Uncertainty causes panic.
This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. Without it, panic arises.
A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect, or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty. And, the unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.
Individualism Heightens Anxiety
The practice of “accepting uncertainty,” must include evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship with freedom as sourced in our interdependence.
Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.
When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.
Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythic self-reliance and tendency to equate “independence” with doing whatever we want encouraged some people to flock to bars and beaches – pastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions – rather than stay indoors or wear masks to save lives.
This independent view of “liberty” prizes individual competition, defiance, and resistance over an interdependent view sourced in cooperation, connection, and collaboration.
The coaching professional reinforces some of these views and myths, most of which rest on a view of human potential as hyper-individualistic: self-reliance, self-sufficient, and self-responsibility. We empower responsibility for the individual self instead of ennobling the primacy of the collective whole.
“Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging our views, noting and naming our fears, slowly dissolving our underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.“
The nature of COVID-19 amplifies our fears as “I” in the face of the unknown. Demands to quarantine can isolate us and heighten our anxiety. Protecting our individual “I” can provoke an “us against them” mentality.
COVID-19 also reveals the limitations of our individualism. Approaching this situation has reminded us that “we” are all interconnected; doing our part reduces the risk to society, which supports each of us as individuals.
Let Go of Our Story of Separation
Our expectations of certainty are shaped by our belief in the primacy of knowledge and control in supporting individualism. This begins with the story of separation we tell ourselves. That you and I are separate. That I am separate from my circumstances and my environment. That different functions are separate.
The walls we place in the physical world represent our mental walls—our thinking and our worldviews.
Separation is our most fundamental misperception. It shapes all our beliefs about humanity, life, and living. It seeks out knowledge to protect the self and control circumstances or others.
Accepting uncertainty requires embracing the dual commitments of allowing for the unknown and accepting responsibility for complex wholes. By allowing for the unknown, we develop the ability to live in the question. By accepting responsibility for complex wholes, we evolve to appreciate our connection to the community, collective good, and larger systems.
Such a leap requires clarity—to act on what’s next without having to know or control the outcome. Clarity begins with a willingness to accept the truth of uncertainty.
Test and Trust Our Experiences
How can you unlearn your reliance on knowledge, and relearn your clarity of experience? Testing and trusting what you experience, is the first step toward reaching this level of clarity.
- Consumption. Bring awareness to your consumption by observing how you numb your mind and emotions with news, social media, distractions, junk food, alcohol, and other impulses or cravings. Prevent racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
- Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience. This blog post reveals how we’ve normalized noise.
- Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. As you self-quarantine, and space opens up in your calendar and in your life, what emotions or sensations arise? Do you feel you should be more productive? Do you feel guilt, grief (from loss), or vulnerability?
- Expectations. What expectations do you have of yourself, others, and the current situation? Should you know more, control more, or do more? Observe how you react, what impulses guide you, and when you are swept up or pulled away from this moment.
- Fear. Notice when you feel helpless, fearful, or a loss of control. Perhaps you are experiencing the unknown. Feel the fear, name it if you can, allow it to be and pass, and then note the next feeling. Notice if any individualism creeps in. This could show up as us versus them thoughts or a tribal impulse to protect yourself from others.
These practices develop your ability to live in the question. You learn to explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown and unpredictable; instead of reflexively seeking out quick-fixes to make your discomfort go away.
Just Do This Moment
Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging your views, noting and naming your fears, slowly dissolving your underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.
Once you’ve accounted for yourself, acknowledged your situation, and acquired accurate information, ask yourself: How can I just do this moment?
Pause, breathe, feel the ground beneath your feet, and contemplate:
I am here.
I am now.
All I need is within me.
All I need comes to me.
Acting from clarity requires letting go of (un)predictable outcomes later or the (un)known consequences of that outcome. It’s focusing on the here and now.
All you can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who you are, from the presence of the current moment, and from your ability to envision what’s next. That’s clarity.
Then, ask yourself: How am I part of common humanity? Where can I request support? We are not alone. That’s interdependence.
In time, uncertainty will be viewed not as negative, but as normal, or more accurately, as reality.
Peace in Vulnerability
Uncertainty still triggers me. I become irritated at the loss of control and annoyed at unfulfilled expectations. It provokes sadness at perceived helplessness.
But these emotions, thoughts, and sensations are neither concealed from me nor do they mysteriously guide me. They are part of me—and part of you. They are part of our common humanity.
Moreover, accepting uncertainty cultivates more peace in our vulnerability. We appreciate self-discovery by accessing our imagination, acknowledge the mystery of being human, and learn to create possibility by living in the question.
Yes, uncertainty may cause panic. Paradoxically, though, the very possibility we desire also exists in uncertainty.
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.