The Silver Lining of Unlikely Faults

“You’re much too agreeable.” “You’re much too assertive.”

“You’re far too focused.” “You’re far too curious.”

“You’re much too perfectionistic.” “You’re much too fast.”

In the course of your life, you’ll likely hear one of each of these pairs of criticisms (or ones like them). If you’re really growing your personality over time, you’ll hear both.

If you’re growing, you will change from someone who is too compassionate to someone who occasionally comes off as too assertive – or vice-versa.

If you’re growing, you will change from someone who is more widely curious to someone who is zeroed on – or again, vice-versa

Remember that when you’re hit with one of these criticisms. If you’re an agreeable person, you might be surprised as being labelled combative. If you’re perfectionistic, you might be surprised at being accused of cutting corners.

Think about it for a second and you’ll find something to celebrate here.

For someone to find an unlikely fault in you, you must have grown out of an old pattern of personality or behavior in some noticeable way. And while you should pay attention to reigning in new faults, there’s nothing to mourn about losing the old ones. To be guilty of being too assertive is also to be innocent of being too passive, and so on.

If given a choice between the same old faults and new opposite ones, I might lean toward the new ones. At least I’d be growing toward them. And I’d rather be faulted for going too far in correcting my weaknesses than for not correcting them at all.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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A Short Hop from Bleeding Heart to Mailed Fist

When Hugo Chavez began ruling Venezuela, he sounded like a classic bleeding-heart – full of pity for the poor and downtrodden.  Plenty of people took him at his words – not just Venezuelans, but much of the international bleeding-heart community.  By the time Chavez died, however, many admirers were already having second thoughts about his dictatorial tendencies.  Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, amply confirmed these fears.  Almost everyone now plainly sees the mailed fist of the brutal dictator Chavez II.

Which brings us to two facts about the political world.  Let’s call them Strange and Meta-Strange.

The Strange Fact: This transition from bleeding heart to mailed fist is common.  Almost every Communist dictatorship launches with mountains of humanitarian propaganda.  Yet ultimately, almost everyone who doesn’t fear for his life wakes up and smells the tyranny.

The Meta-Strange Fact: People rarely describe the Strange Fact as “strange”!

What’s so strange about the Strange Fact?  Most obviously, the extreme hypocrisy.  Governments that vocally proclaim their compassion for the meek – most obviously the Soviet Union and Maoist China – commit a grossly disproportionate share of mass murder and other violations of human rights.

What’s so strange about the Meta-Strange Fact?  Well, picture the most vocally compassionate person you personally know, the person who seems most obsessed with the interests and feelings of others.  Wouldn’t you be shocked to discover that they burn babies with cigarettes when you’re not looking?  It’s one thing for people to fall short of saintly ideals; it’s quite another for people who uphold saintly ideals to be downright wicked.

What’s going on?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Politics is a brutal game.  When bleeding hearts take over a government, brutal outsiders smell their weakness, force their way in, bully their way to the top, and unleash hell.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that the bleeding hearts and mailed fists are usually the same people, though sometimes at different stages in their political career.

2. In this wicked world, the best way to pursue bleeding-heart policies is with a mailed fist.  Sure, it would be nice if we could harmoniously adopt bleeding-heart policies.  But in the real world, the forces of reaction and selfishness will try to obstruct and reverse bleeding-heart policies with every step.  Unless, of course, you terrorize them into submission.

The obvious problem with this story, of course, is that countries that pursue bleeding-heart policies with a mailed fist look like total disasters.  Most of them face horrifying civil wars; and even when the dust settles, the common man’s quality of life remains very low.

3. Hostile foreigners force bleeding hearts to adopt the mailed fist.  When countries pursue bleeding-heart policies, evil countries like the United States try to isolate, punish, and overthrow them.  The best way to protect your noble bleeding-heart experiment, sadly, is to prioritize the military and internal security.  Then the international community has the effrontery to call these unwelcome defensive measures “the mailed fist.”

The obvious problem with this story: One of the quickest ways to anger countries like the United States is to blatantly use the mailed fist (especially if you combine your mailed fist with anti-Western rhetoric).  Furthermore, if extreme bleeding-heart policies really were prone to provoke powerful foreigners, a sincere bleeding heart would moderate enough to appease these foreigners.  “You don’t like my total war against illiteracy and disease?  Fine, I’ll just do a half-war against illiteracy and disease.”

