In a world that's spinning out of control, how do you hold your center?
I went to art school in the 1980’s and for two years, I studied ceramics. My claim to fame was having the biggest kiln explosion at the school - I even won an award for it. Luckily, back then folks still had a sense of humor. No one was hurt - just some of the other pieces that were also in the kiln (I still feel bad about that). That year I learned a powerful lesson about air pockets and clay and I started focusing more on wheel throwing.
Anyone who has ever thrown clay on a wheel knows the first and most important step is centering the clay. Sitting with knees apart, you brace your elbows firmly against your knees and push your hands against the clay mound.
Maybe “push” is too strong a word. You’re actually holding the clay in place, encouraging it to find its own center. Once it does, you try not to screw it up.
I think that’s a metaphor for life.
I like to envision life as a wheel. Ideally, you’re sitting in the hub of your own wheel. Your wheel is balanced and spinning as you sit, unmoved, in the center.
In this center, you know what you value. You know who you are and what you want. Your priorities are in order and you’re making conscious choices.
Finding center isn’t easy. Like centering clay, you’ve endured pressure and you’ve held on with patience. Through grace and grit, you’ve discovered your center and you’re not stepping out of it.
“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.”
As much as I like to envision myself at the center of a wheel floating in space, I’m not. I’m surrounded by a lot of other people, each inside their own wheels, all bumping into each other. More like ripples in a pond.
Way out here, it’s easy to forget that we still influence - and are influenced by - other people. Staying off social media insulates us to a degree, but we still talk to friends and family. We still go to town. We see people. We’re not complete hermits.
When we do go into town, it sometimes feels like we’re surrounded by zombies. People seem mesmerized by their phones.
Whether they’re scrolling through their frienemy’s Facebook page, glued to TikTok, or scanning news headlines, an enormous amount of influence is being downloaded onto their brains.
Hopefully, you’re not someone who’s been influenced to cook chicken in Nyquil, put 10 layers of foundation on your face, or drink Benadryl until you hallucinate. These are just a few of the latest “TikTok Challenges” I found when I googled the phrase.
You have to wonder, what’s next? Will an annoying little elvish man convince millions of people to inject themselves with poison?? Oh, wait…
It can be difficult to resist messaging that’s constant, consistent, and designed to appeal to our deepest fears and desires. It can be difficult to hold your center.
It’s your civic duty. Do you want to kill Grandma?
We’re all in this together.
Whether it’s an expert on CNN or your own financial advisor, we need to ask ourselves: Who is this person and why should I listen to them?
We need to consider the source.
Only take advice from people who are where you want to be.
It’s very common for people to assume that others know more than they do. Sometimes they do, but don’t take that for granted just because they’re giving advice. The scope of their bullhorn doesn’t necessarily indicate legitimacy.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain claims those who speak first and loudest are typically the people we listen to in meetings - even when they’re dead wrong.
The quiet ones in the room too often stay silent. Perpetual self-doubt causes them to bite their tongues. While their self-doubt may stem from conscientiousness - caring and not wanting to lead others astray - this fine trait can stop them from sharing valuable insight.
The cliché “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” comes to mind. To be secure and grounded in your beliefs - firmly planted at your own center - those beliefs need to come from a place of deep consideration. Before you can defend a value, you need to understand why you hold that value in the first place. Is it just habit? Tradition? Peer pressure?
Consciously shaping your values (as opposed to mindlessly going along) can actually make you more open to hearing the opinions of others. When your footing is secure, you’re not threatened by entertaining another perspective. If the new information with which you’re presented makes more sense, change your mind. If it doesn’t, leave it.
Adaptability and growth go hand in hand.
Holding your center amidst an onslaught of influence can be difficult, but those moments also offer us opportunity to learn our weak spots. If we pay attention to what upsets us and dig into why, we can strengthen ourselves.
John and I had a long discussion recently about holding our center amidst the differing opinions of people we care about. We dug into areas that trigger us, such as being pressured to go along with something after expressing, repeatedly, our unwillingness. While social media influencers are kind of a joke, the influence of friends and family isn’t.
To disagree and hold your resolve against people that matter to you requires a lot of steel. It takes an active examination of your own weak spots to prevent them being used against you.
How many of these resonate with your own situation?
Our family of origin is hugely influential in who we become as adults. As we leave home and form opinions from our own experiences, our siblings and parents often see us as we were in childhood. They may treat us the same, too.
Sure, you may be a six-foot tall CEO with a full beard, but your older brother will still see the same stupid dork who got gum stuck in his hair. Again.
If you’ve grown apart over the years, the familial bond may be more tribal than personal.
