Two years ago, while I was sitting on the couch watching a movie with my kids one Friday night, I became certain that I was going to fall asleep that night and never wake up.
My heart was pounding and it pounded harder as I graphically pictured the moment of my death, all gasping breaths and screaming children. Fear ripped through my body and no amount of deep breathing could help me yoga my way through.
The Fear, as I’ve come to call it, lasted day and night for three days. By the third day, I went to a walk-in clinic and came home with a prescription for blood pressure medication. The side-effects of that medication landed me in the ER the next day, and I continued to feel a sense of near-constant dread for the next several weeks.
This was the beginning of my healing rite of passage.
The two years since then have been punctuated by an ongoing battery of blood tests, urine tests, monitoring and specialists, by herbal remedies, bodywork, and therapy of every kind.
There’s a part of me that realizes that I could have just filled that blood pressure medication prescription two years ago and carried on with my life, but that is not my nature. I saw this dramatic shift in my health and my experience of my body as a Call. I saw it as a sign that my life needed to change, from the roots up. And, though perhaps I couldn’t articulate this at the time – and still sometimes struggle – I saw this as a time of great potential. Life was inviting me into something more, into a deeper relationship with myself, my body, my wellness, and my mortality.
Author and artist Lucy Pearce wrote a brilliant book called Medicine Woman, which I turned to during this time and have turned to many times since, in which she talks about Medicine Woman as an archetypal guide for our healing paths. She writes:
“It may be the first day of your life, the prime of youth or several decades in, when Medicine Woman calls you…And what feels like the end is in fact a beginning, of a new road, an unknown path of pain and healing. She will show you how to slow down, she will run her fingers roughly through your life and help you sort the busyness from what matters. She will show you how to find support…and who you really are, beyond your roles and expectations.”
This is where I cannot help but see, as I so often do, the way in which the Call into a healing rite of passage may actually be not only a personal experience but a collective one for so many women today.
We live in a world and in a culture that seems hell-bent on draining the life out of us, asking us to keep up with impossible demands and expectations. Our collective drive to strive has gotten so deeply under our skins that the slowing down required for wellness and healing often strikes a blow to our very sense of worthiness.
There are so many of us who are feeling Medicine Woman’s fingers running roughly through our lives, whispering or sometimes screaming: “Slow down. Not this. Not this. Not this.”
And so perhaps you, too, are traversing a healing rite of passage. Perhaps you, too, are experiencing some reckoning of your body, your mind or your spirit right now. And perhaps, on the days when you’re feeling well-resourced, you can see the ways in which your healing journey is a beckoning toward a path of meaning and richness, toward becoming more of who you are, and toward honouring what matters most to you.
If this is your experience, it can help to have a map to guide you. In my own healing journey and in the healing journeys of the clients I support, I use the Four Elements of Radical Transformation model as that map.
If the Four Elements model is new to you, here are the Cole’s Notes: it’s a guide to traversing radical life transformation that uses the elements Earth, Water, Air and Fire as metaphors for the process most people follow as they navigate major change. The biggest difference about the Four Elements model is that it is designed especially for women, and is especially relevant to the contexts that shape modern-day women’s lives. It is a feminist and feminine model of life transition that uses rites of passage theory, adult development psychology, mythology, neuroscience and attachment psychology to help you understand and navigate life change feeling well-resourced and resilient. In other words? It’s legit.
In the next few paragraphs, I will give you an introductory guide to the Four Elements as a way of thinking about the healing journey you’re traversing right now, along with some tangible practises you can do as you navigate your way through each element.
In the Four Elements model, we start with the Earth element.
Earth is all about sinking your toes into the reality of the moment you’re in and orienting yourself to the changes that have happened in your life. Our lives are complex ecosystems of roles, responsibilities and realities, and a shift to your health, for example, can cause trickle-down shifts to your career, your relationships, or your spirituality, for example. It can feel like everything is changing, and that can feel overwhelming. And so, the most important work of Earth is to name the change that is taking place in your life and increase your awareness of how those changes have impacted you.
One of my favourite ways to do this is with an exercise I call The Wheel of Change. This is my own take on the Wheel of Life exercise made popular by the Coaches Training Institute. It’s a wonderful way to really understand the nuanced and complex impact of the shift that’s happening in your life right now, to look at the entire ecosystem of your life and notice the ripple effects of your radical transformation.
On a blank piece of paper, draw a large circle. Divide that circle up like a pie, and label each pie slice with an area of your life that you define as important. Of course, this practice is a little artificial, because our lives cannot ever be neatly categorized, but do the best you can. Categories my clients have used when completing this practice have included work, health + body, relationships, family, physical environment, and spirituality, to name a few. Once you’ve labeled the pie of your life, colour in each slice, from the narrowest to the widest part, in accordance with how much each of these areas has changed and/or how much you want to experience change in these areas. So, if you’ve just experienced a divorce, you would colour in the “relationship” slice entirely. If your work life has remained fairly stable during this time and you are content in this area of your life, you might colour in just a tiny portion of that pie slice.
Again, remember that being in the Earth element phase of Radical Transformation is a time of stock-taking. That’s all we’re doing here: we’re not making any big plans or even passing judgement on what you’ve just unearthed. Acknowledge and honour the complexity of what it is to navigate or create change in your life. That’s all you need to do right now: trust that even just this awareness will have a ripple effect of its own.
