Unshackled – my journey to freedom

May 28, 2024

Crunch time

From the outside looking in, I was a success. I had achieved everything I set out to achieve when I left school. I was working in my dream job as a sustainability manager. I held a senior position in a multinational corporation and was on a fast-track programme to become one of the future company leaders. I had everything going for me.

Yet, I felt crushed inside. I was desperately unhappy. I felt trapped, and it was agonising.

Desperate, I wrote a list of all the reasons I should stay in my job: good salary, pension, reliable income, company car and company phone. Then, as my reasons for leaving, I wrote just one word: unhappy.

It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t find it in me to leave.

This was in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash where the company had endured three years of budget cuts and restructuring. Our department operated with fewer resources, yet expectations had increased. A 60-hour working week for me was the norm. On my darkest days, I would cry on the commute to work and again on the way back home.

I was a “Yes-Person” and proudly held the accolade: ‘Ask Nicola, and it will get done’. I loved this in the beginning when I started in my career: that feeling of being important and needed. It fuelled me. But it almost broke me in the end. I couldn’t take any more on, yet I was expected to. I spoke with my boss on numerous occasions. I was told: ‘You need to be more efficient with your time, Nicola’. I tried to say no to more work as it was given to me, but it didn’t have any impact.

No one knew the extent of my struggles at work. I was like a floating duck on water. I imagine I looked like I could cope on the outside. But look beneath the surface, and I was paddling like a maniac.

Outside of work, I thought and felt different from other people. No one really got me on a deep level. I felt separate. I was searching, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. Life was becoming harder and harder with ongoing pressures and my inability to say no. I felt powerless and without choice.

All the time this was going on in my external world, something was happening in my inner world. My soul knew I was in the wrong place, even though my head was doing its utmost to convince me otherwise.

The truth was, I was choosing to be in that life. I just didn’t realise it. I didn’t see I had a choice, but I did.

Parallel to my career in sustainability, I explored my spirituality. I didn’t know anyone interested in 'this kind of thing'. In fact, my friends warned me against it. My Evangelical Christian faith, which I was brought up with until I was a teenager, told me this was a dangerous line of enquiry and to not go there. 

Nevertheless, I began attending spirituality workshops at festivals. I read books I found in the Mind, Body, Spirit sections in bookshops and then moved on to books they referenced. All the time, I just followed the intrigue, and this was my saviour. Following this quiet, gentle tug within me to explore the unknown is what ultimately guided me out of the place that was slowly destroying me. 

My enquiries eventually led me a concept that brought together my two passions: a love of the Earth and spirituality. It was Earth Spirituality. I had finally found my path, although in truth I had been on it for a long time, I just didn’t know it.

It was a homecoming.

Falling away

My ongoing enquiries and desire to find more people like me, led me to enrol on a year-long shamanic medicine wheel course. I had begun to celebrate the Celtic wheel of the year, tuning in to the changing energies of nature through the seasons. The course sounded perfect, with seven of us meeting over eight weekends through the year in an off-grid community in a valley in Lancashire. 

As soon as I landed in that yurt nestled in a wooded valley of north Lancashire, I felt like myself, perhaps for the first time. Little did I know that on that course, I would meet my future husband, Jason, and make lifelong friends who would hold me during a great transition in my life.

I was in the wrong life, which was why it was so agonising. I was in the wrong career and married to the wrong person. Life choices that I had made fifteen years before weren’t panning out as I had planned. Or rather, they were panning out, but I wasn’t happy. On paper, everything was perfect, but my soul was crying out for something else.

After that first weekend, everything changed as my life turned upside down. Little was I to know that five weeks after walking back up the path leading out of the valley, I would be leaving my husband. I left my home behind, and as it turned out, many of my friends; as they didn’t understand or support the decision I had made. 

In my darkest hours, and there were many, I trusted unconditionally that I was on the right path, and I was being taken care of. 

