“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.” I said to the pixelated Japanese face at the other end of my Skype call. I could feel the strain in my voice as I struggled to mask the restlessness and frustration inside of me.
He looked back at me with an expression of compassionate amusement.
“You need to learn to live with the reality that you don’t know what to do next. And that you don’t know why you don’t know. Be with the not knowing. Make yourself the quest.”
I could feel the heat rising up my neck. I took a quick assessment of my surroundings.
Here I was, sitting in my new basement bedroom in a co-living house in Berkeley, California. The room must have once been a utility space, as evidenced by the commercial sink built into the wall next to the bed.
Along the counter, an ant infestation was underway. Streams of tiny soldiers marched indifferently across my eco-friendly repellent of cinnamon sprinklings. I spritzed at them half-heartedly with a vinegar solution as they continued on.
Beyond them, in hanging baskets and planters were an assortment of spider plants, golden pothos, and eight or so other air-filtering houseplants. They were providing some peace of mind against my fear of dying in my sleep from noxious basement fumes.
And above my head, the ceiling was for the moment, silent. We had a rat infestation. At night, I would lay awake in the dark, my eyes tracking their scampering back and forth across the room. The thought of rodents crawling across my face while I slept had compelled me to line the room with peanut butter baited electric rat traps.
Only a month earlier, I was a married homeowner, living in a cozy three bedroom colonial in a charming town in the Hudson Valley of New York. I had a husband, the loving support of his family and cultural community, a job, a yard with a garden, and a nice sport boat we’d take out on the river for fishing and relaxing. Now I was divorced and unemployed, my life’s belongings stacked up in plastic bins along the far wall.
It had been my choice, a fact which was currently bringing me exactly zero amount of comfort.
I returned my attention to the former Zen Buddhist priest before me on the screen, Yasuhiko Genku Kimura. I’d enlisted him to act as mentor and spiritual advisor to help me through this very difficult time of transition. At the moment, what I was seeking was direction, not a koan.
“Your practice for this year is ‘waiting,’ he said. It will go against your childhood conditioning and culture, but you must learn this lesson. Give yourself permission to take the rest of this year “off” professionally and see what emerges.”
I thought of how badly I needed that. My grandmother had passed only a few months prior, leaving me an inheritance substantial enough to actually grant such a gift of time. The tasks of arranging her funeral, liquidating her apartment, and settling her estate had been exhausting. I had been her primary caregiver, a burden of responsibility that had fallen onto me after the deaths of my parents when I was in my 20s. Between the emotional challenge of handling her death, my divorce, and the logistics of moving myself across the country all at the same time, I was so due for a break. If only I knew how to relax.
I’d been driven my whole life. By the expectations of my parents, our Croatian immigrant culture, a Catholic upbringing. There was no “waiting.” There was struggling. There was self-sacrifice and duty. There was work.
It was all I knew. Now, at the age of 32, I was independent for the first time in my life, and I didn’t know how to be different. I wanted to live without anxiety. To release myself from being driven by “shoulds” and obligations. To let go of the need to base my self-worth on the approval of others. To set boundaries. To follow the direction of my heart. To allow myself to experience fulfillment and creativity and passion. I knew I wanted to be free.
How to go about making any of those things happen, I did not know, but it didn’t seem likely they’d occur by just waiting. I needed to do something.
“Being a gardener or farmer is not the same as being a general in an army. Growing tomatoes and trees takes time. You cannot hasten or force them to grow,” he said with a smile.
I sighed. This was going to be a long year.
And so began my magical journey of transformation.
Equipped with courage, faith in myself, and a great deal of not knowing, I made the commitment to take full responsibility for my life.
The process would be an alchemical one: Metaphorically described as the conversion of lead to gold, this alchemy was the transmutation of fear into freedom.
I’d embark upon the “trials” of this heroine’s journey – go into my shadows, face the self-limiting demons inside, and claim the gifts of empowerment hidden within them. Slowly, but surely, I would discover my greatness.
I made a choice to live a mythic life.
