#11: Retrospectives aren't just for the New Year

An insight into life after seven months of retraining as a psychedelic guide and integration coach.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
- One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop

Dear January 2020’s Maria,

I’m writing to you from the near future of a sweltering August day you will have poorly anticipated for by omitting to pack any summer clothes. I’d ask what were you thinking if I didn’t know better. For future reference, though, a couple of summer dresses and T-shirts don’t just weigh less, but will be more useful than a PS4 you’ll only start twice.

You might think what business an only-seven-months-older Maria has writing to you, other than attempting a somewhat artistic and definitely self-indulgent form of putting some thoughts in order. How much wisdom can one accrue in less time than it takes to grow a human baby? How come I always end up with two bananas rotting in the fruit bowl? How many rhetorical questions can I ask before readers catch up with my lack of ideas for a better transition?

Right. So let me tell you about what’s coming.

Quite early on, things will start falling apart at alarming rates.

It will look like everything is decomposing around you. Your underwear will start ripping in ways you’ve never seen before, your fingers digging gaping holes every time you drag the fabric up your thighs. Your favourite jeans, the high-waisted ones from Topshop, will one day just burst open at the waistline, hanging awkwardly from the belt. While consumed by thoughts about the sudden breaking apart of your relationship, you’ll trip down a familiar set of stairs and sprain your left ankle. The sharp pain will ground your punishing thoughts in reality, as your cat will tip-toe around you with a look that seems both worrying and sarcastic at the same time.

Weeks later, your hair will dry up in huge knots that will make you feel like one of the big, homeless dogs that no one cares for. It’ll start breaking and falling out, covering the floors and blocking the drains faster than you can clean them. And just when you’re starting to feel sorry for yourself, a pandemic will stealthily instil itself into the world, reminding you that bigger loss is always just around the corner.

You’ll cry so much you’ll lose your voice, and hold so much gut-wrenching pain that your body will writhe and retch trying to rid itself of it. You’ll lose your home, your plans, some of your hopes, and, eventually, your long blonde locks. Some of this will feel disastrous - and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that some of it maybe was.

The next few months will be a constant trial of adaptation, as the rug will be pulled not just from under your feet, but everyone’s. Thankfully, you’ll be lucky to have the space and time to take it all as it comes. You’ll sleep and read and meditate and do lots of yoga. You’ll write! You’ll cook complicated dishes. You’ll learn Reiki, just to see what the big deal was, and genuinely enjoy the practice. You’ll face your fears of bears and other impending disasters and take beautiful hikes in the mountains, noticing how the seasons move through nature for the first time in your life.

And then, one day, a sense of peace will set up camp inside you.

You’ll wake up feeling lighter, and genuinely joyful. Your heart will be filled with love and forgiveness, and your worries about the future will be replaced by a deep trust in life having your back. Under the spell of a beautiful documentary about Ram Dass, you’ll wonder if this is what that elusive place of enlightenment could be like, and whether you’d somehow achieved it. And then, one day, when Buddha shows up in your meditation and tells you that you are him, and he is you, you’ll use this precious, incredible time not to inquire about the mysteries of life, but to ask him what his favourite colour is (it’s all the colours said at once, like redyellowblueblack-greyorangewhitepinkgreen) - thus reminding yourself, yet again, that you are a total and complete dumbass.

And, as this beautiful calm leaves you as unexpectedly as it arrived, you’ll learn that enlightenment is perhaps not a final destination, but rather a tiny patch to slowly cultivate within yourself, one that grows with each visit. This will be a welcome and freeing revelation and you’ll begin to see people around you in a different light.

You’ll learn that healing is a strange process.

While watching a lecture at an online trauma conference, you’ll learn the concept of woundology, and it’ll feel like many puzzle pieces clicking to form a deeper understanding of something that is, essentially, so simple. You’ll go on to devour the author’s book, and discover that so often we hang on to our wounds because letting them go would mean having to learn a whole new way of being - one where we have to be powerful and responsible for our own lives, rather than victims of what happens to us.

