Thursday, March 30, 2017

It Does Not Have To Be This Hard

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Victor Frankl

It doesn't have to be this hard.

I find myself saying thisoften.  During my counseling sessions, in my bodywork practice, while talking to a staff or family member, or sometimes when I am talking to myself.

It doesn't have to be this hard.

What is that line, between the natural suffering and struggle that comes with growth and adaptation versus the suffering and struggle that comes with avoiding growth and adaptation?

When is the suffering about living from a point of view that no longer serves you? When is the suffering simply a signal that you are looking at your situation from the wrong story? Change the old belief, die to that old story and suddenly suffering disappears.

Where in our ordinary worlds, where do we complicate things so that we make things more difficult?

Most of us here live in a rarified privilege.  If you make more than 67k a year, you are in the top 1% of the planet's wealthiest. Even if we consider inflated food, energy and housing expenses, we are living a life most of the world cannot even fathom, and yet, we are struggling.

I say this to the mom overwhelmed with her child's resistance to the school routine.

I say it to myself when I worry about managing all of my work responsibilities.
I say it to my friend who is dating someone requiring more than she can give.

I say it to the staff who is working too many hours and feels overwhelmed with the workload.

I say it to the student who is devastated that his friends are walking away from him because he is so unkind.

I say it to the overwhelmed husband sitting across from me, wondering how his impending separation with his wife will affect his ability to see his children.

There are times life will be overwhelming. There will be crisis and major transformations. I don't want to minimize the enormity of life's big disruptions - the death of a child, the single parent who must manage children, home life, work and personal self care, war, or homelessness. The list is long. And I count myself as one of those people who believe our global catastrophe's have just begun.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Victor Frankl

Most of the time,  I believe we have a choice. and as Frankl points out, even in the most difficult of circumstances, we have the power to chose our response. When things are too much, it is a sign that something is out of balance. Something is out of whack and it needs your attention. Our task is to find a way, to turn towards the solution, and take small steps that move in that direction.  In crisis, those small first steps will be about taking care of your own physical body, enlisting support and staying safe. As you move from crisis to recovery, those steps will be about taking small, repeated steps that move away from survival and towards joy. This is everyone's recipe.

What are the ways we can choose to respond to our difficulties that move us towards growth and freedom? 

What are the ways you respond to your difficulties that move you towards growth and freedom?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Razor Edge Between Suffering, Living and Dying

When my mother was a little girl in Northern Italy on a small family farm, she would  watch baby chicks hatch out of their eggs. She was fascinated by the cracks and the the small puncture marks that would arrive signalling the arrival of a baby chick.

There were times she would feel sorry for the chicks.  There were always the ones who would struggle deeply to get out of their shells.  So she would help them out.  She would help those baby chicks out by picking away at the shell.

I used to think about this story a lot when I was a teenager and a young adult. I guess I am still thinking about it now as a middle aged woman.

It seems that evolution and natural selection throw a series of fitness, strength and stress tests to all species to ensure survival of the fittest. These tests do not arrive when you are trained, practiced, rehearsed and ready - they happen at your edges.  You have outgrown your container, your food source, your requirements for survival.

Passing these tests, being able to successfully pull yourself out of your egg, benefits you and it benefits your species. Picking at the shell of the egg, strengthens the chick, gives her practice at pecking which she will need as she learns to feed herself. If you can pull yourself out and survive, you pass on your genes to the next crew of chicks and you help ensure a stronger gene pool.

If you are unable, you are too weak, without assistance, you die.  You do not pass on those genes.  Your genes don't make it into the next crew of chicks.

Helping a chick crack out of it's shell takes away important practice and skills a chick needs to survive.  It may alter natural selection.  On the other hand, it might save it's life.

The same dilemma plays itself out hundreds of times in our own lives. When do we step in and help our children, our friends, our co-workers or our families?  When does helping turn into enabling turn into controlling or fearfulness?

Some struggle is necessary for anything to survive.  It is billions of years of hardwiring that says, growth comes from struggle, conflict, and change. And so does death.

