Sometimes, when you’ve read too many deep thinkers and thought too many deep thoughts, you just have to go back to Dr. Seuss for some clarity. While writing the first three chapters of my book on holding space in the last few weeks, I was puzzling over how to describe liminal space. I finally went back to this…
You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
In the first chapter of the book, I wrote about the liminal space we were in when we were expecting Mom’s death (an expansion of the blog post that was the catalyst for this book). Mom was in that liminal space herself (not quite dead, but no longer quite alive) and we were in that space with her) not quite bereaved and yet no longer able to participate in full relationship with her).
Inspired by Dr. Seuss, I wrote my own version…
We were waiting.
Waiting for her breath to change
or the pain to come
or the song to end
or the light to change
or the birds to visit
or the night to come
or the nurse to say “it’s almost over”.
Ironically, (or perhaps serendipitously), while I’ve been writing these chapters, I’ve been in another kind of Waiting Place. This time, I am “not quite divorced and yet no longer in a marriage”. It’s been a summer of waiting. Waiting for divorce lawyers to draw up separation papers, waiting for the bank to clear the mortgage, waiting for the real estate lawyer to draw up new papers for the house, waiting for the land transfer title to go through so that I own the house. Each waiting period has been compounded with at least one of the parties involved going on vacation, so what should have taken a few weeks has dragged on for six months.
Last winter, I decluttered and repainted the interior of my house. Anticipating the new flooring that we badly need, I moved all of the living room furniture into the garage before painting. But then it took months longer than I expected to push all of the paperwork through, so the floors still aren’t finished and the furniture is still in the garage. My living room, quite literally, feels like The Waiting Place. (In fact, a friend dropped in to pick something up and thought she had the wrong place because it looked like we’d moved out.) “Waiting for the bank to call. Waiting for the lawyer to return from a month-long vacation. Waiting for the old carpet to be torn out. Waiting for the furniture to be moved back in. Everyone is just waiting.”
It’s been frustrating and what little patience I had at the beginning of the summer has been stretched to the limit. A person can only take so much of The Waiting Place. It’s been wreaking havoc with my emotions, bringing up old fears and frustration, and getting in the way of my most important relationships.
Finally, today, I decided it was time to do what I tell my coaching clients to do when they’re in the liminal space between what was and what is yet to come – stay present for what’s right now, find the tools and practices that help with processing, and open myself to what wants to emerge out of the liminal space.
For the first time in a long time, I took out my mandala journal and created a new mandala for the liminal space. It helped. Here’s a mandala journal prompt that I created out of my own process…
Liminal Space – a mandala journal prompt
In anthropology, a liminal space is a threshold. It’s an ambiguous space in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. That liminal space finds us between who we once were and who we are becoming. It’s disorienting, uncomfortable, and it almost always takes far longer than we expect.
Much like The Waiting Place in “Oh The Places You’ll Go“, it feels like “a most useless place”, but it’s not. It’s a time of hibernation, a time of transformation, a time of resting, and a time of deep learning.
Nobody teaches us more about liminal space than the lowly caterpillar. Not knowing why, and not having the capacity to imagine its future as a butterfly, a caterpillar knows only that it must surrender, shed its skin, create the shell of a chrysalis, and then dissolve into a formless, gel-like substance awaiting rebirth.
The liminal space is about surrender. It’s about releasing the caterpillar identity before we have the vision for the butterfly. It’s about falling apart so that we can rebuild. It’s about daring to go into the darkness so that we can, one day, emerge into the light. It’s about trusting Spirit to direct the transformation.
One of the most critical things that the caterpillar teaches us in its transformation is that we need the shell of the chrysalis to hold space for us when we fall apart.
We need a protective shell that holds us in our formless state. It keeps us safe in the midst of transformation. It protects us from outside elements so that we can focus on the important internal work we need to do. It believes in the possibility for us even before we have the capacity to believe it ourselves.
When we enter our own chrysalis, whether that is the waiting place of divorce, grief, pregnancy, job loss, career change, graduation, children moving away, or any number of human experiences, we must build our own chrysalises that hold the space for our transformation. Like a patchwork quilt, we stitch together the people or groups who hold space for us (family, friends, pastors, therapists, coaches, churches, sharing circles, etc.), the practices that help us hold space for ourselves (journaling, artwork, prayer, body work, meditation, etc.), and the spaces which make us feel safe for transformation (our home, the park, a church, etc.)
