During a tiny vacation fight with my then boyfriend, I left our host’s home to find somewhere else to sleep, far from the boyfriend. We were in Southern Florida and our hosts were orchid farmers. The only place I could think of, that didn’t involve alligators and huge poisonous things crawling over me, was the large orchid warehouse they promised to give us a tour of in the morning.
The air outside the host home felt like that moment in a sauna when you splash more water on the hot rocks and the steam sears your lungs. I wilted a little as I made my way to the enormous building behind their tiny stucco home. Whatever hesitation I had about going in disappeared when I felt the coolness pouring out while i slipped in and promptly got attacked by some snakelike thing in my eye. I shrieked and batted it away only for it to swing wildly back towards me. I dropped to the ground and peered up fully expecting some kind of open snake cage. But in the pale light of the just rising moon I saw it was only a fiercely swinging plant, high up, with a kaleidoscope of roots careening below it. I’d just opened a can of whoop ass against a plant.
Lesson One: the scary thing stays scary exactly as long as you don’t look at it
Once you give something even a smidge of genuine presence, the fear shifts gears and the real conversation has a chance to begin. Imagine formal negotiations in a corporate conference room trying to move forward, except you refuse to attend. See all those people tapping their pens and getting more and more anxious? Nothing can happen except for stalemate. This happens emotionally.
My capacity to experience joy stagnates out when I react to some growth inducing opportunity in my life by freezing and making it a Big Scary Monster in the closet, when I forget that I can just feel my feelings and they’ll move along and carry me along my real path, when I forget that nothing lasts very long and that the quickest way through fear is to just freaking feel it stop making everything such a big deal just so I can later swoon like a drama queen and stay victim-stuck.
Simply identifying feelings and saying them out loud can help you unstick and get back into flow towards your regular life already in progress.
Speaking of victim stuck, I was still whigged out on a concrete floor in a massive silent tomblike warehouse, that periodically broke into spasms of hissing as the air got mysteriously moister.
I stayed on the floor a long while because I wasn’t really there, wasn’t aware of myself and my body; I was still in the fight we’d just had, as if it was still going on, I was still swinging in my own head. I felt a wild roving urge to go punch someone. My heart was pounding and I was scanning the darkness for intruder: I WAS CRANKED. I didn’t know it then, but I’d been hijacked by my own amygdala, that dandy part of my brain responsible for keeping me safe. It developed when we were going tooth to tooth with lions and bears and oh my! and it will pull resources from other parts of our brain and reroute them to the limbic brain in your state of hyperalertness to keep you safe. There is no rational thinking possible here. People in this state overreact and usually regret it deeply later.
Lesson Two: The body is your dance partner in this joyful life. You’ve got to learn her moves
People who struggle with chronic pain know that the body has a huge affect on your ability to be happy. The pain keeps compelling your focus and depressing your thoughts, which stresses you out, which creates more pain and the cycle continues. Your dance partner is particular and performs differently depending on what’s going on. For example, my dance partner went into fight or flight mode above, and completely stopped being a dance partner at all, and became instead a freaked out hunt and kill something partner.
Looking back, I can remember feeling a smidge betrayed when I realized that I could get cut off from joy because my body wasn’t good. Then I realized it was a whole other wonderfully viable portal for me to focus on in the recovery of my own joy. And once I started digging in, it actually felt a little like a cheat. It was so simple! I can get happy just by moving a little or sitting still and focusing on breathing for 2 minutes? What voodoo is this?
Exactly the voodoo your body requires, actually. Studies show that after only five minutes of moderate exercise you release a protein called BDNF which protects and repairs your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. Then your body releases the famed endorphins that, researcher Mcgoverns writes “tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.” This feeling lasts and improves the quality of your day massively. You only need 20 minutes to get the benefits: longer life, better mental clarity, improved mood and outlook and better body image. And even 2 minutes of simple meditation can actually change the shape of your brain and overhaul your ability to handle stress or to be hijacked by your own amygdala.
Which is why it’s super nice to learn your partner in the joy dance.
Back on the concrete floor, my joy partner began to crawl, slowly, really not able to see anything except slivers of haunting pale moonlight illuminating what looked exactly like a horror movie set to me in my freaked out state. I crawled blindly, unable to conceive of anything, remember my rational mind was largely offline. So I crawled. And bumped into things.
As I bumped, I adapted my crawl until I bumped less. Then I slowed my crawl way down and stopped bumping into things at all. Something neato happened, I could kind of sense something was approaching when I moved very very slowly and started to move out of the way of these things before I hit them. I also started to feel a little calmer. The calmness made a small wedge in my hysteria enough to think: I needed to find somewhere to sleep. I needed water. I had worked up a bit of lather in the whole fighting for hours things and was positively parched.
