By Laurie Walmsley
Under a perfectly sunny blue sky nine springs ago, I sat on a bench in Oxford and wept. Through streaming tears I stared at the nondescript office building that had housed my first ‘proper’ graduate job. I’d been asked to resign after raising ethical objections about some of my tasks. Now I had been cast adrift, just as my career was meant to be beginning, and seemingly with no map or compass.
Battered by alternating waves of emotion, despair came crashing down first. I’d applied myself so diligently for so long; had it all been for nothing? At school I excelled academically, submerging myself in my study as a refuge from social anxiety and loneliness. Yet I was also driven by curiosity and tenacity; the same traits that drew me to a fascinating and infuriating physics degree, and helped me to endure it.
Like many of my peers, I graduated without a clue as to my ‘calling’; I knew only that I yearned to solve meaningful problems and enjoy Oxford with friends, free from the pressure of a degree. I secured a job as an analyst at a corporate ‘intelligence’ firm, which I hoped might meet both needs. In reality, it fulfilled neither: I toiled relentlessly at work as exhausting as it was pointless. Yet the pressure to perform couldn’t overcome my morals and my need for meaning that were agitating below the surface.
Waves of worthlessness also broke across my rudderless bench as I contrasted my plight with the success of my peers thriving in more prestigious jobs in London. Yet underpinning the many painful emotions was an ocean of relief. Relief at my respite – albeit fleeting – from the fear and futility pervading the end of the beginning of my formal working life.
After another false start, I wondered if the Universe might have thrown me a bone in the form of the book ‘Heat’: George Monbiot’s climate change call to action. I couldn’t put it down and was helpless to resist its implications. I simply had to make some contribution to what I felt must be the defining challenge of our era. So I brushed off a recent promotion, quit my second job and moved in with my parents to volunteer in the environmental sector in London.
I was questing for work to provide both meaning and means to exist in the system I was born into. Work that would employ my gifts (whatever they were!) in service of responsibilities I could no longer ignore. At stake was my wellbeing and no less than my life itself.
I threw myself into the superficially satisfying world of environmental politics and policy. Immediately, I relished the intellectual challenge of the work, which I convinced myself would make some kind of impact. Trying in vain to influence the wrong people in the wrong way, the intensity of the work let me ignore gaping holes in my ‘theory of change’. Yet if I’m honest, I can recall a little voice questioning “will this change anything?” as I researched yet another policy report destined to gather electronic dust in the forgotten recesses of some government IT server.
I hushed the unwelcome voice and threw myself into my first paid ‘meaningful’ job, working for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The work was demanding and going well but the voice was getting louder. Ignoring it once more, I soon became ill; bed-bound for a fortnight with some mystery bug. Fearing for my job, I dragged myself back to work. I knew something was wrong: I wasn’t unfit, yet I struggled to climb two flights of stairs to my first-floor office. My memory was failing, I couldn’t speak coherently and felt like I was dragging lead weights behind me. Now a researcher by trade, I self-diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which was confirmed medically six months later.
Life had thrown down its most gruelling gauntlet so far against my march for meaning. Yet it would take me three more years to accept that I’d set off on the wrong path and some formidable force was doing its utmost to redirect me. Three more years finally to recognise that cautionary, guiding voice as my own. Grappling with the collapse of my physical health and the resulting isolation and hopelessness, my mental health began to unravel too. In a deathly dance with depression familiar to many with this illness, I chose life. I became determined to save ‘the only life I could save’.
I subjected myself to a mountain of a master’s degree and another stress-induced health collapse before I finally allowed my heart to guide my head, reversing a life-long way of being. I can’t tell you exactly when I learned to listen to the voice of my intuition, but three years ago almost to the day as I write, I let it guide me to Buddhafield Festival in Somerset. Among the many blessings bestowed by this bubble of love and aliveness lay a new friendship forged through cooking together in the joyful madness of Buddhafield Cafe; the wholesome heart of the festival. After sharing some of our life journeys, my new friend bid me: “You have to go to Embercombe and do ‘The Journey’!”
While not knowing what this entailed, on hearing these words I felt the now familiar tug of the golden thread of my intuition. Returning from the magic of the festival I resolved to explore this ‘Embercombe’, a mysterious land-based self-leadership centre in a captivatingly beautiful valley on the edge of Dartmoor. Though wholehearted, my intentions were soon waylaid in a blizzard of work. Some weeks later I saw on Facebook that a friend (also working on environmental issues) had just committed to ‘The Journey’, Embercombe’s main self-leadership programme. I felt with all my being that this was a door I must step through and that now was the time.
