“We are here to let our ideas of ourselves go up in flames. So that beneath the ashes, the soft core of who we truly are arises. And so that we remember that it’s not the heart that ever breaks: it’s the ego. The heart only ever expands.”
– Meggan Watterson
Someone once told me I was really good at reinventing myself. While I think she was referring to the self-donned titles I’d put on my LinkedIn profile back then, at a deeper level, I felt it in the inflection points calling for personal growth and the shedding of ideas and ways of thinking about myself and the world that was holding me back from a life fully lived.
On a long and winding trail through divorce, various jobs on the way to a career, and traversing chronic illness, I’ve found and unwound parts of myself along the way. In the darkest, foggiest days of treating Lyme Disease, my experience of life was grim–like my life was slowly being nailed into a coffin box. Yet, there was a soft core within me that was always there. It knew who I was. It flickered like the pilot light on your furnace, always on even though the whole machine may not have been operating at full capacity. And, it was as fiery as Uma Turman’s character in the movie Kill Bill 2, busting out of the pine box, and gasping through six feet of dirt. (Changing jobs didn’t feel too different at times.)
Just beyond each juncture or low point, I’d emerge with a renewed sense of who I was and what my life was for, in tune with what was moving through me at the time. With each twist and turn of life’s plot line, the soft core of who I am rose more and more. It was as if with each iteration there was more clarity and refinement, getting down to the bone. Like a phoenix, I’d arise similar in form, though not quite the same, and yet not quite different from before. Like Watterson notes in the lines above, I let ideas about myself go up in the flames with each cycle of reemergence.
While there have been plenty of life-affirming ups, it’s the low points that break the ego open and prove that our best-laid plans often go awry. Through it all, that soft core guided me towards what was emerging.
The soft core of who we are is what is behind all of the layers we gather or the shells we adapt (like a hermit crab) to make ourselves feel safe and protected as we move through life. Similarly, while the ego serves a purpose in our life, it’s not the whole of us. When there’s a sea change, all that protection doesn’t always hold up, either. When our ideas of ourselves and the world break against the shoreline, our soft core still remains. That soft core is our closest self. That flame of consciousness is more than just a lifeline. As the terrain, tides, and weather shift around you, something in you knows where to go. Sometimes, the beacon isn’t located outside like a distant Polaris. Most often, it’s so close we miss it.
In this podcast conversation with Jerry, Rajan Maruthavanan, partner at Upekkha, asks about an ‘unchanging core’ and if the Ship of Theseus is still the same ship, especially in light of current events. When a global event like COVID sweeps away all your plans, what is left? His philosophical question made me remember that as humans the body replaces cells every seven years. In some ways, we have a new body and yet, we still remain–as intact as the phoenix rising anew.
On a coaches call a few months ago, a few colleagues were reflecting on nautical history. They had been thinking of the waves of this pandemic and the leaders in it like the captain of a ship in a stormy sea. “He holds his post at the helm, calm in the storm. That keeps everyone else focused and calm as well,” my colleague noted. But, what I sensed from the captain was something else. It was a confidence not in his skill or externalities. His boots on the deck weren’t rooted in ‘been there, done that’ material, or accomplishments. Nor were they just a well-practiced stance and a lot of fierce guts. The boots of a successful captain were rooted in a confidence in understanding who he was and trusting that as his anchor.
When life washes away our careful planning and plotting and who we thought we were, we’re left with something more powerful than whatever hermit-crab-like ego-housing we’d donned and decorated. That soft core of who we are holds our hearts. Our hearts strengthen when we feel the exposure of life when the protective shell of ego breaks in its rough seas. Where the ego gets handed lemons and shit sandwiches, and tight spots, yet the soft core holds a wider view.
As uncertain as it feels in a quagmire, without the map, we do know innately what’s next. It’s part of the programming of who we are. In her latest book Untamed, Glennon Doyle offers the formula for ‘How to Know’:
How to Know:
Moment of uncertainty arises.
Breathe, turn inward, sink.
Feel around for the Knowing.
Do the next thing it nudges you toward.
Let it be. (Don’t explain)
(For the rest of your life:
Continue to shorten the gap between the Knowing and the doing.)
That’s the quiet conversation, right where spirit meets bone, far away from any public profile, and outside of any external plans that you’ve made.
That knowing is part and parcel of resilience. In her poem Optimism, poet Jane Hirshfield speaks to this:
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
We don’t know what will happen on even the sunniest day when we think we’ve got the world figured out. When you feel lost in the ebb and flow on the shoreline of life’s situational circumstances, what is the blind intelligence that informs your sinuous tenacity? How do you know who you are? What tells you that?
That, there, is the pulse and flavor of a life fully lived.