Endings are important. I find it an easy thing to forget, after all, the real stuff is done isn’t it? Ending is just the name for… well the end, when you’ve finished what you’re doing…. No?
Well if you’re anything like me, I’d suggest it’s worth bringing some attention to how you do your endings. My wife is a psychotherapist and I’ve learned from her and my own training and experience in Spiritual Counselling about how important it is to find a conscious way to finish working with a client. That therapeutic space is a delicate, significant, and intimate part of people’s lives and we would be doing them a disservice, and failing to honour what I consider to be the sacredness of the work we do together if we don’t find a conscious way to bring our work to an end. Equally, when working in ritual, whether that is in my personal life in the way I mark the turning of the year with friends, or in my formal work as a minister it is vital to bring things to a close rather than just letting it all go. We must honour that which we call forth within ceremony and ritual whether you consider that to purely be a part of our psyche, or a spiritual or divine presence, and the place for that honouring is at the end. That is how we finish.
Serge Kahili King writes about the most basic structure for any ritual as being a beginning to get the attention of your whole being and say “this is something special”, a middle where the body of the ritual happens (whatever that may be), and an end which closes the ritual and releases the energies you have collected back into the world and your psyche to do their work (healing, changing, manifesting etc.). This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s (the famous mythologist) simplest map of the Hero’s journey as an archetypal Rite of Passage: Separation, Initiation, Return. In simple terms this means that you leave or are taken away from your community or normal environment, you go through a challenging or transitionary experience, and then you return to your community and normal environment transformed and armed with gifts from your adventures to share with others. How amazing would it be to feel like every ceremony or ritual you attended had that quality? How wonderful to have that ‘time-out-of-time’ and then return feeling better equipped to be present, to help, and to love than when you left. That is what I aim to do when I hold ceremonies for people, not necessarily in a grand and explosive way (it’s not a seminar after all!) but in a gentle and subtle way to help us all step out of the everyday, to share a connecting experience that helps us to access more beauty, connection, and love (to transform perspective), and then to create a conscious gateway to return to our day-to-day lives whereby we return refreshed and awakened. I don’t know for sure my success rate but it feels to me that I witness people leaving a little brighter than when they arrive, and I have had some wonderful feedback from weddings, and other ceremonies I have designed and held for people.
What I have recently turned my attention to is how I bring this ceremonial or ritual awareness to my every day life. I have been doing this in various ways for years and it is part of why the core practices for my Somatic Presence work are Breathing, Standing, Walking and Talking. However, I have been bringing some attention to my endings…
How often have you got to the end of the day and then just rushed out of the office? How often have you been having a meeting and run short of time, crammed as much as you can in, and then rushed to finish so people get away on time. It is a well-known phenomenon in therapeutic work to get a “door-handle comment.” This is where the client seems not to settle into the work for much of the session and then just as they are leaving (hand on the door-handle…) they say something that is so profoundly what they needed to be talking about for the whole session that it is both a deep frustration, and a deep joy. The frustration comes because they’ve only just said it as you're finishing, the joy is there because you know you can start with that thing next time and maybe, just maybe you’re starting to get somewhere… I have both heard and made plenty of door-handle comments over the years, not just in therapeutic environments but in coaching calls, meeting a friend for a coffee, and in business meetings – especially team meetings. The good news is that the person who says it, trusts the environment enough to say it at all. I think in many ways we are all terrified of endings because they are the little deaths that happen all the time. Most of us have some fear of death – the ultimate end in most people’s minds – and these little endings are constant reminders of how easily and frequently things end…or die. But just as we may fear death, a nearness to death also tends to bring out in people a willingness to reflect on our lives, our choices, and our deeper needs than we might normally have. Many people when a loved one dies make big changes in their lives as the death has brought a certain sense of perspective. Death can give birth to courage. I think this may also be why we get door-handle comments – the nearness of one of life’s little deaths helps us to be brave enough to face-up to what is really going on.
Endings then can be wonderful gifts, but we need to face them consciously. An unconsidered death will tend to indicate an unconsidered life. I remember a conversation with a friend about an exercise they’d done in a workshop where they had designed their own funerals. She described her own which was very simple (barely there really!) and her friend’s which had been huge, grand, even epic! I identified with her, in my imagination at that time my funeral would have been as quiet as possible, after all, why make a fuss? I can see the same pattern in my day-to-day habits. I would tend to leave the office without saying goodbye to people, I would leave parties when I was done and similarly probably only say good bye to the people I was directly speaking to, I would work right up to the end of a day, chuck things in my bag and go. Part of what my friend shared with me in that original conversation and I have come to appreciate since is that all this is representative of my not appreciating the impact I have on the world and those around me. I fail to realise that I matter to people or that my actions – or lack of action – has a knock-on effect. Funerals are in so many ways not about the person that has died but the people left behind. Saying “Goodbye” is not just about my need, it is about honouring the needs of others. I have an impact. I matter. If either this, or indeed the opposite is true for you, then considering endings may be a worthwhile thing for you to do. Do you make a grand exit because you need constant affirmation from others that you are important? Either ends of this spectrum could indicate a lack of self-esteem. That is certainly part of the picture for me.
All these little endings give you a chance to refine and practice making a graceful finish. All of us will one day face an ending which we can’t do again so it’s worth getting good at endings now!
So… what have I done about it? Well to start with I have started making use of a little ritual from the martial arts – bowing when you leave a place. Usually upon entering and exiting the Dojo (training hall or ‘Place of the Way’ to give it the poetic translation) you bow. This is to show respect to those more senior to you in the room, but in my mind, more importantly to the spirit of the place. Obviously doing this everywhere you go may get embarrassing or even be inappropriate but I have started bringing my attention to it more and one way I do it is to take the moment as I leave to look back into the place I’m leaving and offer up some gratitude for it’s sanctuary - an internal bow if you will. In my own office, I can bow as I leave and I take pleasure in that quiet moment. That’s one thing I’ve re-focused on and I’m enjoying that. The big thing though is that whenever I’m in my office working (rather than off facilitating a group or delivering training or something), I finish my main work a little early and take the last half-hour to work on my book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable.’ Because this is a translation of contemplative wisdom into modern language, I read a bit, ponder a bit, and then write a bit in a notebook (strictly non-computer time). I love this time. I am finding I leave the office feeling refreshed, inspired, and energised. Instead of arriving home preoccupied and weary, I get back ready to have fun with my son and to help my wife. It really is better for everyone. This is my ending ritual for my days and it is helping me to feel lighter and more consistently connected to my purpose in life (which can get lost amongst the email mountain sometimes).
So, I’ll leave you with a question: How do you do endings (big and small), and how could you engage with them more consciously?