Category Archives: Fear

25 Ways to Loosen Fear’s Grip

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that I’ve written a lot about fear.

Maybe it’s because most of the people I talk to mention fear as one of their biggest challenges. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of not making enough money, or fear of something else, being afraid is one of the main reasons people struggle to change careers.

Or maybe it’s because I personally face fear a lot. And by a lot, I mean all the time. And by all the time, I mean several times a day.

Or maybe it’s because fear is actually an important key to finding your calling, especially if you’re not sure where to look.

The one Evite you might prefer not to get

Stephen Pressfield has a great quote in his book The War of Art that you’ve probably heard me use before (it’s one of my favorites):

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

My own experience backs this up. Every time I’ve gotten clear about the next step towards my calling, I’ve been absolutely terrified, whether it was moving cross country, starting my own business, or sharing words I’d written with the world.

I used to be embarrassed that I felt so afraid, but then I began to notice something pretty amazing: I’m not scared all the time. I don’t feel afraid when I’m staying small, keeping quiet, or hiding inside my comfort zone. I’m only afraid when I try to do something important, grow and expand, or engage more deeply with what I care about most.

If you believe, as I do, that we’re here to learn and develop so that we can share our unique gifts with the world in increasingly powerful ways and have fun while doing it, then fear is a really good friend who points out the best way to do just that.

In other words, fear isn’t a weakness; it’s an invitation to your calling.

Showing the fear who’s boss

Fear, however, is a fickle friend. In addition to showing you what to do, it also gets in the way of actually doing it.

But that’s okay. Because you’re bigger than your fear, and it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can’t kick it out of the car, but you can pry its claw-like fingers off the wheel.

Here are 25 ways to feel the fear and do it anyway:

1. Breathe.

Sometimes fear is really just your body telling you it needs more oxygen. Breathing slowly and deeply into your belly  lets your nervous system know it can relax because all is well.

2. Come back to your body.

Unless there’s an actual threat nearby, fear is a fire stoked by our thoughts. Focusing on your body (say, by feeling your feet on the ground or the breath in your chest) removes the kindling and brings you back to the present moment.

3. Show some compassion.

Self-compassion makes fear a whole lot less overwhelming. The three steps to self-compassion are:

  1. Acknowledge the pain with sympathy and kindness;
  2. Recognize that all humans are imperfect and that in any given moment thousands of other people are feeling the same way you do; and
  3. Observe your negative thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.

4. Give it a name.

Naming the fear and exactly what it is you’re afraid of reduces its intensity and power over you.

5. Get to the root of the fear.

When you see the fear beneath the fear, you often find that what you’re most afraid of is extremely unlikely, not truly harmful, or (more frequently than you might think) downright impossible. Ask yourself what you’re scared of, then what’s bad about that, then what’s bad about that, and what’s bad about that. Keep going until you find the true essence of what you’re afraid of.

6. Don’t believe everything you think.

Fears are based on beliefs, and beliefs are often usually flawed. Byron Katie has a powerful process that can help you discover the truth behind your fears. First you identify your beliefs (for example, if I ______, ______ will happen). Then you ask 4 questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. [If yes] Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

7. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?

Often your worst-case scenario is not actually dangerous or devastating. Regardless, if you can find a way to accept it, fear will have no way to stop you.

8. Determine probabilities.

If your worst-case scenario is truly terrifying, get clear on how likely it is to really happen. Of all the possible outcomes, what’s the probability that this is the one you’ll be stuck with? To make sure you’re being realistic, have an objective third-party check your numbers.

9. Calculate your track record.

While we’re talking numbers, go ahead and calculate how accurate your fears really are. Write down all your worries for one month and then go back and note which ones came true. If we take the time to do this, most of us find that we’re batting somewhere close to zero (apology for the mixed sports metaphors).

10. Become your own mentor.

In The Fear Book, Cheri Huber offers the idea of becoming a mentor to the scared part of you. It’s a brilliant and effective strategy. To use it, just ask yourself anytime you feel scared: what would a wise and loving mentor tell me right now?

11. Turn it over.

Whether it’s God, goddesses, the universe, love, your highest self, or your dog, turning your fears over to something more powerful than you are is incredibly freeing. You don’t even have to believe in anything to get started. Just write your fears down, put them in a box, and say, “I’m turning this over to you, [insert higher power of your choice].” Then let go and see what happens, knowing it’s no longer in your hands. Review the items you’ve put in your box periodically and see how they’ve turned out to find evidence that regardless of how you feel about God, you are supported and cared for.

12. Take tiny baby steps.

Fear feeds on big, overwhelming tasks. To reduce the fear factor, break your goals down into steps. Then break those steps down into smaller steps. Then break those small steps down into even tinier steps until you have a task you can do in 10 minutes. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Afterward, be sure to celebrate your win and plan when you’ll take your next tiny baby step.

13. Make a back-up plan.

If things don’t go as you hope, what will you do? Create a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself during any setbacks and how you’ll continue to move towards what you want, even when things go awry.

14. Share with peers.

There’s something about sharing your fears with others who are going through something similar that inevitably breeds courage. Just be sure you’re sharing with people who are actively embracing and facing their fears, not running away from them.

15. Get feedback.

In his book Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields urges people facing anxiety in the creative process to get feedback from mentors, peers, and potential end-users early on as a way of building confidence and comfort. Asking people you trust to give you feedback on your efforts can be terrifying, but paradoxically, it’s also a powerful antidote to fear.

16. Practice discomfort.

When we fail to take action, we’re not usually avoiding a theoretical bad outcome so much as the immediate discomfort of fear or anxiety. Like someone with bad breath, most of us find fear so unpleasant that we’ll do just about anything to avoid it. To stop avoiding fear, you need to develop your ability to sit with discomfort. To do that, just engage in something that brings up anxiety on purpose every day, then practice sitting with it for slightly longer periods of time. When you’re able to tolerate discomfort, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

17. Slow down.

Kindness is wonderful medicine for fear. If your fear is overwhelming, slow down and maybe even take a break. Do something comforting and familiar, something that makes you feel good about yourself, and then go back and try again.

18. Feel the edges of the fear.

Get curious about how your fear feels in your body. Notice where you feel it, what it feels like, and how it changes over time. After observing it for a little while, start to feel for its edges and begin to notice the places in your body where you don’t feel the fear (your little toe perhaps?). You’ll start to see that fear is actually just a bunch of sensations in your body, that it too has boundaries, and that it’s really nothing to be afraid of.

19. Address the fear’s concerns.

Your fear isn’t the enemy; it just doesn’t want you to become harmed, homeless, or humiliated. You probably don’t either, so let your fear know how you’re going to take care of what’s important to you even while you take a risk; remind it that things like what other people think of you don’t really affect your well-being; and watch as your newly consoled fear steps aside so you can open the gates of change.

20. Imagine a positive outcome.

If you want to loosen fear’s grip, you need to stop playing the worst-case scenario over and over in your head. Since you don’t know what will happen, and good outcomes are at least as likely as bad ones, you might as well choose to obsess about your best-case scenario in vibrant, gory detail.

21. Talk to someone who’s succeeded.

Fear likes facts. When I tell my fear everything will be okay, it demands proof. Finding someone who’s done what I want to do and flourished is pretty strong evidence that success is possible, and learning from their perspective makes it all the more likely. My fear is smart, but it can’t argue with that.

22. Talk to someone who’s failed.

When you do this, your fear is going to want you to use it as an opportunity find all the reasons you’re going to fail too. Resist this urge. Instead, ask this person all kinds of questions about how they recovered from their failure, what they learned, what skills they gained, and what new possibilities it opened up. When we’re afraid of failure, we forget that it actually carries many gifts, and your job is to discover from this person exactly what those are.

23. Find a purpose greater than the fear.

Fear usually stems from our egos’ concerns, like not having enough money or status, or looking bad to others. These aren’t the things that truly make us happy, though. To focus on what matters, define a better purpose for any given venture, one that you can fulfill regardless of where you end up. What might you get out of embarking on this adventure that’s more important than wealth or popularity? What might it allow you to give to others? What would make this effort worthwhile regardless of the outcome?

24. Meditate.

Fear isn’t the problem; believing everything it tells you is. Meditation is a great way to practice noticing your thoughts without buying into their conclusions all the time. It gives you the awareness you need to question your thoughts and the ability to let them go when they aren’t serving you. It also gives you a way to experience fear without being paralyzed by it. An ongoing meditation practice is one of the main reasons I’m able to do things that scare the pee out of me, over and over again.

25. Meditate.

Am I repeating myself? Yes. Is it for a good reason? I think so. In addition to giving us the ability to let go of unhelpful thoughts, meditation also connects us to our serenity, wisdom, and courage. We all have these qualities at our core, but we become unable to access them when fear is yammering in our ears all the time. Getting quiet, even if only for milliseconds at a time, helps us reconnect to the part of ourselves that is always compassionate and unafraid.

26. Bonus Idea: Meditate.

I’m not being lazy here, I swear. It’s really that important.

Over to You

What helps you feel your fear and do things anyway? I’d love to know, and so would everyone else. Please share in the comments below.

Hungry for More?

I recently re-released Passion Quest: 5 Steps to Find Your Calling in a Fear-Based World. It’s an affordable, structured, practical, and easy way to break through your fear, get clear about what kind of work you want to do in the world, and start actually doing it. Click here to find out more.


Photo Credit: Jade Craven // CC

Little One and the Serpent God (Or, Why Being Flawed Is a Good Thing)

Following is the fifteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He could feel his face flushing as he forced himself to put the strange, black fruit down on his plate. He was horrified to realize that he had actually missed what the Serpent God said because he was so focused on the fruit’s unique—and quite delicious—flavor.

“I said, did you have to do anything to make the rainbow lightning machine show you the memory?” The god’s voice boomed throughout the cavernous, sunlit room they were in, but it remained calm.

“Oh,” Little One said, wiping his hands guiltily on his pants. “No. It just kind of came to life on its own once I got near it.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think it was already rumbling a bit by the time I got into the palace.” He picked up his cup and took a sip of the sweet, creamy brown liquid inside. “What is this again?” he asked his father.

“Xocoatl,” the god said. “Also sometimes referred to as food of the gods.”

“I can see why,” Little One said, nearly burning his tongue as he took another gulp.

“And you said you saw me arguing with someone?” the god persisted.

“Yes,” Little One nodded. “I couldn’t see who, but you seemed to be angry at first, then…” His voice drifted off awkwardly as he took a more calculated sip of his drink.

“Then what?” the Serpent God prompted gently. He made a motion with a pitcher for Little One to let him refill his mug.

“Then you seemed kind of frightened and sad.” He swallowed awkwardly but still managed to hold out his mug while his father poured. “You told him that you couldn’t do it anymore, sacrificing yourself in order to keep him happy. You said, ‘You are not who I thought you were. You win. You are free to do what you will.’”

The god’s eyes narrowed as the pitcher dropped back to the table with a loud thump. Little One wondered if he’d said too much. “I only vaguely remember saying that,” his father said. “It’s like my memory has holes in it, and everything else is…blurred.”

Little One moved something that looked like potatoes but tasted much better around on his plate. “That’s why I thought you were kidnapped at first, though I had no idea by whom.”

“So when did we talk?” the Serpent God asked, straightening suddenly and nearly bumping his head on a ceiling so high that Little One could barely see it.

“When I got back,” Little One answered, “after figuring out what had really happened.”

The giant serpent head shook. “No, I mean before you left. It’s blurry, but I remember two visits. One when you helped me to awaken, but one before that too.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I spoke with the memory at first, not realizing it wasn’t you”—he felt his cheeks flush again and quickly took another sip from his mug to hide it—“but the first time we actually conversed was last night, after I returned.”

His father was silent for a moment, his eyes searching his son’s as if probing for the truth. “Yes,” he finally said, “I believe you’re right. And yet I do remember speaking with somebody else, before last night, and getting very angry. It was several days before I could sleep again, and when I did, I slept for two days straight. Perhaps that is when you came to the palace, when I was still inert.”

Little One nodded. “Perhaps,” he agreed. He suddenly thought of the trail he had followed through the halls of the palace, the one he thought had been made by his father’s kidnapper. An idea began to form in his mind, giving him hope.

“So how did you figure out what really happened?” the Serpent God asked.

Little One abandoned whatever thought had been forming in order to answer his father; this was the third time he had asked this same question, after all.

“It was while fighting the Guardian of the Guru,” he said, noticing that his father’s gaze was fixed on something on his face. He hurriedly scrubbed his mouth and chin with his hand and flushed when he realized that the drink had left a foamy mustache on his upper lip. Taking a deep breath, he went on. “I probably should have figured it out right away based on the fact that the Guardian not only looked exactly like me, but fought like me as well.” He went on to tell the god the whole story of their fight.

