Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #104 What To Do While You’re Waiting
About this episode

This week, Martha talks about waiting—defined by the dictionary as “delaying action until something else happens.” She says waiting is pointless because “something else” never happens; the only thing we ever experience is what’s happening now. Learn how to stop waiting here! (Originally aired: November 13, 2022)


Martha Beck:
Hello everyone. Good morning, good afternoon, good night. Wherever you are in the world, good day. It’s so wonderful to see you all here. I love you. And I’ve been sitting here in a chair waiting to see you and then waiting for 100 people to show up on Facebook, which is how I know to begin. It’s like a Pavlovian response. And I was thinking about this today and I thought, “I’ve been waiting a lot lately.” Now if you tune in regularly, you know I’ve been going on and on and on about my book proposal and having to record the audio of a different book. And weird things are happening with rights and movie rights and foreign rights. And there’s a lot. There’s a period where you’re working really hard and then there’s a period, I think almost anything you do, there’s a period where you have to wait, like watching the Great British Baking Show. They’re doing things, they’re doing things, they’re doing things.

Then they shove it in the oven and they just wait. And you can see the agony of the weight. Or in the Olympics, the ice skaters go out and then they have to go sit and wait for the scores and they’re in public and there are cameras on them. And it’s like waiting is one of the most horrific experiences you can have. I hate it. And lately I am waiting for so many things that I have been waking up in the middle of the night to wait harder, to wait more actively. I just lie there waiting, thinking, “I don’t want to be waiting. Why don’t I go to sleep? Because I’m waiting.” So I did a little dive into the topic of waiting today. I was thinking about, “Well, what am I waiting for?” Yes, for certain things to happen, but then they happen and it’s either no big deal or you’re just waiting for another thing to happen.

I remember waiting to grow up. Lila’s only two, our little one, and she’s already waiting for Christmas. Somehow she knows to wait for Christmas. And when you’re small, for those of you who are toddlers in my audience, the brain slices time, the way it perceives time is it takes a slice. It’s like a stop action film. It takes a picture, a picture, a picture, a picture, and then blends it all together like a movie, so that we feel like time is passing. But really the brain is just looking at one static image at a time. For young children, it’s like a thousand photos a minute. For me at 107 now, it’s about 16 slices a minute. But the way we measure time subjectively is by the number of slices.

So when I was a kid, it would take us literally a full week to drive from Provo, Utah to Salt Lake City, Utah, a distance of 45 miles. Now it takes about 10 minutes, though I try to avoid it at any and all cost. But yeah, I mean, waiting for Christmas used to be interminable, remember? And now it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to get present’s.” It’s gone. It just goes faster. It really does. That’s a good thing. And still, I wait. So I waited to grow up. I remember a joke where two old people go in, they’re like 90-years-old, and they go into a judge to mutually dissolve their marriage. They’ve been waiting to get divorced. And the judge says, “Why would you get divorced now? You’ve been married for 60 years, You’re 90.”

And they said, “Well, we were waiting for the children to die.” And that’s kind of a joke, poked at the way we wait for everything. I remember when I was a kid, there was a family across the street and they owned a patch of land on which they had built a structure, which I cannot call a house. It was more like an ant farm or a termite colony. They just made it out of plywood and stuff they found. And they would just nail it together and it had tunnels and rooms and things. And the city would come and condemn it on a regular basis and tell them to take it down. They didn’t have a phone in there. So, they would come across the street to our house and I would hear these conversations about how they had once again been told that their house was condemned and they had to tear it down.

There was Frank and Barbara and Barbara Junior, that was the family. And Barbara Junior, I don’t know where… They were from Long Island or something. I don’t know what they were doing in Utah. Anyway, they’d come over and they’d call someone and they’d say, “Yeah, we’ve been condemned again.” And then there would be a silence. And then they’d say, “We’re waiting for the Lord to intervene.” They were waiting for a divine interference of some kind that I actually think they were waiting for what Mormons call the millennium. Other Christians call it the rapture. We were always waiting for the millennium. My father once told me it was in 1982, so I didn’t make any plans past that date. And then 1983 came and I was like, “What?” And I just had to wait for something else after that. My point is, religiously based waiting is bizarre.