4. The bleeding-heart rhetoric is mostly propaganda; the main goal is the mailed fist.  Even the most abusive romances usually start with a honeymoon period.  Similarly, dictators rarely gain total power by growling, “Give me total power.”  Instead, they woo the people with flowery words and symbolic gifts.  Part of the goal, of course, is to trick your victims until you get the upper hand.  But the flowery words and symbolic gifts are also effective ways to inspire gratitude in both recipients and bystanders.

This story often seems right to me, but it does implausibly downplay the bleeding hearts’ ideological fervor.

5. Bleeding-heart rhetoric is disguised hate speech.  When activists blame the bourgeoisie for causing hunger, disease, and illiteracy, perhaps their main concern isn’t actually alleviating hunger, disease, or illiteracy.  While they’d like these problems to disappear, the bleeding hearts’ top priority could be making the bourgeoisie suffer.  The mailed fist systematizes that suffering.

It’s tempting to dismiss this story as cartoonish, but it’s more plausible than you think.  Human beings often resent first – and rationalize said resentment later.  They’re also loathe to admit this ugly fact.  Actions, however, speak louder than words.  People like Chavez and Maduro can accept their failure to help the poor, but not their failure to crush their hated enemies.

6. Bleeding-heart policies work so poorly that only the mailed fist can sustain them.  In this story, the bleeding hearts are at least initially sincere.  If their policies worked well enough to inspire broad support, the bleeding hearts would play nice.  Unfortunately, bleeding-heart policies are exorbitantly expensive and often directly counter-productive.  Pursued aggressively, they predictably lead to disaster.  At this point, a saintly bleeding heart will admit error and back off.  A pragmatic bleeding heart will compromise.  The rest, however, respond to their own failures with rage and scapegoating.  Once you institutionalize that rage and scapegoating, the mailed fist has arrived.

This story also seems pretty solid.  It downplays the self-conscious Machiavellians, but only by recasting them as childish fanatics.

If you don’t know much about the actual history of radical bleeding-heart regimes, I’ll admit that stories 4-6 sound overblown and unfair.  But I’ve devoted much of my life to studying this history.  All I can say is:  If your story isn’t ugly, it isn’t true.

P.S. Hugo Chavez is a really boring speaker, so if you’re curious about the general phenomenon I’m discussing, start with this little bleeding-heart speech by the murderous Che Guevara.

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The Best Things I’ve Learned About Raising Children

I don’t consider myself a parenting expert, but I have helped raise six kids (along with their mothers), and being a father has been one of the most rewarding things in my life.

And while I’m not a perfect father, I think I’m pretty good at it. Mostly because I absolutely love it.

Eva and I also have some slightly non-conventional parenting ideas that might be useful to parents who are always looking for new ways of thinking about things.

So I’m going to share the best things I’ve learned about raising children, not because my way is the best, but because it’s always helpful to have a discussion about parenting.

A really important note: Much of the work of parenting, if not most, was done by my kids’ moms (my wife Eva and my first two kids’ mom). I can only take a little credit.

Here are some of the best things I’ve learned:

