Lost in the Woods
Like many compelling adventure stories, The Divine Comedy begins in the middle. "Midway through the journey of our life," says Dante, "I found myself in a dark forest, for the right way was lost." He doesn't mention how he got to the woods, what he was doing when he wandered off track, or how far he's gone. All this information is-literally-foggy. The only thing Dante really knows is that he's alone, adrift, and confused.
The experience of noticing we're on the wrong path, in what feels like the wrong life, comes to almost all of us at some point. A few years into a job, a relationship, or a living situation, we may suddenly realize that everything seems . . . off. Like Dante, we're a bit dim about exactly what's wrong, or how we got here. But in an empty moment when we've finally gotten the kids off to school, or we look up from our desks at the office and notice everyone else has gone home, or we've just had another ghastly fight with the person we thought we'd love forever, we stare into space and think, "What am I doing? What is this place? How did I get here? It wasn't supposed to be this way!"
This is often how people are feeling when they consult me. I've sat through countless first sessions with clients who are so baffled by their own dissatisfaction they can barely find words to describe it. They stammer, "I wish I knew my purpose," or "People say 'Follow your passion,' but I have no idea what mine is," or "I thought working hard and providing for my family was the right thing, but I feel so empty." A few of these people are clinically depressed or physically sick. But mostly, they're just lost.
The most common reason we end up feeling this way is by doing what we're "supposed to." We learn from our culture how a good person is supposed to behave, and we behave that way. Then we expect the promised rewards: happiness, health, prosperity, true love, solid self-esteem. But the equation fails to balance. Even after doing everything we can to be good, we don't feel good. Confused, we figure we're somehow not doing enough, or not doing it the right way. But the harder we work at finding the path to well-being, the less well we feel.
I've worked with many people who were so far gone in the dark wood they didn't remember anything else. By the time they came to me, their disorientation had become extreme. There was Jim, the physician who grew more and more repulsed by the thought of touching people until he finally had to close his practice. Or Evelyn, the magazine editor who, though a ravenous bookworm at home, gradually lost the energy to track simple paragraphs at work. Fran, a devoted mother of four, began forgetting so many of her children's playdates and school events that the whole family lived like a herd of spooked horses, nervous and jittery. None of these people was mentally ill, just far gone in a hazy wilderness.
I recognize this murky terrain. Know it well, in fact. I've been to the dark wood of error so many times I should have set up a hot dog stand somewhere in there. From childhood, my one overarching life directive was Do whatever it takes to win approval. Raised in a devout Mormon family, I obeyed every rule of my religion and worked hard at school. Then I went off to Harvard, which was about as far from my childhood culture as I could get without moving to Pluto. I managed by letting everyone I encountered assume that I agreed with them, passing for a devout Mormon at home and a rational atheist at school.
This strategy worked perfectly (approval everywhere!) except that after a while I couldn't move. Physically, I mean. At the ripe old age of eighteen, I developed mysterious, excruciating soft-tissue pain all over my body. I couldn't focus mentally. I started binge eating. I felt out of control and broken and borderline suicidal. I had to take a year off school, the better to focus on my complete physical and emotional deterioration. Oh, I was quite the little ray of sunshine.
Looking back at that experience and the stories of so many clients, I feel enormous gratitude for all our confusion, and despair. Those feelings meant that our internal guidance systems were working perfectly, signaling "WRONG WAY!" as clearly as they could. With nothing but the best of intentions, we'd lost the way of integrity. Suffering arose from our bodies and hearts as a result-and riveted our attention on fixing the problem.
Dark wood of error syndrome
There have probably been times when you, too, have departed from your own true path. At first, the resulting suffering may have been so mild you didn't even notice it. But no one can sleepwalk away from integrity indefinitely, because things get worse the further we travel in the wrong direction. Eventually, if we don't correct course, we begin displaying clusters of characteristic symptoms. You may have had them in the past. You may have them now.
I call any cluster of these symptoms "dark wood of error syndrome." Again, it's not a bad thing. It's the way our instincts motivate us to regain our integrity. It's the truth come to set us free. Which doesn't mean it's fun. In the remainder of this chapter, I'll describe the symptoms of this syndrome. As you read, ask yourself if you're experiencing any of them.
Dark wood of error symptom #1:
The most common reason people give for hiring me as a coach is that they're desperate to find a sense of purpose. Very few actually want to die, but many tell me they see little point in living. They echo the Biblical lament in Ecclesiastes, "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun, and behold; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind." In other words, "Life is hard. We're all going to die. WTF?" Without an authentic sense of purpose, it's hard to feel that the daily grind of a human existence is worth the trouble.
In modern Western culture, most of us believe that we can find a sense of purpose by achieving something. What something, exactly? That depends on how the people around us define "value."
My job is like watching a parade of the various things different cultures tell people to value. One day I coached a woman who believed that a purpose-driven life involved suing lots of people and wearing several pounds of diamond jewelry everywhere, including the dump. My next client was equally convinced that a purposeful life meant living in a cabin off the grid and using leaves as toilet paper. Some people think purpose means having a corner office. Others try to become movie stars, save the rain forests, or make viral videos of their pet hamsters.
Any of these ambitions might actually match your true purpose. If so, you'll feel a powerful inward compulsion to follow that particular path. You'll find the steps along the way fascinating and fulfilling, and as a result you'll be good at them. But if you pursue any course of action solely because other people think it's "purposeful," prepare to hit dense fog. You'll encounter baffling failures. You won't get along with people. You won't be able to drum up the energy to climb the success ladder-or for that matter, to wash your hair.
Maybe you're thinking, "Well, of course I feel awful-I never get the things I want!"
