January 2020 Soul Notes
In his poem 'For a New Beginning' nestled within his collection entitled 'To Bless The Space Between Us', John O'Donohue writes the following words:
For a New Beginning"
In out-of-the-way places of the heart, Where your thoughts never think to wander, This beginning has been quietly forming, Waiting until you were ready to emerge. For a long time it has watched your desire, Feeling the emptiness growing inside you, Noticing how you willed yourself on, Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. It watched you play with the seduction of safety And the gray promises that sameness whispered, Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent, Wondered would you always live like this. Then the delight, when your courage kindled, And out you stepped onto new ground, Your eyes young again with energy and dream, A path of plenitude opening before you. Though your destination is not yet clear You can trust the promise of this opening; Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning That is at one with your life’s desire. Awaken your spirit to adventure; Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; Soon you will be home in a new rhythm, For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Ah…..what a beautiful poem to open this year with. I love the idea of “unfurling” into “the grace of beginning” – slow and gradual, feeling our way into what awaits. It’s an image that recalls the natural world and suggests patience.
In my last edition of Soul Notes, I touched upon the idea that our patterns of repeated behaviour are often the outcome of a story without an ending. That is to say, that we experience some form of crisis – a loss, a death, a hurt, a divorce - and aren’t able to resolve the experience, whereupon the story lives on in us and possibly precludes new beginnings.
There is a story of St Francis of Assisis that illustrates this. In the tale, St Francis arrives in a village that is being terrorised by a wolf. The wolf is killing people and the villagers want to hunt it down to kill it. St Francis calms the villagers and goes to find the wolf. He wants to know why the wolf is killing, when that isn’t really in its nature. He discovers that the wolf is hungry and has no other source of food. Knowing this, St Francis goes back and encourages the villagers to leave food out for the wolf. Initially they are angry and reject the idea but in time, they come round and begin to leave food out which the wolf eats. The killing stops and the wolf becomes a friend to the villagers.
This story can be understood as our own. Where is the hungry wolf in us? Where are the frightened villagers in us? Where is St Francis in us? What is the listening or dialogue or action needed to bring about a resolution that allows us to move forward? When we suffer a loss, we may want to kill off the hungry or needy part of ourselves that feels like a threat to our wellbeing. When in fact, what is needed is an understanding of that part, so that we can begin to live in harmony with it, in a new version of life.
A truly new beginning can’t emerge until the ending is complete. Life is a continuous cycle of life, death, life. The new life can only begin if the ending incorporates some learning. Otherwise, it is a repeat of what came before. O’Donohue alludes to this in the poem above as he describes “the beginning” as an entity waiting and watching in the wings,
“Noticing how you willed yourself on, Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.”
Yet so often, we ignore this simple truth. I’m accompanying many of my clients through endings and beginnings right now. Their request is often fuelled by a desire to command the beginning out of the wings; to figure out the “how” of a new way of life before the old has been understood. Kill the wolf and start again without it. But inevitably, a new wolf will arrive and the killing cycle will begin again.
In the same way we make resolutions for this year, hoping that we can leave behind the bad habits of last, and soon discovering that we can’t. The one who has lived through, and drawn from, the ending is often wiser and more patient and this wisdom is available to infuse a new beginning, if we allow it.
So what do we find so challenging about this? In my experience, it’s painful to confront the hungry wolf. In so doing we come face to face with our vulnerability, our fragility, our dependency, our hatred, our humanity. So we try to skip this shaming experience and catapult ourselves into the hope of something different. As we do so, we create a series of disconnected narratives. We are severed from ourselves and feel fragmented.
I know this is true for me. I was taught the art of “new beginnings” which involved numbing my feelings at a very early age. The consequence is that it is still a challenge for me to sustain my attention to feeling, in spite of years of training to do precisely that. Yet, each time I do, I feel like I reclaim a lost part of myself in the process. It’s like scuttling around the battlefield, picking up scattered limbs, putting myself back together and finding with each scarred piece, there’s also a new movement and a knowing that I had left behind with the pain.
At the end of last year, I spent some time reviewing the year gone both from a practical and emotional perspective. My journals guide me in this process as they map the year’s landscape. Reading through them reminds me of what I have both lived and felt and allows me to determine what I’m taking with me and what I’m leaving behind. I’ve done this for several years and the reflection and release is incredibly therapeutic. However, it’s also confronting because I can see my repeating patterns more clearly than ever and it’s obvious where I get stuck.
So, for example, it might be my intention each year to let go of the need to take responsibility for others, and yet, I find that it hasn’t quite worked out like that. I’m still attached to a story about myself that keeps me firmly in that role. Even as I write about it here, I’m wondering which word to use to describe the part of myself that might not take the responsibility. My mind offers “irresponsible” as an alternative which tells you something about how I see it. There is judgment here; a binary aspect to the story which is often an indicator of the world in which it was formed. Good and bad. Black and white. Right and wrong. Allowing nothing for the nuances of the actual experience. But there are many other shades of possibility around being the responsible one. I could be the one that encourages others to take responsibility for themselves; the one who gives space; allows risks and mistakes; a witness; a companion to the other as they find their way; a separate subject. All the things I aspire to, and practise with my clients each day. Perhaps as a way of learning how to be that in my own life? I think of my work in that way sometimes – a way of learning a different way to be in the world, which is encouraged and accepted in my work, and which in time, I hope to encourage and accept in my personal life.
So this year I’m planning to spend more time with my hungry wolf, rather than avoiding it, to see what needs tending, what wisdom lies untapped, and what stories await their resolution. Maybe in there, I will recover the self responsible for me as well as others?
I look forward to meeting you somewhere in the discovery.
With much love until then