Write Your Life Better

Many of us get stuck in our ruts and move through the routines of our lives without giving much thought to what we could be. But what if we actually took a bit of time to deeply imagine and write about our best possible future selves? It could be life-changing.

Much of the research into expressive writing—writing that simply expresses what is in our hearts and on our minds—asks people to write about a traumatic experience or an emotional upheaval. As it turns out, this model as created by Dr. James Pennebaker is a therapeutic exercise. Many of the writers in about 300 studies since the mid-1980s have experienced better physical and emotional health, along with other benefits.

However, Dr. Laura King wondered if it was necessary to write about something painful to receive the benefits. So she and her colleagues conducted studies in which they asked people to write about positive experiences instead. Many of these people also experienced positive outcomes, such as a boost in psychological well-being, improved overall performance, significantly more happiness, and in some instances, even better health.

One of her exercises is called the Best Possible Future Self. She asked people to write for twenty minutes for three days in a row, using these instructions: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

One thing I add to this exercise is to choose a future date when you want to be living as your best possible self and write that date on your journal entry. Then write in present tense, as if you are already living this life. Write in the style of “I am doing this” instead of “I will do this.” Using present tense for a future event helps you to move toward your goals by making them more real to your brain.

If you like, you can begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes, eyes closed, and letting your best possible future blossom in your imagination. Then pick up your pen and go!

For the best results, do this exercise on the next two days too. You will learn more about yourself and your priorities. You might also better understand your motives and emotional reactions, along with gaining a feeling of more control over your life. All of which will enhance your Living, Breathing Story.

Gratitude and 1000 Things

I recently spoke at the local Unitarian Universalist church about gratitude and gratitude journaling. This is one of my favorite subjects because people generally feel good after writing about something for which they are grateful. And I love it because I can include a little of the fascinating information that research has discovered about gratitude. People might be a little more encouraged to be grateful when they know that an ongoing practice of sincere gratitude can help lower their blood pressure and strengthen their immune system, help them feel more optimistic and less depressed, and also block toxic emotions, among other benefits.

But this time, I wanted to do something a little different, so I created an experiment for myself. A week before my talk, I decided to see if I could write a really long list of things I am grateful for. One journaling technique I often use and include in some of my programs is a List of 100. This can be a list of 100 anythings, like things that stress me out, things I want to do before I die, or, yes, even things that I am grateful for. The idea is to go as fast as you can, write one word or short phrase, and you can repeat.

But listing only 100 things I am grateful for is way too easy. I could do that, and probably not repeat myself, in about 20 or 30 minutes. So I chose to write a list of 1,000 things I am grateful for. I figured I could do 100 a day. But midweek, I realized I didn’t have 10 days, and I was going to be gone all of Saturday, the day before my talk. So, on Friday, I listed about 350, and then finished up with the last 20 on Sunday morning before leaving for the church. Some of the items are repeats, but not many.

Some are profound, including Ken and all the love and support he gives me, my good health, my parents and siblings, my work, waking up every day for nearly 66 years, and even “all the events over all of history that led to me being alive and writing my list.” Others were much less profound, like canned beans (we love them and I hate cooking beans from scratch), pens and paper, ceiling fans, and nonstick pots and pans. In between were clean hot and cold running water, the autumn colors on the trees, and wine. And yes, chocolate was there, too. I am grateful to one degree or another for everything on my list. Plus, the act of listing them opened my eyes to so many things I take for granted but without which my life would not be so happy, satisfying, and easy in many ways.

I gave my talk and at the end asked people to write down 10 things they are grateful for. Most of them had no problem with that. Then I revealed my list of 1000 and asked them to write “990 more things I am grateful for” under their 10 and invited them to try it sometime. I said they could write it in chunks over time but to keep going until they reached 1000, including repeats. I don’t know if anyone at the church will respond to my invitation but hope they do.

I added one more research tidbit about gratitude in my talk: Gratitude can actually change your brain in positive ways. When you start actively cultivating gratitude, your brain will encourage you to keep looking for more things for which to be grateful. That’s because gratitude activates brain regions associated with dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is important in initiating action, which makes you more likely to do the same thing again because it makes you feel good. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for even more things to be grateful for, which creates a positive cycle, which can change your life in a beneficial direction.

