Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.
Gregg Levoy
1997. Harmony, New York. ISBN 03098-03700


A call is only a monologue. A return call, a response, creates a dialogue. Our own unfolding requires that we be in constant dialogue with whatever is calling us. The call and one's response to it are also a central metaphor for the spiritual life.

This book, then, is about putting on a lens through which we can see our lives as a process of calls and responses.

this book is about remembering our vocations, again in the true sense of the word - our callings - whether they are vocations in the arenas of work, relationship, lifestyle or service. They may be calls to do something or calls to be something.

Perhaps we do not really forget our calls but we fear what they might demand of us in pursuing them. Anticipating the conniptions of change blocks us from acknowledging that we do know, and always have known, what our calls are. Perhaps we also fear the hope that such calls evoke in us, and the power that we know is dammed up behind our resistance.

Calls are essentially questions. They aren't questions you necessarily need to answer outright; they are questions to which you need to respond, expose yourself, and kneel before. You don't want an answer you can put in a box and set on a shelf. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life, a question that will offer you a lifetime of pondering, that will lead you toward what you need to know for your integrity, draw to you what you need for your journey, and help you understand what it means to burst at the seams.

The critical challenge of discernment - knowing whether our calls are true or false, knowing how and when to respond to them, knowing whether a call really belongs to us or not - requires that we also tread a path between two essential questions: "What is right for me" and "Where am I willing to be led?"

The channels through which callings come - whether dreams and symptoms or intuitions and accidents - are like oracles of any kind. They aren't meant to be treated as psychic vending machines, merely dispensing information. They are to be approached for dialogue, entered into in the spirit of correspondence and what the poet William Butler Yeats called "radical innocence". Their answers are typically metaphoric, paradoxical, poetic, and dreamlike, and they require reflection and conversation.

Although we have the choice not to follow a call, if we do not do so, the Sufi poet Kabir said, our lives will be infected with a kind of "weird failure." We'll feel alienated from ourselves, listless and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul. Life will feel so penetratingly dull and pointless that we may become angry, and turn the anger inward against ourselves (one definition of depression) or feel seized by the impulse to run madly out of the house, down to the river, and search among the bulrushes for a miracle.

Generally, people won't pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so, but it's appalling how high a threshold people have for this quality of pain.

What are you willing to give up to ensure your own unfolding, and the unfolding of what is holy in your life?

It is equally disconcerting to realize that you can have what you want. In most cases, this is true, if the call is. It is also a test to realize that if you really wanted, you could quit your job tomorrow. You might be in a pickle, but you could do it. You could get on a plane and fly to the Orient this week. You could pack a few things and take a retreat first thing in the morning. You could leave this marriage tonight. You could start saving the whales or the children or the planet right now! Of course, when you realize this you run into the paralysis of freedom.

Be willing to approach obstacles as if they might be allies, and make your leaps of faith accordingly.

Death is a strip search. It points the barrel of mortality at your head and demands to see what you have hidden under your garments. It also asks the question "What do you love?" As you listen for callings keep such a question poised in your mind to help tune out some of the static. In fact, "What do you love" is the question that callings pose.

There will come a day when I die and do not rise, so I would rather die doing what I love than what I don't.

Far from being the transcendent experience we imagine, though, this hero or heroine's journey, this search for what is truest in ourselves, turns out to be largely pick-and-shovel work.

Don't just suffer. Suffer creatively. Write about your inner conflicts around a calling. Draw them out. Play them up Creative suffering burns clean Neurotic suffering only builds up more soot.

The point of passion is mainly to follow, to let yourself love what you love, to respect your hunger and obey your thirst.

Dreams tell us how we really feel about something. They help us fine-tune our direction and ascertain our calls, show us our unfinished business, and remind us how much bigger our lives are than what we know consciously. In fact, dreams show us that consciousness itself is a scrambling around at the hem of something so big it would short us out if we understood its true dimensions. I sometimes wonder: If I can possess such immense powers in my dreams, might I similarly possess powers beyond my imagination in my waking life?

The unconscious often knows things we don't, things that in the broad daylight of consciousness remain invisible to us, just as the stars play to an empty house during the day when the sun is shining.

