I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that this question of unfolding has shoots running through a whole multitude of the dimensions of our lives. After all, the issue might be stated in pretty global terms: how are we to deal with…. With what? Well, for one thing, with the energies flowing through us. For another, with what life deals our way. How much should we trust that whatever is flowing within and around us is naturally heading toward something good? Or, looked at from the other direction, how much should we be working to divert and channel those flows toward something we regard as better?
A big question. So big that, when I looked at it with a more critical mind than the looser and more expansive mind with which I popped up from meditation, I felt uncertain whether it could usefully be tackled as one overarching question. If it were not a single Beast, my effort to impose on all its diversity some single taxonomy –such as “Unfolding”– might be misconceived.
Yet my intuition continued to tell me that its various dimensions –the quest for honest and open human relationship, the issue of moral character, the phenomenon of creativity, for starters– were parts of some larger spiritual whole. And as the coming days and weeks kept dealing me other dimensions, I felt renewed in my commitment to exploring this domain as if it were a continent and not just a series of unconnected islands.
Playing without Stacking the Deck
A few days after my seeming breakthrough into the unfolding project, I did one of my regular Sunday radio shows. The theme on this occasion was “The Forces That Shape Our Lives.” Listeners were invited to call and share their understanding of what had governed the course their lives had taken. How much had it gone according to some plan of their own? How much had it been chance? Did they believe that any force like “fate” or “the will of God” had played an important role?
One of the calls to the show seemed to open into another of the mansions in the House of Unfolding. The caller was a man who said that he was almost fifty, calling to discuss an experience from his twenties.
“I’d been out of college for a while,” the caller told us, “and to make a living I’d gotten myself into a regular nine-to-five job. I guess it was a decent job, as those things go. But I found that as the time went by, something in me was shriveling up. I’d been into creative stuff when I was in high school and college, and now I was just doing a job. It felt like I was in some kind of strait-jacket. And I was getting scared that if I didn’t do something soon to break out of it I might spend my whole life just doing what I was told, just living in order to survive.
“So I decided to save up enough to take a half year off, and when the time came, I took off on a trip. It’s that trip that I see as having, as you say, ‘shaped my life.'”
After a brief exchange at this stopping place, he resumed his narrative: “I took off with a young woman with whom I was in a relationship, and the thing that I see as having made this trip so powerful an episode in my life is this: we had no plan. No itinerary, just the open road ahead of us. With a couple thousand bucks and an old VW bus, we just headed off in some direction to let the trip take us wherever it led.”
With unfolding on my mind, I immediately sensed in this caller a witness for my case. “What is it about having had no plan that made this trip an important experience?” I asked.
“It was a way of relating to the world,” he replied. “Every day, we’d wake up with the sun wherever we were –we slept in the bus, or maybe (with permission) in some farmer’s field– and then we’d look around and decide what direction we felt like going. If something interesting just happened to come along, we’d check it out. We met incredible people we’d never have gotten to know otherwise. We were just open to whatever came our way, and so we discovered all kinds of things I’d never have thought to look for.”
For example? “We just happened on a beach down in Baja that wasn’t even on our map. But there were these fantastic turtles there, coming in from the sea to lay their eggs. I don’t know how long we sat up by the bluffs watching them, feeling like we were witnesses to a primeval drama. Oh, yes, I remember another scene vividly. In Nebraska, I think it was: we slept in a farmer’s field, and the next morning we offered to do some chores for those folks, and one thing led to another and we became like a part of the family for a few days. And this couple was home-schooling their three children and above all what these people were into –and these were people who made their living growing corn– was making music. The mother had been trained in several instruments and the father had a fine singing voice, and they’d taught the kids. It was like the Trapp Family on the American Plains.”
Then I wanted to know how he saw this unplanned trip as having shaped his life.
“The trip lasted only six months,” he answered, “but I think it cast its shadow– no, its light– on how I’ve looked at life ever since. There have been plenty of years since when I’ve had to get back into the nine-to-five, structured life. But even when I’m there, I’ll tell myself, ‘Hey, buddy, remember you’re on the road. There are always interesting and unexpected turns there for you to make.’ That way of thinking has also made it easier for me to get myself out of dead-ends of various kinds, out of traps that I see lots of people stay in, whether it’s jobs that stop serving their lives, or relationships. Just recently I decided that I’d done time long enough in a good-paying but spiritless job, and I’ve given myself a sabbatical to see what kind of playwright I can be.”
This call to my show struck me an instance of how, once I had embarked on this “unfolding” project, the cosmos seemed to start sending relevant things my way. Perhaps it was. But on further reflection, I also saw how I had invited such testimony in the very framing of the program.
The idea of doing a show on “The Forces that Shape Our Lives” grew out of my growing sense of how our lives unfold through some kind of interaction between those serendipitous cards that life deals us and the ways we choose to play them. Looking over my own life, I had mused that the secret of finding a good life-course had something to do with learning some artistry in managing that interaction between what we do not control and what we do. The image had come to mind of a surfer on his board under the curve of a gigantic Hawaii Five-O wave, driven by a wave far more powerful than he, but also joyfully riding it to get safely to his destination.
