The Art of Soulful Living

Ponder the soul; for it is the source of all our inspirations
for material, mental, and spiritual success. ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

When the Peace Corps sent Susana Herrera to teach English in northern Cameroon, she was ecstatic. In her book, “Mango Elephants in the Sun,” she describes how she wanted to blend in to her adopted village, to drink deep from the well of the spirit of Mother Africa – and to make a positive difference.

edit_MG_7112The villagers, however, regarded her as a rich privileged American tourist, a nasara (white person) who had never encountered hardship and suffering. The women in the village stared at her in silence when she went to the village well to pump water to fill her bucket. They laughed at her when her foot became entangled in her sarong causing her to trip and fall as she tried to balance the water bucket on her head. When she attempted to break the ice by engaging the village children in play, they ran from her screaming in fear. This was not the experience she expected.

Susanna didn’t want to be an outsider, but she could not have felt more isolated and alone. As she watched the village women sitting in their sacred sister circle, she noticed her neighbor Clotilde, also an outsider, arriving at the well. Clotilde had made friends with the women and had become a part of their daily lives. Intrigued by their acceptance of her, Susanna watched closely as Clotilde greeted each of the women asking, “Jam bah doo nah?” It means, “Are you in your skin?” or more accurately, “Is your soul in your body?” They respond to her enthusiastically exclaiming “Jam core doo may.” “Oh yes. I am in my skin. I am alive and in my skin. My soul is in my body.”

edit_MG_7008Each of us, like Susanna, has a need to belong, to feel a part of a community. We long for connection with others. It is natural. Being an outsider can cause us to feel the pain of alienation so we sometimes sacrifice our aloneness to be with others, trying to fit in, even when we are not welcomed. Although the circumstances vary, each of us at various times in our lives has had to confront our sense of isolation. As painful and scary as it can be, experiencing your aloneness can teach you how to enjoy the pleasure of your own company ~ how to welcome and fit in with yourself. Embracing aloneness teaches you how to sit through the discomfort of loneliness so you can get to the other side of it and realize it didn’t kill you. Embracing aloneness teaches you how to be in your own skin and prepares you for being in healthy relationship to others.

Sitting with our aloneness requires courage and begs the question, “How do I live in my own skin? How do I live with myself as an autonomous being?” Rabbi Tamara Kolton teaches that loneliness should not be avoided because it is the soul’s longing for itself. Loneliness, she says, is a sign of spiritual hunger pains.  It is the longing for connection not just to others; it is the invitation to come home to Self. Learning to cherish and enjoy your solitude rather than fearing and avoiding it allows you to actively begin to know and like yourself. It gives you time to think about how you want to be treated by others and time to practice treating yourself the way you want others to treat you.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert says that during her “Eat Pray Love” journey being alone prepared her for meeting her soul mate. Rather than avoiding her aloneness, she decided to treat herself like she was her own amazing boyfriend, taking herself on great dates, offering herself words of comfort, and asking herself everyday, “What do you need, dear one? What can I do for you?” She says she had the time of her life just being with herself enjoying the pleasure of her own company.

That is our work as evolving human beings. Before we can create optimal relationships with others we have to create optimal relationships with our Self. How? Learn to love your Self. Spend time alone with your Self. Loneliness is the opening to step more fully into your Self, into your Soul. To be able to enjoy aloneness we need to learn to endure loneliness, to go deep into it, and make friends with it.

When we miss the company of a friend, we reach out. We don’t hesitate to call, text, e-mail or visit.  So the next time you feel lonely, before you distract yourself by seeking the companionship of someone else, eating another cupcake, going shopping and spending money you don’t have, turning on the TV, or reaching for another glass of wine, put in a call to your Soul. Instead of reaching out, reach in and ask your Self, “Am I in my skin? Is my soul in my body?” Sit in your aloneness until the answer is “Yes, I am alive and in my skin. My soul is in my body.” And when that answer comes you know you have come home to the most important company you will ever keep – your Self. This is the art of Soulful living.

