E M P O W E R E D C H A N G E
When a project is complete, or nearing completion, it is natural to start thinking of "next steps." Sometimes, the way seems very clear: The path is well-lit, well-defined, and our next step along that path obvious. At other times, there may be no clarity at all, just a slippery, muddy terrain shrouded in fog, with each "next step" a tentative and cautious move along a trajectory that is largely unseen and, quite possibly, we fear, treacherous. When the path is clear, it is easy to move along blithely, believing that all we must do to reach our desired destination is to keep our focus on the path and be open to possibilities. And often, this is the case. It comes as a surprise, however, when we have been traversing this terrestrial terrain quite easily, to suddenly step into mud up to our knees and fog so thick we can barely see our hand held up in front of our face. When this happens, next steps seem not quite so clear as our focal point vanishes in the thickening mist. What now?
Our first instinct, often, is to stop in our tracks and wait until the mist clears. Unfortunately, as Will Rogers would say, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." The key is, I believe, to keep movingslowly, cautiously, perhaps, but steadily moving nonetheless. How many times do we hear of serious traffic accidents on our major highways that have been caused by stopped vehicles? They may have a perfectly legitimate reason to be stopped, but that doesn't prevent an accident from happening. So it is as we move along the highway of life. To avoid nasty accidents, we must keep on moving toward our goalseven when we think we have a very good reason to stop.
But how do we do that when the way seems so unclearwhen our focal point has vanished? That's simplefind a new focus.
When I was a teenager, growing up in a little steel-mill town in Western Pennsylvania, my friends and I often drove to Ohio for funshopping, dancing, movies, and teen "nightclubs." One night, on our way home from a favorite dance club, we drove into a fog that was so thick we literally couldn't see the road in front of us. We didn't want to stop in the middle of the road and, in that area, it was not unusual for the shoulder to drop off sharply and suddenly into deep ravines and gullies, which we couldn't see in the dense fog. So we kept inching along, looking out ahead for something to focus on and finding nothing.
At some point, I noticed that the white lines on the side of the road, which were not visible at all out in front of us, were able to be seen alongside the car. As my friend continued to drive, slowly and carefully, I held the passenger-side door slightly ajar and followed the easily-visible white lines, guiding my friend as she drove us, finally, out of the fog and into the clear night. I didn't see it as a lesson at the time, but the experience has stayed with me for the past 3 decades. When the obvious or natural focal-point was no longer to be seen, we found a new focal point that helped to keep us on the road, still heading for our original destinationin this case, home.
The significance of this story, for me, has nothing to do with common sense or good defensive driving. Did we make the most responsible choice that night? I don't really know. What I do know is that I learned a worthwhile lesson in the value of staying in motionand staying focused. It is akin to "when one door is closed to you, another opens." But you must be ready and willing to step through that newly opened doorto switch your focus a bit while staying on track.
While sometimes next steps involve nothing more than staying on the road, focusing on where you are right nowthe ground beneath your feet, or beside the car, as the case may beat other times it is most important to step back and look carefully at the larger pictureat where it is you want to be and what it is you want to accomplish. Such was the case when I had the desire, a couple of years ago, to take my writing career to the next level, which meant, to me, imbuing it with a deeper sense of purpose and understanding of social issues. This desire led me to examine closely all possible "next steps" and it soon became very clear that a move to San Francisco was imminent.
I have written about this journey in previous articles and will not go into more detail here. Suffice it to say that while my decision did not produce the anticipated outcome, it was, however, one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and did, indeed, serve to expand my horizons, introducing me to many exciting and diverse people and ideas, and, in totally unexpected ways, actually taking my writing to that next intended levelbut only after I had gotten to that "next level" first! And therein lies the caveat.
It is not possibleeverto create that which one is not. Creativity is the life force, and our creative expression is simply who we are. What we call "self-expression" is actually the individual articulation of our own unique creative energy out there in the world. It is that articulation that gives us life, that defines who we are within the context of community, that provides the impetus for creative projects, that keeps us focused on our goals and dreams. And it is that articulation that must, at times, be bumped up a level or two in order to maintain forward momentumto stay on track and in motion.
