Exactly one week ago, I took a photo of the room I stayed in during my three-day Soul Shift retreat in California.
It was the first time I’d led a retreat, and in order to show up for it, I had to listen to the persistent voice of belief rather than the pesky voice of doubt.
I was preparing to vacate the room and catch my flight home when I thought: Did I leave anything behind?
Do you do that before you leave a hotel room, a friend’s house, a coffee shop, or an airplane seat?
Did I leave anything behind? You ask, surveying the area for material items you can see with your eyes.
But what about the things you can’t see?
As I surveyed the cozy guest room as the morning light streamed in, I had an unusual response to the typical question, did I leave anything behind?
Yes. I thought to myself. I left behind a piece of fear, and I’m going to leave it there.
I hope it gets swept away.
Three days prior, I’d vowed I would not forget how I felt when I walked into that room for the first time.
What have I done?
Now I have to do this.
This feels like a lot.
There’s no going back.
I’d said all those things to myself when I arrived.
Using a coping strategy that helps me be brave, I said: By Monday morning, it will be a memory. Just three days, and it will be over. You can do this.
After freshening up from my long travel day, I’d walked across campus to the beautiful building where I would teach the first evening session.
Who might also feel scared? I wondered as I entered, immediately noticing the warm wood, the high beams, and the feeling of sanctuary surrounding me.
I found her.
She said: When I learned you were coming here six months ago, I began building up to being away from my son who has severe anxiety. We started with a couple hours… an evening… and little by little, we made it to this weekend.
I found her.
She said: My partner didn’t see the value nor understand why I needed to get on a plane and be at this retreat. He wondered why I couldn’t just get my girlfriends together instead. I told him, I need this; I know I’m supposed to be here.
I found her,
Grieving the loss of her beloved child, yet traveling 2,000 miles to thank me for the “kiss on the hand” moments she’d experienced with her daughter for three sacred years before she passed away.
I found her,
Describing an emotional breakdown she'd had earlier in the week that inspired her to find this retreat, and how she moved heaven and earth to get here.
I found her,
Confessing the daily torment of staring at a wall in her work cubicle when she knows she is made for human connection, creativity, and purpose.
Over and over that night, I found her and him,
Human beings overcoming tremendous obstacles—fear, other people’s opinions, doubt, pride, negative self-talk, expectations, and logistic challenges—to come to this place and be seen just as they are.
What makes a person go to such lengths and expend such effort to answer their heart’s calling when it would be easier to ignore it?
I heard the same reason over and over:
Because a little voice of belief said, “You are supposed to be here, and you will walk away different than you arrive.”
After the last person left the building that night, I surveyed the room.
Did we leave anything behind?
Yes. Oh yes.
I marveled at the remains scattered across the floor.
Come morning, I hoped they would be swept away.
The next day, our group of fifty-one had the honor of gathering near the Mother Tree—a 1200-year old Sequoia that is surrounded by several smaller trees that are connected to her at the base. That morning, we’d worked on The Practice of Presence and had time for thoughtful introspection. There, in the sanctuary of the redwoods, people were invited to share their hearts. One by one, five brave women came forth to share their truths and revelations that began with: “I am closest to what matters when… and I am farthest from grasping what matters when…”
As we began working our way out of the amphitheater to go to lunch, I noticed how people gravitated towards each other. Through the stories shared out loud, people who experienced similar childhoods, similar challenges, similar hopes and dreams were able to find each other.
I turned and looked back at the stage decorated with seeds from the tall trees. I saw what we’d left behind…
Come morning, I hoped they would be swept away.
On the last morning of the retreat, I’d asked one of the participants who works in the tech industry to contribute his thoughts on a definition. After doing so (and making us all laugh in the process), he asked if he could say something to the other participants. Being a young man, he had a unique perspective and wanted to share it. To put it simply, he said, “I see you. I see the effort you made to be here for yourself and your families. I see the lengths you go to bring love into the lives of those you care about. I may have not told my mom I appreciated her, so I am saying it now.”
I felt the whole room release a deep exhale, and I was then aware of what I must do.
I’d been thinking about one particular participant and knew that in two weeks she would attend a memorial service, marking the one-year-anniversary of her daughter’s passing and the passing of three other beloved community members who were killed in the same tragic incident. The beautiful woman admitted this would be extremely hard for her, but knew it was something she felt called to do. Perhaps if she could see visual evidence of where she’d been and the strength she possesses, she would be fueled.
As she was leaving, I gave her a tangible anchor. I was not expecting her sister to give me something in return, right off her wrist and onto mine. It was a piece of her niece’s glorious light.
Did precious Autumn leave anything behind?
Oh yes, yes… I rejoiced. I felt it, deep down in my heart. And I would carry it with me as I continue to share the kiss-on-the-hand moment that led her mother to my work five years ago and enabled them to experience a sacred connection to one another.
