Sacred Work, Wise Pain, and the Power of Pleasure

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This work is sacred.

Making vision boards with people, pouring them wine, meditating about the careers that will give back the most, dreaming of the houses that will support and hold our families, the art that we want to make of our lives and the space we are creating for our hearts — it is work that I think of as sacred. (Even the wine!)

What I want to bring to the table at every retreat, in every workshop, and in every one-on-one meeting with a client is my full-on best self. And some parts of that are important. I want to bring my full attention, my laser focus, my warmest welcome, and a lovely, funky, creative atmosphere full of snacks, art supplies, spiritual resources, delicious candles, mason jars full of really easy-to-write-with pens, blank journals, pretty crystals, and pots of coffee–anything that will make the place we are (whether an art studio, a rooftop, my living room, or a far flung magical space) into a place where deep transformation and creative fun can happen. The intersection of breathing easy and giving birth to something new. That heart space.

I want it to all be perfect.

 

But, there is another dimension to that desire for bringing my best self. It has more to do with what I want to hide, rather than what I invite into and unveil…

I want to seem perfect. I want my outfit to convey that I have it effortlessly together, and my answers to sound breezily polished. The twists and turns of my own journey–all the times I was scared, lost, hurting, or broken–can all too easily get swept under the rug in my attempt to be my “best self.”

When the truth is:
We lead best when we lead with our whole selves, including the broken parts. 
In that spirit, I feel like sharing a little bit about a journey that I was on when I was in my early twenties. I look back on that younger self with such kindness, and such compassion. She had no idea what she was doing. But she was doing her best. 

So there I was, newly moved to Washington, DC, newly married, and newly beginning a grueling graduate program, when suddenly: I got sick. Really sick.

I was sick with something doctors could not figure out. I had pain that felt mysterious, intensely personal, and isolating. It made sitting down painful, and it made sex outright impossible.

I was a newlywed. 
I was devastated. 
Even in my journal from our honeymoon — which was a lavish, fun adventure in Greece — my timid handwriting breaks from the baklava tests and perfect black sand to quietly admit: something is really really wrong though. I might need to go find a doctor here. 
My body had started to shut down.
Later, doctors would throw different options at me, and I hoped with all my heart that something would stick. Endometriosis? Fibromyalgia? Interstitial Cystitis? I tried radical elimination diets, cutting myself off of coffee, gluten, dairy, wine, and tomatoes. I went to physical therapy twice a week, trying to exercise the pain of my pelvic floor away. I ended up in the emergency room over and over, as unexplained bleeding, crippling pain, and mysterious symptoms barraged me.
I kept my sense of humor, though.
After a very uncomfortable MRI in a machine that resembled a silver pod on a space ship, I joked to the nurse, “Worst tanning bed, ever, right?” After a painful injection when the P.A. taped gauze on to my arm and then ripped it off, I asked, “Do you do eyebrows too?” with a wink. After a brusque and jarring pelvic exam in the ER one night, I yelled after the attendant (who had left without so much as saying a word) “Call me!”
I thought I was so funny.
But, I also felt deeply worried. 
Would I ever get better? Would I ever heal? I was on four types of pill a day,  underwent unnecessary abdominal surgery, and spent day after day yelping in pain as I lowered myself into the bathtub in between classes.
A life that I had dutifully planned out (thankyouverymuch) was coming apart at the seams because my body was going haywire. None of the diagnoses were right. No signs pointed anyone in the right direction. I left every doctor’s appointment in tears, sometimes out of frustration of not knowing what was happening, and sometimes after a painful procedure.
Then something changed.
It wasn’t a pill, it wasn’t the surgery, and it wasn’t the excruciating hours of physical therapy.
I started asking my body what was wrong, and I started to treat the pain like I would have treated a crying child — not trying to silence her or cut her out, but to look instead at what was wrong — almost thanking the pain for telling me, Something is not right. 
For me, this worked in the aftermath of so many doctors not knowing what could be done. For others, including dear friends, there really IS a clear cut medical diagnosis, like endometriosis, and a medical procedure like surgery is CERTAINLY the solution.

But, for all of us, the pain we felt was a signal that something was not right.

I had stopped trusting my body. I felt like she was making things impossible, and my mystery illness made me feel like a stranger in my own home. It wasn’t until I got divorced, a very long but very short year later, that I started to rediscover the power of listening to my body, and thinking of every signal — from pain to pleasure — as wisdom, as guidance, as data. What do you need right now? What are you asking for?
Your body is trying to tell you what she wants. Are you listening? 
In my life, it looked like E A S E. Easing up on a relationship I was trying to force with all my strength because I wantedsobadly for it to be right when we both knew that it wasn’t. Easing up on a life plan that had me finishing a PhD in record time and going on to save the world as a UN high commissioner all while effortlessly raising five kids and singlehandedly ending human rights abuses around the world. Easing away from a worldview in which I was terrified of any moment of decadence, pleasure, or even rest, because it felt like in order to “help” the world I had to be miserable, or at least feel guilty, otherwise, wasn’t I being selfish or lazy?
Basically, I walked around every day with my shoulders up to my ears, my stomach in knots, and every muscle in my body clenched. I was stress personified, with the weight of the world twisting my body into something unrecognizable.
I started to open. 
I started to soften. 
I started to relax the rules that had me sobbing every day, trapped, miserable, and exhausted from months in the emergency room.

I took my time. I took myself out for ice cream. I took naps and baths and glasses of wine. But, more importantly, I took a hard look at the philosophy that I had accidentally imprinted upon myself, one that mixed a bastardized original-sin-esque version of skewed Christianity with the do-gooder impulses of someone who has been blessed with a lot of privilege as well as the longing to serve.

Who feels better because I am miserable?
Oh, I realized, no one.

In fact, when I started to take better care of myself, from the smallest sneaking of chocolate to the most painful decisions that I knew I needed to make, I felt a new wisdom emerge.

Healed people heal people.

And, I can give my best when I’m healthy.

Who benefited from my being so miserable, sad, and sick that I was in the hospital for days? No one! My being sick didn’t help anyone else heal, just like my depriving myself didn’t give anyone in need something they longed for.

Instead, it was when I could start showing up to my life with kindness that I began to create space in which I could do the work I really wanted to do, as a teacher, as a leader, and as a partner.

I tried a new posture: patient and curious toward what my body was telling me and what she was asking for, generous and compassionate with moments of joy and happiness and indulgence in my life, and gratitude for the space to figure it out.

We lead best when we lead with our whole selves, including the healed parts.
 

What are the areas crying out for love, breath, ease, or attention in your life, if there are any? Are you like me, needing a reminder every once in awhile that the world is best served by YOUR JOY, and your pleasure, and your fullness, not your deprivation or misery.

We lead, give, love, and teach best when our cup (and bubble bath) is full.
If this resonates with you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
And if you feel ready to listen more deeply to your dreams & desires, there are still spaces available at Beauty Camp: A Day of Creating Yourself (and the price goes up tomorrow.)

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