Updated: Nov 10, 2021
For the past year and a half, the days, weeks and months have blended together. It seems impossible that Fall, 2021 is around the corner. How can it be that my daughter, who was just starting high school when Covid hit, will begin her junior year next week?
The beginning of school has always been the start of something new. When I was a kid, my mom would take us school shopping and we would each get a new outfit and a pair of shoes.
For the past 27 years or so, I have helped my own children prepare for the school year with trips to Target, Staples, and the Mall to outfit them with clothes, notebooks and backpacks and encouraging words on notes hidden in their lunch boxes.
Each school year was a fresh start. September always offered an opportunity to become a new version of themselves. Shedding one's skin has always been a key concept in the path to spiritual awakening.
We can become trapped in a skin that is too tight or no longer fits us and if we resist change and stay stuck there, an arrested development can occur. Not shedding our old skin is a sure way to stay small, tied to our limiting beliefs about ourselves rather than expanding into what’s new and what’s next for us.
Indigenous people believed that people had the power to rejuvenate/live forever by shedding their skin. According to Polynesian legend, a mother in the tribe goes down to the river to shed her skin and her teenage daughter sees her and is repulsed because her mother no longer looks like her mother. The daughter is so disturbed and freaked out from seeing her mother with shedded skin that the mother decides to ease her daughter’s fears, and goes back to the river and tries to put back the old skin on. The fable goes that that is when humans lost the ability to be immortal. In Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening, we learn that the Dunsuns of North Borneo believed that when God finished creating the world, He announced that “whoever is able to cast off his skin shall not die.”
The author explains that the meaning of that comment “is not that we can live forever, but that the way to stay closest to the pulse of life, the way to stay in the presence of the divine reality which informs everything is to be willing to change.”
What is it that we have to change? We have to change whatever is no longer working. We have to give up being a 9th grader when its time to be an 11th grader. We have to give up those relationships that no longer nurture us. We have to shed the dreams we’ve been talking about but doing nothing about for decades.
Nepo continues “ we need to change whatever has ceased to function within us. To shed whatever we are carrying that is no longer alive. To cast off our dead skin because dead skin can’t feel… And without feeling, there is no chance of wholeness and wholeness remains our best chance to survive the pain of breaking.” So, yes, change is painful, sometimes unbearable, but when we are trapped in dead skin, there is no alternative if we are committed to an authentic life.
And shedding one’s skin is not a once in a lifetime proposition.
We have to shedding the skin over and over again.
The good news is that each time we shed a skin, our skin becomes more porous, a bit looser and thus we become a little more comfortable in our new skin.
Shedding one’s skin is like taking an “exquisite risk”, opening ourselves up and out of what’s been comfortable, into the next role, the next grade, the next experience that is right for each of us.
We need to let go of the old experience/job/relationship/path that gave us security in and exchange it for a new experience of freedom and aliveness.
As Neitzhe said, “the snake that cannot shed it’s skin perishes.”
The next question of course is how do we find the strength to take this step, to embrace the change, to walk the path of exquisite risk?
It’s not easy because we are so identified with the familiar, the comfortable that we often choose to stay stuck rather than risk the unknown. Our egos are focused on maintaining control; making sure we have we we want and avoiding what is confronting. We default into the comfortable. So what allows us to keep evolving and shed our skin when we need to?
Sometimes we evolve when it hurts more to hold on than to let go.
No one described this phenomenon better than Anais Nin. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”
Sometimes it takes an event to push us into shedding our skin: a death, a divorce, a financial loss, a pandemic. Mary Oliver, after a brush with cancer wrote:
“Do you need a prod? A little darkness to get you going?”
When we experience a prod, we often rethink where we are in life and what’s still possible. Then we can take a step that had once seemed impossible.
Take a moment and look at your life: is something holding you back? Are you stuck in a situation? Is your skin too tight on you?
Where on your body is there dead skin that needs shedding? What has ceased to function?
Go ahead and take that exquisite risk, that risk to be fully present in one’s new skin. And then, and only then is wholeness possible.