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I took a photo of the room I stayed in during my three-day Soul Shift retreat in California.
It was the first time I’d led a retreat, and in order to show up for it, I had to listen to the persistent voice of belief rather than the pesky voice of doubt.
I was preparing to vacate the room and catch my flight home when I thought: Did I leave anything behind?
Do you do that before you leave a hotel room, a friend’s house, a coffee shop, or an airplane seat?
Did I leave anything behind? You ask, surveying the area for material items you can see with your eyes.
But what about the things you can’t see?
As I surveyed the cozy guest room as the morning light streamed in, I had an unusual response to the typical question, did I leave anything behind?
Yes. I thought to myself. I left behind a piece of fear, and I’m going to leave it there.
I hope it gets swept away.
Three days prior, I’d vowed I would not forget how I felt when I walked into that room for the first time.
What have I done?
Now I have to do this.
This feels like a lot.
There’s no going back.
I’d said all those things to myself when I arrived.
Using a coping strategy that helps me be brave, I said: By Monday morning, it will be a memory. Just three days, and it will be over. You can do this.
After freshening up from my long travel day, I’d walked across campus to the beautiful building where I would teach the first evening session.
Who might also feel scared? I wondered as I entered, immediately noticing the warm wood, the high beams, and the feeling of sanctuary surrounding me.
I found her.
She said: When I learned you were coming here six months ago, I began building up to being away from my son who has severe anxiety. We started with a couple hours… an evening… and little by little, we made it to this weekend.
I found her.
She said: My partner didn’t see the value nor understand why I needed to get on a plane and be at this retreat. He wondered why I couldn’t just get my girlfriends together instead. I told him, I need this; I know I’m supposed to be here.
I found her,
Grieving the loss of her beloved child, yet traveling 2,000 miles to thank me for the “kiss on the hand” moments she’d experienced with her daughter for three sacred years before she passed away.
I found her,
Describing an emotional breakdown she’d had earlier in the week that inspired her to find this retreat, and how she moved heaven and earth to get here.
I found her,
Confessing the daily torment of staring at a wall in her work cubicle when she knows she is made for human connection, creativity, and purpose.
Over and over that night, I found her and him,
Human beings overcoming tremendous obstacles—fear, other people’s opinions, doubt, pride, negative self-talk, expectations, and logistic challenges—to come to this place and be seen just as they are.
What makes a person go to such lengths and expend such effort to answer their heart’s calling when it would be easier to ignore it?
I heard the same reason over and over:
Because a little voice of belief said, “You are supposed to be here, and you will walk away different than you arrive.”
After the last person left the building that night, I surveyed the room.
Did we leave anything behind?
Yes. Oh yes.
I marveled at the remains scattered across the floor.
Come morning, I hoped they would be swept away.
The next day, our group worked on The Practice of Presence and had time for thoughtful introspection. There, in the sanctuary of the redwoods, people were invited to share their hearts. One by one, five brave women came forth to share their truths and revelations that began with: “I am closest to what matters when… and I am farthest from grasping what matters when…”
As we began working our way out of the amphitheater to go to lunch, I noticed how people gravitated towards each other. Through the stories shared out loud, people who experienced similar childhoods, similar challenges, similar hopes and dreams were able to find each other.
I turned and looked back at the stage decorated with seeds from the tall trees. I saw what we’d left behind…
Come morning, I hoped they would be swept away.
On the last morning of the retreat, I’d asked one of the participants who works in the tech industry to contribute his thoughts on a definition. After doing so (and making us all laugh in the process), he asked if he could say something to the other participants. Being a young man, he had a unique perspective and wanted to share it. To put it simply, he said, “I see you. I see the effort you made to be here for yourself and your families. I see the lengths you go to bring love into the lives of those you care about. I may have not told my mom I appreciated her, so I am saying it now.”
I felt the whole room release a deep exhale, and I was then aware of what I must do.
I’d been thinking about one particular participant and knew that in two weeks she would attend a memorial service, marking the one-year-anniversary of her daughter’s passing and the passing of three other beloved community members who were killed in the same tragic incident. The beautiful woman admitted this would be extremely hard for her, but knew it was something she felt called to do. Perhaps if she could see visual evidence of where she’d been and the strength she possesses, she would be fueled.
