Posts filed under Life Adventure

How to Say it Straight

Dear Reader, This past week we've been working with the power of optimism. Now I want to move us into thinking about and working with the power of honesty.

Admit Your Shit

Please excuse my French. I know the title of this section has an earthy tang, and there was a time when such terms offended my own delicate sensibility—but I had to get over it. Because, you see, I love my mother.

My mother swears—not all the time, not at work—but with her family she uses the phrases she requires to drive home her points. Liberally. For much of my life, I passionately wished that I could halt the colorful flow of my mother’s mouth.  Somewhere along the line I developed a desire for our family to be classy—and my mother’s swearing, along with her habit of lighting her Menthol Ligget Lights directly in the gas flames of our kitchen stove assaulted and undermined the aristocratic aspirations I cherished for the Elliott clan.

Out of love for my mother, I came to forgive her—and my father, and my brother, and all the rest of our relatives—to dooming us to less-than-lordly status.  I tolerated her linguistic stylings. Yet it wasn’t until one revelatory day that I came to actually embrace and celebrate them.

I called my mother crying, bemoaning the hard fact that I had just been done wrong yet again, by another boyfriend. Why? I wanted to know. Why had this happened? What had I done?

The Colorful Truth

“Carolyn,” my mother said, speaking slowly so I would understand, “he’s an asshole.”

I stopped crying for a moment. I had really heard her. The words brought about a kind of open spaciousness and clarity.  It began to dawn on me: that young man had treated me poorly not because I deserved it, not because there was anything wrong with me, but because he was – ontologically speaking—an asshole—meaning that he would have treated me that way no matter how beautiful or fun or cool I was—none of my part even mattered, because the way he acted was just his method of operation: assholery. For him to have behaved otherwise would have violated his very nature.

Since attaining this liberating insight from the sage woman who birthed me, I’ve developed an increasing fondness for telling it like it is, a fondness which means I have worse and worse foul mouth, and a more and more awesome life.

By referring to my erstwhile boyfriend as an asshole, my mother did me the service of waking me out of a delusion within which I’d been suffering.  The nature of my delusion? That my boyfriend was not an asshole and therefore his actions were some kind of reflection upon my merit and worth.  When in the grips of this delusion, I wanted to defend him, idolize him, romanticize him.

The Pain of Delusion

For months I had rationalized his behavior and had stayed in denial about how bad things were because my mind had its laser-focus grip on the notion that that relationship was a solution to something.  This meant my mind was fully loathe to let that “solution” go, to see that it was doing me more harm than the perceived problem I had intended it to fix: namely, me and my feelings about life.

For months the dude treated me badly and for months I didn’t wish to allow that he was, indeed, an asshole. I preferred to torture myself, because to recognize the bare facts of the situation would have meant having to let go of my solution, you see.

Letting go of one of my pretend solutions is always incredibly hard because there’s a part of me that resolutely will not trust that a real solution can be found—a solution that would address the actual underlying problem: my distorted negative perception of myself and of the world.

Ditch Your Kitsch

The author Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being writes about the phenomenon of kitsch, a mode of art in the Soviet Union which was all sweet and saccharine.

Kundera defined kitsch as the denial of shit, and said it was an aesthetic mode which was false because it refused to acknowledge an essential dimension of human experience and to deal with it.  The Soviet Union needed kitsch, of course, because it was clinging to a very untenable solution to its problems—Stalinism.

What I don’t realize when I’m in the midst of my clinging to a delusional solution is that I am busily perpetrating my own version of kitsch.  I make my life into a glossy work of very bad art. It looks good on the surface—hey, check me out, I’m normal! I’ve got a boyfriend! See? Smile! – but it lacks depth, and if you look at it for more than a second you feel annoyed.

When I’m doing this, I’m acting in what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call “bad faith”—pretending as if I have no choice, as if the only solution is the one I’m currently clinging to.  I can end my reign of kitschy terror by ceasing to claim that my false solution has any merit to it at all, by no longer rationalizing my use of it.  In other words, I have to admit that it’s shit.

