Learning to listen

listening

 

My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.

One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.

I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.

Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.

Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.

Over the weekend, I asked my Facebook friends a series of questions about listening.
1. What do you think are the best indicators that someone is genuinely listening to you?
2. What do you think are the indicators that someone is NOT genuinely listening to you?
3. When do you find it most challenging to listen to another person?
4. What personal work, self-care, etc. helps you be a better listener?

There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:

  1. Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
  2. Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
  3. “Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
  4. Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
  5. The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
  6. Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
  7. Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.

Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.

Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.

According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, there are four levels of listening.

  1. Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
  2. Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
  3. Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
  4. Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.

Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.

Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.

For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.

On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.

Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down. 

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.

Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.

I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.

This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.

If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.

 

*****

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Go ahead and take it personally

healing heart

“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.

My response to them is always the same.

Go ahead and take it personally.

Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.

Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.

I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.

I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.

As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.

When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.

Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.

The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.

If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:

  1. Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
  2. What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
  3. What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
  4. Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
  5. What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?

If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)

After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship. 

If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.

I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”

If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.

Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people. 

The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown

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A story about fruity tea and generational shame

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” –  Brené Brown

I like fruity tea. Passionate peach, blueberry bliss, raspberry riot – you name it, I probably like it. But at some point in my life, I picked up the idea that fruit teas aren’t for REAL tea drinkers. In the hierarchy of teas, I imagined them stuck at the bottom, the uncoolest of the hot beverages.

I have no idea where I picked up on that tea story. Perhaps someone made fun of me for my tea choice. Perhaps it was just a vibe I picked up. Perhaps I made it up myself. However I picked it up, I let it affect my tea choices. For years, I was afraid to drink fruity tea in public, afraid that the real tea drinkers might notice and judge me for it.

Silly, isn’t it? But isn’t that how most of our shame stories are – rather foolish, once brought into the light of day?

To be honest, some of my shame stories around food choices are rooted in being raised poor, on a farm, and as part of a small Mennonite subculture that kept itself somewhat apart by not engaging in all of the activities (ie. Fall suppers where I might have been exposed to other kinds of tea) in our community. We didn’t have access to “fancy” foods, and so, when I became an adult and was faced with choices that I wasn’t used to, I was afraid I would choose the wrong thing and people would discover how uncultured I was. I was ashamed of being uncultured – ashamed of being a Mennonite farm kid who wasn’t as sophisticated as I assumed the city kids of more worldly-wise cultures were.

We pick up shame stories for a lot of different reasons. Some of them have clear origins (like parents who made us believe we were shameful) and others can only be understood after years of excavation and personal work. Some are relatively easy to release (I now drink fruity tea in public when I want to) and others have become so imbedded into our identity, they become part of our DNA (like the shame around cultural/racial identity).

We inherit many of our shame stories from the generations that came before us in our lineage. Those are the ones that become particularly imbedded into our identity.

After spending several years working in international development, and then a few years on the board of a feminist organization, and now as part of a team doing race relations conversations, I’ve noticed a pattern about cultural shame. Though shame is common to all cultures, it has a particularly strong hold among oppressed cultures.

One of the greatest weapons of oppression is shame. When oppressors manage to inflict shame on people, they increase their own power and diminish the ability of those they oppress to rise up out of their oppression. Shame diminishes courage and strength.

Ironically, though, many of the shame stories related to oppression are passed down not directly from the oppressors themselves but from those above us in our lineage who have been oppressed before us – not because they want to oppress us, but because they want to protect us.

We pass the stories of oppression down to those we most want to protect. When we inherit them as young children, though, those oppression stories become shame stories.

In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, Sidra Stone teaches that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation, each mother passing down to her daughters the stories of how they can stay safe.

Last week, many of us watched the video of a Baltimore mother who beat her son in public when she found him among the protestors. Desperate to protect him, she pulled him away from enemy lines and taught him, by her own raised hand, that he must learn to submit or risk being killed.

