I used to believe if I did everything perfectly, nothing unexpected would happen to me. I grew into a young adult in the 1960s and began my career in the 1970s. Like many baby boomers, I was fed a sociological diet of confidence, optimism, and unlimited possibilities. "Discover your dream, create a plan, work hard to meet your goals and you will live happily and successfully ever after." This was the prevailing conventional wisdom, and I eagerly put it into practice. By my mid-thirties, I had achieved more than I could have ever imagined for myself. During the next ten years, every area of my life continued to expand in success and personal fulfillment. It seemed that all my efforts, determination and hard work had paid off a thousandfold.
And then things changed. One after another, a series of unpredictable and unwelcome events marched into my life like a rowdy invading army, trampling disrespectfully over my carefully planned and impeccably executed picture of how things were supposed to turn out. Within a few years, several of my long-term personal and professional relationships came to end, some gracefully, others awkwardly, but all very painfully. A number of projects on which I'd worked for quite a while unexpectedly developed into situations that were much less satisfying to me. Some opportunities that I had been excited about turned into complicated ordeals that were uninspiring and unappealing.
Suddenly nothing seemed clear anymore. So many things I had been certain about in my life now appeared murky and confused. People and situations I'd counted on to always be there as my anchors had vanished. Accomplishments that had always given me joy felt flat and tedious. The most frightening thing of all was that I found myself beginning to reevaluate the very success and lifestyle I'd worked so hard to achieve. Was this really what I wanted to be doing? Was this where and how I wanted to live? Was this who I really was?
I'd thought I'd been traveling on a well-marked and very straight path, but here I was, standing at an intersection containing so many crossroads that I became dizzy just looking at all of them. I felt disoriented, bewildered and unsure of how to proceed or which turn to take next. How had this happened? Everything had seemed to be on track. And I knew I had tried my hardest and done my best. So how, then, did I arrive at a time and place in my life where I had more questions than answers? How did I get here?
I was certain about one thing - I desperately needed to get away from my daily routine, to try to sort through the jumble of thoughts and feelings I was struggling to untangle and to find my way back to some kind of inner peace and clarity. I decided to attend a month-long meditation retreat with a spiritual teacher with whom I'd recently begun studying. I knew the answers I sought weren't going to come from anything I did on the outside but rather, as they always had in the past, from turning deep within.
From the moment I arrived at the retreat, I threw myself into the daily routine with my usual determination and firm intention. I followed the schedule diligently, listened to my teacher's lectures with total concentration, and dove into my meditation practice with renewed enthusiasm. I was going to figure all oft his out. I was going to get things under control again. I was going to get back to my old self. "You've always been great at fixing things," I reminded myself. "You can do this!"
One day while I was sitting along having my lunch, a woman on the ashram staff approached me and introduced herself. "My name is Catherine," she said with a warm smile. "I have a message for you."
My heart raced with excitement. This was the moment I'd been waiting for! I had been praying for guidance, asking for direction, and even though I hadn't met privately with my teacher on this particular visit, I secretly hoped that she would know I was struggling, tune in to my agitated state, and point me in the right direction. "This is amazing," I thought with tremendous relief. "At last I will know what to do."
"Yes, Catherine," I replied. "I would love to hear the message from our teacher."
"The message she told me to give you is: "It would be good for you to be a nothing and a nobody for a while. You won't learn anything if you keep doing what you are already good at.""
I was stunned. This was the message? I was supposed to be "a nothing and a nobody"? I didn't understand. I had worked my whole life to be the opposite: a something and somebody! All my efforts, all my dreams, all my contributions were about doing whatever I could to make a difference in the world. And she was right - I was good at it. I had struggled to become good at it.
I prided myself on being able to juggle ten projects or activities at once, like many women I know. I had always been inspired by the sacred goddess figures in Eastern religions, female deities depicted with multiple arms representing their many spiritual powers and gifts: the Hindu goddesses Durga wielding various weapons of protection to fight off evil, Lakshmi grasping symbols that bestow beauty, wealth and liberation, and Saraswati holding knowledge and self-realization; and the Buddhist goddess Quan Yin doling out mercy, compassion and healing.
My own life reflected this same attempt at superwoman multi-tasking. I had just recently ended a year during which I had been writing, producing and appearing in my own national television show; writing and promoting a new book; running a full-time seminar business; traveling around the country giving workshops; appearing regularly on other TV programs; and working on developing several new projects. I was, in deed, a many-armed wonder.
