Martha Beck on the Rebirth of Nature, Human and Wild
Few books get to linger too long in my bedside bookcase, but I haven't let Martha Beck's Steering by Starlight: Find Your Right Life, No Matter What get out of my sleepy arm's reach since it arrived three years ago. A monthly columnist for O: The Oprah Magazine, Beck is America's best-known life coach, and she speaks with a disarming blend of personal honesty and gobsmacking intelligence (the products of her own fascinating, turbulent life and a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard) that make her simultaneously accessible and awe-inspiring.
Her new book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, is bolder, stranger, and more powerful than anything she's written before, and I finished it with a scrawled page of urgent questions, which I put to her over email and am delighted to share with you.
Mari Malcolm: More than 20 years after Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, your new book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, proposes new methods with ancient roots for the wayfinders among us--the growing number of people who feel the pull of the shaman archetype--to thrive in a world that's deeply in need of healing. You say that for many (if not all) people, the rebirth of our true nature is deeply entwined with restoring the natural world and reconnecting with wild animals, an idea that began as a personal epiphany when you had a close encounter with a rhino. When did you realize that the implications of that moment reverberated so far beyond the boundaries of your own life?
Martha Beck: It interests me that McKibben was writing his book, an impassioned plea for a more ecologically conscious way of being, just when I began having strange dreams about the African wilderness. At that point I was completely pessimistic about humanity’s effect on the earth; I believed we were on a runaway train headed right off the edge of a cliff. But these dreams were filled with an implied message that nature was trying to communicate with my human consciousness, and the mood of the dreams was immensely optimistic. I assumed they were merely psychological until the past few years, when I began seeing in the real world images I’d dreamed long before, and realized they all had to do, not only with the conservation of nature, but its restoration.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” The life I'd planned was a sort of elegy to nature, a sad resignation to the destruction of life on the planet. The rhinoceros ended that life, by taking me mentally to a place where I was utterly willing to give up my entire existence. The life that was waiting for me was summed up by the three words “Nature can heal.” In that moment, because I was beyond embarrassment or humility, the scope of implications seemed obvious. Nature could heal me—it was doing so. Nature could heal others if it could heal me. And nature itself is capable of healing, of being healed. I walked out of the bush that day with a completely different vision of what my life, and all life, could be. Because it was delicious, I decided to stick with this vision. Why the hell not?
Mari: When you write about experiences like having wild animals come when you call, solid objects bend to your will, or dreams materialize in your waking life, do you ever worry that some people will think you've gone too far to the fringe and write you off as not being a "serious" person, or do you just tell your truth and believe the message will resonate with the people who need to hear it?
Martha: About two months after finishing the book, I was invited to meet with a shaman in the high plains of Montana. It had never occurred to me that I'd stay on this path after the book was complete, but it sounded very interesting, so I went. As I got in my rental car to drive into the wilderness, it occurred to me that I'd never seen a pronghorn antelope. So I sent out the mental "call," and felt a strong response--which, of course could have been imaginary. What wasn’t imaginary was that about two hours later, a herd of pronghorn antelope ran full speed across miles of high prairie and stopped right next to my car.
When stuff like this actually happens, who cares about being written off as a lunatic? Social acceptance is a dull, boring little trade-off for what Mary Oliver calls "my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." I’m sure a great many people think I’m crazy, for a rich variety of reasons. And when the antelope sprinted up to stand by my car as if we were old friends, I didn’t miss those good people at all.
Mari: For many of us who care deeply about preserving the natural world, the realization that 7 billion humans now compete for resources and habitat with wild animals, while economic and political concerns completely overshadow urgent problems like climate change, makes this a very serious, even terrifying time. Yet you focus intently on how essential play is for our ability to imagine and form creative solutions to our most challenging, complex puzzles. Have you found that people are relieved to hear this?
Martha: How can any healing solution arise from the stressful, anxious, often anguished human activity that's created so many devastating problems? As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. I think we all intuitively know that, and feel intensely relieved to hear that play and rest are primary healing forces, not only because it gives us a break from our tense obsession with work, but because we can sense that it will be effective. Work won't work. Play and rest will.