“But I didn’t really understand,” Little One explained once he’d finished, “until the Guru told me something more. ‘There is no difference between you and me,’ he said. “Just as there is no difference between you and him.’ That’s when I realized: I was very nearly defeated by something that was a part of me. It didn’t want me to hear the Guru’s answer. Though I think the Guru is really part of me as well.” Little One paused, looking at the table in front of him and realizing that it looked as if a tornado had passed through, leaving crumbs everywhere. The cakes—pancakes, his father had called them—had been so delicious he hadn’t been very careful about how he was eating them. He winced. “I realize this sounds crazy, but that’s how I understood that you were also fighting a part of yourself. Because the Guardian wanted me to give up, and that’s what you did in the projection I saw. Somehow it just felt…the same.”

To his surprise, the Serpent God didn’t look at him as if he were losing his mind. Instead, he simply nodded his huge head. “So that’s when you came back to my palace?” he asked.

“Yes,” Little One said. “I figured that if you had been defeated by—if you had surrendered to a part of yourself, it meant you must still be in your palace. I had no idea how I was going to save you, but I hoped it would be clear enough when the time came.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “And I suppose, when the time came, it was.”

His father looked him in the eyes for a long time without saying anything. “I’m impressed,” he finally said, picking up a tray of the black fruits and adding three more to Little One’s plate.

Little One picked up one of the fruits and bit into it. Sweet juice exploded in his mouth and ran down his chin. He wiped it off on the back of his forearm. “Father,” he said. “What is this part of us that wants to defeat us?”

The Serpent God looked thoughtful for a moment. “I believe you know more than you think you do,” he said. “This Guardian of the Guru. Was he familiar at all to you?”

Little One considered the question, then nodded slowly. “Yes, actually. I wasn’t sure, but as I was fighting him, I got the sense that I had…engaged with him before. I think I felt him when the genie was offering me his gifts. He’s the one who wanted me to take them. It was the fear, I think, that convinced me to do it. And I think I have felt his presence other times, mostly when I’ve been afraid.”

The god nodded again. “And what about what you said to me earlier? ‘You have helped me to find my true self,’ you said. What do you know about this true self?”

“It is what told me to stop fighting the Guardian,” Little One answered without hesitating. “And to come back to the palace to find you. It is the courage I found in the Chamber of Doom, the love I feel for my sister, and the strength and freedom I discovered when the Guardian defeated me. It is the antithesis of the fear.”

“That’s exactly right,” the Serpent God said, and Little One felt a wave of warmth crash in his chest. “Except for that last part,” continued his father, as the wave quickly subsided.

“What do you mean?” Little One asked. “It’s not the antithesis of fear?”

“Perhaps it would be most helpful for me to start by telling you the story of how the world began.”

“Sure,” Little One said, smiling. He wasn’t sure if he was more excited to hear the truth about the world or to have time to eat the last two pieces of fruit on his plate.

“Well,” the Serpent God began, “in the beginning, all was one. There were no separate forms or individuals. All was one and all was light. If the light could have been refracted into its various colors, you would have seen courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, freedom, and clarity. But in the beginning, they all made up a single whole without border or boundary.”

The god paused. “Perhaps it could have gone on that way forever,” he continued after a moment. “And perhaps it should have. But the light did not know itself, and it never could so long as nothing else existed to be able to perceive it. Without self knowledge, without movement, the light was not complete, so it created space and time. It then poured itself into diverse forms that would exist separately in the realm it had created.

At first it seemed that all was now in order. But the forms the light created knew what they were and where they had come from. They had no desire to stay disconnected from their source, and so they let their separate forms wither, decline, and die so that they could return to whence they came.

The light was back where it started, and so it began again. This time it gave the forms it made something special; something that would make them want to live and thrive in the world it had built for them. This part of them would not only want to survive, but help them know how. It would identify threats, seek advantages, and concern itself with their material well-being so their forms would not wither and die before they’d had a chance to know themselves.” The Serpent God had been looking off in the distance; now he turned to look his son directly in the eyes. “This gift, Little One, is the Guardian that you fought.”

“Gift?” Little One asked, remembering how the Guardian had nearly slit his throat.

“Yes, a double-edged gift, as all gifts are,” said the god, his eyes distant again, perhaps remembering his own imprisonment. “You see, it turns out that the same thing that gives us the desire and the means to survive also serves to make us forget. For as the inhabitants of space and time began to proliferate, they became so focused on threats and advantages that they failed to see what else was there; they saw only what their eyes perceived and grew blind to what lay underneath. In short, they forgot who they were and where they had come from.”

The Serpent God grunted and shifted around in his chair. “This situation was no better than the first, for without this memory, self knowledge was again impossible. That’s why the light created us.” He turned to meet Little One’s eyes again. “The gods, I mean. We were charged with helping mortal forms to know themselves, their true selves, before they died.”

Little One thought about what his father had said, and his first experience with the god. “So that’s why you built your palace the way you did, so that whoever sought you would have to discover their own light in order to enter?” he asked.

The Serpent God’s eyes suddenly became sad. “In part,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m afraid that isn’t the full story.”

Little One looked up at him, a question he didn’t dare ask in his eyes. The god sighed heavily. “Yes, I will tell you the tale, painful though it is.” He looked away again, staring at something Little One couldn’t see. “You see, we gods fall somewhere between form and formlessness. Being immortal, we don’t need the Guardian in the same way you mortal forms do. But we require it in other ways. We are not pure light, after all, but we must remember where we come from, in order to remind you. It is a painful thing, to be separate, to know what it’s like to be whole, and to know you will not return to the source at the end of your lifetime as you mortal beings do. It takes a strong and stubborn Guardian to keep us willing to engage in the world with its separation and forgetfulness for all eternity.”

He looked at Little One again before continuing. “But all of this is perhaps an excuse. Because the truth is, it was me who allowed my Guardian to get too strong, who believed in its demands for power, prestige, and utter perfection. It has always demanded these things—it is part of its nature—but I always knew them to be shallow, unable to satiate or address the true nature of who and what I was.

And yet at some point I forgot. That is the worst thing a god can do—we are charged with helping others remember, after all. But somehow I forgot who I was, and why I was here, and I began to give the Guardian what it was demanding.”

The giant god sighed again. “Even now I am being vague, trying to avoid the truth of it. I know when it began. It was after one of my daughters, a particularly young one, I recall, knocked upon my door. This was before I built this palace, when I still lived with the other gods.

When I came to the door, she was already furious. ‘How could you?’ she asked, and went on to tell me how her entire family had been killed in fighting between her village and the next. ‘I prayed to you every night,’ she said, ‘asking you for help. I thought you were my father! And yet you did nothing, and now my family is dead.’

I remembered her prayers; they had nearly made me weep, in truth. But we gods have very specific purposes; there is much we cannot do. I tried to explain this to her. I tried to help her see her own light, that she might know she did not need me to weather this storm. But she did not feel it, no matter what I did, and she left my house more angry than she was when she arrived. And so I failed her twice: once in being unable to save her family, and once in letting her leave while still misunderstanding exactly who she was.”

The giant serpent head sank. “I could not forgive myself for my failure. Unable to face any more of my children—no, unable to face the prospect of failing any more of my children—I built this palace and hid it from the world. I created the rainbow lightning machine almost as an afterthought. I told everyone that it was because I was too harried and could not handle the number of petitioners I was receiving. I said the rainbow lightning was to make sure that only the worthy were able to reach me. I think I even believed it at the time. But I know now that I was hiding, unable to admit how terrified I was. The rainbow lightning was not a test; it was a way to ask for help without acknowledging what I was doing.”

“Father,” Little One said. “I am so sorry.”

“I am too,” said the Serpent God, his eyes glistening. “The great irony is that in my fear of failing, I failed more people than I will ever know. For a while my children kept coming to find me, and now and then one of them would make it through. But no matter what I did, it never felt like enough; the Guardian always demanded more. More results. More admiration. More devotion. I grew tired of arguing with it, and equally tired of trying to appease its insatiable appetite. Finally I stopped answering my door, and my children stopped coming. That was the last straw. Exhausted, without visitors, without purpose, I finally gave up. I let the Guardian take control and lost myself completely.” The god exhaled loudly. “Until you came,” he added, offering a sad smile.

Little One was surprised to find that he was angry. “The Guardian would not let you forget your failure. It made you believe you were not enough. It sowed so much fear that you hid yourself in your palace and gave up your purpose, and yet you say that it is not the antithesis of light? How can that be?”

The Serpent God’s smile grew both bigger and sadder. “You would think the Guardian is the enemy, based on my story. I’m almost tempted to believe it myself, because it would mean I could separate myself from my mistakes.” He turned to look at Little One. “But the truth is more complicated than that. The Guardian is not all of who we are. But it is part of us, and an important part at that.”

“Yes,” Little One said sourly. “I understand that it helps us survive. But it also destroys that which is best in us!”

The Serpent God shook his head slowly. “No, you misunderstand, my son. The Guardian is a gift, remember? It is inseparable from the light.”

Little One realized that his mouth was open. He closed it quickly and waited for his father to continue.

“In the beginning, when I first came to form and found out what I was to do, I used to fight the Guardian. I believed, much as you do, that it was a necessary evil. I thought that if I could somehow diminish it, or even—such was my arrogance—eradicate it, the humans I helped would remember their light and never forget it again.” He laughed, a bitter sound. “What I found was the same thing you did. When you fight the Guardian, you cannot win. It is as infinitely strong as you are, and it cannot be defeated.

But I found something even stranger when I did manage to weaken somebody’s Guardian. Because instead of remembering who they were and embracing it, they grew even more forgetful. Able to live a comfortable life free of the Guardian’s demands and criticisms, they had no further need of me or anything else that might wake them up to who they were. They lived their lives comfortably, perhaps even happily, but they did now know themselves. Not truly.”

The god paused, his head cocked. “Over the years I found many ways to help people remember who they were. Strangely, one of the fastest and most effective is to let their Guardians run their lives completely for a time. This tends to create such destruction and devastation that at some point they realize something is wrong. They begin to wonder if there isn’t something more to them or the world than what they’ve seen so far, and they become curious about what that might be. In that state, it doesn’t take much to wake them up or help them remember.”

Little One thought about this. He remembered how many times he had broken through to a new discovery after what felt like his darkest moments. “I suppose I can see that,” he finally said. “But I have to say I’m still confused. From what I understand, the Guardian creates fear—in my case, a whole lot of it—and when I’m afraid, I don’t feel that I am made of light. Far from it. So how can the Guardian help us remember, if it creates conditions under which memory is impossible?”

“Ah, yes, well, there’s the paradox,” said the Serpent God. “The Guardian will try to keep you from waking up. But it also makes it inevitable that it will happen, given enough time.”

Little One’s brow furrowed. He was about to ask another question when he realized his father was offering him more pancakes. Still puzzled, he nodded his head quickly.

“I generally find it best not to try to explain paradoxes,” the god said. “It tends to set the mind spinning, which is not conducive to remembrance.” He set three more pancakes on Little One’s plate. “But perhaps this can help clarify. You seem to think that you are afraid more often than you should be; perhaps even more than everyone else.”

Little One nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

“Well, first of all, I can tell you that almost every human I’ve spoken to believed the same thing. It’s a funny habit you all have, assuming that you know someone else’s internal experience from the limited things you can see, and then comparing yourselves to whatever it is you think you saw.”

He shook his head. “At any rate, the thing you miss is this: your pain points towards your true self every time. It is a sign that you have strayed away from it. The pain—whether it’s fear, anger, shame, or any other type of misery—can lead you to the exact place where you forgot who you were. It brings you back to that place where you can remember over and over again. And the truly magical thing, which even I do not understand fully, and which I have seen save untold numbers of humans, is that should you ignore its wisdom, the pain does not give up. It gets greater. It grows in intensity until it is strong enough to overwhelm you and your Guardian, so that you may listen.” He trembled slightly. “It is miraculous.”

Little One had a hard time believing that his fear was miraculous. “But it was only when I overcame my fear that I ever made progress,” he argued. “It was courage, not fear, that helped me.”

The Serpent God smiled. “And how did you overcome your fear? By going around it? Avoiding it? Destroying it? No, my son, you overcame it only by walking through it. In the Chamber of Doom, beneath the Tree of Life, even in the city of my children, you felt your fear completely, and that is what allowed you to move beyond it. It is the only way to overcome anything, because your greatest weaknesses are tied to your greatest strengths. Only by embracing them can you discover your true gifts.”

“What do you mean?” Little One asked, wiping some crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand.

“Your fear is part of your sensitivity,” the Serpent God said, handing Little One a napkin. “You feel things deeply. This is what helps you see beyond the external forms of this world. And seeing beyond the forms of this world is what will allow you to accomplish what you are here to do.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it took Little One a moment to realize what he had just said. When he did, he nearly spit out the Xocoatl he had just poured in his mouth. “Wait, what am I here to do?” he asked, his eyes suddenly fixed on his father.

“You still do not see it?” the Serpent God asked. Little One shook his head slowly, wondering what he missed. “Long ago we gods realized that we were too few to help all those who needed us. So we began to have children, that they might help us with our task.” The diamonds in the center of the giant god’s eyes grew large. “You are my son,” he said. “You are here to help others remember who they truly are, as we gods do.”

