The Soul’s Journey – Slender Threads

November 13, 2021

I came across this term ‘slender threads’ in Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson’s compelling autobiography titled “Balancing heaven and earth”. He describes them as a kind of connective tissue linking one experience to the next through synchronistic events. He went much further in describing that he felt his own life was somehow inspired, guided, and even managed by unseen forces outside his control. He admits this may seem an audacious notion in this time. He suggested that whether we call it fate, destiny, or the hand of God, slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives. He says that over time they weave a remarkable tapestry.

I completely related to this concept. In hindsight I look back over my life and see what appears to be an unseen hand maneuvering circumstances to result in a certain path. Now as a more cynical friend of mine observed it could’ve just been the choices I made that made it look that way. However I believe it’s more than that. You can’t create synchronicity by will, it just happens. Whether it comes from some unexplained external force or perhaps it is an aspect of my own unconscious is still a mystery to me. But I have learned I don’t need to understand in order to appreciate. I came across a wonderful quote by psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May who suggested that “the unique reality of mystery is that mystery can be experienced, appreciated, and even lived without being understood.”

Recently I introduced this concept to my spiritual guidance group and to help illustrate it I reviewed the series of improbable threads that resulted in a senior advertising executive – a workaholic, an atheist, entirely focused on his own wants and needs to become a spiritual coach.

It began with an entirely unwelcome and unexpected opportunity at work. The background was that someone had been recruited to take on a particular job with a client who was unhappy with the existing management supervisor. It was the single largest account that the agency had and was engaged in a competitive review. The new person did not show up and there was a desperate need to fill the role and the only warm body available was me. I was asked to leave the clients that I managed which included Chevron, Pharmasave, Molson, Blackcomb Mountain and BC Tourism and turn them over to my colleague. To me it felt a bit like leaving the safety of my cruise ship and being asked to take over on the Titanic as the captain had abandoned ship. I politely declined hoping that would be that however I was on the receiving end of a severe tirade. “Your cushy life is over whether you like it or not.” Fortunately I had an obligation at the dentist that gave me a chance to lick my wounds.

At the dentist I thought of a compromise- I would agree to take over the additional account in addition to everything else I already controlled; in return I would be promoted to director of client services and they had to trust me to manage the situation. Hopefully this would safeguard me against failure and ensure my future promotion as my boss was going to retire.

Somewhat to my surprise and perhaps disappointment my foolhardy proposal was accepted and the die was cast. The good news is that I was successful at the new job, (somewhat to the surprise of the COO who told me a year later that he never really thought I was the right person for the job). The bad news was that one year later this bizarre transition had a completely unexpected consequence. The new client decided to move their head office from beautiful Vancouver to Calgary and wanted me to provide service in that city. I flatly refused to move but offered a compromise. I would spend three days of each week away from Vancouver. So I had a flat in Calgary, an office in both cities and every Tuesday afternoon I would head to the airport returning on Friday. It was a crazy way to live and had unforeseen consequences.

I will draw a veil over the events in Calgary due to a sense of shame and embarrassment. Suffice it to say that it offered fertile ground for my mid-life crisis and within two years I had quit my job, my wife and friends, booked two first class tickets around the world and went traveling for a year with my much younger girl friend.

It was an amazing if challenging experience and at some time during the trip, actually in Berne in Switzerland, we agreed that if we survived the year together we would get married. Somehow we did but it seemed touch and at times. I learned just how much a bad hairdo can impact someone. However we did not live happily ever after. The final thread was that after eighteen months of marriage she told me the relationship was over. I found myself abandoned, all my plans trashed and feeling without hope for the future. Yet as many Jungian analysts would predict this traumatic experience resulted in a complete re-evaluation of my life and the start of yet another unlikely journey that eventually resulted in me becoming a spiritual coach.

The improbable slender threads: the new hire not turning up, the acceptance of my audacious offer, the move to Calgary, the world trip then her leaving me. – all leading to a complete transformation. Was this the fulfillment of a plan or just a series of coincidences? Perhaps it saved my life. An astrologer said that my chart indicated that if I had failed to change my life I could have “left the body” in my fifties.

