In the movie “Love Happens”, the motivational speaker worked to help the audience grieve their loss and take a step toward self-renewal. However, he had never grieved his wife’s death as a result of a car accident. After too many things have happened around him to remind him of the incongruity between what he preached on the outside and what he practiced in the inside, he finally let go of his guilt and loss and began his own healing.
Life seems to be a series of “letting go”. We need to die a thousand deaths in order to let ourselves reborn again and again. But we often hesitate when facing endings. So, we either hang on too long or we live with regrets too long after we let go.
When the doctor said to me that the only way to keep my mother alive was to put tubes in her for her to get nutrients, I made the most excruciating decision to let her die, because I know she did not want to live life at the mercy of a machine. Then for the next 6 days, I watched her slowly fade away. I never knew ending could be like this. I watched her eyes close but her mouth still moved as if she was talking to someone. I played her favorite Chinese classic opera and let the music trail into the hospital hallway. By the third day, I could not stand the pain in my broken heart and I wanted this whole thing to stop. Then a very wise friend said to me, “This is your mother’s journey to the end, not yours. Just appreciate that you can witness this very sacred process.” I sat down and realized that my mother’s life was no longer in my control or the doctor’s hands. It was time for me to surrender.
Recently, I met a man who used to be an opera singer with quite a fan base and a lucrative contract. All of a sudden, one day the phone stopped ringing. His contract expired without renewal and the fans disappeared. A wise friend said to him “You still have the song in you. Just sing it because it is a gift.” Then he found ministry. He was able to let go of the cheering crowd but keep his song.
In the contemporary Western world, parents tend to give children lots of praises for the purpose of building their self-esteem. Then as adults, many of them become too dependent on the positive feedback and recognition from the outside world and wrap their self identities around their achievement. The trap we often set for ourselves is the need to hear the cheering crowd. When all is quiet, do we still sing? Can we still make a difference in this world even when we don’t get a fan mail? Is it time to reset our measurement of success?
For 26 years, I worked to become a very experienced and successful consultant. I know I have made a difference in many people’s lives. In the last three years, when the economy went bad, the phone became quiet and clients had less budgets to invest in the real change work, I felt like that opera singer who just lost his cheering crowd. But, I have been learning to let go of my old identity and keep singing because I still have the “song” in me.
In the Gestalt practice, we have a tool that allows us to help our client identify and clarify the “what is” in their situation. When we let go and surrender, we can really embrace the “what is”, not the “what could have been” or “what we wish”. My work is about stopping the fight with my own “what is”. In a TV commercial, a black woman standing in the field looking out at a landscape and said, “I don’t know how much money I will have when I retire. But I do know I will live with whatever I have.” That is the ultimate act of accepting the “what is”.
Life is a series of re-calibrations. When my mother started to show signs of dementia, I realized there was no point of correcting her memory or reminding her that she just went to the bathroom. I decided to follow her mind. Whatever story came out of her mouth, I not only followed but also built on it as if it was true. I found such relief and freedom when I stopped struggling with her. I accepted the “what is”. When friends or relatives looked in on her, they usually would ask “Is she getting better?” I would say, “That is the wrong question.” There is no “better place” for her to be. All I did was prepare to adjust to whatever stage she moved to. Even after trying to let her be, I still could not just let her go without my personal struggle. Two years after her passing, there is not one single day goes by that I do not miss her and cry for her. This proves to me how hard it is to surrender.
Last week, I celebrated my birthday by attending what turned out to be a powerful and spiritual workshop. During the workshop, I cried as I let go of my old measurement for success and shouted out loud my anger for not being able to call the ending on my own term. But as I cried from the depth of my belly, I felt free and released as if my soul was howling. At that moment something much bigger had taken over. I had a sense of true “surrendering.” For the first time, I felt the spirit soaring through me.
I have found myself moving closer to my true calling.
When asked, many of us would say that it is our calling to help others and make a difference in the world. But what can we offer? Beyond our knowledge, our skills, the most powerful contribution we can make is the experience of our whole “self” – body, mind and soul.
Until we experience the healing and mend ourselves, we cannot truly make a difference the way we are called to make. Just like the motivational speaker in the movie, could he really help others become whole when he was wounded and broken?
