By Jon Berry
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S A TRUE CALLING? Gregg Levoy, author of the book Callings, ran down the list of what he was told by people who’d found an authentic vocation. “True callings keep coming back.” “It scared the daylights out of me.” It had enthusiasm, in the original sense of the word, “en theos,” the god within. “It felt right.” “It had integrity.” The call came from many different channels, creating a "clustering effect."
By Monday morning, after the three-day workshop at Omega Institute had ended, and we’d scattered back home, what stuck most for me was not a word, or phrase, or story, or tip, but an image. Gregg, a shaggy, easygoing former newspaper reporter whose persona invites a first-name basis, asked us to start a dream journal that weekend. The first night was a blank for me. Nada. But the second night, I caught one.
In the dream, I am driving in the country in a foreign land. Open, green landscape sweeps out in all directions. Suddenly the road comes to an end. Ahead lies what looks to be a four-lane superhighway under construction. To the left, gravel has been laid; the road will be rough, but passable. To the right, it’s just grass. Aware that I’m taking a risk, I instinctively ease to the left and onto the new road.
Gregg promised that the weekend would produce “a ton of data.” He wasn’t kidding. I came back with 46 journal pages thick with notes. I'd developed a 12-item “to do” list of things I can do in the next few weeks to get a new venture off the ground (yes, I’ve started); a 10-item list of people and resources that I can draw on; a 7-item list of what I stand to gain; and an 8-item list of reasons to say “yes” to the calling (aka "the voice of yes").
I also got a clearer understanding of obstacles: an 11-item list of the challenges before me (aka “the voice of no”); a 4-item list of sacrifices I can anticipate; and a 2-item list of negative responses I can expect from people. (Yes, the latter was surprisingly light. Most of my friends, I realized, will probaby say, "It's about time!"). There were also analytical insights – a 25-question, rapid-fire inventory of questions ranging from what I’ve enjoyed most in life, to the book I’d like most to write, to my parents’ unfulfilled dreams.
While some of the resulting material did not surprise me (e.g. I love the work, see value in it, and have time in this stage of life to carve out for it), a lot was unexpected. Some of it was nice; one of my resources was “nature.” Some haunted. Did my mom’s dropping out of college in the Great Depression to take a job to help her family, and going on to become a secretary at a college rather than her dream of being a professor, plant the nagging doubt in me to choose security over aspirations?
But the dream struck the deepest chord. In its strange, imagistic way, it’s defined where I’m at (the end of a road) and where I’m headed (onto a new, probably bumpier road, in a strange land) in a way that will be hard to shake.
In his book, Gregg (pictured) describes how an indigenous tribe in Asia has trained itself to shape its responses in dreams. When they have a dream of being chased, rather than run away, “they turn and face their pursuer” and ask what message it brings. “That is the heart of dream work,” Gregg says. In the words of a dowser he once met, who consistently found water where engineers could not, it’s searching beyond what can be understood with “the normal five senses.”
Serendipitously, on returning home, I came across an interview with the Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue. In it, he describes dreams as “sophisticated, imaginative” texts that speak to a capacity we have within us to envision larger, fuller lives. O’Donohue deems it one of the “debilitating” tragedies of our time that the inner, invisible world has been overtaken by the outer, material world. “I feel there is an evacuation of interiority going on in our times,” he says.
We need to learn to draw back inside ourselves. It is there that we’ll find beauty, which in our media-centric world has become mistaken for glamour. There, we see, in O’Donohue’s words, that “the visible world is the first shoreline of the invisible world”; that the “body is in the soul, not the soul in the body”; and “a human being…is the place where the invisible becomes visible and expressive.”
There’s great power in the interior world. O’Donohue quotes Nelson Mandela, who, on his release from decades of imprisonment, said, “What we are afraid of is not so much our limitations but the infinite within us.” Or, as Yeats said, “in dreams begin responsibility.”
For more on Gregg Levoy and his work on callings, visit his website; click here. For more on his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, click here. The book, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, has been named one of the top careers books – a fact my thrice-read, dog-eared, underlined, Post-It-marked copy attests to.
The interview with John O’Donohue, “The Inner Landscape of Beauty,” was with Krista Tippett for her program Speaking of Faith (now called Being). You can listen to it, or obtain a transcript, by clicking here. It was one of the last interviews with O’Donohue before he died, all too soon, in his sleep at age 52 – and one of the most perfect interviews I’ve ever heard.