One decision, made almost twenty years ago, altered the course of my life and brought us here together in this moment. Since then I've come to believe that my life is guided by a powerful Divine force, and when I choose to align myself with this energy, the best and most advantageous path unfolds before me.
I've also learned that there are no coincidences. Every event we experience and every person we meet has intentionally been put in our path to help raise our level of consciousness. When we awaken to this fundamental truth, life becomes a true adventure, a spiritual adventure. The person who smiles at you while you're walking down the street is no longer a stranger. The phone call from an old friend who crossed your mind the day before is no longer a surprise. And the failed relationship that left you broken-hearted is no longer a source of bitterness and pain. Instead it's seen as a blessing in disguise, a gift that makes you stronger, more conscious, and ultimately, more alive.
Over time, as you come to understand these events for what they really are, you recognize that a benevolent force of energy has been available to guide and direct your life all along. I call this energy "the unmistakable touch of grace."
Grace comes from the Latin word gratia, meaning favor, charm, or thanks. Spiritual traditions from around the world each share a similar understanding of this word. For example, in Sanskrit, grace is akin to the word grnati, which means He praises, and to call or invoke. In Christian terms, grace is defined as the infinite love, mercy, favor, and goodwill shown by God to humankind. In Judaism, the concept of grace is expressed by the Hebrew word hesed, meaning mercy, or loving-kindness. Grace is seen as a creative force -- an act of exceptional kindness and goodness. And my friend, Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within, and a leading Buddhist teacher, says, "Grace is the 'isness' of life. It's the recognition that everything is connected and sacred. The more in touch we are with this natural abundance of life, the less we need."
To me, grace is a kind of spiritual intelligence, a form of energy that comes from the Divine Source. This energy is available to each and every one of us at any moment. When we connect with and trust this Higher Power and follow its lead, we step into alignment with a larger vision for our lives. We wake up and suddenly become aware of signs, symbols, and messages that lead us to our highest good.
How do you arrive at a place where you view your life from this perspective? By opening your eyes and your heart to a new way of looking at yourself and the world. One decision is all it takes to get started. From there, your life can change in ways you never could have imagined.
Many people begin this journey when faced with a life crisis or challenge that inspires them to begin making different choices. I've seen it time and again in my career as a coach. "Life change" has been the focus of my work for the last eighteen years. I've taught self-management techniques, offered strategies to eliminate procrastination and energy drains, and preached the gospel of self-care from one end of the country to the other. Along the way I've helped people to see the meaning and purpose behind what appear to be random, everyday events that are, in fact, signposts directing them to a new and better life.
My first two books were primarily focused on helping readers to manage their external lives -- finances, relationships, or busy schedules. My most recent book, Stand Up for Your Life, shifted gears and challenged readers to turn inward to develop the qualities of character that would allow them to live a more soul-directed life. My writing and teaching have always been a direct result of my own experience. For example, I wrote my first book, Take Time for Your Life, because I didn't have one. And, as I became better able to honor my top priorities, I shared what I learned with others.
Finding the Right Direction
As I considered the topic for this book, I felt conflicted. My head told me to continue to write about tangible topics like overcoming procrastination or improving financial health -- topics that I knew were important to my readers' lives. Yet, as I began to develop these ideas on paper, I quickly discovered that my heart wasn't in it. I felt moved to write from a deeper, more personal place about my emergence from an unconscious life and my evolving spiritual journey. I wanted to share what I had learned about the myths of success and the reality of what I believe it takes to lead a meaningful life. I worked on outlines for two different books, and then, faced with a deadline, I did what I often do when I need clarity and inspiration -- I went to the beach.
I am blessed to have six miles of federally protected shoreline on an island near my home. The coastline stretches out farther than the eye can see, and I can get lost for hours in the beauty of the open ocean. Once there, I walked along the water's edge and began to pray out loud. "Dear God, I have to make a decision about my next book and I don't know what to do. I'm tired of struggling so I'm surrendering it all to you. Please allow me to be open to seeing the right choice." Then, I continued my walk.
Sometime later the phrase "the unmistakable touch of grace" popped into my head. "Hmm," I thought, "what a beautiful expression." As I slowly made my way down the beach I started to think about how grace has influenced my life.
Since my late twenties, I started noticing unusual occurrences, what some would call coincidences, that provided me with guidance and direction when I felt lost or unsure of myself. I remember one incident early in my career as a professional speaker, when I felt stuck and questioned whether I should continue. I had been looking for a speaker's bureau to represent me and was having trouble finding one. The pressure of trying to make it work was frustrating and one morning, as I was ready to throw in the towel, my phone rang. When I picked it up and said hello, I heard a woman's voice say, "Faith?" "Excuse me?" I replied. "Who are you looking for?" "Faith Richardson," she answered, and a few seconds later the phone went dead. I stood in my living room staring at the receiver in my hand. A smile slowly crossed my face as I realized I had my answer. I needed to trust myself and hang in there. I needed to have faith.
As I thought more about the unmistakable touch of grace during my walk, I could also see that writing about this topic would address the epidemic of fear, anxiety, and disconnectedness I've found in audiences while speaking throughout the country. As I talk to people about their lives, I often see a distant, almost vacant look in their eyes -- a look that says "I'm so busy trying to survive my life that I have no soul left to live it." The events of September 11, and the chaos in the Middle East, along with the overwhelming amount of information and stimuli that assault us on a daily basis, have caused our anxiety levels to soar. Living on the edge of uncertainty has made fight or flight our standard operating mode.
As technology continues to give people more ways to intrude on our time, we end up retreating from the world in an attempt to shelter ourselves from a busy, chaotic life. Clients often tell me that they spend so much time on the phone or computer communicating with people at work that they no longer have the energy or desire to talk with their friends or family when they get home. As a result, our most soul-nourishing relationships start to deteriorate and we end up feeling lonely and isolated. We can try to fill the hollowness inside with everything from the latest reality TV show, to overspending, or the restless pursuit of a purposeful career, only to be disappointed when the emptiness remains. It's no wonder most of us feel as though something essential is missing from our lives. There is. We are starved for a connection to the sacred dimension of life.