Three days later, I am sitting in my house with a sick daughter, staring at work duties that have piled up, preparing for an interview that I have no energy to give, and finding it hard to remember the hope I felt over the weekend.
I stare at the list of interview questions.
One jumps out at me:
What does it mean to live fully?
I knew the kind of answer that was expected—something positive, warm and fuzzy, and uplifting… but living fully is not always these things I decide honestly.
Living fully means letting your heart lead, even when the world tries to dissuade you and derail you.
It means finding your voice, even when you feel unheard.
It means facing painful truths, even when it would be easier to push them away.
It means showing up, even when you don’t feel ready or equipped.
It means reaching for connection, even when your hands shake.
It means forgiving yourself, even when you don’t feel worthy.
It means tuning into the small, still voice of belief, even when doubt is loud and obnoxious.
Living fully is not something we can see. Most of the time, there is no evidence of it. Most people will walk right by, having no idea the lengths a human being is going to SHOW UP as herself to make her unique contribution to the world.
But during the Soul Shift retreat, I saw it… because I felt it.
And suddenly, I felt fueled to do the interview so I could share these important truths—
The most significant achievements are not measurable.
The most beautiful moments are not capturable.
The most divine places not locatable.
The most important progress is not quantifiable.
The most astounding transformations are not visible.
They are felt,
in the heart
in quivering hands
in eye to eye contact
in soul to soul connection.
On night five of Avery’s horrible sickness, she asked if I would read to her. She is thirteen, so this is not a common request. I hurriedly looked for a book before she could change her mind.
I grabbed my father-in-law’s copy of Only Love Today that has sat on my bedside since his passing.
“I have the best book to read to you,” I said jokingly to my daughter who was hunkered down in her bed.
I flipped to the table of contents to see what reflection she might like best.
“When I Changed You…” Avery read aloud. “I bet that’s about me changing you.”
We read that one and several other stories that made us giggle over my former controlling ways and sweet observations she’d made as a child. Then she made one of my poems into a silly song and we could not stop laughing.
It was the first time I saw Avery laugh in five days. How remarkable that these honest reflections that were not my shining moments years ago were my shining moments now—now that mistakes had become stepping-stones to a more loving version of myself.
I was about to close Avery’s door and say goodnight when I looked back to see if I’d left anything behind.
Among tangled sheets, half-filled glasses of water, and used tissues, I saw: mistakes of the past
belief that it was too late to change.
I closed my eyes in gratitude. Thank God, I did not let the mistakes of my past sabotage the opportunities of today.
This is what it means to live fully.
Dear ones, at this moment, I am looking around this space we share, looking for someone who might feel scared, worn down, unseen, and perhaps a bit hopeless.
I found you.
And right now, I’m asking you to stop what you are doing and survey the area.
What did you leave behind as you show up, bravely, boldly, flawed and full of hope today?
See the evidence of living fully that cannot be detected with the human eye.
See it in the unmade bed.
See it in the changing colors of the trees.
See it in the lines of your hands.
See it when your people breathe easier when you’re near.
See it when you dare to document your greatest hopes and dreams.
Whether you realize it or not, you have a persistent voice of belief within you, and you’ve chosen to listen to it time and time again.
I may not know exactly where you’ve been on your brave journey, but I am certain you have been somewhere worth recognizing.
Stop and take it in.
Marvel at what you’ve left behind as you stepped forward in courage and love.
Come morning, may the things that once held you back be forever swept away.
Friends of the Hands Free Revolution, many of you expressed a desire to attend my first-ever Soul Shift retreat at 1440 Multiversity, so I felt it was very important to offer this glimpse of the weekend to you in words and photos. The photos in this post were taken by my dear friend Amy Paulson who has an extraordinary gift for capturing the moments that matter. She often travels to various parts of the country to offer family and individual photography sessions. They are nothing short of remarkable so stay informed here.
I was truly heartbroken by the number of people who messaged me the week of the retreat saying they did not know about it in time. I began promoting the retreat on my blog, Facebook, and Instagram, six months ago and shared it every month until the week before. This is the tricky thing about relying on social media to stay informed about events and invitations I offer because the algorithms on those platforms severely limit my reach. Therefore, if you are not an email friend, PLEASE become one today by simply entering your email here. Those who receive my newsletter/blog are the first to receive exclusive invitations and special offerings. If you get my emails, then you will not miss knowing where I am speaking next or where I will be leading future retreats. There is an incredibly important invitation for connection coming in mid-November that I am certain some of you will want to take part in. There is another one coming in January and another in February. Please be my email friend and do not miss the invitations.