The next Element we tend to traverse on our journeys of healing and other rites of passage is Water.
Water is the element of washing away the old, release and letting go, and often of grief.
Because any change that we make in our lives, whether it’s wanted and positive or the kind that drags us along, kicking and screaming, involves letting go of the person we were before the change happened.
Though there is so much to explore around this particular phase of transformation, one of the best ways to start is to write a “fearless and searching inventory” of all the things that you are being asked to let go of, that you might be happily ready to release, or that you might be grieving during this time of transition in your life. To do this, you need to put on a “grief lens,” approaching the changes that have happened in your life with curiosity and begin to wonder: could I be grieving something here? What am I letting go of here? Make a list. It’s important to name your grief, because it may be hiding in places you didn’t expect. Perhaps you haven’t talked to your best friend since your healing journey began, but you’ve been so immersed in your process that you’ve not had the opportunity to acknowledge that that relationship no longer feels like it once did. Perhaps you haven’t been able to tend your garden, or eat the foods you love, or move your body in a way that nourishes you: these are all places where untended grief may be calling out to you to get tended.
Please note: this work can bring up a great deal of emotion, and so it is best to do this on a day when you feel well-resourced, and when you have someone or something that you can turn to during or afterward that can support you if the process becomes overwhelming.
The next Element that most people traverse after navigating Water is Air.
Air is the liminal space, the time when we say “everything is up in the air.” It is the space between, where you are no longer who you once were before you embarked on this healing journey, but you have not yet found your path forward. This is the time of waiting for the diagnosis, waiting to see if the treatment you’re pursuing works for you, the fallow time you need to help your spirit heal.
The liminal space can be a dreadfully uncomfortable time because it looks, to others and to ourselves, like we’re not doing anything – like we’re not engaged in the usual hustle and bustle of everyday life, like we’re not being productive.
For most of the women I work with, though, being productive and doing doing doing is partially what precipitated their need for healing in the first place. For most of the women I work with, coming up with a brilliant plan to do their way through a healing journey is a default mode response. The more challenging – and almost always more fruitful – work lies in surrendering to this time of unknown and allowing your healing to unfold in its own way.
Because this is so hard for so many of us, my advice for people navigating the liminal space is to begin a regular practice that helps you reconnect to yourself, your body and your needs, and to explore what it means to offer yourself really good self care. So many of us arrive on the doorstep of radical life transformation feeling like we’ve lost ourselves somehow. This is the time to begin to find yourself again. Start a daily journaling practice, engage in nourishing movement, book time in with people in your life who are good witnesses and can hold space for you. It’s hard to not know what will happen next, but attending to your sense of wellbeing and self-connection now always helps.
The final element of the Four Elements of Radical Transformation is FIRE.
The Fire element in the Four Elements Model of Radical Transformation is the element of action, of moving forward. It’s a time of exploration, experimentation and discovery – of learning new things about yourself and how you want to be in the world.
Fire is the phase of radical transformation that most of us want to skip to. We want to bypass all the discomfort of being with the sometimes challenging feelings that come up during life transitions, and move forward. Make plans, set goals, step into What’s Next.
And so it is that it’s incredibly important to approach the fire with reverence, as it were. The process of your expansion into who you are becoming as you traverse this healing journey should unfold organically, with curiosity, learning and playfulness as its’ central tenets.
When I am working with clients in the Fire phase, I encourage them to engage in the practice of Tiny Experimentation. Rather than setting enormous goals and striving to meet them, Tiny Experiments are actions so small that they are “safe-to-fail.” In fact, Tiny Experiments are even more effective when they DO fail, because failure so often teaches us a lot more about who we are and what matters to us than success does. So maybe you want to try going for a walk this morning and see how it makes your body feel. Maybe you want to book an appointment with a new practitioner you think might be able to help you. Perhaps you just reserve a book from the library that speaks to you and the journey that you’re on. When you find something that works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, consider what you’ve learned along the way and keep trying new things. This is how you step into who you are becoming and “What’s Next” for your life: slowly, mindfully, and open-heartedly.
It’s important to say that there’s nothing linear about these phases of radical transformation. Your healing journey will unfold in more of a spiral than a line, moving back and forth between all of these phases. In my own ongoing process of understanding what’s happening in my body and how to care for it now, I often find myself in Fire, experimenting and exploring new treatment modalities, only to receive a test result or read a research study that lands me right back in Earth, reassessing what is true for me now and who I am in light of the new information I’ve received. Though it can feel frustrating, it’s normal, and it’s a sign that my healing process is only deepening.
May you journey well on the healing path that lies before you. Know that you are not alone – not even a little bit – and may you remember that even when things feel hard, the path that you are on has the potential to connect you even more deeply with who you are and what matters most to you.
Want more support?
Sign up for my FREE online workshop happening May 27th, Rites of the Heart: How to Navigate Healing as a Rite of Passage
Take the Four Elements of Radical Transformation Quiz to find out which element you’re traversing right now. When you complete the quiz, you’ll receive a FREE e-book and 5-day mini-course to support you with exactly what you need to support yourself.