Little One’s mind went blank. He had no words, no ideas, no response, but he was intensely aware of the iridescent walls, the sunlight playing off of them, the soft napkin in his hands, and the light in his father’s eyes. He felt warmth rising in him, as well as a settling sensation, as if all the bones and muscles in his body had just found their perfect place.

“You feel it, do you not?” his father continued. “The fit of it. Just as you felt the call to leave your village and seek me, even before you knew what it was you sought.”

There were still no words in Little One’s mind. He just stared at his father with his eyes wide and his mouth open. He barely registered the food in front of him.

“And you felt which way to go, even if you were not sure of it. It did not really matter, for all paths lead back to the one you’re meant to be on, but you knew which path to take.”

Little One nodded mutely.

“All of our children have this capacity to hear the call, and to follow it, despite uncertainty about where they are going. It is in following the call, mysterious as it is, that they discover who they really are, and what they’re here to do.”

It felt to Little One as if the entire world were vibrating, matching the rhythm of his own heart. “I am here to help people remember that they are made of light?” he finally managed to ask in a breathless voice.

“Yes, my son,” said the Serpent God. “That is your mission.”

Little One felt as if he were suddenly nearly as large as the Serpent God before him.

“But there is one more thing you should know,” his father said. Little One noticed that there was now a glint in the god’s eyes, and his lips twitched slightly. “Most of my children get big heads when they first hear their mission. They are proud to be the son of a god.” He laughed. “As well you should be. But you should also know that while you are special, you are not that special. For by now every human is the descendant of some god. And you all have the mission to help each other remember. You do it in vastly different ways, and you focus on different aspects of the light, but you—we—are all tempted to forget our purpose and use our gifts for the Guardian’s goals, and we need each other to remind us of who we really are.”

The room was still vibrating, but now it was spinning as well. The Serpent God laughed. “You look like your head is about to explode. It’s never happened before, but I’d hate for you to be the first. I have given you much to process. I will leave you to your meal, and afterward you will sleep. I will return after we have both had time to rest.”

Little One nodded. As his father stood up and turned to leave, a lone thought appeared in his mind. “Father!” he called, and the giant serpent form turned towards him.

“Yes, my son?” rumbled the god.

“Thank you,” Little One said. “I am deeply grateful.”

The Serpent God winked. “For the knowledge, or the breakfast? I am still not sure which you enjoyed most.” He laughed to himself, then turned and walked through a towering doorway in the iridescent wall.

Little One turned back to the table. He thought he was too overcome to want to eat anything more, but as he stared at his plate and tried to form a coherent thought, he found himself picking up pieces of pancake, dipping them in syrup, and placing them in his mouth.

His first recognizable thought was a prayer that pancakes be a part of his calling.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Guardian of the Guru (Or, What to Do When You Realize You Aren’t Going to Succeed)

Following is the thirteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Even as his attention was split between dodging blows, seeking openings for counterattack, and searching the land around him for anything that might offer protection, Little One became aware of a strong, insistent thought taking shape in the back of his mind.

He tried to push the thought away, focusing instead on the fight at hand, but it persisted, a tickling, relentless noise in the back of his mind. When he evaded a particularly strong attack and his opponent found himself temporarily off-balance, Little One had a chance to catch his breath. In that moment, the thought rushed to the surface with more precision and force than even his foe’s most powerful strikes. A split second later, it landed squarely in the center of his consciousness with the undeniable weight of truth:

This opponent was undefeatable.

As his foe regained his balance and started his next attack, Little One tried to convince himself it was just a desperate thought born of fear and stress, inaccurate and unworthy of his attention. But even as he raised his sword to defend himself again, he knew that it was more than that. He had sensed it in his bones and somehow known it before the words had even taken shape.

It wasn’t criticism; it was fact: No matter how skillful he was, no matter how strong and persistent and clever, there was no way he could vanquish this adversary.

He hadn’t felt this way when he started.

In fact, the very act of finding this foe had been a type of triumph. After getting his three wishes from the genie and learning about the existence of the wise man from Abdul, he had immediately set out to look for him so that he could ask him where his father was.

Abdul had warned him that to ask the wise man a question, he was going to have to defeat his bodyguard. He had also told Little One that there was no way to find the wise man. “But if you believe in him, and if the need is great, he will find you,” he had said.

After wandering the grasslands for days on end, Little One had realized his need may not be as great as he had thought.

He had tried walking determinedly in each of the four directions. He had tried staying in one place, waiting to be discovered. He had tried following streams, the wind, and the stars, but none of it had worked.

Fortunately, food and water weren’t a problem with his new, genie-designed backpack that gave him access to a continuous supply of both.

Trying to control his thoughts and feelings was a different story. Each morning he woke up optimistic and determined; each night he went to bed filled with hopelessness and despair.

He had time to think about all the reasons he was failing, then to refute them, only to come up with new ones later on.

He spent many hours thinking about his father, how he was kidnapped, and what in the world could possibly be strong enough to overpower the Serpent God.

Most of the time he worried about what the bodyguard of the wise man would be like, and whether he could defeat him. Abdul had warned him that the strength and fighting prowess the genie had given him may not be enough to vanquish the bodyguard. Little One tried to come up with fighting plans and strategies, but it was hard to do when he wasn’t even sure what type of creature he would be facing. He worried that he wouldn’t be strong enough to beat the bodyguard, then resolved that he would have to be, then gave over to doubt once again in endless ongoing cycles.

After weeks of this, Little One finally began to give up hope of ever finding the wise man. He figured he didn’t believe enough, or his need wasn’t sufficient. He had no other clues about where to go to look for his father, but he began to make plans to backtrack the way he had come in an effort to rediscover the trail.

Then one night after dinner when he was pleading, praying, and yelling at the stars in frustration, a habit he had fallen into of late, he suddenly realized that for the first time, something had answered him.

It was a deep voice. At first Little One didn’t realize it was a voice at all because it sounded like distant thunder. But the thunder kept repeating itself, and eventually Little One could make out the words:

“What is it that you seek, Little One?”

Little One looked around, but he didn’t see anything except shadows of grass and stars expanding in endless patterns above. “I seek the wise man,” he said loudly, trying to project his voice in all directions at once.

There was only silence for a moment. “I prefer to be called guru,” the voice finally rumbled.

Little One sat up quickly. “Guru, I’ve been looking for you. I have an important question to ask.”

“To ask a question of me,” boomed the voice, “you must first face my guardian.”

Little One felt a lump in his throat and swallowed uncomfortably. “Yes, Guru, I understand,” he said. “I am willing to do whatever you ask.”

“Good,” the voice said. “That is as it should be. He will come with the dawn. Be prepared.”

Little One looked around again but still saw nothing. “Yes,” he said. “I will be. But who is he? How will I recognize him?”

Thunder rumbled like a laugh in the distance. “You will know him,” was all the voice said. “Though not as well as you think.”

Little One asked what he meant, but received only silence in answer. The voice didn’t come again, and he spent the night trying to sleep but thinking instead of what the dawn would bring.

As the black sky began to turn gray in the east, Little One sat up, dressed himself, and tried to eat something. He watched the Eastern horizon carefully, scanning it for strange shapes, shadows, or any sign of life.

He was so focused on his vigil that he nearly jumped out of his skin when something tapped him on the back of his shoulder. He whirled around and found himself face to face with…

Himself.

He was so surprised that for a moment he couldn’t move. In front of him was an exact replica of himself. He had only seen himself this clearly a few times in his life when staring in water that was perfectly still, but even so he was certain. The face, the body, everything were exact copies. He even had the scar on his forearm from a childhood fall. At the last moment, Little One realized something else.

His opponent was not the Little One who left his village so many moons ago, or even the one who discovered that the Serpent God had been kidnapped. No. His opponent was the Little One who had already visited the genie—bigger, stronger, and—he could only assume—gifted with greater fighting prowess.

As if hearing his thoughts, his foe reached behind his back to grab something. A weapon, Little One guessed. He spun to the side to get out of its path and found himself staring directly at his foe, who had effortlessly turned along with him. His mirror image was holding out his hand, offering a sword hilt first.

Little One didn’t move. ”What are you?” he asked.

His replica just shook his head then nodded towards the hand holding the sword. Reluctantly, Little One reached out and took it. As soon as his fingers closed over the hilt, he saw something metallic reflecting the first light of the sun fly towards him faster than a diving hawk.

Without having to think about it, Little One ducked, turning the movement into a spin from which he let loose an upward stroke of his own. His replica blocked it and immediately countered with another attack. Little One noticed that the Guardian’s face was expressionless as he moved, as if he were doing nothing more than tilling fields or watching the clouds.

They exchanged blows in rapid succession, each evenly matching the efforts of the other.

After multiple rounds of this, Little One began to realize something. The two of them weren’t just evenly matched; they were perfectly equated. Each time he evaded and countered, the Guardian did the same. If he took a deep breath and summoned his strength for a particularly aggressive attack, his foe almost immediately followed. Even when he thought he’d figured out a weakness to exploit—he somehow knew that his replica was weaker on his left side, for instance, and always followed a jab with some sort of slice—his opponent seemed to instantly find some flaw in his own defense and would shortly begin to take advantage of it.

Before long, an insistent thought began tickling the back of Little One’s mind. The realization that he couldn’t defeat this enemy, no matter how well he fought or how hard he tried, hit him with the force of a blow.

He staggered as his sword deflected a deafening strike that fell on him like a boulder.

Even as he came back with his own series of slashes and jabs and cuts, he wondered if all his triumphs so far had really been for naught, leading him to nothing more than crushing and certain defeat. He resolved with grim determination to keep fighting and find a way.

The Guardian regained the upper hand and began pounding on him from all directions at once. As he parried the blade away, Little One became aware that he was growing weary. His movements were getting slower, and his arms were trembling in between blows. When he thrust one leg forward to make his next strike, it nearly gave out. As he defended against the immediate counterattack, he realized that in this alone his opponent was not his equal; his replica appeared to show no signs of lethargy or fatigue.

It occurred to Little One that the genie’s gifts had been a double-edged sword. The stronger he felt, the more powerful his opponent became. The better he fought, the more skillfully his replica opposed him. He remembered how the genie had acted as if he had some sort of secret knowledge he wasn’t sharing, as if he had known this would happen. Heat rose in Little One as he realized that the genie had tricked him.

Furious, Little One gave a sudden backhand slash with his sword, forcing his replica to take half a step back. Breaking his previous rhythm, he pressed his advantage and hacked angrily at his foe, his sword in constant motion.

The Guardian used the space he had won with his half step to deftly avoid all the blows. Then, just as Little One’s arm was starting to tire, his replica gave a savage upward cut that left his side momentarily exposed. Howling with rage, Little One put all his weight behind what he meant to be one final, punishing thrust.

When the Guardian turned away at the last possible moment, evading his sword with an abundance of ease and grace, Little One’s momentum carried him forward faster than his feet could keep up. He belatedly realized that it had been a trap; by then, however, there was nothing he could do.

His opponent swept his feet out from under him with his foot, and Little One fell heavily to his knees. A split second later he felt cold metal pressed against his throat.

A wave of despair washed over Little One. He was debilitated, alone, and powerless. There was nothing more he could do. He was now at the mercy of the Guardian, a creature infamous for having none.

As he knelt and the sword remained motionless on his throat, shame followed hot on the heels of despair. The genie may have tricked him, but he was the one who made the wishes. He had willingly walked right into that trap, just as he had eagerly jumped into this one. He deserved whatever happened next.

A single thought arose, as undeniable as it was hard to believe.

It is over. I have failed.

As if reading his mind, the Guardian spoke for the first time. It was strange to hear his voice coming from outside his own head. “Do you give up?” his replica asked.

Little One considered that if he admitted that much, perhaps the guardian would spare his life. He hung his head, trying to form the bitter words in his mouth.

But in this too he failed. Instead of saying anything, he heard a hissing sound, followed by a familiar voice.

“Sssssso what does failure look like?  What does it sound or smell like?  Tell me so I know how to recognize this failure in the future.” He wasn’t sure if the voice came from inside or out of his head. He decided it didn’t matter.

It looks like this, Little One thought sadly. It looks like me on my knees with a sword at my throat. Like my father remaining captive forever. Like me letting Ginger down. Like never seeing my family again. I didn’t make it up this time, Snake. I’m afraid this time my failure is real.

“Fear is a lack of vision. What you are most afraid of doesn’t exist.”

A lack of vision? Little One asked silently. What am I not seeing?

He considered what he could be missing. Failure was what he most feared, and now it was upon him. Other than that, facing the Guardian of the Guru had scared him most. But the Guardian did exist, and he was even stronger and more dangerous than Little One had feared.

A thought started to form at the edge of his mind, but when he tried to pursue it, a rough, urgent voice interrupted him.

“Do you give up?” the Guardian asked again. Little One turned around to look and saw that his face was no longer expressionless; his eyes were narrowed, and his mouth was set in a snarl.

Little One tried again to say the words, but he choked before he could get them out.

He heard another hissing sound, this one even louder.

