The experience is probably familiar to many. That moment when you first become aware of a small, yet felt, sense of dissatisfaction with something you’ve always thought of as having its right place in your life. At first you ignore the rumblings, push them down. But they become more insistent. In the quiet spaces, usually at night, the unease finds its voice and you begin to listen. A little while on and you’re ready to admit that you’ve been feeling this way a bit longer than you first thought! After this admission you begin to resent the energy this thing is taking up in your life. Perhaps it is a commitment, a practice, a relationship, a career, even an identity that you’ve not questioned…until now.
This happened to me about 3 years ago, when the job I loved and the career path I was on lost their shine. I could barely summon the energy to do the most basic of tasks when I’d always felt boundless capacity before. And it’s happening again as I process the impact of a virus that has changed the world as I knew it. Over the past few months, I have been questioning who I am and who I want to be in a world that is transforming faster than I thought. It’s not pleasant, and I haven’t figured things out yet, but I know that if I want to steward the chance to fully live my ‘one wild and precious life’, this is the journey I need to be on.
Personal change starts with small internal shifts that signal a growing readiness to see one’s self differently and to relate to others and to the world in new ways. A scarily liberating thing starts to happen; we find ourselves questioning ideals, beliefs, commitments, and ways of being that, until now, have felt useful and have kept us safe, or successful, or connected, yet now seem to constrict and frustrate self-expression. These challenges to one’s primary sense of identity can at times feel terribly uncomfortable, deeply disconcerting, or outright disorienting. In braver moments, it is exhilarating and empowering, even if dangerous, to critically question and challenge the internal and external forces that have brought valued structure and substance to one’s life. For most of us, we fear as much as yearn for change. But for the new to emerge, the old must be examined.
Unfolding the map
We are talking about being right up against the edge of our personal maps, for we are mapmakers, sketching our maps as we go. Sometimes, we fold the map up to show just the bit we’ve coloured in, and we forget (or deny) that the page is much larger than just this square. When we do, we become fixed in our sense of place. Initially we feel safe, contained in the womb-like comfort of the known, but it is possible to outstay our welcome. Refusal to go beyond the familiar, to heed the call of the continued active exploration of our own identities, entraps us. Eventually the soul calls us out, whispering words of discontent, and generating crises to provoke response. If we do not tune in to these whisperings, we will spend our life fighting the fires of each subsequent crisis.
When we unfold the map, we find a much wider canvas on which we have been invited to plot the regions we’ve yet to travel. Behind us is the familiar territory of beliefs, achievements, and the goals we have been working towards. Ahead of us, beckoning yet terrifying, is the unknown. Does anything that I’ve been doing or building or being in this lived space on the map have any relevance in the untraveled regions I sense ahead? If I go there, will I know myself? Will I survive? It is extraordinary how even the smallest prospect of change can prompt very real, and sometimes painful, existential crises in our sense of self. Yet, being invited by life to cross the edge is an intrinsic and continuous reality of human development.
Crossing the threshold of a new reality
In the archetypal narratives of human experience told through myth and fairy-tale, there is an event, a moment that signals the ‘awakening to Self’. Our hero or heroine find themselves in a predicament requiring a fateful adventure that will expose them to certain danger. The Prince must risk all to bring back the Princess and live happily ever after! The Farmers Daughter must marshal her every wit if she is to overcome the Witch and rescue her betrothed. For the successful returning hero, great riches and happiness await; should he fail, he will assuredly pay with his head! In these tales, this is the signal to the audience that a new reality is emerging and the old must make way. As Alexander Campbell puts it, “the familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand”.
The edge, signalled by the gnawing discomfort and self-questioning we have been talking about so far, is synonymous with the threshold of the fairy tale. Thresholds signify possibilities to be examined. Some may be wisely avoided. There is a threshold between me and my murderous rage, for example. Others call us forth into greater knowledge and experience of ourselves in the world. These thresholds stand as a symbol and invitation into some aspect of ourselves that we do not yet know, but sense is our birth right in some deep and instinctive way. We desire to cross and long for the discovery, and fear that we will be lost if we do. This is the nature of the threshold; it exists precisely to provoke self-reflection and deeper personal inquiry: do I wish to move into territory unknown? Am I ready? What will I lose? What will it cost me? Will I survive?
And to test our resolve: Yes, I want to cross more than I want to stay here. What might I gain? What might I become? What will help me become ready?
