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‘Don’t know’

Sunday, July 12, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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Sitting on top of Mt Bakur in Bali, watching the sunrise. Ready to leap.

When I was going through the process of deciding to leave my job with Oxfam (now that I've resigned I can finally name my wonderful employer) there were three main barriers that I found I had to work through.

The first barrier was perhaps the most obvious, I wondered whether I would have enough money, whether my savings would last long enough to finish the book and where I would find money once the book was done. In the end this was the simplest to get past. I have savings, I will live on them while I write. Once they run out I'll find work to make more money. Easy. I could make it a lot more complicated by imaging scenarios in which I don't find ways to make money again but since I've been in the work-force for twenty years and have always been able to make enough money to pay my bills I decided to keep it simple and trust that I would be able to do it again in 6 months time, if necessary.

The second barrier was a sense of obligation to my employer. Oxfam is a wonderful organisation that does great work all over the world to help find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. I was drawn to Oxfam because they look beyond the obvious and direct contributor to poverty and are prepared to tackle the big injustices that create and perpetuate global imbalance in resources and opportunity. With Oxfam I've been able to do advocacy work on unfair trade policies, ineffective aid and the growing impacts of climate change on developing countries. I am able to do work that I'm passionate about and to work with like-minded and like-hearted people. I've grown close to my colleagues and have a strong personal commitment to the work we all do. It was hard to leave all that without a sense of guilt.

But I've been learning about guilt these past few years and I now know it doesn't serve me or anyone else so I'm getting better at recognising and releasing it. I'm not indispensable to Oxfam and although I always do my very best, I'm not even necessarily the person best able to do my job. It is time for me to pursue other paths and to open this job up to someone else.

The final barrier was a little less obvious, but was perhaps the most powerful. Over almost two decades I've built a strong sense of personal identity around my work as an advocate for human rights, justice and dignity for all. At its crudest, this manifests as a desire to know that I am a good person, and a hope that my good work/s might be evidence that this is so. When I explored these thoughts and feelings, I uncovered an underlying belief that I have to earn my place in the world, that I have to some how pay the world back for the extraordinary privilege I have enjoyed as a child of the middle class in New Zealand.

In recent years my exploration of the practices and teachings of the Buddha have been nudging me towards the possibility that my identity might be less certain, less knowable and – ultimately – less important than I had previously assumed. Yesterday in meditation class our teacher encouraged us to explore what it was like to release ourselves for a moment from the grasp of the intellect – that marvelous thought-proliferating machine – and to settle into the 'don't know' mind. What if I don't know if I am good or bad? Can that also be okay?

Can it be okay to no longer have a job title that is almost guaranteed to get admiring responses from everyone to whom I am introduced? Can it be okay to dedicate my days to something that gives me incredible satisfaction but that may never do any good for anyone else? Can it be okay to really believe that what the world needs most is people who have settled into their own simple wisdom and who are following their hearts? Can it be okay that I don't know? When I settle quietly into the space that sits behind, above, beneath and all around that marvelous thought-making machine that is my thinking mind I find that there is plenty of room for all of this, and more, to be okay.


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19 Responses to "‘Don’t know’"

  1. Yvonne says:

    Answering back…with questions…
    Can it be okay to no longer have a job title that is almost guaranteed to get admiring responses from everyone to whom I am introduced?
    I would say, who are you trying to please..yourself or the world?
    Can it be okay to dedicate my days to something that gives me incredible satisfaction but that may never do any good for anyone else?
    What if the book is the thing that will do good for someone or many?
    Can it be okay to really believe that what the world needs most is people who have settled into their own simple wisdom and who are following their hearts?
    The world is coming to place of higher consciousness. What’s not okay about that?
    Can it be okay that I don’t know?
    Could this be the most exciting thing?
    Loved this post Marianne. Our thinking mind could drive us demented sometimes. Once we can distance ourselves the answers will be there….

  2. Captain Cat says:

    You’ll get admiring responses from whoever you are introduced to, whatever your job title, whether you are working or not. This was a very honest post, I really enjoyed it. Whatever happens, whatever you choose to do, I know you’ll be just fine. x

  3. sassy says:

    I love this post.
    I love the questioning, and the greyness… there is something really profound and genuine going on here.
    I love how you seem to be embracing ‘being’ without letting preconceived notions or past experience dictate what that means.

