How To Communicate With Your Life

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When my wife and I were first learning to ballroom dance (much fun!), I was amazed at how effortlessly our teacher was able to lead her when demonstrating a technique to me. She always seemed to know where he wanted her to go and how he wanted her to move, despite being as inexperienced as I. When I danced with her, she mostly found herself confused about what I wanted her to do. “That’s because you’re confused yourself,” our teacher explained to me. “Don’t move her with your arms. Move her with your torso, your dance frame. Don’t worry about where you want her to go. Worry about where you want to go yourself.”

In other words, he was telling me, don’t focus on her. Focus on  your own technique and trust that she’ll follow if you lead with confidence. Once I learned how to lead her with my torso the difference became obvious. Becoming a good dance leader required me to not focus on leading per se but on developing a real ability to dance well. Whenever I tried to focus on getting my wife where I wanted her to go rather than on going there myself, she became confused.

It struck me at the time that the relationship between dancers is a wonderful metaphor for how people interact in relationships in general. When we try to lead with our arms—that is, force things by focusing on how we want others to behave—we often end up meeting resistance and failure. When we lead with our torso, our dance frame—that is, with our lives—the results seem almost effortlessly achieved. What accounts for the difference and how can we ensure we consistently lead with our lives?


One of the great mysteries in psychology is the epiphany. An epiphany is defined as “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.” But how such revelations happen, why they happen, no one knows. But that people report experiencing epiphanies all the time implies that understanding occurs at different levels, the truth of which most of us, if we stop to self-reflect for a moment, probably already recognize. For example, we may “know” at one level we should stop smoking (as I wrote about in a previous post, Cigarette Smoking Is Caused By A Delusion) or drinking or start exercising or eating better, but we often don’t. It’s as if sometimes our understanding remains theoretical only, lacking the power to change how we feel or to motivate us to actually change our behavior.

To understand something with your head means to understand it on an intellectual level only. You may or may not be able to act on such an understanding. At times, when no obstacles stand in your way, taking action may be easy. At other times, when even a minor obstacle confronts you, your ability to act in accord with your understanding may fall far short.

In contrast, Buddhism talks about understanding “with your life,” which in essence means fully believing what you understand—even more, finding yourself incapable of disbelieving it. None of us believes if we jump off a tall building we’re going to do anything but fall to our death. Our belief in gravity isn’t merely an intellectual construct. We fully believe it with our lives.

Imagine now the difference between believing with your head and believing with your life in your ability to lead. The person who only believes with their head they can lead others may appear on the surface to be capable when things are going well, but of course things never go well all the time (otherwise we wouldn’t need leaders in the first place). When such a person’s decisions are challenged, lacking a firm belief with their life in their ability to lead, they’re likely to doubt not only their specific choices but their ability to make choices at all. When dissent arises among the ranks, their need to please might come out, and they may find themselves granting concessions to people or groups with no good principle to justify it. Over time, their genuine lack of confidence in their ability to lead always becomes apparent to those around them from their actions. We’re all experts at reading one another.

Contrast that example with someone who genuinely believes themselves to be a capable leader. Such a person can acknowledge their mistakes without succumbing to self-doubt. They can resist pleas for special treatment that lacks justification because to give in wouldn’t fit with their vision of good leadership and because they can withstand being disliked. Others may disagree with their decisions, disapprove of their vision, but rarely question their skills as a leader. The reason? Because such a person is able to show others they can lead because they believe with their lives they can.


We tend to react to these two types of people quite differently. When a person shows us they possess certain qualities with their actions (that is, with their lives) rather than tells us—for example, shows us they’re a leader unwilling to be manipulated or victimized—we tend not to try. When they tell us these things in various ways, wanting to be what they argue they are without having yet actually become it, invariably we react to the truth rather than to the fiction they’re trying to promulgate.

If we want to be respected and not victimized, to be attractive rather than repulsive, we must believe with our lives we are those good things. “Fake it till you make it” may have some degree of utility in certain circumstances, but unless you actually “make it,” your struggle will mostly remain convincing others of your qualities rather than employing those qualities toward their appropriate ends.

