“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” – Chinese Proverb
A life that looks good on paper and that leaves you feeling various forms of ‘stressed’ lets you know to get curious about what’s up. There’s a Chinese proverb floating around the internet which points to a great bit of wisdom for us at any situation in our lives: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” The tension/relaxation litmus is a good barometer to heed as you make choices in your job, your career, your partnerships, your relationships, your family, and what to do for the holidays. Yet, how often do we ignore that basic rubric in lieu of sticking it out with something that doesn’t quite right fit?
Just last weekend I ran into a friend who was contemplating a transition in her work life. She’s a VP at a large healthcare provider and was sharing how she was looking at other offers on the West Coast, and horse properties in the same area. She lit up with possibility as she shared that with me, and then her demeanor shifted. “I don’t know if I should complain,” she confessed as if she was doing something wrong by considering other options. “I mean, life is pretty good right now. On paper, it’s the life. But I’m depressed and burnt out, so something doesn’t feel right,” she added. I could feel her internal struggle if what she had was enough, so much enough that she shouldn’t kvetch or want or wonder what else might be out there.
Even if life looks good on paper, if you’re depressed and burnt out, that’s not much of a life is it? What keeps us in the job that feels bad, or in the relationship that sucks the air out of us (but maybe looks good in your photo reel)?
tell me why all these pages are flying round in the yard
how my hands can’t seem to find your hands in the dark
tell me, tell me how the hell did we get all the way up here
how gravity’s gone
– Gregory Alan Isakov, from his song Chemicals
When the ‘looks good on paper’ life falls flat in the fulfillment category, or starts blowing around the yard as Isakov sings, paying keen attention to our longing can lead us to something more satisfying and grounding–like our own sense of aliveness. From there, we can live from an inner locus, versus the more suffocating outer locus where we try to meet the world’s (or our parent’s) image of what to do and how to be. We need to harness our inner iconoclast to determine “When is enough, enough?”–a question posed by Steve Kane in the recent podcast conversation with Jerry.
Growing up and becoming an adult is about learning what stories, beliefs, and strategies are running your life, and which ones you’ve long outgrown. What are the images of success you’ve been setting out for, and are those yours or someone else’s? It’s about finding yourself, knowing yourself intimately, and knowing in your core who you are, what you want, and when it’s time to change.
That edge of our limitations where our internal thresholds are can be a tricky place to navigate alone. The desire to shift current lived limitations bumps up against the world of our parents and the lessons they imparted upon us consciously and unconsciously. It may bump into those in our lineage that came before us who were included or excluded from family lore and memory. It bumps up against the external directives set by the collective ‘they’ who project such images of success, failure, and all that you can be and should be if you want to match the glossy images. While we stand there in the midst of what’s coming at us, and what came before us, trying to figure out where to go, it can pose a directional challenge imposed by misguided devotions and outdated strategies to find belonging. Until we sort it all out and identify operating parts, it’ll likely weigh in on our decision making.
Where have shame and guilt ruled our decisions? How are we living out someone else’s dreams for us versus our own? What do we do to find love or recognition or success that are modes of sacrificing yourself and your aliveness? As humans, we’re each able to withstand unique levels of discomfort from physical, emotional, and mental stress based on the thermostat settings that have been programmed into us by learning and experience. We do this to ourselves more often than seems necessary, even though the tripped switch of our brain wiring often renders that inherently necessary. As my teacher, Carl Buchheit says, “The things we’ve learned to survive often become the things upon which our survival depends.” Remove the survival situation or stimulus, and the system could break (according to the part of us that kept us alive this long). A strange trick of our neurology, it keeps us small, stuck and cycling through some limitations that don’t have to define us.
Our capacity to feel joy also has an internal thermostat setting that tells us how much joy is OK for us to handle safely. The good news is that we can work with these settings to produce more of the good stuff and less enduring of the not so good stuff.
When the tension arises it’s a signal that our proverbial stuff is coming up, and it’s time to look at that. It can help us know when to decouple our well-being from the external forces competing for our lifeforce. Sometimes, tension is a sign that something needs to shift in our current situation, whether it is workable or not. After traveling down the road of radical self-inquiry for yourself, the edges of what you want and ‘how you feel you should be’ become more apparent. Perhaps, then, the choice becomes clear and more attuned to you without the extraneous voices vying for your attention, time, energy.
This is a deeper dive into knowing who you are. A bit of excavation into the parts that make up you and make up your mind. As we venture down this path, we arrive closer to the soul, and we learn to value what our soul is offering us in this lifetime.
How do we live so that we keep our soul intact so that we let it flourish?
“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” – Lao Tzu
Knowing your whys – why you want or do certain things – is important to discerning what you want, and what’s driving that. What’s driving you may not be in alignment with what you would really like at all, but instead serving something or someone outside of you, thus shrinking your fullness. The work, then, is to keep the knowing at the center of your being clear and heralding so that you make choices for you, not for someone or something else.
Living from that place — from the center of your being — refines “When is enough, enough?” to “When is enough, enough for me?” There’s strong, quiet resolve in us when living from our own internal metric. It’s unbothered, perhaps even unf*ckwithable at times. It makes the tension/relaxation motif a lived litmus for when to know what suits and what doesn’t, and when enough is enough of the not so good stuff in your relationships, partnership, work, and anything life throws your way.