I understand the dilemma. I feel privileged to have experienced the kind of success that most people only dream of. I've written books that have made the New York Times bestseller list, built a large online community that brings together thousands of people from around the world, and had the amazing opportunity to lead a series on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." As my career took off and my schedule filled up, I got seduced by my own busy life and lost sight of my spiritual center. I became more focused on leaping the next highest bar. One bestseller wasn't enough. There had to be another. As soon as I accomplished an important goal, I automatically moved on to the next, never allowing myself an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my hard work. Enough was never enough and even when I knew better, it still wasn't enough. These accomplishments (and the life lessons that ensued) gave me the rare opportunity to know for sure that no amount of money, popularity, or success can give us the happiness and peace we all long for. This comes from the daily rituals and practices that keep us connected to our spiritual core.
As someone who has dedicated her life to helping people honor their values and most treasured priorities, it's clear to me the answer to living a genuine, soul-directed life is not just about practicing time management techniques or self-care strategies. While these tools are important, as long as we look for solutions in the outer world to calm our fears and anxieties, or to alleviate our loneliness, we'll always be disappointed. Instead, we need to go deeper. We must embrace what great spiritual teachers have known all along -- freedom from suffering and true happiness are found in the connection we share with a power greater than us all.
I left the beach that day with a greater sense of clarity and feeling more excited about the direction I wanted this book to take. So I made a decision to sit with the phrase, "the unmistakable touch of grace," to see what happened.
Later that night while lying in bed, I continued to reflect on my experience and relationship with grace. I truly believe that more than anything else, my commitment to live a spiritually based life has been the source of my success. The more I surrender my will to the Divine, the less I've had to worry about how to achieve anything. Instead, the path finds me. Grace leads me to the exact events and experiences I need at exactly the right time.
There have been striking examples of this throughout my life. Sometimes the messages were like whispers -- an unexpected e-mail with a helpful invitation, or a call from a colleague at the exact moment I needed support. Other times, they were like a loud roar commanding my attention. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Several years ago, my friend Max and I were having a conversation during a sunset walk along the beach. I had just ended a five-year relationship and felt conflicted about my decision. Deep in my heart I knew separating was the right choice, yet I kept feeling pulled to call my former partner to give it one more try. Max, being the good friend that she is, encouraged me to stay true to myself. She suggested that I focus on my own self-care and the new emerging chapter of my life.
Like so many of us who go through a tough life transition, I felt pulled in two directions. In my heart I knew that I needed to hold still and stay strong, but my head screamed, "Call him!" I felt as though I was caught in an emotional battle of wills, struggling to keep the peace between two feuding factions.
As Max and I continued our conversation, I said that I needed a sign -- some kind of divine confirmation to help me make the right choice. Just then, I looked up and saw a man running toward us. He was striking; muscular and tanned, with piercing blue eyes. When he passed us, Max and I looked at each other and smiled, acknowledging his powerful energy. We continued our walk and eventually headed for the car.
Arriving at the parking lot, we sat down to put on our shoes. Taking one more look out over the ocean, I once again saw the same man running back down the beach. As my eyes followed him, he suddenly stopped, bent down and started to scratch something in the sand with his finger. After a few moments he finished and continued on his way. Max and I immediately ran to see what he had written.
When we arrived at the water's edge we found the words MENTAL TOUGHNESS scrawled in the sand. Stunned, I stood looking at the words, amazed at how appropriate and timely they were for me. When I glanced up to find the angel who had delivered this message, he was nowhere in sight. Instantly I felt a sense of relief and reassurance. I knew I had my answer -- hold still and stay strong.
Stories like this are powerful examples of grace in action. They give us comfort and a sense of direction. Sometimes we see the influence of grace in hindsight when we step back and view our lives from a higher perspective. When I look back at my early years in high school, I can see that the two teachers who fueled my passion for reading set the stage for my future career as a writer. Or, the difficulties I faced in my relationships with men were exactly what I needed to build the solid core of self-esteem and inner strength that I would rely on to face the challenges of life. Even the most agonizing experiences of all -- the death of a loved one and the diagnosis of a serious illness, turned out to be blessings; pivotal events that dramatically altered the way I live my life today.
Conducting My Own Experiment
The morning after the phrase "the unmistakable touch of grace" first came to me, I woke feeling energized and excited. If I was going to write about grace, I wanted to engage this energy and allow it to guide my next steps. I made a decision to keep that phrase in my mind and watch for what showed up in my life. Almost immediately I began to see the signs.
That afternoon a friend called, excited to share a story of what she called synchronicity. Emma was a new writer who'd been invited to submit an article to her local newspaper. Even though she'd done a terrific job with her first draft, she kept procrastinating about finishing it up and sending it to her editor. After admitting her hesitation, Emma revealed that, like most new writers, she was afraid of having her article rejected. Each time she got close to hitting the send button on her e-mail, she'd freeze and back away.
Two days later, Emma attended a professional women's luncheon. When introductions were being made around the table, Emma was shocked to discover that the assistant editor of the newspaper was sitting next to her. During the meal, the two women struck up a conversation and Emma shared her dilemma about the article. The editor, sympathetic to the anxiety that new writers experience, offered to look at the article, off the record, and suggest changes if necessary. Her support was all Emma needed. When she arrived home after the luncheon, she immediately sent the article to the editor. Three weeks later, she was a published writer.
Was it merely a coincidence that Emma was seated next to this editor? Could be. But after the many times I've witnessed these kinds of events, both in my life and in the lives of others, I no longer believe this to be the case. Instead, I see them as examples of how recognizing and acting on the effects of grace leads us in the best direction for our lives.
The signs continued. Later that week while driving to the cleaners to pick up a dress for an anniversary celebration with my husband, Michael, I noticed the beautiful peonies that were blooming in our neighborhood. These flowers had been a special part of our wedding day and I made a mental note to pick some up on my way home. When I finished my errands, I pulled in the driveway, only to realize that I had forgotten to get the flowers. Feeling pressed for time, I decided to let it go. I parked the car, gathered my bags, and headed for the front door.
