This photo was one of our most popular Facebook post of 2019 and is one of my favourites too. It captured my imagination as to why. What is the voice behind this image which speaks to us so loudly?
The day I took this photo I didn’t mean to drive that way, but I got lost coming out of Manchester with the roadworks diverting me off in a different direction. As I drove through Trafford Park, I realised I was approaching my old office and thought, what the heck, I will go and check it out.
I couldn’t get right up to the building as there was now a barrier to prevent me getting in. The irony was not lost on me as when I worked there, for many years I felt trapped and, no matter how unhappy I became, I just couldn’t seem to find my way out.
Back then I spent so many years trying to envision what life would be like outside of this building, fearful of leaving and going out alone. I had no idea what work I might end up doing, or how I would be able to support myself away from my career.
Through the tears, worries, confusion, and angst of being in a place I just didn't fit into, I finally walked out of that world, and what a world I bounced into. Following the breadcrumb trail led me to a place of work where I have unbridled freedom and creativity, and this Little Red Van is my mobile office now. This photo here kind of captures it all really.
When I worked inside that building, I couldn't figure out how I would survive outside, and yet now I can't figure out how I survived that long inside. I so desperately wanted to leave that job, but I just couldn’t figure out how to. There was something holding me there which I couldn’t name.
I meet people all the time through The Way of the Buzzard who are struggling with this very thing themselves. It is a painful place to be, and from my experience it can go on for a number of years without ever really seeing a way out. So, I am writing this blog as we stand together at the dawn of a new decade as I know that many of you, like I was, will be thinking about how to change your work in the world this year and beyond.
So now speaking from the other side, I want to share the approach I took which led me to my grand exit from that world. How did I do it?
For the fifteen years that I worked as a sustainability professional in large organisations on the whole I loved the content of the work. I felt I was greening the machine from within and doing something to make a difference and turn the tide.
However, although I loved what I did day to day, I didn’t enjoy the business culture. I felt out of place. Me and the corporate life were like chalk and cheese, but I stuck at it, after all it was the thing that sustained me, and I needed to earn a living somehow.
I worked for a global construction firm and in this office, just on the outskirts of Manchester, I had a desk on the third floor looking out across to the Pennine hills. I enjoyed the company of my work colleagues and I made friends.
For a time, I believed in the work I did and the organisation I worked for. There was a deep family culture and it was said that if we were to cut our veins our blood would run blue, the corporate colours. I shudder inside when I think of that motto now but at the time, I rather liked it. I felt like I was a part of something special.
For a while on the surface everything seemed OK, but deep inside I knew something wasn’t right. I just couldn’t see myself being happy in this job for the rest of my life, but I had no idea what ‘the other thing’ was that I could do which would be right for me.
Working in sustainability is a tough job if you care, because it’s your job to be aware of the changes in the environment and what is around the corner in the coming years and decades. I needed to read journals and follow the evolving science.
I needed to write and deliver training courses and teach this. I needed to sit with the senior management teams and keep them updated. I couldn’t ever switch off to the rising global temperatures, the devastating impacts of climate change, resource depletion, and the destruction caused by the civilised way of life.
It was my job to teach people about this, but in a positive way and always from the ‘business case’ angle, explaining how we can make a business opportunity out of this, or how we can save money. As you can imagine that wasn’t always a particularly easy thing to do. As I said, chalk and cheese.
Then with the financial crash of 2008 everything changed in the construction sector. It took a few years for this to filter through to my department but ultimately there was a restructure, and then another following that.
It became an increasingly stressful place to work, as the management team changed, budgets cut, jobs were combined, and people were given more and more work to deliver in the same timescales. With the changes I grew progressively more unhappy. It was as if a light was being shone on my own internal workings, and I began to notice the symptoms of depression, an old acquaintance from my early twenties, knocking on the door once more.
This unease was the start of me beginning to seek a different way of life. It wasn’t easy. It took me quite a while, many years in fact, but I did emerge on the other side. Now I work in those very hills that I used to look out across to the horizon from my desk. I bumble around in my little red van going pretty much where I want, and mostly when I want.
Last year I slept out for two months, either in the van or in various tents. I don’t have a boss checking over me, well not an external one anyway. I am still working on that strict inner boss having less of a voice but that is another story for another time!
