Tag Archives: self-awareness

The King’s Challenge – Part One of This Moment

This post has been on my mind for a long, long time. Let us start with a story. Have you heard the one about the proud king?

nce upon a time, there was a proud king who wished to show that he was more intelligent than all of his ministers, and all of his subjects. He decided that he would prove his intelligence by setting an impossible task. So one day, he called his court together, assembled all his most trusted ministers and greatest scholars, and announced his task:

“I charge any of you to come up with the answer to my challenge: bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”.

At first, the challenge caused a flurry of activity. The courtiers conspired and the ministers mulled over what the answer to the riddle might be. The oil burned long in the midnight lamps of the king’s subjects as they all raced to be the first to answer the challenge, while the king revelled in the knowledge that he was so brilliant as to have created an impossible riddle.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and every time a traveller appeared at court, the king issued his challenge. But as the months neared becoming a year, still no one could best the king’s riddle.

Exactly one year after the king had announced his riddle, a old traveller appeared at court. His clothes were ragged and his feet calloused from long miles of walking. He had a long beard that seemed as if it might not have been washed in months, and frail hands that grasped a carved walking stick. As he bowed down before the king, the king asked, “Do you think you can answer the riddle that I devised, that none of my court nor any of my ministers nor a single scholar nor any other traveller has solved?”. The traveller replied humbly, “I can only try, your Highness”. So the king told him the riddle: “Bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”. So the old traveller bowed down again, and left the court to ponder the riddle.

Later that evening, as the king was preparing a feast to celebrate the one-year mark of his challenge, and to revel in all his wealth and stature and intelligence, the traveller returned to court. He walked up to the king, bowed his head low, and then passed to the king a small piece of paper.

The king’s subjects and his ministers and his scholars all watched as the king unfolded the scrap of paper, and they all saw as his normal, self-satisfied smile turn first to confusion, and then to a frown. For on the little piece of paper were inscribed the words:

this too shall pass


I heard a version of this story a long, long time ago, and since then it has filtered in and out of my mind many times, but usually at moments of great pain or loss. Over the past year or so I have found myself returning to this story frequently as I struggled with certain kinds of ‘rights of passage’ that come with growing up: your body failing, the death of loved ones, the frustration of life’s foibles, the difficulty of truly closing the space between you and another human being.

Despite my initial inclination to turn to this phrase in the most darkest hours, I have come also this year to appreciate its duality: it is as true in times of joy as in times of sorrow. Although the king’s challenge suggests that the phrase will turn the joyful man sorrowful, I have come to realize the beautiful, positive joy of the phrase even when it is read in times of joy. To me, the phrase is not the comfort that pain will pass and sorrow that joy will too, but rather the comfort that pain will pass and the most powerful reminder that we must hold on and immerse ourselves as fully as we are able in times of joy…for they, too, will pass. It is a reminder that each moment of joy is as precious as it is surely fleeting. From this point of view it isn’t sorrowful, but hopeful: it encourages us to soar in those moments of joy.

Life is short, and we have only the time that we are given, nothing more. Never more. Remembering that in our brief lives each moment of joy will pass, like each moment of pain, is the story of ‘Part Two’, which I will be adding soon.


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Thoughts for Thursdays – The Bad Wolf & Anger

Have you heard the story of the two wolves yet?

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?” The Elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

I had saved this story somewhere, and I came across it again today while looking for something to write about. It resonated with me because I have spent the past few days struggling with many of the bad wolf’s feelings: anger, sorrow, regret, resentment…

I don’t think that it is fair to label any of these emotions ‘evil’ all on their own–life is simply not that black & white. I know that every emotion has something to tell you about what’s going on in your life. Anger, for example, is often the messenger that speaks to us of a loss of power, or a transgression of our boundaries. She is a powerful emotion that can allow us to jump into action. Anger is not evil all on her own–she is evil only when you spend too long feeding her. This is where I identify with the story of the bad wolf–I do not judge myself for my anger, but I know that if I feed her too much, too long, she might grow into a monster inside of me. Then an emotion that is natural, that provides self-awareness and insight into a situation, can become distorted into the big hungry bad wolf.

