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Inner work, outer effort

The process of realizing dreams or bringing creative projects to life is always a balance between internal and external work.

This is, for me, a distinction between dreams and goals. Goals and goal setting always has this kind of aggressive rah-rah quality of articulating a specific, measurable goal, giving yourself a deadline, and Doing All The Things to get that shit done. Lose ten pounds by Christmas! Sell a million copies by April 2020! Get married and have a kid by…ech.

I used to love goals. But honestly, after My Lost Year, focusing on outcomes and taking on arbitrary, anxiety-provoking deadlines no longer resonates. Too much stuff has gone sideways in my life for me to feel okay within the rigid structure of goals.

But I do have dreams and very clear aspirations, some of which come with specific timelines. And I know these things will change me on some deep, alchemical level. Because the juicy stuff always does.

Dreams bump you up against all your stuff: limiting beliefs, unprocessed pain, and your own individual cosmic curriculum of lessons and areas for growth. They also take a lot of hard, boots-on-the-ground work.

Dream doing always involves efforting on the inside and the outside.

Which is why getting attached to goal-like outcomes is a dangerous gig. You may think that, say, writing your screenplay is about starting your career as a professional screenwriter and selling your first script. But this project may be actually about developing a writing practice and learning to self-promote. The outcome of selling a script is your (and your ego’s) idea of what this project is ‘for,’ but your cosmic curriculum might be different.

So, let’s just jump over to the idea of a cosmic curriculum (and I promise I’ll stop using that term).

We all have a path. Whether it was determined before we arrived on the planet or whether it’s being written as it’s being lived is really irrelevant. You are here to be, do, and learn very specific things. You don’t get a course syllabus printed out for you at the beginning of life. You find out about your assignments as you live them out.

And, once again, we continually bump up against our ego as we move through our assignments, who has definite opinions about what should be on the curriculum: fame! loads of money! sexy brunch every Sunday! easily identifiable markers of success which come at regular and predictable intervals!

This is why we’re so baffled when our expectations aren’t met by the outcomes of our projects and dreams…because we believe our egos to be in line with our path.

What we seek are outcomes. What we get is growth.

Case in point: In 2011, about a year after I arrived in New York, I did a long run of a show I made. My intention, and my material need at the time, was to make money. Our goal was to sell tickets and get paid. That didn’t happen. Throughout the seven weeks of the run, I freaked out about how we were failing to achieve our goals. I was so obsessed with how much or how little revenue we were bringing in that I couldn’t see the true function of this production.

Over the course of the run, we attracted something like 20 or 30 reviews. Everything from major news outlets to well respected magazines to bloggers moved to write about the work. This? Is unheard of.

One reviewer attended what ended up being a private, one-on-one performance. Before the show started, I was devastated and crushed there was no one in the audience but her. But that show turned out to be the single most intimate, magical performance I’ve ever done in my life.

The purpose and results of that production, while not ones I sought, formed the perfect set-up for what came in the two years following: big international tours that relied heavily on our press coverage for their success, and the beginnings of me learning to actually trust the process.

Often the roadblocks we encounter come from ‘inside the house.’

A need to inhabit a new, leadership role can force you to look at old, unresolved feelings of unworthiness. These feelings must be worked through or you can’t fully become a leader. The inner work is necessary for the outer work to get done.

These moments of internal effort often have the effect of pausing progress or activity on the external level. Which can be provoking. It might make you feel like the internal work is a distraction or taking you off course. It might feel like a waste of time. I assure you, it’s as much a part of the success of this project as any other effort.

The key is to be aware of what’s happening.

I was just part of another project where the intended outcome was money. Money, however, was the last thing that was coming to us. What came instead were communication problems, interpersonal confusion, and frustration. Finally, I realized I needed to let go of the money outcome completely and focus in on understanding what the actual (larger, deeper) purpose of this project was. When I did, I saw that I needed shift into a heart-centered place of compassion and serve the project from that place. I stepped into a spiritual leadership role I had neither acknowledged or fulfilled in my quest for dollars.

Then, of course, everything in the project started to flow—the external work could progress unabated because the internal work had been done.

So much of the personal and spiritual progress I’ve made in my life is thanks to my biggest dreams and creative endeavors. My dreams have asked me to face deep-seated fears and the way I keep myself small. These are not self-help side-projects—they’re necessary for moving forward with the project at hand.

Think of them as assignments within the larger assignments of our dreams.

The beauty of realizing dreams is not that we get to check a box that something got done or achieved. The real purpose and value of pursuing our dreams is that they ask us to grow as human beings. Dreams and creative work will always offer us opportunities for hard work where we roll up our sleeves and get things done. But they’ll also offer us the vulnerable, foundation-layer opportunity to look at ourselves and transform ways we don’t expect, but deeply need.

What is your dream asking of you now? How does it want you to grow?

