Don’t know and that is OK

Category : Asanas (Postures), General advice, Philosophy 8th January 2021

Inside Yoga 313 (8/1/2021)

Adopting a posh voice: “This pandemic is going on an awfully long time and it is simply not very satisfactory,” is perhaps what most of us are saying, albeit in a different way! After all, we just want to know: “when will the pandemic end?”. But how do we cope with not knowing the answer?

It is normal to keep questioning, doubting, feeling fear, and not knowing what to expect from the year we have just had and the year ahead. So what can we do to keep ourselves going, and maintain our own well-being?

During these times of uncertainty and unanswered questions, I keep thinking it is like the question and the inconclusive answer in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For those who do not recall or have not heard of this story, in the book humanity asked what is the “ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything?”; after a millennia, the supercomputer Deep Thought revealed the ultimate answer to be 42; so the humans now sought the ultimate question answer to life, the universe and everything.

Leaving aside the satire of Adams’ books (a trilogy in five parts, to give you an idea); there is an approach to our need for answers which can help us on a daily basis. When I did a three-month silent meditation retreat, back in 1998, towards the end I admitted to my teacher (who I saw twice a week for a short catch up) that the more I practiced the more I realised I simply did not know.

He looked me and in a quiet, but direct Zen-like comment, said: “Good”.

You could say that I had an epiphany there and then. And if you recognise this story it is because it is something I often mention and write about, because acceptance of not knowing is an important lesson in life.

Life is filled with paradoxes. We learn and seek knowledge, because it helps us live our lives as best we can, and learning is valuable and must never stop, but what happens when we reach a brick wall and realise we don’t know the answer, or know the cause, or simply, we just don’t know? Do we surrender to not knowing?

This can be very frustrating. And this is where we are right now with the Covid-19 pandemic. We really want to know when our lives will return to what we remember being normal. We want answers from the politicians (good luck there, because it is not in their nature to answer anything directly), and we want the scientists to give us facts and importantly a date when we will be free again to do what we want (and they cannot deliver this answer, because understandably, they work on probabilities, which don’t look good right now), and add to this we turn to the news which does what it can to tell us what is happening and offer analysis (which I do find useful), and then we get the chatter on social media which can be misleading and filled with wild theories which so many people latch on to eager for an answer.

All of which points to our human nature, which wants answers; and when answers do not match our expectations or beliefs then this can be tough. Holding onto to a believed answer, however unrealistic, just because we must hold onto something is not necessarily healthy for our well-being (or that of others).

I want us to return to the idea of not knowing and to see if we can become more comfortable with this? In meditation this is an important part of our practice and one that strengthens our ability to cope with life’s challenges – and what a challenge we currently have!

This approach asks us to surrender and (importantly) accept that we cannot control everything (or very much) which happens in our lives or around us; and that we do not always have an answer. At some point we need to let go, and allow ourselves to live with uncertainty, and feel fine with this.

I would like to add that I believe that it is important to remain engaged and in contact with what is happening, and not to stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich. To be informed and aware of what is happening is helpful because as much as we would like to live separate and isolated lives we are interconnected with all around us.

This pandemic has shown how interconnected we really are. We all know what the major story is at present, even if our views of it differ. We are living in a connected world. And being so connected comes with the added risk of feeling sucked into all the stories and events, and this can feel overwhelming at times.

We need to look after ourselves as well as others. Compassion in Buddhist terms is a concept which asks and trains us to have an open heart and feel the suffering in the world (and our own), but it also shows us techniques how to preserve our own sense of self and well-being, so that we have the strength and ability to help others (and ourselves too).

We need to look after ourselves during this difficult period, and letting go of having all the answers and embracing not knowing will help.

At times we will be shaken off our seat of stability and knowing, and this is when our practice really works. Yoga has techniques which help us get back up and also helps us to get rid of the emotional and psychological stuff we do not need in our lives. Picture yourself carrying a backpack, which contains all your worries and concerns, and it keeps growing in size.

Practice, whether it is a mix of physical exercises (yoga asanas) and meditation (dhayana), or just meditation, can help us with this daily burden. See our yoga practice as an act of getting rid of what we do not need in our life – worry, anxiety, fatigue being just some of the negative states we can feel; like emptying our backpack after a journey.

This is a method, not an answer in itself. The exercises are the tools which help us re-balance our equilibrium, but they are not the answer in themselves. Having trust in our yoga practice helps us, and by working methodically through the exercises produces the results, and without thinking about our goals or problems.

In other words, we ignore and we block out our thoughts (negative and positive) during practice so we can heal ourselves. Then afterwards we are better placed to cope with what our world is challenging us with – whether it is questions about Covid or simply keeping our family happy and healthy.

The truth is yoga does not remove the situations we might face but it does prepare us and help us cope.

Hence the image of a backpack of burden, because as we start it is heavy but at the end of the practice it is lighter if not empty, giving us the strength and ability to keep going with our trek through life.

But as we all know, it is does not stay empty, it keeps filling up, so we repeat our practice, again and again. It is all part of our journey.

Remember, it is OK not knowing.

And if you recall me talking about this before, it is because we need reminders about what is important. These paradoxical and existential questions in life can be understood on an intellectual level quickly but take much longer to understand on an experiential level. Hence we keep practising, and looking within.

Previous articles on this and related topics:

Not knowing, conspiracy theories, beliefs and certainty:
Worrying about the future:
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