On Peeling the Onion

I am always humbled when I come across an old journal of mine and read my former epiphanies. Humbled because I cannot believe that whatever new insight I have just had about myself or about the human condition—now, at fifty-three—is in fact not new at all. I knew it—apparently—at eighteen. And then again at, say, twenty-three. Then a bolt of lightning hit in my thirties and I re-arrived at the mind-blowing insight I did not remember having had before. Et cetera.

In fact, even this very insight, about how iterative (read: repetitive?) insight can be, is not new for me. At nineteen, my college roommate (who also happened to be named Hilary, with One L, earning us the nickname of: The Hilarai) and I coined our motto: Live Learn, and Repeat. Apparently, at our tender age, we already found our epiphanies redundant, as we circled the same themes and insights, made the same or similar mistakes, and learned from them anew.

Some generous, compassionate people refer to this syndrome as peeling the onion, providing the image of circling closer and closer to the center with each round. I love that image, and think it’s how we roll as humans.

I have come to believe that we each have certain themes, maybe one or two big whoppers for our lifetime, which thread through most (or all) of our crucial  experiences. Your life theme might show up in the form of being over-extended, of putting everyone on your list before yourself—and the repeated learning you circle is about self-care, learning to prioritize yourself. Or your core life theme may be about belonging, and perhaps you experience situation after situation where you feel alienated, looking to others to include you or exclude you as a measure of your worth—and your learning comes in the form of realizing that you do matter, just as you are, that you already belong.  Your theme might be about the ego, driving you to prove yourself over and over again—and your continued learning may be about shifting from doing into being, and learning to view yourself as Enough whether you are accomplishing something or not. These are some of the popular themes I see in my work as a life coach, but you may have an entirely different theme not mentioned here. My sense is that our themes inter-relate, overlap. We are not islands, experiencing wildly unique life themes; as different as we may be or seem or look or feel on the outside, we are all humans experiencing the human condition, and in that sense have a lot in common on the inside.

An insight does not have to be new to feel like it is—to provide fresh inspiration, motivation, awareness, grist. And along with this comes the invitation to forgive ourselves for making what feel like the same mistakes again and again, or falling into the same bad habits, the same pain, which may feel like the same rut. Doing this does not necessarily mean we are getting nowhere. We may just be peeling the onion. Gaining new awareness as we circle closer and closer to center.



On Pause



I put the pause in menopause.

I don’t claim to be the only one: the word has that syllable in it for a reason.

Menopause is a developmental phase that has been around (I’m guessing?) since Eve. At a certain point, the hormones that buoy life force, tank. My brother-in-law says this doesn’t happen to women only. He and countless men experience andropause, also called viropause, which is known as the male menopause. It’s no accident that all these terms contain “pause.”

It’s time to pause. In other words, chill the f*ck out.

The recent results of a hormonal blood test validate what I’ve been experiencing, which has been the full-body instinct to push Pause.

“You’re officially old!” My friend Santosh congratulated me. This is good news in his culture.  He’s from Nepal, where he told me that women in my phase ritualistically get to hand over all their cooking and cleaning duties to their daughter-in-law(s). The job for menopausal women is to enter a deep spiritual journey; to chant, do yoga, sit in the sun in the afternoons. I think Santosh also said something about playing with the babies, too, the grandchildren. But I was stuck on the not cooking and cleaning thing.

“So that’s why I can barely drag myself to the grocery store,” I said.  After decades of bopping down the produce and dairy aisles three times a week, I now have to muster up resolve to go to Whole Foods as if I am gearing up to ascend from Mount Everest base camp.

Santosh and I went on to contrast his culture to ours. How here, when we are in our fifties, we are considered nowhere near the time to downshift. This is when we are expected to keep improving, to get a trainer so our body can look twenty, shoot up our faces with Botox and fillers, and crank out our masterpiece, churn out the magnus opus, wow ourselves and our world by reaching the apex of our career.

When I am coaching people, it is consistently clear to me that how they are feeling has deep wisdom to it. That their instincts are worth honoring. Yet, what I see people doing so often is resisting. Resisting how they feel, resisting what their intuition and body are telling them, resisting what is actually their life. I am no different. I spent much of 2018 trying to coax myself into feeling the ole’ get up and go (when I most certainly didn’t), into being who and how I used to be. It took a blood test for me to say: Oh. Oh, now I get it: the instinct to push Pause was right on schedule.

The instinct to push Pause was and is honorable, as in: worth honoring. On a daily basis. And perhaps in a bigger overarching way as well, which I have yet to fathom—but the prospect thrills me. (Or, rather, lures. Thrill currently requires too much energy.) Let’s just say the prospect lures me.