I have spent the past few days feeding the bad wolf. I imagine I’ll be spending a while longer feeding it, too. And when I am ready, I will be able to turn my energy towards the good wolf. Until then, I’ll keep the story of the wolves in mind as a reminder of who I would like to win the battle.

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What scares you to share?

My choice of seating arrangement should tell you a little about how I’m feeling right now: I’m on the floor down the left-side of my bed, where there is a foot or two of space between the bed and the wall in which to sit with my computer.

Why here? It feels solid.

I spent years shutting off the tender, scared parts of myself from the world. I have a very, very close friend who once told me that, even though she had known me for years, she could be sitting across the table with me having dinner, listening to me talk about myself, and still had no idea what was going on inside of me.

After many years of beginning to understand what she meant, and why I was that way, I began to work on changing. I wanted to be in a place where I felt like I could share what I then called the ‘less shiny’ parts of myself. I have taken big steps towards ‘healing out’ the fear of sharing the hurting, heavy parts of myself.

Recently I’ve had a few experiences that are threatening to send me back into my shell. Within these (ongoing) experiences, I am struggling to find a place where I can honour myself and my emotions. I recognize the damage that is occurring and yet I feel stuck in the headlights, unsure of which way to turn.

It has me thinking tonight about the things that are scary to share, to say, to expose to anyone. Are there parts of you that you are afraid to share? Do you know why you are afraid?

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Who do you talk to when you’re alone?

The thing about the past year of my life is that I’ve spent most of it alone.

I don’t mean alone in the sense of not having a partner, or friends, or family, or with a lack of communication to these people. I mean it in the true sense of the word: in the absence of other people. Day in, day out, when everyone I knew was working their job or studying in school, I spent my time…alone.

I have written and mourned and talked about what this has been like for me. There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment. I have felt as if my life was on hold, like I was the sole inhabitant of a solitary little eye of the storm, while all my loved ones went about their own lives. I have felt like I was stagnant, stationery, un-evolving and withering. The truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve been changing and growing and flourishing in a way that is so different to anything I’ve ever experienced before, so different from anything my friends had ever been through, that I haven’t been able to recognize it until now.

Tonight I saw clearly what my year-long journey has been about. I can see that although I have not been earning a degree or climbing the rungs of a career path, I have been working towards something incredibly important. The catchphrase that can describe what I’ve been working on for the past year is simple and sweet: self-awareness.

After all, I’m the only self I’ve had around to be aware of.

I’ve learned that I talk to myself when I’m alone. We all do. I don’t mean stark-raving mad chattering, I mean that internal dialogue that accompanies us wherever we go. The one we normally can’t hear because the noise of our lives, our commitments, our friends and family, are drowning it out. My life has been incredibly quiet, so I’ve done a lot of talking to myself…and a lot of listening.

I’ve found new places in my heart and am working on healing old wounds. I’ve noticed harmful patterns of behaviour and surprising likes and dislikes. I’ve discovered that I can have insight and perspective into even my own feelings, and how to better look after myself.

So might I suggest…listen a little. Maybe take a long bath by yourself. Yes, that means no books and no music. I really do mean by yourself. Or perhaps the next time you feel a little uncomfortable about a situation or when you have a strong reaction to a person, take a moment. What are you trying to tell yourself that you haven’t been able to hear just yet?

The fact of the matter is, what I really discovered wasn’t how to be alone, but how to spend time with an old friend, a lover, a sister: my self. I know her better now, and that? That is going to change everything.

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Apologizing and Pleasing

Tonight I am curled up in a chilly Liverpool flat after a long day’s travel to Scotland and back. As I settled down under my covers (1 duvet and 2 sleeping bags–it might be warmer in Liverpool than in Canada, but they don’t know anything here about proper insulation!), my thoughts drifted to the idea of apologizing for one’s self, and how harmful that can be.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we need to apologize for our behaviour. More often than not we know exactly when we owe an apology, but we just hate to admit that we were wrong. After snapping at our partner for not doing something, or being short with a sibling because we had a long day at work, or forgetting to do something that was important to someone we love. All of these behaviours deserve an apology, if only to show the person we love that we know we’ve unnecessarily hurt their feelings.

