How Then Shall We Live?
by Virginia Coyle and
For over fifteen years the two of us have worked together guiding others in wilderness rites of passage. These are four-day ceremonies in which participants grapple with questions like, “being who I am, knowing what I know, how shall I live now?” We have supported people in this inquiry who were as young as 9 and as old as 75. Each year, we also fast alone in the wilderness to confirm our callings and open to new directions. So when asked how to live now in the face of global challenges, we naturally turn to this age-old practice and tradition.
As we prepare people to spend four days and nights alone without food in the high deserts of the Great Basin, we ask them to leave their familiar lives as if they might not return. Invoking the power of their own deaths, we inquire what they need to do to become current with their loved ones, colleagues, and communities. And, of course, they bring their own questions of how best to offer their gifts to their people and the world, especially in this time of violence, war, imprisonment, ecological decline and the fragmentation of community.
Too often, unless we are touched by a fatal illness or the death of a loved one, we do not dare to live our dreams. We choose instead to please others, to put off what might appear as selfish, to multitask our way past the present moment, to sacrifice intimacy to career, or to lose ourselves in a thousand other ways. At its heart, a rite of passage is about coming to live not according to the roles laid down by our family, friends, or culture, but to live from the wholeness of our authentic selves. When we go out on the mountain, we cross the threshold into our solo with a strong intention to live what is genuine and true for each of us. This ceremony brings us face-to-face with the fundamentals—we face death and it reminds us to live life to its fullest now.
As they prepare, we encourage each person to create a unique personal ceremony to honor all aspects of what it is for each of them to be alive on the planet at this time. We ask them to invite in both the light and the dark--grief, love, despair, effort, play, joy and insight. Year after year we find that as people embrace and revisit their life stories, they reawaken forgotten depths of body, soul, mind and heart. They then return with dedication and a sense of calling that can fuel the hard work of building a more just, loving, and sustainable future for themselves, their communities, and the world.
A rite of passage is a ceremony of wholeness, and one of the most universal maps of wholeness is that of our earth, our seasons, our cardinal directions, the four elements
. Just as Tibetan mandalas have four quarters and cathedrals have four arms, for us in temperate climates four seasons make up the year. Using the simple yet profound framework of the Four, we encourage those preparing for their solos to go around this wheel of life, and visit the South (child, summer, water), West (adolescent, autumn, earth), North (adult, winter, air) and East (elder/newborn, spring, fire).
The following questions offer a taste of this map. You can use them to explore your inner mandala, to identify where you might be over-invested, or where some additional engagement may be needed.
We begin in the South:
What does summer evoke in you?
How are your memories of your own childhood?
Are you comfortable with children?
When was the last time you acted from childlike curiosity?
Do you honor and attend to your own vulnerability?
Do you feel safe, and if not, how do you make your boundaries clear?
How fully do you express your emotions, passions and spontaneity?
When was the last time you got wild? Took a big risk? Wept? Raged?
Do you cultivate pleasure and sensuality in your life?
Can you say “I want” without apology?
Do you care for and are you comfortable in and with your body?
What is your relationship with water?
Can you go with the flow?
What or whom in the world do you trust?
We move to the West:
How do you respond to the coming of autumn?
How are you in the night?
When was the last time a dream informed your life?
What is your relationship with your ancestors? Do you honor them?
Are you ready to die? What would you need to do to be ready?
Do you know and attend to your own wounds?
How comfortable are you when asked to talk about yourself?
Can you celebrate your life and accomplishments?
What are the unique that gifts you have for your family, community, world?
Have you mourned the losses in your life? The loss of species on this planet?
The loss of homes by the homeless? The lives lost in war?
Do you know what it is to garden, to touch the earth, to feel its pulse in yours?
Can you embrace being “in the dark,” not knowing?
What in yourself can you depend on?
Then to the North:
How do you greet the onset of winter?
Do you consider yourself a grown up? How about your friends?
Who are your people and how do you care for them?
How do you make decisions? Do you take into consideration all of your relations?
Have you experienced a place of knowing? Do you act from there?
How do you cultivate clarity?
How fully does what you “do” express who you are?
Do you work too much? Too little? How do you assess this?
Can you support, acknowledge and truly love another person?
Is it possible to serve yourself, others and the whole all at the same time?
How do you manifest your gifts?
How do you help clear the air?
For what or whom are you willing to sacrifice?
And around to the East:
How does the coming of spring affect you? The rising of the sun?
When was the last time you held the hand of an elder, the head of a newborn?
How do you find, make, celebrate beauty?
Is any thing sacred or holy? Have you encouraged it to permeate your life?
Is there a purpose, a vision, a bigger picture of which you are a part?
How do you react when all is turned around, upside-down, meaningless?
What are you grateful for? How do you express it?
What’s the source of the energy you use? How much is renewable?
If there were a fire nearing your home, what would you look to take with you?
What needs to burn, transform, change in your life now?
What renews you?
To what or whom are you willing to surrender?
This circle of questions touches on the dimensions of a whole life. Of course, different life phases and experiences draw us more strongly to one quadrant than another. And we may touch each of them in a single year—or day. Questions like these can help affirm what you already embrace or knock gently on doors that have long been closed. The energy stored behind those doors offers fuel for connection, renewal, and strength for what lies ahead.
Given the challenges of life in the world now, these questions may seem overly focused on the inner life. Yet in rites of passage we experience again and again that there are no simple boundaries between inside and outside. As we become current with our inner lives, we find that the world touches us—and we respond—in fresh ways. As we open to what is painful or incomplete in our lives, we find gifts in those wounds—skills or sensitivities that would not otherwise have been developed—and gratitude for what is.
As we confront personal limits by sacrificing food, shelter and community, we find our minds and hearts drawn strongly to important people and places we have left behind. And as we witness life and death in the landscape, we are humbled by the infinity of the sky and reminded of the preciousness of even the smallest life form.
On the mountain, as we experience hunger in our bellies and emptiness in our hearts, we feel the world’s hunger for both food and justice, for right relationship among humans and between us and all other living things. As we groan in the misery of mistakes and regrets, we feel the larger misery in the communities we left behind—homelessness, hunger, destruction, poverty, and neglect.
Fundamentally, we realize that there is no inside or outside—our grief is the world’s grief. Its joys are our joys. And so we return, relieved, renewed, reconnected. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”2
Such gladness comes not from the exclusion of pain, it can only be realized by embracing pain. And when we fully embrace our own pain and gladness, our wholeness can embrace the world in all of its gladness and pain. From that embrace, action is born, an action as instinctive as scratching the bite of a mosquito. We act and so bring healing, to ourselves and to the parts of the world we can touch.
Paradoxically we return from the depletion and solitude of our solo reinvigorated and reconnected. We most often bring home a renewed commitment to our communities and a clarity about what life is calling for from us. On the fifth morning, as we warm to the rising of the sun that marks the end of our sacrifice, we feel gratitude for the community that waits for us, the road that has brought us to this point, and that which lies ahead.
It is not that our questions are answered—we often return with more. However , we carry in our bones , a comfort and new-found confidence in living the questions each day . Prominent among them is “How do I live now in the face of all that I am and all that the world is calling for from me?” We encourage you, for the well being of all of our relations, to embrace this question as an ally and continue the journey to find and manifest your own, unique answer.
There are many different traditions involving the four (or more) directions, and some associate different colors and qualities with each of the directions. Here we are using those taught by our elders.
Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC
(San Francisco: Harper One 1993)118-119.