and the world around us. RAIN is a way to cut out all of that, to dispel self-doubt so we can live our best lives.
I immediately thought this was going to be a repeat of so many things I’ve read before. And while, in a way it echoed a lot of what I know about allowing and accepting your own fears and anxieties, what’s unique about her approach is its focus on self-love, not on the fear or anxiety itself. The author wants us to move beyond that so that we can back to living in the present. We do this by acknowledging our fears, allowing them to be there and being ok with that and then by showing ourselves compassion for the way these fears make us feel so that we can move beyond it.
The first step of RAIN is simply to Recognize ( R ) what is going on inside of you. I took a look inward and asked myself what I’ve been struggling with, or overwhelmed by recently. Since having my son last year, actually it’s probably since I got pregnant, I’ve been having this sort of identity crisis over who I am. Not about who I am now that I am a parent, but who I am now that I’ve put the brakes on a career and decided to put raising my son first. As I recognize that I notice the emotions that come up: feelings of inadequacy, laziness, selfishness, restlessness, anxiousness, the list goes on.
The second step is to Allow (A) what is happening by breathing and letting be. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to just be, breathing in deeply all of the things I love about being a mom and letting myself sit with the uncomfortable parts too. I just let it all float there and tried not to push any of it away. The author tells us it’s important to sit with our discomfort.
“We inevitably encounter everything we’ve been avoiding – the loneliness, hurts and fears. And yet if we practice regularly, we discover that we can maintain a balanced, openhearted presence in the midst of the storm.”
Next is to Investigate (I) what feels the most difficult. For me, this step initially seemed like a repeat of Recognize but the author asks yourself to go beyond just naming the emotions you’re experiencing, she asks you to identify what hurts the most about them, what ultimately scares you the most. I’m scared that I’m not doing what society says I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to have the career and the family, to do it all. I’m afraid that this is me settling because anxiety and panic stopped me from pursuing the career I thought I wanted, the one that required traveling. I’m scared of what I’m missing because of the choices I’ve already made.
Lastly, the N stands for Nurturing. This is the part where you send a gentle message inward, directly to your anxious part. The author says it helps if you imagine envisioning your future self as a wise and nurturing presence. I could see myself very clearly, in about 10-15 years, standing in my kitchen, surrounded by my children. I’m happy. I’m in my own domain. I’m taking them to soccer practice, making their lunches, planning summer break trips. It all sounds so boringly suburban but I am unbelievably happy. I’m saying to myself, “it’s ok, every decision has lead you right where you were supposed to be.” My future self is confident, there’s nothing she would have done differently. She is an anchor.
The author teaches us several more techniques, guided meditations and reflections, in addition to sharing some personal stories from her students. Overall I felt like I really connected to the text. If I had read this book several years ago, it would have struck me differently and I think that’s what I love about self-help books. One day, I’ll be able to reread this and it will help me deal with something else I’m dealing with.
RAIN allowed me to get out of my own head, to confront some of my biggest anxieties, acknowledge them and then dispel them so that I can continue living in the present. It helped quiet that ever-doubting inner dialogue in my head that tries to cover “the gold” underneath my negative self-beliefs.
Christine Wolkin is a freelance writer and writes for our blog. Learn more about our studio at Allebachphotography.com or by texting 610.539.6920.
Success is the sum of small efforts – repeated day in and day out. – Robert Collier
I remember feeling stuck last summer thinking how the bad hits kept on coming. Stuck in a deep state of depression, the future looked darker and darker (read my story here). Not one to believe in bad luck, I started to wonder if I was cursed. In this place, I realized there are small things that do make a big difference. There are teeny tiny micro-movements that help make things better when things don’t seem like they can get better.
Forming habits didn’t come easy for me at first because I wanted to go all in. I wanted to feel like I arrived. These ideas I want to share with you come from a place of struggle, distraction and some victories.
