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An invitation from the planets—and from me

Dear friends,

Those of you who are astrologically inclined (or who are, like, on Instagram) know that Mercury is in retrograde at the moment. Astronomically, that means the planet Mercury appears to be moving backward in the sky. On Earth, it’s a lot of spinning beach balls on computer screens, dropped calls, traffic detours and misunderstandings.

Mythologically / energetically, Mercury is the god of (i.e., embodies the energy of) travel and communication, so its apparent reversal messes with our incessant human desire to move forward, forward, forward.

In fact, I’m writing this on an airplane because the TVs and WiFi are both inexplicably busted. (I may have had something to do with this, actually. Knowing I’d be traveling this week I bargained with Mercury that it could have the entertainment systems in exchange for flights being on time. I hadn’t thought of the parents with little kids who need their iPads. Sorry about that folks).

This is sort of the point though. I don’t know about you, but in order to write I need to be in a place where I’m free of the tyranny of technology and efficiency. Otherwise I’m constantly abandoning what I’m working on to respond like a well-trained dog to the email ding. Or taking a quick break to see what’s up on Instagram. Or rushing through an otherwise spacious evening to get to the ‘finish line’ of plunking down on the couch to watch Better Call Saul.

One of the gifts of Merc Retro is being stirred from this hypnosis through interruption. Our plans are thwarted. The voices constantly flowing into our ears become staticky. The delivery method of so much (the Internet) is spotty.

Sure, we can fight it and get miserable, which I’ve already done a good handful of times in the last week — like when my Very Important Errand was thwarted by a city-wide road race that made it literally impossible to get where I needed to go. My hand and throat were sore for a full day after from screaming and punching the steering wheel. Of course the errand was never that important. The urgency I felt was, yet again, the itch to get away from myself.

What if instead we allow ourselves to trust—versus dread—that whatever we attempt may go sideways in this next little while? Can we surrender to the apparent direction we’re being nudged in: to give ourselves moments to simply sit and listen, and see what emerges from deep within, from the void of not-knowing? 

Here’s what astrology.com invites us to look at it as part of a fantastic, orienting article:

Mercury’s retrograde cycles, however disruptive they may be at times, offer us the ability to gain greater objectivity in a particular area of life. In normal waking consciousness, and in an increasingly over-scheduled, distracted world, we have left ourselves precious little time for reflection. For many, once we are on a given path, we can end up myopically married to it, losing all perspective; viewed in the right light, Mercury retrograde becomes an opportunity to re-approach important aspects of our lives with renewed vision.

Whether or not we ascribe to this particular orientation*, and regardless of the position of the planets, there are always steps we can take to free ourselves from this myopia and find renewed perspective.

You might experiment with a media fast: 24 hours of not letting anyone else’s stories into your ears and eyes and heart. No TV, social media, articles, books, podcasts. I know, terrifying. But when I did this last week I was in awe of how the hours stretched, how much time I had to just be human, to take in what the world actually is beyond the miasma of noise that usually has my attention.

It doesn’t have to be this extreme of course. You could simply allow yourself ten unassailable minutes every day, maybe when you first wake up, to be with yourself, be with the page, be in contact with what you know to be true beyond the world’s insistence.
 
And for now, while we’re in this strange period of being forced to a halt anyway, see what liberation you can find in just … going with it.
 
One way is to join me for an upcoming mini-retreat (how’s that for an inelegant segueway?). The next one is on June 18. Merc will be direct again by then, so the opportunity will be competing with lots else you could be doing on an early summer Saturday. Your soul, your fellow writers and I will be honored if you end up choosing us.
 
Wishing you ease (and surrendering to typos),

Dear Muses

I found this today. It’s a piece I wrote in December 2014. The muses have answered, gently. It hasn’t been nearly as chaotic as I feared. In fact, it’s been great fun.

Dear Muses,

I’m stuck. You know this. You know because you’ve been knocking on the door, calling and getting a busy signal, sending registered letters that get returned. No such addressee. Return to sender. No solicitors. Go away. I’ve refused you. I continue to refuse you. Have you given up? Or have I gotten so wonderful at refusal I can’t hear the knocks, the rings; no longer see the letters dropped through the slot?

Is it fultile to contact you now? After all I’ve done to shut you out? Insulting you, disrespecting you? Judging you as too mischievous, too brazen, too dangerous to be in my life?

