Identity, Change, and Religious Trauma with Allen O’Brien

Allen O’Brien helps people with transitions. Faith transitions. Identity transitions. And recovery from religious trauma.

He’s a minister, a student, a listener, and podcaster.

We got to talk about how challenging it can be when parts of your identity change and how to navigate those transitions. We also dig religious trauma and high control religious environment and how they impact us.

Allen is a fantastic conversation partner. He’s open. Kind. And honestly exactly the kind of person I’d like to have as a minister.


Listen in here:

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In this episode you’ll learn:

  • What Allen does
  • What is his core identify
  • When did he make that decision that this is a direction that he’s going to pursue?
  • Allen shares his work experience in the past
  • How he defines religious trauma
  • How to navigate personal change with loved ones who don’t necessarily want to see you change
  • The important role rituals can play in your life
  • What words of wisdom from Allen for people who are stuck

Resources Mentioned:

Allen’s website

A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer

Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer

Software Generated Transcription:

Dan

Allan, welcome to the Meaning Movement podcast. I’m so excited to have you here with me. 

Allen

Me too. Thank you.

Dan

So the question I like to begin with is how do you begin to talk about what you do in the world?

Allen

I guess it depends on who I’m talking to. I think I would tell a lot of people that I listen, write and speak for a living. At least I put that on dating profiles a bit ago.

Dan

How that worked for you? 

Allen

Yeah, it’s great. Yeah. But I’m so I’m a minister and I always start off with listening because I think that’s probably the biggest part of my job. I’m at a church in Redding, California, a United Church of Christ, and I’m the minister there. And I established a nonprofit with some friends that helps people through faith transitions and shifting ideas around communities and faith and spirituality. And so I just do a smattering of things, I guess I’m also a co-host of a podcast.

And right now I’m a student in San Francisco Theological Seminary, University of Redlands, and studying. I’m specifipecificcally studying like high control religious environments and what it’s like to leave those and coping with life afterward. And and I’m also really active in like immigration, justice and a lot of different things. So I think, yeah, it’s hard to answer that question about what I do, but I think most of it is listening. 

Dan

Yeah, I love it.

I think that’s why I wanted to have you on the show. I like it when people have a hard time answering that question.

Allen

Me too. Yeah. 

Dan

Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s interesting.

You’re able to embrace, I guess, the different facet, you know, life and the different, I guess, manifestations of work and. Yeah. Everything that you’re and everything that you just listed. It’s yeah.

I think for some people that are really connected to who they are, it just shows up in a lot of different ways. So we can ask people like what they do for a living. But, you know, how you spend your days is probably like what place you’re coming from to me is more interesting.  

Dan

I love it. So do you think of yourself as a minister like is that your core identity? If you had to put a name tag on, would that be the word? 

Allen

I was a youth pastor for eight years starting at nineteen years old and. Yeah. And now I’ve been a solo minister of a church for about six, so I think it’s probably OK to call myself a pastor at this point. Funny thing I, I actually came to a point through a series of just big, big things happening in my life, things that were hard and I kind of let it go at one point, the need to identify that way, or because most of my identity has been built on that and through a pretty intense and growing period, I let all that go and it came rushing back.

And so I think I’ve returned to it in a new way that I found pretty profoundly. Life-Giving So if I wasn’t a minister at a church, I’d be working in a hospital as a chaplain or something, sitting with people.

Dan

Yeah, yeah. I love that. And I love to hear some of that story, but I think a good place to jump in is when did you know? How did you know or maybe when did you make that decision that this is a direction that you’re going to pursue?

Oh, that is a really hard to answer. Like I remember being a little kid and getting excited about, you know, Bible stories and stuff. But I was also excited. I love everything.

Everything is exciting to me. Interesting. So I feel I could have done anything to be honest. And I guess in high school I was really interested in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, and that was like an area that I was headed toward and I got some scholarships. And at the same time I wanted to try out a year of firefighting or working on an ambulance and then also wanted to do ministry. And it just kind of I think the decision came for me when I had to decide between taking an advanced course in Spanish or advanced chemistry because of the high school that was that they were planned at the same time.