The promo for the show, which ran all week on the station, read in part: “Hi, I’m Andy Schmookler, host of ‘A Meeting of Minds.’ And I’d like to ask you: how much have you –your plans and your conscious will– determined the course of your life?” It occurred to me that the very fact that I was doing radio at all was the fruit of my having been open to the unexpected, willing to ride the over-arching wave of events that just unfold around all of us all the time.
Some years before, my wife April had gone onto the station to talk about a book she’d written –an inoffensive how-to book about how to eat in ways that are good for the earth– and she’d been ambushed by some of the rabid reactionaries of the area. “Environmentalists like you” a typical caller accused her, “are trying to take away jobs from people.” April had been totally unprepared for this and when I heard her getting verbally beaten up, I decided I’d arrange to become their target and redeem the family honor.
I, too, had recently published a book. I’d not intended to try to publicize it in our small market, but now I chose otherwise. My book, too, had an environmental thrust to it. Indeed, I was a more appropriate target for the wrath of the disciples of Rush Limbaugh than was April. When they came gunning for me, figuratively speaking, I was ready. And the show went so well that by the time the two-hour program was over, the host and I had agreed I’d come in as a regular guest. At first my appearances were monthly, then they became twice a month, and then, after five years, I got a program of my own.
I had moved out into the mountains on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley for reasons having nothing to do with the local culture, or with any career opportunities it might present. Yet the waves of unforeseen events carried me into one of the most fulfilling and creative endeavors in my life. This unplanned unfolding conferred on me a more integral and positive role in a community than I’d ever had before.
Life’s been teaching me the art of being receptive and at the same time to make something of what comes to me. “I seen my chance and I took it,” as someone once famously said.
So my own growing sense of how much my own journey through life had not been mapped in advance was behind my framing a program about forces that shape our lives. Perhaps the call from the unplanning traveler had an element of synchronicity, then, but perhaps it had also been elicited by the overtones of the note I had sounded in putting out my question.
Synchronicity, however, played no role in the related piece that came in next. I was on the phone with my friend Reuel, telling him about my newly arisen hopes of writing a book to explore the idea of unfolding, and to promote the notion that the willingness to let things unfold might be an important part of wisdom. What did he think of it, I wanted to know? Is there anything to it?
“It reminds me,” he replied, “of something I’ve been looking at in my own life. Whenever I go into a roomful of people, I’ve noticed, I tend to have an agenda. I don’t mean only in business meetings where it’s explicit that we’re all there to accomplish something. I mean any kind of social situation.”
“What kind of agenda are you talking about?” I asked.
“There’s always something I’m trying to accomplish, something that I’m attached to having happen. Often it’s that I want everybody to notice what an intelligent and charming fellow I am.” And he laughed his infectious laugh. He is an intelligent and charming fellow.
“Anyway,” he continued, “lately I’ve become aware of what a high price I pay for this habitually carrying around an agenda.”
“What’s the cost?”
“I can reckon the cost from what happens differently when I can let go of all my agendas. Lately I’ve been able to go into a social gathering accepting that whatever happens, happens. Not attached to getting a particular outcome. And it’s amazing. I see all sorts of things I never would have noticed. And I get into different kinds of conversations with different kinds of people. I’m just responding to what comes my way. And it feels enormously freeing.”
We talked some more about this, and then, just as we were about to say good-bye, he added a final point: “And by the way, it seems that by being in a more receptive posture toward people, I’m eliciting their sharing more with me. And you know what? I think I come across as a more intelligent and charming fellow than I used to.”
We both laughed, and then said good-bye.
Trust and Fear
I felt there was something important and true contained in those stories– the traveler embarking with no itinerary and my friend working to relinquish his agendas. The consciousness that is open to go with the flow seems a beautiful thing. At the same time, as I started revving up to write what I was envisioning as a celebration of “unfolding,” I also had an uneasy feeling. “Yes, but….” hovered on the outskirts of my mind. Then a remark from another friend of mine, Anton Berg, brought that “Yes, but…” from the outskirts into the downtown of my awareness.
“Did you see that film, Apollo 13?” Anton asked, after I told him with some enthusiasm about the planless traveler’s call to my show the previous Sunday. I just referred to Anton as my friend, which he is, but it seems strange to use the same word for him as for my buddy and contemporary Reuel. Anton Berg is a generation older than me. He is also a Holocaust survivor, which makes him much older still in some spiritual way. He’s a man without illusions. Sometimes I avoid him because of his “every silver lining has a cloud” way of looking at things, because of his being the kind of “realist” that makes realism seem equated with bad news. But I value him also because, with his keen and skeptical mind, he always compels me to be honest with myself.
“Yeah, I saw it,” I answered him. This is the Tom Hanks movie, the true story of the almost disastrous American mission to the moon. “What about it?” I asked, but even as I asked it I felt a gathering cloud of realization forming in my own mind, and a flush of embarrassment that I’d needed Anton to point out the obvious.
“I’ll tell you,” Anton continued, “if I were on a trip like that, I’d leave as little room for the unexpected as possible. There’s a reason they plan those things to the inch and to the second.”
