We’re in the middle of a big move back to California from Guam, and things are in great flux. Saying goodby to everyone, packing and shipping stuff, not having a home yet, traveling with kids on a couple long flights, moving our old stuff from storage in a U-Haul, finding our way in a new city.
Life is turbulent right now — though if we think about it, it almost always is.
I’m not a surfer, but I imagine that I can let myself be overwhelmed and crushed by the turbulence … or I can ride it like a surfer might ride a wave. You don’t control the wave or know how it will turn out, you just have to navigate it moment to moment.
If we can learn to ride the rolling uncertainty of our lives like a wave, staying open each moment to what unfolds, we can live without as much stress and anxiety, and just be present to what is happening. Maybe even enjoy ourselves in the middle of it.
So what would that be like?
For me, it seems to be staying present with the feelings of uncertainty that come up for me, instead of trying to ignore them or get away from them. That means allowing myself to feel the turbulence, not constantly staying distracted.
It seems to be trying to be curious about what is unfolding, about what this particular moment is like, without needing to know what comes next exactly. Without needing it to be any certain way. And if I do expect it to be a certain way, being present with my feelings of frustration or stress when it doesn’t turn out to be that way.
It seems to be about surrendering, a bit, as I relax my constant need for control. I don’t have all the information I need to perfectly plan out my life — there’s so much uncertainty about everything, that I can’t possibly know how things should go, what I should do exactly, what will come next. So should I try to plan for every possible outcome, be incredibly prepared for any possible scenario, when I can’t know what might happen? Or can I relax and surrender, trusting that I can deal with whatever does come up. So far, that’s always been true.
It seems to be about dealing with what’s right in front of me, in the moment. I can’t deal with every possible scenario that might come in the future, but I can be fully open to what’s happening right now. I can be as present as I can with this situation, and figure out what needs to be done right now.
It also seems to be about learning to love this moment, as it unfolds, as it is. I don’t know what will come next, but what’s happening now is completely new, a beautiful surprise. Instead of worrying so much about what is still to come, I can open my eyes to what’s right here.
And then fall in love with it.
Walking into the unknown can be scary … but at the same time, it can also be a time of discovering love for a fresh experience. It can be a time of walking into pure joy at the miracle of life that’s just emerging in this moment.
Eva and I and our two younger kids are in the process of moving back to California from Guam, where we’ve been living with family for the last 9 months. As we pack our stuff, get some stuff ready to ship to California, and donate other things to charity … it is a great time to reflect.
Why do people have so much stuff?
Even though we have relatively little compared to most, we’ve still managed to accumulate too much, from getting gifts from other people to buying necessities (and non-necessities) along the way. Stuff just piles up over time — that’s the nature of stuff.
But most of it is not necessary. Most of our stuff, we buy because of one feeling: the feeling of uncertainty. This is the underlying groundlessness, shakiness, insecurity we feel about the future and the present moment. It’s the uncertainty we feel all day long, every day, to varying degrees. It’s what causes us to feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry, even anger. It’s what causes us to procrastinate and put off our healthy and productive habits.
The feeling of uncertainty is the root of our buying too much stuff.
Think about these examples:
You are going on a trip, and you’re feeling a bit nervous about it, so you do research and buy a bunch of stuff to take with you to help you feel more secure, prepared, certain.
You’re going to attend a conference, and it brings up some anxiety, so you get some gear to help you feel more prepared.
You get into a new hobby, and don’t know what you’re doing so feel a lot of uncertainty, and do a ton of research for days, buying everything you can possibly think of to be fully prepared.
You are hosting a social gathering and this is giving you some stress, so you buy a bunch of things to make sure the party goes as well as you can hope for.
You are feeling a lot of disruption and uncertainty in your life, and find yourself procrastinating on things while doing a lot of online shopping.
You are feeling uncertainty about yourself, about your looks. To help with that, you buy a lot of nice clothes and gear to make you feel better about yourself.
I could go on with endless examples, but you get the idea. Uncertainty brings with it an urge to get certainty, control, preparedness, security. And so we buy stuff to try to get that feeling.
The Futility of Shopping to Deal with Uncertainty
We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity – we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity … and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.
We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top — it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life.
And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff — if we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.
We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.