Admitting the presence of shit in my life has the tremendously frightening and useful effect of freeing space for the awesoming process to begin.  As long as I stay in the realm of kitsch, as long as I cling to my shit while calling it gold, there’s no room for the awesome to grow.

Shit as Wondrous Fertilizer

This isn’t to say that all shit must be absent from your life in order for the awesoming to start. It just means that as much shit as possible must be admitted, and clearly seen for what it is.  Shit, once discovered in its real and undenied glory, is actually excellent ground in which the roses of awesome may grow.

For example, I struggled for a long time to admit to myself that my initial choice of career path – university English professor – was actually shit.

I began noticing early on in my graduate school career that I thought an alarmingly high number of my professors were pompous ego monstrosities, that the academic journal articles I was supposed to be reading and admiring looked like sophistic exercises in rigorously avoiding truth, and that my peers in the program used their mighty intellects to systematically quash all errant interferences of joy and love in their lives and mine.

Despite these disturbing observations, I pressed ahead, submitting papers to academic conferences that I dreaded attending, trying to contort my writing into a shape that would be acceptable to the establishment.

Why was I doing this? Because I had hypnotized myself into believing that academia, though sucky and abusive to my spirit, was the only place that would welcome my high-octane intellect—so I needed to endure the pain of jumping through all the hoops laid before me and groveling for all the shreds of approval I might be able to eke out. This philosophy, the dear reader might notice, bore strong resemblances to my pattern of thought about my romantic relationships.

Yet on the day I finally admitted to myself that an academic career, for all the prestige and respectability it afforded, was actually a shit solution to the problem of being me, I did not immediately leave graduate school.

The Value of Remaining in One's Shit

I instead began the process of letting that shit become fertile ground for awesomeness. I decided to stay in the doctoral program, on my own terms. I let go of the idea of ever getting hired as a professor, so I stopped worrying about whether or not my dissertation would be viable on the academic market and let go of my relationship with a dissertation advisor who was very concerned that it should be so.

Since I realized that my choice to let my freak flag fly in my dissertation meant that my last year in graduate school might be my last opportunity to ever teach at a university, I decided to go all-out and teach my Reading Poetry courses in the weird, experimental way that I felt would best serve me and my students—rather than in the conventional way that I knew would get me the most approval from the professors above me.

As a result of admitting my shit and turning it into fertilizer, I was able to write my dissertation and teach my classes on poetic inquiry, the very process of awesoming on which this blog is based.

My classes gave me an opportunity to see that the far-out ideas which worked so well to awesome my life also worked for my students.

Some students wrote to me thanking me for completely changing their perspective on their lives and their dreams, for giving them a course which respected them as genius souls, opened them up to the poetry all around them and in them, and helped them to awaken creatively. When I told these students I was on my way out of the university and that I had no idea what I would do next, they begged me not to stop teaching.

It was only through this feedback from my students that I realized that I indeed needed to keep teaching— as a self-help author and life coach.  In the eyes of my grad school friends, the profession of “self-help author” ranks in prestige and respectability just a few notches below crack-addicted street prostitute, so I knew I was on to something good.

If I had left graduate school the first day I admitted that yes—indeed, it was shit that I was smelling— I may have eventually discovered my true calling as a street prostitute– er, I mean, self-help author—but I’m so grateful that I stayed right in the midst of my shit.  Because it’s blossomed up into such an amazing garden.

In Conclusion

All of this is to say—just because you realize that you’re clinging to a false solution—mine was the notion of becoming a university professor—doesn’t mean that you must immediately dismantle the framework of your whole life, even if that life has been built upon a shit premise.

In fact, the scary—and false—idea that owning up to the truth of your situation would demand that you immediately and decisively change everything about it might prevent you from ever confronting that truth.  So take heart—the very edifice you’ve built as a false solution to the difficult problem of existence may turn out to be an excellent ground upon which to commence allowing an authentic solution to emerge. You can risk admitting your shit.


