The infinite is in love with the idea of incarnation in time." Joseph Campbell
"You are so brave; I would be afraid to do that!"
This is always a strange moment for me. People have been saying that to me more times than I can count since I went 'walkabout' in 2012. But it never really felt as if it I was doing a brave thing. It was simply something I had to do.
"The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell talks about an experience he calls; 'the hero's journey'. It's a universal story told over and over again, throughout human history, and it pervades human literature, theater, and storytelling from "The Odyssey" to the search for the Holy Grail, to "Star Wars" and millions of other tales. The plot may vary in superficial ways, but the story is always the same: through some need or set of circumstances, the hero is thrust onto a journey or a quest in which she must overcome obstacles, slay dragons, rescue children.... And this journey is no Sunday afternoon outing. The hero's life might be at stake and sometimes she must forfeit her life while trying to accomplish the quest. Because the story is a metaphor for the human condition. And although the hero may find - upon returning home - that she has won fame and fortune, that's never been the real purpose of the hero's quest. It's a story about transcendence and it takes many forms. Whether we like it or not, whether we embrace its call or ignore it; it's the story of our own life's journey.
In my case it was a sense of wanderlust; a yearning that has been my companion for as long as I can remember. In quiet moments; watching the sunset, sitting on the deck of my father's sailboats, in moments of contemplation, I have always felt that pull. In fantasies I saw myself wandering in the world, free, alone, and alive with wonder. But I never thought of it as a practical thing. I couldn't see a path that would take me there. So I sublimated my yearning into other things; a career in a business I loved, raising a child, searching for love, always searching; and always with me, that inchoate sense of longing. I kept telling myself; "some day, perhaps...". And then one day, the path simply opened before me.
And so I went. I traveled and I learned and I saw many new things; marvelous things, scary things, painful things...wonders, places, people. Then, a little over two years ago I returned to the US to find that walkabout was only the beginning of my journey. Along the way I saw some of the world outside the guard-rails that had always surrounded me. I began hearing a deep inner voice, and things began to change. At first it was almost unnoticeable....
I thought it was a simple matter of "go away for a year, find myself, come back and re-insert myself back into my life"- a shinier, new-and-improved, better version of my old self. But that's not the way it worked. I returned and found that the old version won't co-exist with the new version. Giving up my career, beginning again, trying to create a meaningful business...all of these are merely superficial; a veneer over even deeper and more profound changes. Today the transformation continues; and it's far from complete.
In reality, my entire relationship with life, culture, friends, my weltanschauung, my world view has altered profoundly; so profoundly that I find myself compelled to question all of my past assumptions; each one; one by one; day by day. It's like peeling an onion. Under each layer there is another, and the process of shedding those layers is neither easy nor painless. It's scary and messy. No. Leaving and traveling the world alone didn't frighten me. But the inner journey scares the hell out of me! Every day.
Challenging my assumptions about life in my mid-fifties, it's tempting to have feelings of precious time wasted; to have in fact, wasted a large portion of my life on inauthentic things. There are agonizing questions and those questions don't come with benign feelings. They are frequently brimming with thoughts and voices speaking to me of inadequacy, failure, shame, self-denigration.... There is a ripping away of veils, and illusions; there is remorse for things done and things left undone, painful memories of childhood, memories of many things long forgotten. Remembrance visits me in the night, often filling me with pain and a sense of loss, a sense of disappointed dreams. There are tears....
And yet, in all of this there is something amazing, something marvelous, something wonderful.... Because just in the moment of deepest loss, when my vanity and ego are vanquished for a single moment; there is something miraculous! Suddenly I catch a glimpse of an idea, a question: "Without all of this; underneath ego, vanity and expectation, who am I? Who is the authentic Collette?" And in that question I find a seed of absolute freedom; the understanding that my authentic self, my deepest, truest desires and my life's purpose are all perfectly, completely, aligned.
This is what the hero's 'quest' is really about. It is a questioning of who we really are and what is really important in our lives. It asks the question "what will you give your life for?" Because we are indeed giving our lives; each day spending our precious time. The hero's quest isn't really about riches, although in the stories she frequently finds them. But those riches are metaphorical as well; because our journey is not about our ego with its ever-questing neediness and desire. It's about transcendence; when our focus turns outward from the things we think we want, to question, "what is our place in the universe, what is our purpose?" We are not here to feed our personal ego-dreams and there is clearly no point in trying. The satisfaction of wanting/getting is fleeting and there will always be some other 'thing' we want. Our heart's true desire is to live as our authentic and unique selves, aligned with and participating in the mystery of existence; no answers, only questions asked. In living these questions we find freedom....and joy.
Along this journey, as with the hero, we will have to relinquish everything - even eventually our lives. One of the fundamentals of Buddhist practice is to envision ourselves at the moment of death, releasing our hold on life with acceptance and joy. But I am only an infant in my practice. Again and again I find myself forced to let go of something; some part of my vanity, some part of my ego, some illusion of permanence...grasping and clutching, kicking, screaming, and crying; "No! No! Not that! I want that! I need that!" And each time, as it slips from my grasp, I realize I never really needed it anyway....
What is left? What have I found along my own 'hero's quest'? There are moments when my ego goes quiet, and I see clearly, like sudden moonlight breaking through clouds. There is really nothing at all going on here...except for consciousness at play; playing with my baby's toes while he nurses and drops off to sleep; watching him grow, sprout his own wings and fly; sitting on the deck of a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean watching the full moon setting before me as simultaneously, the sun rises behind; silver moon facing golden sun, myself suspended in-between; making love and laying spent in my lover's arms; the communion of looking into a stranger's eyes and sharing a smile; witnessing, participating, dancing in the magic of creation, the drama of birth, life, death, renewal; the moments when I am completely empty and joy flows into my heart as if from nowhere....
Collette is a traveler, writer, stylist... After twenty-five years in the designer fashion industry, working for Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, she took a sabbatical and wandered away into the wide world to find adventure, to explore, meditate and learn. For a year she traveled alone; a container ship ride across the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan, China and Hong Kong; ferries and trains, busses and planes across Southeast Asia and Australia; eight days sitting in silence at the feet of Mooji; advaita Vedantist spiritual teacher; living and traveling for two months in Spain while studying Spanish -- which she hopes someday to master.
Returning to the US, Collette settled in Providence where, attracted by the beauty of the city, the miles of Rhode Island coastline and the crazy art vibe, she hopes to contribute to what she believes is a developing urban renaissance. In addition to 'finding her cool', she is currently a style consultant, freelance writer gathering new stories from life and the art around her and working on a full length book about her journey.