Looking back on those difficult years I can see that living daily with the outfall of the financial crisis, and being constantly immersed in the unfolding environmental crisis, brought out the crisis in me.
I can relate my experience back then to what I believe is happening to so many people now. We are all feeling as we move into a new decade a new level of uncertainty about the future. There will be a change in our economic position in the world as we leave Europe which is likely to leave a lot of us poorer.
There is a change in our climate which we can see even more plainly in recent months as wildfires rage across entire continents. There is change in the political arena as some of the largest countries in the world move to a hard-right governing position. This uncertainty brings with it a sense that there is chaos on the horizon.
However, with chaos there is an opportunity for change, for something new to emerge. It isn’t easy and it is rarely pretty. If you have made it down this far in this blog all of this is probably resonating with you at some level. As this chaos unfolds on the global level, maybe it is unfolding in your inner world too and showing you that it is time to change something in your life.
Inside the Chrysalis
There is a soupy phase that we enter when we move into this transitional place in-between stories. I liken this to the pupa phase when the caterpillar falls away, but the butterfly hasn’t yet emerged.
Inside a chrysalis one of the greatest transformations in the world takes place. The chrysalis protects the caterpillar as it begins to turn itself into a liquid, soupy substance.
Caterpillars are born with everything they need to become butterflies, and one of these things is the ability to create an enzyme in the first few days of being inside the chrysalis. This enzyme eats the caterpillar and bit-by-bit unlocks the information from the caterpillar’s cells, and the new butterfly’s organs, wings, antennae, and legs form inside the chrysalis. This can happen very quickly, sometimes in just seven days or take much longer, up to two years in some cases.
When metamorphosis is complete, the pupal skin splits, the adult insect climbs out, and after its wings have expanded and dried, it flies off to repeat the lifecycle once again.
Of its four stages in the life cycle of a butterfly the pupa phase holds a key message for us. This is a mucky, gooey phase, where things can seem stagnant. This is the space in between stories when one story has ended but the next hasn't begun yet. From the outside it might look as though nothing is happening, but inside that casing, quietly in the darkness, there is an incredible transformation going on.
The pupa phase can seem to take forever and often it can feel like there will never be an end to it. If you are finding yourself in this stage in your life right now take faith from Butterfly that there is a final stage beyond this, and that you will emerge the other side with your wings.
So, back to my own experience of moving from one story to another, how did I do it? How did I move from despair with my work in the system to where I am now? Well I have thought long and hard about this, and I have come up with my top five things which I did to help me when I was in this soupy stage of my life. Here we go!
1. I followed what I loved
This might sound rather cliché, and it took me several years to be able to even figure out what it was that I loved doing, and then several more to allow myself the time to do it, which I will tell you more about in a moment. However, my number one piece of advice is to follow what you enjoy doing, no matter how random it sounds and feels, and give yourself time and space for things to unravel.
My corporate training told me that I must always have a plan, I must always be busy, and I must always be doing something which has a point to it. I got so good at this that the real me didn’t really get a look in.
At its most extreme point I forgot what I really loved to do as those things I did as a child fell away, and at best I knew what I loved doing but I just couldn’t find the time to do them.
This is what I call the business of being busy. With so many responsibilities, never ending to-do lists and seemingly diminishing time in the day with every year we grow older, there is little time left to do what we love. The quote by sufi poet Rumi comes to mind right now,
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray”
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray”
For creativity to be unleashed, we need to still ourselves. You are looking to get creative in fashioning your life in a new direction, so you need to find your way into your creativity. It isn’t the easy road in the short term, and there are sacrifices, but it does lead to incredible things, I am in no doubt about that.
For me, I love going on adventures to different landscapes in the British Isles. I love sleeping out in beautiful locations in nature, whether it be swinging from my hammock in the forest or pitching up in my bell tent in a wildflower meadow.
I love walking the moors, hiking up mountains and tracing up a river to its source. It was allowing myself more and more space to do this which undoubtedly lead me to the place I am in today.
My number 1 recommendation is follow what you love.
What might this look like? Well, if someone tells you about something which sounds good, and you have never done it before, but fancy it, turn off the chattering mind and follow your gut.
If an idea pops into your head about something you would like to do, seek it out and do it. If you remember something you loved doing as a child but which you stopped doing because of work, do that thing. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you look back and get the whole picture of what just happened.
