Your Call to Embark on Your Hero’s Journey

Almost every great story follows the format of the monomyth, or Joseph Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey.   But it’s not just a great story in a book or movie. The Hero’s Journey has to do with our daily, even ordinary lives as well.

My masters capstone was on callings. During my research, I have come to believe that a calling is really just our sense to pursue our own Hero’s Journey. That Journey is comprised of distinct phases, most of which are not easy. Pursuit of the Hero’s Journey requires that we face our inner or outer demons, grow and change.  The story of Luke Skywalker is perhaps the classic example of a Hero’s Journey, and compelling and universal for that reason.

However, given the epic nature of the Skywalker tale, the images of the Hero’s Journey are always in a circle, as so astutely pointed out by The Sage Abyss. Does that mean Luke has to repeat the cycle again and again? Doesn’t he just go home and retire? Get book deals and interviews and live the good life?

Apparently not.

I suppose each Hero’s Journey cycle isn’t necessarily of the epic scale of Skywalker. But look at the Harry Potter tales. Harry apparently had at least 7 Hero’s Journey cycles while at Hogwarts, each rising to their own epic proportions.

Thankfully, each of us are not likely battling the likes of Darth Vader or Voldemort, though our own challenges may feel that way on certain days. As I look back on my life and the times that I felt called to pursue a scary path, I realize that each one represents a Hero’s Journey cycle. The turning points in my life include deciding to value myself when others were trying to control or devalue me, moving away to graduate school 1500 miles away, choosing an academic career, choosing to stay in academia each year when I felt on the brink of failure, choosing to give up tenure and research for a healthier life, choosing to separate from my husband of 20 years, going back to school to focus on positive psychology, and choosing to distance myself from those who were trying to subjugate, devalue and control me (note the cycle there too).  Each challenge resulted in greater growth and wisdom   That’s 9 or so cycles, and I’m only 52.

Buddhism tells us not to get attached to things, situations or circumstances because all things are impermanent. The Hero’s Journey tells us that each phase of the cycle is temporary (as long as we don’t get stuck indefinitely) and that upon completion of the cycle, the cycle will later return in another form.   I suppose we can resist our own Hero’s Journey cycle and insist on staying stuck in one place. After all, the devil you know…

Choosing to stay stuck in one place may feel safe in the moment, but it’s much like financial investing. I’m worse than an amateur when it comes to money but even I know that doing nothing with your money (savings account or mattress methods) means that I’m missing out on financial opportunities. The stock market historically yields 8% interest, so as long as you can stomach the swings, over time you’ll do much better than your mattress.

Same with your life.

Monomyth says your life will cycle, but over time, you’ll grow and reap the rewards of your investment. It’s scary. You have to be brave and ride out the downturns but the reward will be yours in the end.

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Hero’s Journey cycle

Comfort Zone and Self-Limiting Beliefs

Today’s kids are scheduled to the max, often having insufficient down-time to just sit and daydream. However, the advantage of having a diversity of early experiences means that they are getting exposure to skills and concepts that will feel familiar to them in future, similar experiences. This exposure will help them to have a broader comfort zone later in life.

I’m so grateful for the experiences I had as a child, even though our generation relied more on playing outside and unstructured time in general.   The experiences we did have generally revolved around my parents’ own interests and comfort zones. Where they had self-limiting beliefs probably resulted in less participation and exposure to us kids in those areas. As a result, we probably unconsciously mimic their familiarity, comfort and self-limiting beliefs.  In this manner, I think we pass self-limiting beliefs down through the generations.

For me, 2016 is the year of dismantling self-limiting beliefs. My current effort is in singing. I have no aspirations to perform or do anything specific other than to prove to myself that I can, indeed, carry a tune without the aid of heavy machinery or technology. When I told my dad about my project, he laughed and said, “none of us can sing.” I was a bit surprised to hear him say that given mom had once sang in a chorus, but that probably explains where my belief originated.

I can assure you that I’m no Pavarotti, but after only a few lessons I have developed enough confidence (or indifference) to sing around the house within earshot of my sweet husband. And, I’ll have you know, that I even sang for myself by recording and playing back a verse on my iPhone. This represents a real achievement on my part; in graduate school we were videotaped while giving a presentation and I was too chicken to ever watch it. Decades later, I still have not ever watched myself giving a presentation, despite feeling pretty confident in my presentation abilities.

Also, as I observe my progress on my self-limiting beliefs, starting with running, singing and next with acting, I feel that branching out has been getting easier each time. It didn’t hurt that my first singing lesson only involved my teacher, but we quickly added my BFF and now we’re working on singing a duet. The acting class may have a larger audience at the start, but that’s OK.   My general comfort zone is already wider and I’m less concerned about other peoples’ opinions than I once was. Besides, the definition of courage is doing what you’re afraid of, not necessarily what is dangerous or bad for you (or other people, in my case). And I decided long ago that I don’t ever want to make decisions around or limit myself because of fear. So fear, fear go away. Don’t ever come another day.

