The Sound of Settling

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

– Rumi

“To be an adult is to know what you want and to do it,” my therapist said to me at the end of a session one day. Then he added: “Blessed is the person who knows what she wants.” There’s something subversively simple about his adage about being an adult. How many of us know what we really want and are able to live in concert with our heart’s longing, uncluttered by the ways in which the world makes that difficult?

The sound of settling with something less is echoed in Rumi’s lines:

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.

When we step out into work-life, after ingesting what we know about work from our caregivers, our motivators and the ideas that drive us, and what we think we want, we may find ourselves lost and consumed in the fire, or just lost and losing touch with ourselves-or both. Until we walk outside. In her book If Women Rose Rooted, Sharon Blackie writes:

“There is a hollow desperation which, from the inside, borders at times on madness in living a life which you know is the wrong life, while not being able to see a way out. When all of your childhood conditioning tells you to stick with it, keep yourself safe, always vote for security and certainty. But I knew that I was not who I was supposed to be; I knew in my heart that I didn’t like my life, and my body was beginning to buckle under the strain.”

Jason Jacobs, founder of Runkeeper, notes in this podcast conversation that over the past decade his “bias was always: company, company, company. I thought: someone can look inside my head some other time.” He admits that tactic may not have worked, as a sense of joy felt elusive or vacant. He adds: “My nightmare is having great professional success and looking in the mirror not being proud of who I see.” There he stands on the precipice of moving into something new and wanting to do it differently, as if there’s a deeper voice calling him to question just how to do that since the old way wasn’t as ultimately fulfilling as he would like.

In their own way, our trials and tribulations lead us to the juncture at midlife ripe with questions that will inform our second act, that of our second adulthood, the place where we are called to step more into our authenticity and purpose. Midlife is an opportunity to pause to ask the questions that linger and go deep, those that may change the course of our way of being in the world and refine what we are living for, if we’re aware enough to heed the call. If we’re lucky, we’ll pick up on life’s messages and listen with another part of us, that’s been with us all this time, yet was driven by other motives.

“The second half of life isn’t about looking for easy answers,” James Hollis says in Through the Dark Wood: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. “It’s about honestly exploring the questions that bring richness and value to your life.”

As you reflect on your work, your relationships and your role in life at this inflection point, something more purposeful emerges–or wants to emerge. Questions arise from a part of us that had been bowled over in pursuit of success according to the world. They are quiet but persistent, and the answers seem nostalgically close: Who am I, really? What am I doing? What patterns, programs and remnants from the past have directed my life? What’s my work to do in the world? What have I lost along the way? What do I need to reclaim? What would I like in this second act of my life? How do I get there?  

Discovering clarity in what you’d like moving forward from that place, unpacked from external influences and separated from the images of how we ‘should’ be according to the world around us, is no small task as it is rife with information gleaned from all of our formidable years. It may require sifting through all that was internalized about how we think we should be and what it even is to be ourselves unfettered by the emotional complexes of whatever we think we can possibly have or even deserve. We have to listen closely to hear the still voice resounding within.

Rumi tells us:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want. Perhaps in that line of questioning, we come closer to what author Rob Brezsny calls our primal longing: “Your primal longing is the deepest yearning you have; the essential desire that brought you here to earth; the reason why you’re alive; the goal that’s most important for you to strive for this lifetime; your core driving force.”

At first blush, responding to “‘what would you like?” and the more soul-resounding undertones of our deepest yearnings can be mired in our sense of self-worth, beliefs about the right to be here and take up space, feelings of guilt, selfishness, subtle unnamed fears of surpassing those who came before us in our family lineages, and many other meanings we made up about what it means to be safe, loved and to belong. In the midst of all that, we may realize that may be the first time we’ve stopped to ask ourselves that question, giving us an opportunity to feel and imagine new possibilities that come from our authentic place in the larger belonging to the world, from a wider view of who we are outside of our roles in life. It’s a knowing we have in our bones, versus one we garner as we grow up trying not to be consumed by the world.

Some folks have a sense of the pulse of their core driving force, whereas others forsake it. In David Whyte’s poem Second Life, he talks about how limiting life is with all of our learned ways and the ways in which the world’s harsh need to change us has dampened our full range of movement and imagination. He calls this our second life, our uncourageous life:

My uncourageous life / doesn’t want to move / doesn’t even want to stir, / wants to inhabit / a difficult form / of stillness, / to pull everything / into the silence / where the throat strains / but gives no voice. / My uncourageous life / wants to stop / the whole world / and keep it stopped / not only for itself / but for everyone / and everything it knows, / refusing to stir even a single inch / until given an / exact / and final destination.

