Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #138 When Stopping is the Way to Go
About this episode

In this episode of The Gathering Pod, Martha talks about how we can make peace with inevitable interruptions by embracing another perspective: “In the flow of time in this earthly existence, stopping and starting are the same thing—every time we stop doing something, we start doing something different.” Tune in to participate in a guided meditation with Martha and learn how you loosening your attachments can ease the pain of stopping, so you can start observing the delicious flow of life.

When Stopping is the Way to Go

Martha Beck:

I was driving along today, coming back from the dentist, and I was thinking, “What should we talk about on the Gathering Room today? What feels inspiring?” So I opened myself to inspiration from the universe and I turned a corner and I confronted a sign that said, “Be prepared to stop.” And I was like, “Well, there it is, isn’t it? Be prepared to stop.” That is some serious advice because everything we start to do ends up getting interrupted by life, and it’s particularly salient to me because I’m writing a book and let’s see, when did the book sell? Ages ago, months ago. I had a year and a half to write it, and I did. I started out really religiously, oh, no, spiritually but not religiously. I was working away, got about 100 pages written, and I hate it when I get interrupted because research shows that somebody who’s in writing in particular, but composing a song or anything where you’re doing something creative, that you’re pulling something out of thin air and putting it into some kind of order.

If you’re doing that kind of stuff and someone interrupts you, even if they just say, “Do you know where I left whatever, my tomahawk or whatever it was?” And you stop and say, “Oh, I think I saw it out on the patio or whatever,” and then it takes you 21 minutes to get back into your darn book or whatever creative thing you’re doing. It’s very hard if you stop. So during the course of writing this book, I went to South Africa for several weeks, then I came back and tried to write some more, just was getting back into it. Went to Australia for several weeks, well, a few weeks, couple weeks, came back, tried to get into it again, and realized stopping was the end of the book I was writing. I’m not the same person anymore, so I had to start over again. I was very, very anxious about having stopped.

I felt like now I don’t have time. Oh, I have all kinds of internal pressures and stories that say, “This is a very bad thing.” And I thought, if you’ve lived on Earth at all, and I think many of us have, based on the fact that you’re coming in from places on earth, we’ve all learned that when we have our goals and we sit down and we try to keep our resolutions and we’re trying to do our projects and achieve big goals, we get stopped. You think you’re going to go strong and run the ultra marathon or whatever it is, and then life says, “Be prepared to stop.” The other day I was finally working on my book, [inaudible 00:03:07] work on it, and Lila, our little one came down with a cold. I had a cold too, and the feeling of momentum, it was like I had pushed a huge boulder to a place where it was finally starting to roll downhill and to stop working on my book, then felt like running in front of the boulder and trying to stop it as it crunched down on me.

And I had all kinds of protests and attachment inside me, and I watched that and I thought, “Oh, look at my ego go.” It decides it’s going to do something without stopping, but on earth you always have to be prepared to stop. And so I said, “All right, I’m going to accept this.” And Lila and I got to cuddle all day and watch spooky Halloween kid things online, which she loves, and it turned out to be a really wonderful day. Yeah. Okay, thank you. So I’m actually a kind of a maniac for persistence, and I bet a lot of you are too. I mean, here you are in the Gathering Room week after week, some of you for years, you are persistent folks, and that is amazing, but we have to keep a very loose grip on our plans. Otherwise, the stopping of life will drive us completely insane.

I have really bad ADD and I thought that cannot be… I can’t have attention deficit because I’ll pay attention to something so hard my head almost explodes and I can keep doing it for months on end. Then I realized that that was called ADD hyperfocus. It makes no sense to me the way they label it, but it’s true. I have the hyperfocus, so I don’t attach to things loosely. I attach to them tightly. And I was thinking about in my favorite class in all the world, my favorite class in college, my drawing class, the teacher would come up to us from behind and in a very sneaky way, he would reach around and try to just pull on the pencil as we were drawing.

And the idea was if the pencil just came free, our hands were loose and relaxed. If he couldn’t move the pencil from our grip, we couldn’t make it do what we wanted. We were holding on too tightly. So I learned to hold the pencil loosely, and then I learned to hold other things loosely. I’m not good at it yet, but I’m starting to be, and I know that I’m just old enough to know that in life you have to be prepared to stop, even though we struggle with it so much.

I have a friend whose kid is 11. Her kid just said, “I don’t want you around me in public anymore. I want you to drop me off at the middle school playground and then I’ll walk across to the school. I just don’t want anybody to see me with my mom anymore.” And she was like, “I knew it was coming. I knew that he would stop being a little one, but I didn’t think so soon.” So she’s really struggling. I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve had to stop something that gave them joy, like a professional sports career, can only keep that stuff up so long. And the pain of stopping is intense because they’ve committed so tightly to the achievement of this thing.