And it was like at that moment, I had some pretty mystical experiences that were really coded in the language of the faith I grew up in. But for me, they were pretty powerful. And through the series of those experiences, that’s when I chose to pursue ministry. Yeah, and working with people and being curious about God and seeing where it went. So, yeah.

What was the medium through which those such a funny word to you. You to ask this question, but like what was the context that’s maybe that’s a better word. And I don’t talk about mystical experiences very often because I think a lot of people associate Christianity for really good reason with a whole smattering of things in at least in our our culture. And one of those is just downright sensationalism and preying upon people who are in really impressionable moments in their lives.

And so I tend not to deal in those like Realm’s these days, I guess. But for me, they were pretty powerful. I was like I was working in the field when I was, I think, 16 years old or 17 years old, and I was building a retaining wall and I was doing construction, working for someone who was a lifelong contractor that wanted to do some stuff on his own property and working a cement mixer by myself.

And, you know, I had like this religious experience of I thought he called my name and I ran up to the house and then went back down to the cement mixer. I did a few times. And there’s this old story about a similar situation, someone hearing their name called. And then so my mind rushed to interpret it using some of the stories I was given. But really, what I guess was before me, I had been thinking a lot about money and I was excited because I had just opened up my first checking account is like really important things, you know, in a person’s life.

Just a checking account. Just bought a truck. And I was like, yeah, math. And I was being paid like a real person and not like a child. And I was so excited about building that. And what felt to me like a profound question was in front of me is what is my life going to be about? Is it going to be about buildings, this sort of like life for myself or is it going to be geared more towards service?

And I’m kind of glad I had that experience because the recession hit right after my right after I got out of college and I spent 10 years in ministry and pretty, pretty rough economic circumstances. But I wouldn’t change it. Not for the world. 

Dan

Wow. Yeah. Wow. Yeah.

Well, I just love that it was just the context of that experience. Like work like that’s not I don’t know. I guess when I ask the question of what was the context for, you know, that mystical experience, you know, the picture mountaintops and you know, yeah, I had this you I mean, I’ve had every brand of mystical experience.

I was a very religious child, a spiritual child, probably. So on the one hand, you know, I’m encountering God using a cement mixer. And then on the other, I did have moments where I’m sitting on the back porch and really deciding what I’m going to do. And I can see all the stars because I grew up in the mountains and realizing that, you know, if I honestly thought that there was something else out there besides just myself, I wanted to spend my life figuring that out in pursuit of it, whatever that look like.

Dan

Yeah, that’s beautiful. I love that. Very cool. So what are some of the steps, you know, in the process from you from, I guess, making a decision making those decisions of maybe whether it’s from the cement mixer or the Spanish class that this is the direction that you’re moving to like.  Finding your way into it, because there’s like a million different manifestations that this could take, as you’ve already named, like you could be a chaplain, you could be, you know.

Allen

Right.

Dan

Whatever. Like what I’d love to hear just some of that journey.

Allen

I kind of went and did what I knew I was. I grew up in a youth group and youth ministry in a church is a very specific animal in and of itself. And I had a scholarship. I went to a private Christian college. And that was a pretty formative experience because I guess I rejected a lot of the, like, theoretical stuff that I was encountering that I went in very, very intent on doing it right and discovered just some of the bigger things about like why we do what we do.

And from there. So I started out as in youth ministry while going to that private Christian college and then went to seminary after that. And along the way, I was a substitute teacher in schools. I graduated college in 2008. Pretty, pretty young. I’m a pretty young person. But that was the year that all the jobs kind of dried up in California. They went from I used to look at Youth Specialty’s was a website where you could find jobs for youth ministry.

Dan

And just because I know it, I’ve been on that website for jobs there. 

Allen

There was like 200 and something jobs in California in 2006 when I was starting my program. And by the time 2008 and I was graduating college, there was like two in California, all the youth ministries got cut. So I just took the one that was available. And there’s kind of a reason that it was only one available.

Yeah, I had some pretty rough experiences working inside of churches and seeing the like inside of things. I’ve had great experiences working in churches and I’ve had some pretty horrible ones that probably made me who I am choosing to be a person of integrity and not overlooking things.

So how many churches have you worked at?

