Something happens when women come into circle.
It’s inevitable. When women feel held in a way they haven’t felt for a long, long time, their release valves open and the emotions they’d held tightly under their control begin to seep out through their eyes.
Something else happens after the tears begin to flow.
Conditioned for most of their lives to distrust the tears and to see them as a sign of weakness, they worry that the tears won’t be welcome, that they’re inappropriate, that they communicate something they dare not communicate, or that the opening of that valve isn’t something they can undo and the tears will never stop. I see it every time I host a soul-opening class or retreat. Our tears trigger our shame and fear.
Women’s tears are a dangerous thing. They’re dangerous to the men (and women) who don’t know how to access their own emotions and who therefore think they’re being manipulated by others’ emotions. They’re dangerous to those who realize that women in touch with their emotions are harder to control. They’re dangerous to workplaces, schools, and churches that are built on structure, control, logic and order. They’re dangerous to those who release them because we don’t know where they will lead us or what they will shift in our lives.
Tears are dangerous because they open us up to emotions uncontrolled, secrets untold, stories unlived, and longings untapped.
But in that circle of women, if it is well hosted, tears are always welcome. Because we know – in our bones we know – that tears release us, they free us, they strengthen us, and they give us power. In last week’s circle (at Gather the Women‘s annual gathering), in fact, when we were invited to share an item that represented power in our lives, one women brought out a kleenex. “Because my tears give me power,” she said. Indeed.
So after we apologize out of our conditioning to do so, we loosen and relax into the tears and whatever else may come with them.
When women gather, some of the stories that bring tears are the stories about how our collective sisterhood, around the world and throughout the generations past, have been silenced, raped, murdered, and burned at the stake. For speaking out, for learning to drive, for challenging the patriarchy, for daring to follow their own spiritual paths, for being in the path of conflict, or simply for being women.
Last week those stories kept coming up in the opening circle and then in subsequent smaller circles. “We have generations of wounds,” some women said, “and we are afraid to cry about it in case we won’t know how to stop. We are afraid to cry because our tears have brought on the violence and sometimes even death.”
“We are watching our sisters die,” said others. “We are helpless in the face of those who are mutilating the genitals of our sisters in Ethiopia. We can do so little about the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. We feel lost when we hear about young girls being sold into sexual slavery in India. We can do nothing about the young girls taken from their school by rebels in Nigeria.”
“We feel lost and helpless, but the only thing we know how to do is stuff in our emotions and carry on. We carry on because we are afraid to cry, afraid to care too much, afraid to truly allow ourselves to feel these deep wounds, afraid that we’ll be made fun of by those in control.”
At the end of a long day of hearing these stories, I felt weary and a little lost. I did what I almost always do – I carried my sadness into the woods. I walked up into the hills near the retreat centre, my shoulders weighted down with unresolved stories and unwept tears.
Up in the hills, I noticed an interesting thing. The hills were covered with low shrubs that had turned a brilliant shade of red (that I later learned were sumac) and had grown equally red seed clusters.
I stood on the path at the foot of a hill covered in red, and suddenly I didn’t see leaves anymore. Suddenly I saw a river of blood flowing down the hill.
It was the blood of centuries of women murdered and raped simply because they were women. It was the blood of the murdered and missing Indigenous women in my own country, the blood of the young women I met in Ethiopia who were beautiful and full of life when I met them and dead a few months later because they’d all been subjected to female genital mutilation with the same dirty knife, the blood of the women who’d been burned because their love of ritual and feminine spirituality was too dangerous and they were branded as witches, and the blood of so many other women all over the world who’ve suffered similar fates.
It was also my own blood, shed when a rapist climbed in my bedroom window and took my virginity away.
And it was the blood of Mother Earth, wounded by our corporate greed, destruction and insatiable hunger for her resources.
I stood there, at the foot of that river, and was suddenly overcome with emotion. I sat down at the base of a tree, surrounded by red, and I wept. I wept the unshed tears of my own stories. I wept for the women whose tears had dried up and who could cry no more. I wept for the way we’ve bottled up our tears, for the way we’ve let fear and shame keep us silent, and for the way we’ve been conditioned to accept our powerlessness in the face of so much brutality.