To facilitate this continuation of forward momentum, particularly when we begin to feel "stuck" or "in a rut," with no clear idea of what the logical next step might be, it could be helpful, within the context of "bigger picture," to widen the view even further: Given your area of expertise, your talent, skill, career, or project, how might your next step be taken outside the realm of self and into the realm of community? Another way to ask this question might be, What is it I can provide? or How can I serve? In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says, "Work is love made visible." How might your next step make love visible in the world?
This idea may seem daunting at firstwho am I and what can I do that could make any difference?but it can help to get us outside the limited and limiting ideas and conceptions that we have for ourselves and our creative process . . . and can actually be easier than you might think.
A few years ago, when I was just beginning to play with collage as a means for opening up to the creative process, I was searching for a unique and truly personal gift to give to a dear friend for his birthday. I came up with the idea to create a collage for him that would articulate, visually and artistically, who he is and how I see him in the world. After the collage was created, I took it to a color copy shop to be reproduced and found out that it could be copied onto a transfer and made into a T-shirtquite inexpensively. My friend loved his gift, and I found another outlet for my creative self-expression. I went on to create other individual T-shirt collages, including one for my daughter for her 16th birthdayliterally a "work" of art that "made love visible" in her world and in mine.
My point here is that "community" projects need not be complicated events, though some other projects I've been involved in certainly have been both complicated and time-intensive, as well as exceedingly gratifying. When "next steps" mean venturing out into the realm of "community," it is important to be open to all possibilities and avoid placing limitations on the breadth of our sphere of influence and the measure of our abilities. As Martha Graham says, it is not for us to determine how good or talented we are, how valuable our work is, or how it compares with others. The only thing we must do is to keep the channel open and clearand uniquely oursa true expression of who we are. So, don't be afraid to think BIGthink national . . . think global . . . think universal! That being said, it may only be necessary, in some cases, and particularly in your early forays, to look no further than the community of one's own intimate circle of family and friends.
ACTION: Often "next steps" require a time of deep thought and contemplation. Such was the case when I made the decision to move to San Francisco. That choice was not made lightly. It came only after months of considerationand a 3-day silent retreat. If you sense that it is time to make the next step but you are not clear about what that step might be, giving yourself time alone can be a powerful method for cutting through the fog and finding a new or renewed focus for your creative energy.
My own retreat, that year, was planned to coincide with the blossoming of spring and my birthdaytwo very meaningful events that, for me, symbolize new beginnings, rebirth, and moving forward with renewed vigor and life. While I did not fast during my retreat, I ate lightly, and only the very healthiest of foods. (Treating one's body reverently can be a powerful outward manifestation of the valuable work that is going on internally.) During the retreat, I had no contact at all with the outside worldno telephone, television, radio, newspaper, etc. I was alone and did not speak for 3 days. Each day began and ended with meditation. The time between was filled with more meditation, walks in the woods, journaling and freewriting, naps, watching the sunset, communing with self and nature, and deep, thoughtful contemplation.
I came away from those 3 days with a profound sense of inner peace and a knowing that, even though the next step was not yet apparent, the fog was lifting and the road was becoming clear to me. A few days after my return, I was given the opportunity to attend a conference on the interface of ecology and technology in San Francisco and the rest, as they say, is history.
Your "retreat" need not be complicated or expensive. It is only important to provide yourself with the time and silence needed to go within, to get in touch with your innate inner wisdom and creative spirit. This could be something as simple as daily meditation on the beach, a quiet walk in the woods, or finding the perfect spot to experience the profound peace and stillness of a beautiful sunset.
If you find that you want to give yourself a more extended period of time, there are many organizations that offer planned retreatssilent and otherwise. You might also rent a room or condo on the beach, in the mountains, on a lake or river. Or do what I didfind a friend who is going to be away for a few days and arrange to house-sit while they are gone. How you choose to "retreat" into the realm of your own inner terrain is not as important as that you do it!
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