Lesson Three: When you’re very unhappy, slowing way way way down let’s you get back on your horse
Time and time again, I have solved the Universe of Problems by simply slowing the heck down and paying some attention to my now. So so so so simple. So so so so difficult to remember when you’re freaking. Get a tattoo. Maybe of this Alan Watts quote "You will begin to realize that if you contemplate long enough on the leaf of the flower, that it involves the whole universe.”
When you start to slow down you exert an opposite force on the out of control horses that are careening pelmel like the gods of chaos themselves. It also helps you remember you have control. The feeling of control is very important to being able to sustainably experience joy. If we feel out of control we get hopeless. When we hang out in hopelessness too long we act like nutters and cause all sorts of problems for ourselves. If you start to feel that way, just slow down, then slow down a little more. Eventually you get slow enough to remember you have breath, you have senses, you have creative life force coursing through you, you have choices, you’re not alone. These are very happy things to remember after a freak out.
In my slow crawl something appeared in my mind that caused me such a burst of delight I nearly laughed out loud. It was a moment in a movie theater of the most recent movie I’d seen, “Lost in Translation” a movie with very interesting twins as the main characters. I'd gone to see it with my very interesting twin sister and guess what the movie was about? Hunting the world’s rarest and elusive flower, “The Ghost Orchid”
In the slow slowness, in the most deliciously slow way, it dawned on me that there were really two ways to swing what was happening for me: one was to see myself as a broken lover, failing at love and having a shitty, super faily time of it all, and the other was to realize that life had collaborated with me to bring me on my very own, very mysterious and scary and thrilling hunt for my own glimpse of a Ghost Orchid, which I suddenly remembered that the hosts had told me they had just managed to cultivate.
Not broken, I was an intrepid explorer, alone, hunting the rarest flower in the world. I could feel the grin take over my face as I continued to crawl through the dark, this time with a feeling of curiosity and listening.
Lesson Four: as habits expert Stephen Covey says, “the way you see the problem IS the problem”
Okay, imagine a monkey, cutely performing a card trick for a researcher, who is giving him a cucumber every time he does it. The monkey is practically smiling: he loves cucumbers, and apparently, cards too. And he has a stamina around this. He seems poised to go on joyfully collecting cucumbers till the cows come home, until, that is, he sees a monkey pal doing the same card trick in exchange for a grape. O shit, grapes are more delicious than cucumbers any day of the week. Every monkey knows that. Again, the researcher initiates the exchange and the monkey plays along wonderfully until he sees that he is being offered a cucumber again. At which point he freaks the eff out like his little monkey house is on fire. And refuses to lower himself again, now that he knows grapes are on the table. He’s had the wool removed from his monkey eyes and will accept nothing less. Monkey wins.
Except, does he? Now he’s getting nothing. He was really genuinely pleased by his former arrangement, playing with the researcher and enjoying his treat. Now he is pissed, not playing and secretly plotting against his grape-greedy new monkey enemy.
And what had changed? Nothing, except his perspective on the situation and his expectation. Likewise, we get ourselves into what feels like a prison with our thinking and this triggers stress responses and amygdala hijacks up the whazoo until we’re so unhappy, freaked out, headachey and exhausted we can only pass out. All over a grape.
In my work with clients over the years, I’ve come to marvel how hard they’ll work to see the problem in the worst, most pain-inducing way. They use all their human energy to translate it in whatever way feeds whatever their preferred crappy perspective-of-the-moment they’re holding of themselves. Their dog poops on the floor, “see? I’m a bad person, I can’t even get a dog that doesn’t poop on my floor. I will always fail.”
Their mindset lowers their mood, and closes them off from any interpretation of this situation that might help it get better, like, oh hey, I was gone too long and need to take the dog for a walk.
Byron Katie nudges our rigid way of thinking by asking, “do you want to right or do you want to be happy?” and lots of people confuse this question, thinking right and happy are at odds with each other, but we often think we’re telling the “truth” when all we’re doing is trash talking someone because they triggered our unresolved childhood safety wires and we’re not emotionally evolved enough to greet them at the level of their humanity.
It’s a much safer bet to go for happy because when you are truly happy, you have a broader perspective, more of your physical brain is engaged, way more neurons are firing and you make better decisions, are more generous, have more creativity and way more problem solving capacity, and, if you’re at all spiritually inclined, in your happiness you are connected with Source energy and have access to a much larger perspective.
Byron Katie’s process, The Work, is a neato way to stop freaking out about the grape. Next time you find yourself throwing cucumbers back in someone’s face, try this. Find a quiet spot. Don’t get fancy, the bathroom will do. Find the nasty Cucumbers Aren’t Good Enough thought and ask: Is it True? Then sit with the answer. Don’t push. It is or it isn’t.
