Acknowledging not-knowing times as important, empowering parts of the cycle of growing; holding our selves gently and compassionately during these sometimes disquieting seasons.
Not Knowing Times
"Not-Knowing" times are an essential part of the growing cycle.
Trying to "figure it out" before it's time for knowing is exhausting,
frustrating and gets in the way of "being-in-the-process." Talk lovingly and gently to the frightened part of you who's fearful of not having the answer now!
In the early 1970s, responding to a compelling inner urging, I extricated my self from what had been a highly successful, accomplished life in New York City. (See Pirouettes for more about that time.) I knew in my bones that going on with that life was damaging my body and being. I had no idea of where I might be heading. All I had was the certainty that I needed to leave, needed to travel to California on my own.
Though it wasn't an uncommon behavior for those times, I was older than most of the people who were dropping out of their lives. Nothing in my compulsively super-achieving history would have suggested that I'd ever choose such a path, that I would be drawn to launching my self into an unstructured, yawning unknown. But there I was, at just such a threshold.
During my years of being in private practice as a psychologist, quite unaware of it, I had regularly been stashing away a good bit of money. Some less than conscious part of my being seemed to have been preparing the way for me to walk out of my life into the not-knowing with some cushion. I was able to leave with enough money to be adrift for a considerable chunk of time.
It took close to six months to prepare for my departure. Those months were filled with closing a full-time practice; buying a stripped commercial van, transforming it into a turtle-like womb-shell in which I could always be at home; saying my good-byes to spouse, lover, friends and family; winnowing my possessions down to what I would carry with me into my new life. During that transitioning time, I realized that an essential part of the journey I was embarking on involved having no plans or goals.
For the whole of my life before then, I'd always been heading somewhere particular, intent on accomplishing or achieving whatever it was that felt important at the time. This journey called me to be unfettered by those usual commitments. I was excited and eager to begin living in the not-knowing-anything place. I had no fear, no anxiety about the lack of structure ahead. Instead, I itched and ached for the openness that had never been a part of my ordinary life.
During the earliest days of driving cross-country, having nothing-whatever-to-do proved to be challenging. I handled the edgy transition with a kind of obsessive busyness in the van when I wasn't driving. There were endless things to fuss with in preparing or cleaning up from my meals and refining the organization of my little space. Gradually, and particularly once I got to warmer geographies, the fussing and busyness calmed. I relaxed and began to luxuriate in the gentle, flowing sense of drift.
Over the next 20 months while I lived in and traveled the western coast in my little van-womb, I found comfort in the remarkable stillness and peace of the not-knowing place. A lot of old, unfinished inner material could and would surface in that empty space. Some of that was quite intense. Some of it was painful and taxing. But, there was time and open space in which to practice just being with it all. I wrote in my journal, walked, rode my bicycle and crocheted a lot. I hung out on beaches. I watched the sky and the sea. After some three months of keeping mostly to my self I started meeting new people and exploring how the me that I was becoming would relate to other beings.
I wandered into trying different kinds of work for brief periods of time. Then, after those 20 months, I was prompted to move indoors and to try a job as the health education coordinator in a radical, free-health-care clinic. Nothing about any of this felt like it was the new where-I-was-going. Rather, it seemed part of the adventure of being a passenger on a magical, mystery ride. I was interested, amused and somewhat surprised by where I was being taken.
After less than a year, though, I had managed to recreate much of what I had separated from when I'd left my New York life. The deadening super-achieving, over-committed, over-involved habits had resurfaced. The forms they took were different. Still, the messages from my body/belly grew increasingly clamorous. I needed to disengage, to go back to the drawing board. There was more inner work to be done, more need for uncommitted time and space in which to continue unraveling what inside of me still drove these damaging habits. With a good deal of struggle (see Feeling Confused for this tale) I was able to find my way out of these newer entanglements. Once again, I went eagerly into the uncluttered spaciousness of not-knowing.
