photograph @Maddie_Spanie via Death to Stock
“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller
I don’t know who I am anymore.
I mean I know who I am, ish, but a part of me disappeared the other day, a piece that was neatly tucked away, far from prying eyes and ears.
You’re not me, I know, you’re different, but I’m going to assume you’ve been there too.
So you know that when something important in our lives falls apart, we lose a piece of ourselves. We’re the same, and then again, we’re not. It’s not easy to talk about it over the water cooler at work (if you are near one of those), and yet, here I am, doing the email equivalent of that, because I believe it’s a valuable way to normalise the different emotions we all experience. I’m hoping you’ll agree with me here.
I will make this other assumption, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you too have strategised against a ‘worst case scenario’ outcome before. And, like me, you spend a lot of time planning. That is what our minds do. After analysing the past (in search of optimisation and self-protection), we plan away what the ideal future looks like.
We go back and forth, forward and backward, giving us a sense of what’s possible, crafting a virtual, mental, dress rehearsal in view of the big event. I call that a creationist approach to life, whether we’re working towards an important conversation, a job interview, personal stuff, from holidays to relationships, to how we’ll play or perform, whether we’re in a boardroom, on the court, on Zoom, or on a stage of our own making.
That piece for me was a vision, or version of a possible future, crafted like I imagine one writes and directs a movie, scene by scene. Have you ever done that? Faceted a multicolor and multi-sensorial inner experience that becomes the target you shoot towards? In French we call it ‘un point de mire’: that which you set your sights onto.
Feel free to project your own story on from here, roll your own film.
So, something happened. Something always does. I picked up my phone, and it’s like 2022 was looking at 2021 and 2020 and, with a neat grin, just said: ‘Hold my beer.’
Earlier this year, I was smug. Not in general, no, but content nonetheless because I was making progress, particularly after an online lecture on ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), a tool which I regularly use in coaching, when I had an unexpected personal break-through, one that had me face a really big fear I had, which had kept me stuck for a long time. And there I went, on my merry way, actions followed (it’s not called ACT for nothing). Then out of nowhere, boom! The thing I was most scared to see happen, what I’d previously tried to protect myself from, came for me.
I’m also going to assume you’ve been here, too, when the bad news arrives, the metaphorical penny drops and with it, you feel your heart sink, like it’s been chemically transformed to heavy metal.
Now that I think about it, last time I felt that, I’m pretty sure that feeling became a thing (which doctors call a fibroid), but that’s another story.
That same evening, unsettled though I was, I observed my own mind and noted that said mind felt like it was bugging. This is what it looked like:
If you think of your mind as an old-fashioned cinema, it’s like someone had ripped a whole in the film that was being played, and the projector was continuing to roll, but all that was left to see was weird bits jumping at the edges. Big hole in the middle, nothing made sense. Yet my brain kept on trying to watch the broken film, which was simply impossible.
I observed and thought, huh, that’s quite something, I’ll have to tell people about that.
Meanwhile, without it, I found myself feeling aimless. Not an enviable state.
A friend of mine was recently sharing with me how hard he was finding it a few months after leaving his job, marking a potential shift of career. At first, he thought: ‘great, I’m going to take time off, and figure out what’s next.’ And three months in, he’s feeling panicked. Like me, he’s no longer quite himself. Our egos like boundaries, to help present and function in the world.
My friend ‘is’ no longer his job, his career. He’s not yet the next thing. He’s in limbo too, trying to advance, but aimless.
In that state, the world feels so much smaller - one less option to choose from. And at the same time, we face a field of infinite possibilities. What will happen next? Both a fixed future and a completely opened one can be triggers. One confining, reductive; the other one staggering in scale.
Back to my story. My nickname, for a hot minute, was ‘the fixer.’ I didn’t love the word, later modifying it to a tag line that does reflect my capacities in a different light. ‘I like to make magic happen.’ (NB once upon a time, the designer Bella Freud wrote a piece for the Sunday Times Style Magazine, entitled 'The Law of Attraction' where she compared my energy to Tinker Bell’s.)
However, finding myself against an ‘impossibility’ of any kind makes me bug, as a result. My mind wants, or needs, to find a solution. Have you been there too?
But - breaking news - some things I cannot fix. They are not mine to fix.
What I’ve come to learn is that what we seek isn’t in the thing itself, the prestige, the role, the relationships, or the money, or whatever your currency happens to be.
No, what we are seeking is a feeling state, like freedom, joy, belonging, connection, appreciation or peace.
Even more importantly, what we seek is a state that will reflect, mirror how we want to see ourselves.
And that is what is so hard to let go of.
That place, where we work on letting go, the Tibetan Buddhists call it ‘bardo’.
Think of it as the liminal space between death and rebirth. Every time we have to drop or change an attribute, an important piece that helps shape our sense of who we are, you can imagine it as a small ego-death.
From there, we enter limbo, or ‘bardo’, a weird land where we are stuck for a while, between where we are and where we wish to go. And in this metaphorical place, we practice letting go and starting again, so that we can get to our next incarnation.
And the more attached we are to that what or who we have to leave behind, the harder it is to release the grip.
Recently, I interviewed two wonderful women, who both talked in depth about how incredibly difficult this process was in their own lives.
The first was ex-ballerina turned celebrity fitness trainer Julie Granger, the second was Jenny Sauer-Klein, co-founder of AcroYoga and now CEO of Scaling Intimacy School of Experience Design. It’s fair to say that this state of ego-life and death has been on my mind thanks to them. And I’d say it’s as personal as it is a universal experience.
Both shared wise words from their own lives, noting that stepping into this place of change, when we do it willingly, is a hard and courageous step.
So ever the fixer, I thought, make this useful! And my initial intention was to jump in and make this blog post a practical tool for you who are reading me, offering useful coaching questions for when you’re next in a similar situation - some which I asked myself in the last few days, and others that came up in the process of writing. And I may do this, perhaps another time.
What I will share is probably the most important thing I did do:
I sat and asked myself why.
Why am I so attached to this? Why is this so hard? And I journaled. And I asked why again, and wrote some more. I repeated the process a bunch of times.
Only later on that day, while meditating, did my personal penny drop (again), and with it, lifting the weight in my stomach.
The truth is that until then, I’d been so dismissive of my dream that even when the answers were written in black and white, in front of my eyes, showing it for what it really was, it was still hard to unpack. Hard to acknowledge, to accept what it meant to me. So now I see it, ish, or rather I can hold it, carefully, giving it the respect it was always due.
Because it was unbelievably precious.
So I’m not quite the same as before, but I know something new about myself. While I’m certainly not jumping around with joy about being in ‘bardo’ and I don’t know what will come next, at least I know what to do now.
Because synchronicity is my friend, mere days later I serendipitously came across Susan Cain’s TED talk, on the hidden power of sad songs and rainy days. And in it she offers this incredibly touching words, and when I heard them, they felt true to me:
‘There is light, and there is dark. And when the dark times come, and they will come, don’t be surprised, but ask yourself what are you longing for?
And follow your longing where it’s telling you to go. It’s pointing you in the direction of the wondrous and the sacred.
Follow your longing where it’s telling you to go and may it carry you straight to the beating heart of the perfect and beautiful world.’
Until next week.