“If you fail, Little One, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”

The thought tried to surface; he could feel it consolidating, trying to make itself clear. It was there, calling to him, just beyond the edge of his reach.

“This is the last time I will ask,” the Guardian growled. “Do you give up?” The metal pressed more firmly against his skin.

Suddenly the thought crystallized in Little One’s mind. What he was looking for was already within him. Before receiving his wishes from the genie, he had successfully navigated every challenge he faced. He hadn’t needed size, or power, or fighting prowess; what he already had had been enough.

He’d had enough strength to face every obstacle he’d encountered head-on and enough wisdom to know what to do even in the most difficult situations. Though he was constantly terrified, he somehow found enough courage to keep doing what he had to, and enough compassion to forgive himself for doing it less than gracefully. It occurred to him that he’d always had everything he needed, even if he hadn’t known it at the time.

With a start, Little One understood that his greatest fear hadn’t really been failure or even letting his family down. It was that when put to the test, he would find that what he had—that who he was—simply wasn’t enough.

He almost laughed out loud as he realized that the snake was right; what he feared most didn’t exist. He had always been more than enough. But believing the fear and acting as if it were true had nearly caused him to fail.

Despite being on his knees with a sword at his throat, he felt a sense of lightness and power. He could feel the strength of his gifts filling all the hollow spaces within him. He realized that it didn’t matter so much what happened now. What he thought was at stake wasn’t, and never had been. He still wanted to save his father and find Ginger and return to his family, but he didn’t have to. They were all as bright and indestructible as he was at their core. True failure was impossible. He laughed again, understanding that he was free.

As he turned to look back at his replica, he understood what he had to do.

“No,” he said in a low voice. “I do not give up.” He turned his head back and saw the Guardian’s eyes grow wide in surprise, then narrow once again. The sword left his throat as his replica pulled it back and prepared for another assault.

Little One spoke quickly. “But I also will not fight.” Praying he was right about what would happen next, he flung his sword as far as he could to his right.

At first the Guardian’s face grew red and the snarl returned to his lips. Little One flinched, wondering if he had been wrong. But as his replica raised his hand as if to strike, it was as if it hit an invisible wall. Hand and sword bounced back down by his side. He tried to lift it again and hit the same unseen barrier. Then he watched with wide eyes as his arm hurled the sword to the side, where it landed next to Little One’s, even as the muscles and tendons of his arm strained beneath the skin as if attempting to resist the motion.

The Guardian looked at Little One in disbelief. As he did, Little One turned around to face him and saw that something strange was happening. His replica was shrinking. Little One looked down and saw that the same thing was happening to him. They were getting shorter, their large muscles melting away. A few moments later, he found himself facing a mirror image of himself as he had looked when he first left his village.

Little One gave a sigh of relief. His replica, eyes bulging, looked down at his body. Even as he did so, it began to fade as if becoming a ghost or a shadow or the shadow of a ghost. Within a few moments, he had disappeared entirely.

Little One fell on his back, breathing deeply and looking up at the sky, which was an uninterrupted deep blue around a glowing orange sun. Despite the lack of clouds, Little One heard thunder in the distance.

“Well done,” the thunder said. “How did you know to do that?”

Little One sat up and looked around. Even in daylight, he couldn’t see anything other than grass, sun, and sky.

“We were perfectly matched,” he said, addressing it all. “The harder I tried, the stronger he got. I figured—hoped, more like it—that if I didn’t fight, then he wouldn’t either.” He paused. “And he was my mirror image. I guessed that if I tried to go back to the old me, the one without the genie’s gifts, then perhaps he would as well.” Little One shrugged slightly. “I’m not really a fighter at heart,” he admitted.

The thunder rumbled once again like laughter on the horizon. “Very good,” the Guru said.

“So can I ask you my question now?” Little One asked, scrambling to his feet.

“Yes,” said the Guru. “But only if I can ask you a question first.”

Little One’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Sure,” he finally said. “I suppose that’s only fair.” He wondered what the Guru could possibly want to know from him.

“Where is your father the Serpent God?” boomed the deep voice, sounding as if it were coming from all directions at once.

Little One’s mouth dropped open. “But that was my question for you!” he said, sounding more like a child than he’d intended. “I don’t know! That’s the point! The whole reason I fought your guardian was so you would tell me.”

There was silence for a moment. Finally, in a quieter rumble, the Guru said, “There is no difference between you and me. Just as there is no difference between you and him.” A slight breeze rippled the grass where the Guardian had been.

Understanding, like the first edges of the sun breaking over the horizon at dawn, began to light Little One’s mind.

“So I ask you again,” said the guru, and the land seemed to vibrate with the bass of his voice. “Where is your father the Serpent God?”

Little One looked at the sun, the deep blue sky, and the grass where his replica had been. He felt the vibration of the Guru’s words in his belly. He could still feel the strength and fullness of his gifts pulsing through his body with a golden warmth.

Suddenly the sun broke free from the horizon in his mind and lit every corner of his being. He knew exactly where his father was. And he knew too how wrong he had been, how big his misunderstanding. He hurriedly began to gather his things in preparation for a long journey back the way he had come.

A few minutes later, he was ready to go. “Thank you, Guru” he yelled at the sky, the grass, the rumble of his own heartbeat.

“Thank you,” rolled the deep voice, and Little One could feel now how it began in his own mind before extending out over the infinite grass.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Self Doubt: A Love Letter and a Guide

self doubt giraffe

A few weeks ago a wave of self doubt overwhelmed me like a particularly bad case of the flu.

I struggled to make important decisions, like whether to watch a movie or take a nap. The consequences were clearly enormous, and I was afraid of getting it wrong. When I did finally manage to choose something, I made up for my momentary success by spending more time second-guessing my decision than actually carrying it out.

Nothing I did felt good enough, and I was critical of every effort I made. I looked for evidence of failure everywhere, and when I found that I did something with less than optimal consequences, I chewed on my mistake like a dog on a bone and snapped at anyone who tried to take it away from me.

The worst part was, when I realized what was happening, I turned it into more fodder for my self doubt. I know better, I thought. I can’t believe I’m doubting myself again. I proceeded to beat myself up for beating myself up.

An Epidemic of Doubt

Self doubt is incredibly common in people who are struggling to find their purpose in life or who feel trapped in jobs they don’t like.

For example, one woman I spoke with recently has a job that she knows isn’t sustainable physically, financially, or emotionally. She wants to move into something that’s more enjoyable and rewarding, but she worries that she won’t be able to successfully transition into a new industry, fears failure, and finds the tasks necessary to make a change overwhelming.

Beyond these common symptoms, however, self doubt has an even more destructive component. It erodes our ability to be true to who we are.

When things aren’t going the way we’d like in our external lives—in our jobs, families, friendships, or other pursuits—we start to believe the corrosive voice in our heads that tells us that there’s something wrong with us. We turn on ourselves, and instead of embracing the things that make us unique and allow us to work through our challenges and contribute great things to the world, we condemn them, seeing irredeemable flaws not just in what we do, but in the fabric of who we are.

The Love Letter

It would be easy to condemn self doubt itself as another irredeemable flaw. I would propose a different way of looking at it, however.

Self doubt comes from our desire to be good. It’s a sign that we care about ourselves and our world. It’s misguided, yes, but it’s also a sign of a beautiful heart. If you didn’t care, if you didn’t want what’s good for yourself and others, you wouldn’t doubt. And as I mentioned in my previous post, wanting and caring are key to transforming not just your life, but also the world for the better.

Perhaps because of this, self doubt is also one of the best guides I know of to help you find your path. It points to the exact place where your gifts are needed and where you’re likely not sharing them freely.

I can probably explain this most clearly with a story from my recent meditation retreat.

The Gift of Self Doubt (Based on a True Story)

I’m a loud meditator. I meditate in a tradition that encourages you to become aware of and then surrender to whatever emotional, physical, or spiritual energy is moving through you. You’re also invited to express it through sound and movement. Over the years, I’ve found that my energy often wants to express itself through deep and relatively loud noises. The group I meditate in, however, is filled with other noisy meditators, so I’m usually not the loudest one in the room.

Then last weekend I found myself in a meditation retreat where the group was much quieter. My urge was to override my energy and remain silent as well. My teacher, however, encouraged me to stay true to whatever energy was arising within me. To my constant dismay, that meant making loud sounds.

The first night I was filled with self doubt. I could almost hear the other participants’ internal judgments and feel their irritation through the walls. I convinced myself that the only reason I needed to be loud was because I’m an emotional mess and can’t manage to get my $#*! together like everyone else.

The next morning I shared my doubts with the group. They were encouraging, but I wasn’t convinced. When we paired up for the next meditation, I was with a woman who was new to this particular practice. She was dealing with a lot of sadness but having a hard time letting herself feel it. As I settled into my meditation, I felt energy rise within me and want to be expressed. I will not make a noise, I thought to myself. The teacher came over and put her hand on my back. I knew she was trying to assist me in moving energy, but all I could think of over and over, was I will not make a noise. I will not. I will not.

Suddenly I had the image of the entire energy of the earth beneath me knocking on a trapdoor at the base of my spine. “Will you open the door and accept this gift?” it seemed to be asking. Part of me didn’t want to. Part of me desperately wanted to keep that door shut. But I knew enough to know the power of the gift being offered, so I opened to it.

A wave of incredibly strong, rooted energy immediately flowed through me. I opened my mouth and let it all come out. Aware of the power of the energy, I extended it to the woman in front of me, offering it to help her as well in any way it could. I sat with her for what felt like a long time, feeling connected, compassionate, powerful. And loud. I was very loud.

When we were done, the woman looked up at me in tears. “You energy was so strong, and so helpful,” she said. “I felt it there assisting me the entire time. I’ve never felt so held, so surrounded by support.” She said she was finally able to access some of the sadness she had resisted earlier. “I finally feel like everything’s going to be okay,” she said at the end.

What I learned about self doubt in that moment is that it is wildly inaccurate, almost humorously so. I also learned that it has the ability to point us to both the exact thing that makes us unique and the best way to share our gifts at any given moment in order to help those around us. All I had to do was resist the temptation to turn on myself, embrace the very thing that felt worthy of shame, and go in the direction the doubt was trying to steer me away from.

Not easy to do, sure, but a signpost couldn’t have been clearer in helping me find my way.

The Guide

There’s no easy way to work with self doubt. Positive affirmations work for a lot of people, but they’re never worked well for me. Or at least, not by themselves.

In my experience, you can’t talk yourself out of self doubt. That’s always my first instinct, but it rarely works for long. There are other things you can do, however, to transform it into self love and a powerful gift to give to others. Here are some ways I’ve found to work with self doubt:

1. Listen for the story the doubt is telling.

Self doubt is born from the stories we tell ourselves, consciously or not. Get curious about what these stories are saying about who you are. You can often do this by paying conscious attention to your thoughts or through stream-of-consciousness journaling about whatever situation is triggering the doubt.

Is your doubt saying that you’re too (strong, weak, loud, quiet, selfish, lazy, fearful, indecisive, impulsive…) or not (calm, generous, clear, productive, enlightened, loving, selfless…) enough?

As you’re listening for the story, it can be very helpful to feel the fear as well. Usually self doubt comes up when we’re scared about something. Admitting to yourself what that is and letting yourself feel the fear (I do this by getting curious about where I feel it in my body and then letting it be there without trying to get rid of it), can be very powerful in transforming the doubt.

When I was doubting myself the other weekend, the story I was telling myself was that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of my house, my marriage, my family, my health, or anything, really. I was scared that I wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be, and that I would lose what I cared about most. The basic message came down to “I’m a lazy, selfish person, and I’m going to lose everything I love because all I want to do right now is lay around and take a nap.”

2. See the truth beneath the story.

This can be tricky, because the doubt can feel so convincing. See if you can look at the situation as if through the eyes of someone who loves and respects you very much. Can you find any evidence that the opposite of what the doubt is saying is true?

In my case of feeling I wasn’t doing enough, I began to remember many things I had done over the past week to take care of the people and things that are important to me. I could also see that my house, overall, is in good shape, as are my relationships, my health and well-being, etc. Once I started looking for it, I found evidence that not only do I do a lot, but I’m pretty darn effective at taking care of what matters most.

What my doubt was missing was that while taking care of business is well and good, it’s not the most important thing. Staying in touch with the present moment, my Inner Wisdom, and my connection to something larger than myself, is actually what’s most important to me. It’s what allows me to move away from ego and towards my true self, feel greater joy and serenity, tap into my creativity, share my gifts with the world, and grow towards health and wholeness. It also requires lots of space, rest, and time to be and not do. For me, that often looks like moving slowly, not getting much done, and yes, taking naps.

Self doubt is like a giant arrow pointing away from your most powerful and unique strengths. Go in the opposite direction of the arrow, and you’ll find your greatest gifts like a pot of gold at the wrong end of a confusing rainbow.

3. Get others to help you.

If you’re having a hard time seeing what the truth really is, ask someone you trust for help. Compassionate family members, friends, or colleagues who get you can help you find a new, more objective perspective than you might be able to access on your own. They are also usually able to recognize and articulate your talents and gifts when you simply can’t.