In what direction are your instincts luring you right now?  And how might that be worth honoring?


On Should-ing

Don't should on yourself

During a job interview in my twenties, I noticed an ashtray.  Or rather, I noticed the words painted around its white ceramic rim: Thou Shalt Not Should On Thyself. The woman interviewing me blew smoke directly into my face, stubbing out her butts into that mesmerizing message. (This was during the 80’s, an era when second-hand smoke had not been outed as a definitive health hazard.) Lucky for both of us, I did not get the job—to be her editorial assistant, code for managing her administrative tasks, a role I would have bombed. But I never forgot the ashtray edict.

It’s thirty years later, and barely a day has passed when I have not thought to myself or said aloud to someone I care about: Thou shalt not should on thyself. 

Should sprouted in our psyches as an attempt to socialize ourselves, adopted from those who socialized us: you should say thank you; you shouldn’t pull hair; you should wash your hands; you shouldn’t poop on the floor. Lodged in our brains as a directive, designed to keep us safe, on track, likable and good, should then took on a life of its own, running 24/7 on internal autopilot, attempting to improve us. You shouldn’t feel that; you should think this; you shouldn’t like that; you should want this.

If you really listen to your internal shoulds, are they constantly insinuating that you’re doing it wrong? That you should have done X differently, shouldn’t have said Y?  Shouldn’t be feeling how you feel, should be more productive? Does your Should Machine ever say: You should feel exactly the emotion you happen to be feeling? Should be doing exactly what you’re feeling drawn to do? If so, congratulations! Seriously. Because it’s highly likely you’ve done some extremely successful reprogramming inside that head of yours.

But even the fortunate humans who’ve been able to cultivate an internal messaging system that pipes in self-compassion, self-permission, and self-love, still have our original Should Machine running in the background—the system that cannot be deleted because it’s an indelible part of our brain. This default operating system kicks in when our resources are low, when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (acronym: HALT). Which is of course right when we need our new self-loving operating system the most! This past winter, when I had a particularly bad case of seasonal affective disorder (another acronym!  SAD), my default Should Machine nearly took over, and nearly took me down. I had to work diligently on a daily (if not hourly) basis to jumpstart Self-Love Two-Point-Oh.

The best we can do as homo sapiens with our sophisticated multi-faceted brains is start (and re-start) our own new improved internal system, which plays in stereo with the original. If we work vigilantly enough, the new system becomes as audible as the Should Machine. And if we stay with it, we can maybe turn up the dial of the new system enough to drown out the system that—though designed to improve us—has over time turned defective, negative.

If you want to change something in yourself, does telling yourself you should be different than you are—should be better than you are—work? If so, keep it up. But when this no longer motivates you, and instead wears you down, try cultivating a new voice. One that says, It’s okay to feel exactly how you feel, because you’re you, and you are okay just the way you are. Try telling yourself, as many times a day as you can, that you’re already lovable, right here, right now, without a single improvement. See what happens when this voice takes hold. Feel the security of knowing you are okay. The relief of understanding you are not broken and in need of being fixed. Discover for yourself whether this new messaging system may be in fact more motivating, more compelling and inspirational than those effing repetitive outdated Shoulds.

On Rays of Hope – In Unlikely Moments



A little over a month before my father died—when death looked at least a decade away, and that decade promised nothing but more decline, heartache, and anguish for him—he said something I would like to adopt as a mantra. He told me—in response to the fact I was crying, admitting that it was incredibly sad to see him living with so much confusion—“Don’t worry, darling. Nature has a way of working things out, if you let it.”

He sounded as lucid as he had in years, and looked at me steadily, the light of hope saturating his blue eyes.  I believed him.

Until my rational mind set in.

My rational mind recognized that in this current situation, his statement seemed incredibly farfetched. He had recently lost his life savings and his beloved homestead in New Hampshire, and was actively losing his mind to what the autopsy revealed to be two advanced brain diseases. He was physically strong (“as an ox,” in the words of one of his doctors) and at 73 was likely to live a long time, requiring care he was currently unable to afford. It was a mess. He would say things that made no sense, like, “See that man over there?  He owes me ten thousand shoe laces.” And stare at the bottom of the salt-shaker in stupefied bafflement, as if wondering how the salt got out. But still: he really sounded convincing when he told me about Nature. About Nature having a way of working things out, if you let it. And I held onto that statement as a ray of hope in a bleak time.