This isn’t about having a vision of where you want to get to. This is about simply following what you love doing, knowing that there is a destination, it is just you don’t yet know where that is. It will unfold over time.
2. I found myself a mentor
Now mentors present themselves in different guises, but I am a firm believer that if a person wants to effect real change in their life then having a regular go-to person is a must to help them forge a new path and work through old patterns which are blocking them from walking it.
I found my mentor around halfway through my career in the corporations. I realised I needed help and at the time I didn’t know what kind of person might be able to help me. I had gone to see my GP about my emerging depression and he had recommended I went on anti-depressants but I declined them.
Then, one day I was drawn unexplainedly to visit Gorton Monastery in Manchester and walk their labyrinth. I had no idea what a labyrinth was, but I rather liked the sound of it. I remember that day so well as it was the first warm sunny Saturday we had that year, and I felt it was odd that I was driving into a city rather than out into the hills.
It was Liz’s cloth labyrinth that she laid down on the Monastery floor, and we got chatting. She was a psychotherapist practicing in the same village where I lived, and so there and then the penny dropped. I had my first session with her, and then I promptly missed my second as I was too busy with work, such was the way my life back then.
I went to see Liz for ten years until she retired, at first weekly and then fortnightly and monthly. Going to her every week helped me unpick why I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be. That took quite a few years!
But having a person to go to every week to ultimately help me understand what it was that I really wanted from life was the foundation behind my great escape.
I needed someone to help me break through my old patterns. Patterns like not being able to say no to things. Not having the ability to work out what it was that I really wanted to do. Not feeling like I had a voice. Feeling like I ought to do things. Feeling anxious. Feeling afraid. Lack of confidence in my own ability. Lack of trust that I was enough.
A few years after I had met Liz I met a second mentor, Jayne Johnson. Jayne became my shamanic teacher and supervisor and I still have monthly sessions with her now. She is also a psychotherapist and a body therapist, and I’ve completed many of her training courses which have helped me on my path immensely. I can’t imagine a time when I stop seeking the advice of an elder.
Now finding a psychotherapist doesn’t seem to be a step everyone needs to take to change their work in the world.
I have spoken to a few people who I am close to recently to ask what it is that helped them move from work that was unfulfilling to work that was and not everyone had a mentor like this to help them break through old patterns. However, what they all did was stick close to other people who had made a change, and who presented a vision of what was possible.
If finding a psychotherapist is something which chimes for you, then I would recommend someone who works with transpersonal psychotherapy or psycho-spiritual psychotherapy, and/ or with the body. The UK Council for Psychotherapy or British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy are two registering bodies which both have databases you can use to help you find a therapist and the Embodied-Relational Therapy database also lists qualified practitioners.
The most important thing over everything is that you work with someone that you get on with and like.
3. I listened to that quiet voice inside
My third top thing I did was to find a way to hear my inner guidance, that quiet voice inside me. This is my soul speaking to me, guiding me to where the real me, deep inside, truly wants to be.
Hearing this voice is no easy feat given the busyness of our modern world, and it often seems to me that our world is set up in such a way to distract us from being able to do this.
There are many different ways to do this and shamanic journeying and nature connection works for me. What is key here is finding a way to get that connection with something greater than ourselves, outside of our conscious minds.
I love shamanic journeying as it is a quick way to meet my spirit guides and seek answers to exact questions I have. In fifteen minutes or so I can have an answer, although I admit interpreting the full meaning of the response takes somewhat longer at times!
Also, I love seeking guidance from nature as it is right there outside my window. I have found deep meaning in the hop of a blackbird across our front lawn, the call of a crow just before dawn, the leap of a roe deer over a dry-stone wall and the golden eagle soaring the thermals above me.
All these have guided me in some way through recent years, just as the oak has with its unwavering strength, the birch with is joy at new beginnings, the rowan with its determination and the yew with its acceptance that endings are necessary in order to make way for the new.
What is clear to me is that our current way of thinking isn’t enough. Our conscious minds do not have all the answers that we need in order to take us to the places that our soul wants us to go.
“we cannot solve our problems with the same leven of thinking that created them”
“we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
4. I invested in myself
My fourth key thing I did was to invest more time and money into myself.
When I worked in the corporations, I jumped at any opportunity to go on training courses, and when I left this continued, only they were different kinds of courses and I had to pay for them myself.