1. Draw a large circle and a second slightly smaller circle inside it.
2. At the centre of the mandala, glue or draw an image or words that represent the liminal space. (I used an image from The Waiting Place in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”. Another idea might be an image of a chrysalis.)
3. In the space between the image and the next largest circle, write sentences, words, or phrases that represent what The Waiting Place is like. Explore your emotions, fears, resistance, etc., and also explore your wishes, your opportunities for learning, etc. You can use the following as prompts for starting your sentences:
– I feel…
– I am…
– I fear…
– I want…
– I will…
– I am learning…
– I wish…
(Note: I blurred mine in the image above, since it was a little too personal to share.)
4. Imagine that the outer rim (between the two outer circles) is your chrysalis. Inside the rim, write down all of the people who hold space for you, all of the practices that help you hold space, and all of the places you go when you need to hold space for yourself.
5. Colour/decorate your mandala however you wish. As you are doing so, set an intention for what you wish to invite in as you surrender to the chrysalis. For example, I whispered an intention for more patience and grace as I wait for the next story to emerge.
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“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
Last year, as the year ended, I shared a special mandala prompt for reflecting on the passing year before you invite in the new year. In that prompt, you were invited to divide your circle into 4 quadrants, with the words “grace, grief, growth, and gratitude” in each of the four quadrants. Then, with some reflection of the year that had passed, you filled each of the four quadrants with the things that happened that were connected to those four words.
The process of filling those four quadrants helps you see the year for ALL that it was, not just the happy things and not just the hard things. Sometimes we get stuck in only one story and we assume that that story defines us, but each of us walks through many stories and each of those stories teaches us something. Life is never a perfect balance, but it’s also never only one of those four things.
That reflection mandala is now a part of A Soulful Year: A Mandala Workbook for Ending one Year and Welcoming Another. Before you begin the process of planning for what’s ahead, it’s valuable to reflect on what has passed and on what those events have taught you.
The Reflection Mandala is a useful process to do every year at this time. Take some time this week to create your own simple four quadrant mandala for 2014. Many of us have kept gratitude journals, and that is a beautiful practice that has been transformational in my own past, but sometimes that’s not enough. This practice offers an extension of that, where focusing not only on the gratitude, but on the grief and growth and what may have been really hard to walk through helps us recognize all of the complexity of our lives and all of the things that change us and stretch us.
Here’s an idea for extending the practice of reflecting on grace, growth, gratitude, and grief throughout the year…
Find, buy, or make four containers that you can keep on your desk, bookshelf, or nightstand. (I purchased 4 small jars at the dollar store for $2.)
Write (or print stickers, as I did) the words grace, grief, gratitude, and growth on each of the containers. Embellish the containers however you wish.
Cut up small pieces of paper that you can keep in an envelope close to your containers.
On a regular basis throughout the year (daily or weekly), reflect on how grace, grief, gratitude, and growth have been present for you. Write notes on slips of paper and slip them into which ever jar that reflection belongs in. You can do all four each day, or just do the ones that most apply to that day. Try to maintain a reasonable balance, filling each jar instead of focusing on only one.
Here are some prompts for the four categories:
This one is simple – what are you grateful for today? What made you happy? Who showed love or compassion? What did you have fun doing?
A simple definition of grace is “anything that shows up freely and unexpectedly that you did nothing to earn”. It can be a beautiful sunset that catches you by surprise as you’re driving home, an unexpected kind gesture from a friend, or forgiveness that you don’t feel like you deserve. What was unexpected and unearned? How did the beauty of the world stop you in your tracks? How did friends extend undeserved forgiveness or offers of help?
What made you sad? Who do you miss? What feels broken? What old wounds are showing up? What did you lose? What disappointed you?
What stretched you? What did you learn? What were your a-ha moments? Who served as your teacher? How did you turn hard things into opportunity for growth?
Fill your jars with meaning throughout the year.
It’s quite possible that some items will show up in multiple jars. For example, something that causes grief will probably also offer you opportunities to grow. And sometimes (like when friends show up to support you) grace shows up in the darkest of moments.
Keep the containers in a place where they’ll be visible and easy to access and where you’ll remember to fill them up. You might want to do this as a morning practice before you start your day or an evening practice as you reflect on the day that passed.