One of the members of my group could completely relate to this concept as she looked back on her own long life and realized that certain events concerning relationships that were completely beyond her control led to an amazing life of service to children and their families in Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital.

A few years ago I attended a conference in Petaluma, California where three teachers presented their stories. Each one of them observed on the power of this guiding force to positively effect their unfolding lives. As Jungian analyst and author James Hollis commented, “If we open to this possibility of an invisible and dynamically active world, we then live in a mystery anew, a prospect both inviting and daunting.”

Getting Beyond the Block

January 20, 2015

One of the joys of traveling is making new friends and my recent trip to Sayulita was no exception. Staying at the same hotel was a lovely British woman working on new business venture. When she heard about my background in marketing she asked me to provide some input on a project on which she was working. As she began to show me what she had done, I became incredibly impressed by the professionalism, the quality of the work and the depth of thinking. Nothing she showed me seemed in need of any input at all. In fact the opposite was true as my suggestions were clearly redundant. As the discussion continued she began to hesitate over her words then paused to say, “I’m not sure what I want your help with anyway. Basically I am stuck on finding the right images for my web site.”

I reflected back on what I had seen so far “You realize you have done all the difficult work here: the initial thinking, the concept, the positioning, the branding, the logo, the look and image. They are all finished, now you are now looking for some photos. Why do you think you are stuck on the easy bit?” She hesitated and looked a little embarrassed then went on to explain that she had been involved in a series of personal problems that had thrown her off centre. Although valid, they did not seem to explain her paralysis.

I observed that the images won’t make or break the proposition anyway because they are easily changed. I speculated that when this kind of block occurs there is normally some fear involved. Her response was instant and clear, “oh I’m scared it will be a failure and I will look bad.” Her wheel spinning has nothing to do with the issue; it was about anxiety and apprehension for the future. It reminded me of a common depth psychology truism, “it’s not about what it’s about.” Almost like a magician’s wand, her insight seemed to free her up so she could move ahead.

It seems appropriate to add a little background. This was not an inexperienced amateur, this was a consummate professional who had spent years successfully implementing far more complex projects for her clients. She knew her experience and skill set were more than up to this task yet she ground to a halt when faced by something that in her previous role she would have simply delegated.

So what happens? Notice there was no conscious knowledge of fear holding her back. Rationally she knew that she could do this and anyway she also knew that failure was part of business life. It was far better to move ahead and learn from failure than it was to quit. However this unconscious fear created inaction, paralysis and a sense of feeling stuck.

From a spiritual coaching perspective, the first thing is to ask yourself when you are blocked is a series of questions.

  • Does this behaviour represent a pattern in my life, has it shown up before and what did I do about it?
  • Are there familiar voices from the past behind the fear? Sometimes it is a parent or a teacher or other powerful other in our early life. This is what eminent Jungian analyst James Hollis refers to as a haunting in his book of the same name.
  • If yes what does this voice cause me to do or stop doing?

Our goal is to defuse and dissipate the power that old voices have over us. The first step is awareness, the second is for the adult to reassess their relationship with the old voice. At this juncture I engage in a discussion – this reaction has a reason for being, I acknowledge it then suggest it no longer serves me and it’s time has passed. It helps me if I can identify the primal anxiety that has been aroused.

It is not always an easy or comfortable exploration but it does help us understand ourselves better and to gradually bring change into the ways we reflexively respond to certain situations.

As James Hollis once said, “we all sleep in haunted houses and in history’s unmade bed.” We need to disarm the ghost and recover our personal authority.

What’s All This Soul Stuff Anyway?

November 17, 2014
“What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts,
it is the glorious sound of a Soul waking up 

Hafiz interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky

Late in his life Carl Jung wrote to a friend and said, “I have failed in my foremost task to open people’s eyes to the fact that man has a soul” The derivation of the word soul is from the Greek word psyche that in turn means breath.

In medical terms the psyche is the sum of who we are: body, mental faculties, emotions and … For some the definition stops there, for others it may include the nebulous concept of the unconscious while depth psychologists and Jungian analysts believe there is a Soul. Unfortunately we cannot identify the soul with a body part. It is an elusive concept

Thomas Moore the writer of many books on Soul suggests that Soul must be imagined rather than explained or understood. A tough concept for the logical and literal minded.

