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I’ve got five kids, I’m a queer feminist, and I just might be the only life coach in the world who doesn’t believe in the Law of Attraction.

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The whole time I was training to be a life coach with Martha Beck and her master coaches, I puzzled over a conundrum.  As coaches, we learn to question our painful and frightening thoughts by asking “Is it true?” using Byron Katie’s The Work and other methods of inquiry.  And we also learn to listen to our bodies, to tune into the vast network of information brought to us by our gut, our subtle antennae, and our spidey senses.

So I could never get clear on one thing.  How could I know whether I was thinking a scary (and untrue) thought, or whether I was receiving a real warning from my instincts?  For example, if I had a strong feeling that I was in danger, should I sit down and question my thinking, or should I run?

I asked all the wise teachers I knew.  They all said basically the same thing: that true information, whether it was a prickling of the skin or an intuitive hunch, would feel calm.  And that conversely, you have to be calm in order to hear your own intuition.

Frankly, I didn’t believe them.  I couldn’t imagine that I would feel anything but terrified if I were ever in real danger.

But Gavin De Becker, who wrote The Gift Of Fear, says something similar.  He says that when we rev our ‘fear engines’ all the time, by being stressed out and anxious, we create a roar of static that blocks out our truest hunches.  He says that when we operate at a high pitch of frenzied activity all the time, then we can’t tell when we are getting a true hit of instinctual survival information, which he believes is the gift of fear.  (If you haven’t read this book yet, go out and get it immediately– it’s amazing.)

And Belleruth Naparstak, in her book Invisible Heroes, puts yet another spin on it.  She explains that those who have experienced trauma, whether they’re officially dealing with PTSD or just a history of fear, can have a hair-trigger reaction.  So when we get the slightest whiff of danger or anxiety, our nervous systems go into full-blown panic mode.  This may have made sense when we were children in dangerous situations, but it cripples us as adults who need to navigate the world.

So all of this comes down to the fact that one of the best ways we can keep ourselves truly safe–from real physical danger as well from the fearful thoughts that can devastate us even when we’re lying safe in our own bed–is to learn to calm ourselves down.

I have been trying to learn this for years.  I’m still learning, which is why I have so much to say about it.  In my earlier post on turning my own fear around I shared some of the ways that work for me, but I want to share something even more basic.  This is adapted from a method called heart breathing, which I learned from my own coach Terry DeMeo.

I place my hand upon my heart, and pay attention to my breath.  Usually what I’ll notice is that it’s shallow and fast and that my heart is pounding.  At first I just notice it without trying to change it, and–this is key–without beating myself up for being a wimp who panics all the time.  Then I gently, oh so gently, begin to slow my breath down and deliberately bring each breath deeper into my body.  Then I concentrate my attention on my heart.  I imagine that my heart is opening like a flower, and my breath is pouring in and out of my heart.  I imagine that each breath is full of liquid gold, and I am being filled up with gold light.  I fill myself up with this delicious warm yellow-gold breath until I am brimming with it, until it is spilling out of the top of my head and trickling down my fingers and through the bottom of my feet.  It only takes a minute, but it’s the most effective way I know to bring myself back to calm and balance.  You might try it yourself.  It helps if you practice doing it even you’re not afraid, so that you can return to a familiar rhythm in times of true fear.

Some people have asked why I left Japan; isn’t that giving in to the very fear I was talking about fighting?  But as I wrote, having a very clear plan was part of how I was able to stay calm.  My partner and I agreed that if it looked like there was any possibility of radiation reaching Tokyo, or we were facing a serious food or supply shortage, I would take our daughter back to the US.  So when those threats became more likely (though certainly not inevitable), it was a clear decision.

There was a texture to the decision, a quality to it, that was distinctive.  Ironically, I’d finally found my answer about how to distinguish between fear and just plain old information.  In the preceding days, I’d felt panic, I’d felt frantic, I’d felt my throat close up and my hands shake.  But I had also felt paralyzed.  I was clamping down on my own panic because there was nothing to do with it.  (That’s why it was so important that I move my body, that I ground into my physical self, to help me process all the adrenaline and cortisol my body must have been producing.)  If I’d known how to channel my energy into actions to help those in distress, that would have been good too.  Other than giving money, there didn’t seem to be much that I could immediately do.

So on Tuesday morning, I got very quiet.  I did a session by phone with Melani Marx, which is one of the most powerful ways I know to quiet myself and line up with my truest knowing.  I held my daughter in my mind, and I held the reality of Japan in my mind as best as I knew.  I felt deep grief for the north.  I felt sadness.  And I felt a fierce maternal roaring, like the lioness in me making herself known.  There was no fear.  There was not even a sense of danger.  What I felt was a clear knowledge that in order to be at peace with myself, I needed to take my daughter somewhere else.  It was a decision that I knew others would consider foolish and panicked, it was a decision that disrupted all of the beautiful routines and support systems of our daily lives.  It also disrupted our financial stability and threw us into limbo.  In many ways, it was much more scary to go than it would have been to stay.

But in that moment, there was no more paralysis.  There was something I can only describe as momentum.  There was a clear ‘Yes’ from my essential self.  It was a physical sensation just above my navel, almost like I was being hooked and pulled forward.  Within minutes, I was online buying a plane ticket.

And I am at peace.  I am in Portland, Oregon, and the rains come down, the sun spikes through, and all over this green city, daffodils and crocus are blooming.  And I am full of gratitude.

March 17, 2011

Fear vs Knowing

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I’ve got five kids, I’m a queer feminist, and I just might be the only life coach in the world who doesn’t believe in the Law of Attraction.

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I write things for women with big, gorgeous, COMPLICATED lives. I help women become epic fucking badasses… but I still retain my right to cry at every diaper commercial ever made.

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