A Matter of Degree

Find-a-place-insideLife is complicated and messy sometimes. It doesn’t take much to land yourself in a challenging set of circumstances; one poor choice is often all it takes. But the reality is, we all have our stuff. Some people have more than others, but I know very few people who get through 80-100 years without some serious difficulty along the way. In fact, I don’t know anyone.

What we’re talking about is degree. Break-ups are painful. Divorce is harder. Divorce with children is even more devastating. This is not to say that a heartbreak where there wasn’t a marriage is not brutal. This is not a contest about who wins the prize for suffering the most, because who would want that award? The reason divorce is harder than your average break up is because you have so many people to tell. You’ve stood up in front of everyone you know and you’ve taken vows. Now you have to acknowledge to yourself and everyone else that you are not able to keep the promises you made, and that hurts. In most cases, you’ve asked people to make a huge effort on your behalf—to travel so they can bear witness to this big decision you’ve made, to drop whatever is happening in their lives so they can be there for you. There’s a feeling of accountability around it. There are two families involved. Sometimes there’s the merging of money. So there’s your heartbreak, and then there’s all this other stuff, too. With children in the mix, you can take all of that stuff I just mentioned, and add to it your fear that your inability to keep your promise is going to cause pain to the people you love most in the world. Along with a million other things that can happen, and all the complications that arise for everyone when you have to go down that path. Losing people we love because we grow apart or can no longer tolerate certain treatment, or because we’ve had a misunderstanding, will cause us grief. Losing someone through death will cause even more because the possibility of seeing them, holding them, hearing them, touching them…it’s gone. So it’s a matter of degree, and it’s how we’re going to work with the pain. You can make it your enemy, or you can make it your friend and your teacher.

Sometimes situations are hard to navigate because the boundaries are always shifting; what worked at one point no longer does, and the peace we’d found is lost again. So be it. The river flows, and we have to flow with it. The more we contract against our feelings, the more we suffer. The more we deny reality or try to convince ourselves or other people that everything is okay, or we are okay when it isn’t and we aren’t, the more we compound our pain. There’s no pain-free option, so get over that. Pain is part of life, but you don’t have to feed it or help it to grow. If you’re going to feed something, feed love. Life will feel a lot better that way. Sometimes we make mistakes and we’re going to pay the price and that is called growing up. You may not like where you find yourself, but if you can look back and recognize that your actions and choices have landed you where you are, then you can grow from the experience and create something new. Beauty can grow out of pain. Nothing comes from nothing. That’s really the issue. Not whether you’re going to have any issues, but what you’re going to do, or not do about them.

Sometimes the pain comes from the outside. Maybe we love an addict. That’s brutal because addiction takes hostages, and it does not care how kind they are. All I’m saying is that human beings are complex and life is complex and a lot of what determines how much we’re going to suffer, and how much we’re going to be at peace, is nuance, attitude and perseverance. A spiritual practice gives you a foundation, so when times are good you have the tools to receive the gifts and take nothing for granted, and when times are tough you have some ground to stand on in that rain. In between the highs and lows, you also recognize there is no such thing as an ordinary day.

Also, there’s this: nothing comes from nothing, and nothing dies. Before the big bang, there was something. I don’t know what it was, but there was something. It’s the old chicken or the egg question, but it’s one or the other. There was a chicken, or there was an egg. There was something. You might have your birth certificate with the time of your birth stamped as the moment you took your first big inhale, but you existed before that moment. In fact, you’d already had a profound experience, a journey through the birth canal. And before that, you were in your mother’s womb, and in your mother and father before that, and in all your ancestors. You would not exist without them, you were in them, they are in you, and when you die, you will not be nothing, no matter what you believe. If you decide to be buried or cremated, eventually you will become part of the earth, you’ll be watered by the rain, you’ll grow into the trees and into the air and toward the sun. Your soul, if you believe in souls, will go on its own journey. But even if you don’t believe there’s something essential that goes on, you will not be nothing. You can never be nothing. It’s a miracle you’re here, scientific or otherwise, it’s a miracle any of us are here. And I say all this to you, because so much of our trouble comes from our strong identification with the body we’re in, with our names and our jobs and our weight and our hair color, and our huge fear that we are going to die and become nothing. This is why we cling. This is why we struggle and try to control and force. This is why we forget to live sometimes.