* * *
next………. The First Trial: Claiming my Inner Authority …………….
this is an excerpt from a story i’m writing about my journey towards a life of freedom
Jay Collier said:
The Tao Te Ching and the I Ching are both fine companions on the journey. Here are my preferred translations:
Bill Martin’s A Path and a Practice: Using Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life – http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1569243905
Jack Balkin’s The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life – http://www.amazon.com/Laws-Change-Ching-Philosophy-Life/dp/0984253718
Venessa Miemis said:
i actually have been using the Gene Keys as a contemplative tool, which is based off the 64 hexagrams. (http://www.amazon.com/Gene-Keys-Unlocking-Higher-Purpose/dp/1780285426)
been loving it. very helpful.
thank you for your links
Connor Turland (@Connoropolous) said:
Venessa, your post is a macro of my micro 🙂 I’m sick today and struggling with those nagging questions of how one does actually relax. Your post feels like a story of the times, and connects with me deeply far just beyond today, but with my experience in the last few years. Constant upheaval, and the only way through seems to be something resembling mindfulness, like your images all point at. Just breathing, but simultaneously stepping. Looking forward to your further writings and reflections. Well written. I’m reminded, by the way, of a book by Alain de Botton that I just finished ‘The News: A User’s Manual’. It’s extremely well written and touches on ways to interact with the news, but more generally, the many things that serve as distractions away from the importance of our inner world and constantly pull us towards the outer world. I intuit you may enjoy it very much 🙂 (if you haven’t read it)
Venessa Miemis said:
haven’t read it yet, but will add it to the list.
there are a bunch of practices i’ve been implementing that really help with relaxation for me, which i’ll share in upcoming posts. like you said, a constant practice of mindfulness and tuning in with the body, seeing what it needs, checking in to see if you’re pushing too hard. also deep breathing. and meditation. and i’ve been loving going to restorative yin yoga with crystal bowls playing. so healing. 🙂
Thanks for this post, Venessa. I appreciated the story, the teaching, and your tone.
I am wondering whether you might be interested in being part of an authentic leadership learning hub. This is an emerging phenomenon, associated with ALIA’s formal association with Naropa University. As we continue to design programming consistent with the tradition of the ALIA Summer Leadership Institute (last one was last June in Tacoma), we are looking for people to join our teams. Let me know if you are interested/curious. We could meet the next time I come to the Bay Area at the end of February.
The ALIA website is still up…Google “Authentic Leadership in Action 2014”
Steve Byers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Venessa Miemis said:
i will take a look at the website and be in touch via email. thanks for the offer.
I too am on this journey. My urges are different, my self-made obstacles much less publicly consumable. I admire you. Be patient and you’ll be writing koan’s in no time. 🙂
Venessa Miemis said:
ha! why thanks. i have plenty of unappealing self-made obstacles that i will be delighted to post.
It’s interesting that you’re exploring a “journey to freedom”, but first you have to ask: why are you not free? A child is born free, what force took it from you, and who benefits from having it?
Secondly, you life could be one not of “personal self-discovery”, but of “making love”. That is, there’s nothing for your to do, only to be. But rather than rest in “pure being” as the yogis of India did (failing to create the peace they sought), to go into the world and find where you can turn suffering and isolation into love and joy.
Venessa Miemis said:
i’ve asked those questions, and have contemplated deeply and deconstructed a lot of assumptions and identified origin stories. i’m going to unpack some of that in the next post. a lot to do with the catholic croatian immigrant culture i was raised in; a lot of self-denial in there and obeying external authorities, whether they be your husband, the expectations of your community, or “god”. it all imprints deeply.
as for the second part, funny you say that, because i’ve actually been calling the past year ‘The Year of Making Love’, and that’s precisely what it was… really learning how to just be, how to practice self-care, how to be present, how to relax and not feel guilty about it.
Jen Hyatt said:
Looking forward to journeying with you on the recounting of this. A moving and thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing.
Neal Gorenflo said:
Your teacher gives good advice. I fought similar cultural forces (work, work, work) to gift myself one year off at two different times. Those breaks were the wisest thing I’ve ever done. I have a satisfying life now, which is a miracle considering my life before them. I owe it primarily to those two years, years in which I literally created myself.