The real power of the “Use of Self” or the “Self as an Instrument” in our work, is to truly accept who we are, even including our shortcomings, grief, loss, guilt, regret, etc. and surrender to something that is bigger than ourselves. I call the path of moving from the small “s” to the big ‘S’”. The small “s” represents our individual selves. The big ‘S’ represents the all-encompassing spirit of the universe. When we work from the big “S”, there is no need for reasoning or attempting to control. We are just being cradled by the mystery of the universe.
If I am the instrument for what the spirit is meant to be, then when I work with my client, I am not there to use my individual brilliance but I am there to channel all of our brilliance. I need not claim any credit for it. This spirit that runs through me does not belong to any church. It is not supposed to be cut up and become privately owned by any institutions.
I used to date a French artist. He said when he first painted, he painted for himself. But after that, he painted for the world. It meant by the time the painting was finished, it belonged to the world. He would stand back and walk away without looking to see if anyone liked it.
In a TV show called “The Voice”, groups of aspiring artists competed for a chance to get chosen for a big career break. But what they were required to do was to own the music, the lyrics and original intent of the song writer with their body and soul. When they did, all the glory that resulted in a recording contract became secondary. They sang for the spirit. They moved people not because they were the best entertainers but the best instrument that channeled the spirit of the universe.
Regardless the titles on our business cards, what are we really doing here on this planet? We say we are here to make a difference. Do we truly feel it in our soul? Every time we use the wrong measurement for our achievement, did we sell out our soul?
What went wrong with all these corporations that broke the ethic code and cheated on their shareholders, customers or mistreated their employees? Have they followed what they said were their values and principles? Or have they gradually depleted their souls and ended up with a beautiful but empty glass tower?
Just like the corporations, we cannot truly be great leaders if we betray our internal spiritual compass. Profit without conscience is like worshiping the wrong God. Sooner or later, we will be caught wondering around in the desert.
In the true Zen practice, no one will be there to give us praise or criticism. Our work is not good or bad. It just is. This is total surrendering. Our spiritual work needs to expand way beyond our “ego.” A friend of mine went to Japan to learn pottery. For the first two years, her master had her sweep the floor. In the Buddhist tradition, this is called “emptying and quieting the mind.” My teacher called it, “Coming back to zero.” Then when she was finally allowed to touch the clay, she would put all her finished work on the windowpane every night. And her master would examine her work every morning. Without a single word, he would break all the pots and have her do them again. This is the ultimate learning from within. There was no external encouragement or judgment. She would have to rely on her own resolve and internal guide to teach her. Feeding her “ego” would not have helped her at all.
For whom do we sing our song?
“Dance as though no one is watching you. Love as though you have never been hurt before. Sing as though no one can hear you. Live as though heaven is on earth.”
This quote from an unknown source means so much more to me today than when I first saw it on a poster a few years ago. How do we get beyond the rhetoric and truly live the meaning of the words from our soul? To truly live there, we will have to let go of our needs for external or internal gratification. Too many leaders including religious ones fell from grace when they believed in their own greatness after people have put them on the pedestal.
When we buy into our own brilliance too much, we become narcissistic. When we reject and withhold love and compassion to ourselves, we become self-loathing.
To truly use our “self” to do our work, we must own the experience in our “self.” In their attempt to help others, many people can be very clever because they were taught well in asking all the right questions. But to truly have empathy, we must be able to sit in others’ experience and see the world through their filters. The best song writer writes about real pain or heart break and the true beauty they have experienced inside. We are here to channel something greater than ourselves. When we can achieve that, we will touch the underground river where the water of the sacred flows through. Whenever I watched the movie “A River Runs through It”, I would get teary not just for the beauty of fly fishing but the beauty of the vast universe. For having such a privilege to be alive as a human being, how insignificant my personal aches and pains and disappointment have just become?
Ancient Chinese wisdom says at every cusp of change, we need to shed our skin. I remember at the end of a long vision quest, I drew a snake on a piece of paper, folded it and put it in my notebook. Next day when I opened my notebook, all the dried-up colored crayon on the snake’s body fell off into little pieces just like the snake shedding its skin.
I am at that moment of shedding again.
Celia Young coaches her clients to become who they truly are as a leader and a human being.