For the past three years, my wife and I have been navigating through a fallow period in our lives: a time precipitated, initially, by our deliberate decision to change our residence from Australia to the United States. Since that decision, other circumstances - ones beyond our control - have contributed to this period: a traumatic fall by my wife (one requiring hospitalization and a slow recovery), the illness and subsequent death of my father, and the cumulative effect of not working regularly for an extended period of time.
Each of these circumstances has thrown us back upon ourselves. Each has given us the option - sometimes taken, sometimes not - to reflect on their significance. Each has contributed to a heightened sense of vulnerability as “control” over our surroundings seemed to pass increasingly out of our hands. And each has brought with it stages of anxiety and confusion that characterize all change processes.
Such is the nature of fallow periods, so called because the agricultural definition of word - “unsown land left that way in order to increase its future fertility” - implies inactivity, a sort of resting until the next big thing begins. While that metaphor overlaps considerably with the human experience - familiar activity is indeed reduced - it’s a misnomer to think of fallow periods as “inactive”. Actually, quite a bit is going on. What makes such periods look inactive is that most of that activity is occurring inside a person as he wrestles with what the next phase of life is bringing forward.
Moving this process from a wrestling match to reflective practice is the challenge of skillfully navigating fallow periods. Can old expectations and patterns be released, if appropriate? Can ambiguity be tolerated for extended periods of time, allowing the unconscious to do its work of surfacing dreams and visions which may have been occluded by the “busy-ness” of one’s previous life? Can the reflective process be trusted enough so that new intuitions will not go unnoticed? Will it be possible to explore the new and emerging terrain in one’s consciousness with trusted others, instead of trying to work through things in isolation?
When I was at my father’s bedside in his last month of life, a huge portion of my conscious experience was spent adjusting to his diminished capacities. I wasn’t finding it difficult to be loving and caring towards him during this time - that was a privilege, made easier by the love pouring out of him. Far more challenging was releasing the images of him I carried in my mind. Those images had been built up through countless interactions and events over the years. They incorporated his physical health, intellectual capacity, emotional “contact-ability” and a seemingly endless array of personality characteristics. All of these things were in flux; the decline of each was occurring at different rates and, sometimes, my dad would abruptly pop into his old self for a period of time - as though nothing at all was different. It was as if the full texture of his life was on display in a “short film” version: hitting all the key points and providing the opportunity to see and interact one more time with all of them.
Given that my own life is also in transition, I found the bridge across t0 dad was through the more ‘immutable’ qualities that percolate through a person’s life regardless of the intensity and/or nature of the change being experienced. Recognizable pathways that become foreground as the superficial nature of life’s impermanent aspects fade away. Sometimes those pathways were shrouded in fog, sometimes they were like a crisp autumn morning. Regardless of how discernible they were at any given point in time, however, they inevitably raised questions I could apply to my own circumstances: How do I want to die when the time comes? When I look back on my life at its end time, what will I hope to see? How is the transition I'm in now already preparing me for the end of my life? What do I have to do now to avoid feeling regretful later: in terms of relationships, aspirations, and/or the evolution of my self-knowledge generally?
These are the types of questions thrown up by the fallow periods in a person's life: important questions that allow the superficial dimensions of daily living to recede into the background. Addressing questions such as these reinvigorated my commitment to the two simple but foundational suggestions I give for deepening self-knowledge in my book, Quiet Horizon. The first of these is the cultivation of the witness - that non-personal arena of awareness each of us can access but which, because it is devoid of “personal passion”, seems less important than emotion-based states of consciousness. It’s not. Fallow periods remind a person of this by rewarding mindful reflection with insight, fresh consideration of the possibilities one could pursue in life, and new ways of understanding what has gone on up to that point.
Cultivating authentic relationships, the second suggestion explored in my book, brings the same rewards in a more psychological way. Being willing to bump up against other people when life is in a period of transition - and often chaos - requires being able to step outside of impression management, away from seeing others ‘strategically’. That’s a good habit to cultivate any time, but doing so in fallow periods is particularly useful because the doubt such periods create often undermines clarity for you - but not necessarily for a trusted person outside of your circumstances.
As my wife and I have walked among our fallowness, these tools have been very useful. Both require us to slow down, but slowing down on its’ own is not enough: we’ve also been challenged to fine tune our perceptions, deepen our stillness, and take more risks in our conversations with each other. We’re now to a point where we can extend the relational risks we are taking to the new people we are meeting more easily: not because we understand it all that much better, but because we've seen how doing so accelerates the likelihood that such understandings will break through our habitual ways of viewing things. We’ve done this through the obvious medium of conversations, but also through artistic endeavors, new courses of study, and engagement in volunteer activities. All of these serve as mirrors against which the fallow landscape can be reflected, sometimes revealing the seeds currenlty being planted in our lives.
The importance of this process extends well beyond the personal example of my wife and myself. Why? Because so many people, through no choice of their own, are facing enormous changes in their lives at the moment: changes in government, changes in financial security, changes in the workplace, changes in the wider environment - to name just a few. These changes largely reflect the fact that the frontier and puritan meta-narratives -stories that have shaped activity in the world for so long - are experiencing a death rattle. Increasingly, people are no longer willing to mindlessly assume that endless competition, relentless individualism, and the delusion of limitless growth are the benchmarks needed to construct a fulfilling life. Other approaches - ones that will emerge from the reflective nature of fallow periods - are beginning to push their way into both individual and collective awareness. That enhances our capacity to transition from these old modes of behaving into something fresh, more alive, and more inclusive.