It isn’t snowing or freezing outside, but it feels wintry enough that I started a fire in the fireplace tonight.
It’s a little more chilly and gray than I expected for a May day and the mood in the air feels more like November. Every season has its characteristic climate and accompanying elemental quality—winter is aligned with water according to Chinese Five Element Theory—which can be felt in smaller patches at any time throughout the year.
Even when it isn’t the predominant feeling of the season, the energetic qualities of water, and the other four elements, exist in our day-to-day lives. For example, we may want to withdraw and be introspective on a spring day to conserve energy and reconnect with ourselves, the way we do through the deep winter months.
Today feels like one of those days.
I’m finding this wintry water medicine quite helpful with finding a gentle rhythm amidst the quickening pace of spring. The call to go within and slow down is giving me more buoyancy in this stream of political news, and making it easier to stay connected to myself in the rapidly shifting cultural paradigm.
The fast growth of spring is inspiring project development and avid planning, which can launch my thoughts way ahead into the future unknown, ushering in impatience and a strong desire to figure everything out. In addition to having the foresight to predict personal matters, I wish I knew the outcome of political situations and how the universe will unfold as the divine feminine rises.
The qualities of water, on this not-so-May-ish day, are reminding me to drop into the unknown, to allow life to emerge rather than push it forcefully. In these moments of uncertainty and impatience, I’m grateful for a little bit of winter energy to remember how we can relate to the unknown, the void, day after day, month after month, in an empowering and sustainable way.
Here’s what’s coming up for me:
Sometimes it feels like we are living in a deep pit of the unknown, with walls growing ever higher around us. When we feel this way, we might try scraping the sides of the pit as if it’s a quarry, looking for answers or scrambling to build a ladder to get out. Whether we are at a loss for answers in our personal life, are confounded by the national and global ethos, or experience a painful intersection of internal and external questioning, we may fall into the void of the unknown.
Unless we have learned how to fall and have developed a relationship with the unknown, it can be terrifying in the moment and we can get stuck in fear. Even with skills to fall and a functional relationship with the void, fear will arise. The goal here is not to eradicate the fear. Instead, we can be with the fear in a way that leaves a little room for it to move and allows us to feel whatever it is we’re feeling—to be human.
We can dig in and possibly mine some gold nuggets of information or a few buildings blocks of support in an attempt to cleverly climb out of the unknown. Or we can practice being at ease with falling, let the fear come, “wrap it in compassion, and fan it with courage,” as the wise Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön suggests, and accept the unknown as an inherent part of living as a human being.
While information and a few answers provide bits of relief and are useful for future decisions, they aren’t always what we need most in the moment of despair. Rather than looking for ways out each time this happens (most likely engaging the mind and abandoning the body), let’s find ways to be present (to feel and be safe in feeling). This builds resilience, sustainability, and even gratitude and appreciation for the great mystery. There will always be unknowns of different degrees. There is no escaping the unknown but we may learn to see the fullness of it, rather than the absence of the known, and thereby become more at ease.
When I slow down and bring my attention to my experience, the unknown becomes a soft, wondrous pool of potential instead of an omnivorous threatening chasm. It feels more womb-like and less black hole-ish. Once we slow down and rest in the unknown with acceptance, we gain the confidence to move forward, sustainably and courageously.
Here’s how I help myself learn and remember to practice being present with the unknown. May these tips be of benefit:
1. Say “I don’t know ______.”
I’ve learned to say it out loud to myself, someone I trust, or an energy bigger than me. I’ve learned to say it often about anything I don’t know.
The fear of the unknown was so embedded in me that my speech habits barely included the phrase “I don’t know,” even to inconsequential questions. Teaching yoga from an authentic place requires me to acknowledge what I don’t know. Learning and growing requires me to acknowledge and accept unknowns of all sizes.