The Practice of Opening to Uncertainty, to Live with Little
Imagine owning very little, living in a spare room, eating simple whole food, not being involved in social media, just working, reading, walking, spending time with loved ones. Meditating, drinking tea.
It’s a life of very little, and is beautiful in its simplicity.
But then uncertainty comes up, as it inevitably does. You have a trip, you have to go to a party, you have a new kind of project to take on, you are starting a new venture. You’re feeling insecurity and uncertainty.
Here’s how to practice with it instead of buying something:
Notice you have the urge to buy something (or procrastinate, get control of everything, etc.).
Notice that underlying the urge is a feeling of uncertainty, that you don’t want.
Instead of rushing to follow your urge to buy something, pause and just sit with the uncertainty for a minute or two.
Turn your attention to the physical feeling of uncertainty in your body. Where is it located? What does it feel like?
Stay with the feeling and get really curious about it.
Relax around the feeling. Be generous with it, giving it compassion, openness, gratitude, love.
Notice that this is just a sensation, just an experience, nothing you need to run from, hate, or push away. You can be with it, even open up to it.
With this practice, you don’t need to fill your life with more stuff. This is my practice right now, as I see the effects of too much stuff that’s come into my family’s life. Sit with the uncertainty, embrace it, and fall in love with the groundlessness of my life.
On my 46th birthday recently, my (mostly adult) kids wrote out a list of lessons I’d taught each of them in their lives so far. Each wrote their own list, and my wife Eva sweetly put them together in a notebook.
As I read through them, I felt like crying. It’s so incredibly touching that they appreciate what I’ve been trying to pass on to them, things I’ve been learning and want them to understand.
As a father, there are few things more meaningful than to see how you’ve helped your kids through your example and talks over the years. We have a mixed family of 6 kids, aging from 13 years old to 26 years, and all of them are wonderful human beings.
It turns out, there were some lessons that all or most of the kids put on their list, which I’m going to share with you here. These lessons they had in common made me wonder if these were the more powerful lessons, or if they were simply the ones I talked about the most. :)
So here they are, roughly ordered in how frequently they showed up on my kids’ lists:
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and it’s okay to fail. This was tied (with the next one) as the most common lesson on their lists — it made all their lists, I think. I really love that this lesson hit home with them.
Have empathy & try to see things from others’ perspectives. This was the other lesson on all their lists, and again, it’s beautiful that they all took this to heart. I’ve tried to show them this through my actions, though of course I’m not at all perfect.
Push out of your comfort zone. This is another one I’ve tried to teach by example, from running several marathons and an ultramarathon to doing things that scare me, like speaking on stage or writing books. This lesson is so important to me that
Don’t spend more than you have. This is such a simple idea, but one that is rarely followed. I’m glad my kids are starting out with this mindset — live within your means, save as much as you can.
Appreciate what you have & enjoy where you are right now. I love this one. It’s something that I try to embody, but also remind them when they are thinking about what they don’t have. Each time we’re stuck in complaint, it’s an opportunity to wake up to the beauty that’s in front of us.
Sadness is a part of life, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling it. Despite what I said in the previous item, it’s OK to feel sadness, pain, grief, frustration, anxiety, anger. In fact, most of us never want to feel those things, so we’ll do whatever we can to ignore them or get away from the feelings. Instead, I try to actually feel those things, as an experience. It teaches me about struggle — if we’re not willing to face our own struggles, how can we be there for others when they struggle?
Don’t give up just because something gets hard. As new adults, our four oldest kids are facing various struggles in new ways. This is part of growth, of course, but struggles never feel good. My job as dad has been to encourage them not to give up just because it’s hard — to keep going, and to use the struggle to grow.
But don’t overwork yourself. That said, I’m not a fan of overwork. I believe the brain doesn’t function well if you keep studying or working past the point of exhaustion, so I try to teach them about taking breaks, resting, going outside and moving.
It’s okay to be weird in public. Have fun. I’m not sure why several of them had this on the list — they must have learned to be weird from someone else? OK, in truth, they might have gotten it from my tendency to dance and skip with them while we’re out walking around in a city, or to encourage us all to do weird things as a group, no matter what other people might think.