Can today be better than yesterday? With the foggy confusing shades of depression glasses and most people would honestly answer “probably not.” If you are an entrepreneur or human, in general, being resilient can positively affect your income and result. So what happens when your get up and go has gone up and went? How can you find your motivation? How can you get shit done?
Let’s explore the smallest things that can make a difference.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
Win the Morning Win the Day
Habits and routines got me through pieces of my darkest times. My artist brain, as I affectional call it, actively fights habit and routine. It searches for the new and the novel. But in crisis, in depression, in darkness but I have found consistent habits have healing power. The time you wake up isn’t as important as having a plan. Do you scroll and stall or have purpose and direction? I’ve been a morning person and I’ve been a night person.
I enjoy working on my day plan in the morning. If mornings are tough, write out your plan the day before. Whether you are early bird or night owl, your first few waking hours set the tone for the day. To set the tone, I work on my daily plan and meditation. Many people hit the most difficult task of the day first. I just try to meditate and plan first.
The least useful thing was the depressed zombie social media scroll of boredom. It’s such a default mode. It didn’t do me any favors. Comparison is the thief of joy and that’s what social media seems to be great at pointing out. It’s hard to have gratitude when you look at everyone’s highlight reel on social media and compare it to what’s currently missing in your life.
What’s Actually Important Right Now?
In my brain there are exactly 72 monkeys jumping on the bed of new ideas, making lame dad jokes, dreaming of new tasks, connecting ideas, eating anxiety pie and throwing poo. It’s chaos in there. So many distractions. Squirrel! I have a hard time sitting through a movie, I get bored. Who gets bored with most movies? I digress.
This is why I meditate and this is why I walk in nature, this is why I move my body. These three things settle me. Creativity is great but there are times when I want to settle and get the work done.
My home screen phone wallpaper asks the always timely question: “Where should my attention be right now?” as a reminder.
Pick 1 to 3 important tasks for the day. Write them in your planner. Get them done and reward yourself!
Unless you already have an app that is working for you, I recommend a paper planner. My favorite is the Passion Planner (used 3 years) but any will do including a plain notebook. Physical writing has a therapeutic aspect to it. It’s real. The planner you choose doesn’t matter as much as using it daily. Everything is overwhelming until you write it out in list form. Write and release. Cross out the unimportant tasks. If you are like me you vastly overestimate how much you can get done in a day. You can’t do everything but you can do some things. So plan out your success. My coach Megan suggested I also plan in two-hour blocks of nothingness because I can’t estimate how long tasks take. Literally today I will only have finished two out of three of my main goals. Two out of three big tasks are better than zero out of three. Maybe you can relate.
Letting Go, Setting Boundaries and Saying No
To create good changes, make some space. Pick some easy people, places and things to let go of. This might be a temporary movement, just long enough to start to feel like you again. Spend less time around people who drain your will to live. Create some boundaries. Get creative with people you currently have to work or live with.
Not to Do List
More important than your to-do list is your NOT to-do list. Make a list of things that pull you away from your goals and goodness. Think of things you can avoid without much consequence. What activity can you remove that will free up the most time to work on the important task? Delete apps. Install time blockers like Waste No-Time, use time trackers like Timeular and Forest App. I use all of these tools. And for the love of all that is holy turn off your email notifications and as many social media app notifications as possible.
What are you doing following people on social media who you allow to make you feel inferior? Unfollow people, block companies and anything that makes you feel less than. Don’t even bother psychoanalyzing why. Just hit that unfollow button. Fall in love with and get slutty with that unfollow button. Click unfollow now, figure it out later.
How to Set New Micro Habits
Small incremental changes are what we are after. After reading too many books on building habits, I have come to believe this: People don’t stick to habits because they are too ambitious in the first 30 days. Give yourself a small task with big rewards. We think massive results require massive change. They don’t. It’s about doing small things daily or weekly until they become a part of your identity.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
— William Durant
Personally, I hate running but I feel good with movement. I started playing with the identity of a runner who hates running. Identities are like dress up for adults. Habits create identities over time. When we identify with a community, we become them. We can change and try on many identities. We can let go of past identities, no need to get stuck in past stories.
