green field with crabapple blossoms

Do you ever wish for a life do-over?

I recently started playing a game called Dots on my iPhone. It’s the best kind of game app, in the worst kind of way: When each game ends you are generally left feeling grossly unsatisfied with your score, and immediately click “new game” in order to try and do better next time. Except (in my personal experience) you rarely do better next time.

I’m experiencing my whole life this way, right now. At some point last summer I became burnt out by a crushing, self-imposed blogging schedule on top of my full=time job. I took a break from the blogging, but my job got a whole lot busier. I felt like I was stuck on a hellish treadmill. I was doing a lot of work I hated, mixed in with just enough of the work that I really loved to keep me clicking “new game” every morning. Somehow a year went by, and when I looked up from my cubicle, I realized I hadn’t moved. In a really bad way.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on how to live my life differently. More of the stuff I love. Less of the stuff I hate. (Or at least, less hating going on, however I can manage it.)

Yesterday morning I wrote the following list, and it seems like exactly the re-calibration tool I’ve been looking for (i.e. the way to remove the crappy game app from my life, rather than “play again”)…


  • Am I loving myself?
  • Am I using the Alexander Technique?*
  • Am I physically well?
  • Nourishing my body?
  • Cleaning my body?
  • Resting?
  • Moving?
  • Yoga?


  • Am I loving myself?
  • Observing my thoughts?
  • Choosing good ones?
  • Meditating?
  • Releasing sorrow, pain, disappointment and suffering?
  • Growing joy?


  • Am I loving myself?
  • Roof over my head?
  • Food on my table?
  • Clothes on my back?
  • Clean?
  • Smelling good?
  • Content with my blessings?
  • Clearing the clutter?

Play / Work

  • Am I loving myself?
  • Doing activities I love?
  • Engaged by life?
  • Looking for the joy?
  • Doing my best?
  • Sharing my best?
  • Shining light?
  • Glowing warmth?
  • Feeding life?
  • Making a positive difference?

How are you clicking “play again” in your life?

*The Alexander Technique is a kind of bodywork that I’m trained in. It helps centre me and make me aware of my poor habits of physical use.

Photograph: Field and crabapple trees, Ross Park, May 18, 2013.

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minimalist packing

laptop bag packed for trip

I’m taking a week-long trip to Toronto and Montreal soon, and my mind has been consumed with the idea of trying to fit all of my things for the trip into one small laptop bag. This has been partly inspired by the fact that my train ticket won’t allow me to check my luggage (so everything will have to be carry-on); and partly by my ongoing fascination with simplifying my wardrobe. Plus, I hate over-packing for trips. I hate big, heavy luggage. I hate lugging around a bunch of stuff that I’ll never even use.

So, Saturday I suddenly decided to do a trial packing, to see if I could achieve my goal of one-bag traveling. (This will also serve as a packing list for when I actually get around to the real trip.)

Above is my laptop bag – it’s pretty simple, very small (considering), and can only be worn over the shoulder (i.e. it doesn’t have a pull-out handle). In other words, it needs to be light and not too over-stuffed. I also hate rummaging around for things when I carry only one bag, so it needs to be packed so that things I need access to while traveling are right on top, while other things that I’ll only need at my destinations need to be tucked into out-of-the-way corners. The easiest way for me to do this is use zip-loc baggies. Large freezer ones are my favorites.

minimalist packing for week-long trip

Here’s everything that was stuffed into the bag at the top of this post, plus the clothes that I will wear while traveling on the far left, and below.

clothes to wear on trip

The weather in Toronto and Montreal will (hopefully) be pretty mild. For outerwear I’ve got a sand-coloured trench coat, striped blue rayon scarf (that doubles as a wrap or sarong), lightweight navy gloves just in case it gets chilly, and taupe suede walking shoes with black bamboo anklet socks. I’m taking just one pair of pants – lightweight black dress pants in a loose, stretch blend. I’m also wearing one lightweight merino sweater in dark purple, plus a lightweight navy cotton t-shirt.