It is relatively easy for me to work with this razor edge relationship between suffering, life and death when I am working with a client. A client is already motivated enough to get help. I can listen to the story, work in small increments, see results, work in bigger increments, see results, setbacks, results, setbacks and then transformation.   Often, exactly in that order.

It becomes more difficult to do when someone close to me is in the suffering. I have to fight the impulse to go over and "crack the shell" myself. I want to fix the problem, in part, because it is so painful for me, to be in the presence of someone I love, who is suffering.

A few years ago, I felt a significant and very loud urging to step forward and help someone close to me.  "You need a hand.  You are struggling. I can help you."  She said yes, and so for a part of her journey, together we cracked a few of the gritty  pieces of the shell. I imagine, I hope, there is enough trust and love that the next time she feels stuck, she will once again be okay with a companion and a guide  to move through an unbearable edge.

It is an art in knowing when your assistance is enabling weakness or encouraging strength. I see the danger of families protecting their loved ones from their suffering to such a degree as to teach them weakness.  I see the danger of families unable to walk alongside their loved ones suffering, thus missing an opportunity to strengthen both their relationship and their courage.  It is all a fine line.

I don't have any answers, but I imagine, it is the work of our species to dance that razor's edge in finding ways  to strengthen and fortify the generations and generations and generations to come.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear is Easy

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. 

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Steven Pressfield
I believed, for most of my adult life, that my life partner was something that would come to me.  All I had to do was “be good”, faithful and obedient.  I just had to work hard and somebody would notice me.  At one point, a close friend, “Why are you not working at getting a partner?  If you put half the energy into finding a partner, that you have been putting in your career, you’d be married by now!”  I remember feeling slightly insulted by his words.  Old stories die hard.

Eventually, I took this to heart, and I began putting myself out in the dating world.  I put up a dating profile on several online dating sites and set aside time to “work” on meeting a partner.  I went on loads of dates.  I took everything personally. I painted every “no” as a failure and a sign of my unworthiness. It was difficult – Sometimes fun but mostly scary. It eventually got easier, and after every encounter, I learned a little bit more about myself and how to date but it never stopped being challenging. It took me a very long time to break my old belief.            

One of the things that I learned along the way was that sitting in my pit of pitifulness had some real advantages. Believing that I am unworthy or a failure gave me a good excuse not to face rejection.  

Believing that I had to be obedient and good in order to receive a relationship meant that I did not have to do the work to put myself out in the world.  I didn’t have to expose my vulnerable parts.  I could stay safe in the cocoon of ‘I am not worthy’ thus never exposing my terrifying fears to those around me.            

I am in the middle of the process of publishing my first book (working title: Hearts Guide to Crisis). There were a few times in the writing process where I became paralyzed with self doubt and overwhelmed with the rewrites and my mediocre writing.  I was listening to a number of podcasts and reading blogs on writing but I could not write. 

I woke up one morning and it was like a fog lifted and everything got crystal clear.  Writing a good book is not supposed to be easy.  The discipline of crafting and redrafting the work is all a part of the creative process. Rewrites and discipline are part of the process. 

I feel like I have spent my lifetime proving to myself that I deserve to be in "the arena" while at the same time, constantly avoiding the limelight and minimizing my skill set.  My whine that I am not good enough, that my writing is mediocre, was just an excuse to not do the hard work of doing the work.  

I know that sounds obvious, but for me, this was a lightbulb moment.  Once I understood this, I was able to focus my time on my writing and I stopped listening to the whiney voice of "I am not enough".  This was a game changer for me.

Fear is easy.  It lets you protect your vulnerability and your ugly. It lets you nurse your story that says you are are not enough.  Fear will freeze you in your victim thinking - It can paralyze you into believing that your only choice is to do nothing but feel miserable.         

The antidote is to this paralysis is available to you. Move. Do something.  Take steps towards your dream. Focus on what you can do and table everything else.  When you hear yourself complain how the other guy has it so good, and you have it so bad, remember that's just the fear talking. Keep moving, right through your fear.  

