The first time I attended ALIA, I cried my way through the welcoming address. “Bring your vulnerability and your brokenness,” Michael Chender said, and I thought “Yes, I’ve come to the right place.”
I was feeling profoundly broken and exhausted at the time. Things had gotten difficult and discouraging at work and I knew I was no longer in the right place. On top of that, my husband had just gone through a devastating bout of depression that resulted in a suicide attempt, and I felt like there was no place in my life where I was standing on solid footing.
In my brokenness, I found ALIA and the incredible community that is drawn to it every year. When Meg Wheatley asked, in the Leader as Shambala Warrior leadership intensive I was in, what broke our hearts, it wasn’t hard to come up with a list of things. My heart felt like it was broken into a million pieces, all shattered on the floor.
ALIA is like no place I’ve ever been. It’s a place where you’re encouraged to be curious, vulnerable, broken, foolish, and unsettled. It’s a place where mindfulness comes before anything else, and everyone practices meditation at the beginning and end of each day. It’s a place where learning is holistic, and every workshop includes some creative practice such as dance, music, art-making, and play. It’s a place where people recognize that the world needs to be changed, but first we need to work on changing ourselves.
That first time I attended, ALIA helped me begin a long healing journey out of my place of brokenness. Nobody there expected me to gloss over my brokenness, or rush into fixing it. Instead, they honoured it and gave me a safe place to learn and grow and be changed.
The next year, I knew I needed to go back to ALIA, and yet it was difficult to come up with the funds in my first year of self-employment. Happily, I could negotiate a deal with the administration that I’d do some promotional work for them in exchange for a highly discounted registration rate.
I was in a very different place that year, having been through a lot of healing and growth by then. I was happy to be there in a position of service, able to help people by supporting the organizing and harvesting teams.
I was surprised, however, to find that I hadn’t healed as much as I thought I had. I was still feeling quite tender, and, when I ended up in a workshop that focused on play, I discovered that I wasn’t quite ready for play. At the beginning of the Walk Out Walk On leadership intensive, I still wanted to cry instead of play. By the end, though, it was clear that play was what I needed more than I realized. Some of my healing happened through opening the door to play.
One of the most profound moments at last year’s ALIA was the moment when Yolanda Nokuri Hegngi seemed to speak directly into my heart from her place on the stage. “The world needs more people who know how to navigate in the dark,” she said. Yes, that was a calling meant for me. I’d been through the dark and I was learning how to navigate.
When I was honest with myself that second year (more in retrospect after the fact than in the moment), I realized that, as much as I was healing and growing and learning to navigate in the dark, I wasn’t as authentic as I wanted to be. Partly because I was figuring out how to promote my new business, and partly because I had offered to work in exchange for registration, I felt some pressure to impress and make people happy. In the deepest places in my heart, I knew how badly I wanted people to like me. Part of my brokenness from the year before still lingered.
This year, things were much different again. I hadn’t really planned on going. Of course I wanted to, but knew that it would be difficult to come up with enough funds. I’d said a little prayer about it, and then let it go, trusting that if I was meant to be there, I would be.
I’d erased it from my calendar and wasn’t obsessing about it at all. I felt quite relaxed in my letting go.
And then a remarkable email showed up in my inbox the day before it was set to begin. One of my coaching clients, who has found great value in our work together and who I’d encouraged to attend ALIA, emailed to say that she’d missed her flight and wanted to offer me her ALIA registration and accommodations in exchange for some more coaching.
Wow! What a huge offering! Part of me felt unworthy to receive such a gift, and yet another part of me knew that this was the answer to my prayer.
I booked a flight, rearranged my schedule, and within 24 hours was on my way to Halifax. I was overwhelmed but deeply grateful.
Receiving the gift and believing that I was worthy had a huge impact on my state of mind while at ALIA. I didn’t have to earn anything or prove anything or be anything that I wasn’t. I didn’t even need people to like me. I just needed to be present and receive the abundance that had been offered me. Out of that abundance, I could share my own gifts with those I came into contact with, but not in a desperate, needy way.
Before the first morning’s meditation practice, Alan Sloan told us to sit on our cushions with a regal posture – to think to ourselves “I take my seat and I mean it.” His words leapt out at me. I wrote them on my hand, knowing I needed to contemplate them further.
