“Our journey is not about changing into the person we want to become. It’s about letting go of all we are not.” ~Nikki van Schyndel, Becoming Wild
I recently went on personal retreat to once again try to heal my wounds, see my patterns, and find my purpose. I loaded my car with journals from the last two decades and a book of poetry dating back to 1980. I packed my cooler full of nourishing food, but then added a six pack of beer and an expensive bottle of wine—completely unaware that I was about to sabotage my personal growth by continuing to numb my pain.
I had decided to use my retreat time to review my journal writings, pull out any wisdom I wanted to keep, and release the rest in a burning ceremony. On my first day, I labeled each journal with the year it was written and organized them all chronologically. This task felt arduous yet satisfying when I sat back and looked at the twenty-five volumes all laid out neatly in order.
I spent the next three days re-reading each and every one. Re-living the emotional angst of problems in this relationship, then the next … and the next. Teasing out the patterns of insecurity, sabotage, and grieving. Re-visiting the same themes and my same desire and commitment, after the ending of each relationship, to be this person who stopped drinking in excess, meditated daily, ate healthy foods, and took good care of her body.
Over and over, I had glimpses of this centered, calm, wise woman who I’d like to think is the real me. Yet over and over, I’d jumped into another relationship, lost myself, and repeated the pattern. Pages and pages full of the same story, only with different characters and at different times. As I read each journal, I tore out pages to burn, cut out sections to keep, and drank to numb the pain.
On the fourth day I finished organizing the scraps of paper I wanted to keep and sat back with immense satisfaction. By early afternoon I had my fire going and drank my first beer of the day as I burned … and burned … and burned. Words turning into ashes. I stayed emotionally distant, cut off from my feelings, not making much of a ceremony of it after all.
Feeling restless, I downed the last of my beer and pulled on my hiking boots. The trail outside my cabin began with a steep decline, winding along the side of the mountain and deep into the woods. As I walked, I kept thinking, “I haven’t changed. I’m still the same. What will it take to change? Why can’t I be that person I say I want to be? My life is one big loop.”
I thought maybe the answer was that I just needed to be more self-disciplined. However, I immediately noticed the word “discipline” repelled me. If there is one thing I know about myself, I am not one to obey rules or codes of behavior—and I already punish myself enough. So, no, self-discipline wasn’t the answer. It was clear that I had spent a lifetime trying that approach and beating myself up for not succeeding. I kept on walking.
At some point I questioned if maybe this was what life was really all about: the striving to be someone we are not. By that time, I was walking back uphill and had to stop frequently to catch my breath.
Standing alone in the woods with my heart beating hard, staring blankly at the trees, I wondered if maybe the answer was just to embrace who I am. It’s pretty clear, after reading over my life for twenty years, I haven’t been able to change.
My mind continued to whirl: But I’m not able to accept those parts of myself that drink too much or can’t stay focused. I don’t want to be that person who is overweight. I really do want to meditate. I stopped again, looking down the mountainside from which I had come. Apparently embracing myself wasn’t quite the answer either.
By the time I had returned to my cabin, I no longer wanted to drink. I reflected again on the common thread throughout the years and suddenly saw the essence of myself that is timeless.
It was there in my poetry from over forty years ago, in the heartbreak when I sabotaged yet another relationship, and in the yearning to be different.
In a flash of insight, I recognized—contrary to the self-criticism that had been running through my head—the unchanged me was not a bad self. She is someone who wants to do better, who wants to be better, who recognizes the impermanence of time and seeks to grow.
As I saw her, I knew this was the me I could totally embrace. I briefly thought about starting a new journal with this great insight, then laughed because I knew, if I did, I’d be reading it in twenty years, shaking my head, and saying “nothing has changed.” Then I would beat myself up for not being who I thought I wanted to be, and the cycle would just continue.
In this recognition, I knew that those parts of me I so strongly criticized weren’t going to go away. And while I couldn’t embrace them, I could accept them with greater compassion and love.
I saw the truth that even if I don’t meditate daily, exercise, eat healthy all the time, and have a full and balanced life, the part of me that strives to do those things is always there. She was in every page where I said I wanted to make those choices, and she’s been with me all along. She is the one I need to accept and embrace; it’s not who I want to be, it’s who I am.
The review of my life helped me understand it’s a process. That timeless part of me may come and go, just like I have my moments of awakening to my wisdom and then forgetting it all. Sometimes the me who struggles to make healthy choices is going to hijack my life. I can accept that is a part of being human. It’s not self-discipline I need, it’s self-acceptance of my duality. Both my wise woman and my saboteur.
I am a wise and powerful woman. I am a kind, sensitive, and caring soul. I love deeply. I care deeply. I feel deeply. I don’t need to escape from who I am; I simply need to remember. Ultimately, what really needs to change is that I need to nurture self-compassion and self-acceptance at the deepest level.
My last day at the cabin, I awoke to sunshine and blue skies. I felt good and strong. I spent part of the day shopping in the craft stores of the nearby village, and before I knew it, I was halfway to the liquor store. I kept trying to convince myself it was okay, but recognizing I wanted to make a different choice, I managed to turn around before it was too late.
I chose a waterfall hike and scrambled past the tourists, up to the top of the falls. The rocks were a slippery slope, but the irony of that and the potential of me drinking didn’t quite register until later. When I reached the top, I sat a moment to meditate. As I closed my eyes, I embraced this timeless essence and felt so much peace and gratitude for her presence.
My inner saboteur tried to take over again when I got back to my car. Sitting in the parking lot, I asked myself, “What do you hope to accomplish by getting a drink?” Then, I laughed at the quick and witty answer, “A hangover.” I drove back to my cabin, made myself a healthy meal, and drank a glass of water.
I understand now this journey is a day-by-day, moment-by-moment reclaiming of who I am. I also understand the part of me that has been in control when I’ve forgotten my essence isn’t going to disappear overnight.
However, I no longer fool myself into thinking anything is wrong with me. I recognize and embrace my commitment to growing in wisdom, strength, and joy. And I embrace all of who I am, while having compassion for the parts of me that struggle.