Who am I and why am I here? (And other existential questions about identity)

“So… what made you move to Shawnigan Lake?”

It’s one of the most common questions I get from people I encounter in the tiny village I moved to at the edge of a lake on Vancouver Island. “It was time for a change,” I say, or “I’ve been wandering since I sold my house in Winnipeg, and this felt like the next right thing,” or “My kids all grew up and moved away so I thought it was my turn for an adventure,” or “I wanted a place with gentler winters.”

Whenever I’m asked the question, I have to pause and ask myself “Why DID I move here? What was the truest impetus for this decision and how do I explain that to other people when I don’t quite understand it myself? How do I talk about gut feelings and a life-long draw toward the ocean and a longing to be among tall trees and deep moss? And are there things I’m not fully admitting to myself or that I don’t want to say out loud – like a desire to be in a different place than where much of my trauma lives?”

It’s not that I doubt my decision – far from it – I have rarely felt more at peace about a big life choice than I have about this one. I love it here. My body feels like she has found home. I’m sitting right now looking out at the tall cedar tree in the backyard of my new home and I feel like I have found new friends among the trees. It still feels rather exceptional, after years of parenting and marriage and place-based work and looking after the needs of other people that I got to make this choice purely motivated by my own pleasure and longing. It’s a special kind of privilege that I have and I don’t take that for granted.

But what gets me into an existential place with this question is a bigger one that I often grapple with… Can I ever truly KNOW myself? Can I ever truly know, without a shadow of a doubt, that a choice I’m making is rooted in my own identity and desire and isn’t tinged with obligation, trauma, fear, or social conditioning? Can I ever really see myself clearly enough that I know which biases, beliefs, baggage, or barriers are shaping the choices I make?

I suppose it’s a rather odd question, coming from someone who’s relaunching a course called “Know Yourself, Free Yourself” in just a few weeks, but if you’ve been following me for awhile, you probably know by now that I have never been a person of absolutes – a person who doesn’t continue to question and explore an idea even after she’s put it into writing. I have often joked that I wished my books could be published with Velcro pages so that I could change the ones that no longer fully reflect the evolution of my beliefs and worldview.

Yes, I’m teaching a course with “Know Yourself” in the title, but that’s not because I believe we can ever FULLY know ourselves or that we are ever meant to be static enough in our identity that knowing ourselves is a once-and-done accomplishment. Quite the opposite – I believe that self-awareness is a life-long quest, and not something you can ever complete in an 8-week course. (Perhaps I should have called the course “Explore Yourself, Free Yourself”.)

As I said in the last post, I think identity is a rather slippery thing, and that’s okay with me. I don’t need it to be static. There are very few things that I feel like I need to know with 100% certainty anymore. Except when my nervous system is particularly activated and it feels like certainty would give me some measure of safety, I have mostly become quite accepting of ambiguity and liminality. Even when I make big decisions, like moving to an island 2400 kilometres from where I lived most of my life, I’m okay with a “good enough” understanding of why I made the choice.

There is still much to explore about who I am. I don’t fully know what I believe, for example, especially when it comes to faith and religion. I grew up with a narrow understanding of what faith was supposed to look like, and with regular reminders that if I didn’t have that particular kind of faith, I would suffer the punishment of hell. It took me a long time to work through the fear that that kind of teaching instilled in me (which I wrote more about in my book, Where Tenderness Lives), and when I finally realized it wasn’t a faith that felt alive in me anymore, I spent years trying to figure out what I actually DO believe. I haven’t let go of a belief that there is a loving divine who’s looking out for me, but now I more frequently use words like Mystery and Tenderness and that fits me better than the language of “God” (especially the male version of that terminology). But is there a tangible belief at the heart of this that I can claim and define? Not really – it feels different nearly every day. Much of it is rooted in a relationship with nature, but that doesn’t mean I’ve fully embraced language like “animism” or “wiccan”.

I also don’t fully know where I stand when it comes to my own gender and sexuality. I use she/her pronouns, and I’ve come out as queer (which I also wrote about in my newest book), but it still feels kind of fuzzy to me. Mostly I feel more attracted to women than to men, but it doesn’t feel definitive the way it seems to for some people (especially since I could also imagine myself with a non-binary or trans person anywhere on the spectrum). What’s the terminology for that, and… does it matter? I would defend the right of anyone who feels more certain than I about their sexual/gender identity (especially if it means they have to fight against transphobia to be their truest selves), but that doesn’t mean I can find that kind of certainty in my own body.

