It is tempting, in the midst of the big economic, social, and political changes going on now — not to mention human impacts on the earth itself, to want to turn and run, to protect what we have as individuals and play it safe. Isn’t that the smart thing to do? I know the feeling and have watched friends falter in the current economy and political strife — “go dark” to their own possibilities, become negative, “practical,” settling for less while working ungodly hours to keep what they have. Go into emotional hiding.
Instead of speaking up we keep our heads down.
Instead of setting limits and boundaries for what is right, we go along.
Instead of following our dreams, we give them up to worry about what we could lose.
Instead of acting from our hearts, we chill into self-protective logic.
This is the definition of a society — of people — increasingly driven by anxiety. Anxiety and uncertainty that seem to be everywhere, and that seem to be increasing. But as Lolly Daskal points out in a a recent post: “Uncertainty may cause you fear. But the fear of the unknown expands your knowing.”
I take this beautiful phrase of Lolly’s to mean that instead of turning to run or playing it safe, the best course is to explore the fear, to get in touch with it directly and authentically, to let it emerge for what it is and then decide how to proceed. This “fear consciousness,” I believe, can lead to heightened awareness, powerful reflection — and something else — a reduction of the fear itself. By looking into that eye, fear’s energy can actually begin to transform into a different kind of mastery and vitality, while the alternative — not looking — becomes simply a form of denial, a fantasy that means we are being driven unconsciously ever farther away from our own courage. We let fear lead us into self-betrayal.
As human beings we are built for something else — something so much better. As Carl Jung writes in the epigraph at the beginning of this post, the alternative is to “affirm our destiny.” But what is that?
For the last seventeen years I have worked in inner and outer ways to understand what Jung meant. For ten I co-facilitated a workshop for leaders devoted to the notion that we all have a destiny, a path to follow, a story, an “arc” of learning as we inevitably move toward higher levels, not only of consciousness, but of direct contribution to the world. People came to the workshop with a sense of restlessness, that “things had happened for a reason” or a new understanding had been awakened in them through some meaningful coincidence: the meeting of a particular person, for example, or the appearance of resources for a deeper purpose. To me, personally, destiny is like standing up in my own life, making a choice that then seems to follow some more fundamental but also unique thread. And that only by accepting this thread as my calling, my private and individual form of integrity, my meaning, can I live the life I was meant to live.
It is time, I believe, to not let the craziness and chaos of all those shifting economic, social, and cultural paradigms rob us of our true work in the world, our relationships, or our souls. As always, we are being hollowed out by our adversities; hollowed out, as they say, to become the flute through which a new melody will be born.
It is one thing to ask, “What is my destiny?” and relate it to a sense of personal purposes and gifts, which is most often the way people think about the concept of destiny. In this sense it represents a “destination,” an end-point, and it depends on some special talent and aptitude. But there is at least one other way to consider it, and that is that our destiny really takes us back to our own beginnings — our “birthright.” In this sense, destiny and birthright are the same. The circle completes itself. Let me explain this second meaning as it has showed up in my own life.
Many years ago, in a dream I was assisting a doctor with a patient on an operating table. Blood was everywhere. I said to the Doctor, “Do you want help? The patient is hemorrhaging.” He said with stoic passivity, “No, there is nothing that can be done now.” But I ran out of the room in a search for just that help. I came to a crowded waiting area filled with other patients and with nurses. I called out, “The doctor needs help!” But immediately a nurse came up to me and angrily said, “That’s none of your business. We will decide whether the doctor needs help!” I left in despair, went back to my room in a nearby hotel. But then, something on top of my dresser caught my eye, a pile of sparkling stones I’d never seen before. And when I picked them up I found they formed a kind of magical or sacred necklace of unknown origin. I placed it over my head and as I did so, all of my experience was suddenly illuminated, a feeling of total peace and well-being enveloped me. The necklace brushed my cheek and there are no words for it, but in a way I felt as if I had been kissed by a divine being, an angel if you will.
I shared the dream with a therapist who at the time was helping me work through a divorce. She commented, “Well, the first part of the dream would seem to be about your work and the worldly obstacles it entails. But the second part, there you’ve touched your birthright.” I was stunned. Jung’s words came to mind: nothing had been “disturbed” in me and I was still “victorious.”
Indeed, I had touched a profound core, one that over time has become the real story of my own life, the end and beginning of it, destiny and birthright. And all I can say is that it has nothing to do with fear at all, or with gain or loss, winning or losing. It has to do with deeper things that I struggle to express but pull me every day to do the work I do, to be who I am in my heart — whether “the patient,” in fact, can be saved.
I have tried many times to find ways or words to adequately express that feeling of the necklace and that other-worldly kiss. Recently, I discovered something that comes a little closer although distance still remains, a recording of the Buddhist activist, poet, and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, a poetic meditation put to music. It is on a (magnificent) CD devoted to facilitating the passage of life and death. You can find the recording here with Thich Nhat Hanh’s words below.
The End of Suffering
May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos
Even in the darkest spots living beings are able to hear it clearly
So that all suffering in them cease, understanding come to their heart
And they transcend the path of sorrow and death.
The universal dharma door is already open
The sound of the rising tide is heard clearly
The miracle happens
A beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower
One single drop of this compassionate water is enough
to bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains and rivers.
Listening to the bell I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve
My mind calm, my body relaxed
A smile is born on my lips
Following the sound of the bell, my breath brings me back
to the safe island of mindfulness
In the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.
So what does any of this mean to you? Assuming it means anything at all!
This is not about concocting some fantasy of personal purpose or lodging forever in some private, disconnected nirvana. It is about knowing, experiencing, feeling that thread in your own life in a deeper way, and helping others around you feel and experience and follow their own threads as well. We listen to one another; help each other with our adversities, help each other remember that birthright. We confront our differences and distances — some of them large — and we are deepened and hollowed out even more. Bringing these threads to the surface, talking about them, I’ve found, results in an unusually strong, vibrant community; results in us remembering who we are and what we are about, no matter what tough condition our personal world or the world at large might be in.
In this sense, the truth is no one finds or follows their destiny alone, do they? We are in this together, a complex community and subtle matrix, many different petals, perhaps, of a single irreducible flower.
Please join Lolly Daskal and me for a tweet chat, “Leadership and Destiny,” on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 8:00 PM EST. To participate, please go to this page, enter Lolly’s hashtag (#leadfromwithin) and sign in. It’s a great community of learning: fun, fast, full of soul.
Link to blog posting.
Link to Oestreich Associates website.
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