This is the Best Relationship Advice I Can Give You

by | Jan 28, 2024 | Relationships | 50 comments

Many of you found your way to my work through the portal of relationship anxiety, and because you were able to work through enough of your anxiety to say yes to your partner, you’re now 5 or 10 or 20 years into your marriage. Some of you have children. Others have moved or walked through the loss of a parent together or faced a medical diagnosis.

The sheen of the honeymoon, if there ever was one, wore off a long time ago, and you’re plunged into the middle of life’s ever-changing currents. There have been profound joys, I’m sure, and also profound challenges. You’ve seen the worst of your partner and they’ve seen the worst of you. And you may have wondered from time to time if you should leave.

On our way home from our vacation over winter break I was listening to Pema Chodron’s audio series through Sounds True called Getting Unstuck . As always, Pema is funny, grounded, humble and deeply wise in her teachings, but one point stood out for me in particular when she says,

“It’s a kind of ordinary situation that sentient beings have almost in the DNA this habituation to moving way from the present moment. Probably the most basic level is we think about things all the time and it takes us away. We spend a lifetime strengthening the habit of distraction and leaving. We get a lot of comfort from leaving: lost in thoughts; fantasies; plans. It gives us a lot of security and ground… we’re often running with our thoughts, our speech, and our action. We leave. This habit to be elsewhere is addressed by learning to stay.”

She’s talking about the myriad ways that we flee from the discomfort of the present moment: ruminating, reaching for food or another substance, fantasizing about a better situation. I’m applying this to relationships and condensing my teaching today into one word:

Stay

Stay, as in: Don’t leave. Don’t walk out the door. Regard escape-hatch fantasies as simply that: a fantasy.

Stay, as in: Become curious about the hard emotional triggers that will inevitably show up in long-term relationships.

Stay, as in: Do whatever it takes to bring your relationship to the next level of closeness and commitment, including seeking individual or couple therapy when necessary (often both).

Why am I such a big fan of staying? Because leaving has become too popular. Too many people are shattering the sacred container of monogamy or buying into the seductive cultural message that says, “Don’t settle. You can have it all!”

To settle is to settle in. It’s to say, “I am here. Here I am. I’m not going anywhere even when it gets hard.”

To settle is to say YES to the imperfection of relationships and the incompleteness of life. As I said to a client the other day (and we both had a good laugh), “It’s a real bummer that life is incredibly imperfect!” Not only are our relationships imperfect, but so are our children, families, careers, city, and everything else that comprises this life.

To settle is to stay. Stay here, in this one moment with all of its pain or loneliness or joy or frustration and understand that committed relationships are one of our most potent vessels for working through our wounds and growing our capacity to love and be loved.

Is marriage always easy? No. No way. If you’re in it with your whole heart it will tumble you like rocks in a raucous river. But when you stay for the long haul, the jagged places of your heart become smooth, just like the river rocks. Irritation softens as compassion grows. The gaps between you shorten as intimacy widens.

There is hardly anything more beautiful than two people staying and committing to their own inner work and the work of the marriage. Flowers bloom in the shared garden. Gratitude weaves throughout the day. Connection and safety, the offshoots of healthy attachment, become our steady foundational stones in the ever-changing tides of this life. What a gift this is, and how easily and too often people throw it away.

What have you learned by staying? Share below.

Note: As always, my work with relationships hinges on the assumption that you’re in a healthy relationship with shared core values, no red flags, and you both have a willingness to learn and grow. If you’re unsure about what I mean by red flags, you can learn more here and in my relationship anxiety course.

