Improvisation means coming to the situation without rigid expectations or preconceptions. The key to improvisation is motion — you keep going forward, fearful or not, living from moment to moment. That’s how life is.
– Bobby McFerrin

This time last year, on the heels of a severe hiking accident, I lay awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. It was January 15th, we had just moved to our new property in Tesuque, a gracious yet neglected 11-acre horse farm left uninhabited for eight years.

It was a gamble. There were burst pipes to fix, over 5200 square feet of roof to re-surface, five-and-a-half acres of fence to mend, and 50 dead trees to fell and cart away. And that was just the beginning. Every day revealed another urgent and necessary repair. Our savings were pouring out the accounts as fast as the water was pouring into our house through yet another crack in the wall.

The hiking accident had left me emotionally fragile, unable to drive for a time, and scared. I could no longer rely on my sheer willpower to get things done, nor my ability to multi-task from dawn to midnight to ensure success at anything.

I tossed the blankets off my body, and pressed my hands to my forehead in a state of panic. Tomorrow I had a car payment to make, but there was hay to buy, and only four cans of tuna fish in the pantry, and our funds were not covering the total. I quickly calculated which of the three was a priority — keeping the car, feeding the horses, or feeding us. I chose the horses.

Dear God, I thought. What have we done?

What had we done? We had leapt together, a relatively new couple, into our calling. ‘Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear,’ writes Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak. ‘Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.’ Well, Scott and I were listening, and we were stepping together into a calling not willfully manufactured, but vulnerably received.

The next day I did what any sane person would do, I got up and kept going. The 280 bales of lush green certified-organic hay arrived via a semi-truck-trailer, a veritable vision of abundance contrasted against the brown dusty construction site that was our home. Its arrival mocked my internal state of envisioning Scott and I as bedraggled bag-lady and bag-man, with our starving dog Molly in tow.

I wrote the check, feigning confidence with academy award-winning theatrics. ‘See you in three months,’ I shrilled, just a little too optimistically, as I waved our hay guy down the driveway.

Later that day, while walking through our paddocks, we received a call from a friend. They wanted to express to us how much they believed in EQUUS. They had a horse to give us, a perfect equine facilitator. His bloodlines were impressive. His training, impeccable. He’s all ours without condition. Could we pick him up next week?

Without pausing, we said, ‘Yes.’

We hung up from the call and looked at each other, incredulous. I’ll never forget Scott’s words. ‘Well,’ he said squinting Clint Eastwood-like into the distance, ‘we are either geniuses or we are dumber than a bag of hair.’ I was imagining what we both looked like as two burlap bags of filled with hair, tied off with a string. He smiled. It was his smile that kept me going.

After that day, something extraordinary happened. The phone started ringing. We started getting large bookings, and a lot of them.  Opportunities began opening themselves to us. Miracles were happening. That one yes, spoken squarely into the headwinds of impossibility and terror, opened a powerful door to infinite possibility.

Fast forward to a year later, and EQUUS is a thriving and robust organization. And the life that we feared might shatter us as a couple, has made us stronger. Over those months, there have been many yes’s in the face of fear. And I credit a large portion of our success to those yes’s—those improvised responses to the present moment, sensing into the emergent future, in co-creation with life.

It’s like being on a trapeze, legs hooked over the bar, and sensing the hands of another are out there somewhere in the arc of your swing. So you reach in their direction, and let go into the infinite with total faith those hands will catch you mid-flight. And they do.

‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail!’ my father used to say to me during my middle school years, in that omniscient chest-puffed father-knows-best kind of tone. He prepared for everything. From how many cracker crumbs I was allowed to drop on the car seat, to how loud my brother and I could speak, to the fact that we could not ‘afford’ my $6 piano lessons (but we could afford his Cessna 172).

In some ways he was right. Preparation gave me an edge for final exams. And it’s always wise to know what to pack for an overseas trip, or to prepare for a keynote. The trapeze artist prepares through body building, strength training, and cultivating acrobatic mastery. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the moment you let go of your swing and fly through the air. Nothing prepares you to say yes when all of your conditioning would have you say no.