It won't work.
I can't do this. 
I'm too old, too young, too dumb, too smart. 
I can't do this by myself. 

The list is long.  I know, because I could write another book on all the things fear tells you.

Fear is easy and very very chatty. Don't listen.

Use your energy instead, to do the work.  Everyday. Repeat.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fear Can't Win

I am sitting across from a client. We have worked together over the last few years so I have been able to witness some significant and courageous transformations. He has been sober for over two years. Employed,  engaged in healthy habits and routines. As with all transformations, many deaths occur. He is divorced. He is working on establishing new, honest and authentic relationships with his adult children.  He is trying to do the same with his aging parents. He doesn't even look like the same person who entered my office three years ago.  He is engaging with the world in an entirely different way.

I have been a witness to his tremendous acts of courage.  How was he able to make those changes and transformations?

Healing is never a straight line.   It is an evolution, a series of small imperceptible steps repeated so often, it becomes an unconscious habit. Big steps. in moral development terms happen in progressive baby tiny steps.   Like Lao Tse's famous quote, "A one thousand mile journey begins with one step," big achievements happen in small repeated choices.

How did this client transform his life? What brought him the courage to take the one step and how does he continue to chose healing even when it feels lonely, painful and impossible?

"I was tired of living in my small box. I figured there had to be something better than my small world of addiction and pain. I was tired of letting fear win."

That is the challenge.  Everyday.  Fear can't win. You have to get out of your small box of what you know. Whatever that might be - debt, dis ease, disrespectful relationships, safe but unfulfilling jobs - there is a place in your life that you are tolerating, that is probably slowly eating away at the quality of your life.

If you are lucky, it is the small uncomfortable nagging space that feels like the pebble stuck in your shoe. If you are resourced, courageous, and well rehearsed, you deal with the discomfort.  Most of us, though, pretend like we are fine with the pebble, ignoring it, telling ourselves  life is full of compromises and this is one of them.  Most of us will ignore it until the pain is unbearable, the pebble has gouged a hole in our heal, infected and almost ready to take out our entire foot.

Fear can't win.

The transformed client in front of  me is the global metaphor.

Success comes in small steps, repeated thousands of times. It is the behaviours, the doing that bring about our hear's desires. It is not the occasional game changing leaps or awareness nor is it the occasional significant setback that bring about transformation.  It is the boring small little daily behaviours that move us forward.

What is your fear? What is the preoccupation that keeps you up at night? What are the small steps that you are willing to take to challenge that fear?

Think about the steps you can take. Small behaviours repeated over time. That is what transformation looks like.

And from here, it looks magnificent.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Addiction to Certainty

Food and Connection

Two years ago, I saw an interview with Tony Robbins, a popular motivational speaker who talked about six core values that drive behaviour. The values were significance, love, growth, contribution, certainty, and adventure.  According to Robbins, everyone values a particular cocktail of the combination. When I thought carefully about the list and put them in order of what I believed I valued most, I put them in the following order:

  1. Love/connection
  2. Significance
  3. Certainty
  4. Adventure/Uncertainty
  5. Growth 
  6. Contribution
Over the past few months, while in the process of making significant life changes, (changing my work position, moving homes, focusing on simplifying my life) I have been reflecting on my choices and past decisions.  Although certainty is number 3 on my list, when I look at how I make life choices, what keeps me up at night and what increases level of anxiety, I actually behave and make choices based on certainty.  

What I think I value and what I actually practice are not the same thing.  I think I value love and connection, but in practice, I value the idea of the sure thing more than love, more than significance and more than the desire to grow.

I want to know. I want to feel secure. I want to know that my health is good and that I am loved. I want to know that all my family is loved, healthy and cared for. I want to know that I will have a steady pay check, a roof over my head and a secured retirement. 

I realize that most of my decisions are based on my need to feel safe and secure and that all is well in my world.  

