Stillness before sunrise

The Art of Creative Waiting

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself. -Zen proverb

I’m fascinated by the psychological aspect of myth and the multifaceted ways they can serve as a compass in navigating the different stages and transitions of our lives. Here is one of the myths which has captured my attention lately:

It is the story of a king and a queen who want a child, which doesn’t come. Then one day, while the queen is bathing, a frog creeps out and grants her wish, promising her a child. Within a year the queen gives birth to a girl. The king holds a feast in honor of his baby princess, where he receives a dark prophecy: in her 15th year, she will be pricked by a spindle and fall into a deep sleep for a hundred years. The king banishes all spindles form the land but one day, fifteen years later, while he is gone, the princess is exploring the many rooms of the palace and climbs an old tower. Inside the tower she finds an old woman spinning flax with a spindle. Curious at the sight of this foreign device, the girl pricks her finger on the spindle and falls into a deep sleep. The king and queen return and immediately fall into a deep sleep as well and before long a hedge of thorns has climbed the castle walls, hiding the entire kingdom and everyone in it from sight. Many princes hear the tale of the beautiful, sleeping princess and attempt to enter the palace but the brambles are impenetrable and each youth is ensnared by them and dies a miserable death. Finally, after many years, another prince who has heard the story of the sleeping princess as well as the story of the unlucky princes before him, dares to approach the hedge only to find the thorns transformed into beautiful flowers, which part of their own accord, letting him pass unhurt. He finds the princess in her tower, bends down to kiss her, whereupon she and everyone in the castle awakes and they all live happily ever after.

On one level, the story of Little Briar-Rose, found in Grimm’s Fairy Tales can be seen as the biological story of a woman’s coming of age: after Briar-Rose draws blood (first menstruation) there is a waiting period (puberty) before she awakens from a man’s kiss. But it becomes far more interesting when we consider the story in the broader perspective of myth. Then it becomes, as the American psychiatrist Rollo May suggests in The Cry for Myth, “the story of a being, Briar-Rose, in the process of becoming. It is the tale of the girl caught in passivity but needing to act responsibly for her own life.”

The story begins with a desire for change. It’s interesting that the pinprick, symbolizing Briar-Rose’s newfound fertility, comes as a result of her exploring the world around her, as if her curiosity is the sign that she is ready to participate in co-creation. But what fascinates me most about the story is how it’s resolved: by waiting. It’s not The Prince who saves the day. May reminds us there were many princes:

“We saw that the premature youths who stormed the hedges and ‘died a miserable death’ were those who lacked the capacity to wait until the time of kairos,1 the time when Briar-Rose’s sleep was fulfilled. I refer to waiting until something is ready to be born—whether it be a baby, an idea, an invention or an artistic vision. The waiting is not passive and empty; the one who waits is an active participant in the gestation. Too much emphasis on conscious intention—like the active pushing of the premature suitors in the tale of Briar Rose—blocks the capacity to wait. Intentionality, the condition that everything has meaning which is given by our consciousness, is possible only when we have the capacity for creative waiting.”

Briar-Rose’s sleep is symbolic of a turning inward; her protective thorns of the innate wisdom of the body. I believe it’s her inner growth coupled with the prince’s presence—who sensed the time was right—that wakes the princess and her kingdom up from their sleep.

What I find difficult about creative waiting is that instead of trying to fix or otherwise escape my problems it requires I be present with how I feel: which often is uncertain and anxious. It’s a very active and oftentimes uncomfortable stance.

After my last relationship I intentionally avoided dating for two years. As a male, the choice to abstain from sex for so long is often misinterpreted as weakness. I didn’t feel ready to commit to another person again but at times it was easy to doubt myself and think I should feel ready. Had I caved to that pressure, I wouldn’t have been ready to say yes to my current partner, when we met by chance in a tea shop in India one afternoon last year. Most likely, I’d never have been in that tea shop to begin with.

Taking action feels good because it gives us the sense that we’re in control of our lives. It’s scary to do the exact opposite: to stop, listen and recognize the complexity and nuance of each particular situation. It requires starting with I don’t know and then staying with the fear that such an admission inevitably stirs up. I think it’s one of the bravest things we can do. All creative acts are a dialogue with the unknown.

Recently an incredibly intelligent and capable friend of mine was sharing how she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She had one hand in everything: she’d just been promoted at her job, had successfully begun a side business, was teaching business classes and yoga on the side and on top of that, was somehow managing to keep up an active social life. Yet she felt something was missing but was at a loss as to what it might be. She was floating around the idea of leaving for a while to travel. My suggestion, which was within the realm of possibility for her, was to leave everything for three months and go somewhere where she knew nobody and had nothing to do. In her case I suspect it’s not a question of doing more but of doing less, of waiting and listening. Where would she go? Who would she meet? Who would she be? If you’re getting goosebumps just thinking about it, you’re not alone—it’s scary shit.

Activity is only effective when coupled with inactivity. Otherwise, like the unfortunate youths ensnared in the brambles of Briar-Rose, it becomes destructive. Inactivity becomes self-destructive when we don’t take responsibility for what we’re waiting for. Like the courageous prince who wakes Briar-Rose, we must have the courage to act when our moment arrives.

Most of us live in a society that celebrates control, conquest and action. But this attitude leaves notoriously little room for understanding. There is still a lot of latent power to be harnessed for those willing to learn the art of creative waiting.


If you enjoyed this post you might also like The Path to Interesting: 6 Steps for Following Your Intuition or A Practical Guide to Finding Your Inner Voice: How to Take a Solo Retreat.

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  1. Looking up the word “kairos” online I found the following definition: a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment.

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.