Here we are. This month marks the beginning of the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For me – and maybe for you, too – it feels like I’ve lived three lifetimes since the day we realized this might be a Big Deal.
Not unlike many of history’s turning points, you probably remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing when you realized this was a Big Deal. And, like many of us looking back on the past two years, you may be realizing that it was also a turning point in your life.
You’re not alone: for so many of the people I know and work with this time of collective uncertainty and change has been a time of personal uncertainty and change, also.
Maybe you have been questioning your vocation and purpose: the ability to work from home; the (in)flexibility of workplaces with unanticipated caregiving needs, the economic devastation in so many industries, and workplace Covid restrictions have caused many of us to reassess our work lives.
Perhaps you have experienced changes and challenges in family and personal relationships: being in close proximity or way-too-distant proximity and the stress we’ve all been under has been creating deep rifts – but also opportunities to heal.
It’s also possible that you or someone dear to you has had a close encounter with Covid that has caused your life to take a u-turn as you negotiate a healing journey.
And all of us have been asked to reorient ourselves to our values in the past few years: I’ve often found myself saying that even decisions about whether to send the kids to school or go to the grocery store have felt existential at times, causing me to call up or call into question the deepest of what I know to be true about fear, about human resilience, about what is necessary.
It’s safe to say: the past few years have been a reckoning.
It’s also safe to say: you might be feeling more than a little unmoored, a little unsteady on your feet and bone-deep exhausted – even as the world begins to shift on its axis again, perhaps, and the words “endemic,” along with glimmers of what might be hope, flicker through our collective consciousness.
It’s times like these – any time major shi(f)t happens – that the Four Elements of Radical Transformation can help you find the ground under your feet again.
If you’re not familiar with the Four Elements of Radical Transformation, here’s the Cole’s Notes: it’s the model that I created specifically to help women and folks’ socialized as women traverse life transition. Tossing old-timey, linear concepts of life change out the window, the Four Elements model cycles through Earth, Water, Air and Fire, leaning on the wisdom of the elements to act as a compass that guides you through transformational times.
There is always an Element that resonates most with the experience you’re having right now, and you can find out which Element that is by taking this quiz.
But today, I want to offer you an opportunity to take stock of your life and everything that has shifted for you since the pandemic began, using each of the Elements as a guide.
Think of this as an opportunity to press pause and offer yourself the gift of time to begin integrating and metabolizing these past two years.
If you can, make this a little bit of a ritual. See if you can carve out an hour of solitude in the next week with a candle, your journal, a cup of tea and The Good Chocolate. Perhaps you can even plan to make a half-day mini-retreat of it, spending some time in nature before and afterwards to continue to allow what you unearth to sink in.
(But please, if you can’t muster the ideal circumstances and you need to plop your kids in front of the TV or jot ideas down between meetings, don’t let that stop you from exploring this!)
The work of Earth is to orient to what is true for you right now, and to name the changes that have happened in your life. You see, often times, it may seem that one thing has changed – for example, you get divorced – but actually that change has catalyzed a cascade of other transitions – for example, getting divorced may shift your living situation, your career, your parenting, how you feel about your body, and more.
This is how times of change get overwhelming, fast, and cause you to end up feeling totally disoriented.
I know: naming the change seems deceptively simple, and definitely not as sexy as going out and finding a new job/husband/house etc…. but trust me on this one.
One of the most powerful, simple Earth practices I do with the people I work with is something I call “Five Things.” Here’s how it works:
Set a timer for five minutes. Write five sentences – just five! – that describe what is true for you now, after two years of Covid. The time and content constraint is key, allowing you to focus in on what really matters most. There is no wrong way to do this except to think about it too much. Let the words roll out of your mind and onto the page – you will undoubtedly be surprised about what shows up there that is asking for your attention.
With every major change in our lives, whether it is unbidden or desperately desired, comes grief and loss. Right now, so many of us are feeling grief and loss – and maybe a healthy dose of anger, too – about the things that have shifted in our lives in the last two years. You may have lost loved ones, financial security and work opportunities, connections with the community of people who support you in your life, or even just (not *just* at all), time and space to yourself.
It’s a lot.
We tend to skip over the process of grieving when we’re traversing change. We dutiful members of our capitalist society are deeply engrained to just keep swimming, to harden ourselves to grief, making plans and moving forward, staying distracted, lest we get lost in it.
But I’ve come to understand that there is no growth without the grief.
Sadness and loss is a crucible for what’s next, burning off everything that is no longer so that we can step into possibility. When we don’t tend to our grief about what we’re letting go of when our lives change, we often get stuck, forcing ourselves in the direction of forward movement and never quite getting there.
Here’s my advice: Honour your grief. This is my favourite way:
Make a “fearless and searching inventory” of everything that you are grieving right now. Everything that’s not working, everything you’ve lost, everything you’re unable to do or be, everything you’re missing, everything you wish were different. Let yourself feel it all. If it helps to get the emotion flowing after weeks (months? years?) of bypassing it, listen to a song or read a poem that moves you.