For example, not until I had an epiphany that I used victimization as a strategy to get others to like me did I actually stop being a victim. When that happened, people stopped trying to victimize me (not that my using such a strategy meant I deserved to be victimized or that my victimizers were responsible for their victimizing actions). I didn’t need to tell them to stop. My actions, my demeanor, my life showed them they couldn’t. Of course, some people still do try.  But now because I genuinely and deeply conceive of myself as a non-victim—in fact, have no interest whatsoever in playing the role of a victim at all—my ability to prevent myself from being victimized is far greater than it used to be. Now my first reaction when someone attempts to victimize me is to confront my would-be persecutor (hopefully in a compassionate way). It’s not a strategy I must summon up. It’s a strategy that naturally arises out of me before my conscious mind even has a chance to formulate a response, all due to genuine changes I’ve wrought in the way I believe, think, and feel.

So if you genuinely want to change something about yourself, to change the way others react to you, you must view your intellectual understanding of what needs to change as a first step only. Strive to make that intellectual understanding penetrate so that you understand it with your life. Rather than focus on a more effective way to confront your abusive boss, for example, focus on becoming someone whose life rejects abuse. When you acquire that kind of life, the right strategy will become obvious and your action almost unconscious.

How can you accomplish this? Through epiphany, that mysterious muse, whether occurring in one grand moment or as a series of small discoveries. How to generate more epiphanies, or, more importantly, the kind of epiphanies we need? Therapy works for some. Others spend considerable time in meditation. The best advice I can think to give here would be to try various practices until you find the one that works best for you.

You never know what experiences you need to have that will cause intellectual knowledge to penetrate into wisdom that you understand with your life. It’s hard, breaking through delusion, genuinely becoming what you most want to be. But it’s always possible. And when it happens, you’ll no longer have to fight to be what you want to be. You’ll simply be it. And when that happens, others will believe it, too.

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  • Wow, thank you for a great post! I have been struggling mightily with an abusive boss for many months, so your post just hit me right between the eyes! I now see that I have to “lead with my torso” and just be that person who cannot be bullied; be that person who is a natural leader; be that person who knows—with my life—the value of my contributions.

    Thank you, Alex, for the many things I’ve learned from you over the past several months.—Lynn

    Lynn: I’m so glad you found the post helpful. Good luck with your boss!


  • The dance is a great analogy for life. If we can direct ourselves, others will understand better how they might fit with us, and we will have a more authentic relationship.

    Perfect message for today, thanks.

  • Reading your wonderful post is a nice (birthday) gift for me today. So thank you! With hope, Wendy

    Wendy: Happy birthday!


  • Thank you. I’m grateful for both your writing and for the timing of your posts: very helpful as I launch a new work-week.

  • Great piece, Alex. And an especially terrific metaphor. I wonder if you would agree that the “victimizers” one meets in life can constitute a continuum from the “persecutors” you’ve named through mere “victimizers” to the most benign category of “users.” And, if so, that different strategies might be called for depending upon our perception of the “victimizer’s” motives. And would you agree, too, that if we cannot respond to these folks with at least a modicum of graciousness (if we can’t achieve compassion), that we have then have allowed ourselves to be “victimized” emotionally even if we were able to avoid the victimization at the practical level. Or am I waltzing to a foxtrot?

    Glenn: “…waltzing to a foxtrot.” Love it. Absolutely, “victimizers” come in various shapes and sizes, depending on the level of their intent to do harm. I agree our strategies should be different. But if we’ve expunged our willingness to be victimized from our lives, I think the appropriate strategies will arise naturally depending on the level of threat.


  • Well, that’s not victim-blaming at all. Just kidding.

    The woman can’t lead with her torso and turn it into a democratic dance; her choices are to play the game with the leader she’s got or find another leader or another game. There’s also an agreement in the first place as to what music and what dance.

    The thing about gravity—is that I understand which situations are “normal” and which situations will be different. Why balloons float and ice cubes rise to the top of a drink and birds fly. I think you said in your prior post that bullies no longer intimidate you. Perhaps more accurately, bullies no longer universally intimidate you? I hope, at least, you’re not walking around Hyde Park using your confidence to avoid being mugged.

    RG: Right. Bullies no longer universally intimidate me. Being afraid in situations in which fear is appropriate and helps to keep you safe seems to me to be a different thing than bending to the bullying will of others who don’t actually intend you physically harm.


  • So many things to consider here, Alex. One of your main points cannot be expressed too often: Your knowledge/understanding must be embodied in your life or it will not stand when the going gets tough.