Namaste

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To Serve With Love

“Always give from the overflow of your well, not from its depth.”
~Sufi saying

october blog

There is a children’s story called The Giving Tree about a boy who is able to communicate with an apple tree. It begins, “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. As he grows older he starts to make requests of the tree.

As an adolescent, the boy wants money; the tree suggests that he pick and sell her apples, which he does. As a young adult, the boy wants a house; the tree suggests he cut her branches to build a house, which he does. In middle age, the boy wants a boat; the tree suggests he cut her trunk to make a boat, which he does, leaving only a stump.

Finally, the boy becomes a shriveled old man. He wants only “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the stump provides. The story ends,  “And the tree was happy.” As a young mother reading this story to my son, I interpreted its message to mean that giving away everything with no regard for self was the key to happiness. But unlike the Giving Tree, whenever I contemplated the possibility of a future as a stump, it never made me happy.

Most spiritual disciplines teach the virtues of sacrificial love. Setting aside your own needs to meet the needs of another is a beautiful form of love. But taking care of others becomes exhausting and unsustainable if you try to care for everyone else while neglecting your own needs. When the stress of continually being there for others is high, we can become overwhelmed by our own caregiving responsibilities and run the risk of burn out.

As I matured, I realized the key to selflessly serving others also involves self-nurturing. Only when we are nurtured is it easy to nurture others. When we do not nurture ourselves, we are unable to draw on qualities of love and compassion, and other spiritual values that support serving others. Ignoring our own needs renders us unable to give freely from a place of deep caring and compassion. When we give solely out of a sense of duty and obligation, without love and compassion, we feel resentful, taken advantage of, and depleted. In the end we can wind up feeling bitter and unhappy.

Secret Power of YogaIn yoga, selfless service to others is called Seva or Karma Yoga. In her book, The Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Joy Devi suggests that to effectively serve others selflessly we would be wise to serve ourselves as well. She introduces the practice of Karma Yoga for oneself. If done regularly, Karma Yoga for yourself aka self-care, even if it is only done for 20 minutes each day, can revitalize your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Sometimes we confuse self-care with self-pampering – designer clothes, gourmet dining, extravagant vacations, and other luxuries – or with self-indulgence – spending money you don’t have, vegging out in front of your television eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (pick your favorite flavor), or indulging in a television marathon to catch up on those five episodes of Scandal you missed. As long as you can afford the luxuries you buy…and as long as you don’t make a habit of reducing your stress by choosing quick fixes that don’t require much effort, there is nothing wrong with self-pampering or self-indulgence. It’s just not the same as self-care.

Self-care, or Karma Yoga for self, requires effort, focused attention and perseverance. It means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors. Self-care should include practices of serenity, exercise, love, and healthy food.

• When you are tired, rest and do practices that will quiet your brain like meditating, sitting quietly, using positive affirmations, or relaxation techniques.

• Get your life force flowing by walking, running, dancing, doing Tai Chi  or practicing yoga.

• Stay connected. Contact friends at least once or twice a week. Join a book club, or a walking group. Be involved in your community.

• Be mindful of what you put into your body, your mind and your spirit. Make sure your food diet, your thought diet, and your emotional diet are balanced and healthy. Abstain from substance abuse, pursue creative outlets, or engage in psychotherapy.

In the midst of the busyness of life, find what feeds and nurtures you. In order to serve others lovingly, we need to nourish ourselves. When you remember to selflessly serve yourself, service to others comes not from your depth, but from your overflow. And when that happens, like the giving tree, you will be happy (even if you are an old stump).

Namaste

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Make A Way Out of No Way

b_MG_7448There is a popular story–some call it an urban legend–that circulates about Itzhak Perlman, one of the greatest and most famous violinists of our time. He contracted polio as a child, requiring him to wear leg braces and walk with crutches. Now, at each concert performance, he makes a slow entrance on his crutches onto the stage, sits down, unclasps the braces on his legs and prepares to play. As the story goes, one evening in a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, he entered the stage in his usual way and began performing a challenging concerto. Near the middle of the performance one of the strings on his violin broke. Everyone in the audience could hear the loud snap. For any other violinist this would not have been a problem, embarrassing maybe, but not a problem. He would have simply gotten up, gone to the side of the stage and attached a new string or gotten another violin. The audience sat in silence waiting to see what Perlman would do. Would he have to put his braces back on and painstakingly make his way across the stage to find another violin?

