“If you bring forth what is within you it will save you, if you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you” Jesus, from the gospel of St Thomas
Some fortunate people, seem to know more or less from the get-go what their vocation is, and they give everything to the manifestation of it. Some find it over time and an ongoing trial and error process. Some just follow the thread of their interest and – in some kind of extraordinarily logical or often apparently random process – it reveals itself over time. Many people know deep down or even on the surface what they need to do but keep avoiding it. And some go through a whole life time never seeming to know what they are here for, or how to give their gifts in the world.
I have been fascinated by this for many years now. It seems to me that we all have very particular and unique gifts to give the world. And that the giving of those gifts, nourishes, completes and fulfills us as nothing else can; it allows us to know our place in the world, and to feel a sense of purpose and even belonging in that. It is not the deepest essential truth of who we are, but it is how we manifest who we are in the world. The gifts we have to give may change many times over a lifetime, or there may be a constancy, like a single stream carrying us through our lives even though the way that stream flows will invariably change, mature, even stop and start in different phases.
They are both given to us and need to be given by us.
There needs to be a readiness, a willingness, and a capacity to allow these gifts through, and to dare to offer them, often – and for many – in the face of considerable fear. Fear of failure, of rejection, of not being worthy or good enough; fear of success, fears around survival, fear of not fitting in, etc. Fears which if succumbed to, can become debilitating.
My father was one of those people who had a calling from a very young age, and had the kind of personality which supported him to follow it, whatever the cost. He ran away from Eton to London at 16 with a bunch of his drawings and managed to persuade the Slade Art school to accept him at the tender age of 16 (two years younger than students were supposed to be admitted). His father announced that he was disinheriting him there and then but he was, if anything, encouraged by that and certainly undeterred. He painted with a passion, commitment and dedication his whole life, until his eyesight and his hips no longer allowed him to. The eyes were less of an issue than his hips; he swore he couldn’t paint sitting down, and when he could no longer stand, that was that – and his muse went entirely into writing which had previously been important, but secondary to painting. He then wrote avidly until the day before he died.
But that level of drive, clarity and determination is unusual.
What particularly fascinates me is how often we do know what our next step is and what we need to do, and how often we ignore it, deny it, put it off, doubt it, stamp on it, or simply stall, paralyzed, unable to take it. What is that? Given the huge and generally obvious costs of not engaging that step?
When my daughter Lua was a child and and her migraines set in, occasionally it would transpire when she had one, that she had wanted to draw or paint something, and had not done it. And if she could be persuaded by herself or me, to make herself do it, often the headache would miraculously disappear. It seemed obvious that the act of stopping that creative flow – which is the flow of life itself – was creating blocks in her body’s energy system which resulted in a lot of pain and discomfort – not to mention a general emotional malaise. It seemed to be such a direct and immediate feedback loop and she tells me that, amongst other factors, it is still often the case now.
About 14 years ago I went through a period of feeling very low, disillusioned and hopeless. One day I realized that I needed to write a song ,which would be my gateway. I had never written a song before and didn’t know where to start, but I knew I had to do it anyway. The first two verses went like this –
“If I let this song come on out of my heart
and turn tortured thoughts into some kind of art,
perhaps I will breathe a deeper breath,
and live life more fully, have less fear of death…
Why, oh why?
Do I shut out this voice,
Or pretend that I do not have the choice,
To be seen, to be heard, to be touched, as I am,
And to see, hear, touch, taste, and then sing while I can?”
It worked. Both the writing of the song, and the singing of it to myself over the next months, seemed to open a doorway through which I could find a happier disposition. As far as I can remember, the process was quite straightforward at that point. I simply had to do it. Seven years later I suddenly became aware that I needed to write some more songs, and perhaps because I was in less of a crisis, the resistance was greater. I felt strangely terrified, and asked a dear friend of mine who was an adept at calling forth peoples’ musical talent and confidence, for help. With his help I was able to come through some of the considerable resistance and actually get on with it. I went through a similar process over the last two years when I first became aware of an impulse to start this blog. I knew I wanted to write and I could speak about it but was fiercely blocked around acting on it. I was surprised by the power of the fear it provoked in me, and it took a year before I finally was able to actually make it happen.