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50 Comments

  1. In the first year of our relationship, ‘stay’ meant, literally, stay. Don’t run away from the relationship, as I had done with all my previous partners. It meant stay in the relationship. Now we are six years into our marriage, and ten years into our relationship. Now, ‘stay’ means something akin to being mindfully present with my wife. I am so used to living in my head that I’ve always struggled to recognise what’s right in front of me. ‘Stay’ means to try and bring myself out of my head. To engage with what my wife is saying, and to engage with what we are doing. ‘Stay’ also means to do what I can to keep myself healthy, so that the relationship as a whole can blossom. I remain in long-term therapy to try to keep myself well, so that my marriage stays well. It also means that I don’t fall into the trap of using my wife as a therapist – certain things belong in my marriage, and certain other things (such as RA) belong in therapy. ‘Stay’ means recognising my wife for who she is, not for who I wish she was. This can be incredibly painful, but also beautiful. We are two vulnerable humans, side by side, separate and yet together. ‘Stay’ means accepting all of this.

    Thanks for yet another great blog post.

    Reply
    • Thank you for another wise, vulnerable, and beautiful comment, Joshua. I’m grateful that you’re here as your comments always elucidate and expand upon the posts in important and personal ways that I know are helpful to others.

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    • Thank you, Joshua!
      This was so inspiring and encouraging. As someone who struggles with RA and finally ready (not 100% ofc) to get married, your words really touch me deeply and give me strength that it is possible to have a good, loving marriage and still be imperfect and “not-always-present” but with so much intention to work on myself for my own good and the good of my marriage.

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    • Josh – Love what you said about using your wife as a therapist. I too had similar challenges early in my experience with OCD/Anxiety. Not only is that unfair to your partner, it can introduce a whole set of emotions within themselves that are only there because of our need to feel safe and sure of things. Part of working with any “type” of OCD that can have relational themes is to move closer to things your value (your relationship) without compulsively reassuring yourself that you truly do value it

      Reply
  2. As always, exactly what I seemed to need to hear tonight. How do you always know?? My spouse and I are 10 years into marriage and 12 years together and I feel like we’ve been through SO much and that we’re just getting into the good stuff.

    One thing I wanted to highlight is sometimes the terms monogamy and/or marriage might feel exclusive. People might be in long term committed relationships and not identify with these terms or the identity as a spouse. I know and love many who identify as polyamorous and are engaged in sometimes multiple, concurrent, long term, very committed consensually non-monogamous relationships and their struggle to “stay” is just a present as it is in my own monogamous marriage.

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    • Thank you, Haley. I’m glad it arrived at just the right time, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on my use of terms, and on monogamy and polyamory.

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  3. At 36yrs old, after 16 years in relationship with my husband of almost 6 years, to stay has meant so many different things at different times, particularly as we have made the transitions through major life stages together. From barely adults, we’ve navigated so many challenges and experienced so much joy, to now find ourselves in what feels like another beautiful yet sticky life moment. We welcomed our beautiful baby boy last year, and becoming parents has opened us up again, introduced different pressures with finances and life practicalities, as well as the deep emotional journey that comes with understanding ourselves, our childhoods and how we were parented, and how we want to parent. Our greatest lesson through it all has been that our commitment to each other and our family and our growth is unconditional. For us, it’s not a choice to run away from the hard lessons, the self work or the difficult moments. An acceptance of the present moment, gratitude for all that is and compassion for ourselves and each other keep us showing up every day. We lean on the teachings of Sheryl and others to help guide us and for that we are so grateful. In the hardest moments, I recall the ‘river of light’ meditation and it always returns me to my body 🙏🏼🙏🏼

    Reply
    • Sarah: There is so much wisdom in your comment. It should be included in the manual that I wish all young people would receive when entering a long-term relationship!

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  4. This brought tears to my eyes! I have been with my partner for 8 years and staying for me has meant staying in our relationship, yes. But also staying with my best friend and love of my life. Staying with the life-time of pain I am still learning to meet. Staying with the work of slowly opening up more and more to love above all else. Staying with me, in the safe container of us.

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  5. Beautiful post, Sheryl and so very timely for me, too. I’ve always wondered what happens for many people after they move through the RA, and life happens, because like you said, life happens to everyone. Married 6 years and I feel like we’ve already been through so much, between a parent loss, miscarriages, and pretty severe postpartum depression on my end. I will forever be grateful for how your work taught me there is no escape hatch, and the more I fill my own cup, the more I take responsibility for my own happiness, the more I can take that energy into my marriage and see my partner through eyes of love. Not easy most of the time, but so very worth it.