The problem is that those of us growing up in environments where we’re learning these stories from our parents do not yet have a reference point to understand generations of oppression. The only way we know how to interpret our parents’ attempts to keep us small and silent is to believe that they will stop loving us if we become too large and vocal. We become convinced that we are worthy of shame and not love. Though that mother in Baltimore may tell her son a thousand times that she did it out of love and a desperate need to protect him, I suspect there will always be a small child inside him who will believe “my mother shamed me in public, therefore I am worthy of shame.”

Remember the experiment with the monkeys, where a beautiful bunch of bananas hung above a ladder, but every time a monkey would climb to get the bananas, all of the monkeys in the cage would be sprayed with water? Not wanting to be sprayed, the monkeys kept pulling down any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. Even after all of the monkeys were replaced (one by one) and nobody had experienced the spraying, they still kept any new monkey from climbing the ladder, because they themselves had been stopped. Those new monkeys (if they think like humans), not knowing the history, probably believed “I have done something wrong and my tribe is ashamed of me. I must not be worthy of happiness.” And then they passed the story down to the next generation, pulling down anyone who dared to climb the ladder.

Growing up with the shame inflicted by generations and generations of shamed people, we forget that it is not the lack of love they had that caused them to pass this down to us, it is their wounded love that meant they didn’t know how else to protect themselves and us from further wounding.

And, remarkably, it’s not only psychological – it becomes planted in our very DNA. Studies have shown that trauma has changed people’s DNA and that that DNA has been passed down to subsequent generations, showing up as irrational fear and the tendency to be triggered even if they didn’t directly experience that trauma. If trauma can be passed down through DNA, I’m fairly certain that shame can too, since trauma and shame are often closely linked.

How do we heal these generations of wounds? That is something that I’m just beginning to explore and read about (as are many others) and I welcome anyone’s thoughts, ideas, or experience.

I know that it must be a holistic response, involving body, mind, and spirit. In The MindBody Code, Mario Martinez talks about how we have to heal the shame in our bodies as well as our minds. He teaches contemplative embodiment practices that help replace the shame stories with honour stories.

I also believe that healing shame involves dancing, singing, art-making, spiritual practices, and lots of touch. We can’t heal shame with simply left-brain, logical thinking – we have to engage in creative, right-brain spiritual meaning-making. It helps to create rituals (ie. painting the shame monsters and then painting safe places for them to be exposed), embody our healing (ie. dancing our way into courage), and find spiritual practices that teach us to let go and trust (ie. mindfulness meditation).

And, more than anything, I believe that healing happens in community. Ironically, we pick up our shame through our relationships and we heal it through healthier relationships. That’s the nature of community – it comes with both the good and the bad, the wounding and the healing. In order to heal, we have to find safe community in which we can be vulnerable without fear. When we expose our shame stories among those who hold space for us, the shame loosens its power over us. Intentional circle practices are the best practices I know of for this kind of work.

Happily, there have also been studies that demonstrate that those changes to the DNA can be reversed, so there is hope for the generations that come after us if we do our work to heal. Shame is not the end of the story. We can heal it for ourselves and future generations.

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Serving the world as wounded healers

“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning

On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace conversation.

It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”

When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.

Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.

There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.

There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.

There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.

There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.

And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.

The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”

This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou

We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.

I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.

I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.

Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.

Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.

People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.

While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.

Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.

There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.

That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.

The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.

Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.

The deep end of love

Last night my daughter Nikki came to my bedroom. “I broke your mug,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked.

“The orange and blue one,” she said.

“Too bad,” I said. “I like that one, but at least it’s not my favourite. I forgive you.”

A few minutes later she came back. “I was wrong,” she said. “It was the one that says ‘love more’ on it.”

“Oh dear,” I said. “That’s my favourite. But I still forgive you.”

