Using It All

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I am reminded again these past few weeks how our ego is liable to take even our most cherished dreams and turn them into one of the tools in its multifarious toolbox of trickery and illusion; how with sleight of hand almost imperceivable it can use even the things which are in alignment with our goals and the highest vision of ourselves imaginable to keep us in separation from our essential nature as love, peace, calmness and tranquility if we forget our vigilance, neglect to keep the beady eye of a hawk on its machinations for even a second.

I think it’s fair to say that over the last couple of years I’ve become more adroit at spotting what it’s up to, my eyes wider open to its games than in the past, and yet… my ego has had some great fun playing its games with me this fall.

Fun for my ego maybe; but not for me!

To begin, well, at the beginning…

I’m not sure how many of you know, but as well as writing and teaching English I like to fill my time with pottery. Making pottery started off as a hobby and a way for me to explore the creative side of myself, but somewhere along the way I decided I was going to get good – good enough to show and sell my work. Having decided this I began to nurture the dream of someday sharing my pottery at a popular event held in the area where I live called “Azumino Style.” When I first determined that this was the standard I was aiming for it was a seemingly unreachable goal – it took me so long to master the art of the wheel that my teacher advised me somewhere along the way that maybe pottery wasn’t the thing for me. But I have always been persistent, so persevere I did – through successes and failures and more than a handful of tears – and finally, just two years ago, my dream became reality when a local potter whose work I had long admired became a friend and offered me the chance to share her gallery space during the event. I could hardly believe the ease with which this milestone event was unfolding in my life and set about making pots for the event several months in advance – on fire with enthusiasm at this chance to take part and to show my work publicly, overjoyed that my dream was coming true at last.

The feeling of joy and euphoria, however, didn’t last for long.

I (mistakenly, grievously…) decided that I “had to” make X number of pots for the event, fulfill this arbitrary quota that only I had stipulated – 100 pots to be precise. Although this would be no more than a day’s or, at most, a week’s work for a professional potter, for me – still relatively slow and potting around my day job – in time it became a burden that felt heavy for me to bear and took on the nature of a straitjacket; ironically one that I had forced on myself. Before I knew it some of the joy of creation was lost to what felt like a churning out of pots as I worked harder and harder to try and keep up with my self-imposed goal.

I was being brought face to face with the potential our ego has to take our dreams and overlay them with ambition, stipulations, shoulds and have tos and all the other vast and varied tricks of its trade; taking something that was once beautiful and unadulterated and distorting it behind the mask of Ego, twisting it until it becomes unrecognisable in nature, something antithetical to what it was at its conception; in my case what my dream was fast becoming was a relentless and demanding slave driver.

The Azumino Style event is held once a year, and lasts for four or five days. In order to fulfill my (self-imposed) quota the entire pottery making season – from April to November, the months when it is warm enough to make pots without them freezing and cracking as they dry – became taken up with this race to make enough.

The first year I took part in the event I (unintentionally) discovered that the better I become at something the more pressure to perform well – in terms of both quantity and quality- I’m liable to put on myself and how, in turning my attention from process to ‘product’ and ‘productivity’ in this way, I inadvertently diminish my joy.

It was no longer enough for me just to enjoy making pots; they now had to be good enough to sell – while at first I took great pleasure in the fact that I was at last able to make pots worthy of sale and the exploration of forms and designs that this inspired, over time my joy not only morphed into a race to the finish line but also became tainted by fear – the fear that my “creative flair” would wane; leaving me bereft of inspiration, no longer able to yield what I (or others) would see as “worthy” work.

Almost overnight this activity that I had loved so much, poured so much of myself was losing some of its spontaneity and fun as my ego continued to tighten the bindings of the straitjacket and its hold over me. I could see it happening, was even aware of why… but not aware enough to know that I was the one making the choice to interact with my experience in this way.

The second year I took part in the event I was reading Eckhart Tolle and other masters for the first time. It was a period of deep upheaval, change and awakening in my life. For the first time I came across the idea that we have a choice about which thoughts we allow to take residence in our minds, that each and every one of our thoughts is either our friend or our foe.

I cannot begin to explain how revelatory this was.

For most of us our thoughts are far more often our foes than our friends – at their worst bullying and self-critical, telling us everything wrong about ourselves and all the reasons why we can’t do the things we dream of; all the reasons we’re not worthy or deserving; all the reasons we aren’t enough.

I had my fair share of these kinds of thoughts as well; but over time I started to see how even a seemingly benign thought process – like putting the expectation of making one hundred pots on myself – was far more akin to “foe” than “friend.”

