Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #98 The Great Thing About Getting Stuck
About this episode

This week Martha talks about how to have major insights. It is not what you think. If you need to feel better about a project that seems to be going nowhere, this is the episode you need to hear! (Originally aired: October 16, 2022)


Martha Beck:
So, I may have told you before a story, an old I don’t know, I think it might be a Muslim story, it might be Buddhist. I don’t really know. It’s a famous old story and it should be universal. And it’s a story of a man who sits on a box every day and begs for money to make his living.

He’s poor. He’s damaged. He’s disfigured. There’s nothing right about this man’s life. And he just sits on his little box and begs for alms. And one day, a wise man comes, a teacher. And the man says, “Please, could you give me a little bit of whatever the currency is?” And he says, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any money for you but what’s in your box? What’s in that box you’re sitting on?”

And the man says, “This is just the box I sit on. This is the only thing I have and it’s just my box.” And the wise man says, “Well, I’m really curious. Could we look?” So, the guy gets up and they opened the box and it’s full of gold and diamonds and rubies and emeralds and all sorts of money.

And the moral of the story is that we all carry within us thinking it’s just the most ordinary drabs, stupid thing in the world, a being that is already enlightened, a thing of infinite treasure. In the Bible, they call it the pearl of great price. They call it that in Mormonism too. Is it’s the jewel at the heart of the lotus in Buddhism. And we all carry it around with us all the time. And then we don’t recognize what we’ve got.

We think our lives suck and they do suck, but it’s because we’re not looking at the value that we already have within us. Okay. That’s it for this week. Bye, bye. No, that’s not it at all.

I was thinking about this story and I realized that it would not be a story if the man, if a very tired, dejected, poor man walking down the street saw a box, opened it up and it was full of treasure. Not a good story, boring. Only one thing happens. The fact that he was sitting on it and begging for years and years and years not knowing what it was, it makes the outcome more interesting. It’s like, “Aha.” It feels resonant to us, partly because that’s what we’re all doing all the time. But partly also because of the way we’re designed.

We are not actually designed to enjoy feeling happy all the time. That’s one of the flaws that I think American culture really includes more than almost any other culture in the world, the idea that we’re supposed to be perpetually happy, not just okay but giddy with joy. We’re not. Life would be boring if we were always giddy with joy.

We don’t go to football games where everybody just shakes hands and goes home. It is about kind of having to struggle. And it’s the … Camus said it, “The struggle itself alone is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Sisyphus was the guy who had to roll a rock up a hill every day and then the gods would roll it back down and then he had to roll it back up every day, all day forever.

And Camus was saying we must imagine that as joyful. Okay. Do I have to? “Yes, Camus said.” He also said, “I’m debating whether I should go have a cup of coffee or kill myself.” He was a philosopher. Anyway, my point is there’s something about this struggle that actually does make things better. And one thing Camus said, just to put a check and a plus column for him is, “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

The invincible summer is the same metaphor as the box of treasure. And I was sitting around trying to think of a topic for today and I was really stuck. We’ve had a cold. We’ve had a lot of colds because our two-year-old Lila has started going to a nature school. And nature is mainly microbes as it turns out, most of which we are catching just one after the other. Everybody out there who’s had kids and sent them to school remembers this period where you just catch everything in the world, except COVID. Everybody else had COVID in the family, I haven’t had it.

Anyway, we can always catch it again. So, we’ve been sick and we were supposed to do this recording of the audiobook for my novel, Diana Herself. And someone was supposed to come in and be the producer. And we were going to have to … Everybody had to try to quarantine away from the sick people and ugh. And I was trying to think of a topic for the gathering room. And in the meantime, I’m trying to finish this book and I’ve been doing this research. And then I was like, “Oh, wait, I will talk about what to do when everything’s going wrong and you feel totally stuck because I just read some fascinating research about it.”And here is the research. So, when you set out to solve a problem, the way you’re taught to do it in school is you divide the pros and cons. You add them up. You subtract the columns. You add the pros. You multiply things that multiply each other. You do the math and then you decide what is best.

