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

Stranded in Bali





Last week, my husband and I were among thousands stranded in Bali because of the volcanic ash cloud. It was difficult to get much sympathy for our plight from friends and family back home in Australia, especially as they were shivering through a particularly wet and icy week. ‘We’re stuck in Bali’ doesn’t really have the ring of tragedy about it. And for sure, there are worse places to be caught in. Another week in Bali, soaking up the sun, sitting by the ocean or the pool, paid for by travel insurance – poor devils!

And yet it was stressful, not knowing when we’d be able to return home. Since the beginning of July, the airport had opened sporadically for a few hours, let a few planes in and out, before closing again for the afternoon or a whole day. We were booked on a flight a week later, but of course there was no guarantee that this one would be able to depart. By Monday there was a backlog of 300 flights. There was no way of knowing how much longer this might drag on for, and it was impossible to communicate with our airline apart from filling out an online form and hoping that someone would be in touch at some stage.

In mindfulness, we’re always taught that our perception of an event plays a large part in how we experience it, and our extra week in Bali was the perfect example of this. Here we were, back from an exhausting day at the airport, which had closed only minutes before we arrived to check in. We were back in the same hotel, even the same room. We were back in the same routine of swimming, walking, reading, eating. Apart from the hours spent on the phone and computer contacting insurance, work, the airline etc, nothing had changed – and yet everything had. We were no longer choosing to spend time in Bali, we wanted to be back home, and even though we tried to make the best of the situation, it was not particularly relaxing.

At times, our external circumstances quite clearly influence our mood, but often it’s actually our perception of events which colours the glasses we view them through. This is normal, quite natural, but it helps us to be aware of this process, and our additional week in Bali was a perfect lesson for this!

Weekly practice idea:

This week, pause every now and then and ask yourself – is my current mood dependent on the situation, or on my state of mind? Do you notice anything interesting or unexpected as you do this exercise?

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” »