And it showed me something important.
When we are in crisis, the crisis becomes everything we see. It looms over us like a giant, blocking out the sun. And this makes dealing with the problem very hard. We become overwhelmed with not only the problem but our emotional reactions to it. Overwhelmed. Daunted. Hopeless. Betrayed. Alone. We become trapped not only in the problem but our fear around it.
Our job is to help people take a step back and see how this problem they are facing fits into the bigger picture.
Our job is to paint a picture so much larger than the problem so that their efforts are infused with even more meaning.
For years, I’ve found incredible solace in the work of Byron Katie. It’s a simple work around questioning our stressful thoughts until they let go of us.
But then, late in 2013, I found myself in the hospital with a heart situation (which, thankfully, turned out to be okay) afraid that I would die. And for the next month I had many moments of thinking I would die that day. I was discharged with a clean bill of health but the experience shook me to my core and had me cancel the tour of Europe I’d been planning all year so I could head home, care for myself and integrate what this experience had meant to me.
I truly thought I was going to die. That I was going to have to let go of my life. And I was not ready for that moment. There was no peace in my heart. Just an overwhelming terror at the inconceivable thought of dying. The most impossible thing to let go of – our lives.
And it has struck me that every time we let go of anything we are practicing for our death. Every time we are willing to question a stressful thought until it melts away leaving us more free – we are practicing for our death.
Every time we let go of a way of defining ourselves in favour of something more true and expansive leaving us more free and authentic – we are practicing for our death. Every time we shake our body until the stress melts away, every time we are, miraculously, able to forgive someone and let go of a grudge, every time we are able to let go of a relationship or the belief that we need closure or completion on it, an addiction or obsession . . . anything we think we need that we grasp to . . . we are practicing for our death when we’re asked to let go of the most impossible and brightest thing. Because I know that letting go of anything we grasp onto feels like a sort of mini death. Letting go of a precious idea, ideology or identity feels so terrifying. Letting go of our shame, the ways we beat ourselves and others . . . it’s terrifying. We just can’t imagine ourselves without it.
And so, letting go becomes not only the secret to a happy life with a peaceful heart but also a peaceful and happy death. And, it also struck me that every single time I let go of something that wasn’t meant for me or something that causes me stress I am happier, more free and have more peace in my heart. I am always in a better place after genuinely letting go. Maybe that’s true when we lose this life of ours. I don’t know. But I know that all of the suffering in my life (and the suffering I’ve caused for others) is the result of my clinging onto things. I hope that when I face that big moment next, I’m able to embrace it and meet it with peace in my heart. May it be this way for all of us.
Suddenly, doing The Work was infused with so much more meaning. I wasn’t just doing it to deal with some small stressful thought.
Each time I did it, I was practicing for my own death.
And, now I’m noticing how much more motivated I am to do it. When I finally saw how this small and simple work was preparing me for the most important moment in my life . . . something shifted.
There’s an old story I’ve heard many times that speaks to this theme. I’ll share it here.
A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”
A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral to praise almighty God!”
Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.
When we see there’s a bigger purpose that our work is contributing to, we’re more likely to do it.
And when people see that your business is fundamentally about more than just ‘making money’ but, instead, something much larger, expansive and meaningful . . . they’ll be so much happier to support you with their money.
Is there a bigger context, a larger purpose, that lies underneath all the work you do or invite people to do?
Janis Rosen of Winnipeg has worked with women around weight loss for years and frames it all beautifully. For her weight loss is a path of personal growth. Her belief is that, if you approach it in that way, that as you grow smaller on the outside, you grow bigger on the inside.
Deena Metzger, in her book, Entering the Ghost River, speaks beautifully about how, from an indigenous perspective, illness isn’t an individual thing. That if you have cancer, it’s more a matter that the entire community has cancer and it’s simply showing up through you. And so, the work of healing our communities becomes inextricably linked to personal health and vice versa.
I know of people who work with addiction but instead of just trying to help people stop using a particular substance, they see the addiction as a spiritual issue and use it as the doorway to transforming their whole life.
Joseph Campbell’s incredible work on codifying the ‘hero’s journey’ is a perfect example of this. His basic idea was that, cross culturally, the stories of hero’s all followed a similar pattern that is mirrored in our own lives. That we’re having an ordinary life, are called to adventure and then we go through hell and are torn apart by the adventure but then rebuilt and return home with the gifts of everything we’ve learned for the community.
And knowing this whole bigger context matters. Because if you’re trapped in the Ordeal and you don’t know that this is a totally normal and natural part of the process and that the next step is that you get your reward and get to head home . . . you might just give up.
Understanding the larger story that you’re in can give you so much strength to persevere.
Helping your client understand the bigger picture where they are in their journey and the bigger cause they’re a part of can change their entire orientation around it from being a victim to being the hero of their own story.
You can read more examples of projects with a clear larger ‘why’ here.
The core question to ask yourself is, ‘What is my work really, at the heart of it, about? What’s the bigger picture?’
Or here’s another way to consider it: imagine that everyone in the world for whom your work was suited, did it what would the impact on the world be? Like if you sell cloth diapers – what would the impact on the world be if all mothers switched over and stopped using disposables? If you help people recover from trauma – what would happen if everyone in the world was healed of their trauma? What would that mean for the world?
Really sit with all that. Get clear about it. And then tell everyone. Help them understand why you are so passionate about the work you do and how, by them engaging in it, they’re also working towards this larger vision.
Is there a bigger context spiritually, politically or environmentally for your work?
What are the benefits of getting clear about this?
1) If people see the bigger picture and how by doing what you suggest they’re contributing to something so much larger than they thought, they will be more inspired to sign up to work with you.
2) By sitting with this you will also feel more inspired to share your work. Rather than feeling gross about ‘self promotion’ you’ll be spokesperson for a larger cause that matters to you.
3) It’s an incredible help to people, when they’re struggling, to have a larger context put around their problems. It helps shrink the problem down so that it’s a part of something rather than everything.
I invite you to share the bigger cause/deeper context of your own work below.