Unclear vision and a fragile thread

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford ~

In order to ensure that Theseus would find his way back out of the labyrinth (which he entered in order to slay the minotaur and free his people), Ariadne gave him a ball of thread that he could unravel on the way in and follow on the way out.

Much of my life feels like a version of Theseus’ journey and Stafford’s poem. I’ve been following a thread that’s hard for others to see, but that keeps me from getting lost even when tragedies happen and people get hurt. Stumbling through a dark labyrinth, I often can’t see more than five feet in front of me, but I can feel the light touch of the thread in my hand that invites me forward.

A conversation with a client yesterday reminded me of this thread and how it has sustained me over the years. She was lamenting the fact that, unlike others who seem so focused on their goals, she could never see a clear vision for her life or her work. She had lots of interests and passion, but couldn’t seem to shape those into a business plan or “elevator speech” that would help her make sense of her work to other people. On top of that, grief had rearranged her recently, so she barely recognized herself some days.

The conversation reminded of the time, five years ago, when I was in a similar place. Back in 2012, when I was still struggling to make this business viable, my mom was dying and my marriage was crumbling. I was afraid, angry, and lost. Any vision I thought I’d had for my unfolding future seemed like nothing more than a mirage that had vanished from the horizon. I’d started looking for part time work, afraid I was failing at self-employment because I hadn’t mastered those things the business experts tell you to do, like envisioning my target audience, having clear goals, or writing solid business plans.

Up until that time, I’d often made vision boards, like many good life coaches do, collecting and collaging visual images that represent my unfolding vision. But that process, like so many others, had failed me. No matter how many vision boards I made, my work still felt unfocused and my future was still a mirage. The pending death of my mom and my marriage only compounded the situation.

Frustrated and angry, and feeling betrayed by the practices I’d adopted and coached other people to use, I turned to destruction. I started tearing up maps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy.

What emerged from that was the most helpful collage I’ve ever made – my lack-of-vision board. (The above image.) It was messy and beautiful, with glimpses of the thread I keep hanging onto even when I couldn’t see my way out of the labyrinth.

I’ve never made another vision board since. The lack-of-vision board works better for me – helping me sit in the messiness and practice mindfulness even when I feel lost. The vision board always felt a little forced – like I was trying to bash down the walls of the labyrinth so that I could see where the path was going to take me. Instead, my practice is to hold the thread lightly in my hand and trust that one foot in front of another is the only way to follow the path.

Now, when I look back at the development of my work, I can see that moments like this, when I tore up the map and made meaning out of the mess, were the pivotal moments when my real work was emerging. I was learning to surrender to the liminal space. I was letting go of the vision I thought I should have and letting go of the way I thought I should do my work (in other words, the ways that seemed conventionally acceptable). Instead, I was learning to trust the path as it emerged from the shadows in front of me.

When I coach people now, it looks different from what it did in those early days. I’ve let go of many of the conventions of what coaching is supposed to be and I’ve learned that those liminal spaces are where the really important work happens. 

Many in the personal development field want to rush you through those places and into more productivity, light and positive thoughts, but my work is different from that. It’s about holding space for people while they learn to sit with the questions and work through their discomfort with the liminal space.

I couldn’t always tell you what the thread was, back in those moments when I felt lost and confused, but now, when I look back at the places I’ve been, I can see that the thread was there and it helped me get to where I am now. The thread finally became clear when, after my mom died, I wrote the blog post about holding space that went viral and changed my work forever.

All of that time when I was walking through loss and grief and liminal space, I was doing the hard learning that brought me to where I am now.Surrendering to the experience is what allowed me to develop the body of work that is now emerging in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Though none of it felt focused at the time, and, as Stafford says, “people wondered about what I was pursuing,” in retrospect I can see that it all threaded together and made a remarkable amount of sense.

Preparing this program has felt like stepping out of the labyrinth into a clear sunny day.

I had to go through all of that to see that what I was meant to develop was not the same kind of coaching or facilitation work that has become common in the personal development world. It is something different, something deeper – something that doesn’t run from complexity, grief, or discomfort but learns to make meaning of it instead.

