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Author:Richard Chadek

Burning Man

Here’s another Island story.  When I moved to Vashon, I had no idea it would shift my understanding of ‘gardening’ from something about seedlings and weeds to something more about trees and tractors.  In the woods, gardening means cutting away what’s dead, or sickly, or things that aren’t native, or what stands in the way of a greater “wholeness.”  Sometimes it means removing a thing for the sake of creating what sculptors call negative space: an absence that becomes a presence.  Whatever the form, it’s an act of creation.

Perhaps you’re already tuning in to the metaphors here.

On my land, this kind of gardening creates piles of limbs and brush.  A lot of piles.  Enormous piles.  This is stuff that, in rural areas, one disposes of by burning.  But this year, just as the weather got dry enough to burn, it was too dry to burn and the whole burning thing was banned.

And by the end of July, I’d reached the limit of places for the piles I was making.  

Whenever something fell in the wind, I had to leave it in place simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put it.  Ideas that came to me about opening a space in the trees or clearing out blackberries or other kinds of unruly understory went on hold.  The chainsaw went silent.

It’s said the mystics have an understanding that the outer world and the inner one are not two.  Now, whether that’s so or not, I can tell you that since there wasn’t any space ‘out there’, I began to feel there wasn’t any space ‘in here’.  Whatever creative ideas I had were stillborn: there was no room to do anything with all the dead structure in my way.  Stagnation began to spread through my life: I grew bored, listless, even a bit depressed.

In October, though, burning again became a thing, so I took a shovel, a hose and this weed burning thing that’s an actual flame thrower down to the fire pit.  But as I looked around at everything there was to burn, I was filled with an enormous lethargy.  After the first armful of brush was consigned to the flames, I’d have to trudge back and forth, back and forth.  Brush pile to burn pile to brush pile…  And it didn’t take long before I found myself staring into the fire, slack-jawed and empty of thought, until the intensity of the heat forced me back to work.  

There’s a figure in mythology whose fate it was to push boulders up this massive hill, only to see them roll back down just as he got them to the top.  Like Sisyphus, I despaired of ever finishing this job. 

But as the rosy dawn turned to noon, I understood the true horror of my situation was more like that of a different mythological figure.  The gods had chained this man to a rock.  Every day they sent an eagle to eat his liver and every night it grew back.  I now realized that my brush piles, just like Prometheus’s liver, were immortal.  Everything I’d cut down and burned would eventually return.

After lunch that day, returning to this seemingly endless work, I heard what seemed like the voice of God whispering to me.  The whisper sounded awfully like “Take your chainsaw”.  So I did.  On the way to the fire, I lopped off some limbs crowding the path.  And that scrawny holly tree shouldering its way between the cherries?  I cut it down.  

Was it my fate, that day, to feed that fire?  Of course it was.  Yet something else happened as well.  Every stick that disappeared took something with it: a little bit of the lethargy, a part of the despair and some of the stuckness I’d been feeling also disappeared.

And in their place? Inspiration was returning.

If you haven’t been reading this as metaphor, here’s what this has to do with coaching.

The real power of human beings is that we’re able—you might say it’s our destiny—to transform inspiration into structure.  We use our vision, our imagination, our desire to bring some-thing into the world that never existed before.  We obviously do that through music and art, yes, but inspiration also pours through our dreams, our visions, the relationships we’re part of and even our work.  It’s miraculous and the beauty of it can be stunning. 

Inspiration has to become structure if it’s going to ‘land’ in the world but, paradoxically, structure gets in the way of inspiration.  We all know what it’s like when there’s too much structure, like too many rules in our work or relationships: there’s no room for innovation.  The structure is deadening.

While structure has a way of accumulating in our closets and garages, it also shows up in our lives.  It shows up in the form of habits, identities and the limitations we put on what we think is possible, often because of past trauma.  Whenever we feel stuck, it’s this kind of structure that’s in our way, just like those brush piles had been in mine.

Burning seems an apt metaphor for one way we release internal structures that were once quite necessary but have lost their utility as life carries us into different circumstances. 

As a coach, I help my clients see what’s on their burn pile, and what wants to be.  And then I help them set the match. 

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Every client I work with comes to me because they want change: something they want to experience is missing, or something they don’t want to experience keeps happening.  Everybody wants change.  Even those of us who want things to stay just as they are, are looking for it: we want change itself to change.