I started out at a I’m going to just describe them by their denominations. I guess maybe that’s helpful. Sure. I started out at an evangelical free church and I worked there for a couple of years with the youth group of about seventy five kids and that’s when I was like nineteen through twenty one. Wow. Wonderful experience. And yeah, I got married really young. I try to do life as fast as I could, graduating college early, jumping in with both feet.

That’s kind of how I’ve always been. And I’ve worked at a Christian Missionary Alliance church for a little bit. And that was a pretty rough, rough experience, not because the denomination, but just because of the situation. And then I worked for a congregational church in Pasadena. I was a substitute off and on for like seven years in local high schools. And then after that, I actually I worked as a teacher in a Christian school for one summer and I got fired because I was attending a church that was open and affirming for people who don’t know much about like Christian churches and the differences of opinions and things.

I was attending a church that was open and affirming toward LGBTQ folks. So like people could serve in leadership. People, you know, they were completely welcome. And I was learning a lot in that church and I was going to work as a Bible teacher and I was fired by a school because I was attending that church. And that was between my youth ministry and my life as a senior pastor. Solo pastor. Yeah. So I guess all together I’ve worked in probably like five churches.

Dan

Wow, wow.

And well, I guess, you know, some of the backstory for people listening that I guess it may or may not be helpful for people like Al and I actually went to the same youth ministry back of our younger, younger years. That’s one of the ways that we’re connected, you know. And I did as as you know, Allen, five years of youth ministry, but only at one church. And and I just couldn’t go on.

Wasn’t the right fit. I mean, all the things that you said about if you’ve seen the good and the bad inside the churches, and it was definitely not all bad by any means, but definitely was a tough place to be. And so I admire you for sticking with it and finding your way, you know, in that in that context, because I know that it’s not always an easy context to be in.

Allen

No, it’s not easy. And I think there are thousands of people with that kind of story all across the country who, for one reason or another, found themselves leaving ministry or leaving church in general. And the nonprofit that I run with a few friends actually works with people who are leaving more. I guess they’re. A lot of different monikers for how you describe it, but religious environments that have a high level of control or very trauma enticing for someone and kind of working through all of those stories and wounds and then reintegrating into like a new life that is meaningful.

And, yeah, I think I do that work partially because I know what it’s like going through the process and I know how lonely it can be. So so my friends and I created a nonprofit where we have our podcast. I run a cast, which is I think five years old at this point that just kind of chronicled some conversations around what it was like to go through that process. And then we started meeting in person. We created a group called Intersections, and people would come together and we just kind of created a container that was very protective.

And, you know, that we had some ground rules and we were always showing up. And whoever came, we just had conversations about kind of a wide ranging topics and helped people listen to themselves and tell their stories and hear stuff from other people. It’s pretty powerful when you are going through something really big to hear another person who’s been through something similar. There’s kind of a connection there. That’s pretty magical, I think. And it’s like, wow, I’m not the only person who’s gone through this.

This is actually pretty common. That’s crazy. 

Dan

Yeah, I love it.

And I think it is super, super important work and I love that. Well, you already mentioned that.

That’s part of what you’re continuing to study is some of how those institutions and those experiences shape us and how we heal from them and grow, which is really.

Yeah, good good work.

Allen

Kind of a messy area. Yeah. Because I, I very much and motivated by like interfaith work. I’m a part of an interfaith group in town of people from tons of different traditions and we come together and it’s one of the most profoundly Life-Giving parts of my life. So there’s a fine line between like recognizing the way that spiritual communities can wound us and hurt us and her sense of agency. And then also like recognizing that we have differences and honoring one another.

So it’s in that exact messy place of like, for instance, therapists. What I found is that therapists sometimes are not really equipped with some of the language and the ideas around religious trauma. It’s not it’s not in the DSM five. It’s not something that. It’s something that is kind of bubbling up in the awareness of our society. But religious trauma syndrome and things like that only started to get mentioned in the 90s. And there’s not been a like solidified, codified way of looking at what does it mean?

What does it involve, like how some of the more diagnostic tools and then on the other side, how do you cope with it? I think that’s a pretty unique experience and part of life. And I’m interested in seeing not only how can we identify these things while remaining like honoring other traditions and then at the same time, how how can we begin to heal from some of those wounds? And I’m really interested in curiosity and reflexivity as a healing program, like getting really curious about yourself, curious about other traditions in the world, and then eventually being able to turn around and look at your own kind of past and set it in the context of the wider world and also yourself.