But that is actually not how we come up with creative solutions. It’s how we come up with solutions to a lot of life problems like, “Okay, how are we going to get the energy to do a recording? We need a studio. We need a recorder. We need a producer. We need all these things. That’s just math.” But then something goes wrong and you feel stuck. “Oh no, now, we’ve got illness and sickness. What are we going to do?” And what that does is it gets you to an impasse.

Now, when the left side of the brain is trying to do all the math and it reaches something that it can’t figure out, a struggle ensues. And sometimes the struggle adds up to a solution to the problem. But very often, the struggle leads to an impasse to being completely, completely stuck.

Then sometimes, the right side of the brain takes over. And you may have had this experience. The most common experience and I’ve talked about it many times on the gathering room is that you go to sleep struggling to learn something like a mathematical principle or how to conjugate a verb in a foreign language or something. You sleep on it and while you’re sleeping, the brain creates all these neuron pathways, links them up in the right side of the brain and then tosses them into the forebrain. And you wake up and you suddenly know how to do it. It’s that aha moment.

Typically, the way you make that happen is you struggle with a problem. Struggle, struggle, struggle. Then you drop your attention. You go relax. Do something completely unrelated and preferably something that moves your whole body and involves your senses because that stimulates the right side of the brain.

The right side of the brain is like a supercomputer putting together things that the left side of the brain would never put together. It’s like click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. It’s always trying to figure out a new way, a different way. How can this go?

And then if it solves a problem, then it pushes the solution into the brain whole. And it’s this wonderful explosion of understanding. And the classic story that I was reading about is in 1949, this man was leading a group of smokejumpers in a forest fire. It was the hottest summer in Montana history up to 1949. They didn’t know what was coming.

Anyway, it was a really bad fire. And they were digging a fire line on one side of a gully because the fire was coming from the opposite side. Then the fire jumped the gap, something on fire was blown by the wind across to where the firefighters were working and it caught fire to the grass there and the fire started coming toward them at 700 feet per second or per minute, sorry.

And the guy who was in charge of the smokejumpers, his name was Wag Dodge. So, Dodge screams to his men, “We got to get out.” And they started running. They dropped all their equipment. They started running. He looks at them, he looks at the fire and he thinks, “It’s way too fast. It’s going to kill us all.”

And then he did something that he later said just seemed logical but no one had ever thought of it before. He stopped. He struck a match. He set fire to the grass in a circle around himself and waited for it to burn out. And then he covered his … He got a handkerchief and put water on it from his canteen, put it over his face, got a blanket, lay down in the burned-out circle and sipped oxygen through his little mask just off the surface of the ground while the fire went over him.

He was the only person that lived. Thirteen other men were killed. And no one in firefighting had ever thought to do this before. Now, it’s something that they teach people, but Wag Dodge thought of it literally just in time to save his life. I think I’ve also mentioned to you that there was an anthropologist studying a very little contacted group, a tribe in South America, deep in the jungle of Brazil.

I’m not coming up with words today. And he found a tribe that spoke mainly in hums and whistles because music exists in all human populations. Humming and whistling is in every human population, but words only came out of that. And in some populations, words never evolved the same way or emerged the same way they did in the majority of the planet. So, people in those cultures still hum and whistle to communicate.

So, this man went to live with the tribe and he lived with them for several months. And he just heard them humming and whistling all the time but he didn’t have any idea what they were saying. It was just too strange. And one night, he was lying in his hammock listening to them hum and whistle. And suddenly, the whole language clarified in his mind all at once. And lucky thing too because they were planning to kill him the next day. I don’t know. Maybe they talked about killing him every single day and he just now twigged to it.

But more than likely, part of his brain that was sort of picking it up and putting it together went, “Oh my goodness, we better understand,” whoop and then he understood. So, this kind of massive aha. We talk about aha moments and light-bulb moments when people say something profound to us like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” And you’re like, “Mm, aha.”