A month later, he decisively stopped eating and drinking, pulling off his ten day feat of willing his own death—unfathomable, really, that he could muster that level of purposeful cognitive continuity, given that the week before, he got lost taking out the trash. So Nature did have a way of working things out!  My father was able to die a peaceful death surrounded by family. It was not the solution I would have ordered on an iPad menu (I would have selected: Nature miraculously heals my father’s brain), but it was a lot better than it could have been.

I was thinking of this the other day when I read about the emergency landing of the plane whose exploded engine broke a window, sucking out a passenger. The pilot, Tammi Jo Shults, was heroic. She calmly reassured passengers over the sound system while righting a tipping plane dropping thousands of feet per second, which she then landed safely on the tarmac in Philadelphia. Tammi Jo Shults not only must have resourced her own rays of hope in a dire moment, but transmitted them to her passengers as well. And, apparently, some of them were conducting hope transmissions of their own. One performed CPR for twenty minutes on the mortally wounded woman who’d been pulled back inside from the broken window by another passenger. And, in spite of the fact smoke was filling the cabin, some passengers repeatedly removed their oxygen masks amidst the chaotic descent to shout, “It’s Okay!  We’re going to do this!”

Did they know it was going to be okay, and they were going to do this? As in: experience the safe landing of the plane by a highly skilled and level-headed pilot? Or did they just draw on an inner reservoir of pumping hope and share it, as a wish, a cheer-lead prayer? Either way, who cares? They beamed hope in a situation that needed it. If they turned out to have been wrong, and everyone perished, at least they went down with rays of hope. If I can’t be like them in a situation like that (and you never know until the situation happens how you’re going to be), I at least want to sit next to people who can.

In the example of the emergency landing, Nature per se did not exactly take care of the situation—unless you count, as a facet of nature, an exceptional woman named Tammi Jo. Or maybe if you think of Nature as the Universe, God, some benevolent life force that kicks in and takes care of things, then in that case, Nature did take care of it.

Nature does not always come to the rescue in the way we want it to. Healing and solutions don’t always happen on our terms. But feeling hope that help is on the way cannot be a mistake. At the very least, we live in the presence of beams of hope. And what those light beams bring us in the moment is as important as what we hope they promise for the future.

On Self-Guardianship

two boats.jpg


However this happens (and there are plenty of possible theories, a couple of which I’ll mention), we are our own keepers.  We are the ones who live in our bodies, and, for better or worse, are responsible for navigating our lives.

Those of us with a spiritual bent might sense that we’re somehow assigned to ourselves—before incarnating.  Perhaps through some sort of divine contract. As if a benevolent force said (or transmitted) something along the lines of: “Okay, I’m about to send you to planet earth to inhabit a body and live a human life and you’re going to be the one: the one to live that life, the one to care for the person you are about to become, the one to learn its lessons, capice?”  Personally, I have no conscious memory of this happening, yet have the distinct almost incontrovertible sense that it did.

Others understand our inception in purely biological terms. Plenty of very intelligent, very rational people understand the presence of human life on planet earth as a random occurrence. A wild statistically improbable phenomenon that we would all end up here with our human bodies and highly developed brains on this one little planet in a galaxy of billions.

Whatever your belief about how we got here, and where we go when we leave this lifetime, I think we can all agree that each of us is the one living our own individual life. Each of us is our own keeper. In charge of how we conduct ourselves, responsible for making the choices we make. We are each possessed of the ability to treat ourselves with great kindness and care, or to sabotage our daily life, beating up our inner selves mercilessly. We can speak to ourselves (as most of our inner tape loops have been long ago programmed to do) with self-criticism and self-hate, or we can take the time and make the effort to reprogram our inner dialogue to be laced with kindness, even fueled by self-love.  This re-programming tends to be a lot of work (usually requiring the help of trained skilled humans who’ve figured out how to do this for themselves). But for some, prayer, meditation, or a spontaneous life-changing event can ignite the inner practice loving kindness, the commitment to take abiding care of self.

There are many opportunities in each of our lifetimes to forget.

To forget who we are.

To forget to take responsibility for self.

To forget that we are our own keeper.

To fall into autopilot, living numbly, obliviously, perhaps wreaking havoc on ourselves and others.  

Sometimes this happens with seemingly good intentions—like believing it is our job to live someone else’s life for them. We may think we are taking care of this other person, or (if your tendencies are codependent, then plural: these other people, perhaps scores of them).  But what is really happening when we get swept up in the attempt at heroism? At rescuing others? (Side note: if you are an EMT, or a doctor or first responder and you are in the act as of doing this as your job or to literally save someone from dying, that’s not what I am describing here.) What I am talking about is when we attempt to rescue someone else—at the expense of self. When we attempt to direct someone else’s life—and inadvertently abandon our own.

