A Source of Calm

As a teacher, I learned quickly that one’s energy has tremendous power over a room. 

The confined space of the classroom would detonate regularly with the emotions of thirty children. Like Luke Skywalker I would brace for impact, ducking the beams of anger and frustration as they zoomed by.

To re-establish order in the midst of chaos, I initially reacted by replicating the response of my childhood teachers: yelling. I mustered up a primal fury, inhaled deeply, and with as much volume as I could:


An angry loud voice shocks chaos back to order. But it is a brief victory, and using this voice left me poisoned by a cocktail of fight or flight hormones.

Yelling fights fire with fire by adding more anger and anxiety to an already angry and anxious situation. It does not spread calm and certainly does not spread joy.  I was determined to change response to find one that would build an environment of calm joy.

I did not have control over how 30 young people presented themselves at school. But I did have control over how one person presented herself.

The only energy that I could control in a given space was my own.

I started by building calm within myself. I located it within my breath, my body, and my voice.

I practiced breathing slowly, deeply, and mindfully. When in chaotic situations, I inhaled the chaos and exhaled space. When surrounded by anger, I inhaled the anger and exhaled acceptance.  

I noticed where anxious energy was absorbed within my body. When my shoulders rose to my ears, I consciously lowered them.  When my eyebrows raised into my forehead, I relaxed them.

I kept my voice slow, creating space between the sounds.  I kept my voice low, leaving room for quiet amidst the noise. 

I was becoming a conductor of calm energy, radiating it through the room. My calm energy could cool the surrounding anger and chaos.

To add joy to my energetic brew, I focused on smiling. I changed my default facial expression from serious neutral to a light smile. Smiles are contagious: when you smile at someone, they usually catch it and smile back. As I am out in the world, I can smile and spread joy to the people I see.

By adjusting my bodily habits, I learned how to be a source of calm joy to the people and spaces I encountered. This was more cooling than yelling would ever be.

We have incredible power to impact the spaces that we occupy. We can spill out angry, fearful energy and fan flames. Or we can choose to smile and breathe, and spread cooling peace.


Embracing Discomfort


“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland




We are alive and so we change.

Change that moves us forward and upward is growth. Sometimes we grow gradually and unfold into an extension of what we already were. At other times, we burst in a sudden moment of radical transformation. In the hatching of eggs, the blooming of flowers, the eruption of caterpillars into butterflies, living beings outgrow one stage of their lives instantaneously to thrust forward into the next one.

Humans have the option to integrate mindfulness into this process. We can choose to notice our radical transformation and reflect upon it, appreciate it, and act upon it. We can pause in such times to take stock of our growth and access deeper levels of appreciation for what it means to be alive.

When we realize how far we have come, we can marvel at where we are.

To be able to savor these delicate moments, we must first learn to recognize their arrival.

Radical transformation begins with discomfort.

Discomfort is an alert. It is an unpleasant sensation by design, a catalyst to frustrate and ignite us.  Intolerable discomfort is the force that propels babies out into the world, chicks to break free from eggs, butterflies to rip through their cocoons. Once we have exhausted the reserves of nourishment in a given space, it is urgent that we move on.

I have often felt the profound discomfort of an outgrown space. I felt it during my senior year of college as a maddening impatience to graduate and enter the “real world.” I felt it during my tenth summer at sleepaway camp as a deep sadness that it was time to move on and spend my summers elsewhere. Most recently, I felt it as a hunger for quiet greenery which propelled me to relocate from my populous urban home. In each of these moments, my discomfort led me forward to new spaces for my expansion.

Discomfort hurts. That’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy. Discomfort means we are alive and growing. There are all sorts of remedies, strategies, and substances available to eradicate discomfort. But like any other bodily alert, suppressing a symptom does not address the source. The only way to find true freedom from discomfort is to listen to it.

When we listen to our discomfort, we gather clues about who we are becoming. 