    Reply
    • How synchronistic that you would share a comment as I just re-listened to the interview we did for the course sampler a few days ago! It’s really wonderful to hear this update, and that you’re still utilizing the tools from the course. You’ve endured a lot of loss these past six years, and I’m so glad you’ve stayed in every sense of the word. ❤️❤️❤️

      Reply
  6. I’ve always considered therapy for myself regarding relationships and relationship anxiety. I’m just nervous I won’t find someone who lines up with your teachings. My last therapist gave off the impression that I didn’t love him (or was that my anxiety kicking in? She never actually said anything) I struggle to open my heart and I’d love to feel a deeper connection beyond the fear.

    Reply
    • Haley: For anyone looking for support with relationship anxiety/ROCD I highly recommend Sarah Koestner. She was the moderator on the course forum for several years and she has walked alongside many people supporting them as they break free from relationship anxiety. I believe that she has one or two spots open right now, and you can learn more about her here: https://www.sarahkoestner.com. You’ll be in excellent hands.

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      • Thank you so much 🙏

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    • To stay means to do the work of mirrors and projections, understanding that when you stay you are runny back home to yourself instead of away. To stay means to be accepting of multiple truths in a relationship. To stay is to do the inner healing ❤️‍🩹 work alongside your partner, not asking someone outside of you to heal you. To stay is to grow together, be vulnerable, and accepting of all parts of your partner and yourself. To stay is to break free from cultural messages and reclaim your own inner power.

      Reply
    • Hayley,

      You are not alone with this thought. Working with other therapists and not feeling seen or heard, is how I found Sheryl. I was not able to be open with others for the same fears that you had. “What if they tell me to leave?” “What if I say what’s in my mind and they tell me I’m covering up the “truth” that I don’t love my husband?”.

      As soon as I found Sheryl (15 plus years ago) I felt at home and a huge sigh of relief. Thankfully now 15 years later there are other professionals who are speaking of and understanding RA. I hope you find someone you connect with. Someone you can be yourself with. Someone who will help you understand your inner workings.

      Reply
  7. There is a way that your messages come exactly at the right time. My husband and I had a rough week, lots of misunderstandings and projections. We just couldn’t find eachother. And of course that’s when I would stumble upon some stupid comment of some influencer who said “people rarely find their soulmates, that’s why divorce rates are so high” and I had a terrible gut-wrenching moment of “what if I didn’t marry my soulmate” but this is so true. The last two days we found eachother again, we have chosen eachother and there is such an beautiful feeling when you reunite and you realize we “stayed” and we fought thru another storm and here we are. We stayed. Thank you for your words of wisdom once again sheryl❤️

    Reply
    • Thank you Sheryl for your work. I found you over 7 years ago when I was deep in anxiety and depression. Stay for me meant looking inward to myself; learning what I needed and what I could do to “fill my cup”, it meant not listening to the mainstream, to understanding I wasn’t broken, that my thoughts were actually showing me my deepest fears in reverse. Almost akin to a child not trying at school because they were scared of failing – if they didn’t partake they wouldn’t be let down.

      Stay has meant marriage, has meant me supporting my husband when he’s needed it, has meant welcoming our baby boy after months into years of no positive tests, has meant staying when new parenthood tries to tear you apart with the new responsibilities and lack of sleep, has meant building a new relationship entirely as parents and seeing the love he has for me and my son on an even higher level and vice versa.

      I don’t “need” your blog in terms of relationship the way I used to feel I needed to devour it anymore, but I love seeing your emails on a Monday morning here in the U.K. and applying all your wisdom to my life. It reminds me to keep going, keep going…because the rewards are immeasurable xxx

      Reply
      • Oh my goodness, YES to every word, especially around new parenthood trying to tear you apart, and then, when you stay, elevating both of you. Thank you for your comment. x

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    • Adriana: A soulmate is someone who you *choose* to stay with and do the hard work of relationships together. I’m so glad you found your way back to each other, and be careful who you follow in the relationship advice world!

