Innovation, Freefall and Not-Knowing
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.” ~Chögyam Trungpa
A friend shared his definition of innovation with me the other day. Innovation, he said, means we are going somewhere new and when we innovate, we never know how we are going to get from here to there. We are not in the territory of innovation when the process is linear, known and predictable.
When we innovate there is no road map, no tried and true set of steps, no instructions nor techniques to rely upon. Innovation implies the unknown, transformation, metamorphosis, a movement into novelty.
As a coach and facilitator, I’ve been reflecting on creating the conditions for innovation in my work.
Cultivating a relationship with not-knowing has been one of the single most important competencies for me in my leadership, my facilitation work and in my coaching practice. Becoming intimate with not-knowing has been essential to becoming a more fearless, spontaneous, and flexible leader.
When I first started coaching and facilitating, my thinking was rapid and anxious: “What comes next, What should I do, how should I respond, what will happen next, am I doing this right? How will I solve this for my group?” I saw how separate I was from my client, how worried and strained I was. I was, after all, the coach/expert and I wanted a linear, predictable process and the security and assurance the technique should provide. I was working hard, fearful, contracted - and getting nowhere.
Over the next several months, I engaged my own developmental process. I inched closer to the experience of not-knowing and the uncertainty that took over, which for me, was a destabilizing experience into free-fall.
Why was I willing to enter this experience of free-fall, without guardrails? I can’t quite find the trigger, my only sense of the why was a sense that the experience of feeling deeply insufficient wasn’t the end of the road. I have often experienced a deep sense of trusting my experience in meditation, and in that space of stillness, not-knowing and listening into a deeper part of myself has always felt trustable.
In these months of my journey, I started to notice a familiar tightness in my chest, especially when I felt I was suddenly in over my head with a client (sometimes it was simply, the “how should I respond to that!?” moment) or in a facilitation session (getting direct feedback the group was no longer interested in following my process and ready to take things in an unplanned direction with, or without me). I could see that I was quick to guard my heart against feelings of uncertainty or sense that I was exposed. I was unwilling to feel vulnerable and not-know. I paid close attention to my thoughts as well, I noticed that often this tight sensation wrapping around my heart was connected with thoughts about being incompetent, inadequate, uncertain about my contribution.
From this walled off, self-protected stance, I started to notice how separate I felt and how often I experienced struggling to get it all right. I noticed how quiet I was and how often I held back sharing my opinion or response out of fear of getting something wrong. I knew I wanted to move more fluidly, dynamically, and heart-fully in my work and in my relationships.
So, I began practicing trusting that everything I needed was already here and available to me in that moment. I started believing that I was fully competent. For me, the key became shifting to meet the moment head on, heart-fully and willingly tolerating the experience of feeling vulnerable, confused or disoriented. In my body, it required softening my tight chest and dropping into my heart, cued often by a gentle cognitive reminder: “Shoulders back, chest out slightly, relax”.
And, this shift into my heart has made all the difference. It has allowed me to cultivate and get closer to not-knowing and opened me to more intimacy with this very moment.
I am trusting both the process and my ability to listen closely to what is right here in my client right now, without preoccupation about having to ‘fix’ anything or ‘do it right’. I am less gripped by doing it all well and am more clearly focused on responding with a steady presence, deeper listening, and a curiosity towards the creative possibilities within and between us.
This relaxed, open, and embodied way of being became rich soil where I started to catch whispers and possibilities revealing themselves within my clients and groups. With a softened heart, I was able to participate by listening for what was new in that moment, an insight, a way of being, a creative possibility arising between us as we look towards what could be or become. I started to see new possibilities, possible actions, fresh behaviors, creative ways of being. For example, suddenly I started to act spontaneously, off script. This meant more play, less fear, more bold, less worry. Inside me, I felt contours of new dynamic expressions and confidence. In relating with my groups and clients, I felt more fearless and willing to step forward and share my perceptions.
Practice not-knowing and cultivating space for innovation:
Listen with your whole being: include your thoughts, sensations, emotions, spatial orientation, movement and actions.
Trust that your perceptions and experience are relevant.
Include the difficulty, without rejecting or trying to change it. Notice where your judgments or critiques are loud.
Breathe and feel the pull of gravity against your body.
Notice what feels habitual, and pay attention to habits or responses that feel stale or repetitive.
Hold your big questions close and feel them in your mind, your heart, your guts every day.
The journey may require you to put your road map down and to set aside your tried-and-true ways of navigating and knowing. As you explore, I suspect you may start to glimpse moments of embodied fluidity and tiptoe away from your habituated range into an experience with vibrant curiosity and a decrease in fear.
The rules of the game are bigger than we are. So much of life is unknown and far beyond our control. Innovation emerges as I participate whole-heartedly in the process of being grown, stretched towards more without a sense of where I will be taken. I invite you into an exploration of not-knowing and allow it to converse with your whole life, in service of clarifying your heart, developing your capacity to lead, and inhabiting your deepest humanity.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ~ Rilke
This blog was published May 2019 at Ten Directions.