If your goal is to avoid pain and escape suffering, I would not advise you to seek higher levels of consciousness or spiritual evolution.M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled
I became accustomed to pain and suffering, a result from a traumatic and abusive past. I felt lost and all alone during my teens, continuing to desperately try to fit in so that I could be “normal” like everyone else. I ventured into my early adult life with a low self-esteem, anger, depression, and a slew of unhealthy beliefs. The following quote sums up the impact from a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood, which accurately describes the impact I experienced. “Children, who were constantly ridiculed, grow up to judge themselves harshly, lie, and constantly seek approval and affirmation. Children may fear abandonment, believe they are unlovable/not good enough and feel lonely/misunderstood. As adults, they face difficulty with forming professional, social and romantic bonds, and are viewed as submissive, controlling, overwhelming or even detached in relationships (Ubaidi, 2016 – source)”
Over time I would realize what M. Scott Peck meant by the opening quote above. Pain and suffering was what put me on The Road Less Traveled! This led to a choice to succumb to this pain or to grow. My entry ticket to The Road Less Traveled was my choice to grow. The key word here is choice. Let’s examine what Viktor Frankl defines as our choices.
As we become an adult, we make our own choices. Many are unaware that they have a choice and/or the response they take is a result of their choice, therefore making an automatic and unconscious choice. The two primary choices are shown in the image. They are 1) an automatic response, a reaction to whatever our beliefs are, along with our prior experiences and perceptions of these experiences are, which is what forms our beliefs. Our unhealthy beliefs lie deep in our subconscious and often result in a choice to be a victim and blame others for our circumstances. Or, the choice are a result of 2), an awareness that we do have choices, and use our self-awareness to choose a healthy response realizing that we are in charge of our life. The moment of truth is in the fraction of a second we have between the stimulus we are experiencing, and our response. Someone says to us, “that is stupid”, which can trigger an unhealthy belief that we are not worthy, or that we are “stupid” which triggers an emotional response of anger and a behavior associated with this emotion (e.g., yelling, hitting, screaming, violence, etc.). As we become aware of these unhealthy beliefs and how they play out in our life, we use this self-awareness to momentarily stop and consider our options before we respond, and ultimately to reprogram our unhealthy beliefs into healthy ones.
In my case I reacted based on an unhealthy belief that I will never amount to anything, a line that my father repeated to me almost every day. Blaming myself had the impact of a very low self-esteem, depression, and anger at myself. These resulted in patterns where I would repeat behaviors, often unhealthy ones, that were consistent with my unhealthy beliefs.
We form patterns where we repeat our reactions, triggered by our perception of what others do and say. My pattern was to desperately try to fit in and gain approval from others due to my unhealthy belief that I would indeed never amount to anything. My actions and behaviors were characteristic of a victim. The question comes down to, 1) do we remain a victim where we blame others for our negative patterns and consequences which can lead to; unhappiness, anger, violence, despair, or suicide, or, 2) become a victor and decide to take charge of our life. Fortunately, I made the latter decision, but only having come very close to succumbing to the pain.
The latter choice is the beginning of venturing onto a new path in life, The Road Less Traveled. This is because we must confront and heal our past and learn to take responsibility for our own actions and make changes. It is not an easy choice to make, particularly in a society that promotes being a victim, and where “responsibility” has become a four-letter word.
The Road Less Traveled is filled with obstacles, challenges, twists and turns. It begins with confronting ourselves, a willingness to take that hard look within, understand what happened, heal your past, while learning how to create healthy beliefs that will drive our behaviors to more positive consequences in our life. This by definition puts on a different path. It was easier to blame others for our life and therefore take no responsibility. It was easier to have others tell us who we are, what we should be, how we should be, than it is to question and ultimately challenge these definitions, and then form our own definitions of happiness, success, lifestyle, etc. The turning point for me was a time when the pain had become too much. I was able to hold myself together at work, but at home I was a frantic mess. I felt all alone, scared, and depressed, the cocktail for a very serious and possibly fatal choice. It would be years later that my brother committed suicide, at a similar juncture in his own life. The difference between us was that I refused to succumb and instead sought help. It was a decision supported by a series of “synchronistic” events (what I now define as “God’s way of being anonymous”). There were amazing people who came into my life who wanted to help me, not by trying to fix me, but seeing something in me that I could not see. It was as if my choice to surrender my pain and take charge sent a wave of prayers through the universe which began to line up events to support my request.
