Following the call of my heart

by Siegfried Gutbrod

(excerpted from his contribution to “The Way of the Natural Therapist”)

In my early forties I realised that I had fulfilled my childhood dream of having lots of money and power. At the age of 43 I resigned from the glamorous corporate executive world after successfully managing a large information technology organisation. It was crystal clear to me that I did not want to continue to use my life energy to contribute towards maximising shareholders performance. Knowing what I did not want to continue to do was one thing however I had no idea where my future professional direction should be. I needed to let go and trust and be patient before knowing what would come next, a constant theme of my life. I made a promise to myself back then that I would never compromise my values for money, or anything else, again.

I spent the next three years in a process of letting go, simple community living and volunteering in various fields while doing a holistic, process oriented counselling course which also involved engagement with many artistic modalities. Not good at any of these arts but feeling a deep love towards it, I found within a clear sense of its significance for my own inner healing journey. The volunteering work got me in touch with palliative care in Melbourne’s outer east. The contact with the people reaching the end of their lives touched something very deep inside me. The very delicate seed for a new professional direction was born.

Outwardly I responded to an opportunity to join The Gawler Cancer Foundation as their General Manager. Managing for a good, charitable purpose seem to be an acceptable compromise while giving me an opportunity to be intimately involved with an organisation providing services to people with a life threatening illness such as cancer. Aside from the business role, I actively looked for opportunities to get involved at the therapeutic level. At some stage when I did one of my yearly personal review rituals alone by myself camping out in nature away from other human beings, it became crystal clear again that my life needed to change. Management, even for a good purpose, was no longer fulfilling me. My heart was calling on me to pursue my new passion which presented itself to me clearly for the first time: to provide emotional and spiritual care for the people reaching the end of their lives. At the end of the camp I had reached a clear decision that within 12 months I would resign as the GM and take firm steps to establish my new career as a counsellor and spiritual care provider. I had to let go, resign and recruit my successor without any certainty how the next step in my new career would materialise. Consciously I did not use my formal power at The Gawler Cancer Foundation to gain entry into the therapeutic team.

Like so many times before, the trust created a perfect outcome after giving me an unwanted opportunity to test my patience – not one of my greatest virtues. Eventually I was offered a position by The Gawler Cancer Foundation as ‘junior apprentice counsellor’ as Ian Gawler referred to me in those days. Quite a challenging dynamic followed – stepping from a powerful position to a junior position in the same organisation – very humbling.

A very rich, rewarding and challenging period followed that allowed me to step out of the apprentice role fairly quickly and to take on a leadership role facilitating the foundation’s 12-weeks psycho-educational programs for people with cancer and their carer’s in Melbourne. And I was given the opportunity to establish a new service for the foundation, providing spiritual and emotional care to people reaching the end of their lives. In this context I was blessed with the unique opportunity to be with many people when they were drawing their last breath. Every time I experienced this as a real privilege and when I look back over my whole life these moments stand out as the most precious experiences. I am deeply grateful for each individual who invited me to be part of this most intimate stage of their lives. During this time I also completed a Masters degree of Counselling and Human Services at LaTrobe University, with a special focus on the emotional and spiritual aspects related to palliative care.

My professional life was going very well and I felt very fulfilled until I followed an invitation by a friend to do a lecture and workshop tour in South Africa. When I returned after 4 weeks, I could not shake off the images and impressions of the huge humanitarian challenges this continent and country were facing and just continue with my protected life here. Again my heart clearly told me that I should pack my bags, leave my wonderful job and friends to be of service in Africa. A part of me did not like that idea at all and was revolting against it. On the other hand I had learnt through many serious and painful lessons in my life that I had better follow the genuine call of my heart. So six months later I resigned from my job and was on my way back to Africa for an indefinite period.

The orphanage I joined as a volunteer was an hour northwest of Johannesburg with well over 100 children from newborns to early 20s. The daily confrontations with the challenges of third world country living such as poverty, crime, Aids pandemic, corruption in an often hostile environment, mostly without phone or internet contact to the rest of the world, pushed me to my limits. There were opportunities left, right and centre to support people dying of Aids and to be involved in burying them in the illegal graveyard at the orphanage (the municipal graveyards in the area were all full). The only real support I could rely on was my longstanding meditation practice and my deep connection to the spiritual world. What a wonderful learning opportunity it was for me to rely on inner strength rather than outer things.

After seven months at the orphanage, I moved to the Western Cape near Cape Town where I joined as a volunteer an intentional community (Camphill Farm Community Hermanus) living and working with adults with intellectual disabilities. I took on the role of house leader and offered counselling to the co-workers. As part of an outreach function I became co-founder of a new hospice in the local area and offered voluntary emotional and spiritual support to our clients after the hospice was established. Due to an extreme shortage of qualified human and financial resources within the Camphill community, I agreed to take on a newly created CEO role for a few years. A normal working week would be between 70 and 80 hours on a voluntary basis. Again it was my meditative practice that saved me from burnout. For the last 30 years I have dedicated at least one hour per day to my meditative and spiritual practice with very few exceptions. I have learnt that when the going gets tough, this is the time to further increase my meditation practice.

After five years in Africa I returned to Australia at the end of 2009 for personal and family reasons. My idea was that I would get a 2-3 day therapist job at The Gawler Cancer Foundation after having a few months to recharge my batteries. The day I enquired with the foundation they had just made an offer to another therapist and the only other vacancy was the position of Therapeutic Director which became vacant after Ian Gawler’s leaving. I feel very privileged that I have been given the opportunity to make a contribution towards leading the foundation into the new and challenging next phase of its existence without Ian’s direct presence. The new role is a 50/50 combination of direct therapeutic work and management/leadership functions. Without the therapeutic component of working with the many people attending the foundation’s programs, I would not have accepted the position. I need to remain true to my passion – working with people therapeutically – emotionally, spiritually and especially at life’s leaving.