There are times in each life when our well-ordered existence seems to crack open and our world no longer seems to work as it once did. This may occur slowly over time, or with an unexpected suddenness. We may be taken over by a persistent boredom and discontent – a disturbing sense that something is not right. Or, we may be shocked by the “unexpected” appearance of disabling emotional distress or physical disease. Or perhaps we may have simply reached a time in life when we can no longer avoid the inner longing that seeks that intangible “more to life.” We are stopped in our tracks, and primed, like it or not, for momentous change. In the words of Mary Oliver:
Because we always had to run Through the enormous yards of day To do all that we hope to do, We did not hear, beneath our lives, The old walls falling out of true, Foundations shifting in the dark.
At such moments we are at the gateway to a life transition, a very special, sacred, and pregnant time filled with unseen possibilities. If this opportunity is taken up and fully experienced our lives can expand and become more closely aligned with our authentic self. But if we refuse or deny this opportunity, our lives will stagnate in an ongoing repetition of the past. That will show up as symptoms of persistent emotional distress and premature illness, whose source seems obscure to ordinary vision but is most assuredly our refusal to grow larger. We run, we run, we run from no other than our self. Our excuses are many: not enough time, not enough money, I’ll wait till the kids are out of school, perhaps during summer break, and on and on. The poet Francis Thompson offers us these words:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways; Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
When we confront life’s great transitions, we may discover that it is much the same for ourselves.
If we are sufficiently disturbed we may seek assistance. Reaching outside for help, we may consult a psychologist or physician hoping for a remedy to our growing distress. What we call ordinary health may return and that is good, but if that is all that happens it is a false achievement. Unfortunately most psychologists and physicians are not trained to identify and cultivate this precious and pivotal “teaching moment.” As a result, the potential for a larger life is lost in a narrow and limited view of the human possibility. Let us consider the wisdom of the great psychologist Carl Jung who urges us to avoid stagnation and leap toward transition and new growth.
It must be understood that the mere fact of living in the present does not make a man modern, for in that case everyone presently alive would be so. He alone is modern who is fully conscious of the present … Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before a void from which all things may grow.
So to grasp this opportunity we must look beyond the limited training of our usual helpers, see through the darkness and accept the call to a new life. We must fall in-love with the possibilities and find inspiration in the great stories of transition and change. We can learn from the journey of Odysseus, the quest of Parsifal, the trials of Job, or perhaps even from our next door neighbor. These great stories of death and renewal inspire us. They also offer us a map that can guide us through the dark night, reconnect us to our soul, and bring forth the light of a larger life. It is a map that gives us a clear picture of the stages of transition, a map that can help us transmute suffering, pain, and disease into the great human treasures of wholeness, peace, love, and joy. It is this map that I will share with you here.
Navigating a Life Transition
The great poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “The end is where we start from.” All transitions begin with endings. These endings are a dying off and separation from certain parts of our life and identity which no longer work for us. This may include relationships, lifestyles, mental attitudes, or the false sense of our immortality.
This first stage of a life transition is a difficult one. It is filled with disenchantment and disillusionment with the past. This is accompanied by a painful recognition that what once worked will no longer work, and our situation cannot be “fixed” in the usual sense. Endings must precede new beginnings and yet many, immobilized by an understandable fear, will refuse this call, recoil from this adventure and grasp onto the old ways, losing personal power, creativity, and life force.
This critical period, when we hear and are summoned to answer the call to change, is a momentous time of our life. The courage and risks we take will determine the future character of our lives. Those who do not recoil, but rather, choose to navigate through a life transition will be taken into a new life. They will take a passage into and then out of the unknown and unfamiliar.
When we choose to answer the call and take distress or disease as a message for change, we will not be alone. Unexpectedly, we will find the appearance of inner and outer spiritual guides. As an inner guide you will experience a renewed conviction and confidence that the correct path has been chosen. You will know that you can weather the storm. As an outer guide, an individual will often appear who is experienced with such transitions, and he or she can become an invaluable first mate on your journey of renewal.
This stage of transition, the movement into the unknown, can be marked by perilous and strange times of disorientation, uncertainty, and fear. These feelings, which may vary in intensity for months, are often punctuated by moments of extraordinary illumination – glimpses of the new and larger life to come. These are difficult times, but with help from our guides we can learn how to stay the course, live into our experience, and maintain faith in the process.