So what if you’ve made a mess of it? Most people do at some point. Clean it up, that’s all. You’re here. You have the capacity to love. You’re changing every second, whether you want to or not, so why not change in the ways that are going to help you to heal and thrive? Things do not have to be perfect in order for you to give freely from your heart, and have a positive impact on the world around you. If you wait for things to be perfect, you will spend most of your life waiting, because perfection comes in moments, and they’re easy to miss if you’re stuck in rage and blame and shame, or you’re numbing yourself out. There’s so much love. There’s so much beauty. Your heart can expand and so can your mind. You are not stuck. You are not nothing. You are everything. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton

Take Down Your Inner Critic

Its-hard-to-fight-anIf you’re suffering from self-loathing and a loud inner critic, you’re in the worst kind of prison. You can’t evict your inner voice, so if it’s harsh, shaming and unforgiving, there’s nowhere to run. If you’d categorize the way you’re speaking to yourself as abusive, were you to hear the same words coming from someone else’s mouth, then it’s time to stage a take-down. Because that’s no way to live.

Where Does Your Inner Critic Come From?

Sometimes we absorb the way we were spoken to growing up. Not everyone is received with love, not everyone is nurtured. Peggy O’Mara has a quote, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but it isn’t the whole truth. You may have come from an incredibly loving home, but suffered unkindness at school. Scared and confused children can be mean, as can those who feel powerless at home. Events may have occurred that made you doubt yourself, or question your ideas about your own worth. Sometimes we’re going along just fine, and then we’re completely derailed by a romantic relationship, or an interaction with someone who has power over us, and it’s a game-changer.

Other times, we learn and we grow and we look back and feel intense shame for certain choices we made, or ways we let ourselves or others down. There are all kinds of reasons that voice in our head can become critical and unrelenting. Coming out of abuse is another one. Feeling like love is conditional and can be withdrawn at any time will also do it, because any time you fail to meet your own unrealistic expectations of perfection, you’ve set yourself up for the punishing sting of pain and disappointment. There are all kinds of ways we can betray our own tender hearts.

We Are All in the Same Boat…

The thing is, in order to shine and to share, you have to have some belief in yourself. And to be straight with you, not believing in yourself is the worst kind of hubris. It’s not a level playing field, but we’ve all been given the gift of a body, some time here on earth, and the ability to love deeply. Squandering those gifts is the equivalent of hijacking your experience here. You can look back and rant and rave and point fingers. You can write a dissertation about why you are the way you are, and why it isn’t your fault, but time will keep on ticking. And you can’t have it back.

We all make mistakes. We’ve all suffered loss to some degree or another, along with heartache, grief, regret, fear, confusion, shame, doubt and longing. If we’re lucky, we’ve also tasted joy and gratitude, love, kindness and connection. It’s a mixed bag here on planet earth, but it’s a wildly interesting ride. Getting bogged down in rage is no way to travel. There are so many tools available, so many paths of liberation, so many ways to enjoy the gifts we’ve been given. You really don’t want to rob yourself of all the beauty available here.

How Do You Starve Your Inner Critic & Feed a Loving Voice?

How do you starve an inner critic and feed a loving voice? I’m sure there are many tools, but the ones I’ve tested personally are the physical yoga practice, and seated meditation. There’s a saying, “How you do anything is how you do everything”, and I believe that to be the truth. If you’re critical of yourself out in the world, the same will hold true when you’re on your yoga mat. But if you stick with it and make it about breathing deeply and consciously, and not about how you look or what’s happening around you, a miraculous thing will happen. You’ll start to take the road marked “Inward”, so you can take a look around and start dealing with anything that isn’t serving you. You can start to observe yourself from the inside out, and build the muscle called compassion. You can work on the quality of patience. You can calm your nervous system with your breath. You can create enough space between your thoughts to get a taste of something called peace. And you can develop the ability to witness your tendencies, your thoughts and your feelings. You can start to recognize that you don’t have to believe everything you think, as the saying goes. You can start to choose better thoughts. Over time, you can feed a loving voice so it grows and strengthens and takes over your life. It just takes work and determination. Feel free to reach out if you need a little nudge.