Posted on March 8, 2011 and filed under Life Adventure, Poetic Inquiry.

How to Desire

Dear Reader,

Let’s work on getting in touch with what we want. It’s our first step in the March Adventure. Write “Stuff I Really, Really Want” and list 25 items, everything from grand abstract achievements to the most paltry of household goods. Got it? Good, now if you have a mind whose automatic setting is anything like mine, you will now be thinking “I won’t do that, it’s pointless.”

The Depths of Disbelieving

My mind tells me it’s pointless to bring to the forefront of my mind all the things that I long for because, as it reports, “I won’t get them anyway.”  This automatic setting of pessimism is a strategy I learned in childhood to protect myself from the wrenching disappointment of missing out on things I really, really wanted. This was a great strategy when I was five and my acknowledgment of my impotence was actually spot on— back then I couldn’t read or write, I was 3 feet tall with limited motor skills, and I didn’t even have the right to vote! Yes, I was an illiterate, disenfranchised little person. Things were bleak back then. But look how far I’ve come!

I’m now (like you, if you’re reading this) in full possession of literacy, motor skills, and voting rights. You’re no longer limited by your parents’ arbitrary and tyrannical decisions regarding bedtime and dessert.

The Power of Innocent Longing

Frankly, you’re empowered and it’s time to start recognizing that. The “I won’t get them anyway” belief that your mind espouses is outdated. Since you’re big and literate now your odds of attaining most of your desires are pretty darn good.

Even if your life does indeed turn out to be one long dreary European film, if you go through it holding the belief all the while that you “won’t get them anyway” (your desires) your life will be a completely unwatchable long dreary European film.  Why? Because heroes and heroines desire stuff.  They go out and pursue their desires through various means. They learn stuff along the way.  Even if they completely fail to get what they set out to attain at the outset, the very act of valiantly, innocently, even somewhat stupidly, reaching to fulfill their desire puts forces in motion that show them valuable things and connect them to fascinating people.

Yes, that’s right. I’m getting all Joseph Campbell on your ass. This March Adventure is a hero / heroine’s journey.  I know, it’s terribly unoriginal of me. But that’s because it’s also just plain true.  I think Joseph Campbell may have missed some of the finer points regarding the heroine’s journey (I’ll be happy to discuss this at some point) but all in all, he was really right about the underlying mythic structures that span across time and culture, and which have things to tell us (Poetic Truths!) about the magic ways that life works.

The Call to Adventure

The first leg of the hero / heroine’s journey is the Call to Adventure.  Maybe you have not lately had a recurring prophetic dream calling you to travel to a strange land in search of hidden treasure.  That doesn’t mean you don’t have a Call to Adventure! Our longings and desires are our Call to Adventure.  They’re the stirrings that prompt us to undertake a course of action that will change us and our understanding of the world for the better. Some of them more so than others. And of course, it matters how we go about pursuing those desires. And also, there are certainly dragons to slay along the way. But we’ll worry about sorting all that out later. For now, get started with your list!

My List

To encourage you in coming up with your List of 25 Things you Desire, I figured I’d show you mine in all its random, jumbled glory:

