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

Happiness in a minor key





Pink flowers

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false and true;

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(from When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats)

 

To see the pilgrim soul of another person, to love their sorrows – we are moved by stories filled with sadness; we instinctively respect the dignity of grief; we have all suffered loss, and we know there are many more losses ahead of us, including, eventually, the loss of our lives. And yet, despite this, many of us feel we have to hide our sorrows, to be relentlessly upbeat, positive, great fun to be around. We all have different temperaments, individual ways in which we experience the difficulties of our lives. Sometimes we feel too vulnerable to show the world what’s going on with us, and the ‘sorrows of (our) changing face’ might be seen by only one or two people close to us. Yet one of the gifts of mindfulness for me has been to become much more comfortable with the full range of my emotions. Apart from sitting with difficult emotions during the formal meditation practice, I’ve learnt to allow myself to experience sadness whenever it arises.  Instead of chastising myself – ‘what have you got to be sad about, there are many people much worse off than you’ (which is quite true) – I can accept sadness as a normal part of any life. Continue reading “Happiness in a minor key” »