When I was trying to get that PhD I dream about, I had to stop over and over and over to have a kid or because the kids were sick or whatever it is. And all around me, I see people hurting from having to stop, hurting from quitting a job or a relationship that they thought was forever, and that is very… I feel tremendous empathy and compassion for that. But there’s another perspective that I think we can really embrace, and that is that in the flow of time in this earthly existence, stopping and starting are the same thing. Every time we stop doing something, we start doing something different.

So when I was in my teens, I ran and ran and ran. I ran marathons, then I got fibromyalgia, and in my twenties I had to stop running or even exercising. It just came to a deadly halt. So I started meditating. That’s the only thing I could think of to do. Stopping running was the only reason I ever would’ve started meditating. I loved to draw, but I lost the ability to use my hands. So I started composing words in my head. I became a writer because I didn’t actually physically have to have to write. I could just write things in my head and then dictate them.

When I stopped writing books because I couldn’t get published, I started coaching and that’s why I’m here right now. So every time there’s like a velocity in life and it wants to go forward and it wants to move and it wants to flow. But life will present this to us very often as a signal to stop, and then life starts something new. And then just when you’ve reconciled yourself to being stopped forever, you’ve given up on love or you never think you’ll leave the house again. Or during a pandemic, for example, just when you’re really hunkered down with, all right, I won’t do it anymore, life can come up to you and say, “Oh, no, it’s time to go again.” And then it’s like, “Huh, how does this even work?” I just attached myself to the not doing of this thing and now it wants to happen again.

And people will say, “Why do you keep changing your mind?” Well, because the universe is flowing forward. And when you get really loose in your attachments, that is you can love things, I talk about this all the time, loosening your attachment means that painful things pass more quickly and or less distressing. Loosening your attachment to good things makes them deeply pleasurable, and it makes them seem to last longer. You increase the impact. So as you start to learn to loosen and just say, “The next time life tells me to stop something, I’m going to try to just observe the tantrum my mind is throwing, and then I’m going to relax into the stop, and then I’m going to see what’s starting.” Because the stopping of anything is the beginning is the starting of another thing. And your path through life, your destiny will be a flow of stopping and starting.

So you’re not any longer like hitting a plate glass window and then stopping and then starting again. It’s just like stop and start and stop and start, flowing to the next thing, flow to the next iteration of what was the old thing. And it starts to be the bliss of being, the play of consciousness in form and the letting go, the stopping isn’t as hard, and the starting is always delicious. So with that, let’s take a few minutes and do our traditional Gathering Room meditation. We’re just stop doing what you’ve been doing and start doing the meditation. Fabulous. See if you can relax. Take a deep breath. Shake any tension out of your body. Bring the crown of your head up, or imagine a little string on the crown of your head pulling you upward. Relax your shoulders. Deepen your breathing. And start with the introductory question. Can I imagine the distance between my eyes?

Can I imagine the space in the atoms between my eyes? So much more space than matter. Can I imagine the space inside the atoms of my body? Can I imagine that this space that is in the atoms in my body expands to hold the stars and planets out to the furthest reaches of the universe without interruption? Can I imagine the stillness in which my body and mind are working? Can I hear the silence in which all sound occurs and into which all sound will go? Stillness, silence, space. We are more of these things than we are anything else.

And now through that stillness, silence, and space, let them matter that is your life flow easily. Let yourself imagine yourself letting go and embracing and letting go and embracing without stress, without anxiety, the way you go to sleep at night and wake up in the day, or if you’re nocturnal, vice versa. I love the feeling of you all doing that meditation. It is a very tangible, physical sensation and it never, ever fails. It’s always there. Thank you for that, everybody. All right, let’s look at our questions for a while. Donna says, “How do you know when to stop?” Good question. You know to stop because it’s very, very difficult to keep going. It feels bad. It feels wrong, like you’re in the marriage because you’re there for your kids and you don’t quit, but you hate every minute of being with the other person.

You are going to do your job because it’s prestigious and it pays the bills. And by God, you’re going to be there for your loved ones. And it’s literally physically making you sick. When you can’t stand it. What I always tell people when I’m coaching them is keep doing what you’re doing as long as you can. Somebody told me that when I was Mormon. They said, “Stay Mormon as long as you can.” And if… They had already left Mormonism and that advice gave me the freedom to stay or go, and that meant that I actually went more easily when I was told that I didn’t have to stop immediately, I stopped immediately. It’s so interesting how we do that. [inaudible 00:14:27] says, “What about letting go when there hasn’t been a signal, you’ve just given up because you’ve been distracted by something else?” That’s another place to just go with the nature of life.