I like practicing with things that feel less scary: “I don’t know the name of that plant” or “I don’t know what time it is,” and follow it up with, “…and that’s okay!” Even those ones used to be hard to admit. Acknowledging the smaller unknowns with compassion and courage in small doses trains me for being at ease with bigger unknowns. I feel more vulnerable saying, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again” to a dear friend or, “I don’t know why they made that choice” or, “I don’t know what will happen.”
Saying a scary one and allowing it to exist out loud releases the fear of it the more I say it, if I say it slowly, with compassion, and while connecting to the listener. Connecting to the listener, the witness, whether it’s a deeper part of myself, a friend, or a higher energy, reminds me that I am not alone. That lifts me out of being stuck in the fear and helps me rest in a trusting place even while being in the void.
2. Practice savasana.
I almost always complete my asana practice with a generous savasana (“corpse pose”), usually with a rolled blanket or bolster under my knees and a blanket covering me on top, even when it’s hot out, because I feel a sigh of relief when I tuck myself in.
I also practice it, or another yummy restorative pose, by itself regularly. It is excellent for learning how to exist in the void without trying. When practiced regularly, this pose can help us drop into a place in between doing and dying, a place of simply being. This place transcends time and space, transcends the known and the unknown, the material and the spiritual. That is where we learn how to be okay with not knowing. That is where our breath returns and our fear subsides. Even for a moment—and then maybe another one. That is where we remember who we truly are and that the unknown is a part of life, not a threat to it.
* If full-on savasana is too scary or if you’re feeling too exposed or vulnerable, try laying on the floor with your legs resting up on the couch/chair/wall. Cover yourself with a blanket or place a bolster or folded blanket over your torso or pelvis so the weight of it grounds you and gives a sense of protection.
* If resting in these kinds of positions makes you restless and feels counterproductive, try practicing the essence of the pose while taking a short walk around the block or familiar path. Set an intention to be present and withdraw your senses a little by softening your gaze, drawing your sphere of listening in close to you, and letting your breath settle into a steady rhythm with your evenly paced steps.
3. Ask someone to hold space for me.
Having someone stay present with me in silence until my breath returns to a state of homeostasis is magic medicine.
Silence evokes the quality of the void while also bringing me home to the deepest part of myself. Being present together in it helps me feel safe and able to accept what is and release the fear. I even come to appreciate and feel gratitude and wonder for the vast mystery.
This shared silence and presence can happen over the phone or in person. I’m not shy about requesting, “Can we just be quiet for a moment and breathe together?” if I need that and trust them to stay present for it. This could be fulfilled by a practitioner or a loved one. A hand on the belly, a long sincere hug, or shared sighs can do wonders for the nervous system, too, if it feels safe for you.
4. Practice falling.
Literally. I do this in my asana practice with poses that challenge my balance, including any standing balance pose (tree and warrior III are two of my favorites for this practice), crow, handstand, forearm stand, as well as revolved poses that challenge my sense of space, like revolved triangle or revolved lunge.
Moving slowly between poses to feel that in between void space works for this, too. Cultivate patience, compassion, courage, and faith on the mat and they will be there for you when you need them most. Be sure to warm up properly and notice your approach to the pose. Sometimes I’ll just come into the prep position, take a long pause there with my breath to feel the fear arise, and then move into the pose acknowledging the fear so that I can face the unknown with compassion and integrity.
5. Turn to nature.
When I lived in Brooklyn, this would involve a trip to the park, a day trip to the woods for a hike, or a drive to the beach.
These days, I step outside and sit by the water or visit nearby trails—anything that allows me to touch a bit of earth and see a broader view of plants, water, sky, breathe fresher air, see some animal friends, and most importantly, experience quiet space. Attuning to any sound and smell from nature, even if it’s your fresh fruits and veggies in your kitchen or your pet or your own breath, will train your mind and body to settle in with the unknown in a gentler way if you rest in the moment quietly and patiently.
May your explorations of your relationship to the unknown serve you and those around you. Another idea is to write about your own experience with the unknown—writing this has already reawakened my awareness and fortified my ability to be vulnerable, courageous, and in awe of the void.