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  8. What a very timely blog post. I struggle with “staying” in my relationship. Always thinking about how things could be different, with different people specifically. My imagination is large and very dangerous. I can literally imagine what my life would look like with someone (of course it’s more than likely not accurate) and I’ll start falling for that person simply based on imagination. It completely pulls me away from my partner. Am I crazy? Is this common?

    Reply
    • Yes, quite common. If you haven’t done so already please listen to the podcast episode linked in the post above on escape-hatch fantasies.

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  9. I’ve experienced pretty much all of this – including “what if he is not my soulmate”, “am I settling?”, “how do I know for sure?” etc.
    But – largely thanks to your beautiful and timely work, Sheryl – I stayed.
    Now over 12 years into my relationship and 6 years into the marriage I am happier about my choice than I’ve ever been, and this feeling only grows every day.
    Learning to accept the imperfections but also notice and really appreciate the good sides has been invaluable. And the couples therapy has helped immensely.
    I have nothing to add – Sheryl’s work says it all, but I just wanted to share a success story and say that it really really works.
    So a million times thank you, Sheryl! And for those struggling now – good luck, stay, and it absolutely will get better if you are committed to work on it!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your beautiful words of hope and encouragement, Kateryna, and congratulations on doing the hard work and reaping the fruit of STAYING!

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  10. Thanks for this Sheryl, another beautiful blog. I’m getting married in June, aged 59, so your words felt particularly potent. I even thought they’d make a lovely reading!

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    • Oh yes I’d be so honored for my words to be at your wedding, Fiona! Sending blessing along the way.

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      • Thanks so much. As always the right words at the right time.
        Still I wonder, what to do when only one partner does inner work or therapy or works for the relationship. It seems that the other one doesn‘t feel he needs to do any work for himself or the relationship.

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  11. I’m so appreciative of everyone’s transparency, relatability, and encouragement. I was struck by Joshua’s comment about not using his partner as a therapist. Then, thinking of your partner, Sheryl, who I believe is a therapist. My partner is as well, and I’m working through what is vulnerability vs. hurtful. We are 63 yrs old & Im struggling with compassion for myself as she has aged much more rapidly than I. While genetics are the real bottom line, judgment/criticism/perfectionism were in my family of origin. I’m often complimented on not looking my age, and as a woman, it feels ‘nice.’ I have become overly focused on the external & my partner’s appearance as older than mine. Someone recently asked if she was my mother 🙁
    It’s a mind battle that is exhausting me…truth water, letting thoughts go, etc seem to be my moment by moment breath as the awareness of my own judgement brings me much shame. Grateful for the space to share. 🙏🏼

    Reply
    • So good that you’ve mentioned “the sacred container of monogamy”, I’d love to read a post on this theme, Sheryl, since it really is being shattered nowadays, as you said, and it’s one of the triggers in ROCD (like “What if monogamy is a fallacy?”, for example).

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      • OMG YESSSS…I second this comment – Sheryl could you please address this? As someone who has always wanted monogamy – I find that more and more and more and more and more lately I feel like we’re being bombarded with messages everywhere about polyamory and open relationships and monogamy not even being really truly possible or being extremely rare and that if you’re truly letting go of attachments and possessiveness and doing your spiritual work then you’d allow your partner and yourself to be “free” in this way and that it would make your love even stronger, etc…and for highly sensitive/anxious people it’s so triggering – can find myself getting triggered around if it’s even possible to be enough for a lifetime for anyone, feeling afraid about sex getting boring and cheating or them asking to open things up because it’s boring, etc. or “is it just my ego self that wants monogamy and my true self would be bigger than any jealousy or wanting to be with just one person and them only want me” etc. etc. — would love for you to write more about this for the highly sensitives even if it’s controversial and may upset some people. And as always – THANK YOU FOR THIS — love seeing the positive comments and updates here from everyone.