Of course, he was right. Going out into space on Apollo 13 was, like the caller’s journey by VW bus into the American heartland, a “trip.” But the fact that the same term applied to both did not change the fact that they differed in a vital way: one trip was terribly dangerous, the other was not.
Upon reflection, I saw that the issue raised by the contrast between these two journeys was vital to what stance we’re wise to take toward the world. The issue was: “How much danger is there here?” To the extent that we see danger threatening us, to that extent we will feel a need to control the course of things rather than just let them unfold. If what will happen is good without my exerting myself to control events, I can feel safe and relax. I can safely relax and trust the flow.
I wasn’t sure yet just how that contrast –between the laid-back journey to the Trapp Family of the cornfields and the white-knuckled journey to the moon and (whew!) back– ought to figure in my understanding. “Contrast,” I said, but in my mind, as I regarded it right after my conversation with Anton, it was more than that: in the context of my intention to celebrate the value of unfolding, it was a contradiction, and it felt like a burden to hold the tension of that contradiction in my mind.
It was partly in an effort to escape from that burden that I chose to set Anton Berg’s Apollo 13 caution somewhat aside, and look for a while longer at the truth to be gained about the value of allowing the trip to unfold itself. But I also had a couple of other reasons for focusing on the beautiful image I’d gained from my caller.
It was his image of being open and trusting, it seemed to me, that we in America (and perhaps more generally) needed to hear more than Anton Berg’s reminder that life can be dangerous. If we look around us, if we look inside ourselves, do we see a surfeit of openness and trust? Not in my eyes. Is there not an abundance of fear and constriction, entering our lives at most every point? Yes, there are dangers, but are our fears not excessive, over-reactive? As people in our society make their “journey through life,” to employ the cliché that renders my present metaphor explicit, does not the flourishing of the life spirit suffer more from our treating our journeys too much –rather than too little– like perilous Apollo 13 missions.
Consider the way we make our literal journeys: the image comes to mind of the American tourists with their fully pre-packaged experiences, their marching lock-step on a “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” schedule. But such regimentation of leisure is only one way in which we bring closed and fearful spirits to our journeys.
So this perception, too, figured in my turning away from Anton’s caution and back toward my original impulse to write a paean to trusting the unfolding.
And then there was another reason that had to do strictly with me. My daemon was calling me to attend to something that in my own life had been, perhaps, insufficiently acknowledged and lived: the path of trust, the way of yielding and flowing. There would be time later, my in-dwelling spirit was telling me, to consider the on-the-other-hands. First, you must learn to honor more fully the way of unfolding. And this was a voice that I’d learned to trust.
The same afternoon I’d seen Anton, as I was driving on my way to an appointment with my bodyworker, I realized that my original impulse to do a work more or less purely in celebration of the spirit of unfoldment was not going to be sufficient, but also that I was not yet ready to confront the greater complexity of vision to which this subject was evidently going to call me.
Holding all this made me all the readier for the bodyworker’s healing hands.
Loosening the Strings of My Instrument
“What is all this crap?” I asked my man, Winston Russell, as his hands sat softly but deeply between the tense muscles of my upper back and shoulders, helping me slowly release the chronic constriction that I was now calling, in my frustration, “crap.” I had come to regard this tension as something of a bane of my existence. Not only did it make me uncomfortable a good deal of the time. Not only did this pattern of muscular constriction feel like a prison I somehow had manufactured for myself. But, over the years, I’d also had the experience of doing good work with good bodyworkers who helped me to open up the closed places, only to watch how my system with its habits would reconstruct the same bodily penitentiary to hold me. Hence my frustration.
Winston didn’t need any explanation of what I meant by “this crap.” His hands moved down and to the side a bit to gently encourage the muscles under my right shoulder blade to lighten up. “When I make the acquaintance of this little beauty in here,” Winston said, addressing my question piecemeal, “I’m inclined to wonder, ‘Hey, man, have you been pulling your punches?'”
I lay there taking this question in, while also putting some attention to what his hands were saying to my punch-pulling patella partners. Winston was suggesting, I gathered, that there was some impulse I habitually carried with me, but habitually blocked from expression, to deliver the blow with my right arm. Surely, in my growing up years, that right arm had delivered a lot of blows to tennis balls and assorted other targets; now less of my life was lived on that plane of vigorous animal activity. Yet that level of meaning doubtless persisted, just as people who are angry will tense their jaw muscles, even though only an occasional Mike Tyson will vent their anger through actual biting. So I asked myself, do I pull my punches?
In my radio work, I encounter some people whom I might be forced to tell –if I were suddenly afflicted, like the Jim Carrey character in Liar, Liar, with the compulsion to be completely honest– that I saw them as ignorant jerks. When I was much younger, in a conversation about my interest in foreign policy, my father had once told me, not in a critical way, that he did not imagine me being a diplomat: “You don’t suffer fools gladly,” he’d said. Now I was on the radio, working with a quite conscious intent of giving all my callers a full and respectful hearing, fools no less than sages. So in my public conversations with fools, I would acknowledge, I do pull my punches.