Just then my neighbor, Gail, arrived with a gorgeous bunch of pink and white peonies in her arms. "Hey Cheryl," she said, "I just finished cutting these from my garden and wondered if you might like some." I smiled, feeling strongly that, once again, I was touched by the hand of grace. To me, it was one more sign that I was on the right track with the book.
dThere were plenty of other signs telling me that I needed to write about grace. A favorite magazine arrived with a cover story entitled "Living a Life of Grace." After discussing the idea of grace with a member of my staff, she called later that day to say that grace had been the topic of her yoga class. And of course, it seemed that every time I got in my car to drive somewhere a Grace Happens bumper sticker was staring me in the face.
The final message came two days later after a speaking engagement in Manhattan. While there, I had dinner with a friend who introduced me to a woman named Michele. Michele was an intuitive consultant and writer. During our conversation, she suggested that I take a look at her website to learn more about her work. As I jotted down her address, Michele also said, "Be sure to check out 'word magic.' It's an area that visitors seem to love." I included word magic in my notes and continued our conversation.
The next day, as I sat in my office going through the notes from my trip, I came across Michele's information. I logged on to her website and clicked on the phrase, word magic. I discovered that it was a prophetic game whereby the visitor holds a question in mind while several colored spheres circle around the page to the sound of calming music. Then, when ready, the visitor clicks on a sphere to reveal a word that represents the answer.
As I watched the spheres on the screen I focused on my question: "Which topic do I need to write about in my next book?" Then, I stopped for a moment, closed my eyes and pictured the spheres. When I opened my eyes I was immediately drawn to a lavender colored one, and, without hesitation, clicked on it and waited to see what happened. I saw the word grace appear and float slowly toward me on the screen. I felt chills run through my body; I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
Being a skeptic by nature, I immediately called Michele. Like so many of us who get Divine signs, I doubted my experience and wanted to know what the odds were of seeing the word grace. I was convinced that each of the eight spheres represented one word and I had a one out of eight chance of choosing it -- odds that, to me, weren't very impressive. As luck would have it, Michele immediately picked up the phone. She was shocked to hear my voice on the other end. "I was just sending you an e-mail." Another coincidence?
When I asked Michele about the game, she told me that there were more than seventy-five words available to be assigned to a sphere at any given moment. And, since the words were assigned at random with each visit to her site, the chances of choosing the sphere that represented grace was pretty slim. Several weeks later my friend Ed, a mathematics professor, confirmed this when he informed me that the odds of seeing that word appear were more than a 0million to one.
Some might say that these events were simply the result of focusing my attention on the topic of grace. And, in the past, I would have thought so too. But, experience has taught me that these examples are not just the result of wishful thinking. They are a response from a Divine Source that guides and directs my life.
Science tells us that the universe vibrates with the same force of energy that created it in the first place; the same energy that created you and me. As we raise our level of consciousness and learn to work in partnership with this Divine energy, it provides a feedback loop of sorts, a way of communicating with us that takes the form of signs. The more awake or conscious we are, the better able we are to see these signs for what they really are -- unmistakable evidence of how grace shapes our lives.
My friend Peter, a recovering alcoholic, said it well: "Before I got sober, I couldn't see a Divine sign if it hit me in the face. I was living under the influence, too unconscious to recognize that a power greater than myself was attempting to offer the guidance and support I needed to change my life. When I finally woke up and got into recovery, things changed dramatically. Suddenly I could see the gifts of grace everywhere. They were constant reminders that I was not alone and that as long as I stayed sober and paid attention, I'd be guided to the life I was meant to live."
I've watched this same kind of thing happen in my work with clients. Regardless of their beliefs or spiritual orientation, once clients made the decision to wake up, they could see and experience grace. For example, I'd watch the president of a company cut back on his hours at work to spend more time with his family, only to have his sales increase. Or, conversely I'd see a stay-at-home mom with special artistic talent decide to bring her paintings to a gallery where an influential owner would steer her to great success.
Over time, as I watched what happened, one thing became quite clear -- grace was unmerited. People didn't need to work hard to earn it, feel worthy enough to deserve it, or surrender their needs to receive it. The gift of grace had been available all along. They just needed to be awake enough to see it. Then, from this more conscious perspective, they would engage this power as they faced the truth about what wasn't working in their lives and began making changes. Doors would open, resources would appear, and a veil of uncertainty would lift, revealing their next step. Seeing evidence of grace allowed them to trust that there was a higher purpose for their lives, and this fueled a desire for a more conscious relationship with this Divine, creative force.
Some clients called this force God; others called it Providence, the Universe, or Spirit. There were some who had no name at all. They had lost touch with a spiritual way of life or had experienced a crisis of faith, when they felt angry with God or disconnected altogether. As a result, they needed to redefine their relationship with a Higher Power. I had been through this process myself. For years I felt uncomfortable with the word God because of the fear-based, parental relationship I had been encouraged to form during my early religious training. It wasn't until years later, when I made a conscious decision to combine the comforting, religious rituals of my youth with the spiritual values and practices I developed as an adult, that I would establish a new relationship with God. Although I now feel comfortable using the word God, I often use the word Divine when working with clients, in an effort to be respectful of their beliefs. Based on what I saw happening around me, it was clear that grace was operating in the lives of the people I worked with, regardless of their religious orientation.
I began to understand the significance of the phrase "the unmistakable touch of grace," and I was starting to believe more strongly that my prayer on the beach had pointed me in the right direction. Once I decided to move forward, I went back through my life looking for how my own relationship with grace had evolved over time. I read through twenty-five years worth of journals, and when I was finished, spoke with friends, clients, and members of my online community about their experiences with grace. As I sorted through this information, I wanted to find a way to help people open more fully to the presence of grace in their lives. This book is the result of that journey.
By embarking on this adventure you'll awaken to the presence of grace in your own life and sometimes, the lives of others. Whether you already feel a connection to a Higher Power or not, pretty soon you'll find that your anxiety, fear, or uncertainty about the future will gradually be replaced with the comfort and security of knowing:
· You are not alone. There is a powerful, supportive energy guiding your life and it always has your best interest at heart. When you call upon it for guidance and support, it will respond. Spiritual signposts will be put in your path to guide you to your highest good. Follow them!