The cliché that change is the only constant thing in life aligns with something science tells us: Life isn’t a thing; it’s a process in which only the pattern endures while none of the energy or matter that constitutes it does.  Not one atom in my body now will be present in a year’s time, even though I hope to be.  The pattern I call me may remain, but none of the stuff in me will.

Life is organized to conserve just one thing: the pattern of being alive.  You could think of this as Life’s superpower.  The survival of trilobites or dinosaurs or even humans is not required.  By insisting upon conserving living, but not the form of the being that lives, enormously complex ecosystems now fill our planet.  Said another way, if you keep one thing from changing, a space of possibilities opens in which everything else can—and will—change.  This is evolution: not a history of all that’s changed through time but instead the story of what’s been conserved.

If every thing is free to change—provided it’s not being conserved—a fascinating and useful question presents itself:  What are my clients conserving, consciously or not, that results in the experiences they complain about?

If these clients were fish, or squirrels or even lions on the savannah, we wouldn’t be asking this question.  If they were squirrels or fish, they wouldn’t be complaining that there’s too much or not enough change.  They’d just go about doing what Life has them do.

But this isn’t so with my clients, nor is it with most of us.  Although the choice to conserve just one thing generally operates at a level beneath awareness, with the self-conscious-ness of humans, we can deploy it to avoid experiences.  Like pain.  And when we do that, it serves in a way that ‘protects us’ from change.  Any change.  And then we suffer.

Consider, for example, that most of us are either committed to an intimate relationship, or we’re looking for one.  And the criteria many of us have for this kind of thing is that we should feel, well, good when we’re in one.  Maybe that means having enough sex.  But not too much.  Or feeling like we’re being deeply seen and appreciated.  But not those parts of us we don’t want to look at.  Or perhaps it has to do with finding someone we can actually depend upon.  But not to the point of feeling helpless and afraid should they leave us or die.  We want to be safe, but not to the point of suffocation, and we want to belong, although we don’t want to give up our freedom. 

I think you catch the drift here: maybe trying to feel good isn’t as good as it seems.  Maybe feeling good is too small a thing to conserve or has consequences that put something even more important at risk.  Maybe that truly important thing requires us to tolerate being afraid or vulnerable.

Many years ago, my wife and I were in therapy, trying to lessen a deep unhappiness in our marriage.  As was often the case, it was Dianne who alternately pushed and dragged me toward what was necessary for our marriage, and she was despairing of the effort.  I didn’t understand, really, what surrendering to this process meant but I was afraid it meant exposing some part of me I wasn’t sure I could endure revealing.  I knew I was about to either lose my marriage or confront some humiliation I couldn’t name but that I feared like death.  For weeks, this dilemma snapped me awake at 2:00 AM, roiling with anxiety.

I remained locked in the grip of these two nightmare outcomes until one sweat-drenched night I understood that the only way I was going to avoid the poles of my dilemma was to take my own life.  In the shock of that realization, as clearly as if I’d said the words aloud, I knew I would not kill myself.  And since I would not serve my own dying, the way opened for me to enter, with as much dignity as I could muster, what I had to enter to conserve my marriage.

This is what we all know about intimate relationships: they have a way of concentrating our attention on the ways in which we aren’t yet mature.  It can serve neither Life nor our own lives to conserve these immaturities.  Yet when we seek to avoid fear, shame, anger or sorrow we do exactly that. 

Among other things, maturity requires us to endure experiences we do not want for the sake of aligning what we do with how we feel and what we believe.  The evidence of maturity is the willingness to be with whatever experience our living asks of us.

The real challenges in our relationships don’t point toward exchanging the partner we have for another, although that may be necessary.  Instead, these challenges point at capacities that are latent in us.  Ones we haven’t developed, either because we haven’t yet needed them or because the injuries or traumas we’ve suffered haven’t healed. 

The coaching topic doesn’t have to be an intimate relationship in order to develop our maturity, despite how efficient they are at pointing out our limitations.  The topic might involve a lack of success, or an excess of success that is exhausting us.  It might be that our notion of success, or how we are in relationship, no longer conserves what we know is true and meaningful.

But whatever the topic, when someone looks for help from this kind of coaching, a question ripe to be wondered about is this: What one thing matters so much that I’d allow everything else to be open to change? 

