“Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~
This business of soul searching is one of the more over-verbalized terms yet grossly under-utilized practices, if the drudgery of our collective lives in Western culture is any indication.
Many of us spend a lifetime doing perfunctory soul searching, and when that turns up little or no evidence of what our soul dares speak to us, we go about our journey, until the next albatross flies overhead and leaves a souvenir of its fly-by in our wake.
Coleridge is onto something relative to soul searching and mariner trekking. That which I most fear and dread, and which most closely dogs me like the Jesus/cat in the alley that Anne Lamott speaks of relative to her religious conversion experience, that is my thing. So this paranoid tendency of looking backwards and shoulder checking, as the mariner does, is actually a sound soul searching method. By exploring the trail from whence I came, I can get a pretty good idea of who or what my albatross is and what it means vis-a-vis my life’s mission and purpose.
How many of us can remember or map the countless times our albatross came calling? Mine hovers nearby at myriad life moments. Sometimes it’s when I’m trudging through life like the mariner, using fear instead of faith as my compass. During those endless jaunts, I’m not likely to be looking up so it makes itself known by squawking faintly somewhere near the abyss of the distant horizon. At other times, I hear its call “dale and plain.”
Those obvious calls are overt, even a little audacious. My albatross appears everywhere then – in bookstores, on television, dressed up as my Great Aunt – it begins to look and sound like a multi-media bombardment and aviary cacophony at some stages. And yet still, I have been known to ignore it. Daily life drudgery wins out yet again, if in ever so temporal a fashion. And to quote Lamott yet again (she knows a thing or two about spiritual demons), “you can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.”
Monkeys, albatrosses, cats - let’s face it – we all have our own animal farm within, a veritable wild kingdom of baboons and mynah birds that drive us to the brink of madness. Our main life trick – perhaps the only one we really need learn – becomes how to hush, tame and then feed our inner caged animals so that they might stop clawing at our shoulders and screeching in our ears.
My own soul searching process can be likened to the Via Negativa (negative way), a method of discerning the divine adopted by negative theologians. So that is to say, I have mostly come to an intuition and acceptance of my calling as a result of what it is not. For instance, I know that cooking and cleaning and bean counting aren’t my things. I know this because I consider each of these three activities an energy-sucking means to a glorious and important end. But not one could be classified as my raison d‘être.
So when I hold my energy meter (think woo-woo metal detector) up to my life’s duties, roles and other pursuits, I can then make a visceral assessment that if it fails to make my energy meter SIGH!, as measured by activities that feel Significant, Inspiring, serve some greater Good and make me and/or others Happy, then that particular thing is probably not it.
Now for some, a more positive approach might be in order, processes of elimination being tedious and all that. In that case, cutting straight to the happy, happy, joy, joy, wild thing, heart sing list becomes the order of the day. This isn’t always altogether a straightforward sleuthing either. Case in point, I know that enjoying a triple-scoop grape ice cream and dancing like a whirling dervish are two activities that would assuredly be on my top five happiest and most joy-filled moments in life. Neither translates into any kind of viable vocation or avocation - indeed, these would more likely make it onto my ideal vacation list instead. And yet each provides an important glimpse into the types of things – ie. simple life pleasure and a meditative trance movement - that ground me in the moment and help me forget space and time.
And so that is the kind of inner globetrotting a modern mariner must do. Unpack the backpack, get comfy in an REI camp chair, and sit for a minute or two or seven hours or a year and get real and raw with your own personal compass, maps and artifacts, which are the clues of your life that take the myriad forms of cherished photos, favorite stories, obsessive/compulsive tendencies and idiosyncratic behaviors, most coveted momentos and collections, professional profiles, business cards, between the cracks of your curriculum vitae, the three most avoided items on your bucket list, and if all that fails, your family obligations and legacies.
What is the central story your life has told thus far and in what ways is your inner protagonist urging you to write your next chapters? To whom should you be dedicating these chapters and your entire life’s book?
The key artifacts aren’t always obvious – some can seem mighty esoteric – but pile them in one place and begin to group them, and slowly, surely, magical patterns and clues will begin to emerge.
And if they don’t, expect a visit from your friendly neighborhood albatross, monkey or stray cat. Somehow, they always know where to find you.