And waiting for life stages to pass is kind of wasteful because you miss the stage while you’re waiting for the next one. So, that’s kind of weird. And I was lying awake last night waiting and thinking about the play, Waiting for Godot. Have you seen Waiting for Godot? It’s considered the most significant English language play of the 20th century. It’s a play by Samuel Beckett, about two guys who show up under a leafless tree and realize they’re both waiting for the same person who was named Godot. And they just stand there waiting and having inane conversations and people come and do weird things symbolizing 20th century culture. And in the second act, they’re still under the same tree waiting and it’s got leaves now. So you know at least a few seasons have passed. They’re still waiting for Godot. A messenger comes in and says, “Well, he’s not coming today, but he’s definitely coming tomorrow, but he never comes.”

And right before the ending, they decide to kill themselves, but they don’t have any rope, so they can’t. So they just sit around waiting for Godot. And the point of this, according to everything on the interwebs, is to show the inherent meaninglessness and pointlessness of life. But as I lay in the dark thinking about this, I thought, “No, life is not pointless. Waiting is pointless.” So I looked it up in the dictionary. It says, “Waiting is delaying action until something else happens.” Something else. So you delay all your action until something else happens, and it’s the delay that you’re feeling, the frozenness. But here’s the deal, something else never happens. The only thing that ever happens is what’s happening right now. The only way something else can even exist is as a thought form, right? This is what Eckhart Tolle talks about.

When he gets up to speak, he looks into the audience and he says, “I hope none of you are waiting because nothing interesting is going to happen. But while you were waiting, life has been happening.” And life as it turns out, is not this freeze frame tedious, pointless, meaningless, whatever life itself, which is right there in that red hot moment. It’s actually very deep and very entrancing and very enchanting. And that something else, is only conjured by the mind, the part of the mind that is not aware of the present. So the moment you start waiting, you’re fixated on the something else. You’re never in the moment. So you’re never actually there. Now that is very pointless, right? So Nisargadatta, my favorite Indian guru, he talks about something happening and he says, “The mind is interested in what happens, including until something else happens.”

But awareness, which is the part that’s actually alive, is interested in the mind itself. The child is after the toy, but the mother watches the child not the toy. I was thinking about this because I am watching a child wait for Christmas. And it’s actually fascinating to watch her little brain develop and to watch what she does next and to know that it’s so fleeting and that every week she’s different and every moment she seems different. And it is fascinating. The mother watches the child not the toy. Now, y’all know that I’m really interested in part psychology. And I thought inside each of us, there are a lot of children who are waiting, who are interested in what happens. So we spend all this time, we wait to grow up, we wait to get married, we wait to have kids. We wait to be a success in our career.

We wait for a promotion. Ultimately, we wait to get old and we wait to die. That’s kind of the waiting system of living in a human frame. And I think if you can watch the ones who are waiting, if you can pull back from the children who are fascinated by what happens, because that’s their toy. You get to watch the system of your life playing out in a very interesting way while you yourself are fascinated. So, I joked about how I don’t go from Provo to Salt Lake City anymore, but when I was in my twenties after being away at school for a while and then having Adam who had down syndrome, I kind of fled back to my home state where it was routinely accepted that I would have a child with special needs. God bless Utah for that. They really accept a child with special needs there.

So I went back there and there were all these little parts of me that were reactivated by being there, and they were all waiting for something. And I was in the middle of my PhD program and I was doing a master’s thesis on Mormonism and the way it was enacting and encountering social change. So suddenly I was not there as just a Utah mom trying to raise a kid, a kid with special needs and a kid without special needs. I was also studying the culture. I was watching the people and I was watching the parts of me that had lived in that culture. So I was constantly in the mode of an anthropologist. And I would watch women do things like I went to a church meeting there and they were having a lesson on how microwaves… No, it was air fryers, something that cooked things very quickly, was not as righteous as using a regular oven.

And I raised my hand and said, “Well, aren’t ovens kind of not given by God or nature? I mean aren’t they sinful too? Shouldn’t we really be putting meat out on sticks in the sun if we want to be really righteous?” And the women there were like, “No, we can use ovens because God gave us ovens, but not these infernal microwaves and pressure cookers and things.” And instead of going, “Oh, please get me out of here.” I was just like, “Really? You actually think that? Go on.” There was a list of things you could do to become like a God. And I swear one of them was make a cake, but not with a mix. You would not get closer to godhood by making a cake from a mix. But if you made one from scratch, yes, you were going to be a God, a Goddess, any second. So instead, if you’ve ever seen the Book of Mormon, which is a Broadway play about Mormonism, it’s a beautifully observed sort of quirky account of what’s happening.