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Creating magic (picture credit:  cosmic-fitness.com)

The Self-Awareness Paradox

I love to read articles on leadership and positive psychology, especially the ones with the lists of what to do and not to do (apparently I’m not alone since they’re so prevalent). I’m usually looking for new ideas on how to do something better, especially something I feel I can integrate and implement.

It can likewise be satisfying checking off the things I am already doing. “Listen with empathy.” Check. “Communicate upwards.” Check.   “Be inclusive.” Check. However, as I tick through those lists, I have this vague, uncomfortable feeling that maybe I’m ticking off stuff I shouldn’t be. I feel that I’m a good listener and inclusive, but am I really?

This is the paradox of self-awareness. By definition, if I have poor self-awareness, I don’t really have a good conception of certain aspects of my behavior and thoughts and how they affect or are perceived by others.   I believe I have pretty good (far from perfect though) self-awareness.  Indeed, I will always have blind spots and – like everyone – a tendency to over-estimate my qualities and virtues.

However, I have good BS consultants. When I say to Chris, “I think I’m pretty good at X,” he’ll either laugh uproariously or concede, “yes, you are.” My BFF is the same way (but thankfully, without the laughter). I don’t really know a good way around this self-awareness paradox except consulting with a loving and wise advisor.   Even this is not perfect because everyone has different opinions and perceptions, and what might work for some may not work for others. And my consultants are wildly biased in my favor. That being said, I also don’t have to be all things to all people, but I do at least want to measure up in the eyes of those that I respect the most.  If I fail that sniff test then I know I have an opportunity for growth in that area.

I don’t feel badly about this personal challenge. This is the nature of the human struggle and I’m no different from anyone else in this respect. Having the humility and openness to even question one’s own self-concept is a great start and an ongoing practice.  The joy is in that journey of growth, not in the belief that I have arrived at some idealized and false sense of who I should be.  Having faith in the value of our journey of growth is something I can check off with confidence.

Fate or Free Will?

How much of our lives are dictated by free will versus fate? I bet that everyone’s answer is different, depending on how much value one places on the cognitive versus the mystical. An evidence-based person will lean strongly toward the free will side, whereas a highly spiritual person may choose fate. I imagine that the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

After all, we don’t have complete control over our lives. Where we are born, into which family, and with what genetic make-up have a huge impact on who we are and our life’s trajectory. Yet we also know that major life choices can be agonizingly difficult since those choices may have repercussions for years to come.

Finding that balance in the fate/free will life perspective is tough too. Erring too far on the fate side may make someone complacent about their life, whereas erring too far on the free will side may make someone feel overly responsible and need to control.

What matters, in my opinion, is how we handle the events of our lives, regardless whether they emanate from fate or choice. For example, the best way to grieve after the loss of a loved one is to find or create meaning in the loss. The loss can become a path to growth or wisdom, or a motivation to do good deeds. In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner makes the case that when we focus on why, we’re asking the wrong question. Instead, he asks us to focus on now what?   What good will come out of a bad situation?

It’s not just loss that is hard. Even positive change can be difficult to adjust to and even traumatic. You’ve heard the stories of how winning the lottery is just as likely to ruin one’s life as it is to create happiness and wellbeing. Those winnings can either be used to create meaning and purpose and to elevate others, or it can be used to create infighting, division, resentment and fear.

Regardless of whether an event is subjectively good or bad, emanated from fate or choice, in the end we’re left with deciding what next? Do we learn, grow, improve, or take action? Or do we become complacent, fight with each other, blame someone else, or fall into depression? Do we learn to make better choices or learn to let go and be more accepting of what we cannot control?

Undoubtedly in my lifetime, I have tended to err excessively on the side of free will. My challenge continues to be able to lean into accepting and embracing the parts of my life that are driven by fate and beyond my control.   I must believe that, just like every other part of my journey to become my best self, the future can be even more spectacular than I can imagine, so I should not try to control it.

Perhaps those of you who err on fate must learn to be more proactive and involved in determining your destiny. You have more power than you realize. Use it to grow kindness and wisdom in yourself and your world.

Hang Ten

Sometimes life feels like smooth sailing. Other times, life feels like you’re caught in a tsunami or stuck in an eddy. My life is usually fairly calm, and it’s easy to take that calm for granted.   And there’s nothing better than a little turbulence to make me appreciate those smooth waters.

However, life isn’t supposed to be smooth sailing all the time. We inevitably encounter the occasional rough patch, vortex or even tsunami and may mistakenly believe that our lives are supposed to be smooth.  Such disturbances are natural phenomenon in nature as well as our lives; they’re meant to be. Even so, my little eddy may seem major in the moment. In reality it’s not even minutia when compared to what’s happening in the world (war, starvation, disease, etc.) or the universe (black holes, celestial collisions, etc.).

Minutia aside, maybe there’s more there than meets the eye. In addition to making my life difficult on a certain day, profound good can also emerge from the chaos. Just as a forest fire makes room for new growth, life’s challenges have a tendency to clear out the detritus and make room for something new and better.   I cannot usually control that turbulence per se, but I can try to ride that wave with my head above water, resist fighting and instead steer within the current,  letting it carry me quickly and safely to smoother waters. Voila! Safely on the other side.

