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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?

Peeking under the hood: on avoidance

I have a friend going through divorce right now, and the money thing is really messing her up. So much so that she finds herself falling asleep inches from her laptop with The Sopranos playing because she’s terrified of giving her mind any space. Give that thing an inch, she thinks, and that core fear, that horrible anxiety, those whispers about security and scarcity will turn into an impossible roar.

We are so afraid of What’s Down There that we avoid looking at ourselves at all costs.

We think we’re irreparably damaged, filled with violent, chaotic pain that’s waiting to consume us. We’re terrified we’ll drown.

Oddly enough, this is how we know we’re getting somewhere.

If your ego (that sage, but stunted Protector Of The Status Quo) has the rabid dogs barking this close to your conscious mind, you’re closer to a breakthrough than you think. Remember the ego fights dirty and it fights to win. It will do anything and everything to survive because its survival means keeping everything the same. The big trouble is, your default impulse is growth. Progression. Evolution. Expansion.

This makes the ego really, really uncomfortable. So it blows up your core fears into giant fun house mirror monsters and goads you into turning away from change.

This cannot and will not work. You’re built for transformation. You are wired for spreading your freaking wings and taking flight. But, you’re also human. And our species has gotten a lot of mileage out of backing the eff away from suffering.

Let me set the scene.

So, your ego parks this barking, rabid dog by the door marked Obviously Where You Should Go Next. And you walk up to the door, get terrified, and walk away. Maybe you try again the next day, maybe you put if off ’til the weekend. But then weekend comes and you’re busy with kids, so you think: Monday, Monday. And you do sincerely, earnestly glance at that door again on Monday, but ugh, that dog is still there, and workstufflatelaundryblah. So you walk away. And you walk away. It really doesn’t take long, like a week maybe, before the walking away becomes stone-cold avoidance and you’re binge-watching Nurse Jackie, unable to deal with your life (*raises hand).

This will-I-or-won’t-I dynamic takes a lot of time and energy. It’s layered in with shame, self-recrimination, and accumulating feelings of failure. It’s sitting on top of a nice foundation of whatever core fear your friendly ego has poked and inflamed. Avoidance bleeds outward from the original problem or situation and takes over everything. And the net result is a massive and painful disconnection with yourself.

Because, my darling, you are all of these things. The transformation, the fear, the urge, the avoidance, all of it. And it’s okay.

The solution is not a large thing. (It never is, by the way.) It’s a tiny, tiny thing. It’s to sit down right now wherever you are (and okay, if you can’t sit, just do it standing in line at the bank or hanging one-handed from the monkey bars) and take five big, beautiful, mindful breaths. Right now. Do it. I know “it’s stupid” but do it anyway.

Good. Thank you.

And now I want to you to do The Next Small Thing, which is probably something like Drink A Glass Of Water or Rip Your Eyeballs Away From Instagram And Get In The Car Because You Are For-Real Late. Do that thing and then there will be the next one, which is Eat Something Green or Notice The Blossoming Trees As You Walk or Respond To That Email Where You Have To Say No To Someone.

Start to notice that your day is full of these moments and micro-choices.

And that the dynamic of stuckness and panicking on the other end of stuckness doesn’t have to run your day. It doesn’t have to be insurmountable. You can dismantle avoidance by pressing gently on the gas when you feel your body or your intuition or your alarm clock say, ‘It’s time.’ You can soften its edges by busting out five big-ass breaths. You can allow yourself to fail at these small things and live to tell the tale. You can bring an element of curiosity to the whole gig and ask, ‘What if?’ before, say, letting yourself go for an aimless meandering walk instead of timeboxing your life into efficient oblivion.

And once you’ve built up a nice résumé of accomplishments like Ate Lunch Before 3pm/Contemplating Murder and Responded To Passive-Aggressive Text Message, you can glance over at that door again. And that dog.

Oh! I should tell you. That dog isn’t actually there.

Take a pink rubber eraser and squeak-squeak-squeak that thing out. Imaginary dog. Made-up bullshit. Never existed. Good, okay. Now, look at that door. The one marked Obviously Where You’re Headed Next. And contemplate this idea:

Whenever you approach a new level of development, you must pass through a threshold.

This threshold might require you to jettison some old belief structure that doesn’t jive with the incoming new world order, or you may need to address some old fears or traumas that have held you back. This is a rite of passage, pay-the-piper kind of thing.

It’s not the funnest thing in the world, I recognize. But this is Growth in a nutshell. You outgrow a skin, and you have to shed it. Old pain, outdated beliefs, unworkable fears…these are the skins you peel off as you progress.

All this to say, while there is no frothing canine guarding the door, there may be a bit of discomfort ahead. But, you’re good for it. Because it’s no more discomfort than some of the other line items on your résumé: Setting Boundaries With An Unreasonable Five-Year-Old, Going To That Divorce Mediation Meeting, Looking The Cashier In The Eye While Paying With Food Stamps.

Avoidance is an attempt to escape pain.

But, we are humans, so pain is inevitable. It’s just that our imaginations get out of control and we imagine our pain to be much larger and more overwhelming than it needs to be. We can practice taking tiny doses of discomfort one at a time, and witnessing ourselves succeed at them. Sitting Down To Meditate Even Though It’s Been Two Weeks Months. Turning Off Netflix And Going To Bed. Making Actual Dinner. Using Your Hand To Pick Up A Journal Instead Of A Smartphone. Trying Just Trying To Forgive.

These are not tiny, pointless things in the face of some massive ordeal.

This is movement and momentum. This is building strength. This is witnessing your own power. This is loving the wholeness of yourself. This…is progress.

What are you avoiding right now? What skin do you need to shed in order to grow? Share in the comments below.