I Don’t Know What to Do (#872)

What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

I had a coaching session recently with a new client who became so enraged at my apparent unwillingness to tell her what to do in the face of a dilemma that she began shouting at me.

“I don’t know what to do – just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!”

I’ve deleted the implied expletives in our conversation, but I could really identify with her thoughts and feelings of frustration. We’ve somehow learned to equate “not knowing” with weakness, hopelessness, or even a lack of intelligence, when in fact, it’s just a statement of fact: we don’t know what we don’t know until we do.

What happens next is invariably a function of whether or not we know about and have learned to trust in the deeper intelligence that is always available underneath the noise of our own intellect – the deeper “mind” behind the receiving station of our brain.

I remember as a young child driving by a radio station in the middle of nowhere that we were listening to in the car. I asked my father if we could stop and go in, as I was really enjoying the music and wanted to hear it live. He explained to me (with a lot more kindness and patience than the request necessarily merited) that the musicians weren’t really inside the station – what we were listening to was either a recording that was being played by the DJ or a live feed from a station somewhere far away from the middle of nowhere.

I was both disappointed and thrilled. Disappointed that I would’t get to meet the musicians, and thrilled by the idea that a technology existed which could take music and conversation from anywhere in the world and allow it to be heard thousands of miles away. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this is an excellent metaphor for the relationship between deeper intelligence and memory – between the mind and the brain.

Think of your brain like an old fashioned radio station with stacks of records and CD’s lining the walls. These recordings are the sum total of the information you currently have stored inside your head – facts, figures, and memories that can be played and replayed ad nauseum in a virtually incalculable number of combinations.

If you didn’t know that the antenna atop the station was equipped with a receiving function as well as a broadcasting one, you would naturally expect that you had to choose your entertainment from in and among whatever you had inside the station. But the moment you realize that you can tune in to a signal from beyond your limited library, you would recognize that you now had a truly infinite capacity for new music to come through.

This is the truth of the human mind – in any moment, we can search and re-search our personal data banks, or we can open ourselves up to receive wisdom from the deeper intelligence behind our personal intellect. While there is no one right way to do that, there are a few things I’ve found over the years really seem to help…

1. Hang out in the unknown

Many years ago, I sat in a pub in West Hampstead in London and watched Robin Williams perform about 2 hours of comedy in an unannounced gig where he was trying out material for a Royal Command performance in front of the Queen. While I was somewhat awed to be sitting only a few feet away from one of my comedy heroes, I was even more awed watching him work.

While some of his material was clearly very well rehearsed, the purpose of the evening was as much to discover and try out the unknown as to further practice the known. From time to time, usually in the lull after a pre-scripted routine had reached its comic climax, he would stand at the microphone for what seemed like an eternity, saying very little until a new thought popped into his head and off he would go on a new comedy riff, tentatively at first and then, if it took hold, with greater and greater confidence.

This dance between the known and the unknown has stayed with me over the years, and is an intrinsic part of my own creative process. While I do have certain stories and metaphors that have proved themselves over the years that I can pull out of my bag of tricks at a moments notice, I only tend to open up that bag when I’m feeling a bit insecure or out of touch with the deeper intelligence behind life. But invariably the real magic in any talk or class comes when I put down the bag of tricks and go to the well of creative potential.

2. Nothing is often better than something

One of my favorite stories about the power of trusting in the deeper intelligence behind the mind is of a consultant friend of mine who brought a new intern with him to a corporate mediation. The first session was disastrous, with everyone shouting everyone else down and my friend’s counsel being largely ignored. During the first break, his intern came up to him and said “That was awful!”

My friend replied, “I know – it really was!”

“What are you going to do?” asked the intern, revved up into a minor panic.

“I don’t know yet”, said my friend calmly, “but we’ve got about 20 minutes – hopefully something will come to me during the break.”

At the end of the break, the intern returned. ”Did you figure out what you’re going to do?”

“No, nothing’s come to me yet.”

“But what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

The intern was exasperated. ”You’ve got to do something – they’ve paid us a fortune and they’re all waiting on you!”

My friend looked surprised. ”What do you want me to do – make something up?”

The reason I so love that story is that it points to a deep understanding of how creative thought actually works. The consultant wasn’t panicked, because he knew two things that the intern had yet to discover. The first is that stress and worry are not particularly conducive to creative innovation.  The second is that an original idea is worth waiting for.

3. Trust the feeling

Syd Banks is the philosopher behind many of the ideas I talk about in The Inside-Out Revolution. In one of his older recordings, he says “If you’re listening to this in your car and you find yourself in a beautiful feeling, roll down your window, pop the tape out of the tape player, and throw it out the window. Stay with the feeling, and it will teach you everything you need to know.”

That deeper feeling (of relative quiet, peace, and well-being) has information in it – it’s like the radio waves that carry the voice of our deeper wisdom. And when I don’t know what to do, I know of no better remedy than to ask my question, admit that I don’t know the answer, and then carry on with my life as best I can in the most beautiful feeling I can find. Almost as soon as I forget I was asking, answers begin to arrive.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

When you allow a deeper wisdom to come through you, that deeper wisdom inevitably comes through.

With all my love,

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