The top four movies for finding your authentic self — part 1

I was stuck for decades. Years and years of writing the same thing in my journals, suffering through jobs that didn’t feel like they fit me, relationships that weren’t working, trying on different identities in search of myself… all in search of making whatever felt wrong go away, and start feeling right.

Things finally started coming together when I recognized that everything and everyone that pushed a button in me, positively or negatively, were mirrors of myself. They reflected parts of me that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see. While the clearest mirrors were relationships, they also included certain movies I watched compulsively. And by studying what I saw in those mirrors, I could either find my authentic self or understand the process to do so.

I started looking for the common denominators in The Matrix, Wanted, Divergent, and, more recently, Unbreakable. These were the movies that captivated me, and I wanted to know what I was trying to tell myself through compulsively rewatching these movies.

Bottom line, they are all based on the same plot line: the hero’s journey. The next few posts will outline what they have in common that guided me in my own path to finding my authentic self. The first two:

Honor the splinter in your mind. 

In all four movies, the heroes struggle with the sense that something isn’t right with their lives. The mind splinter drives us mad for a reason; it’s telling us that we aren’t where we’re supposed to be… that we are settling for less, or missing our mark completely. Ignoring the splinter doesn’t make it go away; we just cover it up with distractions like overwork, overplay, busyness, alcohol, and other addictions. Or we continue trying to be someone we’re not because it’s familiar, it’s rewarded by those close to us, or it’s what the world tells us we should be.

Society (family, friends, region, religion, etc.) dictates an endless list of expectations about how we’re supposed to look, who we’re supposed to love, what kind of risks to take, what career we should have. And we end up with a society of sheep instead of the wonderfully diverse tapestry of individuality that make up this country. Because we’re biologically wired to fit in for safety, we buy into these stories.

I believe that our desire to fit in is quite possibly the #1 reason for depression, suicide, and substance abuse in this country… because we have abandoned our true selves in favor of belonging to the wrong tribe through either birth or choice. And that self-abandonment is more than most people can handle.

If your splinter shows up as a fear of abandonment, start here: with all the ways you’ve abandoned your authentic self, and start reclaiming and owning who you really are. Find a new tribe in which your unique individuality is celebrated. You might find that fear of abandonment magically eliminated, as I did. Which leads to the second lesson:

Own it all, even what seems crazy. 

Neo rejected Morpheus’ belief that he was the one. David in Unbreakable rejected the notion that he had superpowers (BTW: we all have superpowers). Wesley in Wanted thought it was ludicrous that he could be part of the Fraternity.

“I’m not the One, Trinity. I’m just an average guy.” — Neo, The Matrix

These movies show that even if your truth is staring you in the face, you might be blind to it or simply reject it out of hand. Not only will our truths not appear self-evident, it’s often the last thing we want to consider because we’ve bought into other conflicting stories about how life should be. And when we’re married to our stories, we can’t see other possibilities.

So how do we know what to own? In the movies, an outside Teacher magically appeared to inform our heroes of their potential and truth, and train them in the new way. Wouldn’t that be nice? Alas, in reality, we usually have to be our own teachers, and we only find clues if we’re paying attention. These clues nearly always reflect what is already true for you.

One essential clue is the word “should,” particularly as it relates to identity. Most of us “should” ourselves constantly, which is great if we’re paying attention. It’s a dead giveaway of the stories we’ve bought into that are actually not true for us. It helps us juggle our sense of reality so we feel better. Should provides a great starting place for surfacing and owning what is. Make a list of all your should’s, and next to it write what is actually true. Now embrace and own that second list.

Our greatest potential is being more of who we already are. The more we embrace, even the parts that we don’t particularly like, the less of a struggle we’ll have fighting our own natures. And this ownership, this grasp on reality, provides a firm foundation for evolution and growth. Now we know what we’re working with, hairy warts and superpowers and all, and we can find where we really belong.

That wraps up part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2. I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Do you have any good go-to movies for self-improvement that I’m missing? Any parts that aren’t clear?

How to journal to achieve real breakthroughs

In my last post I discussed the basics: why, when, where, and what to journal. Today’s post covers how to journal to achieve real breakthroughs in self-knowledge, emotional mastery, spiritual connection, and even writing skill improvements. The key is to relax your thinking mind’s tight grip, and dive into the murky realm of emotion.

Write from the heart

Yeah, you’ve probably seen this phrase before. “Write from the heart” appears soft and squishy and rather meaningless… but I’d like to break it down into why it’s important and how to do it.

