Common advice to people in overwhelm — feeling the weight of too much to do and feeling unclear on where to start — is to “start somewhere” and “keep taking action. One thing at a time.
In the past, this has been my typical approach: Look at the list and start knocking things off one at a time. “Bird by bird” as Anne Lamott would say.
How quickly can I knock things off the list?
Taking action will get you somewhere. The challenge that many people face is that they engage in an endless frenzy of “taking action” without actually moving forward.
Action without direction is a waste of energy.
Often, we be unclear on our direction. This makes forward movement especially difficult.
The Step Before Action
These common nuggets of advice are not necessarily wrong. They are simply missing the first step.
The very first step is often overlooked because it’s counterintuitive.
The first step is stillness.
When the mind starts to spin out of control with a long list of things to do and conflicting commitments and worry about the future, the first thing to do is to stop the spin.
Pamela Eakins writes that
The first stage in focusing entails stopping — even if only temporarily — that which is moving, and all the noise, in order to bring it under control.
The Mind Cannot Control the Mind
Trying to take action too soon or to figure out a way to get clear is an attempt to use the mind to reign in the mind. When the mind is spinning, it’s a signal to get out of the mind.
This is the time to retreat to the still waters, to dive beneath the waves to the place where conscious thoughts have no power.
When a computer gets overwhelmed and overloaded, it doesn’t take “one step at a time.” It shuts down. The mind works the same way.
First Action = No Action
Sometimes taking action means resolving to take no action.
If you’re a highly intelligent, a type-A, high-achiever, a thinker and a doer, this is a challenge. You’ve developed a habit of using your mind, logic, and action to work your way through uncertainty, confusion, and chaos.
Retreating to stillness is counter to your entrenched habits. It feels unproductive, like you’re doing nothing. It feels uncomfortable.
Here’s what you need to know: You’re not doing nothing.
Clearing the Muddy Waters
I find the metaphor of the muddy water particularly helpful.
Imagine a glass of water with dirt swirled in it. How do you separate the dirt from the water, to yield clear water?
If you’re a doer, you might think to run it through a sieve. The dirt here is too fine for a sieve.
You’re creative. Perhaps your next thought is to line the sieve with cheesecloth, or even fine fabric to catch the dirt.
Assume that those materials won’t allow the water through. (But props for your creativity.)
The Process for Achieving Clarity
There’s a process for this — a recipe.
Clarity = Stillness + Time + Patience + Trust
The first ingredient is stillness.
As the glass of water sits in stillness, the dirt settles to the bottom of the glass, leaving the clear water on top.
The second ingredient is time.
How much time? This is the mystery.
The temptation is to check on it constantly. You will quickly learn that each time you raise the glass for a closer look — is the water clear yet? — you agitate the glass ever so slightly. Dirt rises up again and swirls in the water, prolonging the process.
The third ingredient is patience.
Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?
> ― Lao Tzu
The fourth ingredient is trust.
Patience and trust often seem to go together in these recipes, like the way baking soda is always paired with an acidic ingredient in a recipe for baked goods.
Just like the acid activates the baking soda, trust activates patience.
It’s going to be hard to generate the patience you need if you are lacking in trust.
Clarity in the Mind
This process is how we get clarity in the mind.
When the mind starts to spin out of control, it’s time to shut down the mind and come to stillness, to retreat into the heart space — a place where thoughts and the fears they produce cannot enter.
As we rest in stillness, without the chatter of external demands, we can hear the beating of our hearts and the voice of truth.
The mud of our doubts and fears settles to the bottom and the waters of our vision, values and what we hold most sacred become clear.
When we enter the heart space, we create not in reaction to demands or fears, but rather in response to the calling of our higher selves.
The still waters of our heart space are womb from which all new life, all creative forms, all new ideas that come from love are birthed. It is a space in which we create from a place of alignment with our vision, values and highest ideals.
The Right Action
There will be a time for action. Now is not that time.
Only by embracing the stillness can we get clarity on the path ahead. From that place, you can get clear not just on the action to take, but on the right action — the action that will move you forward.
- Pamela Eakins, Tarot of the Spirit. This is from the explanation for the Eight of Water: Still Waters. ↩