Funny thing is, the more I have come to appreciate my overwhelming desire for certainty, the more I have appreciated that I really don't have it.  No matter how well I take care of myself, I can still get sick, no matter how secure I think my job is, there is no promise that I will have it until I retire. No matter how much money I accrue or invest, it can all be lost. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the idea of Certainty is an illusion. It's an illusion, because whatever pain we try to avoid, or plan to overcome, in the end, the whole protective tower of security can come tumbling down.

Certainty is an illusion.  

I am no stranger to addictive behaviour and as I work to keep my coffee consumption down, I know that I am not even grazing the real mother load of my addictions.  The truth is, I am an addict and my drug of choice is certainty.

My need to control the outcome, to plan, organize and schedule safety is remarkably futile, yet I continue to try!  I know I am not alone in this is a recurring theme in both my energy work and counselling practice.

So what can I do to overcome this? What can WE do to overcome our collective desire to keep our worlds known, controlled, safe and small? Keeping in mind that I am working on this with you, here are a few practical suggestions:

Photo by Jill Philipchuk
1. Stay in This Present Moment.  Easier said than done, I know. "Anxiety is fear of the future and the future is not real", my fellow energy practitioner, Ann Liden, reminds me. Certainty is about controlling an outcome and that is always about the future.  When we focus on the here and now, we focus on the only real certainty we have - the present moment. For me this is about anchoring myself in what already exists. For the vast majority of us, this present moment is not too shabby.  Say it out loud.  What's really happening right now?  I am breathing, I am fed, I have a roof over my head, I am loved, I can walk, I am alive. Acknowledge your present moment experience and focus on everything that is working for you right at this moment.

2. Cross Crawls - This is a simple task that does big things in your brain. It essentially helps you to integrate both sides of your brain and helps you stay connected into your body.  Donna Eden Energy Medicine has a quick youtube demo of this activity. This is a great activity to do when you feel yourself spin down into your "pit of pitifulness". We experience worry, fear and overwhelm in our bodies and it is important that we use our bodies as one of our strategies to work with these feelings.

3.  Get Connected. Invest in relationships!  Don't wait for a crisis or setback to develop relationships.  Spend focused time every day building connections and staying connected.  Put a timer on for fifteen minutes if you have to, and use that focused time to call, email, text or plan focused time where you are building connections.  This is time that should be used to listen or focus on the lives of those around you. Schedule curiosity. Every Tuesday go hang with your daughter in her bedroom and find out what brings her joy. Email a sibling you don't see often and take them out for a coffee (Oops, there I go talking about my secondary addiction!) or a tea, perhaps. Find out how your friend's salsa lessons are going and get them to demo a move or two.  Take the opportunity to practice your own curiosity and listen.  These small investments in time and curiosity will always pay you dividends.

In the end, appreciating and showing up for what we have right now, will take us much farther than the illusive glitter of certainty.  The one sure thing we have is this moment, and the more we are able to show up and respect the now, the easier it will be to untangle ourselves from the false promises that certainty provides.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Paradox of Stillness - 5 Things to do in Crisis

After struggling with symptoms of severe adrenal failure, my sister was finally feeling the benefits of a strengthening recovery.  She was doing so well, that she was back to playing badminton - her long time passion.  In fact, she was doing so well, that she entered and won local tournaments, and had just signed up for a Master's tournament with her eventual goal to participate in the Master's Olympics. 

During one of her training sessions, she blew her MCL, a ligament which stabilizes the knee.  She was suddenly immobilized, in severe pain and looking at a period of complete immobilization, and a long, slow recovery which also meant temporarily leaving behind all those activities which brought her so much life!

And so, after years of gradual recovery and a taste of "her old self" she found herself once again back into a recovery phase.


Crisis arrives looking like we have taken a sudden blow back with all of our hard work and effort crushed in a single event or circumstance.

"When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair," writes Henri Nouwen, "Your healing is not a straight line.  You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don't say to yourself, All is lost.  I have to start all over again. This is not true.  What you have gained, you have gained."

Crisis creates space.  By its nature, it develops a 'hole', a rip in time and a kind of deafening silence that for most of us, feels horribly unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Yet, it is in this black pit of pitifulness as my sister calls it, where our real nuggets of transformation reside. If we take time to stop, be still, sit with our discomfort, breathe, pay attention to the restlessness and be still some more, we inevitably find that we come through on the other side transformed.

