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.

 

The Unknown: Always Present

I have been in a few conversations lately with people who said, “It’s hard to be in the unknown.” Or “I have such a hard time with groundlessness.” These are people who are looking for jobs and aren’t sure where they will end up – what job, what city, what hours, etc. Or people who have retired and aren’t sure how they will make enough money in this new phase of life. Or in my own head – will I take on a new course of study in the fall, for example, or will I be living alone for at least a month this summer?

As I have contemplated these phrases, I sometimes sense that there is an implication that it’s unusual to have it be difficult to experience the unknown. That somehow we should be “better” at it! Actually, I think it is one of the hardest things – to stay in the present without knowing what will happen. One of the biggest reasons, I think, is not just that we are having a hard time not knowing what will happen – rather we have a hard time not knowing how we will feel when whatever happens (or doesn’t) happens! Of course it is soothing to know where we will work or live or with whom we will partner or whether we will have enough money. However, the discomfort deepens when we realize we just wish we knew how we will feel. And we have no idea. A wise friend in my meditation group articulated it like this: “I think if I try hard enough, I can figure out the right decision because the right decision will dictate that I will feel good.” And of course we have no idea how we will feel….even if we make quite a skillful decision.

Will we feel excited to get one particular job? Will we feel openhearted and at ease in a new city or will we feel lonely and displaced? Will ending a relationship (or job or volunteer gig or committee) feel like a relief or a loss of identity? Will starting a new commitment feel nurturing or burdensome? We have no idea until we actually are in that situation in that moment. Maybe five years ago we felt something when in a particular situation – or even five days ago – but we don’t know how we will feel now.

It is truly challenging to stay with the discomfort of the unknown. Especially because beyond the decision-making times, there is the uncomfortable truth that we truly never really know when we will suddenly feel groundless. My niece lost her wallet just before going on a trip and had to cancel it last minute. My work colleague’s hot water heater burst when she was about to leave for a conference. My carefree attitude about flying was changed by having a panic attack for the first time in my life while on board a plane. Even those these are relatively benign examples; suddenly being in an unexpected situation often brings us up short.

I am practicing finding some ease around the discomfort – not judging it – bringing more observation to how hard it is, as opposed to thinking that somehow I am supposed to be “better” at it. Part of the human condition is to seek “ground,” to want to know what the future will bring. But from stepping outside and thinking it was going to be warm and realizing we should have worn one more layer to resigning from a difficult job and feeling sadness instead of relief to having a child leave home and feeling freedom instead of grief, we just are constantly up for being surprised. The challenge is to train one’s brain to note the feeling of surprise, to remember it is a regular part of life, and to then pay attention to what one actually feels. Can we bring some spaciousness around the discomfort of not knowing and deepen our awareness of this discomfort? Can we breathe and stay with the unease, waiting to know how we feel until we are actually feeling it? Can we seek support when making decisions, so that part of our groundless feelings are held and we are not having to experience this alone? Can we trust that no matter what decisions we make, we will have constant chances to keep learning and growing? And, most of all, can we deepen our capacity to be with whatever feelings do arise, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant? Regardless of whether we feel angry, sad, disappointed, joyful, fearful, relieved, settled, or confused, learning to note, name, and be with the feelings can increase our ability to simply be with ourselves – and, ultimately, to be with others in whatever state they find themselves. The peacefulness of being with, even if the feelings do not feel particularly peaceful, can have a beautiful ripple effect throughout our bodies, our families, and our communities. Worthwhile work, in my opinion.

So if you find yourself saying, “It’s so hard to not know what’s going to happen,” know that 1) you are not alone, and 2) being in the present with how you feel now and then again with how you feel once you do know what is happening is amazing nurturing for your brain and body and fellow travelers. Wishing you ease and compassion for wherever you are in your journey today.

 

 

 

 

Impermanence

I have been thinking a lot about impermanence, sparked by a conversation with members of my meditation community. The concept of impermanence makes sense intellectually, but the experience is so hard to just be with. As Thich Nath Hanh writes: “Concentration means you keep the insight alive for a long time. It’s not just a flash; that’s not enough to liberate you. So in your daily life, you keep that insight of nonself, of emptiness, of impermanence alive. When you see a person, a bird, a tree, or a rock, you see its nature of emptiness. Then it becomes an insight that will liberate you. It’s very different from speculating about the meaning of emptiness. You have to really see the nature of emptiness in yourself and others. Once that insight is there, you’re no longer afraid, no longer bound, no longer a victim of separation and discrimination, because you’ve seen the nature of interbeing” (Fear – Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm).