Micro Habits Are Easy When You Lower the Bar and Raise the Reward
I’ve tried so many tactics to set a new habit and this is what works. Lower the bar and use the mantra of app programmers “Minimum Viable Product.” Do something for 30 days at the bare minimum.
The way I got comfortable with video, started running (I’m at 30 days at 7 miles a week), meditating, breathing, running and every other good habit happened by striving for 30 days.
It’s much better to do something 5 minutes a day for 30 days than crash by day 3 from going too hard. Change your habit after 30 days but not before. My gratitude habit takes 1 minute a day. Presently, an app on my phone alerts me to write what I’m grateful for. I write one word or a sentence. That’s it. I’m consistent. I can always find a minute.
Rewards are important, whether you decide to plan a trip or give yourself a tiny piece of chocolate, treat yoself. Many of my photography clients tell me their photo session is their reward. Put a big reward after tasks that are a bit more difficult. I’ve heard about a salesperson who breaks apart a cookie and gives themselves a crumb after every dial. Do whatcha gotta do!
If you started a habit and after a week are having trouble with completing a task don’t be afraid to cut the length of time or effort in half. It’s better to do that than stop.
Download our free simple 30 Day Habit Tracking Form
“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
After 30 days, it’s up to you. I’ve found It’s much easier keeping a habit when you’ve got those 30 days in.
Change Your Environment Make sure your physical and mental space supports the changes you are making. Physically bring items closer to you to make your goals easier. Move away from distractions. The more you can make your environment support your goals and create systems to support them, the more successful you’ll be.
Use the Buddy System
“Surround yourself with people who remind you more of your future than your past.
Digital and human accountability is great for keeping healthy habits. Check-in with someone daily, weekly or monthly to motivate you to keep going. Accountability apps, daily reports or notifications from apps that help keep goals have been great. It’s fun to watch your progress. I use the Samsung app on my phone to track my movement progress. My slow ass started running at around a 12-minute mile on the treadmill and after a month of running a mile was down to 9:19 (not impressive for runners, but I impressed myself).
Don’t have the right friend for your habit? Get a coach or trainer. I use coaching for many aspects of my life or business. Pay upfront if you can. Spent money is a great motivator. My book wouldn’t have gotten written without a coach helping me along the way.
“Human beings evolved needing two key types of environments: high stress and high recovery”
Benjamin Hardy, Willpower Doesn’t Work
Rest, Sleep, Enjoy Life & Repeat Life is more than a to-do list. Decide on quitting time. Enjoy life. Get some sleep. People who “work” all the time aren’t very good at working. They have become really good at appearing to work or procrastination. Work less, enjoy more! The rule of 55 states on average you can only get done 55 hours of work a week. After that, you are just bullshitting yourself. At 60 hours, you might complete the same amount of work of a 50 hour a week person. For me, this meant taking Sundays off and not keeping a computer at home. I try to enjoy the outdoors every Sunday possible. I’m getting better at this but many days it’s still a struggle. Two steps forward and one step back is still progress.
My hope for you is a life of purpose and joy. Make it harder to skip your habits than to keep them. Keep your movements micro until the patterns stick. Use friends, coaches, and technology to keep you on task and enjoy the journey along the way.
“I just want to feel like me again.” She said in soft slow tones explaining why she wanted to be photographed, “Last year was a hell of a year and to be honest I got really lost. I want to feel at home in my body. I’m getting older and my body is changing. I want to love myself again because I’ve lost my way. I don’t remember who I am. Life has gotten so busy and I have to handle so much to do, so many people to take care of. I’ve forgotten who I truly am. I don’t know what it means to be me, I want to remember that.”
This is what my clients share with me Every. Single. Day. It’s so common, I’ve come to understand it as the new American anthem. People have lost their identity. They say, “Help me find me. Help me love my skin, organs, muscles, and bones. My body is changing. I’m getting older and if I can’t love myself now, when can I?” Or they say, “I want to look back on this body and appreciate it.”