Imagine two boats out on the water, each with a single person at the helm. What happens to your boat when you dive off of it and swim over to the other person’s? This can happen not only through trying to direct that other person, or rescue them, by telling them how to think and feel and behave, but also alternatively, it can happen when you obsess on someone else. When you compare yourself relentlessly to another person. When your focus is on how somebody else is living his or her life, when you’re (to use 12 step language) taking their inventory, you’ve left your boat.  You’ve gone over to theirs. And who’s in your boat now? Who is at the helm? What is happening to it, your vessel, bobbing without a captain in the water?

Your job in this lifetime is to swim your ass back over to your boat and get in the helm. Your job is to care for this boat. Plug its holes, bail it out, keep it afloat. Enjoy being in this boat. Sure, you can communicate with other people in other boats. Collaborate, exchange observations, appreciations, feedback, requests, love. Feel free to communicate with as many people in as many boats as you choose to, but if you want to improve your experience of life, feel connected and cared for, safe and loved, do all this while staying in yours. 

Whether you think you got here to life on earth by random chance, or by some benevolent divine force, the fact is, you’re the one living your life. And you are your keeper. Chances are, you, like all of us, have undoubtedly abandoned yourself many times—most likely unintentionally, but perhaps on purpose. Maybe your own vessel is in such disrepair, you’d rather try to live in someone else’s. But the deal is, you can’t. None of us can. We’re here, in this life, as this person. It takes vigilance to keep coming back to self. To realize when we’ve abandoned ourselves, and to swim back to who we are.

What would it be like to take up the mantle of being your own keeper with the utmost of love, of honor, of commitment and care? What might your day—or life—be like if you kept remembering not only to come back to self, but, once there, inside yourself, to guide and care for who you are with the steadfast presence of a loving keeper?

On Reframing

3am photo


What is it about 3 am?  I rarely hear someone say, “I was up ruminating at 2 am,” or “I was tossing and turning, trying to solve the problems of the world at 4 in the morning.”  Those sentiments tend to come, almost always, with the timestamp of 3 am.

I was pondering this in the wee hours of the night, or morn rather, at 3 am today, as I lay awake.  I was wishing I were asleep, but then I remembered Rae. Rae, a spiritual teacher from India who borrowed my office when I was out of town teaching the Hoffman Process a couple years ago. Rae, who graced my small brick-walled room with his palpable wise energy.  I met Rae on the tail end of his stay, when I returned from California to my office in Cambridge, MA, and he was packing up to return to India.

We had a brief, pleasant exchange, as I came in and he went out, during which I believe I mentioned having some jet lag.

“Oh,” he said with a playful smile, “are you a member?” He squinted at me knowingly.

I didn’t know what he was asking, but his inviting grin made me want to say “Yes!”  Made me want to be a member. “Of what?” I asked.

“The 3 a.m. club,” Ray said.  “Were you awake last night at 3 am?  Thinking?”

“Yes!” I said, because I had been.

“It is a very busy, very important time for our club,” he said.  “We are all working hard at that hour to heal the world.”

Remembering that exchange last night—or this morning—gave my awakeness a welcome reframe.  (Which I offer to you, in case you’re a member of the club…) The reframe allowed me to be awake with a sense of peace, of purpose even.  A sense of acceptance, instead of vexing consternation. It continually astounds me how salutary a reframe like that can be. Turning what feels like an unwelcome occurrence—being up when I’d rather be sound asleep—into something I can accept and experience as somehow positive.  

When we are stuck in a rut of negative thinking, reframes are our friends.  

A client recently reframed his sense of being overwhelmed, into seeing his full life as an honor, as his calling to have been bestowed with such a surfeit of responsibility.  And somehow, viewing his many obligations as honors, as callings, versus burdens, while it did not exactly lift his load, shifted it. I could see in his posture a sense of lightening.  He sat up straighter, his shoulders dropped. His brow unfurrowed, and his eyes lit up. He was ready to face his life—versus fear and avoid it. Nothing had changed about his life at all, except his perspective.

Similarly, another client recently reframed her contention with her adult son.  Rather than continuing to use their fraught dynamic as evidence of her shortcomings as a parent, she said, “I suppose I could think of this as a growth opportunity—for both of us.  We clash, but maybe we clash so we can change.” And this reframe brought a smile to her face, a slight glow to her skin. Her discussing their relationship shifted into an exploration of what they both might be learning from this relational strife.