When the weeping subsided, I opened my journal and began to draw the river of blood. As I sketched, the words came to me… “The river of blood will heal this land.”
It didn’t make sense. How could the blood of our own woundedness heal anything? How can the victim be the healer?
I didn’t want to write it down, because I didn’t quite know what it meant and I resisted it. Perhaps I resisted because I was more inclined to look for blame and an external resolution than an internal path to healing.
But write it down I did. And suddenly the river was no longer the blood of pain and woundedness – it was the blood of menstruating women. The blood of birth and renewal. The blood of women’s power to co-create and regenerate. The blood of the new life that comes after the healing tears.
I leaned back on the tree and looked up at the sky. A large white cloud was above me and at the centre of that cloud was the cutout of a perfect blue heart. Love flowing down on me.
Across that heart flew a bird. A mourning dove – the symbol of forgiveness.
Wow. Forgiveness. That’s a tall order. Could I find it in myself and invite it in others?
I stood up and continued walking. Further along the path was a ravine – a dried up riverbed coming from the top of the hill. At the bottom of that ravine were broken sticks and pine cones. Just like the red leaves had become blood, those sticks and pine cones became the bones of generations of women who have been killed – some of whom have been and continue to be dragged from the river in my own home town in recent weeks. (Including Tina Fontaine, a 15 year old girl found in a plastic bag in the Red River, who had been exploited and murdered.)
I climbed down into the river, determined to carry some of those bones with me as reminders. As I began to climb out, dead shrubs reached out like hands pulling at my skirt, determined to keep me there along with the bones of my sisters. I knew it was partly my own story – the rape I suffered at the hands of an Indigenous man – trying to keep me trapped, trying to keep me in a place of deadness. But I also knew that I’d been through a long journey of forgiveness and had no more reason to stay at the bottom of that river.
After I left the hills and went back down to rejoin my sisters, I wondered what to do with my story. Should I share it with the other women or should I keep it to myself for my own meaning-making? I shared it with a few women over dinner, and they encouraged me to share it more broadly, but I still wasn’t convinced.
Part of me believed that I was meant to invite other women into the hills for their own weeping and path to healing, but I just wasn’t sure. That night I had a dream that I did just that, and it was a disaster. People kept interrupting us on their way to a cafeteria that had appeared on the hill. And none of the women felt free to release their emotions in such a busy place. There was no freedom, no healing, just busy people leading busy lives.
The next morning before breakfast, I went back up into hills to pray and ask for guidance about what I should do next.
When I got to the base of the river of blood, I felt compelled to walk up through the river to find the source. I climbed to what I thought was the top, and there was a large pile of trees that had been cut down. “That makes sense,” I thought. “The blood is flowing from what we have cut from the earth and cut from ourselves.”
But there was more hill ahead of me. I hadn’t reached the source. I kept climbing. This time, at the real summit, there was something much different. A circle of benches. A place where people come to heal. A place where people come to be in community and to speak from their most authentic stories. A place where people learn to forgive.
Ahhh… this is the healing circle that is pouring healing blood down on the hills. The womb of the mother out of which new life is birthed.
As I stood looking at the circle and taking in this new message, something happened that shook me to my bones and made me weep again. Very close and very loud – a single gunshot.
Suddenly I was terrified. Was I safe? Was there a hunter in these woods who would mistake me for a deer? Would my own blood be shed on this hill? Or was the hunter after a cougar I’d been told could be in these hills and I was at risk of both cougar attack and misplaced gunfire?
Near the circle was a teepee someone had built out of fallen logs. Full of emotion and fear, I crawled into the centre of the teepee. There I suddenly felt safe, held in the womb of the Great Mother. Surrounded by love and not fear.
Later that day, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to invite other women to the hill.
So I shared my story and said “for any of you who feel the need to weep with me, for all of women’s pain and for your own, join me at 4:00 and we will walk up the hill.”
Several said they’d join me. Others said they wouldn’t or couldn’t but that they would hold us in their prayers while we made the journey.