At first there was great relief. The not-knowing space felt comforting. It was welcoming and peaceful. I began to examine the troublesome habits, to uncover more about the woundedness out of which they were again rising. But, fairly shortly, everything shifted. Feelings of uneasiness and fearfulness began to swirl in me. I worried that I would never again be fit for anything but a life adrift in not-knowing, that I would only be able to hold my self centered in my new ways of being if I was alone and unconnected to work of any sort. The prospect was frightening to contemplate. There were no calming clues or clear messages from Spirit/my inmost self to direct me.
In my discomfort and anxiety with the not-knowing, I started trying to figure things out. My mind convinced me that no new direction could or would emerge until I had used up all of the money stash that had been my stake for this new life. There was over $11,000 (a lot of money in late 1976) still left after three years. I chose to split the stash with my sister who, at that time was making a significant career change, going back to school for a new degree.
It was odd to be acting on a decision that came from thinking and figuring after having felt so completely (and willingly) led by Spirit/intuition/deep self for so long. Not surprisingly (at least in retrospect) that decision, in short order, hurled me into more rather than less anxiety and confusion. I felt desperate, in and out of feeling frantic, up against the wire. I became totally preoccupied with making my now smaller stash of money last as long as possible.
I began taking odd (in both senses of the word) jobs. I joined a woman I knew in her contract housecleaning business. At least there was no danger of becoming enmeshed in super-achieving there. Then I worked weekend evenings as the doorperson-cum-bouncer at a local women's bar. Most of the Santa Barbara women in the then new wave of feminists-coming-out-as-lesbians went there regularly to hang out, drink juice and dance. It was more like a community center than a bar. And, many of these women were my new friends. The job offered me a way to be at the bar and (comfortably) a little removed at the same time.
In the midst of the uneasiness, I also became involved in a relationship that challenged every bit of the self I'd thought I was at the time. My partner's workaholism (80+ hours a week) exaggerated the discomfort and worry that continued to plague me. Rather than staying with my agitation and going deeper with it, I became more and more busily, co-dependently enmeshed in taking up the slack left in her life by my partner's overworking. From the moment my figuring-it-out self had taken the reins, my slide into chaos and despair kept accelerating.
And then, magic found a way to happen despite all that I was doing to get in the way of it. Those were the early days of non-monogamy as the path of political correctness in the Southern California lesbian community. (That was the 1970s version of what has more recently resurfaced incarnated as "polyamory.") Several women in the Santa Barbara community had begun exploring this path. A few were getting painfully tangled in the emotional messes it could easily provoke. My past as both a feminist psychotherapist and a woman who had lived bisexually in an open marriage was, by then, fairly well known in the community.
Several weekends in a row, some of the distressed women and their caring friends came over to me as I sat at the door of the bar reading my book while serving as doorperson/bouncer. In many variations, they implored and cajoled me to consider doing counseling or psychotherapy again. They felt I would be the perfect person to be a resource for our community in the middle of this upheaval.
I felt sympathy and concern for the women involved. I remembered what hard work it had been to stay sane, to be compassionate and honest in the midst of the open relationship through which I had lived. Still, at first, I couldn't begin to fathom putting on the therapist hat again. The whole idea had me feeling vaguely nauseated. The women persisted and pressed. Someone (I no longer remember who it was) asked me to at least think about under what circumstances I might possibly be open to doing the work, even for a brief while.
So, one day as on hands and knees I scrubbed someone's tiled kitchen floor, I actually started thinking about what I would need to make it possible to do therapy again, probably as a brief experiment. I thought about all the things that had made me need to stop doing the work.
I remembered the claustrophobic feeling of being confined for so many hours a day to an office – even though it was beautiful, comfortable and in my own home. I remembered how it had felt: clients brought, worked on and left their pains in the air and walls of that room. By the time I stopped seeing people there, it had felt as though the layers of pain absorbed into those walls were thick and suffocating.
