It seems a major thread both in this blog and my life in general is the question of what I ought to do at any given moment: where I’m headed, and how to get there. More specifically, I often wonder to what extent I should formulate and adhere to plans, as opposed to following a more spontaneous or intuitive path.
My Zen practice points me toward embracing this apparent dichotomy, adopting a both/and, rather than either/or, approach (after all, planning and intuition surely aren’t mutually exclusive!). Just as I don’t believe in mistakes, but rather in always being mindful, letting go of outcomes and learning along the way, I figure it must be possible to blend or balance the deliberative and the spontaneous.
What, though, to use as a guide? One possibility is to follow St. Augustine’s advice to “love and do what you will.” This seems related to my own description of pursuing one’s passion as the state in which “you don’t have to ask whether [what you’re doing is] something you should be doing, whether it’s worthwhile.” In other words, when you connect with your authentic self and a certain depth of feeling, these things will lead you exactly where you need to go.
Of course, it’s one thing to say that and another to fully accept and internalize it. Denying that there’s a wrong path for the mindful person and using your passions to chart a course both require tremendous patience and trust, given the inevitable and regular occasions when it seems mistakes are not only possible, but imminent.
I guess the bottom line is that none of us really know what we ought to be doing—which makes it all the more stunning that the defining ethos of education is that adults must constantly tell students not only what to do but how, and then assess how well it’s been done. How presumptuous this seems, how arrogant.
In my own life and experience, it’s easy to find examples of things I did that ended up being perfect preparation for the future, even though I pursued them strictly for short-term reasons and, indeed, couldn’t have known then that they would help me further down the road.
While an undergraduate, for example, I chose History and English as majors simply because I liked the subjects, and majoring meant I got to sign up for them first. Likewise, I got involved in an elementary-school tutoring program because an attractive female friend said she was doing it, and I worked two summers at a camp for gifted teens because it seemed like an enjoyable way to make some money. Only later, when I became a teacher, did it occur to me that I had unwittingly prepared myself for my career years before I chose it.
Then when I left teaching for a second round of grad school, I thought I was pursuing a second master’s and a PhD when in reality I was making a transition between my public school and Sudbury careers. I had barely heard of Sudbury when I started that process, but it put me in the perfect place to reflect on my career path (as well as join a choir that enabled me to grow toward the high-caliber groups I’ve sung in since).
More recently, one of the young people I worked with at Alpine Valley School described how she prepared for her career as a project manager years before she even knew the term. At AVS, she served as School Meeting Chair, guiding the weekly business meetings, and she also played a prominent role in organizing several talent shows and other social events. At the time, all she knew was that she loved doing it: the management of people and coordination of logistics. Now she’s done this sort of thing professionally for a large corporation for many years.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell cites an observation of Schopenhauer’s that “when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan…Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable.” He also counsels that “there’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.”
Reflecting on the blind trail blazing, I really ought to know by now that my apparent cluelessness and habit of “doing nothing” (another key thread of this blog) is never what it seems. Despite often feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, I have been here before: paying attention to the trees around me and in so doing, finding a most excellent path through the forest of possibilities and unknowns.
And I have to keep reminding myself: at some level I know what I’m doing, even when I don’t realize it. The trick, I think, is to stay present and keep breathing, to be patient and gentle with myself at the same time as I am mindful and determined.