And instead of looking at it as something that’s just profoundly negative, I think curiosity is a wonderful it’s you know, it’s a core human experience and affirming that is a healing thing for a lot of the folks that I work with.

Dan

This feels like probably a bigger question. Well, just a big question, but I’m curious, just for people who like I just know there’s people listening who, you know, have no faith experience and people listening, who have on a whole spectrum of every conservative to liberal to, you know, probably, you know, every faith, you know, imaginable. And some may or may not have any idea what something like a religious drama might refer to.

How would you define religious trauma?

I would say even for the people who are listening, who don’t have that specific background, I guarantee they know somebody who does and that they’ll come across clients or friends or partners in their businesses that have that experience. And so, I don’t know. Knowing about it is probably a wonderful thing for everybody. 

I think the way that I would describe it, it’s so right now it’s in the infant stage of of of creating awareness around it.

So there’s not a lot of language. But we talk about some people used to use the word cults. I think that’s like really it brings up unnecessary baggage. So I talk about levels of control. And so if you’re in an environment where your agency is demonized like you’re a. Ability to make decisions and to kind of become a full person is demonized and shut down like a systematic form of controlling, whether it’s financial, like there’s a lot of religious groups that will truly, deeply control people’s financial situations, their ability to work like make decisions.

I have people who are scared to leave their religious environment because they feel like God’s going to kill them when they walk across the street. And there’s like existential terror, like not just what you do is bad, but you as a human being are, you know, unworthy and unlovable and all these things when someone grows up in that kind of environment, it’s such a deep part of becomes a part of their identity that it’s really scary to realize that, OK, maybe that wasn’t a great thing that I heard.

And I talk about, you know, all this happens on a spectrum, right? Every single church is different. Every synagogue is different, every denomination is different. And even within a one religious community, every individual is different. Like, we’re all we all have brought different things into us from our environment. It’s not the same for everyone. But I think I don’t know how true this is. But it feels true. I keep telling people that like inauthentic religious environments or communities or leaders are the ones that are easy to find and hard to leave like they’re everywhere.

And once you’re in it, it’s really hard to go. And it’s the opposite for authentic religious communities. They’re actually hard to find and they’re really easy to leave. And I think that’s borne out in my experience. 

Dan

Yeah, I love that.

It’s a really, really great definition. Just processing, you know, the easy to leave, hard to leave. Part of it really rings true in my experience.

Allen

Yeah. There are some people who have like even the really like one part of what I do is just listen to people and listen to their stories. And I kind of I hold them in confidence and I don’t share them with other people and it doesn’t like shape my interactions with them outside of those conversations. And so it’s a really special thing to be told really big and hard elements of someone’s life. But there are some religious communities that that kind of information is used against people.

We know who you really are. And if you leave us, you know, there’s a kill switch where that information can get out or if you leave us, nobody in our community is allowed to talk to you. So there’s the sense of losing all of your friends, all of your family. It’s incredibly like so some people, even though they’re they’ve mentally left, they won’t leave for years because this is their entire world. It’s their family structure.

And they literally have to give up every family member and friend just to step out for a moment from that community. And that could be heartbreaking. 

Dan

Absolutely. Yeah. Well, I think you mentioned just like the identity piece of any sort of change.

But I think particularly with this kind of trauma, like when your whole world revolves around some institution, some particular environment to change as you grow or maybe age out of that environment or become, you know, a different person, I guess there’s an identity change that has to take place. And that switch is that hard. And it’s hard to, I guess, come out you could say and because of the relationships, because of the communal aspect of it. So, yeah, all of that, I think definitely rings true.

Allen

That’s part of the medicine is finding community. But it’s really hard to when you’ve left that and you’re susceptible to jumping into something very similar again. And, you know, you kind of wall it off. And I think to me, the best healing happens when you enter into a community that’s actually safe. And so that’s that may not be a church or religious situation at all for a lot of the people I work with. They’ll probably never be in a church again.

And that’s not the goal. The goal is to provide a little bit of community for them to kind of pick up the pieces a little bit. And like all the psychological research, shows us that we don’t heal alone. We heal and connection with other people. And that’s actually the most satisfying part of my work. I think Parker Palmer wrote a book, Hidden Wholeness, and he talks about our identity, our true self, our soul, whatever that is.

