by Brandon Nappi
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
Melville’s line haunts me in the moments when I notice myself longing for a clear path to replace the murky ambiguity that is most of life. What will the test results say? Will this relationship last? Should I leave this job? Will my children be OK? Will I have enough for retirement? Am I doing enough? Life is filled with countless moments of not knowing and every journey is accompanied by questions without clear answers. There are parts of me that seek formulas and linear paths to deliver me what I think I want. I’ve come to understand, however, that the art of not knowing is perhaps the most important skill to cultivate in life.
This is why I practice mindfulness and meditation: to learn to be OK with not knowing. In mindfulness practice, I practice noticing all the judgments, the attachments and the prolific fictional commentaries produced by the mind. I practice being with the discomfort of not seeing a detailed roadmap ahead and not trying to force a path where one does not want to emerge.
“Just show up,” I tell myself. When I live with this kind of trust and openness to murky ambiguity, I notice that the path appears beneath my feet one moment at a time.
When I was 23, I was dating a woman who was planning a solo backpacking trip in Italy. On our fifth date I surprised her by buying a ticket and offering to join her as her travel companion. Since we had only known each other for a few weeks, this was a risky proposition which might have easily be interpreted as presumptuous and creepy. She was shocked and confused that I had made such a dramatic move in our new relationship. In retrospect, it still surprises me how out of character this was! She welcomed me with lukewarm resignation and reluctant confusion (I will counsel my daughters to run away from anything that resembles this in the future).
Our two-week date included some of the most famous art of the Renaissance, evening strolls through candlelit medieval villages, private tastings in hidden wineries, and food that defies description. Our journey concluded with a hike along Italy’s famous Cinque Terre, five towns impossibly perched upon rugged cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea.
Very few roads access this coastal paradise and we were quite content to venture through these five towns along a meager though popular hiking trail that connects them. Under a relentless July sun we hiked all day. The increasing vagueness and desolation of the trail slowly revealed my miserable navigation skills. A few minutes before dinnertime we discovered that I had made an error in navigation many hours before. We were left with no good options: we faced an abandoned train tunnel ahead, the jagged face of a mountain souring upward on our right, a cliff with a vertical hundred foot drop directly into the ocean on the left, and five hours of trail behind us. Sun-scorched and hungry, our bodies ached from fatigue as our minds ached in confusion.
Improvisation as our only option we shuffled into the tunnel hoping for a path toward food, shelter, and ointment for my blistered shoulders. The stale, moist air greeted us first as the blackness steadily devoured us.
A pinprick of light hung like a distant star nearly a mile in the distance. Creatures scurried around our feet. Drops of water plunked into puddles as rocks shifted around us. Unidentified sounds echoed through the mysterious corridor. Suddenly, we were the naive couple in the cheap horror movie that the audience scolds for wandering foolishly into the zombie-infested cemetery.
In our blindness, we gripped one another’s hands tightly like I remember my father gripping my toddler hand when we crossed a Manhattan street. We placed each foot with exquisite care hoping that it would be met by solid ground. Did the tunnel contain a den of unhappy animals or a colony of criminals? Had it been abandoned because of safety concerns? Did the pothole underfoot suggest that the path might collapse into the sea below us? Such imaginings haunted us as we continued the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, trusting that mindfulness and presence itself could contain the intensity of our fear and not knowing.
After an hour’s journey, we noticed golden light beginning to illuminate our footsteps. We emerged from the tunnel to find a village where later we slumbered in a renaissance palazzo with bellies filled with pesto and our hearts bursting with a stunning sense of accomplishment. We stepped into the tunnel as friends and we left as lifelong companions. Two years later we were married.
I’m astounded by how that adventure of walking through the darkness has prepared us for every life challenge we’ve faced. In life, not knowing is actually as important as knowing. If we can learn to make space for not knowing, then by simply putting one foot in front of the other we will get to where we need to be—one breath, one step, one moment at a time. Living this way takes a great deal of trust. For some this is trust in Life, the Universe (God), or simply the trust that we are strong enough and resilient enough to weather any storm.
Not knowing is how we build this reservoir of trust. Within the space of not knowing, we are being molded, shaped, and strengthened for the journey ahead.
Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice offering more than 50 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of retreats and programs led by Brandon, click here.