At some point in your life, you begin to wonder if this is really all it has to offer, or perhaps there is a sense that you have gotten off track and are on a completely different road than you ever thought you would travel. Perhaps life has become tinged with a sense of smallness, a meaningless mundanity; access to the parts of you that still beat with wild wings and startle with wonder at the sound of mystery or at the stars in the sky seem locked away without a key. Or perhaps you have sought after the spiritual life, desiring an ascent that will take you high above and away from the pain and suffering of this world. But no matter how set apart you become, you still feel the snares of sorrow. And perhaps you may already be wise to the game of the conventional life, knowing that intentionality and centeredness is counter to the crazy consumption of our culture.
And yet, there seems to be something calling to you from a deeper place, calling to you like the trees’ blood of which Rilke writes, to “sink back into the source of everything,” to “to out into your heart as onto a vast plain.”
You’ve recognized that there is a journey you must take that will take you down into the sacred, subterranean lands of your soulscape, a journey that will give you that key to recover the wild and precious parts of you.
The Call knocks on the status quo of your life, and stays knocking until you answer and open the door, surrendering to the invitation to cross the threshold, leave the home you know, and go on your own way towards that desire that showed up, cloaked as curiosity and questions. This knock at your door is an invitation to find the lost and scattered pieces of yourself. The great poet and luminary David Whyte describes this moment in a warm and caring voice, words which a wise guide might offer to the fearful door-opener and threshold-crosser:
Time to go into the dark
Where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
That world in which we are free? That world in which, and to whom, we belong? That is the world that exists beyond the horizon of our inner-world. And to get there requires us to turn away from our secure but less-than-True-Self lives and engage in the journey of a lifetime: a pilgrimage journey that will return us to a deeper sense of belonging to ourselves and the world around us.
Questions that I am often asked are, “How do I know if this is really The Call knocking on my door?” “How do I know if this just isn’t a mood or a distraction from my responsibilities?” There are, fortunately, ways to tell. The great mythologist Joseph Campell who did extensive work around the idea of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, notes four experiential qualities that accompany The Call.
First, if it is a true call, you will know that responding to it is, in fact, not an avoidance of responsibility, but rather a facing of something difficult; something unknown and frightening is summoning you. Ecopsychologist, author and wilderness guide, Bill Plotkin, describes this as “a compelling need to walk into the mouth of a whale, or out into the night and into a storm.” This isn’t an easy vacation away from your life. This isn't a trip to forget your cares. This is a profound sense that your one true life will only be found, be recovered, in the wilderness, and your survival now depends on the departure.
Second, Campbell reminds us of the paradox that there is something strangely recognizable about this unknown journey. You have a deep sense of belonging to the journey and the wild edges to where it is taking you; you feel an uprising of ancient memories, the woven fabric of kin and familiarity, that covers you like a favorite cloak. This strange and sacred summons was made for you.
Third, you have an astonishing and incomprehensible sense that the season of life you have been living is suddenly over, whether you want it to or not. In the great myths and legends, this often is when the protagonist is chosen of the journey, instead of she choosing it. Recently I have been doing some personal work with the Slavic folk lore stories of the Baba Yaga. In one such tale, a born-of-a-bear giant named Ivan engages in a transformational journey with the Yaga. In this story there is the adventure that he chooses; however, his heroic transformation doesn’t occur until the part where the descent, The Call, chooses him.
Fourth, The Call is almost always unexpected, and often unwanted. This is a disruption to life as you have known it, and who needs that when life is already busy, overwhelming and chaotic? However, this is a summons from the soul; a demanding can’t-shake-you command from your future self that you need this for your soul-survival and future flourishing.
Plotkin offers a fifth way to discern if The Call is a genuine. He asks that you imagine not acting on it and then noticing how you feel. “Imagine you are going to ignore The Call, or even laugh it off. How does that feel? Do you detect a building dread, a huge sadness, a guilt that comes from refusing a sacred invitation?” What if you don’t answer the door, or better yet, answer it and after saying, “No thank you,” close it, refusing the needs of your future self? Another way to determine the validity of the call would be to say, “yes” and begin to take those first furtive steps onto the path that begins to suddenly manifest before each tentatively placed step. With each step that is taken, a sense of assurance is gained, a feeling of rightness grows.
If it is a true call, you may feel like your going out is actually a return towards your true home for the very first time.
Know this though: while The Call’s knocking may never stop, you will become deaf to its solicitation over time. It is essential that you act on The Call as soon as you are ready as the window of opportunity may not remain open for long. It is a sacred aligning of serendipitous circumstance when you are at a place to both hear the knock, and open the door to it. You, however, must make the choice to walk out the door.
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Rainier Maria Rilke, from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 95-96.
Joseph Campell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949), 55, 58.
David Whyte, from “Sweet Darkness,” in The House of Belonging (Langely, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 23.
Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 57-58.