Sometimes the road ahead of us gets dark. The dreams we had of what life would be when we were young start to dim, and we come face to face with the reality that we are human beings. This can come as a shock. For most people it does.
I remember being younger and thinking that the sky is the limit in the possibilities for my life. I thought that I could and would accomplish anything. After a period of descent, where I collapsed into a deep depression and brought the world crashing down on me I started an upward climb that seemed unstoppable. In two short years I went from being a college dropout that had nothing going for him to getting offered a fully funded doctoral program at an Ivy-league university. I went from being living in a tiny town in New Mexico and not knowing much of the world to living in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. After feeling completely alone I was surrounded by amazing friends and gorgeous women.
This transition in my life made me feel like I could do anything. I had climbed out of a place of sorrow and helplessness and found my way into an exciting world where everything seemed possible. In fact, it was like life handed me whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I thought this was it, the Holy Grail, and it was in my hands for good.
But regardless of what anyone tells you, life does not unfold on a linear path. None of us ever has it all together all the time. Life moves us through the cycles that we need to experience. It is never a consistent ascent or descent, but a fluctuation balance of the two. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
In our world today there is an excess of people trying to convince everyone that positive thinking can solve the problems we face. Don’t get me wrong, positive thinking definitely helps, but we are not made to live on only one side of the spectrum of emotion in life. As self-aware, experiential beings we are here to experience the vast prism of emotion that life has to offer us. This does not mean that we should always expect perpetual happiness.
The challenges that we face in life are our rites of passage. They are the places where our spirit and our will become forged into something stronger than before, or they break. When we live in a world that refuses to accept adversity out of a childlike desire to experience only pleasure, these challenges can crush a person. And yet, life will always test us. At some point or another, we will be faced with extremely difficult situations that we must accept as the crucible for our own growth.
Imagine my disillusionment when I realized, halfway through my fancy doctoral program, that almost every professional I met in that field was miserable. People that had dedicated their lives to being illustrious scholars had sacrificed everything for the recognition that didn’t seem to satisfy them. Relationships with children, spouses, and friends all fell by the wayside, second to the desire to be established as a distinguished scholar. All of this in fields that were so highly specialized that they had little to no impact on the world. Islands unto themselves, these groups of academics would sacrifice their lives to seeking recognition from each other, and play at being influential forces in the world.
The second great descent in my life started when I decided that I would not be one of these people. I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others in a tangible way, doing something that allowed me to see the impact on the lives of people I know and care for. So I left academia. After completing a PhD I walked away from it to start building my work as a life coach and spiritual advisor.
Poet Robert Bly talks about the descent that happens in each of our lives. He says that in order to become fully formed human beings we must fall into the place of “eating ashes.” That is, we must go through a period of knowing grief so that we may mature as human beings. Cultures throughout the world have known this for hundreds, even thousands of years. It is through grief that the heart and soul are cracked open so that new life can grow from us, or death can take us.
From flying high on the illusion that every door would open at my beck and call I realized that life had other plans. Though the best of my intentions was to help others live better lives, I soon found that few people want to do the difficult work of facing this descent, just as I was going through it myself. My descent was into a place of financial and emotional insecurity. I had many skills, but seemingly little opportunities to apply them. And letting go of my illusions of how life should meet me was very difficult.
In this place of eating ashes we find that all of our skills are insufficient for facing the challenges that have shown up on our doorstep. We struggle to make our skills sufficient so that we can overcome what is right in front of us, but they just seem to fall short. And yet there is much beauty in knowing how to open up to that vulnerability. All spiritual traditions across cultures have this period of surrender in their stories. There comes a moment when it is absolutely necessary for us to let go and ask for help. This rite of passage is a place of great transformation. It shows us that we cannot live independent of our community, and therefore we are indebted to it. When we have the awareness to see that we are in the place of “eating ashes,” we can accept that this time in our life is here to strengthen us, to shape us into better human beings.
When I was in my twenties, the possibilities of life seemed to be handed to me on a silver platter. As I go into my mid-thirties I realize that life is more than silver platters and ivory towers. Life is a testing ground that will forge us into human beings, one way or the other. It is through these testing periods that we learn to be truly compassionate. It is also through these times that we learn how important our community is to us, and how important we are to it.
My work now is about helping people through this time of “eating ashes.” It arises for each of us in a different way. For some it is the loss of a job or a relationship, for others it is illness, death of a loved one, divorce or separation, financial ruin, even exile from a community. These are the times when the soul beckons for our attention. It has something to teach us. When we listen and allow the soul to do its work we become better equipped to be of service to others. We learn that there is something more precious in life than material gain or financial success. The soul has been within us all along, and the time of eating ashes forces us to tend to it or die.
Psychologist Francis Weller says
“Grief is soul work. It requires courage to face the world as it is and not turn away, to not burrow into a hole of comfort and anesthetization. Grief deepens our connection with soul, taking us into territories of vulnerability, exposing the truth of our need for others in times of loss and suffering.”
This world is in great need of people who have done soul work. May we all find the guides to help us through. May I be a guide to many as they go through the place of eating ashes.
*Originally published as Inlak'ech Transpersonal Coaching