As she was leaving, I gave her a tangible anchor. I was not expecting her sister to give me something in return, right off her wrist and onto mine. It was a piece of her niece’s glorious light.
Did precious Autumn leave anything behind?
Oh yes, yes… I rejoiced. I felt it, deep down in my heart. And I would carry it with me as I continue to share the kiss-on-the-hand moment that led her mother to my work five years ago and enabled them to experience a sacred connection to one another.
Three days later, I am sitting in my house with a sick daughter, staring at work duties that have piled up, preparing for an interview that I have no energy to give, and finding it hard to remember the hope I felt over the weekend.
I stare at the list of interview questions.
One jumps out at me:
What does it mean to live fully?
I knew the kind of answer that was expected—something positive, warm and fuzzy, and uplifting… but living fully is not always these things I decide honestly.
Living fully means letting your heart lead, even when the world tries to dissuade you and derail you.
It means finding your voice, even when you feel unheard.
It means facing painful truths, even when it would be easier to push them away.
It means showing up, even when you don’t feel ready or equipped.
It means reaching for connection, even when your hands shake.
It means forgiving yourself, even when you don’t feel worthy.
It means tuning into the small, still voice of belief, even when doubt is loud and obnoxious.
Living fully is not something we can see. Most of the time, there is no evidence of it. Most people will walk right by, having no idea the lengths a human being is going to SHOW UP as herself to make her unique contribution to the world.
But during the Soul Shift retreat, I saw it… because I felt it.
And suddenly, I felt fueled to do the interview so I could share these important truths—
The most significant achievements are not measurable.
The most beautiful moments are not capturable.
The most divine places not locatable.
The most important progress is not quantifiable.
The most astounding transformations are not visible.
They are felt,
in the heart
in quivering hands
in eye to eye contact
in soul to soul connection.
On night five of Avery’s horrible sickness, she asked if I would read to her. She is thirteen, so this is not a common request. I hurriedly looked for a book before she could change her mind.
I grabbed my father-in-law’s copy of Only Love Today that has sat on my bedside since his passing.
“I have the best book to read to you,” I said jokingly to my daughter who was hunkered down in her bed.
I flipped to the table of contents to see what reflection she might like best.
“When I Changed You…” Avery read aloud. “I bet that’s about me changing you.”
We read that one and several other stories that made us giggle over my former controlling ways and sweet observations she’d made as a child. Then she made one of my poems into a silly song and we could not stop laughing.
It was the first time I saw Avery laugh in five days. How remarkable that these honest reflections that were not my shining moments years ago were my shining moments now—now that mistakes had become stepping-stones to a more loving version of myself.
I was about to close Avery’s door and say goodnight when I looked back to see if I’d left anything behind.
Among tangled sheets, half-filled glasses of water, and used tissues, I saw: mistakes of the past
belief that it was too late to change.
I closed my eyes in gratitude. Thank God, I did not let the mistakes of my past sabotage the opportunities of today.
This is what it means to live fully.
Dear ones, at this moment, I am looking around this space we share, looking for someone who might feel scared, worn down, unseen, and perhaps a bit hopeless.
I found you.
And right now, I’m asking you to stop what you are doing and survey the area.
What did you leave behind as you show up, bravely, boldly, flawed and full of hope today?
See the evidence of living fully that cannot be detected with the human eye.
See it in the unmade bed.
See it in the changing colors of the trees.
See it in the lines of your hands.
See it when your people breathe easier when you’re near.
See it when you dare to document your greatest hopes and dreams.
Whether you realize it or not, you have a persistent voice of belief within you, and you’ve chosen to listen to it time and time again.
I may not know exactly where you’ve been on your brave journey, but I am certain you have been somewhere worth recognizing.
Stop and take it in.
Marvel at what you’ve left behind as you stepped forward in courage and love.
Come morning, may the things that once held you back be forever swept away.
Reposted with permission from handsfreemama.com.
October 27–29, 2023
Join New York Times bestselling author, teacher, and speaker Rachel Macy Stafford for a soul-shifting journey into lasting transformation.
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