But I’m talking about a huge aha. To get one of those like Wag Dodge did or the anthropologist, what you need is to be at a real true impasse. And I didn’t realize this until this week when I was rereading stuff about the right brain and how it creates insights. It needs a bunch of information crammed in there. It needs the struggle. You have to grapple and grapple and grapple with the ideas because otherwise, you don’t take in enough information. And then you have to back off it.

But by far, the best thing that can happen is that you will get to a place where you really have to have the solution and you don’t have it because that is precisely the condition that goes boom and wakes you up. So, I was thinking about this and we were talking about how to record my audiobook while keeping the producers safe from the illness of the house. And Ro said, “Why don’t we Zoom them in?”

And I was like, boom, I mean, it’s not the greatest aha in the history of the world but we were all like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Now the producer doesn’t have to travel. Nobody has to worry about getting sick. Everything is copacetic. Yay for the things we should have come up with immediately on account of we’ve all been doing it during the pandemic.

But that’s how these things are. We get stuck in ways of doing things and then we repeat what we’re used to over and over until we can’t anymore. And then we come to an impasse and then pow, the mind opens.

And if you look at what we’re dealing with in the world, it can be very depressing. There are a lot of things going wrong all around us. There are a lot of things that are wrong politically and socially and God knows ecologically and spiritually, it feels like we are coming to a kind of impasse and it’s not a new thing. It’s been happening. And we’ve been grappling and we’ve been trying to figure it out. And we’ve been worried and we haven’t come up with solutions.

And that is absolutely okay because here’s the thing. Our minds are so fantastically complex that they can invent things we’ve never thought of before on a daily basis if given the right conditions. The other thing that I believe is that they’re also continuous with the rest of consciousness. So on the right side of the brain, everything feels connected. And when someone has left hemisphere damage, they may actually perceive things as being literally connected fields of energy instead of separate, isolated physical things.

And the moment that they see that, they realize that their intelligence and the intelligence of the universe are the same, and that their compassion and the compassion of the universe are the same, and that the totality of consciousness is it’s on this ride with us. It’s feeling the struggle. It’s feeling the need. It’s feeling the anxiety and the depression. It’s feeling all of it.

And it’s finding its way to the box of treasure. It’s finding a way to open what we’ve always had inside us to our conscious awareness so that we can see, “Oh my God, we are okay. We’re rich. We’re safe. We have everything in the universe right here inside us.” And the more stuck we get, the bigger the insight. And I actually read the research on that and went, “Oh my God, I’m so glad we’re coming to a massive impasse.”

Because the awakening from that is going to be … I think it will propel us into a whole new iteration of consciousness where we will be working interactively with the consciousness of the universe and the intelligence of nature which can heal and restore things very, very rapidly in ways we cannot imagine.

So, I hope I’m not just … You know what? I don’t believe I’m just whistling past the graveyard. I don’t think this is superstition. I’ve been feeling it for decades and I hope you’ve been feeling it too. That’s why most people show up at the gathering room.

So, whatever there is in your own life that’s feeling stuck, be joyful for the stuckness. Be happy that you can’t figure out what to do. Push yourself further in to the problem to the point where you’re going, “I really need something to happen.” And then somebody comes along and says, “But what’s in the box you’ve been sitting on your whole life?”

So, let’s look at some questions. Maryanne said, “I feel like I can be really sad and be more in tune with my life than when I’m trying to be happy. Is trying to be happy instead of accepting reality the reason we stay stuck?” It’s one reason and the solution to it is release. And the way you release is to say, “How do I actually feel right now? I feel sad.”

And then part of you, the part that is the compassion of the universe and the intelligence of nature says, “It is absolutely normal to feel sad if you are living a human life. You’re going to feel sad a lot. It’s part of the gig. So, let’s take really good care of you while you’re sad. Let’s just set you down, give you a cup of warm soup and let you feel what you’re feeling. Let’s give you love. Let’s give you something gentle to entertain you if possible. Let’s simply take care of you while you’re sad.”

And then paradoxically enough, you feel a lot better because you’re not trying to feel better. Yeah, trying to push for too much happiness, that’s a recipe for depression.

