Learning the Art of the Impossible

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Saint Francis of Assisi

I’ve been thinking about (and working on) grounding quite a bit over the past several months. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, it is because you have probably heard it used as a descriptor (“You can just tell she is very grounded….”) rather than as a process.  But, whether we realize it or not, it is a process that we engage on a nearly daily basis. For some, the process of grounding is better understood as nesting; for others, meditating. Grounding is what helps us feel connected – either physically or metaphorically – to the world that we encounter.  

For most of my life, I thought that being grounded depended on a place.  More specifically, a home that I owned and was undeniably, “me.” I made having that home, that place, a priority; one of a handful of items on my checklist of things to do / achieve before I would ever consider getting married.  Don’t ask me why I made it a prerequisite to getting married. Perhaps it was being raised in a generation where divorce and stories of wives left with nothing trickled into my young ears from the cocktail receptions I attended as a child with my parents.  Perhaps it was a factor of being the daughter of a Steinem-era feminist and hooking my female independence to the milestone. Who really knows, but it stuck and, like all of the other things on that checklist, I achieved it at a relatively young age of 31. It was my base, my sanctuary, my cave to return to when other things in life didn’t feel quite right.  I protected it fiercely – it’s sanctity, it’s energy, it’s security.

Over the past year and a half, I have given up a lot of things; the surety of a defined career path, the proximity of dearly held friends and the comfort they provide, the safety of a known culture, to name a few.  Of all of the things I have given up, though, the hardest has been my homebase; that place where I could return and I knew I would feel….myself.

I didn’t realize how much I depended on this feeling, how much the lack of it really impacted me, until I few months ago.  I knew I felt unsettled, but shrugged it off to the seemingly unending administrative requirements that you are required to navigate the first several years as an expat (especially in France) and the fact that I was looking at changing apartments again (for the third time in under a year).  Of course my head was muddled, my emotions confused, my moments of clarity few and far between! I was being pulled all over the place! However, as these feelings continued to persist despite moving into an absolute sanctuary of a new apartment and successfully renewing my carte de sejour (and obtaining my official residency card), it was clear that there was something more going on that I needed to address.

ktrk5pl+qg+wlznjk3er6qSeveral months before, I came across the book Stealing Fire (by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal).  Reviews had featured insights into how Silicon Valley operates, so I was intrigued and listened to the audiobook during my walks here and there across Paris.  It piqued something in me. I felt a glimmer of familiarity, not just with the content but with the sense of excitement that it brought about as I noodled through the manner in which they sought to succinctly draw lines and connections between generations of spiritual, philosophical, scientific, and professional practices.  While I felt that there might be something more there that I wanted to explore, it was not until this past Fall as I sat lost in a psychological forest of my own making that I began to explore the concepts discussed – and specifically the concept of flow.

Why ‘flow’?  Well, because the concept of flow, or rather achieving it, is to be “in the zone,” in the moment, and in my body.  And, at the time, I felt anything but that. I wasn’t just ungrounded, I felt entirely out of body; moving through my days, taking in a million different data points, having a million different ideas, but never quite being able to reduce them down to a single (or even a handful) of focus points. I needed to not only bring myself back to center, but understand why (and how) I had come unmoored so that I could create a check for myself in the future.  I certainly wasn’t going to go through the emotional rollercoaster of the past year again, if I could help it!

So, I did what any good overthinker does: I began taking in massive amounts of information.  I took classes, read and listened to books, read articles, took tests. I wanted to understand what pushes me to move and, conversely, to be paralyzed.  I wanted to understand what my triggers were (are) in order to keep myself from being so emotionally spun up by the immediacy or seemingly daunting nature of what is in front of me.  Most importantly, I wanted to understand how to level-set myself again.

To do this, I knew that I needed to break everything down to the core.  As Rumi would say, to get at the “root of the root” of myself.  To clear out all of the cloudiness of the months and years before – the disappointments that weighed on my heart of promises made but not kept, the insecurities that swirled through my mind of aspirations not met, and the utter fear that resided in my body at a seemingly cellular level over my ability to control what lie ahead.

This process has not been easy.  But, then again, change rarely is.  That said, I used to think that the process of change, be it personal or professional, required grand and often knee-jerking shifts. While you need look no further than my move to Paris for proof of that, this perspective did have a basis in my life.  Namely, the last major change in my life – in jobs, in home, in perspective – occurred nearly 8 years before, in 2009.  There are no words to explain how many changes I experienced that year, all of them centered around two major events of the year; namely, my father passing away and my then-boss (Senator Arlen Specter, then Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee) deciding to change political parties.  Both events occurred suddenly and with little (if any) warning.  Both led me to question nearly everything I believed in at the time.  Both fundamentally stripped me of any sense of grounding (there’s that word again) and security I enjoyed before. And though both resulted in years of emotional turmoil, they also led me down a new and (relatively) clear professional path. So, you have to understand that there was at least a basis for my thinking that fundamental change required huge shifts in perspective.

What I understand now, though, is that real improvement and change takes time and does not hang on any single event in our life, no matter how transformational certain events may be.  Although the events of 2009 might have caused me to change professions, my ability to do so relatively seamlessly was the result of years of work on the Senate Judiciary Committee before those pivotal moments.  Similarly, any improvements and changes I enjoyed in this next chapter of my life wouldn’t hinge on the mere fact that I moved to Paris (though it would make life a lot easier if it would have), but would depend on the day in / day out work I had and continue to put in since the move.