I had no idea what we’d do when we got up the hill, but I had a sense that we needed some kind of lament ritual, and that the journey up the hill needed to be treated like a pilgrimage or labyrinth walk – releasing, receiving, and returning. Some of the wise women who couldn’t make the hike up the hill gave me little words of wisdom. “Be sure to give them a way of weeping unhindered and safe – a shawl to place over their heads that shields them from everyone else.” “Take something with you to cleanse the space and to bring people back to a place of groundedness afterward, like sage perhaps.”
Gradually, trusting that I was given the wisdom I needed to host this pilgrimage, I leaned into it. When the women gathered, I invited Tubears, a wise elder from Reno, to offer a prayer for all of us. We stood holding hands as she prayed, and then I invited each woman to express which stories were on their hearts – their own or other women’s. “Start a sentence with ‘I carry with me the stories of…’ and share one little piece of what you’re carrying up the hill.”
And then, in silence, we walked up the hill. At the foot of the river of blood, I invited them to wander in silence for awhile and to simply be open to what the hill wanted to say to them. After 10 minutes, I called them back together and said, “Now we are going to move into a lament. We are going to release some of the pent up emotions we’ve denied ourselves, some of the tears we’ve been afraid to shed, some of the pain of witnessing our sisters’ deaths and rapes. It may feel funny at first and you may need to fake it for awhile, but simply allow it to feel weird and carry on. This is counter-cultural. It’s not going to feel normal. Simply allow whatever comes up for you to be okay and safe in this place with your sisters. Sit where you feel safe and held, close enough to us to know that you are in community, but far enough away that you have some solitude. Cover your head with your shawl if you wish, and weep. Once the time is up, I will come to each of you and place my hand on your head. That will be your invitation to emerge out of your weeping and return to the circle.”
Women spread out over the hill and found their places. We began to weep and wail, some loudly, some more at the level at a hum. In some moments it felt fake and put-on, but in other moments deep convulsions of remembered pain welled up and we were weeping for real. I wept for some of my clients who are healing from deep wounds and historic pain. I wept for a beloved sister-in-law who’s been on a long healing journey. I wept for my daughters and nieces who still have so much to navigate as they come into adulthood. And I wept for the women I’d met in Ethiopia and India and the women from my country being found in the river.
When it felt like the right time, I rose and walked from woman to woman, gently placing my hand on their heads and holding it there like a blessing and invitation, reminding them that they were safe and held in love as they came out of their lament.
We gathered in circle once again, did some deep breathing exercises to release some of the heaviness, and then I invited my friend and co-guardian Hali to offer a cleansing smudge for each woman. Then we passed a talking piece – a stone I’d found on the hill that at first felt like a blade in my hand but then transformed into the shape of a woman as I held it. I invited them to each speak of one thing they were taking with them from this experience.
“When you exit a labyrinth, after you have received what was in the centre for you, you walk slowly in your return to the world, integrating this new wisdom or calling into your hearts and your bodies. I invite you to walk slowly in silence down the hill. Take the time you need. Do the self care that will help you be gentle with yourself. Don’t rush into telling other people about this experience until you are ready for it.”
Slowly and individually, we made our way down the hill. When we got there, I tried to enter into dinnertime conversation, but it just didn’t feel right. Instead, I disappeared from the table and went first to the quiet room where our circle of chairs were and then went to my room to have a hot bath.
I’m not sure what this will mean for the women who were with me. Many of them shared how meaningful it was and how it cracked their hearts open, but mostly I am expecting that they will process it in their own way in their own time. They are each on their own journeys, and if this at least helped them honour their wounds in a new way and seek healing for something unspoken, then they are on the right path. Some might be frightened of the wound and need therapists or other healing practices that help them process what’s been opened up.
I know, though, that this will change my work. I’ve received a new calling – or perhaps a deepening of a calling I knew I already had. A few years ago, I heard a woman from the stage say the words “The world needs people who know how to navigate in the dark” and I knew then that her words were meant for me. I’ve known for quite awhile that part of my work was to help people walk through the shadow, through the grief, and through the wound.