As a developmental process, there are two distinct steps involved.  First is discovering what hasn’t been visible before, what wants to be conserved.  Then, often for the first time, we can choose what’s to be done.  It often takes some time to live into this question, and still more to bow down to its answer.

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On Belay

When I started my coaching career—all those years B.C. (Before Covid)—I was heady with the possibilities that naturally arise after rigorous training in one’s field of passion.  My clients, I imagined, would be folks stuck in their work or struggling with intimacy or trust; people who’d used psychotherapy, not just to feel better, but also for the sake of understanding themselves, and who continued to feel the pull of something below ‘see’ level.

Seeing the world through a developmental lens, I understood suffering as the consequence of blocked or impaired growth and I believed my greatest service lay in helping remove whatever blocked the natural movement of life from fundament to significance.

It’s approaching 20 years since those days, and while I still see the world through that developmental lens, a different cohort of clients has found its way to my door.  These folks experience life as profoundly ephemeral.  For them, something fundamental, which they’d always counted on to be solid, is now up for grabs and the river of their life is moving, somewhere, that isn’t really of their choosing.  And while this can happen at any point in life, it usually isn’t until after middle-age, when significant losses have really started to accumulate.

That’s not to say their life isn’t still busy or vital, but they’ve lived long enough to experience the moving horizon of life, carried inside themselves, become fixed.  No longer does the horizon stay the same respectful distance from them as life unfolds.  No, as they move through life, the edge of all known things gets closer and closer.  And beyond that edge?  Well, there be dragons.

Maybe their children now have children, and they wonder: what’s to become of them in the world being left them?  Or perhaps they never had children, and they wonder: what’s to become of me as I journey further and further into alone?

Perhaps life for them has already been a series of sacrifices and now they struggle with yet still more surrender.  Perhaps they’ve recently lost parents or a spouse.  Or there’s been an unrelenting series of these losses.  Maybe they themselves have been given a diagnosis that completely changes what they think about living.

They may not have language for this.  They talk about being resigned or say they’re angry, but what they feel is that it’s just too hard surrendering to all they face.  The taste of ‘giving up’ is bitter.  But it may be that what they face isn’t about how to give up as much as it’s about how to bow down.

I’ve always been fascinated with language and that what we say actually shapes the world we experience.  Everything we do involves language which we use to either open up or prevent what’s possible.  With many clients, it can be useful to explore what declarations do or don’t show up for them.  Like whether and how they say No or Yes, especially in circumstances where the opposite seems to be expected of them.

But with the folks I have in mind, this won’t be deep enough for what’s on the line.  We’re living in a time of real confusion between what we say is true, what we say is real and what falls into the category of personal experience.  In these times, our experience, or what we fear experiencing, has become interchangeable with the True and the Real.  We can see this in the rise of the conspiracies that abound and the common insistence on fidelity to a worldview rather than fidelity to the world.

The clients I’m speaking of have become desperate for reality.  They badly want truth.  But here’s a problem: if we look at the etymology of truth, we quickly discover that it started as a verb.  It was more like “truing” a thing, like making something straight.  And then it became a thing a person did for their community.  Someone of real standing—typically an elder—would attest that this is the way things are and their standing in the community became collateral, something they put at risk should the stand they took prove devious.  But we don’t live in an era that holds elders in much regard, so that kind of truing is lost to us.

The etymology of words, the history of their meaning, isn’t merely academic.  The current meaning of a word is like the last 5 feet of a climbing rope.  We absolutely need to hold onto the current meaning, but when we’re using words to belay us in this life, we need to trust the whole 150 feet of rope.

For the clients I’m speaking of, I suspect that even more than truing, what they seek is belief.  And here we need to turn again to etymology.  Belief comes from the joining of the words be and lief.  When be was used as a prefix it meant something like ‘intensify whatever word comes next’—like becalm or benumb or bewilder.  And the word it was joined to in this case came from one which had to do with love.  That gives us belief as an intensification of love.  Can you feel the difference between this understanding of the word and its shabby offspring of today?  And can you imagine how holding the word in this way might hold us?

With this understanding, our desperation might be resolved through our loving.  What is it that we’re loving?  Not just what are we holding onto, but truly loving?  What might it look like to intensify that loving to the point of actually bowing down to it?  There’s a surrender we have a chance of saying yes to.

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