With a nudge from a close associate who I called my “adopted Dad”, and a supervisor who saw my potential and wanted to help me, a mentor at work whose own personal life change was used to inspire my own changes, and a colleague who suggested some next steps based on her background in psychology. The result, I heeded their advice to talk to an EAP Counselor at work which landed me in counseling and group therapy. I made a CHOICE to make improvements in my life.
The change began with therapy. My counselor pushed me to look into my rear-view mirror and talk about my past, something I strongly resisted at first. I would come to learn that I had actually buried my past so deep into my subconscious, that I had little recollection of what happened along with major gaps in my conscious memory. Although I wanted to quit counseling, my support team rooted me on to stay the course. I would later recognize that deep within me was an innate need to grow as a human being, which helped me to dig deep and find a new source of strength and courage.
The decision to stay the course put me on The Road Less Traveled. My circle of friends and connections changed as I spent more time with others who could relate to my past along with a desire to move forward. As with any major change we make, there are others that may not relate nor be interested in what we are doing, those want us to be who we once were, or others that try to direct or influence our choices. I joined support groups, attended workshops and conferences on topics related to the dysfunctional family at first, which is where I made new friends and became aware of some key issues I had developed as a result of my past. Over the course of the next 2 years, my personal growth was skyrocketing as I developed a healthier perception of myself, beliefs, self-esteem and self-awareness. I had peeled away some of the layers as shown in the above image. The work would continue throughout my life due to the depth of the psychological impact from my youth, but I was out of the fog now and could see more clearly the choices I needed to start making.
Some stop here and get off the The Road Less Traveled, as a happier and more productive citizen, their mission accomplished. However, despite my attempt to exit, there was a gnawing feeling within that I can only describe as “something was still missing” that kept me looking in the mirror. As I put words to this in my journal, it related to a desire to understand why life is like this, e.g., why did I have to experience so much pain? It was not until another trusted colleague placed “The Call” on my desk (see image below). Note: there were actually many events leading up to these milestones and key decisions, but it is often easier to capture a single event.
As I look back over my life today, it is easy now to see the guidance I had from a greater source that continued to nudge me forward, whether you would refer to this as a “higher self”, “angels”, “God” or whatever. As I read The Call, wonderful tears erupted. “This is it!”, I exclaimed. This is what I was missing. There was indeed something more and now I could refer to this as “hearing and a choice to heed the call”.
It was during this time that my mentor, a vice president in the company I was working for, had a bout with brain cancer and a 6 months to live prognosis. His mindset shifted as a mentor as you could imagine, and his focus was to nudge me out of the nest, recognizing my quest to grow as a human being vs. a career at this point. He asked me a profound question, “Michael, what do you want to do with your life”. My initial response recited what society and others had taught me. He asked me to reflect on this question, which I did. A couple weeks later I was having dinner with a consultant I was working with. Out of the blue he asked me another profound question, “Michael, are you happy?” Amazingly both of these questions related well to The Call. The impact was many sleepless nights of tossing and turning as I tried to answer these questions. And then, the epiphany came when a friend called a week later and asked if I wanted to go to Europe. Later in life I would realize the amazing synchronicity of the timing of people and events around me. This is why I encourage journaling so to capture what appeared as isolated events, to begin to see the synergy of what were characterized initially as coincidences.
My life until this point felt as if I was barricaded behind a fence and could only look with wonder and frustration to what was out there (“a life from within the compound, to avoid risk”). The image of a young child pondering on what was on the other side, or out there, came to mind. I drew this in my journal. The victim side of self saw this as “life being unfair” while my new sense of self who wanted to grow and discover life, represented my victor side. I took a leave of absence at work and travelled four weeks in Europe. I was like a little kid excited to learn about the many unique cultures there. History was measured in thousands of years old compared to hundreds of years here in the US. But it was the excitement I was feeling that caught my attention. It was a long time, or maybe the first time, where I felt real passion for life. I returned home with an answer to the questions I was asked, to leave the known and secure, discover what was out there while finding answers to the deep questions I was pondering!!
I talked to my mentor who by this time was beating the odds of his prognosis. He was proud of me, a feeling that was new to me. He was the mother bird pushing me out of my nest, so that I could learn how to fly. A couple of weeks later I gave notice to my manager that I was leaving my job and company. Those that were close to me understood why, while others thought I was crazy, which in part I agreed with… at first.
Counseling and group therapy, along with a considerable number of workshops, books and intensive events helped me to develop the courage to fully commit to The Road Less Traveled. With a good self-esteem and a more balanced life, I turned my attention to Self-Discovery (see Tree of Life image). Here my focus was on discovering more about the man I saw in the mirror and addressing teh question, Who Am I? This also included reformulating my values and beliefs, along with defining what success and happiness really meant to me. It was also about defining my purpose and finding new meaning in life.