‘Start with a yes and see where that takes you,’ says Tina Fey in her rules of improv. This is an altogether different approach than the ‘let me make sure I have my ducks in a row, and my retirement in the bank, and my family agrees, before I really live my life’ version of living. The overly planned life throws us in the purgatory of ‘the divided life’ as Parker Palmer describes it. ‘…afraid that our inner darkness will be exposed, we hide our true identities and become separated from our own souls,’ he writes, ‘The divided life comes in many and varied forms. It is the life we lead when [for example] we:

  • make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it;
  • remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit;
  • conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked.

Where preparation and planning leave off, improvisation begins. And that is the art of living. And that is what it takes to follow your calling. ‘What improv does for an actor is help him find the life; it’s the life that an actor’s after,’ said actor Giovanni Ribisi of the art form.

When we dance with life, as our partner, we find the realness. We tap into something larger than our idea of things. And we leverage a force vastly greater than our own will. Circumstances that would take years to create with our own hands, happen almost miraculously within days.

Some might say we were reckless. I can tell you the feeling tone was anything but that. At the precise moment of any yes, it felt present, grounded, quiet, curious and, well, mysterious. What felt reckless was ignoring the fact that life was actively engaging with us in the manifestation of our calling.

Sometimes, in fits of doubt, we would contract and pull in. We would tighten the old belt. And what happened in response? Our world got smaller. The phone rang less. Things got harder. After a while of this pattern, it was staying small that felt reckless. It felt like spitting right into the face of Destiny herself and saying, no thanks you stupid jerk, I’d rather have my tiny safe compliant subdued fear-based life.

If I’ve learned anything this year, I’ve learned that unequivocally life co-creates with us. It doesn’t matter to life what we co-create…it can assist us to live small, or live true. When you contract and pull in, life pulls in with you, when you expand and lean out, life expands with you…and when you move forward in the face of utter and complete failure, fueled by your belief and trust, life gives back big time.

Is there failure in saying yes? Of course. But it’s failure forward. And it leads to the next moment, now more informed, now wiser, which leads to the next yes, until at some point there is a sublime conspiring of events. And when you look back you see your entire life has been leading you to this. This calling. This journey. This manifestation of the reason you took birth.

Right now, in the wake of many global challenges, a dramatic change is on the wind. People are waking up. Like Scott and I, people are listening to their life telling them who they truly are, and how they are truly called. We’ve been preparing our whole lives for this. We can trust we are duly prepared. Now it is time to reach towards the infinite, and fly.

 

This morning I awoke to an email from a colleague. She had just learned that her teenage friend Heidi, a gifted and sensitive horsewoman, was waiting out hurricane Irma in southwestern Florida. Heidi owns two horses, one whom she rescued and rehabilitated, named Mercy. She had wanted to load up the horses in their trailer, pile the family into their truck, and leave Florida ahead of Irma’s wrath. But her father refused to go.

They live six feet above sea level.

So the Heidi spray-painted her name and phone number onto the two horses’ bodies, and wove luggage tags with her information into their mane and tails. Then, with a hug around each neck, she released them galloping into the wild unknown.

In times like these, when missiles are poised hair-trigger at every major city, hate crimes surge to a new high, and mother nature rages against coastlines and floods entire countries, devastating the lives of millions, joy seems an unlikely—perhaps even insensitive—topic.

But I’m not writing about the conventional definition of joy, which implies something one sided, as in happiness or delight. I’m writing about a deeper sense of communion with all of life—from the beautiful to the terrifying—that, should we have the courage to bear, results in a state beyond happiness, or despair. This is what some claim is the real definition of joy.

‘Joy is a measure of our relationship to death and our living with death,’ writes poet David Whyte, ‘[It is] the last breath of a dying parent as they create that rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence. If joy is a deep form of love, it is also the raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence.’

In these days of tumult, there seems no other way forward but to practice the art of that raw engagement of feeling everything. As life becomes more complex, invariably there is more to feel. As our country becomes more polarized, as climate change reveals its evidence, as the inevitable cycle of loss and letting go moves like a reliable tide within our lives, the spectrum from happiness, to grief to rage is ours in which to immerse ourselves.

We might be tempted to numb—to binge on a great TV series, swallow another pill, have another glass of wine, or distract ourselves with work and technology. But we do so at the expense of joy.

In my experience, true joy only comes about when I’m willing to open myself to all of the totality of life…the sublime and the truly terrible…that ‘rare frontier’ that Whyte describes.

The ordained Buddhist nun, teacher and author Pema Chödrön articulates well how to live in these times, and as a result, cultivate joy. Imagine…joy, in the darkest of times!