And then, too, I wondered more generally about what might have happened to a certain pugnacity that I’d had in my twenties in my overall relation to the world. My favorite picture of myself from that time I used to call a picture of David about to set out to meet Goliath. That was no longer the spirit with which I encounter the world. So where had it gone? Had I let go of my anger with the world’s cruelties and injustices, so that I no longer felt any impulse to do battle against the Philistines? Maybe. But I also know that the consequences of my being in that posture were not altogether happy ones for me, and so I certainly would have had motivation to just suppress my pugnacity. So I also wondered, was the impulse still there but being blocked by some inhibitory structure, a habitual constriction of muscles blocking the flow of my feelings, camped permanently where Winston’s hands were now inviting me to let it flow?
As the release came, I felt my right arm want to stretch forward and I let it go. What seemed to want to happen was not a sudden or violent move but more of a searching out, a stretch that unbuckled the bridle of tight muscles in which my shoulder, I could now feel, had been held in check. I immediately felt freer, at greater peace; my torso felt a bit broader and my heart felt fuller.
As I lay there thinking of the blessing of being able to let happen what wants to happen, Winston’s hands had moved onto other territory higher up on my shoulders. “Checking out this bit of architecture,” he said, “I feel like saying, ‘Well hello, Atlas. You still holding up the world? Doesn’t it get kinda heavy after a while?'”
“Do you mean, my shoulders look like I’m carrying the weight of the world on them?” I inquired.
“Yeah, something like that. The way you’re wearing your energy through here says to me, ‘Hey, if I don’t take it on, it just isn’t going to get done. I’d better carry the world up here or the whole place is going to fall.’ Something heavy like that.”
I gave this some thought, while Winston went into places that just loved the attention. Some of those small pools of muscle around the top of the torso between the neck and the shoulders gave out a delicious ache as they set their burdens down.
Atlas? Well, I could see that some years before I really had felt that I had taken on a job that, in some figurative sense, meant my carrying the world. That magnum opus of mine, the fruit of my twenties and thirties —The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution— was more than a book. It was virtually a mission to help create a more humane and viable civilization.
In the years since, when I’d seen how little difference my efforts made in the great scheme of things, I’d relinquished that sense of responsibility for the fate of the world. Indeed, I’d let go of the kind of attachment I’d had before to my efforts producing any particular desired results. My posture toward my work had become, “give what I have to give, leave the outcome to God-or-Whatever.” Or at least, so I believed. Maybe Winston’s words indicated otherwise.
“I guess I used to be in the Atlas mode,” I said to Winston, “but I no longer think I’ve got to carry the world.”
“Never underestimate the power of habit to keep things as they used to be,” he suggested.
Habit! Now there was a word pregnant with implications for unfolding, I thought to myself, ruefully. Things unable to spill out into the next stage of their unfolding because of being dammed up behind the barriers of habit. I thought briefly about my New Year’s resolution for that year: to breathe well. I knew from all-too-brief experiences of doing so how profoundly my state of mind and body were improved by the simple means of breathing deeply and regularly. But how hard it was to get out of my habitual, more constricted ways of breathing! Even trying to be mindful of my breathing, it was difficult to breathe well for a half dozen breaths at a time.
Then I returned to thinking about my Atlas shoulders. Maybe there was more than habit at work in perpetuating those old patterns of burden-carrying.
It’s true, I thought, at some level I still do not trust where things are heading, do not feel reassured that we human beings are on the road to something healthy and right. And I still passionately care. Perhaps that combination –of not trusting that history is moving toward an acceptable destination while also yearning for life on this planet to flourish happily– in itself suggests that, in some way, I continue to carry the weight of the world. Even if I no longer see myself as being able to do much to affect its destiny.
I continued to lie on the table, relaxing more and more into just being present, yielding to my body’s craving for ease. For little stretches of time, I ceased to be aware of being in the room, or of Winston’s hands doing their work on me, and at those moments I felt so suffused with –I’m not sure what word to use for it. “Joy” seems too exuberant. “Pleasure” too carnal. Well, for want of the right vocabulary, I’ll just say “good feeling.” On coming back from one of these good-feeling reveries, the recurrent line from my Transcendental Meditation training long ago came back to me: “It is easy. It is good.”
Not much easy in my customary way of being, I thought to myself.
Winston was now engaged with that pivotal place in my internal prison, the keyhole to my cell block, it might be called: the juncture where my skull joins my spine. If I could keep my head screwed on straight, I’ve often thought, what a wonderful world this would be.
“Yes, indeedy,” Winston was chortling as he went about unlocking my cage, “you’ve got the head of somebody whose going to think the whole thing through or bust his brain trying.”
“You mean you can see that in the way my head is?”
“Is the Pope Jewish?” Winston rejoined. “Quoth Alexander Lowen, ‘The body does not lie.’ Or, more to the point, the body tells the truth.
“Here’s that place where you feel you get stuck, right?” Winston was working his thumbs up into the base of my skull. “This is the occiput. It connects with the sphenoid bones that are over here,” and now he was gently holding my head by the temples by the eyes. “I know you’re aware –painfully aware– of how the occiput gets jammed, but that’s connected here with the way this sphenoid bone has, over years of Mental Heavy Lifting, tended to get pulled in too tight from where it’s supposed to be. So damned determined to ‘figure it out’ that you’ve ‘disfigured’ yourself ‘in’.” And he laughed at his own wit– which I appreciated, too, though I wasn’t feeling so chuckly at the moment.