I invite you to write your own list of 1000 things you are grateful for. If you think about it, over the course of your entire life, there would be way more than a mere 1000. With enough time and determination, you can hit that number even before Thanksgiving.

One of these days, I will do this exercise again. By then, there will be even more things I can be grateful for. Probably even 1000 more.

Untangling the Story

As soon as I learned to read, I read. And read and read. Books by the armful, even entire volumes of the Golden Book Encyclopedia. Did I say I loved reading? And even though I knew I could never be a writer, when the editor of our eighth-grade classroom newspaper (on whom I had a serious crush, by the way) asked us all what career we would like to have, I said, “writer.” How amazing it would be to use words to entertain, move, and inform other people the way so many writers did for me! But no, I could never be a writer.

In college my first major was English because I didn’t know what else to choose (and it meant a lot of reading!). I changed it after a couple of years because I never wanted to teach and knew I could never be a writer. After graduation, I ended up in various jobs, none of which ever fed my soul, and even left me miserable at times. Then in my mid-30s, I applied for a corporate writing job, thinking, Why not? To my amazement, I was hired. I learned so much there and finally became a real writer. After six years, I liberated myself to begin a freelance writing career of nearly 20 years, which I loved and which taught me so much about myself.

The Universe works in mysterious ways, does it not? I am deeply grateful for all the twists and turns, beautiful as well as ugly, that delivered me to that life-changing job (and finally to my calling as a journal facilitator). As Don Henley sings, “For everyone who helped me start and for everything that broke my heart, for every breath, for every day of living, this is my Thanksgiving.”

Looking back, I can see how various experiences, beliefs, and often improbable circumstances kept me on the crazy path that eventually took me to where I needed to be, even though I had mistakenly believed—all together now!—I could never be a writer. If all those story threads could be mapped (and they can’t), the result would resemble an immense nest that could never be untangled.

Even so, I’ve enjoyed tugging on some of those threads in my journal: how going here instead of there led me to this person, which led me to a new experience; how listening to my intuition at a particular moment opened up new avenues of perception and experience; and yes, how so many books seemed to fall into my lap to expand my awareness at just the right times.

In this on-and-off writing over the years, I have learned so much about my Living, Breathing Story that would have remained hidden in memory. Far more than thinking alone could ever do, the writing has revealed an ongoing story arc I had never realized before and which I am learning to use as a guide into the rest of my life.

If you would like to attempt untangling some of your Living, Breathing Story, here are some ways to go:

  • The Steppingstones (by Ira Progoff) This exercise might seem too involved at first, but once you do it a couple of times, you’ll see how powerful it is. You can do it many times about many aspects of your life. https://www.lifejournal.com/articles/the-steppingstones-of-ira-progoff/
  • Recall one significant experience that put you on a new path: What brought you to that experience in the first place? Who played a role in it? Was it expected or a surprise? What made it significant? How did it change you? etc. You can write about it or do a cluster or mind map.
  • Imagine holding one thread of that nest of your Living, Breathing Story in your life right now or some aspect of it. If you start following or tugging on that thread, where does it lead? Is it a straight line or does it loop or spiral or circle back on itself? Can you see the other end far away, even if you don’t know the in-between part, and describe it? What’s at the place of origin? etc.

Which Door Do You Choose, and Why?

Do you remember the old game show Let’s Make a Deal? Contestants had to choose Door #1, #2, or #3 and would win the prize behind their chosen door. Some of the prizes were spectacular, like a new car or an expensive vacation to an exotic location. Others, not so much. For some reason, this show popped into my mind recently, and it got me thinking about doors and doorways.

Every day we walk through doorways of many kinds. Some of them are literal—from one room to the next or an entrance to a building. (Did you know there is research that shows how walking through a doorway makes us forget?)

Other doors are metaphorical—as in the phrase, “When one door closes, another one opens,” for instance. (You can substitute a window in this one, too.)