Beyond sexuality, there are many, many things I have yet to learn about my body. I get stuck in my head a lot and it’s only been in recent years that I started to pay more attention to what my body needs or what she is trying to communicate to me. Old habits die hard and so I still ignore many signals and forget to take care of myself. Sometimes I’m surprised to discover, years after something starts showing up in my body, that it’s related to a transition my body is going through (like menopause) or a past event.

In all of these cases – faith, sexuality and embodiment – I’ve experienced trauma that’s shaped the way I show up in the world, so… again, I don’t know what’s fully ME and what is a trauma imprint left in my body. Which leaves me wondering… is there any way to separate the two? Is there actually a version of identity, for any of us, that is not at least somewhat trauma-shaped. We are each an amalgamation of both our DNA and all of the experiences we’ve had in our lives, plus our DNA holds trauma from the lineage that came before us. In other words, it’s probably most true that trauma healing isn’t about reverting back to some magical pre-trauma state, but about learning the most healthy adaptation that allows the trauma-imprint to live in our bodies without causing further harm.

So maybe the best we can do is not to ever expect to KNOW ourselves, but to commit ourselves to a lifelong exploration of who we’ve become AND to allow ourselves to continue to evolve and shape-shift to meet the life ahead of us.

Which brings me back to my course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. When I think of the impetus for creating the course, it’s less about trying to find certainty about our identity than it is about learning to be more at peace with the uncertainty, learning to see things about ourselves that might keep us bound to old narratives, and learning to find freedom so that we can continue to evolve instead of being held back by things like trauma, social conditioning, and the systems that oppress us.

It’s true that I will likely never fully know myself, but I will NEVER regret the quest to find out more about who I am, what (and who) I love, what shaped me, what limits me, what brings me delight, and what makes my body feel the most alive, safe and free. And I will never regret the depths I’ve gone to understand the shaping of a human – things like trauma, social conditioning, oppression, mental health, family systems, belief systems, and the way a human nervous system works. And, more than anything, I will never regret what it took to find the courage to step away from some of those old narratives that kept me in a box and claim my right to be someone other than the identity I once felt confined to. 

Every step of this quest has been worthwhile, and it’s brought me here, to this little village at the edge of a lake on an island at the edge of a big country – a place where I feel deep joy and liberation and safety in my body, and a place where I don’t need to pretend to be someone I’m not.

Allow me to (re)introduce myself to you… My name is Heather. I live in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island because I leaned into a desire that brought me toward the ocean and the tall trees. It’s also true that I wanted to see what it felt like for my body to live in a different city from where I experienced most of my trauma. I am a spiritual person, but my faith is liminal and not easy to define. I am queer, but I don’t entirely know how to define that either – just that my body lives in the liminal spaces of gender and sexuality. I keep evolving, so the things that were true of me last year might not be entirely true this year. I started liking coffee and the smell of lavender last year – both of which seem like strange things to start at the age of 56, but I’m okay with that. I have an adventurous spirit and I like to explore both my inner landscape and the landscape that lives outside of my body. I wrote two books that I’m proud of, but I’ll need to keep writing new books because the ideas I’ve put into words in the past may not be sufficient for the ways I’ll view the world (and myself) in the future. 

I am pleased to meet you! What do you know about yourself?

Who am I? What it means to have an external locus of identity

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“I don’t know who I am. I’ve shaped my life around other people for so long that I’ve lost sight of myself.” I used to hear some version of that sentiment quite regularly, ten years ago when more of my work involved coaching people. It was especially common among women in the 40-60 age range – women who’d spent years raising children, holding a marriage together, and/or building a career.

These people excelled at shape-shifting to meet the needs and expectations of everyone around them – children, partners, parents, employers, employees, community groups, etc. They’d shape-shifted so often that they’d lost track of who they were, what they needed, what gave them pleasure, and what they most wanted out of life. Most of them were at a loss when it came to making decisions that prioritized themselves rather than the people they cared about.

What many of these people were revealing (and what I, too, have struggled with) is that life had taught them to develop an external locus of identity. They’d become accustomed to defining themselves not by what they saw in themselves but by external factors such as other people’s opinions, societal norms, success measurements inherent in their careers, and their capacity to keep other people happy.

When you have an external locus of identity (or at least primarily lean in that direction on a spectrum), you tend to rely heavily on validation from others and on your ability to meet the standards set by your culture/career/family/religion/etc. Without much capacity for internal validation and self-worth, you feel insecure or inadequate when external factors don’t validate you. You crave the approval of others and the accolades that come with success, and you crumble in the face of criticism or failure.

To locate your sense of self primarily outside of yourself is to live a wobbly and destabilized life. It’s like tossing your anchor into another boat instead of sinking it into solid ground. Whenever the wind changes, or the other boat shifts its position, you’re knocked off your feet.

