In the darkened womb of the round, earthen chamber, its center altar lit by a lone white taper candle, I sat quietly on my mat. Outside, unseen by me but their energy omnipresent, the tall trees stood sentinel, whispering their stories and songs of the ages at the edge of a restless, dark sea.
I had driven north to the coastal redwoods to attend a healing retreat, and now I rested in the great kiva, a thirty-foot wide ceremonial room dug into the earth, with more than a dozen other people sitting quietly. As part of preparing for the event, we had been asked to carefully consider our intentions, and among several key pieces that I wished to examine on this journey were my notions of success and failure.
The bare, dirt walls encircling us were studded with small alcoves, each niche holding a candle, nearly a hundred in all. Other than a round skylight twenty feet above, an eye of violet sky, already sparkling with a few diamonds of stars, the candles’ flickering light provided the only illumination in the great room. Sitting upright, legs crossed, I silently scanned the circle of unfamiliar faces, perceiving some of them as burdened with the weight of sorrows, others looking peaceful and joyous; each on his or her own quest for healing.
On the central altar I had placed a copy of my first book, The Bones and Breath, along with a few other items that represent facets of my life’s journey, both as “healer” and one who seeks his own transformation: a bear claw necklace from a Native American medicine man, a Maori carved whalebone pendant, a ceremonial fan made of brightly hued feathers, my custom-made, diamond and blue opal wedding band. Seated in the east of the wheel — direction of new beginnings, dawn, insight and inspiration, vision, spirit — I gently regarded the book’s familiar cover from ten feet away, considering it as a tangible record of my wandering path these past years, of both personal and transpersonal growth, and as an intimate offering to the Larger Story.
In my mind’s eye, I recalled the long struggle to bring that book to the light of day — polishing and editing various drafts, cutting entire chapters and adding new ones, ever wrestling with my ongoing desire to craft a thing of beauty while feeling that I always fell short —and the search for its publisher. Each phase felt distinctly like climbing a mountain, exhausting and discouraging, the taste of dust and sweat in my mouth, with only dogged determination to spur me on.
In the flickering light and smoky air that smelled thickly of sage, as the white-haired, Huichol-trained shaman to my left offered a long prayer and another song to the invisible powers, I considered my disappointment — anguish, even — that after publication the book received essentially no press or reviews, and remained languishing in quiet obscurity, selling only one or two copies a week, sometimes not even that.
What does it mean to be a success? A failure…?
Marlena de Blasi, internationally best-selling author of A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany, recently wrote to me regarding this very concept, as I anguished over the rough draft of my latest manuscript I had shared with her: “Letting go of notions of success — what is that? — as well as failure, which I understand even less, is fundamental. When either loom, they drive us. Pummel us, and, I think, invite us to act in some way falsely. As though someone is watching, judging.”
I know she is correct, for I have been beaten down by my own notions of failure since the book emerged into the world almost two years ago.
My larger, overlighting intention for the healing retreat was to die to the old, limiting notions, patterns, and habits that no longer served my highest good, like anger and self loathing. The same with doubt, criticism, and harsh judgement. Add fear of my own power to the list, too. In seeking the deeper realms of transformation, I knew that I needed to consider the ways in which my own beliefs and unconsciously chosen restraints were holding me back.
If we are paying attention, Nature models infinite lessons and teaches us at every turn, and I’ve written elsewhere that I’ve learned more from her than I ever learned in school. In certain respects, our personal growth resembles rings of a tree; we become larger and more expansive than younger versions of ourself, still containing those smaller circumferences but also exceeding them. At each stage, we may or may not even acknowledge that we are growing, and we don’t yet perceive the wider, larger Self and worldview that we will later embody. We might detect the earlier phases and versions passed through and outgrown, but not yet the larger ones to come. Similarly, we cannot actually grasp the full reality of those with a wider worldview than our own.
Reality is SO much bigger than the material world and human culture that we perceive; larger even than the miraculous world we glean through expansive senses, an open heart, and active imagination. Far more mysterious, too.
I have received beautiful letters, affirmations, and thank you’s from unknown readers around the globe in response to my work, both The Bones and Breath and the Soul Artist Journal. Surely that alone is success. And I remind myself that an offering has been made — continues to be made through my ongoing efforts and work — and the Universe will decide how and when it chooses to accept such overtures. Our job is not to compare ourselves to others or decide at what point we are a success or failure, but simply to create and give ourselves away, turning our energies into a stream of ongoing acts of sacred reciprocity.
Repeatedly I have said that one of the hallmarks of a Soul Artist is the continued letting go of smaller versions of self, those chosen limitations (wounds, roles, doubts, etc.) we cling to, while seeking to expand into a larger, more authentic being guided by soul rather than ego. Such transformation is not easy. It isn’t for the feint of heart. Growth requires bumping into — even stumbling around, lost — those dark, thorny, and painful places of the psyche in order to finally heal them. Indeed, our shadows persist until we meet them, and the soul’s path is always an Underworld journey during which we may be totally dismembered before we reemerge to the daylight realms.
How does one describe the moment when he/she finally heals something and lets it go? Or a journey of death and rebirth? Words mostly fail.
In the candlelit chamber in a circle of brave souls, listening to the heartbeat of a drum and the old shaman’s cracked voice singing his “medicine” songs, I felt myself approaching some liminal threshold, my worldview expanding. Those older, smaller notions of self and identity labeled “writer” and “author,” I was shedding them, leaving them on the earthen floor like a translucent snake skin. Or clothes that I’ve outgrown, realizing for the first time how threadbare they actually were. And my notions of success and failure, with an exhale of thanks, these I gave to the dancing flame on the altar and the spirits hovering near, offering them as sacrifice.
In my own journey as a healer, I’ve learned this: under all our layers of “stuff” and shadows, we really are light. But we don’t find that illumination by seeking transcendence, we uncover it by venturing into the shadows.
Friend, here’s hoping that on your own path of healing and transformation, whatever that looks like and wherever it leads — from a “self help” book to a therapist’s couch, a wilderness “vision quest” or a shaman’s “medicine circle,” traveling to a foreign country or starting a new chapter of life, or perhaps simply the crucible of intimate relationship and finding what is yours to offer the more-than-human world — that you will slough off the old, hardened layers, those limitations that no longer serve your progress. And in that disrobing, whether it be rough or gentle, may you emerge as something much lighter, bolder, graceful and free, though it may feel tender and awkward at first.
Remember, under all those shadows and weight, you are a radiant, beautiful soul, and the world is waiting for what you will bring.