I have a small square card placed on my desk. On it are these words, written in frank, block letters “Opt out of consensus reality”. This simple instruction has become my north star, a compass setting inside the maelstrom of narratives that exist in our collective mind. These stories can feel deeply personal, such as “I’m not enough”, “I’ll go broke”, or “I should have done that differently”. Or civilizational, such as “homework makes better students”, “drink more water”, “we need a growth economy” or “humanity is bad”.
I’m looking out upon another six inches of snow — it’s 18 degrees outside. Everything is at a standstill. Traffic. Errands. All of my plans. The snow muffles most sounds. The world is quiet.
I love these snow days because we’re given permission to stop. No school. Meetings are cancelled. Deadlines delayed. No expectations that we’ll race around at our usual velocity. The flywheel of life is allowed to wind down just a little.
It’s about the only circumstance we’re allowed such space anymore. All other kinds of stopping, waiting, and pausing seem forbidden. However, life presents us with difficult transitions or cycles that not only deserve such time, but come with a biological imperative for it.
None of us are immune to intense health or emotional crises that stop us in our tracks. What we lack as a society is the constructive framing and support of such transitions. Crises are seen as something to push through, push past, merely survive and shove aside. Our pharmaceutical culture would have us take a pill and just get on with it. Even friends can turn their backs, uneasy with the discomfort your crisis evokes.
The origin of the word crisis means ‘a turning point’ or ‘to decide or discriminate’ and ‘to sift and separate’, which is exactly what a crisis provides — a chance to shift from one place to an altogether different place inside ourselves. Though terrifying and painful, holding it with the respect and nobility it deserves allows us to embrace the possibility that life is conspiring to do us well, to teach us what we need, to become the people we are called to be.
Author William Horden published an article in The Huffington Post that reminds us of how nature reveals the truth behind what really happens in a crisis. We all know the metaphor of the caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. Yet Horden goes into important detail:
At some point in a butterfly larvae’s life, his skin begins to harden around him, he writes. They then will reside in their hermetically sealed chrysalis while their body literally melts down. There the caterpillar’s digestive juices turn against it, totally dissolving the caterpillar and turning it into nothing but green liquid. Complete breakdown. Should you cut open the chrysalis at this time, the only thing you would see is a green goo pouring out.
There are cells, called imago cells, Horden continues, that serve absolutely no purpose in the butterfly’s life…up until now. When the meltdown is complete, these cells suddenly awaken and organize the other cells to reform and regroup as a butterfly.
I can barely imagine what this transition must be like from the larvae’s perspective. But I can say that at certain times of my life, such internal, and external melting has happened. And things that seemed so much a part of me, or what I called my life, just dissolved — health, friends, family members, professions, marriages, homes, financial stability.
Looking back I see what melted away, had to melt away. The crisis served to ‘sift and separate’ to reveal an essential intrinsic essence. From there a new direction was formed, that was wholly in alignment with that essence.
My mother is one of the bravest, wisest people I know. A two-time cancer survivor, including liver cancer, she embarked on her healing as any hero would do. I call her a cancer-thriver because she did more than survive. She allowed the crisis to return her to her essence and emerged more empowered and free than ever.
“Cancer saved my life,” she says.
Cancer stopped her in her tracks, and in that moment, for the first time, she saw how toxic and abusive her marriage was to an alcoholic. Within weeks of her last surgery, she left him and left the UK to live in the US, closer to me and her grandchildren, and live an astonishingly active and joyful life.
How did she do it? She prescribed to the knowing that her crisis was not just some arbitrary terrible thing, but a moment to sit up and listen. She engaged with it, rather than running from it. She became a student of it, learning all of the things such a crisis teaches. And, as importantly, she had people around her that understood this too.
This is how we turn a crisis into a transition. How we turn from victim, to the hero on our archetypal journey. How we engage with literal metamorphosis.
It means turning away from the cultural norm of a pathology mindset, and turning towards more indigenous thinking, which aligns with the understanding that transition is sacred.
