Building a New Life, Stone by Stone

Building a New Life, Jed Smith photography

Stone by Stone © 2018 Jed Smith

Building a new life means recognizing you may have to lay new stones and tear out old ones.

This realization has been smacking me in the face again and again lately. Just when I think I’ve shaken off the slumber of a lifetime of conditioning, I find myself all too often in the jaws of a repetitious past. Trying to reorchestrate my life with my move to Italy has shaken things up and challenged the status quo that remained hidden from my conscious awareness. I wanted change, and I got it in spades.

Bypassing the work and discomfort of changing one’s life just isn’t an option.

As I write this, I’m realizing that I should metaphorically duck the certain onslaught of rotten fruit and vegetables surely being hurled in my direction. Who am I to take the shine off of the nicely packaged ideas of moving to Italy or any similar major life change?

I’m one who continues to navigate the journey while discovering and stepping into the potholes of my conditioning. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade this for anything, but I wasn’t fully prepared for being pushed, actually shoved forcibly at times, out of my comfort zone.

A man building a cobblestone street taught me a few things.

Yesterday, wandering through our beautiful town, I came across several workers meticulously and artfully hammering cobblestones into place. As I studied the work of one man, it dawned on me that this was my life. We all receive messages from God, The Universe, or The Force, in different ways. My messages come most often through the lens of art.

What stands out to me in this photo? Well, this isn’t a new street. A large swath of the street had been torn out and new stones were being brought in. Old road work (my past, my conditioning) had to be removed first. Then, fresh cobblestones (new behaviors, new ways of viewing life) were being carefully placed in the beautiful fan work that characterizes so many Italian streets.

Yes, for me this was an appropriate visual metaphor for building a new life.

Now, let ask you some questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Can you approach your dream, your life change, with open hands?

Hands ready to receive what you can’t yet conceive? Don’t answer this too quickly like I did. We employ all sorts of self-trickery when we say that we’re open to the unknown. At our heart of hearts we humans want to be in control, and we certainly don’t want things to be messy or uncomfortable. More often than not, we hate surprises. This is understandable given all the stones of conditioning that have been hammered firmly into place. Those stones are our constant reference points. We say we’re open to new experiences, but really we mean we’re open as long as the new experiences aren’t too bumpy and soon manifest into our preconceived ideas of happiness.

What happens when life’s twists and turns are not in your plans?

Even with the best-laid plans and preparations for building a new life, there will be surprises and hurdles. If you’re not prepared for the unknown, if you’re not willing to bend and go with it, you could be in for a world of hurt.

Hollywood often helps light the fuse of the dream of living in Italy. But I’ve come across plenty of people, myself included, who arrived in Italy with scenes from movies like Under the Tuscan Sun playing in their minds. I can’t watch that particular movie now even though it does a stellar job of highlighting the beauty of Italy. For me, it sets up a very stilted and one-dimensional view of life in Italy, and it sets up the belief that in the end things will magically work out to similar Hollywood ending.

Do you even know what you want?

I thought I did. Some passions are clear as can be. Others? Not so much. Thank God my art is my constant beacon. But, in a broader sense, I’ve been shocked to realize just how many other people’s voices and beliefs have been hammered into my head. I’m discovering just how many of my wants instead are “shoulds”. Ouch.

Vonda Shepard, who wrote and performed much of the award-winning music on the long-running TV series, Ally McBeal, is incredibly gifted with her lyrics. In particular, her song “Mischief and Control” nails the basic dilemma that comes with building a new life and living authentically:

“There is a painter in all of us
She knows exactly which brush to choose
She knows exactly where to make a stroke
But there’s an army of voices
She might have to get through…” – Vonda Shepard, “Mischief and Control” from the album “It’s Good Eve”(buy it at amazon.com)

What about not living with a script in hand?

And what about not depending on the past to inform your future? Herein lies the invitation to step into the unknown.

