Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live up to our full potential and become that person we know deep down we could have been? If only we had not been shaped and moulded by so many external voices telling us what we should and could do, what we shouldn’t do, what to fear and what to obey. If only we had managed to keep hold of the innocent curiosity and imagination of our early childhood, when everything was an adventure, everything was new, and learning was as natural as breathing. If only we had been allowed to make our own story, instead of living one made up of a thousand borrowed pieces. Making Your String of Pearls is a way of finding our way back to that original story – the one we never got to finish but still, somewhere deep down, long to live.
The Origins of This Approach
The idea behind the ‘string of pearls’ approach was taught to me by my late wife Michal. She was an extraordinary person, healer, psychologist and wise woman. Her life’s work was helping people realise their full potential. She believed that most people get stuck in a narrative that is not their own, but is an amalgamation of everything we pick up from other people as we grow up: fears, worries, hopes, expectations, beliefs, assumptions … All these ‘borrowed’ bits of story end up hiding our own, authentic story – the story we would have chosen for ourselves if we had not lost touch with what we were really meant to become.
Michal’s work focused on two processes people needed to follow to get back to their own narrative. One is the process of ‘unwrapping’ the layers of acquired narrative – discarding the emotional and mental baggage others have put on our shoulders but we no longer want to carry with us. The more of this material we can let go of, the more we will be able to tune into our true self – our authentic core – that little voice inside that still holds the innocence and promise of how we entered this world. I will write much more about this process later in this series, under the header Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence.
The other process is the work of constructing our desired story – the one we want to live by. It’s a narrative about what we love doing, what gets us in the flow and what gives us a sense of purpose and fulfilment. It’s a process of finding glimpses of it in our past – moments that we were close to living it, or felt that we were on the right path – and using those moments to extract the underlying story and project that forward into the future. That 7-step process is what the next instalments of this series will be about.
Michal’s teachings have had a huge impact on my life. From the time I met her, during all the years we were married, and ever since she passed away, I have been working on her two-pronged approach to finding my own potential and realising it as fully as I possibly can. It has led me into strange and wonderful discoveries and adventures. It took me halfway across the world, from The Netherlands to Australia. It helped me discard a lot of unnecessary baggage. It made me realise that most of what I now do and practice I have always felt I wanted to do, but kept it hidden underneath the layers of acquired narrative that told me I should forget about ever following my dreams. While discovering more of myself, my passion and my purpose, I tried a range of jobs, from the very technical – designing IT systems – to the purely human – teaching people how to improve their personal and interpersonal skills. I have been a teacher, researcher, software developer, consultant, manager, trainer/coach and public speaker. All that time I also was a father, a husband, a friend and even – not deliberately, but simply because life is never without conflicts – occasionally an adversary.
I now see all those different experiences as part of the process of finding out what my true path should be. Each experience was also an experiment; a test to see what that particular situation would feel like, bring me and cost me, and what it would teach me about myself. Seen like that, none of those experiences was ever a failure or a waste of time. They were all a necessary part of the learning process. Even (or should I say especially) the jobs I hated, the people I fell out with and the places I did not feel at home in, gave me insight about my own authentic core and helped me refine my future path.
I would love for everyone to see life like this. Like an adventure in which every new experience is a learning experience. An adventure in which we are the main protagonist and the author at the same time. A journey that is both the path itself and the way to find a better path. That is the essence of the string of pearls.
Now, let me take you through the steps.
Step 1: Collecting the Pearls
Sit comfortably, relax, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Let’s imagine our life as a collection of experiences, stretching from the present moment back to our earliest memories. Each remembered experiences is a tiny time-capsule, in which information is stored about the location, the situation, what happened, what we did, what we said, and – most importantly – how we felt at that moment. In fact, for most of our remembered moments we will find that what we felt is recorded much clearer than many of the factual details. Especially when we have attained a reasonable level of emotional awareness (and I promise I will come back to how to attain this in later instalments), the feeling of the moment may actually be the key to locate the memory, and then unlock the capsule to find hidden there information we thought we had completely forgotten.
I once walked into a candy store and was immediately overcome by a sense of fear and nausea, as if something dreadful was about to happen to me. I made my way out of there as soon as I could. Outside, in the fresh air, I calmed down enough to ask myself what on Earth had happened in there? What was it that brought about this violent reaction? I had to find out, so I braced myself, took a few deep breaths to calm my still somewhat agitated nervous system and stepped back inside. The moment I opened the door I noticed a particular smell, something sweet and salty with an undertone of aniseed. As I focused on that smell I could feel the panic rising deep inside me. But because I was expecting it, I managed to stop it from overwhelming me. Instead I mentally went towards it, focusing on what it was that made this smell so threatening to me. And all of a sudden a scene from my childhood – something I had completely forgotten, or so I thought – came rushing back to me.
I was 6 or 7 years old and about to undergo tonsil surgery – something that was rather too routinely done to children in those days. The anaesthetic that was used was a kind of sleeping gas, administered through a cap that was placed over my nose and mouth. I remember the nurse telling me that it was OK, nothing to worry about. I would soon be asleep and would feel nothing at all. And when I woke up it would all be over. But what I experienced was this strong and strange smell rushing into my nose and mouth. I could feel it spread into my lungs and as it did so I saw black rotating figures – like propellors – speeding towards me, as if they were about to chop me up. And I felt myself falling through the chair and accelerating downwards. I tried to hold on to something, but there was nothing to hold on to. As I fell, my vision narrowed till there was only a small tunnel of light left, through which the black shapes were still chasing me. Just before I lost consciousness – and I still clearly remember that feeling – it all of a sudden dawned on me that I was about to die and would never wake up. Then everything turned black.
Once I remembered it, it all made sense. Not only was the smell in the candy shop similar to what the sleeping gas smelled like, walking into the long, dark and narrow shop must have felt like entering that tunnel I saw just before I lost consciousness. What I found fascinating was how the smell had not just triggered the emotion, but had also unlocked a hitherto completely forgotten traumatic experience from my childhood in great detail. And not just the moment itself, but also the story of what led up to it, and the rather painful and equally traumatic recovery period that followed. It was as if the smell had been the key to a vault I had carefully locked and hidden away.
Rediscovering the memories themselves was interesting. But far more interesting was what I could learn from now having access to those lost moments. It made me realise why I distrust people wearing lab coats, for instance. Or why I don’t like those long, dimly lit hallways in many office buildings. But more importantly, it helped me reconnect to a much larger period of my childhood I had almost completely forgotten. Revisiting those moments through an adult’s perspective has taught me a lot about myself and helped me to adjust some long-held beliefs and assumptions about myself and my place in the world.
Now look at this collection of remembered experiences and imagine them as tiny balls, not much bigger than an average bead. When looking at the whole collection, some of the balls will be dark, others will be dull, but there will be some that appear to shine and sparkle, like highly polished pearls. The dark and dull balls are memories of negative or uninspiring moments, experiences where we were not inspired or engaged, possibly even suffering, stressed, afraid or hurt. Ignoring the dark and dull moments, we should be able to pick out the shiny pearl-like ones instead; those are our best experiences: the times when we were full of energy, in the flow, inspired and happy. Some may be small, fleeting even, others may be a big as marbles and full of details clearly remembered; some may be so long ago we had almost forgotten them, others recent and still fresh in our minds. Those details don’t matter now. What matters is that we should be able to collect our pearls from between the dark and dull beads and put them aside for further study and reflection.
– to be continued –