1. What made you want to write Raw: My Journey From Anxiety to Joy?
The only thing I knew for sure, when starting to write my memoir, was that I had to write. It didn’t matter what. I knew something needed to be expressed through me—that I had something to say. When I outlined Raw, I thought I was writing a book about how raw food cured my chronic stomach problems. But over the five years it took me to write the book, it began to write me. My life unfolded in ways I couldn’t have predicted. By listening to the call to write, which I knew was sacred, I acted on inner wisdom. My ego would have preferred that I knew exactly where I was going and had everything figured out. It did its best to try to control things. But writing a book—and living a life—is a journey. I outlined my three sections: body, mind, and spirit. I was clear about the first two, but fuzzy about the third. Thankfully, I understood that an outline is a living document and it would change—though I had no idea how much. Unbeknownst to me, I hadn’t yet lived the spiritual part of my story. I was in for a wild ride.
2. You mention you were “dragged kicking and screaming into spiritual adulthood.” What do you mean by that?
I’ve always been a seeker, but like most people, I’ve been resistant to change—even positive change. I clung to my illusions of control while life poked and prodded me forward. Mostly, I was dragged by my thoughts. I didn’t understand how fused I was with them. There was very little (if any) space between my thoughts and me. If I had an insecure thought, for example, I believed it. It didn’t occur to me that we all have insecure thoughts. I’d never heard of universal doubt. I took everything—including my thoughts—seriously and personally. Things got pretty bad before I woke up mentally and spiritually. I developed an anxiety disorder. Some days I was afraid to leave my house. I had no clue that I was (innocently) creating my own suffering. Nor did I understand that it wasn’t the problems in my life that created my anxiety, but how I related to them. My misery, combined with a fierce determination to heal, as opposed to manage symptoms with anti-anxiety meds, pointed me in the direction of spiritual adulthood via two profound mystical experiences that showed me on a visceral rather than an intellectual level who I am. And through writing about it I understood that a lot of my experience was in fact fairly universal.
3. What exactly is spiritual adulthood?
It means having an understanding of and relationship to one’s spiritual nature. This involves authentic self-knowledge. Spiritual adulthood means you understand that you are not your race, gender, education, income, home, or who you associate with. These things impact your life but they have nothing to do with who you really are. In spiritual adulthood we come to understand that we are not our bodies or our minds. Both are wonderful tools that serve the soul. The mind is glorified in our culture, but maybe you’ve heard that saying that the mind is the servant, not the master? It’s true. In spiritual adulthood you live your life listening to and guided by your soul. This master is formless and eternal, and as spiritual adults we learn to lean into what we cannot see, but what we know to be true about ourselves. The more we do this, the greater our connection to our own inner peace, health, freedom, and personal as well as professional fulfillment.
4. I understand from reading Raw that you are a “recovering perfectionist.” Tell us about that, and how can others recover too.
The flipside of perfectionism is insecurity. I wanted to be excellent at everything I did because deep down I was terrified that if I wasn’t outstanding I didn’t deserve to exist. Talk about a misunderstanding! What a crazy thought. This is the kind of thinking that can drag you through the messiest muck and mud. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d seen that thought for what it was: a ridiculous, insecure notion. I never imagined that I didn’t have to believe it. That thought had me jumping through hoops my whole life. And nothing I did was ever good enough. Nothing brought me what I wanted most: peace, contentment, a feeling that I was okay and all was well. So this existential angst was running the show that was my life and I kept trying to make everything perfect. It was only when I let go of my inner battles and began to accept things I couldn’t change, when I learned to lean into my discomfort and allow myself to simply be who I am, that recovery began.
5. How might others know their symptoms are due to anxiety, and not some other problem?
Anxiety creates real and alarming physical symptoms that include, but are not limited to, stomachaches, light-headedness, muscle tension, nausea, a racing heart, diarrhea, hot and cold flashes, chest pain and pressure. It’s a good idea to have annual physical exams and talk to your doctor about your health concerns. But when you find yourself traipsing from one physician to the next over a prolonged period, with no medical diagnosis in sight, it may be time to look to your mind and or spirit for answers.