At the end of the year, create a new four-quadrant mandala, take all of the pieces out of the jars and write or glue them onto the mandala. Reflect on your well-balanced year.
Start filling the jars again next year.
Once you’ve reflected on the year that passed, you may want to continue with a variety of other processes that will help you welcome and plan for what wants to unfold in 2015. A Soulful Year may help.
If you’d like to receive a mandala prompt every day in January 2015, consider signing up for Mandala Discovery.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get an email with words like “How do you get through the rough spots in life?” Or “I feel lost. What should I do?” Or “What do you do when you are in despair?”
Some people are looking for coaching, some are simply asking for advice, and some have read a blog post about my own personal rough spots and think that I might have some wisdom to share. “You seem to know how to walk through the rough spots with strength and resilience,” the emails often say. “I want to know how to do that.”
Depending on the situation and the depth of the despair, I might take them on as clients, I might offer them a story or some encouragement, or I might recommend they see someone else who’s better qualified for the particular challenge the person is going through.
Hardly ever do I feel qualified to give them advice. Most of the time when I get these emails, my first reaction is “But… I’m not an expert in navigating despair. All I do is muddle through. And sometimes I feel so completely mired in it, I feel like I’m drowning. How could I possibly be of service to others?”
Last week was one of those times when I doubted my own ability to offer anything of value. Not that I was in a particular place of despair myself, but rather that I saw so much of it in the world around me that I felt completely inadequate.
Three of those emails came within the span of three days. I put off answering them, weighing my words and wanting to offer what was of the most value. Wanting, most of all, to leave these people feeling like they were not alone and that there is some tiny point of light in their darkness.
Before I had a chance to respond to any of them, I found out that an old friend (who’d been my roommate when I was 19 and entering the minefield of adulthood and independent living) was killed in a tragic car accident and had left behind three daughters just a little older than my daughters. I haven’t kept in touch with her much in recent years, so it wasn’t so much that I felt a huge hole in my own life, but I kept thinking about the people – her daughters, husband, parents, siblings, etc. – who do have huge holes in their lives. How can it be fair that three young daughters now have to navigate adulthood, parenthood, and all of the other things that are coming in their future, without their mother? Why did she have to die only a week after celebrating her daughter’s marriage?
And then I extended those thoughts and that grief to my own story and all of it felt too overwhelming. What if I lose my brother? What if my niece and nephew lose their dad just as they’re moving into adulthood? What if my sister-in-law has to learn to walk in the world as a widow?
I came home from the memorial service feeling completely raw and spent. My well was empty. I had nothing to offer, no resources to draw on. I snapped at my kids when they argued and was abrupt with my husband when he asked for something. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in any situation, much less the coach or teacher that people turned to while trying to navigate the darkness.
After a good night’s sleep, I woke up feeling a little more able to be an adult. After driving the girls to school (without any snapping), I sat down to scan Facebook, and someone had shared a TED talk by Andrew Solomon about how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Solomon talks about how we forge meaning out of the difficulty in our life, and that meaning shapes our identity.
Ah yes. We forge meaning. That’s one of the most important things that I know about the times of despair. It may be almost impossible to see it when you are in the middle of the darkness, but when you emerge, you begin to make something meaningful out of all the broken pieces of your shattered life. And as your strength grows, you realize that you are who you are partly because you survived the darkness.
After having a stillborn son, for example, I knew that that experience had been a spiritual turning point for me. Nothing before in my life had left me more awakened and hungry for a deeper faith and spirituality. And nothing else had ever made it more clear to me that I needed to follow the path of my own calling rather than trying to conform to what was expected of me. My priorities became suddenly crystal clear. My life is vastly different than it might have been if I hadn’t landed in the hospital for the final three weeks of my pregnancy and then left the hospital with empty arms. I am wiser, stronger, more clear about who I am, and more spiritually awake.
Once you’ve picked yourself up and figured out how to make something meaningful out of the mess, a few things happen:
- You realize you are stronger than you thought you were. You look back at the darkness and realize that it didn’t conquer you. You have reserves of courage and strength you didn’t know you had.
- You begin to tell different stories about yourself. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer lost. You are a survivor.
