Even when you’re ready to look deep inside and to make the commitment to do what’s necessary to be your best self, it doesn’t necessarily mean you really are. In my case it was only the beginning of a very long process that took thirty-five years for me to realize significant change.
Around the time I turned 40 I was an assistant principal in a small city district and was part of a team of administrators who had been frustrated with the traditional professional development experiences which often lacked substance and follow up. As a result, little if anything in our behaviors or work procedures ever really changed. Rather than simply complain, a few of us decided to search for consultants who had the reputation for developing highly effective leaders and creating opportunities for systemic change. That’s when I met Rod Napier. He sat before our small committee and made his presentation. We were truly impressed and felt he was the one who could provide us with a unique experience and one that would not only guide us into a more cohesive organization but in a way that would invite authentic communication between and among our more than 50 administrative members.
When we told him he was our choice candidate he looked at us and asked us a question. “Do you really want to change?” he said. Of course we replied; that’s what this is all about. He smiled and said we didn’t understand. “Do you really want to change?” We smiled back and said yes we do. He then stared into our eyes with a look of seriousness that was almost threatening. “Do you really want to change?” he said a third time. This time, we had no immediate response. We wondered; Were we simply looking for better professional development that would be exciting and helpful but that fit neatly into our existing way of doing things or were we willing to commit to something that would rock the boat, take far out of our comfort zone, and bring us on a journey few leaders in any organization had taken before? After much discussion and time to think we decided to move forward and, with Rod’s help, convinced the Board of Education to sign a three-year contract that would surely shake up the status quo and quite possibly put our district on the course of a great and unknown adventure. And before we could begin, I was hired by another district to lead my own school as principal. Ugh! Was this to be a missed opportunity? I called Rod and explained my situation. It was then that I learned about The Temagami Experience.
We landed on Langskib Island on Lake Temagami in Northeastern Ontario in a small seaplane in early August. Twenty of us were flown in, five at a time, for the purpose of learning about leadership. We were twenty strangers known only to the three guides who led the program. We left behind our names, our occupations, and our family status. Each of us knew nothing about each other except what we looked like and the pseudonym we had chosen. The setting was a one-mile perimeter wooded island with several bunk buildings and outhouses, a rustic building where meals were provided, and the lake for bathing, swimming, and fishing. The approach was to participate in Native American rituals that would enable us to uncover our authentic selves, reveal our strengths, weaknesses, and blind-spots, and to create a plan to transition our newly learned insights into positive action upon our return to families and work. The training was intense. We worked non-stop individually, in small groups, and as a whole depending on the activity.
For ten days and nights we stripped away preconceived notions, experienced the extreme vulnerability of a sweat lodge, the deep inner journey during a forty-hour vision quest, the infinite beauty and raw harshness of nature during a multi-day canoe trip, and the power of clear and direct feedback about how our words and actions impacted others. I went into this experience pompous and self assured and emerged with few affirmations but acutely aware of my self-deceptions and narrow views of people and the world. At the same time I felt fear and support, uncertainly and conviction, and immense sadness and joy. At forty, when I thought I had arrived and finally grasped how life worked and ought to be, I now knew I had just begun to understand. Thus began a process that would continue to upend what I thought to be truth, over and over again.
I went back the following summer to a part two experience with some of the same participants but mostly new strangers from former years. The experience further pushed our physical and emotional limits with a fire walk, honest reflections on how we were able to act, or not, on all that we had learned the previous summer(s), and with more individual intensives. My solace was that all of this took place in nature. We essentially lived and worked outdoors in a place where descendants of the original natives to the land still lived and practiced their way of life and where the untouched night sky was so completely filled with stars, silence, and wonder that there was no sense of, or connection to, the civilization we had willingly left behind.
In truth, while I believed I was drawn to Temagami to affirm my well being, the fact was I was quietly struggling with who I was, the choices I had made, and the underlying question of wondering if I was enough. I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe that opportunities present themselves at just the right times. And, if we’re ready and willing to seize them, we get to continue the process of moving toward the best versions of ourselves. For me, the journey continues…
“I Go To Seek A Great Perhaps!”
A Gaia Moment
George and I were initially unsure how to respond to Hen’s post, so the three old guys met over coffee to discuss. Hen elaborated on the week’s experience that he had at Temagami. It clearly was an immersion event, aimed at obtaining a sharper personal assessment. During the week, participants did not disclose their names or professions, but adopted pseudonyms. Various physical trials and exercises were presented — as extreme as walking on a bed of hot coals.
Yet Hen, while hinting at these activities, focused mainly on the personal growth he achieved and the worth of the group feedback sessions. He arrived with a certain view of himself – and left with a challenge to change a particular behavior. In fact, each participant had to post a “bond” against a pledge to incorporate a stated change: be it becoming less judgmental to completing a doctoral dissertation. The bonds were forfeit if the behavioral contract was broken.
Now, neither George or I had any similar experience to write about. But Hen’s discussion mainly elaborated on how this immersion week – and other experiences – acted as a tipping point in altering the way he views what is meaningful in his life. Now there’s a handle that both George and I could use!