Those words set the tone for the rest of the week. Each day, I was reminded to be fully present in a confident, authentic way, trusting that I was worthy of being there, worthy of receiving abundance, and worthy of offering myself to others in a way that flowed out of my abundance rather than out of my need.
It was remarkable how things shifted for me. I was no longer broken and needy as I was the first time I was at ALIA, nor was I inauthentic and needy as I was the second time. I was present, confident, hospitable (to myself and others), and full of abundance. I had reached a deeper place in my authenticity.
Several remarkable moments followed that reinforced my theme of “taking my seat and meaning it”. In one of those moments, Bob Wing reminded me (through early morning aikido practice) that standing in my power in a grounded, centred way means that I am less swayed by both compliments and insults. In two other moments, people told me that something I’d shared during the course of ordinary conversation might just be the most profound things they’d take home from the week.
On my last evening there, the annual tradition of having an expressive arts performance/participatory plenary took place. At the start, Barbara Bash (who teaches the beautiful, meditative art of Big Brush painting), was painting at the front of the room with Jerry Granelli (a remarkable jazz drummer) accompanying her. She then invited three people to join her at the canvas. I stepped up, knowing how meaningful the experience would be. She gave us painting instructions and we began, while behind us Jerry instructed the audience in the accompanying music they were to create.
It was a beautiful moment that I won’t soon forget. My brush strokes were simply vertical lines on large paper, intersecting with the horizontal line and dots that the others were painting, and yet it felt profound and moving. When I stepped away, the thing that I had focused on with close eyes became a beautiful painting when I viewed it through a wider lens.
Later that evening, Barbara told me how beautiful it had been to watch me paint. “You were just so present in your painting,” she said, “not worrying about what others in the room were doing, but just fully present with your brush”. I smiled. She had no idea how profoundly her words reflected my whole experience of that week.
The next day, just before I left, one of the speakers used the term “confident vulnerability”. That was the second thing I wrote on my arm. It felt like the right thing to go home with.
I returned home at midnight on Friday and the very next day I co-hosted the Horses and Mandalas workshop with Sherri Garrity. I thought that I would be exhausted, but instead I was energized, alive, and very present. Again, I was able to offer of my gift out of a place of abundance and not need or brokenness. I took my seat and I meant it.
There were two moments in the workshop that Sherri lead us in simply watching the horses in the arena, reflecting on how they impacted us and what we learned from them. In both of those times, one horse stood perfectly still and stared directly into my eyes. He did not back down and in his eyes was encouragement for me not to back down either. “We are connected,” he seemed to say. “Your courage is reflected in my eyes.” He was regal, calm, dignified, and fully confident in the way he interacted with other horses in the herd. You could say he “took his seat and he meant it.”
I later learned that the horse’s name is Fintan. He was a rescue horse who went unappreciated for the first 16 years of his life, bouncing from one place to another and eventually ending up at a horse auction. The owner of the farm where we held the workshop eventually found Finn neglected in a field, skinny, with a sway back, overgrown hooves, and halter sores on his face. Yet, by some miracle, his beautiful spirit was protected and Finn remains sweet, gentle and willing to trust. Finn now teaches people about forgiveness, trust, and triumph. He is beautiful, regal, and demands respect.
Finn chose me, and I know he was meant to complete the lesson that I learned at ALIA. Receive the gift, let the abundance flow through me, take my seat and mean it, and go forth with confident vulnerability.
Thank you Finn and each of the people who touched me at ALIA.
something that makes things visible or affords illumination: All colors depend on light.
of little weight; not heavy: a light load.
Last week, the word “light” kept showing up for me in what I thought at the time were two different streams. At first there was the stream of light that means the absence of darkness, and then there was the stream of light that means the absence of weight. (Of course, now that I write it down, it seems so obvious, but it took a week of processing for me to finally catch on that I was dealing with one and the same thing.)
The first time light appeared, I was listening to Yolanda Nokuri Hegngi talk about the two years she’d spent in darkness (a story she has written about in her new memoir “Treasures in Darkness”). Yolanda could just as easily have been telling my story. Full of many transitions, deaths, near-deaths, career shifts, and times of great pain, the past two years have taken me through quite a lot of darkness. Every time I thought I was emerging from the darkness, some new shadow would appear.