Mac Macartney founded Embercombe as a ‘garden to grow people’. Yet in the five days of profound transition, connection and healing that comprised my Journey, to me Embercombe felt more like a chrysalis. A safe space for transformation and transition, held by a team of capable and caring mentors. The feelings of beauty, community and connection that arose from speaking our truths with courage and vulnerability forming a rich soil for personal growth and transformation.
I felt empowered to dissolve old constraints and find freedom from fears that for so long had held me back from living life fully.
Central to the Journey is the exploration of three questions that Mac poses to participants:
- what do you most deeply and profoundly love?
- what are your deepest and most profound gifts?
- what are your deepest and most profound responsibilities?
The answers that came gave me the confidence to spread my wings, fly out of my comfort zone and use my gifts with confidence. To help organisations that mentor leaders and change-makers to come alive in service of the world – organisations like Embercombe – to embody and to share authentic and compelling stories of their work and of the lives they transform.
Through this work, I’m exploring the power of the stories we tell ourselves to create our reality. Regarding the way that stories can govern the expression of our gifts, ‘lifequester’ and author Colin Beavan cautions: ‘Sometimes we cling to stories that divorce us from our abilities because we are scared of what we would become if we accepted those abilities.’ 
He also warns us to be wary of the stories we associate with our responsibilities:
‘ We tell ourselves stories of personal powerlessness partly because if we acknowledge that we are powerful, then we must also acknowledge that each of us is in some way responsible for the world.’ 
Beavan invites us to consider a particular ‘big question’: ‘Is the world your stories are creating the one you actually want to live in?  In combination with Mac’s three questions from the Journey, I’ve found this enquiry to be invaluable in reconciling the succession of abrupt changes and slower transitions that characterised my twenties. Transitions expert William Bridges explains the distinction between the two:
‘….change is situational. Transition…is psychological. It is…the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through…to incorporate…changes into your life…Unless transition happens, the change won’t work.’ 
Bridges asserts that all transitions have three phrases: they begin with an ending, followed by an important period of emptiness or confusion and distress, after which a new beginning emerges . Perhaps you find yourself in one of these phrases in a transition in your life?
The looming ‘Brexit’ and disruption to our weather and climate are some of the more major changes we’re experiencing, corresponding to inevitable transitions. Locally, regular readers may reflect on Reconnect’s pending change in ownership. Or the corresponding transition of Martin (the magazine’s long-serving editor and owner) from a grower of community across South Devon to community and food grower in Totnes. Embercombe itself is navigating a period of profound and exciting change and transition, with a new managing director, several new staff joining the team and long-serving staff moving onto new adventures, leaving a generous legacy.
Whatever changes and transitions you’re enduring, they’re inevitable and defining aspects of our lives that occur both internally and externally; a ‘twin trail’ of personal growth and action in the world. As author, speaker and philosopher Charles Eisenstein asserts, ‘We live today at a moment of transition between worlds’ , a transition that ‘internally, is nothing less than a transformation in the experience of being alive. Externally, it is nothing less than a transformation of humanity’s role on planet Earth’ 
Returning to Buddhafield this summer, it feels like I’ve completed a full cycle of my own transition through a journey I embarked upon three years ago. I now feel blessed by the freedom and fulfilment that arise whenever I listen to the voice of my intuition and open to the beauty and synchronicity of life.
‘At a certain moment it will become necessary for you to go on a journey…to find yourself outside of whomever your conditioning trained you to be. You must put yourself in a situation where…who you were becomes inoperative; then, who you will be can emerge’ Charles Eisenstein 
To embark on your Journey visit embercombe.org/the-journey or give our friendly team a call on 01647 252 983. To help you take the first step. Prices are tiered depending on your income.
References Beavan, C. (2016) How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World. [Kindle edition]. New York, Dey Street Books
 Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes, [Kindle edition]. Boston MA, Da Capo Press
 Eisenstein, C. (2013) The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Third edition. Berkeley CA, North Atlantic Books. Available from: http://www.filmsforaction.org/news/separation-an-excerpt-from-the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible [Accessed 30 June 2016]  Ibid.
 Eisenstein, C. (2015) 11 Things I’d Like to Tell My Younger Self. Films For Action. Blog. Available from: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/a-letter-to-my-younger-self [Accessed 30 June 2016]