Sending you love,
Ally Hamilton

starve-your-inner-critic

Love is the Best Answer You’re Going to Get

campbellIf it were possible to have irrefutable answers to life’s big questions, I’m pretty sure we’d have them by now. We arrive in this world, and we’re received with love, or we aren’t. We don’t have to worry about a roof over our heads, or we do. We’re afforded an excellent education, or we aren’t. We have a stable home life, or we live in a war zone. We grow up being told what to think, or we’re allowed to make our own way. The possibilities are endless, but we do have some things in common.

We deal with the same parameters, that’s one thing. We’re on this pale blue dot of a planet, and we don’t know how long we get to be here, or how long our loved ones get to be here, either. We don’t know for sure what happens after this. No one tells us the best use of our time and energy, or maybe lots of people do, but we all have to make sense of that on our own. We will all suffer to some degree or another, because this life, even if you have all the advantages in the world, is not an easy gig. It’s wildly interesting, and there’s always the potential for deep love, but along with that comes the potential for knifing loss, and that is not easy to face. We are inherently vulnerable. Some of us will experience the kind of loss that makes us question the point of it all.

But we have this incredible capacity to love, and a great desire to heal our old wounds. We might not have a lot of the answers, but most people who’ve been on the planet for awhile seem to agree that love and connection are the best experiences available to us. I mean, you know you have now. So what are you doing with your now? The greatest shortcut to happiness is to do whatever you can to uplift those around you. Giving feels good. Being seen and understood, cherished and celebrated not in spite of, but because of, all our flaws and all our beauty is a great gift, and it’s beautiful to give that to other people, too. Listening deeply, caring with your whole being, these things feel amazing and they’re available, every day. You can get caught up in your plans and ideas, you can join in the race, but I really think the better focus is the moments. How can you love with your whole heart, today?

If you’re brave enough to get quiet, to sit up tall for a few minutes, and to feel yourself breathing in and breathing out, you will feel a connection to everyone and everything. That simple act will bring you right into the now, and now is where you need to be if you want to feel love, joy, gratitude and peace. You can’t be in yesterday or tomorrow, you have to be in this moment. Being present feels good. You don’t need to buy anything in order to experience that calm, that steadiness. If you want answers, they don’t reside in a place or in another person. The answers you need are always inside, and those are the only answers you’re going to get. Ultimately, you have to make sense out of this world yourself. If you take the time to create peace within you, you’ll experience it around you, and you’ll be spreading it wherever you go. We have tremendous power to affect the way our lives feel. Of course there are devastating things that can happen to any of us, but it’s how we face what we’re given.

We experience our life as if it has a beginning, middle and end. We treat this like it’s our personal story, but that isn’t it. We’re joining a much larger story. We’re in the flow, and then we’re out of it. The flow goes on without us, although what we contribute while we’re here certainly affects it, and those ripples continue on. But it’s not your story, or mine. There are currently about seven billion of us contributing to this dance. What kind of dance are you doing while you’re here?

Being present means we’re opening to things as they are and trying to come back with love. We can focus on everything we don’t have, or we can direct our attention to those gifts we do have. Part of quieting the storm that rages in the mind involves choosing the thoughts that will strengthen us. Yes, there are things that can make us sick from the outside, but a lot of the time it’s our own thinking that’s causing us to suffer. We can argue about all kinds of things, but it’s pointless. We’re all in this mystery together. We can get caught up in names, borders, colors, religions and opinions, but love is the best answer you’re going to get.

Sending you some right now,

Ally Hamilton

The Part That Is Personal

Sometimes-life-knocksOften I get emails from people who tell me their relationships would be wonderful, if only their partner would change. And sometimes they tell me they’ve been to therapy hoping that would help, but there hasn’t been any movement. Here’s the thing. We can never change other people. No one can ever change us, either, unless we want to make a shift. And you can find yourself at a real stalemate, and start to feel hopeless and stuck.

