“Treating ourselves like appliances that can be unplugged and plugged in again at will or cars that stop and start with the twist of a key, we have forgotten the importance of fallow time and winter and rests in music. We have abandoned a whole system of dealing with the neutral zone through ritual, and we have tried to deal with personal change as though it were a matter of some kind of readjustment.” – William Bridges
One of the women in my women’s circle shared recently that she has a hard time explaining to her husband where she goes every Thursday. “He just doesn’t get it,” she said. “He keeps asking ‘But… what do you do there? What’s the purpose?’ He can’t understand why we’d want to sit in a circle and share stories of our lives when we’re not accomplishing anything or learning anything.”
This is a common story in my work. “But what will we do?” people ask when I talk about my retreats, workshops, or even coaching sessions. I talk about making mandalas, walking labyrinths, and sitting in conversation circles, but that’s often not enough for people who believe life is only valuable when we’re doing/accomplishing/fixing/building/growing/learning something.
We have created a culture in which busy = important, accomplishment = valuable, and idleness = wasting time. Even when we go away for retreat or sit in circle, we think we have to be able to name what we accomplished in our time away. If we don’t have a checklist of “things we got done” then the time wasn’t valuably invested. To say we simply wandered in the woods for a few days is the equivalent of admitting we’re lazy and unproductive and that we can’t be trusted to contribute to society.
We fear laziness, we chafe at lack of productivity, and we hide in shame when we take too long to “get over things”.
We have become a society that has lost the capacity for spaciousness in our transitions.
Take grief, for example. We think if we can name the “five stages of grief”, then we’ll be able to clean up the process, hide the messiness, and get through it faster.
Birth is the same. In many cultures, a mother is expected to return to “productive” work only weeks after the biggest life-changing event she’s ever gone through.
And those are the “big” ones. When it comes to “smaller” transitions (changing careers, ending relationships, having a car accident, etc.), we’re hardly even given permission to talk about them, let alone experience the full weight of them in our lives. There are more important things to do than to sit around in sharing circles talking about the hard things life has thrown our way.
In one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, Transitions, William Bridges calls the space between the ending of one phase of our lives and the beginning of another “the neutral zone”. Some time around the industrial revolution, we lost touch with the neutral zone.
“In other times and places the person in transition left the village and went out into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert. There the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality. This was a time ‘between dreams’ in which the old chaos from the beginnings welled up and obliterated all forms. It was a place without a name – an empty space in the world and the lifetime within which a new sense of self could gestate.”
Again and again in my coaching work, I find myself in conversation with people who fear the neutral zone. When we begin the conversation, they talk about some big change they feel they need to make in their lives and they express frustration about their lack of ability to get there quickly and easily. “What’s wrong with me?” they almost always say. “I know that it’s time for change, but I can’t seem to find clarity or drive to get me to the next stage of my life. I feel like I’m stuck in quicksand.” Again and again they beat themselves up for not living up to some arbitrary expectation they’ve placed on themselves or they feel others are placing on them.
Somewhere in the middle of the first conversation, I nudge them to give themselves permission to “just be lost” for awhile. Usually, there s some resistance to this. Lostness is not something they’ve ever been taught to value. Lostness = unworthiness.
By the second or third conversation, most have spoken aloud their desire for more spaciousness. “I just feel like making art for awhile” or “I just need to learn to give myself permission to feel this grief deeply” or “I’m going to take a few months just to ‘be’ and not ‘do’.”
It’s remarkably hard to get to that place of spaciousness and acceptance. Sometimes it’s even hard for me, as a coach, to invite them into that place. The voices in my head often remind me “They’re paying you good money for this – shouldn’t you help them accomplish something? Shouldn’t you do something more valuable than give them permission to just be for awhile?”
That moment of doubt always passes though, when I remember how crucial it is for us to transition well and to honour the neutral zone before we step into the new beginning. If I give my clients nothing else but the permission to honour their own timing in their transitions, then I have done well.
What we don’t realize, when we rush through the neutral zone, is that we’re short-circuiting real growth. If we deny ourselves of the fallow time, the winter season when seeds lie dormant underground, then our growth will be stunted and unhealthy, and, more often than not, the emotions we denied ourselves will emerge in less healthy ways later in our lives.
We need the neutral zone and we need to honour and give space for it in others as well.
