May2020: The Wisdom of Not Knowing

by Brad on April 30, 2020

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure the just ain’t so.”  – Mark Twain

 My latest project has been to create a series of booklets, (“mini-coaching programs,” if you will) each addressing one of the major challenges facing our lives and times. Among the challenges I see are Silence, Critical Thinking, Self-Care, Conflict, Self-Awareness, and others. Not sure what form they’ll eventually take – online course, video, podcast, another book(?), [just] booklets – but I thought I’d share the essence of one of them this month, on the topic of Not Knowing. If you find yourself interested in more, let me know.

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As a species, we’ve always been filled with curiosity and wonder – about ourselves, life and our world. This aspect of our consciousness accounts for our exploration, invention, science and technology. Yet the slow creep of “acculturation” is robbing us of this spirit, leaving us more afraid of the unknown than curious. Intellectually, we see clearly: we don’t (and often can’t), know all we say we do, all we’d like to, perhaps all we need to know so as to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of life’s challenges. Yet our behavior tells a different story. Perhaps unconsciously, we resort to all manner of avoidance strategies to deal with our not knowing. We pretend we do know. We set goals, to pretend we know the outcome ahead of time. We believe there’s only “one right answer” to everything. And of course, we’re then led to judgment and divisiveness, to protect our “opinions” (it’s all they often are) against “opinions” of others. It’s futile; it’s exhausting; it’s detrimental. We hate that we don’t know. While we cling to our habits, clueless there’s another way, questioning stops; thinking stops; and learning stops. We then blame life, while the real culprit is an unconsciously adopted thought framework that drives all we do.

What if, growing up, we’d learned to see life “as it truly is,” with acceptance and non-judgment, and not as some made up story of “how we think it should be?” Well for starters, without “shoulds” nothing would seem “wrong,” so we could rekindle the creative genius that life’s inherent uncertainty asks us for. We’d be open to “many right answers,” which, of course, is the “way it is” for life’s big challenges anyway. We’d learn to listen to our personal experience to guide to our steps, not a made-up measurement or plan. And with this “culture of not knowing,” we’d release stress, fear and anxiety – of not knowing, of pretending, of fighting with life (and others). We’d be left with curiosity, wonder, a thirst for exploring the unknown, our innate power of creativity, and self-trust. Not coincidently, these define “the way it was” as a young child; we “unknowingly” allowed life to take it away.

The difference between these two views is only a thought framework – a context – a way of seeing and thinking about ourselves, life, world. We’re 100% free to choose our thoughts, so we’re just one step away from the unlimited potential the power of human consciousness offers us. And that step is one of conscious awareness, not one of more knowing, more effort, more stress, more busyness. It’s a process of self-reflection, of consciously noticing how our now-unconscious ways of seeing and thinking have constrained life’s possibility.

Given these ideas, what “consciousness” would redirect our lives? My experience suggests that the path forward is made through the cultivation of six innately human capacities. All are reclaimed with a simple practice … of consciously noticing how your thinking impacts your life today (see exercise):

  • we need awareness, to notice when we come face-to-face with our not knowing … a signal to stop and listen.
  • we need patience, to recognize old defensiveness triggers … and not be hooked by them each time.
  • we need acceptance, to realize that others’ thinking brought them to a different place than ours brought us … different, but not necessarily wrong … and that understanding someone is not the same as agreeing with them.
  • we need courage, to open ourselves to learning, not judgment, when we meet the edges of what we know.
  • we need resilience, to allow uncertainty to teach us, not limit us.
  • we need trust, to accept that, even though life is uncertain, we have what it takes to respond with confidence.

Exercise: Accepting Not Knowing, Part 1: Stop what you’re doing a 2 – 3 times each day for a few moments of quiet reflection. Recall situations from your day where you felt a “signal of not-knowing-ness.” Habituated as we are, you may not have noticed at the time; herein lies the value of replay. Look back (now) and see what was going on (then). When you didn’t know or were unsure of something, did you notice? If so, how did you respond (did you notice but deny; step back, think and learn something new; or emotionally react)? No judgment; just learning. Discovering the fear-based thoughts underneath your “not knowing” softens their constricting grasp.

Accepting Not Knowing, Part 2: Claim an hour of quiet time some evening. Ponder what you see as “big truths” in life. You might think of truths as “stances you hold,” recognizing that your stance on a topic may differ from a stance held by others. For each “truth,” name it (Ex: “I believe life is unfair.”), then examine quietly and deeply:

  • Do I hold this truth as a result of deep personal inquiry? What thinking or life experience brought me here?
  • Does my truth welcome and accept everyone without judgment/condition? (or does it shield me from them?)
  • What assumptions might I be making, perhaps without conscious awareness, that serve to support this belief on one hand, yet at the same time may limit me from seeing even larger truths?
  • How might those who see things differently answer these questions? (How did they arrive at “their” truth?)
  • If I could expand the edges of my thinking far enough to include their thinking, what dialogue might we share?

