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Excerpt from "Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life"

by Abigail Brenner, MD


Envisioning a New Life

The hero’s journey always begins with the call…The call is to leave a certain social situation, move into your own loneliness and find the jewel, the center, that is impossible to find when you’re socially engaged…You are to cross the threshold into new life. It is a dangerous adventure because you are moving out of the sphere of the knowledge of you and your community. Joseph Campbell

A powerful way to mark a passage is to create one based on the classical model of the hero’s journey: intentional separation from the familiar, the transition, entering into a no-man’s land with potential dangers to contemplate and overcome, and the return home, transformed and victorious. The test is both external (being in the wild, amid the unpredictable elements) and internal (an extended period of solitude and contemplation). As difficult as the external trials may seem, the internal test is the ultimate challenge. You are being asked to sit with yourself with no distractions and to allow whatever comes up to simply do so, without censoring or judging or being critical of yourself or of the fear that may arise. It is about coming to know yourself, your fears and your strengths.

This is the work of the vision quest, a type of hero’s journey in which the journeyer traditionally goes out to gather spiritual knowledge and then comes back with a vision to feed the tribe. Previously only open to men in tribal cultures, the quest marks the passage to adulthood. Elise, one of the bolder journeyers interviewed for this book, chose to make this dramatic rite of passage at a pivotal time in her life. But why? What would make a fifty-four-year-old woman carry a thirty-pound pack for five hours up a two-thousand-foot elevation and then stay alone on a mountain for four nights and days?

Divorced, with her grown sons heading off on their own, Elise found herself alone for the first time in thirty years. The experience was both liberating and frightening. As much as we may look forward to having more time to ourselves, when we do, we may suddenly find that we are required to look within. Elise knew that she needed a formal process to help her successfully make her transition. As a shaman accustomed to exploring the natural world, the vision quest suited her ideally. In many ways, it is an accelerated form of psychotherapy---one for the hearty. Instead of your weekly appointment with the therapist, you have an appointment with yourself—all day, for several days.

But not even nine months of preparation with a facilitator fully prepared Elise for what to expect. What she did know was that there was a very real element of danger. You might die out there. Hypothermia was a possibility. You could break a leg or get sick. But that is a part of it: the risk, and the accompanying fears. At a sweat lodge on the night before she ascended the mountain, other questers prayed for her vision.

“The hike in was the hardest physical thing I had ever done. Birthing babies, your body takes over the job. Here, every step was by choice. If I looked to see what I had to do in the next ten feet, I’d get demoralized. It became a meditation. Nothing but one foot, next foot. Everything else dropped away.

Finally, the top! Escorted to my site. The job of setting up the tent. Then the dark—no moon. All the sounds at night are so loud. The first night, I got scared. There was something out there big enough to break twigs when it walked, sniffing at the door of my tent. I froze. I prayed. It helped. Whatever it was moved off. I heard a wolf or coyote howl nearby. It sounded like a woman. I hoped it wasn’t calling for others to join it.”

Elise’s protection against the night was a tent—a very thin piece of material. What is the metaphor here? For Elise, it was the acknowledgement that she feared things in her own darkness that she had not identified and did not know how to work with. But one doesn’t have to go into the wilderness to identify the very fine membrane that separates each of us from everyone and everything else. This self-protective barrier invisibly shields us from what we perceive to be potentially dangerous, the challenges to our integrity coming from external sources. How thin or thick-skinned are we? How well will our suit of armor protect us from fatal strikes? How many defensive walls protect our tender inner core? Can we break down these walls and confront our demons to stand in our own authenticity, gaining, once and for all, ownership of ourselves? This was one of Elise’s great tasks.

Confined by a site in dense underbrush with steep drop-offs on three sides, Elise could only sit, with nothing to distract her from the process of observing her mind and her surroundings. For the next days and nights, she experienced the beauty of a star-spotted night sky, relentless rain and a leaky tent, a wind sounding like a freight train, cold nights and layers of clothing, and sporadic sleep filled with dreams of animals pushing on the tent.

“All the while, something subtle and extraordinary was going on. I’d watch the wind in the trees for hours. I watched every bird hunting the bugs that tortured me. I saw the mice in the fern jungle. Each day, I got quieter and more attuned to the vibration of the place I was in. The animals came closer. As I dozed in the sun, a chipmunk jumped into my lap, startling us both. The birds perched two feet from me, eating worms on the pine tree.

“My brain would shut down; then the most vivid realizations would come. I loved it there—the expanse of time, the slowing down of everything. I wanted to stay. I was holding on to the last day. I tried to think of how I could get food up there and never come back. But that last night was uncomfortable---no soft place. By morning, I was ready for all the soft things: warm food, hot baths, deep beds, shampooed hair.

“The interior change in me is the real story. Things that hurt me terribly just do not anymore. The hurt is gone. I have accepted my humanity as a beautiful thing and have acquired a kind of self-respect that can’t be described. I see all the fruit of the hard labor that my life has produced. I have the singing of the stars and the teachings of the stones, and I am grateful to my bones. I am breathing new air, in a new life. I am still being informed by what I learned...and will be for the rest of my life.”

Elise chose a particularly challenging journey—with dramatic results. Having to confront whatever external and internal challenges presented themselves to her taught her acceptance, independence, and strength. She was able to put certain feelings and relationships behind her and came away with a greater appreciation of herself, a deeper connection with nature, and a new sense of time. She came down from the mountain a very different person than when she had gone up. It was a true rebirth.

For Elise and for others who make the hero’s journey, old beliefs and identities fall away, allowing a fuller expression of the person, their essence and what is most essential to them. But climbing a mountain to find your truth may not be for everyone. Outward Bound trips, retreats, sweat lodges, and even vacations devoted to being by yourself in one place with no set agenda are alternate ways to discover or rediscover parts of yourself. Choosing to sit with yourself in a remote place with no distractions is a very effective way to access your inner knowing.

Abigail Brenner, M.D. is a board certified psychiatrist in private practice for almost 30 years and a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Brenner has pursued her interest in clinical work, formerly as an attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital adult outpatient clinic and as a clinical assistant professor at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center. Dr. Brenner lives in New York City and San Francisco with her husband and is a mother and grandmother. Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life was formerly Women’s Rites of Passage. Be sure to visit her website: www.abigailbrenner.com

*Excerpted from her book

Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life

Available now on Amazon


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