I struggled with this especially when I got divorced. I’d spent so much time looking after other people’s needs that I had no idea what I needed for myself. As I wrote in my book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself, it was only after I finally worked up the courage to choose myself and end an unhealthy marriage that I realized just how codependent I’d been in the marriage. I was so entangled in my former husband’s emotional well-being that I felt completely adrift when that was no longer at the centre of my life.

Why do some of us develop an external locus of identity? It starts in childhood, when we have little choice but to look to adults as our models for how to live. Some of us receive an excess of attention and affirmation from the adults in our lives, and we fail to develop the internal skills needed to affirm ourselves, and some of us receive too little attention and affirmation and are left always hungry for it. In school, we start picking up messages that those who get the best grades receive the most praise from adults, those who excel at sports or performance are popular with their peers, and those who behave well in class receive preferential treatment from teachers. We learn to perform for other people’s expectations so that they’ll love us and care for us.

With adulthood should come individuation and the development of our sense of self and capacity for internal validation, but many of us remain stunted in our emotional growth because of trauma, abuse, social conditioning, or other extenuating circumstances. We’re often held back because of the cultural or family systems we’re part of. If you were raised in a high control group or authoritarian household where you were rarely allowed your own choices (and punished if you made the wrong ones), it can be particularly difficult to, as an adult, learn to trust yourself and claim an identity outside of that system. 

Even outside of those more extreme environments, many of us weren’t given the tools or modeling to make good choices on our own behalf, or to see ourselves through any other lens than what the system equipped us with. In a patriarchal system, for example, women are taught to sacrifice our own needs in service to others, and so we develop beliefs that we are selfish if we focus too much on ourselves. Men, on the other hand, are taught that to show emotion is to reveal weakness, and so they often fail to develop skills in self-reflection or emotional maturity. In a religious system, for another example, when a person is told to look to God for all direction in their life and they’re led to believe that they are sinful and worthless without God, it can be difficult to develop independent decision-making skills or a sense of self-worth.

At the core of what we all need in life, from our first day on earth to our last, are three things which are both separate and closely intertwined – safety, belonging, and identity. When those needs are not being met and we feel under threat, we tend to sacrifice our identity so that we can better ensure our access to safety and belonging. When a community or family we’re part of fails to validate a particular part of our identity, we learn to mask that part of ourselves so that we won’t be abandoned. People who are queer, neurodivergent, or disabled often become the most proficient at masking in order to fit in. Many of us lose sight of who we are and become like those boats anchored to other boats instead of the firm ground beneath us, largely because we don’t trust people to fully embrace us otherwise. (I teach more about these primary needs and how they shape us in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)

Sadly, social media has been an exacerbating factor for those who already struggle with an external locus of identity. While those with the most likes, comments, and shares develop the most social capital and clout (and make the most money), the rest of us are tempted to measure our own worth by their standards. These measuring sticks and popularity contests are in front of us every single day and that can mess with even the most grounded among us. In a podcast I listened to recently, researchers talked about how, despite evidence that their platforms are designed in such a way that negatively impacts people’s self-esteem (especially youth), social media companies refuse to change anything. They have learned to monetize our low self-esteem and attachment to other people’s opinions, so why should they do it differently? Those of us already inclined toward an external locus of identity are further destabilized by the algorithms of social media.

Capitalism (often working hand-in-hand with social media) is also an exacerbating factor. Even those most grounded in a solid sense of self sometimes find themselves knocked off centre when they struggle to make a decent living and can’t pay the bills or buy the things that give their families comfort. If you’re not valued in a capitalist system – if what you produce or the ways that you serve the public are not paid well, or if you are unable to contribute to capitalism because of disability, mental health or family demands – it’s hard to keep holding your head up and finding your inherent value apart from that system.

I’ve recognized this in myself recently as I’ve been marketing my new book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself. The book is all about learning to love myself and my body; to ground myself in joy and surround myself with tenderness; to detach myself from external expectations, value judgements, and cultural pressures; and to move toward personal and collective liberation. AND… in order to get that book into people’s hands, I have to be out in the public (especially social media) promoting it in what feels so often like a plea of “like me, PLEASE like me… and like my book and buy it and tell people about it and rate it favourably with those five little stars and PLEASE make me worthy of measuring up according to capitalism’s measuring stick!” 

It’s a slippery thing, trying to sink our anchors into solid ground – trying to root our identities in a healthy sense of self instead of other people’s opinions or pocketbooks – when so many forces seem to be working against us. And yet… I believe that that is where our liberation lies. We only become free when we unhook our anchors from other people’s boats (and the systems those boats are connected to) and start looking for the solid ground beneath us. (Note: this doesn’t mean we stop being interdependent with other people – just that we don’t attach our value and identity to their opinions, needs, or expectations.)