(And no, I’m not packing any of the hangers – I just used them to organize the photo shoot.)

packing extra clothes for trip

This is my extra change of clothes, plus extras: a lightweight purple t-shirt, a bikini and flip-flops, very lightweight knit rayon pajama bottoms, a navy tank for a pajama top, two changes of underwear, and two changes of lightweight black socks. I plan on handwashing things every night or morning, depending, but for the travel days I may need the third pair of undies or socks just in case.

packing toiletries and supplies

Finally, here’s everything else that I want to take (that I can think of so far), counter-clockwise from the top right:

  • My laptop, cord, and mouse (missing)
  • Some business cards and stickies
  • A pencil case with pens and office supplies
  • My wallet (I may not take this, depending – it’s pretty heavy and has a lot of stuff in it that I won’t need on the trip)
  • My camera and two extra memory cards (I’m really looking forward to taking some photos in Montreal… and darn it, I just realized I’ll need to take the camera charger as well.)
  • A lightweight purple fold-up tote for shopping or carrying stuff during the day
  • My homemade garment deodorizing spray, which can double as glasses cleaner (it’s made from vodka; I guess it can also double as a nerve tonic)
  • Baking soda, which I use as a deodorant, and can double as a toothpaste
  • A small bottle of Nature Clean lavender dishwashing liquid, which I’ll use to handwash my tops and delicates between wearings
  • A small bottle with various painkillers and anti-emetics that I may need (in case I get a migraine or two)
  • A comb
  • A few hair elastics
  • Concealer (the only make-up I wear, and then only to cover blemishes) (missing: I should probably take some facial moisturizer… let me think about that)
  • Nail clippers
  • Personal lubricant
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Neutrogena Norwegian Formula hand cream (which can double as a lip balm, although I’ll probably take a lip balm as well – missing: lip balm)
  • A toothbrush in a travel case (I really like brushing my teeth, so I usually don’t take a travel toothbrush – they’re too flimsy and never the right softness that I like, hence the full-size brush here)
  • Earplugs
  • Sunglasses and glasses case
  • iPhone cords (I’ll be taking both my personal and work iPhones, so double the cords – bleah! Why did Apple have to change the charging cord on the iPhone 5?!?)
  • iPhones (missing: my personal iPhone, which was taking these photos)
  • A small journal I just bought this past weekend, to take on the trip for jotting down impressions and quick sketches (mostly of Montreal – I want to do some people-watching).

Some other things I’m thinking of taking:

  • My laptop mouse and camera charger (as mentioned above), plus camera USB cord
  • My facial moisturizer (Neutrogena Moisture for sensitive skin) and a lip balm (my favorite is Burt’s Bees grapefruit)
  • A very compact fold-up umbrella (it’s in my car right now)
  • A can opener (so that I can buy and eat some cans of fish for quick protein while I’m away)
  • Dental floss
  • Some jewelry (which I’ll wear all the time)
  • A bra (also wearing)

Do you have any killer packing tips? Could you travel for an extended period of time with only one bag?

Bonus photo: What my guys were doing while I was writing this blog post…

cats helping with packing

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breathing space

bare trees blue sky

I read a lot of blogs (I use Google Reader to keep track of them all), and every now and then I’ve noticed that most of the bloggers I read seem to go through periods when they don’t post much. Sometimes they offer an explanation, sometimes they don’t. (Usually the explanation has to do with the interference of life in all its complexities.)

I’ve been going through a very challenging period since mid-summer. Work has been busy – lately even more so, as I struggle to look after the responsibilities of a vacant position as well as my own. Blogging was one of the first things I dropped, encouraged by friends and family who saw me struggling to keep up with my insane workaholic schedule, and dreams I was having that clearly told me that I was abusing myself.

A lot of bloggers – especially minimalist ones – often advocate a “digital sabbatical,” or a conscious break from online activity. I’ve tried digital sabbaticals of various sorts, but never really found much benefit in them.

Then my websites got hacked a couple of weeks ago. As I struggled to connect with my hosting company’s tech support, I ran through various options in my head. I hadn’t been regularly backing up my sites, and I decided that if they were gone for good, I could handle that. Deep down, part of me even felt a little happy. Maybe I could start over again from scratch, with a more focused subject matter. All my past imperfections would be erased, as if they’d never existed.

From this place of contentment with what was, however, I discovered an interesting feeling: I missed blogging. I missed the deep reflection that preceded each post. I missed sharing my words and images. I missed browsing through the things I had written, amazed at the different twists and turns that spirit had led me through.