This isn’t easy work – because few people want to be invited into darkness – but it is essential work and I know I need to do it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when, in the very first coaching session I had after my return to work, a woman who ostensibly wanted to talk about how much she wanted to change her career, revealed only a short time into our conversation that her restlessness was more about unhealed wounds and a darkness she was afraid to enter into than it was about her career.
And then yesterday, as I was washing the dishes, a hit of inspiration arrived. I will be creating a new course that will be somewhat like Mandala Discovery (where you receive a prompt every day) but will invite women to journal and/or do art-making prompts as they take a figurative journey that resembles a labyrinth walk. It is tentatively called “A Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself“.
I also expect that there will be upcoming retreats based on this theme. AND there has already been an invitation to help create a lament for women on a fairly large scale at an event next year. If you want to learn more about any of this as it unfolds, add your name to my email list (at the bottom of the page) and I’ll keep you informed.
Also, if you are interested in how an openhearted writing practice can help you through this journey, join me for a one day online Openhearted Writing Circle on Saturday, October 4th.
Blessings to you wherever you are in this journey.
“Because we realised that the person who left us did not take the sun with them or leave darkness in their place. They simply left, and with every farewell comes a hidden hope. – Paul Coelho
Three years ago, on Easter weekend, we found out my mom had cancer. It was a sombre Easter meal we shared at my brother’s house that Sunday. Mom did her best to be upbeat, playing with the grandchildren, making sure everyone was well fed and giving us all as much love as she could. We all tried to do the same, to pretend that everything was going to be okay and that we didn’t risk losing the only parent we had left.
We didn’t do a very good job of lying to ourselves, though. Beneath all of the smiles and the laughter was a river of worry that none of us could deny.
Once you’ve met death and watched it take away a member of your family, you no longer have the luxury of hanging onto the lie that “everything is going to be alright”.
Something else happened that weekend. On the two hour drive home from my brother’s house, my marriage unraveled. We had a big fight (as quietly as possible so as not to alarm the children in the back seat) and I had to speak out loud the unhappiness that was growing in me like my mom’s cancer was growing in her. It was time for drastic measures. We had to either slice out the cancer in our marriage and subject it to months of chemo (in the form of therapy) or it would die.
By now you probably know what happened to my Mom. She had surgery and months of chemo and the doctors thought they had been successful in arresting the cancer. But only three months after she’d gotten the “all-clear” (which happened a year after her diagnosis), they discovered that the cancer was still growing and was now beyond treatment. Three months later, with all of her children gathered around her, she left us to join Dad in eternity.
As for my marriage, a rather similar pattern took place. We went for months of counseling, worked on the baggage we were both carrying, learned to talk to each other with more honesty and less anger, and thought we had the cancer licked. We were happy again.
But then the cancer came back. I realized that the anger that had infected me was growing in deeper places than I’d at first admitted to myself. A deeper excavation was necessary. And so we went under the knife again, followed by more chemo.
Our marriage is still alive. Like doctors, we are using every procedure and medicine we can think of to keep it alive. We are trying – like the Japanese artists who mend broken pots with gold so that the break becomes part of the art and history of the piece and adds to its beauty – to mend our marriage with even stronger and more beautiful material than was there when the break happened.
It seems fitting (and perhaps somewhat ironic) that this year, at Easter, I am feeling hopeful again. There is resurrection, there is transformation, there is hope. The gold is beginning to set deep into the cracks and there is beauty emerging out of our brokenness.
In Pathfinder, I wrote about the value of getting lost, of tearing up the map, and trusting that the path will unfold in front of us as it should. That’s a lesson that I have to learn again and again. I want so badly to control the outcome, to fix the cancer in my mom (and now my brother), to find a simple solution for our marriage, or to, at the very least, feel like I’m holding a map in my hand that will show me the topography that’s up ahead. But I don’t get that. I never get that.
I have to let it go and lean further into trust.
In order for real transformation to happen (as we learn in Theory U, which is also shared in Pathfinder), we have to let go of the outcome and our desire to control it, let go of our preconceived notions, let go of the lens through which we view the world, and learn to sense into that which wants to emerge. Along the journey of letting go, we open our minds, open our hearts, and open our wills. Only once we’ve reached the bottom of the U, when what needed to die has been released, can the new thing emerge and begin to blossom.
