How to Stay In The Unknown
Jul 11 2023
Greetings from a sweltering hot attic in a tiny, ancient village in the far east of France, where I’ve been staying with my dad and step mum for the last month. I’ve been getting some much needed rest and space to process the astronomical year of growth and development I just had, whilst living and working at The Barn meditation retreat centre in Devon.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what my priorities will be, I don’t know where I’m going to live and I don’t know what I’m going to do for work and I’ve made a commitment to stay with the unknown until it gets clear.
I’ve been reading back through my journals, plucking out the themes that I've been living with for the last year and mapping them on a huge roll of wallpaper. It feels satisfying to see it all in one place and fascinating to notice how particular themes bubbled up and developed throughout the year. Getting conscious of where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, the joys I’ve encountered, the challenges I’ve overcome and the teachings I’ve received, is helping me to feel orientated in the here and now.
I don’t know what’s next, but I do know where I’ve been.
As a clowning, fooling and improvisation teacher, my work is helping people to get comfortable with hanging out in the unknown. But learning to rest in the unknown as a lifestyle choice is Next Level Stuff! This blog charts my journey with the unknown, through the past year, from terror to excitement. It’s really a guide for me as I continue to move out into the world without A Plan, but hopefully it’s useful for you too, dear reader.
In this blog we’ll be exploring:
- How do you behave when you enter into the unknown?
- If you listen to the voice behind your behaviour, what does it say?
- What emotions do you feel when you enter the unknown?
- How can you sit with those feelings?
- How do thoughts block access to the unknown?
- How can you work with those thoughts?
- How might setting an intention be a guide into the unknown?
- How do you set an intention?
It’s peppered with advice from wise teachers and exercises that you can do if you want to play with embracing the unknown too.
How do you behave when you enter into the unknown?
When I first landed at The Barn in July 2022, I was coming from a life of being in control of everything (well, as much as you can be in control, when you’re working with people!). As a self-employed facilitator, educator and therapist, I’d been in control of where I worked, when I worked, who I worked with, the types of work I did and the things I did when I wasn’t at work. Moving into a community as a live-in coordinator was an intentional act to renunciate control and enter into the unfamiliar realms of collaboration, shared responsibility and being part of a conscious community.
Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was terrified. This terror manifested as a deep, noisy need for clarity, autonomy and freedom. I needed to know exactly what was expected of me, what my role entailed, when I was supposed to be working and when I had time off. In order to step into the unknown, I needed to KNOW as much as I could.
I was reminded of all this last week, when I sat with meditation teacher, Ayala Gill on Sangha Live (a live, online, daily meditation platform which I would highly recommend, links below). Ayala posed the question:
What are your default reactions when you come into a party or a room full of people that you don’t know? Do you:
A.) Notice what is not OK, what needs to be fixed, what could be improved?
B.) Figure out how you could be more comfortable? Find the safe places to be, resource yourself with food and drink etc?
C.) Zone out, look at your phone, have your own private party inside your head?
Ayala’s (and my) teacher, Martin Aylward calls these natural behaviours The Three Defaults:
Looking back, I now see my initial behaviour as both demanding and defending. It felt impossible to relax in the unknown, without understanding where the edges of the role were. My sense of freedom and autonomy felt threatened and I went into tunnel vision / survival mode.
What Does The Voice Behind The Behaviour Say?
Ayala suggested that when we notice we are behaving in demanding, defending or distracting ways, we can pause for a moment and listen for the inner voice behind the behaviour. She said if you listen carefully enough, you might hear a very young voice, who is simply asking: “Am I OK?”
This little voice can have us running around, trying to change the world or change ourselves and sometimes it’s right; sometimes things are intolerable and they do need to change, but often all this little voice needs is our own loving attention. Ayala suggested replying to the voice gently, “Yes my love, you are absolutely and unconditionally OK with me right now.”
