Like all great creative processes, our lives are cloaked in mystery.
In order to cultivate a crop, we must plant seeds in soil. Buried in earth, where no light can penetrate, a mystical, magical process unfolds, and if we patiently tend to the plot, eventually, we may witness a tiny green sprout emerge. Over time, that sprout may develop shoots and leaves, buds and flowers, possibly even fruits and vegetable we can consume. We treat this as commonplace, but it is also a miracle. And, it all starts beneath the surface, shrouded from sight, in a hidden, powerful process of creation.
In order for a caterpillar to transform into a butterfly, it creates a cocoon. Inside this chrysalis, again hidden from view, the caterpillar doesn’t simply grow wings. Instead, it completely dissolves. If you were to open a chrysalis before the metamorphosis is complete, you’d find something beyond recognition—a “milky white bug soup,” as life coach and author Martha Beck says. The caterpillar already contains all the ingredients necessary to create a stunning monarch, yet it must first completely shed its prior identity. It necessarily dissolves into an unrecognizable milky white liquid, a state of pure potential, to allow its full and organic transformation to occur.
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If we curtail that process, and impatiently penetrate or sever the chrysalis before the moment is ripe, we interfere with the magic of Mother Nature, and we interrupt the possibility of rebirth or transformation. The same is true for a seed or a human baby: We can do serious damage if we attempt to interfere with the mysterious, hidden process of creation.
Yet, somehow, the same rule is often eschewed when it comes to our life trajectory.
We live in a world that prizes certainty. Many of us are urged to not only declare with utter certainty our life purpose, but also create a 10-year plan and incremental goals. When graduating from college or transitioning out of a job, we’re often asked what’s next, and we expected to offer a clear, certain answer. I’ve witnessed the looks of terror and concern in loved ones’ eyes, upon uttering, “I don’t know.”
This look was so penetrating it evoked a sinking sensation in my gut, and a wash of warm, toxic shame across my cheeks. In my younger years, these awful sensations and my fear that their concern trumped my inner wisdom drove me to scramble for an appealing answer—even when this meant attending medical school.
Yet, here’s the rub: We must embrace uncertainty for creative answers to emerge. After all, isn’t your one wild and precious life among the greatest creative processes? What if finding and living our purpose is less about “figuring something out” and more about letting what wants to emerge slowly gestate until it’s ready to burst powerfully forth?
This seems to be the way with all natural creative processes. We are asked to create the space, the container, and allow the mystery of the muse to works its magic. Before and during a pregnancy, a woman can take her prenatal vitamins, eat healthy foods, practice meditation, and attend her doctor’s appointments. She can do everything within her power to create the healthiest, most supportive atmosphere for her growing child. Yet, she cannot of her own volition make the child grow. This process happens, largely beyond her control. She can only help create the setting where the embryo and child can develop and thrive.
Beyond that, the outcomes of this process are largely beyond her control. Her child’s exact height, the shape of its fingers and toes, and its temperament, she cannot forcibly shape. This child is who it is; her most important job and opportunity during pregnancy is to nurture its natural development.
What if this were also true in our lives?
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh often says to treat our difficult emotions like a tiny baby, asking what it needs. I would venture to say that our purpose, our most authentic self is also like a tiny baby and, for many of us, that baby is still in utero. We may have once been crystal clear about who we were—a caterpillar—but now the universe wants to bring forth the latest, innovated version of who we are. Yet, first, we must shed our prior identity, without any guarantees.
This process may repeat itself throughout our lifetimes.
Several years ago, I was a medical student, and extremely unhappy. I knew that working in traditional medicine was against my very nature yet, as my fourth year approached, I felt momentum and societal pressure urging me to apply to residency. Only when the pain of ignoring my authentic self grew unbearable did I muster the courage to not apply to residency. Leaving the traditional medical path after graduating from medical school, I felt a portion of my previously held identity emerge. What would I do with my life? Who was I becoming? What role would these four long years of medical school play in my ultimate purpose?
I felt myself dissolve into bug soup.
The uncertainty I felt and those concerned looks from loved ones nearly caused me to force open the chrysalis, to dig up the seed before it sprouted. Yet, something deep within told me to respect the process, and create the conditions where this next version of me could grow and ultimately reveal itself.
Just two weeks before graduating medical school, I was offered a position at ABC News, where I’ve had the opportunity to not only work in medical journalism, but also teach meditation to many of my colleagues.
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Working at ABC, my work in meditation, public speaking and writing has also burgeoned, and I’m transitioning more into this work, leading to new and exciting questions. This time, I feel no rush to pry open the chrysalis.
As Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet and novelist said, “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.”