When I embarked on this journey of befriending the world of I don’t know I had no idea how deep or vast this ocean would be. If I had known, that after more than ten years (well, maybe a life time!) of learning to stay present to myself when the anxiety of I don’t know raises its head, that after all this time I will only feel like I’ve just been dipping my toe in, I may have refused this journey. Fortunately perfect vision is only granted us in hindsight and often we undertake journeys with anticipation and delight, …or in this case, get thrown off the edge when we hesitate too long. This journey of mine of staying present to the I don’t know mind certainly did not start off gently. But then it never has been a gentle experience. I went hurtling over the edge to find myself swimming in its vast ocean. Of all places, at a conference. My first international conference. So pleased I was, and how grown up I finally felt, to have found something I thought was worth all the effort it took rearranging work, life, children, to attend. The very first CFM Conference in Worcester. A complete novice to mindfulness and meditation I was, but had felt an unarticulated pull to be right there that I had never felt before. What a conference it was. More of a meditation workshop over four days with some exciting research sprinkled in. I encountered my first yoga session (three hours with Jon), introduction to walking meditation (seemed more like penguin walking to me at the time as the room was so jam packed with people), but also a place where I could finally learn to make some space for the I don’t know mind that I had been fleeing from for so many years.
Meet the I don’t know mind I did, as well as the yearning of many years to connect my head to my heart. Little did I realise that connecting the head to the heart necessitated breaking open the heart that had defended itself against all things threatening. Including the I don’t know. It showed up though. When all was going well, and I thought I was in the clear. Feeling comfortable and welcomed. On the very last day. A teaching from one who would become a cherished mentor and teacher. And lingered long with me through out the journey back home. One of my colleagues from home who witnessed the exchange commented on “the privilege of having an individual teaching moment!” Well yes. Perhaps. I was taught all about the surprise of unexpected guests showing up. I was learning to just notice my feelings and sensations during that particular breakout session in a foursome. Going around the group, each one having a turn to answer the question- “What do I do when I don’t know what to do?” The instructions were just to listen. Pure attention. No head nodding or interacting, or agreeing with etc. To my mindful meditation novice brain this felt unnatural. No welcome or connection in the interaction. As we went around I was being attentive to body sensations – body tension rising, feeling defended, facial muscle tension increasing and mask like qualities descending and the arriving guest of I don’t know. “I don’t know what to do when I don’t know what to do.” My reactivity transported me many years earlier into stressful medical orals and with stony faced examiners sitting across the table from me and that moment of brain freeze and I don’t know. It had been so unexpected this experience and to be so overwhelmed by it, yet again, and for some inexplicable reason I put up my hand in the feedback session. Very unlike me. To speak of this in public, so exposing. My voice cracked, my eyes teared, and I wanted to withdraw. But the teacher, used the occasion. Inquiring. Something I had yet to learn about. That it was not synonymous with inquisition. He said, to my mind dismissively – “But that is just a memory.” Then paused, and asked. “Given that memory, what do you do?” I replied hesitantly, not quite understanding, “I do no different. I follow the parameters set out in the exercise.” He asks, “What is that, what happens there? In the memory, in the doing?” The room is pin drop quiet. The center point of unwanted attention. The quiet stretches out, the moment goes on and on, reaching deep for “What happens there….?”, and as he turns away from the ever extending moment, I speak, and he turns back, “I know what happens there. I know what I do now. Now, I just admit that I don’t know and the physiology resolves itself”, and he nods and moves on. So simple, and in that moment everything broke open. Including my heart.
So now more than ten years on I am presented daily, moment by moment, with the I don’t know mind. From myself, as I query how to stay this course of my life one step at a time. From my patients and their families facing life threatening events and wanting reassurance of comfort or hope. From my dear friend I had lunch with today who twelve years after the death of her daughter still feels her loss as raw and present at times as before. From my daughter with her JIA and ever increasing joint involvement wondering about the journey ahead. Even the question as I sit here into the night of “will the hypnotic african drumming and singing from the neighbors ever come to an end tonight?” In these moments of wondering all I can do is accept that I don’t know. And that is all there is to know. And in this knowing I can be present to whatever arises, no matter how difficult, and in so doing bring courage, compassion, and presence to this moment. Just as it is. I may not always manage all of it today, or even every day. But I can, as can you, gently, slowly, one breath at a time, put a toe in the vast ocean of I don’t know. Get our feet wet and eventually wade in over our heads. It may be like the ever present drumming tonight. At times it stops and the pull of the rhythm ceases. And then it starts up again, as does my response, but I know that in time it may stop again. I don’t need to know when. I can trust it will.
It’s a simple truth. When you don’t know. You don’t know. But one we find hardest often to acknowledge. Be with this truth as gently and as courageously as you can and perhaps discover what happens when the heart breaks open into this life of being with it just as it is. One footstep at a time.
And in this moment the drumming stops and all is quiet. For now.
Angeles Arrien states it best in her book The Four Fold Way – Walking the paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary. Simplicity itself.
Show up and choose to be present.
Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
Be open, not attached, to outcome.