When you move in a direction that differs from family expectations, you’re just wrong. You’ll likely be shunned or ridiculed for breaking unspoken family rules. Even though your actions might be perfectly reasonable, they’re different, and different is not allowed in a tribe.
This form of group-think is very common, and it’s shallow. It places conformity above individualism. It sacrifices real relationship for assumptions about who you are.
Real relationship takes work. Assumptions are easy.
When you go against the deep grain of family systems, you ruffle feathers. You may spend a lot of time and energy explaining your point of view, only to find it falls on deaf ears. Honestly, your family doesn’t care why you are doing things differently, they just want you to stop. It makes them uncomfortable and uncomfortable is hard.
If you’ve truly and thoughtfully made a decision that’s in line with your personal values, you’ll have to let their opinions go. The best you can hope is that they’ll learn to respect your choices, even when they don’t agree with them.
Several years ago, I created a mosaic entitled Letting Go of Shoulds. At the time, I was struggling to let go of some things in my life I wanted, but will never have. These particular things are out of my control.
My life didn’t look like I thought it might - or should - at 50. Accepting and healing from that meant enduring a heart-wrenching grief process.
“Suffering is your perceptions clashing with reality.”
I had to release, not only my own shoulds, but other people’s expectations of what they thought I should be doing.
Our shoulds can come from traditions and habits that are engrained from birth. Examining values you’ve taken for granted most of your life is a necessary part of finding your center.
Reflecting on your shoulds doesn’t mean you need to give them up. On the contrary, reflection transforms unconscious shoulds into conscious action.
Self-actualization, maturation, individuation - whatever you want to call it - means asking difficult questions about very basic things: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want?
The most powerful reason we let others influence us is fear.
Whether it’s our belief about God and religion, how much money we think we need, what exactly qualifies as a good education, or where and how we live, most people are eager to let other people decide for them.
Perhaps it’s the fear of accountability - what if you’re wrong? If you let someone else chose for you, it’s not your fault, right? If you refuse to think about these things at all, you can claim ignorance, right?
I think there’s an element of laziness in this way of thinking (or refusal to think), but also fear. Usually, the biggest fear that bullies people into being influenced is the fear of being alone. Being left behind.
“It seems that nothing is more difficult for the average man to bear than the feeling of not being identified with a larger group.”
It takes courage to go your own way. You must be willing to make a mistake and then be held accountable for that mistake. Scary stuff.
Growth is frightening and painful, but the opposite of growth is death.
Some of the people who attempt to influence us are also acting out of fear. They project their own fears and anxieties onto us as their form of love. They simply don’t want us to suffer for, what they see as, our mistakes. Their intentions might be pure, but the best decisions are rarely inspired by fear.
The Thrill of Spinning
I’m going let go of the clay wheel and pond ripple metaphors now because we’re going to the playground. Different wheel. Jump on.
Remember those rusty, jagged merry go rounds we’d all rush to at recess? Usually, they were surrounded by hard dirt worn bare from a thousand sneakers. At my playground, that circle of dirt was fraught with a deep hole that extended under the spinning contraption, thus adding to the thrill and danger of jumping on and off.
Oblivious to the threat of tetanus, I remember grasping the rusty handlebar for dear life, knuckles pale, one foot dangling off the edge of that spinning wheel, the breeze crisp against my rosy, girlish cheeks. Those were the days.
If you were first to the merry go round, you could plant yourself firmly in the center, spinning motionless as the giggling world rushed around you, out of control. If you were brave enough, you might even let go. Wave your arms in the air.
That’s the metaphor.
Even now, the influences that you allow to push and pull you from your center are those blurry children riding the edges of the spinning wheel. A flash of color and sound, they seem to move so fast.
Learn to hold your center. Remain still.
The faces whirl by, unrecognizable. It’s dizzying. If you can, look up. The clouds are moving slowly; the treetops are still. God’s creation is at peace and you with it.
The trees, the clouds - these are your touchstones.
Sadly, most adults are still addicted to the rush of the spinning wheel. They’re addicted to the white knuckle grip and the rush of flying as they cling to the edges. They dig the busyness of multitasking. They go and go and go because it gives them a sense of importance.
The whirling distracts them from those pesky questions that are so damned hard to answer…
Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want?
There’s just no time to think about these things when you’re spinning.
Folks don’t like it when you won’t step out to the edge with them. They’re uncomfortable with your silence, your stillness, your refusal to engage in the drama.
When you act from a place of conscious choice instead of reacting instinctively, you purposefully discern what and whose influence you allow in. To do that, you must slow down.
Only by slowing down, reflecting, and continually examining your heart and mind can you remain steadfast and unmoved at the center of your own wheel.
"In a self-centered world, be the centered self."
Cristie B Gardner