Some days I hear the opposite. “For so long I’ve hated this body and now we’ve come to speaking terms. I’ve worked hard to get here I want you to document me. I am ready to be photographed”
Most people would agree, when we feel great we give the world our best. We show up for others. When we feel beautiful, when we own the space, when we carry our weight with pride, when we feel strong and hold our head high, despite all the things we were taught to hate about ourselves, we live our best lives. But how?
I work in the business of bodies. Specifically, I photograph them as a boudoir photographer. In simpler terms, I make space for people to play dress up. They get made up, strip down, try on different identities and clothes and peel off false ideals like onion layers off of their soul. They explore relationships with themselves or others in a safe place.
But this story didn’t begin as a photographer. It started 19 years ago when I played guitar in an idealistic punk rock band and penned the words in an anti-body dysmorphic anthem “Covergirl, you’ve been lied to and you’ve been tricked”.
The song goes on saying “I want you to love me for who I am.” Present-day Mike is still asking the same questions as high school Mike, “Are we our bodies?” and “What is acceptance?”
Before I dove into the question of body, soul, mind connection I had some personal work to do.
Living in a Culture of Body Dysmorphia
As a photographer, I’ve gotten to watch hundreds of people see their photos for the first time. It’s amazing to experience people seeing their photos for the first time and squealing with joy. “I can’t believe that’s me!!!”
And occasionally watching them notice things no one else would notice or things that aren’t there. I’ve photographed people medically diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition that affects 2.4% of the population. This condition causes people to obsess over parts of their bodies in an OCD way. It causes people to see their bodies in ways other people can’t see or imagine. What does that leave the rest of us with? If we haven’t been diagnosed, what is it that we have?
Body-negativity is the only term I can think of. I think we are living in a culture of body negativity. It sells. We are the collateral damage from years of marketing, messages, and media saying “we are not enough.”
Although we don’t have the disorder, the same messages have soaked down to our soul.
I will love my body when….
I will love my body if…
I will be worthy when…
And at the end of each of these statements is a host of companies selling products promising that result. The rhythmic drumming beats of the American marketing machine “You Are Not Enough.” Hundreds of times a day we hear that in subtle ways.
No wonder why we struggle to love the skin we are in.
I asked Teri Ledgerwood, founder of Body Image Bootcamp, why people are uncomfortable in their own skin. She said, “There are a plethora of reasons starting with the way our brain is wired for survival, comparison theory, and negativity bias. Combine that with the over-representation of one body type (thin, white, blonde). Marketing understands the way to get people to spend money is to highlight and create problems where the only solution is for people to buy a product or service to rectify such ‘problems’. This causes us to feel like we don’t fit in. Then, you add in the people you surround yourself with who have their own believes about certain bodies and you grow believing that that is true, until you start to do the work necessary to combat it. People think they want to be individuals, but what they truly want is to be accepted as an individual.”
One of the biggest surprises as a photographer has been seeing this in all types of bodies, no matter their type or gender. Body negativity does not discriminate. I’ve seen this in men who are skinny, those who aren’t, and every single body type in between. I’ve seen this in muscular bodybuilders. Even worse, how athletic men compare their bodies to their bodies at 21. American culture has given us two extremes that most men don’t fit into. While I’ve found most women’s insecurity about their body is more prevalent in day-to-day experience, most men have low-grade body negativity. It only comes into play when the subject of photos is brought up or in swimming situations. With many males it doesn’t affect them on a daily basis, they just will not want their photos posts.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.”
This is where I’m at and this is my work. When I love others, I love myself. When I love myself, I love others. When I accept, I am accepted. When I do the work myself, I allow others to do the work.
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
Taking My Own Medicine
“Seeing yourself in a new light” is a phrase I love to use because this work is visual. Photography is light work. There is something magical and healing about seeing yourself in a new light, captured by a different human. To see yourself through new eyes is an incredible gift. So it was time to take my own medicine. I was photographed by 3 different photographers in 3 weeks.