George describes a journey that took years to reach a tipping point. However, once tipped, change happened very quickly. Like Hen, he was freed up to approach his life in a way which gave him a sense of authenticity.
My story is far more modest – and I’ve not had a great deal of success trying to explain the sense of impact that it had on me, even to this day. It only took an evening, but perhaps it was the result of a longer process, so perhaps the context is relevant.
When you are young, you are like a stem cell: open to grow into a variety of possible outcomes. During such a time, Linda and I bonded with a group of folks who lived in an apartment unit: four females, four males, two newborns; two straight couples, two gay couples. All of us the same age, making the transition from college to … who knows what? We weren’t an extended family, but a somewhat tribal unit living in the same place. We hung out, shared dinners, listened to music, went on a number of hikes and camping events.
One night, we started a camp fire in the midst of an easy interchange of conversation and ideas. The darkness and the fire served to bring us all into sense of connection. There is an African term for ‘dreaming the fire’ – and that is what I was doing. Then – a Gaia moment – an epiphany that we were all hurtling through space on a living entity. I could picture all of us and our structures as shallow overlays and thin macadam ribbons on an animated Earth. Each of us so tiny on this greater being, whose heartbeat could be felt so strongly through the ground: how could I have ignored that vibration up to this point? I could sense the energy shared by all objects. Full disclosure, there might have been THC in the air… but no difference… it was a visceral insight, one that I can vividly recall even now.
Now this small — and perhaps obvious – perception changed my ordering of reality in a couple of profound ways. Most important, it brought home that what I process intellectually is not as potent as what I learn viscerally. Logic and analytic skills are grafted onto older and more mystic roots. Sometimes the combination results in conflicting beliefs: what is deduced versus what is felt. I have come to believe that it is okay to ask pointed questions, but not to form a firm conclusion.
Secondly, if quantum physics is correct, what we call “we” is a part of an energy field that includes everything we perceive/measure as objects. Perhaps we are all connected in this sense. If so, I would find comfort in this thought.
Except from Upon a Star’s Wish I Live by Travestygirl
We know Gaia’s voice, spirit evoked,
the earthen one, saliently silent, felt
as soil, fecund. We know the song
of the sun, brilliant, permeating all life,
sentient, non-sentient, in all ways
and always heard. The Universe’s,
beckoning, solemn, somber, longing
Hide or Seek
Henry’s post was a tough one for me to relate to. I was a small skinny kid growing up. In grade school we used to line up in size places and I was always first in line all the way through grade 6. I was always picked on and bullied and made fun of…you know the “Georgie porgie puddnin’pie….” thing! Anyway, I kind of avoided anything physical and even as an adult a challenge to my body was unthinkable. I just couldn’t depend on it and to put it to a test was out of the question. I also knew early on that I was different from the other boys. I didn’t understand how til around 7th grade when we started changing in the locker room for gym, and realization began to seep in. In the 50’s it wasn’t acceptable, so I learned to play the game and hide to stay out of trouble.
My point being that I could never have a life changing experience like Henry had where my stamina and strength was challenged in such a way. So when I read Henry’s piece I couldn’t relate at first. Reflecting back on my life, after that rough start, I went away to school, met a woman I fell in love with and lived the American dream. I had a career I loved, we bought a house, had kids, dogs, cats. Life was good. 23 years went by and we started having problems, due mostly to different goals and life directions and we separated. Why am I writing this? After days of stewing over how I could respond to Henry, I realized some people choose to be challenged to purposely learn things about themselves and others have the challenge thrust upon them. It isn’t always a physical challenge but an emotional one can help us learn as well. It was a sad time, life required me to go on- work, kids, even the dog had to be walked and fed. I was trying to find my way, being gay was certainly more acceptable in the early 90’s than back in the 50’s, but it was new to me. After sleepless nights and a great deal of anguish, I decided I could no longer play act. I finally decided to be authentic. I subscribed to the old adage, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” I was going to come out all over. I called my principal and told her. Over the next few weeks, I started coming out to my friends and colleagues. Some of them were not surprised, others were shocked, and still others just couldn’t deal with it. That’s when I began to learn things about myself. I was stronger than I ever imagined. I had to learn to be patient. My son had a very difficult time with it and expressed it in a typical 17- year-old manner. I took the abuse for about 3 months until one night I just couldn’t allow it to continue and suggested he move out of my house. I had to develop respect for who I really was before I could expect others to respect me. I learned a great deal about myself during that time. Identifying the friends and relatives I wanted to keep in my life required acceptance of the pain and conviction that I had the ability to actually do what was necessary. Those close to me who couldn’t accept me, I had to distance them from myself. I would get through the pain of separation, but I could no longer live the charade, so I plowed through it.
Authenticity was the goal, acknowledgement to myself and others became my purpose, and hiding was no longer an option. It was probably the most important decision I ever made……To thine own self be true. I grew as a result in ways I never anticipated. Shortly after coming out I ran for union president and was elected. The teachers knew who I was and elected me anyway. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin. Physical ailments I had had for years disappeared. I relaxed, I sighed, I enjoyed things differently than ever before. I developed a confidence I never had. And I began to live bigger than ever. . Life was good! I was comfortable in my own identity and I looked forward to new experiences like at no other time in my life.