Trust the Process

Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, CA 2011

Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, CA 2011

So often in life, we find ourselves looking for stability. If we are in the midst of a turbulent time, we are looking forward to the day when the turbulence subsides, and we tell ourselves that after that, things will settle down and become calm. If we are in a calm time, we wish for the calmness to continue indefinitely.

Have you ever said to yourself, "As soon as I get past this next project or task or hurdle, all the pieces will fall into place”? I have. Some of you know that in addition to being a yoga teacher, I have another career as an economist. A few years back, I was a professor at UCSD on the tenure track; that is, at the end of this track, I was going to be either voted in to a more senior position and lifetime job security, or asked to leave. I got very, very close. I published the right papers in the right journals and did what I thought I'd needed to do, but perhaps it wasn't enough. When the time of the decision came, I did not get promoted. It was a shocking and devastating moment for me, my first ever true failure in life. It was especially painful in that moment that I felt SO close to having all the pieces fall into place! I'd finally met the man of my dreams earlier that year, things were going well, and I was on track to both marriage and the big promotion.

During those first dark and painful months, I remember having a very clear realization: I'd hoped the pieces would fall into place, but they hadn't, and though I wanted to resist it, my life was happening right then and there, not at some point in the future when I would figure this out, and definitely not in the alternate reality that my mind kept wishing for and getting stuck on where it all worked out as I'd planned. Was I going to miss it, or could I choose to be, even be joyful, in that moment? Could I accept that the pieces rarely fall into place the way we plan for them to, and take the opportunity to learn from the experience?

The wonderful Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön conveys a simple but powerful truth: "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest." Generally, we resist this truth. We like to feather our nest and stay put in there, thank you very much. But life sometimes has other plans for us. When it shakes up our best-laid plans and our puzzle pieces just as we are about to figure out how they all fit together, it's usually trying to teach us something, if we're willing to listen and look. My lesson at that moment a few years back was to look outside the narrow world I was in and see if maybe, just maybe, I hadn't quite found yet what I had been meant to be doing. It may sound easy, but it shook me to the core, and I'm still in that process, five years later! Of course, it is difficult to be open to such lessons at times; for example, a diagnosis of cancer, ours or of someone we love, will cause us pain and resistance. You might even feel that such a situation has nothing to do with the story I just told. But over the last seven years, my many students undergoing cancer treatment, both adults and kids, have taught me time and time again that something as difficult as illness can serve to uncover our most unexpected reserves of strength, and our inner truth, so that we may live our fullest life, whether it be with a career change, embracing love of travel, learning a musical instrument for the first time, or starting a business at the age of thirteen.  

This lesson is summarized for me in a phrase that has been close to my heart for years now, and which I take as a foundation of my practice when the going gets tough: "Trust the process." I sometimes use it as a mantra in my meditation practice. I have also shared this phrase with some close friends; sometimes it is welcome, and, as my best friend said in her toast at my wedding, there had been times when she wanted to tell me "exactly where to shove said process...". No doubt, at times I too find such trust extraordinarily challenging if not impossible. But if we are able to open up to the truth of the process being inherently about being thrown out of the nest, if at least at times we can begin to soften to that message and move toward acceptance of it, perhaps it may serve our awakening to the richness and beauty of our life in this moment, exactly as it is, without resisting it or wishing for it to be different. 

Remember, this is a very gradual practice, and most of the time, we won't feel so balanced and accepting. But next time, any time, that you feel upset or thrown out of the nest, sit for a few minutes, close your eyes and tune into your breath, and remind yourself to trust the process, or simply mentally repeat the word “trust” on the inhale and the exhale. It has softened the hardest moments for me, and I hope it will for you too. 

If you would like to read more on this subject, Pema Chödrön’s quote comes from her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.