Sensing perhaps that I felt a wee bit bruised by this bit of wit, he shifted his tone and said, “Here, let’s give you a little more room in there.” And for the next five or ten minutes, we were silent while his hands spoke to my cranium –from occiput to sphenoid– and I directed my attention to hear what his fingers were saying. Between his encouraging and my allowing, we unlocked my cell.
I sighed with relief and –this time the word fits– pleasure. And I even felt some gentle, tearless sobs moving in my chest. And I just let them happen, too. Winston stood back to just let me be with myself, to let my body experience where it had come to. And to let some learning take place, so that perhaps some place of inner knowing within me would mark the signposts of the place and be more able to find its way there on its own in the future.
After a bit, this time of absorbing had been completed, and Winston spoke: “This is the way your head wants to be.”
He then evidently saw something, and he began working on my arms and soon to focus on my hands. Meanwhile, I was following a mental trail from the previous excursion.
“You know,” I began, “I want to feel like this more. I don’t want to press so hard, because I know I pay a price. But on the other hand, I feel I make a contribution with what I do with my head. And I’m not sure I want to give that up.”
He was quiet for a minute, while he was delving deeply into the muscles of my hand, beyond what was easy for me to take.
“Early in our lives,” he said, “we set out doing what’s needful by brute force. Later in our lives, if we’re wise, we learn that brute force isn’t necessary. We can do the job without so much effort. Just let it flow.”
Silence for a while from me, and then this question: “Is it that brute force isn’t necessary anymore, once we’ve ridden that horse in our youth a while? Or is it that brute force was always unnecessary, that we could always have done what was needful in an easy and effortless way?”
This time, his silence. He worked my hands. (My hands are kneadful, I thought.) And then he said, quietly. “Dunno.”
Soon, as he was finishing up my hands and, with them, our session, I asked him, “Why were you doing all that with my hands?”
“It wasn’t anything I thought we’d do today, but I suddenly saw, when your head got more open, that the hands needed doing, too.”
“A connection between the head and the hands?”
“Yup. While it’s true that too much energy gets caught up in your head, to balance things out it isn’t enough to open the head to let it flow out. It has to have some place to go. And I saw that there was a kind of blockage in the hands in the way of that. I had to unclog the drain, you might say.”
I was off the table by now, and Winston and I were looking at each other.
“A river runs through it, eh?” I suggested in a twinkle-in-the-eye way.
And he responded with a bit more gravity than I’d put into my inquiry: “Amen, brother.”
In –What?– We Trust
Hours later, I thought more about my bodywork and how it related to the question of trusting the unfolding. At one level, I saw that the work itself was a kind of unfolding. Winston and my body (with occasional assists from my directed awareness) were discovering together what, in some sense, “wanted to happen” and helping it to happen. And, indeed, it seemed as clear as could be that what wanted to happen was good.
Why was it good? Or, put another way, just what is it that was governing this unfolding that could be trusted to make it good?
The flip side of the unfolding of this healing bodywork was the pattern into which, over the years, I had habitually organized my body’s energies. If Winston’s hands upon my muscles were helping the energy move as it wanted to, that old pattern embodied a structure of controlling.
My will, if I understood correctly, was chronically engaged in a posture of pushing my energies toward effort. Despite the obvious strain of that chronic effort, my will continually impelled me toward exertion to accomplish certain purposes. (“Carry the world,” “Figure it out.”) And as before, I made the connection between the drive to control and the experience of fear rather than trust: I didn’t trust that, in the absence of such a hierarchical ordering of my energies –the image of the taskmaster wielding his whip over the slave laborers came to mind– things would be all right. “Do not relent! Too much depends on it! Eternal vigilance is the price of–” Of what? What was I purchasing with this regime of internal control?
I was not sure. At the moment, I was more in touch with the costs. With the wonders of letting it all unfold. I wanted to learn how to let go of the controlling and to move into the promised land where all my energies could flow, naturally, like rivers of milk and honey.
But what would that mean? Take that pulling of my punches: should I be throwing whatever punches I might be pulling? Could I trust that the flows of all the energies I was now controlling would work to the good?
The idea that there is something within that can be trusted, if one will but get out of the way, put me back in mind of that idea of Anne Lamott’s: just sit down and write, she’d told her readers, let it all pour out. It’s a widespread notion in the literature of creativity that one should silence the controlling censor and trust the spontaneous outpouring from within.
Trust the natural self to be a font of spontaneous beauty. That was only one lovely notion about what can be trusted. But other dimensions of this “unfolding” idea implied other loci of the trustworthy.
The unplanning traveler, for example, was putting his trust not within himself so much as out onto the universe.
And there was what my friend, Calvin Reynolds, had just emailed me in response to my sharing with him my new project on unfolding? I’d contacted Calvin because I knew him to be a major player in the realm of what might be called transformational business leadership. This was a movement that worked to midwife a new age in which corporate enterprises would organize themselves in a different, better way. The old hierarchical structure, in which power and initiative reside at the top of the not-much-flow chart, would give way to a new, more self-organizing approach based on team work, empowerment, and the free flow of information and spontaneous initiative. A nice vision. And I’d contacted Calvin in the hope of his steering me in the direction of the best works in that area.