· You have a higher purpose for your life. The more you surrender to Divine will and allow grace to lead, the more you'll find that the right doors open to support you in fulfilling your life's purpose. You'll learn to recognize and respond to them. Walk through those doors with courage and faith.
· You have what it takes to face any life challenge. As a human being you will experience loss, disappointment, failure, and fear. But you don't have to suffer. As a matter of fact, your most challenging life circumstance may turn out to be your greatest blessing. Your reliance on the power of grace will give you the faith and spiritual fortitude to face life's ups and downs with confidence and poise.
· You are a student in the school of life. As you view your life from a higher, more spiritual perspective, you'll begin to see that everything happens for a reason. Every event, experience, and person you encounter is intended to support your soul development. Take advantage of these opportunities.
· You have the peace and happiness you desire already within you. When you deepen your connection to the Divine by balancing activity with silence, you'll discover the true source of all joy and happiness. You'll experience a heightened sensitivity to beauty, deep inner peace, and a profound feeling of connectedness to all living things. Enjoy these gifts.
The journey you're about to take is exciting and full of promise. As you read through each chapter, allow yourself to drink in the inspiration of the stories first, without worrying about having to do anything. Stories themselves are a powerful source of grace. They give us insight and provide us with inspiration that shifts our thinking or way of being in the world.
Once you've finished reading a chapter, you'll be ready to conduct the experiment.
At the end of each chapter I've included an experiment designed to help you recognize and use the power of grace in your own life. Think of yourself as a spiritual scientist, ready to explore new territories that will alter your view of the world forever. You may also want to assemble your own team of scientists. Invite one or more people to work through this book with you. While you can conduct these experiments on your own, you'll dramatically increase your ability to see the influence of grace in your life by witnessing its effects on others. If you're unable to find someone, don't worry. We've made it easy for you to locate like-minded people in your community, by using our free global database of Life Makeover Groups on our website at www.cherylrichardson.com. There you'll find all the tools and resources you need to find or start a group in your hometown. As I write this book, more than four thousand groups are already in action around the world.
The Resource Sections
At the end of each experiment I've included a list of resources to help further your spiritual exploration. These books, websites, and other programs have been helpful during the various stages of my journey. They provide a variety of perspectives and teachings. And, while some 0may contain information or opinions that differ from your own, I encourage you to keep an open mind. The influence of grace is often found in unexpected places.
This book is filled with stories of how grace has touched my life and the lives of clients, friends, and members of our online community. While some stories may seem unbelievable, all of them are true (some names and details have been changed). It is my prayer that this book serve as inspiration and motivation to open you more fully to your own divinity and the sacred dimension of life. At a time when so many of us feel hopeless and powerless to change the troubled world in which we live, it's important to remember that there is a Divine power far greater than anything else that exists on the planet -- a power that resides within each of us. When we learn to align our own Divine nature with the ultimate Creative Source, miracles happen. As Ramakrishna said, "The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail." This book is my gift to you in the hopes that it will help you to do just that.
Experiment: Finding Grace
The first experiment is designed to help you become more aware of the presence of grace. There are five parts to this experiment:
1. Start a grace journal. Find a journal or notebook that's easy to use for the experiments throughout this book.
2. On the first page of your journal, write the following:
I am open and receptive to the power of grace in my life now. I ask to be shown clear examples of how this energy is operating in my life.
3. Now, declare out loud that you are open to the influence of grace. As silly as this may sound, it's important to get in the habit of consciously working with this energy. Try it right now. Repeat the following statement:
I am open and receptive to the power of grace in my life now. I ask to be shown clear examples of how this energy is operating in my life.
Develop a ritual of writing this statement in your journal every morning and night, and when you do, repeat it out loud. (If you really want to accelerate the process, repeat it at random times throughout the day).
4. Begin to focus on the concept of grace. Notice what shows up in your life and write about it in your journal. Does the word come up in conversations? Do you find it in a magazine article, or on bumper stickers? Start to keep track of the signs of grace that are already in your life.
5. Finally, sometimes we experience grace in how we relate to the stories of others. As you read through each chapter, pay close attention to the reactions you have to the stories you read. Does one push your buttons, move you to tears, make you angry, or cause you to daydream? Mark the stories and write about any insights, similarities, or reactions in your journal.
Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Richardson
Chapter 1: When Grace Knocks
There is a moment in life when we make a choice that changes us forever. This moment marks a turning point, a threshold of sorts, when we realize that the life we're living is not a true reflection of who we really are. For some, the choice comes as a result of a dramatic event like the sudden loss of a job, the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, or the death of someone we love. For others, it's the result of dealing with difficult life situations like financial hardship or the long, slow end of a marriage. And sometimes this decision is driven by something less profound -- you simply wake up one morning and decide that it's time for a change. You're no longer willing to live the way you've been living.
My moment came in my mid-twenties. At the time, I was engaged to a man who shared my somewhat reckless lifestyle. We worked routine jobs from 9 to 5, spent evenings at home in front of the TV, and looked forward to weekend social events where the alcohol flowed freely. If you had asked me then what I wanted out of life, I would have told you that my only desire was to be happy. I wanted to live a hassle-free life without any conflict or stress. Like many women my age, my primary focus was my relationship. I made a career out of being in love.
One Saturday night, while vacationing with some friends on Cape Cod, a group of us decided to go dancing. After a couple of hours, I went to a corner booth at the back of the club, and ordered another drink. I watched the scene. The room was smoky and people were yelling to one another over the loud music. One of my girlfriends who had had a bit too much to drink was dancing by herself in the middle of the room. At first, this all seemed normal, like any other night in a club. But a few minutes later I had a strange experience.
Amidst the loud noise and frenzy of activity, I suddenly felt as though I had stepped outside of my body and was able to view my surroundings from a more removed and objective perspective. As I witnessed the antics of my drunken friends, a voice inside me clearly said: "Cheryl, what are you doing? You don't belong here. You're meant to do so much more with your life. Wake up!"
