Sometimes if you move carefully through the forest, breathing like the ones in the old stories,
Who could cross a shimmering bed of leaves without a sound,
You come to a place whose only task is to trouble you with tiny but frightening requests,
Conceived out of nowhere but in this place beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what you are doing right now, and to stop what you are becoming while you do it, questions that can make or unmake a life,
Questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.
The Beginning of Conversation
Four years ago, at Wellesley College, my boss, Victor was in the midst of departing. Everything was irrevocably changing– but we were carrying on staff meetings as if, in fact, our routine would continue. We took turns leading the weekly meeting. And this week, it was my turn to lead the meeting. It was my practice to offer mindfulness meditation and metta.
Contemplative time was so valuable in our now results- driven milieu. We needed the centering– but there was something we needed even more, which was a real conversation.
That morning, I brought in, as our prompt, David Whyte’s Courageous Conversations. We reflected on,
- What is the courageous conversation I am not having with myself?
- What is the courageous conversation I am not having with my colleagues?
- What is the courageous conversation I am not having with the unknown future?
For me, that brought me clarity to leap from that old life at Wellesley, and move to California.
Today, within a circle of colleagues from the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, I offered conversation prompts, once again based on David Whyte’s work– this time, from his Questions That Have No Right to Go Away.
So many of us aren’t sure what we’re meant to do. We wonder if we’re simply doing what others are doing because we feel we don’t have enough ideas or even enough strength of our own.
There was a time, many years ago, working at a nonprofit organization, trying to fix the world and finding the world didn’t want to be fixed as quickly as I’d like, that I found myself exhausted, stressed and finally, after one particularly hard day, at the end of my tether, I went home and saw a bottle of fine red wine I had left out on the table that morning before I left. No, I did not drink it immediately, though I was tempted, but it reminded me that I was to have a very special guest that evening.
That guest was an Austrian friend, a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, the nearest thing I had to a really wise person in my life at that time or at any time since. We would read German poetry together—he would translate the original text, I read the translations, all the while drinking the red wine. But I had my day on my mind, and the mind-numbing tiredness I was experiencing at work. I said suddenly, out of nowhere, almost beseechingly, “Brother David, speak to me of exhaustion. Tell me about exhaustion.”
And then he said a life-changing thing. “You know,” he said, “the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.”
“What is it then?”
“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You’re so exhausted because you can’t be wholehearted at what you’re doing…because your real conversation with life is through poetry.”
It was just the beginning of a long road that was to take my real work out into the world, but it was a beginning.
What do I care most about—in my vocation, in my family life, in my heart and mind?
This is a conversation that we all must have with ourselves at every stage of our lives, a conversation that we so often don’t want to have. We will get to it, we say, when the kids are grown, when there is enough money in the bank, when we are retired, perhaps when we are dead; it will be easier then. But we need to ask it now:
- What can I be wholehearted about now?
- Am I harvesting from this year’s season of life?
“Youth is wasted on the young” is the old saying. But it might also be said that midlife is wasted on those in their 50s and eldership is very often wasted on the old.
Most people, I believe, are living four or five years behind the curve of their own transformation. I see it all the time, in my own life and others. The temptation is to stay in a place where we were previously comfortable, making it difficult to move to the frontier that we’re actually on now.
People usually only come to this frontier when they have had a terrible loss in their life or they’ve been fired or some other trauma breaks open their story. Then they can’t tell that story any more.
But having spent so much time away from what is real, they hit present reality with such impact that they break apart on contact with the true circumstance. So the trick is to catch up with the conversation and stay with it —where am I now?—and not let ourselves become abstracted from what is actually occurring around us.
If you were a farmer, and you tried to harvest what belonged to the previous season, you’d exhaust yourself trying to bring it in when it’s no longer there. Or attempting to gather fruit too early, too hard or too late and too ripe. A person must understand the conversation happening around them as early in the process as possible and then stay with it until it bears fruit.
Can I be the blessed saint that my future happiness will always remember?
Here’s the explanation for what sounds like a strange question. I have a poem called “Coleman’s Bed” about a place in the West of Ireland where the Irish saint Coleman lived. The last line of that poem calls on the reader to remember “the quiet, robust and blessed saint that your future happiness will always remember.”
We go to places of pilgrimage where saints have lived, or even to Graceland, where Elvis lived, because these people gave something to the rest of us—music or good works— that has carried on down the years and that was a generous gift to the future.
What could you do now for yourself or others that your future self would look back on and congratulate you for—something it could view with real thankfulness because the decision you made opened up the life for which it is now eternally grateful?
We spoke together about the obstacle of fear, how that presents within our life and can make it difficult to truly live at our own frontier, the curve of our own transformation.
Within this conversation, I remembered– when we had all been together– my fears had been bound up in the dissertation process. What a relief and a blessing to have moved beyond it– and perhaps at some point, my present challenges will also be seen like that.
Activity for You
So the writing practice I invited my colleagues to try is a thirty- day commitment to free-write for 20-30 minutes, “If I wasn’t afraid, I would.” Acknowledging the fear, we then are freed to have a different relationship to it, to move past it. Dear reader, you are welcome to join us.