Do you ever find yourself stuck in a rut? One minute you feel on track, tapped into your authenticity, and blazing with enthusiasm. Then, for no apparent reason, you lose it. Negative thoughts start having a party in your psyche. You feel off track, disconnected, and like someone poured ice on your fire.
You fall off the “Soul wagon,” so to speak.
Lately I’ve been feeling like someone took my Soul wagon, turned it upside down, and dumped me in a forest of old habits that I thought I was finished with.
And I have no idea why.
Externally, things are going great. I’m teaching a course on a topic that I’m passionate about (Positive Psychology), I’m consulting on a topic I’m passionate about (yoga in schools), and I live in an amazing city (Prague). I have a great husband, money in the bank, and new friendships that are blooming all around me. I’m exploring new cultures, cooking healthy food, and continuing to explore my personal development. I’m young and healthy. I have every reason to be happy.
Something feels off.
I’ve experienced this type of conflict between my internal and external worlds several times, but it always catches me by surprise. Like when I had a good corporate job, a cute house and car, and lots of close friends – but cried every day on my way to work. Or when I worked for one of the top academic institutions in the world (Harvard Medical School) – but felt trapped.
So here I am. Again. The question is, why?
I suppose there are a few options:
1. I’m simply incapable of being happy, no matter how great my external life is.
2. I’m relying too much on my external world to make me happy.
3. I’m experiencing the normal ups and downs that come with choosing to pursue an authentic, Soul-based life.
Personally, I think (hope) that I’m experiencing a combination of #2 and #3. For much of my adult life, I’ve overly identified with external indicators of my worth. In school, my grades determined how I felt about myself. In the corporate world, it was my ability to win awards at work. At Harvard, it was my ability to get grants and publish research articles. Now, in Prague, it’s my ability to effectively teach my course and get/keep consulting clients.
The problem is that when I use these external factors as indicators of my self-worth, I never feel worthy enough.
There’s always more I could do when teaching my course or consulting for a client. There’s always more I could do in general. This is where all of the “shoulds” come in. I should be writing a book. I should be updating my website. I should be offering a new online course. I should be setting up a new workshop. I should be building my online platform.
It will never, ever be enough to satisfy my ego’s need for external approval.
During these times, I’ve noticed a sneaky set of habits that start to creep in. They enter subtly, like mist through a crack in the door. At first I don’t even notice I’m doing them, until one day I wake up and realize these habits are running the show. They might seem innocuous to you, but in my life these behaviors are signals that something is off balance. Here are a few of them:
- I start setting an alarm every morning. And, over a period of weeks, my “wake-up time” gets earlier and earlier (so that I can get more done).
- I start to worry (even obsess) about my finances – no matter how much I have in the bank.
- I engage in a lot of ruminative, negative self-talk, telling myself that I should be over these habits by now.
- I avoid “indulging” in things that feel good (like having dessert or buying myself a specialty tea).
- I start styling my hair very straight. This sounds strange, but it’s true. My hair is naturally wavy, but I’ve been blow-drying it straight since I was a teenager. When I fall off the “Soul wagon,” I tend to wear my hair very, very straight.
- I become obsessed with being at my computer – I feel the need to constantly be doing something “productive” and feel nervous when I take time to unplug.
- I become very strict with my work hours (even as an entrepreneur who can set my own schedule). I force myself to work from 9 to 5, even though I work from home – and I feel guilty when I don’t follow this schedule.
What do all of these things have in common?
They are all indicators that I’m trying too hard.
They are all artifacts of the work-horse element of my ego. The part of me that refuses to believe I’m good enough no matter how much I do or how much I accomplish. They all involve a strictness. A tightness. An inability to be flexible and in the flow.
Ultimately, they all involve restricting pleasure.
If you’re still reading, you’re probably hoping that I’m going to reveal a magical solution to solve this issue. The problem is, I don’t actually have a solution.
What I’ve realized is that this is my Soul’s work in this lifetime. My Soul’s work is to live what I teach by going through the mud, dirt, and dark nights involved in fighting my demons.
My Soul’s work is to try not to try (so hard).
This means that, as best as possible, I am to notice the habits above without judging myself for having them. I am to notice these habits without getting down on myself that they are here, again. Just like when I practice mindfulness meditation, I am to notice that these habits are here. And just be with it. I can even congratulate myself for having enough self-awareness to notice my patterns.
Then, as best as possible, I am to bring more pleasure into my life. A dear friend recently shared with me the idea of pleasure as a spiritual practice. The basic idea is that for some us, bringing more pleasure into our lives is a way for us to commune with the divine. This stands in stark contrast to the idea of suffering in this life so that we can achieve happiness later on. Instead, what if, for some people, the way to fully incarnate our Soul (or authentic self) in this lifetime is to experience the pure pleasure and bliss that can come from being in this human body, on this earth, at this time? Even in the midst of suffering that might occur within us and around us?
It’s a paradox, I know. But I think it is a paradox worth exploring.
And so here I am, with bruised knees and many scars, doing my best to crawl back into my Soul wagon. It is highly likely that I will fall off again. And again. And again. But this is part of excavating your authentic life. This is part of doing the internal work so that you don’t rely so strongly on external factors.
This is the beauty and the banality, the pleasure and the paradox, of being fully human.