But before you do all this, create a container for your grief. Give it some boundaries that say, “Okay Grief, I welcome you. Please stay as long as you’re needed, and then leave when you’re done. I trust myself to know when that time has come. I know you will come back again, and I trust myself to greet you and see you off again, every time it is needed.” Maybe your boundaries are just this; maybe they take the form of a ritual that has a beginning and an end, so that you feel well-taken-care-of in your dance with sadness. This is not to say that your grief won’t return on a random Tuesday in the grocery store or that you can “control” it in any way, but rather than you can have some agency with it, and resource yourself well for being with it.
In every time of radical transformation, there is a (usually deeply uncomfortable) time of not-knowing. In this liminal space, we say things like everything is up in the air.
Like grieving, this time can feel like it might swallow us whole, and so, like grieving, we tend to want to bypass it. Set some goals. Keep moving forward.
But just like we trust, this time of year, that the seeds and roots we’ve planted in the earth will come back to life and offer us their beauty and their bounty, it serves us well to trust that even when we’ve gone “underground,” when we don’t know what to do next and feel like we’re in limbo, there is rich life germinating below our awareness.
So what do you do when you don’t know what’s next? Get really good at holding yourself in this discomfort by tending to yourself with great care, and by attuning to your sense of inner knowing.
Consider 2-3 ways you might engage in exquisite self-care in your life right now. I talk often with my clients about building a nest in their self-care practices. Like a mama robin, bring in twigs and strings and ribbons of infrastructure that support you. Feel like you need to write it all out right now? Get yourself a beautiful notebook and pen, create a consistent daily time when you feel most creatively energized and work with the people in your life to make that time non-negotiable. Make sure there’s tea, or coffee, or hot chocolate. The point? Create self-care rituals that feel undeniable. By doing this, you create consistency and steadiness in a time when everything else feels ungrounded.
As for inner knowing? Think about you how might begin to learn what your inner knowing looks, feels and sounds like. The way out of the unknown is to know. And, I have found, the only way to truly know is to put down the books, close the browser, and turn inward. Create space for your knowing, on long walks or journal entries or hot showers. Begin a dance with your intuition, taking note of the times when you “randomly” have a thought or idea or sense about something, and then notice if and when that is validated. Choose to call it knowing rather than coincidence and you’ll be well on your way. Attuning to your inner knowing will ensure that your senses are heightened, and you won’t miss the clarion call of “what’s next.”
It’s true what they say, you know: every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
(I’ll just pause, and let you reminisce about that high school dance or singing with your best friend while driving back roads in your dad’s car).
When your transformation has been well-tended, shifts in a new direction begin to happen almost without your conscious awareness. A creative wellspring might reveal itself in the shower one day, and you can barely dry yourself off before your hand is flying across paper, jotting down ideas. A new sense of energy may bubble up, like the nesting instinct in a woman who’s about to birth, and you may find yourself engaged in a new project or connecting with an old friend.
It’s tempting, as you notice shift (finally) beginning to occur, to take the bull by the horns and get going. But remember, your intention is to step into new, uncharted territory, not to go back to old ways. And when you’re in new, uncharted territory, you must walk slowly, testing each footstep, making a map along the way.
This is where I am famously fond of Tiny Experiments. Rooted in complexity theory – the theory of how complex systems, like human beings or governments, make change – tiny experiments are all about making tiny changes that help you learn more about yourself. Tiny experiments are also known as “safe-to-fail” experiments, which means they’re small enough to be very doable, and that, in fact, failure is a desirable outcome because we tend to learn more after failure than success. Learning is key. Complexity theory tells us that meaningful change almost never happens in broad, sweeping strokes, but rather that we must nudge our way toward what feels good and true, amplifying what works along the way.
And so, begin. Jot down five tiny experiments you would like to play with on your way to radical transformation. Maybe, if you’ve got career change in mind, you could revisit your resume, or spend an hour mapping out a business plan. Maybe, if you want to shift into a more sustainable self-care practice, you could look up a few phone numbers for counsellors, or look in your closet for your old hiking boots.
As you’re considering your Tiny Experiments, also consider this: many of the changes we make in our lives are examples of “doing change” – they are behavioural shifts that we enact and through the alchemy of willpower and a commitment to our to-do lists, they sometimes become habit. Sometimes.
But deep change happens at the “being” level. It happens not when we pencil self-care into our calendars, for example, but when we believe ourselves worthy of care.
This is what makes you a complex system, and Tiny Experiments so very important: this isn’t about setting goals and crossing things off your to-do list, it’s about learning more about who you are, and who you’re becoming.
My friend, I know it’s been a challenging, challenging two years. And I also know that it’s been a powerful two years – a time that has awakened so many of us to ourselves and the world in ways that have been both heart-wrenching and deeply catalyzing.
I hope that you have, through this process, been nourished with the opportunity to pause, step back from the transformational time you’ve been ensconced in, and perhaps see it with new eyes, attuned to both the poignancy and potential of it all. I believe it is indeed through this sacred pause – these precious moments of integration and metabolism – that potential reveals itself and healing can begin.