Vanya Stier-Van Essen, PhD
founder and faciliator
The poet David Whyte wrote a simple, stunning poem in which he tells the reader to “start close in.” As I sit to write this “bio,” I think of these little wild words: start close in. I wonder about the labyrinth of days it has taken for me to feel this close to my own life.
I can’t say I started far away, because in a labyrinth you never really know how close or how far you are from any other point—you only take the next step. But it feels like I started far away: full of distant expectations, unlived lives, the desire to please others, the desperate need to do something exceptional, as though I had to justify my place in the world. I did not know how hard I was trying. I did not know how tired I was getting. Until one day, I just could not do it anymore. I had spent the years trying to live into answers that had been freely given to me, and on a quiet nightwalk I suddenly realized I had not asked the questions. Later, Rilke’s words sunk into my thirsty heart like water on desert ground: live the questions, live everything.
I quickly discovered that living the questions is much, much harder than living the answers. This shift brought profound loss and long grief as what I knew was slowly dissolved, as I waited in the dark, as I let people down, as the stories I had about my life fluttered away like small birds and I became inconsequential, insubstantial.
But slowly, form came…
This dissolution gradually introduced me to my life, to the world, to the sacred. Living the questions, leaning into the unknown, risking these wild places has only just begun to teach me my “note,” as Rumi put it: “God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing-pain.”
In the meantime, I wrote songs, played music, worked as a nurse in locked pediatric psych units, and day after day I read by my small space heater in the gray months of Seattle. During one of these (many) gray months, I read two books that called me irrevocably closer to my life: Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore and Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In these books, I sensed intimations of my note, of the form of my life. A way to live the questions deeply and even joyfully. A way to live curiously, sorrowfully, and soulfully. I found a language that could express what I had been experiencing. And I loved this new language. This was my introduction to depth psychology. It is not a language for everyone. But it is my native tongue.
I dreamt of going to Pacifica Graduate Institute for years and finally, when my son was ten months old (and I hadn’t slept in ten months) I knew in my bones that this was the time. A few months later I began the PhD program in Depth psychology with emphasis in Jungian and archetypal studies. I spent my days weaving a life as I moved between reading Jung’s thoughts on archetypes to rocking a baby to throwing in a load of laundry to teaching a room full of college students about the pros and cons of the DSM V… The days have been full and exhausting. And I have slowly realized I am closer to my life than ever before. It’s not necessarily easier but it is unspeakably richer.
Throughout the time spent dreaming of graduate school and then participating in the program at Pacifica, this idea of having a center devoted to soulful living has been with me. I love being with people in deep inquiry, learning, exploration, and community. I love teaching. I love witnessing others in their (always) complex unfolding. I have been deeply honored to sit with others as they befriend the dreams that visit them, enact powerful rituals in shaded forests, learn from the movement of their bodies what it is that is calling them, and wander the mythic narratives finding reflections of their own lives. I love this work. And I invite you to join us as we continue to find our way closer to our own lives, to our questions, to the sacred in the mundane.
Because as we follow soul into the in-between-places, perhaps we will find that there is no “my life in here” and “the world out there”; perhaps if we dig deep enough we find that there is only a profound and embodied participation with all things. Or as Joseph Campbell put it, “And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”