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        • Yes, I hear you. It’s a big trigger for a lot of people these days. Victoria and I are considering going a Gathering Gold episode about it.

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          • Yessss!! Please please do! This has been such a triggering topic for me and as I’m seeing in the comments – others, too! People keep saying that it’s actually even more mature and spiritual because you have to work through jealousies and “attachments” and operate from your highest most loving self etc. and want your partner’s full freedom – also makes me feel triggered at times around not being enough for anyone (especially a man since we keep getting sold that men want lots of partners and variety, etc. etc.) for a whole lifetime. So a full on in-depth podcast discussion on this would be so so amazing!! Thank you!!!!

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          • YES YES YES!! Pleasseee do this!! I would love an in-depth conversation on this and I will be eagerly awaiting this conversation! I feel like we keep hearing all the benefits of why open relationships are better or more spiritual and it feels like the only people promoting monogamy anymore are religious and so if you’re not religious but still really want monogamy sometimes as an overthinker it can get confusing and scary so I can’t wait to hear your in-depth thoughts on this. THANK YOU in advance!

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    • Basically, what I meant is that I try not to offload into my partner; that’s what I use my therapist for, in part. Also, with RA/ROCD, one can have projections which are very hurtful toward one’s partner, and these are better off in the therapeutic relationship than in the marital one, in my opinion! I absolutely didn’t mean that one shouldn’t have a partner who is also a therapist, just that it might not be good to use them for that purpose! I hope this makes sense

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    • Hi Julia, I replied to your comment, but it ended up further down in the comments section

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      • Joshua, I deeply appreciate you staying with the conversation and your clarification. I did not interpret your comment as meaning having a therapist as a partner was somehow not a positive thing 🙂
        The “offloading” aspect is what I find to be the tricky part…because she is so intuitive and skilled, sometimes I feel I am hiding my true (hurtful/RA/critical) feelings and not being honest. But I also know that feelings, or lack thereof, come and go and cannot be the basis for a healthy relationship. The depth of our relationship/connection is such a gift, particularly at our age. The pain & shame I feel for still caring about the external, at my age, is what is causing such heaviness. I’ve done both courses – Breaking Free/OYH. I am again, grateful for your openness and this space.

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        • Hi Julia, I would question whether the ‘hurtful/RA/critical’ part of you if your ‘True’ self. Firstly, ‘true’ is a very black-or-white term, I think we each have multiple ‘selves’, and we get to pick and choose which ones we want to be ‘true’. I choose to own my loving self as my ‘true’ self. That doesn’t mean the horrible, awful thoughts aren’t there, it’s just that I try not to identify myself too strongly with them. If that makes sense.

          (PS, admin: please delete the post which contains my email address, that was included by mistake)

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          • sorry, I meant that first sentence to read: ‘I would question whether the ‘hurtful/RA/critical’ part of you IS your ‘True’ self

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            • Grateful again Joshua for sharing your thoughts & healing perspective. Once I reframed what I was identifying as my ‘true feelings,’ to projections/conditioning/RA driven fear & confusion, relief followed. Thank you for your presence & hard earned wisdom, no matter your age or length of your journey. You have deeply encouraged this ‘mature aged woman’ who is always pursuing more healing, growth, and authentic love & connection. Deep bow 🙏🏼

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      • Hi Sheryl, thank you for this post. It brought me to tears. I am into my 5th year of marriage. It has always been so confusing to me how on one hand he was the most amazing partner I had met and also a sense of not complete rightness, fear that we were too different and therefore loneliness. This has felt like a wall that sometimes I have teared down in moments but then I find it even thicker and taller.

        I think that shame makes it harder, and when I read how other people also struggle with accepting their spouses as they are, like Joshua describing that this acceptance truly feels painful, makes me feel less alone and less bad as a partner. Makes me trust more in the love that has me reading this blog post today, that it is REAL even if the wall, disconnect, the wishing he was different so I could feel more connected and at ease and in ultimate union, are there, like a wall of glass.