My friend Laurie Foley was recently told that her cancer is in remission. As she explores what this means and what she is meant to learn from her long months of struggle, she is re-framing remission as re-mission. She’s wondering how this period of her life – the journey through the valley of the shadow of cancer – has changed her life’s mission and what God is asking of her now.
I wonder the same thing. If the cancer in my marriage is in remission (as I hope it is), then what is our re-mission as a couple? What is emerging for us that we couldn’t see before when we were blinded by the struggle? It is our hope that the three year dive into the bottom of the U has allowed something new and beautiful to grow out of the brokenness.
I share this story with you not for any sympathy or advice. I share it simply that you will know that you are not alone. If your marriage feels broken, if your community is falling apart, if your business is failing, take heart.
There is beauty that grows out of the brokenness. There is hope even in loss.
Yes it’s true that sometimes there is no stopping the cancer and someone or something dies. Your marriage may end, your best friend may die, you may lose your job or your home. We can’t change that, no matter how hard we try.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the end. It doesn’t mean you’re finished. It means that you’re finding yourself at the bottom of the U and someday, when you have let go and opened yourself up to some new possibility, the light will appear again and a new seed, planted into the compost of what has died, will begin to sprout.
In the Easter story, Christ had to give up his life on the cross before he was ready for his own re-mission. Only when his surrender was complete and death had taken him could he rise again and live out his calling to be fully God.
That story always makes me think of butterfly metamorphosis. A caterpillar must give up its caterpillar-self in the gooey mess of the chrysalis before it can emerge as a butterfly. In the same way, we have to release that which no longer serves us – let it fall broken in a heap at our feet – before we can emerge into the beauty that calls us forward.
It is my hope this Easter (whether or not the Easter story is part of your faith tradition) that you will find beauty in the brokenness, that you will recognize the value of getting lost, and that you will learn to see the light that peeks into your shadows.
And if you find yourself lost, somewhere on the journey through the U, consider joining us in the Pathfinder Circle. Your brokenness, your questions, your growth, your curiosity, and your grief will be held in a circle of grace.
A dozen years ago, I taught my first class on creativity and spirituality. A small circle of women gathered each week to give themselves permission to play, to explore creativity as a spiritual practice, and to exhale deeply.
Each week, with our hands in clay or paint, we cracked open the vulnerable places in our hearts that held the shame of our unworthiness, the fear of our failure, and the resistance to allowing ourselves to do that which brought delight.
Almost every week, I found myself in the middle of “the trembling”. I’d spent most of my life ignoring my body, so I didn’t recognize at the time that it was sending me powerful messages. As I’d host the women’s stories of heartbreak, fear, shame, and triumph, my whole body would begin to tremble, like it was shivering from cold. I’d have to clench my jaw sometimes, or hold my hands under the table, afraid my shaking might be seen.
At first, I chalked it up to nervousness. This was brand new work – work I’d been longing to do for years – and I didn’t know if I would succeed.
But it wasn’t nervousness (or at least it wasn’t only nervousness). I’d done much scarier things in my career (like hosting press conferences for Prime Ministers) and none of those scary things had caused the shakes like that.
In the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the trembling came in those moments when I was in flow… “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
This was so much more than nervousness. This was the message my body was sending me that I was in my right work.
That class led to other classes, to other circles, to other soulful conversations, to other art-making, and to other work that made my body vibrate. It was the beginning that eventually lead to everything I do now.
The trembling showed up again and again, while working with coaching clients who dare to crack their hearts open, while hosting women’s retreats where tears reveal the most honest truths of the heart, while inviting corporate clients to risk exposing themselves in meaningful conversations, and while writing blog posts that come from a deeper place of knowing than anything I’ve tapped into before. The trembling tells me I am on the right path, doing the right work, talking to the right people.
When I hosted the first call for the Idea Incubator, I invited people to share where in their lives they are feeling the trembling. As they shared what was cracking their hearts open, I felt my own trembling begin again. This is my work. These people with open hearts and brave dreams are my people. I stand here, trembling with them.