I was thinking not about those kinds of apologies, but about really acting in ways that are about apologizing for one’s self. By that I mean, apologizing for how we experience the world, or how we feel, or for what we love, or for what we need. This kind of apology undermines the very core of who we are and reinforces the belief that we are simply not enough. Not good enough.

For example…have you ever found yourself apologizing for needing some time alone? For crying? For wanting a change of scenery? Or what about when you’ve made big plans with someone but find that your needs are changing and you want something different? Or for needing a little extra time to handle a difficult situation? Or for not acting the way someone wanted or expected you to?

Perhaps the most powerfully detrimental way we apologize for ourselves is by saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. Because every time that happens, you’re apologizing for your own needs and choosing to value someone else’s self over your own. You’re choosing to please someone else and to apologize for that part of yourself that is displeasing to the other person.

If you’re too busy apologizing for parts of yourself, or trying to change them to please someone else, then you’re not giving yourself the respect that you, and by ‘you’ I mean all of your self, deserves. You’re reinforcing every thought you’ve ever had about how you’re not as good as someone else, how you need to improve, change, morph into someone you’re not but that someone else might be more pleased by.

I’m inviting you now (as if you need an invitation, but hey, sometimes we all need a gentle nudge) to think about what parts of yourself you’ve been apologizing for, and why…and then to give yourself permission to just stop. Stop apologizing. Stop self-criticizing. Instead…embrace. Explore how you feel and why. Ask yourself who you are trying to please or change for, and why. Re-discover the parts of yourself that are valuable even if they are different to others. Savour your own experiences and adventures, even when they’re not what others expect.

And then…step into those parts of yourself, without apology.

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Musings – On Travel

There is something lonesome about travel.

It is paradoxical that something that by its very nature draws my concentration outwards to absorbnew sights, sounds, and smells, and that demands so much of my attention (don’t get lost, figure out when the last train runs, is that food going to have my stomach churning at 4am?), summons up in me my most insistently introspective state.

I can spend hours on a train, staring at the lights that zip by in the darkness, considering my place in the world and the nature of my being. I can while away whole nights on a plane, curled up in my little seat (more expensive per square inch than any other space I’ve ever occupied in the world), happily perusing the recesses of my mind, picking up on little parts of myself that have been neglected for months or years.

In these moments, waiting in airports or high-tailing it through foreign countrysides, I feel more isolated from the world than I have ever felt elsewhere. Surrounded by crowds and queues and fellow travellers, jostling for elbow room and wishing that child in the next row would just-be-quiet, I feel more alone than when I am actually alone.

Perhaps this feeling of solitude reveals itself because, in a way, I am more alone than when I am alone at home–at home I am accessible to the people in the world with whom I am connected: they can pin-point my location in the world, and find me by landline or cell phone or Skype or Facebook, and expect a swift reply.

Sure, with the joys of modern technology I could call a friend or chat online in an airport or train station, but I jealously guard these moments of isolation. I am travelling and no one would have the audacity to expect to reach me then. I am travelling and no one in the world really knows exactly where I am but me. I am travelling, left to my own devices and defences, experiencing new parts of the world in my own unique way, and this somehow gives birth to moments of unexpected insight.

Travelling can often seem a rushing whirlwind of check-ins and train connections and fumbling for identification, and I used to abet its occupying nature by bringing piles of magazines and books and films to hurry through the hours of solitude. I would always be surprised when my flight ended and I hadn’t read a word of print nor watched a film on the tiny screen on the seat-back in front of me, wondering why I hadn’t sought out the inundation of entertainment we seem to crave so dearly these days.