  1. Your main job is just to love them. We have to take care of their basic needs, of course, but parents add all kinds of extra things on top of that, and make the job really hard. Parenting is often not that complicated — OK, taking care of basic needs is a lot of work, but the basic job of parenting is to love your kids. You don’t need to shape them, to pressure them to be better, to make them do all kinds of activities to become the perfect kid. They’re pretty damn perfect already. Just love them as they are, and make sure they can feel that love.
  2. Don’t hover — let them fall sometimes. Parents these days tend to be overprotective, to be constantly trying to make sure every need is met, and to be afraid of the smallest fall. Nah. Let them live. Let them have some independence. Let them go out and play without you. Let them fall down and scrape their knee. Let them fail at things. This is how they grow. Imagine if you sheltered kids from failure and pain and struggle their whole lives … they’d be totally unprepared for the adult world! I’m not saying you should never protect your kid, but the less you can do that, without them dying, the better. Then help them cope with the failure or pain on their own, with you helping them to understand how they can do that. Be there for them, but only to the extent that you’re helping them learn to do it on their own.
  3. Harsh disciplinarian methods are more hurtful than helpful. When I first started parenting, I would yell and spank my kids and punish them for all their wrongdoings. It was totally hurtful, and made them afraid of me. Yes, they would do everything I told them to do, but only because they were scared to do otherwise. And often they’d just hide the things they did, so I wouldn’t know. I’ve learned to mellow out over the years, to control my temper and be more compassionate. I’m not perfect, as I said, but now I see everything as an opportunity to educate them, an opportunity for them to grow, and a chance for me to just love them. If your parents were disciplinarian, that doesn’t make it the way you need to do things.
  4. Reading to them regularly is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I read to my kids most days. My wife and I have done that with all the kids, and it’s a wonderful way to spend time with them, to foster a love for reading that will help them for the rest of their lives, and to explore imaginative new worlds together. My kids have found a love for reading on their own that came from cuddling with me and reading Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter (a series I’ve read 4 times over with different kids) and Narnia and Arabian Nights and Don Quixote.
  5. Let them direct their own learning. Four of my kids are unschooled, but all of them have done learning projects on their own, and I encourage them to learn about whatever they’re interested in. Many kids are so used to top-down learning (where they’re told what and when and how to learn) that they don’t know how to direct themselves. They’ll have to learn as adults. But instead, we can encourage them to learn what they’re interested in, help them with learning projects until they can do it on their own, and have them learn like adults do.
  6. But give them fun challenges and encourage them to try new things. Self-directed learning is an incredible method, but sometimes they need inspiration. I like to encourage them to look things up, to dive deep into a topic that interests them, to learn about something they don’t know yet will interest them. I try to talk about these things in positive ways, that show how interesting I find them, and I’ve found that sometimes, that interest and curiosity are contagious. Other times, I challenge them — let’s do a drawing challenge, a pushup challenge … let’s see if we can travel a month with only a backpack each, or memorize the capitals of all the states, or as many digits of pi as we can. Let’s try to program a simple game. Kids (and adults) respond well to fun challenges.
  7. Teach them to do things on their own, early. As soon as we could, we taught our kids to do things on their own. Tie their own shoes, brush their teeth, shower and dress themselves, make their own breakfast and lunch, wash and dry the dishes, clean the house, do their own laundry. For one thing, it made our job as parents easier, if they were helping plan meals, do the grocery shopping, and cook dinners once a week. Soon we didn’t have to do very much for them. But just as importantly, we were teaching them self-sufficiency — they don’t expect things to be done for them, and they learn that they can do anything for themselves that they want taken care of.
  8. Let them take charge of things or participate in work when you can. Along the same lines, we try to get them to take charge of things … for example, planning a trip. They do research, look for Airbnb apartments, plan train routes, book flights. When they get to adulthood, they already know how to do these things. They also know how to take responsibility.
  9. Try a democratic process of decision-making. When we decide where to eat out, or what we should do this weekend, we have a discussion, each contribute ideas, and take a vote. This teaches them to take part in making decisions, instead of having their lives decided for them. But it also teaches them to respect the opinions of others, and that what they want is not the only thing that matters. We do similar things when planning for a trip, deciding whether we should move to a new city, and so on.