Yolanda ended her talk by saying “We need leaders who have learned to navigate in the dark.” Wow. I was sure she was speaking directly to me. I’ve learned more than I want to know about navigating in the dark. (Some of you may recall a related post about being called to light a candle for people stumbling in the darkness, just as others have done for me. Yes, callings like that have a way of showing up time and time again, especially when we’re stubborn.)
That afternoon in our leadership intensive, we were invited to write down some intention that we wanted to put our attention on throughout the course of the workshop. In response to Yolanda’s words, I wrote “I am putting my attention on trusting my gift to help people navigate in the dark.”
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” – Matthew 5: 14-15
The other stream of light started to appear around the same time. Our workshop held a significant focus on play – how play can transform otherwise dark circumstances and how we can use play in our leadership to engage people in deeper conversations and shifts. (To learn more about it, I encourage you to read the book Walk Out Walk On that the workshop was based on.) I’d signed up for the workshop partly because I have been yearning for more play in my life (it is, after all, the reason I chose the word “joy” as my intention for the year).
I long for more lightness. I want to carry less weight.
But… after Yolanda’s talk, all I wanted to do was cry. I struggled through the afternoon’s session of the workshop because I thought I’d chosen poorly. I wasn’t ready for play after all. I should probably be in the workshop Yolanda was leading – where tears and deep story-telling were more expected.
Quite frankly, I was fighting resentment and resistance. I wanted lightness, but here I was in a place of heaviness again. The year before, I’d gone to ALIA carrying a lot of pain in my broken heart, and I was SURE that this time would be different. This was SUPPOSED to be the year that pain was replaced with joy.
After the session, I went outside, leaned on a large sycamore tree I’d fondly dubbed “Grandmother Tree”, and I cried. I cried for the pain I was still carrying and I cried for the disappointment. I cried and I wrote, and I let the tree hold me up.
And then, still leaning on the tree, I spontaneously wrote the word “lightness” on my arm.
Shortly after that, when I returned to the main meeting room, I sat down on a meditation cushion next to my friend Brad. He looked at the heavy backpack I was carrying on my back, and at the look on my face, and asked “why are you carrying so much weight around?”
I laughed out loud, knowing the question was meant (intentionally or unintentionally) both literally and figuratively. In my backpack was the weight of all of the story-harvesting I love to do – a big camera with multiple lenses, a video camera, a journal, and various related items. On my face, at the same time, was the weight of my personal stories, heartache, and resentment.
“That’s a good question,” I said, “and it’s funny you should ask, because just now I wrote the word ‘lightness’ on my arm.” We shared a chuckle, and then I promised him that the next day I would show up with a lighter load. “You can feel free to bug me if you see me still carrying this weight.”
After the session that evening, I spent a long time wandering around the beautiful OSU campus looking for the other kind of light – the “absence of darkness” (and maybe the “absence of weight” at the same time). I found it reflected off the water, I found it gently falling on the path in front of me, I found blue versions of it shining from the safety phone posts, and I found it sparkling in the windows of old buildings full of stories.
And when I returned to the dorm, and settled into my room, light appeared there as well. This time, it was the “absence of weight” kind, when a spontaneous jam session started in the room I shared with my friend Ann. When someone with a guitar wandered past the door, I said “come in – nobody carrying a guitar is ever turned away”. And then, before I knew it, someone else showed up with a violin, and a third person pulled out a banjo. It was a beautiful light moment and I took great joy in the fact that I (and Ann) had attracted it into my space. (Light attracts light, perhaps?)
Here’s a little video I took lying on the floor in the middle of the musicians. Appropriately, mostly what you see are shadows, because there was very little of the “absence of darkness” kind of light in the room, but plenty of the other kind.
The next morning, as I dressed, I wondered what I could leave behind to make my load lighter. It was a hard decision, but nearly everything stayed in my room. I decided to trust the fact that others would be there with cameras and videocameras and I didn’t need to do as much documenting as I am inclined to do. (As a matter of fact, by then I’d already found at least one person who was taking exceptional photos and another person capturing great video. I could trust them to harvest as well as – or better than – I could and I knew that they would share.)
In an even bigger leap of faith, I decided to leave my journal behind and trust that something else would show up if there were things I wanted to capture (and doodle about). The only things I decided to take with me (besides the key to my room), were some coloured markers in a small colourful pouch I wore around my neck.