As the holidays come up y’all, change your modus operandi when you go to be with your family, from tolerating your role in the family and waiting for certain things to happen and waiting for them to be over, change that to observing. Observing each thing that happens. Observing your own inner reaction to things. “Oh my goodness, there’s a child part of me coming up.” So if I look inside and I ask, “Which part of me is waiting right now?” And I thought, “Ah, it’s 15-years-old.” There’s a part of me waiting for something in my professional life here in my sixth decade, that is only 15-years-old. And so I can talk to it. “Hello, what are you waiting for? Tell me what worries you and where are you and where are you stuck? And what would make you happy?”

So these are two methods that you can use. They’re both observation, but one is outside and one is inside. And if you’re stuck in a situation where you’re waiting for other people to do things, begin to study them to watch how they are functioning and what they’re waiting for and how they might be tripping themselves up. As a life coach, I’m constantly watching people and saying, “How could that be better? Where are they getting stuck? Where could they set themselves free?” It’s fascinating. It’s enough reason to become a coach right there. And then the second way is to look inward and go, “Okay, children who are waiting. You are interested in what happens, but I am interested in you. So I know you’re waiting for something to happen. But in the meantime, what can I do to help you enjoy this moment?” And when you pull your attention away from the waiting and into this moment with all this stuff happening around you and all this stuff happening inside you, you are actually watching the pageant of a human life play out from inside and outside.

And you can start to say, “Oh, I’m going to treasure this moment of anticipation before I get feedback from an editor or whatever it is before I get the news, whatever it is. I’m going to treasure this second. I’m going to love the part of me that is waiting.” And if it’s screaming for the toy, I’m going to say, “Oh sweetheart, of course you want the toy. It’s so hard to wait. What can we do in the meantime?” Tell you what I did in the meantime, in the middle of the night. I watched a show about tornadoes and it was awesome. I would highly recommend that. The part of me that was waiting is interested in tornadoes, it wanted to see it. All right, I got nothing else to do in the middle of the night since I’m not sleeping. So my point is, if you become the observer of the part of you that’s waiting and the part of everybody else that’s waiting, you drop back into what’s happening now instead of waiting for something else to happen.

You haven’t delayed the action now and you’re in the flow of life. And experiencing that is very blissful if you can relax into it and if you can become a very keen observer of how it feels. So I am going to take some questions now. Being sent in by Rowan. Jessica says, “Is this the same as being in a liminal space or is waiting different because it keeps us stuck?” Liminal means on the threshold, limine, you’re neither in nor out. And it’s interesting, it is the same. Anytime you’re waiting, you are in a liminal state. But remember that in ancient cultures, liminal spaces, limine means threshold. So if you were on the threshold, you were in a magical space because you’re neither in nor out. And that means you’re nowhere. You’re neither this nor that. You’re nothing. So when you’re actually in a state of waiting, you can become anything, but you can’t become anything when you’re waiting for the thing outside you to shift or waiting for the thing inside you to shift without taking action.

You don’t delay the action. But the action is to say, “I will use my magic. I will become what I want to become. I will picture things like, ‘Okay, what’s the outcome I want? What’s the feeling I’m going to get from that outcome?'” Think of something you’re waiting for right now, guys. I mean, people. Think of something you’re waiting for and you’re always on either hope or fear. Because every time you hope for something, you’re also afraid that it won’t happen. Think of something you’re hoping for, and now drop the fear and imagine in incredible detail how you would feel if it had happened exactly the way you want it to. So just drop into that for me for a minute. Okay, So this feeling that you’re having now, I’ve tested this for many decades, and I will tell you, this feeling, if you’ve managed to get in the feeling of having what you want after you wait, the feeling itself is the moment.

So you’re in life, but it also generates an energy that creates the outcome you’re looking for. So don’t get all worried that if you can’t do it’s not going to happen. It will happen if it’s in your best interest. The universe loves you. But it’s so much easier to wait if you can just luxuriate in imagining that everything turns out well, and then it’s like, “Oh, okay, that didn’t turn out as well as I wanted. I’m going to imagine all over again, but I’m going to be right here noticing that I’m okay and that life is good and that I have a show about tornadoes that I can watch, which is amazing.” So Michelle says, “I have often thought, how does one not be busy waiting when now is too difficult to bear? How am I to manage that?”

