Comfort in the Unknown

"Faith means living with uncertainty—feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark."
by : 

Dan Millman

October 1, 2012

Ann was behind the counter of her book and gift shop. A steady stream of customers had been flowing along nicely all day. Ann loved days like this when she was in a groove. These were the times she felt a joyous sense of purpose in her activities and most present and connected to her customers.

Along with these pleasant feelings, though, was something else—something lurking just on the periphery of her good mood, a kind of vague uncertainty, a tentativeness. Had she forgotten a friend’s birthday? No, she knew this had nothing to do with a friend’s birthday. She was clear about that. No, this was about her store. Later, while quietly eating lunch, she suddenly knew. For a while she had been feeling she needed to make a change in her store, a rather significant one, but she was not quite certain whether she should move forward with it. So, she had done what we’ve all done when we’re uncertain—she busied herself with other thoughts and tasks.

Ann’s intuition was becoming more insistent, though, and it was gathering strength against her avoidance. Her intuition—that still, small voice inside—kept tugging at her to rearrange a portion of her store to create a quiet reading and meditative space for her customers. Ann’s customers frequently remarked how they loved coming into her shop because it had such a calm feel. She thought a quiet space would give them a place to linger in that calm energy a bit longer. Perhaps she could even bring in a small table and set up a little tea bar.

She also had noticed that her customers with young children—children who often became quickly bored with mom’s grown-up shopping—needed some time and space to wander the aisles. A quiet area where children could occupy themselves with toys and books would help all her customers fully experience the calm ease her shop encouraged. Perhaps customers would shop a little longer and purchase a few more items, too. These new spaces seemed like a very good idea. So, why was she delaying?

Quiet space might be a very nice addition to her store, but she wasn’t fully sure. It could negatively impact her business in ways she wasn’t aware of. And she had questions she didn’t know the answer to: Would customers feel awkward just sitting quietly in her store? Would children become too noisy gathered together while their parents shopped? When would she know whether the areas were paying off?

Ann had been going back and forth for a long time and her uncertainty was starting to wear on her. She was stuck, and her swirling thoughts were leading her further away from a viable solution. So, what do you do when you just don’t know what to do? I’d like to share a few things I have found helpful when uncertainty has me stymied.

Finding clarity

First, I remind myself that confusion is simply a state our minds fall into. Most of us more than occasionally have strong attachments to things going our special way. We may even feel the very life of our business depends on things going our way. We enjoy a deep level of security when things unfold as we envision they should. When, as often happens, things don’t go the way we hoped, we lose our confidence that we have a handle on the future; we realize that now we are not so sure what’s going to happen. This state of “not knowing,” this uncertainty, can be very scary to the mind. Our minds strongly resist the experience of not-knowing and will revert to a state of confusion. In this space, our minds are not really accomplishing anything, they’re just spinning, like a hamster in an activity wheel, getting us nowhere.

“Not knowing” is not the real problem. Rather, it’s our relationship to “not knowing” that is causing the difficulty. It’s our resistance to not knowing, our disapproval of it, that hooks the mind. Most of us learned this as children. We were rewarded for knowing our schoolwork, whereas we suffered consequences for not knowing the right answers. What developed is a fear of “not getting it right.” The mind will grasp onto possible solutions while also being fearful that any solution we choose may not be the one-and-only right one.

I often remind myself that, in fact, I really don’t know what ultimately is the best thing at all times. As a shopkeeper myself of more than 11 years, I have made many decisions I thought were perfectly sound that ended up not panning out as I had hoped. We all know mistakes are part of our human journey, and reminding myself often of this simple fact helps quiet my fear of making mistakes.

The solution? Practice being comfortable with uncertainty. One helpful trick is to quietly think, “Can I allow myself to simply not know what to do regarding this situation? Can I allow myself to just be confused?” This relaxes the mind’s tendency to grasp at control. Also, attention is a powerful mind tool. Whatever you place your attention on will expand in your awareness. Focus on “I don’t know” or “This is a problem” and that doubting energy will grow in your mind. Quietly allow yourself to be in a state of not knowing, and you will move into a gentle, relaxed relationship with the unknown, a place where conflicted, grasping energy subsides.

When you can allow yourself to feel as you do, your innate knowing has the space to surface. How many times have you wrestled with something for a long time and, out of sheer mental exhaustion, gone for a walk or watched a movie or engaged in some other activity that gave you respite? When you stopped focusing on the stubborn issue at hand, did some clarity suddenly show up in your awareness? This is the clarity that waits patiently for you in a calm, spacious mind.

Separating from confusion

Another tool to create calm spaciousness is simply to acknowledge the confusion you’re experiencing. Here’s how: Slowly take in and let out a deep breath and think, “Confusion is present.” This statement, in place of “I am so confused! I don’t know what to do!” creates a little separation from the mind’s state of confusion. We begin to understand that confusion is an experience we are having, rather than something we are. This creates a different relationship with our state of mind. Now the confusion becomes more like a coat we are wearing—a coat we can take off.

Like other new skills, practice helps. The mind likes to resist new ways of functioning. Know that this approach of quietly acknowledging and allowing what you’re feeling gets easier with repeated applications. When you find yourself, like our friend Ann, feeling unsure, take a few long breaths and allow yourself the kindness of resting in the comfort of not knowing.

David A. Cronin is a spiritual coach, writer, lecturer and the owner of Changing Times Books and Gifts in West Palm Beach, Fla. He has been teaching meditation and spirituality since 1974.