It was the following quote from Michael Crichton’s book, “Travels”, that would characterize this part of my adventure… “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”
I quit a great job for a backpack and an adventure of a lifetime. Life would be my teacher now. Moreso, it was the first time in my life that I felt free, along with feeling this inner drive to discover who I am and what life is all about. I had to understand why I had experienced so much pain in my life. I had to get away from the known and go into the unknown, for here I would be able to answer the deep and profound questions that swirled in my head. It was during my journey that I learned about the tradition of the Vision Quest with American Indians, where young men were kicked out of their tribe and to return only when they had their “vision experience” to identify what they were all about. The movie, “Dances with Wolves” portrays this concept well. My journey was now labelled “A Modern Day Vision Quest”. I was asked to speak on this topic several times, and in one case recorded it as a virtual session, which is accessible below.
I was now ready to jump on the fast lane of The Road Less Traveled. As I was preparing for my adventure another synchronistic event happened. A local mailing of classifieds and advertisements fell onto the floor, blown off the counter by some outside wind, which was open to a page revealing a local conference that caught my eye. It was titled, “Visions of Tomorrow” and referenced spiritual growth. I called the number provided and a man answered. He said that he usually does not answer the phone, particularly since the conference just started, and stated to me, “This may sound strange, but it is important that you attend this conference.” WTF, I wondered. I looked at The Call which referred to, being “open to new experiences”. I jumped on my motorcycle and headed to the conference, only a few miles away. A decision I would be really glad that I had made.
The conference hosted several hundred people who shared a deep spiritual interest and a thirst to learn more. Although they spoke with expressions and concepts I was unfamiliar with (healings, near death experience, intuitives, chakras, etc.), this was the first time I heard conversations on topics that related so much to what I was contemplating. I was skeptical at first but it did not take long to realize that for the first time in my life, I was with others who had similar aspirations. I realized that I was not alone having these strange thoughts and quests. The teachers there consisted of Native American Indians, Gurus from various disciplines, Healers, Highly Intuitive individuals, and more. What I had learned was the term “spiritual” referred to those who had a thirst to learn about life outside of organized religion. I felt like I belonged somewhere, but remained skeptical so not to get absorbed into something I would later regret. The biggest impact came from a middle aged man who told a most amazing story about how he had died and experienced the afterlife. It had a name, Near Death Experience (NDE). And amazingly his name was Tom Sawyer!
It was time for my worldly adventure to begin. A woman, Margaret, I met at the conference traveled annually to South Africa, where she volunteered native tribes, helping them to learn better nutrition using the foods they have access to. I had watched a documentary on Africa shortly before making this connection. One of the comments they made caught my attention. It suggested that if you want to understand the origins of humanity, Africa was the place to go. Margaret said that others were welcome to join her, but had to pay their own way. Over the course of the next couple of months, the word “Africa” came up a number of times, until I recalled Margaret’s story of her adventures. I called her and she stated that she was awaiting my call. I got the specifics of the trip and then made he plunge. It was exciting and scary at the same time. This leg of The Road Less Travelled began with an 18-hour non-stop flight from New York City to Johannesburg, South Africa.
It felt like I was in one of the National Geographic episodes I watched on tv. Life here was so profoundly different than anything I had experienced within the US. We would stay in mud huts that overlooked the desert plains with a view of wildlife I had only seen in pictures. We traveled each day to one of the tribal areas where arrangements had already been made for our visit. A few spoke English, a result of some of the outreach programs there and the former European influence in Africa. There was no concept of time here! No one had an age, a clock, a phone, a computer or anything what would be considered modern. My task was based on my role as an EMT on a volunteer ambulance back home. I would find ways to help apply first aid using the materials they had access to. My contact was a Sangoma or healer. It is near impossible to find words to describe sitting across from a local native, who wore a tribal outfit, sat on a dirt floor, and had their bag of bones that were used for their “readings”. The bones were thrown on the floor and he went on to accurately describe my life. It was so easy to dismiss these experiences, but it was my new open mind that was continually blown away. My time there was characteristic of what Michael Crichton stated, to be “stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes”. It reminded me of the saying from The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy said to her dog Toto, “We are not in Kansas anymore.”