What I realized, when being put in front of the camera, is how much all of these things are brought to the surface with photos. I don’t enjoy taking my shirt off on the beach or to go swimming. Maybe the image of hairless ripped tanned men on the beach has etched itself into my psyche. My ego wants me to be seen but not that seen. I feel like I don’t match a stereotype or projection.
Although photographing people from all backgrounds and all body types has been freeing, I haven’t been able to completely shake the image of the “perfect man body.”
In being photographed three times in three weeks I was left with haunting questions. Do I have a low-grade body-dysmorphia? (maybe, I don’t know) Am I able to see myself in the way others do? Does any of this even matter?
Viewing the photos, there were many photos I liked and there were some I didn’t. But photography did the light work, I felt seen. My body became a thing that is. Even in the moments where I felt awkward and exposed, I felt alive. Being photographed by an accepting human is both slightly nerve-wracking and life-giving. Emotions and feelings are tricky. Is this excitement or is this anxiety? I’m not sure. What I do know is it was healing.
When I show people photos in the studio I prefer to have a supportive partner in the room. They see with beautiful, loving, compassionate, supportive eyes and explain the photos to their partners in moments; maybe for the first time.
This is the beginning of seeing yourself in a new light and this is the healing power of photography.
Unlike the marketing messages, photography starts with the statement that “you are enough at this moment, at your age, in your state in your body”.
Bodywork: Attaining Neutrality
What does self-acceptance and bodywork look like? Certainly, it’s not a destination or arrival. Maybe it’s not even quite a realistic goal in this image-driven culture. I love Mary Lambert’s suggestion in her song Body Love
Take your hands over your bumpy love body naked
And remember the first time you touched someone
With the sole purpose of learning all of them
Touched them because the light was pretty on them
And the dust in the sunlight danced the way your heart did
Touch yourself with a purpose”
Perhaps it’s a process of letting go of our ego’s nagging through questioning and inquiry of our own thoughts. It’s holding the door open to the possibility our way of thinking could be flawed. Are we flawed in thinking we are flawed?
Where do thoughts bubble up from anyway? Who puts that idea there? A marketer? Myself? Or, was that belief buried deep in my DNA?
We can only guess where thoughts come from.
The author Byron Katie has simplified this process of examining our thoughts into four simple questions simply called The Work.
Is it true?
Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without that thought?
Finally, she recommends exploring opposites. What is the opposite of your thought?
Like all practices, it’s work (pun intended) and it’s a beginning to see ourselves, our truest selves. And it only works… when you work it.
“In my opinion, attaining BODY NEUTRALITY is much easier than body positivity. Body positivity is inherently shaming in that, if you have a moment/day/week/month that you don’t happen to feel “positive” about your body/rolls/cellulite/stretch marks, then you may fall into an intense shame & guilt spiral. You might feel like a failure and like you’re doing it all wrong. It’s just really a whole lot of pressure.
Look — the body positivity movement has done a lot of good…it’s definitely started the conversation. But I feel that body neutrality is actually where it’s at!
Accepting your body for what it is – in a factual way, not positive or negative – is something you’ll need to do first anyway before reaching body positivity. Your goal may not even be to ever reach body positivity…and that’s totally okay. I don’t even think I have body positivity as a goal – it’s body neutrality for me. “
Who were you before you recognized yourself in the mirror? In human development, we begin recognizing ourselves between 12 and 18 months. What was your story before then? What would it look like to go back there? With the recent passing of Ram Dass, I stumbled upon his description of a body which I hope you find as helpful as I did.
“When I was born I donned a spacesuit for living on this planet, it was this body, my spacesuit, and it had a steering mechanism which is my pre-frontal lobe and all the brain that helps with coordinating and stuff. Just like those others who go to the moon and learn to use their spacesuit…how to grab things and lift things so I learned how to do that. And then you get rewarded with little stars, kisses and all kinds of things when you learn how to use your spacesuit. You get so good at it that you can’t differentiate yourself from your spacesuit.”