If so, I wish you could meet the people I know who've reached the pinnacle of our society's idealized achievements, only to realize that, as one woman told me, "There's no there there. I thought there was a position in the world that would make me feel good, but I got to that position and didn't find anything that made me happy. It all seemed pointless."
"So I won an Olympic gold," one client told me. "And as I climbed down from the podium, the only thought I could think was, 'What the hell do I do now?' It was awful, absolutely terrifying. It was like death-the worst feeling I'd ever had." A hard-working author said, "After a lifetime of trying, I finally had a book hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It made me really happy . . . for about ten minutes."
Our sense of purposelessness doesn't disappear in the face of culturally defined achievements. It remains a persistent, goading force, a biting fly that won't stop buzzing around our heads until we begin pursuing goals that truly fulfill us-in other words, following the way of integrity. And if the whine and sting of purposelessness isn't enough to shake us out of our sleepwalking, our subconscious minds will up the ante. They'll summon the megafauna, the mental wild beasts we call mood states.
Dark wood of error symptom #2:
As if being lost weren't bad enough, carnivorous beasts attack Dante in the dark wood of error. The first is a ravenous leopard whose appetite can never be satisfied. Next comes a lion so terrifying Dante says "it seemed the air was afraid of him." Then he sees a wolf, the sight of which makes him so sad he "weeps in all his thought and is despondent." Neediness, panic, depression. Welcome to a few of the emotional states that may jump you as you wander through the dark wood of error.
When I stray from my integrity, the mood-monsters rear up almost immediately. One step away from my truth, I feel grasping, nervous, and morose. If I don't correct course, those feelings quickly escalate to clinginess, terror, and despair. Thank heavens! Without such ferocious attacks, I might still be following the self-contradictory ideals that made me such a royal mess at age eighteen.
Whenever you lose your integrity, you'll feel your own unique brew of bad moods, depending on your personality. You may tend, as I do, toward anxiety and depression. Or you may feel free-floating hostility, itching to punch everyone in your office, family, zip code. You may have full-on panic attacks, especially during special occasions (blind dates, parole hearings) when you most wish to appear relaxed and confident.
Whatever your repeated or persistent negative emotions, try thinking of them as Dante's wild beasts, whose job it is to make your life unbearable when you stray from your true path. If the feelings don't go away even though you're taking your medication and meeting regularly with your therapist, you can be quite sure you're somehow out of integrity. The sooner you acknowledge this the better, because remaining in the dark wood of error may eventually cause you actual, physical harm.
Dark wood of error symptom #3:
I believe that I was crippled by illness from age eighteen all the way into my thirties because my body was trying to help me find my way out of the dark wood of error. When I finally did that, my symptoms receded. Nothing else worked.
Obviously, bad health can affect people who live in total integrity. Bodies break down for many reasons. But from what I've seen, it's rare for someone who's internally split not to develop some kind of health problem. By the time people consult me, they're often suffering all kinds of physical distress, from headaches to terminal illness. They almost never see a connection between their physical condition and a lack of integrity. To most of them, that would seem-to use the scientific term-totally wackadoodle.
But speaking of science, solid research shows all sorts of links between living in harmony with our truth and maintaining good health. There's a whole field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, that focuses on the way psychological stress, including the stress of lying or keeping secrets, contributes to illness. Studies have linked deception and secret-keeping to elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased stress hormones, higher bad-cholesterol and glucose levels, and reduced immune responses. The more significant our deceptive behavior, the worse the effect on health.
For example, in one study of gay men with HIV, researchers discovered that the more closeted the men were about their sexuality, the faster their disease progressed. There was a dose-response relationship between the level of concealment and immune status-in other words, the greater the concealment, the higher the rates of disease and death. "Don't ask, don't tell" sounds benign, but living in even tacit separation from our real identity can literally hasten our death.
Again, there are all kinds of physical ailments that affect people who are living in complete integrity. Everyone dies, and there's plenty of physical pain that has nothing to do with keeping secrets, telling lies, or wandering off true paths. Still, every time we make choices or assume appearances that don't align with our integrity, we really do become more vulnerable to physical problems, from back spasms to pneumonia. If you're inexplicably sick, weak, or accident-prone, your body may be trying to tell you you're lost in the dark wood.
My own illness defied all medical interventions. But when I began seeking my truth and reclaiming my integrity, all my supposedly "incurable" symptoms began to disappear. I've seen similar things happen to many clients. When you come into integrity, there's a solid chance it will happen to you.
Dark wood of error symptom #4:
Consistent relationship failures
It's simple logic: if you don't walk your true path, you don't find your true people. You end up in places you don't like, learning skills that don't fulfill you, adopting values and customs that feel wrong. The folks you meet along the way either genuinely love these things, or they're faking it as hard as you are. Either way, your connection with them will be artificial. You'll send out a pretend personality to meet other (potentially pretend) personalities, creating nothing but pretend relationships. I'll never forget one wealthy, beautiful celebrity who confided to me, after attending yet another glamorous party, "I'm exhausted by my own hypocrisy."
If you feel persistently disconnected and lonely, you're almost certainly (innocently) out of integrity. This goes double if you feel trapped with people you absolutely can't stand. When humans meet in the dark wood of error, all of them sleepwalking, the relationships they create tend to be shallow or toxic or both. These "friendships," "love affairs," and even familial bonds are rife with misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and mutual exploitation. Over the long run they tend to crumble into their sketchy foundations, leaving only hurt feelings behind.
If you feel constantly drained or betrayed in family, friendship, and romance, the relationships you're forming are probably based in the dark wood of error. We simply can't chart a course to happiness by linking up with others who are as lost as we are. The path to true love-true anything-is the way of integrity. No other person can ever find yours for you, much less give it to you. But you can always, no matter what your circumstances, find and follow it yourself.
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