I think that what I really needed was the breathing space that the prolonged blogging vacation and hacking experience had given me. I can see how I need the same kind of breathing space in my work life, too. I’ve literally been working 10 to 13-hour days for the last two weeks – hardly sleeping, eating haphazardly, pushing myself to get as much done as I can. I’ve been finding it very hard to drop the “ball” of work – strategies and work plans constantly fill my head, even (perhaps especially) in the middle of the night.

My pattern is to work insanely hard until my body sends me illness in order to make me slow down. Friday it came in the form of a bad migraine that sent me to my bed for the day. Much of yesterday was also spent sleeping – catching up on my accumulated sleep deficit. I needed breathing space – enough to allow me to finally relax the constant tension in my shoulders and stomach, to allow my mind to finally still.

The long wintery nights are reminding me of an experience I had several years ago before a singing recital. I arrived home from work early, showered and changed, and then lay on my bed watching the sky turn from watery grey-blue to royal blue to blue-purple to black through my window. It was late fall recital, with a Christmas theme. It was so rare for me to lie about doing nothing, thinking about nothing. A sense of deep peace came over me, and I left for my recital feeling calm and relaxed, where normally I would have been anxious and nauseous.

In music, the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. The silence is as much a part of the song as the sound is. Here’s to the active seeking out more silence in the weeks to come…

Do you need some breathing space in your life? What’s holding you back from taking it?

This photo was taken a couple of weekends ago in a wooded area I like to visit. It was one of the last, glorious days of fall before the weather turned cold and snowy in my neck of the woods.

When I go hiking, I don’t actually do much hiking. I do a lot of sitting and absorbing my environment. The energy of the trees, the sunshine, the wind.

On the day I took this photograph, I smelled a delicious scent that reminded me of sweetgrass. I think it was the dried leaves baking in the sun on the forest floor… or maybe it was the residual echo of Native rituals from before the time of the European settlement. Whatever it was, it made me drunk and blissful. It was good to breathe.

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Detail from Another kind of Pandora's Box

I had one of those “aha!” moments yesterday where all the pieces suddenly fall into place and you really “know” something for the first time – really own it. I had been having a great conversation with someone who works in the nonprofit sector, and as I walked back to my office I had the thought, “You know what? I LOVED that conversation. LOVED it.”

Then I thought, “I need more of this in my life. More conversations about subjects I’m passionate about. More hours that fly by because I’m so engaged and excited. More work that feels like play.” In fact, if I could engineer it, I would create a job full of conversations like yesterday’s.

The crazy thing is, the last 12 months have probably been the most rewarding of my working life. I’ve had supervisors I’ve loved, who have supported and encouraged me. I’ve been involved in projects and initiatives that have really stretched my skills and knowledge. I’ve felt so passionate about my work that I happily go in to the office every morning, and spend extra non-work time developing new ideas and working on outstanding projects. I couldn’t be happier with my job.

And yet… today showed me that it can get even better. I can love my work, PLUS…

Interestingly enough, I just finished a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. (I first heard about it from The Minimalists.) The premise of the book is that the advice to “follow your passion” is foolish. Only by diligent acquisition and practice of skills can you build enough career capital to leverage yourself into a career that will give you the autonomy and control to truly love your work. (Or something like that.)

My biggest takeaway from So Good They Can’t Ignore You was that we can find happiness and satisfaction in any number of careers. There’s no one, perfect path that you need to choose. So I’ve been thinking a lot about passion. If it’s not as important as building career capital, why does a truism like “follow your passion” seem so compelling?

I think I discovered at least a partial answer today. When you feel passionate about your work, it doesn’t feel like work. Luckily (I believe, for most of us), there are many kinds of work that each of us can be passionate about.

(In my case, it’s conversations that tackle problems. The problems can be about anything – my passion is in finding elegant answers.)

What do you think? Passion or career capital? Or both?

Detail from the art journal spread Another kind of Pandora’s box, October 30, 2006. Collage, pencil, crayon and china marker on paper.