  4. Lisa says:

    Yes, it can. Existing in the midst/mist of the unknown can be quite liberating.
    Congratulations on your leap!
    Welcome to your new Life πŸ™‚

  5. Jennifer Lynn says:

    I wanted to tell you that your e-mail was very helpful in encouraging me to keep taking the time to research and think through my own leap before I make it. And as a bonus, I found yet another thought-provoking post here for me to read with my morning coffee. (Such a nice way to wake up, reading inspiring words from strong women around the world!)
    I’m especially grateful for this little reminder:
    “But I’ve been learning about guilt these past few years and I now know it doesn’t serve me or anyone else so I’m getting better at recognising and releasing it.”
    Congratulations on successfully conquering your three barriers, and thank you for writing about that challenge. I think Yvonne made a wonderful point – your writing, whether it is your blog or your book, is one significant way you are improving this world.

  6. Jemma says:

    Your post made me think of this Howard Thurman quote:
    β€œDon’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”
    (thanks for blogging – been reading for a while, but first time commenting)

  7. Andi says:

    If you’re following your heart only good things will come your way. Buddha will definitely bless you!!! And I can’t wait to see what the blessings will be. Maybe you’ll make enough $ from your awesome book so that you won’t need to find another job? πŸ™‚

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments. Yvonne, I have also been making friends with all those questions! But little by little I’m learning to let go of looking for answers and simply lean into the questions to explore what they feel like, and what it might be like to not know.
    “So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand.’ – Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim

  9. Lindsay says:

    Funny, my mum’s just retired as a psychotherapist after sixteen years in the same practice, and is asking herself many of the same questions that you’re asking -particularly with regards to re-finding a sense of self that sidesteps her established identity within that role. I’ll forward her the link to your blog. Thanks for your supporting words and love on my own; am tinkering on the edge of something presently and looking forward to leaping in further in the weeks ahead, has been a blessing having these one-on-ones with Peter. Will miss your company petalblossom, but know it’s nothing more than a shift of time and space. Love x

  10. Thank you for this post. I also work in non-profit in a job I love and have had great “success” in. It feels like betrayal to leave it, and yet I’ve come to a point where it just doesn’t feel like the space I should be in anymore. There are other things calling, and I feel I must answer.
    Blessings to you as you follow your path. A remarkable book I’ve been reading lately that might also be of interest to you is “Crossing the Unknown Sea; Work as a pilgrimage of Identity” by David Whyte.

  11. Swirly says:

    Oh my friend…you know better than most how well I relate to your idea of feeling like you need to “earn” your place in the world. So powerful…and inspiring. I love you.

  12. Andi says:

    If you follow your heart, it’ll always be okay. Enjoy your new journey!!!

  13. aj bush says:

    Just relax and go with the flow of your destiny. There are great things ahead for you, it is just seems so obvious to me. Can’t wait to read your book when it’s complete.

  14. maggie may says:

    What a lovely blog and person. I’m glad to have stumbled here.

  15. i relate so heavily to this one. the blessing/curse of intellect, the feeling of having been born “in debt”. thank you for your eloquent, and inconclusive, articulation of the experience. and thank you for not knowing. it is more than ok. your goodness is in your open heart, where, clearly, a huge growth spurt is happening.
    i’m inspired.
    namaste, lisa

  16. susanna says:

    There are so many interesting things about you, Maryam. Sure, your job as a human rights worker was/is impressive but it’s also fascinating to read of your personal spiritual journey, your yoga and meditative and dieting practices, your experiences as a writer, and how you are finding your place in this world.

  17. susanna says:

    Marianne! I meant to write Marianne! Goshdarnit!

  18. Rachel says:

    I have only just cottoned on to this blog; and I really needed these particular sentiments right now. Right now I feel as if I’m my identity and self-worth comes solely from my job, and now I’m jobless! It’s bringing me back to what I need to focus on which is some humility, and finding a purpose that doesn’t necessarily pander to what my ego/the world thinks is worthwhile. And that those who have found their own wisdom and carved their own paths are the ones worth listening to and seeking out.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      I think many of us know the feeling of attaching a lot of our identity and sense of worth to our paid work. It’s pretty much what our culture tells us is the most important thing about us, so you are doing well to even recognise that it wasn’t ultimately working for you! I have no doubt you’ll find that you already have a clear sense of purpose when you give yourself some space and time to notice it – it might lie in the small & ordinary moments of your life, the little things you care enough about to make an effort even when no-one else is watching.

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