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The Wholehearted Journey: An interview with Denise Bissonnette

Photo of Denise Bissonnette  

About Denise Bissonnette

Denise Bissonnette is an internationally renowned writer, trainer and keynote speaker. She has inspired people and organizations throughout North America to look beyond traditional concepts of career development and to craft livelihoods rooted in the individual “genius” of each person.

She has authored several publications on creative job development, state of the art job search techniques, the cultivation of the human spirit and how to “shine” on the job.

In her newest book, The Wholehearted Journey: Bringing Qualities of Soul to Everyday Life and Work, Denise breaks new ground by bringing together her talents as a poet, storyteller, writer, teacher and career developer. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Read The Wholehearted Journey's table of contents [PDF]


Tell us about your work. How did you get started with it?

It’s a long story with a lot of twists and turns and not a lot of planning. I started off as an ESL (English-as-a-second-language) teacher, with a degree in linguistics from the University of San Francisco. I’ll never forget in the 1980s having refugees and immigrants from around the world in my classes. It became clear they were interested in how they were going to make a living, keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. I started helping people find jobs and quickly went from a teacher to a job developer.

Job development was a pretty new field at the time. We had social workers and counselors helping people enter the workforce. In fact there were million of dollars spent to get people off welfare and into the workforce, but the professionals helping facilitate this didn’t know how to deal with the barriers some of these people might have.

The typical person in job development is coming from a social service perspective. They can’t necessarily relate to the business world. Their approach was a little offensive to the person I was serving. Everyone comes to what they’re doing with their own gifts. I couldn’t put them in competition for the jobs that were available, so I decided to try to help people articulate their gift. As one of my heroes, Buckminster Fuller, says, “Everyone is born a genius.”

I came to love the field really quickly.

Creating employment was all about helping people get beyond their barriers to see that they too had gifts. Always in the background was a message about the human spirit – bringing all of who they are to what they need to do. I realized soon this was a much deeper message. I decided I wanted to take all of these messages to a broader audience. I love to write and I love teaching; now I’m able to do both. More and more of my work is about helping people to see their own gifts and to determine whether they are making the most of their gifts.

I think it’s really important for all of us to realize that at any point anything could happen to any of us. You could wake up tomorrow morning and have something happen. Each of us needs to find a place in ourselves where, in the midst of a crisis, we still have solid ground. We know who we are and can find a place where we have our gifts. If we really lived with the spiritual questions – and all of our vocational questions are ultimately spiritual questions – we can avoid losing ourselves.

A Pilgrim’s Plea
by Denise Bissonnette

Please don’t ask us to "reinvent" ourselves
for a changing world of work.
For we only wish to unfold,
to continue the miracle of being born.
To greet each day as the world does,
Fresh, new and ripe for living.

We long to lean towards the sun like flowers -
eager to blossom,
To move wild like waves under a silver moon -
drawn on the tide of our native longing.
We wish to belong to the world, yes.
But first and foremost, we wish to belong to ourselves.

For you cannot downsize, right size or minimize the human soul -
That place in each of us that is our true home
is totally immune to the corporate takeover,
to mergers and acquisitions,
because it's not for sale.

Please don't ask us to be so smitten with technology
that as we enter more deeply into the world of the virtual,
we surrender what has always come natural.

Let us not be hypnotized by the 21st century mantra "To accept change as the only constant in our lives".
Can we not, instead, restore our faith in those things that never change?
Like the genius in the seed
to become a flower,
a tree or a human being.
The faithful turning of the earth,
Or the lovely way that gravity continues to hold us to her.

Can we not restore our faith in the persistent beckoning of the human heart
To give and receive,
To love and be loved,
To fail with as much grace as we succeed?

As we become more firmly rooted in ourselves
may we cease to demand that the world navigate our work lives with promises of more programs,
more positions and more promotions.
May we have the maturity to see that
those in the oval office,
those in the board room,
those on the trading floor
are not prophets...
they, too, are pilgrims,
their every step remaining as much a mystery as our own.

For each of us must travel the uncharted seas of our lives, alone, yet, blessedly, together, side by side.
Trusting that inner compass of hope and courage and imagination.
Never forgetting that when you bring heart to the journey, you make it holy.
When you bring heart to the journey,
you will not lose sight of the brilliant stars in the immense night sky.

This the pilgrim’s plea at the onset of the 21st century.
To bring all that we are and all that we have
To the joy and the sorrow
The wonder and the terror
The known and the unknown
of daily living.

But, please, don’t ask us to reinvent ourselves
for yet another change in the world of work,
For we only wish to unfold,
to continue the miracle of having been born.

©Denise Bissonnette, 2000

Why is this an especially relevant time to publish A Wholehearted Journey?

Many of us once heard, “You need to get a good job; do a good job and the company will be loyal to you.” People know that’s not happening anymore. My fear is that instead of putting too much dependence on the work world, there’s too much of “I’m the one who matters; I’m number one.” Part of our security must come from being part of a bigger whole. We need to belong to our communities in a deeper way, look out for one another and have a more inclusive perspective.

I was on an airplane heading for a conference where I was about to speak to a large audience – the largest I had ever talked to. I started writing in my journal; I wanted to write down three things I wanted to leave with people. I expected to start writing an outline. Instead, I opened my journal to a poem I wrote – A Pilgrim’s Plea – and it was a beautiful gift. On the day of the conference I opened my session with this poem – something I had never done. After reciting the poem I found that the human spirit came to the forefront of my work. I made it a goal that I would present a poem at every speaking opportunity.

I think the question of the spirit and the soul is now legitimate. People want to hear about it. I think 9/11 brought another awareness that life is temporary and precious. People are asking, "How do I integrate it into what I am doing everyday?"