If you say it is true, then ask, Can you really be sure it’s True? Like, in the large cosmic scope of things, can you be sure it’s true? Let the answer arise. Then ask, How do you feel when you think the thought? Take a look, see how it’s playing out in your life, in how you feel about those involved. Don’t get self lacerating, just let yourself notice.
Finally, and here’s where the hinge really releases, ask, “Who would I be, right now, if I couldn’t think this thought?” And if you can really slow down and take that in for a moment. What usually happens is that folks get have access to their unstuck, unfettered, deeply connected selves and they feel free, happy, out of prison, often gleeful.
Down on the floor, I stopped trying to be right, and turned away from the invisible ongoing fight in my head in which I was “right”. A new question appeared in my head, brand new and bright and wonderfully exciting, “where the heck was the most elusive flower in the world and what did it smell like?” From what I remembered from a brief obsessive late night researching my twin and I had done after the movie about twins and orchids, the Ghost Orchids give off their strongest scent in the morning and smell vaguely of apples. I squeezed my eyes shut and started sniffing.
What I smelled nearly overwhelmed me and my eyes flew open as I rocked back onto my haunches, peering at the weird alien ceiling. I took another sniff, oh my stars! How, in the whole blooming world, did I not smell this before? The profusions of scents were overwhelming, some cross between an Indian Bazaar with all the deep rich spices and heat, and falling asleep in an orange grove at dawn, then something surprising and sweet, vanilla? Are the angels baking in here? The smells shifted as I crawled, baby powder? What is that? I found myself rushing a little here and there and had to keep slowing down, chocolate, dark and rich, then jasmine layered over the chocolate like some kind of fantasy out of a women’s magazine. I was so bliss tripping on pure discovery that I forgot what I was looking for, that is, right up until I found it.
When I found it, I was crawling faster than usual and not hitting anything because there was nothing to hit. I seemed to be crawling in a blank space and the smells were thinning out into something vague and light and sweet and familiar: apple. I put my hand out as I limp crawled. As I recalled the ghost orchid grew on trees, and its roots would disappear on the tree so it looks like the blooms hover, ghostly, in midair. My hand found something hard and thin and rough and I followed it up a bit, then sat back. It was a tree, the only tree I’d come across. Even though it was especially dark here and I could see nothing, I just knew I’d found it.
Lesson Five: heading towards your Joy is the secret trapdoor to Bucket list living
If I were to ask you about your dreams for yourself I will bet you a million dollars I do not have that every single one of those dreams have one common thing: you want them for how they will make you feel. And how do you want to feel in all these dream scenarios? Joyful. Joy Full, full to piping with hot lava joy, bursting at your new rainbow seams with joy joy all the day long joy, so balls deep in your joy that you forget your name. We want to kiss the sky with our own full tilt existence, and to explode completely into the hope of everything new and precious.
And while we cannot put “Big Dreams Coming True” into our gps, we can put our joy in our sights and head there. It doesn’t matter which you pick, both are the same place anyway. I think heading toward happy is simpler. Here’s why: Just as Einstein said that the same consciousness that creates the problem cannot conceive of the solution, so many of our dreams are complicated/impossible/far away seeming from our current perspective. We dream of betterness, distinct from where we are in the moment of dream. The dream represents our leap forward and becomes a lighthouse calling us through the fog and darkness of the growth and inner shifts we have to make to journey there. Trying to figure out how to do impossible far away things is super stressful and isn’t actually the way the dreams happening thing works. Unless your dream is to be stressed out of your gourd and wildly disappointed in yourself all the time. Then it does lead there.
But joy is strangely doable. More than doable, it’s easy once you understand it. We already know the body and mindset and pacing all contribute to our ability to experience joy. And now we know how essential cucumbers are to all this, but let’s talk about my favorite underrated component of a joyful life, your focus. Tony Robbins relates an experience that happened when he was learning how to race cars. His instructor had told him what was going to happen and how to respond but when it was actually happening, and the instructor had initiated a skid, and they were hurtling at the wall at 200 mile an hour, Tony was spellbound, unable to yank his eyes away from his impending doom, and the instructor actually had to yank his face and turn him toward the curve, at which point, Tony steered into the curve, because where we look, we go.
One of my favorite things to do is to experiment on other people’s moods without them knowing it. Especially with folks who are chronically unhappy. I’ll let you in on my unscientific “method”. When I see them about to get up a head of steam on an unsavory subject, I’ll cut them off with something flirty, distracting or crazy, or all three, anything to interrupt their thread long enough for me to get a wedge in the door. It doesn’t matter what you say, you just leap in with the first thing that comes to mind. Then I’ll casually ask them something deceptively neutral (you can’t flip a train that was going 80 miles one way, suddenly going 80 the other way) like, “o hey, do you know bla bla face is coming home?” For it to work, it has to ellicit neutrality. Don’t ask something that’ll spark em. After they struggle to answer your bullshit and benign question, they’re a little off their game, now’s your moment. Casually relate something authentic that you saw or experienced that day. Do it with the swag that the world wants to hear what’s good, needs to and is in fact, wicked freaking thirsty for it. Use eye contact while you talk. It floods the body with very warming chemicals.