In a related note, my next speaking event is happening on November 7, 2019 from 11am to 1pm. I will be delivering the keynote address at Girl Talk’s inaugural, “Live Confidently, Lead Fearlessly” Luncheon in Atlanta, Georgia. Funds raised will serve 10,000 girls this year through GIRL TALK’S transformative peer-to-peer mentoring program. The amazing Haley Kilpatrick founded the first Girl Talk Chapter in Albany, Georgia, as a high schooler in 2002 to help her sister through the challenging years of middle school. Today, GIRL TALK has over 485 Chapters and has inspired over 70,000 girls across the nation and the world. Please consider joining me on Nov. 7. Together, we can impact even more girls to live confidently, lead fearlessly, and grow into women who support and encourage one another. Click here for tickets & sponsorship opportunities.
Thank you for your love & support of my life's work.
Beth Blake says
Thank you for this ray of light in a time of great uncertainty for me. I loved all the pictures from the retreat. I would have loved to have been there! I hope Avery is feeling better!
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, dear Beth! Love you
Debbie Stroppel says
I loved your email about leaving something behind. I was in the middle of walking the Camino de Santiago this fall when I checked my email one evening and found your story in my inbox. I thought about your words. I too have looked under beds and covers in hotel rooms, on planes and other places I have been. But your words kept resonating with me. What did I leave behind. I thought of where I was at that precise moment in my life. The people I had met along the trail, maybe for a moment, maybe others for days or even a few weeks. What did I leave behind? Did I possibly leave a small piece of myself, my better self? A kind word of encouragement? A helping hand? A smile? Did I leave behind a memory for someone? What did I leave behind? I carried your words with me as I walked day after day.
There was a Korean man who we passed from time to time, he traveled alone and kept pretty much to himself. But every time my friend and I ran into him we always greeted him. At first he just nodded and passed on by. After several days he would respond back after our greeting. He then got where he would smile and give us a lower two hand wave and would say, “long time no see!” when he greeted us. We didn’t see him for a while and finally as our Camino came to it’s conclusion in Santiago we came across him again. He briefly waved and smiled then moved on to finish his walk too.
We traveled to the small coastal town of Muxia to rest for a few days before returning home. The afternoon that we were leaving we sat at a table waiting for our bus to arrive. Our friend came out of nowhere, solemn but waving. He said he had come to say goodbye. He carried both of our backpacks to the bus and carefully packed them away in the hold, turning to me he asked if they were alright. He waited with us as people begin boarding, he kind of held us back to board last. He was holding his emotions in check the best he could but as he hugged us his tears slid down his cheeks. I gave him a long hug then told him, “long time, no see.” The tears could not be stopped between us. He stood by that bus door until we were on board, wiping the tears from his cheeks. As we pulled away he stood watching. Crying.
What did I leave behind? What did he leave behind? The kindness of strangers, finding moments to connect in small ways. And to find a place in the corner of each other’s hearts.
After all, that’s what it’s about, right?
Rachel Stafford says
This is so beautiful. It makes me weep with hope. Thank you for your heart & your story.
Is it weird if I almost burst to tears? Seriously, I’m at work now, I can’t to that but I can totally relate with your article. I suffer from anxiety (maybe not severe, but still) and I have trouble getting out in a crowded place (agoraphobia). I managed to be able to go in crowded places after doing it little by little. Weird thing is, it took me several seconds to build this fear, and took me months only to ameliorate it. It took only one panic attack in a supermarket to get a phobia of crowded places and it took me months of training and psychology sessions to make progress. To make things worse, being a man, people expect me to be strong. Whenever I tell someone I have anxiety, most people are like “but you’re a guy.. you’re 1.84m, you’re a BIG guy, how can you have anxiety? They think I am joking or that my problem is not that serious, because anxiety can’t affect “big guys”. Guess what, anxiety doesn’t discriminate: it can affect little girls and big guys alike.
I always feel like I want to leave home, to go in a place where nobody knows who I am, to start over, to leave all the fear, the anxiety, the doubt, the uncertainity of the future behind, but I fear in my world things don’t go like this: they will follow me.
Now your post gave me an idea: what if I go to a place where I should leave a piece of my negative thoughts, feelings and emotions instead of leaving them home and them come home, full of positivity?
Thanks for your article, you have a gift of writing. Just found your blog and I’m definitely gonna read it often. I don’t know why, but I almost bursted our in tears.
Rachel Stafford says
Goodness, your honest, heartfelt contribution to my post deeply touched my heart. Thank you for sharing your struggle so openly and honestly. It brings priceless awareness to those who read it.This is so powerful: “anxiety doesn’t discriminate: it can affect little girls and big guys alike.”
I am grateful that my words resonated with you and even offered you an idea to put into practice. This is truly a gift to know. I wish you all the best, friend.