Accepting Not Knowing, Part 3:  Big questions open big possibilities. Big questions result from deep personal inquiry and reflection, both so uncommon in our society we rarely experience the underlying order in life. A few questions that may take you to new places:

  • What if my mind weren’t already made up about things? What might I discover then? (openness)
  • What if I stopped fighting, releasing the need to impose my will? What more could be possible? (acceptance)
  • What if I trusted my inner voice, allowing it to guide me instead of my age-old thought patterns? (awareness)
  • What if I didn’t have to know how it would all work out, but just know that it would all work out? (trust)
  • What if I could open to, discover, then step into the magic experience of life’s underlying order? (courage)
  • What if I could really live with these questions, every day, as a new way of being? (practice)

 

Life lessons from nature: Think about the stage on which we live. Because life is uncertain by design, changing conditions are always bringing new possibilities into view … not according to a plan or goal, but in response to natural change in the environment. In this way, nature has sustained life on earth for 4 billion years. If we were thinking, seeing and living with the capacities noted above, we’d be poised to step into possibility whenever it passed our way. (If we’re too busy trying to control things, we’d never even notice it.) That’s a big downside of living in a way that’s dependent on life’s circumstances rather than dependent on our inner power of consciousness. Nature’s lesson tells us we could do more if we could simply learn to see more. (Plus it’s way more fun.)

 

My book: Living Authentically … in a World That Would Rather You Didn’t. Its premise is simple: in the midst of a world that has lost its way, you need never lose your own. Get to know, then honor, your unique truth; the self-trust that emerges will light your way forever. Insights, perspectives, personal reflections and exercises … so you can make your life your own, not someone else’s. All you need to know here – intro, samples, purchase link – for you or as a gift.

 

A PODCAST: I was recently invited to be a guest on The Living Alive Show, a podcast hosted by Autumn Shields. I know Autumn, so it was a fun and easy exploration into “living authentically … in a world that would rather you didn’t.” If you’d like to listen, here’s a link. It’s 35 minutes long. You can sign up for her on-going programs there as well. I’m sure she’d welcome you, and that you’d gain from the experience.

 

Book of the month: Who Do We Choose To Be?, by Margaret Wheatley. Her message is powerful … simple, yet not easy … stark, yet full of hope. As individuals and as leaders, we need to use our insight and compassion to bring people together in dialogue, to evoke the humanity in all of us, to create “islands of sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas.” A bold piece for troubling times – when it was written, and now! And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985(Until the shop re-opens, you may place orders online; just send your request to MarketStreetBookshop@protonmail.com.)

 

Download May 2020 pdf

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pam Russell April 30, 2020 at 6:09 pm

Terrific newsletter, Brad, as always! Wonderful to read and ponder the questions you pose. Presenting food for thought and growth. Thanks for all the time and effort you put into these missiles. You are a treasure to us all. Stay safe! Be well! <3

Reply

Isabel Kearns May 5, 2020 at 8:52 am

I am deeply concerned that you have this vast audience and you offer no hope to the thousands of families that have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The families who have no food to put on the table for their children, the millions of children who will never get this year of education back. Yet you write about “not knowing” when this is exactly the time we need to know” in order to stay alive. You are a beautiful writer but you are off the mark.
I hope that you are safe.

Reply

Brad May 5, 2020 at 2:29 pm

Hi Isabel, and my thanks for your heartfelt comment. Three parts of my response. Please stay connected about this as you wish, either here or via email. I know it matters to you, and I promise it matters to me as well.

(1) First, I offer my deepest love, thoughts and prayers … for those who have been sick, for those who have died, for those who have helped care for all of them … and for ALL of us struggling with how to navigate this new and uncertain territory.

(2) Second, faith and hope will always help us in the face of the unknown; that’s why they’re part of our human repertoire … if only as “placeholders” … until we can know. They help us to develop trust to live strong each day even though we don’t know. As for me, I have faith (and I hope, too – as they are two different things) that we will work our way through all our trying times, including these … and find the answers we seek.

(3) Third, my article explored how uncertain life is, no matter what we would like it to be. And yes, we now may “really need to know” … in order to stay alive. Yet the fact remains: we don’t. And that was my point: what now? My “intention” was to suggest that we’ve got a pretty bad history dealing with the unknown – going way farther back than the onset of the virus. Perhaps the current crisis has put us face-to-face with our issues here. Yes, faith can help. But it doesn’t (and never can) replace knowing. My suggestion was that developing our innate human capacities (awareness, patience, acceptance, courage, resilience and trust) offer us “safe port in a storm,” in our inner world, at least. As such, they can help us deal more constructively with an outer world we can’t control, rather than come from fear, at a time when that would be easy to do.

Like you, I wish and hope for answers to our big questions. Yet right now, the answers we seek, the answers upon which our lives may depend, the answers upon which our livelihoods depend, the answers upon which our relationships may depend, the answers upon which society as we know (knew) it depend …. are answers that simply are not known. I believe deeply in the power of our consciousness to guide us through these times, given that we don’t know.

With gratitude
Brad

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Arianna Alexsandra Collins May 6, 2020 at 10:56 am

Brad, beautifully stated! Yes, when we do not know, what then? We have to find peace in the not knowing or we could lose our minds. It’s important that we breathe through this uncertainty and stay in the love and compassion. Thank you!
Blessings,
Arianna

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Arianna Alexsandra Collins May 6, 2020 at 11:13 am

Ah! Again! A world of YES! Thank you! It would be generative for us as a specie to value the unknown. We simply can’t know everything. We can’t control everything. Breathing through the uncertainty in compassion and the six capacities you listed leads to greater peace of mind. Compassion is key I think, as we work within the unknown and our fears, for “though we are all experiencing the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.”

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