A bamboo plant spends three or four years growing a good root system before anything emerges above the ground. In the same way, we need to invest in our rootedness before the growth will be obvious to anyone else. We need to create the space and time to “just be” before we are ready to “do”.
Learn to create spaciousness in your life by giving yourself permission to wander in the woods, to make messy art, to stare into space, to sit in long conversations with friends, to feel emotions deeply, to savour good food, to say no to some of your commitments, or to go on a pilgrimage or vision quest.
This is not time “wasted”, it’s time well invested in your own growth and well-being.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
Pam Slim’s book Body of Work arrived at the perfect time – just as I was on the threshold of doing some big work that marks the next stage of my own body of work.
A few months ago, Dianne McCoy and I accepted a contract to facilitate a major meeting of a national association and their stakeholders from across the country, gathering in our city this past weekend. This was one of the biggest and most complex meetings I’ve ever been called on to facilitate. There were moments leading up to it, when the complexities mounted and the potential for failure grew more evident, when both Dianne and I were sure we were in over our heads. There was even a moment or two when we considered turning down the contract.
But we worked up the courage to carry on. Not only did we carry on, but we pushed the client to allow us to use some methods that we both strongly believe in, but that we knew would create discomfort for many in the room who are used to more formal, hierarchical ways of gathering. Circle was at the foundation of how we wanted to gather, and there aren’t a lot of people in the corporate world who are accustomed to engaging with each other while they hold a talking piece in their hands and look into each others’ eyes. (Thankfully, we had an ally on the planning committee who is equally committed to circle work and she nudged the others to trust us.)
This was a monumental meeting for the organization. The ground was shifting beneath them, and they weren’t sure what shape they’d need to emerge into to continue to be relevant. They needed a brand new level of engagement with their stakeholders (that was both risky and unheard-of) if they were to continue to serve their public.
Needless to say, these two days of work required all of the skills I’ve accumulated – ability to read and respond to the energy in the room, leadership and strength in the face of conflict, intuition, good communication (speaking and writing) skills, attention to detail, ability to host meaningful conversations, creativity, adaptability… and a few skills I didn’t even know I had.
The meeting went well. There was more agreement in the room than the organization had anticipated, and even though things got tense at moments, we were able to redirect the energy and take it into a positive direction. Thanks to strong partners in the room who understand what it means to hold the rim of the circle, we worked our way through some very difficult territory to a positive conclusion. People in the room felt heard in a way they never had before, and the governing council had clarity about the new direction their organization needs to head. At the end of the meeting, several people remarked how the circle had been instrumental in changing the way they’d gathered.
In the evenings, when I returned home, exhausted and yet invigorated, I relaxed while reading Body of Work. As I’d expected, it’s a beautiful articulation of the way my own work has evolved. Pam talks about how the emerging story of our work is a compilation of all of the pieces that led us to this place – experiences we’ve had, things we’re passionate about, things that have happened to us, skills we’ve developed, etc.
Although there’s a part of me that’s long known that this was the direction my work was taking me, there was nothing in the early days of my education or career that indicated that I would one day relish the opportunity to host such a gathering. And yet… when I sit on this side of history and look back, I can see how the threads started coming together a long time ago to tie into this tapestry of my work.
In university, I studied literature and theatre. I’ve always known that writing would be part of my life in some way or another. I also thought that I’d find a place on stage. Little did I know that that place was not on a theatre stage, but at the front of the room speaking, teaching, and facilitating.
I found my way into a career in communication, first in government and then in non-profit. I worked hard to master the art of effective communication, writing more press releases and planning more press conferences than I can count. That grew old, though, and I knew that my longing to communicate was not about finding the best way to tell people about new government policies, but to tell meaningful stories that would change people’s lives.
I left government for non-profit, and finally got to tell more meaningful stories, but knew that wasn’t the final stop either – it was another stepping stone that was helping to prepare me for the next stage of my work. While there, I gained immense value from the opportunities to travel internationally and learn to communicate effectively with people of different cultures and different socio-economic status. This experience built a beautiful platform for the way I hold the container for meaningful conversation – recognizing the value of all of the stories in the room and honouring the differences we bring to the circle.
There have been lots of other things, aside from my paid work, that have helped grow this body of work – serving in leadership and church and community organizations, being a mom, getting some of my writing published, developing relationships with people all over the world, making art, developing creative practices, making mandalas, walking labyrinths, traveling, etc. All of it is meaningful, and even those moments that felt like dead-ends were learning opportunities.