This might not always be the case – I can see that in some circumstances having a clear and quantifiable goal could serve to galvanize one into inspired action; but in my case it was making me feel guilty when I took an afternoon off or failed to meet my (self-imposed) quotas of pots for the week; turning what should have been fun, a celebration of my creativity and how far I had come, into something of a dead weight around my neck; generating an inordinate amount of stress and tension.

No, definitely not a “friend.”

If all of our thoughts can be neatly divided into “friends” and “foes” it follows that until we take steps to make them our friends instead of our foes we are unwittingly pitting ourselves against them; putting ourselves at the mercy of our minds as we allow (albeit as a result of our unknowingness that there is another way) our feelings, moods and behaviour to be dictated by our habitual – and more often than not unsupportive – thought patterns.

As I started to apply the wisdom of the masters I was reading and listening to to my own life it became apparent that I was my own greatest tormentor – it was my own thoughts creating my suffering. Needing no slave driver, I was doing a great job of cracking my own whip, telling myself I needed to do more; do better; be faster…; all the time making where I was right now never enough.

There is a world of suffering in that phrase “not (…) enough.” And yet it is a phrase that we repeat to ourselves over and over, unconsciously making it the lynchpin of our internal dialogue – a dialogue that is all the more injurious because it is so much a part of us that we fail to notice it’s even there. And after years and years of berating myself and making myself never enough I finally got it: the sense of tension, pressure and stress I was feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with anything outside of myself – far from it, my suffering and hardship arose as a direct result of my internal dialogue.

Well, hallelujah! – for this put the onus clearly back on me. Now that I had recognised and accepted that it was my thoughts about my situation that were creating the stress I was feeling, not the actual situation itself, the question became what was I going to do about it?

Once again the answer came from the wisdom of the masters.

That we have the power to put ourselves back in the driving seat and end this dominion of our thoughts; that, as our thoughts create our perception of reality, that means that we ultimately have the power to change our reality, is one of the single most empowering things I had/have ever heard.

I find it hard to put into words how mind-blowing, how life-changing, how deal-breaking this simple truth is; how mind-blowing and life-changing the application of it in my life has been. Our lives are not completely governed by forces beyond our control. The power to change our reality does not lie outside of us. It is within. And it is therefore accessible. To each and every one of us, any time we choose.

And there is the very slight rub; we have to make that choice. It is only in doing so that we can give the power back to ourselves.

For once we are armed with the knowledge that there is another way, opting to be passive and not do anything to change our circumstances or our way of perceiving them is also a choice – a choice in the direction of more of the same.

The only way we are going to be able to experience something different in our lives is by choosing to perceive and/or do something differently.

So taking hold of the helm I decided to change the habits of a lifetime – one of mine being to work hard, and then harder, and then harder still to meet whatever benchmark it is I’m currently aiming for. Sacrificing just about everything else, including my own health and well-being, in the process.

I’ve done this for most of my life – I think it’s part of what being a perfectionist is all about; and it comes about as a result of one of the most common ego traps of all – my (until recently) unquestioned practice of locating my value and worth in my success and my accomplishments, rather than recognising the intrinsic value I have as a person. With or without my list of achievements.

As action springs from thought it’s impossible to change our behaviour without first changing the thought that produces the behaviour. It was the thought seed “I have to do … (fill in the blank) well in order to be accepted, to be loved – to be worthy of acceptance and love” – that was driving me to crack the whip so harshly, ravaging my enjoyment of my pottery in the process.

I want to make it clear at this point that I’m not saying that my ability to work hard in my endeavour to excel at something is a fault in and of itself. Thus far it has served me exceptionally well. This capacity to push on through discomfort and keep my eye on my goal is part of the reason I was successful in my studies at school; able to reach a certain degree of fluency in spoken Japanese; and finally finally able to attain a level of craftsmanship on the wheel. I’m sure it’s served me in other ways too countless to tell, many of which I’m not even aware of.

But that this way of being has served me well enough so far does not mean that there isn’t an even better way of being – one that will allow me to be successful in my endeavours and do it in a way that is more self-nurturing; one that allows me to take care of myself at the same time as taking care of the things I’m bringing forth into the world.

And that is the direction in which I’m steering, navigating a new path as I go. Setting my course by my observations of the way my thoughts and behaviours make me feel. Making my thoughts – and therefore the behaviours that spring from them – more my friends, and less my foes.

I like the simplicity of this navigation process – if it makes me feel happy, enthusiastic, positive, uplifted, inspired and joyful and awakens a sense of peace and well-being then it’s “on course.”