This is small fry compared to some of the behaviors I have witnessed in friends and students who have promptings of what they need to do in stepping forward in their lives.
Once I was teaching in Italy and one of my students ended up, after a particularly powerful session, crouching in a corner of the room shaking like a leaf. I went over to find out what was happening for her. She started to cry and said that she was getting some powerful impulses to put her hands on people. She didn’t feel she had any right to do so, neither did she understand why this was happening. Later on I sat alone with her and told her to feel free to let follow whatever impulse arose in sitting with me. Her hands were instantly drawn to an area of my body which had felt – unknown to her – blocked for a long time. As her hands touched me I started to shake and spontaneously release long stored emotion, and I very quickly started to feel sensations I had never felt before as a life long numbness started to thin. The following day we were opening a spontaneous movement session, and seeing her once again crumpled by the simultaneous force of the impulse to heal with her hands and fear of transgressing anyone’s boundaries, I asked anyone who was willing to have her put her hands on them, to raise their hands. A few eager hands shot up, and eventually she drummed up the courage to risk getting it wrong, and just followed her body’s impulses. What followed was truly remarkable as over the course of an hour she would approach different people and gently move into the areas of their bodies which most needed attention, in a way which blew many of the other participants away, not to mention her.
What I realized following that incident was that – although it is generally not as dramatic as that – many people have spontaneous gifts which want to come through them, but simply don’t have contexts in which they can safely explore or experiment. Or spaces in which they can have realistic feedback of how their ‘offerings’ affect others.
I sometimes create spaces in which this is possible which I call Giving your Gift. Group settings where people can start to attune to what is important to them, what they are passionate about, and what they are longing for. Most often that provides a clue as to what it is that they are hungry to offer. We explore and experiment, and people throw themselves into an alive investigation, often in small but significant ways. And often what they end up offering has no name, or already trodden pathway – because it is new, fresh, and unique to the expression of their being even if on the surface of it it might look like something recognizable – like ‘healing’ or ‘performing’, or ‘teaching’ or ‘communicating with the natural world’ or ‘painting’ … The people who end up in these groups clearly have a particular interest in embodied awakening or they wouldn’t be in my groups. But the principle applies to anyone, in any walk of life. I see an energy unleashed in people when they dare to step forward in these ways which is remarkable and inspiring. It is as if their whole being becomes aligned with a deeper purpose, even if just momentarily, and from there, what comes through becomes inspirational for those around them. Even if the offering is as simple as cooking a meal. It is not so much what is being offered but the wholeheartedness and completeness from which that offering comes. And over and over, I witness how when people hold back, doubt, deny or procrastinate on what they want to bring, their bodies often become exhausted and they can fall into emotional downward spirals beset with self loathing, resentment, envy, competition, self/other judgment and hopelessness.
There is an idea about vocation which is very strong, which is that it should be clear and obvious and that we must ‘find’ it (if it is not already obvious) and give everything to it. But in reality most people I know and who I have spoke to about this, feel that they have not found their true vocation; or they have but for various reasons are unable to fulfill it. Perhaps they do not have the physical capacity or the economic stability or the perfect channel through which to funnel their energy.
We live in a culture which has an enormous value set by ‘what we do for a living’ and for successful careers. We value ‘success’ by very limited criteria, and the result is that many people who, in my opinion, are actually giving their gifts in the world in very real ways, are unseen, unrecognized and undervalued – especially by themselves. The effect of this is low self esteem, and a sense of being out of kilter with themselves which has the looping effect that those very offerings which actually are already coming through are able to do so less fulsomely than they otherwise would.
