Mindfulness in the Face of Uncertainty
Uncertainty is always with us, though we are elaborately and profoundly adept at masking it under layers of practices and to-do lists to keep the uncomfortable, frightening feelings that come with uncertainty at bay. But for me, this past month shattered many of the illusions of certainty to which I was clinging. I was suddenly cast into a deep discomfort and fear of the unknown that I had never before felt so strongly or across so many aspects of my life, as well as the lives of many people whom I love.
When I first began to study mindfulness and Buddhism years ago, it was because on an impulse, I purchased the book Comfortable with Uncertainty by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. I really liked the title, because I was young, insecure, and totally not comfortable with anything. Since in the immediate days after the election, I have been googling how to move to Canada, compulsively cleaning my house, and spending hours composing long, eviscerating responses to comments on Facebook that I would never actually post. I was clearly once again not comfortable with uncertainty. I pulled Chodron’s book back off the shelf for a refresher course on mindfulness when dealing with uncertainty.
There is a good deal of research that shows that mindfulness practice helps reduce rumination and stress. It has also been shown to lessen emotional reactivity and strengthen cognitive flexibility, all tools we need in our personal arsenal if we are going to move forward in our current uncertain paradigm. But the most fundamental benefit to me is that practicing mindfulness can build empathy and compassion. You remember those long Facebook responses I was writing in my head? Yeah. Those were long on anger, rumination, and frustration – low on empathy. This mindfulness practice asks us to open up when everything inside us wants to close down, or in my case, smack down.
A simple exercise for practicing mindfulness in the face of uncertainty is through a sitting meditation, which can be as short as five minutes. As you sit and focus on your breathing, while noticing the thoughts that go through your head. View the thoughts from a distance as if they are bubbles drifting by you, or as if you are a fly on a wall observing them. As the thoughts come, if they cause you discomfort or anger or fear, instead of pushing them away, notice how the thoughts make you feel, without judgement. How does your body react physically? What does your mind rush to do to alleviate or avoid the feeling associated with it? Is the thought or subsequent reaction meant to control the uncontrollable, or to avoid it?
For me personally, when I practice this I notice my many, many mental gymnastics used to avoid feelings of uncertainty, most of them solutions, affirmations, or cynicism. Once I can observe these thoughts from a distance, only then do I begin to experience the pain underneath. And that pain is no joke. It is raw and intense terror. But in this practice, we stay seated, and move towards it. And when I begin to lean into the pain, I find something shocking— a deep, resounding sense of empathy, or as Chodron says, I find my own awakened heart.
I am not a Buddhist nun, nor do I play one on TV. And I think there is much we can do, and must do, in the days to come that is oriented toward action. But I think to act wisely, we must take the time to know our own hearts. And to awaken the hearts of others, we must be awake ourselves. We must be comfortable in the uncertainty.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy is a freelance writer and digital communications specialist who has lived in Western Massachusetts for the last ten years. The mother of two young daughters, Amy is a frequenter of coffee shops and bookstores, and an avid hiker. She is a long-time student of mindfulness meditation, and loves nothing more than a good friend, a good book, or a good nap.