The aphorism, ‘Know thyself’, inscribed in the forecourt of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, has had many interpretations. But in the Socratic dialogues recorded by Plato, there is a clear message that we need to understand ourselves in order to have understanding of and empathy towards others. The ability to reflect on ourselves with honesty and insight is fundamental to understanding the human condition. Writers are those who are in position to elucidate the human condition. And if we are to do this with responsibility and integrity, we need to have some insight into ourselves, not as an exercise in narcissistic naval-gazing, but in order to connect deeply to others, Others who are just as flawed, just as complex, just as human, whatever their similarities and differences.
There is never a time when story is not urgent, but it may well be that we currently stand on a threshold in history. It may be no exaggeration to say that the relatively short-term will determine whether our species, and many other parts of our planet, survives.
In such a climate, our survival, and beyond mere survival — active thriving — demands that we tell new stories, about ourselves, our communities and our world. New stories begin with writers. We need writers who are self-reflective and able to rise above their own fears and projections, writers able to help whole cultures dream, imagine and live new stories. Writers who have found paths to walk down where story flourishes and new myths that nurture begin to blossom.
Change always starts with story. And the first and most profound change any of us can make is to ourselves, letting this change effect how we relate to others and to the world. This is Carl Jung:
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.
Over the last year we have reflected on living more slowly and attentively. finding rhythms that better match the planet and our bodies in order to cultivate a sense of abundance, gratitude and connection. And of course this entails thinking about the paths we are walking, as writers and in our daily lives.
How we kindle light in the darkness will be infinitely variable for each of us, but it all adds to the light.
being the path
Being the path takes a certain kind of rhythm in life, one that pulses between how we think and what we embody. It holds in tension the inner work of knowing ourselves with the outer connections to people we love, the communities we live in, how we relate to people we work with and all the decisions we make daily about consumption, travel, what we eat… It is the heartbeat that moves between being and doing, keeping the inner work and the outer expression in equilibrium.
But what is essential is that no part of this rhythm should be extrinsic. In other words it means that every milestone or goal along our path should arise from who we are. It should be a coming home to the heart. If you ask yourself
Who is life asking me to be?
What thoughts and feelings arise? Hopefully, they flow from who you are, even if that ‘being’ is only aspirational at the moment. And these thoughts and feelings can create a feedback loop that reinforces and confirms who we are, giving us more confidence to live with integrity. This is how transformation happens. This is how stories change.
Each of us has a unique meaning, a vocation that is a complex interplay of your intrinsic self and what life around you is calling you to become. And it’s vital that we respond. As Søren Kierkegaard says:
The most common form of despair is not being who you are.
defining the path
Who we are is pivotal. The ‘know thyself’ of the Delphic oracle is foundational, but it’s not an end point. We are always on the journey and along the path, even at its most interior, we will need to make connections.
There’s a writing exercise that I periodically. Sometimes the same things recur but often there will also be a new element. It is simply to define the path you are pursuing in 100 words. It can be written as a poem, a list of affirmations or beliefs, a continuous piece of prose. You might want to illustrate it. It can be quirky or goal-oriented – this is your path, no one else’s. And once you have the 100 word description of your path you can sum it up in a phrase.
As you write you might bear in mind these quotes to:
Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.
Dig deep; the water — goodness — is down there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.
— Marcus Aurelius
Why exactly 100 words?
There’s a writing movement that began in France called Oulipo. Most of the group also happened to be mathematicians and they would set each other difficult writing challenges. Georges Perec managed a whole novel without using the letter ‘e’, for example. Although it can seem contrived to have these kinds of limitations, they can also force us to pay extraordinary attention to what we are writing and within the limitation of the challenge this can be become oddly freeing. So give it a try.
Here’s mine (which has changed significantly in the last couple of years):
My path is to dwell in and relate from the heart space — to nurture the healing alchemy of connection.