I have a friend who has just discovered, after many years of debilitating and often mysterious ill health, that she has advanced cancer. Her illness had a massive effect in preventing her doing the many things she was passionate about offering to the world, and now she is faced with the fact that she is most probably dying and she hasn’t been able to fully come through. For her this is a desperate predicament. And I have huge sympathy for that. And yet, what I see is a shining being who – despite massive difficulties in her own life – finds multifarious ways to touch others with her love, her wisdom, her humor, and her outspoken unwillingness to tolerate injustice when she sees it playing out by people around her. Everyone she meets is in some way touched by her, or shaken out of their sleepwalking to see their own lives through different eyes; whether it is the nurses or doctors she encounters, those who come to care for her, the shop keepers, the homeless people on the street or the many friends she has gathered around the world from all walks of life who communicate with her through skype or email. But how is any of this quantified? And when someone asks her ‘ what she does’ how can she put all of this into a neat sentence, which allows the other in a brief few seconds to go, ah yes, a valuable human being.
What if our society valued a persons’ capacity to love, or to think out of the box, or to touch others, more highly than how much they could earn, or what letters they have after their name? Imagine what the world might look like then. Seriously. Think about it.
I was speaking to another friend of mine only yesterday who has decided to finally stop fretting about what her calling is and to trust the unfolding of her life. She said, it is like I just need to turn the dial. It is all about perception. To stop waiting for when I am truly settled in my “Life’s Work’ and realize that my life’s work is already happening as I put one step in front of the other, and follow where I am called; as I relate the the people around me, do the work I do, make the many choices I make. And what a difference happens when I relax and drop the idea that there is somewhere else to get to, and land where I am and love the offering I am giving in each moment. Perhaps, in that deeper trust and self respect, the next step becomes obvious and I will be truly doing the work I am here to do. And perhaps I end up doing nothing different to what is already happening, and the very fact that I am not looking ahead or searching for something more defined, means that I will have arrived where I am. From there whatever I offer becomes imbued with another level of confidence, of power, of clarity and presence.
In ‘The Invitation’, Oriah Mountain Dreamer says, “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing…” She goes on inspiringly speaking about what is most precious in being human.
Imagine if I or you had no need to prove that we were somebody through the descriptions and labels of ‘what we do’, but were already settled in being who we were, and in that our vocation would be a given even if it didn’t fit into any kind of box!?
“…and the day came when the risk it took to stay closed tight as a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (Lassie Benton – not as is generally thought – by Anais Nin!)
In that settling into being who we are as we are, there is a blossoming which happens. And it is a risk, because we cannot hide in the shadows when we blossom. We start to emit a fragrance, we start to shine and we get noticed; those who are not able to blossom yet may hate us for it, even as truly as we will inspire, and be loved for it.
It is also, for most people a risk economically. My stepdaughter Tamar took the risk of leaving the work which she relied on over the last 10 years and which was wearing her out, to give everything she had to her art. This took a lot of courage but the timing was right, staying ‘tight as a bud’ in her work life was doing her in; in some ways she had no choice if she was to thrive… and within two years she is now most definitely happier, earning enough and being received as the true artist she is.
And this brings me to one more essential point. Although I have heard of those whose muse was so strong that it had its way with them with no need of outward recognition, I would say that is very rare. We do not exist in a vacuum. What we give needs to be received, seen, heard, appreciated, for the giving to keep flowing in a healthy way. We need to know that what is given has value not just to us but to the greater whole, even if that greater whole is apparently no larger than the family system we live and work in, or our immediate community. On the most simple level, if I smile at someone in the street, and that smile is seen and responded to with warmth, there is a sense of completeness, connection, inherent value in being part of something bigger than me. It is life affirming.
To bring this around in a very personal way, if you have read this far, and if you have enjoyed reading or are stirred by it, please do let me know as your interest and/or encouragement makes all the difference to motivating me to continue on this particular line of blog writing! And I am interested in the possibility of these musings opening up conversations between us all rather than being shots in the dark…