Of course, we have to experiment with this before we should believe it. The real delight for me is in helping clients and friends venture into the world of puzzle-solving play, and find that they actually can earn money or find love that way--while having a positive effect on everything around them. Experience builds trust, and the whole thing begins to mushroom into something larger and more wonderful than anyone expected. My faith (still slender, but unyielding) is that if enough people approach their own problems this way, their level of consciousness will change enough to solve the frightening puzzles of this historical moment.
Mari: You say that sometimes the most dynamic, potent action we can take is to deeply rest. With everything you feel compelled to do (and others must try to demand of you), how do you ensure you're taking good care of yourself?
Martha: My body is so conscientious about this. When I don’t get enough rest, I become violently ill, pass out from exhaustion or pain or whatever, and end up hospitalized. At least, that’s how it used to work. These days I pay attention before it comes to that. It’s very, very difficult for anyone to claim the time and space to rest in our culture, but digging a wide, deep moat around the prime directive of adequate rest is the only way to sustain productivity at anything worth doing.
I should note that even the threat of physical pain doesn’t give me the guts to say “No” to people's kind faces. So I hire muscle--people with excellent boundary-setting skills--to do that for me. If you can’t get enough rest one way, try another. Keep cracking this puzzle, because if you don’t, you’ll ruin (and probably shorten) your life.
Mari: As a writer, what has it been like to train your brain to "drop into Wordlessness," that state you explain is so essential to accessing the deep well of wisdom that Jung called "the collective unconscious"? Do you find that words and ideas actually flow more easily now that you spend more of your waking life in a Wordless state?
Martha: I love Craig Childs’ comment that describing an encounter with a wild animal in language is “like building the sky out of sticks.” He's right--it’s simply impossible. Yet Childs' phrase is so perfect it takes me right into the heart of his message, where of course there are no words.
When I was fourteen years old I went to a high school drama competition, developed a stomach bug, and ended up lying on the tiles of a lavatory while the ventilation system amplified speech after speech coming from a neighboring room. It was all Shakespeare, the bard at his most mellifluous, and the words seemed to literally touch my cells--I could feel language physically healing me. That's when I realized that language can be a carrier of energy that transcends words. Because I was sick, I started with the energy and let the words find me, rather than vice versa. Every day I try to replicate that little trick. Not that I do it well, but in the moments when that energy manages to slip into something I’m writing, it makes the grinding, frightening, maddening aspects of the task so worth it.
Mari: You talk about the importance of adventuring to help us envision new versions of our own future, and the future of life on this planet. You've spent a lot of your life being chronically ill and in great pain, and although those issues have resolved, you mention that many people who are drawn to the wayfinder archetype have experienced a health crisis. Do you consider illness a kind of misadventure that yields invaluable insights?
Martha: What a lovely way to put it! Yes, yes, yes. Any adventure worth having is exceedingly unpleasant from time to time, and anything unpleasant can be an adventure. A really serious illness almost automatically triggers the hero archetype, which is why so many people tell me that cancer was a journey of discovery for them.
During the time I was writing this book one of my friends was dying. At the very end of her life, there was a sense of preparation for a journey. It was sad, of course, but there was an undertone of extreme excitement, the kind that dogs exhibit at walk time. Whether or not we recover from it, illness forces us out of our comfort zones and sends us adventuring. It’s a great blessing, which I never ever want to experience again in any form.
Mari: On MarthaBeck.com, it looks like in-person and virtual book clubs are springing up across the country for this book. If readers don't see one in their area, how can they create a new one?
Martha: My website is run by people who, like me, are frankly obsessed with the mission of helping people heal and become healers. Writing to my assistant (Jessica@marthabeck.com) or my CEO (Bridgette@marthabeck.com) and you'll get help from anyone we've got handy to set up discussion groups, book clubs, or anything related to this mission. I can't promise my own availability at any given time, but I would love to do all I can to spice up such gatherings. It may sound corny, but it really is about the readers and the world, not a book. Write to us, and thank you in advance!
-- Martha Beck, Ph.D., is a life coach and monthly columnist for O: The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of the bestsellers Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live and the memoir Expecting Adam.