I find this interesting. I am not my body. An ideal many Eastern and Western religions seem to agree upon and one that science is catching up to.
“Our quest for happiness leads to attempts to satisfy our desires – whatever they be. But in so doing we become attached to things that are unreliable, unstable, changing, and impermanent. As long as there is attachment to things there will be suffering – when they change when they cease to be what we want them to be. Try as we might to find something in the world that is permanent and stable, which we can hold on to and thereby find lasting happiness, we must always fail. The Buddhist solution is as radical as it is simple: let go, let go of everything.”
While it’s a beautiful idea, I’m not there yet. Can I let go of my attachments just slightly? I’m not quite ready for this Buddhist idea. I can see its value though. My mind does attach to the image of our bodies as a spacesuit. Buddhism points to the reality of our body is ever-changing. If we are attached to our ideal that this body will remain the same, we will suffer. When we use our spacesuit well it, or body if you prefer we will develop lines where we laugh, marks where we stretch and grow and scars where we bleed.
Mary Lambert paints this picture
“Love your body the way your mother loves your baby feet….
This is important
You are worth more than a waistline
You are worth more than beer bottles displayed like drunken artifacts
You are worth more than any naked body could proclaim in the shadows
More than a man’s whim or your father’s mistake
You are no less valuable as a size 16 than a size 4
You are no less valuable as a 32A than a 36C
Your sexiness is defined by concentric circles within your wood
It is wisdom
You are a goddamn tree stump with leaves sprouting out
An Invitation to Body Neutrality
Take this as an invitation. Like many things, this is just the beginning of a new way of seeing. Journeys aren’t straight lines, but zig-zags. You won’t shame yourself out of thinking this way. This is a journey of love. Meet your thoughts with love. Examine them. Question them. Talk to yourself with the love that you hold for your 5-year-old niece. Isn’t she is beautiful dancing in the bed in her pajamas with not a care in the world? So are you. Bathe in that light for a moment and try on that truth.
For some, this path starts with make-up, surgery, working out, movement, or gaining physical strength. I’m not here to judge your journey. These methods, like photography, are on-ramps. Choose your own adventure and turn to the next page.
My personal journey involves running, movement, meditation, inquiry, and breath-work (read about it here). I’m not there yet. I haven’t arrived. There are days where I subconsciously or consciously avoid looking in the mirror. But this is why I hold space for others to do the work. The work looks familiar. My soul knows this path.
Lastly a note, self-love isn’t selfish. It’s the deep well where we meet others. When this water is poured into our own lives it spills out into the world. Whether we start with ourselves or others doesn’t matter. See the beauty, and when you can’t… get closer.
So my hope for you is that you know you are worthy of being seen this year. That this is a beginning to regard your stretchmarks, scars, bumps, and lumps as parts of the story. Begin to deeply love this story you are living. May you learn to love the spacesuit you’ve been wearing and share this message with sons and daughters and share new realities with the next generation. May you allow yourself to be documented, recorded and treasured. It’s time to be seen. Get in that photo!
In short, I hope this is the year you start owning your time and space.
Extra thanks to MooseKleenex (buy artwork shown here) and Terri Ledgerwood & Elizabeth Zimmerman of the Body Image Bootcamp for giving their amazing insight. Check out the Body Image Bootcamp on April 2-5, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
Like a rolling fog depression crept into my life. Whether I didn’t notice or didn’t want to, it’s sneaky claws dug into my back and joined me for a ride into 2019. Entrepreneurship has a way of stretching you, even when the changes are good. Along with some personal stretching came the accompanying dark side of rapid personal growth: fear, anxiety, and depression. The unknowing nature of the future. I’m reminded of the mantra of “past success does not guarantee future results.” My ego loved to play in the space of imposter syndrome.
