How to Get Comfortable Not Knowing

The unknown

When I sit down to write an article for Raptitude, I always try to pick a topic that I can resonate with at that particular time.  I’ve got a folder full of great ideas for posts.  At any given time, I’m only in the right headspace to write something decent about maybe ten percent of them.  The topic has to match how I feel or else it’s just talk.

I write about gratitude when I’m feeling grateful, I write about reverence when I’m feeling reverent, and I write about misery when I’m feeling miserable.

I’m in a difficult place at the moment, and so most of my thoughts are about a particular type of difficulty.  My lease is up at the end of this month so I have to be out, and I’m having trouble finding a new place to live.  I can’t sign a new lease because I’ll be gone traveling this fall.  I’m scrambling to find a decent home within my budget in a decent neighborhood.  I don’t know what will happen, where I will go, only that I can’t remain where I am.

Things will work out I’m sure, but there is an ever-present sense of uncertainty, all night and all day.

Home

I’ve often complained about the place I live in now.  The scummy, stapled-on vinyl baseboards, the nicotine-stained linoleum floor and the worn-out carpet have often had me aching for something better.

But as I’m sitting here now, it’s looking more and more beautiful and welcoming.

It’s full of my things, just the way I like them.  My music is playing, my coffee is brewing.

This is my home.

And in three weeks some strange girl will be living in it, stocking my cupboards with her foreign groceries and inviting her weird friends into my living room.  She’ll be flicking on lightbulbs I replaced, and drawing the blinds hung by my now-deceased father.

It is an unsettling feeling to know that she has every right to do that, because in a very cold and businesslike moment last month, I signed and handed in a form that willingly terminated my tenancy.  This tiny act was a scheduled part of my plan to unhook my standing commitments and leave for New Zealand unfettered.  It had to be done.

But I did not realize until now that in that simple transaction, I had unceremoniously surrendered my home, as if it were just another item on my to-do list to be crossed off and put behind me.

Now that I’ve signed it away, I’m starting to realize how lucky I really was.  A safe and comfortable home.  A luxury bed, a fridgeful of food, air conditioning, furniture that actually matches, running water, flushing toilet — a roachless and rodentless haven.  Many people, locally and abroad, struggle for just a chance at such a stable and secure home.  Some people have never had one.

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To have 500 square feet of secured space, dedicated to one’s own personal comforts and pursuits, protected by dependable locks and laws, is an incredible luxury that most of history’s human beings would have done anything for.

Tonight, after a nervewracking day of unreturned calls and dying leads, I’m finally beginning to appreciate how wonderful it is to be sitting in here tonight.  I’m warm, dry and safe.  If there is anything worth remembering it’s this: as long as you’re warm, dry and safe, things can’t be too bad.

Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in grasping at the upper stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that we lose sight of the fact that most of what we modern human beings fret over is just the icing on the cake.  It’s too easy to take food, water and shelter for granted, because most of us have seldom been without them for long.  But when the source of one of them is threatened, and you don’t even have that sturdy bottom layer to stand on anymore, then it’s all you can think about.

Unknownaphobia

Uncertainty is not allowed
to sit with me these days.
I shoo him from the table,
but then I hear him
pacing in the hallway.

-D. Cain, c. 2008

It’s tempting to want to eliminate the stress of need by settling on something, even of it’s only tolerable or temporary.  This week I almost settled on a living situation that I knew wasn’t right for me, just to kill the feeling of uncertainty that invariably comes with not knowing where one’s home will be next month.  Settling like that has always been a weakness of mine, and I’ve done it in so many ways, from taking the first job I get offered, to going out with the first girl who asks me, to picking the first ice cream flavor I don’t hate so that nobody is tapping their foot waiting for me.

During junior high, I began to opt out of any form of competition, in sports and academics, because I noticed I felt very little stress when I already knew the reward wasn’t coming my way.  I left scholarships uncontested, even if I had a better shot than anyone.  I just always wanted to obliterate uncertainty as soon as possible.  When faced with a tough decision, I’d rather settle for something with predictable consequences and start dealing with them immediately, than choose something unknown and continue to worry about what the consequences could be.