This morning I went to the kitchen to survey the damage. Five pieces of broken pottery. Never to hold my favourite tea again.

broken mugI got out the Gorilla Glue to patch it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink hot tea out of it, but I thought I’d at least be able to use it as a pen holder.

And then inspiration hit. Kintsugi. The Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold seams, believing that the piece is made more beautiful by its brokenness.

After the glue was dry, I coloured over the crack with gold paint. I showed Nikki. Her eyes lit up. “Oh! It’s like Japanese art now!” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “More beautiful for the wound.”

kintsugi mugAfter repairing the mug, I drove Nikki to her art class at university and then headed to a coffee shop to work until meeting my client at noon. On the way to the coffee shop, I drove past the graveyard where my son is buried. Just as I was driving past, an eagle flew low in the sky over my head. Chills ran up my spine.

Since the eagle appeared to my sister and I just before Mom died, I have associated eagles with my mom’s ongoing presence in my life. When I shared the eagle story in a class I was teaching last year, an Indigenous student came to me at break and said “in my culture, we believe that eagles carry our prayers to the Creator.”

And so, in that moment in my van, I felt both my Mom’s presence and my son’s presence. And the presence of the Creator.

And my thoughts returned to my gold-painted broken mug.

“More beautiful for the wound.”

Yes, like the mug, I am more beautiful for the wound. I am more beautiful because I know the pain of grief. I am more beautiful because I have walked through deep valleys. I am more beautiful because I have learned the meaning of grace. I am more beautiful because I have let people crack my heart open. I am more beautiful because I have known deep love and immeasurable grief.

Sure, there are many days when I wish my mug were whole again, when I wish my mom and my dad and my son were still in my life, but I know the deep veins of gold their passing left in my life and for that I am grateful.

Yesterday, after I launched A Soulful Year: a mandala workbook for ending one year and welcoming another, I received one of the most beautiful pieces of feedback I’ve gotten since starting this work. Someone who’d worked through A Spiral Path recently had now purchased A Soulful Year, and said this: “Heather, I have to tell you how meaningful The Spiral Path has been for me. I find your writing so meaningful and honest – it goes way deeper than most of what I read and prompts I undertake. Thank you so much for your offerings.

Way deeper. Yes, that’s where I dare to take people who are willing. Deeper into love, deeper into their grief, deeper into lament, and deeper into life. Because I want them to experience those veins of gold that can only happen when you do deep work, acknowledging your brokenness and daring to drip molten gold into the cracks.

Early in this work, I had to occasionally fight with that voice in my head that said “If only your work wasn’t so deep, you might sell more of it and make a decent living at this. People are looking for quick fixes, easy answers, and shallow dives that make them feel good but mostly help them avoid the deep stuff. You’re always talking about grief and lament and shadows – how do you expect people to engage with that heavy stuff?”

Despite the voice of self-doubt, I stuck with it, even when it seemed my work was picking up little traction. I stuck with it because I believe in the deep work. I believe that to truly heal ourselves and heal the world, we need to be willing to take an honest look at our brokenness and to begin the hard work of making friends with our shadows.

Because the world will continue to be more and more broken if we stay in the shallow end of the pool. We’ll continue to over-consume because we’ll be looking for the quick fix that shopping gives us. We’ll continue to wound each other because we don’t recognize the way that wounded people wound people. We’ll continue to create divisions between races, between genders, and between countries, because we’ll be afraid of the kind of deep and honest conversations that are needed.

Yes, I’m willing to stay in the deep end of the pool, even if it never turns me into a millionaire. Because I believe in the transformational power of that deep vein of gold weaving through my wounds.

And I am so grateful that, now that I’ve been in this work for four years, more and more people are finding me here in the deep end. Because they believe in this work too.

Welcome to the deep end of love.

p.s. If you want to do your own deep work, check out A Soulful Year. Also, registration is now open for Mandala Discovery which starts in January.

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