Because let’s face it. If I let you in you’d trash the place. Upend tables with trinkets placed just so, rip out pages of rule books, open the cages and let the birds fly free. You wouldn’t listen to me when I say stop, quiet down, you’re making a mess and upsetting the neighbors. You wouldn’t care that you were embarrassing me as you ripped open the heavy velvet curtains to reveal me, naked and uncertain. None of that is your concern. Your mission is to free me and you’ll do whatever it takes. No matter how thoroughly it disrupts my life. Your job is clear. You won’t stop til it’s done. You’ll ruin me if you must.

And still. And still. I’m tempted, drawn, seduced. I feel about you now like I never have. I’m so bored in this house, with its dark, neat rooms and silent order. I fear that if I swing open the door I’ll want to follow you out into the day, into the danger of the unknown, unprepared, fragile, sensitive to the light and the noise. I’ve become a shut-in, you see. A recluse. Set in my ways.

But I want to come with you, muses, because I see now it’s the only way you’ll be of any use to me. I can call to you but I must acknowledge your replies. When I send for you I need to expect that you’ll show up, like you have, again and again, only to have me respond by drawing the blinds, pulling the covers over my head and pretending to be asleep until you went away.

I hear you knocking, calling—god knows you’ve been writing—and all because I’ve asked you to. I’ve needed you to. Next time you knock, I hope I have courage enough to go to the door, peek through the hole, maybe even pull it open to the length of the chain. Submitting, eventually, to your ever-invitation to come out, come out and meet myself.

Please, muses, don’t give up on me.

The agony of conscious incompetence

I wrote this for my coaching school’s blog in 2011, the same year I started aikido. At the time I didn’t connect the two. (Hindsight can be a lovely thing.) Though the context is coaching, hopefully it’s clear how this applies to any practice.

I was recently introduced to a learning model that’s opened up a lot of space around my own development and my work with clients. It’s known as the four stages of competence, the stages themselves being: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is when our blind spots are still blind, and we’re blissfully ignorant of what we’re capable of growing into. (Or maybe it’s not so blissful, and that’s why we seek coaching.) Once introduced to the new possibility or skill we want to develop, we may begin vague cognitive understanding of it, but the rest of our system has no reference for it yet. We don’t yet know what we can’t do.

Conscious incompetence then ensues. This is the stage when we are aware of the thing that needs to shift but we haven’t yet shifted. It’s having the desire for change while feeling stuck being how we’ve always been. I’ll talk more about this in a second.

Conscious competence comes when we’ve gotten the hang of the new skill or quality, but it’s not yet second nature. For example, if we’re learning to drive a car, we still need to pay attention to which way we need to turn our ankle to reach the brake pedal, remind ourselves to check the rearview mirror, and largely ignore whomever is riding with us so that we can concentrate on what we’re doing.

But eventually, finally, blessedly, comes unconscious competence, when we’ve embodied the new skill and it starts to happen automatically. We’re cruising with the radio on full blast, with our attention on the scenery, on our companions, on our own inner life.

But let’s back up for a moment to that second stage, conscious incompetence. This phase can be pesky. Actually, it can be hell. To use the driving example, it’s the stage when your mother is sitting terrified in the passenger’s seat, digging her nails into the dashboard and pushing down on the nonexistent brake pedal with both feet, shrieking at you to not hit the squirrel. It’s rolling backwards down hills and bouncing off the side of the garage. It’s making mistake after mistake after mistake and thinking you’re never, ever going to get it.

Can you see how this applies to growth edges in self-development? You are invited into a new narrative that is possible for you, but which you have not yet embodied. It can be immensely frustrating to see a new way of being in front of you, understand and be inspired by the possibility of it, and yet still employ your old set of behaviors because it’s all your system knows to do.

I had a client who had always believed that he was the catalyst for everything that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. He didn’t think people would do things if he didn’t remind them. Once he realized it was possible to trust that the world could take care of itself, he began to taste the joy and freedom that comes with being able to let go. So he didn’t understand why, soon after he had this realization, he was still micromanaging his employees and doing the lion’s share of tasks at home. He became frustrated with himself and wondering why he was “sliding.” Which, of course, wasn’t the case at all. He was just learning.

When we encounter conscious incompetence, I think we have a choice. We could let our inner critic grab the mic and begin a running commentary on all the ways we’re utterly inadequate, for not being The Better Person We Know We Can Be, which invariably snowballs into greater self-loathing and a much slower progression toward the new way.

Or, we can remember what it was like to be a teenager learning to drive a car. We can observe toddlers learning to walk, falling on their little bums again and again and again. We can appreciate the how huge it is to be aware of something that wasn’t even in our consciousness until now. We can give ourselves permission to fall, and crash, and fail, and cry. We can surround ourselves with a support system of folks who will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us, forgive the messes we make, and remind us how far we’ve come.

