Sometimes a Step Down Is Actually a Step Up

black and white photo of long grass under a tree
Early morning light on the tall orchard grass beneath an apple tree. Sometimes you have to lower yourself to the ground in order to open your heart.

A Client’s Work Reminded Me of My Own

Last week I worked with someone who was feeling stuck about what to do with his life. He saw so many options, but no clear path. He had visions of future possibilities, but ​no way to connect them to the present.

I could relate very much. I remember feeling the same way, wanting to do something great, but unable to do anything but fantasize about it. In fact, I usually fantasized about things that were not just great, but superlative, the highest of the high. I took the dictum, “choose the highest first” quite literally. For me, the highest was enlightenment.

And so my experience was like trying to jump from the bottom of a staircase to the top of it in a single bound. I knew I couldn’t make it, but I was glued to the vision of possibilities. And I didn’t want to compromise. I was stuck. And, in some ways, I still can get stuck in this trap.

Visions of Possibilities Are Highly Addictive

Just visualizing where I could be gives a high, as if for a moment my mind believes that I’ve actually arrived at the top of the staircase. That fantasy, and the feeling of high that it gives, keeps me deeply attached to it. I become willing to forget everything else because of that.

But I become caught in a loop of thinking, rather than acting. My client experienced this same thing. He had a vision of something big, an alluring fantasy, although blurry. In fact, he had competing visions. He wanted to be an actor, a meditation teacher, a health care provider, he wanted to help people. All of these are great things, but he was stuck. 

The thoughts were:

I need to have a clear direction.
I don’t want to get just any job.
I need to know who I am before I can decide what to do.
I’m wasting my life.
I need to do something meaningful.

I Recognized Myself Immediately ​

My thought 10 years ago was, “I’m not living up to my full potential.” It showed up with the same basic thoughts: “I’m wasting my time if I’m not getting enlightened quickly. I don’t want to get any job. I need to be enlightened before I can decide what to do. I need to do something important.” 

It was actually a conflict between doing something spiritual and doing something worldly. I saw them as mutually contradictory, so they pulled me apart. I became totally paralyzed, just as my client was today. 

We Questioned the Thought, “I Need to Do Something Meaningful”

It was so good to question: believing this thought made it impossible to act, and without it there would be so much more freedom. It became really clear how much of an ego thought it was. “I need to something meaningful” so that “I can be important.”

Under the influence of this thought, It becomes impossible to work a regular job. That would be way too far beneath me and my ego to bear. I think I’ve also had another version of this ego thinking: “I want to work for myself, not work for someone else. I want to be able to say, ‘I did it,’ rather than be a part of a team saying ‘We did it.'” In some ways, I think that still operates in me today.

When we turned the thought around to, “I need to do something mundane,” it was like someone opened a window and let in some fresh air. Suddenly, it didn’t have to be something important. The mind didn’t have to think so hard to make sure it was the “right” choice. 

Any step, any job, would be fine. Not as the final goal, but simply as the next step along the way. 

This Engages the Heart

Taking just any job, looks like a step down. It appears to be the end of the ego’s hopes of ever doing something great. It appears to be wasting life, conceding, losing the dream. 

But the reality is quite different. We saw this so clearly when we thought about it. My client already had a mundane job in mind. It looked like a step down, but it was really a huge step for him. A step out of the circular thinking of the mind and into the world of trial and error, the world of actual living, the world that engages the heart.

A step from the mind to the heart is not a small step. It is not a step down at all. It is a huge step. And it brings with it a form of humility that balances the ego. 

And It’s Not the Last Step

The first step out of circular thinking and into action is not a permanent landing place. My first step back in 2010 was quitting my job as a nature photographer which was paying me no money. After that, I worked for a company designing their website and making product labels and doing some writing for them. I learned a lot. But it only lasted a few months.

Then the next step came and I had an opportunity to start training in what I do now. Each step has led to the next. But ever since I took that first step and quit my nature photography job, my mind is mainly still in that place of “it’s not important what I do.” And this gives me the space to engage my heart and enjoy each stage of my development. 

I am much less afraid to make mistakes in my career because I’m less attached to getting somewhere important, or to being someone important. I am okay with being right here on this step for now. I may even go down a few more steps. It’s not a problem because I prefer to be living where my actual abilities lie. That brings peace even as I stumble along.

I Encourage You to Do This Work

It’s not enough to read about my experience, or the experience of my client. Your mind needs to go through this process of meditation to find your version of this for yourself.

Feel free to borrow any of the stressful thoughts listed above to do your own work, or use them to help brainstorm finding your own stressful thoughts to question.

And, if you’re up for it, join us online for The Work 101 starting Jan 13.

Have a great week,

“A clear mind is by its very nature in a place of humility. It loves the low places. It prefers being in the audience to being on stage (though when people put it in the spotlight, it loves that, too).” Byron Katie, A Thousand Names for Joy