This week, I’ve been thinking again about transitions: how do we deal with change? How do we know when we’re ready for it? and how do we deal with it and incorporate it into our lives even if we’re not fully ready?
It’s April vacation for my family, and we’re touring some colleges with Gabriel. The first stop was Columbia, where I was doing my graduate work when Gabriel was born, so coming back and doing a tour was like going full circle.
At twenty-seven I was really excited to be a mom, but also not fully prepared for it. Motherhood made me rethink and re-orient myself to myself and to the world—it was a big and wonderful summersault. It was only after becoming a mother that I felt sure that I not only wanted to but needed to write: I needed to make sense of my own story, to put words to my own experiences. I moved to Cambridge the next year to work with Jorie Graham, a poet (and mother), whose work I loved.
Now 17 years later, I’m feeling similarly grateful to writing as a place to make sense of my story and of the shifts in identity that happen just by living in time. While Simone is still only in sixth grade (she turns 13 this summer—a teenager!), I’m very aware that I’m entering another chapter of my life—that we’re all moving towards new chapters.
The name of my online course is Align Your story, but in some ways that is misleading. We don’t have just one story. We have countless stories, and those stories continue to change. Aligning our story is work that we need to continue to do throughout our lives.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? The answers to these questions continue to morph.
Sometimes we think that we don’t have time for writing. But we are always living inside of stories. Sometimes those stories write us. We swim in them. We can’t always make sense of them.
But if we can get comfortable in them, we can have a different orientation to our own lives—and to the lives of others. And I believe that this process of getting comfortable is not just something that we do in writing—but something that we do with our whole mind, body and spirit.
We are always living in change—personal change, physical change, political change, global and environmental change. We are always living with forces bigger than ourselves.
When we try to makes sense of these changes only with our mind—and with our left brain, which wants to control—we may become more lost. But when we can allow ourselves to enter into the space of creativity, where change is always happening, when we can drop into our bodies and quiet our mind, we can access a greater freedom and vivacity.
I’ll be starting Align Your Story again on April 24th. I’d love for you to join me. It’s a ten week online course with reading, writing, lessons, yoga and meditation. There are weekly live optional conference calls and a private facebook group. You get plenty of support from me, but you can also go through at your own pace because once you enroll you have access to the course and community for life.
See more here: http://www.nadiacolburn.com/please-join-me.html
Here's what one person said about Align Your Story:
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that taking my first workshop with Nadia was a life- changing event. I had been struggling to get back into my writing, and stuck in some old challenging patterns that I couldn’t break out of. The yoga and writing workshop was the first way of breaking that pattern, and then Align Your Story was like going from making a drawing with colored pencils to oil painting.
Align Your Story was a much richer and more fulfilling experience, simply because there’s so many more resources and much more time. But taking the course didn’t just help me come back to my writing; it also restored a faith or belief that I hadn’t realized I’d lost—and that’s the belief in the possibility of transformation. I had had a lot of hard experiences in a really short period of time in my life. And I hadn’t recognized how those experiences had hardened me and even made me cynical about my own future. I felt like I was stuck and just spinning my wheels. I know that working with Nadia through Align Your Story has been instrumental in moving beyond that phase in my life. (Read more at http://www.nadiacolburn.com/praise.html) —Tyler P.
I’ve taken some time in August away from blogging, but I’m glad to be back—though I’m sad that summer is coming to an end.
I hope everyone had a wonderful summer!
Today I want to talk today about transitions--
Buddha teaches us that we live in a constant state of impermanence. Nothing ever stays the same. We are always changing.
Modern science teaches us that the cells of our bodies are completely renewed every seven years.
What stays the same? Where do we find continuity?
So we are always changing. But at certain times in our lives, those changes are more abrupt.
Many of the people I work with come to writing in times of transition: we feel, in these liminal times, out of joint. Our old meaning-making system no longer makes sense; we need to retell our story, enter into a new relationship to story, to meaning, to ourselves. Or we feel a calling to share the wisdom and the wackiness and wonder of what we have just gone through—this is a natural human need.