    Years ago, my daughter wrote an essay on what qualities being a leader required. Her choices were confidence and conviction, and reading her essay triggered one of those mini-epiphanies for me. Looking back it seemed obvious, but I hadn’t ever distilled leadership down to just these two elements before. For most of us, discovering the inability to “lead” in life rarely inclines us to question whether we really believe what we say we do (or even HAVE the kind of belief about such things we have about, say, gravity). Then, too, we are often impeded by our feelings and wishful thinking (maybe you really felt committed to dancing, but your conviction was that your wife was making it difficult for you or maybe you were so sad that dancing together wasn’t perfect from the start you were overcome by hopelessness). So, to begin with, you need to have a certain kind of heart to be open to an epiphany, it seems to me. We are also often lazy. You might just have continued to try to lead using your arms because that was the path of least resistance. Or what if you lived in a world where everybody was convinced you were supposed to lead with your arms? What then? Assuming you even had an epiphany that this was the wrong way to proceed, how to overcome habit and the interests of all those dancing teachers who made a living teaching that pushing with your arms was the way to dance?

    Of course, the really big problems comes when what PRODUCES the confidence and conviction are idiosyncratic, subjective, and—usually—self-serving truths, not to mention psychological disturbances. History is littered with the destruction wreaked by confident men overflowing with conviction—even, obviously, in our own time. So…how to discern what is a self-serving but negative-for-the-larger world conviction and what is a useful/sound/good conviction seems to be the real challenge. People believe all kinds of really awful things—not just erroneous things, but things that damage the world and all of us on it.

    Well, you can see the outlines of my struggles, I’m sure. :^ But I look forward to reading your posts every Monday. Please don’t imagine that I don’t find them immensely cheering—and useful—in spite of my contrary comments!

    rdp: As usual, your comments are thought-provoking and relevant. My best answer to your concern about self-serving truths and how confident men have used their confidence to wreak destruction is that an epiphany, to represent actual wisdom, is distinguished by its truthfulness—meaning genuine epiphanies often show us things about ourselves that are actually quite negative—and that genuine wisdom is always, in my view by definition, suffused with an element of compassion.


  • So you’re making a distinction between physical and psychological harm and monetary harm? Abusive bosses generally have the power they claim to have, and they’ll use it. They will use that power to hand out raises, promotions, disciplinary action and terminations. I think you’re making a distinction that’s powerful to you, but I’m not getting the epiphany. The best I can come up with is that “not being afraid” of an abusive boss means recognizing his stripes and polishing the resume and getting out.

    RG: Bullies and abusers always have real power over us. The point I was trying to make was that if we genuinely refuse give in to it the strategies we employ to combat it will naturally be correct. I said nothing about outcomes. Sometimes, standing up to bullies causes them to stand down. Other times it creates even more conflict. Sometimes refusing to be intimidated by bullies frees you to have compassion for them, and it’s that compassion that actually reaches their hearts and brings about a meaningful change in your interactions with them. But if you are truly being abused, stand up for yourself, and continue to be abused, perhaps polishing your resume and getting out is the right answer. I didn’t mean to offer a set of guidelines that would be appropos for all situations. I have simply observed when people focus on changing themselves and succeed, others tend (though obviously not always) to get the message and behave differently.


  • Your post today is very thought provoking, and in and of itself has been an epiphany for me. I’ve been struggling with my inability to lose weight for quite some time. It’s been such a struggle, it’s literally on my mind nearly every waking moment. Oh, I’ll do reasonably well sticking to a diet for a while, then fall off the wagon because the changes I’ve tried to make aren’t sustainable. The intellectual knowledge is there, but the will to make it happen is lacking. I suspect that my drive to push forward is further hampered by so many failed attempts.

    I can’t help but wonder now if I’m not believing, or committing to losing weight in my heart. I’d certainly like to believe this from deep within without having a major health crisis thrust upon me, but I’m not sure what steps I need to take next. Acting like I’m thin now hasn’t worked. The mirror and the scale don’t lie.

    Bonnie: I have no doubt you genuinely want to lose weight but also that you may find yourself at cross-purposes when confronted with delicious food. The issue may be, how can your commitment to weight loss rise up at the moments you need it most, when you want to eat more than you think you should or when it’s time to exercise? Perhaps the issue is more deeply internalizing why you want to lose weight, to feel it with your life. It’s a tricky business, getting such knowledge implanted at a deep enough level to become powerfully motivating. I hope you keep seeking a practice to accomplish this.


  • After reading your reply, RG’s second post and your reply to that, I am reminded once again that being reality-based is central to your arguments. I quite agree. In fact, I think that trying to see reality as it is is the only way we get to believe in what we believe as much as we believe in gravity. But, to relate it to another of your postings, seeing reality as it is is usually a struggle! Many obstacles, much difficulty, and often pain that way lies. Thus, using as a springboard your suggestion that true epiphanies often give us our come-uppence, we jump once more into renewed awareness that growth involves discomfort/pain.