This time around, I’ve surprised myself with my ability to stay level headed, even as I advance further towards my deadline.  I’m starting to see this ordeal as a lesson in one of the greatest life skills of all: how to get comfortable not knowing.

The sensation of urgency, like I’ve been feeling this last few weeks, seems to tell the mind and body that something is just plain wrong, and it is not okay to relax until it’s resolved. It feels like you’re sinking, and it’s positively imperative to scramble to the next patch of firm ground, whatever direction it may be in.  Once you get there, you can let yourself breathe.  Ahh.  And life is good again.

There are two clear problems with this.

The first is that no ground is firm for long.  No lease lasts forever, no set of conditions stays the same forever.  By the very nature of the universe, one’s situation cannot not change.  Stability and security are ultimately illusions; to ‘reach’ either one is only to achieve that temporary high of relief, but you can never actually capture and own ‘relief.’  It’s just a passing feeling.  You don’t have to be a Buddhist master to understand that permanence doesn’t exist on this earth, and to depend on any form of it is to invite suffering into your life.

The second problem is this: when you’re constantly moving towards some kind of firm ground — whether it’s the nearest tolerable apartment, the nearest tolerable job, or the nearest tolerable significant other — you don’t know what direction it’s going be in.  The most visible or accessible patch of safe ground could be off to the side or even behind you.  If it happens to be in the direction you wanted to go anyway, that’s only a coincidence.  A lifetime of this strategy results in a path that only goes in aimless circles or spirals.

I used to navigate life primarily by that compass: where is the closest safe spot?  I would hold my breath until I got there, and often it was unbearable until I did.  And then I’d just be somewhere else — more comfortable than where I was, but not necessarily anywhere better.

In fact, it’s quite disturbing to take a mental inventory of where that ‘settling reflex’ has steered my life.  It’s the reason I spent three years and ten thousand dollars learning computer programming when I didn’t really want to do it for a living.  It’s the reason behind every single day I’ve spent working in careers that don’t inspire me.  It’s the reason I spent untold thousands of hours watching TV shows and conquering video games, rather than investing that time in something that would have paid off.  It’s the reason I’m only getting my proverbial sh*t together now, and not ten years ago.

Sitting Down With Uncertainty

I’m discovering that it is possible to sit with uncertainty.  It’s a skill like anything else: to let that feeling of incompleteness just be there and do its thing, without scrambling towards a remedy.  It’s no different than just letting the raindrops hit you and cool you without giving in to the urge to run for cover.

Uncertainty seems to only manifest itself as two things: recurring worrisome thoughts, and a certain tension in the abdomen.  Certainly it’s not a preferable state, but that doesn’t make it unbearable.  Uncertainty really doesn’t have any reality other than those two things, and if you can let both of them just happen without sounding the alarm bells, you might see that there’s no emergency at all.

Remind yourself that the issue in question is going to pop up in your head on a regular basis, and that will probably cause some tightness in the solar plexus.  No big deal.  This is all just the way the human machine works.  There’s no need to force a stop to it.  To panic and grasp at the nearest identifiable antidote is only going to crank up the urgency level and cause you to settle for an incomplete or inappropriate solution.  Worrisome thoughts can snowball like nobody’s business if you let them.  Calm, deliberate action will put an end to uncertainty in good time, without compromising your options or your mood.

So next time you make a decision, interrogate yourself to make sure that you are doing it because it is indeed a better choice for you, and not just because it’s the nearest patch of safe ground.  Is your career honestly a good fit for you, or is it merely comfortable enough not to spur you into action?  Is your relationship honestly headed somewhere you want to be, or is it just scary to think about moving on?  Is there anything you think you should bring up with your boss, your kids, or your spouse that you feel safer avoiding?

If your choice leads you through a period where you just don’t know what will happen, see if you can politely let uncertainty sit down with you.  Despite its bad reputation, you never know what it might bring to the table.

R

Photo by kerryj.com and eleaf.