But the truth is I always end up involuntarily occupying the eye of the storm, in a quiet limbo between destinations and events, goodbyes and hellos, foraging curiously through my experience of the world, happily lonesome in a sea of strangers.

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Introducing: Lessons in Catastrophe

I thought I’d introduce a new section to my little internet home here today. It’s called Lessons in Catastrophe. Sounds dramatic, right?

I’m stretching the meaning of catastrophe a little here, folks, in order to encompass a range of life’s difficult experiences. Artistic license. Sometimes catastrophes hit and they really are catastrophes: major health crises, the loss of a loved one, a fire that burns down your home. Sometimes life’s inevitable bumps hit and they can feel like catastrophes: the ending of a friendship, rejection from a dream job, lost luggage.

But isn’t it a beautiful word? Catastrophe. So much more enigmatic and emotive and dramatic than misstep, mishap, failure, disaster.

My life was hit with a catastrophe last May: over the course of several months (and in some way, years), I had really done in my back without even noticing. And then I noticed, because suddenly I was bent double, unable to straighten up, and in so much pain that I couldn’t even sleep at night. All the heavy duty muscle-relaxants, anti-inflammatories, and painkillers they offered me weren’t really doing a thing.

I had slipped discs, bulging discs, facet hypertrophy (kinda like arthritis in your vertebrae), an annulus tear, spinal stenosis. Oh wait, did I say I had these things? I have these things.

Just a few months before I’d moved into a beautiful little flat (apartment!) with my boyfriend. I was living in England, financially independent, and looking forward to making plans for the future.

My catastrophe meant I couldn’t work. Without working, I couldn’t afford to pay rent, let alone physiotherapy, massage, osteopathy fees. I didn’t really have a choice: within weeks everything I had thought my life would be was gone, all my plans for my first post-universities years were over and by mid-June I was a plane back to Canada.

At first I thought I would recover by September. This was going to be a small bump in the road. After all, I was young, healthy, and was getting great physical therapies. In July I was finally cleared to start doing physical therapy, but I could barely walk a block or two without causing the kind of agony that kept me awake at night.

It was August before I could start doing just little activities, like sitting for a short dinner, or going for a short walk without the delayed onset of pain keeping me awake all night.

When September came round and I wasn’t better, I figured it was ok: I’d stay in Canada through Canadian Thanksgiving, then I’d be fine.

Thanksgiving came and went, and I was still in a lot of pain. Not a chance I could be working full time. Then one October evening I tucked one of my bedsheets in and as soon as I stood up, I realized I’d done something: my pain levels shot up and I was worse than I had been in months. My osteopath eventually helped me recover from that dip, but it was then November. I continued my slow upswing through to December. In December someone incredibly important to me passed away and the associated emotional distress aggravated my back.

Then January came and went, and here I am, 9 months later. Today I was told to expect a minimum 2 year recovery.

That all seems pretty quick in my little patient history there, doesn’t it? Those short paragraphs don’t explain the hours that turned into days that turned into months that I have spent alone, at home, recovering. They don’t detail how many nights I spent in sleepless agony, tired to the point of exhaustion but unable to sleep even a moment because of the stabbing, searing pain running down my right leg. They don’t illuminate what it’s like to miss the boyfriend you left behind in another country, or to see the lives of all your friends and family moving on as they go on new adventures. They don’t show what it’s like to be told that you can’t make plans, not even for months from now, because your body probably won’t be able to handle returning to any kind of normalcy, or that despite your otherwise healthy, youthful body, this pain may well be with you for the rest of your life. I can’t even begin to explain what this has been like.

I am learning a lot, riding out this catastrophe. Lessons and insights and truths that I may never have come across if my whole life hadn’t been ground to a halt because a couple discs in my spine wouldn’t stay where they were meant to be.

So in ‘Lessons in Catastrophe’ I am going to write about what I have learned through this particular life catastrophe. This is as much for me as it is for anyone else: my sanity these days hangs by a silvery, delicate thread. Perhaps by reminding myself of what I am learning, I can weave in the strands of strength that help me continue on in this life that is so different from what I had dreamed.

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