I titled this post “Confessions of Fear and Courage,” but it could just as easily have been called “Reflections of Memory and Calling.”
William Maxwell wrote that “what we refer to confidently as memory is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”
Anyone who’s practiced yoga with me has heard me say that everything is changing moment to moment. Memories are not immune to this reality. More and more, research shows us that memory is a process, not a thing. Memories aren’t files stored on the “hard drive” of our minds, ready to be pulled up unchanged whenever we need them. In the context of the yoga sutras, memories (or smrti in sanskrit) are fluctuations of the mind. They are part of the constant movement of our thinking process. Every time we recall something, the memory is changed by whatever’s happening in our current state––our current moment. Think about how many arguments you’ve had with friends and family members because your memory of an experience wasn’t the same as theirs. But the truth is, there is no static, factual memory. No one is the winner of the argument. Memory is a process.
My own memory was challenged recently after reading some of my old writing. While in seminary I took a class (an amazing class) called “Discernment of Calls and Gifts.” This is a class that all students at the Earlham School of Religion (ESR) take about halfway through the program. It’s designed to help us identify our gifts and articulate our call to ministry. At ESR, ministry is a wide open field. Many students (myself included) don’t enter the school intending to pastor a church. So the calls to ministry articulated in the class span a wide array of fascinating projects. It’s a wonderful and inspiring community to be part of.
Recently I’ve been revisiting my own calls and gifts and doing some deep discernment work. As inspiration I decided to reread every paper I wrote in that class. And I discovered experientially the truth that memory is a process, not a thing. I remember seminary as a challenging, but inspiring time in my life, full of growth and change. But apparently my first year was incredibly difficult and I spent quite a bit of energy deciding whether or not to drop out. This fact is something I had forgotten. And it’s something I can only barely remember after having been reminded of it. And what I do remember of that difficulty has no emotional charge for me. I’ve unintentionally rewritten that story through the action of repeatedly remembering seminary in a positive way. It’s a wild thing to realize.
It’s also hopeful. And helps me better understand the research coming out regarding trauma and grief, integration and memory. We are not stuck with our painful memories. They shift. And we can work with intention to shift them in particular directions. It’s powerful.
Rereading my old papers is also teaching me that the story I tell myself about my life being in constant flux (my collection of ever changing memories) is only partially true. I have experienced a lot of flux. I’ve had easily over 20 addresses spread across 3 states, I’ve attended 12 schools, my religious history reads like a roller coaster ride. But I’ve also had great consistency. I have friends that have been an important part of my life for over a decade and this year I’ll celebrate my 17th wedding anniversary. And when I look back at the path I’ve been traveling, when I reread those discernment papers from years ago, I realize that even though I couldn’t always see it, I’ve been moving in a very clear direction. So many steps––well thought out, intentional, sometimes scary steps––have brought me to this moment. My memory may not be perfectly accurate. It may not be a thing that tells a perfectly linear story. But it does have a story to tell. It tells the story of a terrified, out of control 20-year old. And the story of an angry and confused, but determined 30-year old. My memories tell the story of how I got here, almost to 40, and finally feeling clear and grounded in my purpose. Able to name my gifts. To articulate my calling.
And this is where the confessions of fear and courage come in. For a long time I have been afraid of my gifts. Afraid of my calling. I’ve held back in my work. I refer to myself as an artist, a minister, and a yoga therapist. These three descriptions each represent an aspect of my calling. And in some ways I’m answering them in my work. I try to add beauty and truth to the world. I try to minister to every person I’m lucky enough to work with––by which I mean I try to create and hold space for them to connect with their own True Self. And I try to convey the teachings of yoga in accessible and transformative ways. I try to offer the tools of yoga to people who are suffering in ways that allow them to work toward their own healing.
This work, all of it, is what I am called to do in this world. After almost a decade of discernment, I am confident that I know my svadharma (my unique personal duty in this lifetime). And, as difficult as it can be to say, I know that I have gifts that make me good at this work. And this is where courage comes in.
The Bhagavad Gita states that “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma.” (3.35)
I am ready to strive in my own dharma with more focus than I ever have before.
In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”
I have been compelled by a few ideas (big ideas) for years. But I have lived in fear. I have accepted the judgmental voice in my head that constantly tells me: “No one will understand your work. And people will think you’re weird. They’ll think you’re some strange religious person.”
But the thing is, I am a religious person. I believe in God. God as the mystery of existence. As the reason there is something rather than nothing. I believe in a God that is way too big to be personal in anyway that we human beings define as personal. Yet I feel the presence of God––of divine mystery––in my life everyday. I guess if this makes me some strange religious person, I’ll just have to learn to accept it. Because I’m ready to be more transparent about it. I’m ready to be more verbal about the mystery of God in my teaching.
And my work can be hard to understand, but it’s not impossible. As a yoga therapist I work to help people understand and release their suffering. Suffering on any level––body, energy, mind, heart, spirit. Pain is unavoidable in life. But we can choose our reaction to it. We can be sad without suffering. We can learn to understand our thinking patterns, the ways they keep us cycling through suffering, and how to transform them. This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s FREAKING HARD WORK. But I’ve experienced it. And I’ve witnessed it again and again and again in my (hard to explain) work with others. I am ready to find ways to better explain it. I am ready to make sure that what I do is clear and understandable, so that the people who need my work can find me.
After years of discerning. Years of training. Years of studying. Years of practicing. Years of listening to my own inner voices (both the ones that tell me I have gifts that the world needs and the ones that keep me too afraid to use them), I am finally ready to step out of my own self-inflicted boxes of perfectionism and labels and try on some courage.
I hope you’ll join me. Good things are coming. I have big ideas that I’m finally ready to launch.
PS: This post is fitting for the Spring Equinox, happening on March 20th. Spring is a time of growth and rebirth. A time of cleaning up and making space. A time for renewal. The equinox represents balance. It’s a day with an equal amount of light and dark. It’s an auspicious time to do your own discernment work––to search after your own gifts, your own calling, your own svadharma. If you would like support in your searching, I’m here.