"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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