- The next time you are faced with a challenge, you face it with a little more courage than you did the last one, because you know you are capable of surviving. You know the darkness can’t conquer you. You might still get knocked off your feet, but you have a little more faith that you’ll be able to get back up again.
In the book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shares a story of the air raids on London during the Second World War. Anticipating mass hysteria and intense anxiety, the government at the time built psychiatric hospitals in preparation. But the hospitals didn’t fill up. People were much less anxious than they’d expected. Why? Because they survived. Because the first time the bombs fell, they walked away from it and realized that they were still alive and could go on. Each time the bombs fell, they got a little stronger and more able to keep on going without being paralyzed by fear.
In Pathfinder and in many of my coaching sessions, I tell people to carry a basket of courage stories with them. “Write down the stories of times when you had courage,” I say, “and then when you need a reminder, go back into that basket, pull out the stories, and remember that you are a courageous person and you can survive the darkness.”
After watching the TED talk, I finally opened my email, determined to offer the best response I could to those who were reaching out, not because I was an expert, but because I was a survivor. I’ve been through the dark – many times. I know how to look for the points of light. I know how to take tentative steps even when my feet feel mired in clay.
As I began crafting my responses, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes from George Bernard Shaw.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.”
I don’t claim any expertise in despair navigation. I am not a psychologist or therapist. I am only a fellow traveler who has been through the darkness many times. Surviving rape, the death of my son, the suicide attempts of my husband, the death of my mom and dad, and many other challenges, didn’t make me an expert, but they taught me to survive and to forge meaning. And that makes me not an expert, but “a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way.”
If you are in despair, I offer you these small pieces of wisdom on navigating in the dark:
1. Believe that it will one day be better than this. Nobody stays in the darkness forever. There is an ebb and flow to every life. We walk through it all and none of it lasts forever. You may not see light today, but perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week or next month, the light will poke through.
2. Make something. There’s something about the act of production that helps make the darkness a little lighter. Bake a cake, draw a picture, make a model airplane – it doesn’t really matter what you make but it does matter that you get your hands busy and create something. One tiny act of productivity and one simple thing made by your own hands can shift a spiral of negative stories going on in your head. When my husband was in despair in the psychiatric ward, the only time I saw light in his eyes was when he was making a model airplane in the art room.
3. Move your body. Get active. Run, dance, walk, swim – do something to get your muscles moving, your heart rate up, and your adrenalin flowing again. A little dopamine flowing in your brain can help you see the points of light in the darkness. Start with something simple – walk around the block.
4. Pray. Even if you don’t have a particular faith, prayer helps. Reach out to the God of your understanding, your Higher Power, even if the only word you say is “Help!” Look outside yourself for some source of hope. As Andrew W.K. says in this article, “‘Getting down on your knees’ is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.” (If prayer is unfamiliar to you, or you need some prompts, Prayer Stones might help.)
5. Talk to someone. You’re not meant to survive this time of despair alone. We are social animals – we’re meant to live in community. There is no shame in asking for support. Start with a friend, family member, or someone you trust. Or reach out to your doctor, find a therapist, or look into grief coaching. If you need someone to help you find a place to start, you can contact me. I don’t have the answers for everything, but I know a lot of people working in helping professions – one of them might be the right person for you.
6. Get outside. Stand in the sunshine. Get fresh air. Lean on a tree. Nature heals. Breathe in the oxygen the trees offer as a gift, watch the seasons change, and remind yourself of the way the earth regenerates herself, moving from death to life and back again. Spring comes back every year. Life returns to the landscape that lies dormant under the snow.
One of the people who’d emailed me earlier had made a special request of me. It wasn’t advice or coaching she was looking for – she simply wanted me to pray and make a prayer mandala for her. And so I did, because – like it says above – prayer helps, and making something helps. I made it for her and I made it for myself and I made it for all of the other people around me who are currently in despair.
With my house full of stones these days, I decided to make a prayer mandala out of stones. I started at the centre, choosing a few Prayer Stones.
The mandala grew, and at the outer edges I added Intention Stones that reflected the meaning that I have forged out of my own times of despair and that I wish for those still in it.
The act of making the mandala, even without any words coming out of my mouth, was my prayer, my offering up of those things that are outside of my control and outside of my understanding, and my way of catalyzing the overwhelm and feeling of inadequacy.