If it’s literally too difficult to bear what I’ve done when I’ve been in very intense physical pain or illness or both, that actually isn’t waiting. If you wait in a period of physical anguish, waiting is literally unbearable. You have to be present. So I would do a meditation that just goes, “Now, now, now, now.” And then one time I was having dental work done and I was really nervous and there was quite a bit of pain for some reason, and I just went to, “Now, now.” And the pain disappeared while I was in the dentist chair. And I was like, “That’s really interesting.” But I would slide out of it quickly when I was suffering a lot. But the long periods of pain and illness that I’ve had in my life have really taught me to bring it into, “Now, now, now.” If the waiting is unbearable because it seems too long and it’s stretched out and you’re not in excruciating physical pain, then it’s time to be the mother who’s aware of the child.

And the child wants something to happen, but the mother is watching the child. And I suggest that you actually talk to the child who is waiting. “Sweetheart, how old are you?” Mine was 15. “Okay, I get that. You’re waiting to hear back from someone.” You really have to give them time. This is the hell of working in publishing. You send somebody 100 pages, they can’t get back to you in five minutes. You have to wait. And so, “15-year-old me, what do you want?” “Ah, I want to see what’s on TV. Oh my god, tornadoes. Yeah.” So all of this applies, talking to your inner child and giving the child what it wants and the mother is interested and the child applies anytime you’re not suffering intensely. If you’re suffering intensely, you have to just stay in the now. I did it recently because I had… This will sound so silly, it’s not a big deal, but I had vaccinations in both arms, one for COVID and one for regular flu.

And both my arms kind of puffed up like balloons, and I was lying in bed and I couldn’t turn on either side. There was no comfortable position. So I just did, “Now, now, now, now,” all night long. And what’s weird is if you’re always in now, time doesn’t stretch, it passes now. It passes very quickly. It’s really interesting. And it’s kind of a gift almost of suffering. But if there’s even a hair’s breath, give compassion to the one who is suffering. If you can get any space from it at all, turn and say, “Sweetheart, what can I do to make this easier for you?” And see what you can figure out. Laurie says, “How does hope, fear, and worry relate to waiting? I’m waiting for my business to take off. I’m waiting for money to fill my bank account, all of this, because then I’ll be happy. But now I just feel worried. Afraid, but also hopeful, which doesn’t feel that different.”

This is such a good point, Laurie. And here’s the deal. If you are busy waiting and then the thing happens that you want, like the money comes in, you’ll find that you can’t enjoy the money because all you’ve practiced is waiting. You can’t enjoy the success because all you practiced is noticing the places where it’s not there yet. And it builds this muscle. It builds neuron pathways in the brain that are all about waiting, discontent, insufficiency, lack. “Oh, when something else happens, I’ll be able to enjoy.” Practice enjoying now and then when the thing happens… For one thing, that energy of enjoyment is going to bring about the things you want much more readily. I mean, talk to someone who’s just waiting and tense versus somebody who’s totally in love with the moment.

My son Adam, he’s like 36 now, he has down syndrome, and sometimes we have this regular meeting at 5:00 every evening. He decreed, “No work after 5:00.” We all just sit together, we hang out. But sometimes I’ll go past his room at like 4:55, and he’ll be lying on his bed like this with an ankle crossed across one knee on his made bed. And I’ll say, “Hey, you want to go down? It’s five minutes.” He’s like, “No.” And I’d say, “Well, what do you want to do while you’re waiting?” And he says, “I’m not waiting, I’m relaxing.” He just relaxes. He practices relaxing. He practices letting the joy of every moment sink in fully. And then when something amazing happens, he allows it to sink in fully. So, it’s sort of like watering the soil with every little good thing that happens so that when the rain finally comes, you can absorb it instead of it just running off.

So if you’re worried and hoping and fearing, it’s not adding to the likelihood that the thing you want is going to happen, it’s actually making it less likely to happen. And in the meantime, it’s making you incapable of absorbing the actual feeling state of having your desires fulfilled. You got to practice joy while the thing is not happening. Instead of delaying the action, practice compassion to yourself, practice enjoyment of anything that is going right. Even if it’s just the tiniest little edge of comfort in the middle of something difficult. City Lotus says, “Does watching help us connect our inner parent to reparent the inner waiting child? I’m trying to develop a more secure attachment to myself.” Oh, absolutely. If this is what you’re trying to do, I would ramp it up 5, 6, 10 times a day. I would set a timer or something to say, “Check in on the part that doesn’t feel trusting of the whole you, of your core self, the system,” whatever.

