“Life is a journey.” A familiar metaphor. Whatever the external features, I see this as essentially a journey of meaning-making. The meanings that we find in life begin with our earliest experiences. Even before we have language, we might say there are implicit meanings that are embedded in our bodies and in our brains: “safe,” “alone,” “scared.” With language, simple stories begin to unfold: “I can make things,” “Mama takes care of me,” “Loud voices are trouble,” “I need to hide.”
For a long time the journey seems to lead us from “home” out into the world: into a larger family, a neighborhood, a religious community, a school, new relationships. We are constantly learning, expanding, retreating, experimenting, playing it safe… Along the way we develop a sense of who we are. That identity is essentially a story that encompasses our memories, experiences, relationships, hopes and dreams. For some, this identity story is never questioned: it remains quite straightforward and simple. For others, there are challenges, pitfalls, and losses that repeatedly raise questions about underlying assumptions. We start to wonder where we are really going, and even who we are. Time, change, loss, reunion, security, danger, getting, losing, progress, defeat, climbing, falling, succeeding, failing, joining, leaving…
The journey deepens
There may be a point at which we feel that there is something more than this apparently random process. We start to question the direction and the goal. If life has led us to a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness, we may sense “there must be more.” If all that we assumed to be “me” has been shaken, we may start searching for a new direction. Carl Jung suggested that this rarely happens before midlife, but who knows what a particular life path may hold: the “turn” may come quite a bit earlier. In any case, a new search for deeper meaning begins – and now we may describe this as a spiritual journey.
At first we may still turn outward, looking for help, guidance, and support in the world – someone to show us the way and point us in a new direction. But this unfolding process, if it continues, eventually begins to point us inward. We have to come face-to-face with parts of ourselves that are not welcome, aspects of our identity and our story that have been tucked away, that we don’t want to acknowledge. This is shadow material. We encounter places where we feel stuck, lost, alone, abandoned, afraid, and these places demand exploration. Spiritual traditions often describe various stages in the journey. There is no predictable timeline. There may be long pauses or breaks. Some seekers reach a certain place or stage and are content there: the journey appears to stop, or at least pause, for quite a while.
The journey inward
The journey that keeps deepening is essentially an inward journey. Even if we rely on a religious or spiritual community, or give our loyalty to a teacher, guide, or leader, ultimately, the seeker is the one making the journey and discovering new depths. Some traditions may describe the path as leading to a far distant place (reality), while in other traditions, the path is said to lead HERE, but seen through new eyes, free of blinders. Either way, many travelers have a sense that ultimately, the path leads us HOME, where we truly belong.
So who is this one who is traveling the path home? If home is not what we once believed it to be, if there is more, then who sees and feels this? This is the mystery, interpreted in a variety of ways in different traditions, but still a mystery. There are usually layers to be peeled away: “I” am not who I thought I was. What “I am” is deeper than what appears on the surface, deeper than the story that was believed for so long. We may glimpse this directly from time to time, in what may be called “revelations.” We may experience a powerful, life-changing “Revelation.” And then comes the challenge of embodying and living what was revealed– which is part of the journey, although the one on the journey is no longer defined the same way.
And so it unfolds. The human journey, experienced by many, for thousands of years. The journey inward, which may turn out to be the journey beyond and also the journey home.
For helping professionals…
If we are counselors, psychotherapists, spiritual directors, or helping professionals of any kind, our place in someone’s journey may be miniscule or significant. But if we can see that everyone we encounter is on a journey – perhaps habitual, perhaps intentional – and that we are meeting them on our own journey, can we bring some awe to this coming-together? Perhaps some sense of the mystery of it all? Who knows what role we may play in their lives, and they in ours?