A Salute to Not Knowing


The Problem

A few months ago I was accepted to graduate school for a Masters in Music. For those of you who don’t know, in addition to acting and writing, I sing classically. In any case, I worked extremely hard for that acceptance and yet when it rolled around, I felt nothing. No excitement, no despair, no pride; just indifference.

I sat for weeks with that feeling. I started questioning my motives, my dreams, my whole life really. I started contemplating other viable career paths. I stopped investing so much time in my musical endeavors. I came to a point where I thought I might give up the serious pursuit of classical singing. I began toying with the notion of rejecting my acceptance to grad school and moving out of New York.

So I began to put more time into other interests like this blog, poetry, short fiction, drawing, web design; things that I would not have made much time for prior to this falling out with music. I felt free. I began to think about my pursuit of music as something of a prison that was holding me back from the things I really wanted to do.

Yet, almost simultaneously another thought crept into my mind. A voice that said, “you’re terrified.” I rejected this idea immediately. I rationalized that thought as a facet of myself that was resisting the change that was taking place; the part of me that was scared to let go of this music thing that had started to become such a big part of my life. But still that voice persisted. It began to contaminate the freedom I felt in my newfound endeavors.

I spent weeks agonizing over this imposed decision I felt I had to make. Over and over I pictured my life as it would go if I decided to go back to school. Then I’d do the same for the opposite scenario. I felt extremely confused and lost in many ways. I began to lose faith and confidence in myself. I was stuck in the middle of this thing as if I was balanced on some tight rope afraid to fall.

The Revelation

Finally, I sat down with my wife, and we had a lengthy conversation. We had many similar conversations before this, but none so impactful. She just listened while I went back and forth between the pros and cons of each decision. In my mind, I could see myself taking a few different paths with a satisfying outcome if I succeeded. The question was, what if I fail? How do I choose? Eventually I fell silent, dazed by the state I had worked myself into.

My wife asked me, “Do you want to go to school?” I said. “I don’t know.” She asked if that was a veiled ‘no’ or a tentative ‘yes.’ I thought for a moment and realized that I really didn’t know, or rather that I couldn’t make an informed, rational decision one way or the other.  She said, “Well, that’s where you are.” Something clicked then. I understood what had been nagging me for a while. I was terrified; not just of going back to school, but everything- this unknown future.

It dawned on me that I wasn’t going to know; that I couldn’t know. I had an opportunity in front of me; an opportunity which I have trained for years to attain. And when I finally got it, it frightened me. It meant I had to commit to focusing the bulk of my time, energy, and being on this very specific thing without knowing the outcome. Yet I was equally as scared of the opposite route. If I didn’t go to school, what then?

I had an “oh, so this is life” moment. The fear and anxiety dissipated. Another question entered my head: So, what do I know? I know I want healthy and meaningful relationships in my life. I know I want a career that involves artistic/spiritual expression and cultivation. Other than that I’m not too sure. And that’s ok. So I’ve decided I’ll attend grad school. I accept that I don’t know what will happen and that I won’t know until I give it a chance. If I get there, and decide I really can’t see myself doing it, then I’ll reassess.

Embracing “I Don’t Know”

We live our lives with an incessant need to know how it will play out. It seems the most natural of thoughts for a human being. We want to know who we are and where we’re going. But life is not static. It flows, and we can’t ever know exactly where the river is taking us or what debris we’ll encounter.

The hope is that we find something that really speaks to us; something that we can see ourselves doing long term. It seems to me that even if we find that thing, nothing is certain, and it does no good to agonize over the details of some made up future.

Embracing “I don’t know” can be incredibly liberating. It thrusts one into the present moment and forces us to examine who and how we are in that moment. If we approach life from this angle, then we can have our dreams, and plans and whatever else without getting too painfully attached to them. Then we’re loose, open to possibility, open to life, and open to the change the universe inevitably throws our way.

It’s not easy. There are a million patterns of thought and feeling telling us that it’s wrong; that we must know. But that voice is full of insecurity and fear. Admitting that we don’t know gives us strength, and allows us to float steadily down the river.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me about it!

By Terence Stone

P.S. For those of you who are curious, you can see a brief performance by me, here.

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Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.

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  • Kathy

    I find that the longer I persist along the spiritual path, I find I really don’t know anything at all… not for sure. I can’t know what is real or what I am, not with certainty. There is simply a seeming reality with a lot of seeming bodies and seeming thoughts, all of which seems to come and go. And I certainly can’t know what is best to do here in this seeming existence. That ongoing realization has definitely been cause for a lot of anxiety and even outright terror at times.

    I think a lot of our seeming comfort comes from the illusion of certainty… when we think we know something. But when we really start to question everything, that illusion reveals itself for what it is. And we are left not knowing… sitting with the anxiety that brings… and waiting to see what arises next.

    I enjoyed your post and the video of you singing. The latter was really quite impressive. When I was younger, I dreamed of being a singer but didn’t have the confidence or emotional wherewithal to pursue it. So I admire your courage and I wish you all the best with grad school. Congrats for taking the leap!

    • Kathy, as always thank you for reading and for the kind words. I like that concept of the illusion of certainty. I think it is so true. We never simply choose something once and that’s the end of it. When we commit to something, it becomes about making the choice over and over again to stick with it. It makes sense if you think of it in terms of beingness. We are always fading away, always becoming, and most importantly we always simply are. It is the paradox of life. We are a new being every moment with the capacity to think and feel new things and to make new decisions. We fool ourselves into thinking we don’t change, that we know what we are, who we are, why we are. But knowing suggest certainty, and life is everything but.