Sometimes the passage through the door is wide open and clear. We might stride through with confidence. Or we might trip and fall on our face as we step through it. Other times, the door might be closed—or even locked. Do we open it or not? Take a risk or stay safe?

Here are some ways you can explore the doors in your life—the ones chosen and not—and the ways in which they affected you. These exercises can offer interesting insights into yourself and your Living, Breathing Story and its successes and challenges. Write for at least 7 minutes on each one, but go as long as you like.

  1. Playwright Tom Stoppard wrote, “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” Think of a time when you voluntarily exited a place, situation, event, or experience and it turned out to be an entrance into something new. If you want a prompt to get started, you can try one of these: When I left… OR Leaving _________ behind… OR A new door opened when I…
  2. Next, make a list of 5 literal doorways you have walked through during the past week. Then choose one and write about that doorway and where it led you. Consider including a brief physical description of the doorway and the structure it is a part of, but especially explore why you walked through it and what the result was. (You can do this with all 5 doors if you like.)
  3. Recall a metaphorical doorway you were forced to move through: health to illness, marriage to divorce, old job to new job (or no job), etc. Describe this doorway and how moving through it changed you or what you learned.
  4. Finally, what is one special doorway you hope yet to enter during your life? Write about this in present tense, as if it were already happening.

Joy and Sorrow

My visit to Tucson was such a joy. It could not have been better. My two journaling programs were well-received, which always makes me happy. My rental car was a zippy 2018 fire-engine red Kia Soul—not my usual kind of car, but it’s all that was available in my category—and I had a ball driving it. I went back to some favorite restaurants, as well as some new ones, and enjoyed every meal. But the best part of the visit was reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen since Ken and I moved away in 2011, or even before then.

In every single case, it felt as if we had been together just yesterday. We all picked up right where we left off and caught up with what’s been going on in our lives. It brought me great joy to know that, despite being physically separated by many miles, our heart connections are still strong and thriving. I relish my friendships with all of them: Marilyn N., Becky, Marge, Meira (and Jasmine), Laurie, Norm, Nan, Dave, (and now Rhonda), Wendy, Val (and now Steph), Susan, Allen, Todd, Joy, Steve, and Marilyn G.

Then, several days after I came home to Indiana, the morning news blared with the tragedy in Las Vegas, with the tally eventually reaching 59 dead and more than 500 injured, all at the hands of one man high up in a hotel room stocked with way, way too many guns. My joy was blasted away, replaced by shock and sorrow.

I’ve been struggling since then, seeking solace and wondering, as are so many, why we continue to let this kind of horror happen. I have no answers, only a heart that keeps threatening to close itself off in self-protection against yet another senseless, horrific tragedy—perhaps one that will fall upon someone I love.

I refuse to let that happen, though. So I keep turning to my journal. Into its pages, I pour out my anguish and my questions, my fears and confusion. Imagining what it might be like for the families of the 59 and the many injured and their families, I wrote about how it feels to hear the news that someone you love deeply is suddenly in ICU because of another’s actions and it’s too early to know how your lives might be changed forever. Those feelings of terror and utter helplessness, bewilderment and anger all flooded back to me.

And I keep returning to writing about what is good in my life—there is so much good—and my gratitude for all of it. And I write about the love that is always, everywhere present—one deranged man did so much damage, but look at the many more people who took great risks to protect others, saved lives, drove the wounded to hospitals, lined up to donate blood, tended to and comforted the wounded and their families. Right now, those things seem small in the face of the gigantic horror that was visited upon a peaceful, happy concert—but that’s what important and what we must cling to. As this quotation attributed to Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Because in that helping is much love and goodness we need to remember.

Despite what the 24-hour news cycle would have us believe, there is infinitely more good in the world than bad. It’s hard to see it on many days, I know. But it’s true, so pay more attention to what’s good in your life. Remember that your brain physically changes depending upon what you think about: neurons that fire together wire together. Do your best to seek out and concentrate on all the good in your world, in this entire world. Write about it often. Talk about it. Cherish it. Savor it. This does not mean to bury your head in the sand or to be a Pollyanna; it’s still important to take healthy, positive action, whatever that might be for you. But remember that putting energy into something makes it grow stronger within you and in the world, so take care of yourself and choose carefully.