So Joanna says, “Do differences in brainwave states impact our problem solving?” Yeah, I mean, it’s all brainwave states. There are the jagged little brainwaves of beta. There are jugged little beta brainwaves that come with anxiety. They’re the slow, beautiful alpha waves that come with relaxation. They’re the mega deep ones that come when we’re asleep.

And then the activity in the brain when someone has an insight, pow, it just lights up certain areas of the brain like fireworks in the moment that it comes into consciousness. And they’ve actually mapped that and seen it happen. They had one zen monk who they gave him a bunch of verbal tests of creativity and they take a calm mind. So they thought, “This zen dude is going to be completely … He’s going to ace this.”

He sat there and went through 30 puzzles. He didn’t have any answers at all, didn’t solve a one. And the researcher said he had learned to be very focused on not thinking, but you can’t actually focus on anything, not even not thinking to let this explosion happen in the brain. So they said, “Okay, call it off.” They stopped the experiment and suddenly he got the puzzle. He was looking at bang. And then they gave him a bunch more and he just started solving them, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, a hundred percent accuracy.

So, what had happened is focusing wasn’t what was doing the trick, but once he felt what it was to let go and to allow the creative surgeon to consciousness, he had such awareness of his own brain activity and his own state of consciousness that he was able to say, “Oh, that’s it,” and just stay and stay and stay there. And people like Richard Feynman, the physicist, or Bach who created a million beautiful pieces of music a day, these people seem to be able to find that zone. And they’re always pushing themselves to impasses and then bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, solving them.

And it’s when they get stuck on one thing and not pushing themselves in many directions that people tend to shut down and really end up like the guy on the box. So yeah, it’s all brainwaves. And you can learn to feel them and it’s cool.

Jessica says, “I’ve opened so many good boxes the last few weeks.” Oh, I’ve been ordering from Amazon. “Just one miracle after another,” Jessica says, “I wonder if I get stuck in needing to see God in the solutions. But I’d love some calm now. How do I open the calm box?”

Well, there once … Another myth is that there was a great king who said to a wise man. There’s always a wise man wandering around these myths. He said, “Tell me something that will make me happy when I’m sad and sad when I’m happy.” And the wise man said, “This too shall pass.”

So, Jessica, what you need to do is remain in the consciousness of the impermanence of everything in our material world. Things flow in and they flow out. We get sadder. We get happier. We experience the birth of people we love. We experience the death of people we love. And when we’re down in the dumps, know that the happiness will rise again. And when you get too manic, you can just say, “You know what? The deal here, the real joy of it isn’t the happiness I’m feeling now or the manic exciting things coming out of all these boxes.”

This is probably good to listen to before the holidays. The real thing is riding those waves. As they say, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. And the waves of emotion, the waves of experience, the waves of problems and solutions, those are … It’s the joy of surfing those waves that I think humans really came to earth for. That’s certainly our experience. And when you don’t fight it, when you balance inside it or on top of it, it takes you for wonderful rides.

Okay. Dr. Donna says, “Is this true for writing? I keep struggling for years now to find the title of something I’m writing and it just doesn’t feel right. It’s been years of struggle.” Yeah, I think it is true of writing. And the way you can start to push the light bulb is to do something completely different.

Remember the Old Monty Python show? I never thought my kids would see it. And then they put it on YouTube and it’s there again. And they had a great segue on the Monty Python show. And they would finish a skit and then they would say, “And now for something completely different,” and do a completely different skit.

So, do something. I always think that when I’m really stuck on a problem. And now for something completely different and go clean the fridge or walk your dog or stand on your head or whatever, but get your attention off the problem. And especially if you go into a place you’ve never seen before and just keep light focus, you’ll see something ping, ping, ping, ping, ping that will remind you of this title. And suddenly you’ll think, “Huh, that wouldn’t be bad. That would be pretty good. I kind of liked it.”