On the other hand for Whyte, our first life-our courageous life-is there, too, offering a different way of being in the world guided by an internal locus that’s had us all along:

But my other life / my first life, / the life I admire / and want to follow / looks on and listens / with / some wonder,  / and even extends / a reassuring hand / for the one holding back, / […] / this hidden life, / this first courageous life,  / seems to speak / from silence / and in the language/of a knowing, / beautiful heartbreak, / above all / it seems to know / well enough / it will have / to give back / everything received / in any form / and even, sometimes, / as it tells the story / of the way ahead, / laughs out loud / in the knowledge.

I felt this distinction in my former marriage, like I was toeing the line between the two worlds. Together, we had a young, driven and accomplished life and all of the accoutrements informed by our Midwestern roots: the cat, the dog, the house in Boulder, the backyard, the garden, the recreational gear. He worked as an architect at a top firm while I finished my Masters. We had life knit together by the looks of it. While I loved parts of our life, I was dying on the inside. While I could have stuck with the relationship, like the women in my lineage before me and been complicit in living a life that wasn’t mine, however that unfolded, I had to call it in honor of the part of me that knew this wasn’t wholly what I wanted.

It was hard to speak what I wanted out from under all those suffocating layers. The band Death Cab for Cutie sang it well in “The Sound of Settling:”

I’ve got a hunger twisting my stomach into knots
That my tongue has tied off
My brain’s repeating, if you’ve got an impulse, let it out
But they never make it past my mouth

Those words that had a hard time making it past my mouth, itched-literally, in a full body rash-until I let them out. I ended a six-year relationship yet, more importantly, began a much deeper commitment in the relationship I had to myself by following the truth of my own longing. I didn’t know where I was going, as there was no map for this like there was for creating a life and doing adult things like getting mortgages, jobs, and married. I said ‘yes’ to myself, and followed the honest wishes of my deep longing.

My colleague Jim Marsden, who’s helping a dozen folks brave their own wilderness at our Reboot Quest as I type, wrote about the journey of transformation in a little book of collected poems we put together for our bootcamps. “Throughout the journey of transformation,” he writes, “when we come to a crossroads unsure of which direction to head or which choice to make, if we simply let ourselves sink into the vulnerability that is our deep longing, then an opening presents itself and the next steps become clear.”

Being still with that vulnerability is the hardest part, perhaps, because it can be so uncomfortable. Yet, when endured, that’s where the magic is. Perhaps, that’s when we learn to meet life and let life meet us. Tapping into that isn’t something we can think ourselves into. I had a client at a crossroads recently say, “I have to figure this out!” I prompted, “Maybe this is something you need to feel out?”

In other words, perhaps there’s another way to be with the longing that may be very present and perhaps presently seemingly got you stumped on how to pursue what’s next. As Jim notes, what got you here, won’t get you there:

“It is the source of the longing rather than the object of the longing that is the guide. In this journey of tremendous transition, we let go of specific outcomes or a desired goal or result. We sink into the simple yearning for a rich and fulfilling life, our own “wholeness” or our authentic voice, rather than trying, pushing or otherwise efforting to make something happen. In times of transformative change, we can’t think our way into the new. If we could have, we would have done so by now! We must experience our way into this new center of gravity. Rather than pursuing rational strategies, we are invited to paradoxically “let go” and surrender to the longing that is now undeniably present in our life.”

At the crux between our old life and our new center of gravity, we can begin to see clearly the learned formats that have eclipsed our longing and sense of wonder–our original way of being in the world. Returning to that stance with life can feel contrary to how we’ve organized ourselves in the world for so long. He continues:

“Staying close and following our longing can be far more difficult than it seems. Most of what we are taught, and what has supported us in becoming successful in our lives, is based on the concepts of following strategies that we know will work and avoiding strategies that we think are risky. The foundation for making these decisions is our own understanding of our life and the stories we carry about “who I am,” “my belonging in the world,” and “how things work in the world.” In times of transformation, it is that foundation itself that is undergoing a significant shift. We cannot rely on those old, tried and true, strategies during transformation to support us. In fact, they are “false friends” that may actually keep us from changing. From the stance of the old foundation, turning toward and following longing as a guide is a very dangerous and risky thing to do!”

Work can lead us down a similar path of growth and discernment that is lined with longing and purpose. The traditionally held belief about work-that you find a job in your 20s and work there until you retire-is changing. Startup life and the modern day trajectory through a career path provides us a not so linear opportunity for our own personal development. And if we are to use work as an opportunity for self-actualization, and we view work as a way to do our inner work, we may be given more than one opportunity for our own evolution. Looking at it that way, we can really see how the seasons of our lives mesh with the transitions inherent in startup careers.

Jim is famous for asking the sweeping soul-prompt: “What would you dare ask for?” A good question to keep close and ask often. (I wrote it down and promptly put it on my fridge.) Living with that question as a guide can lead you through the open doorways, so as to not miss the secrets in the breeze at dawn, so as to follow your longing to the horizon line edge of transformation and wonder.