Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Belly of the Great Whale

It was November 2006. I had just turned 45 a few days earlier. I was sitting at my computer, staring at a blank screen. I was at a point in my life when I realized that I needed to change something. Say something. Do something. But I had no voice. I was for the first time in my life speechless.

My life was changing dramatically and so was I. My children were now young women, growing up into young adults. My husband had come into his own in his career and was realizing is potential about 9 hours north of home every week. My job as a strategic planner had consumed my life for years.

It was that day in November that I realized that I had been many things to many people, becoming the person that I needed to be, but not who I am. I realized that somewhere on the other side of this reality was another person whose potential was unknown to me. So I decided to change on purpose, with purpose.

As a strategic planner, I naturally established my intention, a set of directions, and a deadline. I gave myself one year to change my mind, my body, and my job. I wanted to be in a different space in my career, as I was looking for advancement, challenge and a chance to make a dent in this world. I pledged that I would work responsibly and stop being a hero by working 18 hours a day to get some of my life back. And I said that I wanted to figure out what to fill my life with besides work.

Now in the corporate world where I spend the majority of my time, changing direction is no small feat because it must begin with changing minds. Every good and worthy planner knows that the way to change head space is to cause a disruption in the experience. Alter reality. To all novice change makers, this is no easy task. Invoking change can create a tidal wave of events that can challenge personal values, belief systems and create reactions that you never thought possible. Few corporate giants do this successfully. Change must be managed, monitored and adjusted according to the experience and the outcomes.

So I used the same principles of business to invoke a change in my life and head space. I devised a framework to focus on these key concepts.

1. Choose Defiance.

Reality is often defined by fears and insecurities that prevent us from doing things that we would like to do. We are afraid that if we take that step, we might fall into an abyss of nothingness and lose everything we have and know. We are afraid that we are not good enough. We are afraid of failure; we are hardwired to believe that failure is . . . well, bad.

In order to alter my reality I knew that I had to challenge my own assumptions about who I am, what I value, what I am about, and what I am capable of. So I made a commitment to defiance.

When I say that, eyebrows tend to rise. Defiance is natural. Birds defy gravity. Trees grow in rock. Babies are born, kicking and screaming. Defiance is a natural process of renewal and change. Without defiance, our earth would cease to revolve. The sun would cease to shine. And we would cease to exist. Yet as people, we have been raised and socialized to behave. We even medicate our children in school so they will behave. In the class room and in the corporate world we cast out the different and diverse. Then we add diversity programs so that we remember to treat each other the way we would like to be treated. Through our institutional behaviors, we have lost our ability to naturally change, grow, and resist status quo – or death, as I like to call it. Defiance is important to growth, because through defiance, we are forced to see another side. Explore a new possibility. Walk against the traffic.

So I set a goal to commit three defiant acts that would challenge my personal fears, assumptions and insecurities, find my voice and ultimately my direction. Defiance meant saying no, not working late, not trying to impress people by over achieving. It meant eating the foods I like and living the way I want to live. Testing new boundaries, and taking the risk of falling, and learning how to land. Defiance taught me to challenge my personal status quo, and all the conventions and limitations that have influenced me in the past – as far back as my childhood and as deep down as my inner most fears and insecurities.

While I did not know what I would actually do at the time, I likely committed more than three acts of defiance when I look back because it actually created a ripple effect. It began with saying no to overtime, and saying no to unfair treatment of people and taking a stand on those things worth fighting for, namely people and principles. In my quest for balance (something I don’t believe I have ever had before) I tattooed an image on my lower back that symbolizes my quest for balance. Every day, I look at it and I love it and I remember my promise to me. I pierced my nose, much to my mother’s dismay, and I stepped into uncharted territory when it came to business and my personal life. I learned along the way, and discovered that I have the power to choose my destiny as we all do. I found out what it feels like to take a step and land in another place where I had never allowed myself to go before. I took up smoking to stop by year end. And I fell in love . . . with the possibility that there is more to discover.

What I learned is defiance helped me to realize the courage that I had. It gave me the strength that I needed to grow, and it helped me to confirm my values and principles. At the end of the day, I learned the importance of values, and the need above all else to be respectful to oneself and others.

2. Listen and Seek to Understand.

It is my belief that we hold ourselves back with what we tell ourselves about ourselves. These thoughts betray our potential. In fact, we are only able to accomplish what we can ourselves imagine.

What we think about is who we are. What we imagine, is what we become. So in order to liberate my thinking, I committed to listening to my own self talk, so that I could hear what I think about - what rolls around in my mind, so that I would be able to understand better who I came to be, who I am, and who I have yet to be. Listening, I discovered, is an art from. And listening to oneself takes discipline as it requires the ability to block out the personal noise that we have going on in our heads all the time.

To develop listening skills, I learned to play the guitar, since I have always had a penchant for rock stars. Learning to play guitar, I discovered, is about listening. I also took up yoga to find ways to balance my energy, quiet my thinking and learn to listen to the sound my own breath. I also set a personal goal to “seek to understand” rather than jumping to conclusions and reacting to my environment. This too took some discipline, because we are naturally judgmental of ourselves and the people around us. I needed to learn to listen to what was being said rather than letting judgments fly, thereby limiting the potential of the moment.