Listening to discomfort is frightening because it could mean an ending. A leaving behind, a goodbye, a death of sorts. If our fear is strong enough, we may choose to retreat from our growth so that we may find refuge in familiar old skin. Or perhaps our fear is paralyzing and we freeze, lingering too long in an outgrown space. We lose our newly amassed reserves of nourishment and wither back into a wilted version of ourselves.

Or we could choose bravery and hope. We could accept the invitation and move forward into the unknown.

We could integrate the feeling of death with the feeling of new life. We could feel the sadness of shedding old skin alongside the exhilaration of the mystery yet to come. We could own the potential and strength in our newfound bigness.

Acknowledging our arrival at an ending illuminates the opportunity to craft a beginning.

Moving forward is a vote of confidence in ourselves.

When we listen to our discomfort and follow it forward, we restore trust in our inner wisdom.  A caterpillar is innately scripted to become a butterfly, and so we are are innately scripted with directions to our fullest selves.

Sometimes the only way to grow into is to grow out of. Outgrowing is uncomfortable. Rather than push away discomfort, we can invite it inside and listen to what it has to say.  We can celebrate its arrival and thank it for coming. Then we can pack up our old shells, cocoons, and skins, thank them for their service, and along with discomfort, send them on their way as we move into the future.



From Settling to Choosing: What I Learned from Decluttering my Apartment

Clutter is a state of confusion.

When we live amidst clutter, things occupy our homes and diminish the space available for our growth. When we think in clutter, thoughts and worries take up the room that could be open for invention and imagination. Clutter crowds us out of our own space.

After many years in New York City, I had become intolerant of the noise, bodies, and congestion of urban living. If only all of the other humans could go away so that I could stretch my arms and move in peace, if the cars could be cleared so I that I could breathe clean air, if the enormous buildings could be bulldozed so that I could see the vastness of the sky! Every day was weighted with an increasing claustrophobia. I needed a blank canvas and an open field.

While clearing out the city was beyond my control, I could start smaller: my apartment. There were so many things! There were clothes I never wore that I had bought on sale, on impulse, or that had been handed down to me. There were books leftover from years of schooling. There were kitchen items from craigslist that were functional at best. The bathroom cabinets were loaded with untouched soaps and lotions that I had received over the years as holiday gifts. The vast majority of these things shared a similar quality: they sufficed but I did not love them. I could use the soaps and I could wear the shirts, but I didn’t love them. These items were other people’s discards and other people’s choices.

What would it feel like if I intentionally chose more elements in my life rather than settled for them?

For guidance in this process, I turned to Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Her method for decluttering is centered upon one fundamental point of knowledge and one critical skill: to know that authentic expressions of ourselves spark joy in hearts, and to be able to identify the sensation of sparking joy. Armed with this wisdom, she instructs her readers to hold each item in their homes and determine whether or not it sparks joy in their hearts. If it does, they may choose to keep it. If it does not, they must let it go for it is dead weight on their souls and their energy.

It took me three weeks to follow Kondo’s method and go through all of my possessions. By the end of this process, I had twenty full garbage bags (about ¾ of what I owned). I thanked these items for their service. And I let them go. In the absence of clutter, the items I chose to keep took center stage. Everything I now owned reflected not a passive acquisition but an intentional choice. I started to see the contours of my new self. I felt energized and that I could breathe again. From that moment forward, I would design my life guided by sparks of joy.

Designing lives we love means intentionally and actively choosing that which brings us joy and letting go of that which does not serve us.

In a culture drowning in quantity over quality, we accrue and exchange and circulate things. Perfunctory gifts serve as placeholders for love and connection. Souvenirs and relics become attempts to hold on to the past and avoid sadness over the passage of time. We imbue things with the souls of our misunderstood emotions, yet we come up empty-handed because things are not love and they cannot hold on to the past.

Decluttering is about reclaiming control over what occupies space in our lives. When we are able to read our hearts for what brings us joy, we can learn what we like, want, and love. We can get to truly know ourselves and thereby make choices with greater clarity. The real estate of our lives is precious; we must be selective about what we allow to move in. Permit no squatters and embrace open space.

Open space is the fertile ground for inspiration and possibility.