‘Am I doing enough?’ The question started haunting me as soon as I started to work on ‘Not Doing’. How do I ‘do’ about ‘not doing’, I asked myself, as the manuscript deadline was getting closer? Deadlines could become all consuming, if held too tightly, but not working against a time limit could make it hard to keep my focus.
I didn’t know if my expectations of what I needed to do were too high. I started overthinking and froze. My writing stopped as the doubt started creeping in – questions about competence, quality versus quantity, level of research required…
I remembered the advice of a mentor a few years ago who sent me an encouraging email whilst I was struggling writing ‘Not Knowing’ - “Dance with the questions rather than wrestle with them – release the effort as much as you can, bring your awareness to the balance between focus and flow, and trust yourself and the process to deliver the clarity you need.”
Release the effort? How could I do that and still create something? Create without effort? The words won’t magically appear on the page. It had taken effort and perseverance to write ‘Not Knowing’. Sometimes I had to push through the discomfort. I was now writing about effortless action. The irony hadn’t escaped me!
I thought my mentor was right to encourage me to trust myself and the process. That went to the core of my challenge. I concluded that the only way to write about a topic I was myself challenged by, was to be totally immersed in it. I decided to follow American psychologist Clark Moustakas’s process of heuristic research, which he describes as “a process of internal search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of experience and develops methods and procedures for further investigation and analysis.”
Heuristic research starts with an initial engagement phase of connecting with the subject, involving self-search, self-dialogue, and self-discovery. I fully and deliberately immersed myself in the question I was grappling with – what does Not Doing mean for me? Moustakas argued that it is the autobiographical source of the question that generates the process of enquiry and discovery.
Immersion followed soon after. I became alert to all possibilities for meaning, wherever I came across the themes and ideas I was exploring. I started seeing Not Doing everywhere in my day to day life – in newspaper articles, in snippets of conversation on the train, in my leadership classes, in my kids’ games, in nature. I became totally absorbed in the topic.
Then, incubation. Moustakas suggests retreating from the intense focus on the question, detaching from involvement and awareness of its nature and meanings. For Moustakas, incubation “is a process in which a seed has been planted; the seed undergoes silent nourishment, support and care that produces a creative awareness of some dimension of a phenomenon or a creative integration of its parts or qualities”.
He quotes Michael Polanyi who argues that deliberate mental effort and direct, calculated efforts do not automatically result in discovery, “the way you reach the peak of a mountain by putting in your last ounce of strength – but more often comes in a flash after a period of rest or distraction. Our labours are spent as it were in an unsuccessful scramble among the rocks and in the gullies on the flanks of the hill and then when we would give up for a moment and settle down to tea we suddenly find ourselves transported to the top … by a process of spontaneous mental reorganisation uncontrolled by conscious effort”.
During the period of incubation, I spent time alone, letting my thoughts wonder, as well as engaging in activities that were unrelated to my research, like cycling and listening to music. Incubation is a key part of the creative process, which taps into the unconscious through equal parts boredom and reflection. Seemingly strange and unrelated things popped into my mind, like a memory of losing track of time when I once baked a cake, and wondering whether animals embodied Not Doing naturally. I did not judge the random ideas or looked for connections, just allowed them to surface.
I stepped away from activity, turning off the stream of data that I had nurtured into a steady flow. This was similar to the idea of ‘close your eyes to see’ we explored in ‘Not Knowing’. Immersion involves letting go of the need to know, to find more information, by closing off all the senses. This paradoxically enables new knowledge to emerge. I found the confidence to let go, knowing that at some point I would return to re-engage with the ideas. This phase felt like I was creating a different kind of space for the work, a counterintuitive valuing of an absence of input.
This allowed me to become open to new dimensions of the topic, which were ready for exploration. Moustakas called this process of being open and receptive, illumination. “Illumination opens the door to a new awareness, a modification of an old understanding, a synthesis of fragmented knowledge, or an altogether new discovery of something that has been present for some time yet beyond immediate awareness.” The whole frame of reference that I’d had about Not Doing collapsed. I could see more clearly what Not Doing was, and what it wasn’t. I knew what story I wanted to illustrate the essence of Not Doing and how to connect that to the other stories in the book.
Explication followed, a phase of “fully examining what has awakened in consciousness, to understand its various layers of meaning”. This required me to be fully present to my own feelings, thoughts, beliefs and judgments, as I reflected on the connections with the themes of Not Doing. This became my favourite step, a luxurious process of examination and sense-making, which created a natural way to surface the essence of my experience in writing. This is what Moustakas calls the process of creative synthesis. As the writing started to flow, I captured the nuances and textures of Not Doing, my experience of solitude, silence, patience, waiting, and my yearning for tranquillity, all coming together to form a thread through the book. No longer stuck, I was writing myself into the book, dancing rather than wrestling with the questions.