Apotheosis episode 50: I don't know (and that's ok). Hand-drawn image of a brain, with the folds of the brain depicted as roots. At the top two seedlings are sprouting.

Episode 50: I don’t know (and that’s ok)

Ryan D Thompson Buddhism, Calm, Clarity, Perspectives, Skills

Key ideas

Few activities create more anxiety than thinking about the future. However, when we let go of the need for certainty, we prepare our minds for clarity and creativity to bloom.

  • Whenever we’re faced with a hard problem or a major decision, we often find ourselves gripped with anxiety. Our minds churn with visions of the many ways things might go wrong.
  • However, we can take comfort in the fact that nobody knows what’s going to happen. While uncertainty often makes us uncomfortable, it also equals possibility.
  • When we let go of our need to have everything all figured out, we can open the door to new ways of thinking and being.
  • The Buddhist concept of “store consciousness” offers a helpful approach to do this. When you have a problem, rather than ruminate endlessly, we can rest in the wisdom of “not-knowing” and allow insight to arise organically.


In March of 1876, Western Union declined to buy a patent for a device that would change the world — the telephone. At the time, Western Union was the leading long-distance communications company, having a monopoly on telegraph services. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone and a corresponding telephone network system allowed people to transmit speech across long distances. The company supposedly described the phone as having “too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication.” After they declined the offer, Bell went on to form his own company, which became known as AT&T — the leading telephone company in the United States now for over a century.

In 1973, Stephen King was broke, frustrated, and on the verge of giving up as a writer. He had sent out his first novel, Carrie, to 30 publishers. Each of them rejected it. If it weren’t for his wife, Tabby, he might have given up and accepted a job offer, which would have all but crushed his writing career. She encouraged him to keep at it. Of course, Carrie was finally picked up by a publisher, became a massive bestseller and major motion picture, and helped position King as the king of horror novels.

In 1982, Ray Dalio was a rising star in investment banking. Dalio had started his hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, seven years previous. Bridgewater was gaining influence and clients. All was going well until he made a very public prediction — on a live TV interview — confidently asserting that the stock market was heading for a depression. He bet everything on this assessment and lost everything. He had to lay off his entire staff and borrow $4,000 from his dad to pay his bills. Fortunately for Dalio, he managed to bounce back and ultimately go on to rebuild Bridgewater to become the most valuable hedge fund in the world.

From technology to elections, sports to the stock market, humans are far worse at prediction than we’d like to believe. Even the most brilliant people at the top of their field don’t know what’s coming next. The CEOs of companies don’t know what their market will look like. Talent scouts reject people who go on to become ultra-successful. All those talking heads on TV making bold predictions about the economy or politics sooner or later end up being ridiculously wrong.

The moral of these stories is that nobody knows what is coming tomorrow. 

Nobody knows. 

Despite the great confidence some people might display in their beliefs, the future will forever remain unknowable.

This episode is about gaining comfort with not knowing what is coming tomorrow. About accepting the fact that we don’t know, our neighbors don’t know, our bosses don’t know, and the smart-guy-talking-heads-on-screens don’t know either. We often feel pressure to have all the answers right now — and to think our way out of everything. 

I will explore some ideas from Buddhism that look at the wisdom of letting go of the need to know — the need we all have to be right, to be certain, and to have it all figured out. When we let go of our need for certainty, we can open the door to new ways of thinking and being.

We are all faced with a thousand daily decisions, large and small. Especially when we have a major, life-changing decision to make, we would love to have certainty about how things will turn out. In these times, we usually end up trying to think our way forward — we think, think, think until our head is spinning with anxiety. 

We get stuck in analysis paralysis.

Kaira Jewel Lingo, an author and Buddhist teacher, once found herself in one of these situations. She was trying to decide whether to leave the monastic order. She had spent 15 years as a nun at the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s community called Plum Village. Years ago, she had made a commitment to herself that she would give her life to being a Buddhist nun. But now she found herself looking towards a new life. The thoughts left her feeling confused and anxious with the uncertainty of what her future might hold.

As she describes in her book, We Were Made for These Times, Thich Nhat Hanh encouraged his students not to overthink their problems. Instead, we should learn to rest in the experience of “not-knowing.” She points to a practice of planting these big questions like seeds in our minds and letting wisdom arise from deep within our consciousness.

