by Judy Ringer
"the impossible challenges of life are the best teachers."
– Amy Mindell, Metaskills
Driving home late one night during the first snow of the season, I hit a patch of ice on a slippery bridge and collided with the barrier that separates the bridge from the air and the water. I careened off one side of the bridge, slid across three lanes of Interstate 95, and scraped along the barrier on the opposite side. Luckily there weren't any other cars were nearby.
As I slid on the frozen surface, my first awareness was fear. Then, as car connected with the barrier, I was jolted into a powerfully present state of being. What flashed through my mind was: I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to be here for it. Then deep calm, peace, and presence.
The car’s forward momentum played itself out as I hung tight, watching, waiting, and thoughtless for what was probably a few seconds but seemed much longer. Then a second forceful awareness: I am not in control. And it’s fine. Though it may seem a contradiction, this was an amazing and wonderful moment that remains with me and continues to teach. I still savor that instant of “not knowing,” and the weightlessness of not being in charge. The timelessness of total presence took my breath away.
The sliding eventually stopped. I was miraculously alive and, as far as I could tell, in one piece. The car had come to rest with wheels and underbelly up against the right side of the bridge. The bottom edge of my door was wedged against the roadway, and I saw and smelled smoke. I was still calm. I heard the radio and thought maybe the window controls worked, and they did. As I rolled down my window and looked out, standing before me was a kind and gentle man, whose name I never got, offering me his hand, asking if I was okay, and helping me out to safety. Yes.
State troopers arrived, my guardian left, and I began the path of coming back to the reality of a totaled car and finding my way home on a snowy evening.
It took me many months to fully understand what happened that night and to make sense out of those brief moments of heightened perception and power. What was this place I had inhabited for such a short but meaningful time? How did I get there? Can I find it again?
In his book The Magic of Conflict, Thomas Crum describes a magical domain that "allows us to move beyond the fight, beyond success, to an open realm of possibility," which he calls discovery. By any other name, it would have smelled as sweet that snowy, cold night, when I was able to fully appreciate its essence.
Although I had been in this magical realm before, previous circumstances had not thrust me into it so completely. I had never experienced to this degree how little I know, and how not in control I am. With the sideways slide, the crash, and the loss of control, I lost me for a moment – my sense of past and future, and the unconscious assumptions I make about the way things are. Although that night I slid into discovery by accident, I decided later that I wanted to go there on purpose and more often.
One of the best places to practice discovery is in conflict – when you think you are right about something but are opposed by someone else's idea of right. To choose discovery in that moment is to intentionally put yourself in the land of not-knowing, to be interested in someone else’s story, to let go of the need to control the outcome, and to give yourself the gift and power of seeing the world through other eyes.
In dialogue, instead of arguing and making assertions, you ask your conflict partner questions to which you do not know the answers, and invite her to talk about and clarify her position. Rather than excluding options, you seek to expand them. In discovery, you and your partners in the conflict become explorers, searching for and creating meaning together, problem-solving, and seeking the best solution for all. You understand that you can win only if all win.
When you enter relationship from discovery, you remember that you know nothing about other people (even if you think you do) and you seek to uncover their truth as they see it. As if entertaining visitors from another planet, you inquire how things look to them from their cultural perspective. You don’t try to convince them of anything, even when you see the world differently. You realize that the world is so huge compared with your understanding of it, that you might easily have different stories about what is out there.
You may, of course, reveal the landscape on your planet so that others can better appreciate where you live. However, from your space of learning and inquiry, you know deep in your bones that others may never be able to see your view. You give up trying to make that happen and become interested instead. Suddenly, people you have known your entire life appear brand new, old situations are altered, and life is more fun.
The realm of discovery is available everywhere—you needn’t wait for an icy bridge. Confronted by the unexpected or unwelcome, you become fascinated with the moment and accept it as if you had chosen it. You decide to suspend judgment and open your mind to what is.
In the middle of a contentious meeting, when you hear yourself blaming coworkers for a problem, shift into discovery instead and ask: “What is it about this issue that’s important to each of us?”
The next time you arrive home and find your loved one upset, notice if your first reaction is to put up walls of justification or anger. Instead, minimize defensiveness and ask yourself what you might learn. Say to your partner: “Honey, you seem upset. Anything I can do to help?” You may find that the problem has nothing to do with you. And if it does, you’ve opened the conversation in a useful way.
When life happens suddenly and unexpectedly in ways that throw you off balance, discovery invites you to be fascinated, curious, and interested. Instead of spending energy in resistance, you find your equilibrium through acceptance and acknowledgement. You watch, listen, feel, and learn. The event becomes your teacher as you find your way through new, unimagined territory that you would otherwise never have known.
We all experience moments of discovery when we break through to a new understanding of our world. Sometimes the breakthrough happens by accident. Our ongoing challenge is to choose to go there on purpose. Thomas Edison’s famous words after many attempts at inventing the light bulb show a man in discovery mode: "I have not failed. I have only found 10,000 ways that won't work!" Katharine Hepburn, who lived a life of stardom but never lost her childlike fascination with people and life, has been quoted as saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if people could get to live suddenly as often as they die suddenly?” Shifting to discovery is one way. Try it. Discover for yourself.