There’s an inner process to change. In the outer sense, all that’s required is that we leave a job; start a new relationship; tidy up our resumes; or enroll in a class. But what gets us to the threshold of outer change is a subtle, mysterious process that requires a capacity to track our inner lives. So much of what we read in the self-help world is the “just-do-it!” methodology. Just go to a Landmark Forum or Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within, and by the end of the weekend, you’ll be walking on hot coals and doing your best to get all your friends to enroll in the same program you got snookered into yourself. While these trainings offer powerful reminders that we’re much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, they tend to give lip services to but undermine our relationship to our inner lives. Even worse, after we’ve shelled out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for these trainings, we’re often left feeling even more stuck than when we began because on top of feeling unsure about our next steps, we, now, feel weak or inferior because taking those steps isn’t as easy for us as The Landmark Forum Leader or Tony purports them to be. Maybe that’s why we sign up for the Level 2 course. Real and substantive change doesn’t happen in a weekend. What’s required aren’t quick fixes, new tricks, or gimmicks. What’s needed are two things we already have: attention to our interior lives and the capacity to live with confusion. I personally am in the middle of what I consider to be a major work transition that I think is demonstrative of this notion that substantive change is 80% an inner job/ 20% outer.
About a year ago, I started to feel a dimming of interest in one of my current work projects. I’ve been co-running an Ashtanga Yoga program in San Francisco with a friend of mine for five years, and I stopped feeling that magical feeling I’d previously felt about running a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga program. While each student always brought something new and alive to the class, I kept bumping into a kind of been-there-done-that, burned out feeling along with the sense that there was something “out there”, something unclear waiting for me. I’d had these sort of feelings before. I’d been running these programs, for a little more than fifteen years, so aversion isn’t new hat. Like all feelings, this one would previously come and go. But in this case, these feelings were persistent.
Distinguishing Reactions from Callings
It’s often hard to detect when a feeling is just a passing reaction or when it’s a message from the deeper interior. We all have periods of time when our jobs or our relationships don’t satisfy us. That’s normal. The notion that we’re always supposed to be happy all the time is a myth. Even the best of job or relationships can go stale on us or just irritate us to the core. That’s normal. But when that difficulty is prolonged, it’s often an inner message that it’s time to slow down and reflect on what we’re bumping into. Often times, we get busy trying to alter our lives or situations to make our discomfort go away only to discover that we’re in a new relationship or new job meeting the same feelings again. Sometimes the message from the interior is that, in fact, it is time for a change. Deciphering the inner codes can be quite difficult. It can be immensely helpful to have wise counsel as well as a community of friends on the path with us that we trust enough to help us distinguish the wisdom of our inner callings from the voices that deceive us.
So I shared the experience with my coach, my wife, and my partner in the project. I said, “Okay, I’m feeling burned out. I’m starting to wonder if co-running this program is coming to an end for me. I want to give voice to this experience, but I don’t want to make a decision. I want to wait and see if, in fact, I am done, or I am just a little burnt out. I’d like to revisit this conversation in two months.” In the meantime, it was important for me to test my hypothesis. Was I really done? Or was I just experiencing a message from the interior saying, “Slow down. Stop giving your energy. Find a new way to work.”
Sure enough, after two months, the feelings had passed. I felt reinvigorated by some responses I’d had to some blog writing I was doing about the intersections of yoga and life coaching and started to see that the project I was in was a great platform for the expression of this cross-breeding. But then a friend contacted me and said, “I’d like to partner with you to do some coach-consulting work in corporations.” And my response was, “Yes!!! I’d love to do this!” But with a little deeper reflection, I came to the sad conclusion that I was still teetering on burnout. There was no way I could take on another project. I just didn’t have the energy reserves to take something like that on. My days were too filled with teaching classes, seeing clients, and treating patients, that I couldn’t possibly give this new project the attention it needed. This recognition had me feeling extremely frustrated . And so, here I was, once again, thinking that it was time for a change, but somehow I wasn’t quite ready.
Are We Really Meaning Making Machines?
This is where I imagine most coaches and self-help workshops would throw me off of the cliff. They’d tell me, “Just do it!” All change has the tendency to be dummied down by these so-called change-agent experts:
No action = No change
No change = Procrastination
Procrastination = Bad/Unhappy
Action = Good/ Happy
And while this perspective, no doubt, gets people into powerful action, it’s the kind action that makes them feel cut off from their interiors, which, by the way, deliver messages slowly and subtly and require not so much boldness but softness, receptivity, and awareness to detect and decipher their messages. Many self-help programs regard humans as machines that misinterpret everything and, thus, need reprogramming so they can function as better machines. Disregarding all of the self-help jargon I’d acquired over the years, I thankfully held off from making a decision for another few more months. And then I had this experience that absolutely changed me forever.