You’ll see that victimhood carries a strange power over others, one where our nasty, needy behaviours can be excused through the lens of what once happened to us. It’s an attractive place of false powerlessness that tricks us into manipulating others for love and care and attention. It turns us into perpetrators. Plus, it absolves us of responsibility when things don’t turn out well, since someone else is always to blame.

You’ll experience this firsthand during one of the many courses you’ll be doing this year. As you’ll be instructed to fill a sheet of paper with the names of everyone you know, and honestly, truthfully look at how you show up in each of those relationships, a deep, heavy, slimy sense of shame will suddenly awaken in you. You’ll wonder how you ever felt entitled to behave as badly as an adult… only because you were once hurt as a child?! You’ll cry for hours, unconsolably hugging your knees into your chest, feeling angry at yourself. Until, eventually, all this anger will soften and allow for compassion to settle in.

Months later, this process will make more sense, when your coaching course will present a useful framework for understanding maturity.

It turns out that climbing out of victimhood, our awakening inevitably takes us to a place of anger: not just at ourselves, for allowing these terrible things to happen to us, but at everyone and everything. And anger is good! Anger is fire. Anger is your compass for what needs to change. Let anger guide you, but don’t let it take over because rage is a foolish way to spend your energy.

Once anger passes, responsibility sets in, allowing us to forgive the past and move forward with ownership and intention over our actions. From there, we can go to a place of concern, and care for the outer world. This heart-bursting, forehead-slapping place opens one to compassion, but can also be tricky if we haven’t yet learned that we can’t help everyone. If this troubles you, remind yourself of the wise words of Byron Katie: sometimes it’s enough that we tend to our own garden. What’s the point of donating to a million charities, if you can’t be generous and kind to those closest to you?

This, in fact, is the place of reconciliation: the maturity to choose your battles wisely, stemming from a profound acceptance of life’s imperfections. If we’re lucky enough to make it here, we can move on to synthesis, the place of inner joy and clarity on what we want to achieve, and later non-judgement, when we live our lives with intention, creativity, and passion.

Before, inevitably, we fall back into victimhood and begin again.

So, faced with the challenge of rebuilding yourself, you’ll contemplate what it might mean to lead a good life.

Through the work of Carl Jung, echoed by the writings of Carl Rogers and other more spiritual teachers, you’ll begin to better understand that your process of individuation, of becoming the complete human being you were born to be, is a lifetime’s task. So go easy on yourself! You’ll see that becoming your best is not about ridding yourself of the meaner, weaker, darker parts of yourself, but embracing them and allowing them to reveal the love, strength and beauty they also contain.

Because the good life, it seems, is not a final destination (have they been to Bali though?), a six-figure salary, or a 5 bedroom house with a pool and a home cinema. It’s not the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (which, remember, was never supposed to be a pyramid), where one would reach homeostasis and never change again.

So what is it? Well, that’s for you to figure out. As life, the universe, a shapeless-beardless god, or just pure randomness takes away things you loved and cherished, you’ll find the space to see what’s important. Part of that will be trusting yourself, so you can guide others on their paths, with or without psychedelics. Another will be writing. But the biggest and most important one will be the freedom to just be, starting with a looser grip on where you are in life and the stories you tell yourself about it.

Think you can do that?


PS: I’m sending you some of the books you’ll be reading this year. When things get difficult, these books will be your lifejacket. Tell other folks about them, one of them might save their lives too.

“There were moments when I understood that there was nothing much I was going to understand or figure out. There was simply the present moment, awareness, impermanence, birdsong, love. There is no fixing this setup here. It seems broken and ruined at times, but it isn’t: it’s simply the nature of human life.”
- Anne Lamott, Almost Everything

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In the next edition I’ll write a complete guide to dream analysis, so stick around, it’s gonna be juicy.