And then finally, when we’ve reached that blissful state where we’re so used to our new way of being that we’re no longer aware of it, those same folks can remind us of the time when we thought it was impossible.

And this is the gift we have the privilege of giving our clients as well: letting them bounce off as many garage doors as they need to, and reassuring them that one day, they’ll be on cruise control.

None of our business

However life chooses us to be of service in it has absolutely nothing to do with us.

Calling is not a choice. It’s not what we think we like or prefer or have aptitude for. Our egos have plenty of ideas about what we’re supposed to be good at: what we excelled at in grade school, what is “marketable,” what will make the biggest splash, what we’d spend our days up to if we had a bazillion dollars and grillions of hours to devote.

Passion has nothing to do with what any of us came here to do. Desire: bupkus. Drive: meh. (Eek, sorry guys. I know these are the qualities most of us well-intentioned and productive westerners spend our lives cultivating, polishing, pining after. I think, unfortunately, they might be red herrings.)

It’s that gift part. It’s the calling part. It’s the quiet mystery. It’s the wonderful, insane, “how in the hizzizle did I end up here?” phases of our lives. Those are the times life is nudging us in the ribs, encouraging us forth to be of some actual use at this silly, short-lived party.

We know what’s ours to do, I think, when it’s something other than our own agency pulling us toward it. We know what’s ours to do, I believe, when we’re shocked that we’re doing it at all. We know what’s ours to do because it hovers above and around us in gentle, persistent presence. There might be resistance, drama on our part. We might ignore it or make ourselves sick willing it to go away. But it doesn’t.

I am conscious of two endeavors in my relatively brief, error-ridden life that have not gone away: writing and aikido. Ask me any time before 2011 if I saw myself as a martial artist and I would have snarfed red wine directly between your darling, delusional eyeballs. Ask me if I’m a writer and I would have until very, very recently given you my well crafted, overly prepared and rather arrogant line: “well yes, in a sense. Writing is my gift but it’s not my passion.”

I envied others’ pursuits, casting about for what I might do that was as beautiful and meaningful and powerful and exotic: why had I not devoted my life to being a landscape architect or an acupuncturist or a glass blower or a parent or a dancer?

All the while god chuckled, tears falling down its formless cheeks in knowing amusement.

Because in all my tortured searching, questioning, beseeching to be shown the path, it was right under my nose. When I finally looked down and saw I was walking the damn thing, I realized too that there had been no choice in the matter – it was never my call to make. It’s just what was. And as I’ve allowed these two strange yet inevitable bedfellows to turn toward each other, they’ve begun an almost effortless dance that has had rapid and surprising effect. In a way I am shocked. In another, it feels like nothing.

If an endeavor has swept you up in this way (fixing old cars, caring for your elderly parents, going on ten mile runs, channeling the dead, walking dogs, having coffee after coffee with burnt-out coworkers, taking improv classes, letting people stop you in the street and tell you about their lives … or, I don’t know, aikido) – even if you’ve only been up to it for a year or a month or a day – you might know what I mean.

If you’ve ever dug up a piece of garbage you wrote or painted a decade ago (right before you quit in despair and futility) and realized that, at the time, you were actually channeling the divine into a piece of fragile and fleeting beauty to live here on earth … perhaps you feel me.

Everyone else, keep looking. No doubt there’s something of this nature that’s whispering to you, waiting patiently to welcome you into its peculiar, irresistible lair.

What we find ourselves in the middle of—even if we’re busy ignoring it—might actually be the very thing that’s rippling out into the world in waves of goodness and truth. It might be as challenging as it is enjoyable. It might bring us to our knees in its name. Or it might feel like nothing special: it’s just who I am; it’s just what I do.

But it won’t release us from its embrace.

As with most things, reading this won’t connect anyone to their calling in a firework-burst of sudden comprehension. As with most things, we’ve got to find this out for ourselves in however much time it takes (and then forget and find out, forget and find out, again and again in the ever-widening spiral). As with most things, it will probably involve a struggle of some kind. But perhaps this can serve as a kind of a reminder-buoy for the times you find yourself lost, treading water.

The point, though, is this: if you’re fighting like hell to make your purpose known in the world (or to yourself), ease up for a moment. You likely don’t have to try so hard. Instead, ask to be guided there – to be shown what you need to see. With a soft, broad focus, let it come to you. Give yourself a break from the laser-focused search. It’s not your job anyway. It’s none of your business.

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