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Wandering, Meandering, and Yet…

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” Thomas Merton

Ever have one of those days—or weeks or month or years—where you just can’t seem to get where you think you want to go? Instead, you wander and meander and backtrack and….finally end up exhausted and frustrated. Maybe you even choose to quit. Yet, later on, you come to see that this was the best route to get where you really wanted to go, even if way back in the beginning you didn’t know you wanted to go there.

When I look back over my life, never in a million years could I have predicted I would come to this good place where I am now. Married to the love of my life after being divorced for more than twenty years. Leaving corporate life in 1993 to be a freelance writer (and actually succeeding at that for about two decades!). Then in my late 50s finding my calling in becoming a certified journal facilitator, originally inspired by the experience of caring for my husband after his brain injury. Who woulda thunk? Not me.

Life is like that, as you already know. The weirdest, seemingly most inconvenient, painful, or unexpected experience can send us down a whole new path, which can lead to places we never imagined. I’m grateful for everything that has brought me to this point, maybe even more for the painful than the pleasant ones because they taught me more.

These past few months have been particularly vexing. I spent most of 2017 working to get a new journaling program off the ground, one I loved and was excited about. For whatever reason, it didn’t work, and finally, I had to grieve it and let it go. Then, I wasn’t sure what my new focus might be. Like the river in the photo above, I felt like I was wandering aimlessly in a bleak landscape.

Fortunately, I have been through this kind of situation before and trusted that somehow the answer would reveal itself. I journaled and pondered, contemplated and journaled some more. Talked with wise friends, who were very patient with me.

And slowly the answer appeared. I now have a new focus for my journaling work that makes me happy and enthusiastic once again. I’m not ready to reveal it yet but will soon. (Don’t you love suspense?)

The Thomas Merton quote above has long been one of my favorites. I can go for long stretches and forget its wisdom. But every time I come back to it, it restores me and encourages me to embrace my wandering, knowing that I will eventually come home.

For your journal:

Write about a time when you believed you were headed to a certain destination, only to be (apparently) thrown off course by Life, but you later discovered it offered you a whole new landscape to explore. What were the circumstances? What did they mean to you? How did your life change as a result?

What is a quotation that inspires or energizes you in some way? Copy it into your journal and describe how it makes you feel, why it resonates with you, times it has helped you. (I have a tiny journal into which I only copy short quotations that are meaningful to me. It is a valuable resource when I need to be uplifted or inspired.)

Find a photo that symbolizes the way you feel. What metaphor does it evoke in you? What emotion does it produce? Why is it such a good symbol at that moment? Write about it with as much sensory detail as you can, even wax poetic if you like.

Mysterious Messages and Meanings

Movement outside my large home-office window caught my eye: a gorgeous hawk (a Cooper’s, perhaps) had flown in to sit on the utility line directly in my line of sight. With its back to me, tail occasionally flicking for balance, it sat for several minutes, regally surveying its environment. I watched it with awe and gratitude. Then it lifted up and flew to another nearby spot on the line, where it rested again. Finally, as I craned my neck to watch, it spread its powerful wings and flew off out of sight.

I had seen hawks in our neighborhood but never before had one come so close or stayed so long. As a believer in synchronicities and messages from the Universe, I immediately pulled out my Medicine Cards book to investigate what Hawk’s message might be. When it flew in, I was writing my previous blog post, Brains and Change, and feeling a stir of excitement and enthusiasm again after a time of feeling scattered and unsure about some aspects of my work. Hawk’s appearance at that moment felt significant and validating.

The book explained that Hawk is a messenger that teaches me to be observant and watch my surroundings, even for the obvious, because “life is sending you signals.” The magic of life was coming to me, it said, which could “imbue (me) with the power to overcome a currently stressful or difficult situation.” Pay attention! says Hawk, for I am “only as powerful as (my) capacity to perceive, receive, and use (my) abilities.” Hawk medicine is “a totem that is filled with responsibility, because Hawk people see the overall view….Hawk medicine people are aware of omens, messages from the spirit…” therefore I should “be aware of the signals in (my) life—so notice and receive them.”