If you get in the habit of asking for dream guidance as you're dropping off to sleep, the minions of Morpheus will fairly beat a path to your door. Just be prepared to take dictation. Keep a pad and pen by the bedside.

You have to also stay open to the possibility that what you think is the calling is only the foothills of a much larger mountain.

when you're on the right path, the universe winks and nods at you from time to time to let you know.

We distance ourselves from art when we professionalize it, just as we disassociate from our own healing powers when we place responsibility for healing only in the hands of "healers".

To Jung, nature isn't opposed to transcendence - it is transcendence.

Like any art, writing is really only the mode of transport. The true calling is whatever we hope to draw to us through our art, what we want it to bring to us.

Myths are metaphors, analogies, stories that get at the heart of human behavior, at profound truths, universal themes, ageless patterns. They are, perhaps above all, stories of transformation: from chaos to form, sleep to awakening, woundedness to wholeness, folly to wisdom, from being lost to finding our way.

To the degree we are each looking for the places where callings break into our lives as emissaries of the sacred, it would serve us well to take pen and paper and try reframing our lives as myths.

Spiritual journeying, whether we walk around a holy mountain or sit in a single place on a five-day meditation retreat, is about interior or exterior movement toward the deep self. A geographical journey is symbolic of an inner journey for which we long.

Nature is a proper setting for a return to ourselves, our source, our place of origin.

Spiritual journeys, like stories, have at their core a central question - as do our lives - and if we understand not even the answers but merely the questions that animate our journeys, we've understood a lot.

On the last day of a vision quest I took into the Trinity Alps in Northern California some years ago, one of the guides, Jay Wood, warned me that whatever promises I made to myself during the journey, whatever insights I gained and intentions I set, I would need to defend them against the tendency of life to level all uprisings, to stomp my enthusiasm back into low relief.

If you forget that you have changed while on your journey, that you come back followed by another whose spirit you sought, that you made promises that must be kept, and that there are conditions to your transformation, you'll jeopardize your mission. Know that your vision will follow you back and must be incorporated into your life and the lives of those you know.

We go to [the past] to ask our questions: What matters? What has always been there? What answers does my past reveal about the questions that are central to my life? What have I found myself saying to the world over and over just by the act of my life? What has been foreshadowed? What have people been telling me all my life? We don't ask "What is the meaning of life?" but "What is the meaning of my life?"

These rejected parts include whatever wasn't loved, respected, and accepted in us by ourselves or our parents, teachers, peers, religion, and culture. Carl Jung called it our shadow. Robert Bly calls it "the long bag we drag behind us." In it are all those qualities that were disapproved of by the people whose approval we needed in order to survive, or believed we needed.

In any case, we're going to need all the help we can get in following our calls. We're going to need every resource at our disposal, including some of those we've previously disposed of. We're going to need our self-interest to admit that something is missing in our lives, and maybe our despair to motivate us to find out what it is. We're going to need our blind faith to trust that what we hear is a call. We're going to need our stubbornness and righteous anger to stand up to the resistance from within and without. We're going to need the hermit in us to separate from the culture of conformity. We're going to need our insanity to do what might seem insane. We're going to need our spontaneity and impulsiveness or we'll never make the jumps. We're going to need our power to push us through, and our joy to celebrate at the feasts.

a good piece of fiction will pit the protagonist against his or her greatest fear and rawest inner conflict. A calling will do the same thing The hell of it is that we protagonists would rather choose chronic anxiety over acute confrontation. We'd rather dither for years than contend with the live wires of painful self-awareness and move through the resistance.

I had the realization that I and my entire generation, my whole civilization, in fact, are going to be one thin layer of sediment in the side of a cliff someday. Yet precisely because it makes a flyspeck of a difference whether I write my essays or not, somehow this frees me up to write, to follow the calling, to do whatever I want, because there is no failure. Or rather, failure is already assumed. I'm going to die and be a million years dead, and anyone who might possibly judge me for my pursuits and mistakes will be a fossil right next to mine in that cliffside.

A calling itself is a limitation, and this explains why some people choose not to follow it. By following a call, we narrow our choices, and we close doors we may never be able to reopen.

One of the frightening prospects of saying yes to a calling is that you may find out who really supports you and who doesn't.

