An exploration on being present
Fitting things into boxes
I like to fit things into boxes in my mind. Like a lot of people, I like the sense of order and organization that I get when I feel like I Know what is going on around me, within me, and because of me.
When everything is in the ‘right’ box, then I don’t have to worry about it. And if I don’t have to worry about it, then I don’t have to think about it, and then I can spend my time thinking about more important things. The things that matter.
I’ve been doing this my whole life, so it’s the most natural thing in the world to me. I fit things into boxes labeled ‘work’ and ‘marriage’ and ‘friends’ and ’emotions’ and ‘working out’ and ‘deep conversations’ and ‘conflict’ and ‘societal expectations’. There are hundreds of these boxes, maybe even thousands. With all of my little boxes organized I feel secure in my day to day world. Whenever a situation comes up that I have to deal with I just go find my box with that label, look through all my ideas, thoughts, and past experiences that are in that box, and pick the ones that I think best fit the current situation.
Having all of that information at my beck and call allows me to enter complicated situations with a firm idea of how to navigate them. I use it in less complicated situations as well and barely even have to think about what’s happening at all. It makes things so easy.
This is called Knowing.
And because I’ve got this supercomputer of a brain sitting at the top of my neck, it all happens really quickly and pretty seamlessly. Sometimes I even forget that I’m doing it.
So what’s the problem?
Of course, just like with all systems, there are some downsides to this system of ‘Knowing’. Many of the downsides aren’t very apparent until I start to really look closely though.
Take cause and effect for instance. Since Knowing is built on the basis that what is in my box tells me how to navigate the current situation, I’m always looking for cause and effect relationships. I’m always asking myself ‘what caused that effect?’ so that I can put that information in my box for future situations like this. This ends up taking a surprising amount of energy. When I slow down and look for it, I see this all of the time. All of my spare time, the quiet moments, are filled with my brain chewing on the cause and effect of all sorts of actions.
Here’s something my brain did just this morning, while I was ‘meditating’: “I need to send John that email, otherwise he’ll think I’m ignoring him and he won’t want to close the deal. I don’t have the info he wants, so I’ll have to do some research before I send him that message so I can make him think that I’m working hard on this. The last time I did this wrong was with Ralph, and that didn’t turn into a deal, so I have to make sure to get it right this time because if I don’t have deals then I won’t make enough money and I’ll be out on the street in no time….” and it goes on and on and on.
While losing my quiet time to this unproductive thinking is certainly not ideal, there is a much bigger downside to this behavior – the need to control. My brain tells me that if I can simply control enough of the variables then I can create the effect that benefits me the most. It whispers between the words that if I can control enough of the effects then I will be happy because things will be stable. So I spend more and more energy focused on controlling as many of the things in my life as I can. Pretty soon, it’s what I spend most of my life doing.
I try to control things in all the boxes. I make sure that my marriage is under control, that my friendships are under control, and that my work life is under control. I hold everything in place so that it’s all as predictable as possible so that they are all stable, so I can Know how everything works. Pretty quickly my need to Know, which was supposed to help me expend less energy is causing me to expend a lot of energy, just to hold all the things I Know in place and keep them from shifting around too much.
Focus and feedback
So what happens when I get stuck in the need to Know? It starts to create a really interesting feedback loop. I start focusing only on the things which I can Know because those are the only things that fit into those boxes that I’ve got in my brain. I create one box for ‘unKnown’ and everything that doesn’t fit one of my existing boxes gets tossed in there, and I make sure to never look in that box because nothing in there makes sense and it’s all kind of unstable.
Because I’m focusing only on the things I can understand and know the cause and effect for, I sometimes misattribute cause and effect to situations. For example, I noticed that when I closed my three biggest deals I was wearing my blue striped shirt. My focus starts to create a cause and effect relationship here. I start wearing my blue striped shirt to the meetings when I might close a big deal. When I close one of them, it reinforces my Knowledge that my shirt has an impact on closing deals. When I don’t close one of those deals though, I just throw that information into the unKnown box in my mind. That might be a silly example, but I’m doing this all of the time.