Your reality is a reflection of the narrative you tell yourself. This is something I learned late in life, and I’m glad my kids are learning this. The good news is that you can learn to drop that narrative, if it leads to suffering. What would this moment be like without a narrative? Beautiful and free.
Make people laugh. It makes their day brighter. I’m so happy they picked up this important lesson from me! With my kids, I’m mostly always joking, except for when I get (too) serious about teaching them an important lesson. The rest of the time, I try to take a lighthearted approach.
I love my kids with all my heart, and it has been a privilege to be their dad. I take 10% of the credit and give the rest to their moms, grandparents, and themselves.
Also … from them, I’ve learned some lessons that are just as important:
Kids deserve to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected. I started out as a dad with the idea that what I say goes, and they just need to listen to me! But over the years, I’ve learned to listen to them, and treat them as I’d want to be treated.
Kids have tender hearts that hurt when you aren’t kind to them. As a young dad, my frustrations and insecurities led me to angry bursts of scolding, yelling, spanking. I’ve grown since then, but more importantly, I’ve learned to see the tenderness of their hearts, and how it hurts to be yelled at by someone they trust and love so much. I am much more gentle with those hearts these days.
I should relax and not take myself so seriously. Whenever I think too much of myself, my kids humble me. Whenever I get too serious, my kids laugh at me. I love that playful reminder to loosen up.
Dads are goofy, dorky, uncool. And that’s how we should be. I sometimes harbor the notion that I can be a “cool” dad. When I try to break out newish slang or reference a meme, my kids will tease me about it. When I break out a joke or pun that I think is hilarious, they’ll laugh while rolling their eyes and calling it a “dad joke.” So I’ve learned just to embrace my uncoolness, and be myself with them.
All they need is love. There are lots of things to stress out about as parents, and nowadays we tend to obsess about getting everything right with our kids. But really, we’re stressing about it too much. All the details are just details — there’s only one thing that really matters. They want you to love them. And to receive their love. That’s all. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, educate them, sure … but beyond that, they just want you to love them. Drop everything that gets in the way of that and let it come out as simply and clearly as you can.
When we set out to work on a meaningful, important task, something interesting happens.
We feel quite a bit shaky.
It’s the feeling you get when you step into uncertain ground, where you don’t know exactly what you’re doing or whether you can do it, where you feel a bit lost or don’t have solid ground under your feet. This is the shakiness of groundlessness.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling shaky and groundless, but our minds don’t really like it. In fact, we’ve trained our minds to run from this uncertainty and shakiness, to go to distraction, procrastination, busywork, trying to get control, or going to a host of other habitual patterns.
We feel the shakiness and immediately do whatever we can to avoid feeling it.
What if we could just feel the shakiness and not need to run? What if we could practice mindfulness in the middle of it, and stay in the groundlessness? We might even learn to be completely happy in the shakiness, to see it as the place we want to be if we want to do anything meaningful, if we want to have an impact on the world and make a difference in the lives of others.
We can do this by training ourselves in Deep Focus.
The Shift into Deep Focus
Deep Focus is simply staying focused on one task for longer than we normally might, staying in the middle of the task despite urges to switch to something else, despite our habitual patterns. It’s immersing yourself into the task, creating undistracted space where you can stay in the shakiness and give it your entire being.
How often do we actually give ourselves entirely to a task? What would it be like to shift into this mode more often?
To do it, you have to clear everything away and set an intention to dive deep into the task. You have to pick an important task that is meaningful to you, that is worth this kind of diving in.
You’ll also want to create some kind of structure to hold you in this focus when things get shaky and you want to run. The structure might be some kind of accountability, some kind of structured session that is timed, has no other options, and no wifi … you can find the structure that works for you over time if you experiment.
The result is a very different way of relating to a task. Instead of it being something you need to rush through to get to the next task, it becomes worthy of your full attention, a destination worthy of staying in, an activity worthy of your full devotion.
Instead of it being a place of shakiness you need to run from, it becomes a place of breathtaking groundlessness, where you can savor the quality of uncertainty while also appreciating this place where you can be of service to others.
So how do we train ourselves to stay in Deep Focus instead of running from the shakiness?
We commit ourselves.
We find some accountability.
We have daily training sessions. They don’t have to be long — in fact, I recommend just a daily session of 10 minutes for the first week. This is a proven technique that I’ve used with thousands of people, myself included.