But just as we can never change other people, we are also not set in stone. You can always change what you are doing, and there’s tremendous power in that. When you look at the situations in your life, the story to pay attention to is not the one about what this person did, or how things unfolded in ways you couldn’t have imagined, or how something beautiful turned to something painful. I mean, you can examine all of that, but the thing you really want to dive into, is the story of your own participation.

Sometimes people get very clear on the “not taking things personally” part, and that’s wonderful. If someone is abusive, cruel, unkind, dismissive, thoughtless or disrespectful, that’s a reflection of where they are on their particular journey at this point in time. Is is not a reflection of anything lacking within you. But, and this is an important but, what is about you is your decision to continue to interact with people who don’t know how to do anything but hurt you. That part is the personal part, that’s the part you want to understand.

We’re not always talking about awful, abusive situations. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the spark going out. People take their partners or loved ones for granted all the time. Sometimes we think we have people “pegged”, and we don’t have to pay attention anymore. But everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux. You are not the you of five years ago, and neither is anyone else. You can’t ever peg anyone. But you can stop looking and listening and appreciating and cherishing and celebrating people, and that’s a sad but common occurrence. And if you find you’re in a relationship like that, where you feel unseen and unheard and taken for granted, you’re probably not going to turn that around by pointing fingers, and letting your partner know all the many ways he or she is blowing it. Because it’s never one person. In any relationship, there are two people, and the third thing, the space between them. That is where the relationship exists, in that space. Each person decides what’s going into the space, and this is true whether we’re speaking romantically or otherwise.

It’s easy to lose the thread. But if there was a spark in the beginning, if there was communication and vulnerability and honesty, you can find those things again, by offering them yourself. When you change what you do, things change around you, people respond to you differently. Also, your happiness is your own responsibility. You can’t put that on anyone else, that’s an inside job. If you are not at peace within yourself, if you’re not feeling inspired, if you’re not loving yourself well, no one can solve that but you. The idea in a healthy relationship is that you support your partner, you don’t look to him or her to solve your pain for you.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, and by that I mean verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive, it’s time to do something. Physical abuse demands that you create physical boundaries. In other words, you have to get out, and you’ll probably (definitely) need support in doing that. You cannot stay and expect things to change because they won’t. Or they will, but not in a good way. Your life here is a gift. It isn’t something you want to gamble. And thinking your love or patience or tolerance will finally change things is a dangerous delusion.

If we’re talking about verbal and emotional abuse, boundaries are also in order. If you’re not worried about your physical safety, it’s time to draw the line. If a person cannot treat you with care and consideration, then what is the relationship about? Are you financially dependent? Does the abuse remind you of the way you grew up? Does some part of you believe that you are not good enough to deserve love? If you get a yes to any of those questions, you need help and support. Low self-esteem is dangerous because we betray ourselves when we feel we aren’t worthy of being cherished. We put ourselves in situations that are crushing and heartbreaking, and you can only take that for so long before you become depressed or hardened, or you need to numb the pain. That’s no way to live.

There is no happily ever after without your participation and action. There is no person who’s going to sweep in and save the day and make everything okay, unless you decide to be that person. Be that person, seriously. Life is too short for anything else, and it can be so beautiful. Sending you love and a hug. Reach out if you need help, Ally Hamilton

Choose the Lesson

shannonlalderRecently, a close friend of mine was left suddenly and without explanation by her husband of less than a year. They were having the normal struggles of any newly married couple, exacerbated by the fact that neither of them had lived with romantic partners before. Just the normal communication issues, and the push-pull we all go through when we’re shifting our perspective from “I” to “we”. They’d talked about going to counseling, and about making some other changes, too. He’d expressed a desire to move to another part of the country, and she’d been open to that. Throughout the relationship, right up until the day he took off, their text messages were loving, flirtatious and affectionate, their time together was mostly fun, and she had no reason to imagine he’d bail. One morning he got up, kissed her goodbye as they left the house to go to their respective jobs, and that was the last time she saw him.

When he didn’t show up for dinner, she texted, and he said he was out with friends and that he’d probably crash with one of his buddies. She asked him where he was, but he just said he was out having fun, and he’d see her in the morning. And then he didn’t show up in the morning, and she called and got his voicemail. When she texted, he said he’d be home later in the day, and that he was running errands. It turned out he’d gotten on a plane and flown across the country. She found out from his friend’s wife, when she called to see if he knew what was going on.