The story above represents one of a thousand profound events that took place for the better part of my 3 year vision quest. My adventures would bring me to Russia, Eastern Europe, Europe, and then returning to Africa. I met the most amazing people, learned about very different cultures, beliefs, customs and more. I experienced the incredible diversity and contrast of life here on Earth. I travelled simply and found hostels to stay at, which were incredibly inexpensive. No wonder so my young adults outside of the US were travelling the world. As I arrived at each new destination, I found a way to volunteer so that I could get up close and personal with the locals and their daily routines. There were places that were so distraught that made my life of trauma feel like a vacation compared to what they were experiencing. Other places displayed the lives of the rich and famous. In every case my experience consisted of listening to the thousands of stories from locals about their life, aspirations, dreams, beliefs, and more. It was as if I was getting a Ph.D. on life itself, with a minor is self-discovery. I would never view life here on Earth the same, and would laugh at how news sources back home would share international events without any real understanding of the real story.
Here is an example of a day in the life for me on The Road Less Traveled. I was staying in a hostel in Cape Town where I was picked up each day to volunteer in a “Township” north of Cape Town, called Khayelitsha. One evening a few other backpackers asked me what I was doing. They were very curious and intrigued. I stated that this was very challenging which is why I returned each day at the hostel and remained very quiet. Three of them asked me if they could join me for a day. I had to get approval first, which was granted. We arrived and were under the guidance and protection of Seargent Natawhe, who lived in the Township with his family. We travelled around the endless sea of tin shacks which were the homesteads for the tens of thousands who lived there. We met with a number of individuals who lived there and talked about their lives. It was more about survival than anything else, and dealing with the rampant crime, disease, famine and more.
The conversations were hard to listen to. It was a hellish existence. I could not imagine living in these circumstances, which were the result of one of the major human tragedies, Apartheid. All we could do is listen and empathize. I stated how frustrated and overwhelmed I was upon hearing about their situations, while being upset that there was nothing seemingly that I could do. It was at the end of my journey there that they stated to me that I did indeed provide them with a real gift. The gift I provided them was the interest I had in their lives as members of the Caucasian race from half way around the world. At one point they sang a song of gratitude to me. I was sobbing with wonderful tears. It was the most amazing gift I had ever received.
It was time for me and the others from the hostel to return to Cape Town. The three guests said nothing during the ride home. Once they returned they began a binge of drinking alcohol for several days as they avoided me. Then one of them finally spoke up stating that they were so overwhelmed with anger at what they saw and heard, and had no idea how to process this. I could relate to this. It was the same reaction I had at the end of my first week volunteering at the township. It was the fact that this was real, not something we saw on television. There was no turning off the tv or switching to a different channel. All five senses were overloaded. It was my mentor who set up this volunteer opportunity that talked me off the ledge when I was ready to run away from all of this.
It would take me years to process what I experienced during my travels. There would be many more situations like this that I would encounter face-to-face. It hurts like hell to have your eyes forced open so that you can see the truth. So why in heck would one want to experience these situations? Once again it relates to heeding the call. Most people have had times where they absolutely knew that they needed to do something, even though it may have made no sense at the time. We each have intuitive capabilities, sometimes referred to as a “gut feeling”. In my case the feeling was deep, very deep, and at the core of my being. It was something that I felt numerous times in my life, often writing these feelings off as nonsense. I just knew in my heart that I had to escape from my life experience that felt like I was living behind a fence, to discover what was “out” there, which I came to learn was actually about learning to discover what was “in” there, inside me!
The answer also comes in part from Crichton’s quote, “…Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.” The key here is grasping what is meant by “aware of who it is that is having the experience”. This refers to an advanced “spiritual” topic where you begin to wonder who (e.g. higher self) is really examining you (your personality) as we (our personality) examines ourselves and life around us (conscious self-awareness). I relate this to my own awareness that a “higher self” existed within me that would observe my life experience in a very different way than my personality did. I used meditation and other quiet moments to attempt to connect with my higher self for guidance and direction. My personal and spiritual growth was a direct result of these experiences along with how I processed them. The collection of these experiences and reflections is what ultimately changed who I am, my attitudes, beliefs and values, which is the primary value of traveling on The Road Less Traveled.
The truth is not easy to accept at times, but the benefit comes from opening your eyes and processing this information. It is in our gut-wrenching moments that we discover who we are. It is in these moments that we see life for what it is vs. through the rose colored glasses we were wearing. It is in these moments that we confront the meaning of life. The question is whether we will discipline ourselves to open our eyes and then open our mind. What may sound ludicrous is the fact that confronting these types of experiences helped me to see life for what it is, which enabled me for the first time to see me for who I really am, along with ultimately the fact that there is true meaning to life!!