Horden writes, “In many shamanic societies it is taken for granted that shamans are not born—they are created by some intense health or emotional crisis. What emerges from such crises is a metamorphosed person. Not who they were or even who they were going to be but someone more attuned to the world, more adaptable to change, and more powerful in their ability to benefit others. Healers are created out of crisis.”
I would add that true leaders are created out of crisis.
If we are going to change as a society, we need to reframe the idea of crisis for ourselves and each other. Perhaps before we reach for a drink, or a credit card, or a pill, we instead allow ourselves to feel that anxious onset of the chrysalis skin hardening. We can understand that sense of depression is how it naturally feels to take our first step into the dark forest of the hero’s journey.
And we can be there for each other with this knowing. We can hold for each other that melted green liquid without worry, or shock, or disgust. We can gently cup the soul-turned-liquid with reverence, trust and awe, so that we might not just survive, but thrive.
(excerpted essay on wisdom for Kindred Magazine webinar, May 2015)
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of modern life is the loss of the instinctual wisdom-self. No where is this more evident, than in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico where droves of pale and pasty tourists arrive each day during the summer months to bear the dust and heat, and peer reticently into things more ancient.
Known for its Anasazi origins, Santa Fe is surrounded by Indigenous communities with names that echo ancestral embrace—names like Puyé, Tesuque, Taos, Ohkay Owingeh, Pojoaque and Cochiti.
Most visitors remain outside these communities, preferring the less confronting safety of Santa Fe’s new synthetic side — the margarita-drenched bars, the shops with faux Indian crafts, and the Anglo-cowboy musicians. Those more curious, arming themselves cameras, hats, maps and sunscreen, load into tour buses and rental cars and venture up canyons and washboard back roads to behold what they don’t even know they have forgotten—the taproot into wisdom’s wellspring, our collective human legacy.
It is here, in these pueblo communities, that their members dance themselves back into mountain spirits, into bear, deer and buffalo. They dance themselves back into their ancestral lineage—two legged, four-legged, and winged.
Standing for hours, arms folded, eyes behind sunglasses, the outsiders watch the corn dancers, the buffalo and deer dancers. They hear the jingle of ankle bells, the beat of the drums, and feet pounding the dusty earth, calling to spirits, announcing their place on the common ground of this earth. There is, among the outsiders, at best a mild interest, at worst a kind of unnamable malaise and ennui, a sense that something is missing for us as modern people. But what it is, we cannot say.
While the dancers in front of them them call out to those they remember, drum to the stories still alive in their bloodstreams, honor the wisdom gleaned through centuries of tradition, the outsiders are left with only forgetfulness.
We are wisdom-starved and have forgotten our way back in. We find substitutes instead—productivity, efficiency, data and metrics. The twenty first century is abundant with ways to access such information. At the touch of a screen we can know the stocks, the weather, the trends, the timing of our flight, our optimal sleep, and the best most efficient route through Chicago during traffic.
What is wisdom and how does one cultivate it? It has been defined as the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, intuition, common sense and insight. Wisdom is a disposition to find the truth coupled with an optimum judgment as to what actions should be taken in order to deliver the optimal outcome. What makes wisdom elusive are certain elements within that definition such as insight, truth and intuition.
In preparing to write this essay, I was overcome with uncharacteristic procrastination. Why was I so resistant? I realized it was because the subject matter intimidated me on some level.
What I realized is that the very word implies some kind of authority, or dominion over. And in my striving for wisdom in my own life, I’ve felt anything but. In fact, contrary to external impressions of what wisdom must look and feel like, my experience is that wisdom feels extremely vulnerable, unclear, and at times lonely.
So the very conjuring of the topic, and how I might write about it, and invite you the reader to explore it with me, placed me in a state of uncomfortable unknowing. The place, in fact, where wisdom is born. So let’s start there — in that dark, murky and mysterious place of the unknown.
Knowledge, in our culture, is valued over not-knowing. And even though the more obscure, and lets say esoteric, ways of decision-making elbowed their way into blockbuster business books with titles such as Trust Your Gut and Predictably Irrational, big data soon eclipsed the fad. ‘The gut is dead,’ announced a recent New York Times article on data optimization, ‘Long live data.’