May you find your way through whatever challenge you find yourself in and will you know peace and grace. And may the meaning that you make of it all become the gift you offer the world.
Prayer Stones and Intention Stones are available in my Etsy Shop. And if you’re interested in being part of a coaching circle that will help you find your way, check out Pathfinder Circle, starting again on September 30th.
This is a re-share from back in February. I’m bringing it forward again, partly because Mandala Discovery starts again September 1st, and partly because the topic seems timely for some of the things going on in the world around us right now.
Last week I attended a vigil for two people whose bodies had been found in the river. Both were First Nations. Both were living marginalized lives, victims of generations of injustice. One was a homeless man who struggled with addiction. He was known in our city as the Homeless Hero because he’d saved two people from drowning a few years before his own life ended in the same river. The other was a 15 year-old-girl who ran away from a foster home, was exploited and then murdered.
At the same time, in the U.S., the passionate response to a young black man’s death at the hands of the police in Ferguson continues to remind us that the world does not treat all young men equally.
As a woman born into white privilege, I did not “earn” better treatment than any of these three people did, and yet it is almost certain that I would have been treated better in almost every circumstance than any of these three people were. It’s not fair, and I can feel helpless in the face of it and choose to hide my head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t matter, or I can choose to be awake to what I see, choose to be honest about where the problems are, and choose to own my lineage with all its flaws and imbalances.
We all have our historic stories that feed into who we are and how we walk in the world. I come from a Mennonite heritage, and so I carry with me the roots of pacifism and stories of the abuse my ancestors faced in Russia because of it. Those stories may feel far away, and yet they are part of who I am.
If you want to explore your own roots, here’s a Mandala Journal process that might help you do that.
If this feels meaningful to you and you’d like to receive a prompt like this in your inbox once a day for 30 days, sign up for Mandala Discovery, starting September 1st.
Where Your Roots Grow
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of participating in a healing circle for people who’d been impacted by residential schools in our country. This is a tragic chapter of Canada’s history in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools where they were denied their own cultural practices and language, and many were physically and emotionally abused.
A few of the people in the circle had been students at residential schools, but more of them had been raised by parents who were forced to attend residential schools. And then there were those of us who didn’t have residential schools in our blood line, but knew that we were impacted nonetheless, because our community members were impacted and because we were raised as white Canadians with a colonial history. Some of our ancestors undoubtedly shared in the guilt of this injustice.
As we listened to the stories shared around the circle, it was clear that all of us carried both the wounds and the wounding of our ancestors. It was especially apparent in those who’d been raised with parents who’d been in residential schools. Some of them spoke of alcoholism, family abuse, cultural neglect, and other stories that clearly left deep wounds in their collective psyche.
Whatever our roots are – whether we were raised in a lineage of oppressed or oppressors, religious or agnostic, poverty or wealth – we all carry the stories of our ancestors with us.
Our roots reach much deeper into the soil of our family’s past than we ever fully understand. We are impacted by the history that happened in our bloodline long before we were conceived and born into this world.
Bethany Webster talks about the importance of healing the mother wound. “The mother wound is the pain of being a woman passed down through generations of women in patriarchal cultures. And it includes the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that are used to process that pain.” The mother wound manifests itself in our lives as shame, comparison, the feeling that we need to stay small, allowing ourselves to be mistreated by others, and self-sabotage. If we do not heal it, she says, we continue to pass this wound down through the generations.
We must also consider the ways in which patriarchy has impacted men. As Richard Rohr says, “After 20 years of working with men on retreats and rites of passage, in spiritual direction, and even in prison, it has sadly become clear to me how trapped the typical Western male feels. He is trapped inside, with almost no inner universe of deep meaning to heal him or guide him.” Men have to come to terms with their own wounds and often have little support to find healing for them.
These stories that we carry from our past – that we are not worthy, that we need to stay small, that we are not allowed to show emotion, that our cultures don’t have as much value as that of our colonizers, or that we are not allowed to do anything that goes against our religion for fear of hell – they are the soil in which our roots grow. If that soil is not fertile and nurturing, our growth is impaired and we never reach our full potential.
Imagine, though, that through an alchemical process, these stories can be healed and transformed and can become the fertile soil we need for healthy growth. Imagine that they can provide rich fertilizer to feed our roots and make our branches grow and our fruit to be plump and sweet.
