Uncertainty and anxiety are a package deal. You’ve felt it before—waiting to hear back after a job interview, not knowing where you’ll be living in a year, wondering what you’re going to study in school. These experiences bring infinite questions that make it impossible to just relax and enjoy life. How do you overcome that need to know? How do you let go of knowing?
Thomas McConkie’s Mindfulness+ podcast tackles this question from a spiritual perspective. This article is a review of the episode “Letting Go of Knowing,” which you can listen to for free on the Skylight app. Whether you’re new to meditation or you have a thriving spiritual wellness practice, Mindfulness+ can increase your spiritual sensitivity and help you connect to your innermost self. The host is a mindfulness trainer and spiritual leader, and each episode shares wisdom along with a guided mindfulness practice. Keep reading to learn how to let go of knowing and live a life with less anxiety.
Unknowing as a Moving Target
One thing that is certain is that uncertainty isn’t going anywhere. You’ll have to deal with it for the rest of your life. The good news? This podcast episode gives you an effective way to deal with uncertainty using mindfulness. In the podcast, Thomas refers to this uncertainty as the “unknowing”. He defines unknowing as a moving target:
“There's always a question, there's always the unknowing. And we tell ourselves, we just wanna know this thing, if we knew this one thing, it'd be okay. And sometimes in life, we actually get to know it. And the moment we get to know it, the mind inevitably fixates on a new object of unknowing.”
The basic concept is this: You think that solving the unknowing will make everything okay. You think that you won’t feel so anxious about the future anymore. So you look forward to the day that you will finally have an answer—except you get the answer, and then moments later, your mind is already latching onto another question. Your answer only brought more questions. Thus, unknowing is a moving target. It’s not possible to nail it down and shut it up.
Personal Experience: Letting Go of Knowing
Thomas demonstrates the concept of unknowing as a moving target with his own recent experience of applying to go back to school. At first, he felt like he could deal with the uncertainty easily, since he’s a seasoned mindfulness practitioner. But then something happened that he wasn’t expecting. Read the transcript here:
“I had this idea, maybe even inspiration, that there was a topic that I wanted to study really deeply. So, I decided I am going to go back to school at my ripe age of 41 years old. I looked at programs, I found one I really liked, I applied, and proceeded to hurry up and wait for almost an entire year from that moment that I decided I'm gonna do this thing.
“For the first, oh, I don't know, say 9 or 10 months, I thought, ‘Yeah, I got a good mindfulness practice going here. There's this big question in my life—I don't know if I'll get into this program—and if I do, it will change my life and my family's life really significantly. And the prime directive, I'm just going to be clear about where I'm feeling that unease, where I'm feeling that queasiness, where I'm feeling that anxiety in my body. I'm going to observe it with great precision, I'm going to have equanimity with it and allow it to be there, rinse and repeat.’
“So I have done this many a time over the last year, and I noticed a distinct shift in the unpleasantness of the unknowing the last month, the last four weeks, of my life. It just, it's like the universe ratcheted it up. The intensity got more intense and it was, like really, game on. And I stayed with the prime directive, more equanimity, more mindfulness, open awareness, yada, yada. Just a few days ago, I get an email: that email, admissions decisions, they're out. And it so happens in this case, I got the news that I was hoping for at the level of personality, I got accepted.
“So, all at once, a year of unknowing, this intense volume of experience, it's like this bubble that just popped open. Finally, that thing I didn't know—will I get into school and will I move my family across the country come fall 2022? The answer: yes, you will. You're going to school. Wonderful, finally, that itch that I just couldn't scratch. I needed to know something and finally, now, I know it. Problem solved, everything's great, right?
“Oh, but you know better 'cause you are a mindfulness practitioner. And the moment I knew, or, let's say, maybe four moments after I knew, there were a good three counts of like, ‘Oh, this is amazing, I'm so happy.’ And then four moments later, I start to think, ‘Oh man, I've never moved across the country. I've never moved a family across the country. Where am I gonna live? Whoa, whoa, not only where am I gonna live during school, where are we going to live as a family after school?’”
In Thomas’s experience, when his one big question was answered, a ton of other questions took its place almost instantly. So maybe the fight shouldn’t be about eliminating uncertainty, but instead about knowing how to deal with it. The next section discusses how to let go of knowing.