What if, the first time it showed up, I’d simply interpreted the trembling as fear and learned to shy away from it in the future? What if I’d never taught another class because I was too embarrassed to be seen with shaking hands? What if I’d been careful to stay in work that never made me tremble?
What if YOU ignore the trembling? What if you take the safe road? What if you never dare to let yourself be scared? What will you miss?
The trembling is our messenger. It’s trying to get our attention. It’s trying to wake us up and point us in the direction of our hearts’ longing.
Don’t ignore the trembling.
Note: Read all the way to the end of this post to find out how to enter to win free registration to Spectrum: A holistic visual journaling workshop.
“All transitions are composed of an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning” – William Bridges
In my last post, I talked about how the journey from Story A to Story B is almost always longer and more complex than we expect it to be. As the second diagram suggests, we must enter the labyrinth of transformation, release the old story on the journey in, sit quietly at the centre and wait patiently to receive what is there for us, and then make the return journey out of the labyrinth and into the new story that’s ready to emerge.
Several people have contacted me to say that the post resonated and that they find themselves in that in-between place. Some of them express their discomfort and want to know “what should I be doing in the in-between place?”
Here are some of my thoughts on how to live in the in-between place:
1. Let go of the mindset that you have to DO something. We are products of a culture that has convinced us that in order to have value, we must be active, we must produce things, and we must – at all costs – stay busy. I know it’s hard to break away from old patterns, but that mindset will not serve you well in this journey. New seeds do not grow on ground that is plowed every day. Nor can the land continue to be fruitful if it is not allowed to lie dormant through the winter. We need to learn a lesson from trees, release our fruit in the harvest season, release our leaves so that our trunks do not need to keep pumping sap through them and risk freezing, and simply lie dormant over the quiet season. Only then will we be ready to receive what is waiting for us at the centre. Only then can the new story begin to grow.
2. Be quiet. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3) The in-between place is not a time for a lot of noise or conversation. It’s a more introverted time – a time to sit in your own silence and wait patiently for the wisdom to come. Turn off social media, cancel the parties, and just be quiet with yourself for awhile. The deepest wisdom in our hearts can’t be heard above the noise. If you can, go away for a silent retreat for a few days, or at least find time regularly to wander in the woods or in labyrinths.
3. Find the practices that sustain you and take you to a deeper place. This may be the time to bring in a new practice – dancing, yoga, meditation, Mandala Discovery, art journaling, walking, photography, etc. Find something that helps you get in touch with yourself and release the old stories.
4. Find an incubator where the new story can begin to grow in safety. It’s hard to believe in the new story that’s emerging if everyone you know is still stuck in old stories. To nurture your new story, find places where you feel safe trusting in what is possible. Find people (online or in person) who are also inviting in new stories and be intentional about supporting each other and growing new stories together.
5. Break away from the things that keep you stuck in the old story. This may mean you have to walk away from old jobs and unhealthy relationships. It may mean giving up some of your volunteer commitments that keep you too busy to walk the labyrinth. Be courageous in seeking what you know you need to get through this. Practice saying “no, this is not what I need right now”.
6. Be as honest as you need to be with the people around you. Be clear about your needs. You may need to tell your life partner “I need to be by myself for awhile. This is not about you – it’s about what I need for this transition I’m going through. I would appreciate your support.” It may mean you’ll need to tell your Mom “This is what is now true for me. It might make you uncomfortable, and it might not be true for you, but I’m asking you to respect my journey anyway.”
7. Allow yourself to grieve and to hospice the old story into its death. You’re letting go of something important. It’s a story that has sustained you for a long time. Don’t take that lightly. Allow yourself to properly grieve its loss. Don’t rush through the sadness or any of the other emotions that show up. Offer respect and gratitude to the old story for the role it played in your life. Give yourself permission to really feel this pain.
8. Be patient. The most difficult thing about this in-between place is that it doesn’t end as quickly as we want it to. Old stories need time to die. New stories need time to germinate. You won’t serve either story well if you rush from one to the next. You won’t serve yourself well if you don’t take the time that’s needed in between.
