When Don and I began our nomadic journey back in 2011 I felt it was important to share the story of the inner journey as much as the outer. It’s been a very long time since I’ve shared a post about the inner journey. And then this happened:
About a month ago I stood and looked around in the kitchen/dining/living room of our small apartment and from nowhere, unexpectedly, the thought arose How did this happen? How did I get here?
There was a whole tsunami of grief and regret and shame that came along with these thoughts. A sense of failure that brought me to my knees; a recognition that by this time in my life I’ll never get there!
It’s too late. It’s over. I’m almost 72. I’ll never get there.
All that I thought I needed to achieve to be a success had eluded me. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I didn’t make it. I was swamped in grief and powerlessness and defeat. I had failed.
So I did what I’ve always done. I let the tsunami engulf me. I let myself drown in it. I allowed myself to be washed away by tears of disappointment and helplessness, frustration and anger. I’ve always done this. My experience has always been that true inner change doesn’t happen at the level of the mind, it doesn’t happen intellectually. True inner change requires clearing the emotional body, which means feeling the feelings that kept me locked in a particular position or story of how I am, and how life is. Feelings Buried Alive Never Die. It’s the title of a book by Karol K. Truman. I’ve never read it. The title was all I needed to reinforce a message I’d gotten back in 1984 from a book called Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts: Feel your feelings, they will bring you home. Long ago, so very long ago, I stopped being afraid of “negative” feelings. On the contrary I welcome them because I know that feeling them, releasing them from the emotional body, will set me free. For me emotional release always leads to expansiveness, spaciousness, and increased lightness of being. It makes room for something new.
So for a couple of days I cried and wailed out all my hurt and frustration and anger until it was spent.
And then I speculated on what it was exactly I had wanted to achieve, and why.
And then I speculated on how society had taught me to view success.
And then I speculated on all the ways I have been so very very successful.
Our society teaches us, in more, or less subtle ways, that success is achieving “fame and fortune” – money and adulation. The obvious examples that come to mind are the big Hollywood stars. In western society they are automatically regarded as successful, even though we know little about them as people. There’s a huge industry (magazines, TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, etc) that thrives on trying to find out as much as possible about them. We want to know them because they’ve made it! If only we too could have that! Be that successful!
There are those who’ve had success in their careers. Here’s a very short list of women our society regards as successful because they’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers: Angela Merkel, Ketanjani Brown Jackson, Jacinda Arden, Madeleine Albright, Maya Angelou, Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey, Malala Yousafzai, Hilary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg (what a Titan she was!). Whether or not you agree with their politics you must allow that in their chosen field each of these women has been successful.
There are those, I may even say many, who measure success by social status. No matter how egalitarian the society, there is always a hierarchy, and those at the top are considered more successful. Whoever considered (apart from Gandhi) that the one who cleans toilets, or the garbage collector, is as successful as the wealthy or powerful?
Another measure of success is education. A doctor or lawyer is automatically considered more successful than the kid who drops out of school without even a high school diploma.
Alas I have none of these things. Not an education beyond a diploma in librarianship, not a career (long ago I once counted that I’ve had over 100 different kinds of jobs – including cleaning toilets), and certainly not fame or fortune.
It doesn’t matter how much I may have read about other ways of measuring success, I had drunk the Kool Aid. I wanted what I’d been taught were the only legitimate measures of success – fame and fortune, or at least a successful career. I didn’t even have that. Having drunk the Kool Aid, having believed all the stories I’d been taught in my youth about success, I found nothing by which I could define myself as successful, and by which society at large would say Well done Alison!
And then I speculated on all the ways I have been so very very successful.
The most obvious success for me has been in the arena of inner healing. I suppose you would have had to know me when I was a teenager, desperately trying to be who I thought others wanted me to be in order to be liked, or in my 20’s and 30’s still doing the same. I had barely an authentic bone in my body, and the pain of being me was immense and heavy and very well stuffed. I was once, deservedly, called fake – to my face, though I had no understanding of it at the time.