Data is a way we can be certain, and when questioned, be backed up by reams of facts and figures. Data unites us, in an odd, cold kind of way, in the same way scientists might hover together over a petri dish. And to that end, it keeps us from feeling alone. Who’s to argue with the data?
In, 2007, when Barack Obama first visited Google’s headquarters as a candidate, he announced himself as less a torchbearer than a data connoisseur. “I am a big believer in reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback,” he said. But I wonder if Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi were data connoisseurs, would they have been as effective, inspired and inspiring?
There’s a crack in the data trance and it has to do with things innately living, the un-measurables. How does one, for example measure kindness? Delight? Joy? Grief? Kindness? Trust? Depth and meaning?
Enter leadership (in our own lives or inside an organization)—where the hubris of knowingness and certainty trips right over the extended foot of wisdom herself. I remember landing hard, face-planted in my own theories, facts, formulas and ideals. Leadership brings us right to the bone marrow of creativity and problem solving, forged through intuition, presence, sensing future possibilities and awareness—in effect befriending the unknown, the seat of wisdom.
Paradoxically, leadership is where we most want knowledge, formulas and models, and resist less than certainty. A simple search for leadership books on Amazon reveals over 133,000 unique titles. We want the data. We want formulas that will guarantee success. And while being informed, skilled and knowledgeable is a commendable and necessary undertaking as a leader, knowledge without insight and intuition leaves us strident and righteous at worst, and impotent at best.
So where along the way of this tumultuous voyage do we find our resources for wisdom-making? And how, if not backed by data, will we know it’s the real deal? What if we make a mistake? What if something gets broken along the way? What if what is wise in one moment, proves to be folly the next?
Wisdom requires we embark on the archetypal hero’s journey.
The First Step: Culture as a Trance
All heroes’ journeys begin with crossing a threshold. We have to leave one world and enter another. That threshold requires us to walk out of our current culture. To understand why we must cross that threshold, and look back at what we call ‘culture’, it’s important to understand what culture is, and why, to gain wisdom we have to begin to orient ourselves outside of it—to be in it but not of it.
Joseph Chilton Pearce describes culture in his book Biology of Transcendence. “Culture is a body of knowledge concerning learned survival strategies that are passed on to our young through teaching and modeling,” he writes. “It becomes the living repository of our species’ survival ideation and is at the root of every issue of survival. Culture, then, is a mutually shared anxiety state, a powerful catalyst of thought that converts all events into its own nature.”
While at its best, culture includes the highest achievements of humankind — art, music, poety. But at it’s worst, it breeds war, despotism and tyranny, as seen when certain cultures clash. Culture is the water we swim in and cannot see. When not seen for what it is, culture becomes a highly influential force in our choices and decision-making. Many imagine themselves to be free thinkers, yet their mindset is still confined within their cultural constructs.
‘The world is created of separate unrelated forces’, ‘vulnerability is weakness’, ‘success can be measured’, ‘time is money’, ‘emotions are bad’, and ‘faster is better’—are examples of cultural assumptions that wield enormous influence over our lives, and our organization’s lives, when unexamined.
Culture is a fundamental deviancy of intellect from intelligence (or wisdom), because of its massively unnatural, arbitrary and illogical nature. It values data and metrics over everything else. It domesticates us from intuitive vibrant beings, to domesticated dull-eyed beasts of burden.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés provides the perfect recipe for such wisdom-depriving domesticity:
- Take an original.
- Domesticate her early, preferably before speech or locomotion.
- Over-socialize her in the extreme.
- Cause a famine for her wild nature.
- Isolate her from the sufferings and freedoms of others so she has nothing to compare her life with.
- Teach her only one point of view.
- Let her be needy (or dry or cold) and let all see it , yet none tell her.
- Let her be split off from her natural body, thereby removing her from relationship with this being.
- Cut her loose in an environ where she can over-kill on things previously denied her, things both exciting and dangerous.
- Give her friends who are also famished and encourage her to be intemperate.
