East West Wisdoms

Interweaving Spirituality and Therapeutic Healing

East West Wisdoms

Letting go into uncertainty brings freedom!

Posted on Monday, October 26th, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Most of us find periods of explicit uncertainty very difficult to handle with equanimity. Indeed, the urgent desire to 'know' the way forward -- to escape that uncertainty -- or change the scenario, can feel quite overwhelming. It is this desire for it to be different that causes the extreme suffering associated with the times when we know we don't know. I'm thinking of times that we may be waiting for medical or academic test results. Or news from a loved one or awaiting our estranged partner's decision to return home or set up house elsewhere. So many times when we know we have no control over what comes next.

As the Buddha said, "suffering is wanting things to be different!" We yearn to be able to fix things; to be able to turn the clock backwards or forwards!

Impermanence ensures uncertainty

However, if we look carefully, we can see the impermanent nature of all things, resulting in moment-to-moment uncertainty! Everything we can experience, on any level of being, is constantly changing. In order to feel more comfortable, we have a strong tendency to think and act as though we can predict at least some of the more mundane aspects of our day to day life. The authority figures in our particular culture play on this desire for 'certainty' when they issue their directions and their predictions of how things will be. The problem is that it is a delusion to believe we - or the authorities - can accurately predict even the next moment!

Yesterday I heard that a friend had died. He felt he had a touch of 'flu one night and lay down on the living room couch. His wife decided to leave him there for the night. In the morning he was dead! He was a few years short of 50 and thought to be healthy.

Which way? Which way?

Which way? Which way?

'Bardo' --  the in-between state

This in-between period, between knowing and not-knowing; between one perception and the next; between feeling good and learning you have lost something precious; or between learning of the death of a loved person and the grieving period prior to accepting this loss, is known in Buddhist terms as 'bardo'. The term 'bardo' is often seen as the period between birth and death and death and the next life but, more accurately, it is the gap between this moment and the next unknown moment.

In Buddha Dharma, the larger bardos are (1) the bardo of this life;  (2) the bardo of dream (the gap between going to sleep and waking up); (3) the bardo of meditation; (4) the bardo of dying; (5) the bardo of dharmata (or reality -- the seeing as it really is) and (6) the bardo of existence (or becoming).

So bardo is both the gap between moments and the much larger intervals that punctuate all our experience of waking, sleeping, meditating, being born and dying.

Freedom in accepting uncertainty

Pema Chodron, a wise North American Buddhist nun and spiritual teacher, tells us that "nothing to hold on to" is the root of happiness! She points to the sense of freedom that comes from acceptance that we are not in control and we don't "know."

Generally we don't want to stay in that middle place of "unknowing" because it makes us feel vulnerable and uneasy. However, it is by staying open and flexible, explicitly acknowledging our uncertainty, that we begin to access our inner strength, a strength that is based on compassion, wisdom and loving acceptance, or equanimity.

As Pema Chodron says, our practice is "to stay with the uneasiness and not solidify into a view. We can meditate, do tonglen, or simply look at the open sky--anything that encourages us to stay on the brink and not solidify into a view."


Misty blue distance ...

Working with paradox

As time goes on and my awareness of impermanence deepens as I watch my body -- and the bodies and circumstances of my family and friends -- age and change, I find myself thinking more and more in terms of paradox, rather than right or wrong; this or that! Interestingly, allowing paradox (the co-existence of opposite ideas) to more frequently replace my learned tendency to make 'statements', as though I know things, has indeed brought with it a sense of spaciousness and possibility that feels joyful and hopeful.

On those rare occasions that I allow myself to watch the (generally bad) news of global warming, disasters, war and terrorism, I am tested to maintain this open view. I notice the definiteness with which the news and predicted dire consequences are pronounced and it is indeed a challenge to remember how peace follows war and disasters can bring out the best in people, as well as causing enormous suffering.