What I was thinking about, observing, feeling, worrying about or wondering about became the subject of my writing. Every night, I would sit down at my computer, close my eyes, and look into the darkness with my fingers resting on my keyboard. I would reflect on the day and events, how I was feeling, and why. I committed to be positive in my reactions, but insightful in my quest to understand my thinking process, not judge. The writing process takes on a life of its own from there, since it’s really an art, not a science. It is existential, because it requires reaching those places that we rarely visit in our minds in our souls. But when I write, I focus on the sound of my own heart beating, and the cadence of my breath. The words and stories came forward, through my fingertips to reveal whatever it is that comes forth. The first poem in this collection, “Write me Away”, was not the first poem I had ever written, but it was the first poem that was written with the intention to be free and to explore, to give way to the flood of images that, when translated into words, would embody a poetic heartbeat and pulse.

3. Be Imperfect. But be Honest.

Perfectionism breeds fear and insecurity. So in the writing process, I made a commitment to let go of each poem without revising, editing and perfecting. After every poem, I saved it, named it and closed the file. Each poem took anywhere from 3 minutes to 30 minutes to write. They are what they were at that moment in time. And they remain, with minor editing for punctuation and capitalization (so as not to offend the English majors in the crowd.)

4. Reflect and Learn.

After some time, I went back to the file and discovered that there were over 30 poems that I had written over a period of approximately 5 months. I read them and realized that a change had occurred in three stages as revealed by the poems: Emerging, Defiant and Breaking Through. I was moving along my journey, but I knew that I had still had a distance to travel, and that I will never really get there. The interesting thing about being human is that our potential is far beyond that of our natural life / body form. Maybe that is the way it is intended to be, but that must mean that we need to draw the potential out of each moment, each person that we meet, each emotion, and each experience.

The last poem, “Message in a Bottle” took one and a half years to write, as it is a metaphor for a crucial step in the change process – saying good bye to all that contains us, all our dependencies and fears – and celebrating life and its gifts for what they are. Accepting that what it is, is. Celebrating the moments of life, good and bad. Learning from the teachers that come and go through life and learning when it’s time to walk away. From reflection and learning comes acceptance, and ultimately peace.

5. Avoid rooms with no doors.

Because everyone has something to gain
By my staying the same.
Everyone has a stake
In me never changing.- 45

While in the midst of this self induced change, the company that I was working for was also going through significant change. The merger that we had all given many days and nights to was suffering under the weight of forces beyond our control. I had begun to increase overtime again and I was pushing back and speaking up about what was happening.

I found myself alone and exhausted, with no one to talk to. One day stands out in my mind. I was driving home, and I was feeling like I was in a room with no doors. I felt trapped and frustrated. I tried calling friends but no one was available. That night, I picked up the phone to contact my former boss to congratulate her on a recent award. Somehow the conversation struck a chord with me. This was a person for whom I have the most respect for - not just her accomplishments, but also who she is.

The way she approaches things is what I admire most about her. She is “human” – and that is a rare quality in my mind. Somehow through the course of talking with my friend and mentor, I came to the realization that I could not undergo this change alone. I needed help. And more importantly, I needed someone to be honest with me. I needed someone who did not have a stake in my changing. So I asked if she knew of anyone who could coach me, and she said that she was available. The door opened up at that moment.

As my coach and mentor, she held a mirror up to me, so that I could see myself honestly and confront those things that hold me back- fear of failure, judgment of self and others, reacting to a damaged ego and possibly with malice. I took the steps to consider my next growth path, looking out longer term to realize long term goals. She helped me with tools, giving me a door to walk through when I needed it.

Turns out the door is wherever we want it to be. Like Gulliver, who was held down by the Lilliputians, we are held down by the little things by own accord. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilliput_and_Blefuscu We can and do open our own doors. That sounds cliche, but it is not as easy as it sounds. The door for me, I discovered, is to open my mind to the experience of others, rather than reacting with fear and judgment.

Now two years later, I continue to pursue my intention to realize my potential, and to continue stretching and growing, challenging my thinking and my fears, and allowing myself to be imperfect. I have learned that wherever one goes, one must always hold values near and dear.

I remember my mission to “seek to understand”, especially when I would rather take the easy way out and react with judgment. It’s not easy, but I like to believe that by seeking to understand, I am becoming a better person. I have found, through the advice of my coach, that by committing to learning from each conversation and experience, I am able to learn from the various teachers that life has brought me.

Looking back now on this journey and how and where it began, I realized that I had been swallowed whole by a whale and did not realize it until the oxygen dissipated and I needed to escape. The whale was my work and the way that I allowed it to becomer personal and all defining. As a result, I was consumed, unknowingly and gradually. I realized that I could have stayed too long, and possibly suffocated in that whale's belly had I not felt that inexplicable claustrophobia. Today, some my best friends I fear are feeling that shortening of breath, the feeling of being entombed. And while they may not see it yet, I know where they are. They are in the belly of the giant whale.