What in your life could use a reframe? What unwelcome experience might be able to be seen as being part of a healing club? What is overwhelming you that you could shift into an honor or calling? Is there a relational challenge going on that could be viewed as an invitation to grow and change? Reframing isn’t magical thinking. It isn’t pretending what is going on isn’t. It’s shifting the emphasis from being stuck to movement, from despair to what’s possible.  

On Vacation



I’ve been on vacation. Really, fully, on vacation. I’ve unwound, becoming so relaxed and in the moment that I literally do not know what day it is. I have been sleeping deeply, breathing deeply, laughing deeply—so much so that my body flops over in paroxysms of laughter. I am the me I prefer to hang out with most: my vacation self.  

There are a number of things I notice about my vacation self that I want to discuss here, but before I continue, there is a sub-layer to this topic I feel the need to excavate which is: being blessed. Having the privilege and luxury to go on vacation—and not only that, but to have people in my life who nourish my soul, family and friends I adore, with whom I get to vacation. Going public with blessings such as these is a mixed endeavor. It can seem like bragging. It can land as – or even be – insensitive to those lacking in the very things I wish to celebrate. I want to find a way to express my gratitude for when things are going bountifully well in my life that is not obnoxious.

I wrote a manuscript (not yet a published book) that I intended to be an exploration of two major miracles that happened in my life, a manifesto of gratitude for the blessed resolution of two life-and-death calamities—one that ended in a gentle death, the other in a full-blown resurrection to life. A true story in which the person who was supposed to live lived (my twelve-year-old daughter), and the one who needed to die died (my seventy-three-year-old father). But writing from gratitude about good fortune proved to be tricky. A tall order I haven’t yet quite achieved. My manuscript landed to a literary expert as a fairy tale lacking narrative tension, a memoir akin to hanging my blessings out to air on a long laundry line of narcissistic white privilege. (The “narrator”—aka me—coming across as the vacuous narcissist.) Needless to say, that was not at all my intention—and the critique landed like a punch to the gut, and a brutal wake-up call. I have time set aside this coming summer to try to tackle the challenge of rewriting the manuscript. Of writing from the perspective of gratitude, a glass half-full kind of lens (such as experiencing the gentle death of my beloved father as a blessing) without minimizing the pain of my experiences (such as the fact his death was also an untimely tragedy).  

So let me say that it is with some trepidation here that I go public here with the glories of re-discovering my vacation self. I know it is a blessing and a privilege to have just experienced this, and I am deeply grateful. This vacation allowed me to unhook from all sense of responsibility. To lose touch with the calendar. To not engage for a single second in scheduling (which is the bane of a work life I otherwise find soulful and fulfilling). My only duties have been to keep track of my belongings—meaning my skis, gloves, goggles, helmet, and ski pass—and to stay on the trail designated as our route. I have not lived up to these minor duties with anything close to perfection, but the impact of my mistakes causes only short-lived stress. Waiting in a ridiculously long line once to renew my ski pass. Ending up in (literally) another country by taking the wrong trail. Inconveniences that take place in the context of breathtaking natural beauty, fresh air, and the sound of so many other languages being spoken in my snowy radius.  There has also been the bigger overall responsibility of avoiding injury, which has been constantly present, but somehow without the nagging experience of stress. It’s on my mind, but lightly—not with tension, not causing contraction in my body.

I love who I am when I am not stressed. When I remember that the small stuff is just the small stuff and not to sweat it. I am so much more available for connection with my family and friends in my midst. I aspire to live in this state of being all the time. But I know the return to non-vacation life will bring with it the time pressure, the financial pressure, the conundrum of how to fit it all in. And I know this sense of pressure will cause my body to contract in certain ways at certain times, my breathing to become more shallow, even staccato now and then, my laughter less fluidly available. But my vacation self has an idea. My vacation self believes that we could experience life (whether on vacation or not) in a state like this—not necessarily as a vacation but at least as an adventure. A journey—and a short one at that. A finite visit to planet earth. One that has a beginning, a middle, and for every single one of us, an end. This journey, this adventure, will be and is replete with inconveniences and losses, joys and delights and discovery—all of which come and go, all of which show up and then pass.

When I tap into this reality in my daily life—inhabit the awareness that This Too Shall Pass, whatever it is, be it joy or distress, bounty or loss—I feel the presence of my vacation self. My vacation self remembers not to stress, because it’s all fleeting. It’s all—and by all, I mean not only every single event, be it a tragedy or a vacation, but also every single one of us—here and then gone. If we remember this, we can aspire not to stress out. Or when we do catch ourselves stressing, we can remember This Too Shall Pass. And loosen our grip on things. Take things a little more lightly. Breathe a little more deeply. Laugh a little more readily. Be the self whose constant companionship we enjoy most.