The Challenge and Potential in Not Knowing
Some of the most difficult experiences in life involve being held in a state of uncertainty. Examples of this might include the transition from being a student to being a self-determining adult, relationship or work problems, infertility, unemployment, bankruptcy or homelessness. I'm sure you can add to the list. It’s a situation where there is no clear ‘what next’, and we are invited to find certainty not outside, but inside ourselves.
Usually we are carried through life from event to event, goal to goal, and for much of this we are on mental and emotional auto-pilot. We latch on to familiar things that inspire or soothe us, and give us the illusion of control. However for many of us there comes a time when we are forced to sit for a prolonged period with not knowing. It’s a place that triggers our anxiety and defences, yet we’re unable to resolve or escape our discomfort. In this state we are challenged to meet our true nature and potential for self-realisation.
The desire for certainty is something natural. It’s the positive drive of the ego part of our nature, to help in providing the compass points in life. It begins with the infant developing a sense of duality, (this is me; that is not me) and needing a consistent experience of that in order to gain a secure sense of itself. It’s about feeling a reassuring sense of the walls of reality that contain us; it is a feeling of ‘knowing’. Life, and also counselling and psychotherapy, holds a tension between the need for this sense of certainty, and an unfolding awareness that we are limited by it. Somehow it separates us from our deeper selves and connection with the big prize, a sense of oneness and peace.
Mindfulness and cognitive therapy (often referred to as CBT) can be excellent for helping the person to cope with this tension. It is a huge relief to realise that you – and reality - are not your thoughts or your beliefs. When you let go of your certainties, you discover how they have been keeping you dancing to a limiting tune. The door opens to all sorts of possibility. Yet no matter what we do to loosen their grip, those certainties will keep re-forming one way or another. And life keeps doing its best to dismantle them. If the ego is too weak or the challenge too much, trauma, despair, psychic breakdown or spiritual emergency can ensue.
The therapeutic relationship itself often reflects this state of not knowing, and both client and therapist feel it. The experience of being forced to face limbo is deeply awkward and can be excruciating – yet perhaps it is a call to growth. The therapist needs to be comfortable enough to sit with not knowing, and to hold the limbo experience for the client until something – the tension, the resistance, the defences against experiencing true reality, can be resolved.
The therapist can offer an alternative to ‘knowing’: presence and an open minded faith. In the experience of the moment and the possibility of growth and ‘becoming’ is found enough of a containing reality. Then certainty changes from needing to be about exterior structures and instead to being anchored by the multi-faceted diamond of true Self.