Since that day, several strong intuitions have come to me—messages I could not ignore. The first was a message so clear it was as if someone had spoken it directly into my ear. It told me to take my cell phone downstairs with me when I went to work out—something I never do. But I did as ordered and within minutes, a call arrived from someone I dearly love who was in the midst of a crisis.

Another message was even more crucial. My mother was in hospice, and my husband and I were going to leave on Tuesday morning to see her. But then I knew that we had to go on Monday. We were able to see her one last time that afternoon; Mom died the next morning before we normally would have left for the six-hour trip.

We returned home on Wednesday, and the next morning I had a brief but distinct dream in which Mom and I were talking on a phone, and in a faint but clear voice, she told me she was okay and not to worry, creating a feeling of deep peace within me. Her voice faded, and then as I looked up, there sat a magnificent brown- and black-feathered hawk, looking right into my eyes.

As I write about these intuitive events, and others, in my journal, I continue to discover more information and am amazed by what I can learn if only I pay attention.

What signs or synchronicities have come to you? What meanings have you given to them? How do you allow them to play out in your Living, Breathing Story?

Brains and Change

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Max Planck

Anger, hatred, and intolerance really are only stories we tell ourselves, as are compassion, love, and inclusion. With so much of the former flying around today, it pays to understand something about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of our brains to change over a lifetime. The more we do something, including having the same thoughts and performing the same actions, the more our brains physically conform to them, so that we keep thoughtlessly keep repeating them, regardless of whether they benefit us or harm us. Even more crucial, being exposed to the same things over and over does the same:

“…the external world comes to be represented within our brains and actually forms our physical brain’s synaptic (nerve) connections so that we have a model or mirror of the external world. As inside, so outside. As above, so below. This happens through our internalization of the stories that are being told around us.” (Lewis Mehl-Madrona, PhD, in Healing the Mind Through the Power of Stories.)

Thus, the more we hate and are exposed to hate, the more our brains lead us to hate. The more we love and are exposed to love, the more our brains lead us to love. All the vitriol we are now exposed to on a daily basis is changing us because of this process of internalization—but we can make it a positive change if we make a conscious effort to change our stories about what is happening in the world and within each one of us. Focus on love, compassion, and inclusion instead. Focus on what you love and would love to see happen instead of being overly and unendingly angry about what seems to be happening (righteous anger in the face of injustice is good and often necessary, but channel it into more positive emotions and actions instead). Work for positive change in ways that satisfy you and make you feel good, instead of hating and fighting against the people and policies you don’t like. You can tell which path you are on by the way your actions and thoughts make you feel inside.

One person at a time, we can restore ourselves and so create a better story for everyone. Yes, it’s hard but yes, we can.

In your journal:
Write about a positive change you would like to see in the world and how you might help it come about in positive, loving, compassionate ways. This does not have to be an earthshaking, grand, or grandiose thing. Remember that, often, the best thing we can do to promote positive change is to do the smaller things we can do within our own sphere of influence. What can you do in your own family and circle of acquaintances to make their world a better place?

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.

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.

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.

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?

The Power of “Yet”

This tiny, common word packs a ton of hope—and your body knows it. “Yet” can be a trusted guide through the Foreboding Forest of Fear or a safe passage across the Ocean of Doubt. It encourages you to keep going when perhaps you would rather just turn around and climb back under the covers. While it does not guarantee success—a fish will never be able to climb a tree, no matter how much it tries—it can improve your odds.