Acquaint yourself with exactly how you're conditioned to say no to yourself.

Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others' success, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones - they remind us of where someone is buried - and we measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.

Consistently choosing safety over adventure, brakes over accelerator, no over yes, and consistently preferring to be a passive observer rather than an active participant in our own lives can readily bring on anger and remorse, sorrow and frustration. We direct these emotions inward at ourselves or at those we claim to love, those who have to live with us but cannot say yes for us. Not honoring ourselves is fatefully tied up with not honoring others: our children and partners, our communities, the natural world. All of them suffer from our passivity and detachment.

If we don't love our lives, if we don't leave home and follow them deep into the forest and give ourselves over, the beauty can become stuck in the beast. We can reach a point of no return, beyond which we simply no longer have the life left in us to follow a calling, and we end up cataloguing with sad precision the passing of our days, the withering of the rose.

A calling is not so much something in our path as we are in its path. In following it, we exercise the courage to leave behind what we have for what we don't, what we are for what we could be, and to take on challenges compared to which even depression and torpor might seem preferable. It is the courage to step past the point of no return, to acknowledge that all our mightiest refusals are mere resistance.

We may not cease being fearful, but we can cease to let fear control us.

If you're afraid to test your wares in the marketplace, to send your delicate shoots of optimism out into an indifferent world, and if you do it anyway, you risk losing your innocence, but if you sell, you gain confidence that cannot be had in any other way.

It's almost axiomatic that the important risks we don't take now become the regrets we have later. In fact, I was once told that if I'm not failing regularly, I'm living so far below my potential that I'm failing anyway.

Outside the cage, the sun is roaring with fission, arching through the blue sky. Wild winds flap the flags and fill the air with the sound of songs caught up in ecstasy and longing. There is life in its fleshy and toothsome grandeur, all the spill and stomp and shout of it, all the come and go of it, all of it on the one hand waiting for us to act, and on the other rushing down the hourglass.

In order to receive guidance, we have to give up being the knower.

the words of the poet Rilke reminding me that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.

I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems the better bet. After all, life doesn't end with an answer, but a question - what next? - and it certainly ends with a sacrifice - the hero always dies.

The knowing put an end to the wondering, which in many ways was far more entertaining and instructive. In it, there was room for imagination and discovery, for the quest implied in question. The truth, it seems, did not set me free.

In making sacrifices for a calling, and thereby paying homage to something bigger than ourselves, we're admitting that there is something bigger than ourselves. This is no mean concession for people who don't believe in the existence of the soul, or who cannot answer the question "Who turned on the lights?", or who believe themselves to be the center of the universe.

Sacrifice is an ongoing sense of mind, a string tied around the finger to remind us that as long as we continue turning around on the mortal wheel, we need to let go of life as much as we need to hang on to it. The love we feel for the calling makes the difference between being at peace and not being at peace with the sacrifices we're called to make. Love turns them into something almost akin to blessings, where others might see only horrendous sacrifices.

The only goals with any power, I was told, was the ones on tomorrows to-do list because they're the only ones I can get my hands on. The big ones are out of my control. You can't become a famous writer over night, one fellow said, but you can write two pages a day.

Many people best find the skills they need in nature, which teaches entirely by example, with not a word spoken and no equivocations whatsoever. Wild things are their mentors.

Dreams rarely stir up much trouble, but acting on them does.

Expectations narrow our focus so that, when circumstances have to pry open our retinas, we tend to resent the circumstances and not the expectations.

Much of the pain associated with callings comes from avoiding them, from not surrendering to them. However much sacrifice may be involved, much of the pain we feel in surrendering to callings actually comes from our anticipation of the pain and not from the actual capitulation. Once we do surrender, we often feel a sense of great relief, and just as often we are bewildered about why we didn't do it years ago.

That which propels us to say yes to our callings can save the world: the green shooting force of soul, a love of life and the good fight, an almost unreasonable sort of faith, a crying need.


The successful artist is someone who continues to make art and isn't more than 50 percent bitter about the rest of life.

John Berryman
Artists are extremely lucky who are presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill them. Beethoven's deafness, Goya's deafness, Milton's blindness, that kind of thing. Among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. I hope to be nearly crucified.

