change

The Seed

There is a seed in you, the start of something new. It doesn't matter how much, or how little you've accomplished. It doesn't matter how much success or failure you've tasted. Those things just set the conditions of the soil–the moisture, the fertile nature. Either way the seed is there, and inside is a shoot. It presses against its hard protective, shell. That vessel protected the seed on its journey into the ground of your heart. All those knocks on the fall from above, and hungry birds that wanted its energy.

But now it's time to sprout. It's time to grow. And there is no greater risk than new growth. The sprout changes its environment as it grows. In its search for The Light, the shoot must cast its own shadow, changing the landscape. It's chaotic, competitive, primal, mysterious, and beautiful.

It will scare the shit out of you.

But that seed has been planted in you for a reason. You are the only one that may birth this new idea, new energy, and new work into the world. Your whole life has prepared you for this, your voice must rise into the chorus of the world and contribute to the great symphony cacophony that we call humanity.

And you know it.

It's there when you get out of bed and brush your teeth. It's at the office in long meetings. It's there when you drive from place to place, that seed, pressing against the dirt, shooting down roots and stretching up toward The Light.

Water it. Even though it hurts, water it. Give that little green shoot every thing it needs to grow tall and strong, to cast shadows and capture The Light from Above.

But the forest of your heart will change. And others who walk in your heart may be startled by the change. Perhaps their favorite tree fell as this one grew. Perhaps they preferred a more barren landscape that matched their own. But whatever it is, some people can't come along as you grow. They aren't ready. They may never be.

It doesn't matter. Because although your new thing may help others (or it may be totally unknown), that's not the point. That seed was sent for you and you alone. It's here to mess up your life, it's here to create what has not been created, and it's going to be the most tragic, beautiful thing you've ever seen.

At least, until the next seed falls from above.

Keep growing.

photo credit: P1030571 via photopin (license)

Training The Elephant - The Key to Lasting Change

I've really let myself go. I'm sitting here with the muscles of my arms and core burning because I did ten minutes of exercises designed for senior citizens. I was doing those exercises to treat some severe back pain. The pain came from me going on a walk with my kids and my dogs. That's right, I hurt myself taking a walk, and I'm too out of shape to do simple stretching exercises.

A few years ago, I weighed almost 300 pounds. Unfortunately, I'm not the kind of person who has body image issues, so the way I looked didn't bother me. I have a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and heavier people pull them off better than the thin. But, I felt bad. I was a young father who couldn't keep up with his kids.

I worried about dying too young and leaving them. So, I started running and eating well and lost almost 100 pounds. I even ran a marathon. But I let myself get too busy. I work full time, I'm writing a book, I write this blog, I do two podcasts, make liturgies, and travel a lot  because people ask me to come speak at events. Trying to do it all left me tired and overwhelmed. There are only so many hours in the day, right? I gave up exercise. I don't weight 300 pounds, but my belly is big enough now that it's tough to button the lower buttons on my dress shirts.

Have you ever wondered why change is so damn hard? How does a person have firm conviction to go for a morning workout, also have an equally firm conviction to slap the snooze button a few hours later? How can we want to be thin, and to have pizza for lunch?

And what of visions of our calling? So many people know that they want to do a new kind of work, but never find the time to hone that new craft–and yet the time is there to watch the flat, false world on television.

Our brains, the complex and messy miracles in our skulls, are to blame. We believe ourselves to be a unified consciousness that makes decisions and takes actions–when in fact our minds are an endless tug-of-war between thousands of conflicting neurological loops and impulses.

Our conscious mind primarily lives in a thin layer of brain matter behind our foreheads, fed information and insight by a vast machine father back in the skull. Jonathan Haidt offers a useful analogy in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

Your brain is like this.

Your brain is like this.

Your conscious mind is a rider, while your unconscious mind is an elephant. No rider could direct an untrained elephant–humans aren't strong enough to force an elephant to do anything. Elephants are powerful, and intelligent in their own way. They are creatures of habit, who prefer to walk the same paths.

