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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.

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?

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.

Cancer, Mindbody, and Living, Breathing Stories

As Living, Breathing Stories, we are composed of innumerable elements that blend together to create the “I” we inhabit at any given time. Some of these elements we define as positive, and some not so much. Yet our experience of reality depends in large part, if not entirely, on the thoughts we think about these elements—the definitions we assign to things and experiences, the beliefs we hold about anything, the meanings we bestow on seemingly random events—and how our physical bodies respond to those thoughts.

Take serious illness, for instance. What roles does our mindbody play in it? What are our stories about it? How do they affect the ways we treat it or live with it? Do they tell us to resist at all cost, to be grateful for the lessons it teaches, or…what?

This subject has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, since I will soon be a two-time cancer survivor. Breast cancer in 2011, and now thyroid cancer, with a thyroidectomy coming up soon. Compared to what many women go through, my experience with breast cancer was a walk in the park—lumpectomy and radiation only, a rare but easily treatable kind caught before it spread, plus good insurance and lots of emotional support. For all of this, I am grateful still.

What might have been the cause of this cancer? Even though I’ll never know for sure, my curiosity sent me to explore.

First up was the usual explanation—it’s in the genes. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer, and my mom is a survivor (many other family members have had cancer, too—father, grandfather, sister, aunt, probably others). So, as the current cultural belief has it, breast cancer appeared in me because of my genetic inheritance. Maybe so. Yet, epigenetics tells us that genetic determinism (or: you got the gene, you get the illness) exists only in a very small percentage of cases. Instead, gene expression—genes turning “on” or “off”—is due much more to our conscious and subconscious thoughts (they are energy, remember), so having a particular gene does not mean the associated illness will inevitably appear. Perhaps breast cancer genes in my DNA turned on because of my unconscious belief that as part of this lineage I, too, would experience this disease.

But I wanted to explore other possible causes as well. Since everything is energy, including thoughts, next I talked with a gentle, skilled energy healer. She believed that the tumor, which was in my left breast and near my heart, was the manifestation of the traumatic emotions (embodied thoughts) I experienced after my husband’s serious accident about eight years before. Was this true? I’ll never know, but given the intensity and duration of those emotions, which caused physical, stress-related heart issues, it felt like a distinct possibility.

(Note that this does NOT mean I believe I consciously caused this disease in myself—nor does anyone else. Instead, it means that at the very deepest levels, our bodies work in mysterious ways still incomprehensible within the current story told by allopathic medicine. There is good evidence, ancient and modern, to back up what I write here, and you are free to choose the particular story you believe and live.)

Now thyroid cancer has made its appearance. I’ve read that it might be related in some way to breast cancer. Genetics again? Maybe. But the thyroid is in the area of the fifth chakra, which is all about communication, voice, creativity. I have long spoken and thought about how to find my “voice,” to speak my truth, to communicate from my heart (as I am doing here) instead of being afraid to share what is there. Maybe the cause is a blocked or unbalanced fifth chakra. I don’t know, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility.

There could be any number of other causes, too, none of which I will ever know for sure. I simply want to remain open to possibilities because that offers more opportunity for healing and restoration of many kinds.

I am fortunate and grateful that a skilled surgeon will remove my thyroid, along with the cancer, and that pharmaceutical options can replace the missing hormones. Yet I am also pursuing other avenues of healing my mindbody as well. One is working with a Reiki master to help balance my energy and restore physical and emotional equilibrium. In addition, a dear friend, a psychologist who has done medical hypnosis for more than thirty years, has created a personalized audio session that carries me through a skillful, loving surgery free of complications, complete and easy recovery, and quick stabilization of my thyroid hormone replacement. I listen to it each morning to bring this desired, imagined reality into actual reality, using the awesome power of my mindbody (which you have too, by the way).

In meditation, I am also listening to my heart for any messages it might have for me. And in relying on the 40,000 neurons, the wisdom, and the spiritual insight it contains, I’m also listening with my heart, too, bypassing my brain and its rationalizations and delusions in order to sense the deeper reality that lives there.

Of course, I am journaling about all of this, in whatever ways feel best when I sit down to write.

I cannot know the ultimate outcome of this new chapter—or maybe just a long paragraph—of my Living, Breathing Story. Right now, it feels positive. It has already reminded me, yet again, of all the love and support that always surrounds me. It may hold an unseen gift (this has happened before with other difficult experiences) or offer a lesson that will serve me well (so has this). Those things might be wrapped up in dire or difficult circumstances that will require fortitude and faith. Time will tell. As my future unfolds, I am doing my best to maintain my Living, Breathing Story in ways that are mindful, self-compassionate, and grateful. Always grateful.

Welcome to A Living, Breathing Story!

Thanks for stopping by.

You know you have a life story. You’ve heard that many times. But what if there’s much more to it? What if, instead of having a story, you are a story—a Living, Breathing Story?

Stop and think about that for a minute. Even with little awareness of the process, over your lifetime you have woven together innumerable threads to create the Story that is the “I” you inhabit right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, you create your own experience of reality depending on how you think about it—and how you think you think about it. Furthermore, your thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within your body, including, of course, your brain and genetic code, causing changes to your physical being. In a very real sense, what you make of your Story makes you: Yes, you are an ever-changing, interactive, living, breathing Story.

It is this Story that creates your experience of reality—your personal account of who and what you believe yourself to be, which determines how you experience life. While it is based on the actual events and experiences of your life, your Story actually springs from the explanations you invent to describe them and their effects on you. “We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.” (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human)

You are a Living, Breathing Story because of the intimate, inseparable, instantaneous connections between your thoughts and your body’s reactions to those thoughts. This process is so innate and automatic that, most of the time, you don’t even realize it’s playing out in your never-ending stream of consciousness, every moment creating physical, emotional, and mental reactions within you. But as you discover more about your Story and how you create it, you can learn to use this ability on purpose and with awareness, becoming more empowered and adding more joy and ease to your life as a result.

I’ve come to this concept of “Living, Breathing Story” over several years, gradually learning and adding more information. It’s exciting for me to look at myself and the world through these new lenses. And I’m excited to share what I have learned with you.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

At the end of each blog post (or most of them, anyway), I’ll add a journaling exercise for you. Like this one.

One of my favorite quotations about how we create our own experience of reality comes from Antoine de St.-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince: “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” Things—material objects as well as personal or cultural concepts—have no meaning in themselves. We give them meaning based on our own Story, and these meanings further create our Story.

For instance, a wine glass is simply a vessel to hold a beverage. No big deal in and of itself. But I have the last two remaining wine glasses given to my mom and dad on their wedding day and which they used for decades’ worth of special occasions. When I bring them out on my special occasions, I feel deeply connected to my long-deceased father and my mom now in a nursing home hours away. These glasses are precious objects that hold much love and many memories for me. In this way, they help to create my experience of reality.

This same concept holds true for the way we think about ourselves too. When I was younger, I was shy and that meant I would never dream of speaking up in a crowd of people. Years later, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to groups of people, small or large. I’ve discovered I’m just enough of a ham to enjoy it! I changed my thoughts about myself and so changed my experience of reality.

For your journal: What about you? What is something that helped make you who you are today—or, in Story language, helped to create your Story? There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Choose one of your possessions that holds great meaning for you and connects you to someone, represents a special time in your life, or reminds you of a success or even a loss. Write for at least 15 minutes about its meaning for you and what your life would be like without that which it represents for you.
  1. Think of how you have changed your thoughts about yourself over the years, as I did with my shyness. What is your old Story and how did it morph or evolve into a new one? Write for at least 15 minutes on this shift in your perception of yourself.