March 15, 2017

A Buddhist Notion for When Life’s a bit Scary & Uncertain.

If there is one thing that has consistently stopped me from achieving what I want in life, it’s uncertainty.

Well, actually, it’s not the uncertainty. It’s the way that I respond to uncertainty.

When I was younger, I spent tons of time daydreaming about being famous and successful. I imagined myself as a great guitar player, playing in front of thousands of people. I imagined that I would attain great spiritual growth. I imagined being surrounded by an amazing community of people who inspired me.

I created whole worlds in my imagination, but I struggled to make many of those things happen in the real world.

The main reason? I was afraid of uncertainty. And I let the fear stop me.

When it came to actually applying for a job, or going into an unknown social situation, or performing on stage, I stopped myself. I didn’t know what would happen, and that was terrifying. Little did I know, I was unconsciously avoiding the internal experience of facing the unknown.

My personal growth process over the past decade or so has completely transformed this. This is not to say that I have accomplished everything I imagined. Actually, I dream bigger now than I did then. But I am learning to be friends with uncertainty, because as uncomfortable as it is, I see its value.

The deeper I dive into the unknown, the faster I grow and the more exciting my life becomes. Now it feels like I’m on the fast track to growth in nearly every area of my life simply because I am changing the way I relate to uncertainty.

Uncertainty is terrifying.

This seems to be a core fear with nearly everyone I meet. As a therapist, I come across this subject every day, both in myself and in the people I work with.

Humans want to know if things will happen, how they will happen, and when they will happen. We want to predict exactly how things will go. We want to feel safe and secure. We want to know without a doubt that things will work out. We want to know the absolute truth.

And yet, life is uncertain. And the more we achieve in our lives, the more uncertainty we face. The more revolutionary the life we lead, the less certain it is.

We all have areas of our lives that feel more uncertain than others. For one person, a social situation is the right blend of unknowns to create fear. For someone else, it might be going after their dream job, or trying a new sport, or being vulnerable in their relationships. For many of us, interacting with people who are different than us is scary. When we peel back the layers of some of our biggest fears, we often find uncertainty at the core.

What we don’t know feels dangerous. In fact, according to therapist Peter Levine in his book In An Unspoken Voice, whatever we avoid registers in our nervous system as a threat. So when we avoid something, no matter what it is, our nervous system goes into fight or flight or some other defensive reaction. This happens even if we are only imagining a situation.

Not knowing.

The reality is, life is uncertain. No matter how many routines we create and games we play with ourselves, we ultimately don’t know what is going to happen. There are a lot of things we can influence in our lives, but there are always some aspects we cannot predict.

We manipulate our world to provide an illusion of predictability. We tell ourselves that if we take care of ourselves, or if we are nice to everyone, or if we work hard enough, then things will be certain. But they are not.

Underneath so many of our neuroses is this demon of unpredictability. But it isn’t the uncertainty that’s the problem. It’s the way we relate to it that makes the impact. It is our resistance to not knowing that causes our neurosis. Psychological health requires an acknowledgement of the uncertainty of life…the impermanence of things.

When we avoid, we create more problems. We cover up our fear with distraction or addiction. We might stay in a relationship that isn’t fulfilling or stick with the same dead-end job that we hate.

Lack of control is unsettling. If we really allow ourselves to feel this, it’s a bit like the feeling of falling. But when we embrace the feeling of falling, it can be exhilarating. There is freedom in not being held back by our fear of trying something new.

The hidden gift of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is actually our biggest gift.

Every single thing that you want in life (that you don’t already have) requires uncertainty. So when you try something new or take a risk, it gets you closer to what you want. You also risk the feeling of failure or rejection, which is uncomfortable. But if you don’t take risks, you stay where you are. You stay with what is familiar, even if you are suffering.

Whenever I try something new that I was afraid to do, I feel so much more alive afterward. I feel inspired and proud of myself for taking the risk to give something a shot. The more nervous I feel going into something new, the more rewarding it is to get to the other side.

By trying new things, our world expands. The range of our experience is larger. Our worldview now includes new information and our lives are richer for it. We are creative beings. We solve problems and create new ways of doing things by trial and error. There is a quality of improvisation to our lives. Improv exists in the world of the unknown. When we improvise, we don’t know what we are going to create.

When we really learn to love uncertainty, it is nothing short of revolutionary.


Author: Chris McKee

Image: Es.Que/Flickr 

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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