Struck by the clarity of my thoughts (and the strangeness of my experience), I sat back, suddenly feeling anxious and uncomfortable. Sure there were times when I questioned my
f0drinking or whether or not I belonged in this relationship, but I'd eventually ignore the little voice in my head and go back to sleep, settling into a warm state of denial that felt safe and familiar. But this time was different. In that one moment, the little voice inside me became too loud to ignore. Although I didn't understand why, there was something about the strength and clarity of its message that snapped me to my senses, and suddenly I couldn't pretend anymore. Later I would come to understand that this incident marked a turning point in my life: Grace had knocked on my door.
My friend Alice would tell you that her awakening was triggered by a series of panic attacks that left her feeling terrified and afraid to leave her home. Alice's body had been trying to get her attention for quite some time. Not only did she suffer from migraine headaches and psoriasis, she was also waking up in the middle of the night with what she called fright episodes -- bouts of obsessive worrying that kept her up for hours at a time.
Alice was a sales manager for a large company where she was in charge of more than thirty-five people. Throughout the day she often received over one hundred e-mails and more than fifty voice mail messages. She rarely left the office before 9 PM, and on weekends, spent much of her time playing catch up on her laptop. And if she weren't under enough stress, Alice discovered a message on her home computer that led her to believe her husband might be having an affair. But, rather than confront him about it, Alice told herself that she was being overly sensitive and paranoid. Instead, she threw herself further into her work.
One month after finding the suspicious e-mail, Alice began to have panic attacks -- periods of intense anxiety that seemed to come out of the blue. Her first attack occurred while driving home from work. Scared that she was having a heart attack, she immediately drove herself to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. The examination showed nothing serious, and the doctor suggested that Alice take a few days off to relax. But, Alice ignored his advice and over the next few weeks continued to experience periods of high anxiety. She was convinced that she just needed more sleep.
One afternoon, in the middle of a meeting with an important client, Alice had another attack. She suddenly felt her chest tighten and her palms begin to sweat. Unable to ignore her symptoms, she excused herself from the meeting and had her assistant drive her to the hospital. This trip to the hospital finally sent her over the edge and forced her to wake up.
Lying in the ER on a gurney, surrounded by a flimsy curtain, Alice cried uncontrollably. She was terrified of what was happening to her body. Although her blood pressure and heart rate were elevated, the tests performed by the medical staff showed no signs of a serious problem. This time it was clear that Alice was having a panic attack.
That day grace blessed Alice in the form of a loving nurse who held her hand and comforted her as she sobbed out her pain. She talked about the insanity at work and her fear that her husband was having an affair. While listening to her story, the nurse gently stroked Alice's hair reassuring her that everything would be all right. After what seemed like hours, Alice finally felt herself calming down. The nurse, who had also experienced panic attacks, gently recommended the name of a therapist who specialized in treating anxiety disorders. Alice took the number and vowed to call as soon as she got home.
Looking back, Alice realized that her experience of grace occurred that afternoon in the emergency room. Feeling out of control and frightened, she was forced to face the truth about her health and the cause of her stress. Things were falling apart at home and she was clearly overworked. The anxiety that she experienced ended up being her saving grace and seeing a therapist set in motion the healing Alice so desperately needed. She began the long, slow process of waking up from the unconscious lifestyle she had grown accustomed to by confronting her work addiction and the reality of her failing marriage. Alice finally found within herself the willingness she needed to face the truth.
What area of your life feels out of control? How might this situation become your saving grace? Many of us have learned to live in a comfortable state of denial about what isn't working in our lives. We tolerate high levels of stress at work, take important relationships for granted, put our health needs on hold, or continue to overspend in spite of the anxiety we feel about our mounting debt. We get so caught up in the details of living that our busyness becomes a convenient diversion from the pesky inner voice that begs us to listen up. Here's the irony: listening to the little voice will set you free. When you finally face the truth about how you feel and begin to make even small changes, you slowly emerge from the protective cocoon of denial and allow grace to lead the way.
Facing the Truth
The morning after my wake-up call in the nightclub, I was hung over and groggy. I wanted to ignore what happened the night before, but I couldn't deny the fact that my life was spinning out of control. I had to be honest. I wasn't happy. I was living in a chronic state of shame, knowing that I was settling for much less than I deserved. I was abusing my body, drinking too much, and at times, even using drugs. Part of me knew I was taking too many risks, but it seemed I had no other choice. Looking back, I can see that my feelings of unworthiness were at the root of my self-sabotage.
In the days and weeks that followed, I felt both fear and excitement as I took stock of what wasn't working in my life. My relationship with my fiancé was in jeopardy. I hated my job. My closest friends were heavy drinkers, and my body was in tough shape. The more I admitted the truth, the more frightened I became. I was starting to see how bad things really were and I felt stuck. At the time, I hadn't a clue about how to change my life. So I prayed for the courage and wherewithal to do what needed to be done. This was right about the point when things began to unravel.
My relationship with my fiancé was fraught with deception and lies. Rather than confront him about his drinking, I was dancing around it, in part, by doing my best to keep pace. As I looked closely at my relationship history, it was obvious that I kept choosing partners who were emotionally unavailable, abusive, or self-absorbed. Although my girlfriends and I often complained about how few good men there were out there, I never stopped to consider the role I played in attracting them into my life. I was starting to face reality -- there wasn't a lack of good men. I was making bad choices.
My fiancé was often kind and supportive, yet he was more interested in drinking with his friends than dealing with the real issues in our relationship. As I started to see and acknowledge how much my life had spun out of control, I talked about how I thought we could make things better. I suggested that we limit our social engagements, cut back on our drinking, and make a more conscious effort to improve our communication. But, while he listened attentively and agreed that things needed to change, he would eventually go right back to doing what he had always done. In the end, I had to face the fact that I couldn't change him. He had a right to make his own choices.
An Unexpected Wake-up Call
When my client Ned had his wake-up call, he chose to pay attention. Ned was in his early fifties and worked as a manufacturing engineer for a semiconductor distributor. He had been with his company for more than fifteen years and loved his job. He was well respected in his division, had a few coworkers that he occasionally socialized with, and for the most part, enjoyed working for his boss. But, during the economic downturn of 2002, his company went through a restructuring process. One afternoon, without any warning at all, Ned was called into his boss's office and told that his position had been eliminated. His boss explained that while the company would provide him with an outplacement package to help him update his job search skills, he needed to clean out his desk and leave the building by the end of the day.