All of those pieces helped prepare me for that moment, nearly at the end of the meeting, when I stood in front of the room, and somebody threw something into the mix that felt like it could derail everything that had just happened. It was the scariest moment of the weekend, and I wouldn’t say I handled it perfectly, but I adapted, trusted the others who were helping me hold the container of the room, and shifted into what was needed for that moment.
I wouldn’t have been ready for this moment ten years ago, or even five years ago, but I was now. As circle has taught me, I was especially ready for it because I had allies in the room (and outside of the room) and I knew I wasn’t standing alone. One of the most important things that the growth of this work has taught me is that I don’t do it alone.
Just before the weekend started, I bought myself a new ring. This is something I’ve done a few times in the past – buy a special piece of jewellery at significant moments of my life both as an act of kindness to myself and as a way of marking a new threshold in my growth. It’s a practice that holds a lot of meaning for me. This particular ring has a series of spirals that wrap around my finger. As many of you know, the spiral has a lot of meaning in my work (especially in Mandala Discovery). In this case, it reflects the way my work grows like a fern, reaching with tender green spirals further and further into the world, never in a linear path, but always in the direction it feels pulled. (Later this week, I launch the hard copy version of Pathfinder, so my week of big offers and spirals reaching in different directions, is not yet over.)
I would highly recommend Body of Work if you want to take a closer look at the path your own work is taking. If you want a meaningful companion for this exploration, I’d also recommend Pathfinder: A creative journal for finding your way. Pathfinder will on Wednesday, January 22nd. Come back then to order your copy!
I have seen too many wounded women.
I have watched them lose the light in their eyes when the shadows overcame them.
I have heard a thousand reasons why they no longer give themselves permission to live truthfully.
I have seen too many wild hearts tamed.
I have witnessed the loss of courage when it’s just too hard to keep being an edgewalker in a world that values conformists.
I’ve recognized the fear as they take tiny brave steps, hoping and praying the direction is right.
“I feel guilty whenever I indulge in my passions. It feels selfish and irresponsible.”
“My husband doesn’t like it when I talk about feminine wisdom, so I keep it to myself.”
“If I write the things that are burning in my heart, it will freak people out. So I remain silent.” “I used to love wandering in the woods, but I never have time for it anymore.”
“I just want to have a real conversation for a change. I want to feel safe to speak my heart.”
“My job makes me feel dead inside, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
“People expect me to be strong and hide my feelings now that I’m in leadership. I feel like I have too much bottled up inside that I can’t share with anyone.”
“Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t fit in.”
“There is so much longing in the world. I get lost in that longing and don’t know how to sit with it.”
“I wanted to be a painter, but I needed a real career. I haven’t painted in years.”
“People think I’m strange when I share my ideas, so I’ve learned to keep them to myself.”
“I can’t go to church anymore. I don’t feel understood there. But I haven’t found another place where I can find community, so I often feel lonely.” “There’s a restless energy inside me that wants to be free. I long to be free.”
So much woundedness has been laid tenderly on the ground at my feet.
So many women want their stories validated. Their fears held gently. Their tiny bits of courage honoured. I hear them whisper “please hear me” through clenched teeth.
I see the tears threaten to overflow out of stoic eyes.
I recognize the longing.
I know the brokenness.
I feel the ache of silenced dreams.
They come to me because they know I have been broken too.
They trust me with their whispers because I am acquainted with fear.
They look to me for courage and understanding because they witness my own long and painful journey back to my wild heart.
I see you.
I know you.
I honour you.
I love you.
You are beautiful.
You are courageous.
You are okay.
You can be wild again.
You can trust your heart. She will not lie to you.
You can live more fully in your body. She will welcome you back.
You can go home to that part of you that feels like it’s been lost.
You can find a circle of people who will understand you.
You can step back into courage.
You have permission to be an edgewalker.
You have permission to speak the things that you’re longing to say.
You have permission to be truly yourself.
You have permission to step away from your responsibilities for awhile.
You have permission to wander in the woods.
You also have permission to be afraid.
And to wait for the right time.
And to sit quietly while you build up your courage. You don’t need to do this all alone.
And you don’t need to do it all at once.
You don’t need to shout before you’re ready to whisper.