Sure enough, during the very first session, something else showed up for me to doodle on. My arm. I am a dedicated doodler (it’s how I process information), and before long, I was doodling all over my arm, surrounding the word “lightness” with all measure of shapes and wiggles and trees and random words I picked up in my listening.
And… I loved it! I may never go back to doodling in my journal again! You might find me with new doodles on my arm every day – signs that I have been doing some deep process work, connecting with my artistic mind and my beautiful body all at the same time. (Try it! And come back and tell me about it!)
It was a great way of celebrating lightness – by not taking myself too seriously and letting my inner child surface in the doodles on my skin.
Another fun thing that happens when you doodle on your arm is that people notice. And in a place like ALIA, where we are encouraged to be curious, vulnerable, and authentic, they tend to respond in positive ways. Several people asked if they could take pictures of my arm AND one person (whom I hadn’t met before) invited me to participate with her in doing graphic facilitation for the next day’s session. “Anyone who does that to their arm can be trusted to help me co-create at the front of the room.”
Yikes! A doodle on my arm was a catalyst for me doodling on a big piece of paper on the wall in front of 250 people! It was both terrifying and exciting – like nothing I’ve ever done before.
With my confidence heightened, I continued to use my doodling throughout the rest of the week, doodling a learning tree during a session I hosted on feminine wisdom, doodling graphics while I helped a new friend imagine a business opportunity, doing henna doodles on the hands of all of the participants in the workshop I was in to represent their intentions for the week, and doing a whole new doodle/mandala on my arm the next day (that now started with the word “clarity”).
The lightness of doodling transformed my week. (Ironically, it was also a doodle at last year’s ALIA that cracked a door wide open for me and helped me imagine Sophia Leadership. Are you spotting a trend? Now start doodling and see what shifts for you!)
There’s at least one more way that lightness showed up for me last week… During the course of the week, I found myself drawn to several young people who brought incredible energy, vitality and passion to the community. It was exciting to be in circles with them. These are the gifted young leaders we can trust our futures to.
Twice I had the pleasure of being in conversations with women in their early twenties who were wrestling with the big, heavy questions of “what should I do with the rest of my life?” and “how do I use these passions I have to transform the world?” In both conversations, my advice (when it was asked for), coming from a place that surprised me, was “Hold it all lightly. Don’t take your life or your decisions too seriously. Each decision you make will help shape you, but none of these decisions will be ultimate and unchanging. Find a thread you feel called to follow and hold it lightly.”
Wow. I heard myself say those things and I knew I needed to take my own advice as much as they did.
Hold it all lightly. Hold light lightly. Offer light. Pass the light along. Light the way. Welcome lightness. Be a light. Walk lightly on this earth. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.
Be a light. Be light.
That’s it. Light. That’s what I want, and that’s what I want to offer.
I used to think it was just about offering light in a dark place (because I’ve become so accustomed to the dark and because I tend to take the world too seriously), but now I recognize that it’s that other kind of light as well. The absence of weight. The ability to go through life without letting it weigh you down.
There’s just one more piece of the light puzzle that started coming together last week that I’d like to share…
During one session, I participated in a fascinating circle time in which Thomas Arthur shared his Elementals – photos he’s taken of beings in the world, in which all he does is mirror the image of what he sees to create fanciful creatures from nature that speak to him (and to those who have the pleasure of listening with him). He asked us to choose an image that most spoke to us.
Elemental Goddess, by Thomas Arthur
I chose the image you see above. She drew me to her because of her sensuality and the sense that she is rising from some deep place with a smile on her face.
At first, it looked like she had a yoke across her shoulders, which was appropriate, for someone like me who’d been carrying a heavy backpack and lots of worries and old stories around with her early in the week.
When I looked closer, though, and added the purple shapes to the gold, the yoke was transformed into wings.
Like this beautiful Elemental, I want my yoke to be transformed into wings.
Be a light. Carry the world lightly.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11: 29-30
* It’s a place where you dive deeply into conversations within minutes of meeting new friends because you know that the longings in your heart are shared and your common passions build bridges with these people long before you arrived in the same space. * When you are there, you walk around feeling always a bit raw, with your heart bravely exposed. You dare to live this way there (though you might not anywhere else) because you have an intuitive sense that the people in this community can be trusted to hold you gently, both body and heart.
