It’s easy enough to say what we don’t want but much more difficult to name what we want. Sometimes a genuine want is difficult to articulate because it resides deep in the heart, in a place not easily accessed with language. But we can begin to excavate that inner territory with tools that are readily available. We might start by taking a nice deep breath, putting a hand on the heart and asking what it wants, then opening to answers by paying attention to our whole experience, including dreams, symbols, sounds, physical sensations, emotions, events – everything. Paying attention to all of our experiences can help us discern and then name our heart’s desire.
At other times we have a general idea of what we want (I want to be happy, run my own company, write a novel), but find ourselves in a state of resistance. This is because we want something that is still undeveloped. Most likely, this embryonic want will sit there until we make some sort of choice. Choices give shape to our desires: How do I define happiness? How much money can I invest in the company? What’s the setting for this novel? It might be that making even a small decision will help us step bravely into what was once an unmanageable or overwhelming process.
Do you think that outside circumstances determine what you can have? That assumption will reduce even a mighty oak of a dream to woodshavings. External factors do not have to limit us. Gandhi, Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa all faced enormous external resistance. Whitman published his own poems when no one approved of his “barbaric yawp.” Steve Jobs dropped out of college. J.K. Rowling struggled to pay the rent. The world is rich with contributions from those who had difficult or challenging circumstances.
If my own circumstances determined my life, I would likely be unpublished, addicted to drugs, and working at a job I detest. We can all pursue what we want, either in spite of or because of our circumstances. “Like the lotus in muddy water, our wish to be better people grows among our many worldly desires. Just look at the wanting itself,” says Zen teacher John Tarrant. “That is the gate.”
Some of us do not acknowledge what we want because we have not learned the fundamentals of self-expression. Instead, we might have learned that expression is egotistical, self-serving, too worldly or otherwise inappropriate. Consider how many times you have said (or heard someone say), “I think I want…”
The danger is that others will happily step in to fill the void.
Everyone from the fast-food employee to the false guru is waiting to tell or sell us what we want. Fast-food servers suggest we add fries to a meal for only 99 cents. Pharmaceutical companies promote pills as the happiness elixir. And the most powerful spiritual experience is just a matter of attending the right retreat with the right leader.
The great tragedy here is that when we don’t know what we truly want, we stop trusting our own experience. We let others tell us what our experience should be. I offer the example of those who died in the sweat lodges led by self-proclaimed guru James Arthur Ray. The three people who died in the 2009 sweat lodge surely felt endangered. But the sweat lodge “was the culminating event, touted as ‘hellaciously hot,’ a chance for participants to have powerful breakthroughs.” Ray sold people what they only half thought they wanted and in a sense discouraged (albeit maybe not deliberately) participants from trusting their own experience.
We hear these sad stories time and again, and our responses are always the same: How does that happen? Yet research shows we tend to say yes to what will fill in the blank of our unconscious lives. That makes waking up serious business. It means putting yourself in charge of your life by knowing what you want and how to get it. And you can begin right here by considering these points:
1. Trust your personal experience above all else.
2. Practice checking in with yourself: Ask, What am I thinking right now? What am I experiencing emotionally and physically? And, what do I want? Don’t “search” for answers. Just open up to the awareness by asking the questions. If you’d like, jot down responses in a pocket journal (I call these my field notebooks).
3. Go step by step. Get a complete picture of what you want, then take the first step closest in that will move you into that picture.
4. Take a good look at all your “maybes,” then turn each one into a yes or no. How much of your life is held hostage by a maybe? Maybe I’ll try that. Maybe someday. “I’ll think about it” is a maybe too. Most maybes are another way of saying I don’t know what I want. Of course, at times saying maybe is appropriate. But studies show that postponing some decisions can increase distress and confusion. How many times have you heard others say, “I just feel so much better having made the decision”? Lingering too long in the maybe realm is detrimental to our creativity as well. Making choices is fundamental to the creative life. You can’t build from a maybe.
5. Stop searching for what you want and instead make meaning in the present moment. The searching mind, especially when desperately looking for fulfillment, is sabotaged by the search itself.
“The creative act is not hanging on, but yielding to new creative movement.” –Joseph Campbell