1. A fireplace

2. A claw foot bath tub.

3. To publish an awesome self-help book.

4. To record a freak folk album.

5. To perform a stand-up act.

6. To be rich, having absolutely gazillions of gold coins to swim in.

7. To be struck enlightened like Byron KatieEckhart Tolle, and Jan Frazier.

8. To be very very glittery, like David Bowie circa the Ziggy Stardust era.

9. To finish my PhD.

10. To learn to play the guitar and write songs.

11. A super-flashy glam rock wedding.

12. New clothes for spring and summer.

13. Speaking engagements around town.

14. To make some videos for youtube, like my friend Kevin, who is super-cool.

15. The Nobel Prize in Literature

16. A lot of rainbow colored silk scarves.

17. An awesome house in the woods somewhere with giant fireplaces and clawfoot tubs.

18. A pug puppy.

19. My poetry books published.

20. A mind-blowing flower garden.

21. A gypsy caravan that is so rad I can hardly stand it.

22. To make and sell incredibly awesome tote bags.

23. To write a didactic novel like The Alchemist.

24. To make meditation cds / podcasts.

25. A house that looks like a Lisa Frank sticker sheet exploded all over it, in a really good way.

On Transmuting Life Into Truth

Emerson had this to say in "The American Scholar" (one of my all-time favorite essays along with... all of Emerson's other essays): The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing. Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process had gone, of transmuting life into truth.

Posted on February 28, 2011 and filed under Life Adventure, Optimism, Poetic Inquiry.

3 Elements of a Fiery Life

Dear Reader, In order to make a well-burning fire, we need some basic elements.  We need fuel (let’s say “wood”— I like wood fires, they smell good!) and air and heat.  Without any one of these we got no flames to speak of.

Remember how I’m obsessed with that quote from Leonard Cohen, “Poetry is just the ash cast off by a life that’s burning well”? Yeah? So now I’m about to show you just how obsessed I am.

What follows are my explanation of how we can think about our existence in terms of the fundamentals of a good fire, in order to better understand how to make our lives “burn well.”

1. Wood

Wood is all the material stuff we’ve got in our experience: our bodies, our clothes, the ground we walk on, the bodies of our friends and loved ones, grass, food, sun, sky.  In order to have a life that’s burning well, the basic material stuff has to be in place and in working order. In other words, in an ideal wood-situation you’ve got your body in a state of health, your food and shelter taken care of, and some simple material pleasures on top of that (i.e., cuddly blankets, pretty flowers). This isn’t to say that you can’t have a well-burning life if you’re chronically ill, disabled, or very poor — you totally can— but in that case you need a higher quality of the second element we’ll discuss— air— and you’ll need to turn up the third element— heat.

2. Air

Air is the non-material stuff of our experience: our awareness / consciousness, thoughts, inspiration, feelings, imagination, desires, dreams.  In order to have a life that’s burning well, the non-material stuff of our lives needs to be as clear, pure, and strong as we can make it.  You don’t have to have a mind like St. Teresa or the Buddha, but you do need to be willing to question your stressful beliefs, open up your sense of the possible, pay attention to your night-time dreams, and intensify your imagination. This is especially true if your wood-situation is currently quite painful (i.e., you’re ill, involuntarily poor, or otherwise down-on-your luck).

Tip: Writing Truth and Beauty Pages is a great way to increase the quality of your air.

Please Note: It may seem like I’m insisting on a dualism between the immaterial and the material. I am not.  The notion of building a great fire in our lives has to do with experiencing wholeness and harmony, with all qualitative elements of our experience working in sync.  Also, in a certain sense, our night-time dreams are just as “material” as our shoes— they have form and color and sensation.  I’m just breaking things down a little simplistically so we can understand particular matters to address.

3. Heat

Heat is the action we take that turns the wood and air of our lives into a blaze that casts wondrous light and lots of sparks of truth and beauty.  We create heat when we take meaningful risks (i.e., hops) that move us in the direction of our Wild, Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimistic dreams. Risks generate heat because they cause friction.  They bring us right up against all our deep-seated negative beliefs about ourselves and the world, and right up against the limits of our material ability.

Tip: Not just our hops but also our 5 Minutes Towards Beauty are means of generating heat.  If you don’t believe me, try it. It can feel quite risky and scary and great to devote 5 minutes to creating something beautiful!

So there you have it— the basic elements of a fiery life.  Shortly I’ll be writing more about how to get all of these elements in their best possible condition and combination.  Stay tuned!




Posted on February 28, 2011 and filed under Life Adventure.