She flew across the country to see him and sit down face-to-face, but he refused, and his family told her to go away. He wouldn’t even respond to her texts, his mother texted to let her know he did not want to see her. She’d spent three years with him, she’d spent plenty of time with his parents and siblings, and not one of them would meet her for a tea, or even get on the phone. Her family and all her close friends, myself included, told her to come home. When there’s no communication, there’s also no hope. And when his family also shunned her, we all understood this was their modus operandi.

Two weeks later, he served her with divorce papers, citing irreconcilable differences. Then he proceeded to make demands about all the wedding gifts and furniture he wanted. She told me when she saw the list he sent with the movers, the nine-page list of things he wanted them to collect, it finally sank in. He cared about kitchen knives, but not her heart. He wanted the garbage can, but he didn’t want to know if she was okay, or how she was coping. He just didn’t care.

And so she was left in the dark, trying to figure out what had happened. Was the whole thing a sham? Had he ever loved her? Was the huge wedding he’d wanted just for show? Had he meant anything he’d said on their wedding day, or any day? She told me she felt like she was in the “Twilight Zone”, and that at any moment, Rod Serling would step out from behind a closet door, or from around a corner, and tell her she’d entered another dimension.

Life is like this sometimes. We’re going along, and BAM! A bomb goes off in the middle of our lives, and everything we thought we knew is just blown to pieces. Sometimes it happens because we’re abandoned, like my friend, and sometimes we lose people because they’re ripped from us too soon. Sometimes circumstances create the boom. Maybe we’re fired, or our house burns down, or we’re facing some other huge turn of events we could never have seen coming.

We’d never wish that on ourselves or anyone else, but it happens. And once you feel all the feelings around the experience—the shock, the grief, the confusion, the rage—you have a chance to begin again. Some things are so brutal, you have to accept you’re never going to be the same. Some things will never make sense, some things will never be explained, some things will rip your heart out of your chest and eat it with a fine chianti. So be it.

The question is, what are you going to grow out of those ashes? People and circumstances can hurt you, but they can’t defeat you unless you let them. You can’t rush through your feelings when you’re in turmoil; in fact, I’d say that’s the moment to use every bit of the support system you have in place, or to get busy creating one. That’s when you figure out who in your life is really going to be there for you. And that’s really good information to have, because then you know where to invest your time and energy, and with whom.

All you can ever do, is start where you are. We learn and grow from every experience, but we have to choose the lesson. My friend doesn’t want anyone to speak badly of her ex, and she isn’t fighting him for stuff or money. As she said to me, “The more he takes, the less he has.” How’s that for choosing the lesson?

There are confounding things that people do to each other sometimes. I get emails from people going through divorce with children, and one partner is using the kids as pawns against the other. Who do you think pays in that scenario? But again, those kids will grow up one day, and they’ll choose the lesson. There’s a lot of power in that, so if you’re in a situation that’s making you feel weak, try looking at it from that perspective. No one can take that away from you. Pick the lessons that strengthen you and open you. We have enough hard, closed people in the world. And when things happen that you don’t understand, do your very best to have compassion and recognize there’s probably more going on than you know. We can only know another person’s interior world to the extent that they allow us access. Many, many people have pain and they don’t know how to work with it so they lash out or they take off. Some people suffer from personality disorders that render them incapable of empathy. Some people have been taught that their feelings are the only ones that matter. Imagine how life must be for them. The more they take, the less they have. Sending you love, and wishing you peace and strength,

Ally Hamilton

Not This, Not That

buckminsterfullerIn yoga practice, so much of what we’re doing is about stripping away. It’s very possible, and quite common, to reach adulthood and have no clue who we are or what we need to be at peace. Culturally we’re taught to look outward for happiness; if we just meet certain “markers”, if we can look right and have the right job and the right partner and the right house and car, then we’ll be good to go. A lot of people are so focused on attaining these outer signs of happiness, they pass right by the signs that would actually lead them there.