It's a practice for some companies to ask employees to leave the premises immediately after being told that they've been laid off. Stories of corporate sabotage make it a necessary evil in the minds of executives who are charged with protecting company assets. But it's a humiliating and degrading practice. As someone who has counseled employees immediately after they received this kind of news, I know all too well how demoralizing it can be. And, as painful as it often is, I've also seen people use it as a vehicle to make critical, life-altering decisions. And that's exactly what Ned did.
On the afternoon that Ned was let go, he left his boss's office feeling shocked and numb. He found himself thinking about his family, his coworkers, and his financial future. What would he tell his wife? How could he possibly say goodbye to everyone in only a few short hours? What would he say to them? Soon his shock and disbelief turned into anger, and by the time he arrived home, he was enraged. When his wife met him at the door he proceeded to complain about being "betrayed by his boss and his company." As Ned became increasingly agitated, his wife recommended that he talk to a professional about how he felt. This only made Ned even more upset, so much so, that he lost control and put his fist through the kitchen wall.
The loss of a job, particularly for a man who has dedicated his life to a company and who has become so identified with his work, can wreak havoc on a marriage. Typically, both partners are forced to confront a lot of challenging issues. For example, Ned was dealing with his own feelings of grief, embarrassment, and anger, not to mention the fear of financial hardship. Meanwhile, his wife, Sarah, had her own fears and concerns. She, too, was worried about their financial future and felt compelled to pressure Ned to find a new job fast. As you might guess, this didn't always sit well with Ned, and soon Sarah became a target of his rage. Wanting to protect her family and their marriage, Sarah was smart enough to give Ned time to calm down. Then, she once again insisted that he seek professional help.
Two weeks after being notified of his job loss, Ned finally contacted an outplacement firm and made an appointment with a counselor. Not only would Ned receive an updated resume and help with his networking and interviewing skills, he would also have a chance to review his entire career history, identify the skills that he most enjoyed using, and have the ongoing support he needed to turn this experience into a new, positive beginning.
The loss of his job shook Ned to his core. When I asked him if he could remember a point of reckoning he said, "Up until the time that I began working with the counselor, I was never very introspective. I worked, paid the bills, kept the house in good shape, and socialized with friends. Losing my job forced me to take a hard look at the way I was living my life. Not only did I have to look at where I was headed with my career, but I suddenly felt like I needed to examine other areas as well -- my marriage, where I lived, my friendships, and my connection to my family. Prior to this experience, I rarely cried, got angry, or expressed any emotion at all. But, with the help of David, my counselor, I now feel like a totally different person. If someone had told me that losing my job would be a catalyst for so much positive change, I would have said they were crazy. But it's true. Believe it or not, losing my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
For Ned, losing his job was an unmistakable touch of grace. The jolt he received that day helped him see that he'd been sleepwalking through his life. This is what can happen when you step up to the plate and face difficult experiences head on and with open eyes. It opens the door to grace, and if you're ready, it will reveal to you a whole new way of being. An awakening of this kind usually also involves a period of emotional turmoil and sometimes, even physical pain. After all, once you step over the threshold, you're thrust into a kind of rebirth -- a tumultuous process designed to return you to wholeness.
Think about your own life. Have you ever faced a challenge that turned out to be a blessing in disguise? What did this experience teach you?
For me, the more self-aware I became, the more the tension between my fiancé and me increased. It was clear that something needed to change, but I couldn't stand the thought of being alone. Like so many women, I was more willing to tolerate inappropriate behavior and a mediocre relationship than to face the terror of being on my own. How would I support myself? What would I do with my time? What if I never met anyone again? It was obvious that I had made my relationship the focus of my life. I couldn't imagine my life without a man.
As I contemplated leaving my fiancé, I was hit with another blow -- I lost my job. I had been working as an office manager for a real estate development company, and while I initially enjoyed my work, I had grown restless and bored. My heart wasn't in it anymore and I started to suffer from the Sunday night blues. I knew I needed to leave, but my position paid well and the work was easy. So, I stayed (another example of not listening to my inner voice). And then, shortly before my two-year anniversary with the company, I was informed that I was no longer needed. The company was downsizing and they let me go.
As cliché as it sounds, when it rains it pours was becoming a familiar phrase as I watched just about every area of my life get turned completely upside down. Not only was I facing the end of my relationship, I needed a new place to live, and a new job. All of this made me feel even more vulnerable, and I quickly started to backpedal about leaving my fiancé. I told myself that my standards were too high and I just needed to accept his humanness. In other words, if I could lower my expectations, things were sure to get better. So I took a job waiting tables, and put any thoughts of changing my life on hold.
It didn't work. My efforts to step back into my old life were a complete waste of time. That's because a true call to consciousness -- a grace-inspired revelation -- is impossible to ignore or keep double-parked in the back of your mind. Sure, you might stay in the same place for a while doing the same old things, but eventually the unsettled feeling of knowing that you're living a lie haunts your every move. That's what happened to me. I knew I was compromising my integrity, and I felt like a fraud. I could no longer sit in a bar drinking with my friends, pretend that I was in love, or deny the fact that I wanted to live a more healthy and balanced life. It was time to take responsibility for my life and get about the business of turning it around.
Finding My Priorities
My first order of business was to find new work. While working in real estate development I learned a lot about the industry, and as a result, decided to get my real estate license so I could give sales a try. After getting my license, I took a job at a small office near my home. It was there that I met Kelly, a woman who would wind up being a godsend -- just the right person at the right time to usher me through the door to a new life.
Kelly and I hit it off right away and got to know each other very quickly. Several nights a week we'd go to the local high school football field to walk around the track until we were physically, and sometimes even emotionally, drained. We took turns telling each other about our lives, dreams, and hopes for the future. Kelly talked about her childhood, the fact that she had grown up in an alcoholic home, and the effect that this had on her life. Years later, faced with a moment of truth herself, she found Al-Anon, and it initiated her own awakening to grace.