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Last weekend I started feeling nauseous after I ate my supper on Saturday night. I often feel sick to my stomach because of my migraine headaches, so I didn’t think much about it… except that it didn’t get any better, and after a couple of hours I realized that I was probably going to throw up. Which I did. Several times, over several hours.

I had food poisoning of some kind, obviously. What fascinated me about the whole process (and it always fascinates me – or at least it has for several years) is how well my body can take care of itself. It knows when there is something that isn’t good for me in the food that I’ve eaten, and it knows how to get rid of it. I didn’t resist the process – didn’t take drugs to stop the vomiting, didn’t take drugs for diarrhea (which I didn’t get anyhow). I just rolled with the process, letting my body take the lead, decide what it needed.

Just by chance, I had bought a couple of bottles of carbonized mineral water that morning, and so I drank eight ounces of fizzy water each time I was sick. When my stomach was finally empty of food, I stopped drinking and tried to sleep for a while (it was after midnight by then).

I expected I might get a fever, and sure enough when I woke up in the morning my temperature was over 100 Fahrenheit. I had a hot bath, dove back into my bed under a pile of blankets, and slept fitfully for hours, trying to let my body burn off any extra microbes still lurking in my digestive tract. I decided to eat nothing at all – I just slowly sipped a glass of water every time I woke up. I had vivid, powerful dreams. I shivered and sweated.

In the late afternoon my fever finally broke (after peaking at 101F), and I got up and had another bath, then headed over to my parents’ to do my weekly laundry. My head hurt from the fever, but other than feeling very weak, I was fine. I didn’t eat anything for the rest of the day, though.

By Tuesday it was as if I’d never been sick. Except I had been sick. And so I knew how good it felt to feel well. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the hidden blessing of illness – enjoying the pleasure of a well body once again.

Art journal spread, August 20, 2005. Wax crayon, ink and collage on paper.

The story behind this image: Although it looks kind of vile and violent, the image is actually a positive one. I’ve written in a sidebar on the right-hand side of the image, “The snake comes from the trip to the Children’s Museum where I got to hold a beautiful corn snake and pass it around to the children.”

My mom and I took my niece and nephew to the London Children’s Museum. A woman known locally as the Snake Lady was going to be there talking about her reptiles and spiders. I LOVE snakes, especially the Snake Lady’s snakes. She lets adults and teenagers carry them around to the children watching the show. I remember my niece was terrified of the orange corn snake that I got to hold, however.

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art journal hand tracings

I took swimming lessons all through my childhood, and by the time I was 12 I realized I was on my way to becoming a lifeguard. I spent endless hours in lifesaving classes, swimming lap after lap with dozens of other students. The choppy water made it harder to breathe, because when you turned your head to the side, a wave or splash from someone in another lane might pick that exact moment to go directly into your mouth.

There was a kind of zen process to swimming laps. After I got over my fear of falling like a stone if I stopped kicking and paddling, I enjoyed being underwater. I would watch the black line of tiles that marked the lane under my suspended body. I would watch for the feet of the person in front of me, suddenly in my face unexpectedly. And I would pay attention to the exertion of my body – the pull and resistance of my arms as they tried to trace perfect S-shapes along my torso.

Coming up for air after all the activity of swimming was almost like a rude awakening. If it hadn’t been for my compelling need to breathe, I would have happily floated forever half-way between the pool’s bottom and the water’s surface.

I’m in a similar underwater suspension right now in my life. So much is going on – the water is churning, and my arms and legs are getting tired. When I come up for air, I’m surprised each time by how exhausted I really am. As when I was a swimmer, the cool water masks the heat of my workouts.

And I notice in those moments how much I wish I could control everything. Line up every object in sight, clear away all the dirty dishes, wipe away all the crumbs. I crave clear surfaces and empty inboxes and crossed-off to-do lists. And I want people to act in a controlled fashion, too. Not much hope for me there, eh?

Yesterday morning I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went in to work at 7:00, figuring if I couldn’t stop thinking about work, I might as well be there. My morning was a choppy pool of tasks. Where’s the deep end when I need it?

I remember when I was a kid, they would put heavy weights on the bottom of the pool, six feet, 10 feet, 13 feet deep. They taught us how to pike at the hips and shoot straight down – so far that my inner ears screamed and popped and filled with water that made me temporarily deaf.