Or maybe it just goes, “Pow, that’s it.” I actually had that experience with the book I’m working on now. It may not end up being the title but I was writing about anxiety and how to get away from it. And I kept saying to Ro, “But I haven’t done years of lab research on anxiety. What right have I to write about anxiety?” And Ro said, “You’re not writing about anxiety, you’re writing about calm.” And I was like, “Oh, that feels better.”

So then I started doing all this research thinking, “Oh, I’m writing a book about calm. Oh, here’s all the science of calm. Oh, there’s not a lot of science on calm.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute, calm is in the right side of the brain, not in the left.” This isn’t about the science of anxiety, this is about the art of calm. So, that’s my title for my book, The Art of Calm, which they may change but you all heard it here first.

And that was like ping. And when it happened, I had that feeling of, “Ah.” I just opened a little box and there was treasure inside and I enjoyed it even if the rest of the world never does. So yeah, good luck with that but you don’t need it. You just need to wander around.

Joanna says, “Do aha moments always feel good?” No, I don’t think so. I’ve worked with a lot of clients. One time I was teaching a seminar, there were about 10 people there. And one woman is talking about how she learned in her high school biology class that two blue-eyed parents are very unlikely to have a dark brown-eyed child. Blue is recessive. If two people have blue eyes, they don’t have any dark-eyed genes to pass on to their children.

She said, “I was sitting there in high school biology thinking, ‘But my eyes are dark brown and my fathers and my mothers are pale blue.'” And she was like, “I don’t even look much like my dad eye. I look a lot like the neighbor.” So, she was talking about this in the seminar and across the room, another woman said, “Wait, stop, go back. Two blue-eyed people can’t have a brown-eyed child?” And I was like, “Well, it’s possible but it’s not.” And she’s like … And there was a moment of silence.

And then I said, “What color are your father’s eyes?” She’s like, “Light blue.” Anyway, it turned out that she too hadn’t realized that her biological father wasn’t the man she grew up calling dad. So, those were aha moments. I don’t think they were really pleasurable.

On the other hand, in both cases and in every other case where somebody’s realized, “Oh my gosh, yeah. Oh, my uncle was an alcoholic. That’s why that happened.” Or, “Oh, he was always trying to manipulate me. He never actually loved,” or whatever it was. It’s the realization of something awful, but it is so much better than not knowing what is true.

So, oh, wow. Say you were in an abusive marriage for 30 years and you were being lied to the whole time and it always felt weird but you thought you were crazy. Maybe you were being gas-lighted or whatever. And then you realize, “Oh my gosh.” You find some weird stash in the house. You realize, “Oh.” You start to put the pieces together and you realize something terrible.

But because it puts you back in integrity, in knowing the truth with your whole self, it actually puts you on the road to healing. And it feels like a relief even though it’s awful. That’s one of the weird things about integrity. Telling the truth always sets you free even if the truth is really hard. Lies are always worse.

Caitlin says, “There’s research on the magnitude of stuckness and insight? Would love to know where to read more.” I was bouncing off an article in the New Yorker from like 2008 and I started … I went from there to the bibliography to all the researchers he was quoting. Some people at Drexel University, it sounds like they’re doing really great work. So, I would go there if I were you. Look it up. It’s fabulous.

Donna says, “Again, do we sometimes stay stuck because it is familiar and safe? How do we gain the authentic desire to get unstuck?” Yeah, we really do it because it feels familiar and safe, but only under one set of circumstances and that is that we have been taught to see it as familiar and safe, because we would never choose something that is wrong for us and feel familiar and safe in it if not for the reinforcement that we get from being socially accepted.

So, if you grew up like if inside you were gay like me but you didn’t know it and you grew up straight, it felt way, way, way more comfortable and familiar to be straight. And when I started thinking I might be gay, it was not one of those times when you feel like you got the world by the tail, it was more of a, “Oh my God, this is true and a lot of things have to change.” But it was so familiar to be normal.

It’s always familiar to be normal. It always feels safer to be normal unless it’s imprisoning our true selves. And then we’re just like, “Ooh, life sucks even though it should be good.” And as Rose says, “It’s when you look weird and feel good that you know you’re in integrity.”