Pretty much everything in life comes down to how we feel. We like to think that we make rational, logical decisions… but the deep underground rivers of emotion (both positive and negative) are the true shot callers. So why did we never receive training on how to identify what we’re feeling?

Because emotions can be scary. Negative emotions are processed in a part of our brain that doesn’t have words to describe what’s going on… and what we don’t comprehend gets shut down and stored in our bodies. This emotional numbing comes at a cost; if emotions call the shots, and we don’t know how to listen, then we’ve cut ourselves off from our inner compass.

It’s easier to know when we feel happy or loved, but our emotional vocabulary doesn’t come close to describing the 34,000 emotions experienced by human beings. And when we don’t have the vocabulary, we are unaware of even the positive emotions that motivate us and define us as individuals. We simply don’t know ourselves.

Feel it, label it, and release it.

Journaling can borrow an incredibly effective practice from meditation called labeling. The task is to pay attention to the lived experience and label what’s happening without holding on or rejecting it. We can avoid getting caught up in our own stories by simply getting a better vantage point.

Labeling in meditation typically focuses on seeing our thoughts for what they are instead of getting caught up in them, and then labeling them accordingly, like “thinking,” “judging,” “analyzing.” This technique can also be used to more deeply examine what we’re feeling, as if we’re scientists peering at a new type of bug: “Stomach tense… feels like a ball of twine… shallow breaths… oh, this is what ‘anxious’ feels like. Open and spacious in my chest area, warm and tingly… ah, this is what ‘loved’ feels like. Oh… really open, almost like my energy is in front of me, radiating outward: this is what “freedom” feels like.”

We can combine the meditation technique of labeling with the practice of journaling to fully translate a sensory experience into language and understanding. If you’re only journaling with your analytical mind without feeling deep down into what is really going on, then nothing transformational can occur. We just spin and spin and spin, creating the illusion of progress with no real traction.

Conversely, when we start intentionally witnessing what we’re feeling — in real time or recreated through memory — and translating those feelings into words (especially words on a page), that’s when magic happens. Emotions hold power in darkness, but the light of awareness diminishes that power. We are in control… we are liberated. We have access to inner wisdom, boosting self awareness and assurance.

The practice

We can use the power of memory to explore positive emotions without repercussion. Settle into a comfortable chair, breathe deeply, feeling the air flow into your chest, and then go even deeper — imagine it going down your spine, into your seat, your legs, your toes. Really feel yourself sitting in your body, grounded… not floating up in your head.

Now imagine a time when you felt joy, safe, peaceful, included, free, or valued. Relive that experience. What does this emotion feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Create the “tasting notes” for your own vintages of emotions. Label them and write them down.

In your journal, explore: How meaningful is this emotion to you? Does it define you or motivate you? Some of us are driven by the need to feel safe, others by freedom, others by purpose or belonging. These “defining emotions” that go hand-in-hand with humanity’s core needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) help us understand who we are and why we do what we do. They can be used to guide future decisions.

Cool processing

Whether we work with negative or positive emotions, the same caveat holds: don’t drown in the emotion. While it’s important to access and acknowledge negative emotions (shame, rejection, etc), there’s a difference between being an observer of the memory and stepping into the memory. This post does a good job describing “cool” versus “hot” processing; cool processing is being an observer, labeling the emotion and what is happening. Hot processing involves stepping back into the memory and allowing it to re-trigger pain and trauma.

Practice first with positive emotions — accessing, feeling and labeling emotions without getting lost in daydreams — before venturing into negative emotions. Then work with easier negative emotions, like those more distant in your memory (like that time I fell down the stairs on the first day of a new school when I was 11); save the traumatic ones for last.

While it’s much easier and more desirable to “swim around in” positive emotions, we run the risk of drifting off into fantasy land. Our goal is to understand ourselves better, not to self-medicate… so again, labeling is key. Feel it, label it, and release it.

Dear reader, what do you think? Are you ready to try your hand at this?

Guest Post: How I fell in love with my life

This is a guest post on personal transformation by Jennifer Pomo from Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were going through our phase of radical releasing around the same time, and it was such a joy for me to hear how this process has born fruit in her life over the past year.

“Goodness this full moon is a potent one. Last night I drove home from dinner and dancing with friends. We danced in the living room until midnight, music loud enough to wake the neighbors but lucky to have the closest neighbors a few acres away.