We treat these sessions as sacred ground, and devote our entire being to it.
If you’d like to train with me and a thousand others, join my Sea Change Program, where we’re doing the Dive Into Important Tasks challenge this month.
Our society is obsessed with productivity and optimizing our lives — having the perfect routine, perfect diet, perfect productivity system, perfect todo app, and more.
It’s an ideal that not only doesn’t exist, it’s harmful to our health and happiness. And what’s more, it’s completely misguided — what many of us really want to do with our work is do meaningful work and have an impact on the world.
So how can we let go of the focus on productivity and optimizing, while still doing meaningful work and having an impact?
Simplify. Focus on the important, meaningful tasks instead of churning. And actually dive into those meaningful tasks instead of procrastinating because of the uncertainty that comes with them.
Look at your task list and email/messages inbox and pick the most meaningful tasks — there’s a good chance you’ve been putting them off. Instead, when you don’t go to your favorite distractions, you are likely to churn through smaller tasks, answering messages, checking on inboxes and updates.
This is because meaningful, important tasks come with great uncertainty. We habitually respond to this uncertainty by avoiding it, going to distraction and easier tasks that make us feel less uncertain.
But the result is that we’re churning through a lot of busywork, spending our days doing a lot but not getting a lot accomplished.
Instead, we can simplify:
Pick meaningful tasks, and focus on those.
Create space by clearing away distractions.
Letting the busywork get pushed until later in the day, when we set aside room for those.
And putting our entire being into the meaningful, important tasks.
Imagine clearing out space in your day by simplifying, letting go of the small tasks, not constantly answering messages and emails, and instead giving yourself the generous gift of focusing.
You’d get the meaningful tasks done, and feel like your work is more meaningful. Those tasks would make a greater impact, and over time, you’d have a great impact on the world.
There’s nothing we can do more to further our meaningful work and make the impact that we want to make in the world than to:
Pick our most important, meaningful tasks
And dive into them with full focus
And yet, it seems to be a challenge for almost every person on this planet. Very few people regularly overcome distraction, procrastination, the urge to do small tasks or check email and messages, rationalization and running from discomfort to our usual comforts.
So in May, I’m launching a challenge in my Sea Change Program called Dive Into Important Tasks. It starts on Monday, May 6, but you can join today and commit to the challenge.
This challenge is about picking out your high-impact, high-priority tasks every day, and then diving into it, letting go of the urge to go to distractions, the urge to procrastinate, the uncertainty that comes with these meaningful tasks.
It’s about overcoming our age-old habits of procrastination, and diving into our meaningful work.
Here’s how the challenge works:
Week 1: Pick 1 meaningful task a day and do 10 minutes of it first thing in the morning (or whenever you start working).
Week 2: Do 2 sessions of 10 minutes your meaningful task first thing when you start working each day. Break up the two sessions with a 5-minute break. We’re training our ability to stay focused on what’s important, but in doable sessions.
Week 3: Pick 2 important tasks each day, and do 3 10-minute sessions. Two sessions can be for the first task, then the third for the second task. Sessions have a 5-minute break in between. Again, we’re further training ourselves to stay on task and not put it off.
Week 4: Pick 3 important tasks each day, and do 4 10-minute sessions. Split up the 4 sessions however you like between the 3 important tasks. You can take a longer break between them if needed, so that you don’t have to spend a consecutive hour doing these sessions but can spread them out in the beginning part of your work day.
During the challenge, I’ll provide articles about the focus sessions and how to choose and dive into the important tasks.
The Benefits of this Training
This is actually daily training into focus and prioritization.
If you do this challenge and really commit to it, you’ll find some powerful benefits:
You’ll start to get good at starting on things. This is so important in today’s world of distraction, but it’s always been tough to not run to the habit of procrastination. Getting good at not putting things off is a superhero skill.
You’ll start to train in staying in the uncertainty of meaningful work. If you practice in this invaluable skill, there’s almost nothing you can’t do beyond physical limitations. We stop letting fear and discomfort hold us back. We stop being afraid of difficulty and uncertainty. We cultivate fearlessness.
And maybe even launch a project you’ve been waiting your whole life to launch. Your love song to the world. If you have a gift to give to the world, it’s a shame to not give it.