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{ 25 Comments }

Lisis June 11, 2009 at 7:17 am

Hey, David… I definitely think most of us take our basic needs for granted, only to focus all our energy on the higher levels of the pyramid. The problem is, when the lower levels get a little unstable, it tends to threaten our higher aspirations. The key is to be comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity, knowing that the transition period is temporary (from one job or one home to another), so that your actualization goals can remain undisturbed.

Ironically, I’ve usually suffered the opposite problem you have… I get bored of safety and predictability. I kind of like the not knowing. We have bought and sold four homes in the past 7 years, and rented a few in Costa Rica. We’ve been in our current house 2 years (a record for us) and have it on sale right now… with no idea where we are headed. We just know we are ready for the next phase. Kinda weird, huh?

But you’re right… the uncertainty can be fun… you never know what new adventures it might bring! ;)

Lisis’s last blog post..Do You Believe in True Love?

Gwynn June 11, 2009 at 7:51 am

I read about a monk who has no possessions apart from his rice bowl and a spare robe. It was very interesting to see how having few possessions liberated him from a lot of the stress that everyday people feel. When he travels he doesn’t have to worry about checking in luggage or worrying if that luggage is lost. He doesn’t have to worry about his home and if his stuff’s going to be stolen. If he misses a bus it doesn’t matter because he can simply start walking to his destination. He’s able to float along wherever life takes him – I think the lack of attachment truly helps him do that.

When I read this post I wonder if a part of the anxiety you felt in giving up your apartment was due to attachment. Attachment to comfort, attachment to predictability, attachment to things the way you like them, attachment to your “home”. Most of the time you’re probably not aware of these attachments but when you’re threatened with losing them your instincts kick in to protect them.

So in addition to dealing with the anxiety with good analysis I would also suggest inspecting the root cause of the anxiety to see if it’s attachment and if that can be addressed too. (This is all much easier said than done and I’m a total hypocrite for stating all this because I’m very much attached to my life!)

Fantastic post David. I’m very much looking forward to everything you’re going to learn and share with your upcoming trip. :)

Gwynn’s last blog post..Create A Great Outdoor Space

Positively Present June 11, 2009 at 8:04 am

Excellent post! I have such a hard time dealing with uncertainty. I hate it. This post made me realize how everyone, at some point, deals with uncertainty. It’s normal and it’s okay. I just need to learn to relax and to let it be what it is. You are so brave for launching on your journey. You are going to learn so much about yourself and the world which is AWESOME!

Positively Present’s last blog post..dip your toes into the moment

David June 11, 2009 at 8:26 am

Lisis — I do enjoy not knowing too, that’s part of the reason for my trip. It will be perpetual uncertainty, at least for the first few months.

I’m anxious to find a place to live because then I’ll have a chance to get organized again. This homehunting is taking a large amount of my time and attention. I’m extremely busy to begin with, so now certain things aren’t getting done because I’m deferring them until this critical period is over.

I’m anxious to have time to write more and get my ducks in a row with regard to the trip. It’s all more or less on hold until I have a stable space to live.

Gwynn — You are definitely right; any anxiety I’m feeling is attachment.

One of my favorite movies is Fight Club, where a character blows up his apartment because deep down he realizes his ‘stuff’ defines and owns him.

It is a fine balance when we’re living in a material world. No matter how much we aspire to complete nonattachment, even a calm, well-adjusted person will still have numerous dependencies on certain possessions and circumstances that they may not even be aware of until they are threatened. Few people would be perfectly comfortable losing their car, home, income or internet connection, for example.

As far as I’m concerned attachment is always the root of anxiety, and I’ve been reminding myself to be as outcome-independent as possible. Like you mentioned, the reason Buddhist monks forsake most of their possessions is so that there is less to be attached to, which indicates that even a lifetime of mental training cannot eliminate the threat of attachment.

Author Ken Keyes, who I’ll write about someday soon, contends that almost all suffering is caused by the human tendency to be addicted to security. I think he’s right on; it’s part of our nature to cling to sources of security, and a place to live is number one in that regard.

