Have you ever looked back at your life with new eyes, and seen a pattern running through your history? There's a crystallization that happens when something is seen for the first time, with a kind of clarity that prevents going back to 'not-seeing'. One must be prepared for such an experience, and perhaps in some ways we spend years preparing for that single moment of looking back, seeing a pattern, and allowing, or surrendering to a death of an old identity. This not a new story, yet it's one I've lived recently and I have to say, it's poignant.
It began with some deep grief work I was doing, around past losses. As sometimes can happen with grief work, other feelings got mixed in. I had a case of despair. But despair for what? I couldn't think of anything in my life to despair about. Well, not right away. My attention turned to my PhD program and the despair became more acute. Was it the research question or the path itself that was at the root of these not-so-trivial feelings sweeping over me? They certainly had my attention. As I considered my research question, I realized that it had morphed, in one short year, away from my original intention.
Sometimes we laugh at PhD topics because the questions become grievously minute and difficult to comprehend. I now have great understanding for that process – as dictums of researching for novel contribution can mean narrowing and narrowing and then narrowing again. In this process, the heart of the topic can get lost beneath. How then to muster all the resources needed to go ahead? While this was a big realization, it also brought relief because a "fix" was in sight. I could go back to the drawing board. As I was only a year into my program, going back would be somewhat laborious, though not a total death.
It wasn't long after my initial relief that another realization came about – my original topic no longer served me either. This change was a bigger deal – I no longer saw how it would ultimately be of service in the world. My topic was centered on how nature supports human health, particularly mental and emotional. I had attended a conference in the fall called "Healthy by Nature". It was quite a lovely conference that brought together health workers, community workers, researchers and parks people to look at ways of stopping "nature deficit disorder". We learned about ways that being in nature supports our bodies, hearts and minds in more ways we might have imagined (yet intuited) – chemically, psychologically and socially. Nature was an ideal drug – big hit, no addiction. I stood up at this conference and voiced my dedication to researching this field further. At that time, I thought I would look at how brain waves change when people spend time in nature. I thought that if I could show people how nature supports human health in very intrinsic ways, we could begin to introduce "humans" back in the environmentalist debate – we could preserve nature for nature's sake...and for human sake. I still feel that all of this is worthy and....
The realization came that was I was most deeply interested in was human mental and emotional health. Don't get me wrong – I am a concerned citizen for the planet. And I love being in nature, that is how the call to work in the environmental and sustainability field came, more than 20 years ago. Yet when I really considered what gave me most joy and energy, it was working on the human side of the equation. From that view, wouldn't it be more direct to actually work with human well-being, rather than prove that nature supports our well-being? In other words, a person can be unhealthy and unhappy on the inside, and spending time in nature will ease their suffering for a moment, yet in the long run, will it deeply affect change and ease suffering?
Then the watershed came. I began to look back at my life, and see an identity lurking there, beginning at about 20 years when I initially decided to study the natural sciences.
Since my undergraduate degree I have completely taken on the identity of someone who works in the environmental and sustainability fields. I have degrees and have worked in non-profit think tanks. I have tried in every way to link all my projects to this identity. I now see how many opportunities I didn't pick up because of a tight holding to this "way" of being in the world. It is who I was. Or so I thought.
A part of me felt like a traitor to my environmentalist self – how could I leave that camp? Without fully knowing the loss that would be incurred in letting go of this identity, I soon realized somewhat (to my horror) that a death was already taking place. All that was left to do was to surrender to it. If I tried breathing life back into this moribund identity, despair would creep back in. So, I began to surrender to the death process more fully. I knew I had surrendered more fully when, after sitting in meditation at a lake, I opened my eyes and saw that I had chosen to sit in front of the only dead tree on the beach. It was a slim riparian tree, black and lifeless. I hadn't noticed this when I sat down, only my pull to sit on that very rock.
From that place of deep surrender, I began to rage against death. My loving partner sat and held me as I pounded a pillow with my fist and let out the rage. No, no...I yelled at the top of my lungs. I really yelled, until it was all out of my system. Then I cried. Then I sat up, and waited. I link this moment to the beginning of re-birth.
Who was I now – in this new place? I could only rest in not-knowing. For several days, I gathered information and felt into places of joy and happiness. I held back from grasping onto the next "thing" that came around. I spoke with friends. None of this was done alone, and I felt very held as my tender newborn skin began to feel sensations in a new way.
One of the most surprising "newnesses" has been my emerging connection with nature. I have noticed a human quality to this connection, more as a caring, concerned citizen, and less as a practitioner. A veil has been lifted. There is a new quality of aliveness to my perception of nature. I wonder sometimes if, in all my efforts to "protect" nature, I was putting up a barrier to deeper experiences with the world around me.
As self-acceptance deepened, I began sleuthing for qualities and strengths that had been under utilized because of my fixed identity. This has led to greater freedom and flexibility around my sense of what I bring to the world. The new identity has not yet fully crystallized, and in some ways, I wouldn't mind staying in the unknown about it for quite a while longer. Not having to "claim" a field of work feels liberating. Yet there is also a stronger sense of what is "not" my interest – I asked myself today what I would have studied had I not gone into environmental science in my undergrad, and it was something like religious studies + business + creativity. Would I have chosen that then? Probably not. There's no going back and re-doing in from this place, and I'm ok with that fact.
In writing this blog, I do not wish the death of any ecologist, environmental or sustainability identities for those who are in their calling. This death of mine was simply a veil covering the deeper desire of my soul, held in place with beliefs about my purpose in life – leading to the creation of an identity that carried me forward for 20 years. It's remarkable, how this death of a self felt much like the death of a living being. It fought hard to the end, didn't want to go, and threatened me with losses all the way. Yet when it finally happened fully and completely, I was able to claim gifts that had been otherwise hidden, as well as experience a connection with the planet on a new level. I feel I understand the phrase better:
The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. (Anaïs Nin)
What hidden gifts might be waiting for you to claim in your life? The heroic mining of our inner treasures can take us on journeys of consequence as we may be called to loosen ties to those fixed parts of our identities.
And, how might we support those around us going through an ego death of some kind? What qualities can we hone and bring to those in our lives, such as compassion, unconditional acceptance, humour, and discernment.