What thinking went into the concept of A Wholehearted Journey?

One of the things I wanted in this book was to incorporate some spiritual content, quotes and passages, really rich text, and make it all practical. It’s not about going to temple or to church, but making life itself into a holy sanctuary. Every person must be his or her own priest.

I wanted ideas that would feel not outlandish, but instead simple things people could do. Instead of encouraging some major transformation, I wanted to convey ideas that could be applied in everyday acts. I wanted to pose important questions that put all of this into practice.

One comment from a reader about the book that has most pleased me was, “I wasn’t ready for a major change, but you told me how I could find something new in whatever I’m doing right now. It doesn’t mean a new horizon; it’s about viewing my current life in a new way.”

At the end of every chapter there are a series of questions. I hope readers will just pick one and spend some time with it. And there are lots of quotes. I think of quotes as little spirits that carry for me a lot of meaning.

When you imagine people living a “wholehearted journey,” what sort of impact does that have on the world?

Well, we would certainly change our focus from diversity to inclusiveness. We would recognize what’s unique in ourselves and achieve diversity from the bottom up. We wouldn’t have big issues; we wouldn’t live out of fear and competition. We’d see a lot more intelligence and creativity because we’d bring forth the gifts we need to bring forth. We’d be coming to the table knowing that each participant would be bringing something unique into the mix.

Your book refers to many people who have obviously had an impact on you. Do you have any favorites?

So many of the people I include in the book are my mentors. One person who had profound impact was Pearl Robinson. She was 85 when we met. My daughter had just been born at home. Pearl heard about her and came over to introduce herself. We became fast friends. A couple of years later I was divorced and I moved into her home. Pearl was an accomplished poet but she couldn’t write. She would dictate her poetry from her bed. So I helped her. I was writing and writing.

One day a neighbor stopped by and Pearl invited him in. He came over to the bed where she was dictating her poetry and patted her on the head saying, “Aren’t you amazing? Ninety-something years old and still writing poetry.” Once he left Pearl turned to me with her eyes dancing and said, “The poor fool, I’m just at the top of my game.” This is my image of the perfect world; we’d grow truer and closer to our gifts as we age. It has everything to do with honing what’s in our nature.

You know, I really feel like we’ve all heard it all. There are no new truths. What we don’t do is practice the truths that we have. I wanted to remind people of things they already knew – to reflect that, to practice it.

How would "practice" improve the quality of our lives?

There are as many variations on that as there are people who take a breath in the world. They would act with joy and understanding as postures in the world, not qualities. We would bring these to every activity in our lives. They would be reflected in our way of living. Not in what we do, but in how we do it.

The practice that changed my life was when I began to dedicate my day. I used to care about the vanity stuff – picking the right clothes, that sort of thing – but the minute I take a moment and dedicate my day, everything changes. It’s such as simple thought and it’s changed my life.

If you consider the work environment that so many people work in, could you give us an example of how a person on a corporate or organizational team might be able to bring something like this into their work?

Well, The Wholehearted Journey makes an awesome book club book for a work team! Each chapter is so rich. You could introduce the theme of the chapter, discuss it and see if everyone could put some of the ideas into practice.

In your introduction, you say, “true security is not the absence of danger, but the presence of faith -- faith in ourselves and in our ability to survive.” How is this relevant to someone concerned about losing their job who's feeling there are so many factors beyond their control?

It’s particularly relevant for people feeling a loss of security, whether it’s job security or financial security. I think we all know in our heart of hearts we can’t find true security in a position of employment. Instead of putting your faith in these concepts, put your faith in yourself. Tell yourself, “No matter what happens I’m going to brush myself off and keep going.” No one can take that away from you – ever.

It’s obvious you put a great deal of thought into the books unique format. Tell us a little about the thinking that went into it?

I loved the idea of starting with a poem and ending with a set of questions. I took elements of other books that appealed to me. I wound up being a little shocked by the design Andy Rolphe created, but I liked it.

The cover includes an image of a feather and some stones. I loved that imagery. When I first saw it, it felt really familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where it came from. I wound up going through all of these books at a bookstore, nervously looking for it, fearing that I was taking the idea from someone else. One day it hit me: the feather and the stones were from a children’s story I had written about five years ago. In the story, some children ask a woman named Grandma Pearl about magic in the world. She teaches them about real magic. She had stones in one pocket and feathers in the other to remember who she was – spirit and earth. The thought to put them on the cover wasn’t conscious at all.

What recommendations would you make to someone wanting to experience The Wholehearted Journey the way you intended?

Read the introduction and chapter 1 where I lay the groundwork. From there on out it doesn’t need to be read in order. Find a theme that resonates with you and explore that chapter. Each chapter is standalone.

Just open it up where you want.

I recently reread it after a long period where I couldn’t even look at it. I would love to be in a group locally to discuss it. It’s really conducive to discussions.

What personal message would you like to leave with people around the world that will read this interview?

I’d like to share this passage from a poem I wrote called “A Pilgrim’s Plea”:

For each of us must travel the uncharted seas of our lives, alone, yet, blessedly, together, side by side.
Trusting that inner compass of hope and courage and imagination.
Never forgetting that when you bring heart to the journey, you make it holy.
When you bring heart to the journey,
you will not lose sight of the brilliant stars in the immense night sky.

We need to belong to our own lives and our own selves. Doing so gives us courage to live from our hearts. Knowing our gifts is essential for the growth of our communities. Know that about yourself and live with the kind of joy you are so deserving of.

Contact Denise here

Learn more about Denise and her work

Join The Wholehearted Journey Reading Group at the Woman's Path Cafe on 24seven Conversations.


Wholehearted Journey book cover  



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