Things will be just fine, I know that, but the human body and rational mind are still highly tuned to attachment, and anxiety can’t help but arise now and then. I’m getting much better at handling it when it does.

David June 11, 2009 at 8:33 am

Dani — Thanks Dani. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over and over it’s that the more you hate something, the more harm it does you. It’s a weird sensation, to actually allow uncertainty to hang around, if you’re used to trying to eliminate it. It’s like letting a bug crawl on you without flicking it off; the moment you realize it won’t hurt you, it ceases to be a problem.

That’s one great thing about uncertainty; you can’t help but learn about the world and yourself because you know you aren’t just walking the same territory again and again.

Daniel Edlen June 11, 2009 at 8:52 am

Wow, lots of words. Well said though!

Two things about Uncertainty come to mind:

1) Everything happens for a reason and always remember the serenity prayer; the Universe isn’t personal

2) Look to the Uncertainty Principle in physics: you can’t know where you’re going if you know where you are OR you can’t know where you are if you know where you’re going

Peace.
@vinylart

Daniel Edlen’s last blog post..Life Online

suzen June 11, 2009 at 8:54 am

Wonderful thought provoking post! A few things immediately popped into my Monkey Mind.

First was in reference to “a path that only goes in aimless circles and spirals” which describes half my life – thankfully only half! – but I settled for things the way a desperate drowning person grabs a lifeline. It was a “survival” technique from childhood (abusive) carrying over – quick, get “safe”! I now consider this part of my learning curve.

Then, I thought of my son. In the birthing process, for some totally unknown reason, he actually attempted to “resist” coming out, tried going back to the safety and known territory of the uterus. The doctor actually said to me “This kid does NOT want to be born!”

We all cling to “known” to a certain degree. I have a sense from your writing that you will bloom wherever you are planted. You are wise beyond your years.

suzen’s last blog post..Marriage in the 60′s – Just a Peek!

Kaushik June 11, 2009 at 8:55 am

Great post–you’ve described the conflict between mind and spirit so well.

I left a lucrative career three years ago to travel–that’s what intuition told me to do, but my mind didn’t like it. It was just so uncertain–things like this happen in movies and novels, not to the safe, conventional person that I used to be. I started writing books…and never looked back. That’s now, but in the transition, there were many butterflies-in-the-belly sort of feeling. With releasing, trust in the spirit builds quickly.

Kaushik’s last blog post..If you’re happy…

Frances June 11, 2009 at 9:26 am

David, this is exactly how I felt when I moved to Germany. I wanted to get out of that tiny apartment so bad, but as I was looking at the completely empty rooms, I suddenly felt like I was abandoning my home. I carried that anxiety with me until I felt settled in my new home on the other side of the world. I look back on it now and remember how it felt to not know what was going to happen next. It was killing me at the time, but I realize how wonderful it was. Once you get where you’re going, you will feel much better.

This is an inevitable part of the decision you’ve made, but once you get through it (and it will probably take a while after you’re settled in New Zealand) it will become one of the most liberating experiences of your life. Once you learn how to pack up and go anywhere, with no plans, no certainty and nothing but your luggage, you feel like you can do just about anything.

Just hang on. Trust me. You’re gonna look back at this and love it.

Frances’s last blog post..Standing on the Shore

Lisis June 11, 2009 at 10:28 am

@Suzen: I went through the same thing when my son was born, and always thought of it that way, like he just wasn’t ready to leave his safe, comfy environment. He refused to leave it for ten days after his due date! On delivery day he still put up a noble fight.

(Thanks for the trip down memory lane!) :)

Lisis’s last blog post..Do You Believe in True Love?

prayerthegate June 11, 2009 at 11:26 am

It may be you don’t want to forget the memories held there of your Father. Part of him will always be with you, the memory of his laugh, his expressions. You know you are on the right path. It sound like you are in need of an adventure and are searching for your purpose (that is the best adventure of all).

