“A good life is one hero’s journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then, if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfilment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”
~ Joseph Campbell, Mythologist
I promised to share more on my blog about the Spiritual Pro idea that is becoming my new Signature Material and that I’m officially launching later this month.
This is the hardest post I have written so far, because it is so personal. I’m about to let you into my inner world to describe a pivotal moment without which I would literally not be here now.
After I left my corporate job in July 1989, my plan was to rent out my flat in west London and take a “gap three months” to travel the world. I’d then return to London to organise and host a conference – and start my own business. Well, that was the plan.
Most of it did happen. I did rent out my flat, I did travel around the world – I flew to New York, travelled across the USA by Greyhound, flew to Auckland in New Zealand from Los Angeles, then on to Sydney, then had an amazing time in Cairns, then flew home via Perth, Singapore and Bangkok.
I fell in love with a Canadian women I met while I was in San Francisco, and delayed starting my business for a couple of months after making a couple of trips to Toronto. The romance ended in January 1990, but instead of being inspired to start my business, I fell into a big black emotional hole. I felt totally inadequate.
I had been very driven in my corporate career. I felt I must succeed. I hated failing and could easily feel crap about myself. But somehow sales, and the ability to prove myself every month, had appealed to me, although it came at a high price. I had hoped that if I was successful enough I could escape my bad feelings. I consumed a lot of alcohol to blot out my emotions.
In my lovely flat in Fulham, but with too much time on my hands and too little structure to my life, I couldn’t “prove myself” in any significant way. I was starting again at the age of 32. I was free to create a new life, but I actually felt freer to be totally depressed. I thought I had made a terrible mistake by leaving my corporate career. I beat myself up. All the bad feelings I had kept myself so busy to avoid began to surface.
The image of myself as a success seemed to collapse and the feelings of failure and uselessness the image was created to cover started to bubble up.
The best way I can describe it was that I had buried so much hurt, shame, pain, grief, self-loathing, disappointment and feelings of failure. It was as if the lid of the sewer could no longer contain the pressure and it all came rising up. I felt I was just a nuisance and didn’t matter; that nothing much I could do would matter. But what was the choice? Go back to a job, start my business or give up and die? I felt overwhelmed by this pain, and my ego said that the only way to escape it was to kill myself.
I spent days and then weeks walking in Kew and Richmond, just crying. I felt so weak and vulnerable. Suicidal thoughts stayed with me for months.
My own level of Self-rejection was very high; so much of me seemed to be against me. I felt so insignificant, I didn’t really matter and nobody would really care if I lived or died, and part of me even believed that it would be kinder to the world if I were not in it. I felt very toxic.
So, instead of starting my business, I signed on the dole and felt really ashamed that the State had to take care of me. But I felt defeated by hostile forces within me. “There are so many people doing what I am thinking of doing. What’s so special about me? Who is ever going to want to listen to me?” I felt helpless and useless and hated myself for feeling like that.
Twenty two years later, in 2012, I read a novel called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. One of the characters spoke the following lines: “The voice came from one of the deepest sources – the shame that that smothered my self-esteem. The shamed know the voice: You let everyone down. You don’t deserve to live. The world would be better off without you.” I had a visceral response when I read those lines and I suddenly had a name for what I had experienced 22 years earlier. I had begun to face a lifetime of unprocessed shame and pain. I felt such a disappointment to myself and everyone else.
I still liked the idea of starting my own business, but to do so felt like climbing a mountain, and an Everest of a mountain at that. It felt like such a hard task that I just wasn’t up to. Dying felt like the kinder option.
I had got through life to that point by toughening up. Some parts of my upbringing had been dysfunctional and abusive. I wasn’t macho as such, but I was very defended. I had built defences so that people couldn’t hurt me any more. But these defences had left me feeling dead inside. I’d been keeping up the appearance of being successful, of having it all together and not needing anything, while actually feeling an utter failure and hating myself for feeling so weak.
In the years prior to leaving my corporate job, I had attended workshops with Robert Bly, the American poet and author of the best-selling book Iron John. During these workshops, Robert had talked about ashes times, times of grief and lament that we sometimes need to experience. Something about this had resonated with me. It was as if I had been a “Flying Boy”, a Peter Pan who hadn’t matured emotionally, but was being called to mature now.
