How Does It Feel to Not Know?

Like everyone I know, I’ve tried and failed to stop thinking, talking, and now writing about the coronavirus. This week has been like watching an expensive piece of fabric methodically ripped, a piece of fabric we’ve been sitting on for a long while.

I don’t have much new to say other than something my friend and mentor, Jeff Rubin, advised me when my life seemed to be falling apart in my late 20s. Unemployed, unemployable, ill, disabled, and hemorrhaging money, Jeff said to take this turmoil as my practice, to relate fully with what’s happening right now, rather than just scrambling to get out of the frying pan.

What does that mean?

The two default patterns I’ve noticed in myself around coronavirus are denial (occasionally a useful short-term mechanism to get through a hard period, but not a wise sustained response for a pandemic) and overwhelm; I turn on the radio or jump briefly to the NY Times but I soon take a break before I start digging an underground bunker.

The hardest part is staying in between denial and overwhelm — this is the razor’s edge of what meditators call “practice.” What Jeff advised me years ago was to try and occupy the extremely uncomfortable position of not knowing what will happen next. We do this through feeling our body, our breath, being aware of our environment. Every few seconds there is a powerful tidal pull in our mind, some thought that feels important to follow, perhaps even pivotal if we could just figure it out. The training in meditation is not to deny our thoughts or ignore them, but to also keep the camera trained on this ole body and our senses.

This is not so you or I can earn points with our yoga teacher or be smug about spiritual accomplishments. Mindfulness is important because any crisis, whether it’s personal or global, reveals that we can’t ever know exactly what will happen next and that even if we are a super-capable and intelligent person, we aren’t fully in control either. Crises are destabilizing, but also revealing. In a crisis, we can’t lean entirely on thinking to get through it — our thoughts are too disordered and circular. The thinking mind doesn’t know how to grasp a situation that is unknowable. It acts like a dog chasing its own tail.

Right now (and always), we really don’t know. And deep in our brain and body, we apprehend this. Something inside us is always tuned into the uncertainty of the world. I want to be clear that I don’t think we are heading into World War Z.Filling in the space of not knowing with catastrophizing is also a projection of our fearful mind. We feel fear in the moment and our mind, which is addicted to drawing conclusions, which has a lust for certainty, spins some scenarios. What’s harder, as I mentioned, is staying with fear in the moment, noticing when that tidal pull of thinking takes us far away from right now. In a weird way, even catastrophizing is our mind trying to find certainty, trying to discern the shape of the future and finding security in creating an outcome that you can at least predict.

But from thousands of years of teachings, certainly in the Buddhist tradition, we learn that human beings thrive when they take on life one moment at a time. It’s not that preparedness is bunk; it’s smart. Just as Jeff was not telling me to forgo doctors and medicine, we should take smart precautions, but we should also not fool ourselves into thinking that we can crawl inside of a plan or strategy and live there. We can only live in the body, which is always in the present moment.

I admit, I’m a bit scared and overwhelmed now. But I’m also connected to you and my family and friends because we are in this unsettling moment together. And no one has the answer.

This, of course, is freaky. We want to grab as many people with PhD’s by their lab coats and demand to know, what the hell is going to happen? We should listen to them. They can tell us how to stay healthy and how to prevent others from getting sick. But they can’t tell us how to live.

For that we can connect with our communities, religion, personal practices, and relationships. Just remember that this current situation in which we are all seeking answers is actually the permanent state of things. No one has had, or ever will have, all the answers. Even you. So how should we be in the meantime?

* * *

As this story gets bigger and more global, it’s important that we remember our body and our attention, and that we walk around with both these things. We can’t exist entirely in the airless environment of news. We should feel what it’s like to worry, and then make the imaginative leap that others are feeling similarly vulnerable and under pressure. This is relatively easy since we are wired for empathy. When we see someone hurt or crying, we naturally feel for them. What’s required now is reminding ourselves that everyone is scared, and some, for good reason, are more scared than others.

One of the reasons why I am so committed to this practice of working with uncertainty, and why it helped me so much during a rough period of my life, is that our natural compassion and connection with others is unbound when we stop pretending we have our shit together.

In closing, be with your breath, take it one moment and one day at a time. Know that you are really not alone, even if you’re in quarantine. One thing we could all do is reach out to a friend or family member. No one ever passed a single germ through a phone call! While I certainly grasp the meaning of social distancing, what health officials are really talking about is a physical distancing. Thanks to a wide array technology (that I often grumpily disparage), we don’t have to isolate.

An additional way to connect with others and the wisdom of “not knowing” is to hop on the next Unconditional Healing virtual meeting which will take place on March 21. It’s free, easy to join, and would be a pocket of sanity in your week. Details here.

Originally published at on March 16, 2020.

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