The unhooking can feel cataclysmic though, so I don’t offer this reflection lightly. As I found when I finally ended my marriage, after five years of considering it, it can take a lot of self-reflection followed by a life-shattering moment (or in the reverse order) for us to wake up and recognize the ways in which we’ve been shaped and lost sight of ourselves. Sometimes it can take years to fully unravel the old programming and to learn to make courageous choices that allow us to chart new paths.

Before I end this, there is one more thing that’s worth mentioning…  identity itself is a slippery thing, and that makes this even more tricky. I don’t believe it’s wise to imagine that we might some day know exactly who we are and that whatever conclusion we come to will become our fixed identity for time immemorial. I think we are meant to be evolving humans who keep learning new things about ourselves and keep being open to the surprise of our own unfolding. (I may write about that more in a future post.) And I think we are meant to be shaped by our relationships, even if we shouldn’t anchor our identities in the whims of the people we’re in relationship with. That might offer further clues as to why we’re sometimes tempted to place the locus of our identity outside of ourselves, though – because we become confused by our own evolution, and we do need other people (we are social creatures, after all), and sometimes it feels safer and more comfortable to be defined by a person who sees us from the outside. 

While other people’s perceptions of us can be enlightening and can offer us insights beyond what we can see in ourselves (at least when those people have our best interests at heart), ultimately, though, we are best to hold those insights and perceptions with healthy non-attachment so that we don’t slip into the trap of trying to live up to their expectations of us and therefore abandoning ourselves.

In conclusion, I would suggest that while reclaiming our right to define and shape our own identities (rather than allowing them to live outside of us), the goal is not to claim solid, immoveable identities, but to claim the right to each have an evolving identity. Perhaps the goal in life is to simply be pilgrims on life-long quests for what sets us free and brings us joy. I imagine us dancing together down the path, finding discoveries as we go and sharing them with each other in delight (without judging each other or trying to hold anyone back).

I have lots of thoughts about how to untangle oneself from an external locus of identity and how to be such a pilgrim. I have thoughts about finding practices that help keep us grounded, unraveling the messages we’ve received in the past, healing trauma, building secure attachments, and making hard choices. I teach about them in the upcoming course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself (which starts March 5th), and I’ve written about my own pilgrimage in new book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation, and holding space for oneself..  

If you are waking up to a realization that you have a primarily external locus of identity, take heart. You are not alone and you are in the right place. This realization is the start to a long pilgrimage, and if you’re willing to take it, you won’t ever regret it. I’ll meet you on the path.

Pausing to let joy in

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“You need to pause to let joy in.” Those words popped into my head one day last week while I was sitting on the couch, weary after a long day of book-launch-related tasks, which followed several long days of gathering the things I need to make a home and unpacking them into the cupboards and closets of my new place.

Pause to let joy in? I was puzzled at first, and then suddenly I understood what my internal wise guide (which I call Tenderness) was trying to say to me. I hadn’t been pausing much in recent weeks, staying busy nearly all day every day. Moving across the country, launching a book, trying to keep a business afloat, re-launching a course – ALL. OF. THE. THINGS. Even when I had some moments when there was nothing that needed to be done, I was rarely truly pausing – at least not in a mindful way. I was mostly just filling those moments with mindless stuff, like endless episodes of Real Housewives (don’t judge me).

Did my lack of mindful pauses mean that I wasn’t letting joy in? Yes, when the voice of Tenderness poked through the din, I recognized that it did. Some of the busy-work, plus the hours of reality TV binging, was about numbing myself and holding my emotions at bay.

What’s challenging about pausing to let joy in is that when you open the door to your emotions, you don’t get to pick and choose which emotions come through the open door – you have to let them ALL in. That’s why my subconscious mind had kept me from opening the door. I knew that, even though there was joy that would likely come my way (because I’ve landed in a beautiful place on Vancouver Island that I’m delighted to call home, and because I’ve completed the hard work of getting another book into the world), there were other emotions lurking just behind joy that would sneak in through the open door.

I knew there would likely be some grief over what I’ve left behind in Winnipeg, and maybe some sadness over this period of travel ending, and a little loneliness because I’m now living in a town where nobody knows me and my children are far away, and some of the rawness, self-doubt, and vulnerability that’s been connected with the birth of this new book, and some ongoing stress from some recent business road bumps.