    It would be a big help if we were able to move the wisdom of the world even a little in this direction. Thanks for doing your part!

  • It struck me as I read this how similar all this is to what is taught in the martial art I study, Aikido. I don’t know if you are familiar with it at all, it is probably an even better metaphor than dance for the process.

    As a physical form Aikido focuses on blending with an attacker’s energy to neutralize the attack (without hurting the other person). If one focuses on “throwing” ones opponent then it will fail. If one simply focuses on moving well then that person will succeed.

    I mostly suggest it as a possibility for other readers who might be looking for a way to help the achieve this sort of understanding, as a martial art is a bit easier to pick up than a religion. For me learning to internalize this sort of understanding process in a physical form allows me to come to other understanding “with my life” as you put it more easily.

    Elly: Nicely put.


  • Ah, Epiphany…the guest that shows up when you least expect it.

    I borrowed a concept from Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project that’s akin to fake it till you make it. It’s *Act the way you want to feel*. This simple concept helps me when I’m not feel my most confident or forgiving or *put your lack here*.

    Also, it lets me pick, in an ideal scenario, how I would like to act which has to be pretty close to a torso lead!

    Enjoyed this!


    Lucid Dreaming

  • “I have simply observed when people focus on changing themselves and succeed, others tend (though obviously not always) to get the message and behave differently.”

    I’m not trying to be difficult, but “not always” is inherent in the definition of abuser/bully. If someone’s basically a reasonable person and they had a bad moment or bad day and acted out in your direction, you can call them on it. And you should. But by the time we’re using stronger language (I’m fond of Bob Sutton’s “The No A**H*** Rule”), we’re not dealing with people who are a little clueless. They’re ignoring social norms on a regular basis and are proud of it. I could even argue that the bully, specifically, is hoping to provoke a fight.

    Obviously I should drop this, but I do get worried about people who are going to go confront their abusive boss and expect change. Hope for change, feel compassion for the boss’s stresses, but the economy is awful right now; becoming the nail that sticks out is not advice I’d give anyone at this time.

    RG: I think this is a useful dialogue we’re having. Bullies usually bully out of a deep-seated sense of insecurity. I’m not actually arguing that anyone necessarily confront their abusive boss or “become the nail that sticks out.” I’m arguing that if you change in such a way that you come to deeply respect yourself and reject being made a victim, you’ll naturally be led to the best strategy to achieve a good outcome. Such an outcome may mean the loss of your job, true, and certainly you would need to remain conscious of that risk in any action you take. But taking a stand against injustice always involves risk and you should only take on that risk with eyes wide open. Of course, success in any struggle usually involves the taking on of uncomfortable risk. I know of many stories in which people who suffered under abusive bosses ultimately realized with their lives they didn’t deserve to be bullied, found a way to express genuine compassion for their bullying bosses, and improved their relationship. This really can and does happen. On the other hand, I also know of many stories in which bullied employees couldn’t change their situations despite having had the genuine awakening I described and ended up leaving or losing their jobs. Your caution is prudent but doesn’t, I think, invalidate the central message of my post.


  • Well, I’m glad you’re not getting offended. One good way to tell you’re NOT a bully.

    Maybe it will help if I state my alternative theory of how to deal with bad bosses: be average. Don’t be the biggest doormat in the office, but don’t be the most recalcitrant either. Make just enough mistakes that you’re not wanted to do all the grunt work, but not enough that you’re going to be the whipping boy. Fly under the radar. If you’re trapped and have to pay your dues, pay them. And then: polish your resume.

  • Alex, your posts always strike a nerve, in a good way, and I can’t wait to see the next one.

    This latest post of yours actually struck several nerves—I am struggling to get through to my epiphany, and being unsuccessful so far. I wonder, what does it take to achieve it—do you have to suffer long enough, or be enlightened enough, or…as much as I have studied this topic I am not finding anything that would really be really helpful…

    And, by the way, have you ever heard of Erich Fromm? His notions are very close to yours—especially what he wrote in his book, To Have or to Be?

    Ondrej: I have heard of Fromm but haven’t read any of his books. To frank, the best practice I’ve found for achieving consistent epiphanies, as I wrote in the post, has been Nichiren Buddhism. I certainly recognize it won’t resonate for many, but I have had subjective prove over and over that it really does work to awaken me to wisdom I need with my life.