If something lives, it has life force, she says. Without this we cannot lift our arms or open and shut our eyes. This life force, this energy is what connects us to all of life. We are both moved by it and a part of it. But curiously, human beings have a funny concept that they must resist certain energies, and embrace others. We want to welcome all the ‘good’ energies, and reject the ‘bad’ ones.

Those who spend time with our EQUUS horses learn that as animals of prey, to navigate by ‘only being willing to feel certain energies’ would be fatal for them. They must feel and experience all things in order to discern what is their next right move. And so when people walk amidst our herd, our invitation for them is to ‘feel everything as is’ without preference, or without committing the inner violence of trying to change it.

Often people emerge from this way of being with the horses feeling a sense of real joy. It surprises them to discover that it was in the welcoming of all energies—good and bad—that opened the doorway to joy.

‘You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather,’ writes Chödrön.

This ‘being the sky’ brings on the sublime state of joy. When we recognize ourselves as the sky, then we see that negative emotions don’t touch us. They may feel unpleasant. They may actually physically hurt. But they are merely sensations. They are like different weather patterns, some really fierce and stormy, some cloudy, and others sunny.

Much spiritual and new age thought centers on a concept of mindfulness and centeredness as being absent stormy weather. But to me that is way too conditional for the all-ness that is. Rather, open your whole self to everything that is existence. To me, this is true mindfulness. It is the Openness that contains both openness and closed-ness.

And that Openness is you.

My children had a favorite storybook when they were small. It was titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. They adored this book. So much so that the cover wore off from constant bedtime reading. Page after page, poor Alexander experienced one major downer after another. And things just got worse and worse.

What was it about that book that brought them so much joy? Did they have a sense that maybe their life was not as bad as Alexander’s? Or that maybe Alexander made them feel lucky? Nope. It was precisely because the book gave them permission to say, you know what? Sometimes life just totally sucks big time. Period.

And there was no ‘making it better’ in the story. No happy ending. The end of the book simply offered a simple, even-handed, shrug of equanimity: ‘Some days are just like that.’

This was a great message for my kids who were at the time living in a community rife with spiritualism and new age thinking. Everything was rainbows, bhajans, and positive thinking. And suffering was a meditator’s four-letter word.

In an instinctual move towards sanity, my kids, at the ripe old age of four and six, embraced one of the deepest wisdom teachings of all…Everything Is.

Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being wrote, ‘Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.’

May we together be willing to fall into, and completely feel, that which we are all facing right now. May we be courageous enough to feel with those who have had to set their dreams free into the winds of the unknown, perhaps never to see them again. May we, in that courageousness, be the bearers, and bringers, of joy.

 

I’ve hit another wall, he texted, at 2 a.m.  I didn’t respond. I was sleeping. The next afternoon I finally texted back, Good, you are on the right track.

One of my favorite ways to work is with people who are taking that 12,500 foot leap out of their office cubical and into the abyss of their own passion and calling. Texts like the one I received at 2 a.m. come frequently when people are in that soul-calling free-fall.

Like my big brother did when I was learning to ride a bike, lightly holding back of my seat while I wobbled ahead at what seemed warp speed, I run alongside my clients shouting breathless encouragements. Invariably there is a curb, a bush, a misplaced tree. And in that moment between letting go of the seat and eventual impact, a calm knowing overwhelms me—this is exactly how it needs to go.

Few have shared the complicated terrain of a creative, purposeful life. Partly because a lot of us are introverts, and partly because the terrain is rife with self-doubt, so who are we to announce confidently the road map of creativity? But also, let’s face it, there are few who take that 12,500 foot leap. Most prefer the climate controlled plane ride with free wi-fi and movies at the touch of a screen.

Now don’t think that what I’m implying here is that a creative life means dumping your day job, though it could if that was what your passion demanded (and if that is the case, by God, you’d better listen). I mean that regardless of circumstances, that leap requires letting go of predictability, and falling into a whole new dance with the very essence of life force.

Inspire / Inspiration – the word comes from the Latin root “immediate influence of God or a god,” “with spirit,”  to “infuse animation or influence,” thus “affect, rouse, guide or control,” especially by divine influence. So, my friends, when one surrenders to the creative life, one let’s go to All That Is. And that’s some pretty big stuff you’re waltzing with now – just ask Joan of Ark or Mary Magdalene.

