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The Beauty of Not Knowing

When I was running operations at a company years ago, I brought in this piece of fortune cookie wisdom from my art studio and taped it to my monitor: “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” With everything seemingly changing or shifting daily, that little note seemed to capture the nature of my role at the time in which not everything went according to plan, systems had to change, and I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Most of the time, I was creating something new. I met many of my edges and iterated beyond them. There were days I had no idea what I was doing. There were days that I had a clue. There were days I had to scrap what I did yesterday because things had changed again. Change was the one constant. While I knew this was all part of the process, it could be disorienting and messed with my penchant for planning.

What I learned in that role felt like the MBA I didn’t know I wanted or needed. And the more I learned, the more I knew what I didn’t know, as if my surface area with uncertainty was expanding in proportion to any newly-gleaned information and experience. What I brought to that role was the knowledge of how to orient myself in the midst of all of the questions and who-knows-what-else was just around the corner ready to present itself. I likened it to a big art project. Everyday was just another day in the studio.

“Life is constantly changing,” says Sharon Salzberg in our recent podcast. “There is not only uncertainty and fear in that, but also endless possibility and movement.”

Our human wiring and programming can sometimes make it hard for some of us to endure that change without struggle, but our capacity for greater personal resiliency also makes it possible for us to seize the moment ripe with endless possibility and unknowns. In times when fear makes us cower into a stream of thoughts that articulate what we know we don’t want to have happen, what we fear, and what we’re worried about, there’s always an unlimited number of things that could go in our favor in that very same moment. In those moments when the unknowns could stop us in our tracks, if we can pause the impending thoughts of doom long enough, we can turn towards what’s in front of us and see what else it holds. It helps to turn to wonder then and ask ourselves: “Hmmm, wouldn’t it be great if…” (e.g. “Wouldn’t it be great if something better, something I hadn’t thought of or planned for yet, happened instead?”)

And, wouldn’t it be great if in those moments we’d oft dubbed as ‘failure’ were instead seen as changes that move us in the right direction that we didn’t know we needed or wanted? Then, we can begin celebrating those moments as wake up calls that can usher in more of what you’d really like into your life. Musing on the possibilities provides a shift out of the swirling vortex of anxiety, and offers a better deal: an open stance that has space and allowing for something new to meet you.

It’s a moment of creative agency. We may not always know what we’re doing but we feel our way through, living into all the unanswered questions. Pausing long enough on the crux between a fear response and opening to something new, we can suss out our next bold move, even if that move is no movement at all. The beauty lies in recognizing that we, too, are in process.

Sharon also recounts a time she heard The Dalai Lama speak to his perspective on creativity and what makes a work great. He shared that in Tibet something was considered wonderful, beautiful, and creative depending on what happened to the creator in the process. The final product isn’t the determining factor of beauty. It’s all about what happened for the person who did the work and how the working on the piece changed him or her.

That’s a brilliant reframe of success, isn’t it?

In this way, as the artist, you are the work. I’d render that to say you’re a body of work. Success here is defined in terms of your becoming from moment to moment. And work becomes a means to become more human, more fully you.

Embracing this means that our body of work that takes a lifetime of enduring creativity (or creative enduring)–whether we are consciously working at our process or not. We let go of certainties except for what is present for us. Edward Abbey once wrote about photography that “Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.” I’d say this applies to life. Each in our own way, in our own process of becoming, every moment is itself only a snapshot of a larger transition into which we know not quite what.

If we cling to those moments as if they were still photographs, we risk being caught up in the nets of attachment and stagnate or eddy our progress. Yet, we can begin to trust what’s moving us into the unlimited possibility at the horizon line and beyond. That’s quite an edge–moving into constant newness and allowing it to happen with a sense of sweet surrender. All we know for sure is what’s in front of us and what we sense within us. So often we want to revert to what we’ve done before, what we know as tried and true, rather than open up to the larger mystery.

In his book, The Poetics of Space, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard explains that while “…we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space…”

I am reminded of what Roderick MacIver wrote in Art as a Way of Life:

“The ancient roots of the word “art” have to do with connection, and art, at its best, is our connection to the mystery, to the parts of ourselves that are deeper and truer than the day-to-day world. Art connects us to our dreams, to the things that can’t be explained in words, to the things that have touched our core, to our imaginary worlds, and even to our own personal chaos. Art has something to do with the part that doesn’t want to be tamed, that can’t be tamed. Our challenge as artists is to muster the technique, the vision, the persistence, and emotional courage to explore what means most to us. Our challenge as people is even greater — to live a life that is in itself a work of art.”

By owning that we as humans are in the process of becoming we therefore are also accepting our inherent wholeness. The drawings we have lived shape us as much as we shape them. Our lives are our body of work. So, you may not know what you are doing, but you know you, and that creative exploration is your greatest work.

The next time you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, remember this from Neruda:

“You are your present, your own apple. Pick it from your tree. Raise it in your hand. It’s gleaming, rich with stars. Claim it. Take a luxurious bite out of the present, and whistle along the road of your destiny.”


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