We can transform these stories. They do not need to keep us small. They do not need to hold us back from what we can become.
Through much inner work – whether that looks like therapy, journaling, dance, meditation, mandala-making, or any other form of self-discovery and healing – we can cultivate those stories and stir them like a compost heap until they become the richest of fertilizer. This is not easy work, and it is not short-term work, but it is necessary work. The world needs us to heal and the world needs us to grow strong and true.
After reading the article by Bethany Webster, about the need to heal the Mother Wound, I wrote a letter to my mom. She died last year, so she won’t read it on this earth, but I still felt like there were some things I needed to say to her. I acknowledged the way that she had been wounded (by losing her mother when she was six, for example) and forgave her for the way that those wounds were passed on to me. I thanked her for the love she poured on me and my siblings despite the deep wounds she carried. Writing the letter felt significant – like I had begun to heal something for both myself and for her. There is more work to do, but every step toward healing is a step in the right direction.
Consider what Charles Eisenstein says about how our healing can contribute to the world’s healing (in “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible”):
“When I see how my friend R. has, in the face of near-impossible odds, so profoundly healed from being abused as a child, I think, ‘If she can heal, it means that millions like her can too; and her healing smooths the path for them.’
“Sometimes I take it even a step further. One time at a men’s retreat one of the participants showed us burn scars on his penis, the result of cigarette burns administered by a foster parent when he was five years old to punish him. The man was going through a powerful process of release and forgiveness. In a flash, I perceived that his reason for being here on Earth was to receive and heal from this wound, as an act of world-changing service to us all. I said to him, ‘J., if you accomplish nothing else this lifetime but to heal from this, you will have done the world a great service.’ The truth of that was palpable to all present.”
Eisenstein goes on to talk about scientific research into “morphic resonance” in nature – the concept that once something happens somewhere, it induces the same thing to happen elsewhere. Some substances, for example, are reliably liquid for many years until suddenly, around the world, they begin to crystallize. It is not clear why it happens, when these substance are not in contact with each other or exposed to the same environment, but it seems that a change to one begins to result in changes to others. In the same way, he says, the healing of one person can lead to the healing of others, even if those people never meet.
Transforming your stories into rich soil so that you can grow strong is necessary not only for you, but for the world.
Your Roots Mandala
Imagine you are a tree, firmly rooted in the stories of your past. Some of these stories are conscious for you (memories from childhood) and some are less conscious but you are impacted by them nonetheless.
Begin by drawing a large circle. In the centre of the circle, draw a small circle that represents the trunk of a tree. Reaching out from that trunk into the fertile soil around it, draw the roots of that tree. (Imagine you are looking down on the tree from above and can only see that part of the tree that is underground, not the branches or leaves.)
Between the roots, write down stories that are part of your past. Start with the stories that you know have impacted you and your growth in both positive and negative ways. Your religious upbringing, your father’s temper, your mother’s insecurity, your grandmother’s way of making you feel special, your birth order, your childhood abuse, etc. Do not censor yourself – if a story shows up, there’s a good chance it had an impact on you whether or not you recognize it. (There is no right or wrong way to do this – your stories are your own and you know what matters to you.)
Reach further back. What are the stories that impacted your lineage before you were born? Your family’s displacement from the country they called home, your grandmother’s abusive marriage, your ancestors’ connection to colonialism or oppression, your grandfather’s death when your mother was small.
Write them all down. Some of them may bring up pain, and some may bring up positive memories. Some may have a clear impact on your life, and some you may not fully understand until a much later date. They are all part of your narrative and they are all part of the soil in which your roots dig for nourishment.
With a black pencil crayon, shade over the stories you have written, imagining that all of them are now becoming part of the compost that helps you grow. Whether good or bad, those stories are your soil.
Note: This exercise may bring up a lot of mixed emotions for you. It may feel like a little bit of healing, or it may feel like you’ve opened a wound that is still raw. That’s all part of the healing process. Sit with whatever comes up and do not try to suppress it. If you need to, do some further journaling to explore what came up, or find someone you trust that you can talk to about this.
You can find a downloadable pdf of this lesson here.
Did you find this useful? Consider signing up for the September 2014 offering of Mandala Discovery: 30 Days of Mandala Journaling. You’ll get 30 more like this.
“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.