Ever since I can remember, I have always had a dread of coming to the end of my life and feeling disappointed in myself that I hadn't done the things I believed I was meant to do. I'd been driven to achieve, not only for the reasons we all set goals - the desire to accomplish something significant and meaningful - but also because I was terrified of not doing enough, not making enough of a contribution, not using enough of my talents. Now I was being told to do the opposite - to be "a nothing and a nobody for a while," to focus on something I had feared and fled from.
There are moments in our lives when someone speaks the truth in a way that finally compels us to hear it. For years people close to me had said: "You should slow down" or "You should take some time off - you're working much too hard." I knew that these were healthy suggestions, but the inner voice that had always pushed me to achieve and excel warned, "You can't stop, even for a moment. You will lose momentum, you will lose ground, and then what will happen to your career, your dreams, your vision for yourself? If you slow down, you won't get enough done, and you will feel like a failure." This time I had been softened up by the onslaught of so many unexpected challenges one after the other - by loss, by disappointment, by heartache, by my own dissatisfaction and disillusionment. And so when I heard my teacher's words that day, finally I listened.
I returned home and immediately began looking at my life though the revealing lens of the message I had received. Who was I without all of my achievements and roles, without my hectic schedule and important meetings, without my to-do lists and my interviews? Who was I without an audience, without students, without clients? Who was I when I didn't have to be wise or inspiring, when I didn't always have to have answers for everyone, including myself? What did it mean for me to be a nothing and a nobody for a while? What would that look like?
Since I was eighteen years old, I had been on a conscious path of growth. In my twenties, long before I began my career, I spend many years immersed in spiritual studied and meditation retreats that lasted for months at a time. From this platform of inner awakening, I launched myself as a teacher and a writer, and it catapulted me into several decades of success, accomplishment and profound fulfillment. Now I found myself at the summit of that success. It was as if I had been climbing a very challenging mountain, thinking that if I reached the highest peaks, I would have accomplished my goal.
So here I stood, having finally made it to the top, and as I gazed around in amazement, my new vantage point brought into perspective another alluring horizon I never knew existed, a horizon I instantly knew I had to explore. I would never have seen this new vista if I hadn't climbed this far and this high. But there it was, glittering in the distance, beckoning to me to come and stand on its majestic peaks, which would offer me yet another enlightening view, and I knew I had to answer its call.
The only way to get there, however, was to do the opposite of what I'd been doing in my long and arduous climb - I needed to descend, to leave this sunny spot from where I could see everything and go back down the other side of the mountain into the cold gray shadows of the waiting valley. Once again, it was time for me to pull back and journey deep within myself. I had come full circle.
In order to do this, I needed time - time to question, time to contemplate, time to find myself outside of my successes and the constant attention and demands that came with them. In order to find that time, I decided to pull back - not to abandon my life and my work totally, but to walk a few steps away from it for a while. I had a very successful personal growth center in Los Angeles where thousand s of people a month would come to participate in seminars and trainings, and I closed it down. I had a television show in development, and I decided not to go forward with it. I said no to people and opportunities that had been waiting for my energy and attention.
None of this was easy. It went against all of my deepest instincts, which were to hold on tightly to everything I had and to the promise of more. Instead, I had to let go of my attachment to writing and publishing one new book every year like clockwork, my attachment to never going for more than a few months without being on television, my attachment to giving enough seminars to make a certain amount of money, my attachment to being the biggest something and somebody I could be. Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, I still wasn't completely sure why. I secretly dreaded that rather than coming together in a new way, I was falling apart. "You're going through a rebirth," the courageous part of me whispered reassuringly, but the truth was, I felt as if I were dying.
Digging Deep for Wisdom
One night soon after I began the process of making these dramatic changes, I had a very powerful and vivid dream. In this dream, I was using a large, heavy shovel to dig a deep hole in the middle of a beautifully landscaped garden. The garden was filled with lovely, cheerful flowers, perfectly planted in orderly designs, but I wasn't paying attention to them. I just kept vigorously digging away, dirt flying everywhere, ripping up the flowers with each thrust of my shovel, crushing the delicate petals under piles of stones and debris.
At this point in the dream, a woman came along, and when she saw me digging, she became very upset.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. "You're destroying the garden. It was perfect. Now you've ruined it. What's wrong with you? Why are you doing this?"
I turned to the woman and calmly answered: "I'm digging deep for wisdom." Then I went back to my digging.