There was no turning back.  

A few weeks after I left my husband, home and community I rented a caravan in a woodland six miles away. I spent two years here perched on the quarry hillside rebuilding my life. 

It was a slow game, allowing one life to drop away. It was the shamanic and nature connection toolkit that got me through. I learned how to read the flight of a Raven and hear the voice of the Oak. I allowed my life to ebb and flow with the changing seasons.

Inside the chrysalis

Shamanism and nature connection gave me a toolkit to find my way to a different life. I unplugged from a world of duty, pressure and never ending deadlines and expectations. That world had sustained me through my adulthood giving me my livelihood but it didn’t nourish me. 

As that world fell away, I began to slowly build a new one. This new world didn’t have the things I was told I needed: a house, steady income and clear trajectory to success. This new world was unpredictable. I couldn’t see my future. In one sense it felt shaky perched in my caravan on the edge of a quarry overlooking the meadow and woods and yet I had never been so grounded, so sure that everything would turn out OK in the end. I would sit there on the veranda that first summer, warmed by the wood burner under the boughs of oak trees wondering and reflecting. I was alone in many ways, having left my home, husband, many of my friends. But I was now home inside. I no longer felt disconnected. I was happier, content, I had found peace. 

Social philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls this phase I was in the place in between stories. One story of my life had fallen away but the new one was yet to form. It is a soupy phase that I liken 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 those on a spiritual path.  This is a mucky, gooey phase, where things can seem stagnant. 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. 

At the time it did feel like it was taking forever. But looking back now, those two years in that caravan were necessary in order for me to grieve the life I had left behind, firmly close the door and step out into the life I was meant to live.

Blackbird speak

It was during this time that Jason and I formed The Way of the Buzzard. We wanted to create a community in the northwest of England where we lived where we could hang out with like-minded people. We started with holding a monthly shamanic journey circle at a friends farm in Cheshire and quickly found that there were people like us, who had come to this path on their own, and were following their intrigue and wanted to meet with like-minded people. They, too, felt alone in the modern world. The Way of the Buzzard was a community where we could come together.

Over these early years I learned to recognise my intuition and to trust in it. This meant I was guided by something other than just logic and my rational mind.  I got a lot of support along the way through mentors through psychotherapy in this reality, and also my spirit guides in the Otherworld.

Jason and I got married, and I moved to Lancashire to live with him, leaving the caravan behind. But there was one aspect of my life that I hadn’t managed to shed, and that was my corporate career. I had set up my own consultancy that gave me the freedom of managing my own time, but I was struggling with the corporate culture and what big businesses stood for. I stopped wanting to play a part in the wheels of commerce but didn’t know how or when to walk away and close the door.

One of the things I quickly learnt when I discovered shamanism was how animals are insightful guides and teachers. 

Animals have become great guides and teachers for me. I have learned what the call of the crow at dawn can tell me about darkness and emerging light. I know what the drumbeat of the greater spotted woodpecker can teach me about taking care and cushioning myself from the impact of a challenging situation. I have discovered what the songbirds teach me about my own voice and the message I have to bring into the world.

And it was an encounter with a Blackbird one day that changed my whole world of work, for good and enabled me to firmly close the door on a mainstream corporate career.

A friend gave me a lead for some new business with an architectural firm. On the way to the meeting, a female blackbird flew out and hit my windscreen, dying on impact. I buried her in our garden and tried to put it out of my mind, but it didn't feel right. I went on with my day, wrote the proposal for my potential client, and continued with life as usual. A few weeks later, I read Snowy Tower by Dr. Martin Shaw, which tells the Welsh myth of Parzival. The story's themes and Martin's own experience of killing a bird while driving made me reflect deeply on my path and direction.