The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready
After an arduous bike ride to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, I stood on a hillock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, The City of San Francisco, and the East Bay. As I stood there taking in the scenery, I felt a sense of gratitude for the beauty that surrounded me, and so I started to do a little, improvised gratitude jig, somewhere between a yoga sun salutation and a dance. As I did my gratitude dance, I started to hear a clicking noise behind me that kept the rhythm. And when I turned around, I saw this raven standing only a few feet from me with a seed of sorts in its beak. The clicking was coming from the raven’s beak making contact with the seed, and I had this clear sense that the raven was relating to my movements by keeping the rhythm. I continued to dance my gratitude dance around the hillock. Each movement I made to the left, the raven moved to the right. Each movement I made to the right, the raven moved to the left. We were in a dance together, and the raven was keeping the rhythm. At the same time this dance was taking place, I’d had this intuitive sense that the raven had a message for me. Who knows whether I was making it up or not, but it was a message that moved me:
“It’s time to let go, to stop dancing someone else’s dance, to dance you’re own steps, and to trust them.”
For me this was code for the fact that I’d spent the last 20 years faithfully following a tradition. I’d been a student and teacher of a deep and old tradition of yoga, but, nevertheless, someone else’s interpretation, someone else’s ideas, and it was time for me to learn to trust a deeper and more personal wisdom, the one that was moving through me. Gulp. I’d been a student of and run these sorts of programs for so many years because they had given me access to deep teachings, the security of a teacher a community, a sort of authority to back up my own teachings, and an identity. Now, the raven-teacher was giving me the the sage advice, “Let go!”
One might read this as a sort of self-aggrandized interpretation of an experience, a sort of glorification of narcissistic tendencies, but the inner sense of clarity the experience evoked in me was profound and true. I realized, in that moment, that my need for change wasn’t so much about leaving the program or about being burnt out. Rather, it was about making room for something more personally truer to enter. I realized that I had to make space for that to come about. And for that brief moment, I felt released. Released from the burden that by leaving, I was betraying my students, my partner, or the tradition. It was a visceral experience, this clear sense that not only was it okay to make a change, but I was being called forth to make it. And while I’d been preparing for this moment for the nine months of back-and-forth, the inner teacher’s message had clearly arrived.
Holding the Tension
Within a week of this experience, my partner and I met. I shared my decision, and we both wrote a public announcement about that decision. By the way, this doing, this action required little to no effort. Even though most self-help programs focus on action, that wasn’t the challenge. The challenge was living with the uncertainty for almost nine months. One of my teachers used to call this form of waiting, “holding the tension.” Holding the tension is another way of saying, living with uncertainty. It’s called holding the tension because it feels uncomfortable to live between a question, to live in ambiguity. Each of us has a propensity to try to get ground underneath our feet by wanting certainty or clarity. That’s why we turn to self-help programs, gurus, yoga traditions, techniques, methods, and philosophies. But if we’re following our inner guidance, the messages come in only when we’re really ready. Sometimes we must undergo a trial by fire before the message is clear. You can’t coax the interior into a “yes or no decision” in a weekend. It is much more subtle than that. But when the message is announced, it comes in declarative tones from that still small voice within: “Call her.” “Go to New York.” “It’s time.” “Let go!” And when we disregard these messages because they’re inconvenient, we sometimes find ourselves in the throws of depression.
And Continuing to Live With Uncertainty
Tomorrow is the last day I will be teaching at Mission Ashtanga. I can’t say that I am not sad or even that I don’t regret my decision. I can’t tell you how many times my doubting voice has entered. Right after I made the decision to leave, I started to like teaching, again. All of the previous feelings of burn out have completely gone away. In fact, some aspects of my teaching, which previously had been driven by a proving energy, are gone. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. And as that’s gone away, I am just enjoying the process, which has me thinking, at moments, “Why the f-ck am I doing this?”
But I know, within a much deeper place of my being why I am doing this. This decision is not whimsy. I had to struggle valiantly with the decision. I had to endure lots of back and forth while continuing to live with uncertainty. And since that certainty came, I have to be willing to trust it in spite of the fact that I want to second-guess my decision. I get that my ride is unique to me, but I think that the essence of my experience is universal, that if we want real and substantive change, we have to be willing live for sustained periods with the discomfort of ambiguity and doubt. In fact, one might say that most of life requires us to get accustomed to uncertainty. The sooner we get that message, the less we’ll fall prey to quick fixes and the more authentic our lives will be.
So as I enter the next step of this journey, I have some more ambiguity I have to live with: What is my next step? What is the deeper and more personally authentic expression I am being called forth to bring about? To be honest, I have no f-cking clue. I’ve made several stabs at it over the last few months since making my decision. Every time I start to get something down, I feel like I am met with more confusion and uncertainty. I’ve tried to put deadlines and timelines on the process. I’ve spent hours trying to distill a message. All of my efforts have been in vain. In spite of my frustration with this process, I’m pretty clear that if I am patient and am willing to live with the uncertainty and a low-level of frustration, the next step will clarify itself. Who knows, maybe I’ll crumble and send away for Tony’s Power Talk CD’s.