In my Spiritual Coaching practice, the Soul represents a guiding force that supports us on the journey of life and aspires to that which serves our highest good.

As the spiritual coach my first priority is to assess whether my client can accept this idea. It does not matter what name we ascribe to it: Psyche, Self, Soul, Higher Self, Inner Wisdom, I look for common language that we can share.

Why do I consider this of importance? First, I consider the inner guiding force is the most effective tool for helping us through the dark wood. Second, it has a language of its own that is not verbal. It speaks to us through the circumstances of our lives. This can be through our body, our dreams, the patterns of our life, through sign and synchronicity, through “the still small voice”. Third, once we accept the principle that the Soul desires to communicate then it behooves us to listen and pay attention.

Our growth frequently comes out of the ennui, confusion, sense of being stuck even depression that are the sign that something wants to change. I have noticed both in my own life and in those of my clients that ignoring the signs or ridding ourselves of the symptoms can often cause an exacerbation or deterioration until we wake up. I once heard this described as “the cosmic two by four”, a description that seems especially pertinent and a good reminder to stay attentive.

In his excellent book, What Matters Most, James Hollis reminds us that, “if the ego is living in harmony with the psyche there is no problem, there will be a sense of energy, purposefulness, the supporting function of feeling and a sense of well being. In those moments one is in right relationship.” I think that sums up Hafiz’s poem pretty well!

Spiritual Coaching helps to assess whether we are in right relationship with ourselves. It begins with a check-in to the current emotional, mental and physical circumstances of our life and an enquiry into what they could be trying to signify.

The wonderful Julia Cameron, author of many books including The Artists Way once wrote, “Today I listen with my deepest heart. I am alert to guidance in many forms and formats. As I open my attention to a broad range of cues, I find myself guided and guarded.” An excellent practice for honouring the Soul’s journey.

Complexity in Seattle

September 16, 2013

I had just completed the final workshop in the series Archetypes of Spiritual Guidance; I decided to stay an extra day so I could visit a dear friend of mine in the Seattle area; little did I know it would present one more reason to dive into the murky world of unconscious complexes. It all started so innocently, we were discussing some angst she was feeling in her life and I found myself curious to explore what may be contributing to it. Her answers would lead to another question and before long I found myself in familiar territory; I was slipping into my role as a spiritual coach. I paused and observed that it was beginning to feel as though I was coaching her and asked if that was OK. Her response was immediate and clear, “No, it was not OK” and then she went on to say that she had been about to tell me she felt uncomfortable with my questions.

It was a bit like running into a brick wall. I noticed a flush of energy in my body, and a desire to leave immediately rather than wait for my six o’clock train. I took a deep breath, obviously a complex had engaged. In his amazing audio book Through The Dark Wood, James Hollis attributes the theory behind complexes to Carl Jung and describes them like this, “an energy laden core idea that when it is evoked can only repeat the world view, the value system and repetitive actions that are tied to its origin. They were generated in our history and bind us to it.” My friend could tell something had engaged and asked if I was all right. I responded honestly, “No I am not but this is not about you”. I took another deep breath and realized I needed some personal space. “I need some time on my own” I responded, “I’m going for a walk.”

Any one who has stayed in touch with my blogs knows that this is not the first complex I have explored. Since I began this process of unraveling my own psychology I have written extensively about my journey with different complexes. At times it seems endless; they seem like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that continually create a bigger picture. The same complex repeats but I go a little deeper. It always begins with an energetic reaction that once I have awareness of it requires me to pause and take space. This is accompanied by a sense of my feelings being hurt. The danger if I don’t take care of myself, I will engage in one of two main reactions. I will find a way to blame the person who activated my complex, or I will suppress it, which will cause it to emerge later often as a passive-aggressive reaction.