Everyone has a different word for it and all the traditions and whatever that is in us, that’s very authentic. It’s kind of like a wild animal. And if someone enters into the forest and is looking for the wild animal and, you know, they shake a stick and they hit the bushes and stuff and I come out, I want to see you. It just goes further. It goes further into hiding. Yeah. I think a lot of religious groups tend to do that.

We cross boundaries very frequently with people instead of, he says, like one of the beauties of friendship with people who recognize our boundaries, if you do go into the forest and you want to see the wild animal, what you have to do is pick a tree and sit at it for long enough and still enough. Maybe it’ll show up. And I think that’s what my job is, is sitting with people long enough to where things start to drop and then they start to hear themselves.

And when someone listens to themselves saying something, that’s a really profound transforming moment, like I can tell them what to think or feel, but that’s all that only goes so far. Like sitting with someone to hear their own kind of truth coming up is beautiful. 

Dan

I love it.

That’s really, really beautiful. I love the imagery is just the whole self as being an animal. Is that a lot as I’m thinking through ideas of vocation and calling like that’s often how it works. You just get these glimpses of it, you know, through the bushes or whatever it might be. So it’s definitely language that I’m familiar with, especially Parker Palmers, let your life speak. It’s one of my favorite books.

Such hits on some of the similar themes. I’m curious in your story and I told you I wanted to ask you about this before we hit the record button, just but I know we share a similar experience of being a particular conservative denomination growing up and neither of us really are anymore. And just about like what that process has been for you in your growth and your journey. In this journey has taken you, you know, from being in that particular place where you were known as being a particular person with a particular set of theological and ideological beliefs to being someone different.

And I don’t know exactly what the question is there, but like the work that you’re doing is it feels like you’re the right person to ask this question because this is what you do.

Allen

Yeah.

Dan

I would just love to hear some of your thoughts on that process, whether that be from your personal experience or just from even just the work you do with others.

Allen

Yeah, my transitioning out of that kind of background process was one of diving in as far down as I could go. Like with good faith. I went in for me, it was all about studying the Bible. That’s tends to be how the community I came from described themselves as the people who read the Bible. And so I like studied it as much as I could. And I, with lots of love and curiosity, discovered how it operates, what it actually is doing, what the last hundred years of, you know, scientific  has thought about that and like brought in different ways of reading.

And I discovered that it was functioning in a different way in the community I came from than what I came to know, what it was and what it how it could be used. And so for me, my process was just finding out along the way all of the pieces that I guess were obscured. I think that’s part of more high control religious environments is controlling information is a really big thing. I remember like you can’t read that.

You can’t look at that. You can’t think that, like, that kind of thing. I’ve been far too curious for that. What I’ve discovered, though, was for a lot of my friends, they left because it was them on the line, like I’m a straight white man. And there wasn’t a lot on the line for me, to be honest. Like, I kind of had stuff even going to college with a scholarship and all these things that were paved for me discovering that other people left their environments because they were deeply and validated as a human being.

And so that kind of difference, like finding these friends who have shared their lives with me, has had the profound effect of like I didn’t even realize, like I’m still coming to terms with the space that I take up in the world. And that has allowed me to see how my process has been different than for them. But I was the good kid, so I didn’t have like I just did it all as best I could.

And the big shift for me started when I guess there was this sense of being a leader where you’re out in front of the group, you’ve got to kind of figure it out and everybody’s following you. There’s this ancient text that says, follow me as I follow Christ or follow me as I follow God. And like you’re the leader in the wilderness leading everybody to the promised land. And then letting that go and like, realize that I used to think that’s what God’s relationship with the world was like.

God is pulling the whole world to this certain conclusion and, you know, dragging the world behind toward the promised land and then discovering that that’s probably not how God’s relationship, at least to me, looks like with the world. It’s a lot more partnership. It’s a lot more openness. It’s a lot more journeying together. And so that’s what my leadership started. And I think I learned the outfront model. And I think more naturally for me. 

I’m the kind of person who’s like, you know, the friend on the journey with someone, I’m not telling them necessarily where to go. I’m walking with them and noticing what we find along the way. And I think that has profoundly shaped my ministry.