They watched in wonder as he paused, closed his eyes, and remained still. Then he signaled for the conductor to begin again. Perlman picked up where he had left off and began passionately playing the piece in its entirety with only three strings. It was obvious watching him that he was creating, modulating, and reconfiguring the piece in his head to accommodate the absent string. At the end of the performance, there was an awed silence. Then the audience went wild, jumping to their feet in deafening applause. Perlman raised his bow to quiet the crowd. When the audience settled down he spoke in a reverent tone. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

Grandmothers used to call that making do with what you have; or making a way out of no way. In yoga making do with what you have, or finding a way out of no way, is one of 10 ethical principles practiced to cultivate inner harmony and strength. It is called the practice of Santosha, or contentment. To the yogi, practicing contentment is a wise way of making peace with our family, our community, and ourselves. It is a pathway to joy.

I used to think that making do was a sign of complacency, but I’ve come to recognize it as a way of being satisfied within the container of your own experience. It involves the practice of appreciating and wanting what you have instead of focusing your attention on having what you want.

Contentment should not be confused with complacency, which is a state of stagnation, or no growth. Rather, contentment is a sign that we are at peace with our circumstances, and ourselves. Being content does not mean that we have to settle for what we don’t want, whether it is a toxic relationship, unbearable living conditions, or inhumane working conditions. Contentment starts with accepting reality as it is, not as we want it to be. Accepting reality can lead us to make the necessary changes that result in an overall sense of well-being.

Paradoxically, accepting reality as it is can help us develop a greater capacity for hopefulness. It opens us to the possibility of a better situation than the one we may find ourselves in. The Perlman parable teaches us that by accepting reality as it is instead of longing for something different, we can learn to make something beautiful with what we have left.

Contentment is not the same as happiness. We all face difficult times in our lives. But it is possible to find contentment even in painful circumstances through acceptance of the situation. In the case of a devastating illness, loss, or other unwelcomed circumstance, we may go through various stages of emotional turmoil such as denial, anger, and depression before we reach acceptance. But it is possible to find contentment and inner peace, even then.

No matter what your circumstance, there is always the possibility of living life more fully. Contentment is the ability to appreciate how much you have, rather than how much you want. As we cultivate this attitude within ourselves we become more stable in our ability to remain joyful even when things don’t go as we planned or as we hoped they would. When we find a way to make do with what we have we have opened the door to making a way out of no way, to finding peace and contentment within ourselves, and to becoming joyful beyond measure.

Namaste

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Go With the Flow

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“Everything must change. Nothing stays the same. Everyone will change no one stays the same…There are not many things in life you can be sure of, except rain comes from the clouds, sun lights up the sky, and hummingbirds do fly.”
Benard Ighner

There is a story you may have heard about a postman on his mail delivery route who happened to see a man sitting on his porch. Next to the man was a whimpering dog. The postman asked the man, “What’s wrong with your dog?” The man said, “He’s laying on a nail.” The postman was confused. “Laying on a nail?,” he said. “Well, why doesn’t he get up?” The man replied, “It’s not hurting bad enough.”

This story is often told by motivational speakers as a way to point out the absurdity of remaining in a painful situation, and to encourage people to get off their own personal nails and make the necessary changes that will ease their discomfort. Coming off the nail could mean leaving an unhappy relationship, a dead-end job, or fulfilling a lifelong dream. But the parable leaves out an important element. Change is risky and can be accompanied by sadness, fear, regret, anger, and disappointment. If you stepped on a nail, it would obviously be painful and you would want to remove it. But before it feels better, removing the nail hurts, sometimes more than staying on it. Truth be told, there are times when we’d rather adjust to and accept a familiar hurt than risk the discomfort of change, even if the change we face leads to something better.

Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, change is always occurring and with it comes uncertainty. It may manifest as an unwelcomed illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or as an opportunity, like an unexpected promotion, or the finalization of an adoption, an event you’d given up hope would ever occur. You might experience a change of heart, like a vacation you thought you wanted to take with friends, but at the last minute you decide to stay at home. It could be a failed relationship. No matter what it is, accepting change and adjusting to it can be tough.

Clinging to the familiar is a normal part of the process of accepting change. Once we realize and accept the fact that change has actually occurred, we find ourselves living with the anxiety of not knowing what lies ahead. That can be disorienting. To ease the anxiety we alternate between clinging to the way things were, and frantically searching for what’s next.

Rather than remaining stuck in how you wish things were, and before you rush into how you hope things will be, take some time to reflect on how you feel right now about the change that has occurred. You can’t “put the past behind you and move on” without saying goodbye to what you are leaving. Let yourself experience the impact the change has had on you, even if it hurts.

There is wisdom to be gained by reflecting on change, its inevitability, and how to gracefully accept it. The ability to embrace change is an essential part of living. Accepting the pain that sometimes comes with it is fundamental to the embrace of life itself. Where there is life there is change. Without change there is no growth and no life. To align with life, we must become one with change and “go with the flow.”

In the spirit of embracing change, it seems fitting to share some wisdom that can help us look at change through fresh eyes. It is wisdom we can turn to for comfort, reassurance, and clarity as we courageously build the bridge we walk across into an uncertain future. Consider this:

“The life you have been living has outgrown its form, and must die so new energy can be released. May you undergo a death within your self. You are always free to resist, but remain mindful that the new life is always greater than the old. Prepare then for opportunity disguised as loss.”
The Rune of Termination and New Beginnings

Namaste

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20/20 Insight

Recently I watched a documentary called “Dark Girls” produced by Bill Duke, in which various shades of brown-skinned American women of African ancestry described their experiences of being shunned, bullied, and made to feel inferior because of their dark skin. These women were beautiful, but had been made to feel unattractive and unwanted in a culture that regards certain differences as odd, foreign, threatening or, even worse, repulsive.

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Whether or not we know it, like it, or believe it, deviations from deeply embedded, culturally accepted stereotypes shape our attitudes toward what is acceptable and what is not, as well as who is acceptable and who is not.

Americans have been acculturated to regard certain types of beauty, usually fair skin, straight blond hair, blue eyes, toothpick thin, no curves (except maybe for large breasts), as the standard by which to evaluate women as worthy, beautiful, smart (or not), pleasing, and acceptable. And there are other stereotypes that shape our consciousness and affect our attitudes toward race, ethnicity, religion, body type, gender, political affiliation, gun ownership, physical ability, intellectual prowess, age, and more.

Attitudes operate on two levels – consciously and unconsciously. They reflect our thoughts, influence our words, and manifest in our actions. Our conscious attitudes are made up of what we are aware of, what we choose to believe. Our unconscious attitudes are those knee jerk reactions and automatic associations that lurk beneath the surface of our awareness. These unconscious attitudes could be entirely incompatible with what we say we believe.

We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes; we’re obviously not aware of them, and therein lays the problem. Unless you become aware, the unconscious may cause you to say or do things that embarrass you and unintentionally harm other people. We see this all the time in media reports of people falsely accused of wrong doing based on their looks alone, or the latest high-profile politician, celebrity, or religious leader who has to publicly apologize for making outrageously offensive remarks about a group of people or an individual who doesn’t fit their stereotype of acceptability.

There is an ongoing national conversation about how to cultivate inclusive attitudes and behaviors that embrace and celebrate all types of difference, and that challenge cultural stereotypes. The yoga community in the United States is an important part of this conversation.

The word “yoga” means to connect or to join with. Yoga really is for everybody, not just for those who look a certain way, think a certain way, and act a certain way. We can easily forget this and be lulled into thinking of union as sameness, ignoring the reality and the value of difference.