Now, if you’ve been distracted and you feel icky, like if you’re distracting yourself from writing your poetry by playing an online slots game into which you are pouring the rent money, you will feel a sense of this is not nourishing me. The flow of your life won’t feel good in the place where you’ve avoided your destiny. Starting and stopping this way, you can be working really, really hard. And there can be times when it’s uncomfortable both to start and to stop, but it will always feel meaningful. And it’ll always, after you’re done with something, be like, yes, not thank God I got that over with, but I’m so glad I did that. So if there hasn’t been a signal to stop, keep going. But be really alert for it to go stale and notice if the thing that is distracting you feels icky.

If it feels icky, don’t do it. All right, Rose says, “I had a creative project change after a few days where I couldn’t write at all, and I had so much anxiety around it changing shape.” I went through this too. “Is this just the usual anxiety about change in transition?” For me, I don’t know for you, but the same thing has happened to me many, many times. Like I send in a manuscript and I think there it is, and then my editors come back and say, “It’s not right. Actually it isn’t.” I’m like, “No, no, I don’t want to change it.” But in almost every case, getting another start on it, letting go of the version I had done, stopping it and then starting it in a new way ended up feeling better. Now, if my ego’s attached to it, I don’t want to change it.

The way I put it is the way I put it, and you are wrong, and I am right. Yeah. That tends to create much, much more anxiety. And so the great creators that I know, not just writers, but all kinds of creators are the ones who work really, really hard and then let go and take feedback really, really easily. And believe me, that is a talent they hone, a skill they hone for decades. It’s not easy, especially when you’re young to let something you loved change into something else that you’re going to love, but you don’t know it yet. So I think it’s perfectly normal to be really, really anxious about a project changing shape. So what I’m hoping to do today is just reset our minds a little bit so that if something’s changing in your life, if one thing is stopping and another thing’s starting and you’re not happy about it, you can just take a step back, relax your hold and feel like, I remember when I handed in my PhD dissertation and the chairman of my committee just said, “This is a piece of crap.”

He used a very, very rich language. And I went to some classmates and I said, “Well, this is what he said.” And they’re like, “How dare he, you fight him on this.” And I was like, “Yeah, it was really insulting and horrible. And he said it was a total sack of crap. But you know what? I think he was right,” and he was and I was really glad that he said what he said. It’s probably the reason I’m sitting here now. It took my mind in a new direction, but boy, I had a lot of resistance and that’s okay too. Okay, Laurie says, “My problem is that when I stop, I feel unproductive and that I’m not doing enough, especially regarding my business. You can’t stop. You’ll miss an opportunity. You are being lazy. Thoughts?” Oh, I have so many thoughts, Laurie. This is the voice, not only of your inner critic, but of our culture.

And what I’m writing about a lot, and I don’t think this will change, is that we are so dedicated culturally to the acquisition of stuff through ceaseless effort. Just think factory line, right? That we are the factory line culture. And to get people to work on the factory line without stopping all day long, you have to have a culture that says, “Go, go, go. Don’t you ever quit. Work, work, work. You’re being lazy. Oh, you’re awful.”

So if that voice is in your head, I beg you to treat yourself the way you would a beautiful animal like a horse or a sled dog or something that does work. See if your body’s tired. Check to see if your little paws or hooves are getting worn down. See if you have no more joy in the pursuit of this thing like love the animal that is Mary Oliver wrote, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk through the desert on your knees for 100 miles, walk on your knees through the desert for 100 miles repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

So step back from if any of you were thinking, “Oh, I’m a slub. I’m lazy.” Back off a little look, care for your animal. Yes. Amy says, “This is my greatest struggle in life. I love to plan. And then the plan almost never happens. Pivots, pivot, stop, stop. How do I avoid feeling hopeless from all this stopping?” So first of all, I think you can put your attention on the joy of the plan while holding the outcome loosely, because planning and imagining and manifesting is in itself a beautiful activity. And if you sit and just imagine richly futures, you could imagine diametrically different futures for yourself, and they would all be beautiful, right? And you’ll find that the moment one thing falls apart, that ability to imagine and manifest just rears its little head and goes, “Let’s do another round.” And some of the most beautiful things in my life and in the lives of people I’ve coached and in the coaches I’ve trained have happened because they kept getting interrupted and we had to think of something to do.

When we do the African Star, my friends and I in South Africa [inaudible 00:21:27], we were going to do a whole year thing that was going to help people awaken, and we were going to have them hike the mountains and paddle the rivers and everything. And it boiled down to a week of really intense self searching, animal tracking and enjoying each other’s company, and it’s so much more effective than if we hadn’t had to stop on the big plan. It boiled down to a beautiful little nugget. So when hopelessness comes up, care for your animal, cuddle that little beast that is hopeless because when you’re really, really overwhelmed, your nervous system shuts down and you feel hopeless, and you need to love the soft animal of your body. Until hope returns, you probably also need to rest. What I always tell people is I’ve found that there’s a four-day waiting period when you’re totally exhausted.

