Some of the best advice I was ever given was by a friend of mine who knew I was wrestling with a particular problem, and making myself sick trying to force the answer to emerge. She bought me a greeting card and gave it to me, a few days before I took myself off on my first ever silent retreat, to try and figure out what on earth I was going to do next with my life.
The card shared the following words from Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves”
These words (taken from a letter written by Rilke in 1903) continued ….
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
To me, at the time, this was revelatory. As a self-confessed control freak, I had previously been absolute in my certainty that, if I squashed and kneeded, pushed and pulled the goop inside my head long enough, forcefully enough, the right answer to my dilemma would emerge and then I could take action to move that thing forward. That, however, did not prove to be the case. Turns out, my mind isn’t (much to my bitter disappointment and dismay) a sausage machine for ‘The Answers To All Things’. Instead I just ended up with a great many tension headaches and still no earthly clue.
An ex-boss of mine did try to point out to me that I had been wrestling with this same problem for quite some considerable time, over-thinking and over-thinking, stressing and losing sleep, driving myself to distraction. And it had gotten me precisely nowhere. She continued by saying “And you really are a very bright girl, don’t you think if the answer was in your head you would have found it already?”
She had a point.
Worse still, at the time I was working as a Project Manager. It was literally my job to identify and clearly define a problem, research and specify an appropriate solution, and then draw up the plan to make it a reality. So I must be able to do that with this life issue right?
Turns out you cannot project manage life (annoying). You cannot project manage starting a family, losing your mind, your relationships disintegrating, or finding the answer to “What the devil do I do now?” Believe me, I have researched this extensively. This is my dissertation topic. I have my PhD in ‘Things over thinking and over planning won’t help’.
So, my friend handed me Rilke’s wonderful words and there was only one thing left to do which I hadn’t yet tried.
The relentless, thankless trying, to the exclusion of all actual living, had to stop. And I’m getting quite good at that finally. Though it has taken me many, many years of practice.
The wonderful Glennon Doyle reflects on this as follows:
“The only way to know what the next right thing is, is to get very still, block out all the voices from the world and go inside yourself. There is a knowing that rises inside of us when we get quiet enough. Some call it God, others call it intuition or wisdom. It doesn’t matter what you call it—it only matters that you know how to tap into it. To me, it feels more like gravity settling in than words I can hear. This is the new revolution for women: To stop explaining our damn selves. Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take us all the way home.”
I took my Rilke card and his wise words, I took my questions (nearing ignition now from the feverish friction) and I went on my first ever silent retreat. I sat with my questions, I sat with God, we had a bit of a chat, and then we just sat some more. I didn’t get the answers that week. Not to the questions I was asking anyway. But I did get the answer to what to do next. Stop fixating on the bloody questions.
Some time later I was gifted with a course in mindfulness. This turned out to be the best damn project management tool for not fixating I have ever been given.
I still have questions. I hope I always will. But now I don’t fixate on them so doggedly. Instead I explore (often here, with you). I learn. I listen to the wisdom of others (like Rilke, like Glennon) and the wisdom I can now hear from within. That is much more interesting by far, and causes far fewer headaches.
I leave you with a pretty little song I just came across based on Rilke’s words, by a singer called Shannon Hawley:
Copyright 2017 · Forty and Everything After