Knowing who we are is as important as what we know.
We are information rich - facts are at our fingertips. We are knowledge poor - who we are lies deep underground waiting to be excavated and explored. In his letter to a young poet, Rilke wrote that knowledge will reveal itself when we seek the inner depth and shed the superficial.
Information is not knowledge. Information arrives fast. Knowledge arrives slow. Information feels safe. Knowledge feels vulnerable. We will spend our days consuming information to avoid hearing the necessity of our inner knowing because our soul’s numinous message often illuminates a life-changing shift that feels terrifying.
Our fear of the unexplainable, Rilke admonished, “has impoverished our inner lives.” Rather than being in the river of infinite possibilities we are “...stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens.” Our fear, “[is an] aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.” We will stand disillusioned on the bank of denial because we’re not sure we can handle the force of the sinuous full-bodied river as we’re pulled on an unknown procession to the insatiable sea. We are afraid to enter the wilderness of our soul.
If we want to journey into joy we have to get wet, which is why I encourage each of my students to put their canoe in the river and let the current take them downstream. Personal transformation coalesces in the wilderness — a process that begins with a death and ends with a birth. There is no point delaying the discomfort of our inner alchemy. We must cross the threshold that separates the known from the unknown if we want the sweet taste of freedom. Our wounds, divine discontent and longing are the entry to impact, the routes that lead us back home to wholeness. What appears to be a catastrophe becomes a beautiful framework for a meaningful life. The view from the wilderness is so much clearer.
As a wayfarer, I have carried the torch of transformation into the wilderness so many times that I have learned a few survival skills along the way: upon entry, I recommit to what is most import to me, I remind myself that when I risk I am rewarded, and I willingly apprentice myself to robust vulnerability. This doesn’t mean navigation is easy, it means that my sojourn in the wilderness is essential to my wholeness, a necessity of my being, so I am willing to explore the unchartered and unfamiliar paths that emerge.
One of these unchartered life-altering shifts happened eleven years ago after the birth of my daughter. A mysterious metamorphosis occurred the moment her warm, tiny, naked body was placed on my chest. I felt an instantaneous surge of energy travel through my nervous system like the cosmos was contracting and expanding in the interiority of my cells. Together we were aglow in stardust. With my new nervous system came an embryonic inner knowing that eventually resulted in me leaving a religion I’d devoutly practiced for 35 years, and my 13-year marriage. Easy, no. A necessity to my being, yes.
I stepped into the wilderness again when my daughter was three and she asked to stay with her dad (who lived four hours from our San Francisco home). A rush of blood dropped from my heart to my stomach and a sickening nausea sent me adrift in the river’s rapid current. My solo drive home was accompanied only by grief.
Throughout that sleepless night my mind wrestled with questions too big to be answered, yet deep down, I knew that I had been chasing the wrong metrics -- achievement, status, income, productivity, consumption -- while trying to convince myself that I was giving my child a better life. My daughter wanted a simple life, an intimate life, a spacious life. As the sun broke over the horizon, I knew, with the necessity of my being, what needed to be done: I phoned the president of the publishing company I worked for and declared my decision to step back (taking a $250K pay cut) so I could be home every day by four-o'clock.
We become our choices. That day I chose to change my metric. I chose us. Easy, no. Necessary, yes.
One-by-one, our nanny, au pair and house cleaner disappeared from our lives and I entered into the deepest conversation I could have with myself about what motherhood meant to me. I learned to distinguish between living better and living well. I realized that I had been addicted to perfection and needed to realign my lens with a long-game perspective. I learned to cut through all that was vying for my attention and ease into a softer realm of slowness: laughter, naps, walks in nature, home cooked meals, poetry.
Slowly, as more space, silence and stillness entered in my days, I began to re-engage in life with a playful childlike wonder and curiosity. I followed a sinuous path through the ebbing darkness one step at a time. With each step taken the next step would appear. I developed an unshakable trust in, and fascination with, each encounter with mystery. My ancestors were rooting for me. I was being guided by invisible forces. Holding my wayfaring torch high, I followed the source that was warming me and pulling me forward. With my shining eyes held fast to the horizon, I left corporate completely and set out to create meaningful work that was more satisfying to my soul.
To die and so to grow is a form of identity-suicide we experience each time we take the adventure, heed the call, leave behind the known for the unknown, step across the threshold and bravely begin our long walk in the wild woods. We enter with a death we exit with a birth.
I call my walks into the wilderness a journey into joy, and I take them frequently. Sometimes I get distracted and must recommit myself to what is most essential. At the end of the day my metric is a simple question -- who have I touched on my way through life. As a seeker, a wilderness wayfarer, this is my life work. It’s intoxicating. It’s meaningful. It’s the most compelling, absorbing, thrilling way I can journey. I echo Mary Oliver, “And, if you have not been enchanted by this adventure - your life - what would do for you?”
What would do for you? is what I wholeheartedly ask my students, and when I hear their divine discontent and longing, I tenderly council: Hold my hand and we’ll walk through pain towards freedom. Step away from the dry bank loved one. Place your canoe in the river. Let go, dear one, of the extraneous identities, stories and perfection you’ve been fiercely gripping. It’s time to stop paddling upstream. Surrender. Pull in your paddles and let the merciful current take you downstream. Your ancestors are rooting for you.