Although he did make mention of a few things for me to look at, the real energy in his response concerned something more personal. He’d undergone a kind of spiritual transformation in his own governance, he reported to me, a breakthrough into an exhilarating way of being: “I’ve learned that the universe is a place you can trust.”
An important idea, that. But was it true? I could just hear my friend Anton Berg take it apart. Would you want the “universe” breaking into your sealed off capsule on Apollo 13, he might say? And of course, a person who, like Anton, had witnessed his family brutally dragged off in the night to be murdered in the gas chambers of the Nazi exterminators had some standing to question any declarations about how trustworthy a place the universe is.
But was Calvin Reynold’s idea about the universe being a place you can trust therefore just nonsense? I didn’t think so, even though I couldn’t quite say how it reconciled with Anton’s experience or, for that matter, with a great deal of the whole of human history. Yet, just as Calvin’s exhilaration suggested, this idea was one it felt wonderful to hold.
It was that trust in the universe, I thought, that underlay my caller’s way of traveling. Sure, he’d said, there were times when the lack of plan had brought him inconveniences. Occasionally, time would sit heavily on him and his companion. But still, what did happen was far richer than anything he could have designed for himself. He was trusting the universe to act as his travel agent.
No, that wasn’t quite it. The locus of trust wasn’t so external as that. Not with the traveler, and not with my friend Reuel and his agenda-less socializing. No, it was neither external nor internal: what they trusted, essentially, was an interaction between the two. The traveler didn’t just plunk himself down, waiting for the wind to blow him somewhere. Nor did Reuel go into these social occasions to just sit in the corner and do nothing. In both cases, there was a kind of conversation between the trusting person and whatever it was that the universe dealt him.
They were “trusting the process,” it might be said. That common expression conveys the idea that, without anyone’s knowing just where the unfolding interaction is heading, the destination will nonetheless somehow prove to be a good one.
But “trust the process,” I realized, doesn’t really answer the question: just what is it –in the traveler’s interactive process, for example– that is trustworthy? Is there something about the cosmos that can be relied upon to provide good options? Or something in himself the traveler can be trust to enable him find, among the many possible trails, one that leads to good stuff? Or is that “trustworthy thing” something not in either, but dwelling between them? Maybe their relationship, or their context?
This line of thought reminded me of how some religious people talk about God, and His playing a role in all things.
I experienced again both the difficulty, and the richness, of my chosen subject. And I thought, “No wonder my head gets tight!”
The In-Everything and the Behind-Everything
The news the next day came in two pieces, both of them e-mails. The good news was that my subject –“unfolding”– was shown to be still richer than I’d grasped. The bad news was that it also more complex and even mysterious.
“Dear Andy,” the e-mail began, “I really like hearing about your new project.” I’d sent out an e-mail to a group of my favorite interlocutors, giving them some notion of what I was exploring, and inviting them to share any thoughts they might have on the subject and how I might pursue my inquiry. Louise was one of those people, a friend of mine from when we’d both lived in the Bay Area in California a quarter century ago. While I’d come East, she’d taken up an artist’s life in New Mexico, someplace in the mountains north of Santa Fe.
“In my work, I practice in the spirit of your the ‘celebration of the unfolding.’ I do not feel that, as an artist, I am the real creator of my works– more like the channel of something that is expressing itself through me. This sense of something not-just-me flowing into the work has now been compounded by my working mostly with natural materials.
“A piece of wood has its grain, its knots, its twists and turns. I tune into the force that flowed through the wood in giving it this living form. And then the force that is expressing itself through me, with my seeing eyes and my sculpting hands, enters into a dance with the wood, and the two joyfully bring forth an offspring which is my art.
“The perspective on this –and on everything else, really– that seems most illuminating to me is Taoism. One of my favorite of the Taoist stories, and one that comes to my mind frequently in my work, is the one about The Carving of the Ox. To remind you: it’s the one where the butcher tells of how he cuts up the ox, just going with the flow, letting the knife just follow the contours of what’s there. It’s just lop-lop-lop and the carcass just falls apart under his gliding knife. Effortless, staying with what wants to happen, never coming up against bone and never, therefore, having to sharpen his knife.
“When I read your description of your ‘unfolding’ project, it immediately struck me that your thinking is flowing toward the Taoist vision of things. What a wonderful fulfillment of your spiritual quest to come round again to the celebration of the Tao, or unfolding, or whatever you want to call it. (I remember your telling me long ago about how you loved Chuang Tzu, reading it as you walked the Arizona mountains in order to lull your firstborn, in the pack on your back, to sleep.)
“Taoism, as I understand it, is about trusting the flow. Because the Tao is everything, and is in everything, and it is in the nature of things to just be what they should be, and to become as they should become. Like water flowing downhill, the Taoists say. In the cycle of water, nothing is controlling anything, yet all happens as it should. And our existence, our nature, is of the same stuff: the Tao. Trust your true nature.
“A line from Lao-Tzu: ‘The highest good is like water, for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving.’  Do not intrude your volition, but let the Way act through you. Let it flow. Or, to use your term, let it unfold. It is all the Tao. And it is good.