“The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of ‘real’ grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not deserve your job, we are taking everything away, and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
Every day I got up and I gave the world my best…the best I could give. My job was fulfilling but thrumming low-level messages of a million negative “what if’s” intensified over the summer. Fear took over. I didn’t even realized I was depressed. I would have told you I was stressed out. Eventually, people would ask me if I was okay. I was wearing the signs of depression outward on my face. I was not okay. What started as slight anxiety and depression turned into graphic images of my own death replaying every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep. Where did my happiness go?
This shadow cast on my life for 9 or so months. My emotions were suppressed and bunched up. Despite having a business that was fulfilling, I was dull. I didn’t feel like myself. I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what or how to return to me.
A Journey Back
The journey back to me started with a simple question. “When am I happy and without stress?” The answer was simple. I’m happy when I’m hiking in nature with my family or friends or even alone. So I made a commitment to no longer work on Sundays and hike as much as possible. The thing about depression is it’s really hard to feel like doing the healing thing. So I did my best. I made plans and hiked. I stuck to my commitments. When I hiked I had no stress, no worries and I was happy. Hiking in state parks around Pennsylvania, I learned my first lesson: the forest heals. This was a crack of light in the darkness.
Around the same time I started reading Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. This book was eye-opening to the current scientific research on depression and anxiety. Many of the ideas around brain chemistry most Americans and doctors share are no longer considered valid theories by neuroscientists. The book detailed the nine disconnections that cause depression and helpful solutions.
The one that hit me hardest (and I’m sure other entrepreneur friends can relate) was a disconnection from a secure future. While our friends with jobs get to experience a false sense of security (let’s just be honest, they can lose their’s at any moment), we don’t have that luxury. There is always an unknowing.
Seeing that I was in fact depressed and related so much to the book I saw a hopeful, healthy path forward. Another crack of light in the darkness started to appear.
The Habits that Heal
Prior to depression, I read 10% Happier a book on the power of meditation. What both books confirmed is successful people take time to meditate and reflect daily. I had come to believe that meditation was a healthy and helpful practice. My scattered brain needed something to help it focus. I signed up for the Calm app and started doing their 10-minute meditations. My experience has been to start a small habit and do it for 30 days straight. The smaller the better. 10 minutes or less. This habit of meditation became the cornerstone habit of healing. It took about a year for me to go from this is so difficult, to this is okay, to I can’t live without this. Now I start every day this way.
The Trip to Heal For many people, depression flow in and out and doesn’t tend to have a finite conclusion. For me, that was not the case. I can point to a moment and place in time where my depression left my body. For months I had been running and running, suppressing emotions. Then I had a window of time during a photography trip to California with nothing to do. So I stopped running, relaxed and meditated for hours. I just let go. When my mind got very quiet I met with the depression.
I remember curling up after meditation and the words kept flowing out “I’m so sad.” I must have repeated those words a few hundred times. Every time I repeated the words had less power and eventually, the words lost all power. When I got up I felt light. The emotions worked themselves out of my body. I was renewed, ready for 2nd chances.
I had already learned hiking weekly outside was something that brought me joy and I tried to walk my dogs a mile a day. But walking wasn’t quite enough. I knew an experience daily would make me more productive and focused. So I picked up the idea of 10 minutes of exercise. Originally I considered Peleton but instead got a gym membership and started running for 10 minutes a day. My fitness regimen is almost laughable. 10 minutes of exercise is my current goal. But habits are hard to set when they are big and consistency is king. Those 10 minutes connect me back to the person I want to be. I don’t need an hour to get the results I want. Just 10 minutes.
When my anxiety and stress don’t match my movement, I feel it. If I move fast enough beyond the vibration of my anxiety, my stress will lower alongside my movement when I slow down. So if I’m behind a computer stressing about money or issues, I need to move until that feeling releases. I run up the steps. Take a break and walk to get lunch. This isn’t suppressing emotions, this is feeling into them. Allowing them. Matching them with my body until they’ve been felt.