Let Go of Knowing By Embracing Uncertainty
The answer to unknowing, according to Thomas, is to let go of the idea of knowing. Accept that you will never know everything, and learn to deal with the emotions that come with that unknowing. Think of the anxiety that comes with uncertainty (not clinical anxiety, but the emotion of anxiety that all of us feel from time to time) as a sign of being alive, instead of something to drive away. Essentially, learn to embrace uncertainty. He says:
“The invitation here is to let unknowing just remain a moving target and consider letting go of the fantasy that you're ever gonna throw a dart right at the bullseye of that target and, once and for all, are gonna know everything you ever need to know.”
How do you do that, though? It’s so much easier said than done. Lucky for you, Thomas leads a mindfulness mediation in the podcast episode for just this purpose: letting go of knowing. We’ve copied the transcript into the next section (although listening to the podcast and letting yourself be guided through the meditation is an incredible experience, we’d definitely recommend it!).
Mindfulness for Letting Go of Knowing
Wherever you are, right now, resolve to give yourself completely to this mindfulness practice. It’ll take less than five minutes, and your body, mind, and spirit will thank you for carving out some sacred time for yourself.
“Settle in. Let the body organize into a posture that allows you to be very awake, but also relaxed. Feel the ground beneath you, the support of the ground beneath you. Let the spine be straight. The breath drop into the belly. Stay with us for a moment. Deep belly breathing. There's a certain stillness, a peace in the body that just is for no reason. The body and expression of nature knows how to rest.
“From this place of stillness and rest, go back in your mind 10 years. Call up where you were in life 10 years ago and recall, what was a question? Something you didn't know the answer to at the time that you really wanted to know the answer to. Something in your life, an uncertainty. Go back to that time. Where were you in the world? Where did you live? Who were you with? How did you feel in the body at that time? What were the feelings present in your heart, the thoughts in your mind?
“Life was rich then as it is now, but I want you to focus on 10 years ago. Anything that was making you anxious, something you didn't know about. What was uncertain in your future at the time? Yeah, that's it. Call it up in the body, remember what that felt like. You don't have to interpret it, you don't have to understand the sensation. Just using your memory, your capacity to visualize, call up a flavor of that anxiety, that uncertainty in the body as it lived in you 10 years ago. Reacquaint yourself with that embodied experience. Presumably, 10 years later, right now, you know a little more about that question than you did 10 years ago. Maybe not. If not, stay with the uncertainty, stay with the anxiety, the unknowing, by all means. But if you did live into the answer to that question, feel the way in this moment that that peace, that knowing, has already given rise to a new question, a new inquiry, a new source of uncertainty, a seemingly new source of uncertainty.
“In other words, what is it now in your life right now, what don't you know, that you would love to know? And if you just knew it, you'd tell yourself that you would finally stop being anxious and you could relax and you could make a few plans. Pick one thing—it might be many things—pick one. Pick the one that makes you the most anxious in this moment. You don't know, but you tell yourself, you need to know, if only I knew. And now I want you to drop the content, drop the story, quit pretending like this thing you don't know the answer to is actually the source of your anxiety. Quit telling yourself that you're only anxious because of this one thing and just be anxious for no reason. Anxious not in a pathological sense, anxious in the way of open unknowing excitement. Anxious in the sense that as we start to be more honest about how radically open reality is, we realize we have no idea what's happening on so many levels and that freaks the mind out. It freaks the personality out. So we race to come up with plans, contingencies, what can we control? Don't do it.
“Stay open, relax in the body and feel this aliveness. Expose to the radically open nature of reality. Stay here. Maybe even try doing it with a half smile. Of course, the mind is going to find problems but at the level of naked raw sensation, is there any evidence of a problem in this moment? Sure, it would be nice to know when the pandemic is finally over. Sure, it would be nice to know if I should invest in real estate or wait another couple years or whatever else. And feel how stable you actually are here, on the ground of being itself. Whatever you actually need to know will be provided in the moment.”
How do you feel? Thinking back to ten years ago gives you some necessary perspective. Consider how you’ll reflect on this time of your life, ten years from now. Which questions are eating away at you? What unknowing are you trying to solve? This is your sign to let go of knowing, and enjoy life’s beautiful uncertainty.