Soothing the small voice and softening my defending and demanding behaviour felt like a process of collaboration between me and the Barn team. They compassionately answered all of my questions, listened to my fears and helped me find clarity and gradually I felt safe enough to relax into the unknown.
What Emotions Do You Feel When You Enter The Unknown?
After my first few months at The Barn, I’d found my groove with the role, I’d found deep, nourishing connection with the team and the land and I was enjoying supporting the retreatants. I’d made a rainbow-coloured nest in my room and I’d found pockets of Holly-time to do the sorts of things Holly’s need to do to stay sane, like walking, dancing, yoga, writing and drinking tea with friends outside The Barn.
So imagine my surprise when panic started flapping like a trapped bird inside my chest.
“I need to get out of here!
My blood runs fast and change feels safe,
Safer than being stuck.
A collie dog locked in a hot house.
Where else can I go?”
-notes from my journal
I’ve always thrived on variety, adventure and spontaneity, constructing a jigsaw puzzle life, where I get to travel and work with lots of different people on lots of different projects. Staying in one place and running the same retreat over and over, was totally unknown to me. I started to feel like Odysseus tied to the mast, I could hear the wild call from the sirens and I couldn’t respond. Overcome with feelings of desperation and anguish, my little inner voice screamed, “This doesn’t feel OK! This doesn’t feel OK!”
Luckily at The Barn, I got to attend countless dharma talks (Buddhist teachings) with incredible visiting teachers. They each gave insights and techniques that enabled me to sit with the uncomfortable feelings.
How Do You Sit With Your Emotions?
Nigel Wellings offered the following sage advice (paraphrased):
If you want to find a way of being with [big feelings like] grief or fear,
Feel it in your body.
Extend kindness to the feeling.
Drop the storyline and really allow yourself to feel it.
When you do this, your body calms down out of the adrenaline state and you’ll be able to access wise, compassionate decisions.
But how do we actually sit with a raging fire of a feeling?
Another of our teachers, Ethan Pollock offered some practical suggestions (paraphrased):
Ask yourself: Can I meet this emotion without getting swept away?
If not, cultivate mindfulness first.
To do this, bring your attention into the lower part of the body.
Notice sensations, feel your connection with the ground.
If you’re still finding it hard to settle the mind, maybe consider walking instead of sitting.
As you walk, feel your feet on the ground and tune into your five senses.
Ethan says: There’s a time for meditation and there’s a time for skilful distraction - if it doesn’t feel possible to sit with an emotion, do something else for a while until things start to settle.
2.) Come into the body
If it does feel OK to sit with the emotion, notice which parts of the body are activated by the feeling.
What are the sensations in that part of the body?
3.) Soften if it’s possible
Ask yourself: can I soften / let the body soften around the experience?
Rather than adding another layer [of fear, guilt, tension, contraction, or trying to fix or solve the ‘problem’], just soften around it and let it be as it is.
Ethan says, when you come into a relaxed, dignified relationship with an emotion, the emotion starts to change.
4.) Offer some active soothing
If it’s possible, offer some active soothing to the part that’s activated.
Offer it warmth, nurture it like a mother would nurture a crying baby.
Thanks to the dharma teachers, the Barn team and my therapist, I didn’t bolt. I was able to sit with the distraught bird in my chest, offering it my loving attention, whenever it arose. This allowed me to navigate the previously unknown territory of staying put and getting bored. Who knew there was so much treasure to be found on the other side of boredom?
Instead of constantly looking for new experiences, I got to explore dimensions within familiar experiences, I found myself seeking out the unknown within the known. Instead of begrudgingly raking leaves off the path AGAIN, I danced with the rake, playing with momentum and grace as I scraped the leaves off the road. Instead of trotting out the same meditations again and again, I tuned into what felt needed and trusted myself to provide containers that might be useful for each new group. Everything became an experiment as I focussed on the qualities of how I did things, rather than what I was doing.
How do thoughts block access to the unknown?