The rider may see a promising new path, or far off destination, but the elephant only sees the path it takes every day. Trying to use willpower to achieve resolutions is like trying to force an untrained elephant onto a different path. That's why so many of us fail at change. We tug, shout, and scream, trying to turn toward our goal, but our elephant just walks along the familiar path.

So how do we train the elephant? I've found two techniques work well for me: meditation and cognitive therapy. Both involve thinking intentionally over time as a means to change our thoughts and behaviors.

Meditation

There are many forms of meditation–way too many to list here. At the core of all of them is a time of quiet reflection, mindfulness, and peace. I've always been interested in meditation, but only became serious about the practice after becoming an atheist. I've returned to faith, but the transformative power of meditation made the trip with me.

Many Christians aren't aware that there's a long standing tradition of meditative practice in the Church. Of course, Christian meditation differs from Eastern practice in significant ways, but it's still a central part of our faith.

Science shows meditation to be an excellent tool to reduce stress and increase focus. It's also been shown to help people achieve their goals.

If you've never tried meditation, I recommend starting simple. Try to find two 15 minute windows in your day where you can be still and quiet and take these steps.

  1. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb.
  2. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Focus on your breath. Don't control your breathing, just put your attention on it. When your attention drifts to other thoughts or sensations, gently return it to your breath.
  5. When your attention rests easily on your breath try one of these:
    1. Focus on God's love. Think about how God cares for you and wants the best for you. This obviously works best if you believe in God. If not, think about how fortunate you are to exist amidst such a vast Universe.
    2. Focus on your goal. Pick some scene that excites you related to that goal. For example, if you're goal is to run a marathon, picture yourself running toward the finish line, and someone lowering a medal over your head. Picture your friends and family cheering for you. Whatever you imagine, picture in vividly.
    3. Focus on your preparation. Mentally rehearse and imagine the things you need to accomplish to achieve your goal. It may be  preparing and eating healthy meals, or reading your Bible every day. It doesn't matter, just take the time vividly imagine taking those steps.
  6. When the timer goes off, return your attention to your breathing, and then slowly return your attention to the outer world and open your eyes.

You'll probably be amazed how effective this is in helping you train the elephant. Over time, you'll find it easier to act out the behaviors you've visualized in meditation.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

I went through a dark period as a teenager–bad enough that I was suicidal. A noxious combination of childhood bullying and hormones left me with powerful, unresolved anger and depression. My parents sent me to a therapist and I was mortified by the prospect.

The kind, older man I met was not the distant psychoanalyst I expected. We talked, and he gave me a yellow book about Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). He described it as a method of using our thoughts to modify our feelings. As a computer engineer, I have a better description for CBT: hacking the code of your mind.

I'm serious. My friend Bradley is a life coach, and he often remarks how quickly I can make changes in my life after we have a conversation–and that's thanks to CBT. I'm not gifted, or exceptional. I've just been practicing for 20 years.

Think of the elephant and the rider. Your feelings are with the elephant. Their primarily chemical reactions that originate in the lower parts of the brain, and they are a fast way of thinking given to you by Evolution.

When you are startled, all sorts of neurotransmitters and hormones get pumped into your blood and brain matter. It doesn't matter if you were startled by a shadow (false alarm), or a bear (genuine danger). Your hair is going to stand on end, and your cheeks are going to flush. Long after your conscious brain realized everything is fine, your automatic nervous system still ramps up the fight-or-flight response.

Anger is like that too. So is sadness. Once the chemical components of those feelings are released, it takes time for them to be processed. Plus, if the stimulus that caused them in the first place continues, your brain will dutifully keep making those chemicals.

You'll be mad, scared, or sad for a long time.

It doesn't have to be that way. Humans have a remarkable gift. Thanks to the conscious mind (the rider) we have a singular capacity in the animal kingdom: we can train ourselves. That's what Cognitive Behavior Therapy is all about. It's an awareness of this duality between conscious and automatic thought, and a methodology to use the former to shape the later. Here's how it works.