As Kelly shared the details of her life, I grew to trust her, and it inspired me to do the same. I talked about losing my job and the frustration of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I told her about my fiancé's drinking and my fear that our relationship was about to end. Kelly was the perfect person for me to confide in at this time in my life. As a woman who had her own share of challenges, she listened carefully to my story without judgment or criticism. Kelly gave me the kind of unconditional support we all need when faced with big changes. When we're in the wobbly stage of trying to stand on our own we need someone who is nonjudgmental and solid to lean on. By her example, Kelly taught me a powerful lesson about what it truly means to be a loving and compassionate friend. She never questioned my choices and she had a wonderful way of making me feel accepted. For the first time in years, I felt heard, valued, and respected.
Late one afternoon while walking around the track, I decided to talk more openly about the problems in my relationship and how they were affecting my life. "I live in a constant state of anxiety," I admitted. "I'm concerned about my fiancé's drinking. I don't know how much longer I can handle all the stress at home. I'm so tired of walking on eggshells trying to keep the peace."
When I finished, Kelly was silent for quite some time. Then, she gently suggested that I consider attending an Al-Anon meeting with her to see if it might provide some insight into my problem. She explained that the meetings were designed to support people whose lives were affected by alcohol and that I might find some valuable guidance and advice.
As difficult as my situation was, the idea of exposing the truth about my life to a group of strangers was unthinkable. Besides, to me, Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon seemed to be for people whose lives were so deeply affected by alcohol that they were destitute or unable to keep a job. So, I politely declined, convinced that if I just tried harder and toughened up, I could keep my life on a steady course. Grace was tapping on my door, but I wasn't ready to answer.
When we're dealing with a situation that feels emotionally or physically threatening, it's normal to want to protect ourselves. We hunker down, don our emotional armor, and convince ourselves that we have everything under control. But this is what gets us into trouble. Rather than use our experience as a springboard to being open to new ideas, or accepting offers of support, we choose behaviors that keep us from evolving. We do things like:
· Shut people out.
· Ignore advice or a different point of view.
· Refuse to ask for or receive help.
· Reject information that doesn't reflect our beliefs.
· Come up with excuses for why something won't work.
· Keep taking actions that haven't worked in the hopes that something will change.
Unfortunately, these behaviors make the experience of grace harder to see, or appreciate. For example, the Divine often speaks to us through the people in our lives, and when we ignore their wisdom or refuse an offer of support, we rob ourselves of the knowledge that could help us change our fate. In effect, we reject acts of grace.
A New Beginning
A few months passed and things got worse. As I started showing houses, I couldn't make a sale no matter how hard I worked. Things at home were becoming more chaotic as well. While I was doing my best to keep sane in an insane situation, I could no longer ignore the part of me that had awakened that night in the club. It was becoming more and more difficult to straddle both worlds. I felt like I was being chased by the truth and I was losing ground.
Looking back, I can see that my headstrong, driven personality prevented me from hitting my own bottom and reaching out for the help I needed. My pride and deep-seated insecurity had me tightly wrapped in a false sense of self. I desperately needed to believe that I had everything under control, otherwise my world would have fallen apart completely (not that it hadn't already come close). Eventually I would learn an important lesson -- surrender is the key that unlocks the door to grace. Unfortunately, I kept trying all the wrong keys.
One Friday afternoon, my fiancé and I had a fight and he left the house angry. As I followed him out to his car, I tried to get him to stay and talk about the problem, but he refused. Instead, he left in a huff telling me not to wait up. As he pulled out of the driveway, I felt like an abandoned little girl. His abrupt departure pushed all my buttons and I was left feeling completely out of control.
The next morning when he still hadn't come home I called everyone I knew trying to find him. No one knew where he was. By day three I was down on my knees begging God to put an end to this madness. A few moments later, the phone rang and it was Kelly checking to see if he had come home yet. My response was immediate: "No. Let's go to a meeting." This decision would change the course of my life.
My first Al-Anon meeting was held in the basement of a church. It was a Monday night in the fall of 1986, and I can still remember being terrified to get out of the car. What if I saw someone I knew? What was I supposed to say or do? I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me. When I finally got up enough courage to enter the meeting, I was surprised to find fifteen professionally dressed men and women sitting in a circle talking quietly to each other. Relieved that I didn't recognize anyone, I found a chair and sat down. As the meeting began, I promised myself I wouldn't say a word. Instead, I would simply listen.
For the next hour and a half, I sat mesmerized as each person shared a piece of my life story. One woman talked about her struggles with finding a career that she loved. Another was considering divorce and talked about her fear of being alone for the first time in her life. A lawyer, exhausted from trying to hold down a full-time job while managing the family at home, complained that he was fed up with his wife's drinking.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was as if every single person in that room held a piece of my story and had shown up that evening to welcome me to the next phase of my life. A weight lifted from my shoulders as I began to see that I wasn't the only one whose life was falling apart. And I could see the healing in that room. It was obvious that the support and wisdom provided by the group had already helped many people achieve a far better life. The most encouraging message of all came during a conversation with a man who had been attending Al-Anon meetings for more than thirteen years. He said, "Once I admitted that my life was out of control and I was unable to fix it, doors seemed to open and the power of grace began to work its magic. Now, I wouldn't change a thing about my past. It led me to where I am today." I left the meeting that night filled with hope. I wanted a piece of that magic.
So, my awakening began in a nightclub and continued in a church basement with a twelve-step group. As I started to admit that I needed help I felt like I had been thrown a life preserver. The love and support I received from the members of that group gave me the strength I needed to listen to and act on the wisdom of my inner voice.
Al-Anon happened to be the community that was right for me at this time in my life. As you begin your awakening process, you'll want to find a group that best supports your needs and inspires your personal growth. For example, you might join a men's group, a church group, a mother's group, or a therapist-led group; or even join or start a Life Makeover Group. The point is to find a community of people who are committed to becoming healthier and more conscious, human beings.