Without being fully conscious of my choices, I was staying busy because I wanted to hold the door closed to ALL of those emotions. But to numb one emotion is to numb them all, and so I was denying myself joy.

When I heard the voice of Tenderness inviting me to let joy in, I grabbed my journal, lit a candle, and sat down to reflect on all that was bringing me joy. In my line of sight was the beautiful backyard, lined with towering cedar trees, that I now get to enjoy every day. Just down the hill, out of sight but not out of consciousness, is the lake that was part of the draw to settle here for this period of my life, where I hope to kayak in the summer. Within an easy drive is the ocean I love to walk along and look forward to plunging myself into. On the table, not far from where I sat, was a copy of the book that has finally come into the world after two and a half years of labour.

For those moments, I sat and savoured the exquisite joy that comes from having crafted a life that so beautifully suits me. It’s a joy that comes because of all the things that I wrote about in the book (and teach about in the course) – about finding a pathway through trauma, about learning to love (and love with) my own body and live in it more fully, and about learning to call myself back from exile when I realized how much I’d abandoned myself in order to meet other people’s needs and expectations. It’s not an easy joy – it’s a deep and rich joy that holds steady even in the face of grief, tragedy, disappointment, and fear. It’s a joy that needs to be regularly nourished and tenderly held.

Of course, just as I suspected, when I opened that door and sat down to savour the joy, those emotions that had been lurking in the shadows soon snuck through. Since that moment on the couch, I’ve had to feel them all, in waves that sometimes threaten to drown me. There’s been grief, loneliness, fear, disappointment, anxiety, self-doubt, defensiveness, and even some anger.  Some of those emotions come like tidal waves, and some sneak in like tiny ripples, but all of them insist on being witnessed.

I can’t say that any of this is easy or even fun, and I can’t say that I always meet those emotions mindfully. Sometimes I still turn on Real Housewives to try to reclaim the numbness. But I am trying to be faithful to it all, to let myself (and all of my parts) have the fullness of the experience so that I can be fully human and fully alive. I meet these emotions with as much grace and acceptance as I can muster, and then when they have had the attention they need, I let them simply move out through the open door.

Sometimes, when an emotion is particularly reluctant to make an appearance, and I sense that it might be lurking behind another emotion, I do what I can to coax it into the light. Grief, for example, sometimes hides behind agitation and frustration. When I sense that it’s there, in the shadows, I invite grief into the room by tapping into that which allows it to surface. Sometimes I do that with sad music or a sad movie. Lately I’ve found that Anderson Cooper’s podcast, All There Is (about how he’s finally processing the years-old grief from losing his mom, brother, and dad), is a beautiful and profound way of allowing my own grief to come to the surface.

Why do I do this? Why do I so intentionally invite these challenging emotions to surface, even when they threaten to overwhelm me? It’s because I know that there is less chance of them ACTUALLY overwhelming me if I meet them mindfully and with an open heart. I know that each emotion will flow through me and pass more quickly if I don’t fight it or get too attached to it.

It’s also because I have learned to trust the bedrock of grounded joy in my life. I have learned to trust that when the emotional waves have passed, I will still have joy as my faithful companion and foundation. I will still be standing on the shore when the mist has lifted or the storm has passed and the sun comes out and shines on my face.

As it turns out, when I open the door to the other emotions, it actually serves to deepen my joy. When I meet even the hardest emotions with mindful presence, they pass through and clear the clutter out of the space when they leave. When I listen to Anderson Cooper’s podcast, for example, and have a good cry if necessary, I almost always end up feeling more joyful than I did before. Grief opens a portal that reconnects me to, and prepares me to meet, joy. 

In the words of Mary Oliver, in her poem Don’t Hesitate, “Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

Today, as I sit here writing this, the emotional waves are subsiding and I am standing, once again, in the presence of joy.


P.S. If you want to have a more mindful relationship with your emotions, join us for Know Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5. My new book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing liberation and holding space for oneself, will be part of the course content.

Music as a reflection of life: What I learned from jazz drummer Jerry Granelli

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“By the end of the week, we’ll have turned you into a blues band.” Gulp. I could feel the anxiety rise when I heard those words. A blues band?! Me?! I have no musical talent and my Mennonite body is rhythmically stunted from all of those “dancing is sin” messages I heard growing up. How could I contribute to a blues band?

That statement still stands as one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever heard from the facilitator of a leadership workshop. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most life-changing. Of course, in order for it to become life-changing, I had to get out of my own way first. I had to loosen my grip on some beliefs about myself and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. By the end of the week, I had indeed written a verse for a blues song and performed it together with a rag-tag bunch of other equally intimidated participants over dinner in front of hundreds of people.