This work is counter-cultural and doesn’t always make sense in a culture that values linear progress and simple answers, but it’s clear that it responds to a hunger people hardly know they have. When people finally give themselves permission to feel lost, and they no longer feel so alone in the lostness, there’s a new light in their eyes that wasn’t there before.

I am looking forward to working with the participants of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, because I know that they will bring much wisdom and curiosity to the work. Those who join me will be people who, like me, have walked through pain and grief and despair and have found the source of their own resilience. They will be people who’ve learned to sit with the questions without rushing to find answers. They will be meaning-makers and mystics who embrace the mystery and complexity of life. They will be those who understand what it’s like to stumble through the labyrinth, trusting that the fragile thread in their hand will guide them through the darkness.

This is not a linear path we’re on and there are no easy answers, but when you follow the thread, you can find your way through. Join me?

* * * * *

The Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program is a new online training program, built in a modular way that offers something for everyone who holds space. Register now for the first session which begins May 29th.

If you are looking for coaching for your own liminal space, sign up now as I will only be receiving new clients for the next 2 weeks. After that, the doors will be closed for several months while I work on the new training program.

My lack-of-vision board

Every few months, I like to make a vision board. It’s my feminine, right-brained version of strategic planning. Instead of filling a page with boxes and goals and strategies, I fill it with images and words plucked from magazines that I feel drawn to and that my intuition tells me have something to do with the direction my heart is heading.

I haven’t made a vision board in a long time. One day in August, I sat with my mom in an oncologist’s office and heard the words “cancer spreading” and “six to twelve months to live”, and since then, my vision is too narrow for a vision board. The only thing I can see in my future is “fatherless, motherless daughter” and that’s hard to pluck from a magazine.

Since then, my focus and energy have been limited, at best. Not only am I dealing with grief, but I’m dealing with a pretty serious lack of paying work because I just don’t have what it takes to drum it up right now. I’m looking for part time work that will bring in some income while I deal with whatever the future holds.

Where’s the “vision” in all that? Pay the bills, feed the kids, sit with Mom, worry about money, drive the kids to where they need to go, visit Mom again… that’s about all I can muster these days.

This week, though, my friend Segun dropped off a bag of old maps, and suddenly I found myself missing my paints and scissors and Mod podge. Something about those old maps made me want to create again.

Tearing up old maps can feel surprisingly cathartic when there’s no roadmap for the journey you’re traveling along. I tore and I placed and I glued. I shredded roads and lined them up with wasteland. I tore up countries and provinces. I cut lakes in half. I destroyed international borders. I had no idea what was emerging, but it felt good to destroy and then to begin to create again.

After the page was full of torn map pieces, I turned to my stack of old magazines. Not a lot in them inspired me. I wasn’t dreaming of parties or feasts or published books or beautiful retreats. All of that felt foreign and far away.

Suddenly I realized that instead of making a “vision board”, I was making a “lack of vision board”. Something about that acknowledgement felt like a release. I didn’t have to find anything in the images. I didn’t need it to be anything. Maybe just tearing up map pieces was enough for now. Maybe it was the journey and not the destination that I needed.

I left it alone for awhile. I made a pot of soup and sat down to stare out the window while I ate.

Eventually, I came back to it, knowing I wanted to add something more. Paint? Images? I had no idea. I was listless and unfocused, the way I spend much of my time these days.

A few images and words caught my attention. Images related to being on a journey – a man feeding his donkey, a couple in a canoe, a woman on a bicycle, the path of a turtle returning to the sea, a woman carrying her basket on her head. And then there were several images related to the wild – elephants, a butterfly, an eagle, balanced rocks in the tundra. The words were similar – bleak, restless, and a little wild. “Foreigner in their own land.” “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” “Cry of the wild.” “Life-giving death.”

I glued the pieces on. They were sparse on my huge paper, but I didn’t feel like adding more. I didn’t feel like overlapping images the way I usually do. I didn’t want them to touch.

I grabbed my paint. There was too much clarity on the board – I needed it to be muddier. I started adding layers of ochre, orange, and brown – first a wash, then random brushstrokes.

Suddenly I realized that the brushstrokes weren’t random at all. I was creating a series of intertwining paths connecting the images and words. It was all about a journey, but this was no clear map-driven journey. It was random and chaotic, with detours and bumps and unexpected curves. A map to nowhere and everywhere, all at once.