David Bayles and Ted Orland
Fears about yourself dig into your ability to do your best work, while fears about what others will think of you compromise your ability to do your own work.

Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

Martin Buber
Living means being addressed.

Frederich Buechner
We shy away from introspection because, however fearful the surface seems, we fear the depths still more. And we are right. There is much to fear there. If there is terror about darkness because we cannot see, there is also terror about light because we can see. Would rather not see.

Joseph John Campbell
People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is the experience of being alive of the rapture of being alive.

Helder Camara
When your ship, long moored in harbor, gives you the illusion of being a house put out to sea! Save your boat's journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may.

Joan Didion
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget what we whispered and what we dreamed. We forget who we were.

Annie Dillard
The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into the pulse.

Annie Dillard
The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.

Karlfried Graf Durkehim
Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise in us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

Wayne Dyer
Have you really lived ten thousand or more days, or have you lived one day ten thousand or more times?

Gustav Flaubert
Be regular and orderly in your daily affairs that you may be violent and original in your work.

Sigmund Freud
Everywhere I turn, I find that a poet has been there before me.

Johann Goethe
We talk too much. We should talk less and draw more.

John Graham
There is a very clear link between courage and the degree of meaning in someone's life; the sense, at a really deep level, that you know why you do things, you know what your life is about. Most fear is fear of the unknown, but when you can answer this root question of what your life is about, that root insecurity is dealt with, and dealing with it makes it so that no fear is as bad as it was before. The more meaning, the more courage, and the less fear.

Vaclav Havel
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Billie Holiday
You've got to have something to eat and little love in your life before you can hold still for any-damn-body's sermon on how to behave.

William James
[religion] the attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Robert Johnson
When the unstoppable bullet hits the impenetrable wall, we find the religious experience. It is precisely here that one will grow. Conflict to paradox to revelation: this is the divine progression.

Sam Keen
Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.

Gary Kowalski
Everyone needs a spiritual guide. My own wise friend is my dog. He has deep knowledge to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn't hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes. Like a true Zen master, he eats when he's hungry and sleeps when he's tired. He's not hung up about sex. Best of all, be befriends me with an unconditional love that human beings would do well to imitate.

Ann Kreilkamp
Not only is there no God to pray to, there's no God to give the finger to. If there's no God, I'm therefore free - and responsible. For the first time in my life, my soul came down inside my body and said to me, "Live or die. You have a choice."

Norman Mailer
With the pride of the artist, you must blow against the walls of every power that exists, the small trumpet of your defiance.

Eric Maisel
A less than belligerent commitment is a curse.

Eric Maisel
Hush your thoughts just as if you were comforting a baby. A wild person with a calm mind can create anything.

Stanley Milgram
The demise of a sense of personal responsibility is the most consistent consequence of submission to authority.

Henry Miller
Whatever there be of progress in life comes not from adaptation, but through daring. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support.

Joseph Chilton Pearce
Nothing so upsets the bishop as the rumor of a saint in his parish.

M. Scott Peck
The unconscious is always one step ahead of the conscious mind - the one that knows things - so it's impossible to know for sure. But if you're willing to sit with ambiguity, to accept uncertainties and contradictory meanings, then your unconscious will always be a step ahead of your conscious mind in the right direction. You'll therefore do the right thing, although you won't know it at the time.

Fernand Pouillon
The best works are those at the limits of life. They stand out among a thousand others when they prompt the remark, " What courage that must have taken!"

Buddhist Proverb
When in doubt about where you are meant to be, look down at your feet.

Roman Proverb
The fates lead those who will. Those who won't they drag.

Wallace Stevens
I don't ask for the full ringing of the bell. I don't ask for a clap of thunder that would rend the veil in the temple. A scrawny call will do, from far off there among the willows and the cattails, from far off there among the galaxies.

P.L. Travers
Be still long enough, I though, and the trees would take no notice of me and continue whatever it was they were doing or saying before I happened upon them.

P.L. Travers
We ask our questions knowing that there is nothing to be gained, only a purpose to serve, and seeking not so much to find as to be found.

Michael Ventura
Unless you have the talent of the room, your other talents are worthless. Writing is something you do alone in a room, and before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years - how many years - can you remain in a room?

Doubt may be an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.

Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. But our playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.