Navigating the Unexpected

Navigating the Unexpected

At some time in your life, maybe it has happened to you. Everything was going along fine – until suddenly, it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a sudden illness, or the unexpected loss of a job or a relationship, or a project that had appeared to be on track and then just fell apart. There was no warning – at least not that you had noticed. Suddenly it was just gone, it was over, there was nothing, even though just a moment ago or yesterday or last week, everything had seemed fine.

When the unexpected happens, at first, there is shock, sadness, anger or disbelief. Yet somehow, we usually “pull it together” and find our way through the initial hours and days.

Sometimes, it turns out that the new terrain is only temporary, and soon things return to “normal.” We do what we need to do in the moment to find our way through the unsettled circumstances. In time, things settle down and we find our way back to familiar ground. There may even be a sense of relief after it’s all over, realizing that, in fact, the unexpected turned out to be a good thing. Something opened or something was set free.

Yet there are other times when we quickly realize that everything has changed. Things will never be like they were before. Not ever again. Each day becomes about finding our way through a landscape that we had never imagined ourselves in. We learn to ask for help and support. We learn that we can do things that we didn’t know we could do. And we find attributes both in ourselves and in others that we didn’t know were there. Sometimes those discoveries are unexpected blessings; other times they bring disappointment. That’s just the way it is. Yet somehow, as time goes on, we begin to find (or create) a “new normal.”

Whether it’s a story in the news or something that happened to a friend or a client, I seem to be hearing some version of this story more frequently these days. Perhaps your experience is similar. You may even have your own recent story with the unexpected.

As I wrote those first paragraphs, two questions came to mind. First, how do we learn to navigate new and unexpected terrain? Or put another way, how do we find our way through a situation we never expected to be in?

And second, how do we become more resilient in the face of challenging circumstances, especially when we had no warning or preparation for what was about to happen?

Sitting with those questions, I remembered this koan from the samurai and poet Mizuta Masahide:

"My storehouse having been burnt down, nothing obstructs my view of the bright moon."

I’ve always read these words as an expression of surrender. However, this time, something was different. Masahide’s words wouldn’t let go of me. I just kept reading that simple text over and over again. Slowly, I began to realize that finding our way through the unexpected and becoming more resilient isn’t about “how or what to do.” It’s actually about choice and perspective.

None of us knows “how” to do that which we never thought we would have to do. Yet somehow, when we are suddenly faced with the unexpected, an inner wisdom takes over and we find our way. We may not even be conscious of what we are doing or how we are doing it. There is some deeper part of us taking care of us. Some people might call it God, Spirit, the Universe, or your Higher Self. Whatever name you give to it, it’s there and somehow we find our way.

Even though we may not know “how” ahead of time, there are things that we can do to be better prepared to handle the unexpected. There are skills that we can develop to help us navigate the unknown and cultivate a resilient spirit.

Developing a daily reflective practice is a great place to start. For you, that might be sitting meditation, prayer, journaling, yoga, or qi gong. Find the daily practice or combination of practices that works the best for you – a practice that gives you time and space for reflection, that helps you be centered and grounded, and that allows you to tap into a greater wisdom.

Then, as opportunities and challenges arise throughout your day, pause before action. Take a breath, tap into that bigger wisdom again, and ask, “What is the next step that will move things forward in the best way?” And then take that step. Don’t worry about how. Just take the step. As you keep practicing tapping into the greater wisdom, you will be shown the way.

Long ago, a wise friend said to me, “You can’t choose your first thought or reaction, but you can choose your second thought.”

Your first thought just happens – a subconscious reaction. You can’t control it. However, you can learn to consciously choose your second thought. You can choose how you will look at what is happening. That may be all you have in the moment, but that’s OK. It’s a start. Just breathe, find your center and grounding, and somehow you will be shown the next step.

Consciously choosing your second thought and being able to find a clear perspective quickly, especially in the face of the unexpected, takes practice. These are learned skills that everyone can develop. You won’t develop them overnight, yet with practice and focus, you might be surprised how quickly these skills can become second nature to you.

The key is to practice when life is good. Practice when the stakes are not so high. (And if times are tough right now, start practicing anyway.) Then when the unexpected comes, you will have skills to support you.

My storehouse having been burnt down, nothing obstructsmy view of the bright moon.

Your “storehouse” being gone might indeed be an enormous loss. When you realize that things will never be the same again, you might wonder if you will ever find your way in this new circumstance. Yet perhaps just sitting down, getting quiet, and taking in your now unobstructed view of the bright moon, you just might find your next step. It’s a start. And for the moment, that can be enough.

Alan Seale - The Center for Transformational Presence

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