This story, coupled with the blackbird's death, was a tipping point for me. Over the next week, I noticed signs like a blackbird visiting my bird table and pulling the blackbird card from my animal spirit guide deck, symbolising a journey inward. During a course with the Westcountry School of Myth, I shared a story about finding my voice and realised it was time to leave the corporate world for good. I decided to close that chapter of my life and embrace new opportunities. 

All those years I had been attending courses, following what I loved, but never with the intention to work in this field. All of a sudden, I was ready to step into new and fulfilling work. At the time, it seemed very risky putting all my faith into a somewhat shaky field of work, and yet it felt so right in my body.

Closing that door meant that I could step sullying into a very different world of work, supporting others to finding their own personal freedom. It led to Jason and I creating our Mystery School. And running retreats away to the wilds of the northwest of England and north Wales. It led me, alongside with Jason to creating a different world, one of belonging.


At The Way of the Buzzard, we believe that the old spiritual ways of our land are not lost to us. Not only can we reclaim them and bring them into our lives, but when we do, they bring great benefits to ourselves, our communities and the Earth.

I know from personal experience it is easy to be caught up in the busyness of life and be pulled away from what is most important. Many people feel separated from something that they often can’t out into words, but they feel it. They feel a deep longing for something else, something very old, something that was lost a long time ago. When they find it, many people describe it as a homecoming.

At The Way of the Buzzard, we seek to help people in their intuitive search to reclaim the old spiritual ways of our land and find their way back home. In doing so, they unlock the secrets of ancient wisdom and nature’s insights and live a more connected, creative, empowered life.

It is my passion to create spaces where this can happen, so people can find their way back home.

Up next

We are opening our Mystery School doors to new members during the week of the Summer Solstice. 

If you are feeling a tug to find out more about what we do and explore whether we are a good fit for you, come to our pop-up talk this month:

‘From Curiosity to Mastery - An Inside Look at Our Mystery School’

Wednesday 12th June, 7pm

Click here to register to join us live or catch up with the replay.


If you haven’t come across our free courses yet, click here. They are a good introduction to some of the core topic we teach in our Mystery School: the wheel of the year, animal and tree spirit medicine and shamanic journeying. 

You can read more about our Mystery School via this link.

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Natural Beauty in north Lancashire, England.

Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. Nicola, although I was never a part of the corporate world, this all sounds so familiar to me. I’ve spent many years dipping in and out of various spiritual teachings and realised a while back that the ancient spirituality of the land where I live, and the land where I was born is actually MY ancestral heritage, it’s in my blood.
    I love the work you do and appreciate all the effort you and Jason put in to helping others find their path and I hope to be able to join your pop-up talk on the 12th. Thank you. Chris V.

    1. Hi Chris, I feel the same as you – the ancient spirituality of this land our ancestral heritage. Thank you so much for your kind words about what Jason and I do. I am really touched. It will be great to share the pop-up talk with you on the 12th 🙂

  2. Hello Nicola, I really enjoyed reading your story of transformation. I am sure I would have enjoyed conversation on these topics in 2011 at the fall equinox on the trip with Dan and Patricia and the Cosmic Mysteries School. I admire your blind faith to follow what you are sensing from the earth and the cosmos. Obviously, at least to me, if we all were to follow the same path ours lives would be quite boring IMHO. I feel like life is not a right and wrong game but a co creation experience. Right now, as you are probably aware, many are awakening from the psychological slumber that thousands of years of propaganda and control have created. I feel like with full disclosure of our real history and the truth, more and more humans will find more and more expressions for their lives journeys that include compassion and peace and much less elite control of everything. Your personal story was definitely an incredible breath of fresh air. Until we meet again, Scot

    1. Hi Scot, a blast from the past eh, it is so good to read your note here. I would have loved a conversation around this all those years back as we visited those sacred sites. And yes, I sense an awakening happening all around me, as well as in me. I skipped a beat with your words ‘with full disclosure of our real history and the truth’ as I am currently working on a research project around this relating to people’s severance from the land here in the early nineteenth century.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I am touched 🙂

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