Change is always difficult, especially a large change your are going for. I can tell if I am stretching and growing at capacity because sometimes during the process, I will have dreams of falling from a cliff. The bigger the change, the higher the mountain I fall from.

You are a wise and capible man. It will all work out.

prayerthegate’s last blog post..Sieze the Day

Alex June 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

Hey David, great post! I went through something a bit similar a few months ago, I was breaking up with my girlfriend of three years and I had to also find a new place to live because we had been living together. It was hard at the time not knowing where I would live and also not having that “comfortable” feeling of having someone to share your life with. But it all worked out great! I found a great place to live with a great roommate and I love being single and having the freedom to get up and go when ever I want. I have another “comfortable” situation that I need to address and it’s my job, hopefully I will get over my fear of not knowing what might happen if I change jobs. I’m just barely putting my first step forward in a long journey of finding out my purpose, but deep down I’m extremely excited to go on that journey.
Like many others have said, you are wise beyond your years; you have a great future ahead of you. Best of luck finding your new place and on your trip to New Zealand.

Tim June 11, 2009 at 1:28 pm

David:

I enjoyed your post, especially how brutally honest that it is. I could see myself in many of the points that you brought up. First and foremost, I am in transition between jobs. I have been laid off several times in the past few years and now that I hit 40, I don’t know what is next. I could choose the more familiar path (or settle on my first job offer), but I have felt like I have been going through the motions for a while…too long.

I have some entrepreneurial ideas brewing in my head, but I am doubting myself and my abilities. I know that these opportunities could bring me more satisfaction and personal success than I’ve had in a long time. Changing careers is difficult at any age, but it feels much more difficult than it would have been if I did it ten years ago. Right now my uncertainty feels a bit paralyzing, but I know I will push beyond it and start by taking small steps.

Tim’s last blog post..DIY Learning

Sean June 11, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Finding comfort in the unknown is valuable life skill I believe. I only start to worry when I come across someone who thinks they know what will always happen.

Finding too much comfort known and safe route will lead to fear and failure eventually. The only constant in life is change!

Embrace the adventure and uncertainty of your life’s adventure!

Sean’s last blog post..Simple Single Tasking

Nadia - Happy Lotus June 11, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Hi David,

Back in 2004 when I returned from living in India for six months, I found myself in a situation that I never imagined and I no other choice but to survive. Due to that experience, I learned how to live with uncertainty. In the beginning, it was extremely tough but with time, it became very easy because I learned to see that life will always be uncertain. How do any of us know what the day will bring? We have no clue. We think we will leave home at a certain hour and be back home at a certain hour but that can change without any notice.

The lack of a home is usually when such a lesson is usually learned because it is so stark and it is immediate. However, once you survive that phase (which you will), it is the most amazing feeling. Home is not one location, it is wherever you are in the world. It is a state of mind.

By the way, one of the criticisms I get from my relatives is that my life seems so uncertain and the fact that the uncertainty does not bother me, bothers them more. So it is interesting to see how scared people become when they see someone living with uncertainty. Maybe this is happening to you so that you finally conquer this issue since you wrote about your struggles in the past regarding scholarships and so on.

Nadia – Happy Lotus’s last blog post..Quack, Quack, Quack

David June 11, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Hey, thank you everyone for the great feedback and the personal anecdotes, I love to read them.

I love how this post turned out. The night I began writing it (tuesday), I’d had a fairly frustrating day, and didn’t really feel like writing, but I sure had a lot to say on the topic of uncertainty.

But when I finished the article yesterday, I was feeling relaxed and accepting, even though I was no further along in my search. So the beginning of the post has a really frustrated tone and by the time it gets to the end my tune has totally changed. Same thing happened with my How to Keep Bad Moods From Taking You Over article.

Just to clear up any confusion, I’ve got a good handle on my uncertain situation and the feelings that pop up about it, I was just starting to crack a bit on tuesday.

I don’t have a place to live yet, but I will soon and I’m at peace with the situation.

