Life is filled with mystery. As the Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks reminds us, for everything you know there will always be three quarters more that you don’t know. We can skate on the surface of life and regard all that we don’t know as a problem to be solved and do everything to be informed and in control. But if we want to become people of depth and compassion, we must be willing to embrace the mystery – to face the unknown – our own ignorance of what’s coming.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I anticipate the unknown with fear. I can scare the hell out of myself by imagining the worst possible outcome of any situation. The worst is when I indulge in this preoccupation of self-terrorism with a vengeance and then wonder why I feel so anxious. For comfort, I remind myself of something I once read in a research study citing that 90 percent of what we fear never happens. Whew! That’s a relief. Fortunately I am able to block the part of me that then wants to imagine that my fears could be the 10 percent that actually do occur. I don’t know if it’s a natural or a learned response to imagine the worst and to wait for the other shoe to drop, but I suspect this thought process involves a little bit of both.
To borrow a phrase from Oprah, “What I know for sure” is that as uncomfortable as it can be to experience, fear can be a great friend. When you receive your fear as a friend you recognize it as a reminder to keep yourself safe. For example, mountain climbers welcome a healthy dose of fear in anticipation of a dangerous trek. Fear is welcomed as a companion. When we treat fear as an enemy or decide it’s unimportant, we have a different experience. When we avoid fear or are repelled by it, we can become filled with dread. Fearing our fear can be paralyzing.
When we fear the unknown we risk becoming limited, dogmatic, fundamentalist thinkers. So the question is, in an attempt to keep ourselves safe, do we cultivate an attitude of anticipating the unknown with fear (OMG what if…?), or should we cultivate an attitude of anticipating the unknown with trust that the Universe has something wonderful in store for us? Even though I am not always able to do it, I vote for the latter.
One of the reasons I love yoga as much as I do is because it invites you to experience principles of well being through the physical practice of asana, making it easier to access wisdom teachings. The teachings are no longer abstract once I experience them in my body. So I want to try to describe to you how I experienced moving into the unknown and joyfully embracing the mystery through a yoga practice.
One of my beloved and amazingly astute yoga teachers taught a class whose theme was to embrace the unknown with humility, trusting that the Universal has wisdom that our limited selves can never possess. In her wisdom she advised us to be patient with the process. In this particular class the teacher invited me to demonstrate a pose without telling me what it was going to be…she just talked me through it.
Without me knowing where we were headed, she instructed me into a familiar, but challenging pose. For the uninitiated, in Sanskrit the pose is called Vashistasana, In English it is called side plank pose. For those of you who do not practice yoga, I’ve included an illustration above. From this posture, which in and of it self can be quite challenging, without telling me what was coming or what she expected, the teacher instructed me into full splits…also very challenging. But let me back up. Once I was in the side plank pose I thought I was finished. I started to relax and then came a moment of awareness on my part that she was leading me somewhere else that I had not anticipated. I almost lost my balance, until I regrouped, maintained awareness and went where she asked me to go – into the unknown. There was a moment of hesitation (the fear) and along with it the temptation to take matters into my own hands and do what I imagined she was going to tell me to do. But instead of listening to the voice in my head, who thinks it knows everything, I chose trust in the unknown, found my balance, did what I was guided to do and found myself in a most unexpected place…full splits, or, in yoga speak Hanumanasana, and in full joy.
My take-away from this was that if we shift our focus from listening to the voice in our head, you know the one that knows everything or thinks it should, and instead tune in to our inner guidance system, we can navigate the unknown with greater ease. This requires a willingness to give up our own agendas and instead follow the signs, which open a way into the sacred. To do this requires a profound openness of mind and heart; an attitude of non-attachment in which we resist the temptation to cling to our own point of view. It requires a willingness to embrace our own ignorance. To do this we must trust there is a greater intelligence at work that we can align with that will take us to places we would never be able to go on our own.
I have found this wisdom applies on the mat and off the mat as well. Practice embracing the unknown with an open mind and heart and experience the joy that follows.