The invitation came from Jerry Granelli, a famous jazz drummer best known for the soundtrack of Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie. He was teaching the workshop together with Margaret Wheatley and Jim Gimian, as part of the annual leadership intensive program of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action, formerly Shambala Institute). I’d signed up because I was a fan of Margaret Wheatley’s work. I left a fan of Jerry Granelli’s.

Last week, I re-listened to an interview that Jerry had done with CBC radio in the year before he died. And then I listened to it again and wrote down notes. Next I found a documentary about him and watched that. Then I watched an hour-long workshop that Jerry taught two days before his death (in 2021). Posthumously, Jerry had returned to be my teacher once more. Although I learned a lot back in 2010 when I was part of that blues band, I find myself even more tuned in to what his teachings offer me now.

Here’s some of what I took notes about:

1. Years and years of practice brings you closer to your own voice.

“It takes forever to sound like yourself,” Jerry said in the interview. “If you put a seed in the ground, it takes a lot of water to get a tree. So why should you wake up one day and find your voice? You practice in order to find your own voice, but at first you have to try to sound like other people.”

In the early years, Jerry rose in prominence as a drummer because he’d gotten so good at emulating other drummers. But then one of those drummers stopped him and said he had to figure out what “Jerry’s sound” was. From then on, he got clearer and clearer about what was uniquely his to put into the world. He’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a pioneer of psychedelic jazz. He’s also well known as an innovative teacher of Buddhist practices.

Jerry’s words were resonant for this moment partly because of the book I have coming out, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. Even more than my first book, The Art of Holding Space, this book feels like a fine-tuning of my own voice. Like a sculptor, I feel like I’ve spent years chipping away at all of the “not-Heather” words to get closer and closer to the essence of the “pure-Heather” voice – the voice that’s less weighted down with other people’s expectations and my own self-imposed limitations. Perhaps when I’m eighty, as Jerry was, I’ll be as close as I can get.

2. Our habitual patterns limit our capacity to make beautiful music.

“On a good day,” Jerry said, “we have the least amount of habitual patterns, so we’re completely spontaneous.” That spontaneity and freedom from the old patterns allows us to make innovative music. Unfortunately, a lot of days are not so good and our habitual patterns keep us stuck in mediocre melodies.

In my upcoming book, I unravelled some of those habitual patterns in myself in order to release myself from them and become more free to be spontaneously and authentically myself (at least… on a good day). Like Jerry, I want to be a channel for the music, not get in the way with my own hang-ups, self-doubt and ego stories.

I believe that this is such important work that I’ve also created a course where I provide tools and practices for witnessing and releasing those habitual patterns, because I want to help others get closer and closer to free, authentic and joyful living. If you’re noticing patterns of self-sabotage, perhaps that’s related to the way you’ve been taught to treat yourself by your family of origin. If there are shame stories you can’t let go of, perhaps there’s a thread that’s connected back to your religion of origin. If you’re driven by perfectionism and a value system rooted in performance and productivity, perhaps that can be traced back to grind culture and capitalism. Once you see those patterns and the threads that tie them back to their roots, they’re easier to let go. (Maybe one day I’ll even be able to dance as though the habitual patterns of a Mennonite childhood are no longer in my body.)

3. Practice is a life-long commitment.

“Last week,” Jerry said to the interviewer, “I had to keep from setting fire to my drums… I couldn’t make love to it… I went looking for salvation and the drum said ‘oh no, you can’t use me like that.’” At eighty years of age, he was still wrestling with the demons that got between him and the music, between his ego and his own voice. He was still humbled by the process. He was still slipping back into his own habitual patterns.

Unravelling and releasing those habitual patterns is never a “once and done” story – we still live within the systems that shaped us and we are still inescapably human, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending practice. There is always new information, there are always new ways to examine our patterns, and there are always more fumbles to keep us humble and in the practice.

4. Making beautiful music requires our willingness to be uncomfortable.

“What makes him special,” Jerry’s son said in the documentary, “is his willingness to be uncomfortable.” It’s clear in both the documentary and the interview how much Jerry pushed the edges of the music, and pushed the edges in himself, to allow something truly unique and revolutionary to emerge. That requires courage and a willingness to be unsettled – both individually and collectively.

In the documentary, Jerry can be seen creating rhythm with all manner of sound-making objects. He didn’t limit his imagination or playful spirit to what is conventionally known as a drum kit. During one of our plenary sessions at ALIA, the year after we’d created the blues band, I was puzzled to see a collection of pots, bowls and buckets on the stage, until I realized that Jerry was part of a team inviting us into a collective act of creation. Soon, he was making sounds and rhythm with that random collection and inviting us all to make music with him.

