One of the hardest emails I ever wrote was to a celebrity named Martha Beck. Google her. She has at least 3 degrees from Harvard and is an amazing self-help guru.
It went something like this: “Dear Martha, I am stuck….”
I know, I know, super profound. It was agonizing and embarrassing to write someone—especially a celebrity—to ask for help when I did not know what the problem was. “Stuck” is the word a three-year-old uses when she discovers that she cannot climb off the toilet without assistance. I was 32 and had no words for what was wrong with me. TERRIFYING.
I am a child of the 1960s. I was raised in a culture where there were exactly two answers for most every problem a person could encounter: get some Jesus or get some guns. It was a paradoxical world where religion and violence co-mingled nicely together.
To further confuse little Dana, my family unit was not big on either solution. We did not go to church often, and we did not own guns. My parents absolutely did the best they could; this is not a repudiation of my upbringing. There was very little emotional intelligence that was taught in my part of the world—or anywhere else in the 1970s and 1980s. So, at the age of 32 my “condition” was “stuck.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that this seems to be more than just my problem. How can we ever acknowledge there’s something wrong with us if we have no language for it? No experiences with it? How can we know what we don’t know?
There’s this thing that happens to most of us—which I refer to as some sort of spiritual tipping point—where we’ve tried to solve the problems the way we’ve been taught/allowed, until some sort of trajectory-changing collapse occurs.
I will tell you that it was not the e-mail itself, or any event prior to the email, that “tipped” me. It was Martha Beck’s own personal response to me that ended up changing my trajectory. It wasn’t a long note, but I knew she meant every word.
Martha invited me to attend a retreat she was giving, but I declined because of work commitments. Still, she was emphatic that getting “unstuck” was the most important work of my life. She could see the cry for help in my child-like vernacular; and with grace and humor, she knew to rescue me. She knew that a 32 -year-old using the word “stuck” was much more than a simple five letter word used by toddlers. Thank you Martha Beck, wherever you are, for hearing the unspoken and knowing exactly the right thing to say.
I’ve learned a lot since then. The following is my advice on how to get (and stay) “unstuck” quickly. By the way, these are my own thoughts on unraveling to gooey messy knots within, but if you have time to pick up Martha’s books she’s very helpful indeed—a master.
There’s nothing more fear provoking than being asked to learn something that doesn’t feel easily understood. I think we all had some subject in school where we learned this about ourselves. For me, it was algebra—one of my earliest recollections of being “stuck.”
Algebra did not come easily, and it didn’t help that all my friends were okay with it. It didn’t help that the teacher kept telling me I would “get it” if I practiced. It didn’t help that I had a dad who understood it and could help me at home.
It felt like no matter how I looked at the math problems, there was fuzziness around them—and getting the answers, well forget about that. There was no real feeling of pain I could describe, no real thing I could pinpoint as the problem. For whatever reason, I couldn’t take in the language or ideas around algebra. It was simply very uncomfortable, and I was getting poor grades.
This is an example of what I describe as a spiritual mind-body block—a.k.a. being “stuck.” Our lives are full of these moments where we are “blocked.” Our minds and bodies feel an unspoken, uncomfortable pressure, where we rarely can even see the problems clearly. Instead of algebra, it’s our relationships, our ability to embrace new adventures, new ideas, and new technology.
Although we don’t perceive pain, there’s feedback that we’re doing poorly. There are many doctor visits. We are overweight and taking medications. People are upset and unkind to us. We hate our jobs. If there were grades given for Life Class, we would be in after-school remediation class to try to improve our grade.
When we don’t work through these spiritual blocks authentically and consciously, and address them as they occur, we develop a self-protective persona—called the ego—that teaches us to cope with them. Inherently, the ego is a fragile and protective belief system designed to help you cope with the world because you actually believe you’re deficient. Our ego is a set of behaviors, ideas, and language that helps us navigate the world so we don’t look weak because we don’t understand.
For algebra and me, it was simply: “I hate math.”
When my parents wanted to know why I hated math and why I wasn’t doing well, I said, “Because my math teachers are mean and don’t explain it well.” Of course, it was not my fault. I was a good student.
To date, I’m not sure how much—if any—of that was true. But, at age 12, I had an ego. I learned to be powerless around math and how to justify what I felt were true disabilities. The difference in the way we move through these situations as they occur is the difference between an authentic life and a life that becomes ego-driven.