- Let her injured instincts for prejudice and protection continue without repair.
- Because of her excesses (not enough food, too much food, not enough sleep, too much sleep, etc), let Death insinuate itself close by.
- Let her struggle with “good girl” persona restoration and succeed at it, but only from time to time.
- Then, and finally, let her have a frantic involvement in psychologically or physiologically addictive excesses that are deadening in and of themselves or through misuse (alcohol, sex, rage, compliance, power, etc.).
- Now she is captured.
(Reverse the process, and she will learn to be free.).
So, to invite wisdom into your life, requires going feral. The word feral derives from Latin fer meaning ‘wild beast’. In common usage, a feral creature is one who was once wild, domesticated, and then reverted back to a natural or untamed state. Wisdom resides in those natural and untamed states. It requires you to constantly cross that threshold, into that ‘crack where the light gets in’, and look back to see culture for what it is—nothing more than a mental creation, held together by tape and string. Only then can you be free to feel, access and participate in a hidden language as ancient as the stars, whispered between the lines in every moment.
We cannot, and should not, throw culture away. We have to live wisely and freely within it, while releasing its stronghold on our beliefs and values.
The Ecology of Body, Community and Spirit
Once we wake up to culture, and its unnecessary grasp, then we are open to listening to the ways wisdom yearns to take a foothold in our lives. To do this, we must befriend a trinity of forces…our bodies, our communities and spirit. Together they create a potent ecology that mutually supports, nurtures, informs and protects.
Through this three-way support system, we can set up for ourselves a perpetual means to cultivate wisdom.
The body holds, through its DNA, an ancient remembering and intuition informed by all who came before us, our ancestors and the ways they walked this earth. Each cell holds a wisdom way of knowing forged through millennia. That is why the drum beats in Indigenous ceremony around the world, so as to wake up the body through a vibrational resonance that each cell carries.
It is interesting to note that most religions, theologies and cultures vilify, objectify or mechanize the human body. “Our body is the horse our head rides around on,” writes Linda Kohanov in The Tao of Equus in her calling to refer to our bodies as a living wisdom-system, available to inform us in every moment. We treat our bodies like beasts of burden, or worse, like machines. We dull our emotions; we avoid the mess of sweat and blood; we place shame over our sexuality.
“Our culture fears all natural processes: birthing, dying, healing, living,” writes Christiane Northrup in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. “Because our culture worships science and believes that it is ‘objective,’ we think that everything labeled ‘scientific’ must be true. But science as it is currently practiced is a cultural construct rife with all the biases of the culture in general.” One of those biases is against the body and all that it feels and senses.
“Ultimately,” she continues, “I’ve found it enormously empowering to realize that no scientific study can explain exactly how and why my own particular body acts the way it does. Only our connection with our own inner guidance and our emotions is reliable in the end. That is because we each comprise a multitude of processes that have never existed before and never will again.”
She goes on to say that our entire society “functions in ways that keep us out of touch with what we know and feel.”
In this societal view, we tend to think of our internal organs as refined machines that do a particular job. The heart pumps blood. The stomach digests food. The brain thinks. However our amazing bodies are an elegant sensing, intuiting, mystery-knowing organism. A relatively new field of neuroscience called ‘neurocardiology’ and ‘neurogastroenterology’ uncovers the actual brain-functioning of the heart and gut. Both have their own independent nervous system.
Back in the 1960s, research conducted by John and Beatrice Lacey—pioneers in the field of psychophysiology—showed that the heart has its own reasoning that is not determined by directives from the brain. Subsequent investigations revealed an actual pathway and mechanism allowing the heart to send influential messages to the brain. Neurocardiology research led to the development of the concept of the “heart brain” in 1991.
The heart at least 40,000 neurons, as many as are found in various subcortical centers in the brain. The heart and brain have a two-way communication and yet, between the two, it is the heart that has final influence over the brain and not, surprisingly, the other way around. The heart is actually a governing system of the body and brain function!