Breath Work: Pranayama & Wim Hof
The work of being human is never done. While all signs and feelings of depression were gone stress still lingered. Enter the healing power of breathwork and breathing exercises. One day I stumbled across a video from Wim Hof, a real-life superhuman who hiked Mount Everest in shoes and shorts only. Where do his superpowers come from? Ancient breathing techniques. He teaches a method of breathing that I’ve integrated into my daily routine (a modified Pranayama yoga breathing technique thousands of years old).
If you struggle with meditation, you may find a breathing exercise much easier to complete. I found this lowered my stress level much like meditation but with the added benefit of being very wakeful.
After Wim Hof, I discovered the method of breathing used by Navy Seals. In moments of stress, it’s the cure. Breathe in 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold 1, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold 1, 2, 3, 4. If you visualize a box, the 4 steps will form the edges. Unlike the Wim Hof method which energizes, Box breathing is for use in stressful situations because it grounds you. In as little as a minute you’ll feel less stressed. You can practice in front of people and they will be unaware. You’ll just appear calm.
Reflection & Gratitude
I’ve come to understand happiness as a triangle. Mind, Body, Soul with purpose in the center. If I meditate, if I move and if I express my gratitude I am happy. My soul needs to express gratitude. It isn’t always natural. Sometimes it feels awkward. I’ve found that most days this can be done in as little as one minute on an app ( I use Presently) or by writing a thank you note.
The Questions I Ask Myself
Socrates said it best, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Isn’t it the quality of our questions that determine the quality of our life. Here are a few of the questions I’ve learned recently I find helpful:
Am I living in the future or in the past? What can I do to be present in this moment?
Have I gotten enough sun lately? Should I go outside?
Am I hungry? Thirsty?
Do I need to move around?
Do I need to meditate?
Is my breathing shallow? Should I change it?
Is this my ego speaking or my truest self? What does my truest self say?
Who would I be without this thought?
What is the thought opposite of this thought?
Am I willing to see this differently?
Is there something I could do secretly selfless for someone? Can I compliment? Thank? Gift?
Is there something or someone I need to say no to? A boundary I need to set?
Am I rehearsing my best self?
If nothing else works. I’ve found the mantra of the Hawaiian tradition Ho’oponopono to be the most helpful. It’s simply taking complete responsibility for my reality or perception of meeting with it and repeating.
“I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.”
This works for thoughts, ideas, people, shouldas, couldas and wouldas.
What I don’t say anymore is “I shouldn’t be thinking this or feeling this.” The truth is I am thinking this and feeling this. It’s what I’m supposed to be thinking and feeling right now. Let’s meet with these thoughts and ideas and see what happens. And I’m open to the possibility to see things another way. But this person, feeling, thought, the idea isn’t going anywhere until I meet with it. Yes, I’m literally telling my ideas “I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.”
It might sound crazy but it works. Try it.
These ideas and healing did not come in isolation. The most helpful thing people did was to share space and meaningful conversation. My natural inclination was to be a hermit. Many people didn’t know what I was feeling until I told them. I’m grateful to the people who showed up or invited me to show up or listened. Whether you pay someone to listen, talk to your doctor or find friends to talk with, the journey back to the truest you will start with tools outside of your current thinking and reality. I’ve laid out the tools I’ve used and what’s worked for me. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can see all of the things that made a difference. It’s a combination of fighting for a new life and allowing others in. You are not alone. This is a road walked by many. Help is out there. Love on your Mind, Body, Soul. Move your body, discover the stillness in your mind and feed your soul with gratitude. Reconnect with people, reconnect with your purpose and spend time in the forest reconnecting with the earth and sun.
Could it really be this easy? Just adding a few habits to your life? The answer is: I don’t know your situation. Maybe. These tools have been used for thousands of years. Habits are slow to take hold and I don’t know what exactly will work for you. The important part is to start. Give something a try. When everything seems impossible, give something a try.
Further Reading& Watching
Finally, this wouldn’t have been possible without the insight found in these books and techniques they shared.