Living with Uncertainty


Lately I have been around people with uncertain futures – someone waiting for answers after an interview; someone else wondering if they were going to get pregnant this month; a person who was trying to decide if a particular choice or direction was the best one for them; still another who has not been sure if they want to return to their previous job after graduate school; and a parent who does not know if their child will be leaving home or continuing to live with them.

In each of these situations, a question arises about whether it is “okay” to feel unsettled by the uncertainty. People have asked me if it is “normal” to feel disconcerted about not knowing what is going to happen, and it got me to thinking about this phenomenon of living with uncertainty – especially as it arises with regularity throughout our lives!

It brought me to think about our natural world – the rhythm of the seasons, the evenness of a heartbeat, the way a flower moves from tiny seed to sprout to bud to blossom, the way a baby calms when responded to gently. There is a predictability in all this that our brains and hearts need. When routines are upset, our heart races, our breathing rate increases, and our thoughts often feel disarrayed. With support – conscious breathing, slowing our movements, reaching out for help, and other tools, our bodies return to a calmer state. If we live in a state of heightened stress for too long of a period, it can take a toll on our bodies, leading me to the conclusion that the discomfort of uncertainty is partly a signal to be aware it is happening and that we might need to attend to this state of being.

In other words, the state of uncertainty arises in small and large ways – will we get to work on time or is such and such a sign of a terminal illness? Being with uncertainty often includes discomfort – from slight tension to full-blown panic. In the midst of this, there is nothing wrong, I don’t think, with leaning on the familiar cadences of our lives, the rituals that create our hours and days. There is much order in the world, patterns of connectivity and ease, and we can gain wisdom and comfort from this order. At the same time, when something disrupts the expected, we often feel jolted, grasping for what seemed predictable or sure. Our practice teaches us to notice this grasping, to feel into the discomfort, to be with uncertainty. It is not “wrong” to want certainty, more that it is difficult to be with uncertainty and to remember to notice and to breathe and to get support.

With practice, letting go of the tension of being late, for example and just noticing being late or noticing that we want an answer to “what’s going to happen next?!!” and feeling what it feels like to not know, or getting “bad” news and giving comfort to ourselves or reaching out for support, all can help us stay with the unsettledness without judging ourselves as wrong for being in that state.

Breathing in I notice the desire for certainty. Breathing out I accept that which is uncertain. Neutrally observing the comfort of the familiar/known/anticipated and again neutrally observing the unease of not knowing/uncertain/no answer.