Hopefully, I remember that I don't know, and they don't know what comes next. Hopefully I remember to keep my heart open and hold the aspiration for courage, support and skilful resolution of the challenges each of us face, moment to moment, in our unknowing.

The goal is to maintain a state of non-clinging awareness and equanimity. In this state we are free, open and happy!

Perhaps some of you have ideas on coming to terms with uncertainty? Any thoughts, comments, questions are most welcome!

Warm wishes,


7 responses to “Letting go into uncertainty brings freedom!”

  1. Jim says:

    In physics they talk of a great symmetry at the very moment of creation (the initial instant of the Big Bang when absolute nothing became absolute something I believe may be so called), one instant there was nothing and the next everything, everything there is or would be was locked in a great sameness. In order for there to be movement there needs to be change in order for a system to be dynamic it must be able to evolve.
    To my mind this is the nature of uncertainty, in order for life to be at all there needs to be death and all that is contained in the word Samsara and all that is turned upon the Great Wheel of Becoming.

  2. Thanks for posting this! Letting ourselves go into uncertainty can be terrifying and also help bring a lot of peace of mind. Taking things by the moment as they unfold is difficult but can go a long way to increasing our wellbeing.

  3. Robert says:


    Interesting paraphrasing of the Buddha's words - but very helpful.

    Thank you

  4. Jacqui says:

    Hi June,
    Your idea that the "natural" disasters of mother earth may be earth's way of "undoing the damage that we have caused through our transition into the ‘modern age" is an interesting one. Are you perhaps wondering about some of the damaging consequences of the ever-increasing numbers of humans consuming all the natural resources, as well as polluting the environment? Here again there is no certainty regarding either the causes of these disasters or the consequences. We have to maintain an open mind, with curiosity and compassion, as we wonder if there is anything that we can do to relieve the suffering associated with such disasters and to change the conditions that appear to support such disasters (as flooding or drought from climate change).
    Warm wishes,

  5. June says:

    Everything is transient, it is usually through disaster, hardships and turmoil that chage is brought about. As you say it is usualy the hardships that brings out the best in people. Maybe its through the earthquakes and other natural disasters, that Mother Earth allows to happen, that will eventually bring about the best (once again) in her. Undoing the damage that we have caused through our transition into the 'modern age'.

  6. Jacqui says:

    Hi Adam, I do agree with you that our attachment styles have quite a strong effect on how we tolerate uncertainty. If we have a reasonably secure attachment style (based on good-enough mothering, supporting exploration and validation), then our ability to manage uncertainty with some equanimity may be quite good.

    If, however, we suffer from ambivalent or avoidant attachment experience as young children, we will be tormented by a pervading sense of uncertainty, leading to fear and conflict. If we have adopted an avoidant attachment style - based on both tracking the carer figure and keeping distance - in attempts to balance the pain of anticipated rejection against the pain of staying apart and alone - then explicit uncertainty will trigger this original conflict and pain.

    Similarly, those who've adopted an ambivalent attachment style - based on the learned fear of being inconsistently either overwhelmed or ignored by the parent figure - is likely to feel similarly torn and unable to seek support when challenged by explicitly 'not knowing', whether in a meditative context or in daily life.

    However, the benefit of formal meditation practice is that it provides the space and the structure to observe the mind and the winds of emotion stirred by particular thoughts - including thoughts of uncertainty - without actually acting on them and following through in an avoidant or ambivalent manner. By allowing the arising and falling away as we sit, we can see the pattern (insight) and begin to get an idea of choice and new possibilities. We can allow the fear and the conflict to arise and we can watch it fall away in its essential insubstantiality, as impermanence weaves its magic!

    I hope this helps!
    warm wishes,

  7. Adam says:

    Great to read this as I was just meditating before on uncertainty Jacqui. I sometimes wonder how influential our attachment styles are on how much we do/dont tolerate uncertainty during meditation and non-meditative experiences. Thoughts?

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