First, you learn to observe your thoughts (meditation really helps with this). You've always got an inner monologue, so step back and listen to it. You'll be amazed how it continues without conscious intervention. Just listen.

Next, analyze your feelings as well. How are you feeling? How do your thoughts relate to those feelings? I often find that when I'm sad, my thoughts dwell on unfortunate circumstances or personal shortcomings that frustrate me. My feelings encourage those thoughts, and those thoughts deepen the feelings. It's a bad cycle. CBT makes you aware of the feelings, but you don't try to force your way out of them. Instead, you focus on the thoughts.

Remember that weight that I'm trying to lose? Well, thanks to all the events I speak at, I get a lot of pictures and videos taken of me. When I see some of those pictures, I'm shocked and revolted at my appearance. Now, step into my head for a second. Where did that giant belly come from? How can anyone take me seriously? That much weight is really unhealthy. Am I going to have a heart attack and abandon my family years to early?

What kinds of feelings do you think follow those thoughts?

Shame. Stress. Worry. Fear. My limbic system lights up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are released into my bloodstream. Not good.

Let's see how CBT can help. Step back into my head as I interrupt the inner monologue that I've been observing: I can lose weight–I've done it before. I'm not hideous, and people like me and respect me. I can take actions to become healthier, and to live a healthy life. What can I do right now that would help?

And then I take action: a walk around the building, or some stretching exercises. I do some easy action that can foster a sense of accomplishment.

That's it. Every time you become aware of negative or self-destructive thoughts, you consciously interrupt that cycle and shift the direction of your thoughts. Here's the amazing thing: in time the elephant follows and your feelings and actions change.

You may have to do this hundreds or thousands of times. Often a therapist who's familiar with CBT can help devise straggles just for you and your situation–but it works. It's the most powerful means I know to train the elephant of your unconscious mind.

When you mess up

You will fail. It doesn't matter how much you meditate, or how well you master CBT. One of the most important ingredients in life change is coping with the times where you miss the mark you've drawn for yourself.

I find it works well to stop and imagine that one of my best friends has failed in the same way toward the same goal. What would I say to them? What tone would I use? We tend to be very encouraging and accepting of our friends, and that gives them the confidence to change and grow. Part of a good meditative practice and part of a successful CBT strategy is learning to treat yourself with the same grace.

People are ruthless with themselves. I know I sometimes call myself things I would never direct at someone else: idiot, fool, slug. Those thoughts don't challenge us, they break us down.

Build yourself up the way you build your friends up, and you may find that you can achieve your goals and resolutions.

photo credit: Agvaniya via photopin cc

Broken Resolutions

Sometimes I feel like a teenager. I don’t refer to the manic energy of high school, but instead to the pregnant pause of the summer that follows Senior Year. That’s a time when the home of childhood becomes burdensome and tight, when it chafes at the new adult-sized form of a once-child. In that era, every word from a parent is an abrasion, and the protective walls are a prison.

The new thing calls. Soft at first, but more loud each day.

There is a problem. A teenager lives off the means of people who’ve invested decades in work. Their home, however modest, is lavish compared to what youth may acquire on its own. The world outside is both inviting and forbidding. But Nature has a plan.

Discontent will grow until it is stronger than the assurance of familiarity. A tipping point is reached. And then, a chick now fully feathered, takes flight and soars to places unknown.

Because of the tipping point.


It is a New Year, that season when so many have eyes for a new life. This is the time when our dreams come near, when smaller pants, a cleaner home, and the work we dream of seem close enough to touch. We start the first week of a New Year full of enthusiasm, and the free time of our Holiday makes the troubles of the last year seem far away.

A week into the year everything starts to shift. The job we use to pay the bills demands our attention. The first bills of the New Year are due. Our resolutions start to seem impossible–a full 25% of those who made a decision to change abandon those dreams now.

A week into the New Year can threaten our dreams and a fiery frustration buds, with a putrid flower of disillusionment to follow–but only if we let go of our dreams.