5. Music requires us to be willing to spend time with ourselves.

“Here’s a new way to make art – to start with myself. Start with my own mind, being brave enough, being willing to spend time with myself. Without the instrument.” In the workshop, Jerry goes on to say that “this (pointing to himself) is the instrument”.

A healthy, ongoing, honest relationship with ourselves is what allows us to access our own voices and to make beautiful music. As a Buddhist, Jerry nurtured that relationship by committing to an ongoing seated mindfulness practice. You can do a seated practice together with Jerry if you watch the workshop video.

My mindfulness practice has been less attached to seated meditation than Jerry’s, but it is still very much a part of how I spend time with myself. I practise mindful self-reflection in my journal, and regularly take myself out for mindful walks in the woods. On social media, I have, somewhat jokingly, said that one of my goals for 2024 is to spend more time sitting on things in nature. It’s not really a joke, though – it’s part of my practice. It lets me spend time with myself and it helps me see myself as part of the landscape. (I teach more about my practices in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)

6. Our music is meant for the collective.

“What does it take to play music with another human being? Interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings.” – Jerry Granelli

As much as the interview and documentary focused on the unique genius of Jerry Granelli, none of it is really about individual genius. As a drummer, Jerry didn’t make music that was meant to stand alone – he was always part of an ensemble. He committed himself to his practice and to releasing his own habitual patterns not to become a solitary superstar, but to make beautiful, spontaneous music together with other people with a similar commitment. He did his individual work to find his own voice, and trusted other members to do their work to find their own voices, and together they created the conditions for magic.

As I develop my own work, I find myself in a similar dance – often creating independently, and yet always with the collective in my heart and mind. As much as I can, I try to remember that my voice is part of an ensemble.

The music was always much bigger than Jerry Granelli, just as this work that I do is much bigger than me. The work that you are called to do, the art that you are called to create, is always bigger than you.

7. Change the way you make music and you’ll change the system.

During that plenary session where Jerry was playing on pots and buckets, and a few hundred people were making sounds with their voices and bodies, there were other things going on as well. Arawana Hayashi invited some participants into an unchoreographed dance, and Barbara Bash invited a few to pick up brushes to make a massive collaborative art piece at the front of the room. I volunteered to be part of the brush work, and I can honestly tell you that few experiences have ever been more moving. For an hour or two, that conference room was buzzing with possibility and promise as we all contributed to creating something fully embodied and fully collaborative that had never existed before (and seemingly had no “purpose” in the way capitalism has taught us to understand purpose). (You can see a similar spontaneous co-creation by Jerry, Barbara, and Susanne Chui in this video.)

Not only do we often get stuck in individual habitual patterns, we get stuck in collective ones. Those habitual patterns end up becoming our systems (and driving our systems) and they exist on the micro level and the macro level. We are part of family systems, religious systems, economic systems, cultural systems, and political systems. All of those systems continue to function – often in increasingly destructive ways – because we fail to examine the habitual patterns at the root and we resist the discomfort of co-creating something new.

We can’t make jazz together when we accept the status quo as the only way to make music. How many conference rooms have you been in where nothing new was being created, where the only voices allowed to speak were telling the same old stories, harnessed to the same old habitual patterns? What will it take to change what’s happening in that room?

Systems are only as strong as the commitment people make to upholding them. When we unravel our codependence with those systems, shift our habitual patterns, and stop treating ourselves the way those systems have taught us, they have no choice but to evolve or die. Then, out of the compost, something new can be born.

We all have an opportunity to be in the magic of that conference room, where something new is being created. We have opportunities to unlearn our habitual patterns, find our unique voices, and create new music.

That music might seem a little amateurish at first, like the blues band I was part of when I first met Jerry, but that’s only a place to start. With time, we’ll each get more and more clear about our own voices so that together we can make something beautiful.

Thank you Jerry, for being my teacher.

*****

p.s. Want to be in conversations about what it means to release habitual patterns and co-create the conditions for something new to emerge? Join me for Know Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5.

Becoming part of the landscape

Listen to me read the post…

I had a dream once, that my body had become part of the landscape. The curve of my belly was now a hill that people and animals were walking across. Small children were playing on my forearms and trees were growing in the soil between my fingers rooting my hands to the ground. It was not an unpleasant dream – in fact I found it quite comforting to witness my body sinking into the soil and becoming a part of it. I awoke feeling rooted and at peace.

I’ve been remembering that dream these past weeks as I’ve been wandering in the woods and along the shoreline of this island that is becoming my new chosen home. After sixteen months of traveling the world with my laptop and a small suitcase, I’ve landed on Vancouver Island – a place I’ve long felt drawn to but have only had a flirtatious relationship with.