As we retell our story, amazing things can happen.
The first step, I believe, is acceptance: first we must accept what is, and what was. Without acceptance, we remain stuck, stagnate.
But that while acceptance is crucial, its tonality is muted; we usually need to accept things that we perceive as negative. There’s little excitement or bliss in acceptance.
But what if we meet transitions, or at least try to meet transitions, with more openness? Recently, I’ve been thinking about a more dynamic approach to transition, an easing into wonder:
I’m excited by the ways in which the story that we think we are living ends up turning and becoming a different story. You are working within one frame, and then something happens, and you find yourself able to peer into the world from a bigger frame of reference, from a bigger, perhaps even metaphysical, perspective.
The event that you think is the worst thing in your life ends up being, on some level, your greatest teacher.
I’m working with a client, Chris Mattson, who is writing a book about her path to becoming a healer. When her teenage son died of a brain tumor, she was sure it was the worst thing that could happen in her life. She was distraught.
And yet, something amazing happened. The horrible moment that his body was removed from the house she felt certain that she wouldn’t be able to go on, but her husband asked her to take a walk on the beach, and she did. And in that walk, instead of falling into the pit she was afraid of, she was able to connect with the moon, with the water, with the air and the sky and the sand beneath her feet.
And in that connection she heard the voice of her son, and she felt a connection to him that was so solid nothing could take it away. In that connection, a new life opened, and in that opening, she found a level of healing that she had never known before, and that led her to becoming a healer who can help others heal.
This is an extreme case, but what if we met our life with the curiosity and openness of unknowing?
I’m not saying this is easy, or that Chris didn’t –and doesn’t–continue to feel loss and pain, or that an almost unimaginable tragedy like hers is something that anyone could wish for or treat lightly. Or that I don’t feel loss and pain even at something as benign as another summer coming to an end.
Loss and pain are natural parts of our animal existence. A friend of mine has a bird, and once a year its feathers molt and the bird is in great pain, its loud squawks taking over the house. In the wild, the bird’s feathers would be plucked out by other birds, but this task falls on my friend and her partner, who must pull the feathers out themselves.
Loss and pain cannot be completely escaped. But in addition to the pain of the world, there might be something else: not just acceptance, but some miracle, some opening, some unexpected who-knows-what that also comes.
I’m trying to start this new academic year, when we all go back into our routines, into our busy-ness, and the full weeks of more work, more homework, more regularity, reminding myself of the wonder that is around us all the time, and remind myself that change—which we also live with all the time-- is a portal into that wonder.
I’d love to hear from you and hear how you approach transitions.
As I write, my daughter and ten of her friends are in the other room, watching a movie, and then they'll take over our upstairs and have a sleepover. Though Simone’s birthday isn’t until the end of August, we celebrate at the end of the academic school year, so this is her twelfth birthday party.
Twelve is a time of transition: the girls’ talk and games oscillate between boys and freeze dance party and pin the tail on the donkey. Their bodies are a wide variety of sizes and development.
In three days, they will move on from elementary school and they'll start middle school in the fall. This is a somewhat emotional time for me—I get emotional at each of my children’s birthdays and graduations, and now the phase of my life mothering elementary aged children is over. I have so loved having young children, and much as I love having older children, my body contracts and feels brittle at the thought of not having little children in the house to give purpose to and to brighten my days.
Simone will have a graduation/moving up ceremony at her school next week, but it is only for students and teachers—for some reason, there is no official graduation ceremony that the parents attend, so I have to deal with this transition on my own, in my own way.
Writing about it is one way that I am marking the transition; I’m having conversations with friends and with Eric; I went to a restorative yoga class and dedicated the class to this transition. I am making my own private ceremonies, making my own stories. But part of me wishes there were a more formal transition and a more formal way to make sense of these big life changes.
In more traditional cultures, there would be more ceremonies and more story telling, and I miss that. What happens I wonder, when we lose that?
