What a time to be alive, and entering the leadership phase of my life. Awesome and fearsome are the two words I’ve been using recently to describe my experience right now. Brené Brown sums it up beautifully:
People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis”, but it’s not. It’s an unraveling – a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live. Not the one you’re “supposed” to live.
This unraveling, unsurprisingly, has not been without it’s pain and resistance. A big part of me does not want to change, even though I know I must. I’m experiencing quite a bit of fear but I’m facing this fear in a way that feels different to how I’ve done so in the past. It’s about integrity. I’m integrating material from my shadow, and as I do so I’m recognising some of the ways in which I have not taken responsibility for myself in the past and now feel compelled to do so, in order to feel in integrity with myself.
The Great Unraveling
I wonder how helpful it is to frame the interconnected crises that are unfolding in our world today as an Unraveling. Certainly there’s a great deal of pain and resistance to the changes that are needed to move our civilisation from one that is consumptive and destructive to one that is sustainable and regenerative. To stand up for what one believes in, to retain hope that change is even possible, is to walk a tightrope in a high wind and surf a tidal wave of apathy.
This Great Unraveling also requires us to take responsibility, personally and collectively, but where do we start?
I would argue that as citizens of a culture that has, because of centuries of remarkable but unsustainable technological progress, developed to a point where so many of us have the freedom to live our lives the way we choose, it is our responsibility to engage in a process of unraveling ourselves in order to see more clearly the ways in which we are not taking responsibility for our actions. This is partly a process of unwinding the tightly wrapped coil that contains our cultural conditioning, and seeing it for what it is: programming.
This is not a call for the kind of revolution that involves mass protest and civil disobedience, although I support those who feel this charge and are engaging in this kind of activity. These brave souls, these warriors, are in service to something greater than themselves, as we all are.
Equally, I have a deep respect for the sensitivity, strength and integrity with which so many of my friends and family members are raising their children to be kind, conscious and emotionally connected beings. This is also a great service to humanity. We desperately need these kinds of children, and the adults they will become.
The kind of revolution I’m calling for is a quiet one that takes place in the mysterious waters of the deep psyche, a softening of the heart and soul, a melting and a gentle flow into a larger and more expansive sense of rootedness and connectedness with Self and the Earth and an intimate romance with the more-than-human world of nature. As Mary Oliver says…
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
In the cut and thrust, uncertainty and confusion of (post)modern life, where it can often feel as though we are limping from one crisis to the next, what opportunities are there to figure out how to allow the soft animal of our bodies to love what they love, and through this experience perhaps begin to gain some sense of what our higher purpose might be, the work that our souls are calling us towards?
The Spirit of Intimacy
Intimacy is a good place to start – intimacy with our loved ones, and perhaps more importantly, with ourselves. Intimacy requires time, space, patience, safety, trust, openness and, according to the late, great Dagara teacher, Sobonfu Somé, who writes beautifully on the subject of intimacy, it requires spirit.
What is important is to look at our understanding of intimacy as primarily a practice ordered by spirit, or authorised by spirit, and executed by someone who recognises that she cannot, by herself, make happen what she has been invited toward.
Sobonfu Somé, The Spirit of Intimacy
Spirit is a subtle and difficult word. It means many things to many people. According to Somé, “when indigenous people talk about spirit, they are basically referring to the life force in everything. Spirit is the energy that helps us connect, that helps us see beyond our racially limited parameters”. At the risk of oversimplifying things, indigenous people experience spirit as something akin to the sense of awe and sacredness we who inhabit the postmodern world might feel when bathed in the light of a beautiful sunset, exploring the heights of a mountain top or the depths of an ancient forest.
However, this is a shallow comparison. Indigenous people, like the Dagara tribespeople of West Africa, have a much deeper relationship with nature and with the earth, because they live so close to it, than postmodern people can really comprehend. This sense of awe and sacredness, this spirit, that is so often a fleeting experience that passes when we return to our everyday lives, infuses every aspect of the lives of indigenous people. It’s a depth of connection to nature that is simply taken for granted, in much the same way that we take for granted what happens when we flick on a light switch or turn on a tap.
The Vision Quest
A Wilderness Quest is one way that those of us who are acculturated to the swift and strident rhythms of the postmodern world can experience something of this infusion in the spirit world, this immersion in the life force, and in so doing gain some sense of the depths of our individual and collective rootedness in this profound and mysterious energy, where it flows from and how it flows through us.
With some awareness of how this energy flows through us we can begin to discern where it is inviting us to go. We can choose to orient ourselves in that direction in order to be in greater service to spirit and to our community. The experience of a vision quest can be particularly profound as we move from one life stage to another. All our lives contains crises and transitions, moments of immense significance, crossroads where we find ourselves not knowing which way to turn. For millennia, the vision quest ceremony has provided guidance and wisdom to help humans navigate these difficult times. But how can we know for sure if this is a sacred journey we are ready to take? We cannot, and this is of course the nature of things, there is no certainty in life. However…
Deep in your heart you know whether or not you want to experience a Wilderness Quest. Already you feel the ancient stirrings within you. The time has come. You must go into the wilderness, to the breast of Mother Earth, and seek vision, understanding and strength for yourself and for your people.
Steven Foster and Meredith Little, from the introduction to The Wilderness Quest handbook
As I have written elsewhere, despite feeling these stirrings in my soul as I engaged in a year long dance of uncertainty before committing to the quest I undertook in September 2017, there was also a part of me which was saying “NO”. This was (and still is) the part that does not want to change, does not want to grow, does not want to unravel, does not want to update the programme, because there’s a great deal of comfort, familiarity, security and control in the way I’ve always done things. To take the huge leap into the unknown that this vision quest invited was to introduce a great deal of uncertainty into the carefully ordered system of checks and balances I had created to organise my life.
The encounter I ended up having with the sacred, with spirit, with myself, was more real, more urgent, more expansive, more alive and pulsing with life force, more solid and grounded than anything I could ever construct for myself in the carefully curated enclosures of the walled garden of my small ego. Finding this new territory to explore has enabled me to step more purposefully into my life, make decisions that before had seemed impossible, and to realise that I had been keeping myself small, because small is safe. There’s still a part of me that believes this, and perhaps always will, and he needs to be honoured and respected. There’s another part of me that’s growing, that’s expanding out into this seemingly infinite new territory, beyond the programming, beyond the walled garden, beyond my hitherto fixed beliefs about what is real and what is not. It’s about time. As a cantankerous old mentor of mine used to say, “If not now, then when?”