Find the part that is waiting for attention and say, “I’m right here. I’m here. What are we going to do? Let’s do something wonderful together.” And if all the inner child can do is kick and scream, say, “I’m right here with you. I totally understand why you’re so unhappy, and I’m just going to be here. I’ll sing a little song and do a little knitting, play some solitaire. But I’m right here for you.” And the more you keep your promises and check in on those inner child selves, the more they really do develop trust. But you have to be trustworthy. You don’t just pay attention to them when you want to feel better, you pay attention to them because they exist and they deserve your love as you did when you were little. And if you didn’t get it, then you need it now.

So Amy says, “How do communities create tools during individual and social transformation? Is the waiting a part of growth? Does stuckness have a purpose?” I think sometimes it can help things build up to a critical point where there’s a breakthrough. And the big example of this was during the COVID pandemic lockdowns, when everyone, particularly people in less privileged social standing, finally had enough space to not be constantly working for underpayment, everybody was kind of home. And the indignation, the outrage, the injustice that had been building and building and so many people finally broke out. And we all started to talk about what I call the reckoning. Like coming to terms with racism, sexism, the horrors of our culture. And I think they were bigger because they’d been waiting. And actually, that’s why you want to always be addressing what’s happening now. Because if you don’t address it now, it’s going to come up later. If you don’t enjoy now, you’re not going to enjoy it later.

So, I think communities and individuals wait until they reach a critical limit. And you know what I’m waiting to see on that front now? I’m waiting to see how we all react to climate change, because I can tell you from my TV show, the tornadoes are getting way worse and it’s going to keep getting worse until we do something about climate change. And I sat there thinking, “When are we going to do something?” I will do my best. I hope you will do your best. We’ll all get together and do our best and stop waiting on that one. Danielle says, “Why does waiting feel like anxiety? Is it part of the need to detach?” The waiting really is the hardest part. It’s horrible. But here’s the thing, waiting doesn’t call cause anxiety. Anxiety causes waiting because anxiety takes you out of experiencing the pleasures of the moment.

I’ve done an exercise many times on The Gathering Room where I just ask you to think of things you love with your senses, things you love to see, hear, smell, touch, taste. And then imagine all those things at the same time. You’re in a pine forest in the rain, eating chocolate and getting a foot rub with a cat purring next to you. And as you drop deeply into just an imagined situation of pleasure or joy, anxiety goes away and you’re in the moment. There’s no waiting when there’s not anxiety, there’s just, “What do I have to enjoy?” And that’s how animals live. They’re just enjoying. That’s how dogs are, that’s how cats are. They’re not as anxious as we are. Sarah says, “When you’re waiting, how do I develop my trust muscle?” By making promises and keeping them.

So you say, “What do you want? Do you want to watch a TV show? I will find you one you want to watch in the middle of the night. I will find you something fun to read. I will take you outside for a walk. I will take you to feed the ducks the way you did when you were little.” And then keep your promises immediately because the child is waiting. And if you give them what they want immediately, they learn to enjoy. I started doing this 30 years ago, and it’s absolutely the most tickling feeling to ask yourself what you want, get an answer, and then give yourself something. And usually it’s something very modest. And the things that bring us joy are so simple. They really are. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s really true. So give yourself promises and then keep the promises and trust develops.

And finally, Donna says, “Is it possible to become dependent or addicted to waiting because that means you really don’t have to take action? I’d rather wait for some things than make hard decisions.” Donna, you have mined an entire vein of gold on this topic. That is so true. We say we’re waiting so we don’t have to do anything else. So we can delay action until something else happens. And that makes us victims of circumstance. I couldn’t live my life. I was waiting. I was waiting for Godot or a rope to hang myself. Nothing came. It’s not my fault. We have agency. We have freedom. We can always find a way to act, even if it’s by observing our inactivity with love. We are always in life in this moment. And watching that roll out, finding something to savor right now, is the entire point. Waiting is meaningless. Life is so full of meaning and joy and delight. And you folks out there in the world who come to the Gathering Room, I love you all so much. And I’ll see you next week on The Gathering Room. Bye.

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