Lean into that frustration. Put your arms around it and pull it close. Focus on those parts of your life that feel Old and Tight. Study them, and know their every shape and shade. The disappoints of today are your fuel and your fire, they are the voice the calls you to do the hard work of dying today so the new thing in you can be born.


The gap between where we stand and where we long to be creates energy, but the pace of progress can sap our reserves. This is worse in moments of relapse, when we find ourselves slipping down the slope.

The donut. The missed workout. The intimidating pile in the garage. Or, the exhaustion of a long day that keeps us from picking up the paintbrush.

Failure. Anyone working toward meaningful change will taste it often. When that happens, the frustration we feel turns inward, and suffocates. Self-loathing and a toxic sludge of shame can follow.

If frustration is the fuel for the engine of change, then grace is coolant that keeps the thing from exploding. When we fail on the path to New, extending grace to ourselves is vital. It is only with grace that we can stand back up and keep walking, smiling and laughing at how we fell.

May your new year be full of frustration and grace as you stretch your wings and learn to soar.

Guest Post: The Virtue of Changing Your Mind

Today's post is by Rob Carmack, who's stuff you should totally be reading. -Mike


I used to hate the Beach Boys.

“Hate” may be too strong a word, but it’s pretty close. I thought their music was cheesy and simplistic. Perhaps it’s because I thought all of the songs sounded the same, or perhaps it was because of their association with the sitcom Full House.

Regardless of how my dislike began, I held onto it for most of my life. I was a person who did not like the Beach Boys. This was my reality.

But then about six months ago, I read in Rolling Stone Magazine that lots of music critics think the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds is one of the greatest records of all time. I thought that was bonkers. How could the Beach Boys have possibly produced one of the all-time greatest rock albums?

Regardless of my prejudice, I went to Spotify and listened to Pet Sounds. The next day, I went back and listened again. Then I started listening to other Beach Boys albums. It took less than a week for me to change my perspective completely: all of a sudden, I liked the Beach Boys (I do like them, Sam-I-Am!).

I’m not saying that I had been completely wrong. There are still some Beach Boys songs that I hate (I’m looking at you, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”), but there are also some songs that I really love (my personal favorite is “Sail On, Sailor”).

What happened with me and the Beach Boys is a phenomenon most human beings experience at various points in their lives: I changed my mind.

Changing your mind can be a scary thing. It’s one thing to appreciate a new kind of music or discover that you like seafood, but it’s a whole other thing to change your mind about how God and life and reality actually seem to work.

Throughout my life, there have been moments when I changed my mind, and each time it significantly altered the way I viewed the world.

I grew up in a world where changing your mind was seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction. People were admired for digging in their heels and gripping onto their opinions with white-knuckle determination.

However, I have learned that when a person changes his or her mind, that is not an act of weakness. In fact, it takes an enormous amount of strength and courage to say to yourself and to other people, “I know I’ve always thought this way, but I think I may have been wrong.”

Over the past ten years or so, I have changed my mind about issues within theology, politics, and relationships. Almost every shift in thinking involved some level of pain or fear. To change your mind is to die a little—to become a different kind of person, even in small increments. However, it is also an opportunity for resurrection—to become a better, healthier, open-minded person.

This is what growth really is.

Lots of people have the idea that growth is the act of learning more about what you already think and believe. But I don’t think that’s true.

Real growth happens when we learn that we don’t know everything, and some of the things that we think and believe are simply incorrect or misguided.

Growth happens when we learn to look at the world in new and different ways—when we learn to see through the eyes of people who are unlike us and think in ways we have never thought before. This means that we must embrace opportunities to change our minds.

If you have been asking new questions or wondering if the way you have always thought about the world might contain a flaw or two, I hope you will set yourself free and invite those new questions. Perhaps you are on the brink of a major moment of growth.

Perhaps you are becoming who you were always meant to be.

(*Footnote: This entire post was written while I listened to the Beach Boys)

What do you think? When was the last time you changed your mind about something important? How did it feel?