  10. Practice mindfulness with them. I have meditated with all my kids. Not regularly, but enough that they know what it’s all about. When my daughter comes to me upset about something, we practice mindfulness of how the emotion feels in her body. Being with the emotion. When my other daughter is feeling anxiety, we talk about how to practice with that as well. They’ve also seen me meditating in the morning, so mindfulness practice becomes a normal thing for them.
  11. The main way you teach them is by your example. Speaking of watching me meditate … this is the main way that I teach them anything. By my example. By how I am in the world. If I want to teach them not to fight, I have to be peaceful. If I want to teach them to be good people, I have to be compassionate, considerate, loving. If I want to teach them to not be on their devices, I have to do the same. If I want them to be active, to eat healthily, to read, to meditate … then it starts with me doing it. And talking to them about what I’m doing and why and what I’m learning and how I’m doing it. They learn almost everything from what people around them do.
  12. Don’t pretend like you know everything. That said, while I try to do my best in life, I have to humble myself and admit that I don’t know everything. In fact, I barely know anything. I can’t always think I’m right, nor can I pretend to have all the answers, even if I’m the dad. Maybe my kids know somethings I don’t. Maybe we can learn together … but it starts with me saying, “I’m not sure, let’s find out!” This mindset of not-knowing is where learning starts, the space that we can explore together, the space where we become open to each other. Many parents (and people in general) come at you with the stance that they know exactly what they’re doing, know the answers. This leaves no room for anything else. It’s fundamentalism.
  13. Admit when you’re wrong. Apologize. Make it right. Along those lines, when I think I’m right, and insist on it … that’s often when I’m wrong. And I’ve been humbled like this so many times. What I’ve learned is … instead of continuing to pretend like I’m right, it’s so much better to admit that I’m wrong. To humble myself. Actually apologize if I’ve done anything to hurt them. And do what it takes to make it right.
  14. Let them earn and pay for things early. And teach them about debt. In our house, we don’t have an allowance. We buy them the basics of what they need, but if they want anything beyond that, they have to pay for it themselves. And earn the money through things beyond their basic chores. They might do things for us, or work for my business, or make things or do services for others to earn money. This also teaches them to save for goals. I also talk to them about the dangers of getting into debt, the high cost of credit card debt, and some simple financial truths that I’ve learned.
  15. Don’t shield them from sex and drugs and technology. Some parents don’t want their children to hear anything about sex or drugs, and shield them from that for as long as possible. This just makes sex (for example) a taboo subject, and gives the kids an unhealthy idea of how bad it is. I’ve found it much better to speak frankly about it, and if I were going to do it all over again, I’d start that frank talk much earlier. Sex isn’t something that should be made dirty or forbidden. It’s a natural thing that all adults do. Kids should get that sense from adults, and be helped through that confusing world by their parents rather than having to figure it out through what they hear from friends or happen upon online. I think the same is true of drugs. Another thing that some parents shield their kids from is technology — no devices ever! But that means that kids don’t learn a healthy way to deal with technology. It’s better to just help them learn to deal with all this stuff, rather than not trust them.
  16. It’s OK to hang out without them, and let them have separate time from you. I love hanging out with my kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for them to be with me every second of the day. Sometimes, they can go play by themselves, while my wife and I have alone time. Sometimes, they can have an evening at home while we go on a date (when they’re old enough). Other times, we can drop them with a relative and go on a trip by ourselves, or with friends. I think alone time, and time away from parents, is a healthy thing for kids. Give them space. Let them learn to deal with being on their own (again, when appropriate). Give yourself space to replenish yourself, or find romance with your partner, without them.
  17. Parenting ain’t over when they reach adulthood. I used to joke, “If I get my kids to 18 years old alive, I’ve succeeded as a parent!” Of course, that’s absolute bunk. I’ve learned that parenting is far from over once they reach adulthood. Four of our kids are adults now, and it’s a whole new challenging phase of parenting for us. We’re trying to teach them how to do adult things, how to be financially self-sufficient, how to get the dream jobs they want, how to deal with relationship stuff, and much more. I love it, but it’s not like I can just retire now.
  18. In the end, they will be the person they are. You don’t get to decide who that is. Each kid is already a fully formed person when they’re young. They continue to grow every year, of course, but their personalities when they’re young continue to be mostly the same as they grow older. We don’t shape these kids, they are already themselves. They will choose their own paths, decide what life they want, and grow in the direction they choose. I don’t have control over any of that. In the end, that’s what we parents need to accept — we don’t really control our kids. We just try to guide them when we can. And love them for who they are.