In my mid-twenties a journey of inner healing began, which has lasted all my life. How truthful can I be with myself? How authentic can I be? In my experience there is no such thing as the subconscious. There is only that which we don’t want to know – usually because it hurts too much. I decided that I wanted to know everything! No more hiding the truth about myself from myself. I must say the entire process has been enormously liberating. I came to understand that being authentic was more important than anything. Even more important than love. How could I love if I wasn’t honest with myself? How could I be authentic with others if I couldn’t be authentic with myself? How could I even know what love is if I was not being true to myself? So. A measure of success with self awareness and authenticity. I am lighter and more carefree, and more present. In a really meaningful way I am more honest with myself, and by extension with others. Is there more to discover. Of course. I’m not dead yet.
Up until 1973, when I made my very first trip out of Australia, I was doing all the “right” things. I married, I had a career as a librarian, I owned a home. Then the marriage dissolved. Dissolved really is the right word; it disappeared into a murky messy liquid fuelled by an undeniable need for freedom. I suppose this was my first move towards authenticity. I left Australia for 18 months and came home changed. Then, after devoting my life to travel for many years, I tried to “settle down” but became depressed, because basically the world didn’t recognise or reward the life I wanted, needed, to live. That was the end of me leading a conventional life, and from then on I lived by following my heart, following my intuition, following my gut; doing what felt right no matter the risk or the consequences. Of course this has everything to do with living authentically. And it has been the foundation of a most extraordinary life. I said in a recent interview that I don’t know how to live a conventional life, but I sure know how to live a life where I follow what feels right rather than what feels safe or acceptable. It has often been difficult, but it has always been truthful. So. Another measure of success.
I’ve saved the most important for last. Love. I learned how to let love in. I could always love; I was one of those women who loved too much – in other words I was needy. And I was needy because I was always unconsciously pushing love away. I didn’t know how to love or be loved. And now I do. When Don and I got together nearly 24 years ago I decided for various reasons to do with family-of-origin issues that Don would be the one to love me above all others. I knew this decision had nothing to do with Don and everything to do with my willingness to believe in it, to let it in. Over the years I have learned what it is to love someone exactly as they are without needing to change or fix them, and I have learned how to let myself be loved, to let it in, to believe in it. It feels like a miracle. I’ve been saying for a long time that if I achieve nothing else in this life this is enough. More than enough. What could be more important than the giving and receiving of love? What other measure of success could be more meaningful?
And finally there’s this: I’m not always a nice person. I get angry. I get triggered and shout at people. I especially get angry with people who are in my way or are being thoughtless and inconsiderate. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. I also get triggered when I’m hurt. One time I shouted at Don and four of our closest friends You can all just fuck off! Surprisingly they are still my friends. Also I can be very snarky and judgemental, and I’m the queen of sarcasm. This usually comes out in writing things such as reviews, or responding online to people I don’t know. Oh and I’ve been accused of being selfish, self-centred, and self-absorbed – to my face. I agreed. Apparently I’m no angel. Oh the humanity! It feels like success to me that I’ve finally stopped beating myself up about this. It is what it is.
The flip side of this, and ironically because of this ongoing expansion of awareness and self-acceptance, I’m kinder and nicer than ever. I think more of others, I focus more on being kind and thoughtful, and I’m a much better listener. I like myself better so it’s easier to like others better. So, successful as a nice person, as a good person, as a kind person? Not always. But I find I’ve let go of any conventional ideas about success and failure. I seem to move closer and closer towards being completely unapologetic. This too is success.
Now that I’ve done the emotional deep clean, I get it, not just intellectually, but viscerally, down to the bones. Success isn’t about what I achieve in the world. Nor is it even about what kind of person I am. Success is who I am with myself, how I relate to myself, and therefore how I relate to others, and to the entire Life experience. For me the only measurement of success is in relationships – with self and with other. When I’m at peace with myself I am automatically at peace with the world. This is my definition of success.
I’ve had an extraordinary life. It feels like a gift, like a miracle, and I’m so very grateful. I feel like a puppet, but in a good way. In the best way. I feel as if there has been some force within that has moved me through the phases of my life in exactly the right way, from one adventure to the next, both inner and outer, always supportive, always benevolent, always impersonal, always true. Whose life is it anyway? Life lives itself. It is what it is. Love rules.
A little burst of beauty to finish with. All photos were taken in magical Vancouver, Canada.
Next post: We will be in Croatia. So happy to be travelling again!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.