Martha (not her real name) came into adult womanhood in the days before the Equal Rights Ammendment. She was a natural beauty — she caught a good husband, and had a good number of children because that was the thing to do. Her upbringing and her wider culture did not give her a clear or positive sense of herself; instead she found validation through the achievements of her children. She remembers feeling deeply connected to the woodlands of her childhood home, but when she put away childish things, that connection was also put carefully away. Martha has trouble knowing what she wants . . . or expressing it to others. When asked, she always puts the question back on the asker, “well, what do you want?” She seems genuinely unsure of herself — she has been taught to make others happy first. But her dissatisfaction is always clear — in her expression or sideways comments.
Max was an artistic fellow who loved film. He never knew his father and had a strong mother who raised him with her second husband. Max felt pressured to ‘make a good living in the world’ from a young age, and decided that engineering would enable him to find a good job and make a good wage. Though he had a real talent for writing and poetry, he never took that part of himself seriously. By his mid-fifties, Max was relatively stable, but always felt stuck. His ideal life was always in the future, and he often told stories of what he was going to do. Some goals he achieved, but many remained elusive and ungrounded. He felt like he was always trying but could never get real traction.
Perhaps you know people like this, maybe people you love dearly, who seem to have a weak inner compass —the ability to sense what is TRUE FOR THEM, at the deepest level. They can talk a good talk, but they swim around in circles, not able to take real action to grow and develop, to find their own unique wisdom. Most of us live from habitual conditioning. We live as we’ve been told to. We get a good job, get married, have children, buy lots of stuff, have barbeques, talk about trends, movies, the hometown football team. Some of us are perfectly fine living this way. But some of us chafe hard, wondering Is this all there is to being human? Some of us feel a mysterious knawing inside our gut that I am more than this.
The inscription over the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi beckons, “Know Thyself.” It asks each person to come to understand who they truly are, independent of the masses, of the conditioning of their culture. I have found the journey of coming to know myself as an endlessly deepening road. But, there IS a place where one’s inner compass becomes one’s primary navigation tool, a point at which it kicks in as THE way you live your life. There are real markers of progress on the path.
Children seem to be born with an inner compass. But as they become ‘civilized,’ unless that inner knowing is honored by those around them, it atrophies. And with it, their creativity wanes and their fuel for bringing their gifts to the world loses steam. This loss of human capital is tragic.
A strong inner compass does not necessarily negate cultural conditioning. Rather, it has the capacity to discern whether an outside recommendation is in alignment with its soul’s wellbeing. A strong inner compass points to the choices and actions that will allow us to live out our unique destiny to its fullest potential — even if the road seems windy, rocky, ill-advised or non-sensical. We feel a sense of inner coherency upon making certain choices, an alignment inside ourselves that feels good, feels right; even if it is challenging, scary, or crazy. Sometimes the inner compass directs us to a choice that directly challenges our ego (that sense of small self or personality that we’ve carefully built up in order to function well in society). It is in these moments of challenge that we are asked to discern between the inner voice of soul, and the voice of ego. And sometimes we don’t know which voice was speaking until after we’ve made the choice.
When I take people on Medicine Walks or Wilderness Fasts, we all drop into an intentional space that opens us to the natural world. We allow the slow passage of time, the state of the weather, the movement of creatures, to seep into our pores. Guided by our own intention or question, we relax into our environment and quiet down. We begin to resonate, quite literally, with Nature — both Her physical form, and with Her vibrational or energetic qualities. Our minds, bodies, emotions, spirits are re-calibrated as we entrain to the natural world. It is here, over and over and over again, in small groups of community, that I have heard profound wisdom that blows my mind. When people return from spending alone time in the natural world, really listening and vibrantly attentive to what is around them, they come back in tune. In tune with themselves (their highest, unconditioned Selves), in tune with the skies, rocks, grasses, birds, and in tune with each other. Our inner compass is freed to point to True North — we know this is how it feels to be fully human.