The first day you just lie around and you’re below zero. The second day, you’re still below zero, no change. The third day you’re like, “I think I remember having energy.” On the fourth day, you regain the will to live. So if you’re really hopeless, do nothing for four days and see what happens. And then you realize that the hope can lie in the waiting as well as in the doing, and that it’s all… You aren’t holding it, but it’s being held. So Jessica says, “How can you reject the idea that stopping and starting seems scattered? You should see my resume.

I know it’s all connected, but I also don’t want it to look like a quitter in professional settings.” Well, that’s just a matter of phrasing really. You can word everything so that it shows a dedication to your ultimate life mission, for example. And one of the occupational hazards of people that I call the team, the team of people who would probably be chosen and trained, recognized and trained as medicine people in a traditional culture, the occupational hazard there is that you’re interested in a family of things, topics that our culture breaks apart.

So philosophy, psychology, naturalism, environmental, ecology, the arts, all of these things come together in the mind of a person who’s born to be a wayfinder is the language I use. And just shape your resume for the audience you want to impress, because it’s all going toward a life mission that’s very unified, and the stopping and starting is just breathing in and out. It’s like our culture says, “Never breathe in again. Only breathe out. It’s the only credible thing.” Well, you know what? You’re going to breathe in as well. Michelle and Magenta says, “I’m dealing with many difficult things and I’m frozen and immobilized, and I have time limits. I have currently stopped and I need to get started. I am unsure how to proceed.” I have spent so many years, months endlessly in this state, and the first thing is to stop trying, stop pushing, stop pushing.

It’s like you’re caught in one of those traps that people used to buy when I was a kid where you put in your fingers and then you pull them out and the tension of the pulling gets your fingers stuck. And the harder you pull, the tighter it grips you. When you just say, “Okay, I’m going to stop struggling,” it comes loose. And I know how hard that is. It’s almost impossible to do it when you’re past your deadline and calamities will happen. But the fact is, if you’re not moving at all, you’ve got nothing to lose from saying, “I guess I won’t move at all and see what happens then.” And in every case where that’s happened to me, it was when I decided to give into stopping that I was able to start going. Usually, I went in a different direction and that’s what life was trying to teach me to do.

Shivi says, “How do we stop feeling like we’re back to square one after we stop and start?” I almost called my first book onto square one because we’ll always go back to the beginning of things. If we’re living in nature, it’s like, “Oh my God, autumn again. I was here last year. I thought I got it over with.” No, that’s not how nature works. We go back to the beginnings of things, but it’s not like… So it goes in a cycle like this, but it also goes in a straight line forward. So it’s actually a spiral, the activity of a lifetime and feel how your soul is different in the new turn of the screw, the new turn of the spiral. And just know that every time you’re back in square one, you’re in a brand new place and you can start all kinds of delicious things that you couldn’t start without being in square one.

Okay, finally, Janet says, “My business thrives when I get to try out new, often off the wall creative ideas. These generate income for us and can delight customers, but I feel unable to experiment with new initiatives when I’m weighed down with the burden of having to pay bills with money I don’t have. How do I know when to do the fun creative stuff anyway, even when past due notices are piling up and stressing me the hell out?” You just described the condition of humans in the 21st century in the developed world, probably in the developing world even more. So you have to do something that is so counter-cultural. And it started for me when I was deep in debt and really sick and had little kids and needed money desperately, was living on credit card debt. And I got Julia Cameron’s book with a gift certificate.

I probably said this 10 times on the Gathering Room, but somebody gave me this gift certificate. I pulled down the artist’s way off a bookshelf in the bookstore, and I opened this book to a page and looked at the page, and my eyes fell on the phrase, “God has lots of money.” And I was like, “Well, that’s true. I do think that God has all the money.” I happen to be a person of acquaintance of God, and so is everyone else, because I just believe God is the conscious notes of the universe. So I made this shift into not worrying. Not that I had any money, but worrying wasn’t helping. So this was a time when I had to be prepared to stop. I had to prepare to stop worrying even though all the signals were telling me I should worry. It was not working to stress.

And then I started doing this ridiculous fun stuff where I would talk to people about their lives. I don’t know what your creative projects are, but I’m pretty darn sure they’re taking you in the direction that will allow you to give something to the world that is of great value. So follow your bliss even when people say you should be pushing ahead with something where all your energy, all the signals from outsiders saying, “Stop,” and know that stopping is always starting and that what we see as stopping and starting can blend out into flow. And flow is the way we get guided to our destinies and have fun in the process. So let’s all stop worrying and start whatever comes next. And thank you so much for coming, and now I am finally going to stop on this Gathering Room, and I will see you soon back here from all over the world. Love you all. Bye.

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