I remembered the 50-minute hour that I (to my great professional chagrin) had so much trouble sticking to. It had been frustrating for me to interrupt people in the middle of their process because "that's all our time for today." Of course, what that line really meant was that there was someone else in the waiting room ready for their appointment with me.
I remembered how much I was left hanging – feeling just as unfinished as my clients were feeling when they were interrupted by the clock. I remembered how that lack of completion left me mulling over and over what had gone on in each client's life. How, because of the lack of closure, I often felt as though I was engaged in living not only my own but twenty other lives simultaneously.
I remembered how locked into the work I felt. Once I began working with someone, I was committed to going the distance with them, a distance about which I would have little say despite its impact on my life. And, I remembered all the paperwork, billing and keeping track of accounts receivable that ate up so much of my non-client time.
As I remembered, I thought about the blessings of my California life. The nourishment of hours spent at the beaches, in the mountains, in green and open spaces; the joys of timelessness, of being more off the clock than on it. Of the specialness of a life that allowed me to hang out with a friend until we were organically ready to end a conversation, not having tight schedules aborting our time together. The blessedness of having space and freedom to move anytime in any direction that Spirit/my deep self led me.
Out of that hands-and-knees reverie, came a seed of possibility. If I could meet the people I might work with outdoors or in their own spaces. If we could meet each time as if it were just this once that we were going to work together. If we could sit or walk and work together in that meeting however long was needed for the person to come to some closure about the issues we were addressing. If I could, as a one-time consultant to each person, help them – as part of their coming to closure – design a plan of how to go forward with their own work on the problem(s) they'd brought to our time together. If people could complete the session by paying (pro-rated) for the actual amount of time they'd used as we finished. Then, I could make the space inside of me to try doing the work of a therapist again. If it didn't work for me, if I needed to stop, I wouldn't have made commitments I couldn't keep.
From that seed grew a practice I called Catalyst that worked in exactly those ways. It started with me serving the women who had entreated me to come back to doing counseling/therapy. It lasted many more years in the one-time-at-a-time form, even though people could always call back the very next week if they needed/wanted another one-time.
This new (to me at least) way of doing therapy/consultation was Spirit's gift to me. It was born out of the willingness (all the trying-to-figure-it-out notwithstanding) to live in the middle of a long season of not-knowing; a willingness to see not-knowing as a valuable part of the growing cycle in which much could be germinating. Not-knowing times seem to be a kind of neutral or idling gear through which we must pass every time we prepare for a major shifting of our inner/outer gears.
Over the years the shape of my practice/work has continued to transform as I've transformed. It's refashioned itself into some amalgam of Catalyst and my returning willingness to be committed to ongoing availability to the people who use me as their consultant. Having learned to use sage and prayer to cleanse my space, I feel freer to see people in my studio. Still, I often do house calls or outdoor sessions when people would prefer that. And, most recently, I do a lot of my work by phone with people who live at distances from Ojai.
These two long cycles of not-knowing taught me trust, patience and the importance of keeping my figuring-it-out hands off the controls when other (these days much less major) cycles of not-knowing arrive. I practice talking compassionately and reassuringly to the sometimes disquieted, antsy parts of me who may feel upset or challenged by the not-knowing. (It usually calms the agitation when I do that.) And, I continue to be amazed at what comes into being at the far sides of even the most interminable seeming seasons of not-knowing.
In our crazy out-of-balance culture, we feel compelled to rush our selves to come up with answers before we've let our selves live into the questions. We feel pushed to make any decision rather than risk the criticism we fear for quietly waiting for direction to emerge organically from our inner-knowing places. I think here of the demeaning pejoratives like "passive," "not being proactive," "wishy-washy," "indecisive" thrown at us when we choose to hang out and wait on our own inner timing.
Claiming not-knowing times as honorable, empowering seasons of germinating and inner preparation seems essential to living more compassionately with our selves and other beings.
Consider tenderly reassuring the parts of you who are fearful of embracing not-knowing times, of not-having-all-the-answers-right-now.