How often have you half-assedly committed to something, but didn’t really put your entire being into following through on that commitment?
How often have you said you were going to do something, and then just dropped it because you were too busy or didn’t have the energy?
How often have you said you were going to change your habits … and then didn’t stick to it?
How many times have you said you were going to take a course, read a book, take on a challenge, start a new hobby, write a book, start a business … and then you barely even start on it (if you start at all)?
For myself, this all happens at an alarming rate. My commitments are often not even half commitments, they’re like quarter commitments. And interestingly, I’d say I’m better at it than most people! Maybe not the best in the world, but better at sticking to my commitments than 75% of the world.
And I suck at it, in many ways. I start a diet and barely last a couple days on it. I pick an exercise program and last 3 weeks. I buy a book and barely get a quarter of the way through. Over and over, my commitments fall like flies.
What if we could deepen our commitments?
What would it be like to be so deeply committed, we’d be unshakable? What would it be like to be the person who would walk through walls to meet their purpose in life? How much more would people trust us if we showed up fully every single time we commit to something?
Our lives could be transformed.
I’ve been meditating on commitment lately, and experimenting with it in my life. Looking at where I’m only half committed (or less), where I don’t really believe I’ll meet my commitments. And learning how to go deeper into that commitment. Or cut it out, if I can’t commit deeply.
Here’s what I’m learning about being more deeply committed:
Take away choice. When we’re only half committed, we keep the door open for other options. We think, “Sure, I’m going to stick to this diet, but … if I go out for dinner with friends, that’s different. Also family gatherings. And of course if there are donuts in the office.” That’s bullcrap. If we’re going to commit, let’s remove all possibility in our minds of doing anything else. There’s just this one option: doing your commitment.
Do it with your entire being. Going through the motions doesn’t count. If you’re going to do it, do it with your entire being. Show up fully. Put your whole heart into it. Or don’t do it at all. Only half showing up for other people is painful to them. The same with only half showing up for yourself.
Remember your deeper Why. You’re probably not taking your commitments seriously because you’ve forgotten why it’s so important. It’s just another thing on your endless todo list. Instead, remember the deeper reason you committed to this — maybe it’s to serve people you care deeply about. Keep them in your heart, and make this commitment the most important thing in the world, at least at the moment you’re doing it. Write out why you care so much about this commitment, and put that somewhere you can’t miss it.
If you aren’t fully doing it, ask what’s holding you back. Notice if you’re not really upholding your commitment, or if you’re only going through the motions. What’s stopping you from fully showing up? What’s getting in the way? There might be fear, or maybe you aren’t giving it enough weight and giving it the focus it deserves. Pause and be with this resistance or floppiness, and ask yourself what it would take to deepen this commitment.
Add commitments only slowly. Let’s face it: we want to do everything. And yet, this is why we can’t uphold our commitments — we’re overcommitting! Most of us should reduce our commitments (see next item), but once we get to a place where we feel we can add a new commitment … we should be very deliberate about the process of adding a new commitment. Meditate on it for a few days. Commit to it only for a week or two, so that you can see if you have room in your life. Once you feel good about it, add that commitment … but then don’t add others for a little while, until you’re sure you can add another.
Get out of commitments you aren’t going to uphold. Most of us are overcommitted — which means we can’t possibly meet all of our commitments. In this case, we should first see if there’s a way we can meet some of those commitments for as long as we said we would (work on a project for a month, for example), but then get out of them once we’ve fulfilled that commitment. That should be our first choice — do what we said we would, but then end it when we can. Next choice is to renegotiate the commitment if necessary — maybe we said we could do it for a year, but we can only do it for the next few months. Maybe we said we could do it every day, but all we’re able to do is three days a week. Let the person know, and apologize to them. Lastly, get out of the commitment if you can’t do either of the above. Again, apologize, but recognize that this is necessary if you’re going to fully meet your more important commitments. So this is a matter of prioritizing which ones you need to meet. But if you have to get out of a commitment, let that be a grave lesson in overcommitting yourself.
I write these not so much as advice for everyone else, but as advice for myself. This is what I’m learning, and it’s so important.
Someone recently asked me about getting frustrated when they feel overloaded, and then shutting down or lashing out.
