An old “friend” came to visit a few days ago while I was sitting in meditation. “You have no idea what you are doing!” he declared. Strange, I was just sitting there. I wasn’t “doing” anything. But he repeated, “You have no idea what you are doing!” Really? Where did this come from? Of course, it came from inside my mind, a self-critical thought that is one of my “top ten tunes” of rumination and regret. Well, before long, I agreed, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It was true. Sitting in meditation, I couldn’t concentrate at all, kept squirming and haven’t been sitting for nearly as long as I should be.
How can such a thought crop up seemingly from out of the blue but then attach itself and find validation in the circumstances surrounding it? Putting together the documentation for my tax return is confusing, I sure have no idea what I’m doing there. Hey, I’m about to start a teaching job, what do I know about that? Kids feeling anxiety about school – how am I going to help with that? I’m still figuring it out myself. See how quickly the tiniest seed of doubt can spread throughout my experience?
Almost twenty years ago, I was fresh off a two-year stint as a telephone customer service representative for a mutual fund company. I had just been promoted to the role of “equity analyst,” a prize I had coveted and had been made possible by the bursting of the dot-com bubble and a hiring freeze that only allowed new positions to be filled internally. Thus, a guy who had been robotically confirming account balances all day was now charged with recommending stocks for a multi-billion dollar mutual fund. It was a thrill but I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING. How in the world could I make a decision with so much at stake? So I labored over company after company, always finding a reason not to recommend this investment or that investment.
Eventually, I confided in a veteran analyst named Dave at the company. I sheepishly began describing the work I’d been doing and the paralysis that kept me from recommending any stocks. Dave frowned, seemingly irritated and declared, “Close the door!” I figured he was going to tell me I wasn’t cut out for this line of work. Instead, I closed the door, he lowered his voice, almost to a whisper and told me, “None of us have any idea what we are doing.”
Wow! This must have been what Dorothy felt like when she got a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. What a relief! Here, I thought I was stumbling alone in the darkness only to be told we all need night vision glasses. In Dave’s words, I found the self-compassion that allowed me to begin taking risks, making decisions and living freely, knowing that this was a difficult job and there was no way to achieve certainty.
Stephen Cope is a yoga teacher who wrote the book “The Great Work of Your Life, A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.” Cope frames an exploration of doubt, particularly with respect to one’s future self, by weaving in the story of Krishna, the Hindu God, as he counsels the great warrior Arjuna as he lies catatonic in his chariot, preparing for great violence at the outset of war. Cope, with insight from a monk named Father Bede, lays out an eight step process for finding who you are, making it your life’s work and holding a compassionate gentleness as you proceed. The eight steps are:
1) Ask for guidance – This can be a personal reflection or a spiritual connection.
2) Listen for a response – This isn’t a conceptual, cognitive process. It is allowing an answer to arise.
3) When you get a response, check it out – Test the answers that arise, consult friends, mentors and practice it yourself.
4) Wait to act – Wow! What about charging ahead? This is the foundation of mindfulness, allow yourself space between stimulus and response.
5) Pray for the courage to take action – Yikes, have you ever known what you needed to do but REALLY didn’t want to do it? This needn’t be religious, just an aspiration or intention to develop the willingness to act.
6) Let go of the attempt to eliminate risk from these decisions and actions – Now we are cooking. The path of least resistance may seem attractive but is it meaningful? Risk can be good! It is a sign of growth, change and importance to you. How often have you been paralyzed while trying to choose the riskless path? And what possibilities are foreclosed in the process?
7) Move forward methodically – Life is an iterative process. You must act to grow but give yourself time to “course correct”, knowing that the ultimate outcome can’t be known from the start.
8) Let go of the outcome – You can’t take it with you. Your circumstances are ever-changing so today’s success may be tomorrow’s challenge. Find value in the journey, not the destination.
So what to do? How do I break free from the paralyzing thought of “I have no idea what I’m doing?”
Naming or noting (click here for a guided practice) can be a helpful tool here. Simply acknowledging a thought as a thought can have a surprising effect. Author Dan Siegel describes the chemical process underlying “Name it to Tame it” wherein your prefrontal cortex sends soothing, empathetic signals throughout your nervous system just by bringing awareness to a thought. By activating your parasympathetic nervous system, you are literally activating a relaxation response that can move you out of fear and worry.
A related approach is to use the power of inquiry, a method my teacher Jonathan Foust has shared with me which I’ve found immensely useful. Through this investigation, I ask myself what is this statement trying to say? What am I believing? What do I need?
This week’s podcast includes a meditation of repeated questions that help define and refine what is meaningful. In a sense, it does an end-around discursive and distracting thoughts to clarify vision and determine what to do next. The questions I present are as follows:
In a word, what do I live for?
What is my intention?
What will I do next?
I like the gentleness of these questions because they aren’t overly demanding. It is an iterative process that is more intended to bring one closer to what is meaningful to them than to completely figure it out.
One interesting side effect of experimenting with these practices is an improved clarity for when I actually have no idea what I’m doing. This somehow transforms my perceived shortcomings into comedy. Think home improvement projects. This is not my area of expertise. A puzzled look from my wife is all I need to know it is time to call a contractor.
So I’m finding that I’ve become a bit better at stopping when I truly have no idea what I’m doing. At the same time, I have more courage and conviction to take risks even if a little voice in my head isn’t so sure quite yet. I’m able to make the distinction and choose my next step instead of being driven by habit and second-guessing. So, this month, I embark on the adventure of teaching mindfulness to over 100 tenth graders. I have practiced the skills and strategies to connect. I have trained and studied curriculums. Some days will be better than others. And I’m sure I’ll hear “you have no idea what you are doing,” maybe event from a student!