Also, there’s the way you grew up. Maybe you were taught, in word or through actions, that your worth as a human being was based on your performance; if you did well in school, if you were a good boy or girl, then all would be well. If you screwed up or failed to reach the bar, love was withdrawn and the disapproval was palpable. Maybe punishment was swift and intense. That’s just one example, of course. There are many. Maybe you grew up in a house where you felt unsafe, and you learned to be indispensable or invisible depending on the moment. Maybe you were spoiled rotten and taught that you were the center of everything, and that other people existed in order to orbit around your needs and wants. Perhaps you were taught that your needs and wants were something you were supposed to swallow, and that your fears and dreams had very little impact on the world around you. Maybe you were parentified and got a huge lesson in care-taking and people-pleasing. It’s a huge spectrum, but the chances for knowing yourself are slim in any of these scenarios.

This is why we have so many people who reach adulthood and have no idea which way to turn. The house doesn’t do it, the diet doesn’t do it, the right partner doesn’t do it. What’s the point? Where have they gone wrong, why isn’t the formula working? The formula doesn’t work because it’s based on the stuff around us, not the stuff within us. I know someone who’s been searching for the “perfect house” for years. Money isn’t an issue, the location could be anywhere. No matter where he goes or what kind of house he buys, it’s never the right one. It never does the trick. If you want to be at peace, you have to get your true house in order. Your body is your home. If things are not well within you, they won’t be well around you, even if you buy a mansion in Bali and have people on hand to feed you fresh mango at your every whim. There’s no escaping yourself.

In the yoga practice, we’re looking for “vidya” or “clear-seeing”; being able to identify what is real from what is unreal, what is permanent from what is impermanent. You have to question everything you think you know, because you may have accepted things along the way, decades ago, that turn out not to be true for you. You may have adopted ways of being that don’t serve you, that dis-empower you, or block you from receiving love and joy. You may have a lot of unlearning to do. Maybe you’ve come to believe you aren’t lovable, or that you’re broken in some un-fixable way. Maybe you think you can’t trust anyone, or everyone lies and cheats. There are all kinds of ideas you might have developed that just aren’t true, and so you have to dig. You have to unearth. You have to do the work to heal your deepest wounds so they don’t direct your entire life. The way to peace is inside, not outside, and the sooner you start, the faster you get to a place where life feels good. Avoiding this work is the surest way to suffer. You aren’t here to suffer, although it’s part of life sometimes. You’re here to shine. I wouldn’t wait.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

What Are You Waiting For?!

The-show-doesnt-go-onThere’s such a tendency to wait in life. We seem to suffer from this delusion that life is going to start somewhere out in front of us, when “things calm down”, but this is it. Life is happening right here, right now.

Sometimes we put off difficult conversations thinking we’ll wait until the situation is less intense, or hoping that circumstances will magically change on their own. We think we should wait to have a baby until we have our “ducks in a row”—a larger house or more financial stability, and don’t get me wrong. Bringing a human being into the world is a huge responsibility, and you want to be as emotionally and financially prepared as possible. You want to know yourself, and have some sense of your strengths and weaknesses (you’ll get a huge lesson in all that even if you do), but babies need love and stability. They need that a lot more than fancy stuff.

Anyway, the point is there’s never a perfect time to do a challenging thing, whether it means standing up for yourself, ending a relationship that doesn’t feel right, pursuing your dreams with everything you’ve got, committing to your partner, working on shifting a way of being that isn’t serving you, or bringing a person into the world. There is no perfect time.

Life is messy and complicated and unpredictable. You can do your best to find inner steadiness, to follow the pull of your heart, to forge a path that feels right for you. You can learn to communicate honestly and with compassion. You can do your very best not to hurt other people, to consider the impact of your speech, actions, and choices on those closest to you, and to practice empathy. But if you’re waiting for things to be less chaotic or uncertain, you’ll be waiting a very long time, because that’s the name of this game.

You create peace within you, and you can try to create it around you, by inviting people into your life who are also trying to communicate what’s real for them in a kind and loving way. But things change and people change, and life will always surprise you, sometimes in devastating ways, and sometimes in ways that expand your heart more than you could have imagined. We aren’t here to wait. We’re here to play, to explore, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, to share, to connect, to give. But not to wait. Sending you love, Ally Hamilton