I want to explore what it means to live a nourished life that nourishes others’ a life of embodied story expressed through my writing, editing and mentoring; through sharing yoga nidrā and my walks with plants, in the forest where I live and through herbalism and aromatherapy.
I’m in search of a rhythm that encompasses the many life cycles as I walk this path, open to its calls to slow living, acute attentiveness, deep connection, abundance, gratitude, gracious suppleness and passion.
And my mantra (which has stayed constant):
slow down, listen, connect — it is enough.
stories for the path
That you are here — that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
— Walt Whitman
When we allow ourselves, like Whitman, the freedom to play, to know that we don’t have to do it all, that it’s enough to contribute a verse, then we are more likely to relax, breathe and find ways to take the next step on the path.
And having a story to translate our aspirations and our mantras into the daily rhythms of life helps us to take those steps. If your path is all about having courage and patience, for example, what story of yourself do you need in order to translate those values into how you live? The stories are of how we live, or aspire to, and how we keep practicing this life and so prevent the path from becoming a cerebral space that doesn’t connect with how you live. It won’t mean any of us will instantly become a new person, but it will give us small, concrete steps, taken however slowly is right for each of us.
What stories do you need to live to make your path the one you are walking, at least some of the time?
My list included:
- take some time to slow down, even a 5 minute pause
- have a conversation in which you really listen and don’t let your mind wander
- do something creative today, however small, something for your writing and something for another’s creativity
- remember to be bodiful and move
- do one thing that nourishes you today, however small
- do one thing that is generous today, however small
- walk and be with the plants
- at the end of the day, celebrate the good in it
- sleep well
Even with our stories in place, it’s easy for this to be a paper exercise unless we can integrate the stories with how we live day to day. We all have things that need to get done. Some of us are parents to small children or have caring responsibilities. Some of us have demanding work, mortgages or food to provide. Some of us have commitments to courses of study or to relationships or to finishing a manuscript.
When we make being and doing into antagonists, then daily life can be perceived as onerous. The things we do to hold body and soul together or to care for others can be denigrated as chores that keep us from living slowly and connecting deeply. But we don’t have to buy into that dualistic way of thinking.
The tasks we have in our daily lives can either by in opposition to our quests and strategies or they can flow into one another.
How can you make the path you are on and the stories of who you are or are becoming cohere with your daily rhythms?
When the path leads to stories for who you want to be and the stories in turn assist in how you live on this path, then the story you are becoming deepens and you begin to embody this in you daily life …
And when you pause to reflect, there will be areas of life where you are doing this, where your path and the story you want to become are already coherent with how you live day to day. You are already doing so much more than you probably give yourself credit for so take some time to celebrate all the ways you are already on and honouring your path.
Living more attentively is about finding the resonance between being and doing rather than artificially dividing them. This doesn’t mean we should stuff our lives with doing too much. Most of us need to do less and be more, but it’s not a call to abandon all activity or the things that hold body and soul together, but to find gentle ways to align them one step at a time.
Most of our paths in life are not linear or straight-forward, but one turn will lead to the next, one step and then another. Check in with yourself each day and ask if your daily life is supporting you on your path and, if not, what you can do to gently adjust it.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— T S Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’ V
Here’s to a new year of walking your path and coming home to the story of yourself.
Join me in Kith Community in 2022
Kith is my passion. Working with writers is a privelege and seeing stories unfold and connections made is deeply rewarding for everyone involved.
Kith Community is about taking pauses in our lives, slowing down enough so that we can listen to the voice calling us to create, paying attention to our hearts and our art and so making deep connections, from intuitive leaps of imagination to unblocking some of the mindsets that keep us from the joy of creative flow, from meeting other writers online to connecting more deeply with ourselves and wider life.
The community includes a forum, fortnightly writing prompts and discussions of the writing life and 5 3-hour online workshops spread through the year. Give your writing time and power in 2022 with the help of Kith community.