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Naomi Rose : Not-Knowing: An Unnerving but Reliable Guide

Not-Knowing: A Sometimes Unnerving but Utterly Reliable Guide

(In writing a book and other things, too)

By Naomi Rose

I've written before about the need to accept, even welcome, not-knowing as part of the process of writing a book (see Writing a Book as a Quest). And today, having been home from doing a three-day spiritual retreat for about two weeks now, I am inspired to write about it again.

We want to know. We want to know things beforehand, ahead of time. We want to know where we are going, why we are going there, what we will encounter (and should thus prepare for) along the way. Will it be cold? Should we bring our thermal underwear? Should we make an outline of our intent, chapter by chapter, without yet having a real sense of what those chapters will feel like, will be like inside us? We should know where we're going. We should know how to get there. Certainly, if we're taking a plane somewhere, we want the pilot to know the destination, and for sure the route. No collisions, no delays. No surprises, other than perhaps wind currents, and the altitude needed to get above the clouds. And we tend to think that writing a book should be the same.

But unless it's one of those "paint by the numbers" kinds of books ("There are ten steps to having a better complexion, and here they are: Chapter 1, Your Skin Isn't Skin Deep; Chapter 2, Eat Healthy Foods," etc.), it isn't the same. There are factors that come into the picture that you can't really know until you're standing inside the territory of your book, or at least inside your desire to write it. Sometimes writing a book is a lot like the decision to enter therapy: you think you're doing it because you have difficulties with, say, your boss. But as time goes on and the defenses that usually hold you up begin to melt, in the course of being seen and understood within a compassionate therapeutic relationship, you find out that what got you in the door was only what they call the "presenting problem" ~ the issue that got you in the door. You're really there for something else entirely. You're there to encounter the Self that got left behind ~ to catch a glimpse of its presence, to weep for its needing to disguise itself when you were young, and to call it back into your heart as devotedly as it is calling you.

This is a very frequent occurrence in therapy: we think "something's wrong with me, something's not working for me," and so we go in for a fix, as if we were a car. But if we are alert in any way to the passion of our soul, and if we have chosen an adept and loving helper, we find that we are on a much more important quest: the quest for our real Self.

In my experience ~ writing my own books, and working with my clients ~ the same thing often happens in writing a book from the deeper Self. We start with a desire ~ and we may even downplay the significance of the desire, may tell ourselves we want fame or fortune or a good credit for our career ~ and step in: perhaps with nothing in hand, perhaps with a sterling outline, perhaps with old notes or journal entries, or shelved vignettes or ideas. And then, somewhere down the line, right away or much later, we realize that we are on the trail of something tremendous, to us at least ~ and we have no idea how to get there, what to do. We thought we were starting out with a Triple-A triptych guide, and then here we are, surrounded by lupines and blue sky, and a road that bends so windingly that we can't see past a few feet, if at all. We thought we knew, but we don't, now. We are in territory unknown. We may fear this; and yet something calls us forward. What is going on?

What's going on, in my direct experience, is that we have somehow made our way into the same territory in which we can find ourselves in good therapy. The "presenting goal" of the book may fall away, or change direction, change its tune, leaving us feeling not in charge anymore. We can give up, we can panic, we can turn on ourselves in rebuke and dismay.

But this would be a great mistake. For we have made it past the invisible electric fence of our defenses ~ and though we don't yet recognize the territory, we are close to the door of the divine within. Some welcoming presence (though perhaps too long-forgotten to feel known at all) has beckoned us into the interior, so that we may become more still and get our bearings in a land we don't yet recognize as our own.

What guidance is it that refuses to take direction from our controlling intellect, and insists on taking us into unknown places, waiting until we slow down and begin to turn on the light of our hearts and shine it into the crevices of our inner being?

Who is leading us astray from our outlines, and bringing us to our knees so that we might feel the velvet-softness of the grass beneath, which we couldn't even see before, in our haste to get to our goal?

How can we trust that these places of not-knowing are gifts, are God's love poured on us, so that we will have to stop and look and listen within to what is being born, what threads are shining and weaving themselves into a wholeness that our controlling minds never could have found on their own?

When I was on my retreat, away from the pressures of ordinary life ~ bills and to-do lists, concern about my loved ones, about "too much to do and too little time" ~ I had the luxury of, among other things, reading certain spiritual books. As the Jewish High Holy Days were in progress, with the Day of Atonement soon to come, I picked up a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and read a section about prayer; and realized that I knew what he was talking about, not only from my own experience of praying but also from my own experience of writing a book.

"The purpose of prayer (Heschel wrote) is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.

"In speech, the act and the content are not always contemporaneous. What we wish to communicate to others is usually present in our minds prior to the moment of communication. In contrast, the actual content of prayer comes into being in the moment of praying. For the true content of prayer, the true sacrifice we offer, is not the proscribed word which we repeat, but the response to it, the self-examination of the heart, the realization of what is at stake in living as a child of God. These elements which constitute the substance of prayer come into being within prayer." — Abraham Heschel, Man's Quest for God (NY: Scribner's, 1954, p. 16, Italics mine)

Can you sense the similarity between writing deeply and prayer? We think we're supposed to step up to the plate all polished and ready to go; but in the moment of encounter, all we have is what gives itself to us in the moment. And that's what opens up everything.

We cannot pre-order our words, though we may want to, may want to reassure ourselves that we know what we are doing, that we are good, we are worthy ~ as if our worth depended on any of these things. All we can do is be present to the deep stirrings of our hearts, and then call out (in writing, in this case) and be present to the divine's response (also in writing). So we can view writing a book as prayer-and-response: God calls us, we hear the call, we pick up the pen and write our way into the wilderness; and then, when we think we can't recognize the surrounding countryside, or ourselves ~ who we are, were, will be ~ God writes us into full existence, and our strongest urge is to fall to our knees in gratitude beyond any possible words.

Writing from the deeper Self calls us to know who we are, and to live there ~ at least to return again and again, as to a home once locked away and miraculously re-found. To write a book from the deeper Self is to treasure our deepest nature, and give it room to shine on its own terms. Is there a better gift to give ourselves, or our loved ones, or people whom we will never meet, but who will meet themselves because of us? Aren't there books that have lodged inside us as our own heartbeat ~ perhaps some read as a child? We are the legacy we will leave behind, because we took that journey, left the markings, left on a light to show our readers the way back home. •

Copyright © 2009 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved.

Naomi RoseNaomi Rose, Book Developer and Writing Coach, has successfully used her "Writing from the Deeper Self" approach to help people with an inner-directed focus write the books of their hearts. More »

10/16/09