Years ago, I wrote that founding, running, and working in a startup can often feel as if you’re often feel as if you’re standing still while your hair’s on fire.
I wrote that phrase offhandedly, as if it were merely a funny little image to help explain the intense sense of panic of life in a startup.
Years and hundreds of conversations later, the image feels even more true. Back then, it evoked the feeling of combining the sensation of not making progress with the urgent, frantic panting need to move at all costs.
Yet as I’ve grown I’ve come to know that the exquisite pain of standing still isn’t limited to entrepreneurs.
The image first came to me when I heard David Wagoner’s exceptional poem, Lost. The opening lines haunt me: “Stand still/The trees ahead and bushes beside you/Are not lost.”
Sitting on my cushion this morning, working with a powerful instruction from my teacher Sharon Salzberg (and the instruction was to recall that “All thoughts are empty.”) I watched as stars blinked out and the sun rose. And I thought, “The stars are not lost.”
As often happens, themes and ideas work their way through the fiber of my being. I knead concepts and teachings, over and over, working to discover their truest meanings. Recently, for a talk on surviving life in a startup at the Pioneers festival in Vienna, I revived the image, kneading once more.
I think it’s found way back into my consciousness because I need to hear the message again. My current life feels an embodiment of the notion that, to borrow a phrase from my friend the Buddhist teacher Emily Horn, consciousness is so turbulent.
When I first wrote of Standing Still While Your Hair’s on Fire I saw the juxtaposition as an expression of utter panic. Now, though, I understand it to be advice, a prescription for how to respond when you feel all is lost. Seen this way, it’s perhaps the most difficult to implement instruction I’ve ever received: Do nothing. Stand still.
I think this is really what Waggoner was getting at in his poem:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Re-reading those lines, I feel my panic-filled body resisting: “Stand still? Are you kidding me?,” my heart races. “Let the Forest find me?” And then the real fear creeps in: “What if it doesn’t come to look for me?”
Despite my panic, I know it’s true. The surety of that knowledge is the gift I receive from my clients. I see their transformations, feel their growth with a wonder that moves me to tears.
There’s an email thread, for example, among some of the folks who attended our June bootcamp in Tuscany. It contains some of the most heart-felt and heart-wrenching expressions of deep transformation I’ve ever read.
A few weeks ago, I watched a client speak at a company all-hands and weep with joy and broken-hearted love for his family and for the gift that are his colleagues. I saw dozens of eyes soften and know that this place is a place where it’s safe for humans to be human.
At the talk in Vienna, a young man came up to me. As so often happens for a speaker, folks had come up to share an observation, express thanks or disagreement. But this young man stood apart. And through the crowd of about ten in front of me, I saw his eyes. Red, swollen–the pain so evident. I pulled him aside, gathered him into a sheltered corner and he said, “Jerry…what you said…it’s…” and he broke down. We both wept. A total stranger, with English as a second language, he collapsed into my arms, and I whispered, “You’re not alone. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”
Oh my…this work…this work I and my colleagues do, is such a precious gift. Coaching, workshops, bootcamps–really it’s all about learning to stand still; the steps necessary and being with the fear that it invokes. In this way, perhaps the forest may find you.