Think of something you want to accomplish but haven’t been able to. Maybe it’s not so grand as a desire to complete your first marathon, although it can be; perhaps it’s just making it around the block after years of too many doughnuts and not enough exercise. Maybe, despite numerous hours of practice with your violin, you still can’t play that one passage in “The Lark Ascending” with the right touch of passion, and sometimes not even the right notes. Perhaps your attempts at knitting have several times fallen flat. Or you may be grieving a lost dream and believe you will never be able to release it and move forward.

Think about your situation as you sit quietly, eyes closed. Then say aloud several times, “I can’t do this,” and really mean it. Pay attention to how you feel in your body.

Then do it again, only this time say, “I can’t do this—yet” several times with emotion. Once more, pay attention to any physical sensations you might have. Do you feel different than when you said you could not do it? If not, that’s fine. But with practice, you will begin to notice that you likely feel lighter and somehow more uplifted. Those sensations are your mindbody at work, instantly transforming your thoughts into the physical sensations that blossom from the hormones and neurochemicals your body produces in response—and building new networks in your brain that will help you reach your goal.

You have just experienced the power of “yet.” Can’t or can’t yet: Each one is a story you tell yourself, and each one creates your particular experience of reality.

“Yet” is a marker of a growth mindset that can help you improve your brain power and motivation over time. In her research with students, Carol Dweck has discovered that, “Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.”

This holds true for you grown-ups too.

You already know the power of journaling, and now you can put the power of Yet to work in those pages, too.

Once again, try the experiment above, where you first tell yourself “I can’t do this” and then “I can’t do this—yet.” After each time, write for a few minutes about the experience: what did you feel in your body? How were your emotions affected? Then compare your writings about the two statements. Which reality would you rather experience?

Another way is to make a brief list of at least five difficult transitions you have experienced over your lifetime, such as a promotion, the birth of a child and the attending exhaustion and fears, heartbreak and grief, illness or recovery, writing your first book. Then for each one, write a few sentences about how at first you were not sure you could navigate the transition and accept the change, and then about how you did. You were experiencing the power of “yet” at those times even if you did not realize it.

You can also use your journal to envision and create your path to the new way. Choose a current transition in your life or one you are considering. Jot down your doubts and fears about moving through to the other side and how you’re not sure you can do it. Be honest and open with yourself. Then, write again, but this time, use your imagination to envision the best possible outcome, even if you don’t believe it—yet. Over time, you can revise and update this vision as necessary. Writing down your dreams can prove a great help in achieving them.

For a fun look at the Power of Yet, watch this lively number from Sesame Street:

http://pbskids.org/video/sesame-street/2365319589

Culture is the “Water” We All Live In

Fish live immersed in a universe of water, and because it is such a normal, natural part of their existence, they don’t realize that fact (until they are taken out of the water, of course). The same is generally true for humans and the oxygen we breathe. It’s always there, so we don’t think about it much—until we are somehow deprived of it. These are rather obvious examples of what we might call “invisible immersion.”

Yet there is another kind of (generally) invisible immersion that actually controls a good chunk of our Story with little realization on our part. These are the stories that make up culture and society. Those stories are the “water” in which we are immersed every moment of our lives. We are so deeply embedded in them, and they in us, we tend to believe “it’s just the way things are.” Our individual Living, Breathing Stories are shaped to a large degree by them.

We can change them, or choose to not live within their boundaries, but that’s often uncomfortable or even dangerous because many people have a lot invested in ensuring that they remain “true.” Fortunately, progress continues along the lines of positive change.

Here are a few of the strongest examples of these embedded stories.

