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The Experience of Not Knowing

The Experience of Not Knowing

Often, I tell myself that I don’t know what to do.

And then, I feel bad about it.

In my mind, I call this experience “not knowing what to do”.

But that is wrong: that is not what this experience really is.

This experience is just me telling myself a story, so I can avoid the actual feeling of not-knowing.

I am berating myself for not knowing, and feeling bad because I don’t know.  “I should know”, I think.

  • “If I were an organized person, I would know what to do next.”
  • “If I were decisive and bold and courageous, I would just do something.”
  • “If I were a leader who got things done, I would have done everything already!”

This is the experience I have labeled in my mind as “not knowing what to do”, and it is awful.  No wonder I don’t want to do anything that involves “not knowing what to do”!

But this is not the actual experience, of actually not knowing.

The Place Without Protest

The experience of not-knowing is something else.  It’s just sitting here, not knowing.  If I feel anything, perhaps it is wondering, perhaps a bit of curiosity.  “What will I do?”  That’s an interesting question.  What if I did this one thing?  What about this other?  What would happen after that?

Not pushing for the answer, not needing to know.  Not desperately trying to figure it out, not demanding a solution to some imagined awful problem of not-knowingness.

I am just not-knowing, and it is surprisingly peaceful.

The state of actually not knowing, of accepting the simple fact – the truth that I do not know – is profoundly simple and free of stress.  In order to be upset, I have to enter into an argument, a protest against the fact.

By telling myself things should be some other way, I create a tear in the fabric of my inner reality, a rift between the truth of not-knowing, and my objection to that truth.

It’s okay to not-like not-knowing.  I can dislike the facts all I want!  What doesn’t work is to fight the fact, to insist that it should be some other way than it actually is.

If I want to get to the place on my map marked “knowing”, I have to first pass through the place called “not knowing”, because that is in fact where I am!  Insisting that I am supposed to already be at “knowing” or “doing” or “done” will not move me one inch from this spot.

The Story of Suffering

I spend a ridiculous amount of time in this sort of self-caused suffering: complaining to myself about a fact, as a way to avoid experiencing that fact.

I tell myself all day long about what I haven’t done, still need to do, and don’t have time for.  Trapped in this tragic tale, I do not notice that I am not actually doing any of the things I am complaining about and berating myself for.  I am not really paying any attention to them at all!

If I were really paying attention, I would look at the undone task.  See the empty cereal bowl on my desk in front of me, and the keyboard drawer I have yet to assemble.  I would experience those things, in the present moment.  I might do something about them, or I might not, but either way, I would be seeing the truth, and be at peace.

The truth is, I have not done them.

The truth is, I may or I may not.

The truth is, I haven’t decided.

Each of these truths is simple, and peaceful.  Unhurried, and without stress.  It’s only when I lose myself in a story, in the idea that these facts mean something – about me, or about some awful future which will befall me – it’s only then that I grow angry, afraid, or depressed.

I have been lying when I say, “I don’t know what to do”.  Because I say that, and then I do nothing.  Or I find some way to distract myself.

Clearly, I do know what to do!  First, I know to make myself feel miserable, and then I know to run away from that feeling.  If I actually didn’t know, I would spend time wondering, imagining, reflecting!

This Very Moment

The experience of not knowing is profoundly simple, and profoundly free.  When I step into just that moment, take refuge in that simple truth, I feel more free than I have at any other moment.

Because if I truly don’t know what to do, then that means I could do anything.

Anything at all.

And I wonder, how many other experiences are like this?  How many things am I dreading, avoiding, trying to run or distract myself from?  How many am I telling myself are awful, when in fact they are awesome?

(And not just “awesome” as another word for “cool”, but “awesome” in its original definition: something that fills you with a sense of awe!)

Sometimes, I read books or see movies whose theme is that you should get out there and live your life.  What they usually don’t tell us is that this “living” is right here in front of us, in this very moment.

Unlike in the movies, it’s not something we have to win some championship to get, travel to exotic lands to obtain, or win true love to find.  There is nothing to win, nowhere to go, and nothing we need to prove to anyone – least of all ourselves.  The most awesome, awe-inspiring experiences of our lives are right here, where we are now, in our day-to-day existence.

Smack dab in the middle of what we’re running away from.

The above is a brief excerpt from a working draft of my next book, “Unproven: The Secret Source of Your Lifelong Struggle”, which will be released to Mind Hackers Guild members and Effortless Way subscribers in early 2014.

Join the discussion
  • So is the experience this: "When I tell myself to do something besides nothing, then I feel bad"?

    Would the rule be: "When I face uncertainty about what to do, then I should feel bad"?

    I've been working since Jan. 16 through today on SAMMSA and other teachings/material you've provided.

    I started with one SEED memory of when I was a child. It was when I had asked Mom if I could help bring groceries in. She said no, and I did it anyway. . .successfully. But the response was more of "You're lucky you didn't drop that, AND you better be glad you didn't."

    Relating to the "not knowing" is the concept of "uncertainty", and I decided a good structure to rebuild and work the SEED would include assumptions of the world that would include:
    * "There is no uncertainty in the world, only feedback from the actions I take and others take."
    *"Better to take small, testable actions and grow according to feedback than stay still and stagnant from the fear of false uncertainty."

    The model I used was a "It's only feedback, start small and see what happens."

    I wanted to base my strengths on concepts that buffered against "fear" of effort/action and the results, while relying on concepts like Lean and PDCA from Toyota Way. I even included a driving mechanism towards the Hedgehog questions from From Good to Great.

    I've been busy. And the results have been wonderful. What I was surprised at was the large number of When/Then rules showed up.

    I didn't really "know" what to do. I started with the model/teachings I had, pressed forward.

    One of the biggest revelations I had in the process was this: Which part of my brain (pain/gain) is being activated by this question? Can I restate the question to activate the gain AFTER I've cleared any emotions from the pain brain SEED event?

    An example that seems to activate the Gain brain, but I highly suspect activates the Pain brain: What would you do if you knew you would not fail? From this we think of "What have I been fearing that I haven't tried?" Hmmm. . . suspiciously pain brain sounding.

    What if instead: What would you do if you were guaranteed success? Does a different part activate when it becomes: What would you do if you were guaranteed success even if you encounter obstacles along the way?

    I guess I can say, "I don't know."

    PJ. . . appreciate your work!


  • Your post really resonated with me! I tend to remain in a zone of indecision and not knowing and gradually this spirals into negative self thoughts. I'm attached to this self-caused suffering like how you describe and it’s a habit of thought that I identify with myself. Self pity, wallowing, not very attractive traits. I’m not sure my friends can see this in me, althought I've been described as stubborn and self absorbed. I think what they’re seeing is that I live in my head a lot of the time, in my imagination. When I start to get real upset I have tell myself, "get over yourself, it's all in your head, it’s not all about you."

    I feel like I generally look to others for answers, when really I should figure things out for myself and take charge and be in my own moment.

    There's my ramble!



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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