I’m down there now, only I can’t see the weight I’m trying to retrieve. All I know is the water feels denser here – like viscous syrup. Stuck between the two poles – choppy surface and crushing pressure – I pray for the sweet suspension in between…

Are you a control freak? A recovering control freak? Fun, isn’t it?

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bless pets

brown tabby cat

When I got home from work last night, I was lost in thought and a little distracted and random-feeling. I was so thankful for my cats, who brought me back to the present with their insistent nudges and soft bellies, and low, rumbly purrs. Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without my companion animals – they’re such a comfort.

I remember reading a couple of books by Helen and Scott Nearing, who pioneered the back-to-the-land movement in the mid-20th-century, and Scott had a very strict anti- animal husbandry and companion animal philosophy. He didn’t believe in using animals for human profit or pleasure. I remember thinking at the time, “Is keeping pets inhumane?”

I certainly try to keep my own animals as well as I can. I know their lives are “unnatural.” They are fierce predators who should be outside, killing mice and squirrels and birds. It’s what they were born to do. So I can acknowledge that it’s an act of selfishness to keep them in my apartment, for the sole purpose of cuddling.

Bless my pets. I love them, and I hope I’m worthy of their love…

Are you an animal person? A pet person? What would it take to make you change your point of view?

This is a photo of one of my cats, lounging on my bed with me this past Sunday morning. I love sleeping with animals. I love living with animals. Their little spirits wandering around my home make the space feel more alive.

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goldberg variations

Glenn Gould album

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been out of sorts forever. Or at least for four months, when I got some new neighbours who are way noisier than I’d prefer. On the introversion spectrum I’m somewhere around, oh, reclusive, and I need lots of very, very quiet alone-time to recharge my energy. Noise – especially other people’s noise – like thumping music and shouting and arguing and barking dogs and slamming doors (all of which have become part of my regular aural scenery this summer) literally drives me crazy.

Sunday night there was a concert somewhere in my city. It took me a while to clue in that it wasn’t my neighbours being typically obnoxious, but an actual concert, some distance away. (Probably at the Western Fair.) I walked around the block two separate times with a trench coat over my pajamas, just to make sure. Thank goodness for Twitter, which helped me confirm that I wasn’t imagining it.

I was so angry I could spit. I can’t tell you. The music that carried over the clear night air was LOUD, and I hated it. Plus it was a Sunday night. How inconsiderate.

My solution was to put on some music of my own – a random disc of Glenn Gould Bach – and read for a while before I went to bed with all my windows shut tight.

I haven’t listened to Gould’s Bach in forever. I know all of his recordings by heart, but the Goldberg Variations are my favorite. Funny – they were written to cure some dude’s insomnia, come to think of it.

When I finally went to bed, knowing that the outdoor music wasn’t going away, I was able to finally stop hearing it, and fall deeply asleep. Good thing, too. Because as I write this on Monday night, there’s an April Wine concert playing… (sigh)

How important is quiet to you? Can you control what you hear and don’t hear?

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sea change

cat in fridge

I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve been with my eating recently. I’ve been bingeing daily on chocolate and other junk food for nearly two months, and last week I was starting to feel like I had lost all control of my relationship with food. I have a history of disordered eating, and this was not good.

I decided I wanted to make a change as the calendar flipped into September, and I thought about revisiting a habit that I developed a year ago, to encourage healthy eating. Last August I started photographing every single piece of food that I ate, and posting it online on this Tumblr blog. It had the immediate effect of making me more conscious about my food choices, since I didn’t want to publicly post a garbage diet. Plus if people were going to be looking at all the food that I ate, I wanted to make sure that my meals were really well-balanced and nutritious.

I stopped the daily food blogging last October, once the healthy eating habits had become really entrenched and I no longer needed the discipline of the blog to stick with my food choices. But the time has come to revisit this helpful technique again, so starting September first I’ve been posting photos of all my food once more. The effect on my diet has been immediate – no more junk (after I finished off the last of my chocolate stash first thing Saturday morning). I’m planning on sticking with the daily blogging for at least the month of September, as part of Leo Babauta's Sea Change program.

Do you need a sea change? What tools do you have to help you become conscious of your bad habits and unconscious behaviors?