“This has been something I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I had an instance today where I could have been more calm and rational about the situation but calm and rationality gave way to frustration and anger. I’m wondering what habits I can use instead to keep from falling into fits of anger.”
This probably sounds familiar to some of us. We feel overloaded, and then maybe lash out at someone in frustration and anger.
This comes from the hope that things will be calm, orderly, simple, solid, and under control. The world doesn’t comply with this hope, however, as it is chaotic, disorder, constantly changing, never fixed, groundless. So we get frustrated, angry at others, and feel anxiety.
So how do we deal with the frustration that arises? How can we create a habit of calm?
I’m going to share a series of practices that you can turn into habits. When you notice yourself feeling frustrated, instead of lashing out, practice the following.
If you practice them over and over, whenever you notice frustration, you will start to shift.
The first practice is to catch your habitual pattern as early as you can, and shifting by not allowing yourself to indulge in it. When you notice yourself getting frustrated and feeling overloaded, notice the urge to go to your habitual pattern (shutting down or lashing out), but pause instead of indulging it.
The next practice is to drop into the body. Again, pause, and let yourself take a breath. Drop your attention into your body and notice the sensations of frustration and overwhelm. Stay with these sensations, with curiosity. Notice how strong the urge to lash out feels, and just savor that strong feeling instead of acting on it.
Open up to it, relax around it, be with it. Love this feeling, if you can, or at least be compassionate with it. Once you practice this, you get more and more comfortable being in the middle of frustration, and you don’t need to relieve the feeling by lashing out. You now have more space to calm yourself and do the next practice.
The third practice is to use this newfound space to connect to the other person. Now, I understand that you might be angry at them, and so connecting to them is the last thing you want to do. Your heart is closed to them, because you think they are the problem. The problem is your closed heart. Try not indulging in that shutting down, and opening yourself a little. This is a challenging but transformative practice.
From this place, notice the other person — they are acting the way they’re acting because they are feeling some kind of pain themselves. Maybe they’re feeling insecure, anxious, worried about the future. Maybe they are hurt by something you did and are themselves lashing out in frustration. Well, you can understand that! You are feeling the same thing. In this way, the two of you are connected.
Maybe you’ve responded to their frustration with frustration of your own. Now you are suffering like they’re suffering. You are connected in this way, the same. Let this sameness open you up to them, understanding them in a more human way. They are not the problem, they are suffering like you are. You’re in this together. Now how can you work on this together?
The final practice is to try to find an appropriate, loving and compassionate response. You have empathized with the other person, but now you need to take action. The answer of what action to take is not always easy, but at the very least, you’re not responding from a place of anger, which is a place that gives rise to inappropriate responses like lashing out.
What is an appropriate, loving, compassionate response? It really depends on the situation. Some examples:
The other person is upset and going through a hard time, so you help them calm down, listen to their frustrations, offer empathy and compassion, and talk through a solution together.
The other person acted inconsiderately but perhaps was unaware of how that affected you, so you come to them when you’ve calmed down and talk to them compassionately about it, sharing the impact of their actions on you and asking calmly for a specific thing they can do in the future instead.
The other person is not willing to engage in a compassionate dialogue, and is set upon being a jerk. You can’t talk to them calmly, because they argue with everything. In this case, you might get a third party to mediate, like a couple’s counselor or a manager in your workplace.
The other person is abusive. You empathize with the pain they must feel in order to be like this. But you also remove yourself from the situation to protect yourself from harm. You try to help them get the help they need while being firm about your boundaries.
As you can see, there are many possibilities — many more than I can list here. These are just some examples to show that you can find a loving, appropriate response to the situation if you come from a place of compassion and calm.
In the end, this stuff takes a lot of practice. But it’s immeasurably more helpful to do these practices than to lash out, which hurts not only the other person, but yourself as well.
A little boy was told by his father, from a young age, that he wasn’t good enough. Not in so many words, but through his actions — by criticizing him, yelling at him, hitting him, leaving him.
The boy grew up into a man, knowing that he was unworthy of praise, of success, of love.
The boy, as an adult, got a job, but didn’t really think he was good enough to do the job well. He faked it, deathly afraid every single day that he would be found out and mocked, then fired. He tried to hide, not to put himself in the spotlight, because then maybe no one would see his unworthiness.
