More of my story...
Whatever the “shoulds” were for each of us, we usually we agreed to them before we knew there were other ways. We agreed to them in order to survive. We agreed to them in exchange for safety, favor, and fulfillment. We agreed to them for meaning and belonging.
Sometimes they did indeed offer those rewards, and other times the rewards for being good proved hollow. Either way, for many of us the roads on the map we were handed no longer took us to the life we desired. We could sense a bigger life on the horizon but the carved-out paths led us only to that approved but too-small life.
For me, this came in during my college years in the form of the loss of the religious paradigm and practices that had sustained me and nourished me through my childhood. In retrospect it was a slow unfolding, in the moment though, it felt like a trap door opened beneath me and I dropped into an underworld that I did not recognize.
This fall brought profound loss and long grief as what I knew was slowly dissolved, as I waited in the dark, as I let people down, as I learned to bear being misunderstood, as the stories I had about my life fluttered away like small birds.
Wandering out of the
Sometime during the years leading up to that moment, I found myself in the Colorado mountains gazing into inky blue skies adorned with thousands of small hollows of light, like portals into another world. The Vastness was a tangible presence.
As I inhabited the Vastness that night, my eyes were opened to this: the mysteries of life were immeasurably larger than the confines of the “shoulds” I had been serving. On that night, I knew that I would have to choose whether I would follow the truth of my lived experience or stay within the confines of the prescribed life and mandated worldview.
That night in Colorado, I suddenly knew I would have to follow my deep knowing out of the boundaries that had been given me, I would have to wander beyond the approved path in order to be true to what was calling me ~ a calling I could not name but only feel.
Living the Questions...
During the couple of years that followed, I had been slowly living into that knowing. I had been slowly letting go, but I had not yet fallen through. During this time, I went on a nightwalk. Walking on the wide sidewalks of southern California, I was trying to feel the night, the wind, the comfort of the dark.
The unrest in me had been getting louder, writhing in my chest—it was serpentine. Things that had made sense didn’t make sense anymore. I longed to fall into the fierceness of this unnamable longing, but I did not know how. As I walked, a knowing took over me once again and, like a flash of lightening, illuminated what had been shrouded.
I understood that I had been given so many answers without the questions. I realized that I had been living answers to questions I had never really asked. Not only had I never been taught to ask them, I had been discouraged from asking them, even as I memorized and recited the answers of my childhood.
I knew in that moment I could no longer continue living this way. Something in me was breaking open and the questions would become my guides. As I walked, I made a vow, a prayer: I would never again claim an answer to a question I had not asked, to a question I had not lived. I wanted to fall into them.
Truthfully, I had no choice. Hovering above the questions and constantly propitiating against them was making me exhausted. My life could no longer be a walking announcement of The Answers, an act of devotion to the “shoulds.” My life would become an act of devotion to the questions. Later, Rilke’s words—live the questions, live everything—would rage across my thirsty heart, carving out a compass where there was no map.
If what we have based our lives upon cannot withstand a childlike curiosity and a fierce commitment to the questions growing from the depths of our being, maybe we should let ourselves fall through those lives.
Perhaps those are the moments when we allow the questions to do the sacred work of destruction. Perhaps this is when we reach for what is calling. Perhaps this is when we reach for what we long for, even though this reaching might destroy the old forms and create something new.
Weaving a Life...
And very slowly, something new emerged...
I began to learn how to let go of being good, so that I could be knowing. I began to learn how to live a life that is shaped by the knowing that wells up from body, dreams, intuition, from the visions of my life and of the world that well up from the imagination, from the symptoms and disruptions that populate my days, from my own lived experiences.
I began to learn how to listen to unrest. I began to follow my longing as my north star. And I quickly discovered that living the questions is much, much harder than living the answers.
While the “good” life is stable and preset, the knowing life is continually asking to be re-made and re-imagined. And I have been slowly learning how to live in this way since.
