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January 21, 2020

A Trip to the ER: Fear, Mortality, and Awareness

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As we begin a new year together of exploring conscious leadership I’d like us to return to the basics. I returned to the basics just the other night.

On Saturday night, December 28th between 10 PM and 4 AM, I learned again that being below the line is natural and normal. It’s how I’m wired. It’s pure survival.

I was in the emergency room at Northwestern Hospital because I was having symptoms in my upper chest, back and arms. This was my second trip to the ER in 10 days. In between the two trips I had some tests done and one of them said I had an enlarged ascending aortic aneurysm and serious coronary artery disease. Wow. When I first heard these words from my doctor I was walking down Michigan Avenue doing some Christmas shopping and found myself wandering into a hotel, sitting down and shaking (the body’s natural fear response). I was scared.

Now, three days after hearing this news, I was back in the ER and being moved into a CAT Scan to get a more accurate view of the aneurysm. It was two in the morning. I’d been in the hospital for four hours and I’d spent most of that time below the line……scared.

When we coach leaders the first question we ask them is “Where are you?” The answer we’re seeking is a simple “above the line” or “below the line.” In fear and threat or in trust.

The first act of conscious leadership is self awareness, being able to accurately locate ourselves.

Often when a leader answers this first question we ask them, “How do you know whether you’re above or below the line?” Again, self awareness.

For me, at that moment, it was not difficult to locate myself or to know how I knew I was below the line. First of all, my body was in fear reactivity: my breathing was shallow and rapid, my pulse and blood pressure were elevated, there was slight trembling. Second, my thoughts were catastrophic and all of them were serious. I’ve learned over the years that a sure sign for me of being below the line is that the situation looks and feels serious. And, indeed, my mind was making this very serious.

To be clear, I’ve spent years preparing for death.

I’ve done countless death meditations, contemplated my death, made peace with death as simply the next step in the living process. I’ve explored in depth the nature of death, what happens when I die and spent time looking for an actual personal me who will die. I’ve done rituals where I’ve written my eulogy, read it to loved ones and said all my goodbyes. I’m conscious to live in a state of completion so that should I die I have left nothing unsaid. I’m ready to die when dying comes. AND I was scared.

I’ve also spent years doing breathing practices, letting go of the chemicals of fear through movement, examining and releasing fear based beliefs. I have developed a degree of mastery at living a life not largely controlled by fear, a life above the line. AND I was afraid. No matter what practice I did (and I tried them all) I would find peace for passing moments and then the fear would return.

The second question we ask leaders is, “Can you accept yourself for being scared and below the line?” I saw, in new ways, the beauty of that question that Saturday night.

There were moments when the answer to this question was no. I had a big “shoulding” voice that was telling me, “you should be beyond this, beyond fear in general and fear of death in particular. You should be able to let go of fear and return to peace. C’mon this is what you’ve prepared for, this is your practice. AND, this is what you teach others to do.” In fairness, this “shoulding” voice was not that loud. The primary voice was the voice of compassion, of self acceptance, of lovingkindness. What that voice said was, “Of course you’re scared. You make sense.”

I’ve heard myself say those words to countless leaders over the years when they’re scared their business will fail, or they’ll lose their job, or their child won’t get into the school they want, or their beloved is choosing someone else, or they got a scary diagnosis from their doctor. I love saying those words to people. Now I was hearing my voice coming back to me, “Of course you’re scared. It’s OK to be scared.”

Hearing these words didn’t stop the fear. I was still scared. But the acceptance I was offering myself did release me from resisting the fear. It let me feel the fear fully and let the fear do its work on me.

It also reminded me of what I remind leaders of all the time:

Being below the line is natural and normal. It just happens.

When the mind experiences a threat to safety, approval or control we go below the line. So what? I also saw with fresh eyes that our first response to fear can be love and acceptance, and when it is, we stop resisting what is and we allow what is to be. This is freedom: allowing what is to be.

So this year, let’s deepen our practice of self awareness and self acceptance. Let’s let fear based reactivity be natural and normal, and let’s meet it when we can with love and acceptance. This is really the basis of everything we teach at the Conscious Leadership Group.

To bring you up to date on my story, the CT scan showed that there is no enlarged aortic aneurysm, the echo stress test showed the heart muscle is working fine. I do have coronary artery disease and I’m taking some medications. For now I’m still here, in this body... Alongside you practicing conscious living and leading.

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