But he was always deathly afraid of people seeing him fail. So he held himself back, careful not to do anything where he might fail. He put off taking on tough tasks, and formed a long habit of procrastination. This came to rule his life, affecting his health habits, financial habits, relationships.
The boy, now that he was an adult, got into a couple of long-term relationships, hoping to find someone to make him happy. He didn’t believe he could make them happy or get them to love the true him, because he already knew he was unworthy of love. But maybe if he was really nice to them, and only showed them the good parts of him, they’d think he was lovable. So he never tried to be truly honest, never found true intimacy, because he could only show them certain parts that might win him love.
And he was always ready for them to find out how bad he was, to leave him. In fact, he left them before that could happen. Or if he didn’t leave them, he was only halfway in the relationship, one foot out the door. Ready to leave. Only partway committed. And in truth, they always felt that, and craved his full commitment.
This was true of every friendship, every professional relationship. He was never fully committed. Never fully honest, because he couldn’t show his true self. Always anxious that others might know how unworthy he was. Always trying to prove how worthy he was, even if he knew he wasn’t.
This is the story of Unworthiness. And it is fairly universal.
My Inner Narrative of Unworthiness
It’s one of my longest-running inner narratives. That I’m not good enough — that I’m somehow unworthy to teach, to write books, to train people in uncertainty.
As I’ve worked with thousands of people in changing their lives, I’ve found this is one of the most common inner narratives there is.
We’re unworthy. Unworthy of praise, of putting our work out there in the world, of leading a team or community, of creating something meaningful in the world. We’re unworthy of success. Of happiness. Of peace. Of financial comfort. Of loving relationships. We’re unworthy of love.
We’re not good enough. Not good enough to tackle our toughest struggles. To change our addictions and old habits. To change our diet, to start exercising, to start meditating — or to stick to any of these for very long. We’re not good enough to put our writing or art out in public. We’re not good enough for others to recognize our accomplishments. Not good enough to write a book, start a podcast, put videos online, start an online business, start a nonprofit, create a thriving entrepreneurial empire, launch a startup, teach ourselves a really hard skill, pursue a lifelong dream.
We’re not good enough, and we’re unworthy.
The Great Secret
Here’s the thing: it’s all just a story, isn’t it? It’s a narrative in our heads that we replay, over and over, until it beats us down into submission.
The thoughts aren’t true. There’s no objective panel of judges in the sky who have judged us unworthy. We just made up this story, and we pick out evidence to match the narrative. When someone says something remotely critical, we take it to heart, and offer it up as yet more proof that we’re not good enough.
The narrative isn’t true. And worse, it hurts us in every single part of our lives. It means we’re only half in relationships, hiding ourselves, never honest, never fully committed. It makes us anxious, afraid of failure, never putting ourselves out there (at least, not fully, not honestly), and if we do put ourselves in public, it’s a performance, trying to prove our worthiness. It holds us back. It makes us procrastinate. Hurts our health. Makes us unhappy.
This is the Universal Narrative of Unworthiness, and it’s not true, and it hurts is deeply.
Unlearning the Story
So how do we stop believing this untrue, hurtful story that goes so deep we don’t usually even realize it’s there?
I’ll share two practices that have helped me start to unravel the story, even if it still persists when I’m not being vigilant.
The first practice: writing out a mantra and repeating it. This is something I use when my unworthiness narrative comes up around writing a book or public speaking.
When I’m writing a book, the narrative inevitably asserts itself as something like, “No one is going to find this book valuable, this is going to be terrible.” It makes it much harder to write the book and I get very good at cleaning my kitchen instead of writing, let me tell you.
When I am supposed to give a talk, it seems fine when it’s months away and I agree to it. Then I get deathly afraid as the day gets nearer, and the flop sweats start. I start questioning my sanity: “Why did I ever say yes to this? No one is going to want to hear what you have to say.”
So last year I came up with a mantra to start to see the world in a new way: “The world craves you and your gift.”
I repeated this whenever I noticed my heart fluttering because of having to give a talk, conduct a workshop or webinar, lead a course or program, write a book or blog post. I repeated it many times: “The world craves you and your gift.”
Over and over, until I start to believe it. Yes, it sounds incredibly corny. And yet, it works. I start to look for evidence of it being true. I can’t hear the other story so much, if this one is being told.