Robert had shared one poem by Antonio Machado, called The Wind, One Brilliant Day that he translated. The poem had spoken to me deeply:
The wind, one brilliant day, called
To my soul with an odour of jasmine.
“In return for the odour of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odour of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the withered petals and the waters of the
he wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
So much in my garden felt dead. How could I even start to bring it and myself back to life? I had tried so hard to be somebody, because I had forgotten who I really was. Deep down, I sensed it was time to tend to my inner landscape and find my true Self.
A voice inside said that there was a purpose to all this, that it all had a meaning, that in effect I was dying to aspects of my ego, so that I could be re-born. I chose to trust that voice in me. I put myself into therapy, I got help.
After many months on the dole, debating whether to die or live, the phoenix began to rise from the ashes. The grieving brought me to a place where I started to experience the green shoots of new life. So I made the decision to go for it. There were no trumpets, no choir of angels, and no public declaration, just a simple decision to live.
On November 4th, 1990, I signed off the dole and in an act of faith, I opened the doors to my first business called Personal and Professional Development. I started from scratch. I had no connections, no privileges, no reputation, not much experience and very few entrepreneurial strategies. I just had a dream in my heart, a little inspiration, a little self-confidence, and a lot of fear, doubt and anxiety. It was a slow start.
I didn’t know if I had what it took or whether I was deluding myself. But I decided to say yes to the adventure of my own life. In mythological terms, I answered the call. I embarked upon an adventure to discover the real and authentic me that I felt I had largely lost contact with. I said yes to the as yet unlived life in my own heart. I started on the life that I was born to live rather than the life I had felt programmed and conditioned to live.
What has been the consequence? So many adventures, a rich life, wonderful synchronicities, inspiration, fulfilment, miracles and magic, and many more problems, obstacles, challenges, fears and even terrors to face, and calls to growth.
There have been further times since then when I have felt like giving up. I had to be willing to get rid of the life I had planned, so I could have the life that was awaiting me. I chose to put myself so far outside my comfort zone and stay there long enough to become comfortable. I had to shed the old skin before the new life could emerge.
What has made it all so meaningful is that I have chosen to take the raw material of my own experience and turn it into ways of contributing to others. Through speaking, writing, broadcasting, educating, coaching, mentoring and creating community, I have inspired and encouraged others to move beyond their own fears to live the life that is truly theirs and is also a gift to everyone.
I have encouraged others to believe in themselves and the dream in their heart. I have encouraged them to believe they matter and there is something they were born to do. I know how difficult it has been for me at times so I do my best to hold out a hand to those who are also struggling.
A few years ago, as a 50th birthday present, my friend Robert Holden offered to do my Enneagram profile. I turned out that I was a four. When I read the following passage in the book The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, I took a sharp intake of breath:
“Fours are the deep-sea divers of the human psyche: they delve into the inner world of the human soul and return to the surface, reporting on what they found. They are able to communicate subtle truths about the human condition in ways that are profound, beautiful and affecting. In fundamental ways, they remind us about deepest humanity – what which is most personal, hidden, and precious about us but which is, paradoxically, also the most universal.”
Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. I wasn’t crazy to go to these deep, dark places – it is actually part of my psychological make-up. I do this for myself and I do it to help others not be afraid to go to these places and transform themselves. By pioneering in my own life, I help create a path for others to safely follow.
Choosing to live was the beginning of a new journey – of winning back my heart and developing what I now call “a heart that holds it all” – all the joy, love and inspiration and the pain, difficulty and suffering of being human.
Some wiser part of me knew that this temptation towards death was also a smokescreen, and that I was actually invited to a whole new birth. But my ego didn’t want me saying yes to the new chapter that my soul wanted me to have.
The relationship I have with my depressed and even suicidal side can still be problematic for me. On a bad day, I can still feel like giving up when things get tough. My life seems like a regular series of deaths/rebirths and sometimes the call towards death can still seem stronger than the call to new life. It’s a continuous re-commitment to life but also a decision to live with heart and with meaning – to feel alive in my life.
But I am so glad I made a good choice to live, my life has been so rich and enjoyable in so many ways.