If it makes me feel tense, stressed, negative, under pressure, harried, tired, worn out, exhausted, disconnected from my self and the peace that lies at my center, then it’s not and I know I need to stop and re-examine the “coordinates” – the thoughts I’m choosing to have; the things I’m choosing to do; and how the combination of these is making me feel. Then, based on my observations, plot another course – one more conducive to my well-being.

And “all” I have to do to be successful in this way of navigating through my life is to step outside of myself long enough to observe my feelings, examining whether they’re “on course” or not.

I put the “all” in inverted commas because, as everyone who has ever tried it knows, this is far from an easy thing to do; especially when you get caught up in a downward spiral of stress or negativity that sucks you in, obliterating any distance you might have put in place.

Mindfulness has been my mainstay; when I remember to be mindful I can detach from my emotions enough to be able to watch myself like a third person observer and spot the tell-tale signs that I’m “off course” – the feeling of pressure, that there isn’t enough time; the build up of tension in my shoulders; the loss of spontaneity, joy and pleasure in process to a sense of obligation.

I don’t usually spot it in the moment. But, unlike our egos, our bodies and emotions are always our friends even when they seem to be working against us; they will keep telling us – through our pain, our distress, our discomfort – that something is wrong, something is “off course” in our lives – over and over and over until they manage to hammer it through our hard heads; until, at last, we sit up and take heed.

Once the emotional or physical discomfort has got my attention and I’m able to somewhat detach from it and step outside the situation I examine why it’s there; what has caused it to come up for me at this time.

Inevitably it’s because I’m getting caught up in the story my ego is telling me – swallowing the line that I have to do more and do better in order to be “okay.” (Read “worthy of love and acceptance).”

“Using it all” (as one of my mentors puts it) in this way has become a great strategy that helps me return to my center and steer myself back on course; the negative feelings and emotions and the tension in my body that come up when I’m out of alignment with my greatest and highest good act as signposts, showing me that I’m off course. Once I’ve attained sufficient mindfulness and presence to be aware of them I can take the necessary action to recalibrate my route, putting myself back on course again.

And it all begins with a single thought!

It works something like this…

I start to feel the pressure of all the pots I think I should be making but am not accomplishing. My shoulders hunch and I walk through my day with a clenched jaw, stooped back, tight shoulders and a head full of all the things that “need” to be done. I may still notice the beauty that’s around me as I move through my day but don’t really take the time to fully absorb it, encased in my self-made microcosm of quotas and deadlines.

At some point the saving grace of awareness crosses my path and I observe that I am mired in musts, have tos, tension and heaviness yet again: it is at this juncture that I have a choice.

Am I going to continue to think the same thoughts, perpetuating the stress, tension and dead weight that I’m feeling? Or am I going to choose a different thought – one that is more supportive of my well-being, makes me feel lighter, more joy-full, more centered, more alive?

Without the guiding light of awareness we automatically do the thing we know best and, on a kind of auto-pilot, think more of the same. We are not even responding to the situation; simply caught up in its mindless perpetuation, lost in an eddy far out at sea.

It is mindfulness that gives us awareness and awareness that gives us the choice. And if you knew you had a choice, who wouldn’t take the second option – to choose a different thought – every time?

Mindfulness is the life buoy that enables me to pull myself back out of the depths, consciously introducing a new monologue into my head – one that builds me up, supports and sustains me; overwriting the prescribed thought-seeds in my head; introducing a new and lighter way of being.

The new discourse I introduce into my head is like a dispatch from my higher self to me; helping me to see myself from the perspective of the Universe, not from the perspective of Ego.

In the case of my pottery, it might remind me that it’s not and never has been about the results, that it’s only my ego that places my valuation of myself in how much I manage to produce or achieve.

Enlightenment is said to be like a re-membering of who we are; well, this voice of my higher self encourages me to to remember the intrinsic worth and value in who I am – that I was already enough before I even breathed my first breath, and that nothing I do or don’t do can change that fundamental worth and value that are mine by sheer dint of being born.

It prompts me to remember that I’m not here to build up a list of achievements, but to enjoy – the world; the gift of life; the ever more joyful, ever more expansive, unfolding of my being.

And it reassures me that everything in my life’s path, including my art, is naturally unfolding in the most perfect way – the way that serves my greatest and highest good and my soul’s greatest and highest evolution.

And if that’s the case, what my ego has to say really doesn’t matter.

Holding onto this new script to anchor me I surrender to the greater and higher wisdom of the universal consciousness and my higher self – letting the stories of my ego fall by the wayside, empty husks that no longer have the power to control me.

Or at least not as much as before.