You don’t need to dance before you’ve tried simply swaying to the music.
You can give your woundedness time to heal.
Take a small step back into your self.
Move a little closer to your wild heart.
Pause and touch the wounded places in you.
Just breathe… slowly and deeply.
And when you’re ready, we can do this together.
If this post resonates, please consider the following:
2. I’m creating a new online program called Lead with Your Wild Heart (related to the themes in this post) that feels like a coming together of a thousand ideas that have filled my head in recent years. Add your name to my email list (top right) to be the first to hear about it and to receive a discount.
I’m done with writing goals. Good-bye. Good riddance.
I used to write them faithfully – at least once a year and sometimes in between. A lot of smart people told me that they were good and necessary and vital to my success, and since I have a habit of listening to smart people, I not only wrote them but I told other people to write them too. (After all, I wanted people to think I was smart too!)
But I’m done with goals. I’m kickin’ them to the curb. Because they’re not the most effective tool in my tool kit.
You want to know what works better than goals?
Yup. You heard me right – questions work better than goals.
We have all been taught the value of effective goal-setting, but rarely have we been taught the effectiveness of curiosity. Research has shown, in fact, that curiosity and openness help us get MORE accomplished than determination and goal-setting do.
Three social scientists once conducted a series of experiments to determine which was more effective, “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) or “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) Before the participants tackled the problem, though, the researchers asked half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task. The other half of the group was instructed to tell themselves that they would complete the task.
In the end, the self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.
The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretense, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”
This experiment resulted in the same outcome as the first. People primed with “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In follow-up experiments, the same pattern continued to hold. Those who approach a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.
My nine-year-old daughter Maddy figured this out before I did. (Or perhaps I had it figured out at nine too, but somewhere along the way I let smart people convince me otherwise.)
Not long ago, she started her first journal. “Mom,” she said, “I’m going to call it ‘A lifetime of questions.'” And then she proceeded to write pages full of all the questions she has about life, leaving blank spaces after each question in case she finds the answer and wants to fill it in. Sometimes she shares her questions with me and sometimes she doesn’t.
The other day, she was waiting in line at six in the morning to audition for The Next Star, a TV talent show that’s like Canadian Idol for kids. After the original giddiness had worn off, she plopped herself down on the ground, pulled out her journal, and started writing her questions. She didn’t show them to me, but there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them was “will I be the Next Star?”
The answer to that question was, unfortunately, “No” (she didn’t make it past the first round of auditions), but if you ask me, she’s a pretty big star just for having the guts to do all the research about how and where to audition, practice her songs relentlessly for weeks on end, get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, wait in line for five hours, and then march off alone into an audition room full of strangers (I wasn’t allowed to watch) and compete against kids who were mostly a few years older than her – all at the risk of failure. (One of the first questions she asked me afterwards was “Mom, can I take singing and dance lessons so I’m more prepared next year?”) That little girl is a hero in my books!
So I’m taking the lessons I’ve learned from Maddy and those researchers, and I’m living a lifetime of questions.
Remember that black canvas I painted when I was in the depths of despair over my long surrender? I decided to fill it with a bunch of hopeful questions.
I’ll let you know what the answers are when I find out!
Note: For this and other unconventional wisdom about how to take a more unique and powerful approach to life and leadership, check out How to Lead with your Paint Clothes on. There’s still room in the learning circle (along with the fascinating people who’ve already joined) and we’d love to have you!
“How do you get to be so free?” Caterpillar asks wistfully of Butterfly.
“Surrender,” Butterfly whispers as she flutters by.
“But… I’ve read all the books, taken all the classes, and I just can’t seem to get off the ground.”
“What do you mean – surrender? Surrender to what?”
“To the Mystery. To your Creator. To your own DNA.”
“How do I do that?” Caterpillar frowns.
“Climb up in that tree, let go of the branch, and spin.”
“But I don’t know how to spin. Do I need to take a course? Is there a manual?”
“You’ll know. Once you’re up there on the branch.”
“I’ll know? How will I know?”
“It’s written in your DNA.”
“What happens next? Do I have to spin my own wings?”
“No, silly,” Butterfly giggles. “You spin a cocoon.”
“A cocoon? I’ve never heard of that before. What do I do with it once I’ve spun it?”
“You don’t do anything. You just wait. Inside the cocoon.”