The first step of Al-Anon provided my key to a more conscious awareness of grace. I needed to face the reality that I was powerless to control or fix my life. Admitting that I didn't have the strength, knowledge, or ability to change my life was my first act of surrender. And as my good friend Jerry always says, "Surrender draws grace."
After much thought and careful planning, I decided to break off my engagement and end our relationship. This decision forced me to focus on my basic needs -- buying food, finding shelter, and earning a living. So I rented a home with three women to have an affordable place to live. Then, I got a job. I knew I needed to earn a living as quickly as possible, so I put my ego aside and worked as a temp to help pay my bills. And, I allowed myself to get the emotional care I needed to deal with the real source of my problems. Thankfully, I found a loving and compassionate therapist to help me uncover the reasons why I had gotten myself into this mess in the first place.
Over the next several months, I started to feel enormous pressure to decide what I wanted to do with my life. But, I refused to give in to it. Instead, I made one of the most important decisions of my life -- I would make my personal healing my number one priority. This meant spending my hard-earned money on therapy, putting career dreams on hold, and engaging in the inner work that I'm sure many family members and friends saw as an unnecessary form of mental wheel spinning. But, I wanted to get to the core of what was driving my choices and behavior. What drove me to enter into dead-end relationships? Why did I continue to engage in behaviors that I knew were hurting me emotionally, physically, and spiritually? Why was I so concerned about what others thought of me, and why did I put everyone else's needs before my own?
This period of my life was deeply painful and at times, frightening. When we experience a revelation and finally make a decision to heed the call, there is a period of unraveling -- a gradual peeling away of the many masks that have kept us hidden and safe. As these masks are stripped away, every emotion that's been concealed -- fear, anger, or loneliness -- rises to the surface. And, like a bandage that's removed from a wound, the exposure often leaves us feeling vulnerable and defenseless.
Fortunately, I didn't need to face this process alone. I was getting support from the new, healthy friendships I was forming with the people at meetings. This was a good thing considering that, as I continued my healing process, several old friendships started to deteriorate. The friends who used to enjoy my company at the local bar were not very comfortable with my choice to stop drinking. For some of them, having me around was like being forced to look into a mirror that reflected their own unsettling truths. This often happens when we begin to raise our level of consciousness. While it would be nice to take loved ones with us on the journey, the reality is that we all grow and evolve at our own pace. It's one of the main reasons why so many people stay stuck in unsatisfying lives -- they're afraid of how their relationships will change. Well, here's the truth: you will lose people as you grow and heal. It's a natural part of the process. But, the good news is that the healthier you become, the more you start to attract friends and colleagues who are aligned with your level of consciousness.
Having found a like-minded community, my involvement in Al-Anon became a safe haven for me to express my growing self-awareness, and I developed several new friendships with people who shared my desire for a better quality of life. This made saying goodbye to old friends a little less painful. The support from these new relationships also helped me look more closely at what needed to change. It became apparent to me that my greatest fear was of being alone. When I look back, I can see that this affected almost every decision I made at this time in my life. It would take one more frustrating, long-term relationship to finally muster the courage to face this fear head-on. On some level I knew that until I lived alone, without any romantic relationship to distract me from the inner healing that needed to be done, I would keep repeating old patterns that would hinder my personal growth.
Your Moment of Truth
There is an amazing gift waiting for you on the other side of your moment of truth. It's the gift of grace. The areas of your life that are begging for attention are offering you an invitation. And, because you've picked up this book, there's a good chance you may be ready to accept. When you do, you set in motion a gradual awakening to a benevolent source of energy that will guide your next steps. Once you learn to trust this process, you'll have the courage to take action sooner rather than later. To many of us, it feels frightening to question our marriage, face the reality that we're in debt, or leave a job that's robbing us of passion and energy. But it doesn't have to. Often, at our most trying hour, an experience of grace lets us know that all will be well and that we're not alone.
Consider Evan's story. At the time of his awakening, or wake-up call, as he said, Evan was twenty-one years old. He was finishing his undergrad degree in business and was considering getting his MBA. Evan's dad was the president of a small retail clothing chain and had asked him to join the company once he finished school. Unsure of what he wanted for the future, and not wanting to disappoint his dad, Evan agreed. Now he was questioning his decision.
One afternoon while at a friend's home, Evan had an unsettling experience. He was sitting in the living room by himself while his friend was on the phone in another room. Outside, there were several men painting the house, and as Evan watched them work he suddenly had the feeling that he was being painted into the house. Recalling the event, he said, "I remember thinking, it was such an odd feeling. I started to feel anxious and claustrophobic." As this feeling persisted, Evan got up and tried to shake it off, but the feeling only intensified. He then went outside for some fresh air and was surprised to discover that his feeling of being trapped got worse. "I felt like the world was closing in on me," he described, "and the only thing I knew in that moment was that I needed to find a safe place."
Without telling his friend, Evan immediately got in his car and headed home. Minutes later, he saw his older brother, Chuck, driving toward him. Chuck was the one person Evan trusted and could talk to about anything. He was surprised to see him, and quickly waved him over to the side of the road. Shaken and embarrassed, Evan started to tell Chuck what was happening. His brother listened intently and then asked Evan to sit in his car. Once they were settled, Chuck revealed that he and his dad had noticed that Evan seemed a bit distant lately, even depressed. As a matter of fact, they had just been discussing this the night before, and thought it would be a good idea for Chuck to check in with Evan to see what was going on.
As Evan listened to Chuck, his eyes welle
How to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Signposts in Your Life
The Unmistakable Touch of Grace
How to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Signposts in Your Life
Twenty years ago, I made a decision to wake up and alter the direction of my life. This set in motion a series of events that proved to me there are no coincidences. Every event we experience and every person we meet has been put in our path for a reason. When we awaken to this fundamental truth, we begin to understand that a benevolent force of energy is available to guide and direct our lives. I call this energy the unmistakable touch of grace.
This book tells the story of how grace has transformed my life as well as the lives of others. While some stories may seem unbelievable, all of them are true. As you follow the journey, you'll start to see the influence of grace in your life, too. And, once you've finished, the way you view your life (and the people in it) will be changed forever.