“I have learned that I can trust this opening up to the Tao, and I encourage you to just let your own nature –which is the Tao– unfold in this promising new project.
“Maybe you’ll produce a modern Taoist classic! Well, it’s a thought. I’m excited about your project. With love, LOUISE.”
I smiled at the thought of me producing a modern Taoist classic, or even not a classic. I did indeed love the stories of Chuang-Tzu, as Louise recalled, and still do– and there would be pleasure in joining in that deep current. But my smile was also a wan one, because I possess too much of Anton Berg’s kind of consciousness in me to be able readily to see how I could come from a place of so much acceptance and letting be.
And then there are the complications suggested by the e-mail message that came in just a few hours later, from another friend fully committed to the very differently structured cosmology of the Western religious tradition, my friend Merle Davis, Methodist minister.
“Dear Andy,” Merle wrote. “I see your project as fundamentally a spiritual quest, and I certainly wish you well in this endeavor. With a subject as many-faceted and as deep as this, there is certainly the possibility of falling into confusion, not only intellectual but spiritual as well.
“I doubt that I can be of much help intellectually, but I am glad to share with you some of the experiences I’ve had that might shed light upon the spiritual meaning of the subject.
“The idea is rather fundamental to the Christian tradition that we human beings might be prone to the error of believing that the best way for us to get our true needs met is to exercise our will and to seize control of our own destiny. You have doubtless heard the phrase, ‘Thy will, O Lord, not mine.’ Underlying that posture of surrender to the will of God is a recognition of the fundamentally flawed nature of the human will.
“It would be a great error, therefore, for us to imagine that we sinful creatures can impose on the course of events, or on the world, or even on our own spiritual unfolding, a good and wise pattern by sheer dint of our will. The right posture of the human being is not one of dominating and controlling, but of openness and surrender. And what it is that we are called upon to make ourselves an instrument of is the Holy Spirit.
“All this may seem like just words, of course, and I know that you are not looking at the world through the prism of Christian belief. So let me just tell you how it works in my own life.
“Do you remember that conversation you and I once had about prayer? As I recall, you expressed wonderment that prayer was so important a part of the spiritual life of so many people, including some, like me, whom you knew not to be complete idiots. What you thought of as prayer, evidently, from what you’d been exposed to in synagogues and churches, was a kind of rote recitation of words by some group of people standing together in a building. And you’d never gotten anything out of it other than boredom.
“In the present context, it seems important for me to underscore and perhaps go beyond what I said to you then about my view of prayer. It’s central to understanding what it means to me to let go of the illusion of, or desire for, control and to place myself in the hands of something I can trust to guide me.
“In prayer, I essentially open myself up to let something in. Not by my volition, but by the Grace of God, something beyond my own wisdom and will enters and informs my heart. When I have a problem in my personal life that I am struggling with –you remember that temptation that I faced a few years ago, that we talked about on that wonderful walk in the mountains– or even something so simple as wanting to know what should be my sermon for the coming Sunday, I turn to prayer.
“I do not seek to bulldoze my way to a solution by virtue of my conscious powers of thought or intention. I give myself over to the Holy Spirit, as best I can. It’s not a matter of being struck down by a bolt of lightning on the road to Damascus. At least it has never been like that for me. It is a quiet thing, without great fanfare or dramatics. “I hope this is of some help to you. Let me know if I can be of any further service. MERLE.”
I was struck with how similar and, at the same time, how different were these two messages. Both Louise and Merle provided an overarching context for all that happens, a vision of something in the essential nature of the cosmos that we might wisely trust. Both of them concurred that the insistence on controlling by dint of our will was contrary to the path of wisdom, that instead of relying on our volition we should open ourselves to—. But here they differed rather fundamentally. One said our true nature was a direct expression of the Tao, and was basically good. The other said that our nature was the problem, and that the solution came from subordinating our sinful selves to something that came into us from the outside.
I found all this rather stimulating and intriguing but also, as I contemplated the prospect of trying to make something of all this, mystifying. I struggled a bit with this confusion and then I decided to just let go of the tension, or rather to just be content to sit with it. While part of me wanted an answer to all these questions, another part of me gave me what seemed good –or at least comforting– counsel, which I followed: “Hey fella,” it said to me, “trust the process, and see what unfolds.”
An Approach to Honesty
Soon it was time for my Sunday radio show. The show for this week was to be about “Issues we Face in Our Relationships.”
This program had been planned for a couple of months, well before my undertaking the “unfolding” project. Of course, the project not having come out of nowhere, the fact that some of the themes that came up in this program seemed organically connected with the themes of unfolding was not just “coincidence.”
Consider, for example, my “sidekick” for the show, Tina Kantor. Tina and I had discovered each other through an Internet forum a couple of years before. The two of us had found our way into sharing our deeper selves, becoming close friends.
I’d thought of writing about honesty before Tina and I had met, but it was the dramatic unfolding of the honest communication between Tina and me that had propelled me into actually beginning the project. When I actually started the writing, I would e-mail her chunks of the book, at intervals, for her comments, and we dubbed her position in relation to the book “kibbitzer-in-chief.”