Sticking with it (no matter what)

When I ran marathons, the race always broke itself into thirds. The first part was all excitement and endorphins. The last bit was full of ‘almost there’ guts and glory. But that middle third? A big ole boring slog.

How do we keep ourselves going?

Motivating myself in a race is a real mixed bag. Latching my focus onto someone’s back and imagining them pulling me forward. Taking it one mile at a time. Rationing nutrition and fluids to break the time up and give me things to look forward to. Trying to achieve a transcendent mind-space where my body is running but my brain is somewhere else. Singing stupid songs over and over.

Whatever works to keep me going, I’ll pull it outta my butt and do it. But let’s get more intentional, shall we?

There are several challenges facing A Practitioner Of Practices whether it’s a self-care routine, daily meditation, or the doing of dreams. Each one contains the key for how to turn it into fuel.

The missed day (or two days or two weeks)

We fall off the wagon. It happens. When I was training, my coach would say, “If you miss a workout, let it go and move on.”

Let it go. Catch the next one.

Don’t beat yourself up. There’s no need to turn a day or a week of missed practice into a personal debt you have to pay back. Forget trying to cram in two practices a day when you can barely manage one. No one’s watching. No one’s keeping track of your commitment on their cosmic abacus.

Climb back up on the wagon and start again. Even if you start again seven thousand times.

It’s fine. We all do it, except for the tiny percentage of robot people who never miss a day of anything ever. There are fifteen of them and seven billion of us.

Getting derailed

Our best laid plans and great intentions sometimes get blown to pieces. A night of insomnia, a week of puking kids. A sudden change in work schedule. A deadline dog pile. Time gets compressed and your priorities slip to the bottom of the stack.

A quick and honest assessment will let you know if this is Just Life or if this is a self-destructive pattern at work.

If it’s self-destruction, congratulations! Your next few therapy sessions are all planned out. (Also, read all of Debbie Ford’s writing on the shadow.) If it’s Life doing its thang, the best way to deal is to adjust your expectations and break your stuff down into smaller pieces.

Do less, but make sure your work stays on the radar.

Meditate for five minutes (or five breaths) instead of fifteen. Write a paragraph instead of a page. Maybe your practices happen in smaller pieces more frequently throughout the day. Maybe micro-actions are actually what you needed all along.

Losing steam

Waning energy or motivation is the ‘middle third of the race’ in a nutshell.

Other than singing ridiculous songs to yourself, it requires a regular re-engagement with the big picture. Why are you chasing this dream in the first place? Why is it important to you?

Re-connecting with the Why gives your daily practice purpose.

Create a mantra that reminds you of your big picture and repeat it daily. Schedule a weekly check-in with yourself (even if it’s five or ten minutes) to connect with your purpose, dreams, and goals.

Remind yourself how high the stakes are for you—not to put extra pressure on yourself, but to ensure that your soul work stays top of mind and top priority. Making my creative work my first priority was, for me, a matter of survival. I reminded myself of that every day, especially when I got scared about having enough income or faced making big changes.

Blockers

Sometimes you can’t move forward on your thing because there’s something else sitting right in the way. Fixating on moving that boulder is one way to go about it, but if it won’t budge, take a step back.

Rather than focusing on this specific task, what else can you do to meet the goal?

Say you want to develop your intuition and have been practicing the gratitude-writing ritual. The writing part of the ritual has become blocked by a change in your partner’s morning schedule that makes it impossible for you to sit and write before work. Rather than get attached to I-must-sit-in-total-silence-writing-in-this-gilded-notebook, reconnect with the broader goal: tapping into your intuition and getting clarity on certain areas of your life.

Take that goal with you into the shower or the subway. Let the sound of the water clear your mind, then ask your intuition for clarity. Listen for, and expect, a response. I have a friend whose intuition speaks up as she drives her kids to gymnastics.

There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to realize a goal.

Meh, it doesn’t matter

Ah, the sneaky wiles of doubt. Fear masquerading as boredom. Self-belief springing a leak. These come on as a subtle wave of Whatever that takes the wind right out of your sails.

The best antidote to The Mehs is self-awareness backed by a toolbox full of tricks.

Understanding that a motivation slide is often a manifestation or fear or doubt is critical. Rather than flog yourself for “not caring,” show yourself compassion and tenderness. One you’ve named the problem accurately, you can begin shifting those thoughts into more positive ones.

It’s a perfect time to bust out an affirmation practice. Or create a vision board and place it where your eyeballs can’t help but witness the colorful glory of your dreams. Make an amped-up playlist full of songs dedicated to your dream (or to shaking off doubt). Recruit an accountability partner to help you stay on track with weekly meetings, or just reach out to a friend who can talk you through the slump.

Set up a bunch of fun, positive, and supportive structures that derail this subtle internal slide and give you energy.

How do you keep your practices and dreams going when the energy or motivation sags? Share your insights and strategies in the comments below.