The Unknown: Always Present

I have been in a few conversations lately with people who said, “It’s hard to be in the unknown.” Or “I have such a hard time with groundlessness.” These are people who are looking for jobs and aren’t sure where they will end up – what job, what city, what hours, etc. Or people who have retired and aren’t sure how they will make enough money in this new phase of life. Or in my own head – will I take on a new course of study in the fall, for example, or will I be living alone for at least a month this summer?

As I have contemplated these phrases, I sometimes sense that there is an implication that it’s unusual to have it be difficult to experience the unknown. That somehow we should be “better” at it! Actually, I think it is one of the hardest things – to stay in the present without knowing what will happen. One of the biggest reasons, I think, is not just that we are having a hard time not knowing what will happen – rather we have a hard time not knowing how we will feel when whatever happens (or doesn’t) happens! Of course it is soothing to know where we will work or live or with whom we will partner or whether we will have enough money. However, the discomfort deepens when we realize we just wish we knew how we will feel. And we have no idea. A wise friend in my meditation group articulated it like this: “I think if I try hard enough, I can figure out the right decision because the right decision will dictate that I will feel good.” And of course we have no idea how we will feel….even if we make quite a skillful decision.

Will we feel excited to get one particular job? Will we feel openhearted and at ease in a new city or will we feel lonely and displaced? Will ending a relationship (or job or volunteer gig or committee) feel like a relief or a loss of identity? Will starting a new commitment feel nurturing or burdensome? We have no idea until we actually are in that situation in that moment. Maybe five years ago we felt something when in a particular situation – or even five days ago – but we don’t know how we will feel now.

It is truly challenging to stay with the discomfort of the unknown. Especially because beyond the decision-making times, there is the uncomfortable truth that we truly never really know when we will suddenly feel groundless. My niece lost her wallet just before going on a trip and had to cancel it last minute. My work colleague’s hot water heater burst when she was about to leave for a conference. My carefree attitude about flying was changed by having a panic attack for the first time in my life while on board a plane. Even those these are relatively benign examples; suddenly being in an unexpected situation often brings us up short.

I am practicing finding some ease around the discomfort – not judging it – bringing more observation to how hard it is, as opposed to thinking that somehow I am supposed to be “better” at it. Part of the human condition is to seek “ground,” to want to know what the future will bring. But from stepping outside and thinking it was going to be warm and realizing we should have worn one more layer to resigning from a difficult job and feeling sadness instead of relief to having a child leave home and feeling freedom instead of grief, we just are constantly up for being surprised. The challenge is to train one’s brain to note the feeling of surprise, to remember it is a regular part of life, and to then pay attention to what one actually feels. Can we bring some spaciousness around the discomfort of not knowing and deepen our awareness of this discomfort? Can we breathe and stay with the unease, waiting to know how we feel until we are actually feeling it? Can we seek support when making decisions, so that part of our groundless feelings are held and we are not having to experience this alone? Can we trust that no matter what decisions we make, we will have constant chances to keep learning and growing? And, most of all, can we deepen our capacity to be with whatever feelings do arise, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant? Regardless of whether we feel angry, sad, disappointed, joyful, fearful, relieved, settled, or confused, learning to note, name, and be with the feelings can increase our ability to simply be with ourselves – and, ultimately, to be with others in whatever state they find themselves. The peacefulness of being with, even if the feelings do not feel particularly peaceful, can have a beautiful ripple effect throughout our bodies, our families, and our communities. Worthwhile work, in my opinion.

So if you find yourself saying, “It’s so hard to not know what’s going to happen,” know that 1) you are not alone, and 2) being in the present with how you feel now and then again with how you feel once you do know what is happening is amazing nurturing for your brain and body and fellow travelers. Wishing you ease and compassion for wherever you are in your journey today.