During times of transition it is also important to take good care of your body. When we may be less than motivated to care for our self, it is most important to eat well, get lots of sleep, stay away from intoxicants, and exercise regularly. When we move through our life transition and arrive at the other side, we want to have a healthy a body with which to experience the reconnection to soul and spirit.
As we slowly surrender to the process of change, there emerges an acceptance and even an anticipation of the unfolding of a new life. Distress slowly lifts and we feel greater confidence and self-reliance. Finally, after a period of time navigating the unknown, we arrive at the center of our being and reconnect with the essence of life. Abandoning the illusionary dependence on relationships, career, fame, and power as sources of security and happiness, we begin to discover within what we have unsuccessfully searched for on the outside. The poet Pablo Neruda speaks to this phase of transition in the following words:
And I went on my way; Deciphering that burning fire And I wrote the first bare line.
And this exhilarating first discovery of our inner life is the shift we have waited for – the shift that awakens us to a new and genuine existence. We are slowly able to read the yearning of our soul – the fire in our belly. We begin to write that first line of our new life that is bare of our previous existence, old patterns, and outdated directions. It is a solid, secure, and meaningful ground upon which to build the next movement of life.
The Fruits of Transition
If we stay the course, the natural unfolding of a life transition will provide a deeper understanding of life, a previously unknown inner peace, security, ease, and freedom – a healing that is also a wholing. We surround ourselves with companions and experiences that support our growing inner life. In time, we return to our day-to-day life, bringing to others what we have learned from our spiritual journey.
The reward for the completion of a heroic journey is the return home to who and what we are, the return home to a health and healing of body, mind, and spirit – a return home to a renewed life of authenticity, joy, and freedom. Stripped of old fears, limitations, illusions, and fantasies we can engage life with the freshness and firstness of an early spring morning. In the words of the poet Derek Walcot:
There will come a time when with elation You will greet yourself arriving at your own door: In your own mirror And each will smile at the other’s welcome And say, sit here, eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine, give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, Whom you ignored for another, Who knows you by heart.
These are the touchstones of the transition process. It takes great courage and fearlessness to answer the call and navigate a life transition. You, the modern day hero, no longer fights his battles on the fields of Troy or the beaches of Normandy, but rather plants his flag on the battlefield of the soul. And the peace and healing you find inside becomes the peace that will be found outside. Through your courage to engage change you become the seed for a better world.
There are those who ask, “Why do I have to go through this while others seem to be happy and never in crisis?” Perhaps it is no more complex than the realization that some of us are born to be seekers and some not. Some of us are destined for a larger healing and wholing and others not. The writer Anais Nin stated it this way:
I live the personal drama responsible for the larger one, seeking a cure. Perhaps it is the greater agony to live this life in which my awareness makes a thousand revolutions while others make only one. My span may seem smaller but it is really larger because it covers all the obscure routes of the soul and body, never receiving medals for its courage.
You may inquire as to what all of this has to do with health and healing? Why would a physician trained as a healer write about crisis and transition? The answer is clear. We are connected beings. We cannot separate body, mind, and spirit. Thus, our choice to respond to inner and outer adversity by growing our inner life not only insures inner harmony, but it insures outer harmony as well. Discovering and unfolding the great treasures of human life – wholeness, peace, love, and happiness – harmonizes and heals our entire being. That is the reward for undertaking the journey of transition and renewal. The reward is none other than our self.
And so I write these words to you to let you know that your deepest distress and despair, the suffering and fear of illness, intractable addiction, and even death can be transformed into the beauty and nobility of a fully lived human life. These difficult moments can become the source of a final and complete healing. That is what the great sages have always taught us across time and cultures.
The final words will come from our Western tradition, words written by Parmenides, the father of Western philosophy in approximately 450 B.C. Speaking of each of us he says:
During their lifetimes they see such a Little part of life and then they are off: Short-lived, flying up and away like smoke, Totally persuaded by what each of them Happen to bump into while being driven One way, another way, all over the place. And They claim in vain that they have found the whole. Like this, they now say that people can see or Hear or consciously grasp the things I have to teach. But as for you: Because you have come aside here, you will learn.