Other people can also help in another important way. A lot of times we feel self doubt because we haven’t done something before. Chances are you aren’t incapable of doing what you feel called to, but you may need some time and help to learn new skills. Other people can help you navigate learning curves, whether as teachers, coaches, mentors, or peers. Asking others for help can not only speed up the learning process, but make it much more enjoyable as well.

4. When in doubt, experiment.

Instead of believing your self doubt, which tells you that you’re incapable or unworthy of getting what you want, find out the truth for yourself. The best way I know to do this is to conduct experiments.

It’s hard to convince yourself that you can do something without actually doing it. But when you try it and find that you don’t fall flat on your face, it provides evidence to the skeptical part of yourself that you may not be such a nincompoop after all.

So the next time your doubt is trying to talk you out of something, come up with a way to do an experiment and test your hypothesis that you’ll  ___(fail, be rejected, embarrass yourself, find out you’re not as good as you thought you were, etc.)____. In the case of the woman who felt stuck in an unsustainable job, this might be signing up for a class or volunteering for an organization in a new field she’s interested in. For me the other weekend, it might have been taking a nap when I worried I should be doing something more productive.

No matter what experiment you decide to try, be like a scientist and observe your experience carefully. What thoughts, emotions, and body sensations arise during the experiment? What happens as a result? Do things fall apart? Do you fall flat on your face? Or does something good actually come about?

Pay attention to your expectations as you do this as well. (This is true for everyone, but especially for those of us with a tendency towards perfectionism.) Are you allowing yourself to be a beginner and get more effective over time, or are you expecting yourself to be a prodigy and pick this up in a day, week, month, or even year?

5. No matter what, be extra kind and gentle with yourself.

In many ways, the antidote to self doubt is self love.

That means being compassionate with yourself, recognizing that this is something that everyone struggles with in one way of another. It’s also not something you should already know how to do. Learning how to be true to yourself despite fear and self doubt is a lifelong process, and we’re certainly not taught anything about how to do it in school. Rather than getting in the way of progress, I actually believe it’s one of the most worthwhile things we can spend time on while we’re here.

Loving yourself also means being kind and gentle. Allow yourself to go slowly. Let yourself make mistakes. Do all the things you can think of that feed and nourish you. For me, that’s walking in nature, spending time with animals, connecting with loved ones, taking hot baths, napping, doing something creative, reading fantasy books, and watching funny movies.

You don’t have to wait until you’re confident or over your self doubt to treat yourself well. Often confidence comes once we’ve made the decision that we’re worthy of a little kindness and tender loving care.

Support for Transforming Self Doubt

I don’t have any openings right now for individual coaching clients, but I am thinking about starting another group coaching cohort this summer. If you’re interested in working in a safe and compassionate community of peers to transform self doubt, identify your calling, and take steps towards work you love, you can  find out more and apply for the program here.

Over to You

What self doubt is coming up for you right now? What gifts is it pointing you towards? What action feels most important to take in order to transform it?

Please share in the comments below.

Want a Career Change But Don’t Want to Start Over? Here are 3 Good Options

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One of the most common concerns I hear from people who want to find more fulfilling work is that they don’t want to start over.

Starting over—whether it’s in a new field, new role, or new organization—definitely has its challenges. For one thing, in many industries rookies aren’t paid as much as veterans, so starting over can mean at least a temporary pay cut, which some people just can’t afford.

Career change also implies that you’ll need to learn new skills. This takes time, sometimes a lot of it, and can be very humbling. Nobody’s ego likes to be a beginner. If you’re used to being an expert, or even just experienced in your field, it can be uncomfortable to suddenly become the new kid on the block, asking the questions instead of answering them.

There are, however, ways to work through these challenges. As I like to remind folks (including myself), you always have options. Here are 3 ideas for you if you want to make a career change but don’t want to start over:

Option 1: Look for a job that changes enough but not too much.

Sometimes we don’t need to transform everything about our work in order to find fulfillment. In my experience, when people take the time to get clear on what’s absolutely essential to their happiness at work, they discover that they could find these things in a variety of ways, some of which can leverage their existing experience.

For example, I had a client once who was miserable in his job as the manager of an IT department. He tried out some radical changes, including becoming a comedy writer and an Uber driver.

Eventually he found that starting over so suddenly and dramatically didn’t work for him. He went back to the things he had identified that were vital to his fulfillment at work. Central to these were working more directly with customers, helping people, and having time outside of work for other things that were important to him.

Before long he found a job at a local department of community affairs. It provided all the key elements he needed to feel fulfilled and leveraged his 20+ years of IT experience. It also gave him the opportunity to continue to explore a career in writing in his time off.

If you don’t want to start completely over, you might:

  • Change industries, but not roles;
  • Change roles, but not industries; or
  • Change organizations, keeping the same role and industry.

This last alternative includes the possibility of going from employee to freelancer, which I’ve seen work well for many people.

You have so many options for how you put your strengths to use in the world. The key is to take the time to uncover them by brainstorming, exploring, and asking those around you to help you discover possibilities you may never have thought of on your own.

Option 2: Go slowly and work your way in gradually.

Often you can avoid the most difficult parts of starting over by doing it one step at a time.

If you’re interested in starting your own business, for example, you don’t have to quit your day job right away. You can start your venture on the side and work your way through the learning curve at your own pace. This also allows you to have a steady income for as long as you need until your business is big enough to support you on its own.

There are similarly lots of ways to gain new skills and experience while still in your current line of work. You can take an evening class, volunteer with a non-profit, or initiate a project at work that would allow you to build your desired capabilities. I had a client, for example, who was interested in project management, so she persuaded her boss to install a more effective IT system and let her lead the implementation process. In this way, she got to try out this type of work and gain experience in a new role all as part of her regular 9 to 5.

If your current job won’t allow for this type of learning, you might consider making a lateral switch to a job that may not be ideal in the long-run but can provide a good foundation from which to make a slow and steady transition.

It’s not always what we most want to hear, but the truth is that most successful career changes happen over time and often in multiple steps. This is actually a good thing, as it means you don’t have to rush. It also lessens fear and anxiety, as you can continue to enjoy the security and familiarity of your day job while stretching yourself to step into new frontiers outside of it.

The other good news is that because we tend to feel better when we’re actively working towards something we want, we don’t have to wait until we’ve made our final move to experience more joy and satisfaction.

Option 3: Find something that makes starting over worth it.

A lot of people worry about having to start over before they’re even clear about what they want to do. This makes the possibility even more unappealing, as it’s really hard to be willing to give something up (money, time, professional kudos, etc.) if you’re not sure what you’ll get as a result.

You may find, however, that once you’ve explored some options and found something that excites you, you won’t mind investing time, money, or even some discomfort in making a change. This becomes easier to do when you have a better idea of what you can expect to get in return.

I had a client, for example, who worked in a well-paying job at a prestigious company. When we started working together, she desperately wanted to make a change but felt frozen and unable to justify giving all this up to start over in a new career that might end up disappointing her.

We worked through some of her fears together, and she became more willing to take necessary risks. But she wasn’t truly ready to take a leap until she found out about an opportunity to work on the gubernatorial campaign of a former colleague. Her love of politics, her respect for her former coworker, and her ability to visualize exactly what she would be doing and how she would feel about it gave her the confidence she needed to make a change. Suddenly the discomfort of starting over seemed like a small price to pay for doing work she would enjoy and was passionate about.

Before you make up your mind that you don’t want to give up what you have by starting over, you might want to take the time to explore whether there’s anything out there that would give you something greater in return.

It may not be as bad as you think.

There’s one other reason why you might want to consider starting over.

Sometimes we anticipate what we think it’s going to be like to begin again. We imagine how hard it will be, how embarrassed we’ll feel, or how much work we’ll have to do. We might envision every task that’s involved and feel overwhelmed, deciding then that it’s not for us.

But starting over doesn’t have to feel daunting. You can take it one step at a time at whatever speed works for you. Instead of going over the entire process in your mind, focus on whatever your next step might be.

And keep in mind that may not be as hard as you think. In my experience, when you’re moving towards your calling, the universe will help you in ways you wouldn’t have expected.

As Cheri Huber says, “Fear of the unknown is really just fear of our own imagination.” And fortunately, starting over can be easier, more energizing, and more enjoyable than you might imagine.

Over to You

What are your fears about having to start over?

When has starting over been helpful for you, or at least not as bad as you imagined?

What might you gain from a fresh start?

Your answers could really help others, so please take a moment to share them below.

From Archaeologist to Designer: How One Man Made an Unusual Pivot to Find Work He’s Excited About

I know how helpful it can be to hear about people like you who have made successful career changes, especially those who have overcome common challenges along the way.

With that in mind, this week I want to share with you Jeff Leon’s story so you can learn exactly how he went from a job that filled him with dread to work that he’s excited about.

One caveat: Jeff is a client of mine, first in Passion Quest and then in Pathfinders Group Coaching. Though this is significant, I also believe that his story can help inspire and guide you whether or not you ever choose to participate in one of my programs.

So, in the hope that it can catalyze your own journey to work you love, here’s Jeff’s story (in his own words):

How Things Were:

“In March 2016 I defended my PhD dissertation in archaeology at Cornell.  It was the end of a long and arduous process that took the better part of seven years, but rather than being a moment of excitement and enthusiasm for the next steps in my career and life, it was a moment of complete fear and confusion.

“I had realized by that point that I spent the better part of the last three years of my PhD dreading the work I was doing, dreading the solitude of the research, and dreading many of the professors and administrators I was working with.

“I knew I wanted (and needed) to make a career change and find something that was more fulfilling and rewarding to me, but I didn’t have anything resembling a professional support system. I was blessed with strong personal support from family and friends, but no one quite knew how they could help me or what my next steps could look like. I felt like I was staring into the deep, dark unknowable future all by myself.”  

The Challenges:

“Looking back, the fundamental challenge I faced in my life transition in March 2016 was that I didn’t really know what I was even looking for – and it’s hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for to begin with!

“In a sense, I had forgotten who I was, what I was naturally good at, and what I valued most; by doing that, I had lost touch with my purpose in life and, ultimately, happiness.

“During grad school, I had enjoyed and found value in discussions with students, debating, and problem-solving, but [later on] I was being encouraged to publish research that few people read, or present papers at conferences to add another line on my CV. Deep down this kind of work felt valueless and unimportant to me. I knew I wanted to spend my time making the world a better place, but I didn’t know how.

“I also suffered from a couple key mental blocks. For one thing, I had a bad case of imposter syndrome and it was doing a number on my self-esteem. When you’re surrounded by Ivy League PhDs who have 10, 15 or 30 years’ more experience than you, and whose job is to critique and ignore your work in equal measure, it’s easy to feel dumb and think you have nothing to offer the world.

“Beyond that, I looked at the years I took to complete the PhD as ‘sunk costs’ – I thought about how while I was sitting in a library by myself learning about things I cared less and less about, my friends had been off building job experience, professional connections and 401Ks. It seemed like if I didn’t become a college professor (even if it made me very unhappy), my 20s would have been a waste of time. But the problem was, I just couldn’t bring myself to apply for jobs in academia, which meant (in my mind) that the whole exercise in getting a PhD had been a big, long failure.

“As I was coming to grips with all this and wrapping up my degree, I began meeting with career counselors on campus. After a couple of meetings they told me that academics ‘weren’t my tribe,’ which was an important insight.  But, the trouble was, they didn’t know who my tribe was, and neither did I. I was adrift, unsure of which way to turn, and thinking I had wasted my 20s on a fool’s-errand of a PhD. Worst of all, I was terrified to make another seven-year career mistake.”

How He Did It:

“First, it took time and it took patience.  I know that’s the last thing anyone wants to hear when they find themselves in a period of chaos in their life – and it was the last thing I wanted to hear when I first spoke to Meredith, but it true and it was right. I (like many people, I imagine) wanted the 10-day solution, and maybe, just maybe I could hang on for the one month solution, but a six month-plus solution?! No way.  But that’s how long it took me, and it was well worth it.

“The first step for me was to ‘show up’ and confront the turmoil I was struggling with, and the second step was to trust the process.  I had to give myself the time, the space, and the permission to find out who I was and what made me tick. Weekly and bi-weekly group meetings with Meredith were crucial in helping me in this process. They were tangible examples of progress in my self-discovery and helped mark my progress. Plus, I learned to meditate and it’s a practice that I’ve begun to incorporate into daily morning yoga sessions to bring clarity to the beginning of my day.

“I also learned a number of important tools and exercises to help me check in on myself and to really listen to my mind and body to understand how different events and situations were affecting me. Most of all, I learned to trust myself again, and to give myself permission to explore, be curious, and make mistakes.

“I learned these things in a supportive, collaborative environment with other people going through similar challenges to myself—people who had suggestions, solutions, and—perhaps most important of all—smiles and words of encouragement. The unknowable future was (and still is) scary, but I began to feel much better equipped to take it on.”

