Any mention of the labyrinth will be sure to catch my eye, so I didn’t miss the news of Heather Plett’s course, The Spiral Path, when she first offered it last fall. And once I investigated, I wondered whether she had been peeking over my shoulder at the book I just finished! Our work and lives have many common themes, which I take as a lovely sign that we are both tapped into how the spirit is moving these days.
The next session of The Spiral Path opens on February 1, 2015, and if you’re reading Pilgrimage of Desire, Heather’s course makes a great complement. She offers teaching and storytelling, as well as journalling, art, and embodiment exercises, to help you find your way back to yourself. I’ve been using her beautiful prompts when I write my morning pages, and it always surprises me how much more the labyrinth has to teach me.
Heather, it’s clear that you love the labyrinth as much as I do, and that it has had a strong influence on you. Tell me a story about your relationship with the spiral path.
Probably the most interesting thing about my relationship with the labyrinth is the story of how I came to realize that I was allowed to have a deep and reciprocal relationship with it. When I first encountered it, I was afraid of stepping on toes ~ afraid I might do something wrong, afraid I might offend some “spirituality police” if I didn’t have proper training or a deep understanding of it before I tread its path.
But then I started walking its path and I realized that the labyrinth wasn’t asking much of me. It wasn’t asking me to be “certified” to be “a member of the right tribe” or to “have a degree in labyrinth walking.” It was simply asking me to show up, trust myself and it, walk the path, and let myself learn what there was to learn through the relationship. I’ve read lots of books about it since, and taken some training, but most of what I’ve learned showed up on the path, in the thick of the relationship.
This is a common story, especially for women ~ we hesitate to try something because we’re afraid to do it wrong or we’re afraid we might offend, or we’re afraid we might look foolish. And we’re afraid to teach because we don’t have the right degree or credentials and there’s always someone smarter than us around.
When I truly embraced the labyrinth, and let myself be in love without being an expert, I started incorporating it into workshops, retreats, etc. And that’s when I realized that the relationship was reciprocal and generative. Even though the labyrinth has been around for thousands of years, it can still benefit from what I bring to it. For example, I once incorporated twelve life stages adapted from Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! into a labyrinth walk, and it was deeply meaningful for the people who walked it. I don’t know of anyone doing that before, so now I’ve brought something new to the relationship.
Why is transformation so hard? Why do we resist the spiral and insist on the straight line?
The spiral is a lot more messy than the straight line. It’s human nature to seek the path of least resistance ~ the one that takes us from point A to point B without a detour through a lot of uncomfortable territory. Unfortunately, almost everything in our culture has taught us that we “deserve” the straight line. Every day, the advertising industry (including the self-help industry) tries to convince us that THEIR product is the one that will help us solve our problems and finally be happy/rich/successful/
Recently, in a sharing circle I host, I had an aha moment. As I listened to stories of heartbreak and mental illness and grief and resilience and courage, it occurred to me that we spend the first half of our lives in construction mode, building our identities, belief systems, families, careers, world views, etc. And then we spend the second half of our lives in deconstruction mode, tearing apart whatever no longer serves us or feels right. Like playing a giant game of Jenga, we take out piece after piece, hoping the tower won’t crumble. For most of us, at some point there’s a giant cataclysmic collapse. But then we rebuild and this time it’s smaller and stronger and we know it more intimately.
The spiral is the deconstruction mode, and because we’ve spent the first half of our lives avoiding it, it’s hard to accept when things start falling apart. In order for us to grow into that more beautiful version of ourselves, though, we have to deconstruct and get messy.
Could you talk about the usefulness of knowing where we are on the path? How does it help to locate ourselves in the stages of release, receive, and return?
A lot of my coaching clients will come to me in great frustration, knowing that they’re going through some kind of transition and that they’re being nudged into a new place in their lives, but not knowing how to get through it, not making any traction and not getting anything done. Because our culture values productivity and accomplishment, many of them are dealing with guilt over their lack of ability to move through the transition quickly and start being contributing members of society once again.
One of the most important things I do in these situations is to give them permission to step off the treadmill and JUST BE. They need to understand that transition takes time, that germination of the new story that wants to be born takes a lot of energy, and that fighting the transition will only drag it out longer than necessary.