And then I worked. Of course, there’s, you know, getting fired from that school

Dan

That’s like front and center. Right. And when that happens. 

Allen

Yeah. And then I worked in a hospital for a while and it was so fun to hear from a supervisor, like, look, you’re not supposed to proselytize. You’re just supposed to go in there and be curious about people and sit with them. And it’s really an art form.

To be a chaplain is just to kind of get out of the way. I think for a lot of us when we come into the room, like our own, you know, comfort and things were wrestling through is so in the fore of our minds, it’s really hard to just sit with someone in the pit that they’re in and be like, wow, it’s you know, it’s dark in here. And so it’s an art form to do nothing.

I think that’s a ministry in a whole. It is a deep art form to do nothing long enough to where you can really be with someone in honesty. 

Dan

Yeah. Yeah, I love it. I love that.

I feel like that begins to satiate my curiosity around these changes. Yeah. Thank you for going there.

Allen

I think the specifics. I mean, if someone wanted to talk about systematic theology and all the little pieces I once saw someone talk about, you know, like church people being the nerds in the corner talking about their different, you know, parts of the film series that they think are canon and those that are not. And I can do that or they want to do that like I love it. I get a lot of that.

Dan

If anyone wants to talk, talk, nerdy theology, you guys follow up with Allen after the episode.

I think the place that I think I imagine listeners were still curious about is just that. I think it goes back to family systems and whether it be faith, you know, a faith transition or like everyone in my family are doctors and I’m an artist.

Like this piece of like becoming who you are truly requires a departure from the system that you grew up in, which inherently upsets the system, because all of a sudden, the way that these all the pieces in the family locked together like they don’t fit anymore and that can lead to like tension, awkward Thanksgiving dinners, definitely, you know, any other, those kinds of things. And so I guess for people listening, maybe even to take it out of that faith context, I’m curious about your thoughts on like how do you navigate personal change with loved ones who don’t necessarily want to see you change?

Allen

Brilliant. That’s the question that everybody has, and I think we can all relate to it. I love that you brought in family systems like Bowen’s Theory. I love seeing that applied to different faith backgrounds. And I guess in terms of the family, what I’ve discovered and try to tell people is that the best thing you can do is start to define yourself, like to basically leave altogether, at least for a little bit, might be necessary for people because of safety.

So basically a family system has all this pressure to kind of keep things the way that they are. This homeostasis pressure. And when one person changes and their role in the family changes a little bit, it causes this chaos. And everybody’s like in their own unique way, is rallied from some internal force to, like, shove you back into the piece that you were really like. If you don’t realize that this happens to everybody, it can feel very crushing.

But to even start to realize, like, oh, this is normal, like to expect they call it like expecting to be sabotaged, like your transformation is going to be sabotage. Just expect that. Don’t hold it against people. It’s a natural part of the process. And to just fuse back together and go to the way things were is to like cave in to that kind of togetherness pressure. And that’s the same kind of responses completely cutting off, like just running away.

And I see this with a lot of gentleness and a lot of understanding for folks who have left and will never go back, especially if it’s not safe. Of course, some people need to do that. But for a lot of us, when we cut off relationships, it’s also a really anxious response, just like fusing back together. And so the magic happens when we can be really kind of clear about who we are and come back to the table over and over.

Maybe it’s only for a half an hour or for an hour at a time. That’s all you can handle before those pressures start to kind of like conform you back to the way that you were. But if you can just keep coming back to the table, eventually people rise to the occasion. They realize like, hey, you’re not changing. This is who you are now. And B, you’re not leaving either, like you’re still available. And I think most people, in my experience, come around and they come to honor that.

But so it starts with a place of compassion for yourself and for your system, knowing that this is old as humanity itself. 

Dan

Wow, fantastic, fantastic answer. Yeah, yeah, I hope everyone in that answer hears, I think, compassion and generosity towards kindness towards ourselves in it, that it’s hard work, but it’s good work. 

Allen

Yeah. And even if you think about trying, you’re already succeeding. Life is hard. Hard enough is life is hard enough as it is. The moment that you’ve recognized. I could have done those things differently. Like you’re already kind of awakening yourself to that compassion into a different way of being. And that happens slowly. So I would say, like celebrate as often as you can. Some of those steps.

