This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
…the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave…
The image of the swan floating so effortlessly on the water just made David’s own days, “so full of will and effort,” that much more intolerable. Suddenly he blurted, “Tell me about exhaustion.”
After a brief, penetrating gaze, the monk said, “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”
“What is it, then?”
“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness,” the monk replied. “You are so tired because a good half of what you do in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers.”
“Go on,” said David.
“You are like Rilke’s swan in his awkward waddling across the ground,” the monk continued. “The swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself, by moving faster. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. Simple contact with the water gives him grace and presence.
“You have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand. You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon. Let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself,” he said.
The very next day, David took a first small step toward a future filled not with exhaustion but with the exhilarating vitality of a dream come true, a future in which he would eventually make his living as a speaker, teacher and, indeed, a poet.
David, as you may have guessed, is the poet David Whyte. He tells the story of his transformation in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001).
In his poem “What to Remember When Waking” (River Flow, 2012), he writes: “What you can plan / is too small / for you to live. / What you can live / wholeheartedly”—as his mentor, the monk, had pointed out—“will make plans / enough / for the vitality / hidden in your sleep,” that is, the secret world of your dreams.
David Whyte found something he could live wholeheartedly.
Letting go of the ground to which he had been clinging, a situation that completely drained him day after day, he finally let himself down into the elemental waters of his life’s work as a poet. When he did, he began to move with the grace of a swan in its natural habitat.
A mere three months after that fateful evening, he found himself standing at a podium before a large audience at a conference on the coast of California. Launching the work for which he is known and revered today.
How, exactly, did he do it? “I decided on two things,” he explains.
“Firstly, I was going to do at least one thing every day toward my future life as a poet,” he explains. “I calculated that no matter how small a step I took each day, over a year that would come to a grand total of 365 actions . . . one thing a day is a powerful multiplier.”
Whyte likens the gradually accumulating power of small actions—sending an email, making a phone call, writing or memorizing a few lines of a poem—to the acceleration generated by a space probe under ion propulsion.
An ion engine fires a stream of charged atomic particles out the back of the craft at high velocity producing, curiously, only an infinitesimal amount of thrust—equivalent to the weight of a sheet of paper on the palm of your hand. In the frictionless environment of space, however, the cumulative effect is astounding. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, for example, can travel at nearly 24,000 miles per hour.
“It is a profound metaphor for a poet, of course,” says Whyte, “just the weight of a piece of paper, a blank piece of paper . . . once a day, every day.” It is also a metaphor, he adds, “for any work and any person.”
The second thing Whyte did to transform his life and career was to initiate what he calls “courageous conversations” with the world around him.
“I told everyone I knew that I was moving toward becoming a full-time poet. I wanted them to hear it and to hold me to what they had heard. Disbelief, silence, scorn, I didn’t care,” he recalls. “I was doing my damnedest to create a kind of gravitational field that would have me drawn increasingly into its center.”
One of these conversations brought Whyte to the attention of a friend who was running that conference in California. “From that infinitesimal but infinitely important connection,” he observes, “I and my work were catapulted into the visibility for which I had waited long years.”
Many of us grind along for years, too, postponing some dream, some big idea that our souls need, or at least desperately want, us to realize. Some unlived life or work that we cannot exactly plan, perhaps, but that we could live, if we tried—no longer half-heartedly, but wholeheartedly.
For the past five years, I have adopted David Whyte as a sort of mentor and guide on my own pilgrimage of transformation. Inspired by his poetry and this particular story, I recently took steps to accelerate the arrival of my own life’s work.
For one thing, I told everyone in my professional network—colleagues, clients, and peers—that it was time, at last, for me to leave the industry where I have spent most of my working life. (Click here for the mini-autobiography I posted on LinkedIn to explain my seemingly sudden career change.)
Second, like Whyte, every day since then I have attempted to take at least one small step in the direction of my emerging career as a helping professional—working with introverts and contemplatives to transform ideas into action, to overcome procrastination and paralysis, to take meaningful next steps on our journeys toward personal and professional goals that matter to our souls. (Click here to visit my new web site: Positive Psychology & Solution-Focused Coaching for Introverts.)
This, for me, is a natural evolution of the contemplative work I have been doing “on the side” for the past 20 years. Indeed, Incarnatio, the sixth movement of the Lectio Poetica process, invites us to gently shift from contemplation to action, to consider ways of embodying our intentions and aspirations in our daily life and work.
What is it, we ask, that your soul wants you to do or to change, based on the insights and ideas that have emerged from deep within?
Consider your own life, your work, your fantasies and dreams.
What is the “elemental water” to which you find yourself drawn, again and again, your natural habitat, where stumbling awkwardness dissolves into something more elegant and graceful, like the swan?
Who is, or has been, a mentor and role model to you, as the monk was to David Whyte and as David Whyte has been to me?
Often, as we embark on a new journey, a pilgrimage to some sacred destination in life or work, we need a new guide who knows the terrain, who understands both the promise and the perils that lie ahead. Who inspires you to take that first, risky step toward your unlived life, and to keep going when the road gets rough?
One day, before I had gotten up the nerve to tell my business colleagues that I intended to launch a whole new career, I became transfixed by David Whyte’s poem “The Well” (Pilgrim, 2012; see below for the entire poem). Over the next two weeks, I read it literally dozens of times, slowly allowing the words to penetrate my parched soul, like sipping from a hidden spring.
I finally knew what I had to do, as Mary Oliver says at the beginning of "The Journey."
Just as Rilke’s poem inspired Whyte to begin the courageous conversations that eventually transformed his future, this poem—and his life story—emboldened me to stop, at last, and drink from the well.
Now, what about you?
—Jay E. Valusek
Be thankful now for having arrived,
for the sense of having drunk from a well,
for remembering the long drought
that preceded your arrival and the years
walking in a desert landscape of surfaces
looking for a spring hidden from you so long
that even wanting to find it now had gone
from your mind until you only remembered
the hard pilgrimage that brought you here,
the thirst that caught in your throat;
the taste of a world just-missed
and the dry throat that came from a love
you remembered but had never fully wanted
for yourself, until finally after years making
the long trek to get here it was as if your whole
achievement had become nothing but thirst itself.
But the miracle had come simply
from allowing yourself to know
that you had found it, that this time
someone walking out into the clear air
from far inside you had decided not to walk
past it any more; the miracle had come
at the roadside in the kneeling to drink
and the prayer you said, and the tears you shed
and the memory you held and the realization
that in this silence you no longer had to keep
your eyes and ears averted from the place
that could save you, that you had been given
the strength to let go of the thirsty dust laden
pilgrim-self that brought you here, walking
with her bent back, her bowed head
and her careful explanations.
No, the miracle had already happened
when you stood up, shook off the dust
and walked along the road from the well,
out of the desert toward the mountain,
as if already home again, as if you deserved
what you loved all along, as if just
remembering the taste of that clear cool
spring could lift up your face and set you free.