Memories Are Made of This

It’s been hectic here lately, as I prepare to leave on a trip to Tucson. In my 12 years there, I met and married Ken, we survived his traumatic brain injury and my bout with breast cancer, and I began my journaling work. While I’m there, I’ll have an opportunity to visit our old home and meet the new owner. I’m looking forward to that.

The vista from our large back windows began with the Catalina Mountains off to the right and then ranged for miles, all the way across the valley to the far side of the high-desert city. From our cozy vantage point, we watched the monsoon rains roll towards us from the horizon, often leaving behind a glorious sunset, and marveled as the turkey buzzards—ugly birds up close—transformed into gorgeous gliders as they soared on the thermals, circling up and up and up until they disappeared from view. Coyotes regularly loped across the open desert of our backyard. A bobcat or two appeared over the years, more hesitant than the coyotes. Javelina, too, often barreled through, at least before the neighborhood was built up.

As I now sit here in the much greener landscape of Southwestern Indiana, remembering my time in Tucson conjures so many memories. I am aware of them as thoughts but also as physical sensations I can’t really name. Is “nostalgia” a physical thing? Sure feels like it. Our brains can’t really distinguish between what we experience and what we imagine, so when I recall the lush beauty of that harsh landscape blossoming after the heavy rains, the delicate, just-washed fragrance of the desert, and the sensation of the cool, post-rain air against my skin, my body feels much the same joyous sensations as it did then. Then there was the morning after a rare snowfall that left an inch or two of white blanketing everything from our patio for miles up to the tops of the Catalinas (the photo above)—the brilliant memory makes my breath catch nearly as much as it did on that day. I feel almost transported back there.

Searching for the exact words to communicate all of this is hard, but discovering the ones that convey what I want to say brings up a “felt sense, “ a little internal sizzle, a tiny “yes!” somewhere in physical body as a result of my thoughts. Have you ever noticed this feeling, as you write or paint or do something you love but which takes a little effort?

This inseparable linkage between mind and body—wait, it’s not a link; the two really are one entity, a bodymind is more like it—this is the reason I love the whole concept of A Living, Breathing Story. It’s because that is what we are. And we are always capable of positive change. It might not be easy, but it is possible, with the right tools (journaling sure is helpful), determination, and the belief that it is possible.

Everyone, you have a good week while I’m gone, presenting a couple of workshops and visiting with old friends in old haunts. And if you’ve a mind to try them, here are a few journaling prompts that can help you experience your bodymind.

  • Recall a pleasant vivid experience from your memory. Sit quietly for a few moments as you let it wash over you and experience the physical sensations again: What did you see, hear, smell, feel, and/or taste? When you are ready, begin writing about that experience with as much sensory detail as possible. Keep your pen moving for 10 minutes or longer, until the writing feels complete. Pay attention to the ways your memories (thoughts) affect your physical body and record that after the main write is done.
  • Sit in a favorite spot, either indoors or out, quietly observing and taking in what your senses pick up: sights, smells, tastes, sounds, touch. Write them down as you become aware of them and then explore your thoughts about them. Don’t judge or criticize: it’s all good.
  • Over several days, take a few minutes to write down your thoughts and how your body feels about them. Once you get some experience with this, it will become easier to determine what’s really going on inside during confusing times because your body always responds to your thoughts.

 

 

Expressing Doubts

“Send me someone who has doubts about it/Who has conquered their own fear and lived to tell about it.” This line from David Crosby’s song “Dangerous Night” always touches my heart—-so much pain and longing and hope there. Admitting doubt these days requires courage and, oddly enough, great conviction—-that if perhaps I am wrong after all, if I am willing to start again should that be necessary, then perhaps I can believe in and live a new Story. Those who gather up their bravery and publicly admit, however hesitantly, that they are now not quite so sure of a position are quickly pounced on, called “cowardly” or “weak” by those who, underneath all the bluster, are the real cowards and weaklings.