So, yeah, Holy Babes says, “What are some ways we can become aware of the box we are sitting on?” What a great question. Here’s the thing. Look inside the ordinary, the mundane, the quotidian. When we go looking for things that will explode us into joy, we’re looking for the big payoff things. Most of those are cultural too, the big exciting thing, falling in love, being able to travel to a new destination, getting the house we want, all these really exciting, really big things.

The interesting thing is that they aren’t fulfilling in the same way that a genuine awakening is fulfilling. And that’s what this metaphor of course is about. And this is what the biggest aha for any of us has got to be is the awakening out of the illusion of our own smallness and separateness and even humanness into the realization of ourselves as part of the divine.

And weirdly enough, the realization happens in what is most ordinary. So, if you’re sitting in an apartment thinking, “Gosh, I wish I could get the big beautiful house I wanted,” it may be that in the room with you is exactly the stimulus that will cause your brain to finally see through its illusions and go, “Oh my God, it’s all holy.”

I just read a wonderful book called No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Oh my gosh, it is so good. And I’m not going to spoil the book for you but there’s a point at which there’s a lot of grief going on. And she talks about how she says, “The TJ Max where we went to get our clothes was holy. The cosmetics counter where we bought waterproof mascara was holy. The places where we stopped to get low-heel shoes, they were sacred. All of them were sacred.” And she finds the sacred in everything because her heart’s been stripped open.

And when you find the sacred in the mundane, that’s usually the real awakening. So, if you read a lot of Asian stories, it’s like this guy was chopping up meat and somebody said, “I want the best piece.” And someone else said, “They’re all the best piece.” And he was awakened.

Little stories like that. It’s always something small. Somebody raking the garden and suddenly it’s, whoa, they wake up. So, look inside what’s most familiar and feels boring and allow yourself, your mind to drift and go into that right hemisphere … Grapple with the problem and then let go and see what happens.

Two more questions. Tracy said, “I have started to think of pain and stuckness as opportunities.” Exactly. Do you think there are other activities that help besides movement and senses? Yes. Anything that causes your right hemisphere to light up and my very favorite one is humor. One of the things … I put this in my book. I took it out, I put it in, I took it out because it’s in this lofty chapter about how to get enlightened. And the exercise that I honestly use for myself is improv comedy.

Like play an improvisational comedy game, have a conversation with someone where every sentence has to be a question back and forth and a sentence like, “I wish I had a blank,” with as many different nouns as you can until you get to something funny. So, you’re loose. You’re not trying very hard. You’re playing around with different things. But the right hemisphere is the part that sees things as funny as well as enlightened which is why Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Laughter is the beginning of prayer. It happens in the same place.”

And finally, Agi says, “What if the stuckness I feel is a general one like feeling as if I missed the train to the thing I was supposed to accomplish or the person I was supposed to be? I feel like this feeling has pervaded so much of my life.” Ooh, you are sitting on so much treasure right now because whatever that theme was, your whole life, the one that has you boxed up and sad and miserable and drab, the opposite of that, the direct opposite of that is your enlightenment.

When you come to something that feels that stuck, it’s just intransient, it won’t go away, it’s a pattern through your whole life. When you finally see through it, the exact opposite of it will blast the door open to your enlightenment. So, I can use the words. I can say, “No, you have not missed the train. You have not missed the thing you were supposed to do or the accomplishment you were supposed to complete or the person you were meant to be. The thing you are meant to do is realize that you never miss the train at all, that you yourself now sitting there are the right train, the right thing, the right accomplishment and nothing can stop that.”

Those are just words. When they blast into your consciousness and you feel as if you’ve suddenly turned into vapor and you feel like the joy of the intelligence of the universe including you in its incredible, joyful laughter, then you will know what I mean. And until then, just have a good time sitting on the box and grappling and know that you are a limitless treasure that is going to be opened one way or another as soon as it’s meant to.

I love you all. Thank you so much for coming on the Gathering Room. I see you later. Yay. Take care.

I think I’m still live. Yes. End now. End.

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