The second practice: letting the story dissolve. I do this all the time, and it’s absolute magic.
Here’s how it works. I notice the narrative. I notice how it’s making me feel — I feel crappy, I’m fearful, I’m procrastinating, I’m hiding. And then I ask myself, “What would I be like if I didn’t have this story?”
This is a magical question for me. I imagine what it would be like, in this particular moment, if I didn’t have this narrative. All of a sudden, I’m completely present in this moment — I notice how my body feels, I notice my surroundings, I notice the sensation of the air on my skin and the light in the room and the sounds all around me.
All of a sudden, I’m immersed in this moment, free of the story. I’m free. I’m at peace. I can open my heart to the moment, to the beauty of the person in front of me if there is one, to the beauty of myself. What an incredible gift it is, to just drop the story and be completely present and in love with how things are, in love with myself and other people around me.
Practicing a new mantra and the magical question, the boy is gorgeously free of his old narrative, and can run wildly through the jungle, joyfully alive.
We all deal with stress on a daily basis — whether it’s the stress of being busy and overwhelmed at work, having to deal with personal crises, traffic, relationships, health, finances … stress can be a big part of our lives.
And stress has some strong effects: it makes us less happy, less effective, less open-hearted in our relationships, it tires us out, makes us less healthy, and can even create mental health issues if it rises to levels of anxiety.
So let’s look at how to let go of stress, whenever we notice it.
What You’re Struggling With
Why do we get stressed out, feel anxiety or feel overwhelmed?
Because we want the world to be calm, orderly, comfortable, and the world isn’t going along with those wishes. Things are out of control, not orderly, not simple, full of interruptions and unplanned events, health problems and accidents, and things never go as we planned or imagined.
But this is the way the world is — the stress comes not because the world is messy and chaotic, but because we desire it to be different than it is.
We have ideals for how other people should be, how we should be, how everything around us should be. These ideals aren’t a problem — the is that we are attached to these ideals. And this attachment causes us stress.
The good news is that we can let go of our attachment, and the world doesn’t need to change one iota. We can let go, and in doing so we let go of our stress.
How to Let Go of the Stress
Let’s say you’re experiencing a moment of stress right now.
Something isn’t going the way you’d like, things are chaotic or overwhelming, someone isn’t acting the way you’d like, you’re worried about something coming up.
The first practice is to drop into your body and notice how the stress feels, physically. Be present with the feeling — it’s not a problem to have stress in your body, it’s just a physical feeling. You can observe the physical sensation, just be with it. This can be your whole practice, and it only has to take a few moments.
The second practice is to notice the ideal, or your narrative about the situation. What’s causing this stress in your body? You have some ideal about how the world should be, how the other person should be, how you should be. And the world, the person, or you are not meeting that ideal. Notice that right now. Notice what you’re saying to yourself about it: “They shouldn’t act like that, I don’t like this, I’m such a screwup and not worthy of love.”
What do you say to yourself? Is this a familiar narrative? Notice that the ideal and the narrative are causing the effect of the stress, anxiety, fear, feeling of overwhelm. They aren’t serving you very well.
Also notice that they are completely fabricated by your mind. You created this ideal and the narrative. They are harming you, and you made up this dream. That’s nothing to beat yourself up about, but just to recognize. The good news: If you created it, you can let it go as well.
The third practice is to let go and just be. What would it be like to be in this moment without the ideal and the narrative? You’d be at peace. You’d be present in this moment. You’d be free. Perhaps more loving (to yourself or others).
Ask yourself what it would be like to not have the ideal and narrative. See if you can feel what it would be like, just for a moment. In that moment, you are free. You can relax, open your mind beyond your self-concern, and just be.
This is a state of openness that you can drop into in any moment. Just notice the sensations of this moment — the sensations of your body, of your surroundings. Notice the other people in your life, and their beautiful hearts. Notice how amazing it is to be alive right now, what a gift it is to have sight, hearing, taste, a body. What a privilege, what a joy!
You don’t have to be grateful and joyous in every moment, but this freedom of dropping ideal and narrative, and being at peace … it’s always available. Even in moments of chaos, you can be free, and even appreciate the beauty of the chaos.