The reality is, stillness is active. Taking in the present experience and not distracting and moving your energy or focus away, is in fact the fastest way of moving through your crisis. For many of us, myself included, the practice of stillness is challenging. When crisis hits me, I go into my back brain fight or flight response and I either feel the need to flee via distraction or fight by creating more chaos in my life.  Neither of these responses move my crisis towards transformation although they do provide temporary relief.

In these moments,  the best gift you give yourself is permission to pause.  Keep yourself focused on your present moment experience, focusing on the care and your body. 

Here are some suggestions:

1. If you can, go for a walk.  Being outside and in motion are tremendously helpful for both your body and your brain.  Breathe in the air, notice what you smell, what you feel and what you hear.
2. Practice conscious gratitude.  What are you really grateful for right now? Make a list or endeavour to say it out loud to yourself or someone you trust.
3. Take an epsom salt bath.  Again, this is tremendous for both your physical and emotional self.
4. Make self care a priority.  It is important to bring your experience into your physical body so do what you can to pamper yourself. 
5.  Eat well and eat consciously.  Make the food that you ingest part of your spiritual practice. Eat as "clean" as you can. Prepare your food and make the practice of preparing your food part of your spiritual practice. 

My sister, like most of us, struggles to trust the sitting still.  It may be the simplest and most difficult task which crisis commands of us. Yet, I can promise you, that if we continue in our doing, we will simply be spinning our wheels feeling only more depleted and stuck in the muck of our grief. There is the paradox.  Stillness is the only way we will move forward in our crisis.  Treat the process as if it is your spiritual practice and we ultimately find our way towards a field of clarity and somehow, despite ourselves, the crisis brings us closer to our 'real selves'.

It is all temporary.  Both crisis and bliss are temporary states.  We don't have to wait for bliss - we can choose to have our crisis lead us to our transformations. 

For more information or if you would like to contact me, visit

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Happiness is a Muscle

Recently I watched and rewatched a PBS special on happiness. The documentary examined the growing study of happiness.  In attempting to create markers and quantifiable measurements and turn it into a science, some interesting observations were made:

  • Money does not determine happiness: once a person is making a minimum that provides for food, clothing and shelter, more money does not equate with more happiness.
  • The more meaningful connections you have and the more you work at these personal connections, the more happy you are.  In other words, strong links to friends and families directly and positively link with the likelihood that you will be happy.
  • Serving others, volunteering and helping others is positively linked to happiness.
  • Countries that support infrastructures that build these connections such as Norway, report happier communities.
Meaningful connections - Happiness! Photo by J. Philipchuk

There are no surprises here.  Being loved and giving love trumps a fancy car and the latest fashion and gadgets. Spending time and serving others brings more happiness than spending money and collecting things. Yet, somehow,  we still behave as though the opposite is true, "If only I lose 10 pounds and fit into this outfit, I'll get a man, and then I will be happy" "Once I get my own car and my own place, I won't need to depend on anyone and then I will be happier," "You get paid the big bucks, must be nice to have an easy life".

Historically,  economic growth and the amount of cash circulating our global economies, is unprecedented, yet we are in the midst of a global "unhappy and anxious" epidemic in First World countries.  We are firmly attached to the idea that things bring us happiness, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

"It is easier to change ideas and doctrines in other's minds than it is to change their myths and symbols," writes Madonna Kohlbenschlag. All of this "Happiness Research" clearly points to a doable action plan that all of us in some way, can begin to implement.

The most compelling part of the documentary for me, is the claim that we can teach happiness, practice happiness and train ourselves to be happy.  It is a muscle, that through practice, repetition, and support, can grow and develop and become strong.

The ball is in our court.  We can choose to work on developing our happiness muscle.  No special equipment is required.  All that is needed is a willingness to put down the burden of belief that says things and this illusion of independence matter more than people, service, love and belonging.