How Things Are Now:

“After a few months of working with Meredith I had built up the confidence to begin setting up informational interviews in fields that struck me as interesting. In other words, I had re-developed the confidence and self-esteem to be curious again and to explore potential career options.

“I was intrigued by a user experience designer I spoke with, and one conversation led to another until I decided to enroll in a 10-week immersive user experience design program at an educational tech incubator called General Assembly. It was thanks to Pathfinders and the process of re-building my self-esteem that I was able to confront the fear of the unknown head on.

“Taking that leap was a great decision – I’m currently about halfway through the course, building a portfolio of work, and looking to apply for jobs in February and March.  The work is fascinating, the people are fun and energizing, and the field is growing, so I’m excited about my prospects.

“I realize my path is still uncertain, but having participated in Pathfinders I feel like I have the tools to help me navigate similar challenges throughout my life.”

Last Chance to Join the New Year’s Pathfinders Group

Pathfinders Group Coaching is one of the most powerful and cost-effective programs I offer to help you identify and move into work you love. It teaches you the most powerful tools and techniques I refined over 6 years helping dozens of individual clients find their calling and supercharges that process with the support and power of community.

There are only 2 spots left, and the group is starting next week. This is your last chance to start fresh alongside everyone else until I open a new group, and I’m not sure when that will be.

Pathfinders Group Coaching includes:

  • Highly interactive small group sessions that walk you through the 5 Steps to Find Your Calling, help you work through common challenges, and give you opportunities get ideas and feedback from the group
  • Specific action steps to take in between sessions that help you clarify and move towards work you love
  • A private Facebook group where you can get support between sessions
  • Email access to me for any questions or challenges you need help with
  • An Enneagram assessment to determine your type
  • A one-on-one onboarding call with me to go over your Enneagram type and create personal strategies for you to get the most out of the group
  • Access to Passion Quest, the online course I created to teach you how to find your calling, and all its modules, recordings, and PDFs

 To find out more, click here to schedule a free 1:1 call with me. We’ll discuss your needs, go over the details of the program, answer any questions you have, and find out whether group coaching could help you find the work you were meant to do in the world. (There’s no obligation to buy anything on the call.)

Over to You

Which parts of Jeff’s story can you relate to?

Do you have your own story of successful career change that you can share to inspire others?

Please leave a comment below. (As a bonus, you’ll have the option of publishing a link to your latest blog post alongside your comment.)

Little One and the Big Misunderstanding (Or, the Trouble With Finding Answers)

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Following is the tenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


Little One’s smile faded quickly as he glanced around his father’s palace.

The walls looked like they may have at one time in the distant past shared the same iridescent sheen of the palace’s exterior, but they were now coated in what appeared to be a layer of slime covered by a film of dirt.

When Little One looked up at the low ceiling not far above his head, he saw that there were black circles running in a straight row above him. Or rather, most of them were black circles. Every ninth or tenth circle wasn’t black at all and allowed a solitary ray of light to stream through.

Little One guessed that the circles were intended to be lights, but grime was preventing most of them from functioning as such. The result was that the space was dark and grim, with the occasional light serving only to highlight the gloominess.

Beneath the filth, curved columns hugged the walls at regular intervals down the length of the room, which was so long and dismal that he couldn’t even see the far wall.

It occurred to Little One that this is exactly what it might look and feel like if he were to be swallowed by a giant snake.

He wondered if perhaps this was another attempt by his father to assess his worthiness. It hadn’t been easy to find his way into the Serpent God’s palace in the first place. Maybe this was another test to see how he would respond when faced with such unexpected disorder.

In fact, nothing about his father’s palace so far had been close to what he’d expected. He hadn’t even realized he’d had any expectations, but he couldn’t deny that he did when they were systematically shattered one by one.

It started when, rather than being welcomed and congratulated on their cleverness and perseverance when they finally discovered the location of the palace, he and his sister were simply met with impenetrable walls.

It continued when his father had been too deaf or callous to care to respond when they’d screamed and knocked and searched for days looking for a way in, growing hoarse and blistered in the process.

And now that he finally had figured out the riddle and made his way inside, he was greeted not by a spectacular home worthy of the most powerful god in existence, but by a ruined hovel that appeared silent and abandoned.

Well, not entirely silent, Little One realized as he took in his disappointing surroundings. He found that he could now make out a low thrumming coming from beyond the gloom. It came and went, rising and falling in intensity and at times subsiding entirely.

Little One found himself moving down the long, dim corridor towards the source of the sound. He wondered briefly about Ginger as he went, and whether she’d find her own way in. He didn’t think she’d mind that he didn’t wait. They’d come all this way, after all, for a reason, and he figured she’d catch up soon regardless. She might even be ahead of him now, knowing her. He could imagine her taking a look at these filthy walls and saying there’s no way they’d stop her—she’d traveled beside her brother for a long time now, so had clearly seen much worse.

And then his thoughts returned to his questions. They burned within him with a fierce intensity that only grew stronger as his frustration mounted. He wanted to know why he had been called to leave his home and embark on an adventure with no clear purpose or destination, and what exactly it was that he was supposed to do or accomplish on this very ill-defined quest.

He wanted to know whether the call came from his father or someone else, and either way, why his father hadn’t contacted him before, and how it could be, anyway, that he was the son of a god when he felt so humdrum and had two perfectly ordinary parents back home in his village.

For all his irritation, Little One was excited to finally find answers to his questions. Even if the Serpent God wasn’t what he expected, surely he would still be able to provide his son with some wisdom. Little One had worked so hard to find him, after all, and had passed all the requisite tests.

As he traveled farther down the corridor, his unease grew. The sound was getting louder, and he was starting to be able to feel its vibration in his belly. The sensation wasn’t reassuring, though; in fact, there was something intensely disturbing about it.

After what felt like a very long time, Little One finally saw the space before him open up into a large, round room. As he stepped over the threshold, the vibrations suddenly stopped and the noise disappeared.

He looked up and saw a perfect dome above him. Though some light was coming through, it was gray and streaked with grease. Directly beneath the center of the dome was some sort of machine with a black box in the middle and large cylinders extending outward from all sides. He saw a hint of red out of the corner of his eye and had a thought.

Climbing up one of the curving columns in the wall, he managed to reach the dome. Taking a corner of his shirt in his fist, he rubbed it across the grime. It came off easily and revealed a patch of flickering stars in a black sky.

Little One smiled. The dome, it seemed, was made of a substance that was even clearer than the waters of a young mountain stream. Clear, that was, when not covered by a thick layer of grease.

Little One walked around the cylinders next and noted 6 other colors. As he did, he felt a wave of satisfaction expand in his chest. His thought had been a good one, and he knew what this machine was for.

He recalled the first time he had entered the mountains that housed the Serpent God’s palace and the multi-colored lightning he had seen at night. This was the machine that produced that lightning. It clearly hadn’t been used for quite some time, but it would be capable of making colored light that could be seen for miles if the dome were clean and clear.

Little One felt more than a little pleased with himself. Though it didn’t win him anything, he felt like he had passed another test by having pieced this little mystery together. It felt like he had discovered another one of his father’s secrets.

And then something happened that drove the smile from his face and made him realize how much he really didn’t understand at all.

In that moment the machine jumped to life, whirring, moving, and noisily rearranging itself. The cylinders swung from the outside in until they were all pointing up in the same direction towards the center of the dome.

Then all at once the lights came on. At first all Little One could see were the individual columns of light shooting up towards the ceiling. Realizing that what they were forming was happening above the dome itself, he quickly climbed back up the column and used his shirt to clear off as much of the dome as he could reach. He was so shocked at what he saw when he looked through it that he froze there, unable to move up or down from his perch at the top of the column.

Through the clear spot he’d just created in the dome, he witnessed the biggest pair of human feet he’d ever seen in his life. They were attached to legs that were scaly, dark brown and green, and equally large.

The legs extended up from the dome so far that Little One could barely see what was sitting on top of them. He was able to make out a human waist and chest, and arms on either side. They seemed tiny in comparison to the feet.

What wasn’t tiny, he realized as he continued to look at the figure, was its tail. He had almost missed it at first as it rested behind the figure, but it was moving slowly now—slithering slowly, Little One corrected himself—like a snake winding its way between the legs. The top of the figure was almost too far away to see, but Little One made out what looked like a serpent’s head with two glowing, red circles that he took to be eyes.

Just then Little One felt the vibration begin again in his belly, followed quickly by the booming noise in his ears. The red eyes far above him swirled around and then settled, as best he could tell, in an angry glare at the tiny human form attached to a dirty column an incalculable distance below.

It was then that he realized that the booming noise that had been ebbing and flowing was a voice, and it was saying something, to him. He strained to make out its thunderous tones.

“Congratulations,” cracked the voice as the snake-like tail sidled back and forth. “You achieved everything you set out to do.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to make of this. He felt a warmth expand in his chest at the words, but there was something in the tone that belied the commendation. “Thank you, Father, I mean Sir, I mean Mighty One. I’m so grateful to be here.”

The Serpent God ignored him.

“You started with nothing. But you worked hard. Figured things out. Used your god-given gifts. You overcame the challenges, excelled at everything you attempted.” The tail stopped slithering and began thrashing. “And now you have what you’ve always dreamed of. So much so that others are jealous of your success.”

The booming voice fell into silence. It lasted so long that Little One felt he needed to respond.

“Yes, um, thank you again…I think…” he started to say.

The red eyes flashed suddenly and the tail whipped around.

“But for the sake of what?” the God boomed. “What did you really gain?”

The warmth turned icy. Little One shrank back. His throat was dry as he looked up at the giant feet and the swishing tail and swallowed.

“Um, I’m not sure, to be honest.” His voice sounded frail and anemic in comparison to the God’s sonorous voice.

“You have no idea. You. You,” he spat the words. “The one they all come to for help. The one they think has it all. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself.”

Again the silence and the thrashing tail. Little One swallowed hard again. But before he could speak, the God continued, this time in a tone that Little One couldn’t place.

“And now in your quest for recognition,” he rumbled softly, “in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.”

There was a pause in which Little One could feel his own heartbeat in his throat. “What do you—” he began, only to be interrupted by a low growling sound, followed by what could only be described as a snarl.

“You stupid, ignorant, earthbound fool!” the God roared. “I can’t believe I ever thought you were anything more than that.” The words crackled and hissed with venom.

Little One felt a lump rise in his throat. His body suddenly felt terribly heavy. He wanted to say something to defend himself, but no words came and his tongue felt like it was made of stone.

And then the tone changed inexplicably once again. “Well, I can’t do it anymore,” the voice said with a hollowness that reverberated off the walls of the palace. “I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.”

As he watched, the image began to flicker. It went completely black for a moment and then returned. When the God spoke again, there was something familiar in his manner that Little One couldn’t quite place.

“You are not who I thought you were,” said the all-powerful Serpent God, shaking his massive head. “I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.”

There was a clanking sound just then and the cylinders beneath Little One went black, one by one. Within just a few moments the God had disappeared completely.

Little One waited at the top of the column for what felt like an eternity to see if the voice would resume. It didn’t. Eventually he made his way down to the floor again and sat with his back against the wall.

Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes, which made feel even more humiliated. There was much he didn’t understand, but he did apprehend this: Apparently he had passed all his tests, only to fail the most important one of all. He had no idea what he’d done to disappoint his father so badly, but clearly he had done something unforgivably wrong. He felt nauseated.

He felt the edges of shame, sadness, and confusion threatening to spill over him. He tried to push them away. He focused instead on poring over every part of his journey, seeing possible missteps and failings at every turn.

As he did so, the ache in his belly grew so strong he didn’t think he could take it anymore. It felt like it was going to annihilate him and everything good in the world.

Suddenly he realized that this was a familiar feeling. He had felt it before, back in the forest at the base of a giant tree. He recalled how the excruciating ghosts had passed through him one by one, filling him with jealousy, guilt, rage, despair and every other emotion he’d ever felt. He remembered how he’d thought he was going to die, but how he was actually left with an incredible sense of serenity and peace. And a clear sense of what needed to be done.

Little One made a fast decision. He turned to the shame, sadness, and confusion and welcomed them in. He felt them pass through him like ghosts, one by one. He felt the immutable heaviness, the twisting anxiety, the sense of neverending suffocation. Once again he worried that they would never pass, but one by one they did.

When they were finished, all was quiet and still. Little One felt his mind start to race once again, trying to find his failure. He asked it to be silent for a little bit longer, and surprisingly it obeyed.

He breathed in the stillness. And from the heart of the silence he heard a voice echoing once again: “You are not who I thought you were,” it said. “I give up. You win.”

Something in the words felt important, if confusing. There was something utterly familiar about them, but he couldn’t place what it was.

He closed his eyes, waited for the stillness to return. And then, in a sudden flash of understanding, he knew what it was he had recognized in his father’s speech. He should have seen it at once, he realized, but he’d been distracted by the loudness of the anger and his confusion about the meaning of the words.

It was, as it turned out, more familiar to him than almost anything else in the world. And, like everything else on this journey, it also wasn’t anything he’d expected.

The most powerful god in his world was terrified. And also a little bit sad.

