Into The Wilderness

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.

Seek the inner depth of things, and when they lead you to the edge of a great discovery, discern whether it arises from a necessity of your being.
Either this discovery will strike you as superficial and you will shed it,
or it will reveal itself as intrinsic to you...

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 all we do is watch from the shore,
Then we don’t have to worry about the current.
But if affection has put us into the stream,
Then we have to agree to where the water goes.
— Robert Bly

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.

What I want to say is
the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond
or the river of your imagination
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
— Mary Oliver, Mornings at Blackwater, from Red Bird

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.

I was, indeed, then in the dark and struggled on, unconscious of what I was seeking so earnestly; but I had a feeling of the light, a divining-rod that showed be where gold was to be found.
— Goethe

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.

I have dreamed
Of accomplishment.
I have fed

I have traded
Nights of sleep

For a length of work.
Lo, and I have discovered
How soft bloom

Turns to green fruit
Which turns to sweet fruit
Lo, and I have discovered

All winds blow cold
At last,
And the leaves,

So pretty, so many,
In the great, black

Packet of time,
In the great, black
Packet of ambition,

And the ripeness
Of the apple
Is its downfall.
— Mary Oliver, The Orchard, from Red Bird

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.

The Holy Longing
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
For those who do not understand will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.

Distance cannot make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
— Goethe, Translated by Robert Bly

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.

... I have gone out from my confinements, though with difficulty.

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart. I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile. They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment somehow or another).

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope. I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is. I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned, I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.
— Mary Oliver, To Begin With, The Sweet Grass, from Evidence