This week, I’m going to be at Kripalu for a Narrative Medicine conference. I’m excited and eager to learn from the presenters who have been doing this work for a long time. One of the things we are learning is the importance of story telling for our mental health and also for our physical health. Without stories and times set aside to process our lives and transitions, our loves and our losses, we can become blocked—emotionally and physically. As our energy gets caught by our emotional selves, our physical selves develop illnesses. If we cannot narrate our story in words, we narrate our stories in symptoms. Just as physical toxins build up and can make us sick, so, too, emotional toxins can build up and make us sick.
Even something as joyous and celebratory as a daughter’s twelfth birthday party—and it is a joyous occasion—needs to be taken in, digested and processed.
The events of our lives, like the food we eat, need to be processed; we need to take in what serves us and eliminate what doesn’t. And this processing takes place through story, song and dance.
In a culture that pays less and less attention to the arts and to formal ceremony, rites of passage and story telling, it is no surprise that more and more people are isolated, depressed, unhealthy and violent.
A few weeks ago, I was at Kripalu to interview one of the leaders in the field of narrative medicine, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a doctor trained at Stanford who integrates native healing and story telling in his work and in his books. His work has inspired me for many years, and it was a real honor to meet him and talk with him. He brings together the best of the West with the best of indigenous cultures and brilliantly demonstrates the ways in which stories—on a personal and also, equally importantly, on a communal level—are essential to well-being and healing.
One of the things that’s particularly exciting about Mehl-Madrona’s work is that the stories he uses and elicits from his students are not only the memoir-like first person story of “this happened to me and then that happened,” but also and primarily stories that tap into our deep unconscious and into our connection to the larger human and animal worlds: stories of heroes, transitions, trials and triumphs. Mehl-Madrona uses traditional native stories and myths and also stories from popular culture to help people connect to a greater community and understanding of what it means to be human and to put their own individual challenges within a larger context and gain new perspective and new courage and energy to move forward and retell their own story. “Often you need to tell a story to get a story,” he told me.
As liberating and important as it is to uncover and claim our individual stories, sometimes we can get trapped within those stories, and it is also transformational to connect our personal experiences with the experiences of a larger, more coherent world. My passage into middle age and the growing up of my individual children is not unique to me, but part of a cycle of life.
Similarly, as my daughter and her friends negotiate these transitional years and experiment with the ways in which they are and are not part of a group, are and are not unique, (middle school is an age of drama), I can’t help wishing for a kind of rite of passage. Some of her friends will have a Bat-Mitzvah, but we never went down that route. I wish, however, there were other, readily available growing up ceremonies and ways to connect to cultural stories.
The books and the movies about girls this age that my daughter watches fill this role in part, but more communal form of story telling and stories that connect us not just to other humans, but back to the earth and to our natural cycles, and that connect our minds, bodies and spirits in times of transition are also deeply important and powerful.
When I interviewed Mehl-Madrona, he was in the middle of leading a workshop on Cherokee Body Work. “What kind of landscape are you in?” he asks his patients on the table as they explore the psychic landscape of their physical wounds. The mind-body connection is made on the healing table, and most patients locate themselves in the wilderness connected to the earth; this allows them to make healing connections they wouldn’t be able to make if they stayed in their left brain. “Often,” Mehl-Madrona told me, “the deepest healing comes from the subconscious mind—it’s more playful—imaginative.”
When we tap into our unconscious mind and reconnect with our bodies, we create pathways for healing and well-being. This happens on an individual level, a social level and also on an earth level.
As we listen to ourselves better, we learn, too, to listen to others better and to the earth better, and vice versa: as we listen to others better, we learn to listen better to ourselves.
This year, Simone’s last night of elementary school will be summer solstice and the full moon—a co-occurence that happens only every seventy years—just once in my own life time. This is a propitious time, a time of great transition. My hope and prayer is that we can learn to listen to our transitions, to quiet our minds and to go inward, so that we can remember the ways in which we are all connected to a greater cycle of being and belonging, presence and change and honor the life—and health—of all things.
Emotional Healing & Mindful Writing Blog | Nadia Colburn
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society.