“Midway upon the journey of life
I found myself within a darkened wood,
For the straightforward way had been lost.”
— Dante, The Divine Comedy

Through a Darkened Wood

If you like, listen to me read this post.

How many times in your own life or work have you felt that same anxiety? We are often “midway upon the journey” and “in the darkened wood.” I think of so many colleagues and acquaintances who have faced difficulties — a divorce or separation, a cancer, a job-loss, a loss of spiritual meaning — and who have had to lead themselves out of it. I admire this greatly, this surrender to fact and then leading out from the center of the person to his or her edge, finding a new center — and more beyond. This, to me, is the bedrock, the reality of leadership, not the concept. Life does a lot to us and, for some, it awakens a new truth, a transcendence. For others, refusing the call, the soul goes into hiding and becomes a permanently wounded animal at the bottom of its cave.

How a person responds when life is shaking hard, that’s the seedbed of impact in the world, the foundations of genuine integrity. I think of a friend who was gradually deserted by her husband, left alone for longer and longer periods on his “business trips” to another country until he finally no longer came home, and then also finally left to the bankrupcy that resulted from his debts. It’s a long story and I won’t tell it here except to say that over the next few years the toil was all hers. And for a long time she especially struggled to reclaim her self-confidence and inner joy. She could see it so clearly in others but not in herself.

And then one day, because she had grown out of her suffering enough, she started teaching classes to managers in her organization about what it means to treat themselves and their employees with love, trust, and a sense of responsibility — precisely, of course, the opposite of the way she herself had been treated. Her personal story does not come up in her training, but it lies behind the exercises and so her life-learning and her presence are always there.

Her classes are overbooked. She has become an oasis. She inspires managers to create their own supportive networks to talk about the times when they feel most challenged in their relationships at work — and to learn how to help one another. If ever we could say that a person is a gift to an organization, this would be it.


At a recent gathering of new friends, consultant Paul Everett told the story of a spiritual training he attended some years ago in Arizona. He was led by his guide to the edge of an extremely dense, darkened forest of pine trees. He was then asked to find his way to the other side of the forest “without the forest knowing he had been there.” The one piece of advice he received was this: “Where there is no hurry, there is no danger.” And then he was left alone. He could not charge through the pitch black forest. He had to wait until he could see just the one next move forward he could make. He had to slow way down, face the thickest branches, look carefully for how he could just slip through, then stop, waiting in long moments for the next opening to appear. Very gradually in this way, he was able to make the journey.

This is a metaphor isn’t it? Doing the next right thing, and the next, even when it is very unclear how big the forest really is. And how different this is from all the gimmicky management training that suggests we can always go fast, that there is a technique for everything — how to create change, how to motivate people, how to sell the program, how to, how to, how to. All these techniques that keep us really unconscious. All these how-to’s that are never enough ever to really face life or even be in touch with it — in or out of organizations. Sometimes, as Paul’s story suggests, the only technique is the “no-technique” of waiting and growing into the next right thing.

I think of my friend’s story and what she teaches in her organization and it comes down to this: how to come out of denial, how to see the branches in very low light, how to take the first step without panicking, how to have the patience to wait for the next opening to appear, and ultimately, how we can do all this together rather than apart. These are things we need guides for, and leaders, because in the open space of our lives and our work there are many darkened forests to pass through and, like Paul, we must also do so “without the forest knowing.”

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  • I want to thank Paul for allowing me to share the story from his spiritual training. In his correspondence to me today he clarified that the lesson about “where there is no hurry, there is no danger,” was part of his entire training experience, not just specific to his journey through the forest. He also mentioned how important the insight had been from his passage: “learning and observing before taking the next step, letting reality speak to you and having faith that the needed opening will be revealed.” The “having faith” part for me is where the real blessing is. Because, against the logic of it, the next step in challenging circumstances often does happen this way. The opening appears — the product of a patient magic. And it can be experienced only as a miracle, a personal miracle that brings with it a renewed sense of trust in life, including trust in the forest itself for helping us move through it.

    Paul also reminded me that there are many translations of Dante’s famous opening to his masterpiece. The last line quoted here can also be translated as “Where the true way was wholly lost.” Yes, that feels like a more accurate expression of the starting point for all our deeper journeys

  • Dan: I’ve commented before that every time I visit your weblog, I start breathing much more deeply. Now that you’ve added the capability to listen to you reading it, I find an even more visceral settling in that I usually associate with deep meditation, yoga and bodywork. Thank you for the care you share!

    With respect to this specific blog post, I’m reminded of a few quotes. The first is from Jean-Paul Sartre: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”

    The second is from Oriah Mountain Dreamer‘s poem, “The Invitation”:

    It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon…
    I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
    if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
    or have become shrivelled and closed
    from fear of further pain.

    One of the meditative mantras Oriah shares in her audio tape/CD Your Heart’s Prayer is “slow down, let go” … which seems particularly well-suited to finding one’s way through (and perhaps out of) a dark forest.

    Your incredibly on-point invocation of Dante’s verse is one of the best descriptions of a mid-life “crisis” I’ve encountered … thanks for reminding me of this early expression of a predicament that seems to be gaining more recognition (e.g., NPR’s Take Two series) … and for your help in suggesting paths for resolution!

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