Nobody Knows: Using the Present to Help Us Through the Stress of an Uncertain Future.
Today I'm really enjoying Austin Kleon, a great writer and artist from Austin, Texas.
At the moment I'm reading his post, Nobody Knows Anything.
In it, he writes about this article in The Atlantic, on How To Stay Calm in the Pandemic.
It's worth reading both posts on their own, but they made me think about how considering risk and uncertainty were both important mindfulness practices.
One of the most important lessons I was taught early on in my meditation training was the importance of 'not-knowing'. There are lots of ways of conceptualising/thinking about this but the easiest way to demonstrate it is a simple question:
Take a moment and think about the next five years. What will happen? Where will you be? What will you be doing? Jack Kornfield has a great way of looking at this.
The reality is that although we can make plans and predications, we can't really know where we'll be over time. That might seem obvious during a pandemic, but that doesn't stop the monkey mind from trying to find some certainty by Knowing Things by Building Up A Lot of Information.
In his article in the Atlantic, Arthur C. Brooks writes about a colleague who was struggling with uncertainty:
She is mistaking uncertainty for risk. Uncertainty involves unknown possible outcomes and thus unknowable probabilities. Risk involves known possible outcomes and probabilities that we can estimate. Risk is not especially scary, because it can be managed—indeed, risk management is the core business of the insurance industry. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is scary, because it is not manageable: We can’t measure the likelihood and impacts of the unknowable
Especially in times of big uncertainty, it's natural for us to react to not knowing by trying to learn all the information we can. I did this myself at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. I had an unhealthy Twitter habit. Don't get me wrong, it was good to follow the science, work out my own personal risk level (I was a bad asthmatic as a child, my lungs are a bit susceptible even today).
But, as my teacher pointed out, I was only making more and more anxiety for myself by following more than I needed to. By getting more information than I needed to keep myself safe, know where to go for updates, and know how to talk to people like my parents about their risk category and how to be safe.
Why was I doing all this? Because, at some inner level, I wanted to have some kind of control of what was going on. That was, of course, totally impossible. So I was substituting knowing things and constantly consuming information. I was falling out of not-knowing.
To be clear, not-knowing doesn't mean stay ignorant. Far from it. But it also means that the most important thing we can do is to stay in the present moment as much as we can.
Working with a mindfulness practice, we can see and be aware that the current crisis has heightened our inability to know what's coming next.
We can sit with that and be kind and gentle to our feelings, our thoughts. We can take a moment to be a little more flexible with what we think we need, what we believe we need, the stories we tell ourselves about what should be happening.
We can also see what's happening right now, before our eyes, in our life, instead of being taking down a Twitter rabbithole, projecting into a daydream (or a nightmare) about a future that isn't happening yet and may never will.
And that might mean we see the people in front of us, and our loved ones, a little differently. We can take care of those people, and ourselves, just by doing what we need to be content and okay right now, in this moment.
And that's how we step from being mindful of how things are and how we feel into being compassionate to ourselves and others: wishing well for ourselves and others, and doing what we can right now. Because this is the moment we have.
There are lots of ways we can structure our days to keep us focused.
Ending where we started, Austin Kleon has some good ideas.
I find it helpful to have a similar routine every morning (although, sometimes, I don't stick to it). Meditation has a key role for me every morning. So does taking time out for journaling. If you find it a little difficult to journal regularly, try The Artist's Way, which is a great program whether or not you consider yourself an artist. You might surprise yourself.
Also, you can focus your journaling to contribute to your mindset and developing gratitude and a positive framework. Asking yourself what you're grateful for, what you feel right now, even making notes of what you see and hear and feel in the present, all ground you and help you to stay present and not be pulled into other places, other thoughts, other times.
We know that we have this moment. It makes the most sense to live in it, as much as we can. For me, that's still a work in progress. But we can do a lot every day to loosen up our worries and attachments about what might happen, and find moments of connection, satisfaction, and even calm, within ourselves in the present moment.
(Photo on this post: Carlos de Miguel via Unsplash)