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Tiny Revolutions №96: Not Knowing is Most Intimate
some thoughts on intuition ✨
At some point in my twenties, I noticed the following pattern:
I would realize I wanted to do something. But then if it was even slightly off the beaten path, instead of going for it, I would find a million reasons not to go for it. I would examine it from every possible angle. I would make lists of pros and cons about whether or not to do it. I would ask everyone for advice. I would read about how other people did the things I wanted to do and try to discern whether I could just copy what they did and be successful.
In short, if the thing I most wanted to do seemed too big or too scary, I would do everything I could to try to either find a foolproof way to do it or to talk myself out of it.
Take the story of how I moved to LA.
It’s 2005. I’m 28 and have just moved back to Atlanta after four years in New York City. I’d tried NYC and it was fun but I couldn’t see myself living there forever, and I was getting to a point where I wanted to grow up a little. You know, get serious.
I’d always imagined I’d return to Atlanta to set up camp. I wasn’t from there originally, but my family had moved there when I was 12, and it was home, for all intents and purposes. New York never felt like anything approaching home, though I did love the experience. And anyway, I was pretty broke so it wasn’t like I had a ton of options.
But I did have one option in mind: Los Angeles. Two of my brothers were living there at the time, and I had a bunch of friends there, too. But no, I thought. It was irresponsible. It was gonna be a bunch of the same issues I’d had with New York: crowded, wildly expensive, overly competitive, and full of shallow assholes besides.
The problem with me thinking about LA this way, however, was that I *loved* the times I had spent there. I loved being near the ocean, the sunshine, the lack of humidity, the brilliant blue sky and the way the quiet side streets smelled of jasmine at night. I felt more alive in California than anywhere I’d ever been.
And yet I kept telling myself I couldn’t move there. Even though both of my brothers had offered me free places to stay until I got set up on my own.
This back and forth went on for a couple of months. At the time I was working in corporate PR, and I was applying to jobs in both Atlanta and LA. I got lots of interviews for the former on the heels of my work experience in New York, and not as many in LA. It all came to a head when I got an offer from a PR firm in Atlanta. It was a good job — the work seemed interesting, the people seemed nice, and I’d be making more money than I had in NYC in a city with a significantly lower cost of living.
They made the offer on Friday, and I asked for the weekend to think it over.
Over the next couple of days, I decided to take the job. I was almost through the savings I’d managed to put together from working two jobs in New York before I left, and it was a good job! A perfectly good job.
And then I woke up on Monday morning feeling like I had a giant rock in my stomach. Something that hadn’t been clear to me before that moment was just how badly I wanted to move to LA. So I decided to stop lying to myself already and just get on with it.
I left Atlanta by the end of the week with about 2000 bucks in the bank, an indeterminate period of couch surfing ahead of me, and a determination to make it work. I’m still here nearly 18 years later and I have not even once regretted taking this leap.
As I said, it took me quite a while to put together this pattern of behavior when it came to making decisions. Systems for decision making have never quite seemed to work for me – I’ve tried plenty, but my gut almost always gets its way. (And when it doesn’t, I usually end up regretting it.)
Since I realized how gut-driven I am, I’ve done my level best to just go with it and stop putting myself through the torturous cycles of rationalization when I know I’m just gonna end up doing what I wanted to do begin with. I know myself better than ever and I know I am like this! So all I can do is work with it instead of against it.
But here’s another thing I’ve noticed: what I think I want isn’t always the thing I really want. Sometimes it is, and during those times, it’s fucking amazing. It’s how I moved to NYC, and how I’ve taken lots of trips to places that, on the face of it, I probably should not have attempted given all the barriers (money being a big one).
It doesn’t always pan out like that, though, and that’s not always clear immediately.
A couple of newsletters ago I told you about how I was living at the Zen Center, and also about how the only reason I felt comfortable disclosing that is because I had decided to move out of the Zen Center. I’d been considering it for months, and when I finally made the decision to do it, it felt like a hard thing but the right thing.
I should have known leaving was not the right thing when I realized I was putting off making a plan for what came next. Oh, I’ll just do it when I get back from vacation, I thought, and then proceeded to do nothing for weeks.
Nope. What was really happening was that I was in the slow process of realizing I wasn’t ready to move yet. I wasn’t excited about what was next so much as I was trying to run from a situation about which I had mixed feelings. It was a few weeks before I reversed course.
Once again, I took a long spin through my mind about the ways I could or could not move forward. I weighed the pros and cons, the ins, the outs, the what-have-yous. You can read a bit of the sturm und drang in my last newsletter, which was about trying/not trying. At the heart of that one — probably more than I realized at the time — was me wrestling with the question of whether I really did want to move and, if so, how badly? (Spoiler: I didn’t want it that badly.)
And once again, my gut, which was telling me it wasn’t quite time, won out. Even though I had a lot of reasons that it was. Reasons I can’t go into here and I hope you understand.
So what is the point? The point is I’m trying to say something about intuition. And specifically that it isn’t always what you think you want. It’s about what is *right*, and what you can live with. It’s not convenient in the way that living at the Zen Center often does not feel convenient to me. There are rules for living here and some restrictions. Can I live with them? Yes. Do I always want to? No.
But I’m here because something is keeping me here. Some of the reasons for that are clear to me, some aren’t. Which keeps me in a liminal state until I figure out what’s going on and what’s the right way forward, something that human beings are not especially good at, myself included. But while I would not say that I enjoy ambiguity, I’ve grown to respect it. Sometimes it’s good to not get what you want — it opens you up to the slower process of feeling through the time it takes to get to what is right. That time is precious and mysterious and full of so many other things besides.
I’ve found as I’ve gotten older and had more experiences like this that I don’t mind the feeling of being a little lost as much anymore. It’s how I know to appreciate that everything is absolutely as it should be. That this period of not knowing is itself meant to push me somewhere. And that there are far worse things than not knowing.
As a Zen master in a famous koan said, “not knowing is most intimate.”
On to some things I found worth sharing:
Breaking Down the Koan
Experience, knowledge, wisdom – these are good, but when I examine things closely I can see that they remove me from what's in front of me. When I know, I bring myself forward, imposing myself and my experience on this moment. When I don't know, I let experience come forward and reveal itself. When I can let go of my experience, knowledge, and wisdom I can be humble in the face of what is, and when I am humble I am ready to be truly fearless and intimate. I can enter into this moment, which is always a new relationship, always fresh. I can be moved by what happens, fully engaged and open to what the situation will show me.
Here’s the inimitable writer and Zen teacher Norman Fischer, who I’ve quoted many times before, in a talk that goes deep into the koan I cited above. Highly recommend all of his work, but this talk in particular is great.
Speaking of Being Engaged in the Moment
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
A wonderful essay from writer and activist Rebecca Solnit on not succumbing to cynicism or despair in these dark times. What we do matters!
A Good Reminder
Seven Truths of Intuition
Intuition isn’t here to reassure you that everything will work out just like you want, it’s there to remind you that if you trust the process, you’ll garner insights about your self, revelations about the world, and learn vital spiritual skills.
If your taste leans witchy (mine sure does), I highly recommend checking out Sarah Faith’s Gottesdiener’s Moon Studio project. Loved this recent issue of her newsletter about seven truths about intuition she’s learned the hard way. (My experience has been very similar.)
Just a Pretty Song
I love pretty folk songs at this time of year. Feels right as we in the Northern Hemisphere ease into the cold and dark season. Here’s a great one.
Thanks for reading, as always. How is intuition showing up for you lately, friends?
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