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Three weeks ago, I found myself faced with the decision of where to work and where to live for the foreseeable future. After six interviews in a week, I had to decide between the fields of therapy and youth development and between Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C. I had been postponing these decisions since my graduation from the Tulane School of Social Work in December of 2012. I bided my time by taking two rewarding but temporary jobs, the first in New Orleans as an Academic Case Manager and the second in Austin as a Curriculum Consultant. I had delayed my transition into a more permanent position primarily because my long-time boyfriend was studying for the Texas bar and didn’t yet know where he had the best shot at getting a job. Or at least this is what I told myself and other people. Underneath this was a paralyzing uncertainty about what was the right next step in my life and my career.
One Saturday evening, in the midst of the job-interview-haze, my friend Jordan came over to swim. Jordan, a Tulane classmate who moved to Austin for a job as an addictions counselor soon after graduation, is somewhat of an expert on mindfulness, at least relative to me, an amateur on the topic. While we swam, he asked me for wilderness hike recommendations. He explained that he was planning a six-hour walking meditation the following day to answer a perplexing life question. His coworker had recommended this activity after having completed it himself for a Master’s in Social Work class:
Think of a question you have that you have not been able to answer easily. With this question in the back of your mind, embark on a six-hour nature walk. As you wander through the great outdoors, rather than consciously grappling with your question, immerse yourself in the moment. Pay attention to the nature around you — the sound of the birds, the feel of the soft earth beneath your feet, the green of the trees, the smell of the fresh air. By the end of the six hours, an answer will come to you.
Immediately, I was interested — not convinced, but intrigued. It reminded me of a body of research I encountered as a psychology major that suggested people are more effectively able to solve difficult problems after an “incubation period” in which they occupy their minds with something other than the problem at hand, be it meditation or a low-demand cognitive task, like drawing a picture or reading a novel (see Sio & Ormerod, 2009 for a recent meta-analysis on incubation as a problem-solving aid). Jordan and I talked for a while longer to figure out the best question for his trek: “How do I experience more innocent and child-like emotions in my daily life?” I then came up with a question for a hypothetical hike of my own — “How can I be my best and most authentic self in light of my impending career decisions?” — but had no definite plans to embark on such an experience.
A few days later, as I was approaching the decision deadlines for a number of the jobs, I decided to take my parents’ dogs to the Barton Creek greenbelt. I had been petsitting for a few days and was sick of walking the streets of the neighborhood. As usual, I grabbed my headphones so that I could listen to my book on tape while I walked. However, when I arrived at the trailhead, for the first time in a long time, I left my headphones dangling around my neck, and took in the sights and sounds of nature as I walked. Instead of wandering off to the land of Sherlock Homes, I tried to fully immerse myself in the moment. I noticed fresh deer tracks on the trail, felt the humid breeze on my arms, listened to the faint trickle of the drought-ravaged creek, and watched the sunbeams filter through the leaves of the live oak trees.
All at once, the answer to my question — a question I had consciously forgotten — washed over me.
It’s not the career or city I pick; it’s who I am on a day-to-day basis, on a moment-to-moment basis. Am I kind to others: do I avoid gossip, listen to people when they are in pain, and treat them with empathy and patience — even when they are short with me? Am I adventurous and courageous: do I take social risks and fling myself outside of my personal and professional comfort zone?
Of course I had “known” this all along. But I hadn’t really known it — felt it, believed it on a deep level. And all at once, in the middle of the trees, by my favorite childhood pond, it came to me, flooded my being, as true and simple as the blue sky.
It wasn’t the answer I had been seeking. But it was the answer I needed. It gave me enough perspective to realize that the job decision I was facing was not life or death. It helped me realize that my career and my city, although important, are not the be-all, end-all of my identity; they do not define who I am nor do they determine whether or not I am fulfilling my life mission. The “answer” I discovered during my “nature incubation” lowered my anxiety enough for me to move and free myself from the paralysis of indecision.
A few days later, I accepted one of the job offers on the spot because I felt it was right in that moment. Incubating had removed the cobwebs that were my debilitating circles of thought and had given me clarity of mind. When, later that week, I asked Jordan if he had been able to answer his question, he smiled and said that he had.
So go ahead, try it out. Take an hour or take a day. See if the answers you have been looking for finally emerge once you stop over-thinking the question and start paying attention.
Reference: Sio, U. & Ormerod, T. (2009) Does incubation enhance problem-solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. 135 (1). pp. 94-120.
The Answers Within: Looking for answers? Stop thinking & start paying attention