4 Tools to Awesome Your Life

Dear Reader, A few of my friends and I are having an adventure this March. I hope you’ll join us. We’re having an adventure in our own lives. We’re going to turn up the heat in our existence and fling off some brighter sparks. This is what we’ll do:

1. Truth and Beauty Pages

Each morning, first thing, we’ll write four pages in response to the question: “What’s true in my life? And what’s beautiful?”  I’ve been writing Truth and Beauty Pages on and off for years now. Whenever I do it, things go better— I’m more in touch with my life, with who I am, and with what I need to do (that’s the truth part) and I’m more sensitive to the glorious glories all around me (that’s the beauty part).  I’ve been doing it for the past two weeks and I can feel myself coming alive in a thousand surprising ways— I can’t believe I had stopped for so long!

Actually, let revise what I said in the first paragraph— it’s not just that things get better when I write my Truth and Beauty pages— it’s that Truth and Beauty pages have literally kept me alive at some points in my life. When I was young and in a really bleak situation, living with an older guy who lied to me and abused me on a daily basis, writing Truth and Beauty pages was the only thing that kept me sane and connected with my soul.

Writing each day about the reality of my situation (it sucked SO much) and about the beauty that I saw in myself, others, and the world served the dual purpose of both making me face the facts without denial, minimization, or

rationalization (three ugly devils who like to keep me stuck!) and also letting me dream about what could be possible. This gave me enough strength to eventually leave that man and build the awesome existence I currently enjoy.

Now that I’m quite a bit saner and about seventy trillion times happier, writing Truth and Beauty Pages continues to serve me because… as it turns out, there’s always more to discover when it comes to these primary spiritual principles. They’re no longer dramatically rescuing me from abusive scenarios, but they are bringing the much needed oxygen of consciousness to my experience— thus stoking the flames.

2. Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimism

As every life-coach new-agey metaphysical finger lickin’ person out there will tell you (and I, friends, am no exception) you have to vividly imagine your life working out in a way that will utterly rock your socks if you want your socks to end up rocked. The reason everyone will tell you this is because they are kind and good and it, ladies and gentlemen, is true.

How do I know it’s true? Well, that’s a good story. I was once in a completely yucky state with my dating life.  I could only seem to get interested in and attracted to guys who would lie to me and or harm me in some fashion (see above instance) and every “romantic” interaction I had was actually a disaster.  I overcame this situation in part by practicing the brilliant, exceptionally well-written instructions in Amy Spencer’s life-altering book, Meeting Your Half Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match. If you have any trouble finding the right person at all, I highly beg you (notice: I am not highly recommending and I am not begging— I am highly begging) that you purchase and read and practice this book.

I practiced the kind of optimism that Spencer so wittily describes— and that optimism gave me the power to fearlessly examine my previous patterns and change my fundamental false beliefs about who I am and what I deserve… which resulted in me cosmically attracting to myself my now-boyfriend, Dey, who I will put up against any dude you got in the “most phenomenally awesome lover and friend and human being” contest that we will organize and hold next year.

This experience— of going from a situation being so awful for such a long time (my romantic sorrows, oh, they were manifold!) to being so flippin’ great that I gush at every one endlessly about it— has taught me that yes, Amy Spencer and everyone else is right. Optimism works.

And not lazy optimism. Not, “Oh, whatever, yeah, that could happen” optimism.  I mean balls-to-the-wall, hoping-with-all-my-heart, completely exposed and vulnerable optimism.

I call it throbbing optimism, because when you’re really doing it (and more about how-to soon) your whole body pulses. It feels great.

I call it extra-rational optimism because it rationality and reason are way over-rated. The reasoning mind (at least mine) only knows what was true in the past, and makes deductions out of that.  It says that any hope that something truly different and way more better could happen is “irrational.” Well, I say it is NOT “irrational” — it is extra-rational.  It exceeds reason. It exceeds the known. It’s willing to accept the unknown— and that unknown is super-neat.