“What good does waiting do? I have too much work to do to sit around waiting in a cocoon. I have housework to do and children to feed and… well, that’s just ridiculous.” Caterpillar turns away, her eyes back on the ground.
“Well, then you’d better give up your dream of flying, because that’s the only way to get up here.” Butterfly’s wings carry her a little higher.
Caterpillar glances back at the sky. Her eyes fill with tears. “But… I really want to fly. Can you tell me a little more? Please. What comes next?”
“The hard part. The surrender.”
“So we’re back to surrender again. That doesn’t seem very helpful. And it’s kind of confusing. What am I surrendering?”
“Everything you ever knew. Every cell of your body. Every story you’ve ever told yourself.”
“I have to give up EVERYTHING?! Isn’t that asking a bit much?”
“Yes, but it’s worth it.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Oh yes. It hurts.”
“How do you handle the pain?”
“You won’t like the answer.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Surrender. And trust. You have to surrender to the pain and trust the process. You have to give up control and let your body turn to an ugly gooey mushy substance while you wait for transformation to happen. Your friends (those who haven’t learned to spin yet) will turn away because they won’t recognize you. It will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”
“I don’t know if I can do it. I can’t handle that much pain.”
“Do you want to taste the sky?”
“Oh yes. I really, really do.”
“Then you have to let go of the ground.”
I’m excited to announce a new series called “Let go of the ground & taste the sky”. I’m gathering stories of people who’ve learned what it means to surrender (in big or small ways) to the Mystery. I’ll be sharing those stories here in the coming weeks. To get this off the ground, here’s one of my own stories…
p.s. If you’re learning to surrender, I’m cooking up an offering (I hesitate to call it an e-course, but it’s something like that) where we can learn and practice together. Look for details soon!
After a week and a half of vacation, I’m trying to give my brain the “get back to work” pep talk today. So far, I’ve had only limited success. Sigh.
I quite intentionally spent little time online while on vacation. It was family time, and so I did fun family things, like hangin’ out at the Folk Festival, going on a road trip, chillin’ by the hotel pool, shopping in big America shopping malls (mostly for the teenagers in the family), watching soccer games, riding a few rollercoasters, floating down a lazy river on an inner tube, eating too much junk food, and watching silly movies. I also managed to squeeze in a few fun things just for me, like sipping chai latte at a couple of bookstore coffee shops (on both sides of the border – yup, books & chai – my two addictions), reading a couple of books, and going to an art fair.
Yesterday was one of my favourite days of the vacation. I spent most of the afternoon reading a book in a lawnchair in a shady spot on my front lawn. About the only activity I did all day was get up now and then to refill my glass with iced tea. And make a ridiculously unhealthy lunch of hashbrowns and bacon. Awww… the luxury!
One of the books I finished reading while on vacation was Artful Leadership by Michael Jones. Yes, I actually read a book on leadership while on VACATION! Go figure. It was just that good! I had the pleasure of hanging out with Michael at ALIA last month and I find his thoughts and ideas to be really, really inspiring. His book hit the spot for me in so many ways at just the right time.
There are lots of thoughts bubbling in my mind after reading this book. One of the things that stuck with me was Michael’s suggestion that, given the amount of clutter and external influence we allow into our brains and hearts, it is extremely difficult to have an original thought that does not become shadowed and distorted by what others say and think. It is even more difficult to trust that original thought and give it life.
Think about it… how often have you had a thought or idea that came to you from whatever original source you believe in (God, muse, self) that you entertained for even just a few moments without quickly negating it because “so and so would think it’s a bad idea” or “it doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom” or “it’s just silly” or “market research would certainly tell me it would never fly”?
I’ve had some of those ideas lately, and there’s a part of me that JUST KNOWS they are the right ideas to follow. BUT… well, you know the “buts”. Every day a few more of them pile on top of me when I let myself be influenced by the “experts” or “well-meaning people” or “my own ego”.
That’s part of the reason I spent this vacation mostly away from some of the influencers – social media, etc. Sometimes it’s best just to sit with an idea and let it evolve in its own good time before we hold it up to any litmus tests other than our own gut feelings. To be honest, I let myself be influenced more by a chance encounter with a horse (more on that later), and an exhilarating ride on a rollercoaster than any other person’s ideas or suggestions.
What about you? How do you guard and nurture those original thoughts so that they have a chance to grow before resistance cuts them off at their tender little shoots?