What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

confusedmonkey_counseling_yoga_menlopark_meditation_conniehabashStuck.  Mind is blank.  Out of options.  You’ve come to an impasse – a situation in which you’re not sure which way to go.  The path seems to end there, and the overgrowth of the brush has covered the direction.

We all come to places and times in our lives when we don’t know what to do.  We weigh our options, and none of them feels quite right, or they have big costs that we aren’t yet willing to pay.  It can feel helpless, hopeless, and scary. We may feel that we’re alone and have to figure it out all by ourselves.

The only thing we can be certain of is that we can’t go back. Perhaps we are ready to leave a relationship that no longer works, or a job situation that’s become torturous.  But leaving it leaves us wide open – a place of vulnerability in facing the unknown.  Perhaps we’re willing to embark on a new career, or allow someone loving into our lives, but we just don’t know how.  We feel compelled to figure things out, and figure them out quick.  What way do I go, and how do I get there – fast!

Compulsions to DO

We want to DO something.  Granted, if we’re in a dangerous situation, we must act, and act swiftly, in order to get out of danger.  But let’s assume that most of us aren’t faced with real danger, but a more imagined threat – the great mystery.  This is the unknown of the future, which never tells all, despite our best attempts at getting advice from our friends, family, astrologers, psychics, and financial consultants!

Because we don’t know what’s ahead, the mind starts considering possibilities. If you have the kind of mind that worries and is often looking for the perceived threat, that potential danger that lies around the corner, sitting with the unknown becomes pretty unbearable.  So, we figure, we must come up with a PLAN.  A plan gives us security.  Then we feel like, yeah, I’m going somewhere.  The plan is often based on how to protect us from the potential threats that the fear-based mind has come up with.  And then we have to DO something about it.

Learning to BE

Has this pattern occurred before in your life?  Patterns like this tend to repeat over and over: we come to a crossroads, we don’t know what to do, we get scared, and we make a plan – a plan based on fear and self-protection, rather than on our heart.  Instead of following what truly gives us joy, we fall into the trap of staying safe because we haven’t learned to sit with the uncomfortableness of not-knowing.  We haven’t yet learned to BE.

Perhaps what the universe is calling for, rather than DOING something, is to sit down and BE.  When we relax and allow ourselves to be, something greater than us can come forth. When we’re trying so hard to DO and make something – anything – happen, we may be interfering with that process.

Think about the growth of a child.  From a baby, the child naturally grows into an adult without any of us having to do something to make that happen.  We don’t sit down with a plan, and say, “OK.  In the first year, we’ll need to make the baby grow a foot, we’ll have to seal up the opening on the crown of the head, and we’ll need to have the following motor skills developed through this comprehensive plan, as follows.”  How ridiculous!  We know that if the baby receives proper nourishment, ample love, attentiveness from the parents, and is allowed to play and BE, nature takes its course.  We don’t inject growth hormones into our children to try to make their growth happen.  When everything is in order, it naturally happens.

The Taoist perspective

There is a Taoist term that roughly translates as “the action that arises of itself.”  It’s called Wu-Wei.  When we become present, let go, and trust that something beyond us will show up, guess what – it does.  In the philosophy of Taoism, everything has its own nature, its own essence, already within it.

In The Tao of Pooh, author Benjamin Hoff asserts, “the more man interfered with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the further away the harmony retreated into the distance.  The more forcing, the more trouble… Only then did life become sour.”  Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, observed that when the natural order prevailed, the people were happy.  When the leaders of the country tried to control everything, the people became dissatisfied.  Being worked much better than controlling.

Worried about nothing happening if you stop and just BE?  Keep this in mind – the universe is always changing.  Nothing ever stays the same for too long.  If we give it a chance, by not-doing, the natural, harmonious action can bubble up to the surface.  This is Wu-Wei.

Stop, Look, Listen

Remember the old saying that you’d learn as a child when you were about to cross the street: “Stop, Look, and Listen”. There was more wisdom to this catch-phrase than meets the eye.  This is about bringing ourselves into the present moment.  Stop.  Sit down, and be here. Don’t just do something – stand there and become fully present.  Look.  What are you experiencing?  What do you notice around you?  Listen.  What do you hear, both around you in your environment and also in your heart?

We may find many things arising in us – sadness, anger, fear, joy, pain, excitement.  Whatever arises, try to be present with it.  Until we embrace what’s inside us, it drives us unconsciously.  Bring it out into the open and see what’s there.  Sometimes holding it all inside obscures the part of ourselves that intuitively knows what’s best, much like the dust and dirt on a window can cloud your vision.

When we see the accumulated stuff, we can begin to wipe the window clean and see outside – and inside – ourselves more clearly.  Then, perceiving the truth of where we are and who we are in this moment, we make better decisions.  Wu-wei, the natural action, has the space to arise. Meditation, yoga, being out in nature, taking a bath, sitting in a park and watching the people and creatures all around you are some ways you can bring yourself back into the present.

Trying to control

Part of the difficulty in allowing ourselves to be present and letting our own natural essence come forth is that it’s hard to let go of control.  Control can come in different flavors, but two stand out in my mind:  trying to control the outside, and trying to control the inside.

We try to control the outside by mandating other’s behaviors, keeping everything predictable, sticking with what’s familiar. We try to control the inside by convincing ourselves that we know.  It’s the belief that we can figure out how to get this situation back under control and protect ourselves from anything dangerous or unpredictable happening.  We’ll insulate ourselves so well in our mind and in our life, avoiding any possibility of the discomfort of not-knowing what to do, by the attachment to controlling.

Not-Knowing may be uncomfortable, but it’s loaded with possibility.  It’s unrestricted.  Knowing all the time can become a huge defense field, deflecting off any unfamiliar experience.  This develops, if unchecked, into a haughty (or self-defeating) and dismissive attitude that pushes people, as well as new experiences, away.  Once we let go of the need to know, something inside relaxes. We open ourselves to new ways of being, doing, and potential solutions.  Ironically, this opens us to learning and discovering much more than if we had clung onto to needing to know.

Let go

The truth is, we can’t always know what to do, and we can’t always be in control.  If we insist on it all the time, there’s a heavy cost.  It’s exhausting, both mentally and physically, for one thing.  And it robs us of spontaneity and new possibilities.  We stay stuck in our same old familiar but stagnant state.

If we let go of control and allow our ride to be a little bumpy, we might finally get into some new territory.  Practice some relaxation poses, open yourself, and trust that if you let go, you’re still safe.  Then, try some yoga poses that you’ve never tried before!

Explore these other practices for letting go of control: for one day, don’t tell anyone what to do or how to do things; leave one full weekend completely unplanned, then see what happens; take a trip somewhere without making any reservations; take off on a drive without any idea where you’re going, and just spontaneously see where you end up; let someone ELSE drive the car!  Practice the affirmation, “I let go, knowing that the universe protects me, provides for me, and shows me the way.”  See what happens when you begin to live your life based more in trust rather than in fear.

So step back and relax.  You don’t have to know what to do.  Something inside you, in your deepest self, already does.  You can make the choice to step aside, trust, and let go.  You can choose to allow a direction to arise that isn’t based on old fears and clinging to what is familiar and safe, by releasing and Being.  Have you considered the possibility that it might even be fun?  Allow the Divine to have the driver’s seat, and enjoy the ride.  It just may take you to where you truly want to go.

copyright © 2003, 2008 by Constance L. Habash

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