But how do we know what we truly believe unless we can turn it over in our mind and examine it first, poke and prod it for a while, to see if it contains mysteries—-wondrous or scary-—to be revealed? How can we make changes for the better unless we first question our experience and the meanings we have attached to it? After all, we create our Living, Breathing Story with those meanings we invent—-and that creates our experience of reality. Unless we can admit doubt and question those meanings from time to time, we remain frozen in the current reality and can never blossom into our fullest, best selves.

I understand that doubt or questioning can lead to severe consequences. We can be cast out, shunned, by those who we thought loved and supported us. We can be trolled and threatened online. Or kicked out of political office or of a job, even a family. Still, those among us who can admit they might be having second or even third thoughts are to be heard with respect and compassion. We must honor their bravery. Whether they ultimately change their beliefs or not, they did the most important thing: they asked the questions. As individuals and as a society, we cannot survive—-and most certainly cannot thrive-—without questions and doubts about what we have come to believe.

If you keep a journal, you already have a safe, private place to ask your questions. There, in its pages that quietly and without judgment accept everything you have to say, you can express all doubts, questions, fears, anxieties, whatever is on your mind. Your journal is the place where you can ask them first, formulate and revise them, work through them. Then, once you have gained clarity on your position, you can share them with others if you choose. Or not. It’s absolutely up to you.

Here are some prompts to get you started:
• I used to believe _____________, but now I’m not so sure because ….
• The question or doubt I most want to express is….
• I am doubtful….
• The scariest thing that might happen if I express my doubts….
• The best thing that can happen if I express my doubts…
• In the past, I questioned ___________ and I….
• I survived doubting ____________ and now I can survive (even thrive) when I express my doubts about….
• Imagine the best possible outcome of expressing your doubts or questions and write about it, with as much detail as possible.

Do Old Habits Have to Die Hard?

The other day Ken sneezed and I immediately said, “Bless you.” I’ve done this thousands of times over my lifetime when someone sneezed. My Catholic parents trained me to say “God bless you” so I still do it, decades later, even though I’m no longer religious. When I don’t say it, a feeling of incompleteness hangs in the air, waiting to be filled.

But this time, I got to wondering why so many of us automatically say it—how did this habit become part of the cultural Living, Breathing Story for so many people? Where did it originate?

Turns out, there are several possible explanations. Using this phrase most likely began because of an ancient superstition that a sneeze either let the body release evil spirits or opened the body to them. “God bless you” was a way of offering protection. Since people hundreds of years ago believed evil spirits were real and did not know a sneeze was simply a physical response to an irritation in the nose, offering this blessing made sense. Still, it continues today when we know better (although it never hurts to offer kind words or blessings to someone).

You have probably heard this story, or a similar one: A woman has a holiday roast ready to bake, but before putting it in the oven, she cuts off both ends. One day her husband asks her why she does this, since to him this seems a strange, wasteful habit. She says she grew up watching her mother do this same thing. So when her mom comes for dinner, the woman asks her about it. The mother’s response: Her oven was very small, so she had to cut the roast down to fit into her only pan that would fit into the oven.

We all do this same thing all the time: unthinkingly repeating habits and beliefs handed down to us from our family, community, or culture, believing they are real or necessary or “that’s just the way it is.” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

Innumerable ancient habits and beliefs—positive and negative—remain implanted in us in the 21st century. They are part of the “water” of Story in which we live immersed, so much a part of us and our thinking we do them automatically. Like sending blessings to a sneezing person, they have become part of our traditions or cultures, even woven into our DNA and brain structures.

Whatever these beliefs or habits may be, they fill a need, answer a question, or make meaning out of something confusing or incomprehensible—or at least they once did. We humans do not like uncertainty; there is safety in familiarity, often no matter how painful or ridiculous. Furthermore, from the last trimester of pregnancy through age 7, our brains are like little sponges without defenses, simply absorbing without question whatever we learn or experience—and much of that is not positive, by any means. Our experiences during that time shape our reality, locked into our subconscious and thereafter running the show—as much as we like to believe we have conscious control of ourselves, the conscious mind is a mere 5 percent of our entire mind! (More information here.)