Dan

Yeah, totally. I love that. I love that. I think that’s I’m just reminded of a friend of mine who just in celebration. She’s she’s the voice that always comes to mind. She’s a therapist.

When I think of celebration, the picture that she uses is she says, imagine yourself on a journey like you’re on a long trail on the side of a bare mountain climbing up the mountain. And every once in a while, you just put a rock with a helium balloon attached to it, a nice big balloon. And then as you go further and further on your journey, you can look back and see these bright, big balloons along the way.

And every time you stop to celebrate, you’re putting another one of those balloons along your trail to say, look how far I’ve come. Look at the work that I’ve done, which I think is just really beautiful.

Allen

I love that. 

Dan

Yeah. 

Allen

It is so hard to recognize the progress when you’re in the middle of it. 

Dan

Absolutely. 

Allen

Like, you could be in a quantum leap personally within the space of a year and not even realize it. And then you turn around and you look and that I love that imagery. And I think I’m going to take that with me. One way to do the helium balloon thing, and this is for everybody of any kind of any spirituality or religion or no religion, you can be ritualistic.

You can make rituals. And I’m sure people who are in the more business and career minded sort of professions,I’m sure you know, you have your own rituals and you’ve talked about that. But I would say, like ritualized, silly things like this is this is a really big moment for me. You should, like, stop, stop for five minutes and recognize it, like breathe it in, sit with it, do something, make something, give something like just marked that moment.

And I think that has such a profound psychological and I would say spiritual and emotional depth to it, that your whole life, the more you do that, the more you gather those balloons and can be a person who is motivated by growth and gratitude.

Dan

I love that invitation. I think that, you know, that’s something in my work with people around transitions and career transitions, that’s super necessary, especially around endings.

When something is ending, like it’s really easy for it to still kind of like, you know, maybe you got fired from a job and you’re having a hard time transitioning into what’s next. But to create some experience where you can just get everything out, literal funeral for your job that you lost, like 

Allen

Definitely, 

Dan

Whatever it is like to create some sort of ritual, as you’re saying around, that could just be really, really helpful and marking like we’re talking about and processing and internalizing, you know, what’s going on.

I think it takes that internal process and puts it external, which then helps us interact with it and maybe, process it at a different level. Just a great, great invitation. 

Allen

Yeah.

And the opposite of that comes from judging yourself too harshly, like, oh, I shouldn’t be grieving over this small thing I lost or this hope I had or a house I was going to buy or this and like treating yourself as gently as possible and be like, yeah, to grieve all of that stuff, you have to do the work of feeling it. You can’t judge yourself for it. My feelings are just feelings and you will survive them. And I think that’s another thing.

The more you can feel and then still be OK on the other side of it, it teaches yourself that you can feel even more. And I like the people who say, I think it’s Bernie Brown, like you can’t selectively shut down your feelings. So if you’re going to live your whole life, you’re going to live your whole life trying not to grieve, but you want to maximize your enjoyment of the world. It doesn’t work that way. Like if you want more joy and more pleasure, like all those things, you’re going to have to feel more deeply and grieve more deeply, even the things that may not seem like so.

I love that you’re working with people like that, helping them grieve those jobs. And that’s a matter of tapping into those feelings. That’s such a sacred thing. You don’t have to be a religious person to see, like, the sacredness of that. 

Dan

Yeah. Yeah.

Well, I think that’s why, you know, I wanted to ask you about identity and those transformation. Work is about identity always at some level, like how we choose to do what we choose to give our time, our efforts. Our agency to is about how we view ourselves and how we identify ourselves and which is I think, you know, why I wanted to have this conversation to begin with, which is great.

I love it. I know a lot of people tune in to the show because they know that something needs to change. Something’s not working in their lives and their career with their work. It feels empty. Maybe it feels worse than empty, or maybe it’s just was working at one point, it just isn’t working as well anymore. And they’re looking for, like a change, but they don’t know what that is. I’m curious if you have any words of wisdom for people who are in a place like that feels stuck and don’t know what to do.