6. You write about the need to slow down. Why is this important?
Slowing down is the doorway to peace. Studies show that the higher the number of thoughts we have per minute, the more anxious we feel. As the number of thoughts we have per minute decreases, we experience greater calm and joy. Slowing down is also foundational to being able to hear and receive inner (divine) wisdom. Our lives move incredibly fast and most of us are inundated with distractions. The outer world makes demands on us and we respond, sometimes like jugglers, or like a performing monkey jumping through hoops. We believe the persuasive illusion that the outer world encapsulates everything that matters and is all there is. Moving fast makes it impossible to be fully alive and present in the moment. We spend too much time in our heads and place too much emphasis on the intellect, which erodes our human experience. Joy and spaciousness are available in the present moment. You’re not present when your body is in one place and your mind is in another.
7. Can you discuss practical strategies for slowing down?
Yes, meditation and yoga are great practices to help you slow down. I like the meditation app, Head Space. You can also try moving in slow motion, even for just a few seconds. Bringing your full attention to simple tasks, like washing dishes or walking, is a great way to slow down. So is turning off your devices. I like to try to leave anything with a screen alone for significant chunks of time. It feels so good when I give myself that gift. Same with doing nothing. Give yourself permission to be “unproductive.” Sit and stare. Put “do nothing for an hour” on your to-do list. Paying attention to your breath is another great way to slow down. Observe it, while seated or lying down, but also while moving.
I have a great exercise called “Unwinding.” Get into a comfortable seated or lying down position. You can do this in bed before going to sleep, or in the middle of the night if you’re having trouble falling back to sleep. Let yourself sink into the bed or chair. Allow your limbs to feel heavy. Make sure you are warm. Cold creates tension and makes muscles constrict. Warmth has the opposite effect. Envision a clock and then imagine the hands circling backward. Focus on this counter-clockwise motion. Allow the clock to gradually disappear, and as this unwinding motion continues, imagine that you are uncoiling whatever tensions grip your body and mind. Let them unravel. Take your time. Disentangle threads of tension. Reverse whatever wound you up. Undo it with your thoughts and with your imagination. And do it all very slowly. The first time I did this I couldn’t believe how effective it was at unknotting the ball in the pit of my stomach.
8. What do you mean when you say “The obstacle is the teacher?”
Challenges and obstacles force us to change, try something new, or find a different solution to what’s not working. Sometimes it’s obvious what’s not working, but at other times our lessons are subtle. Recently I sat down to mediate one morning only to be distracted by a chainsaw that sounded like it was right outside my window. I didn’t think I’d be able to meditate with all that noise, which escalated when the gardener showed up with his leaf blower, and then my dog started barking. With each new distraction I felt like giving up, but instead I asked myself, How can I work with this? How can I use it? What if I don’t let these things which I can’t control knock me off my purpose? What if I can flow with what is, and even embrace it? I surprised myself that morning because I was able to drop down into a deep silence—beyond the outside racket. After a while I didn’t even hear it. An image of a monk meditating in a war zone came to mind. I sometimes feel like my life is a war zone. I resist and fight things I can’t control, which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is also a form of violence against the self—and it misses the point of being alive, which is to be present to all of life, not just the moments that please us. Obstacles redirect us. They give us something to work with; they are our change-makers and teachers.
9. Can you talk about inner noise versus one’s inner signal and how people can learn to differential between the two?
The main difference between inner noise and one’s inner signal is how they feel. Inner noise feels like overwhelm. It’s exhausting, confusing, and emotionally upsetting. It may even create physical discomforts, such as any of the physical symptoms of anxiety I described earlier. Inner noise is what happens when the mind gets too busy. It analyzes, judges, and cogitates its way into a thought storm. There’s little, if any, spaciousness, light, or joy in the middle of a thought storm. By contrast, the inner signal comes from a quiet mind. Clarity resides in that place between thoughts. The inner signal is your connection to source energy, which exists beyond your mind. It’s hard to hear this when the mind is busy. The mind can be a terrible distraction and make inner signals difficult to hear. The mind may have an agenda, or it may be filled with worry and fear. But if you slow the mind, if you listen to that small, still voice within, you’ll hear the signal. You’ll recognize it because it’ll feel expansive and right and true deep in your bones. It’ll be clear, like a deep knowing. Again, it can be hard to hear and feel this, especially when life gets busy, but the more you slow down, the more you practice paying attention to what feels good inside, the easier it is to distinguish your inner signal from mental noise.
10. Where can someone pick up a copy of your book, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy?
My book is available wherever books are sold. As an indie author I’d love for anyone who’s interested in buying my memoir to get it from their local bookstore. If the bookstore doesn’t have it in stock they will always order it. It’s also available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Indie Bound. These links are all available on my website: http://www.bellamahayacarter.com/raw.html. Thank you so much.