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how to “whisper” something

brown tabby cat sleeping

In my last post I wrote about how I wanted to “whisper” my soul, and you may have been left thinking, “That’s all very well and good, Michelle, but how exactly does one go about ‘whispering’ anything – whether it be a horse, a dog, or a human soul?”

I wish I knew the definite answer to that. (I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now if I did.) But from watching animal whisperers at work, here are some educated guesses about where to start.

Work from a place of love and non-judging
One of the things that struck me over and over again while I was watching the documentary Buck, about horse trainer Buck Brannaman, was that no matter how difficult it was to work with a particular, Buck never lost his temper, never blamed the horse, and certainly never lashed out in frustration, or punished a horse for doing what it did. Those of us who perpetually beat up on ourselves could learn a lifetime of lessons from this attitude.

Cultivate patience
You can’t rush whispering. You can do everything “right,” and the animal may still freeze or react according to its entrenched habits. You have to have the patience to sit and wait with alert attention… and wait… and wait… and wait… until the animal makes the decision trust, and to risk doing something differently.

Observe and learn the animal
I’ve been fascinated by the work of dog whisperer Cesar Millan for a long time, and one of the things that strikes me most is his understanding of the pack behaviors of dogs. He’s spent a lifetime observing dogs, and noticing the small, almost undetectable signs that indicate what’s going on in a dog’s mind, and what the dog may do next. If you have the patience to do the same thing yourself – to closely observe how an animal acts, and to notice the progression of behaviors – it will help you quickly notice when things are moving in a direction that’s not going to make you happy.

Pay attention to the behavioral triggers
One thing you’ll learn from observing is to notice the triggers in the animal’s environment that cause the subtle shifts in behavior – that make the animal defensive, or aggressive, or fearful, or anxious. Sometimes you may just notice the behavior first… but eventually you’ll become sensitive enough to read an animal with lightning speed, and know (without knowing how you know) that they’re calm, or excited, or cross. I love doing this with my cats – just watching them, and knowing from the flare of their nostrils, or the quickening of their breathing, or the twitch of their ears, that they’re suddenly alert and watchful, when a moment earlier they were calm and relaxed.

Intervene with positive redirection before things go wrong
Once you can figure out what’s causing the behavioral change, you can step in at the right moment and de-escalate the behavior before it gets out of hand. This is where most pet owners get frustrated, because it means acting every time that the behavior that you’re trying to correct presents itself. And after the third or fourth time in 10 minutes, you may get tired of being so watchful and so precise. But if you can stick with it, the turning point usually comes pretty quickly on the heels of multiple repetitions of the right correction.

Be both generous and firm with your love
Hatred and anger are not the greatest emotional places to correct from. You want to act from a place of love. But “love” doesn’t mean foolish overindulgence, spoiling, or letting an animal get away with murder. Love includes setting clear boundaries, and being firm when those boundaries are crossed.

Be consistent
You know this. The animal has to learn that you will respond the exact same way, every single time they exhibit a certain behavior. If you’re not consistent, then every time (before they’ve learned the lesson) that you waver, or flip-flop, or give in, they’ll learn that they can’t trust you on this issue. And they’ll continue with the behavior that you don’t want.

What might all of this look like if you were trying to whisper your soul instead of an animal? Maybe something like this:

Start by cultivating your higher qualities – qualities of patience, love, gentleness, wisdom, steadfastness and kindness. Find a model – maybe a guru or teacher, maybe an animal whisperer like Buck or Cesar, maybe a fictional character like Yoda or Dumbledore, maybe a spiritual figure like The Blessed Mother, Devi or Sophia.

Develop your ability to observe without judgement. A meditation practice would be an excellent way to do this.

Hone your skill at discerning the subtle shifts that precede the behaviors – perhaps addiction, or abusive emotions, or depression, or self-harm – that you want to change. Don’t necessarily rush in to fix things right away. Sometimes just noticing the shifts is enough to build the wisdom and strength to eventually step in with a correction.

Once the time is right – and you’ll know when it is – intervene firmly and consistently with positive redirection. Repeat as necessary – perhaps for many weeks, months or years – until the behavior that you want to change loses its charge, and its hold over your life.

Do you feel a calling to whisper anything? A passion to learn something this deeply, this transformationally?

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