Hanging Out in the Unknown

Every year at the winter solstice, the rising sun illuminates the interior of Newgrange, the prehistoric monument in County Meath on the northeast coast of Ireland. I can just about hear the sighs of relief of those who gathered on this windy, cold hill nearly 5,000 years ago as they saw the sign that longer, lighter days were returning. So great is the human need to know, to be certain, that prehistoric people in the northern hemisphere built huge monuments so they would know when days would start to become more filled with light and they could start to plant their crops.

The need for certainty is expressing itself in a very different way today in the Presidential primaries. Candidates putting forth “right answers” confidently, even combatively, are winning in the polls. Even the polls themselves are symptomatic of the need to know. Who is winning? Who is losing?

In our need to know, to be certain about what is what, we can get trapped into thinking in terms of right/wrong and either/or. We rush to find to solutions before we really understand the problem we want to solve or have figured out what we want to achieve by solving it.

For many of us, being in the unknown is not the most comfortable place to be. And, yet, when we tackle tough issues, the unknown is exactly where we need to hang out. Our meetings need to include long pauses, “I don’t know’s,” and both/and thinking (“What if the root cause for this issue is all of these elements, not just the two we are debating?”)

By now, you’d think we’d be calmer in the face of uncertainty and the unknown since we live in it every day. Although we have our schedules and to-do list’s, it seems our days rarely proceed as planned. Still, the older parts of the brain would like things to be more predictable and known.

In order to tackle complex issues, we need to be able to manage the anxiety we feel in the midst of the unknown. For insights to emerge, we need to notice and calm this fear so we can find efficacious ways forward.

According to brain research summarized by David Rock in “Your Brain At Work,” insight comes more readily to people who are aware of their internal experience and who can observe and change their thinking. It is difficult to be aware when we are anxious. Too much activity in the brain’s survival mechanisms means not enough in the medial prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that becomes active just prior to insight.

One way to help us manage anxiety is to practice being mindful. This activates the prefrontal cortex of which the medial PFC is a part; quiets the limbic area that is the seat of anxiety; and increases our ability to be aware of our internal experience including body sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

When we get anxious because we don’t know something, let’s avoid prematurely declaring a victory before we understand the issue at hand, land on a solution, or agree on what we want to achieve. Let’s practice noticing the fear we feel remembering that this is only a part of who we are. We are larger than our fear. We can notice it and choose to abide with uncertainty until insights come.

Insight is a knowing that comes with a “YES” in our bodies, minds, and hearts. Perhaps this is the same “YES” that those prehistoric people felt 5000 years ago when the sun illuminated the interior of Newgrange.

T.S. Elliot encouraged us to hang out in the unknown when he wrote: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

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