Allen

Immediately that comes to mind is like honor that feeling like pay attention to it. When no matter what happens next, you’re feeling something profound and meaningful. And that right there is already starting at a place of tapping into who you are and doing good, meaningful work. So I think a lot of us feel that and then just shove it down. Right. Or we try to answer it too quickly.

Like, OK, the answer is that scheme over there, it’s like not really, you know, like you’re just prolonging those feelings for five more years. And it’s like. Like I’m actually feeling right now. Like let yourself in religious terms of Christianity, we talk about the dark night of the soul, like enter into the dark night of the soul, like get comfortable a little bit with being so uncomfortable and embrace that. And so I would say don’t rush to answers too fast and just recognize that while you’re in a moment where you’re determining that something needs to change.

And so I think that’s another time that you should be marking that moment. One other thing I would say that I found pretty meaningful. I was I think I watched a TED talk some years ago or like an independent TED talk. That’s where all the good stuff happens.

And someone was talking about the interconnectedness of the world. And I love it. And one thing that they had mentioned just kind of blew my mind and it stuck with me. And that was like, this is a long way of answering that. But yeah, OK. So like millions of years ago, maybe billions of years ago, there was no atmosphere around our planet. There was the main form of life was cyanobacteria, and it was just taking in carbon dioxide and sunlight and pumping out oxygen.

And there were these life forms all around the planet just doing it over and over and over that slowly built up know our ozone layer, the atmosphere as we know it, and made possible all the complex forms of life. And if you plucked one of those cyanobacteria and not just complex life like everything, what it means to be human, it made arc possible. It made like going to the moon possible, you know, Bach and Da Vinci and all these things.

And if you plucked up one of those bacteria and you asked them, like, do you understand the meaning of your life and what you’re doing, what’s going to happen down the road? There’s no way you could like it. Just it doesn’t have language, right? There’s no way it could have a brain. It could not possibly comprehend the meaning of its life, even though it was short and even though was a long time ago. The meaning of its life is vastly beyond its ability to understand.

I would say at least entertain the idea that the meaning of our lives as people, it could be the case that it’s vastly beyond our ability to comprehend. And so, sitting with some of that wonder about like what your life means. It could be that, you don’t even know what your life means because it’s beyond your ability to comprehend it. And that to me is like invitation to just I don’t get curious and start wondering about things.

And I also try to encourage people to be curious about themselves. If it’s true that our inner person is like that wild animal and has been wounded by other people and by us and goes into hiding. You could be curious about yourself? Like a little offering of cheese in the forest or something and see if it comes out once in a while. Like seriously.

Like learning about yourself is a beautiful invitation. And one other piece of wisdom, I think that I came across that I would want to give is that compassion from my experience like rewires your brain. Compassion has changed my perception. I see more. I experience more from other people, from myself, from like the natural world. The more I tap into compassion ritualistically, it starts to change my brain in the way I see things.

So if you want to see more, try compassion out for a bit.

Dan

Fantastic. Just I feel like everyone needs to like rewind that last like five minutes and listen. But again, it’s really, really good. Thank you.

Allen

I love your podcast. You always say the best for last, like last minute episode. That’s where all the good stuff filtered

Dan

I’m training people to fast forward to the edge.

I don’t know if you’re listening and don’t do that, please. Well, just for people who are listening, first just think you like this is just it’s so fun. It’s so fun to reconnect.

And I feel like we could keep going indefinitely, but also just for people who are just really love what you’re up to and want to follow along, learn more from you. You have anything you’d like to invite them to?

Allen

Yeah, just two things. You can check out the podcast. That my friends and I are on, www.Irenicast.com and also you can follow me on Facebook. I think it’s www.facebook.com/RevAllenOBrien and that’s where I do most of my connecting with people. So, feel free to request or something. And and we can chat.

Dan

Beautiful. Well, and thank you so much. Really, really appreciate the time, the wisdom and everything. It’s just been really fun.

Allen

Yeah. It’s been an honor to be here. And yeah, I love everything that all of your guests are doing, all your listeners are doing. It’s good stuff. So it’s an honor to be here. 

Dan

Thanks so much. Appreciate it. 

Allen

Of course.

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2 Comments

    1. Dan Cumberland October 23, 2020 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks Jonathan. I really appreciate it. I’m with you! It’s such tough stuff!

      Reply

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