9. Remember that your journey is your own. No two journeys through this will look the same, so you’ll need to trust your own wisdom to get you through. You can seek advice from other people, read books about it, or take classes, but at the end of the day, nobody can know exactly what you need except for you. Trust that. Learn to listen for the voice of intuition.
10. Lean on a Higher Power. You’re not walking through this alone. God/dess wants to walk the journey with you, supporting you and holding you up when you get weary. Practice doing the things that help you get in touch with the God of your understanding – pray, meditate, be in nature, go to the synagogue, etc. Trust that something bigger than you wants this new story to emerge just like you do.
What’s your experience of the in-between place? Do you have any other points you’d like to add or any questions you’d like to ask? Add a comment to this post for your chance to win free registration to Spectrum: A holistic visual journaling workshop (where I’ll be teaching a workshop related to this post, on an art journal process inspired by labyrinths). Contest closes Friday, February 28 at 8:00 p.m. central.
Also, don’t forget that you have until Saturday morning to register for Mandala Discovery.
Note: All links to Spectrum are affiliate links, which means I’ll get a portion of the registration fees if you register through these links.
“Do not be afraid of the empty place. It is the source we must return to if we are to be free of the stories and habits that entrap us.” – Charles Eisenstein
I’ve been having a lot of internal dialogues lately, and one of the conversations sounds a lot like this:
Me 1: “Mandala Discovery starts again on Saturday. Why aren’t you doing a better job of marketing it?”
Me 2: “I don’t know. I’m really struggling with marketing lately. Marketing language gets stuck in my throat.”
Me 1: “But you don’t have to be a traditional marketer to make this work. You just have to offer affiliate programs for past participants, buy Facebook ads, send out multiple reminders to your list, blah, blah, blah. Oh… And you have to be more clear about what they get for their investment. People don’t understand just how good Mandala Discovery is because your language is too vague.”
Me 2: “But… The trouble is, I can’t tell them exactly what they’ll get for their investment. Every journey through this will be different and they’ll each find what they need on the journey. I can’t tell them what need will be filled because I don’t know their unique needs.”
Me 1: “How do you think you’ll ever be a successful entrepreneur if you don’t learn to speak in clear marketing lingo? You’ve worked in PR for a long time – surely you know how to tell the story that will sell the product. ‘You want to get to Story B and you’re stuck at Story A? Buy this simple product and you’ll have guaranteed success.’”
Me 2: “That really doesn’t work for me. Nothing I sell fits into the ‘simple product’ category. I don’t offer simplicity. I offer complexity. I invite people into the ‘empty place’ (that Charles Eisenstein talks about in that quote at the top of this page). You can’t put that empty place on a sales page.”
And so it goes, on and on, with Me 1 trying to be more financially successful and Me 2 trying to be more authentic.
Me 2 usually wins, but Me 1 is stuck in some old stories about worthiness and conventional wisdom, and so the dialogue continues.
Last week, I had a series of a-ha moments that have helped me clarify my work even further. First of all, I was working with the leadership team of a local organization that was going through a major transition. When I did individual coaching with each of the people involved, I realized that the stories they were each living in were not in alignment with the direction the organization was heading. In the group conversation I hosted, these stories started coming out, and they realized that the true story that was emerging was very different from what they’d thought was needed. Embracing this true story meant that they would have to release something that was very important for all of them, and possibly even close the doors of the business. This came with a lot of grief that they will have to work through in the coming months. I was reminded, as I held the container for their stories to emerge, that part of my work is to help people and organizations navigate this difficult journey of grief and change in an authentic way.
The work I deeply believe in is not a simple step from Story A to Story B – it’s the releasing of Story A, living in the complexity and grief of that loss, and then being in the empty place where Story B can begin to emerge.
A similar thing happened in my coaching work recently. A client had hired me for three sessions, and in the first session a few months ago, she was trying to decide what her true work was and whether she should leave her job or change jobs to step into something new that felt more purposeful. Finally, however, in the third session, she admitted what she really wanted. “I don’t really want to have a purpose right now. I just want to BE for awhile. I don’t want to DO. I just want to give myself permission to SIT.”