Authentic sharing invites presence in return. It interrupts the autopilot circuit, sets a new tone and instantly raises the bar. There is no way the person can reasonably answer what you just said with their former complaint in the queue. Now you pop a beautiful question, something in the vein of your sharing, “what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen recently?” “are you feeling blessed in any fresh ways? I’d love to hear.” “what’s the best part about being alive right now?” that kind of cheekily positive stuff.
Except it’s not cheeky. It’s brainy. It’s the reverse Tetris Effect, actually. Your brain shapes itself to how you use it. Some of the most depressed people in the world are the ones whose jobs require them to look for error, wrongness, lies and fraud. It trains their brain to look for that stuff and man, as if marriages weren’t tough enough! Imagine trying to be married to someone who is hardwired to see the flaws in you! Gasp.
Luckily the brain isn’t hard anything. It is constantly growing, change, expanding, just like the whole Universe and you can change it by using it differently. If you use your brain to look for what’s going right, what’s beautiful and what you want more of, your brain will change itself to help you see that more, and since we know that what we look at our whole life steers towards.
Apparently I’d steered myself to the right place in that dark warehouse, because as I made whatever bed I could on the cold concrete I noticed that the moon must have moved in all the time of my sniff and crawl party because when I looked up I saw what looked like a pale, bioluminescent frog angel hovering above my face. I was face to face with my first ghost orchid sighting, in full bloom, in moonlight, seemingly hovering in midair. The invisible hissing air moistening thing happened and the frog began to dance in the mist. It was so beautiful and mysterious, and, unrelentingly special feeling I almost felt overwhelmed to the point of shut down, but then I started laughing. This life! Somehow, impossibly, I fell asleep, mesmerized by the rarest of mystical dancing moonlight frogs.
I must have woken at dawn because it smelled like I was in an apple orchard at harvest time and though the moon was gone, the light felt similar. I felt, well, exactly like I’d had a moderately drunk fight, stressed about it for hours then slept on hard concrete.
But I also felt alive, and clear and uncontrollably glad to be alive. I looked at the Ghost Orchid in the first light of morning and took a clear, strong breath. I felt different, calmer, less confused. I knew there were changes up ahead. I didn’t feel scared of them anymore.
Lesson Six - Joy is a very Funded state.
Fill in your spiritual leaning, or your neurological understanding of how life works, whatever floats your boat. I used to care about that and think we needed to agree. I don’t think that anymore. I would suggest that you get clear about what you believe in and then believe it with your whole blooming heart. Split energy is really the bane of flow, so just be wholehearted in what you do.
Regardless what you believe, you’ve gotta admit that you have more of you going on when you’re happy than when you’re not. You got more creativity, insight, willingness, patience, love, compassion, generosity, stamina, energy, ease, wonderment, satisfaction and wellness to bring to the table.
Sitting, calmly before that incredible flower, I felt more of me rising to the surface. Realizations were flooding in, things I’d been to freaked out to admit could calmly unfurl. I wanted to thank the flower, somehow, though it felt impossible to touch like a butterfly but a zillion times more fragile. I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer of gratitude for the beauty this flower had returned to me.
JUST KIDDING! I looked back. Mucho de looking back.
I mean, you don't outgrow a culturally condoned addiction to distraction without a little wistfulness.
Here's how it went down:
I'm in a river, a beautiful, dreamy, achingly clear and pristine and cool river that flows out of the highest mountains on the east coast. This river gathers in azure and emerald swimming holes that have naturally occurring rock slides and rope swings are EVERYWHERE.
This is not a river to be missed. It is the river of my dreams. So of course I was scrolling my facebook feed. Feet in the river, head in other people's business. And not even into it, just ... doing it. Then my son caught a fish, maybe his second or third of his whole life and he's so excited and totally scared of it too and it's beautiful and raw and extraordinary and my first thought is, "I need to get a good shot of this for facebook."
I have impulse control issues, most of them I love. I jump head long into things I'm not ready for, even a little. I learned how to ride a motorcycle and took my first solo trip in a single day with only ten minutes of instruction. But sometimes I find myself throwing my brand new 600 dollar Iphone into a river before I can check it at the gate.
Thank heavens for impulse control issues.
I turned to my son, to my life, and said, okay, I'm listening.