The Art of Being Clueless

My good friend David has just finished another book. It is entitled Clueless and it is his reflection of living a life in which he has often felt clueless.

We live in a society in which we are taught that we should be on top of things and ready to face the challenges of life. When we do not understand what is going on—and we do not know what to do—it can often feel like failure, or at least inadequacy.

We have all had this experience. Something arises and we are not sure what is going in. Something is different in a way that we cannot figure out. In time we come up with a diagnosis of the situation. Our diagnosis may call for a specific action on our part. If our action is successful, we have transformed failure into victory. We have reaffirmed our good standing as a highly effective problem-solver. Nothing is more honored in our can-do culture than good problem-solving.

But what if that is not our experience? What if our enduring experience is just the opposite, where time and again we face a problem we cannot figure out? Time and again our problem remains unsolved, time and again our ability is found wanting.

Now we start to question our life. Why is it that we seem singularly incapable of getting on top of our life? Why is it our life seems to be a series of failures? We have let society down and we have left ourself down.

It is often said that we grow most from our failures. Mistakes are normal. We all fail at one time or another. The important thing in life is to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and then soldier on with our life.

This works when failures are few and far between. This works when mistakes are the exception and not the norm. But what is it about life when mistakes and failure seem to define the way we live? Or even seem to define who we are? How do we respond then?

My own period of cluelessness.

In 2003 my wife and I faced a decision. We lived in Silicon Valley and the high-tech recession was upon us. For most of the country, this recession was no worse than others. But Silicon Valley was different. For us it was a

full-blown depression. Half of all high-tech jobs simply disappeared. Gone! People were leaving the area in droves. Consulting work in my field had dried up like spilled water in the desert.

To give you an idea of how bad it was: In 1999 the freeways in and around Silicon Valley were clogged by 5 AM in the morning. In 2003 you could drive those same freeways at 8 AM at the speed limit. The people were gone. And so were the consulting opportunities for my work.

My wife had a steady job as a therapist at a medical foundation. We could live off her salary until the economy recovered. Or we could take the equity out of our house and retire. We chose to do the latter. We pulled up stakes and headed north. We moved to Bend OR, bought a 20-acre ranch just outside of town, and began a life of growing hay and fixing up a property.

I remember the day I was standing out in the hay field and thinking: this is crazy! I have never farmed in my life. I have no idea what I am doing. And yet at the same time I felt liberated. I had no ego attached to being a good farmer. After a 30-year career of being a teacher, trainer and consultant—all fields where I had to come across as being very smart—I was finally doing something where it was okay to know nothing. I felt as dumb as a board and it was liberating. I could present myself to the world just as I was—an ignorant man in a job he knows nothing about. The only thing I could do was to ask everyone I met for help, which I did, and which they provided.

The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki had a term for this: he called it beginners mind. A beginner’s mind is empty. There are no expectations to meet, no pre-conditions to satisfy. A beginner’s mind is an empty vessel that is waiting to be filled by life’s experience. It is a mind ready to start over, or start anew. A beginner’s mind is clueless.

Cluelessness can be a gift. We are living in a time when the certainties of the modern mind are undermining our society. We have been trained to live life from our mind. We need to understand what is true and defend this truth from those who are ignorant or have evil intent. We are gripped by the hubris of thinking we know what is right when so many others are in the wrong. And we feel very self-righteous about our position.

There is a great distortion in our collective human consciousness at this moment of our history. We are designed to live within a balanced life that utilizes both our head centers and our heart centers. But this is not the way we live. We grasp the certainties of our mind and resist the openness of our hearts. Openness feels like weakness. Vulnerability. Failure. It feels like cluelessness.

It is cluelessness. And that is a good thing!

Cluelessness and the Two Centers

Cluelessness helps us to understand better the nature of our two centers. In fact, being clueless is a decidedly different experience in each center.

In the head center, which we are most familiar with, cluelessness is very uncomfortable. The head center tells us that, if we are not in in control of our life, we must at least be able to respond to whatever problems life might deliver to our doorstep. We are smart, strong, resourceful and resilient. We can deal with whatever comes up.

But if we do not feel this sense of being in control, when we are not sure how to proceed in the moment, i.e. when we are feeling clueless, the implication is that we are inadequate. We have failed to live up to our cultural expectation for how a responsible citizen should live. This sense of failure can be devastating.

Cluelessness can often sneak up on us. One minute we are feeling good and then—unexpectedly—our boss gives us some negative feedback. Suddenly our world spins out of control. Our self-image of having it all together is shattered and we are left feeling devastated. We are clueless.

In the head center cluelessness is something to avoid.

In the Heart center, the feeling is very different. Cluelessness is a state to be enjoyed. Cluelessness is freedom. It is the place where there are no expectations placed upon us. There is no specific way we are supposed to be. There is no specific thing we need to know and nothing we are supposed to do.

Life is okay just as it is. We are okay just as we are. Nothing needs to change. Nothing needs to be done. Here we are safe to open ourselves up to the fullness of life.

In the heart center cluelessness is a state of receptivity. It is openness. It is inclusiveness. It is like a flower opening up to the mornng sun. Cluelessness is allowing life to come to us on its terms rather than our terms.

Consider meditation. Meditation is the practice of emptying ourselves out. We sit with our eyes closed and attempt to release all our self-talk about how we should be in the world. It is a process for releasing the expectations and the beliefs that we hold in our head center and allowing ourselves to drift into the heart center. Here we feel a sense of relief at being freed from the expectations in our mind.

Meditation is a transition from feeling in control to feeling clueless. There is irony here: what is considered a sign of failure in the head center is embraced as the core of our being in the heart center.

At our very core, cluelessness is who we are.

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