The next morning when I woke up and remembered the dream, I realized what an important message it contained from my inner self to me. The garden represented the life I'd known that had looked perfect on the outside, orderly and attractive in every way. There I was digging in enormous hole right in the middle of all that beauty, uprooting the plants and flowers, throwing dirt on top of what had once been so carefully designed and cultivated. This was just what I'd been doing in my waking world - questioning every aspect of my life; uprooting old beliefs, goals and ideas I'd never had the courage to challenge; making some radical changes.
Who was the woman screaming at me? One interpretation was that she represented many people in my life who disapproved of the intense transformational process I was undergoing. To them, I was just making a mess. They preferred the orderly version of Barbara and Barbara's life, the one they recognized and understood. Many people who worked for me or with me had been watching in thinly veiled horror as I chose to do less and less. Some were frightened about what would happen to them if I made to many changes. Would they lose their jobs? Some were angry as I downsized my life - would they miss out on opportunities or income because I was no longer willing to overextend myself or to do things that weren't fulfilling to me? Others, including several friends, were threatened by my very act of questioning, afraid that somehow it would rub off o n them, and they would suddenly find themselves wildly digging up their own orderly gardens.
Of course, I knew the deeper meaning of the woman screaming at me: she was a piece of my own self, horribly alarmed at my process of radical questioning that was turning my life upside down. "What are you doing?" that part of Barbara was yelling at me. "You're destroying everything you worked so hard to build. It was perfect. Now you're ruining it. Why are you doing this?"
Why was I doing this? How did I get here with a shovel in my hand, unearthing all the goals and dreams I'd spent so much time planting and protecting? It was a good question with no simple answer. I was reexamining everything because events I couldn't have predicted were forcing me to travel down roads for which I had no map. I was searching for clarity, for revelation, called by something I could not yet define, something compelling me to reassess everything about myself and my life. I was digging because somehow I knew it was time to dig.
Did I know where all of this was leading? No, and that was indeed terrifying. I had never liked proceeding without a carefully structured plan, and to do so in my late forties felt foolhardly and even dangerous. But my illuminating dream had reminded me that although I didn't know where I would end up, I did not know what I was doing - I was digging deep for wisdom, allowing the process of questioning and contemplation to penetrate me to my very core, so I could emerge transformed and more in touch with my true self than ever before.
Living in the Questions
So how do we dig deep for wisdom? Where do we begin? The first step is simply to admit to yourself that you are where you are - in a place of uncertainty or confusion or doubt, in a time of reevaluation and reassessment, in a process of transformation and rebirth.
Digging deep for wisdom means:
This is not an easy task - facing your questions can be a painful, unnerving process. Most of us are much more comfortable with answers than with questions, much more at ease with certainty than with doubt. Too often we flee from our uncertainties, desperate to get back to hard facts, to emotional and intellectual solid ground, to things we are sure of. We do not like to linger too long in the land of "I don't know."
This reluctance is understandable. We live in a society where absolute certainty, even if it is biased, narrow-minded, or just plain incorrect, is rewarded - just turn on the television or radio and you will be barraged with countless examples of this: opinionated commentators who never waver from their rigid points of view; talk show experts who harshly preach black and white and nothing in between; reality TV contestants who win the prize, the date, the proposal or the job, often because they display the most unwavering, arrogant assuredness. Doubt, hesitation, introspection - these don't sell. Certainty does. Is it any wonder, then, that we learn to bury our uncertainties beneath a thick covering of avoidance and denial?
Imagine going to a party and seeing an acquaintance you haven't been in touch with for some time. "How have you been?" your friend asks. Most likely, you wouldn't answer, "Actually, I'm confused. You see, I am in a period of deep questioning." T confess that you are unsure or disoriented would make you feel vulnerable, insecure, exposed. To admit, even to yourself, that you are feeling lost can cause you to feel that somehow you have failed.
This is precisely what will happen when you begin to dig deep - at least in the privacy of your own heart. You will begin to question. You will begin to ask yourself, "How did I get here?" You will feel disoriented, vulnerable, even lost.
But you are not lost.
"How did I get here?" has a "here" in it. You are somewhere. Just because you may not yet understand where that somewhere is does not mean you are in the wrong place, or even necessarily off course. To arrive at a place we don't recognize is indeed a legitimate destination in life.
From the book by HOW DID I GET HERE? Finding Your Way to Renewed Hope and Happiness When Life and Love Take Unexpected Turns by Barbara de Angelis. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, LLC and available wherever books are sold.