And, as action springs forth from thought, as my new internal dialogue started to permeate my consciousness, building new neural pathways in my brain, so my behaviour – engaged in its unceasing game of follow the leader – also began to transform.

I started to observe myself from the watchtower of my mind, taking note of my thoughts and feelings, and gave myself permission to only do pottery when I felt the creative spark fire within me, drawn to my makeshift studio by a force larger than myself.

I shifted my focus from output back to process – honing in on the feeling of peace the act of creation instilled and enjoying the creative exploration and expression of myself through art – rather than thinking about how my work would be received by others.

I no longer gave my ego the upper hand, refusing to believe in its stories of perceived lack and berate myself for what I hadn’t managed to do, and instead trusted that wherever I was at in both my art and my life was not only enough, but the most perfect place imaginable for me right now.

I realise now that during this time, (and all the countless other times since that I’ve “drifted” only to find my way back “on course”) that I’ve been making the shift from ego to Spirit. From ambition, unreasonable demands placed on self, comparisons in which I’ll always come up lacking, self-judgement, fear and a constant need to be better – all hallmarks of a consciousness in the straitjacket of Ego; to love of self – demonstrated in choices that nurture me and my well-being, self-acceptance – approval of myself where I’m at, recognition of my inherent worth, prioritising joy over results, and trust – in both myself and in something greater than myself; trust that everything is working out for my greatest and highest good and that the Universe is a guiding force leading me in the direction I am here to go.

As the above hints at, this shift from Ego to Spirit is not something that happens all at once; but is a conscious shift that I have had to make – still have to make – over and over again.

This year marks the third year I have taken part in the Azumino Style event. I have done well this year in reclaiming the sacredness of my art; in choosing to engage with my pottery making in a way that is conducive to my well-being and enables me to experience joy in the act of creation again.

Or should I say I had been doing well…

Until the first week of October that is. The deadline for pots for the final bisque firing was coming up fast and my old nemesis was back like it’d never been gone, telling me that what I’d done wasn’t enough, cracking the old familiar whip again.

I was starting to feel seriously frazzled as I heaped the pressure and stress on my self, unwittingly letting my ego become my slave driver again. The tension was building up in my body and my shoulders had been aching for days – not from spending too much time at the wheel, but from telling myself that I should be spending more, that what I was doing wasn’t enough.

My time-tried habit of focusing entirely on my goal to the exclusion of everything else kicked back in, or tried to, as I kept the whole of the last weekend before the bisque firing free, set aside for making all those things I’d been planning to but hadn’t got round to yet… But my equally ingrained habit – an unfortunate inability to say no as often as I want to – ensured that that didn’t happen. First there was a phone call calling me away from home to an impromptu meeting with the other people sharing the gallery space, and then an unplanned visit from one of my students. Both of these things, in the mind of my ego, were intrusions eating away at my weekend – my set-aside pottery time – and I couldn’t help but think of all the things I wasn’t getting done. Caught up in an ego-trap of my own making the stress was mounting, tying me up in manacles; turning my weekend into alternate revolutions of shoulds/have tos and self-recriminations; my energy had shifted from thriving to striving and I’d somehow managed to lose the fun in it all again.

And then all of a sudden – in a flash of inspiration brought on by the sight of reeds being buffeted in the wind, blown here and there but standing firm, rooted into the ground, surrendering gracefully to whatever gusts of wind may come their way, their very yieldingness giving them their strength – I saw it all for what it was: just another ego-driven game.

Saw in that moment that it was only my expectations of myself and my resistance to what is that were causing my stress; realised that my ego was having its way with me again.

And in that moment my ego lost its power over me as I stopped believing in my thoughts.

“I’m using it all,” I thought as, with that helpful kick on the rear end from the Universe, I was able to subvert the power of my ego, using its tell-tale signs of stress like a siren alerting me to the fact that something was out of balance in my life; the ego tricks themselves helping me to escape them.

“We’re only ever one new thought away from a completely different experience of being alive,” said Michael Neill.

“You are only one thought away from changing your life,” said Rita Schiano.

I chose to have another thought, to interact with my experience in a different and lighter way.

To make the shift from Ego back to Spirit.

To rewrite the script of my internal dialogue in another way; a way that was more sustaining and joyful for me.

To celebrate all the pots I had made instead of lamenting those I hadn’t; to come back into the moment and enjoy the reeds blowing in the wind instead of listening to the stories my ego was attempting to fill my head up with.

In a moment my mood shifted and my world had changed.

Such power in a single thought.

Such power in a moment.

Such power that only resides within.

Such power that is mine and yours to choose; to keep on choosing, each and every day.