Little One wondered for a while about why that was. He couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Painfully aware of the paradox, Little One wished he could ask the Serpent God for guidance. His attempts to find answers seemed only to be generating more questions. The irony of it made him smile.

And that’s when, with that same bright flash of understanding, he suddenly understood exactly what was going on.

Little One jumped up from the floor and grabbed his pack. He began running down the corridor in the opposite direction from which he had come. Eventually he came to the end of the hall, which was also the end of the palace.

In front of him was nothing—not even a door. It was complete darkness. He didn’t see any stars in front of him. He didn’t see anything at all. It was a yawning, black abyss that quickly devoured even the faint bits of light that emerged from the corridor behind him.

Little One swallowed hard. His throat was dry. He wondered if he really needed to do what he believed he did.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the dirty and abandoned palace didn’t mean what he thought. Maybe the image he’d seen of his father was some sort of security apparatus, or even more likely, another test, and not what he was thinking all.

His gaze drifted down. There, written in the grime on the floor, was his answer. He saw a path through the dirt where something quite large had been dragged over the ground, exposing the iridescent white of the original floor beneath.

Little One’s stomach dropped. He realized he was right. His father hadn’t been talking to him. In fact, it wasn’t his father he had seen at all. It was a memory, some sort of recording of him from before. He had been talking with someone else in the palace. Speaking to his attacker.

Little One had no idea how or by whom, but the Serpent God had been kidnapped by someone he used to trust.

“You are free to do what you will,” his father had said, fear and sadness in his voice.

Little One looked back at the darkness. He really didn’t want to do what he was about to do. It was a good thing, he thought with a short-lived laugh, that he had so much practice entering chasms.

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then filled his lungs once again. Working hard to keep his eyes open, he grabbed the straps of his bag and jumped, following his father into the abyss.

He was going to find the Serpent God and bring him back. Or die trying.


Click here to read the next story in the series.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

10 Tips for Working With Anxiety When It Feels Like It Might Overwhelm You

In my last blog post I wrote about my key to dealing with anxiety.

Since this is a subject so close to my heart (and my nervous system), I was inspired to offer a few more tips for what to do when it feels like anxiety is going to overwhelm you.

While it’s incredibly useful to understand that anxiety isn’t actually a bad thing (believing we need to avoid it is actually what creates most of our trouble), it’s also true that working with it mentally often isn’t enough. Sometimes we need physical, emotional, or even spiritual ways to lessen its effects if we’re going to be able to see that it isn’t so bad. The reason we panic about anxiety, after all, is it often feels like it’s going to kill us.

So here are 10 things you can do to lessen anxiety and help your system relax:

1. Breathe deeply.

Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system; in other words, it calms your fight-or-flight response and takes you back into rest-and-digest.

We’re designed to breathe all the way down into our bellies by contracting and relaxing our diaphragms. When our stress response is triggered, however, our diaphragms tighten and we breathe primarily by expanding our chests. The problem with this is that because we’re designed to breathe this way only in emergencies when we need additional oxygen, our bodies take this kind of breathing as evidence that something’s wrong. Thus, regardless of what got us anxious in the first place, once the anxiety takes hold, its symptoms feel like further confirmation that all is not well.

The way to counteract this is to breathe all the way into our bellies, letting them relax so they can rise and fall with each breath, and slow down our exhale. This naturally activates our parasympathetic nervous system and signals to our bodies that everything is actually just fine.

2. Shake it out.

Somatic Experiencing points out that most animals have ways of resetting their nervous systems after a big hit of adrenaline. Bunnies, for example, physically shake after being chased by a predator to discharge their emergency energy and come back to a resting state. If we don’t do the same thing, the theory goes, our nervous systems can get stuck in the “on” position.

So the next time you’re anxious, you might try literally shaking it off. Do what a dog does just after it gets out of the water and really have at it so you can let your body know that the danger is past and it’s safe to relax again.

You might feel funny, but at least you’ll feel funny and safe.

3. Meditate and get present.

Anxiety is usually about what might happen in the future. Often if we stop to check in with what’s occurring right now, we realize that in this exact moment, we’re actually just fine.

Meditation is a great way of connecting to the perfection of the present moment. It also helps you relate to the storm of thoughts and feelings that assault us all with greater equanimity.

It’s a practice of letting go, one thought or sensation at a time, so that instead of getting caught up in the drama, you can stay grounded in what’s happening right now and see things more for what they are (which is almost always less anxiety-producing than what we imagine).

There are lots of meditation centers, teachers, apps, and programs that can help you get started, but it can be as simple as pausing to feel your feet on the ground in moments when you notice you’re anxious. Whether you meditate, feel your body, or get curious about what you can see, smell, or hear around you right now, you’re practicing presence, which is an anxiety-lessening skill that, like a muscle, gets stronger with use.

4. Exercise.

Exercise is one of my favorite tools for dealing with anxiety because it can often relax me when nothing else will.

I used to joke that during a particularly transitional phase in my life—when I had recently started coaching, had just launched my own business, and was making the move across the country from San Francisco to Atlanta—I  had never been more anxious, but I had also never been in better shape.

Exercise gets us back in our bodies (which keeps us in the present moment) and can help move anxious energy through us. Find what works best for you—you might try walking, swimming, running, yoga, weight lifting, or playing a sport. One of my favorite things to do is put on music and dance as wildly and as goofily as I can.

Whatever form it takes, make it something you enjoy, as joy is another medicine for anxiety, if we can get present enough to feel it.

5. Get into nature.

There’s something inherently calming about nature. Maybe it’s the silence, slowness, and spaciousness. Maybe it’s the beauty. Or maybe it’s that we’re forced to acknowledge something larger and greater than ourselves and our relatively small concerns and worries.

Regardless, nature is a powerful antidote to anxiety. So if you’re feeling anxious, make time to get into the woods, the park, or the lawn out back.

Whatever form of nature speaks to you and wherever you can find it most easily, go there. Often. Take time to just be still, notice, and breathe in the beauty. The wonderful thing is you don’t have to do anything; just being in nature is healing enough.

6. Notice what’s going well.

When we’re anxious, we’re often worried about “What if’s”. The funny thing is, we almost never think, “What if everything turns out really great?”

Our brains are actually wired to focus on what might go wrong, which may have helped us survive at one point, but nowadays just serves to fuel our anxiety. So the way to counteract this natural tendency (and find a more realistic view of the world) is to focus on what’s going well.

If you’re like me when I’m in the throes of anxiety, you’ll think—wait, but nothing’s going well! The invitation here is to start noticing the little things and not take anything for granted.

You can do this by making a gratitude list and including everything on it—the fact that you have a place to sleep at night, food when you’re hungry, or people around you who love you. You can also begin to see your daily wins, which may be small but are often more significant than you realize.

If you let yourself observe without judgment, you’re likely to find that despite the challenges and uncertainties, things generally unfold for the best, despite what our minds tell us or what anxiety would have us believe.

7. Go slowly.

If your anxiety is coming up because you’re doing something new, then going slowly can be key.

When I start going faster than the slowest part of me feels safe to go (thank you, Karen Drucker, for that phrase), my anxiety kicks up, often to the point of keeping me awake at night.

It’s a not-always-so-gentle reminder to slow down. When I take baby steps and check in before taking the next one to make sure I have the energy for it, I not only feel better, but I also generally get better results.

Sometimes anxiety is just my inner wisdom trying to get my attention.

8. Feel your feelings.

What I’ve discovered from years of observing my anxiety is that it often functions like a baby’s rattle.

When I’m feeling something I don’t want to be feeling (anger, fear, hurt, disappointment, etc.), the anxiety comes in and provides a pretty noisy, attention-grabbing distraction. When I wrap my fat little fingers around that rattle and focus on all the noise that it’s making, it’s pretty easy to not pay attention to whatever disturbing feelings I have.

But following anxiety’s lead tends to make things worse, and the only thing that really helps in the long run is to pause and make space for my feelings. When I let myself feel my fear, anger, hurt, or disappointment, I realize that it never lasts forever and is never as bad as I think it will be.

I do this by focusing on what I’m feeling in my body, allowing the sensations to be there, and then following whatever energy comes up—sometimes crying, sometimes yelling (when I’m alone), or doing whatever I need to in order to make room for the feelings.

When it’s no longer needed to distract me, the anxiety often fades of its own accord.

9. Get curious.

Curiosity is like kryptonite to anxiety’s Superman strength.

Anxiety is fueled by the belief that something is wrong. When we act based on anxiety, we feed that belief.

When we’re curious, we’re not caught in the belief that anything needs to be solved. Instead, we’re finding out for ourselves what’s actually true.

  • Is it true that we need to have a particular outcome in order to be okay?
  • Is it true that we’re screwed if something doesn’t go well?
  • Is it true that if we’re anxious something must be wrong?

My best advice is not to take anxiety’s word for any it. Doing so will only add to its superhuman strength.

Instead, ask and observe. Investigate what it is that makes you feel that something is going badly. Get interested in your anxiety and what makes it intensify or lessen. Get curious to see what’s really going on, and what will unfold.

It’s very hard to be genuinely curious and anxious at the same time.

10. Accept it.

This is perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about anxiety over the years:

It’s very easy when we’re experiencing anxiety to fall into the trap of trying to get rid of it. It can be very uncomfortable after all, and can disrupt sleep, work, and relationships.

But using all these tips and tricks to try to get rid of anxiety is the worst thing we can do. In fact, in my experience, it only makes it stronger.

We can’t control anxiety. We can do things that will make it easier to feel peaceful, but nothing works all the time. Relaxation isn’t a state than can be forced.

If we think we need to feel calm in order to be okay, all our efforts to lessen anxiety will only make us feel more powerless and vulnerable, because at some point they won’t work, and then we’ll feel even more out of control.

If, on the other hand, we can begin to recognize that feeling anxious is uncomfortable but not fundamentally dangerous…if we see that anxiety is temporary and never lasts forever…if we know that we can always let ourselves feel at least a bit more at ease in any given moment, even while the anxiety is here…

…then we realize that we can feel anxious and be okay.

When we do that, we’re free. We can accept our current experience and do whatever we need to in order to make it gentler, kinder, and easier to handle.

In other words, we can stop trying to control and start relaxing into what is.

My Key to Dealing With Anxiety

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I’m anxious. Most of my clients are anxious. Some of the most intelligent, loving, and talented people I know are anxious.

As if our natural inclinations weren’t enough, career change is basically a breeding ground for anxiety. Change is by definition new and unfamiliar. You won’t know what you want at first, and you have to spend some time in the dark until things become clear. And then, even when you do know what you’re aiming towards, you’re still swimming in uncertainty because you can’t possibly know how things will turn out.

So if you’re anxious, (1) welcome to the club, you have some great company, and (2) congratulations, you’re exactly where you should be.

The Two Most Common Reactions

There are pretty much two ways humans tend to respond to anxiety, both of which make it worse:

  1. We try to avoid it by taking action.
  2. We try to avoid it by not taking action.

I’m firmly in the first camp. When facing a new task or an unknown situation, my natural urge is to jump into action.

Recently this led me into a period of what could most accurately be called hysteria.

Faced with anxiety about the launch of yet another new offering (keep your eyes open for a special announcement about this soon, by the way), I did what I do naturally: I got good and doped up on perfectionism; began obsessively thinking about what I was going to do and how; and despite repeatedly telling my husband just how much I needed to rest, I added every possible task I could think of to my To Do list and filled my days with any productive activity I could find.

The result? Exhaustion, insomnia, irritability, and increasingly paralyzing levels of fear.

And lest you think those in the second camp have it any easier, I would invite you to talk to someone who has an equally challenging habit of procrastination. When faced with anxiety, procrastinators find creative ways to distract themselves and avoid taking action, seemingly remaining calm and carefree; beneath the surface, however, they feel all kinds of guilt, frustration, and often deep shame about not being able to take any action towards what they want, no matter how important it is.

The Negative Cycles

So on the one hand, those of us in camp #1 feel the edges of anxiety and respond by jumping into action.

The action may not be aligned with our Inner Wisdom, or it might be hasty and ill-timed. Regardless, we care more about getting stuff done than listening to what we need, so we end up exhausting ourselves.

Off-balance and depleted, we feel less powerful and more miserable than we did before, so we’re prone to feel even higher levels of anxiety, which makes us want to take on even more.

On the other hand, those of us in camp #2 avoid all this by not taking action at all when they feel anxious.

Instead, they get busy with other things, distract themselves, or find other ways to procrastinate. Part of them knows, however, knows that they’re not addressing something very important to them.

Off-balance and ashamed, they feel less powerful and more miserable than they did before, and—you guessed it—prone to even higher levels of anxiety, which makes them even less likely to take any action.

The Key to Dealing With Anxiety

I discovered the key to breaking this cycle with some (okay, a lot) of outside help. (Left to my own devices, I would probably be huddled in the corner somewhere right now reciting my To Do list in 20 different languages.)

What I found is that the key to cutting through anxiety is to stop listening to it.