That’s where the labyrinth comes in as a handy tool. I help people understand that when there is something big changing in their lives, they have to slow down and take the time to do it right. First they have to release the old stuff that no longer serves them, placing one foot in front of the other as they let go of the baggage. Then they have to be prepared to sit in the stillness at the centre to receive what they need for the new journey. Then, when they’re ready, they need to return to the world and bring their gifts out into the world with them.
I love the look of pure relief on people’s faces when they realize that they’re not doing it wrong, they’re just not ready to emerge from the labyrinth yet.
Tell me about the importance of the body in your work. How can folks like me (who get into the habit of ignoring our bodies in favour of our mind and will) ~ how can we reconnect and include our bodies in our creative and spiritual lives?
Just a couple of days ago, I had an experience that reminded me about the importance of paying attention to my body. I was rushing around, getting ready for a retreat I’m hosting and getting ready to send my 12-year-old daughter away for a week in another province. Partway through the morning, I had a feeling of uneasiness in my stomach that didn’t have a name. When I could pause for a moment and check in about what I was feeling, I realized that there was some unacknowledged anxiety over a variety of things, including my daughter’s trip, the retreat, and some other personal things going on.
And then I remembered a conversation I’d had with a friend just the day before, about how anxiety usually shows up in the body before it shows up in the mind and can’t be addressed simply by logic or other mind-based solutions, because the body simply doesn’t process stuff that way. Once I remembered that, I slowed down, boiled a cup of tea, and checked in with my body. Before long, I was able to release the anxiety and move into a more peaceful place.
The body teaches us things we can never learn from the mind, but most of us have forgotten how to pay attention. That’s why I love labyrinths ~ because they engage the body in the act of mindfulness, meditation, and learning. The walking shifts things in us that can’t be shifted simply by thinking and re-thinking. The simple act of letting our bodies carry our minds to the centre of the circle opens us up to a new way of thinking and a new way of seeing the world. And the act of walking out again shifts our attention back to the world around us.
You just posted an article about becoming a change-maker in response to the Macleans article about racism in your home city of Winnipeg. Part of what brought on my depression was an overcommitment to action and an inability to care for myself because I felt pressure to right the wrongs, serve others, et cetera. Now that I’m in a healthy place, I still find myself wary of action ~ of becoming burned out, misaligned with my own purpose, driven by ego. But I don’t want to fetishize my self-care and my personal passions to the exclusion of the world around me.
How does one learn to challenge oneself and take action on behalf of others in a sustainable way?
One of the most important things I shared in that article is the quote at the top of the page:
“The success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on what we do or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate.” – Otto Sharmer
Most of us have the mistaken impression that our value is based on what we do and how we do it, so we overcommit to serving the world and fixing everyone’s problems. But a lot of that is busy work that doesn’t really serve a higher purpose and ends up burning us out because it’s not our right work. That kind of work is based in the ego (i.e. making us feel better about ourselves) rather than our Higher Self.
Otto Sharmer talks about the importance of moving from an ego-system mentality (where I am seeking my own interest), into a generative, eco-system mentality (where I am seeking the best interest of the community and world around me). When we are doing our right work, based in a healthy “inner place” rather than ego, we serve the world well.
To get to that right work, though, we have to do our own inner work, and that includes self-care, mindfulness, deep listening, and prayer. It also includes a lot of healthy pauses which allow us to hear the deep wisdom that can only be heard in stillness.
We can’t stop there, though, and that is, once again, where we learn a lesson from the labyrinth. Yes, we have to take the path inward and sit in stillness at the centre to receive the wisdom waiting for us, but if we try to stay there, we become stuck, bitter, and self-centred. The true path is one that takes us not only inward, but back out again to serve the world in whatever work we are called to.
M. Scott Peck (a psychiatrist who wrote oodles of books, including The Road Less Traveled, and taught all over the world) was once asked how he got so much done. His answer was “I can only accomplish what I do because I spend an hour and a half every day doing nothing.” Each day, for 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes later in the day, he’d close his office door or go outside and be intentional about accomplishing nothing. He’d wander, meditate, putter, etc., but he wouldn’t do any of the kind of work we’d call “productive.”
His actions serve as a good reminder to those of us who have a tendency toward overcommitment.
Thanks, Heather, for inviting us to walk The Spiral Path with you! The next session of the course starts on February 1, and just as when you walk the labyrinth, you can choose your own pace. I highly recommend the journey.
And if you can’t get enough of the labyrinth today, carry on to Heather’s website where she asks me questions about Pilgrimage of Desire.