I’m still learning. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And yet, I hope some of what I’ve learned so far will help a few of you.

I love being a dad. It’s an incredible privilege, and one of the deepest joys in my life. Thank you kids. And moms.

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On Motivation

One of the principles that unschoolers live by concerns motivation. It should be obvious to all that motivation borne inside of us (intrinsic), such as when we are pursuing an interest or passion, is superior to forms of motivation that had their origin in a threat (extrinsic). If this is not obvious to you, then consider the child, probably yourself at some point, who works twice as hard to get out of an unchosen obligation than would be required to fulfill the obligation. We’ve all either seen this or done this. I know I have, and I know that my children have, too. When I realize what is happening, I am compelled to reevaluate either what is being demanded of me or what I am demanding of others. I don’t care to use threats to motivate (nor tolerate them), because I believe that doing so is wrong, on many levels. Instead, I should help those I need to do something to find an intrinsic reason to do it. That’s called being a civilized adult, and today’s two cents.

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The Rule of the Edge

In all of my many challenges and habit changes and book writing and learning, I’ve found one thing to be the most powerfully beneficial to all growth, learning and training.

I call it the Rule of the Edge.

Here’s the rule: practice at your edge most of the time.

And this rule is what will help you grow the most, over time.

What do I mean by “your edge”? I mean going just to the edge of discomfort, just to the edge of what is difficult for you, what is pushing your boundaries a bit.

If you’re practicing music, and you just practice the scales all the time, after awhile, doing the scales is too easy for you. You aren’t learning very much by only practicing musical scales. Sure, it’s still a good practice, but you have to push to something that’s more challenging for you.

If you’re exercising, easy exercise is a good thing … but you also need to push yourself. Just a bit.

But your edge isn’t pushing yourself until you’re ready to collapse. It’s not pushing to injury, pushing so that you can’t practice tomorrow. It’s not studying all day long until your brain has melted.

It’s going to the edge, not diving off it.

And when I say, “Practice at your edge most of the time,” notice the phrase “most of the time.” You shouldn’t be at your edge all the time. It’s exhausting, and can take a lot of focus. Instead, try to be there more than half the time. Don’t be lazy, but also give yourself some easy practice.

There’s a lot of value in easy practice — it cements your learning, keeps you in good shape, keeps you sharp. It locks in the easy stuff as easy. And it can be a lot of fun.

You can also experiment with pushing a little past your edge, if you have the experience to know that it’s safe. But best to do this under supervision of a teacher or trainer if you aren’t sure.

So mix it up. More than half of your practice should be at your edge, but anywhere from 20-40% of your practice should be easy stuff. A blend is best — not “all easy and then all edge” but “easy, edge, easy, edge, edge, easy easy” or something similar.

What Edge Training Looks Like in Practice

Here’s how this kind of edge practice might work in real life:

  • If you’re practicing yoga, you might do an hourlong practice where about 60% of the poses (roughly) are challenging for you (but not so challenging that you’ll be injured or exhausted), and the rest are easy ones that allow you to focus on your breath and recover from the edge poses.
  • If you’re running, you’ll mix up your running days — four days will be challenging but not crazy, and some with easy ones thrown in between. And a rest day or two, of course.
  • If you’re learning chess or Go, you’ll do problems or drills that are hard for you, and also a bunch of easy ones. The easy one cement the patterns. The edge ones teach you new patterns.
  • If you’re creating a habit, like learning to meditate, start with just short meditations (let’s say 2-5 minutes), as that will be your edge when you start. But eventually you’ll want to do longer meditations (10 minutes, 20, even more), finding the spot that’s your edge. And mixing in some shorter, easier ones will help you stay sharp at your edge.
  • If you want to train yourself to get comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty, you find a way to make yourself uncomfortable each day, and practice mindfulness in the middle of that discomfort. For example, taking a cold shower might be your edge. But another day, you might just go outside when it’s a little chilly, with only a T-shirt on, for 20 minutes. You might practice at the edge of your discomfort with exercise, speaking on a stage, meditating for longer, etc.

The Way to Practice at Your Edge

When you’re at your edge, it’s one thing to just tolerate it, to grit your teeth and bear it until it’s over … and quite another thing to actually practice with the discomfort and uncertainty of being at that edge.

If you want to get the most out of practicing at your edge, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Go up to the edge and stay there for a little longer than you’d like. You want to collapse, you want to exit. Instead, hold the pose for a little longer. See it as your growth in action.
  2. Now drop mindfully into the discomfort & uncertainty. Drop into your body, noticing the sensations of the discomfort. Standing on stage in front of hundreds of people? Notice the sensations of anxiety or nervousness (or excitement, whatever you’d like to call it). Running a hard mile? Notice the sensations in your legs and torso.
  3. Practice opening in that uncertainty & discomfort. See what you can do to relax into this feeling of being at your edge. Can you bring a sense of curiosity? Explore the bodily feeling for a bit, noticing what it’s like. Relax your muscles around these sensations. Bring a sense of gentleness to it. A sense of compassion. A sense of humor. Open your mind to all sensations in the present moment, including the sense of discomfort but also all of your surroundings. Open up to a vast skylike mind.