  • I think great art can cause epiphanies too. Years ago I was watching the movie of Diary of Anne Frank (black and white) and I was moved at how much the characters wanted to live and how they were so bound up by their circumstances (both figuratively and literally). It made me realize that the only chains keeping me in a destructive relationship was my own limitations and that I should have the bravery to break free of them. So I did.

    It is good to catch up on your posts; they always provide food for the soul.

  • I wish I had the benefit of this post BEFORE my husband and I attempted Tango classes. My feet were road pizzas from being stepped on so much!

  • Thank you for the wonderful post!

    I love what your dance teacher told you about not worrying about where to lead your partner but rather to worry about where it is you want to move yourself. That, I must say, has been instrumental in my life these past several months. When I made the decision to move myself forward and focus on where I needed to be, that’s when things began to improve in my life, especially in my relationships. And, it wasn’t so much a selfish act of putting focus on myself…it was more about taking the focus off of everything and everyone else. What started out for me as an act of becoming more independent by having a job and a little income of my own, actually turned out to be so much more than that.

    Part of the ephiphany was that I am in the process of becoming independent in every sense of the word: not controlled by others. I found that when I tried to control every situation and every person around me what I was actually doing was giving up control of myself and allowing myself to become dependent. The other part of the ephiphany is that when I move through the world in an independent manner, I remember who I am and I can feel her at the very core of my being some days.

    It’s a process. Not done yet, but a work-in-progress.

  • Epiphany…I love that word. Love saying it aloud. It sounds like a musical pling you’d hear when a faerie sprinkles her magic dust. 🙂

    Such an interesting post to read this morning, Alex. Timely too. I was asked to speak to a student about her disruptive behavior in the classroom. She’s a mature student studying nursing. Defensive, obstinate, intimidating, she is a bully both with the instructors and with some of her fellow classmates. Wouldn’t she be the perfect person to be implementing a catheterizing procedure!?

    I was not surprised when I was approached to intervene with her. I’ve had a few conversations with her since classes began and I’ve observed her interactions and body language outside of the classroom. I know some of her background. Nothing has come easy for her…surprisingly. She’s stuck in a self-destructive pattern that I believe she used in the past for meeting her survival needs.

    This woman is a leader under all the blustery, bullying bravado. I can see that. Sadly, her instructors and her classmates find her a huge pain in the ass and a big negative influence. She’s also a wounded soul who needs to feel unconditional love but has put up the defenses so strongly that she blows everyone away who would ever dare get close to her. Best defense is a good offense gone awry. She is caught up in her own dance of anger. (good book, Dance of Anger…have you read it?)

    This weekend, I’ve been contemplating how to approach her tomorrow after I have a chance to just talk and feel her out a bit to see where she is at emotionally. My gut tells me to find a way through the conversation maze to bring up the whole topic of leadership…and to point out the qualities I see that are getting lost in her personal crap and her heavy handedness. If I can do this (and it means LEADING from my torso!!! Thank you for that analogy…) then I hope I can lead this woman to an epiphany moment.

    I want to be there when the little PLING of the Faerie dust happens.

    Take care. And always remember to dance like nobody’s watching. 🙂

    Dana: Best of luck with your student. With someone as insightful and compassionate as you, she has a real chance. People always know real compassion when they see it, and even if they appear resistant on the surface, in their hearts are always warmed.


  • Thanks, Alex. I’m looking forward to hearing her story…her take on how she sees her life unfolding and her interactions. And we’ll just go from there. The only way to understand the heart and emotionally driven thinking of someone who’s insides are boiling in that defensive anger stuff I can figure is to try to start with a conversation that isn’t threatening or heated.

  • A lovely post, Alex, and very thought provoking for me. I love the “living it with your life” take; fully believing something as a given. I feel that looking at the life we lead in that way helps to clarify how we may do things; how we may proceed with life.

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  • What a good article; so easy to read and understand. I had an epiphany, too. It was through a painful experience, one of those which bring change.

    What I am interested in is the different levels of understanding and how our experiences and all we learn from neuronal nets that eventually make us wiser. Sometimes we say that a person is not mature enough or emotionally immature or that is is not her/his moment to get it. Having a crisis or a shock doesn’t mean that a person will learn from it, will become wiser after dealing and overcoming it. In fact, it happens to few and then we talk about resilience.

    I think that some people are more curious than others and search for answers, analyse their own behaviours, listen to others carefully and have introspection. They can retain an idea and apply it to their own lives; other people simply wouldn’t bother or just simply can’t.