Last year, I wrote a post on FB about uncertainty, shared below. It’s not from a Buddhist perspective, but it’s certainly relevant to the topic:
"Every decision in life is a gamble, really. Of course, I like to play the games where the odds are less in favor of the house, more in favor of the players. But I gave up believing in certainties long ago. Living my life with certainty as my god was a losing game, as that is a god that truly doesn’t exist. As much as I love to control things (and/or to pretend I even can), I’ve found that my greatest power lies not in how well I succeed in controlling things, but in how well I’ve been able to expand the container within which I hold uncertainty, to hold the tension inherent in sitting in the unknown and uncontrollable. The more able I’ve become to hold, dance with and even appreciate uncertainty, the less I’ve been controlled by fear, the less I’ve had to box myself into a life that’s too small to allow for real nourishment, and the more I’ve been able to open to the things that have ultimately served and enriched me on the deepest levels. Not that it’s not terrifying, but I would rather meet fear with truth than with the various layers of lies that we tell ourselves in order to be able to tolerate the reality that we are ultimately not in control of anything, no matter how good we are at the control game.
There is much more freedom and power in truth than in running away from fear. Although I haven’t consciously chosen this path, around age 18, life ripped away all my security, throwing me into this game, and then accelerating it to the highest level “advanced game” that I’ve been playing for many years now. I hate it, but I’m also secretly grateful for the game of infinite trust-fear-trust-fear-trust that it has opened me to.
This process of working with near-infinite-variabled complex systems, developing the ability to tolerate uncertainty and still remain fully committed and engaged, applies to so many areas. Collectively, we see the need for this in politics, where the rigidity, polarization and reactivity we’re seeing is largely a sign of a system that is holding more fear/tension than it has the developmental capacity for. For whatever faults he had, I think one of Obama’s gifts was his ability to hold a lot of stuff with an even-keeled, take-it-in-stride, make-room-for-all-of-it attitude. And I think that did a lot to allay anxiety in those who were ready to learn to hold more, to tolerate more uncertainty. And for those who weren’t ready, it made them more anxious – “What the fuck is he doing?!”
In spirituality, New Agers and religious zealots who cling so tightly to their metaphysics rather than really diving into and dancing with the mystery are part of this dynamic. In Southern California, I am surrounded by obnoxious New Agers who “know everything” and use every opportunity to gloss over every existential or personal anxiety with some sort of rigidly held metaphysical platitude. In fact, maybe spiritual bypass is a direct symptom of inability to tolerate uncertainty, anxiety and not-in-controlness.
In science, there’s scientism – a linear, reductionistic, materialism-based science that thinks it’s got everything all figured out. We are utterly lacking in wisdom while drowning in “scientific” information. Is it any wonder we’re destroying our health and that of the earth?
On an individual level, my career path reflects this transition. What I love about math and physical sciences (where I started) is the sense of certainty, the illusion of control and “truth” (as long as you keep the box small enough, it can truly feel like truth). But what I love even more about psychotherapy is that there is no control! No matter how good I am at it, when the client walks into the room, I have no control over what’s gonna happen. That has liberated and expanded me to such a great degree. Earlier in my career, I emphasized more the “science” aspect of psychotherapy, seeing out-of-controlness as a problem that needed to be managed. As I grew to trust myself and the process of emergence, I learned to appreciate that the “art” is much wiser than the “science.” I’ve seen that the less I try to control the process, the greater the benefits have been, both for my clients and myself. I am so privileged in my work as a psychotherapist to help people develop the ability to sit in the unknown rather than prematurely foreclose on decisions, narratives, or behaviors, in order to allow what wisdom needs to emerge, to emerge. It takes so much courage for my clients to let go of a worldview where it all makes sense and go into the fertile darkness of the unknown. And frankly, it takes a lot for me to not reassure them too much, to not act like I know everything, like if they would just adopt new knowledge that I give them, then they’ll be OK. For me to hold a container where we can sustain an attitude of not-knowing for an extended period of time while we deconstruct what is “known” and play with trusting the process, that’s hard work and is part of my own expansion. I watch people learn to appreciate that “nothing solid to hold onto” is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s ripe with juicy potentialities (which, horrifyingly, we can’t really control if we’re honest about it – we can just influence them a little). This requires so much trust!
One of the important achievements of developmental maturity and wisdom is being able to sit in the unknown without collapsing into nihilism, disengagement, arrogance, or ambiguity. And there is a difference between uncertainty/complexity and ambiguity/chaos.
Tolerating uncertainty requires much more than dismantling narratives and creating new, more complex ones. Beyond the cognitive level, it entails emotional, energetic and somatic development. In fact, high cognitive ability with lower emotional/energetic/somatic development is kind of a nightmare, because you can use your high cognition to propose and defend ideas that are largely coming from an inability to sit with uncertainty, that are coming from an unconscious reactivity to the anxiety inherent in that experience. This process requires becoming a bigger container of selfness – one that can hold more energy, more emotion, more multiplicity. A stronger nervous system and a greater conscious attunement to the somatic signals that need to be recognized and reworked. Learning to surf the energies and breath for which the body is a sacred vessel.
I don’t know nothin’. And on a good day, I’m OK with that."