Fortunately, though, we can change those old, subconscious beliefs if we realize they no longer serve us well. Many methods exist for this undoing process (see the link above again). I include journaling, since it’s a proven method of self-directed change and is adaptable to every person and circumstance. Remember that you need not be a “good” writer and that journaling has no rules. When you write regularly, it’s common to see patterns and trends in your life—and to notice when some of those no longer serve you well. If you want to explore some previously unexamined areas of your life, here are some journaling prompts you can use:

1. When you have a negative behavior or thought you would like to release, or you’re simply curious about one, write a letter to it. You can begin by writing a brief description of the behavior or thought, and then continue with “Dear (behavior or thought),” and go from there. Simply write whatever comes to mind about it. Allow yourself enough time to let your mind wander over the subject as thoroughly as you can. Do this exercise as often as necessary until it feels complete.

2. As a twist on the above technique, you can also write a letter from your behavior or thought to you, in which it explains, perhaps, how it came to be, why it wants to stay or is willing to go, etc. You can let your imagination have fun with this one! It can give you an entirely new perspective on the situation.

3. You can reinforce your new habit (whether it be healthier eating or a replacing a negative belief with a more positive one) by writing often about how it feels to live with a new pattern. Write in the first person present tense: “I am doing this now…,” rather than, “I will do this…” By doing this exercise repeatedly over time, you override the neural pathways holding the old habit in place with new pathways that reinforce the new habit.

The Good and Bad of Labels

Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Environmentalist. Polluter. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Black. White. Capitalist. Communist. And on and on.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we so naturally place labels on things and people and how they affect our Living, Breathing Story. Neurologically speaking, that labeling is a good thing—it allows our brains to make sense of the world so we can more easily navigate through it. Imagine if every time you saw a maple tree or a cell phone or a stop light—or anything else, for that matter—you had to stop and decide what it did, how it would affect you, what it meant to you, and what it was called. You would spend your life in utter confusion and chaos. Thankfully, your brain is very good at naming and categorizing things.

But these names and categories don’t exist in a vacuum. They all have emotional associations connected to them. While this further helps you function more easily in the world, it also leads to many potential problems in interactions with other human beings, each of whom has his or her own associations with the labels (see how confusing this can get?) .

The words at the top of this post are simple words we invented to describe people—but each one is also loaded with a host of mental, emotional, and physical responses. We all have our own positive or negative reactions to them (remember that “negative” and “positive” are relative terms, depending totally on the perception of each individual), and so we react accordingly. And not always for the better.

What about the labels we assign to ourselves? You know, like “too old/fat/dumb,” or “not good/smart/accomplished enough.” And on and on. You’ll notice that those labels are all negative or limiting in some way. Of course, we have positive labels for ourselves, too, but because our brain has a natural negativity bias, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into its clutches and tilt towards the negative. As you well know, that kind of self-labeling doesn’t exactly leave us feeling good about ourselves or eager to explore new situations.

Our labels originate from many sources: family, teachers, religion, society, culture, history, to name only a few. In reality, most of them are false. But when we believe them, they solidify within our Living, Breathing Story to become our self-image.

In Mark Matousek’s brilliant new book, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, & Self-Discovery, he writes eloquently about self-image, that “portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be…It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.” (My italics.)

“How does self-image become so entrenched?” asks Matousek. “Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to thinks solidifies them in our minds.”

And then, when we believe a label, when we “settle upon a story,” says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, “we must live it as if it were true. We must perform it by living it. By enacting the story, by living as if it were true, we make it so. We make it true.” (Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process)

In other words, we invent these labels—these little stories—and then when we believe them, we live them.

But there’s good news! Since we invented them in the first place, we can re-invent them or what they mean. Or create new labels altogether. Remember that it’s not always healthy to believe everything you think.

I invite you to try some journaling to experience labeling for yourself. Please be as honest as you can. Your journal is private, so no one else will see what you write.