I’ve danced more in the last three months than I’ve danced 30 years. Last night the full moon lit up the Santa Fe winter sky so bright I could have easily made the drive home without my lights on. There I stood in the middle of the street I live on, staring at the full moon staring back at me. I didn’t want the dance to end and so I kept on dancing. I’ve always wanted to dance like no one is watching and truly, no one was watching.

Memories of this time last year came flooding back. Nothing in my life is the same. This time last year I had begun the process of dissolving, of coming completely undone. This time last year I had no idea where I was headed, I only knew I was following a longing, a pull that required total trust on my part.

I had made a commitment to stop the fast track I was on and become still. In June of 2018 I left my marriage, the gated house on five and half acres of pinons and juniper trees, dirt roads and stunning mountain views. I was supposed to be living the quintessential, charming Santa Fe life. It was all smoke and mirrors. I moved into a tiny casita in town which became my cocoon. By the end of October 2018, I had quit my job and let go of everything I had built that I thought meant safety and security.

This time last year I didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror, didn’t recognize my life, my clothes, my hair, my thoughts. This time last year I went dark, went deep into the dark night of my soul, cradled by the long winter months. I had a few close friends I saw, but other than that, the life I created and built in the public eye, a community I had grown to know and love had come to an end.

I’ll never forget the day I was walking through the restaurant I helped build looking down at one of my signature dress pieces and thinking “Who even wears this??” I sent a message to my friend right away telling her I felt like an imposter in my life and in my work. She wrote back asking if what I was experiencing was actually my inner shero coming to rescue me, asking me to trust her and to follow her lead. A life I had built in service to others had run its course. The only person I wanted to serve was myself. In choosing to serve me, to commit to serving my longing, my hearts desire, whatever that was, my entire life changed.

I can’t tell you the number of people who have recently come to me saying how happy I look and that I am glowing. I have even been asked if I am in love. Yes, I am in love. I’m in love with my life. I’m in love with myself for the first time in my life. I’m in love with my courage and my commitment to keep traveling the path into the unknown. I’m in love with my willingness to trust.

My happiness has been born from countless tears, from being brought to my knees. My happiness has come from getting honest and holding myself accountable for my actions and how I was living. My happiness has come from refusing to blame anyone or be a victim of my life. My happiness has come from letting go. My happiness has come from ending the chase of trying to dictate what I thought my life should look like and instead letting life have its way with me.

I lost the ability to write for nearly eight months. Yes, I filled volumes of journals but my story had no words to it. This was unnerving for me. I would start a sentence and that was as far as my writing would go. Instead I wanted to be on the mountain and I wanted to dance. I wanted to seek out what other writers had to say and read poetry. I’ve devoured more poetry in the last year than I have my entire life.

It’s only been recently that my words are making their way back to me. I feel vulnerable but I’m no longer afraid to put myself back out into the world. This time last year there was no way I was comfortable enough in my skin to even make an appearance that felt authentic. This is something that happens when we unravel, when we come undone. It requires time alone. It requires going in and remaining present with ourselves until we are damn good and ready to resurface again.

Last night I danced in the middle of my street recalling my favorite movie of all time, Moonstruck. I saw Cher walking dreamily down the street of her Brooklyn neighborhood, kicking a tin can, forever changed and in love. Has this always been a clue from my past? Did I know at the tender age of 17 I was leaving a clue for my future self to remember this moment in time? Me dancing in the street in my long black winter coat, completely changed and in love?

I’m going to go with yes.”

How are you responding to Jen’s story, dear reader? Have you gone through your own dark night of the soul, or do you feel it calling to you? Where does your happiness come from?

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Navigating life like a bat

Another mini-crisis of “what the hell am I doing” hit me during my 48 hours in Lyon, France. To be clear, I’m not questioning whether I should be doing this crazy adventure; I know that that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, metaphorically and spiritually speaking. No, it’s the stability-versus-freedom question I wrestled with in Morocco, now triggered by a very practical question: where do I keep my stuff?

By early August, I’ll need to find a new home for my 2 full suitcases and box of camera gear that are currently 30 minutes outside of Geneva in my buddy’s storage unit. I’ll need to swap summer clothes for fall layers, and this somewhat-frequent exchange process isn’t convenient for either of us. A paid storage unit is the best short-term solution until I put down roots. But where?

Turns out that picking a storage-locker location is a bigger deal than I’d thought. But hey, it’s my closet, so it needs to be someplace conveniently located and less expensive than Geneva. And yeah, that could be pretty much anywhere, so let’s add a filter: I should have other reasons to return, like friends, work, creativity, vibe… I mentally run through all the places I’ve been already – Tel Aviv? Cyprus? — and places that are on my list that I think I’d like – Paris? Berlin?  Madrid?

