Until very recently, human life could be characterized as relatively uncomfortable and infused with mystery. Beset, on the one hand, by insect pests, disease, predators, inclement weather, and untreatable injuries, and on the other hand, by a world of unknowns - simultaneously dangerous and full of opportunity. And yet our overwhelming presence as a species on Earth suggests that humans have generally found life worth living in spite of the discomfort and uncertainty. How did they manage it?
In the relatively recent past, people began to think about ways to make life more comfortable and less mysterious. Agriculture, clothing, housing, medicine, and other technological developments made great strides in the way of comfort, while science proved a powerful tool for getting answers about the unknown world, its parts and processes. But try as we might to banish it, we still inevitably experience discomfort, both physical and emotional. And no matter how deep our science penetrates into the mystery of the world, we seem to only unearth more layers of mystery. These deeper layers of scientific mystery are rather easy to live with, as they tend to be abstract. Few people agonize over whether string theory is correct or not. But we are still beset with very challenging unknowns in our daily living: what to do about a romantic relationship, or a difficult co-worker/neighbor/child/sibling, or finances, or a career, or an illness, or the car that has seen better days, and so on seemingly ad infinitum. So, in spite of our best efforts, discomfort and the unknown remain to plague us and we seem to have forgotten how our ancestors were able to experience far greater levels of discomfort and uncertainty than we face without being overwhelmed by suffering. In our pursuit of comfort and knowledge, we seem to have lost the ability to be content with discomfort and the unknown.
That ability to be content with discomfort and the unknown is what we call equanimity. I have more to say about equanimity in general, and in the context of physical discomfort elsewhere in this website. Here let's focus on equanimity with the unknown.
Human beings (and all animals) are hard-wired to respond to the unknown with a combination of apprehension and curiosity. Apprehension comes first because we need to ascertain whether or not something unknown will be harmful to us. In evolutionary terms this might be a predator, but the circuits remain even in the absence of animal predation. Curiosity follows because the unknown can hold benefits. In evolutionary terms this might be food or a mate, but those circuits remain with us today in the world of greatly expanded interests and complexity. Even though the manifestation of the unknown in the life of a modern human presents a much different set of possible risks and benefits than it did for our hunter/gatherer ancestors, the neurological responses are the same. But like other aspects of our stress response, the natural course of the apprehension phase of an encounter with the unknown should be acute rather than chronic. Chronic apprehension about the unknown can be disastrous in a world where we can never know much at all.
The family of unknowns includes encounters with strangers, unfamiliar objects or phenomena, chaos, a need for order, a need for a plan of action, not knowing the answer to a pending question or decision, not knowing how to do something that needs to be done, and so on. The need to know ranges from the trivial - like where you set down your phone - to the life changing - like changing jobs or partners. In fact, the need to know something drives most of our conscious mental activity. The more sensitive you become to the state of not knowing, the more clearly you see how nearly constant it is. And so, if we are not to live in a state of constant drivenness, it is very important for us to learn to be comfortable with a pending need to know.
The first point to understand when seeking to master our relationship with the unknown is that we all have an emotional body sensation in response to not knowing something we seemingly NEED to know. This is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity or interest also has associated body sensations, but they tend to be pleasant. The emotional body sensations associated with not knowing something we feel that we NEED to know is a kind of anxiety. It is either the unresolved apprehension phase of encountering the unknown or the desperate grasping after certainty (in an eternally uncertain world). In part this is because the unknowns we face are more complex and of longer duration than those that confronted our ancient ancestors. It does not take long to know decisively if a predator is after you or not. But it make take a long time to gather enough information to make a decision about buying a house or breaking off a relationship. The lingering unknown adds to the unhealthy burden of chronic stress unless it can be processed with equanimity.
To process our state of mental confusion or not knowing what to do about a particular situation in a healthy way, we need to bring clarity and equanimity to the emotional body sensations associated with "don't know mind". Whenever the thoughts about an unresolved question arise, turn your attention to the body and explore what it FEELS LIKE to "not know", while giving those sensations complete permission to arise and abide and pass away on their own schedule. And then park the perplexing question in the "don't know" file for later consideration. When important data arrives concerning a problem in the don't know file, see if it is ready to resolve. If not, put it back in the "don't know" file along with the new data. Your subconscious mind will continue to process the question. And if the question arises again into the conscious mind with apprehension, explore once again, with equanimity, what it feels like to not know the answer. By continuing in this way, you learn to be content with not knowing. And in a world that will forever be largely beyond our knowing it is very helpful to be at peace with confusion and uncertainty.
You can take this a step further by making a formal practice out of focusing on "don't know mind". During your daily formal sitting practice (you have one, right?) you focus on the experience of the need to know. This may be easy to access if you have been ruminating over some problem. Or you may need to evoke the need to know by reminding yourself of a pending question of problem with an intentional thought. Then, instead of trying to think your way to an answer, you simply FEEL what it is like to not have an answer you want with as much acceptance of that condition as possible. Continue to evoke "don't know mind" as needed until your formal practice is over. And then continue to try to be aware of the arising of "don't know" in the normal flow of thoughts in your mind space as you go through your daily life.
But having equanimity with the need to know is more than just stress reduction. The unknown, although potentially dangerous, is not our enemy. Science is an intellectual dance with the unknown. Art is an emotional encounter with the unknown. Our lives arise moment by moment out of the unknown. In fact, the unknown is the infinite womb that gives birth to all creation. Paradoxically, engaging in a struggle with the need to know tends to block access to the rich, fertile reservoir of insights that resides in the unknown. All answers, all plans, all knowledge, all order originally came out of the unknown. Make the unknown your ally by developing equanimity with the need to know.