Once outside I began to recreate the experience. First there was the energy in my body followed by a variety of feelings. These included: feeling hurt that I had been shut down, losing my voice, feeling unappreciated, feeling disrespected, wanting to run away. Frequently we (especially men) discount the feelings with a response like, “Get a grip, get over it, she didn’t mean to hurt you.” However I have learned this simply leads to suppression. If a complex is not given room to breathe and be explored it will simply submerge like magma in a volcano, waiting for a future eruption. One of the compelling things about exploring a complex is how quickly we appreciate the child like nature of the reaction. It is not difficult to appreciate Jung’s belief that these reactions are of historic origin.

As I walked and began to appreciate the beauty of the ocean to my right and the gardens to my left, I contemplated when I might have felt like this before. Could I trace when the energy behind the complex developed its power? Suddenly an incident that occurred when I was fifteen flashed into my mind. It is one that I have previously worked with because I knew I had unconsciously replicated my rebellious relationship with my father with a teacher at school but this felt different

It concerned the sport of rugby. Despite having been brought up in a soccer world I had learned to enjoy the game and had become pretty good. I was engaged in trials for one of the school teams. I played centre and thought it suited my agility and skill set. I did not think I had the pure speed to be on the wing. So it was a crashing shock when the coach called me to his office and said he was switching me to wing. It felt like he was diminishing my chances of being chosen. I responded negatively (the father complex) and he reacted and said you can play wing or not at all. I chose not to play and in that moment permanently eliminated any chance I had to play for the school or even to play competitive rugby again. As I left his office I felt these same feelings, “hurt that I had been shut down, losing my voice, feeling unappreciated, feeling disrespected, wanting to run away.” When I had explored this previously I realized that I felt bad about not being heard or understood and that my actions had only hurt myself. Now I saw something else. This was yet another example of how badly I was served at this school. I suspect the master had slipped into his own complex around having his authority questioned without a thought for the fact that I was fifteen. Surely he should have felt some responsibility for offering me a second chance instead of condemning me to a purgatory of playing rugby in a competition when the moment I had the ball my opponents parted like the Red Sea in front of Moses.

One of the joys of doing this work is the clarity and freedom one feels, a sense that some of the energy binding me to the complex has been released.  It always reminds me of William Yeats lovely words, “I am content to follow to its source every event and action and in thought. For when such as I cast out remorse so great a sweetness flows into the breast that we must laugh and we must sing for we are blessed by everything. Everything we look upon is blest.

Some Reflections on Steve Jobs

December 21, 2011

I just finished Walter Isaacson’s compelling biography of Steve Jobs. Undoubtedly a visionary genius yet he seemed a very unresolved human being. From my perspective as a Spiritual Coach he appeared a classic example of someone who explored their spiritual nature but not the psychological dimension. The result is that his spiritual aspirations towards Zen Buddhism do not be appear to be reflected in his day to day life and I can only surmise the dissonance that this must have created at some level of his being. Jung suggests, “When the inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.” I have long believed that one of the pitfalls of our age is when people evolve spiritually but don’t explore their psychology or the meaning of their lives.

My work with Inspire Health gave me a lens to consider Jobs’ response to his cancer. It focuses on the patients’ health using an integrated approach that combines nutrition, exercise, emotional and spiritual support with standard cancer treatments. I facilitate a men’s’ support group and my observation has been that two of the fundamental responses that help people through cancer are life change and stress reduction. Every single person in my group has at some time expressed the belief that his cancer was a gift. In fact Isaacson does not mention whether Jobs ever sought meaning in his disease but the suggestion is that he did not.

Although I do not necessarily hold with the concept that all disease represents an underlying metaphysical context or meaning, I am always curious when I get sick to peek into Louise Hays fascinating little book Heal Your Life so I could not resist looking up pancreas and cancer. The pancreas represents the sweetness of life; cancer can be deep hurt, longstanding resentment, secret grief and carrying hatreds; I cannot not help but wonder whether Jobs’ unresolved issues got in the way of the sweetness of his life.

Steve Jobs appears an enigma in so many ways. His profession of Zen Buddhism was all about non- attachment yet his creative and inspirational genius likely created more attachment to “things” than any other person of his time. As I complete these thoughts I find the elegant refrain from Mark 8:36 haunting me, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”