Just over the halfway mark, I started thinking about stepping into The Great Unknown again. Where will I live and what will I do for work when my Barn year is over? My brain really wanted to come up with A Plan. But I noticed that every time it started thinking about all the fantastic things I could do, I felt my jaw tighten, my shoulders hunch, my brow furrow and my breath get shallow, accompanied by the familiar flavours of dread and fear.
With all the meditation and experimentation I was doing, I was getting more and more used to abiding in the unknown. I had a sense that the next chapter of my life was probably not going to be born out of the tightness of logical thinking. It seemed like there were a lot of options available to me, more than I could even imagine, but in order to reach these unknown options, I needed to relax and soften, rather than effort and tense.
So I entered into a dialogue with my brain:
Me: Bless you sweetie, I see you grasping for solid ground, wanting to know what’s going to happen next. But I’m not ready for that yet.
Brain: But I just want to help.
Me: I know sweetie and you’re great at planning. I’m really grateful for your ability to strategise, measure risks, spot opportunities and create a series of baby steps to keep me safe and stretched. You’re brilliant at all that.
Brain: Thank you. But why don’t you want me to do my thing now?
Me: Well I’m trying something else. It’s called “being.” I’m allowing myself to just be for a bit, without a plan.
Brain: Why would you do that?
Me: The plan is to open up to what is, to let the next thing come to me, to listen to my body and let intuition speak through it. The plan is to find out what’s next without rushing or striving for an answer.
Brain: Oooof, that feels challenging for me!
Me: Yeah right, I imagine it must be. What’s going to help you feel some ease around this?
Brain: Can I have regular documentation time please? I want to keep track of all this.
Me: Sure, but please can you let me have swathes of time when we’re not documenting too? I respect the documentation, but it can take us out of the now, which is where the experiment needs to happen. Is that OK?
Brain: Yes, but can we be specific about these time frames please?
Me: OK, I guarantee two writing sessions a week. How’s that?
Brain: OK, that feels safe enough.
So that’s what we did, I honoured my part of the deal and my brain mostly honoured it’s part. There was a good couple of months when I was waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning with lock jaw, panicking about the fact that I didn’t have A Plan. But each time, I either sat with the sensations or gave my brain a pen and listened to what it had to say. Approaching this ongoing negotiation through curiosity and compassion, rather than force and will, created an atmosphere of trust which eventually led to my brain relaxing on this topic. I mean, it still pipes up from time to time, but our negotiations are getting shorter and shorter.
I’m really grateful to The Barn and the team for providing the containment I needed to practice this very different way of being. Who knew that doing the same thing over and over again could offer so many gifts?
How Might Setting an Intention be a guide into The Unknown?
Dharma teacher Jenny Wilks said, “If we think we are in control, there is a tightness.” She said, “there is an ease in surrender.”
Jenny explained how the only thing we can have control over in life is our intention. We can point ourselves in a certain direction, cultivate particular qualities and make sure our actions are aligned with our intention, but we have no control over the results.
If we can’t have any control over outcomes, then we are effectively all living the unknown all the time. Well, that feels fun to me right now, how does it feel for you, dear reader?
What makes a good intention?
Ethan suggests getting clear about the values that are important to you and committing to them. This way, “when the twist comes, you have guidelines to come back to.” Jenny said if our intention is based in kindness and compassion, we might not get the result we want, but it will be good.
So I am setting my intention to stay with the unknown until it gets clear what I should do next.
In the meantime, I will heed the advice of this blog, I will continue to meditate every day, I will tune into my behaviour, emotions, sensations and thoughts with curiosity and compassion, I’ll offer softening and soothing to the parts of me who need it and I’ll listen out for their wisdom and I will continue to document my process.
Thanks, dear reader, for giving me your time and attention.
If you want to know what happens next, you can sign up to my mailing list for monthly updates, using the box below.
If you want to share anything about your experience of being with the unknown, feel free to drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to read more about my year at The Barn, go here.
If you’re curious about The Barn retreat centre, go here.
If you’re interested in Sangha Live, the live, online meditation platform, go here.