  • There is no logical, earthly reason why women should be considered inferior or somehow “less than” men. Yet a long, long time ago, it was decided that women are inherently subservient to men. This is probably one of the most entrenched stories in all cultures on the globe, and over the millennia it has caused more misery, terror, and death than nearly any other cultural story—not to mention the loss of all the abilities, talents, and skills that billions of women were not permitted to express. Even today, in the “enlightened” 21st century, women around the world are prevented from reaching their full potential because of sexist or misogynistic practices. These range from being paid only 78 cents to every dollar a man makes to being prevented from determining their reproductive choices, to not being allowed to drive or be educated, or, horrendously, being stoned to death after being raped for “shaming” their family, while the rapist remains blameless. (See Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future to read the story of how half of humanity came to be viewed as inferior to the other half and how we can change that story.)
  • Much the same can be said for people of differing skin colors. Why is pale skin (and the person who wears it) still considered by many people to be superior to darker skin? Once again, this terrible story developed in the distant past and is still in play today. Slavery in the United States was only one horrible result of this story.
  • Economics is another such story, and it is playing out to dire effects on the planet and every living thing aboard. Take the example of trees in a forest. They provide life-giving oxygen to the atmosphere; habitat for innumerable birds, animals, and insects; food; shade; and a stabilizing effect on the soil in which they live (this prevents erosion and mud slides); not to mention their sheer beauty. But our economic system gives them much more value when they are chopped up and turned into toothpicks than when they remain alive. While making money is not necessarily a bad thing, when it is coupled with a Story such as this, the effects on our environment are devastating. (For a powerful look at the true costs of this story, see the article here: http://tinyurl.com/y8jfeahc)
  • Systems of government and the politics surrounding them arise from a wide variety of beliefs. Monarchy, democracy, socialism, communism, tribal governance, and other forms were all invented and sustained to keep a certain kind of order and generally to keep certain people or class of people in power. As only one example, look at what is happening in the U.S. these days. The stories here are growing stronger and angrier as venerable, respected traditions are being twisted and denied or discarded, and even outright lies told by the highest officials are promoted as truth. None of this is new, but what is new is the vehemence and speed with which these stories are being told and the gulfs of separation they are causing among greater numbers of people.
  • Like politics, religion is another story we are often warned not to discuss because of its potential for being a power keg of emotion. Religion is one of the most pervasive and entrenched stories humans have created. It has given rise to, and permission for, both utmost goodness and terrifying evil. The variety of religions that have flowed across the globe over the centuries demonstrate the creativity humans use to explain the deepest mysteries of life and to make some sense out of the inexplicable, random events that happen to us. Religion is often the basis of other cultural stories as well, such as the inferiority of women and the concept of nature as something to be dominated.

The one thing all these cultural stories, and thousands more, have in common is that humans invented them. People with their innately story-making brains created them for many reasons and to serve many purposes that eventually were lost in the mists of history (which itself is another story, usually told only from the viewpoint of the most powerful to keep their preferred story alive).

Yet as the human race has progressed and evolved, we have begun to see how some ingrained cultural stories do not serve us well, such as the subjugation of other human beings, the exploitation of nature for profit, and the need for war. The previous two centuries have been witness to much progress, which occurred as people woke up to the negative impacts of these stories, as well as the possibility for more positive, healthier stories for greater numbers of people. Despite the seemingly backward swing of the culture pendulum at the moment, these changes will not be stopped. Those old stories are changing because more and more people are creating—and living—new and better ones. These changes in individual Living, Breathing Stories are the foundation of change for our cultural stories. When enough people live the new stories, the cultural ones follow.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Take a look at your life and your culture, and explore one of the cultural stories you live within. It can be one of those above, or another one, even one that comes from your ethnic heritage. You need not judge it in any way, unless you want to.

How does it affect you or what does it mean to you, in positive or negative ways? If you know or suspect that it is not serving you well, can you work to change it? How? Do you know where it came from and how it has changed over the years or centuries? Write for at least 15 minutes—and do this as many times as you like with as many cultural stories as you like. It will be an eye-opener, for sure!

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PS. It’s been a while since my last post here, so thanks for your patience. My thyroid surgery went remarkably well, I’m fully recovered, and despite what the docs thought, there was no active cancer, only precancerous cells. So I require no further treatment and am feeling wonderfully healthy and energetic once again. Thanks to all of you for your support and positive energy in whatever form you sent it.