Soul Whispers

Grit without compassion is just grind. What would be most fun to create this year? How can self-compassionate grit support you in that creating?” Jennifer Louden


         This brilliant notion – grit without compassion is just grind – has me pondering.

         In fact, something about it has been like the proverbial grain of sand that irritates the oyster to make the pearl.

         My father was made of grind. He was the most self-disciplined man I have ever known, and created some remarkable achievements as an architect visionary. He drove himself relentlessly, and rarely smiled. He was the essence of grind.

         As a child his father beat him with a wooden post. My father was beaten because he was “stupid.” He failed in school.

         When he was a little boy, he believed that leaves in trees were all connected – one massive block of green growing from the trunk. He thought that when he saw a fallen leaf, it looked the way it did because it had broken off in that lovely shape from the green swath.

          Of course, he needed glasses. He could never see the blackboard. But no one investigated that when he was a child.

         He never told a soul about the abuse he suffered. I discovered it when I did a soul retrieval -- a shamanic practice -- for him when he was 82.

         In the shamanic journey, I could see him in a stained, cement basement near steep, dark stairs. Piles of lumber were crammed into the basement. My grandfather was a carpenter.

         I could smell sawdust and mildew and sweat. And I saw a little, blond boy sitting on his haunches, hunched, head protected by his arms as my grandfather hit him with a wooden post. I saw blood on his back. I heard him crying.

         This kind of image that I saw is not atypical with shamanic work and soul retrieval. In shamanism, we know when trauma or tragedy strikes, a part of our soul can leave us out of self-protection. It’s one way the soul has of not getting destroyed.

         But when you see an image like this, or, in fact, any image when working for a client, you have to exercise great care in sharing what you see. Sometimes, you don’t talk about the image at all; you know what you are seeing is the traumatic event that made the soul piece leave, seeking safety. The most important part of a soul retrieval is the return of the soul piece that left as a result of the trauma. Cross culturally, soul pieces are often described as resembling stars of many colors. And, in fact, the beauty of these stars often brings me to tears. 

         But in this instance, my helping spirits were insistent on me sharing what I saw with my father. I got cheeky, and insisted I NOT share it. He needed the soul piece back, I said, but not the story of the trauma. They reiterated – tell him what you saw.

         When sharing a traumatic vision, it is extremely important to explain to the client that what you are seeing may be metaphor or it may be real. The spirits speak in many mysterious ways, and, especially in a case like this, you want to be sure that the client KNOWS that this might be a symbol for what happened and not an actual event.

         But when I related this vision to my father, even in a less graphic description, he was shocked silent. And then he said, “How could you know that? I have never told anyone about that. Ever. That happened to me all the time. At the bottom of the stairs in our basement.”

         At dinner that night, for the first time in our lives, I finished my meal long before my dad. My father didn’t ever talk much, didn’t share his feelings. But that night he told me his life story, and I sat there, finally able to understand why we had never been close.

          He joined the marines when he was 18. He was a lost and confused boy. By the time he was 11, he got his glasses, but the family “story” that he was stupid and worthless was thoroughly engrained.

         His sergeant was tough on him, of course. But that was his norm. A man bearing down on him, breaking him down – this was something he understood. What the sergeant did that my grandfather never did was build him back up. And, my father said, the happiest moment in his life was when that sergeant finally saluted him, a sign of respect and competency. He felt a pride he had never known before. 

         I will not go into the sadness I felt in knowing my father had carried this secret for 80 years. It explained so much about his inability to talk about or feel his feelings. Intimacy was impossible for him. He did not know how to give or receive love.

         When I was growing up, every Saturday in my family was laundry day. We would exchange the rumpled linen for the crisp, white and ironed sheets that day.

         Even when I was only six, he would stride into my room to inspect it on Saturdays to be sure it was clean. He always had a quarter in his hand. If the quarter did not bounce on the freshly made bed, he would pull off the sheets and covers, telling me to make it again. Which I did again and again until I got it right.

         Knowing all this, it may not surprise you to know that the words “grit and grind” make me nervous. For much of my life, I did the grind; it was what I was trained to do. I pushed and accomplished without joy or any self-compassion. If I accomplished something, that was what I expected of myself. If I failed, then I would berate myself for not doing what was normal – succeeding.

         So I am extremely wary of grinding away, and have had to dedicate myself to learning how to hold self-compassion by trial and error over my sixty-three years.  Trust me when I say that self-compassion is best-learned young, fostered as you grow and learn.

         But today I realized that what was nagging me about Jen’s quote was another question: what creates grit? What makes us willing to take on the difficult task, make the tough choice, create the new habit?

         And the answer is what sets me free. It is inspiration. It’s desire. Whether we take something on with or without self-compassion, whether it is grind or grit, largely depends on love. On the desire to love something so much that you are willing to do the hard thing. That you value something so highly that you are ready to follow the calling through the brush, through the mud holes, and across the talus slopes.

         My name for this love that calls to us is soul whispers. It can be very hard to hear them in this world.  It’s a noisy place, and there is much suffering in the culture now. So much of daily life deafens us, numbs us out. We do what we can to stay fully alive and present through so many things – art, exercise in nature, meditation.

         But to hear a soul whisper takes more than this. Business creatives like me, long-time practitioners of a spiritual practice like me – we are working at remaking the culture. We are working to reclaim our humanity.

         But work is not what welcomes soul whispers or makes them audible. For me, I have come to realize that it is cultivating tenderness that allows me to hear the whispers. Our souls are amazingly tough and infinitely fragile. Our resilience is cultivated as we grow (if we are mindful, determined and a little bit lucky). But what of the tenderness?

         Tenderness. I found the following definition of  “tender” in an etymological dictionary this morning:

tender (adj.)

"soft, easily injured," early 13c., from Old French tendre "soft, delicate; young" (11c.), from Latin tenerem (nominative tener) "soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful," from a derivative of PIE root *ten- "stretch" (see tenet), on the notion of "stretched," hence "thin," hence "weak" or "young." Compare Sanskrit tarunah "young, tender," Greek teren "tender, delicate," Armenian t'arm "young, fresh, green."

Meaning "kind, affectionate, loving" first recorded early 14c. Meaning "having the delicacy of youth, immature" is attested in English from early 14c. Related: Tenderly; tenderness. Tender-hearted first recorded 1530s.

         To be tender is to stretch. To be young in soul. To be vulnerable enough to hear whispers. For me, it is critical to allow times to cultivate tenderness.

          These days, I love the sound of rain beating on my roof more than any other music. And I find when I lie still in the darkening day for hours and just listen, my heart grows young and tender. It’s one of my new practices. It takes time and it means surrendering and resting, receiving and stretching open.

         It is when I am tender and innocent that I can hear the soul whispers. Those calls to create, to attend. They can be so subtle, so easy to miss if you do not allow time to listen to rain, to curl up with your dog, to lie on your back in the grass and sky gaze. All the things that children do without effort or thought because we are born complete with tender souls.

         Our work to be life artists is rooted in our ability to tend. Not produce. Not succeed. Tend.

         It is in these whispers that you hear things like “I want to pluck the strings of a harp.” Or I want to teach people how to reclaim their animal human. Or I want to sing my love for the cedars into their branches.

         The soul whispers create the seduction, the grace to embrace grit. The longing to be whole, to be curious, to be amazed – this is what allows us to really embark on the marathon. 



For the month of December, I am participating in “Quest2015.” Check out the link. It’s a glorious, free program presented by Jeffrey Davis, Tracking Wonder. If you live your business as art, you want to be there.