3. Hops

Hops are “hopeful optimistic practices.”  Yes, you’re right. That’s redundant.  It is so redundant because guess what? Our habitual negativity and existential dread is incredibly redundant.  So the stuff that combats it has got to be the same way. Hops are kind of like leaps of faith. Except they’re not leaps— because leaps are big and really really hard.  Hops are— you know, just hops. They’re fun. Less like soaring across a rocky gulch and more like bouncing— as bunnies bounce.  So you see, cadbury candy eggs.  No, wait. Cadbury candy eggs was not my point.

My point is this— we need each day to take little actions that are in line with the dreams of our Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism.  These little actions must also be fun.  I don’t mean big actions. I don’t mean stuff that feels like a drag. I just mean little hip hops that are on the trail.

Hops are much, much easier to do, by the way, when you are indeed practicing your Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism— because that stuff has some oomph in it, and provides inspirational energy that we might otherwise lack.

When I was practicing my dating optimism a la Amy Spencer, my hops were these: sifting through okcupid profiles, looking for guys I liked; getting dressed up all fancy and going to parties that sounded cool.  That’s it. So you see, these hops were not only not tough— they were also fun.

Here’s the thing though: had I not been practicing my Throbbing, Extra-rational Optimism, I totally would have talked myself out of those hops. “What’s the point at looking at okcupid? I’ve been on that stupid site for years and I haven’t met anyone I really liked who really liked me.” “Go to the Beaux Arts Ball? But

getting a costume together would take so much energy. Better to just stay home and look at LOLcats.”

So what happened due to my hops? Well, at the Beaux Arts Ball I dressed as my true self, Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, and this hot French guy asked me out while we were standing in a glorious topiary garden. He took me out on fancy dates to the theater and classy restaurants— which was a great time.  Stuff with the French dude did not ultimately work out, but it sure did help bolster my self-esteem which had been trampled by my years of misadventures— and weeks later, while trolling okcupid, I came across the profile of an astoundingly gorgeous Indian man who looked just like the astoundingly gorgeous Indian man I’d been seeing repeatedly in my (romantic, tender, luscious) night-time dreams. Hmmmmmm.  Well, that was Dey and that DID work out.

So yeah man— hops.

Currently, my Throbbing, Extra-Rational Optimistic dream is to become an internationally-known speaker, spiritual self-help author, workshop-leader, and life advisor (I would say “life coach” but I really just hate the word “coach”… it makes me think of coaches).

It occurred to me that writing a blog in which I share with the world what I know about making life richer would be a fun, not-difficult action that would align with my dream. So. Here I am. Hop! Hop! Hop!

4. 5 Minutes Towards Beauty

Every day we’ll spend five minutes making something beautiful. A painting, a story, a song, a poem, a cake, a comedy routine, a comic strip.  What you make doesn’t need to be “beautiful” in the “wow, that’s pretty” sense. It’s more that it’s beautiful in that it’s revealing something real through your craft— whatever that craft is. Remember, truth IS beauty. Honesty— even difficult to look-at-stuff— is also beautiful.  What I’m saying is, just because your comic strip is a vividly rendered piece about university professors who melt into nauseating, hairy gremlins when deprived of coffee doesn’t mean it can’t count as your “something beautiful”— because it’s true, so true, you see.

Devoting 5 minutes a day to making something beautiful has the powerful effect of putting you in alignment with the creative force of the universe— which, as you may notice, makes something (or, arguably, everything) beautiful every day.

Also, if you don’t yet have enough skills in a particular area to sit down and “make something beautiful” right then and there— that’s absolutely fine. Practicing and playing around counts too, as long as that practice is towardsthe beautiful.  For example— I’m just learning to play guitar right now (through the good grace of my friends who are so generous with their time!) and I can’t yet just sit down and write “Hallelujah.” Heck, I can’t even play “Hallelujah.” I’m working on making the transition from the C chord to the G chord. But that counts!

Okay, so that’s what we’ll be up to for the month of March.  So I hope you’ll join in! Feel free to write in questions to me under the “Ask me anything” tab up top.