And so, instead of giving her ten easy steps on how to move from story A to story B, we worked on what that empty place would look like and how she could give herself permission to be in it, spending time in play and stillness. She’s now got plans to go away on a personal retreat and to spend time creating a quilt that has no planned outcome, design, or recipient.
Again and again, as I do this work, I hear the longing in people’s hearts for real transformation. In the longing is the assumption (or desperate hope, or outside pressure of family and friends) that they can find a simple fix that will help them move from Story A to Story B. That’s what the marketers have been telling us for years, and so that’s what we want to believe. “Buy this car and you’ll finally feel good about yourself. Use this skin cream and you’ll never age. Take this course and your confidence will grow. Sign up for these coaching sessions and you’ll magically be ready to step into your bigness.”
But when I go deeper with my clients, they recognize that their authentic journeys have nothing to do with the easy steps the marketers want to sell them. Real transformation doesn’t work that way. Real transformation is much more complex and nuanced, and doesn’t fit into bullet points.
As the illustration suggests, we all want the bullet points that will help us take a direct path from Story A to Story B. But the truth is, the bullet points short circuit the change and Story B doesn’t really have an opportunity to grow out of it.
If we really want Story B to emerge, we have to be willing to let go of Story A, take the winding journey through the labyrinth, and wait for Story B to emerge naturally.
There are three stages to the labyrinth journey. When we journey inward, we release. When we cross the threshold and stand at the centre, we receive. When we journey outward, we return. But we don’t return to Story A. We take what we have received at the centre, we allow ourselves to be transformed, and we follow where the path is leading to Story B.
It’s easy to sell the bullet point, but it’s much harder to sell the labyrinth.
Nobody wants to step into complexity and messiness. Nobody wants to feel lost and confused.
We want short cuts through the grief and emptiness that comes when we let go of Story A, and so we go shopping, we overeat, we sign up for courses, and we try to bury our fear in staying busy. Instead of sitting still at the centre of the labyrinth, we rush to find our new purpose.
Instead of releasing and stepping into trust, we hang on tightly to stories that no longer serve us.
Instead of risking the pain of growth, we try to fool ourselves with the ten easy steps to a better life.
In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein talks about The Story of Separation that the world has been living in. That’s a story that keeps us locked in a financial economy that demands growth and the pillaging of the earth for the resources that feed that growth. It’s a story that has us living as separate, self-sufficient individuals instead of in community. It’s a story that requires a greater and greater investment in military actions that help us protect our resources and our self-sufficiency.
The new story that the world is longing for is a Story of Connection. It’s a story that brings us back to a healthy relationship with each other and the earth. It’s a story of trust and compassion, community and spirituality.
As the diagram shows above, we won’t get to the Story of Connection until we are ready to release the Story of Separation, step into the centre of the labyrinth, and receive the new thing that wants to be born in each of us.
I want to be part of that Story of Connection, and that is why I will never sell you what you don’t need, or try to convince you that anything I offer will provide you with an easy solution.
I won’t get rich doing this work, but that’s not one of my values anyway. Getting rich would simply help me hang onto that Story of Separation.
What I would much rather do is invite you to let go of the stories that no longer serve you and step into the labyrinth with me.
I can’t promise you that it will be easy or that the path will be smooth. From personal experience, I know that transformation is rarely easy or smooth. There will be grief, you will have to step into the shadows, and there will be moments when you’ll feel completely lost. Some days, in fact, you will probably regret that you accepted my invitation to step onto this journey.
In the end, though, it will be worth it. The new story will be more beautiful than anything you’ve had to release. You will gradually find your way into your authentic heart, and that is the most beautiful place that you can live. Along the journey you will find other pilgrims who are also finding their way through the grief and shadows, and you will discover that being in community is much better than living a self-sufficient life.
If this is a place you’d like to go, then I invite you to start with Mandala Discovery. You’ll receive 30 prompts that will guide you through a labyrinthian journey into your own heart.
If you want to go even deeper, consider one-on-one coaching and/or a journey through Lead with Your Wild Heart.
p.s. In my desire to live in the gift economy, I look for ways to support people that doesn’t involve financial transactions. If you are interested in any of my programs and do not have sufficient financial resources, please contact me to see if we can work something else out.