I ‘Know’ that if I raise my voice people will listen. I ‘Know’ that if my wife is mad at me I can buy her flowers to make her not be mad at me. I ‘Know’ that if I play the victim in a meeting I will have fewer to-do items on my list at the end of that meeting. Pretty soon, I’ve executed these patterns often enough that I don’t have any other way to deal with these situations. Then I get really freaked out when they don’t work. If I buy my wife flowers but she doesn’t stop being mad then I have to scramble to find another way to control her anger. If this scramble happens often enough, I start avoiding my wife because I don’t Know how to avoid making her angry.
And in this way, Knowing often leads to me being focused on either controlling what I Know or avoiding the things that I don’t Know. Eventually, I create a rut that I then get stuck in: I control what I Know and I avoid what I don’t Know.
The limitations of Knowing
Being stuck in that cycle is really limiting for me. Avoiding the unKnown takes at least as much energy as holding onto all the things that I do Know. When I spend all my time in this rut it only gets deeper. The deeper the rut is, the harder it becomes for me to consider actually getting out of the rut.
Perhaps even more importantly – when I’m in that rut, I’m extremely fragile. Anything that challenges the stability that my Knowing provides can send me into a tailspin. If I lose my job I’m totally lost. If my wife leaves me I’m totally lost. If something creates instability in my life I break easily, which leads me to hold on even tighter to the Knowing that provides stability so that I don’t break. As I do this, I lose my ability to grow. I make all of my decisions based on how things worked in the past, which means that there isn’t enough room for me to explore something different. There isn’t enough room in that rut for my awesome future self to show up, so my predictable past self shows up instead – day in and day out.
At some point in my life, I realize this – that I’m capable of so much more but that I’m not allowing myself to be that person out of fear of the unKnown. This realization creates a dissonance within me which colors every day.
Letting go of Knowing
What if I were to let go of Knowing? What if I stopped having to control everything so that it would be ‘just right’, and stable, and predictable? What would happen?
I don’t Know. And that’s the scariest thing that I can imagine in a life that I’ve built on Knowing. The alarm bells go off because something deep down inside of me truly believes that WHO I AM is at risk if I step into the unKnown. By its very nature, letting go of Knowing means that I can’t define what will happen.
Letting go entails stepping through this fear.
This changes EVERYTHING. If I can’t say what is going to happen then I have to pay a lot of attention. I have to be curious. I can’t make those cause and effect assumptions as I have before, so I have to be aware of what my cause is for doing something and what effects it could be having. Without all of those boxes in my mind guiding every action, I have to recognize that the world doesn’t fit into clearly defined labels; that it’s not a black and white world that I live in. I have to stop assuming that I Know what’s going to happen and instead pay attention to what is happening.
And with not Knowing comes not controlling which is almost as scary. Being ‘out of control’ is a bad thing, or so I’ve been told since I was young. And so the idea of intentionally stepping into letting go of control goes against the very fiber of what I have been taught.
And that means that I will be uncomfortable. I will be afraid, and I will want to turn back. I will want to take back control and go back to Knowing because with comfortable unhappiness I can at least Know what to expect even if that is a life where I don’t get to live up to my own expectations of myself.
That is what I will be fighting against as I let go of knowing.
What’s left when I don’t know?
So what do this? Why let go of Knowing when it holds my sense of me together?
Because I’m bigger than all those things that I know. Because they become the walls of my self-built prison.
I let go because when I’m gripping tightly onto all of the things I Know I can never truly relax. When I’m stuck in all of those boxes then I can’t adapt to things that don’t fit into the boxes.
There’s other payoffs too. I see the connection between things a lot more clearly, so I can learn really quickly. I become antifragile – no longer afraid of change but instead made better because of change.
I become present. I find myself here, now. With no Knowing what is about to happen I am finally forced to be in this moment. I become confident in my ability to be my best self, without all of the noise getting in the way.
I become who I’m meant to be. Every moment, of every day.