For most people the dark of night is a scary place. It’s a place of the unknown, of uncertainty. We evolved to take what is unknowable and make it knowable, that’s why having a source of light, a torch, a fire, eases that uncertainty, it eases our fear. Light makes what was once dark and unknowable, knowable.
The truth is, that our greatest source of stress is the unknown. We all get stressed out anytime we are left not knowing what will happen next. In our darkest moments in our lives there often seems no light shoeing us the way,
We all have difficulty with the unknown. The reason for this is that we evolved to predict, and as such our greatest desire is closure. Just think of all the information that comes streaming into your eyes, your ears, or falls on your skin, all of it is meaningless. That information itself doesn’t tell you what to do with it — so we evolved to predict what that information might be trying to tell us. The information that comes into our senses can be seen as our physical reality, but our perception of that physical reality tells us what that information might mean to us. In other words what is changing is the meaning of the information not the information itself.
As such, the functional structure of our brains is the physical manifestation of our past interactions with the world we live in — not just our personal history, but the history of our family, our culture, and our evolutionary history. What we then see as our reality, all that information coming into our senses, is really the interpretation of our personal historical significance of that data. In other words, what our personal history gives us is our assumptions and biases. We never truly see reality for what it is.
I wrote the above first as context. I find myself right now in the unknown. I have left behind a life I have known for over two decades in South Africa. My impending divorce, as all divorces often are has been costly. And while I know I am doing the right thing by relocating to SE Asia for now to take on opportunities that I hope will allow me to continue to meet my financial obligations so my sons don’t suffer — I am ridden with guilt at the same time for having to leave them behind in Johannesburg.
There are so many ‘unknowns’ right now that I am finding it quite unnerving.
Have I made the right decision moving here?
Will I be able to cope with the culture change, and not speaking the language?
Will my boys understand, will they ever for give me for having to leave?
And so the questions go on and on. Much of my anxiety I have realised has stemmed from my personal history and the combination of my assumptions and biases based on that history.
I think many of us forget how much our experiences from our childhood plays into how we engage with the world as adults now. I was bullied, targeted for physical assault by the neighbourhood gangs, I felt abandoned by never knowing my Father, and endured endless verbal and physical abuse at the hands of my Mother.
No one ever helped me navigate the intense anxiety, fear, personal hatred for myself, and the misplacement I felt as a child. I was left as they say to sink or swim. I was literally drowning in my own inner melee as a child. Like it or not, years of spending my life in inner turmoil growing up, with no support, mentorship, guidance, or simply a shoulder to cry on — indelible stain on how I have on dealt with difficulties in my life.
Learning About the Unknown From Jiu-Jitsu
As such, I have been thinking lately about the best way to handle the unknown when one finds oneself there, or worse still nowhere. To be honest, I think I am handling this life changing event I find myself in right now, arguably one of the most life changing events in my life thus far, reasonably well. Just the other day I was on the mat teaching Jiu-Jitsu, and I was talking to a student where I said, “Jiu-Jitsu is the Art of the Unknown, you don’t know what will happen next, until it happens.”
Inadvertently I realised in that moment why I am handing this intense moment of the unknown in my life better than I may have previously in at similar times in my life. I am more agile to change now. I have come to realize that if I spend to much time thinking about all the things that can go wrong, or what should have happened, this is where my suffering begins. There are times, like now in my life, where there is no clear cut answers. As much as my predictive brain would love a clear cut answer right now, its simply not possible as much of what is happening right now in my life is unknown.
If I try then to find answers, all that ends up happening is I become consumed by my assumptions and biases arising from my personal history. Yup, I go right back to being a child, and all the inescapable fears and powerlessness I felt then.
Finding Space Between Past and Present
In our toughest moments in life, the key it seems is to find the space between the past and what might happen and try at best to live in the space between the two.
Everything we now know, was once an unknown.
As Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us,
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti, said much the same in his own way,
“One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.”
Right now, I have to find the space between what I believe I know, and what might happen, and breath into the space of silence that resides between past and future!