I thought I was destined to have a music career when I was in high school. I practiced diligently, working toward a goal of making it into All-State band in Tennessee. Achieving this goal would validate that I was one of the best French Horn players in Tennessee, and skilled enough to pursue a music career. I didn’t make it into All-State band. I didn’t know what to do next.
It’s very uncomfortable not knowing what we should do. We feel we’re in a chaotic, uncertain state. Knowing gives us comfort. Unconsciously desiring comfort, however, contracts us around our current goals and perspectives, and limits us. Comfort is only one part of a cycle. Embracing stress, expanding into the unknown, balances the cycle. We need to cycle between the comfortable grounding we experience when we contract and the stressful growth we experience when we expand.
When we don’t know what to do, we need to relax into the stress of not knowing. We shouldn’t equate not knowing with confusion. “I don’t know” is the beginning of knowing; it’s not confusion, it’s clarity. We acknowledge that we know that we don’t know. Confusion is “I don’t know, but I think I should know.” Knowing focuses our attention on the task at hand; confusion distracts our attention from the task. The task is to relax into the stress of not knowing, when we don’t know what to do next.
Our biggest mental obstacle is dealing with stress. The mind doesn’t like stress and it will force the decision-making process forward too quickly to escape stress. Knowing what to do and not knowing what to do are states we experience throughout our lives. It’s important to allow ourselves to be in a state of not knowing what to do. This state is uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. Yet, if we allow ourselves to be in this state, the stress begins to order itself, to shift to certainty, and provide options for us to act on.
Let’s say we’re climbing a 5.11, which is near our limit. We’re uncertain whether or not we can continue because we’re physically tired and mentally stressed. We’re physically tired from the exertion of climbing. We’re mentally stressed because we don’t know what to do. Perhaps the mental stress comes from the mind telling us “I should be able to climb 5.11s.” Being physically tired is a natural state; being mentally stressed because we think we should be able to climb 5.11s, to know what to do, is confusion, a distraction of attention.
Being in a state of confusion splits our attention. Part of our attention is on what is happening: “I don’t know if I can continue climbing this 5.11.” Part of our attention is on what the mind thinks should be happening: “I should be able to climb 5.11.” This state of confusion adds mental stress that shifts the mind toward resolution of the stress, to quickly make a choice that brings comfort and certainty. In this climbing example, the mind chooses to retreat from the stress, hang on protection or go down, when we may have been able to continue.
If we keep our attention on accepting that we don’t know what to do, then we’re receptive and positioned for taking effective action. We may still decide to retreat, but that decision will be grounded in information coming directly from the situation and not from the mind’s desire for comfort.
Relaxing into the middle of stress allows us to dig deeper into ourselves and the situation, to be more aware of options that can direct our choices. By accepting the state of not knowing, we aren’t resisting what is actually occurring. We can focus our attention on how to deal with what is occurring. We can apply our biggest mental skill for dealing with our biggest mental obstacle. We can find small actionable steps to take in the direction of engaging stress. Doing this will process us through the stress and clarify whether we should retreat or continue, contract or expand. In our climbing example, we probe a few moves up and move back down. We feel how tired we are and how much strength it will take to continue climbing. Doing this gives us clarity and options for proceeding.
When I was practicing toward my goal of making it into All-State band my attention was contracted around achieving that goal. When I didn’t make it, my attention expanded. I had cycled into a state of not knowing, of stress. My attention simply opened up because I wasn’t narrowly focused on a goal. Within a month I noticed someone in my English class who was a rock climber, who intended to study Geology in college. I was interested in both. So, I cycled into knowing what to do next: I would study Geology and climb. Ten years later, however, I cycled back into not knowing, when I lost my Geology job. My focus opened again to notice options for creating a career in climbing, which shifted me back into a state of knowing what to do next.
The power of not knowing opens our focus to see options we can’t see when we’re working toward goals. Not knowing what to do next is a natural state we experience in our lives. Being in this state piques our awareness. We need to welcome such states so we can become aware of options for finding our way through life.
Practice Tip: Decide not to Decide
When you feel stressed, don’t rush through it. Notice that you’re stressed, but don’t let the mind resolve it. Don’t decide what to do. Rather, breathe, relax, and open your focus. Allow yourself to be in the middle of not knowing what to do. Then look around. What have you ignored? Make small steps to engage the situation. Doing this will begin to organize the stress and offer options that shift you back to certainty.