I’ve learned, finally perhaps, that to realize the grand change, then you have to have a commitment to the small ones.  Not just sporadically, but everyday; taking on the small things that support the larger vision. Now, I know this may seem painfully obvious. Even as I write this, I have to laugh at how ridiculous it sounds to even say it, because it does seem so obvious. But, we we all know from each of our personal experiences, just because something is terribly obvious doesn’t mean that it is also incredibly easy.  But with a little bit of self-discipline, it also doesn’t have to be exceedingly difficult.  This is what I am learning to call the art of the impossible.  For it is through mastering it, or even attempting to do so, that shifts our perspective from what is impossible to possible. 

This has taught me invaluable lessons; not only about myself but the world and those around me.  I have learned the importance of creating a quiet space and engaging a practice that I have come to call the “4 Elements.” For those are are interested, I am including what this entails at the bottom of this post.  I will fully admit that creating these times of quiet is a task more easily said than done.  For parents, especially mothers, it means finding a place of solitude.  For people generally, it means taking a step away from the constant flow of information streams.  That said, I have found that these times do not need to be long – sometimes only a few minutes – and they are when I have had the opportunity to learn the most.  

Personally, these times of quiet are where I have learned how to sit with whatever is driving me, be it positive or negative.  To listen to it. And I mean, really listen, letting any words flowing from my head come unencumbered no matter how over-ambitious or seemingly toxic they may be.  To understand how those feelings / words / actions are impacting me physically. Honoring them for the insight they can give. And then, letting them. The process of letting them go has been the hardest for me to learn.  I am wired to have a constant feedback loop of negativity and self-criticism. Frankly, it’s probably what has driven a lot of my previous success. However, I have learned that in the new life that I am creating, it serves me very little good.  As I have learned to let go – of the hurt, the insecurities, the fear – I have begun to find myself again. I have begun to feel grounded again. I have begun to feel safe and secure again. And, not because I am located at any given place, but because of an acceptance of where I am at this very moment.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, as I have cleared out the “personal crap,” if you will, I have been able to use these moments of quiet increasingly for professional purposes.  I have always had a good gut professionally. An ability to read the horizon, the tea leaves, the roadmap (even when the GPS is off, wink). It’s something instinctual. Frankly, that gut is what has gotten me thus far professionally in Europe.  However, when I left my home in Washington, DC in September 2017, I knew that I wanted to do something more, that I was capable of something more. As I have dived deep into understanding the process of flow, what that “more” is is slowly making itself known.  The “aha” moments and times of clarity coming with more frequency.

To that end, I will be taking my exploration of flow to (for me) it’s next logical step and starting a coaching certification program with the Flow Genome Project in the coming weeks.  Although this invariably will have immeasurable personal benefits, I want to explore how flow techniques can be applied to bridge cultural divides the currently inhibit productive policy discussions.  While I see these divides most poignantly between the American and European cultures, it is clear that they are creeping up within countries – from the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of political parties around the globe.  News headlines focus on the rise of these divides in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France because of their status as “First World Leaders,” but these are reflective of a larger international shift with a growing disconnect between what is said and what is heard in policy debates.  This is the space that I am exploring the potential application of flow techniques; using fundamentally neurological tools that transcend cultures to close the disconnect in communication.  Effectively, creating a new “translation tool,” if you will.  More on this to come, hopefully, in the coming weeks.

Of course, this professional path may not necessarily be the easiest one.  Nor is it entirely clear where it will ultimately lead me in terms of a home city (be it Paris, back in Washington, in San Francisco, or elsewhere).  What I do have now, though, is not only an increasingly robust set of tools and experiences at my disposal to take it on, but a personal center, a grounding that I have created within myself, to ensure my success no matter the location.

“4 Elements” Practice – While I do these ideally every morning (in the order listed below), sometimes there just isn’t time and have found that I get just as much peace / clarity when I give myself time to intentionally focus on each of these elements throughout the day.  

  • Water – Drink 20 oz / .5 L of cold water in the morning,
    • This is the one non-negotiable for me first thing in the morning.  Yes, before coffee, before anything else.  I have done a ton of reading about how this actually gives you more energy than coffee can by helping to clear everything out from the night before and, I will have to admit, it does wake me up quite a bit (even if I still depend on my two-shot cafe au lait immediately after.  If nothing else, you will get a few more steps in the morning with a couple of extra trips to the toilette while you get ready.  I will also note that I have been challenging myself to drink, what for it, 4.5 L a day.  Yeah.  That’s a lot.  But, man, when I do do it, I feel worlds better.
  • Air – Breathwork
    • I generally do about minutes of focused / guided breathing in the morning and then 5 minutes in the evening.  I have been using the app BreatheSync because it helps to measure your overall well being based on our breathing.  That said, there are a million apps out there for this and everyone is definitely different in what works for them.
  • Fire – Lighting Candles / Setting Intentions / Expressing Gratitude
    • I love candles and have them all over my apartment.  I actually use candles far more here in France than I ever did in the US.  Maybe there is something to the romanticism to them.  That said, there is also a huge amount of energy that is released and I have found that when I light my candles and then take a few minutes to either journal or even just think about my intentions or gratitude for the day, I give more focus and power to those thoughts.
  • Earth – Walk / Run / Yoga / Work Out
    • Basically, this is anything movement related, physically connecting to the ground / earth but also taking a moment away from screens / phones etc.  As I tend to do a lot of work from home, I have found that it has been really important to set this time aside and really honor it.  Otherwise, I could literally work non-stop into the wee hours of the evenings.  

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