Onsite & enrolling in the School of Life
There's a special place in Tennessee where life and school are done differently. I think there should be more like it
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Onsite & enrolling in the School of Life
So, I disappeared for a couple months.
The main reason is that I spent five and a half weeks (38 days, to be exact) with no phone and no computer. "Off-grid," as we might say, in a tiny town called Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee.
But that's not the only thing I did.
I spent that time at a place that is incredibly special to me, called Onsite.
There is so much I could say about this place, and what I did in my time there. Frankly, it’s challenging to put it in words. But I want to try.
The School of Life
A few ways to describe it:
Intensive workshop for inner work and self-discovery
Residential trauma treatment center
Trauma camp (this is a half-joke)
In the words of Onsite, it’s a place for “gathering meaning from our past, finding clarity from our challenges, and developing a nurturing path to wholeness and sustained emotional health.”
Yes, that is true, and it’s more than that.
In my opinion, it’s the closest thing I’ve found to the pursuit that I believe we’re all on: the School of Life. Or, as the leader of Onsite Miles Adcox calls it: Human School.
It’s the process of healing what hurts and holds us back. Of growing more in line with our true selves.
It’s the process of maximizing our potential. Of living better.
It’s the process of becoming. Of evolving.
I believe the most important parts of our human experience are incredibly difficult to describe.
The words get slippery. It’s difficult to pin the essence down. (As an aside, I’ve found David Whyte to have written some the most artful, beautiful, and truthful dialogue on these topics.)
This is why it’s challenging, for me, and at times even Onsite, to pin down precisely what happens there.
It’s because Onsite is special.
Onsite is the setting of the most important work I’ve ever done and witnessed. Choosing to spend time there, both at the end of 2023 as well as in October 2022, is one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my life.
That place, and the time I spent there, has a feeling of gravity to it.
School and the philosophy of more
Specifically, I never stopped thinking about how different my experiences at Onsite felt from the more traditional schools I attended throughout my younger life.
I thought about how, in traditional school, I was directed towards information and through assignments in hopes of acquiring knowledge and skills along the way.
I thought about how the process at Onsite (and in my other therapeutic and inner work), has revealed dramatic gaps in what other schools had taught me.
It has been by inspecting my subjective experience, instead of acquiring objective knowledge, that these gaps were revealed.
It’s been by getting in touch with what life feels like that has shown me where my work is - by coming to see, and feel, what hurts and holds me back, or makes me feel alive and pulls me forward.
Feelings, over thoughts, have been the source of any new wisdom I’ve gleaned.
I thought about how my past schools’ approaches focused so heavily on external wisdom over internal.
So much of school guided me to acquiring knowledge and skills. Both are important, to be sure - and yet, in confronting the ways that my life led to feeling unfulfilled and inauthentic, I’ve come to see that they’ve been insufficient in guiding me through.
It’s left me reflecting on the limits of an external knowledge- and skill-based pursuit to life, and the importance of connecting with my internal experience- and story-based existence.
I’ve come to see how deep and automatic my tendency is to grasp for more knowledge, more skill in times of pain and struggle, and how, regardless of how much I acquired, it still felt that my suffering was handling me, instead of the other way around.
It seems to me that this cycle acts sort of like an intellectual version of the hedonic treadmill. If the hedonic treadmill keeps us adding more and nicer things in pursuit of happiness, this intellectual version keeps me grasping for more knowledge to escape suffering.
I see now that this external approach leaves me in a state of deficiency. It left me stranded when confronted by the reality that suffering is as a constant in life. Perpetually seeking more insight implicitly assumes that feeling some negative emotion is a problem to be solved.
This approach also assumes not only that discomfort is a problem, but also one I can’t resolve unless I gain some new insight or capability that I don’t currently possess.
This operating system equates suffering with deficiency. It whispers that any negative experience must mean that I’m not good enough (or smart enough or successful enough, and on and on). It promises that if I were better, I wouldn’t be ensnared by this negative experience. It makes suffering a problem.
If our suffering is a problem, then we’re doomed to fail, because it’s one that will persist regardless of how much knowledge or fame or success we accumulate. There are inevitably hardships that we’ll be unable to exterminate.
I see now impossibility and the exhaustion in living this way.
In fact, I feel it.
The more I do, the more willing, nay, desperate, I am to try something else.
A different approach
In October of 2021, in the depths of a period of overwhelming pain, sadness, and loneliness that felt like I was drowning, I got supremely fortunate. I was struck by one of those occasions of luck, serendipity, synchronicity, or fate.
My path crossed with Kathy’s.
Kathy is my therapist.
But therapy isn’t really the point.
What I mean is that talking to a therapist doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, no more than walking into the gym makes me fit.
It’s about way more than therapy.
