Making Friends with the Unknown
There has been a lot happening in the world for the majority of 2020. Much is uncertain. I’ve noticed all the commercial advertisements love to reference “these uncertain times” to the point of absurdity! I’ve also noticed that both my clients and myself have had moments of difficulty because the future seems much more unknown than usual. In truth, we never know what tomorrow brings. Typically we do not have a global pandemic and worldwide social unrest weighing on us however. The unpredictability of the future seems to be hanging over everyone’s head like a storm cloud.
I told a client recently that we all have to learn how to sit comfortably in uncertainty. What we are unable to change, we must endure, survive, and triumph over.
“[Suffering is caused by] our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness…when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.” -Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
I am definitely not the person who came up with the idea that we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable if we want to ease our suffering in the moment. I first discovered this idea when I read the writing of celebrated American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Chodron talks about how we must embrace the idea that we cannot always be comfortable if we want to be at peace.
While humans tend to chase “happiness” without a tangible idea of what exactly happiness is, it is peace that allows us to be comfortable in the present moment. We actually live with uncertainty every moment. We have no idea what the next day will bring – we cannot predict car accidents, sickness, even death, but we push those feelings away because most of the time it is easy to ignore them.
Even though this is not a new state of existence it can feel almost painful to endure so much that is out of our control. It unsettling to know that from moment to moment our world could be changed by the sickness of a loved one or a protest turned deadly down the street from our home or office. We are confronted by the unknown in a way that is impossible to ignore. Because of that, we have to find a way to not allow uncertainty to disrupt our lives to the point that it stops our functioning. For some, the sense of a loss of control may trigger past trauma. There does not seem to be an end in sight as far as COVID-19 and the social unrest go.
Because we cannot control any of these things, we have to learn how to live with the unknown in a way that is more comfortable for us.
How to Peacefully Coexist with Uncertainty
We have no choice to accept the things we have no ability to change. We have to figure out how to coexist with uncertainty. Practicing radical acceptance is one way to accept the current moment even if we do not like or agree with it. Radical acceptance is both a principal of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and a pillar of Buddhist philosophy. Radical acceptance asks us to accept things just as they are, without judging them as “good” or “bad.” I recently wrote a blog post about radical acceptance if you would like to learn more about it.
The key point to remember about radical acceptance is that we do not have to like what is happening. Likewise, we do not have to stop being afraid, we just have to acknowledge the fear and do what we can to protect ourselves. We have to manage our anxieties by not dwelling on “what if”s but by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness asks us to live in the present moment, the here and now, and not think about the future. I’ve heard it said many times that depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the future. I think there is some truth to that idea! We can control only what we can control and we have to practice accepting what we are able to control is enough.
What Then Can We Control?
Some may find it discouraging to realize that we can control very little. We are able to control ourselves, our thoughts, our actions, and to some extent our life and surroundings. By focusing on what we are able to control, we alleviate the stress that comes from trying to control situations out of our control. We must let go of controlling people who do not want to be controlled. Many of my clients in their 30s and 40s have been frustrated by their parents taking what they view as unnecessary chances. It was especially upsetting when older adults were most at risk. We cannot control what our loved ones do, what they think, or whether or not they take COVID-19 as seriously as we think that they should. We we can control is making sure they have the information they need to make their own decisions. I cannot control that my parents continue to go to the grocery store every week in spite of my concerns. I can make sure they at least know the risk.
In many ways, we are getting a sense of what people of color live with in their everyday lives. I am white. I do not worry that my stepson will be shot and killed by police or even citizens who think he is suspicious. We have talked about racism from an educational standpoint but not because he needs this knowledge navigate his life. We are lucky in that. As those of us who are white attempt to grapple with uncertainty we can take the opportunity to empathize with people of color. They have to acknowledge a lack of control in their daily lives.
Be Inquisitive About Your Feelings
As I spoke with a client about their feelings of uncertainty and hopelessness about the world, I remembered a story. I unintentionally misremembered it but I think I like my version better.
I told the client when we have an upsetting feeling, instead of reacting negatively or with aversion we can “invite it in for tea.” We can approach the feeling with gentleness. We can say, “Hello [insert feeling here], welcome. Please come in and have a seat. Tell me more about yourself.” Feelings might be anger, sadness, fear, hopelessness, but it can be anything. As we explore the feeling, we can get a better sense of why we are feeling it and what the feeling is trying to teach us.
“But we don’t have to close down when we feel groundlessness in any form. Instead, we can turn toward it and say, “This is what freedom from fixed mind feels like. This is what freedom from closed-heartedness feels like. This is what unbiased, unfettered goodness feels like. Maybe I’ll get curious and see if I can go beyond my resistance and experience the goodness.”
– Pema Chodron
Asking Mara in for Tea
I thought that the story I was remembering was from Thich Nhat Hanh, but it turns out that Tara Brach, the author of Radical Acceptance is likely the one I heard speaking about it. If you are interesting in learning more I came across a 9 minute recorded conversation with Brach speaking about the story and its meaning. If you would prefer to read about it, there is also an article on Tara’s website about it.
Finding Peace in Uncertainty
Like everything new, you can’t expect to suddenly be able to let go of worry and anxiety during difficult times. It is something that has to be practiced. The more you focus on what you can control the better you will feel.
I struggle with this as much as anyone else. I think now is not the time to speak to you like a clinician but to come together as humans. We are all people, scared, worried, and living in a global pandemic. I am practicing letting go of worry just like everyone else. We will all get through this, I am certain! I hope that this article helps those that read it.
- Inviting Mara to Tea by Tara Brach
- 6 Steps to Mindfully Deal With Difficult EmotionsToni Parker, Ph.D., Gottman Institute
How to Deal with Uncomfortable Feelings & Create Positive Ones by Lori Deschene, Tiny Buddha
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana (Free PDF Book download from Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society)
Additional Recommended Reading:
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (book)
- Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron (book)
- The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron (book)
- Peace is Every Step The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh (book)
- Radical Compassion Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.
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