David June 11, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Suzen — I don’t know who told me this (one of my readers?) but some psychologists believe that we all feel 100% secure only while in the womb and spend the rest of our lives feeling a security ‘deficit’ of sorts, chasing certainty and security even though it’s ultimately impossible.

Daniel —

Look to the Uncertainty Principle in physics: you can’t know where you’re going if you know where you are OR you can’t know where you are if you know where you’re going

That’s a great point. The universe has uncertainty woven into its very fabric, so how could we achieve it on the macro level. Heisenburg had me all figured out decades ago :)

Srinivas Rao June 12, 2009 at 11:05 am

Hey David,

Nice post. I myself am going through a similar situation right now because I may have to move to my parents house for a few mos. While it is unsettling to think that i’m 30 and going to go live with my parents I think your point that it has to change by its very nature is a good reminder that situations get better. I’ve been very careful to ask myself one question. What’s best that could happen?
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..What do you really want? =-.

Jared June 12, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Sometimes I scan down through these post in my reader real quick and think…. drats, another long one… let’s see what’s it about… (not just you David ;-) but this one I really connected with, as I used to be.

The feeling of uncertainty being uncomfortable, even if I’m in a bad place (emotionally, physically, etc.), at least it was a place!

I totally related to uncontested things even though I had a better shot than anyone and hating uncertainty. Sort of like either demanding to be on top of the trash heap or hiding underneath it. Or just ordering the first thing I see on the menu so people behind me won’t get upset waiting… I’ve gotten over a lot of that though the last few years.

As I’ve grown spiritually over these last few years, I continue to learn from experience, that I do NOT usually know what is best for me. In my wildest dreams, I could not have written my life store better than it has turned out once I just got out of the way.

One huge step was learning to distinguish between my wants and me needs (which is a continual struggle). Learning that my needs will always be met and my wants (desires) will never be completely satisfied.

Happiness is often equal to the amount of gratitude I have, at any given time, that my needs are being met; while sadness being equal to the degree in which I have confused my wants with my needs.
.-= Jared´s last blog ..Update 06-10-09 =-.

Carnalzen June 13, 2009 at 10:41 am

I backpacked with 16lbs of stuff. After two months I learned how much stuff is a literal and figurative burden. You can be so worried about losing it that you stop being concerned whether you’re USING it. It tethers you to places…that false sense of security. Perhaps it’s time to consider whittling things down and beginning the journey now…why wait a few more months? You’ve already begun….
.-= Carnalzen´s last blog ..House of Belonging =-.

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching June 15, 2009 at 6:07 pm

That is a great suggestion, I think, to notice what uncertainty physically feels like for you. That’s something I do with clients to cut through all of the catastrophic thinking about what might happen and see that we’re really just talking about a sensation like itching or hunger. With that in mind, it’s hard to take uncertainty so seriously.

David June 16, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Chris — That has been a huge discovery for me: learning what my body does as a result of thinking about certain things. I find that if I observe the physical sensation, I can relax it away quite easily, and the troublesome thinking usually dissolves along with it.

Linda June 4, 2010 at 5:15 am

Wow, brilliant!!! Thanks for clearing that up! ;)

Gabby June 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Thank you for posting this. Although I’ve just stumbled upon this gem of an article, I’ve been dealing with the issue of “not knowing” and at one time grew very unhappy with not knowing!

However, reading this article only confirms, how it is okay to be okay with not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow. Since graduating University only a month ago, I’m not sure what I’m doing next… and to some people that seems weird or not planned well. or dare I say, a failure!

And at one time, I would have thought those things too… but the truth is, I’m okay with not knowing.

Thanks for being open about this “awkward” moment between BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS moves in life!

Namita Joshi May 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Hi David,

I just discovered your blog today and I consider it an absolute moment of serendipity. I couldn’t stop reading your posts and started with the oldest ones. This particular one really left me feeling calm and grateful. Calm, because I have struggled to deal with uncertainty and grateful, because your profoundly simple thoughts on the same have given me so much clarity. Like the sky clearing up. A heartfelt thank you :) Love your posts… will keep coming back :)

Cheers!

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