My wife recently went off (August 5th 2020, 12 days ago at the time of writing) to descend into a cave with the goal of getting to 1000 meters underground. Just for some context, my wife is a member of the Swiss mountain rescue team, a qualified diving instructor and a mountain trekking leader. In our work together, she often takes clients on outdoor experiences to highlight something that they may be working on in parallel to their coaching sessions. It was with this optic (she takes some clients into caves to draw a metaphor between reflections and action) that she wanted to improve her pot holing skills, before becoming a pot holing guide. I think you may now be getting a picture of the kind of person she is! Additionally, and on a sub note, she is also dealing with some pretty emotionally complicated family issues (her sister is in palliative care after an eight year battle with cancer).
In the build up to her departure, and in parallel, I was reading an excellent book called “Lover’s Executioner” by Irvin D.Yalom. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it, anyway this sets the back drop for my thoughts. In the build up to her departure (probably about 6 weeks before she left), she proudly told our network of friends of her impending adventure. I noted that, as we got closer to the date, it was as if she had already left. Indeed about three weeks before departure she started to think about the adventure from different angles: guilt at taking such a risk and leaving me to hold the fort, worry at her technical skills and physical capabilities (17 hours of physical activity) even questioning the validity of her decision and its applicability to our work. After 2 days of packing (a small bag of items), she left. As my daughter and I watched her leave, the drop in tension was palpable, calm fell upon us and we retreated to our mountain sanctuary for some quality time together and to fulfill a promise to build a tree house.
Our days were spent building and our evenings reading, Marion read Asterix and Obelix I read “Lovers Executioner”. In the mornings I meditated on my wife’s adventure. What was driving her to do this? What was she so eager to get away from? What was all that energy about before she left? Why such a challenging experience (she has done less that 10 caves in her life).
I started to see parallels with some of my client work. I am often surprised by the initial drivers to come to coaching. These are very real but the closer we get to the impending adventure (cave) the shift in energy is very evident. Often one can feel the mix of excitement and fear as they pack up their metaphorical small bag. Sitting in the mountains I got pictures of the entrance of the cave. It looked dark, dangerous and not somewhere I would want to go! Then silence, no phone coverage below ground. 17 hours of nothing! Much like the space between coaching sessions. Would she make it to her goal? Perhaps she would hurt herself? Maybe she would come back completely different from her experience. I reminded myself that this was not my challenge but hers.
First communication came in at 3.20am (I was asleep) it simply said “we are out of the cave”. Reading it at 6.30am I wanted to know more. Did she reach her goal? Did she come out in one piece? Had she changed? After 17hours of a physically challenging experience I thought it wise to let her sleep. I waited and reflected, relieved that all was well, but curious to know more.
At 11.32 she called. They hadn’t made it to 1000 meters but had stopped at 880, did I detect disappointment in her voice? Then came the description of the environment, her voice changed, lit up by what she had seen. The camaraderie of the team came across loud and clear. Then a deeper reflection on having needed to “get away from it all”. To let go of her sister. Her voice changed once again, I could imagine the tears rolling down her proud cheeks. I wanted to reach out, help, sooth but I remembered that this was not my challenge.
Her drive back took 4 hours, time for reflection and integration? When she got back one of the first things she said was, that after checking with her colleagues, they had actually made it to 903 meters. I wondered about the extra 23 meters did this make it deeper? She confided in me that she had left her sister “down there” and that she felt lighter now, not carrying her any more. Then she showed us the pictures from underground. The beauty of this deeper inner place. The formations that have never seen the light of day. The dropping down so deep and then the discovery of caves, pathways, the darkness lit up by torch light. Finally the arduous journey back to the surface.
I asked myself, did she obtain her goal? Which one? She did not get to 1000 meters below ground but she has dropped something off. How often do coaching clients drop something off on the journey to the goals they set themselves? Perhaps not obtaining the full tangible goal but far out performing the underlying goal. I realize how privileged I am in my profession to have the opportunity to witness people obtaining such beautiful experiences: the preparation for the challenge, the decent to deeper levels, the ascent back to life and the releasing to be the true talent they want to be. All of these are present before departure, only lack of awareness and restraint separates them from the realization of their own inner beauty, capability and talent.