I want to become part of the landscape here. My wandering feet are ready to root themselves, to find familiar paths that feel like home, to learn to know trees that feel like kin. Though I was born and bred a prairie girl and will always know the prairies as my first love, there is something about this landscape that brings both soothing and aliveness to my body in a way that feels right for this season of my life.

On these misty cool days of a Pacific north-western December, while I deepen my relationship with this landscape and this climate, I’ve found myself drawn back into the work of John O’Donohue, a poet and mystic who could translate landscape into language in ways that most writers only dream of. Reading and listening to him anew has awakened something in me that feels true and good for this moment. While I am here, I want to slow down and live as the mystics have taught us to live. I want to unleash the inner mystic in me and lean into whatever wisdom awaits among the tall trees and rocks on the wild shoreline.

“What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.

“When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.” – John O’Donohue
(From Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)

On Saturday, I sat on a rock at the edge of the sea, looking out into the shrouded expanse of the horizon. Noticing movement at the edge of my vision, I looked down and there was a seal, floating on its back just feet away, looking up at me with curious, friendly eyes. “Welcome to the neighbourhood,” it seemed to say. “Take care of the place and treat your neighbours well and you’ll find a way to belong here amongst your kin.”

In January, I’ll be moving into a small apartment in a quiet little town near a lake. When I first came here, I thought I’d be living in the city. I’ve become accustomed to having the conveniences of a city available to me ever since I left the rural life behind in those restless days of early adulthood. But I surprised myself when I landed here by falling in love with a place and becoming intrigued with the idea of returning to a more rural life. It might have something to do with the fact that I put “proximity to good walking trails” and “space to set up a hammock under a tree” on my wish list for my next home (a wish list I’m happy to say that this place fulfills completely).

While re-listening to John O’Donohue’s interview on the On Being podcast, which he did just before he died, his words about thresholds felt particularly timely. “If you go back to the etymology of the word ‘threshold,’” he said, “it comes from ‘threshing,’ which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.”

I have a lovely and nostalgic relationship with the word “threshing”. Among the highlights of my childhood were the visits we sometimes made (in years when we could afford such an outing) to the Austin Thresherman’s Reunion. After the parade of antique farming equipment passed by, the old threshing machines would be lined up on the dirt floor of the arena and the farmers (and wannabe farmers) would gather for a friendly threshing competition. My siblings and I would always coax our dad out into the arena, knowing that if he went down there, he would almost certainly bring home the prize – a shiny silver dollar. Few people could beat my dad when it came to the stooking competition. (To “stook” is to stack the sheaves of wheat in upright pyramids so that the heads of wheat have the best chance of drying.) Afterwards, the stooks would be fed into the threshing machines and the wheat would be shaken from its husks.

a picture my sister took at the Thresherman’s Reunion long after our dad’s death

Years after losing my dad to a farming accident, I stand at this new threshold, reflecting on what it means to metaphorically separate the wheat from the chaff as I prepare for the seasons ahead. What will be harvested to nourish me over the winter and what will be saved for planting when the sun begins to warm the soil?

It’s not lost on me that only a week after I move into my new place, I’ll be launching my next book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. It seems an auspicious time to be sending this book, which I’ve worked so hard to gestate, out into the world. Like a pregnant parent, I’m now in the nesting phase that often marks the turning point when birth is on the horizon.

“I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit,” O’Donohue said in that interview. “And I think that, very often, how we cross is the key thing.”

Two territories of spirit. That’s an intriguing thought that won’t leave me alone. What is the territory I am leaving? What is the territory I’m moving into? How do my new book and my new home play into that? And how do I wish to cross over?

If these past few weeks have given me any clues (and I believe they have), the next territory of spirit will have something to do with a deepening relationship with Mystery and a kinship with the non-human beings I encounter in this new place. Perhaps while I lie back and look up at the giant tree that’s near the small patio where I intend to put up a hammock come Spring, my dream will be realized, and my body will become part of the landscape.

As I set my intention for how I wish to cross over into this next territory of spirit, I turn to Richard Wagamese, another wise guide whose final years were lived out not far from where I now live.

I want to listen deeply enough that I hear
everything and nothing at the same time and am
made more by the enduring quality of my silence.
I want to question deeply enough that I am made
more not by the answers so much as my desire to
continue asking questions. I want to speak deeply
enough that I am made more by the articulation
of my truth shifting into the day’s shape. In this
way, listening, pondering and sharing become my
connection to the oneness of life, and there is no
longer any part of me in exile.

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