So it was not surprising that she and I might attempt some collaboration on the radio, after I got my own program and developed the genre of having some co-host each week to discuss with me and our callers whatever was the topic at hand. The first program we’d done was called, fittingly enough, “The Challenge of Honesty,” while the second –coming on the second Sunday of the era of my unfolding project– was given that more inclusive rubric of “The Issues we Face in Our Relationships.”
Tina brings to the table not only her own gifts, but also an approach to human interaction called “Non-Violent Communication,” founded by Marshall Rosenberg. By the time we were doing these programs together, I’d learned from Tina some of the basic ideas and values of NVC. In my view, NVC offered one of the most powerful answers to the core question of my honesty inquiry: How can we speak to each other about what is real and important to us in such a way that it helps things between us unfold in a constructive way?
Non-Violent Communication has its complexity, but it can be encapsulated: If we can deal with each other with compassion, and can share our own experience in a way that is from our hearts and that respects the other’s autonomy, good things will happen.
But Here’s a Possible Next Good Step
During the second hour of the show it struck me how profoundly, in our various conversations with callers, we were touching upon the theme of unfolding. The timing of this realization was not because the second hour was different from the first, but because it took the accumulation of a half dozen calls before I noticed a pattern emerging.
Part of the pattern was the way the callers conceived of the “help” that might be offered. These callers seemed to want to be given a map they could depend upon to take some troubled relationship to some predetermined, desirable outcome. Tell me how I can get my father to accept the line of work I want to go into. Tell me how I can get my boyfriend to take me out to candlelit dinners. They knew the precise destination to which a good communication should bring them, and they wanted Tina and me to tell them how to get there.
The other part of the pattern was the way that Tina would respond to the caller’s hopes to be given some “solution” all wrapped up for them. Once a reasonably full picture of the situation had been elicited, and once Tina had conveyed to the caller her empathic understanding of how he or she felt in and about the situation, Tina would begin the next phase of the conversation with something to the effect that, “I can’t offer you any ‘solution’ to the situation you face, but perhaps I can suggest a good next step you can take.”
The good next step generally involved a way for the caller to speak openly from the heart.
This is what I feel. That’s part of the way of helping things unfold, to put one’s true feelings on the table. But it’s not just pure emoting. Rather, it involves a degree of self-awareness, which involves a capacity to gain a bit of distance from oneself. For example, one might convey one’s anger. But, though one reports the anger, it is not from the angry place that one speaks but from one where one is in touch with wanting the relationship with the other to unfold into a more complete and happy connection.
That’s why the communications also call for the giving of empathy and compassion. In NVC, one always honors the fact that the other person has the same right to his/her needs and feelings as we would like to have recognized for our own.
This is what I would like to request of you. It is important for the other person to know how he or she might meet your needs, but also to feel entirely free to meet or not meet them according to their own feelings and needs. Hence our desire is presented as a request and not as a demand.
A good next step that embodies such principles of clarity and honesty and compassion has as good chance as we humans are likely to get of leading the dance between the people to where the reality between them “wants to go.” In a way, the NVC approach that Tina practices might be regarded as The Golden Rule implemented as an approach to interpersonal communication. It’s presented not as a moral commandment from on high, but as a path that gives the best grounds for hoping we might –together– get to some destination that we’ll both be glad to reach.
Grounds for hope, but no guarantee. And another part of the pattern the callers manifested was their fear of what might happen if they embarked on the uncertain journey to be begun by Tina’s proposed “next good step.” “I’m afraid of how he might respond.”
Tina extended her empathy for such fears. And there was also, beyond that empathy, some invitation to be open to see where the unfolding process might lead. Maybe things will end up just the way you want, but maybe they’ll go toward some outcome other than anything you presently imagine. And you might find out that this other outcome might also be fine. In any event, if you bring your own real humanity and goodwill into the process, it has a good chance to unfold to where the reality between you wants to go.
When this pattern had been enacted on the show for the second or third time, I noticed it with some excitement. Our previous caller had said good-bye, leaving just Tina and me on the air together. A commercial break was scheduled for about this time, but I knew I could delay it for a bit, so I launched into an impassioned statement about the human condition.
We seem to have a deep tendency, I suggested, to get our desires fixed on some particular outcome that we think that we need in order for us to be OK. So we’re afraid to proceed unless we’ve got a whole scenario all drawn up. Like a script for the whole play. But, I suggested, life doesn’t get written like that. There’s no playwright who knows the last scene before the first word is uttered on the stage; we’re all writing this thing together. And so the best thing we can do is to compose a possibly ‘next good step.’ And then see where it leads.
Tina agreed, but added that it’s scary to live like that, so we hang on to the idea that we can find some solution we can impose.
And then we both agreed that we both had experienced plenty of fear around the question of trusting how things will unfold. And Tina intimated that one of the blessings of her life had been the discovery, in Non-Violent Communication, of a process that enabled her to have more trust more than she’d ever experienced before.
Later, while driving home from the station after the show, I once again looked at the question of just what it is that we trust when we “trust the process.” And what kept coming up for me was the word “reality.” Then I saw that another insight that could be gleaned from the show concerned the importance of “letting reality speak.”
 Quoted in Alan Watts, The Watercourse Way, p. 47.