According to Buddhist psychology, the mind has several layers of consciousness. We are, perhaps, most identified with the layer of “mind consciousness,” which is the realm of thought. We spend most of our time here, bouncing between past and future, like and dislike, hope and fear. Mind consciousness is very active and takes a lot of energy. Another layer is “sense consciousness,” which is our ability to perceive the world using our five senses. We are aware of sights, sounds, smells, and so forth. Then, “store consciousness” is a deeper layer in which our mind stores thoughts and perceptions for processing. Thich Nhat Hanh compares it to a garden, where we plant seeds to be cultivated later. 

Under the right conditions, mind consciousness is a powerful tool, helping us to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. However, thinking harder is not always the best approach. When faced with a difficult decision, we often ruminate on the problem, leaving us exhausted — and no closer to a solution.

Sometimes, we need to accept that we don’t know. We are better off resting our minds and letting go of the problem, at least for a while. Frequently, an answer will arise as if out of nowhere. 

I’ve had this experience countless times, whether when faced with a technical challenge like fixing a bug on a website or struggling to connect some ideas for a podcast episode. I might hammer away at finding a solution, jumping from one thought to another and another, only to end up more and more frustrated when I can’t figure it out. When I finally give in to not-knowing and take a break — whether going for a walk, going to bed, or otherwise resting my mind — inevitably, I’ve found a solution to the problem, whether hours or days later. 

When mind consciousness failed, I let the problem sink into store consciousness. I had prepared my mind to process the problem by giving it plenty of inputs. Mind consciousness kept bouncing around these inputs and ultimately got stuck in a loop. However, store consciousness worked with the thoughts and sensory perceptions I had generated over many hours or days, turning these into a novel approach I hadn’t considered.

This approach can be even more valuable for even bigger challenges like Kaira Jewel Lingo’s decision to say goodbye to life as a nun. Major life decisions almost always come with a great deal of stress, fear, and anxiety. In her case, she had spent most of her adult life in a sheltered spiritual environment. She’d essentially be starting her life over in her early 40s. What would she do? How would she make a living? Where would she live? It’s easy to imagine getting stuck in a spiral of these kinds of thoughts.

With her training, she knew that resting the mind would yield better results than constant rumination on the uncertainty. As she sat in silent meditation day after day, we can safely assume those questions continued to swirl in her head — since thoughts arise on their own, especially really sticky ones. But having trained her mind for the better part of two decades, she knew how to gently ease the mind back to the breath or sensations in the body. She rested in the wisdom of not-knowing, allowing the tension and uncertainty to sink into store consciousness. While her mind consciousness was desperate for an answer to this either/or dilemma, her store consciousness gradually delivered something even more valuable: a sense of joy and contentment that helped her to move forward into the unknown. She could accept her loss of identity with grace and confidence. 

Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering and creator of Learning How to Learn, one of the most popular online courses in the world, describes an idea that relates closely to store consciousness. In her course, she introduces two modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. We spend much of our time hammering away in focused mode, which is useful when we have a well-defined problem and a clear set of tasks. But when the problem or the answers aren’t so clear, we can employ the diffuse mode of thinking, which is when we let go of actively holding onto thoughts about the problem and let our minds rest and wander. Diffuse thinking allows ideas to pop into your mind in the shower or as you lay down to bed.

These ideas also remind me of an episode I did on instinct, reason, and intuition. One key insight from the episode was the importance of filling our minds with high-quality information to fuel better intuition. I can see a clear connection between our intuition and store consciousness. If we plant healthy seeds — valuable information — we are more likely to harvest useful insights.

Whatever terms we use to describe this approach, we benefit from getting out of our heads sometimes and letting go of our need for certainty. By accepting that we can’t always know, we can release a lot of pressure we put on ourselves. When we pause and give ourselves periods of quiet and calm, we invite a deeper wisdom. 

Like a glass filled with muddy water, our minds take time for the mud to settle, allowing its natural clarity to arise. With a calm and clear mind, we might just be able to see our path forward.

Well, that’s all for this episode. I hope you benefit from the wisdom of not-knowing and find time to rest your mind this week. Speaking of resting the mind, this is the final episode in season three. I’ll be taking a break to let my own mind rest and allow some new ideas to arise. If you’ve found any value in this podcast, please leave me a review or share it with a friend; that really helps. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License