I Don’t Know
As humans, we are very uncomfortable with “uncertainty.” It’s right up there with “change” in our list of things to avoid at all costs. We’ll do anything to try and regain control… to pin things down… to find the “right” answer. And yet, our lives are full of uncertainty and the unknown. This is because control is an illusion. There isn’t one right answer. Let’s make a list of things we can’t control: other people’s actions, other people’s words, the future, the past -- basically anything but our own selves, right now, in this moment. As much as we’d like to be, we are not omniscient, and don’t need to be. A part of our spiritual journey is getting comfortable with “not-knowing.”
The future is unknown. At first glance this seems scary, but actually it narrows the field of things we have to cope with. We often hear the “journey is the destination.” But keep in mind that the path does not already exist, it evolves moment to moment. This is encouraging because it means the source of wisdom is whatever is going to happen to us today. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) Often, the answer, the solution and the strength arrives just when we need it. We can trust that, and shift our focus to the present moment.
As we struggle to find the “right answer,” it is helpful to remember that there is no ultimate truth. Belief in an ultimate truth closes us off. It can close us off from other people, and it can close us off to the various possibilities on our path. On the current world stage we seem to be plagued by people who believe so strongly in the “rightness” of their beliefs. They believe that they know the ultimate truth. This closes people off to the possibility of learning something new, as well as to connection with other people. Locking into a fixed way of seeing things gives us a sense of certainty and security but it is false security, and ultimately it is not satisfying. (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger) The connection we seek, and the peace that is available, comes from recognizing the myriad of perspectives which inform the beliefs of the people around us. Rather than focusing on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a person, we can acknowledge that our opinions are a product of our upbringing, our family, and our fears. If we can approach all situations with a “beginner’s mind,” and embrace not knowing, we will have more empathy. Curiosity, not rightness, is the path to connection and growth.
When you are adamant about your “rightness”, use this as a cue to turn to your practice. “This righteous indignation, this panic that someone is going to do it wrong, this dogma you feel that the world will go under if things don’t go your way, is actually a form of aggression.” (Pema Chodron) This is true no matter how true and good your belief is. It is notable that as science evolves, the more it takes into account the unknown -- black holes and principles of uncertainty. While our religious systems seem to be evolving to rely more and more on ultimate truths. How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite. (When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron)
In our search for certainty, we tend to put ourselves and others in a box. We do this in intimate relationships, but also to whole racial, political and religious groups. These boxes are fabrications of our mind, and limit ourselves and others. For example, how you describe your mother may be vastly different to the description given by her best friend. She does not have the fixed identity you have assigned to her, and if you see her only in that way, you do not leave her room to evolve. Love is allowing people the space to change. Meditation is such a powerful tool because the more we observe our thoughts and feelings in meditation and in life, the more we realize they are constantly changing. What feels so strong in one moment, may pass and make room for another thought and feeling a moment later. If we get comfortable with this change on our meditation cushion, we can bring that lesson into our lives. Nothing is solid, including these fixed identities of ourselves, others, situations and beliefs.
So any time you are feeling very sure of yourself, righteously indignant, frustrated that other people don’t see things your way, let this be like a wake up call -- an alarm going off. It is time to let go, and open your heart and mind. It is likely this will be met with some inner resistance. We want to have things our own way, and our ego craves certainty. At this point we can beat ourselves up and clench our fists tighter, or we can have a good laugh at ourselves and the human condition, and loosen our grip.
If we find ourselves in a difficult or painful situation and are uncomfortable with not knowing the answers, the first step is, as always, awareness. You can notice your unrest -- your longing for certainty. In this moment of awareness, in this acknowledgement, you are no longer stuck. This doesn’t mean you have the answers, or magically feel comfortable, it just means you have created a space for not-knowing. The second step is noticing our thoughts. As the observer of our storyline, we cease to identify with our thoughts and can let go of the absolute truth and solidity of our own opinions. We don’t have to make opinions go away, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves for having them. We can just notice our thoughts and opinions, and how much of it is only our particular take on reality, which may or may not be shared by other people.
The third step is body awareness. The body is like the weather -- it changes and responds to various internal and external conditions. When we learn our own body’s weather patterns, they become indicators of what is going on in our space. When you notice a tightness in your heart, or a queasiness in your belly, or a shallowness to your breath, you can ask yourself, “What is this all about?” Just like our thoughts, noticing the rise and fall of sensations in the body, helps you to realize that all energy is constantly shifting and there is no solidity to be grasped. Body awareness is a way to come back to the moment.
Once we are in the moment, we can stay with whatever is happening there. It can be grounding to observe whatever is around us -- noticing the colors, sounds and smells. We can be present with whoever is next to us and be mindful of whatever daily activity we are doing in that moment. At the same time, we can take the fourth step of sitting with our emotional experience. We noticed our thoughts and bodily sensations coming and going, and the same will be true for our emotions. We can get curious about what underlies our emotions -- perhaps touch on a fear or self-limiting belief. Often our emotions might be uncomfortable, and by sitting with them, rather than resisting them, we learn to approach each moment with gentleness. There is no problem to be solved, no answer to be discovered, only a presence and the ability to use the moment to wake us up further and soften our hearts.
The fifth step is to notice the spaces in between -- the spaces between our breaths, the quiet underneath the sounds, the gaps between our thoughts and the brief suspension of our strong emotions. These spaces contain the “not-knowing,” and are the realm of possibility. The more comfortable we get with the spaces in between, the more comfortable we will get with not having all the answers in our lives. We may then be willing to make changes without guarantees. There is a space between leaving one job and finding another, leaving one relationship and meeting new people. It is a necessary part of change. It is our ability to tolerate this discomfort and uncertainty that helps us avoid hasty decisions and calms our agitation. We ride it out and keep looking for a situation that is better. These times can be simultaneously uncomfortable and exciting. Take small steps. Sometimes it might be as simple as pulling yourself out of bed and taking a little walk. A tiny experience can open us to an amazing flow of energy.
There is a Buddhist slogan, “Regard all dharmas as dreams.” This points to the idea that reality is not as solid as we think. Have you ever been caught up in a seemingly solid, heavy duty storyline, and then something shifted and you are just able to drop it? You find yourself wondering why you made “much ado about nothing.” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart). If we regard everything as a dream, with a transient, amorphous quality rather than the concrete, immovable reality our ego likes to espouse, we feel less attached. What previously seemed like a big deal loses some of it’s hold on us. If everything, and every thought and every emotion is made of passing energy-- if we can see this in our practice -- then the logical conclusion is that there is no need to make a big deal about anything. This realization leads to gentleness in our practice. We connect with the open, spacious quality of the mind, so that there's no need to categorize and control everything. There is no need to have all the answers. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.”
** For further reading on this topic, check out these insightful works which formed the basis for this article: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.