For me, this has meant getting out of my head and making space for the unknown to come into my life––head and heart space for old stones of conditioning to be pried from their entrenchment while being replaced with new stones of behavior and being. It means dismantling old neural pathways that run our lives unconsciously and building new neural pathways that are in keeping with our true hearts’ desires.

Building a new life has potential to be immensely bigger and more gratifying if you’re willing to not insist on how it should be and then step into that scary place of saying “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

The crash-and-burn stories I’ve heard about people who’ve moved to Italy are usually of the ilk of people being miffed or frustrated that life in Italy didn’t turn out to be the easy fairytale vision they had of their new lives. Difficulties are labeled inconveniences rather than opportunities for learning and growing in a new culture.

The expats that I’ve seen thrive are those who roll with the punches, those who don’t stubbornly insist on life being equally as convenient and predictable as their former lives. They embrace stepping onto a path in a brand new land with surprises lying in wait. Sure, they’ve come armed with a compass for reference, and maybe a rough map, but ultimately they carry a recognition they’re in unchartered territory.

When it comes to building a new life, let your passion be your fuel.

Not your beliefs. Beliefs can be a cloak that seems to provide a sense of security and safety. Beliefs also can be a prison we build around ourselves. They can hold us back from real, expansive living. When you hone in on and set sail with your passions, watch out. Things happen.

“Passion is a rather frightening thing because if you have passion you don’t know where it will take you.”
― Jiddu KrishnamurtiFreedom from the Known

Finally, let there be space. Let there be stillness.

This invites the potential for the old, unhelpful patterns to fall away and for the unknown to start doing its magic. The benefit of stillness has been the hardest concept for me to get my head around simply because my head doesn’t know what to do with it. A mind that can’t explain something, much less control it, gets really cranky and starts jerking one’s metaphorical chain to get them back in line with what is known and familiar. Believe me, I’ve fought this part tooth and nail for a long time, but a mind run amuck without any real breathing room eventually burns out the throttle on one’s psyche.

For years I’ve been dragging my heels in regards to embracing meditation. Maybe it’s because one time, many, many years ago, I spent a full hour in an isolation tank (when they were all the rage). One hour alone with my mind left me practically running and screaming from anything that would again expose the chaos of my mind so blatantly.

I share this in case you have experienced anything similar and said: “Nope, not for me.” But here’s the big unlock for me, one that actually makes me laugh at myself. The mind hates being observed. So, initially, it resorts to turning up the volume. It throws up the threat of such deafening noise that it’s only natural to shut that door quickly and turn away. If you decide to persist, the mind’s second line of defense is turning it into yet another goal, another ideal, to which you certainly will measure yourself a dismal failure.

Don’t buy into this treachery.

Our minds don’t want us to reap the benefits of what’s on the other side of these snarling guard dogs. Our minds want our lives to be the same old thing.

I’ve recently adopted a regular meditation practice. Every person has to find what works best for them. Mine doesn’t include chanting, mantras or lighting candles in front of pictures of Jesus, prophets or sages. I pop on my headphones and play a variety of sounds from nature. In fact, I avoid anything that sounds human or mechanical. I harken to sounds that soothe my soul and slow down my heart and breathing. And when thoughts invariably want to use this as yet another playground for luring me into an endless loop of dialog with myself, I’ve learned to not chide myself. Instead, I gently lead myself back to my breath and the sounds of nature.

Meditation has several potential benefits. It reveals the theater of the mind. Living unconsciously means not being aware of our mind’s behaviors, leaving it to keep doing its thing unchecked while keeping us repeating our past and our conditioning. Secondly, meditation soothes the nervous system. Boy, have I needed that. I call it a bona fide vacation from myself. It starts balancing the scales of a psyche that has been out of whack.

Lastly, becoming still and inviting a deep and profound silence into your life on a regular basis allows the unknown to move and work. When we’re constantly sitting in the director’s chair, insisting on how everything must play out, the potential of the unknown remains sidelined.

Create space, be still, and the unknown will be at your side laying bricks of a new life.