Learning to Not Know; Reflecting on the End of my TESOL Orientation in Thailand

Learning to Not Know; Reflecting on the End of my TESOL Orientation in Thailand

During my first week of TESOL, we were given the opportunity to reflect on and write about our reasons for choosing to come to Thailand. Following this, we had the opportunity to share those thoughts with the group. By the end of this workshop, we were all feeling the fuzzies of a newly deepened bond. To close, we were given a thin piece of wood and asked to write down something that we wanted to let go of– an outdated expectation or way of thinking that might hold us back as we walked the daunting path forward. I wrote:

“projecting into the future”

I spend A LOT of time in my head. I am a problem-solver. I am a planner. I am a truth-seeker. I am an analyzer. I. think. about. EVERYTHING. And then I think about everything AGAIN. And maybe once or twice more. I do not consider this to be a terrible trait, but there are definitely aspects of this behavioral pattern that do not always serve me (or the people around me for that matter). The ability to set a goal, make a plan, achieve it in a concrete way, and reflect on the experience, has brought me a lot of success. My affinity for this process of information-gathering, however, has also brought a lot of anxiety and disappointment when I can’t figure out how to turn an abstract feeling into an articulated thought, unable to put it in a box, tie a bow on it, and store it in a nice little corner of my brain. I really do feel like this is how my brain works. Sometimes, I feel like I can really feel the neurotransmission differences of the various algorithms my brain follows. I know that sounds pretty crazy, but I’ve spent A LOT of years and dedicated time getting to know my brain. So much so, that in certain instances my thoughts and subsequent behavior can get pretty consciously calculated.

I believe in applying the scientific process to every day life, and I believe that we are all scientists (whether we know it or not). We all wonder and ask questions, both big and small, that we don’t know the solutions to but work towards answering. Being an obsessive truth-seeker and problem-solver, I think this is a huge part of why I love science so much. Science takes this process and systemizes it. To put it succinctly, I love science because it is a systematic process that allows me to approach the truth. (*please excuse me while I swoon at that previous sentence*).

While in the professional world, my need to know things has contributed to my success, in the social world, specifically the dating world, it has caused me to crash and burn more times than I would like to admit.

I really suck at being in interpersonal limbo. It’s a feeling that makes me feel so unsettled that I will do something to rock the boat just so I don’t have to be in limbo anymore. My logic in these situations has always been: ‘I don’t really care how you feel about me, I just want to know.’ I would much rather fast-track whatever excited or disappointed feeling I will inevitably feel down the road than to let the truth hang in the air with the opportunity to go unspoken. A truth never acknowledged? That is my own personal hell.

Up until recently, I felt strangely proud of this ability to walk head first into disappointment, able to emerge free and unburdened at best and temporarily embarrassed at worst on the other side. I have processed so many difficult emotions and experiences throughout my life that most days I feel like I have it down to a science, because well, I apply my scientific knowledge to it.

I spent ~2.5 years studying the neuroscience of adjusting expectations in undergrad. The knowledge I gained from this experience, is one of my most useful tools in dealing with disappointment. I am ALWAYS able to logic my way out of whatever I am feeling by focusing on the shift in neurotransmission I know to be occurring in my brain. I feel this way because my dopamine neurons just decreased their firing rate. My brain is caching this unmet expectation in my brain so that next time my expectation can be more accurate. This is quite literally what I tell myself when wading through disappointed feels. It has been a very effective tool for less rumination and more decision making, but I think I have taken it to an extreme. At some point in the last ~2ish years, I became a reckless interpersonal, decision-maker! Sometimes I do things and make decisions knowing full well that I will only end up disappointed. I know that I want an answer. And I know that I can deal with disappointment. So? I went from being a indecisive, ruminating perfectionist to being a decisive, self-defeating, fucker-upper.

I never really questioned any of this until around this time last year, when I read something that completely contradicted all of this logic, yet resonated with me so deeply that it humbled me, and forced me to start questioning my pride in being able to call forth and deal with disappointment.

“How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?”

I happened upon this in a random New Years Resolution article I was reading last year. And I know that when I was reading this, I was on a quest for closure. And while I got the closure, it was definitely not something I enjoyed (Let me be clear, I do not enjoy disappointment, I just know how to work through it relatively quickly). As a result, this answer-seeking logic of mine was already on my mind when I stumbled upon this sentence. It hit me so hard, that I decided to make it my overarching resolution for 2015, and over the year, I have thought of this phrase somewhat consistently.

Honestly a huge part of why I like this idea so much is because it’s phrased as a question, which you know, in theory means there’s an answer. Throughout the year, I have continued to reword the question: “Why is not knowing so hard for me?” “Why would I rather be disappointed than just not know?” “Why do I assume concrete disappointment is better than malleable uncertainty?” “What will happen if I don’t rock the boat?” I probably think about it as often as I do because any real glimpse of a solution has evaded me most of the year.

But then I came to Thailand. The land of not knowing.

Thailand is extremely laid back. In the US, “being stressed out,” is practically something we brag about. If you’re not busy, you’re lazy and you’re doing it wrong. In Thailand, stress is avoided at all costs. Everything is ‘mai bpen rai’ and ‘sabai sabai’ and ‘jai yen yen.’ If something is going wrong? Mai bpen rai! No worries, everything will be fine! Sabai sabai! Everything is comfortable and good! Jai yen yen! Chill your heart, chillout, there is no reason to get so worked up! Thailand, as I’m sure you know, is a Buddhist country, so Thai culture is very influenced by Buddhist teachings. Being laid back and peacefully accepting life as it is, even if maybe you should be stressed out, is very, very Thailand.

