While we mark the transitions of early life with rituals—everything from baptisms, communions, and bar and bat mitzvahs to graduations—we usually ignore the more subtle, yet profound, “new beginnings” available to us in midlife.
Elizabeth Lesser talks about it in her book Broken Open as The Phoenix Process. The process refers to a mythological bird that goes into the fire to have the experience of burning away the old that no longer serves.
All of the parts that serve you are still intact, but all of the old not-serving behaviors are burned away and then this new light comes into the world. It can be painful, burning off the old stuff, or letting go of what no longer serves, but now you get to emerge with this new light.
My Phoenix Process began about two years ago, when I attended my first ever weekend-long all-women’s retreat in honor of my 40th birthday. It seemed like the perfect way to mark an incredibly significant and exciting milestone with a time of deep contemplation, intention-setting and celebration.
Of course, I went into the weekend with quite a bit of trepidation. I had never attended anything like a women’s retreat and I was filled with unhelpful thoughts that I was wasting precious time and money.
As wary as I was, I soon discovered that an amazing alchemy occurs when a group comes together with a similar purpose. Critical self-doubts and judgments seem to evaporate beneath the light that emanates from women who understand your struggles because they have them, too.
me.” If I ever get two hours to myself it usually means that I’m rushing somewhere right after—to make dinner, take my son to the park, finish a project or work with a client. So to have two hours to myself, followed by two more hours, for two days was nothing short of revelatory.
I came away from the retreat with a strong sense of how I was going to create more meaningful and joyful practices for embracing my wild, and precious life. I learned that extracting myself from the noose of unworthiness and lack into the expansiveness of hope and joy requires daily effort. I learned that the very best thing I can do to create that expansiveness is practice consistent extreme self-care and love.
Okay, so maybe you don’t think you have even an hour right now to devote to self-care. And maybe you don’t see a milestone on the horizon that would prompt you to give yourself that time. You’re not alone—and it’s crucial that you acknowledge that.
I think a lot of us are unhappy because we simply won’t let ourselves believe that we are all, as Elizabeth Lesser likes to say, bozos on the bus. In fact, at some point in our lives we all come to believe that it’s an “open secret” that everyone else has it together while we are hopelessly lost and squandering our talents.
But the purpose of life isn’t to be perfect. It’s really for us to be here for each other. And whether I think I have the time or not, I’ve found that I’m much more available to others in a loving and authentic way when I am being loving to myself.
Don’t believe me? Try this: the next time you’re feeling lost and out of sorts, take fifteen minutes, get out a sheet of paper, and list your top 3 problems. (If you have more than 3 concerns vying for spots on that list, add 5 minutes to go lie down for a bit with a cool cloth over your forehead. See if that helps.)
Then ask yourself which of those problems you can do something about. Create a list of the things you can do. This list will help you see that you can move toward a resolution, even if you doubt that you’ll get there. And you know what else? I’ve found that when I act on even one thing that I can do, more guideposts show up immediately—guideposts that I would never have seen had I not taken a tiny step forward.
What’s more, the sense that you have started your way out of overwhelm—that relief, that freedom—will open a space for you to be more loving, giving, and receptive to the others in your life.
Lao Tzu wrote, “The great way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths.” Why people prefer the side paths is the subject of a future essay, but for now your mission is clear:
Take decisive action in the direction of your dreams and you will find your spirit and everything else you’ve ever wanted along the way—and you will find yourself better able to help the others in your life find what they’re after.
And honestly, there’s no better way to mark a new beginning in your life. You may even create one you didn’t see coming.
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