Some of us have been taught to ignore difference, learning that it doesn’t really matter and shouldn’t exist in our minds. But that’s delusional. Any observant human being knows that difference does exist and it does matter.

Ignoring differences might give you a feeling of comfort or security, but it creates disconnection between people and makes intimacy impossible. It also sets you up to be highjacked by unconscious attitudes.

Our attitudes around difference may not always be conscious, but through the practice of compassionate Self–Study we can become conscious of them.

If we choose to live a conscious life, we can benefit from checking our attitudes. With awareness we can rid ourselves of unconscious prejudices and shape our consciousness to be open to, embrace, and celebrate a culture that is becoming more varied and expansive every moment. If you’re curious and want to learn more about your deep seated attitudes regarding a variety of differences including race, gender, ethnicity, weight, skin tone, religion, sexuality and more, go to www.implicit.harvard.edu and take the test that reveals your unconscious attitudes about difference. It’s a real eye opener and remember: 20/20 insight is a precursor to change.

Namaste

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Delight in Stillness

“Go to your room!” “Sit still until I tell you to move!” “You need a time out!” For those of us who grew up hearing these words when we misbehaved, is it any wonder that as adults we have an aversion to being still, to being quiet, or to being alone? When stillness, time-out, and alone time are used as forms of punishment, how likely is it that we would look forward to, much less be able to delight, in stillness?

Dr. Gail Parker

Even though this may be unconscious, on top of associating being still with being “bad,”  many of us associate being still with doing nothing, and we associate doing nothing with being lazy. As children many of us were criticized and made to feel ashamed of being lazy. No one wants to be judged as being either “bad” or lazy so we keep busy. A lot of the time we are not really accomplishing much, we’re just busy being busy to avoid the unpleasantness we associate with being still.

Take Sunny for example. Busy all the time, she rarely takes time out for herself because there is always so much to do for everyone else. As the primary caregiver for her aging parents, full-time teacher, wife and the mother of three school-aged children, she has her hands full–which is the reason she gives for not being able to slow down and relax. She wants to enjoy taking time out for herself, but never seems able to manage it.

On the surface, given all that’s going on in her life, it makes sense that Sunny is in perpetual motion. When she began to dig a little deeper to find why she was unable to enjoy being still, she noticed that whenever she tried to relax she became physically and emotionally agitated, which to her way of thinking defeated the purpose. So she avoided being still and relaxing even though she knew it would be good for her. “It makes me feel anxious and guilty,” she would say.

When Sunny began to practice yoga, she felt calmer until the final pose of the practice, savasana, which she regarded as a waste of time. This is where you lie awake in stillness, tuning in to your body, your emotions and your mind, letting go completely as you enter into a state of profound relaxation. Sunny was quite unfamiliar with this state of mind. Inevitably, her unconscious “stuff” would come to the surface. The good thing about that is, it allowed her to become aware that she associated being still with being punished. This awareness helped her understand her resistance to taking the time to be still, both on and off her yoga mat. With this awareness she was able, with intention and practice, to learn to associate stillness with something positive that could enhance her life.

Dr Gail ParkerIn order to delight in stillness, we need to have pleasant associations with being still.

If you have trouble being still and relaxing unless you are asleep or distracted by television, music, or some other passive activity, here are some suggestions for making stillness a pleasant experience.

While you practice being still:

Engage your imagination by visualizing a game from childhood that requires stillness. Freeze tag, Statues, or Red Light/Green Light are some examples. Remembering how much fun that was will help you associate stillness with something joyful.

Imagine all the good things you have to look forward to, or recall all the good things that have happened to you during the day.

Remember a pleasant time of being still, a day alone on the beach enjoying the warmth of the sun with no place to go, and nothing else to do.

Envision holding a baby close to your heart, feeling his/her warmth and synchronizing your breath and heart beat with the baby’s.