I consider myself to be a relatively laid back person. I frequently have had people tell me that their overall impression of me is that I am very “chill” (my favorite version of this is when somebody told me I have a periwinkle aura LOL-555 (ha means 5 in Thai, amusing right?)). I tend to agree with the mai bpen rai, sabai sabai, jai yen yen, attitude of Thailand, but sometimes it is just too much.

Since realizing how this sort of Buddhist outlook of acknowledgement and acceptance benefitted my mood and general well-being, I started to glorify the ‘live in the moment’ ‘trust the process’ mentality. Now that I am really, truly immersed in it, however, I see some of the downsides. A culture of mai bpen rai, often means nothing gets done efficiently. There’s just simply not enough pressure or not enough desire for a more efficient system, because everything will work out. And it usually does, but not without a few unnecessary headaches along the way.

I have noticed this the most while going through the process of getting my work permit. There was plenty of time to get everything done, but it literally did not get done until the exact day my then-current visa expired. I spent 2 weeks being told I needed to go with this person to this place to sign this and do that and that we did this wrong and you need this instead and it was A NIGHTMARE. I never knew what was going on. Every document and conversation was in Thai. Whenever I asked for an answer that started with “When…?” there was either no answer or the answer I was given eventually changed. The timeline of when this all would get done really didn’t seem to exist, but it was all mai bpen rai.

The girl in charge of this whole process is my Thai friend Marisa, who sits at the desk next to me. I could tell she was stressed out the whole time (it was her first time doing this paperwork), but everything was still “Mai bpen rai. Do not worry Kai Muk.” We joked around a lot about how the differences in American and Thai culture made the whole process more difficult for me. I would say things like “In America: I WANT TO KNOW NOW!! In Thailand: Mai Bpen Rai. Sabai Sabai, Jai Yen Yen.” It became our joke for the whole process. Marisa was already one of my best Thai friends, but we bonded even more through the work permit nightmare (and yes I did teach her the phrase “Oh what a nightmare!”).


Living in the moment is great and all, but reflecting on the past and planning for the future is a must in my book. That’s how we as individuals and we as societies improve. I’m not really sure anymore why thinking about the past and the future gets so much negativity. Yes, regret exists in the past and yes, anxiety exists in the future, but so do beautiful memories and exciting possibilities, respectively.

In neuroscience, this sort of thinking is sometimes referred to as Mental Time Travel. This phenomenon is discussed in Dan Falk’s In Search of Time: The History, Physics and Philosophy of Time, a book high on my reading list. I learned about it from this article. Here is a snippet:

“To be human,” writes Dan Falk in In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time (public library), “is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness” — something evidenced by our millennia-old quest to map this invisible dimension. One of the most remarkable and evolutionarily essential elements of experiencing time through human consciousness is something psychologists and cognitive scientists call mental time travel — a potent bi-directional projection that combines episodic memory, which allows us to draw on our autobiographical experience and call up events, experiences, and emotions that occurred in the past, with the ability to imagine and anticipate future events. Falk puts it unambiguously:

“Without it, there would be no planning, no building, no culture; without an imagined picture of the future, our civilization would not exist.”

Spending time thinking about both the past and the future is a fundamental part of being human. I do still find a lot of value in the present moment, but I don’t think it makes sense to strive to live there all of the time. Spending time in the past and in the future, is valuable too.

When I made the goal “to not project into the future,” I think what I really meant was that I didn’t want to get too caught up in what I “have to do” or “should do next.” I wanted to really be in Thailand while I am here. But why should I feel guilty for thinking about what’s coming next? This thought projection process is as much human as I am.

In my last post, I started to articulate that I am realizing that while I am in Thailand, my life is still unfolding in the hearts and minds of people and establishments elsewhere. Just because I am 100% physically in Thailand does not mean I need to be 100% mentally in Thailand. I don’t need to “be here now” all of the time.

After writing a lot of this, I was discussing these themes with my new PCCM friend Alex. I essentially gave her a preview of this blog post, and the discussion helped me figure out a few things. Alex brought up that it’s the extremes that really get us. It’s all about finding a balance between “living in” the present moment, the future, and the past. If you spend too much time in any of those dimensions, that’s when you run into problems. I excitedly agreed with her, adding that it’s much more about how you are thinking about your past/present/future rather than if.

In many ways, though Thailand’s tendency to “be in the moment” or say “mai bpen rai” to everything has challenged me, it has taught me a lot. Coming to Thailand, I had this big idea that I was going to become super zen. I was going to meditate every day and walk around on a meditative cloud of awareness. This is still somewhat of a goal for me, but not in the “number one priority” way it was before I got here.

What I realize now, is the greatest thing Thai culture is teaching me (so far), is not to be zen per say, but instead to be comfortable with not knowing. In my day to day life, I experience this on the small scale. Will my classes show up today? When will I have my work permit? How am I supposed to make marks in the gradebook? These answers never exist right away. I have to go through a long period of not knowing first.

On an even bigger scale though, I do not know when I will leave Thailand or where I will go. I came here with the idea that I would teach for one year, travel for a few months, then go home and go to grad school. Each day I get a little further and further away from this plan.

This plan made it so I had about two months to travel before heading home. In the last month or so, I have not been able to shake the feeling that this is not enough time for everything that I want to do.

Then last night it hit me, the pressure I feel to go home, the deadline I have in my head, is literally just that. It’s all in my head. It’s an expectation I made for myself and expressed to others. But it can change. It is not fixed. My life is mine to do with what I want. I can change my mind and let go of outdated plans and ideas I created in the past.

“How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor for aliveness?”

Just in time for 2016, another corner of the internet hit me with an answer to chew on for at least the next year.

“It’s understanding that timing makes all the difference and that certain situations just need to brew a little longer before they are ready.”

What’s the point of getting an answer now, if the answer is likely to change with the passing of time?

Thailand, you sneaky little bastard, you. Look at what you are teaching me.

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