It’s about a process of becoming.
It’s about being moved, in a way that feels to me almost mystical, beyond words, to seek new, better, more life, and being willing to work to get there.
It feels like this magnetic force that’s deep inside my heart-stomach. When I’m in its force field, it feels like a quickening. I can feel the energy inside my body, in my core and in my throat, thrum to life. It feels like over-caffeination. Like jumping off of a 30-foot cliff into blue water below. Like turning the shower as cold as it can go. It makes it hard to focus, with thoughts going a mile a minute. It makes my armpits sweat. It feels like the most important thing in the world.
This feeling has been familiar to me for a long time, but it’s been diffuse and un-channelled. Kathy is helping me fan the flames and channel it.
This is what I mean when I say I feel fortunate.
I can’t do it alone. I believe none of us can.
I believe this process needs a guide. A teacher. A leader. A fellow traveler. Someone who’s in their own process of seeking and becoming, just a bit ahead.
Kathy has helped me channel a deeper path inward. Perhaps the most important work I’ve done with her help has been re-orienting energy from doing - learning, improving, accomplishing, outside of myself - to being - asking, exploring, feeling, inside of my current experience.
It’s been working to step off the intellectual treadmill, and counterintuitively turn towards the challenging thoughts, feelings, and situations that are the source of the pain and discomfort that I’ve been trying to run away from.
In other words, it’s been stepping on the path through, not around.
This is not something that I was familiar with, and so it’s been difficult.
As anyone who’s tried to learn anything new recently knows, it’s bizarre as an adult, particularly a high-striving one, to start something new or do things differently.
It sucks. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating.
But it’s progress.
I’ve come to believe that knowledge has its limits. I’ve come to see that my work is not always in figuring something out, but in fact in becoming more tolerant to discomfort, and more capable of sitting in it to move beyond it.
I’ve learned that the key for me often isn’t knowledge-based, but instead embodied, sensory, emotional, internal. It’s asking what my inner experience is showing me about what’s true.
I’ve learned that these sensations hold truth - truth that I end up blind to as I go outside of myself to seek solutions. The reality is, whether I see them or not, this inner experience is true - and truth wins.
I’ve learned that when I turn attention to this inner experience and tune into what’s going on, I can move through it with more ease than searching elsewhere for some tool that I don’t already possess.
I’ve come to see that my work is learning to go through, not around.
And this isn’t the stuff I was taught in school.
It’s not that the traditional schools we attend are worthless. It’s just that I believe they’re insufficient. At least, I know they were for me. They’re only part of the bigger School of Life that we need for the bigger Game of Life.
Back to school
For the past year I’ve struggled to describe what I’ve been up to in a way that’s felt wholly true and authentic. Saying that I was taking “time off,” going “on sabbatical,” exploring “what’s next” didn’t fit.
Describing what I was doing in these ways would make me squirm, like I was wearing an itchy sweater that didn’t quite fit. They didn’t capture the whole truth of my experience in this chapter of my life.
Right before I left for Onsite in November, I finally found something that felt right. I realized what I’ve been doing this whole time.
I realized I’ve been in school.
It’s not accredited. I don’t get any grades. I get no diploma. There’s no homework. But I do get tested daily.
I’m enrolled in the School of Life.
In a sense, we all are. I believe just as universal as the feeling of pain is the pursuit of healing and wholeness - the pursuit of a better life.
And yet, so often, it feels like we do it alone. I know I often feel lonely.
I’m tired of doing it this way.
Of course, I can’t expect someone to hand me a syllabus that will solve all of my problems. But I do often find myself exasperated, wondering, exclaiming, sometimes to myself like a crazy person, and sometimes to other poor souls around me, things like “WHY ARE THERE SO FEW PLACES TO HELP? WHY ARE THEY SO HARD TO FIND? WHY ARE SO MANY SO BAD? WHY ARE THEY SO EXPENSIVE? AM I THE ONLY ONE THAT’S THINKING ABOUT THESE THINGS?”
So many other parts of life have great products and systems to guide us. We have many great leaders and organizations to guide us in fitness, diet, sleep, new hobbies - the list goes on and on.
But in our transformational journey of becoming - of evolving more in line with our whole, true selves - it so often feels like we’re left to figure it out on our own.
I’ve worked to piece together teachers in some areas - emotional, relational, spiritual, philosophical, to name a few - and sometimes they overlap. But all in, working to maximize potential and live better is challenging.
We're all in the School of Life.
We might as well do it better.
Onsite is an inspiration. And I wonder - why are there so few places like it? What would it look like a bit more integrated into our day-to-day life?
So, I’ve been thinking, maybe I’ll start a school?
Maybe a school that’s like Y Combinator, but for life and leadership instead of startups?
Maybe the Comma Academy?
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