In my last period of hysteria, every fiber in my being was screaming at me to do something—everything I possible could—to try to feel like I had a handle on the situation. In other words, I was trying to do 5 million different things to make this edgy feeling go away. And none of them was working. In fact, they were all making it worse.

It turns out that the solution was much simpler. All I had to do was sit there, let the anxiety scream at me, ignore the voice that told me if I didn’t take action everything would fall apart, and not take any action.

It wasn’t easy, but when I chose not to listen to the anxiety, when I just allowed it to be there, it actually faded quite quickly. I was then free to do what I knew I needed: rest. When I did that, I felt much better. When I felt better, I felt more powerful. Suddenly things seemed a whole lot less frightening and a whole lot more manageable.

When we do what the anxiety is telling us to do, whether that’s trying to be perfect, worrying, and getting things done or distracting ourselves, numbing out, and avoiding action, we make it stronger. We buy into the fundamental misunderstanding of anxiety, which is that things have to be a certain way in order for us to be okay.

When we stop trying to make anxiety go away by doing what it tells us, we start to see the truth, which is that we’re always already okay. We begin to understand that it’s not our action or inaction, our feelings or external circumstances that keep us safe. We find that what keeps us safe is the strength, wisdom, compassion, guidance, and love we all have access to, regardless of how we feel or what’s happening around us.

The only problems we have are the ones we create when we call something a problem and anxiously try to avoid it, cutting ourselves off from our inner strength, guidance, and wisdom in the process.

So the next time you’re feeling anxious, notice what you want to do. Then see if you can do the opposite. See if you can stay with the anxiety long enough to see what it really is–a fleeting experience with no power to harm you.


Photo credit: Leo Hidalgo // CC

Little One and the Palace of the Serpent God (Or, How to Find the Light Within)

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Following is the ninth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.


As he stared up at it, Little One reflected that the Serpent God’s palace was as beautiful as it was frustrating.

Its outer walls rose up from the earth white and iridescent, smooth and pearly like the belly of some enormous snake. There were no bricks visible, nor scales either for that matter; the wall extended perfectly smoothly all the way up to the sky as far as the eye could see.

When the sun hit it, colors flashed momentarily, as if all the hues of the rainbow were somehow contained in those white walls. He and Ginger had stood transfixed for a long time when it finally came into view, both of them barely breathing.

And yet their appreciation of its beauty had faded quickly as they tried to find a way inside.

At first they tried looking for a door, but there was none. They traveled around the entire enclosure, touching the smooth material and seeking any sign of crack or crevice as they went, but they found nothing. That had taken the entire first day, despite an early start, and despite the fact that they had gotten back well past dark.

The second day they tried knocking forcefully and calling out their father’s name. Either he couldn’t hear them from his seat in the sky or he couldn’t be bothered to care that two of his children were screaming his name outside his pearly walls.

When they were hoarse and sore from blisters that covered the ends of their hands, they decided to be a bit more strategic.

It was as they were eating dinner that night that Ginger had her epiphany.

“Do you remember why the legend says our father built his palace in the first place?” she asked him.

Little One nodded, and she continued. “He was tired of the other gods always coming to ask him for favors, right? So of course he isn’t going to build any doors or gates that we can see. In fact, I think we could search the walls for years and we wouldn’t find a way in.”

“You think we need magic to enter?” Little One wondered.

“No, because of the other part of that legend. You saw the colored lightning when you were near here before, right? Only his children can see that. But why would he make the lightning if he didn’t want his children to find him?” She didn’t wait for Little One to answer. “He wouldn’t,” she said. “So there must be a way get in.”

She was quiet for a moment and the only noise was the wind blowing through the leaves and the crackle of the fire in front of them.

Finally she continued: “I think there’s an entrance, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near here. I think it’s far away, and he’s waiting for us to figure out where it is.”

Little One let her words settle in. “So how do we find it?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” Ginger sighed.

That’s when Little One had his epiphany. “But he is the God of Serpents, so maybe we should start thinking more like a snake would. Maybe we look all around the surrounding forest for holes in the ground and signs of giant serpents.”

Ginger hadn’t been excited by the idea—she didn’t think a god would go around leaving signs of himself if he didn’t want folks to find him—but she couldn’t think of a better plan, so she agreed to try it out.

Three days later they were no closer to entering the palace. By the time the sun was starting to set on the third day, Little One’s excitement had begun to turn to frustration.

In all the trouble he had run into while he was trying to find this palace, it had never occurred to him that he would have such a hard time getting in. He had always imagined that the gates would be opened at the first sign of his approach and that he would walk through in triumph to find his father eager to greet him with open arms.

His fantasy had come crashing back down to earth sometime between the fifth and sixth hour he’d spent yelling outside the walls.

Ginger still believed that their father wanted them to find him, but Little One couldn’t help but feel that even if that was the case, the Serpent God had an infuriating way of showing his welcome.

Just as he had this thought the sun came out from behind a cloud. Something on the ground caught the light and flashed in the corner of his eye. When he went to investigate, he saw a stone that was almost as white and iridescent as the palace walls themselves.

There was a funny mark on the top of the rock. As Little One brushed the earth away, he realized it was a word carved into the white surface.

He called Ginger over and picked up the stone, brushing away the crusted dirt with his hand. When Ginger arrived, they read the words together.

“To find the God, you must enter the Palace,” it said. “To enter the Palace, you must find the God.

Little One threw down the rock in disgust. “Pointless!” he said. “What kind of worthless God is our father anyway? Why give a clue if it’s going to be totally useless?”

“Wait, Little One,” Ginger said. She walked over to where the rock had fallen. “It says something on the other side as well.

She brushed off the dirt. “Go to the place you least want to visit,” she read. She looked up at him. “Where do you least want to visit?”

“I don’t know,” Little One admitted. He considered it for a moment. “Those dark woods we just walked through to get here were pretty terrible,” he offered. “We didn’t see any sunlight for weeks.”

“Is it really the place you’d least like to visit?”

“No, I suppose not. Hmmm….let’s see. There was a place near the river where I grew up where the water would puddle and it was filled with the biggest, hungriest mosquitos you’ve ever seen. I used to hate to go there as a kid. Maybe that’s what he was talking about?” he asked uncertainly.

Ginger shook her head. “I doubt it.” She thought for a moment and then Little One saw something darken across her face. “I think I know what it is for me,” she said. “The Tree of Life. That was probably the worst night of my life.”

Little One nodded. It had been pretty awful to be attacked by emotional ghosts all night long. It felt closer to what they were looking for than the forest or the river, but it still felt a little…light.

And then suddenly he remembered the Chamber of Doom.

He could feel the black darkness all around him, see the malicious shifting of the shadows, feel the desperate fear he had felt when he’d seen what he thought was a pool giving off poisonous gas and lined with more bones than he could count. He remembered how his heart had pounded and how the rock had cut into his hands and knees as he scrambled with blind terror in an attempt to get away from the pool.

And then he recalled that the cave hadn’t been dangerous at all. The pool wasn’t poisonous and there weren’t any bones; he had made it all up in his fear and cowardice. Remembering how scared he had been of a bit of darkness and a few shadows brought a rush of heat into his cheeks and a twisting tension to his belly.

As he continued to consider it, he began to feel so ashamed that he felt like crawling out of his skin and getting as far away from himself as possible.

And that’s when he realized that that was the place he least wanted to go.

He explained it to Ginger, and she nodded calmly. “Then that’s where you’ll go,” she said. “And I’ll head to the Tree of Life.”

*   *   *

The journey back took less time than Little One expected. He hadn’t thought he even remembered where the Chamber was, but somehow his feet seemed to know where to take him.

He was nervous about what he’d find there. His father seemed to want him to prove something before granting him entry to his palace, and from the clues he’d found so far, Little One figured it must be something big.

Remembering how poorly he’d handled the shadows of a cave, he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge.

By the time he found the entrance to the Chamber, his stomach was filled with butterflies. He climbed down into the hole in the earth and began carefully making his way down the vertical shaft on a series of ridges and protruding rock. It took him a while—the ascent up had felt like it took forever—but eventually he felt a small ledge open up beneath him and a cool breeze blew across his face from the tunnel that led off of it.

There was no light coming from the hole above him at that point; he was enveloped in total blackness.

“Okay,” he said out loud to no one and everyone. “I’m here.”

Silence returned his greeting.

Using his hands, he felt his way into the tunnel and sat with his back against the wall. He remembered sitting this way the first time he was here, after he had explored to find what he thought was the poisonous lake on one end of the tunnel and an endless abyss on the other. His heart had been pounding, and he had been so scared that he hadn’t been thinking—or, apparently, seeing—straight. He cringed at the memory.

And then he remembered how amidst his distress he had felt something slide over his feet. He realized that it was here that the snake had first visited him outside of his dreams in order to show him that his fearful visions weren’t anything more than his imagination.

And suddenly he knew why he was here. He needed to find the snake again so he could tell him how to get into his father’s palace. His father was the Serpent God, after all, and the snake was nothing if not a serpent, so he must be some sort of emissary or messenger or perhaps even a form of the god himself.

But the snake was nowhere to be found.

Little One waited for a time in the tunnel, calling out to it, and then walked into various different chambers trying to find it. He found only darkness.

When he came back into the tunnel, he heard a soft hissing noise start and then stop. Thinking it was the snake, he followed the sound, only to discover a young man sitting on the ground in front of him with his knees pulled into his chest.

Little One was shocked that someone else had found this same cave in this same moment until he looked closer and realized what was really going on.

The person he saw in front of him was his former self, the one that fell into this cave accidentally so many moons ago, in all his cowardly glory.

This man, who seemed barely more than a boy, didn’t appear to be able to see him or hear him now. As he watched with a mix of fascination and embarrassment, the noise started up again and Little One realized that his former self was crying. He was hugging his knees with a desperate strength, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.

It reminded Little One of his sister, who used to hug herself in the same way when she was upset about something, like having a bad nightmare or seeing a dead deer.

The young man in front of him looked so small, so lost and alone, that Little One’s heart moved. He remembered the feeling of cold fear in his chest. He recalled how alone he had felt, surrounded by darkness and the unknown with nobody around to help him.

He wanted to comfort his former self, to let him know it was all going to be alright. Then he remembered that the snake should be coming along any moment to do just that.

Perfect, he thought, then I can talk to him afterwards.

But the snake didn’t come. Tears came and went and nothing appeared.

Finally his former self looked up, startled. “Am I imagining things?” he asked softly. “Snake, is that you?”

Little One looked all around, but he couldn’t see any snake. His former self kept talking and then pausing to listen as if something were answering him, but Little One heard nothing respond.

The edges of understanding began to appear like the first hint of light at dawn.

He could see his former self relaxing as the tears stopped and he hugged his knees less tightly. Eventually he stopped talking and took a deep, shuddering breath before grabbing his pack.

Little One knew what would happen next. He would make his way back through the tunnel to the endless abyss. Then, despite his smallness, despite his screaming fear, he would find the handholds and footholds along the precipitous wall and make his way back up to the light.

The thought made Little One realize something. When he was here before, the tunnel had been completely black. There was no light at all. And yet he had just seen himself in great detail, down to the tears on his cheeks.

He moved quickly to follow his former self towards the abyss. By then he had already started making his way up the wall.

Little One saw this small, fragile thing that looked tiny in comparison to the vastness of the wall he was climbing nevertheless make his way upward, little by little. He knew exactly how frightened this young man was, knowing that the smallest misstep could cause him to fall into an abyss of darkness. And yet he kept going, stubbornly refusing to look down, taking one small step after another.

He couldn’t help but be impressed by this little person’s courage and strength.

And as he watched himself climb, he realized that he was right about the source of the light he’d seen by in the tunnel. It was coming from the young man on the wall. Starting in his core, it radiated outward to the tips of his fingers and toes, pulsating with a golden light.

Suddenly Little One knew what he had to do.

He looked down at his chest in the darkness and reached out for it, seeking, searching. It was hard to find at first, until he remembered the sense of strength and power he’d felt in his body as he climbed the wall. A faint light began to pulse within his chest.

He kept searching. He reached through his darkest moments to the light beneath—to the love and compassion he’d felt for the ogre he was supposed to kill, the strength and trust he’d tapped into as the eagle in the quicksand, and the joy he felt with Ginger when he finally stopped comparing himself to her.

Then he stretched towards the inexplicable wisdom of the snake, which he now realized had always been within him.

The golden glow grew brighter. He encouraged it with kindness and love and warmth, and soon it was roaring and crackling like a bonfire.

The darkness of the abyss in front of him began to shift and move. Finally, with a great hissing noise, it gave way and a pearly white doorway appeared in the midst of the blackness.

To find the God, you must enter the Palace,” Little One said out loud to everyone and no one. “To enter the Palace, you must find the God.” A laugh escaped his lungs.

“True enough, Dad” he said, enjoying the warmth of the light within. “But it’s a little cliché, don’t you think? I mean, you could have just said to look within me. Just because you’re a God doesn’t mean you have to be so obscure.”

So it was that Little One was smiling as he stepped into the palace of the Serpent God for the very first time.


To read the next story in the series, click here.


Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC