Connecting with the Mystery

My theory of the mystery of life has developed from a myriad of sources, which I have pieced together like a mosaic; my version of spirituality I suppose. I read recently that people who define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” are more prone to depression and anxiety. That makes sense to me. Religion, from what I have observed, provides many people with comfort. If nothing else, religion gives people answers to tough questions. For the really tough questions, the answer is simple; don’t question, have faith.

But for people who have abandoned organized religion, they must answer those questions themselves, create their own meaning of life and death. The really tough questions may remain unanswered, which can be quite disconcerting. The search for those answers can lead to a deep sense of isolation and despair. I remember one moment of despair as I realized how truly alone I was in the world. No one except me would ever really know me; it was impossible.

For those who have the courage to persist through that darkness, however, and discover their own answers, are rewarded with a deep and unshakable sense of connectedness and unity with the world that is beyond description. As I contemplated my loneliness and wept with despair, a simple truth came to me. I am both alone and not alone. It is true that no other human will ever really know me, but I chose to believe that the mystery of this world did, knew everything and accepted me anyway, and this belief was comforting.

I suppose I could have simply accepted religion into my life, as I seem to have come to similar conclusions. There are those who don’t need to take that difficult path to discover their own answers, who are content to simply receive the teachings that that have been passed down for thousands of years. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. I have to do things the hard way. I must find my own answers.

My conclusions about the mystery and magic of life are not well defined, but they all come from trying to understand and make sense of my own life, and my own experiences with that mystery. I have concluded that there are questions that cannot be answered. They are too complex to understand (for my little brain anyway). They require faith.

I decided to take that leap of faith when I was 21 when I determined that my life was intolerable. I allowed myself to believe that this mystery was wiser and more powerful than me, but also, that whatever it was, it was also loving. I felt its compassion and its love for lowly little me, and I surrendered to it. I allowed it to direct my life. I am convinced that it was that experience that was crucial to the transformation I experienced. Through that surrender, the person that I am now was created. I remember telling my friend Pat that when I was a teen I was certain that I would die when I was 21. I had had a dream about it and it was so vivid that I was convinced that my death was imminent. I was positive of it. Knowing my history he looked at me and said “But Julie you did experience a kind of death at 21. You completely transformed.” He was right.

Although I surrendered my life to whatever this mystery is, it doesn’t mean that I don’t, on a regular basis, try to re-assert my will. I think of it as allowing someone else to drive. I have been driving since I was 14 years old, which means that I am a terrible passenger. When I look down the road that we are driving towards I have a tendency to panic and try to take the wheel. “What are you thinking going down THAT path??? We are certainly NOT going down that one!”

This is the panic I feel whenever I get close to my dreams. It is a peculiar type of fear that makes me feel like a small child. When I was young I was quite shy (no one believes this but it is true!). There was a period of time where I hated trying anything new. The thought of walking into a strange room, full of strange people and not knowing what was going on filled me with dread. My parents, being good parents, signed me up for all kinds of classes. At one point it was too much. They had signed me up for a diving class. I refused to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Then my Dad did something I will never forget. He offered to take the diving class with me. All my fear drained away. I was in awe of him. My dad would be there. It would be okay.

I had that same feeling when I decided that I was really going to pursue my crazy dream of being a singer. There was a tiny part of me that desperately wanted to do it, but the greater part was completely terrified. I was sure that I had a terrible voice, that I would humiliate myself if I tried. My Dad wasn’t there anymore to hold my hand. It was up to me to face these fears, all by myself.

The pivotal moment was when I went to visit my friend Jeremy, one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a musician and I often went to his house and listened to him play guitar. I could listen to him play for hours. I had felt for a long time that he and I shared a unique connection, one I had never felt with anyone else. It was like our souls were connected. I decided that I would sing in front of him. I swallowed my terror, grabbed the microphone, and allowed my voice to be heard. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sound, trying to stay in key and infuse the words with emotion. When I was done Jeremy said, “That was great Julie. You have a great voice.” It was the moment of truth. I could believe him or not. I was the type of person that had a difficult time accepting a compliment, distrusting people’s assessment of my skill or their motives. I decided to trust him; trust that he would not lie to me, would not say this simply to be polite. I believed him.

This simple act had unexpected consequences and led to moments of synchronicity that Julia Cameron described in “The Artist’s Way”. I was working as a social worker for the government at that time. My office was a bizarre mix of personalities. On my first day of work no one knew I was arriving. My new supervisor was away. One of the women helped me find a desk and took me out for coffee, where she explained that the office was full of crazy people, so I was either with her and the sane ones, or with the crazy ones and I had better choose. Pronto. Later that afternoon I was told the same thing by one of the crazy ones. I became friends with one of the few sane people I found, Wendy. She was my refuge and I adored her. That office was the last place I would ever expect an opportunity to sing. But one day Wendy, out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in singing backup vocals in her band. I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. But I accepted immediately.

I went to audition not long after, and was completely nervous. Here I would discover if Jeremy really had lied to me. I started to sing and quickly looked for any signs of a wince or a cringe on any of their faces. I saw none and started to relax. After the audition they welcomed me to the band. I was ecstatic. We practiced every week and played three shows together. It was the most fun I had ever had. I felt like a little puppy dog who had just been let off the leash; I wanted to sing more and more and more. I was in love with the experience.

But, as has happened before in my life, other things called to me. I had worked as a social worker for two years. It was stressful and often heartbreaking.  A career in child protection social work had an average shelf life of two years. I had just barely passed that mark. My dream career was to be a therapist. I saw myself having my own office,  with beautiful art on the walls, and helping people like I was at 21, helping them as my counsellor had helped me. The problems I would deal with would be manageable. That was the idea anyway.

There was only one program in Canada that offered the kind of graduate degree I was interested in. It was very competitive and only allowed 6 people per year. I applied and was accepted for a series of interviews. I flew to Guelph, Ontario for the interview. They offered me a spot a few months later. I accepted.

Although I was happy about the opportunity to further my career, I was not excited about the move. I had dreamed my whole life of living in Vancouver. After 8 years I still pinched myself, not quite believing I was really living there. I had never even wanted to visit Ontario. As I drove across the country to start a new life in Guelph, I was acutely aware of what I was leaving behind in Vancouver; friends, family, opportunities to sing and to act, and a city I was in love with. All I could do was have faith that I was on the path I was supposed to be on, and if I wasn’t, that I would be able to receive that message. It was a familiar anxiety, wondering if I was on the right path, whether I was listening to the mystery of the world or the sound of my own anxieties. Whatever it was, I was driving towards a new part of my life, having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that it would likely change everything.

Dream a little dream … Mid Life Crisis Part II

Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager.  It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.

I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.

I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.

I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.

“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”

I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.

I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.

I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.

I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.

When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.

When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.

In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers.  What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.

I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.

I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.

As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water. 

After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.

I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.

Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”

Stay tuned for the next installment

My Quest – Part II of Taking a Leap of Faith

Julian looked me in the eyes but we did not speak. I knew he had no doubts that I would be able to do this. Another member of our group, a young man, had been talking for days about how he didn’t think he could handle three days in the wilderness. He was certain that he would panic and have to return to camp. I was shocked by his fear. He had always seemed overly confident in his abilities and slightly disdainful when people couldn’t keep up. I had never considered that I might give up and return back to camp. But I, unlike him, had learned how to appreciate my own company. It wasn’t the loneliness that worried me.

I met Julian’s stare and smiled. I didn’t say good-bye and I didn’t look back. I walked up the mountain feeling a mixture of calm and nerves. In my backpack was a small fleece blanket, a pair of rain pants and jacket, a small piece of rope, a carabiner, a journal, some incense and a lighter. That was it. No food, no water, no tent, no sleeping bag. My first task was to find a suitable location to spend three days in the mountains with no shelter.

Julian had told us how he had done his quest, years ago. The purpose was to rid one’s self of all distractions. No food, no water, little movement, little clothing, and no sleep. I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to purge myself of all of these comforts. The two I was certain I would need help with was staying awake and staying warm. As I walked up the hill I whispered “Please help me stay warm. Please help me stay awake.”

About halfway up the slope of the mountain I found a spot. It was fairly flat and sunny, but with some shade from the trees. I found some rocks and made my circle. One rock facing east, one south, one west, and one north. The circle was large enough to lie down in if I curled up in the fetal position. Once I stepped into the circle, I would not leave until Julian called for us all three days later. I would spend two nights on that mountain, sitting in that circle. I stepped in, sat down, and looked out over the prairies, my view for the next three days. I tried to prepare for the battles that lay ahead: the battle with my stomach who would want food; the battle with my throat that would want water; the battle with my body that would want sleep; and the battle with my mind that would want to give up.

I watched the sun move across the sky. It started in the east. I lit incense when it moved to the south and when it set in the west. When I tired of sitting, I stood up and sang the songs that Julian had taught us. My favourite was the warrior woman song. I sang it over and over. One of the elders had told us that this solo was a sacred rite of passage. When we returned from the mountain a part of us would be left behind to allow a new part to emerge. Traditionally it had been a child that would go alone into the wilderness, and return to the community as an adult. We had talked about what rites of passage we celebrate, officially or not, in our culture. Many of them were not terribly sacred; getting drunk, losing one’s virginity, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school. For me this rite of passage was sacred. It was time for the part of me who was childlike and lived in fear to be replaced by the wise warrior woman. It was time for me to grow up.

When I stopped singing I sat down. I remembered what Julian had told us about how he handled the boredom; he sent a message of gratitude to every person he had ever met in his life. I started by thanking the mystery that is this universe, what they called Great Spirit or Creator. I thanked the people that were closest to me for all that they had done for me. As I did, tears streamed down my face. I felt so much love and appreciation. I sent messages of love to my grandmother who had died when I was a young woman and completely messed up. She had never seen me come out the other side, but I felt her presence at that moment. I thanked people who I had not seen in years. I thanked the people that had hurt me, for the truth was that I wouldn’t be the person I was without that suffering, and I was proud of who I was, who I was becoming.

Right before night fell I started to hear rustling in the trees and bushes around me. Julian had told me about pack rats in the mountains but I had never seen one until that night. They peered at me from behind the trees. They had a rat’s face, but a squirrel’s tail. They did not fear me at all. One of them ate the rope that was holding my backpack to a tree and stole my carabiner. I took a step outside of my circle to rescue my pack.

I had been wondering how the mystery of this world would help me to stay awake. Now I knew. Pack rats. As it got darker, they started to come towards me. I couldn’t believe it. They were trying to climb right up on me! I thought animals were supposed to be afraid of humans! I spent the next several hours on guard, waiting for them to come into my circle and then shooing them away. Bernard, a member of our group, had found a spot within hearing distance. Just as the pack rats started invading him space he heard me yelling frantically, “Shoo!!! Get away from me! Shoo!!!” He thought that was quite hilarious.

As the pack rats finally left me alone I looked up at the sky. There were millions of stars. They covered the sky with their brilliance. I was completely in awe and watched the moon and the stars slowly move across the sky for hours. I had never spent a night awake under the sky. It was magnificent.  As I watched I marveled at the fact that the moon, what the elders called “Grandmother”, had a direct influence on the rhythm of my body; my moon cycle. I had never really thought about that before, the impact something so far away had on the part of my body responsible for conception, for creating new life. I had never felt so connected to something in my life as I did to the moon that night. She was my grandmother. She was watching over me, protecting me. Even though it was the middle of the night, and I had only my small fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I felt cozy under her gaze. I had heard later that they had been cold in the camp below, but I felt warm.

I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. My body was taking notice of the lack of food and water. Their absence impacted me in subtle ways. At times I felt a strange kind of peace that I imagined one might feel when death was very near. I lay down with my knees bent. I smelt the leaves from the wild strawberry plants. It gave me comfort. What I felt most profoundly, though, was how the earth supported the weight of my body. Julian had talked to us about the Gaia principle, that the earth is an actual organism; mother earth. I felt that, the earth was cradling me. She was there fore me, nurturing me, there was nothing to fear. I realized that even though people may have let me down, abandoned me, hurt me, the earth would always be there. If I felt alone I could always seek connection and comfort the soil, the trees, the moon and the stars, the living world around me I had always taken for granted.