This train of thought opens up the Pandora’s box of taxation and visa issues, leading me right back into the “permanent place” question that’s haunted me since I started this adventure and I’m not ready to deal with. Argh… what should I dooooooo??

How do we know what to do?

Remember when we used to print out maps from Mapquest? Or, even better, when we had to follow someone’s directions (“when you get to gas station – the one with the red blinking light, not the other one — look for the fork and then veer left”). Back then, we had to pay attention to where we were going. We knew how to get places; routes were committed to memory. Then came the GPS revolution and… snap! Overnight, no one knew how to get anywhere. We just hold out our phones and follow the blue dots like zombies. Technology has made navigation exceedingly simple, but it’s also decreased our self-reliance.

As I walked home from dinner last night, I thought about bats: tiny blind creatures that lack the ability to ask Siri or Facebook or Google what they should do for work, or where to live, or what will bring them joy. But they don’t deserve our pity, as bats have something better: a built-in navigation system. They simply make some noise and use the echoes to course-correct. There’s no need to map out the whole route in advance when they can fly through dark, narrow passageways instinctively and unerringly.  

Fact is, we humans aren’t that much different from bats. We’re all flying blind in the dark; we can only know what is happening right now from our limited vantage point. We can’t see the future: not even the second after this second. How do we make decisions and chart our own course? 

Like bats, we have an unerring navigation system: our intuition. The tragedy is that gut-listening isn’t taught in schools. Conformity is rewarded by society, not independence, which results in three types of people:

  • Those who never realize their blindness because they simply follow what everyone else is doing. The blind following the blind, generation after generation, century after century, convinced of their ability to see.
  • The lucky ones who figured out their path early on: maybe they learned it from their navigator parents, or perhaps they were just born with a fully functioning sense of who they are.
  • The rest of us — me and perhaps you, dear reader –who are in between; we’re refugees from the first group regarding the second with envy, wondering how they did it.

Members of this last group don’t often realize that we need a totally new set of skills. What worked on autopilot is not a navigation system, but we try anyway, overly dependent on our logical minds, past experiences, and trial and error. Lots of error. We obsess over doing rather than being. And when we’re really stuck, we revert back to group-1 thinking and ask what other people would do.

Fact is, it’s hard to hear the echoes of our own voices.  And upon hearing those echoes, trust them to guide us into the light instead of a brick wall.

Our metaphorical navigation system

I couldn’t do this adventure without a sturdy navigation system. I’ve deliberately stripped away anything that could influence me — the noise, lights, distractions, things we own, things that own us, our senses of identity that may or may not be truly ours – in order to find my own path. The way in front of me is pitch black. I have no lamp. No one else is in this cave with me. The light behind me is getting smaller… fainter… but I can’t go back.

I just realized that this whole process of selling everything and launching into the unknown was one giant “SHHHHHHHHH” to the entire world. Shush! Be quiet!! I cannot hear myself! And if I can’t hear my true voice, I cannot navigate my path…  cannot make decisions and trust that they are right for me.

When I try to reason out the answers to my questions – where should I go and why? What must I learn? What the hell am I doing? Who am I, anyway? — I fail. My usually trusty brain encounters its limitations, which is perhaps the hardest part of this journey; I’ve been able to think my way out of pretty much anything except for this. Like eyes in the darkness, logic doesn’t work in the dark night of the soul.

I’m starting to gain a tiny sense of what the blind know: when eyes fail, other senses gain strength. I entered into this cave with a decent level of confidence in my intuition (which took me two decades to develop) but now it’s really getting a workout. I tap into my sixth sense daily, feeling the echoes in my body when presented with this choice or that: like deciding whether to walk a new city at night, or choosing a new destination. I don’t move until I feel it in my bones.

A few months ago I was nearly paralyzed by all the infinite choices that could play out, but now I simply consult my navigation system: I take myself to dinner with my journal and work through my now-well-established process. I know what “yes” and “no” feel like. I know what “wait; not yet” feels like, which is the answer to my question about where to rent a storage locker. I haven’t yet pinpointed the difference between “resistance due to fear” versus “no,” but I’m working on it.

And many of you, dear readers, are watching to see what happens. I’ve heard from you. I know that you are standing at the entrance to your own dark caves, taking baby steps in, searching in vain for the light switch that’s not there. And that’s why I feel compelled to share this journey with you… not only because writing helps me understand myself better, but just maybe this transformation game doesn’t have to be so solitary for either of us.