Uncertainty

‘The first thing that arises when we open up to each other is a great sigh of relief. We realise that we’re not the only one who feels bewildered.’

 

Pema Chödrön

Australia is currently heading towards an election campaign, and the media is full of politicians who are trying to sound convinced that they are the only ones who have all the answers to the complex problems affecting this country. Of course, no one person can be an expert on everything or have the solution to all our challenges, but to express uncertainty on any issue would be considered political suicide. We may cringe when we hear politicians sound like a ‘know-it-all’ as a result, but in our own lives, how comfortable do we feel with uncertainty? It’s not usually a pleasant space to spend much time in. Yet as the social psychologist Erich Fromm has written:

‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.’

Uncertainty can open us to curiosity and wonderment. It is always refreshing when a teacher or presenter is asked a question they don’t know the answer to, and instead of becoming defensive, their face opens up in delight as they exclaim,

‘Now, that is a really interesting question!’

When we approach uncertainty as an opportunity for further exploration, it becomes a place of creative possibility. A songwriter doesn’t know what the song will sound like before she starts writing, just as the artist is faced with a blank canvas. Creativity can be just as much stilted by great success as by miserable failure, when the desire to reproduce the success means the artist is no longer willing to delve into the unknown.

Some uncertainties are very difficult to bear – when we’re waiting for the results of an important medical test, or are no longer sure if our partner wants to be with us, or have lost contact with a family member. Uncertainty like this can cause a lot of suffering, and we can’t just offer glib assurances to someone in these situations.

Yet even our more ordinary everyday life is filled with uncertainty – we never know what the next moment will bring. We can respond by becoming paralysed with anxiety, or else being rigid and exuding an air of being overly confident. As Yeats wrote in his famous poem ‘The Second Coming’: 

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’

Somewhere in the middle between those two extremes there is an opportunity of acting with agency and confidence, while at the same time being open to having our viewpoint and solutions challenged by new learnings. In mindfulness meditation, we often develop a greater sense of trust in ourselves, in acting from our values and inner knowing. Yet most meditation, by its nature, tends to also take us to places of uncertainty for what can seem like a very long time. This can be frustrating, but also liberating. 

The voice of uncertainty is more quiet than the booming sound of pompous conviction. What it lacks in charisma, however, it more than makes up for in authenticity.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with the intention of deliberately sitting in uncertainty. Perhaps there is a topical issue you can’t make up your mind on, or there is an area of uncertainty looming in your current life. For the set period of time, try not to come up with any solution. Notice how it feels in your body, as well as emotionally and mentally, to simply sit with this uncertainty.

Anja Tanhane

Allowing your thoughts – Part 2





 If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent!

Pema Chödrön

We can think of our thoughts like trains which pull into a station – we can decide whether we want to get on a particular train or not. One train might be ‘planning the summer holiday’, and this is indeed the perfect time to start planning, so we get on this ‘train of thought’ and ride along for a few stops. But if the train is called ‘anxiously ruminating on something which happened three weeks ago and which I really need to move on from’, then we can decide to let this particular train go past.

Becoming aware of our thought patterns, of which train has pulled into the station just now, can take a little practice. Often, thoughts seem to have their own momentum, taking us along for a ride we don’t seem to remember signing up for. In order to get off the train before it takes us to places we don’t want to go to, it is helpful to develop our present-moment awareness.

‘What is really happening right now?’ We take a moment to pause, to tune in. We notice the breath in our body. It is quite remarkable, the way our body is continually adjusting to the breath flowing in, the breath flowing out. Where do we feel the movement most strongly? In the belly, or in the chest expanding and contracting? Or even at the tip of the nose, the cool air entering, the warm air leaving? We might listen to the sounds around us – with a sense of being open and curious. What is the temperature of the air? Perhaps we can do a quick body scan – noticing where the body might be in contact with the ground or a chair, or any strong sensations. After a few minutes of this, we will probably notice that our thoughts have shifted in some way.

It can also be helpful to place our thoughts into a larger perspective. In Buddhism this is sometimes called ‘big sky awareness’. We can think of our mind as the vast open sky, and our thoughts like clouds which float across the sky, coming and going, fleeting and ephemeral. Other helpful nature images can be seeing our thoughts like leaves floating past in a stream, or standing behind a waterfall and watching our thoughts tumbling down in front of us like water, while we remain dry and safe.

If we find our thoughts really affecting the quality of our lives, it can also be useful to seek counselling or other supports, and/or to learn mindfulness from a qualified teacher in the context of a supportive group. Strong, insistent thought patterns can be a signal pointing towards unresolved emotions, and we might benefit from skilled support as we work through these.

Our thoughts are just part of who we are. If we don’t give them too much power, but still engage with them respectfully, our thoughts can be friendly allies rather than something we need to fight against and control.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time and ask yourself – ‘what is really happening right now?’ Tune into your body, into the environment. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane





Sending a message





‘When I want to send a message, I go to the post office.’

Ernest Hemingway

In this era of quick sound bites, where even the prime minister has less than ten seconds to explain why he or she is sending troops to war, Hemingway’s quote reminds us not everything can be packaged up neatly into a ‘message’. Imagine a politician being able to say to the media,

‘This issue is very complex, and I really don’t know what the right solution might be.’

He or she would be pilloried by the press, and yet this is how I feel about many current issues, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Novels are about asking questions, not providing answers. The characters in novels are flawed beings who struggle to get by in a world where there is no simple solution for their problems. They make mistakes, they hurt others, and yet we sympathise with them. As we become absorbed in their lives, it is easy to feel,

‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

Yet in daily life, we often forget this, and can become judgmental towards people who haven’t got it ‘together’ as wonderfully as we have. I work in a community health organisation, which focuses on supporting people who are particularly disadvantaged. As we get to know our clients, what my colleagues and I most notice about them is how incredibly resilient they are. You could fill pages with their health and other problems, yet here they are, smiling, engaged, bemused by the latest set-back but also determined to soldier on. There is nothing sentimental about the respect which people who work in this area have for their clients. It is simply a matter of knowing a little of their story, and understanding how difficult their lives have been.

When we are confronted with the problem of social disadvantage, we can either give up and try to ignore these complex, seemingly intractable problems; or we can formulate one or two simplistic solutions and promote them relentlessly. The other alternative is to become more ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, in the words of meditation teacher Pema Chodren. When we meditate, we suspend searching for solutions and are simply present with our confused emotions, thoughts, perceptions. Do we have a message for the world, once we’ve finished meditating? Hopefully not. But we probably do understand ourselves, and therefore also others, a little better.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of an issue you are confused about – it could be a political issue, or difficulties with someone in your life, or a complex social problem. Sit for ten or twenty minutes, and, instead of trying to find a solution, allow yourself to simply be present with conflicting thoughts and emotions. How does it feel, to not go straight into problem-solving mode?

Anja Tanhane

 





Happiness





White flowers

‘Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.’

Oscar Wilde

 

It is typical of Oscar Wilde that, in his witty way, he touches on a rather painful truth. There are people who simply don’t seem to have the knack of making others happy, of being pleasant company. Other people are so open-hearted and generous, they sow harmony and good-will in even difficult circumstances. The rest of us are somewhere in between – we probably have plenty of people in our lives whose faces light up when we enter a room, as well as a few who are less than delighted to run into us. We all want to be happy, we all want to be liked, and we all struggle with both.

One of the effects of regular meditation is an increase in the activity of the left pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with positive feeling states. Continue reading “Happiness” »