This week, Éowyn Ahlstrom offers her thoughts and experience on navigating uncertainty. Éowyn is a CFM certified MBSR teacher who lives in the North Quabbin region of Massachusetts, where she enjoys practicing mindfulness and yoga, riding bikes with her husband, Brett, and writing and reading poetry.
Writing about the contemporary challenges in his field, Dr. Ted Melnick comments, “No matter how far we pursue medical knowledge… uncertainty will always remain a part of every medical decision.” (http://www.works-and-days.com/wd15/melnick/navigating-uncertainty/3.html)
In other words, no amount of understanding and/or control removes unpredictability.
We do not know when we will get sick, whether we will get the job, when we will die, or even if the plans for our beautiful vacation will go smoothly.
Why might we want to open our awareness to this?
Because uncertainty is a part of living.
In the absence of awareness, uncertainty tends to produce unpleasant emotional experiences and can lead to unskillful reactions. Reactions like worry. Fretfulness. Anger. Denial. Distraction. Obsession.
When we become aware, however, and as you have probably seen in your own practice, new choices open up.
But, given both the essential realities of uncertainty and our generally unpleasant feelings about it, how can we turn toward it without getting lost in those unpleasant emotions? A few years ago, a simple opportunity arose that helped me make space for this question in myself.
A construction project occurred on a highway I frequent. A detour was in place for months. Each time I approached, I had to choose between two alternate routes.
It made me anxious. Which way should I go?
Noticing this, I decided to intentionally refrain from selecting a route until I actually arrived at the diverging roads, not a second sooner. Instead, I practiced softening into the moment-to-moment experiences in the miles leading up to the choice. I investigated the emotions, sensations and thoughts associated with it.
Discomfort, confusion, nervousness and resistance all came out to play. I felt and studied their characteristics and behaviors. When the choice-moment arrived, I turned the steering wheel one way or the other, no problem.
Here is an acrostic for a four-step process that arose from this informal practice:
H: Hold the experiences of uncertainty steadily in attention. (That’s how I approached that intersection.)
O: Open, gently and kindly, to the discomforts and resistances associated with not-knowing. (I can report from experience that while uncomfortable, there is great learning here.)
L: Listen to the sensations, emotions and thoughts connected with the uncertainty. (At first, I was amazed to witness a decision making itself. Now, that process has started to feel natural.)
D: When the time comes for action, decide in accord with the first three steps. (For me, this developed a transferable sense of trust. I’ve noticed two things: first, I spend less time worrying about what to do; and second, I find myself more at peace with the choices I make.)
The basic message here: As often and as fully as possible, notice uncertainties. I have found that informal practices like the one described above, when attended to regularly, are powerful.
And, there is another, subtler aspect of this process that may be of support to you: it's the suggestion to practice softening into the many small uncertainties, like navigating the roadways. This, perhaps, can help us develop strength of heart for traversing life’s larger unpredictables more gracefully.