The dragon in the deep dark wood
It is no wonder that the first threshold the heroes of myth and legend usually face is the deep dark wood, or the vast jungle. This archetypal image signifies to our deepest imaginations the leaving behind of all that is knowable in the pursuit of something greater, the pursuit of our true selves, whose many as yet undiscovered facets await us in the shrouded beyond.
These can be frightening and uncomfortable times. If you choose to accept the call, you will encounter discomfort, you will feel disorientated, you will face Self Doubt, you will go head to head with your nastiest Inner Critic. You will be sorely tested. These ‘threshold guardians’ have a dual purpose: benignly, to protect and keep you safe; perversely, to keep you small. They exist to challenge and provoke you – all to test your readiness to cross. They appear fearsome; indeed, they are the dragons and monsters of the heroic tale, yet in some sense their purpose is also to prepare you. For it is in the wrestling, in the active examination of one’s deepest fears, desires, values, and beliefs that the courage to take right action is found. At the very moment one steps forward with firm resolve and clear intent, these guardians step aside to become the doorways through which one progresses.
Leaving one’s sword behind
It befalls the heroine to accept the call to adventure and cross the threshold, armed with courage, however faltering, and her wits. Her sword and her armour, her two-piece corporate suit and many certificates of achievement will not serve her in this next phase of adventure. Like the protagonists of the old stories, these outward signs of ego must usually be abandoned, replaced by gifts found only in the deep dark wood and uniquely suited to the challenges that await.
As we venture further, our hero’s journey into the unknown is aided by the appearance of an unexpected cast of helpers who respond, not to ego and assertions of status or capability, but to acts of kindness and demonstrations of humility. The crossing of thresholds invites us to submit character and one’s deepest values for testing, not just knowledge or achievements. How often in fairy tales is it the hero’s willingness to ask for help and direction, or his courage to do something for another creature, even if inconvenient or entirely peripheral to the mission, that results in crucial aid? These unchoreographed character-driven and spiritually alive moments are rewarded with guidance, instruction, and wise counsel without which the hero would struggle to progress to the next stage, and success would be less probable.
So it is with the process of personal change.
What can I draw out that might help you and me in the here and now?
1. Tune into yourself. Notice any feelings or thoughts of discontent or inner conflict that have returned persistently. Do you notice any quiet ‘whisperings’ that you have been ignoring? Perhaps you have been experiencing ‘clamourings’ that are manifesting more obviously e.g. periods of losing your sense of meaning in life, times of persistent unexplained anxiety or depression and so on.
2. Accept that if you respond to ‘the call to adventure’ of your own life, there will be periods when you will feel desperately unmoored, disoriented, and at odds with yourself and your once-familiar world.
3. At these times self-reflective practices become essential means of support and sense-making. Try free-writing, sketching, painting, working with clay, taking long walks in nature, sitting on the grass paying exquisite attention to the tiny movements of life in motion, breath-work, prayer, meditation, mindfulness, recording your night dreams. All are valuable means to go inwards, to penetrate past the necessary yet superficial practices of living, in order to pay attention to the deeper Life that is in the process of emerging.
4. Recognise when help is called for and be wise and humble enough to ask for it. Find a therapist, counsellor, or spiritual director with whom you can walk out the journey and from whom you will gain objective and empathetic perspectives. None of us need wander the deep dark forest alone, becoming lost and entangled in its depths. The sole purpose of the forest is to aid self-inquiry and self-discovery, through encounters with helpers (the speaking Hare, the magical Robin) and the guidance and resources they provide (the golden whistle, the riddle that unlocks the door). Invest in looking past the masks you have been wearing and the suited exterior you’ve presented to the world, to discover the arsenal of character strengths, spiritual capacity, life wisdom and skills you hold within. Get to know these as a huntress would know her arrows.
5. Seek community with other likeminded people who have embraced the call to adventure and with whom you can metaphorically sit around the fire, sharing your own unfolding stories and learning from each other’s discoveries. A self-development retreat can be a powerful way to gain both profound personal insights and tools, as well as introductions to a group of other life adventurers with whom you can continue to connect in meaningful and supportive ways.
6. Finally, don’t feel that you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The call to adventure inevitably comes at highly inconvenient times and must be experienced alongside the realities of maintaining ‘life as we know it’. Very few of us can simply chuck the day job on a whim, or radically sever the daily responsibilities and demands that come with family, managing a household, paying the mortgage or rent, etc. Some may indeed have the freedom and autonomy to rapidly activate significant shifts in the structure and commitments of their lives. This won’t be the case for everyone. The real heroes among us are those that continue to attend to their core responsibilities and show up for those they are in relationship with, while maintaining a clear view of, and commitment to, their own unfolding story.