When I left my “proper” corporate job, rather than taking up another position in another firm I decided to set up a consultancy and work for myself to free up my time. I have seen this with other people I am close to who have made the leap, where they have reduced their hours to free up a day or two a week to focus on something else.
Or they have left their job and taken up a part time job as a cleaner to cover the bills whilst they built up the work they are passionate about. When I left that construction firm I just wanted out, and never wanted to work in that field again. But I endured it part time for another four years whilst I retrained, following what I loved doing the most and trusting that it would all work out OK, which it did.
It was tough doing two jobs at the same time, treading water in one whilst I was working hard to grow the other to a level where it was bringing in enough money to support me.
However, I knew it wasn’t forever, and I knew it was a means to an end, so I just knuckled down and did it, reaching out for support along the way as I broke down old patterns and prepared myself for my new line of work.
When we start in a career many of us went to college or university and underwent several years of training and when we are looking to change our work in the world we need to take a similar view. To get to the place where I am at today, I have invested a lot of time and money over the years in workshops and courses, one, two and three year-long programmes in shamanism, permaculture, body therapy, wild therapy, eco-facilitation, myth and storytelling.
I have completed a range of e-learning courses on marketing and have plenty in the wings which I haven’t got around to doing yet. I have foregone holidays and other luxuries over this time, and invested countless weekends attending courses, and it has all been worth it. Investing in ourselves is an important step.
What if you are reading this and thinking what course should I do?
Well go back to my first point for this. Follow what it is that you love. If you don’t feel you have time? Go to my second point and find someone to help you understand how you can carve time out.
5. I was ok going with the flow
My final thing I did was learning to be OK with not knowing exactly where it is that I was going. I learned to trust my gut. I believe that if I am on the right path the universe will unfold events so that I get to where my soul wants me to be.
One of the things which has helped me to go with the flow is following the natural cycles of the year. When the pace of life seems to be getting faster and faster, we just need to look outside at nature and see that there is a huge transformation taking place out there but at a slow pace.
When winter turns to spring, we see the emergence of new shoots to the soundtrack of the bird song changing. Yet it is three months until new growth really reveals itself in May, when the leaves in the trees explode into the world and baby animals emerge from their mothers’ bellies.
Come August we see the farmers gathering in the first harvest and I can taste the approach of autumn in the air, yet it is another three months until the cold days and long nights start to set in at the end of October.
With each of these turns in the wheel of the year there is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has passed and look ahead to what we want to welcome into our lives. A tree doesn’t grow huge in a few months.
Each year it grows a little more during the warm days and then retreats back in the winter, to gather itself ready for another burst the following year.
I find that combining this awareness with the power of ceremony has been a great combination for marking the wheel of the year and working with its transformational energies. I have been following the natural cycles of the year for approaching fifteen years now and having this natural structure to approaching my goals has been invaluable.
So, there we have it, my five top tips of things I did to help me when I was in that soupy phase of my life.
Transitioning from one way of working in the world to another takes time, and I didn’t find it easy. This is why I need the first three things I have listed here. I followed what I loved, I found some mentors and learned to listen to that quiet voice within.
If you too are finding yourself in this place, my final advice is just like the caterpillar who creates a cocoon, create a safe space for the deep work inside to take place. Put up your boundaries. Reach out and find support, and rest. This is hard work and you need to allow yourself space to be still, and alone. In our busy lives, this might seem impossible, but this is the work.
Growth needs space in order to happen and whatever time you create for yourself will pay you back in dividends.
For change to happen, deep change, which is going to really fulfil us, we need to let the old story fall away. This is really painful. It leaves us with a big gap, and an inertia in our lives as we feel that nothing is happening, and we need a clear plan in front of us. However, as I have mentioned already there is a really sticky time in-between stories, as one passes and the new one has yet to form.
So, when we are in this moment, which can last what seems to be a lifetime, we need to reach out and find whatever feels like balm. Also spend time with other open-minded awake people who ‘get it’. Often these people are not people who you have regular day to day contact with or who you would call close friends, but they offer a real cushion for you.
There are a few great books I can recommend if you want to read into this further. The first is Charles Eisenstein’s book “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible”. In this book Charles talks about this place between stories.
The second book is “Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth talks about how to follow that quiet tug inside to pursue whatever it is that you love, as this will lead you to where you need to be and create what it is that you were born to create.
Breaking away and forging a new path in the world is a radical act.