* It’s a place where you are reminded daily to be mindful, to make meditation a priority, to be a witness to all that is present in the world, and to recognize that the molecules that make you who you are are also the molecules that make the world the beautiful place it is.
* The very first speaker you hear is almost certain to remind you to bring your vulnerability, your curiosity, and your broken heart to this space, because these will be valuable assets in the work we will do together.
* It is a place of incubation, where the tender shoots of your good ideas are fed by other people’s good ideas, and what emerges is exciting and beautiful and is owned not by anyone but by the collective whole.
* In this space, “leaders” come in the form of dancers, artists, students, writers, teachers, dentists, architects, small business owners, and anyone else willing to step forward to catalyze change.
* When you gather in a large sacred circle and hear the stories of your new Japanese friends, who survived the pain of a triple tragedy, you know that nobody’s job is to fix it, but everybody’s job is to listen deeply and hold them tenderly in a gentle space. And then after you depart, everyone’s job is to carry these stories in their hearts and let it change the way we interact with the world.
* Unlike a conference, you don’t spend the week sampling ideas like candy. Instead you dive deeply into a full, nourishing meal of ideas in an intensive workshop with a small community within the larger community.
* Holistic learning is part of your daily experience, whether that means dancing, singing, playing, painting, or doing aikido or big brush strokes. You won’t be at all surprised if one day you’re cavorting around the auditorium with other people, holding wooden sticks tenderly between your index fingers. It will all make sense when you’re there.
* You will have meaningful conversations with amazing people of different generations, different races, and different nationalities. Your world will be stretched, your belief system modified, and your perspective changed.
* The heirarchy you experience in other learning events will be flattened, and nobody will be too conscious of who the “experts” or “teachers” are. You have all come to learn and co-create, and your good ideas and passions are as valuable as anyone else’s.
* Though heirarchy is of no importance, the elders in the room have arrived knowing that they have responsibility to share their wisdom, and the youth have arrived with an intuitive sense that they have responsibility to share their vitality. And the sharing of these and other gifts makes this a vibrant and energetic place to be.
* You’ll hear things like “open space” and “world cafe” and you will learn that those are simply words that mean that you will be invited to dive into meaningful and intimate conversations in a large room with hundreds of other people doing the same. * In some of those conversations, you will have the opportunity to play host and other people will offer gentle support and ideas to help you grow the seeds of your ideas.
* When you show up willing to play a role in the community, you may be asked to do your doodling on a large piece of paper at the front of the auditorium, or to host an intimate story-telling session.
* At the end of the week you will dance with wild abandon because you have new faith in your own body and new trust that your community will honour your fierce and feral movements across the floor.
* When it’s all done, an artist will make a mark on a large piece of paper, and without words, you will know that your experience has been honoured by the ink on that page.
In the weeks to come, I will most certainly be writing more about what ALIA was for me personally. Some of those thoughts are still emerging and so I will give them time to grow. Suffice it to say that my heart has been deeply shifted.
I wish I could tell you what it feels like
to come to a place where you are understood
and deeply seen.
I wish I could tell you what it does to one’s heart
to know that your passions are shared, celebrated, and encouraged.
I wish I could tell you what it means
to share a space with 400 other women and men
and know that the feminine is truly honoured and welcomed in.
I wish I could tell you how energizing it is
to have conversations that ask for your
deepest questions and vulnerabilities.
I wish I could tell you how moving it is
to be reminded, by the way it is modeled,
that questions are the way to lead change.
I wish I could tell you how it makes your body come alive
when you move around the space with your tribe members
trusting that bodies hold wisdom our minds know nothing about.
I wish I could tell you how it transforms a space
when someone sits down on the floor with coloured markers
and begins to draw your questions and dreams.
I wish I could tell you about the feeling of power
when passionate people move into a circle
and there is no stronger position than the one you occupy.
I wish I could tell you about the tears that fill one’s eyes
when a truly passionate artist/performer
steps into his full beauty with driftwood and glass balls.
I wish I could tell you about the magic
of a brief after-dinner conversation
about stillborn babies and butterflies and our deep women’s stories.
I wish I could tell you all of these things.
But I can’t. Because words are only dim reflections of the truth.
(p.s. I am at ALIA Summer Institute, my watering hole, summer camp, tribal council, retreat, and learning journey all rolled into one.)