As I returned home between journeys, I spent my time volunteering in roles such as; an EMT on volunteer ambulance, a Hospice care provider, a Counselor in a children’s oncology camp, and a sundry of other roles. I did not realize until later that a common denominator with my volunteer roles had to do with death. My Mom had died from cancer when I was 14 years old. It was a traumatic experience and at such a vulnerable time in my life. But it was how she died that confused me. She was in a coma and we were told would die anytime. A few hours later we were called to her bedside at the hospital where she was sitting upright, fully alert and smiling. She said her good-byes to each of us, stating several times that she would be 100% better. She laid back down and died within a couple of hours. The doctors could not explain this. What was amazing related to my experience in hospice care years later, was that these situations were common. There clearly was a mystical element to death that is overlooked and over time taught me that there is so much more to death and post-death. It is sad that we are such a death-adverse culture that goes to great lengths to avoid talking about a topic we will all experience through our life with our loved ones, along with confronting our own mortality.
Following my Modern Day Vision Quest I returned to “normal” life. It was at the end of my travels, enroute on my last international flight from Poland, that I realized that I wanted to return home and raise a family. I was talking with a flight attendant who shared that this was her last flight. She would leave her job to have and raise her family. I was in tears as she shared this, only to realize that I too shared this desire. My dear friend Tom Sawyer, who I mentioned earlier, suggested that having a family, job and career would help to ground me, which was the absolute truth. Each time I returned home I would isolate myself for several weeks. Others were interested in the sites and places I visited. Whenever I attempted to share the real experiences I would lose my audience. The Road Less Travelled is about a journey we take within, the hardest, yet the most rewarding kind.
Returning home with a desire to settle down and raise a family seemed a daunting task after all I have been through. The idea of returning to corporate life made me ill. It was the last thing on my mind to do, but necessary to raise a family. I considered my options, but kept returning to my desire. I had changed. The breadth and depth of my experiences and vision quest changed me from the inside out beginning with my core beliefs and values. I saw life in a very different manner now. And yet the human side of myself still wanted to fit in, have friends, be liked and loved…the basic human needs based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
For the next 30 years, my focus was characteristic of the famous Zen proverb: Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. It was a challenge since I had to shelve my experiences and play the game that was needed to survive in Corporate America. I was still me, but not the real authentic me. I learned how to be a chameleon in order to fit in. It was lonely, very lonely at times, since my heart and soul wanted to be where I could be truly authentic. But I had accepted my duty now to my job and family, which meant that I had to be the breadwinner. What I realized is that in order to fully experience the human experience, I had to be fully human. As I look back now I am so grateful for these experiences, since these challenges represented the continuous growth opportunity to live my values despite all the temptations around me. A major challenge in and of itself.
So why in heck would I ever suggest getting on The Road Less Travelled with all these challenges? The answer is simple, and begins with the sentence, “You may choose not to hear your spirit…” from The Call (above), and ends with “…If you hear it and ignore it, your life is lost.” The voice within actually began when I was a young child. I just had no context for what these feelings meant, and viewed them as confirmation that I was screwed up and would never fit in. I found ways to co-exist. I can see now why some are drawn to the monasteries, as I was when I had visited the Basilica of St. Francis Assisi in Italy. It is easier without life’s distractions. However, I will admit that it was co-existing with all of life’s distractions that helped me to develop and be my values. It took many failures to find the strength and courage to be who I wanted to be versus what others wanted me to be.
The video below relates so well to one of the great challenges of growth. You become very different, and struggle with the feeling of fitting in, when the human aspect of who we are yearns for the feelings of love and belonging as noted in Maslow’s Hierarchy.
I now have an understanding of life and more importantly an understanding of what life is about and why we are here. This is a very personal belief and sense of knowingness that I rarely share, since I have no interest in converting others. It is a composite of the thousands of experiences I opened myself up to on The Road Less Travelled. I will still write and share these experiences, but with no expectations. Instead I feel incredible gratitude for my journey and the thousands of teachers I met along the way. Upon my death bed, I will utter to myself that “I Did It”. Does this suggest that I am better than others? Absolutely not! It is just that I discovered my calling and went after it, just as I wish each of you to do, whatever this calling may be. My calling was for me. It may have similarities to others, but in no way represents what your calling should be. It is however with our sharing that we may inspire others to discover their own calling!!
Michael is an author, speaker, facilitator and coach on the topics of Personal Growth & Self-Discovery (Check out “Discovering Michael: An Inspirational Guide to Personal Growth & Self-Discovery”) and Leadership (check out my book on Leadership, “Leadership From The Inside Out: Building Your Leadership Foundation” which focuses on the personal growth needed to be an authentic and highly effective leader that accepts the responsibility to lead vs. tell). Visit my website for more information growhumanpotential.com including links to my YouTube Channel, “The Ripple Effect”, Podcasts and more. You can contact Michael at email@example.com