This is the same coping response we observe in many adults when they encounter a block they cannot perceive in themselves yet. The powerless language in which the ego frames life is the tell.
Most adults are unconscious of (cannot acknowledge to themselves) their struggles; and, when they do acknowledge them, they simply pretend that everyone else has a problem. They frame their lives using language that shows how powerless they feel; they say things like “My boss made it impossible to do a good job. He’s a jerk.”
My parents taught me that hating something I didn’t understand was illogical. They helped me understand that we can’t really hate something we don’t understand. Maybe we hate because we don’t understand? Hmmm….
If we understood algebra and made good grades and still hated it, then that would be more logical and valid. Interestingly, as I learned to keep moving through the fear and keep asking for help, I forgot about hating math, instead of rationalizing it. In fact, my minor in college was math.
When you’re telling the world how something or someone else “stinks,” it’s very likely that you’re masking a spiritual block. As for me and algebra, I would tell people I was fine—it was the teacher who was not. It’s a powerful coping skill of the unconscious.
Spiritual teachers use the word unconscious use to describe people’s ability to understand their world. Unconsciousness comes from our inability to be in touch with our mind-body state, which is the true barometer of how we are. We walk around telling others we’re fine—not because we are, but because we actually believe we are.
We’ve been coping with fear and pressure and misunderstanding for so long that dysfunctional is normal, until that one day when we can see that it’s not. These spiritual blocks may be big or small, but they are the frontier for us all. It’s where we work to expand our understanding of the world and the self—and re-frame our beliefs.
For the next spiritual block you encounter, when you find yourself blaming your problems on someone else, I’d like you give you something new to try. When you’re in the moment where you hate something or someone, or you’re simply having an emotional response, I want you to see if you can actually witness yourself. Be a fly on the wall of your mind.
There are two basic steps in this process:
Step 1. Observe your body and make notes on the pain—where it is and its relative intensity. Some people will only describe feeling stuck or uncomfortable. Some people may feel pain in a specific location, such as a headache. Some will feel a lot of pain everywhere. Just note it, and breathe deeply if you can. This takes the attention away from projecting outwardly into the world and staying powerless and angry at all the people your mind blames.
Step 2. When you observe your pain, observe how you dialogue with it. You may observe that you readily have reasons why you’re in pain. Maybe you think the pain in your back is from working out too hard or sleeping funny. Continue witnessing the dialogue and the pain around it until the pain subsides and wisdom returns.
This is the place where we can teach ourselves to pull out of the stuck, the drama, and step into a place where we can more freely see ourselves. Your witnessing self is your powerful, authentic self. The pain and the pressure of the moment often lessen or completely dissolve. It may worsen when we do this the first few times if we tend to be perfectionistic or self-shaming.
When we witness ourselves as “stuck” or “stupid,” our body may tighten. This is where you breathe deeply and stay in the place to see and remind yourself if you can see what’s going on—really see it (I will understand again, and the pain will leave). This is the universal self-healing practice. This is a beautiful process, and you may need help with it in the beginning.
Fifteen years ago, I used to go to a spiritual therapist who helped me learn how to do this. She would sit about two feet from my knees, and with large, concerned eyes she would start by asking: “What’s going on?” I would unload a topic, and she would repeat back what I said almost verbatim.
Then, she would say, “Is that correct? Is that all, anything else?” She was completely neutral. No good or bad, right or wrong. There were no pep talks, no “Here’s what you should do.”
The most interesting part of the whole process was that because she was repeating to me exactly what I said to her, I could see the problem and the solution with great clarity. Because another person said my exact problem back to me, it suddenly seemed solvable.
This is because the ego in all of us perceives the problem (all problems), and the authentic self (the knowing self) shows up to solve the problem. Interestingly, when I could see the solution, the pain left. It was incredibly powerful, and it all happened within me.
This is not to diminish her contribution. Her reaction was profoundly powerful because she knew that I had the capability to hear the answers. I’m sure we were both hearing the same answers, yet she would never say them verbally. She also was clearly on a higher spiritual plane than most people I’ve met. You could sense it. She had the calmest, quietest presence that spoke volumes.
The lessons of the early work taught me the process I’m trying to describe here, which is called transcendence. Transcendence is the most profound gift we are given; it is self-healing, and it enables us to learn to move through any mind-body stress and heal our lives, quickly.
I hope this helps!