It’s not an easy or comfortable process but the wisdom I’ll gain from the experience will make it easier the next time ‘around’.

Besides, what choice do I have? It’s either that or drown.

While riding that wave, it’s hard to see the growth as it’s happening. I know it’s there because when I look back at my young self I see how much I used to struggle against things for which I had no control.  I imagine my geriatric self will be similarly amused at my current quixotic endeavors, assuming I have any recollection of them at all.   I can only hope that I will continue to grow in wisdom into my golden years. It’s a journey, vortexes and all, that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

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Riding the wave

My Internal Eden

If you were a cartoon character, what would be within the thought bubble that floats above your head? (“She looks like an Umpa Lumpa in that dress.”)

If you were the protagonist in a novel, how would the author describe your emotional state? (“The rage started to build inside him, until it exploded with a yell and a rainstorm of bullets.”)

As a child, I would sometimes narrate my thoughts and feelings as if I were an author writing a biography or cartoon strip.   Definitely a weird, out of body experience at any age. (“I know.  Right?”)

But a useful one. This ability to detach and observe thoughts and feelings with some objectivity is actually a great skill and tool. When I’m caught up in a negative emotion, such as anger, frustration, fear, resentment, or despair, I can feel totally consumed by them. The thought bubble/author exercise is helpful to take the steam out of the feelings so that I can articulate and understand them. Once I find some objectivity, I usually find the situation is not as bad as I think, I start to understand my role in it and/or I gain clarity on what I need to do.

Detach and observe is also really important in our daily lives since we often carry an undercurrent of thoughts and emotions that we may not be aware of. For example, in the previous few hours before you sat down to read this blog, what would be in the thought bubbles floating above your head?   Is it a constant outpouring of thoughts in some random confused jumble? Are you obsessing about a particular idea or situation? Or is it mostly a blank slate except for what you’re doing or about to do in the moment?

Likewise, what is the external author saying about your internal emotional state in the past few hours? Is it a blank slate? Or, is something brewing in there? Are you aware of it? Or is it silently controlling you like some Machiavellian mind control experiment? Or are you actively creating positive emotion, such as gratitude, awe, love, and excitement (hopefully you’re intentionally doing the latter, since you’re reading this blog)?

Is there a relationship between your emotional state and your thought bubbles? Is one feeding the other and causing the quality of your existence to grow in a particular direction?

Probably, yes. There tends to be a strong interplay between the two. The questions are: Which direction is it going and what are you doing about it?

In my past I’d usually feel like I had no control over my ticker tape thoughts and internal emotional state. Those thoughts were truth and reality. Those emotions were caused by you, and you are making me feel this way.

I know now that the quality of my emotions and thoughts are within my own power and sphere of influence. I liken this work to gardening. If I don’t attend to my internal world, then I tend to grow a lot of emotional weeds that lead me to destructive or unproductive thoughts and actions. If I have a neutral internal world but starve the plants by not fertilizing them with positive emotion, then my thoughts and actions may be stagnating.   However, if I remove weeds and fertilize regularly then I’ll grow flowering emotions and my thoughts and actions will follow suit.

That’s how I create my own inner Eden. (“She felt a sense of satisfaction hoping that readers might benefit from this lesson.”)

Three Years of Silver Lining Blog

133 countries

133 countries

My October 30, 2015 blog was a sort of Back to the Future blog where we reflected on where we were and who we were in what we might call the ‘distant’ past. Similarly, as we approach the third anniversary of the Silver Lining blog, I can’t help but look back to the time that the blog was created.

The blog began after I had an ‘Aha’ moment while helping a friend and colleague work through some concerns. She said, “you should do this for a living Susanna.” I had always poo-poo’d such suggestions, but for some reason, on that day, the words clicked. I decided then that I needed to start sharing my thoughts and stories with others in a more formal way. Some time later, the blog was born.

I was in a different stage of life in November, 2012. My youngest was still at home but getting ready for college and the empty nest was looming.   I had only just heard of positive psychology and was still in the exploration stage (I would argue that I still am!).   Soon, I will decide I should go back to school and get coach certified and seriously invest myself in a subject is the basis of all the intentional and accidental growth and improvement I had ever experienced.

Only time will tell where this path will take me.

Right now, my work is a source of inspiration and joy for me as I now feel I have the foundational education and skills to really be effective and impactful in this work. Though I love being in the positive psychology training/coaching/teaching space, the reward of feeling that the work is making a difference in the lives of others is unparalleled. A small shift in perspective, knowledge or attitude can make all the difference in terms of how someone feels about themselves, their relationships, their work or their life.   That I can contribute to that in any way is a privilege beyond description and I’m so grateful to have the ability to make that difference for some people.

And yet there is so much more to learn.

Obviously, I don’t know where the next 3 years will take me or anyone else. I imagine the blog will continue to evolve since I certainly will. Regardless of whether you’re a regular or drop-in reader, I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts and your own journey with me for these 3 years. After all, every adventure is better when shared with others.

Silver Lining wordle

Silver Lining wordle