• Look at the words at the top of this post. It’s likely you will have some strong reactions to some of them (and it’s okay to admit that). Choose one that describes you and write about yourself in that context. Then choose one you believe is its opposite, and write about your beliefs regarding someone described by that word. Do this for several word pairs.

Now change your focus. Choose one of the “opposite” words you chose earlier and write about yourself in that context. Do this for several word pairs.

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

• Consider the labels or names you apply to yourself. Write down five of them. Where did they come from? Do you believe them? Live them? How? For the ones that don’t serve you well, what would you like to replace them with? (Even if you don’t yet believe you can replace them with something more positive, write anyway. Give yourself permission.) How do you feel emotionally and physically when you compare the two versions of yourself?

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

How Have Your Personal Myths Shaped You?

Your life is built on any number of myths. I don’t mean that as an insult, or that your life is not true or has not happened. Far from it. As one of my favorite authors Unitarian Universalist minister Kate Braestrup said in a sermon some years ago: “A myth is a story that illustrates the organizing principles by which we are able to understand and live in the world.” While we often think of myths as cultural stories, such as those from ancient Greece or many indigenous cultures, myths can be personal as well. Each one of us is still creating—and living—our own myths, our own organizing principles, today.

Our personal myths are those stories we naturally create, mostly unconsciously, to make sense of our lives and our world. Blended together, they create our Living, Breathing Story, the personal account of who and what we believe ourselves to be, which determines how we experience reality. (See more.)

Here’s one of my myths. I grew up believing the only way to support myself was to work for someone else. By fitting into some kind of corporate structure and doing the work assigned, I would receive a paycheck, which would pay for all of life’s necessities.

Yet although I worked in Corporate America for several decades and even moved up the ladder, my deepest heart never fully committed itself. Despite often feeling a fraud but believing no other options were open to me, I soldiered on. After all, this myth implanted in the structure of my brain (as are all our myths) insisted I did not have the skills, talent, or courage to live any other way. Believing it, I lived it.

However, desperate circumstances forced me to explore and finally change that myth.

My last “real job,” as I jokingly call it, became so physically and emotionally painful, the only way to save myself was to break free. Yet doing this took several years of tortuous questioning and self-exploration, which filled up many journals. Gradually, I became able to “listen with the ear of my heart,” to quote St. Benedict, and realized I could live in an entirely new way. My old myth morphed into a new one that gave me the courage to take a risk: I liberated myself from corporate life and eagerly jumped into the life of a freelance writer. After all, I thought, if it didn’t work out, corporate life was still available, however painful it might be.

To my amazement, that was never necessary. I was fortunate enough to succeed.

By changing my inner myth (but not knowing that’s what I did), I was able to follow my soul’s calling and do my work wholeheartedly and often joyfully. Later I realized that the traumatic nature of my last job forced me to stop coasting along, living half a life out of fear. In all the years since then, my life has changed for the better in innumerable ways. I am grateful for all of it, even the original pain, because, like a baby bird pushed out of the nest, I learned to fly.

What are some of your personal myths? What do you believe about yourself and your world? What are the organizing principles that that shape your experience of reality?

You can use your journal to explore these elements of your Living, Breathing Story. Here are some prompts you can use. Write for at least 20 minutes for each one you choose:

• Jot down a list of five ideas or concepts you believe about the world (examples: religious beliefs, political leanings, life is a bitch and then you die, or life is good, etc). Then choose one and explore it: Where did it (or might it have) come from? Has it changed over time? In what ways? How does it affect your life? Does believing it help you feel better—or worse?

• Write about one time in which you deliberately changed your life, as I did with my work. How did you come to that decision? What was the result? What did you learn from the process? How can you use what you learned in other situations?

• Knowing what you now know about personal myths, what are some of the organizing principles you use to understand and live in the world? Make a short list and choose one to write about in more depth. Does it serve you well, or not? Do you want to keep it, or change it? Why?

• If you could exchange one of your less-than-happy personal myths for a better one, what would it be and how would you change it?