        Is this wall/gap that I felt from day one, alongside the love/initial attraction I felt for him, normal?

        Reply
        • Wonderful question, Denisse. I would love to hear Sheryl’s thoughts on this also, but what I will say is you are not alone here. I also struggle with pure love I have for my partner and seeing his inner beauty and child, while also finding those feelings consistently mired with not feeling quite right or feeling we are too different.

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  12. Hmm. Relationships aside, I wonder if staying is always the best option. If I’m working towards something that feels like a constant struggle and I have something more interesting in mind, is that only an escape hatch fantasy? If I’m really tired of my job and have a possibility to take a long break, should I stay at my job and work through the tiredness instead? Or if a possibilty presents itself for me to move to another city I’ve had escape-hatchy dreams about, should I stay in my current location instead?

    I’ve made questionable decisions before and now realize the grass is not always greener on the other side. Then again, it feels counterintuitive to always stay, stay, stay if change is possible. Maybe the answers to such questions are not black and white. But how to determine if it’s an escape hatch or a ”legit” desire…

    Reply
  13. I remember being in the thick of my dark night of the soul about two years ago now and the longing at the forefront was for a deep spiritual connection that I projected on to my husband. This inevitably caused us a lot of pain and hardship to the point where we were both considering ending the relationship. But we both had a deeper longing to stay.

    I remember different ‘guides’ and friends I had at the time telling me ‘you are just afraid to leave and start over’ and I remember specifically thinking and saying many times ‘No, I’m not afraid to leave. I am afraid to stay.’

    Looking back, I am amazed at this wisdom I had amidst the confusion and bad advice I received from the culture.

    So to me, staying is seeing my fears and deciding to walk with them instead of run from them. Because what I now know from your work – there is no great love without great fear.

    I am still afraid to stay to this day but the clarity I have received through staying has been such a guiding light. I am utterly grateful for having chosen to stay back then and that I continue to choose to stay each and everyday. In no way is it easy and fear and anxiety still show up most days, but I now see them as guides and reflections for the deep love and goodness present in my marriage.

    To me, staying was and still is the only answer. Thank you Sheryl for your wisdom and genuinely changing my life ❤️

    Reply
    • Hi M,

      Thank you for your sharing! Makes me feel less alone. I think one of my deepest places of loneliness/disconnect/anxiety is a spiritual longing that I am projecting on my husband too.

      I am curious, if you are open to sharing, how this longing manifested for you?

      For me is this deep longing to experience union and deeeeep connection with him in absolute presence, joy, sense of freedom, and when I try to explain this to him he does not quite get it, and I feel so lonely and thinking we are too different.

      Thanks again.

      Reply
  14. Like another commenter, I’d love to hear your thoughts on polyamory or open marriages. It’s so very popular currently and while some say it’s just individual preference many say it’s more evolved since you have to work through “jealousy’ and “attachment”. Would love to hear your take.

    Reply
  15. So much of the focus of the concept of “staying” is, to me, externally-oriented – to stay in a relationship, to stay with problem, to work through some external challenge in the world. What I’ve learned about staying is that we need to be able to find a way to cultivate the willingness to stay with our internal stuff as much as the willingness to stay with external situations. For some, the idea of staying (in the broadest sense of staying) is a threat – and, of course, I’m not talking about abuse, here – nobody should stay in a situation that is abusive. But if we’re not able to stay with our internal stuff – feelings, thoughts, urges to escape and avoid, a sense of discomfort or fear – it will often be challenging for us to stay with any external challenge. So, for me, staying goes back to fundamentals: What do I feel in my body? Where is it? What might that say about what I need? Am I willing to sit with these sensations in this present moment, to tolerate the discomfort, and resist making up a story about the origin of these sensations? Assuming I’m able and willing to sit with all of that – to stay with all of that, internally – then I’m likely to be more willing and able to stay with whatever external situations and challenges might be in front of me.

    Reply
    • This is so full of wisdom, Tim. Thank you for sharing it here.

      Reply

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