The past couple of weeks, I have noticed it over and over: from death to illness, broken bowls to cancelled plans to interrupted sleep and burnt toast. I got a call that a friend of my mother’s found out her 55 year old son died in his sleep. Not only the shock of this unexpected death but the ripple effects of imagining other possible deaths ricocheted across the phone lines. A couple weeks ago I found out that a friend, very close to my age, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I have not seen her for two or three years, and I had imagined that she had chosen to stop being in touch. This belief brought pain, confusion, and sadness, even as I tried to find acceptance and equanimity. Turns out she may not even have remembered we were friends.  I contemplate that on some level, even if she does not remember, that we are still lovingly connected – interbeings at one with each other.

I woke up this morning to find my very favorite bowl had been accidentally broken. Off and on, over the next two hours, I looked again and again at the cracked pieces. I practiced just noticing how I felt – the sadness at this loss, feelings of connection to my sister, who gave me the bowl for my birthday, desire – that the bowl not be broken or that a replacement should be purchased, disappointment – that the nightly ritual of sharing bowls of home-cooked food with my family will now be in a different bowl.

It sounds odd to put so much attention on a cracked bowl. But the process of noticing all these feelings helped me to name the process once again: that the unexpected pushes us up against the wall of our desire for things to stay the same, to be what we expect, to not disappoint. In my experience, I do not leap from the concept of impermanence to a graceful, enlightened experience of emptiness/impermanence. Rather, I stumble through the wanting, the grasping, the not wanting to feel the pain. And I commit, over and over, to notice the discomfort of the feelings – the wishing it weren’t so, the pushing away of the facts, the feelings of sadness or anger or unsettledness. It is in this sitting with, observing with neutral curiosity, the coming back to awareness of NOT WANTING THIS that there is, eventually, some sliver of peace, a moment of breath.

This can be a  painstaking, often excruciating process, and it is a process for which I am grateful. As the noticing continues, there is a feeling like water or sand settling down, clearing the mind, being with what is true – that the broken bowl was both already broken and still whole, that my friend’s mind is shining and absent, that my mother’s friend’s son is eternal and has left this world…and that the burnt toast can either be eaten as is or composted.

This glimpse of another way of being is both comforting and challenging. Each time I choose not to complain or not to bemoan or not to exult but simply to be with what is true, I can feel the roots of peace going a tiny bit deeper. Wishing ease to each of us as we continue to practice.

 

 

New Year’s Reflections

New Year’s Reflection: Being in the Moment during Transitions  

Back to school. Different wake-up time. New job. More homework. Teething. Tantrums. Learner’s permit. Being laid off. Ill parent. Moving. New school. Accidents.

Big or small, transitions happen all the time. Expected or unexpected, change comes tiptoeing or barreling in on us, our partners, our children, our extended family, and/or our community. How can we stay in the moment as things shift? How do we manage any semblance of equanimity when the ground is always giving way?

Right now as you read this, I encourage you to pause. If you have a clock or watch with a second hand, take a look at it and just breathe deeply three times. (If you don’t have one, just count while you breathe.) How long did that take?

Imagine the next time something changes – you get good or bad news, your child suddenly refuses to eat her up-until-now favorite breakfast item, you find out you are getting a promotion, the blood test comes back negative or positive, your child wakes up with a fever on a day you have an important meeting, – take the few seconds to breathe three times. Remember that no matter what is happening, this moment is precious as we are alive in it. Feeling – sad, angry, scared, and happy – is an incredible gift, even though often feeling is challenging.

There is a lojong saying (a Tibetan Buddhist mind training tradition): Two activities: one at the beginning, one at the end that comes to mind. The encouragement here is at the beginning of the day to breathe and set your intention. It may be a tiny, tinier than a baby step intention – that you will remember to breathe deeply once, that you will walk away instead of engaging in conflict with your two-year-old, that you will smile instead of gritting your teeth-once! At the end of the day review your day and notice what triggered you and where you were able to be skillful. Bring as much compassion and non-judgment to yourself as you can during this process. Notice your physical and emotional reactions as you review. See if you can just name things, for example, “I was so tired today that I snapped three times at my kids. My jaw and stomach hurt,” without judgment. Until you can have compassion for yourself, it is hard to change behaviors.

A minor but illustrative example: this week I was cooking many things at once and inadvertently left the granola in the oven too long. It burnt. Once I realized, I got so angry at myself, felt my fists clench and my face scowl. Fortunately, just as I was about to go into a full scale rant against myself, I breathed. I calmed myself down. I reminded myself that although I felt very tight on time, I would have enough time to remake the granola and I could either do it cheerfully or with a scowl on my face. This small moment was a victory over a habitual clenching around getting things done, being super-efficient, judging myself for imperfection, etc. Starting over whenever possible is a gift to yourself and to those around you. p.s. for bigger issues than burnt granola, I suggest a “Lion’s breath,” where you take a deep breath in, let it out with a forceful exhale, including sticking your tongue out and making a loud sigh/growl as you do so!