      Thanks again. Wishing you the best.

  • Rachel

    Terence, loved this article more than you know. I am very happy to hear/read that you have decided to attend school. embracing the unknown. being comfortable with the unknown… all concepts I am trying to learn and listen to every day with all our mine and Dan’s new adventures coming our way. Dan and I always say to one another ( mostly him to me…) ” this is where you’re at today….” and there is definite freedom in taking that in.

    As I am making changes in my life- location, career paths , etc….. I’d love to hear what you have to say about the concept of justification. I find that as soon as I tell someone I am moving, or considering a career change, their negative response immediately elicits a ugly defensiveness in me that instantly makes me regret bringing up the idea that I could possibly want a career change in the first place. Does this only happen with me? with people in the arts?

    Maybe the article I’d love you to write isn’t about the need/want to justify but instead the instinct to judge others?

    In a hypothetical future, if you decided not to go to grad school- how would you have dealt with the backlash of negative responses?

    • Rachel, thanks for reading and for your kind words. I can imagine that you would be going through some similar issues. It seems we all have big changes ahead. It is not an easy thing, but what makes it more difficult is resistance to that change.

      In regards to the defensiveness you feel toward others who may judge you negatively, in my experience when that happens, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person. You see, we construct mental images and ideas about who a person is and believe that to be truth, but it’s not, it can’t be. People change whether they like it or not. When we judge another person, there is a conflict which arises between who we think that person is and who they actually are in that moment. That’s why I say it’s always about the person making the judgement. It is an unwillingness to let go of some ideal, or construct to which they’ve become attached.

      Now, on the other side of that, you must be honest with yourself. What does your defensiveness indicate about yourself? Is it because you think you are making the wrong decision, or just because you’re afraid of what others will think. If it is the latter, I’d let that go. People are always going to judge. People will always talk about us when we’re not in earshot. That’s part of life, but it doesn’t change who we are. And again, it’s about the people doing the talking.

      And I don’t think it happens just with you or even just with artists. If you’ve lived your life professing that you want to do this one thing, then naturally others will expect that of you, and become attached to the idea of you doing that thing. But we can’t let that sway our decisions about our life paths. When you bring the subject up to others, you are seeking validation for your decision. I know this, because I’ve done the same thing many times!

      Everyone will have an opinion whether they express it or not, but it is not their life. There is nothing wrong with asking advice, but I would argue that most people do not understand how to give skillful or effective advice. It is easy to let our own judgements and preconceived notions about the other person cloud the advice. Hence, why you need to take others’ thoughts about you with a grain of salt. It is far more skillful to be completely aware of what is going on inside of you when you hear someone’s advice then to blindly follow that advice. Then, you bring it back to the source: you, who is the only person that has the answer.

      As far as my hypothetical future goes, I may still decide to change career paths down the line, but if I come to that point it will be because I choose it. If I make that choice, and commit to it, then it can’t possibly be the wrong choice. The same goes for you.

      Sorry this was so long-winded. I hope this answered your questions somewhat.

      P.S. I’ve been thinking about you and Dan. I’m gonna miss you guys a whole lot.

  • Great post. Agree. But that doesn’t make it any easier. I have a couple of paths in front of me and I may have to make a decision soon at short notice (not completely true since I know even now). But as you said that is life, I can’t be sure of how things will work out now (that happens in the future).
    Great performance in the video!

    • Thanks for reading and for the kind words! Yes, it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I wish you the best on your journey.

  • I am currently in the opposite paradox. I have and tried to have a music career since 16 but it was just holding me back. I felt like I was constantly trying to force it. My father was a musician and I looked for approval here. I recently let it go for good. It felt liberating for me to no longer swim against the current.

    You have enormous talent and if you feel connected and in the moment when singing I imagine great amounts of joy from this for you. I think you are heading on a great path. Your long term will be determined by your ability to enjoy each moment no matter the path you choose. Well done and congratulations.

    • Nattietee, thanks for reading as always and for the very kind words. Sounds like you made a skillful decision. Life is too beautiful and immediate to be always swimming against the current. Better to let it take you! And I couldn’t agree more about the ability to enjoy each moment. That is always the goal. Thanks for posting!

  • “If you really see uncertainty clearly, you will see that which is certain. The certainty is that things must inevitably be uncertain and that they cannot be otherwise.” Uncertainty is a core teaching of one of my favourite teachers – Ajahn Chah. I’m glad that you have been able to work through this in your life. It is a powerful revelation; one that I haven’t yet come to terms with myself. I still resist uncertainty.
    Good luck at grad school. You have a lovely voice.

    • Sarah, thanks for reading and for that quote! I will have to check him out. I wouldn’t say that I have worked it out. I’ve had the revelation, but it is a work in progress. I’m sure I will be coming to terms with it for a while yet. We have to keep reminding ourselves to constantly make the choice to see the true nature of things until it sinks in. Thanks for the well-wishes and I wish you the best on your journey.

  • Yes………embracing the unknown and following through with ideas….like reading a book and finding out what the ending has in store. A wonderful opportunity to venture into and explore….a journey, an adventure and you will be fine tuning your skills….not just as an opera singer, but as a master of your own life! Good for you, young Terence….you are a gentleman and a scholar!