To the paths, I added even more detours – spirals jutting out at random intervals – the pauses along the journey where one must take a deeper spiritual journey before returning to the path.

When the paths were finished, I added the words that came to me: “Pilgrim, there is no path. The path is made by walking.” (from a poem by Antonio Machado) And at the bottom, I added a note just for me. “Walk on.”

I am very fond of my lack-of-vision board. It speaks to me of surrender, trust, and pilgrimage. It tells me to stop trying to control things, to accept the detours when they show up, and to be willing to pause for nourishment and spiritual spiralling. It tells me to follow my wild heart and just keep walking. It lets me know that the detours are not mistakes. It doesn’t expect me to be perfect or focused or even strong. It just lets me be who and where I am right now.

I especially like that at the top left, where the paths seem to be heading, there’s a fierce beautiful eagle taking flight and heading into the light.

*  *  *  *  *  *

A Lack of Vision Board is one of the exercises you’ll find in Pathfinder: A Creative Journal for Finding your Way.

The joy factor

Vision board for 2011

Almost every time I do a vision board, I think “ooooh… this one is my favourite so far!” That’s how I felt last night when I completed this one. I love it. It’s the biggest one I’ve done so far (I wanted to think BIG for 2011), and it’s colourful and beautiful and MINE.

There is something so gratifying about seeing your vision appear in this way. I think it works for me for a number of reasons:

  1. I’m a visual thinker. Give me images and vibrant colour and I’m a happy girl. I can get lost in an image without necessarily needing an explanation.
  2. BUT I also love words. (I’m a writer, after all.) I like to flip through magazines to see which words jump out at me and offer me some frame for my life at the time.
  3. I love to combine images and words and then watch what the combination evokes. AND I love surprises, and there are always a few of those when I put words and images together in new ways.
  4. I am comfortable with ambiguity. I don’t need to know what every image or combination of words means when I glue it on the board. Sometimes it just speaks to me and the meaning appears later.
  5. I like evolving, fluid structures. I don’t enjoy being hampered by boxy things like “strategic plans” or “business plans”. I prefer to watch the way my vision boards evolve, with changing colour themes, imagery, words, etc.

Some of the things I see so far in 2011’s vision board are:

  1. running – this is the first time I’m whispering it aloud, but I really want to run a half marathon!
  2. joy – my word for the year
  3. growth – exceeding my limits and expanding my horizons
  4. travel, adventure, journey (those things always seem to appear on my boards)
  5. leadership, sacred space, wisdom
  6. variety, options

This type of visioning speaks volumes to my Sophia heart. It’s the wisdom that flows from me when I am true to myself.

For years I tried to fit in a world where strategic planning and corporate vision statements and agendas and action items and objectives and goals felt like stiff wooden boxes that didn’t fit the soft curve of my heart. Though I became adept at adapting to that world, it never felt like my full truth.

Not that those things aren’t necessary – it’s just that they weren’t fully balanced with the wisdom of the feminine.

Now I’m looking at the world differently. I’m looking for the curves and circles, the organic ways of growing, the spaces in between the cold hard facts, the colour behind the black and white, the softness in the structure, and the joy factor.

This year, as I look ahead to my first full year of self-employment, I’m focusing on the joy factor. Instead of a business plan, I’m working on a “joy roadmap”. Instead of a vision statement, I’m creating a “joy image”. Instead of goals and objectives, I’m asking “what things will make my heart feel alive?”

Do it with me! Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. List five moments from the past year when you felt deeply joyful.

2. What was it from those moments that contributed to your joy and how can you replicate that in 2011?

3. Who were the people who surrounded you in those moments and contributed to your joy? How can you continue to surround yourself with these joy people?

4. Create a vision board, adding images and words that make you feel joyful.

5. Answer these questions:

  • I am joyful when…
  • I can bring joy to other people by…

Now go back and read your answers to the questions in #5. Are there intersections? Is it possible that the things you do that bring you joy are also the things that contribute to other people’s joy? I suspect so!

Joy is contagious. Go out there and find some. And then pass it on.

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