That night as I was fighting off the pack rats who were determined to eat the very clothes I was wearing, I heard something crashing through the bush towards me. I froze. I was sure it was a bear. Traditionally part of the purpose of the vision quest was to meet one’s spirit guide, an animal. I had hoped that mine would not be a pack rat. Although I thought that having a bear for a spirit guide would be incredibly cool, I prayed that it was not a bear running straight for me. I looked up and out of the trees came a gigantic buck. He stopped only a few feet away. I held my breath. He lifted his head and antlers and I could see his breath. He was majestic. Right at that very moment a packrat, sensing my sudden lack of vigilance, took the opportunity to jump and landed right on top of my head. I fought a scream but it was too late. The buck leaped back into the forest and was gone. I savoured that moment when it felt like the buck and I were the only two beings in the entire world. It felt important somehow, and I wanted it to sink into my bones, my blood, become a part of me.

The next morning I lit my incense as the sun rose in the east. I was impatient for Julian’s call. The second I heard him I packed up my things and walked back to camp, where a feast awaited us. The young man who was sure that he would not make it, had returned to camp the first night and kept watch over the fire that they kept burning the whole time we were in the wild. I returned from the mountain a woman. I may not have rid myself of all of my fears, but I had a powerful ally. My warrior woman had awakened. She is the one who helps me to fight for my dreams. Over the next years of my life I needed her fierce encouragement, for reaching out for my dreams has been both the scariest and the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

Aside: The solo is offered as part of the adult programming at ghostriverrediscovery.com out of Calgary, Alberta.

Taking a Leap of Faith – Part I

Maya and Dave

Maya and Dave

I am sitting in my living room on a Saturday morning in my bathrobe, with freshly dyed hair (good-bye for a month terrible grey roots!) and an empty house. A house that looks like a cyclone went through it mind you, but empty nonetheless. I dropped Dave and Maya at the airport a few short hours ago so that they could visit his family in Ontario. It’s been almost a year since we moved from Ontario to B.C., which is hard to believe.

As I’m sitting here, listening to loud music (Metric of course), their absence is sinking in. Since I had Maya I have only been away from her twice, and only for a few days. I was dreading saying good-bye. I was anticipating sobs and wailing “Mommy come with us!!” Of course she dealt with it must better than I did. “Bye-bye Mommy! I love you!” And off she went, holding Daddy’s hand. She didn’t even look back.

Ten days. Ten days without them. In that time I need to fit in all of the things I want/need to do. The thing most pressing is, depressingly, cleaning this apartment. Moving from a house to an apartment has been an adjustment. Keeping a small place clean, when a toddler is one of the three people living there, is more challenging than I had imagined. And to top it all off I detest cleaning. I become a vile creature when I clean, particularly if I must do it in silence. Music is the only companion I want around me when I clean.

The other task I want to accomplish while they are away is to write. I have had a strange relationship with writing. It has been a dream of mine since I can remember, to write. Not to be a writer, mind you; oddly that was never the goal. Over the years, however, every time I attempted to write something intended for public consumption, the words that came out on the page were so embarrassing that I would hide the dreadful things away, along with the dream, until the next time I became desperate enough to put pen to page.  And so the dream was put off. I wrote in my journals, wrote paper after paper for school, wrote reports for work, but never dared to write. It was too scary. The fantasy was ephemeral, living at the edges of my consciousness, making the odd, limping, appearance in my longing, but without enough force to get me to really pay attention.

I had heard someone say that you should never attempt to actually do what you fantasize about. Once the fantasy was realized, he argued, you have nothing left; emptiness where once lived longing and desire. On first hearing this I agreed, but what is assumed in this theory is that the soil of that emptiness would be so barren that no seed could possibly take root to create a new and possibly more wonderful fantasy.

I had many fantasies that I had kept hidden away; to be a rock star, or a famous movie actress. My dream of writing had been so daunting, however, that it never contemplated actually being a writer. That would be too audacious. To even fantasize about it would invite retribution. It would tempt fate. My belief in the world was something like this: every moment of joy would be responded to by three times that of disaster. I’m not sure where this distrust of the world came from, but it made me very protective of my dreams. I kept them locked away, as one would lock away their most precious possessions to safeguard them from invaders during a war. That is what I did with my dreams. My life was the war. I hid my dreams so well that I forgot that they existed.

My belief about the world was forever changed as a result of participating in a unique program called “Guiding Spirit.” I’ve described it in my birth story blog, but, in short, it changed my life. I learned profound things about myself. The most important realization was how little I actually trusted the world. I expected to be betrayed, disappointed, abandoned, hurt.

This immense distrust first hit me when we did a “high ropes” course. It was like a giant playground for adults, but suspended about 40 feet off the ground. I am scared of heights. It was my turn to do the log crossing. I put on my harness and climbed up the forty feet to the log. It was a thick and suspended in mid air. I had walked, even run, on many logs this size with no fear. But those were on the ground.

I took my first step and my whole body started to shake uncontrollably. I stopped. I couldn’t even trust my body to work properly. The people below, holding on to ropes that would hold me if I fell, were starting to get bored. One of the men started to yell encouraging words. I think it was something to the effect of “For fuck’s sake will you GO already!”

I stood there shaking. I was too scared to walk. My legs were shaking so badly I knew I would fall. I started to examine the Fear that had invaded my body. What was I really afraid of? I was harnessed in. If I fell the people below would hold on to the ropes and would stop my fall. That is when it hit me. I didn’t trust that they would hang on when I needed them. Fear whispered to me “They are bored, they’re not really paying attention, they don’t know you or care about you. They will let you fall.”

I listened, then looked Fear in the eye. “No. I do not believe you.” It was true that these people did not know or care about me, but I decided to trust them anyway. The second I made the decision to trust, Fear slithered quickly out of body. My legs stopped shaking. I felt calm. I walked across the log with the same confidence I would have had it been on the ground.

After two months of adventures designed to test our limits, dissolve our defenses and make us more aware and connected human beings, it was time for the grand finale, the solo; the right of passage to transition us to the next part of the program. Our solo would involve three days of venturing into the Canadian Rockies. Alone.

I had accepted one of our guides, Julian’s, challenge. It was like he was speaking directly to me when he told our group that the only way we would learn the profound lessons about ourselves we had said we wanted to learn would be to give up the things that make us feel secure. I knew he was right. I had not taken the solo seriously.

I started to consider what deep truths I wanted to discover from this experience. What came to me was slightly shocking. I wanted to learn that I could trust the world; that if I went out into the world alone and vulnerable, that I would be cared for. Being alone didn’t make me insecure, but being cold did. I determined that in order to truly test this theory I had to severely limit what I could bring. I decided I would bring next to nothing; no sleeping bag, no tent. Immediately after that decision, Fear crept into my body with a vengeance. I knew I was on the right path.

To assuage my fears, I went to speak to Pat, our other guide. He asked me to think of the worst possible place I could imagine being. It was in the middle of the Arctic, surrounded by snow, cold and alone. I told him my plan, to bring nothing with me except a small fleece blanket. He immediately looked concerned. “Julie you need to bring a sleeping bag.” I had expected him to support my crazy plan. Fear was positively gleeful. “I told you! Your plan is TERRIBLE. You are going to freeze to death in the mountains. I told you!!”

It was a pivotal moment. I knew that this act of faith on my part was crucial. Bringing a sleeping bag would signify that I did not truly trust the world with my life. “Sure I trust you! But just in case you let me down I have this handy sleeping bag. Just in case. But I trust you! I swear.” Perhaps that was Pat’s point; that I shouldn’t trust the world in this way. It was foolish. We were in the mountains for god’s sake, where snowstorms in the summer are not uncommon. It was the perfect moment to back down. Pat, someone whose knowledge and wisdom I counted on was telling me I was being foolish. I should listen to him. A part of me I had forgotten spoke up forcefully. “No. You need to trust yourself.” I listened and stood my ground. I explained my rationale to Pat, my need to commit to my plan, to trust that I would be cared for. I must have sounded persuasive. He told me to jump up and down if I got cold.

The morning we were to leave we went into the sweat lodge. When it came to the round where we were to pray for ourselves, I called out silently to the mystery of the universe, what they called Great Spirit and the Creator. I asked for help. Please help me stay awake. Please help me stay warm. I left the sweat lodge, said good-bye to the others, and walked towards the mountains. I did not look back.

I brought very little with me: no food, no water, and no shelter. My plan was to fast and stay awake for the full three days. I felt both terrified and confident. I walked up the mountainside and into the wilderness, not knowing that this experience would change me forever.

Stay tuned for Part II