Whether you are night-owling it while writing a book, or waking up at 5:30 a.m. to map out a new idea before the household awakens, or taking on a side-gig teaching children how to meditate in underserved schools, the creative life is that which emerges from the unknown, summons your deepest intrinsic gifts, and calls them out for expression in the world.

Follow your bliss was Joseph Campbell’s famous rebel yell to all those tempted by inspiration. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be,” he said. “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When I first starting reading Campbell in the 80’s, I thought that following my bliss would be, of course, blissful. Ok, so I’m slow on the uptake…it’s follow your bliss. Which is altogether different from being bliss. When one is a follower—that is, a disciple—of their bliss, then one is put through an endless stream of tests, trials and tribulations. Forever. Period.

If you’re going to take that leap, consider this very carefully: you must befriend hopelessness, doubt, despair, darkness, terror, betrayal, emptiness, walls, frustration, disappointment, and setbacks. You must get to know these phenomena intimately. Know their ins and their outs and everything in between.

The creative life could come with a warning label, to scare away all those who are only half-hearted: will cause depression, heart palpitations, insomnia, and the strange and sudden desire to cut off an ear.  But here’s the secret….enter this world whole-heartedly, and the joy and fulfillment completely outweigh it’s challenges.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, ‘I was no stranger to disappointment and frustration. But I remember thinking that learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist [or innovator] of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work.’ She continues wisely,  ‘Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.’

One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Manson, says it more directly on finding one’s life purpose, ‘What’s the flavor of your favorite shit sandwich?’ In other words, what do you love so much that you are willing to eat all the shit that goes with it?

He writes, ‘Because here’s the sticky little truth about life that they don’t tell you at high school pep rallies: everything sucks, some of the time.’ You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to tolerate. So the question is not so much, “What are you passionate about?” The question is, “What are you passionate about enough that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”

‘If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start,’ says Manson. ‘If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eight-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.’

Most of my real work with people is not in the “what are you passionate about” bit, but the, “oh my God I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m a fraud, and I’m going to go broke” bit. This is where things get really sweaty. And where many try to turn around, clamor back up the parachute lanyards and scurry right back into the plane.

Recently a friend of my partner, who is a master coach, a veteran of 30 years, indicated that out of all the people who invest tens of thousands of dollars to get certified as executive coaches, only about fifty percent of them are still coaching within one or two years. My hunch is that no one told them about the shit sandwich.

If you are a creative….wait a minute….let’s reword that. If you are allowing your natural, god-given, available-to-everyone, creative energy to express itself in one form or another…as a coach, a yoga teacher, a CEO, an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, a poet or an actor…then start to warmly acquaint yourself with your own unique personal hell realm.

‘Ah, yes,’ I’ve learned to say when I hit a snag with a particular project I used to be in love with, ‘This is the part where I watch way too much television, and eat lots of sugar.’

‘Oh yeah, here’s that “you are such a fake” week that happens right before a breakthrough.’ And, ‘Yep, about now is when I sabotage everything by spending too much money on unnecessary plastic objects.’ Or, ‘Oh, hello wall-of-hell, where I feel dead, morose and exhausted.’

And my favorite, after the project successfully comes to completion, ‘This is when I beat myself up for not doing it sooner, and imagine that as punishment God is going to deprive me of any kind of creative endeavor for the future, AND I’ll be a bag lady, AND my kids won’t love me.’

I’ve learned to befriend these dark places, and help others befriend theirs. When you see them as part of the process—the necessary contractions that herald a birth—you learn to surf them. My business partner Scott quickly responded to one client after she declared, panic stricken, that she had hit “that wall! That wall that has ruined everything in the past”,

‘Great!’ he said, ‘Once you get through this old familiar one, there will be a brand new shiny one awaiting you!’

Gilbert encourages, ‘Over the years of devotional work, though, I found that if I just stayed with the process and didn’t panic, I could pass safely through each stage of anxiety and on to the next level. I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown.’

So. You out there slumped up against that same ol’ wall, bemoaning your bad luck, and how this is proof that you really are a fraud. Get yourself up and dust off those sweatpants. Pull out the picnic blanket, cast it across that well-worn place right in front of that wall, and smooth out the creases. It’s time to dine on sandwiches, the shit kind, that you just can’t get enough of.