In the meantime, I wrote songs, played music, worked as a nurse in locked pediatric psych units, and day after day I read by my small space heater in the gray months of Seattle. During one of these (many) gray months, I read two books that called me irrevocably closer to my life: Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore and Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
In these books, I sensed intimations of my life. A way to live the questions deeply and even joyfully. A way to live curiously, sorrowfully, and soulfully. A way to cultivate a knowing life. I found a language that could express what I had been experiencing. And I loved this new language. This was my introduction to depth psychology.
I dreamt of going to Pacifica Graduate Institute for years and finally, when my son was ten months old (and I hadn’t slept in ten months) I knew in my bones that this was the time. A few months later I began the PhD program in Depth Psychology with emphasis in Jungian and archetypal studies.
I spent my days weaving a life as I moved between reading Jung’s thoughts on archetypes to rocking a baby to throwing in a load of laundry to teaching a room full of college students about the pros and cons of the DSM V… The days were full and exhausting. The days were rich and satisfying.
No Longer a Good Girl...
One afternoon during graduate school, we had a guest speaker visit one of my classes. Strangely, I don’t remember her name, but I remember what she brought me that afternoon. Tall and soft spoken, probably in her seventies, she had a certain gravitas ~ I was mesmerized.
She was there to tell us her story. In her midlife, her husband had become seriously ill and during those years she developed a particular way of painting ~ it was deeply spiritual and psychological. She had brought the series of paintings with her and we sat in front of her in a semi-circle with the paintings in a semi-circle in front of us. During her presentation, one of my classmates asked her something like, “What did you learn in this process?”
She sat still, quiet, for a moment. Then, with a slight smile on her face she pointed at the first painting in the series, “Here I was a good girl…” then she traced the shape of the semi-circle of art until she reached the last one, “And here, I was no longer a good girl.” Everything in me screamed with recognition. I knew what she meant. I knew it in my bones. She was not talking about behaviors, roles, lifestyles or religions; she was not talking about morality.
“Here I was a good girl.” She was talking about living according to the expectations of other, the external mandates of what she should be. “Here I was no longer a good girl.” She was talking about a life shaped by what wells up from our depths. She was talking about sovereignty. She was talking about being her own spiritual authority and source of permission. She was talking about breaking away from a life ruled by the “shoulds” and stepping into a life rooted in her own knowing. And I knew that this was the journey I had been on too.
The Archetypal Eve...
During these years of graduate school, I wrestled over what topic to research and write my doctoral dissertation, until suddenly it was so clear: I would research and write about one of the greatest teachers and companions I have had on this journey of letting go of being good in order to be knowing—the archetypal Eve. Now, after years of research, writing, and teaching live events, I am thrilled to share what I have learned about this journey and about Eve here.
I love being with people in deep inquiry, learning, exploration, and community. I love teaching. I love witnessing others in their (always) complex unfolding. I have been deeply honored to sit with others as they befriend the dreams that visit them, enact powerful rituals in shaded forests, learn from the movement of their bodies what it is that is calling them, and wander the mythic narratives finding reflections of their own lives. I love this work.
And I invite you to join me as we continue to find our way closer to our own lives, to our questions, to the sacred in the mundane—as we let go of being good, so that we can be knowing. Because as we follow our knowing into the in-between-places, perhaps we will find that there is no “my life in here” and “the world out there”; perhaps if we dig deep enough we find that there is only a profound and embodied participation with all things.
Or as Joseph Campbell put it, “And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Dr. Vanya Lelani received her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, where her research focused on the archetypal Eve and the power of creative transgression. She leads classes, workshops, and retreats as well as one-on-one work. Vanya is also an adjunct professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
She is devoted to supporting women on their own journey of remembering themselves as deep sources of knowing, permission, and blessing, and empowering them to walk out of the obedient life into more expansive, creative, and true lives.
Vanya is passionate about re-enchantment, the wild within and without, archetypal studies, and learning to live from our deepest knowing, blessing, and permission. She was born and raised in southeastern Brazil and currently lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest where she teaches, writes, accompanies others on their soul-journeys, and tends to the land and animals (two dogs, a cat, two goats, and six chickens).
I understand that the information provided here will be used to send occasional updates and letters from Vanya and that I can opt out any time.