Come up with your own version of what makes stillness a delight, and soon dropping into relaxation will become a pleasure.

Relaxation is not a waste of time, and the benefits are worth it. Decreased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and anxiety are just some of the benefits. Relaxation also increases your energy level, stimulates memory, improves your ability to focus, enhances sleep, strengthens your immune system and gives you an overall sense of well-being.

Make time-out a reward, not a punishment. Remember, just because you seem to be doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing is happening.

Namaste

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Light on Secrecy

“Listen, 
Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?”
The Beatles

Whether it’s an embarrassing story, a secret crush, or a family skeleton, each of us needs someone to confide in. Yet some truths seem so deep and dark we keep them hidden from everyone–our parents, our spouse, our siblings, a best friend–hoping no one will ever find out about them.

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The problem with carrying around a secret is that it can be toxic, costing you peace of mind, happiness, even your health. Keeping secrets interferes with your ability to be yourself, and to be intimate with others. Hiding parts of your personal history takes energy and is stressful. Ongoing stress poses a health problem due to increased hormone levels that cause inflammation and compromise the immune system. These are some of the reasons keeping secrets is a dangerous practice.

While growing up, Doreen was embarrassed by her mother’s behavior on more than one occasion. Doreen’s mother was an alcoholic. At times she could be sweet, loving, rational and fun. At other times she was volatile, emotionally labile and depressed. She was unreliable and her behavior was unpredictable. Doreen loved her mother, but was ashamed of the way she acted when she was drinking. She never knew what to expect and so as a child she never invited friends to her house, a habit she continued into her adult life.

Although she was ashamed of her, even as an adult Doreen felt protective of her mother. She didn’t want anyone to judge her or her mother negatively, so whenever conversations about childhood would come up among friends, Doreen would change the subject. She didn’t want anyone to know about her mother’s drinking. But keeping this secret locked inside made it impossible for Doreen to ever feel truly at ease in her friendships, leading to chronic anxiety and bouts of loneliness and depression.

It doesn’t matter what your secret is: hiding debt, telling or concealing a lie, secretly eating, covering up physical and sexual abuse. Keeping secrets is a form of dishonesty that causes harm to us physically, psychologically and spiritually, and sometimes causes harm to others. Yoga teaches us that truthfulness is a guiding principle of our practice both on and off our yoga mat. We learn that by shining a light on the hidden places within ourselves we can safely avoid their stress-related consequences. Even though the thought of revealing a secret can seem scary, once you take that first step, it gets easier.

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When you’re preparing to be open with others about a secret you’ve been harboring, a good first step is to be honest with yourself. Journal, write a poem, draw a picture or even write a song about the secret. When you feel more comfortable about sharing the secret, try role-playing what you’ll say with a trusted friend before you reveal the secret directly to others. If you don’t feel comfortable divulging the secret to someone you know, seek help from a professional who is obligated to maintain confidentiality.

When Doreen could no longer tolerate feelings of loneliness and isolation, she sought counseling. Being able to share all that she felt about her mother’s alcoholism helped her to become more comfortable in her own skin. She realized that by trying to keep her personal history a secret, she was actually repressing other parts of her self. Years of holding her self back caused her to lose touch with who she really was, undermining any chance for lasting joy and deep happiness. By sharing her secret in a safe place with a safe person, Doreen learned to be more open with her friends. She began to talk more freely with them about her past when it came up. To her surprise no one held any of her past against her. In fact, they seemed to like her more for her openness.

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Here are some suggestions that can help make sharing your secret a positive experience:

  • Choose someone who is trustworthy, a good listener, open-minded, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental.
  • Choose a place where you have sufficient privacy and a time where there are no distractions.
  • Choose someone whose loyalties are not divided and who will not feel the need to tell another friend or his or her spouse what you’ve shared.
  • Keep in mind that therapists and clergy are sworn to maintain confidentiality so long as your secret doesn’t involve doing potential harm to yourself or another person.

Remember what matters most is not your secret. What really matters are the friends and family who still love you once you share the truth with them.

Namaste

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