The stomach also fires off signals to the brain via its own extensive network of neurons. According to Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, there are 100 million neurons in this “second brain.” This arsenal far outnumbers the neuron supply in the spinal cord or the rest of the nervous system outside of the brain. So the stomach has plenty to tell the brain as well. Research shows that about 90% of the fibers in the vagus nerve—the main nerve for the gut—carry information from the gut to the brain.
Since the body—the part below the neck—has dominion over our discernment, attitudes, actions and decision making, it is time we start putting our presence and attention there. Listening to what those actual physical places in your body are ‘saying’ befriends how wisdom speaks to you.
Joseph Campbell’s famous line ‘follow your bliss’ might better comprehended in a slightly less dramatic, more practical tone. ‘Go with what feels right’ might feel more graspable. It is an essential navigation tool moment to moment.
Invariably when I work with men and women to help them reclaim their sovereignty through their bodies’ knowing, someone always says, ‘but what if I’m wrong?’ It’s a worthy question. Fear of doing something wrong gets at the root of one of our greatest fears—doing something wrong, and because of it, I will be abandoned.
But consider for a moment, what if your body, and all of its legacy of wisdom, is trustworthy? We are told we are broken, damaged. That we were raised with attachment deficiencies, and therefore we cannot trust ourselves. And so we cling to data, formulas, cultural norms. But which would you rather trust, an elegantly synchronized anciently informed living cellular system, or a historically created fear-based mental construct?
Indeed, living from authentic wisdom instead of culturally accepted formulas, does require a radical vulnerability.
Here’s where community comes in. And when I say community, I don’t mean those caught in the cultural trance, who would only encourage you to ‘stay safe’, or ‘not rock the boat’. I mean a carefully cultivated group of people that you have created who are, like you, aspiring to walk through that cultural crack and claim a wisdom-informed life.
There’s a certain freedom with letting go of constructs. How free are we within it? How must space is there to truly be ourselves? To what extent can we play? Wisdom requires listening with both inwardly and outwardly directed ears that listen not for just any whim or urge, but for our deepest, highest, most soulful desires. People who really know us, our community, know those desires, and can reflect back to us if we have strayed off track.
Good friends cheer on our authentic, bold and wise selves, and encourage us to push past our comfort levels and explore new ground, but will be there with a raised eyebrow if we’ve hit some strange extreme.
In the 90s I spent a good while with an old Indian sage. He used to say it was important to ‘surround oneself with good company.’ He meant exactly this.
But even a great community has its imperfections. That’s where the third part of the wisdom ecology comes in.
Whether you call it God, Goddess, the universe, consciousness, life-force, mystery, higher power, or soul, it doesn’t matter. Something’s there, and that something is in concert, every moment, with you, as you. It abides in places that require conscious dedicated effort and discipline to access. And like any muscle, your spirit muscle has to be worked, and tended to, on a regular basis in order to strengthen its voice inside you.
This tending-to is called devotion.
Meditation, journaling, art, time in nature, solitude, prayer, poetry, dancing and music are all devotional practices.
You don’t need lots of time to have devotional practices. Five minutes of meditation, ten minutes of journaling, pausing after a phone call to drink in the sound of the birds—all of these moments allow you to hear a more subtle call.
Wisdom as Liberation
If we are going to create a better world for ourselves and for our children, we have to take that leap into the unknown, away from efficiency, productivity, proof and data. We have to be willing to tap into that source of wisdom available in our bodies, in mature perceptive enlightened communities, and through practices that put us in touch with the mystery.
Wisdom is available to each and every one of us. It is our birthright. It is our imperative if we are going to survive. It is there, every minute, waiting for you patiently, waiting to be born through you. The ways in are numerous and, like all things mysterious, have no formula. So just start, start anywhere.
Dare to be different. Dare to follow your gut and your heart. Expect to be challenged and confronted. Expect for there to be onlookers, arms folded, their eyes behind sunglasses. But remember, just like the deer dancers of Ohkay Owingeh, all you need to do is listen.
Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Biology of Transcendence, by Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Heartmath Solution, by Doc Childre
The Awakened Heart, by Gerald May
Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup