There may be all too little true wilderness left on our shrinking globe, but there is still plenty of wilderness within.
The path toward leading successfully is all too often measured in external outcomes, but the truth we know is that it is also measured in “incomes,” the degree to which a human being is willing to grow toward fulfillment. I would argue that those leaders who do not grow in this way, who are hooked only on the external scorecard live a life also hooked on their personal comfort and pain equations. And the rest of us get what we get from them based on those equations.
But some leaders choose to go more deeply into the questions; they follow meaning more than comfort, and while that meaning may for awhile take them down a path that is eminently uncomfortable, they also learn to convert their personal pain into an understanding of suffering and into empathy, and they learn to rise toward a sense of personal fulfillment as much or more than external accomplishment.
What is that path like, really? Well, I think it often begins with a sense of restlessness — the external achievements, whether they have come or not come, are insufficient to a good life. And it can also begin when a leader notices how he or she has unconsciously colluded in becoming a servant to others (and their goals) rather than their own goals. The leader may, for example, notice how deeply flawed leadership of a corporation or institution really is, how the current leaders are making people crazy on behalf of their own comfort/pain choices. Or they may notice they are serving a good cause and their organizational leaders are fine, but it is not their own cause or their own real potential that is being supported.
Restlessness is at the beginning, and a sense of emptiness can be there, too, a “hole,” as one of my clients said to me, “that has been here for a long, long time.” To fill that hole the only path forward is now called “midlife learning,” a required confrontation with “what’s in the way,” a confrontation in which a person must come back to themselves, their conditioning, their past choices, and their emotions. They must confront themselves, much as Rilke wrote in his famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, realizing after seeing the beauty of an ancient Greek statue that “you must change your life.” And this change, while not usually very easy for it requires dealing with one’s own demons, also can result in insight into the meaning of one’s own suffering, and by extension the suffering of the world. This is, after all, just one more way of describing the hero’s journey. We’re all on it in one way or another. The question is what we are doing with it.
For awhile, in my own journey, I thought the challenge was the solitariness of the path. My conditioning has been to listen to every critical voice that came out of the wood without examining its validity, and also to live in a state of constant comparison to others and their successes. The greatest challenge has been, in a way, to stop listening to these bogus inner voices, based in shame on one side and envy on the other. These voices will always hold a certain sway. There’s no final “winning,” except my own learned vigilance. I have to work at it on both sides and that’s my fate. But that work, the dim, downward work of stopping invasive and critical messages is really less than half the inner motivation to keep going. If this were the sole challenge, with nothing much beyond it, I’d probably be certifiable by now, or simply holding out hope for a visit from the angels. But it’s the other side of the journey, the path toward fulfillment that, as it comes forward in stronger and stronger ways, really propels me. It isn’t as simple as saying, “Believe in yourself! Follow your destiny!” but it does rely on honoring inner choice and paying attention to moments when meaning comes and older inertias change or recede.
Such moments, when they come, really can take any of us into the beauty of the inner wildness. It isn’t the beauty of loud talking and hot proposals. It isn’t the beauty of big ideas. It’s more like the moment when things come together among colleagues, colleagues who have figured out they will be individually and collectively better off to find peace rather than wage war against one another. The battle is over but not because anyone has won. It is a moment of vulnerability and vision. What writer, Nick Smith, calls, “Engaging with life defencelessly and indiscriminately,” if I am reading him correctly.
I like to imagine the journey in the terms I first encountered wilderness when I was young. I learned to solo backpack and sometimes went high in the local mountains, far above the tree line, up in the meadows and among the rocks. I learned to sit by my own campfire and eat what I’d carried in. I learned to clean up after myself so that no one might notice I had been there. I learned to see the order of stones along a stream, listen to the hum of insects, and find a vantage point. I try to bring that same sense of inner meaning to every piece of work I do, every workshop, every email, knowing that in true wildness there is no “alone” at all. The deepest possible sense of connection is there. There are multiple layers to whatever reality you think you might be seeing. It is as close to infinite as I think I’ll get on this side of life.