With practice, your edge can even be a place where you find comfort. A sense of easy. A sense of joy at the deliciousness of the groundlessness.

Some Rules About the Rule of the Edge

The Rule of the Edge comes with a few sub-rules:

  1. Don’t always be at your edge. Ease off. Do some easy stuff too.
  2. Sometimes it’s OK to go past your edge, if you keep yourself safe. It’s a sense of exploration, finding new edges.
  3. Your edge will change over time. Notice how it shifts. Keep pushing a little further into your edge, if you sense the shift.
  4. Practice mindfully at your edge, don’t just try to get through it.
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The Beautiful and Scary Practice of Moving Closer

Life is full of all kinds of stresses, and each of us has habitual ways of reacting to those stresses — we procrastinate, run to comforts, lash out or distance ourselves from others, try to exit from a stressful place, mentally complain about others.

The sad effect of these habitual reactions is that they move us further away from others, and from the direct experience of the moment.

Let’s take a quick example: If you are hurt by the way someone is acting, your habitual reaction might be complaining about them, taking offense, getting angry (all of these or a combo). Then you shut them out, closing your heart to them, moving away from them.

The effect of this is that you’ve now distanced yourself from the other person. And I submit that this is the cause of most of our relationship problems, work issues, violence, racism, political strife, and wars.

Closing our hearts to others and creating distance from them out of habitual reaction to stress is the heart of aggression, violence and pain.

We do the same thing when it comes to our direct experience of the moment — if we’re bored, unhappy with our situation, unhappy with ourselves, stressed or tired … we habitually try to find comfort in food, drink, drugs, online distractions, TV or videos, shopping, porn, drowning everything out with music, and so on. We are moving away from the present moment, shutting out the world around us.

Moving ourselves away from the direct experience of this moment, out of habitual reaction, is the heart of our unhappiness and disconnect from life.

These are all based on the same problem — we have habitual reactions to stress, and those habitual reactions move us further from other people. From life itself. From ourselves.

Today, I’d like to offer you a practice that I’ve been exploring myself: the beautiful practice of moving closer.

It is scary, shaky, and transformative.

It goes like this:

  1. Notice that you’re feeling some kind of stress — anxiety, pain, struggle, frustration, overwhelm, sadness.
  2. Notice your habitual reaction to that stress: you procrastinate, try to exit, shut someone out, complain, run to one of your comforts, hide, quit, run away, lash out, yell, hit, medicate, etc.
  3. Refrain from indulging in your habitual reaction. Instead, just remain still. Instead of complaining, do nothing. Instead of spinning around a narrative about the other person and shutting them out, do nothing. Just refrain.
  4. Breathe deeply into the sensations in your body. When you refrain from your habitual reaction, you are left with an energy in your body that still really wants to do the habitual thing. It will be a strong urge. You just sit still. You do nothing. But you breathe deeply and relax around the energy in your body. Notice how it feels, in your torso. Be curious about it. Stay with it. Be present with it. Welcome it. Give it compassion.
  5. Now, move closer. Someone else stressing you out? After refraining from complaining about them, move closer to them. Open your heart and be fully present with them. Be completely loving. Yes, sometimes you have to physically protect yourself — but that doesn’t mean you have to shut down your heart. You can love the person who has hurt you, without letting them continue to hurt you. Maybe it’s not a person but a situation (or yourself) that’s stressing you out. You are filled with discomfort and uncertainty. You refrain from your habitual reaction, and instead you move closer to the direct experience of this moment. You open your heart to the world, and love it as it is. You love yourself as you are.

Continue to move closer. Continue to reopen your heart. From this place, see what action you need to take. Not from the place of habitual reaction.

It’s an incredibly beautiful practice. And yes, it’s filled with shakiness. That makes it even more courageous.

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