I’ve made a few decisions over the past couple of months that have thrown my life into a state of uncertainty. I made them willingly and thoughtfully, but thrown I am regardless.
I guess that’s all life is, really: uncertain situation after uncertain situation. We never know what tomorrow brings, or even the next minute. There have been countless situations throughout my life where my entire perspective has shifted in a matter of seconds.
But this uncertainty is unsettling for the side of us that wants consistency, security, and safety—that side that wants a guarantee that we’re headed in the right direction or a confirmation that we’re “doing it right.” It’s the little kid in us that’s looking for a nod of approval, the affirmation that someone knows what’s going on here.
But, no one really knows, do they?
We adopt a world view, lifestyle, or inner circle that gives us a sense of security, that enables us to construct a sense of understanding.
But when it comes down to it, we’re all just living on faith; Faith that the ground won’t suddenly collapse from under us, faith that air will enter our lungs with our next breath, faith that our loved ones will continue loving us, faith that someone (or something) has got it under control.
I believe the first step towards facing uncertainty is acceptance. Acceptance of what is, what was, and what will come. Acceptance without expectation. That requires releasing our tight grip on what we think we want, letting go of both our expectations and our fears.
In fact, this kind of acceptance releases us from even clinging to those things we take on faith (breath, life, love). You could call it Faith 2.0.
The term that best describes this kind of radical acceptance in the face of uncertainty is equanimity.
The first five times I came across this word I had to look up the definition each time. For some reason it just wouldn’t settle in my head; I couldn’t grasp the concept.
At its most basic, the definition of equanimity is this: to accept things as they are.
Ok, I got it.
But it’s way more nuanced than that.
Pema Chödrön talks about it in all her books (at least all the ones I’ve read of hers). So does Thich Nhat Hanh. And the Dalai Lama.
Clearly the Buddhists heavily employ this concept (it’s one of the four sublime states central to Buddhist practice), but similar concepts are invoked across all major religions.
Life events (blessings and challenges alike) are usually perceived as “God’s will’ in the religious context. But regardless of whether you define your situation as preordained, fateful, serendipitous, or random, you have no choice but to accept what comes.
So part of equanimity is acknowledging that while we have very little control over what will happen next, we do have control over how we react to it. We have the power to stop passing judgment on moments and people. We have the power to understand that no situation is inherently bad or good, it just…is.
That may sound a bit airy-fairy, but think of it this way:
Imagine you’re taking a walk on a sunny day. All of a sudden, in the middle of the park, a big dog starts running towards you. Your mind and body will generally react in one of four ways based on past experience and personal preference:
1. You’re totally thrilled because you’re a huge dog lover and relish any amount of dog time
2. You’re terrified because of a past trauma and you’re pretty much peeing your pants
3. You’re bemused as to why this random dog seems to have chosen you as the recipient of its love and are willing to give it a little belly rub
4. You’re mildly worried as to this dog’s braking function and are anticipating dirty, smelly hands and clothing after this encounter
We attach meaning to moments based on our past experience, our current mood and our anticipated future; but at its simplest, what’s happening? A dog is running in a park. Who even know if it’s running towards you? It could veer at the last second, as so many heart-broken animal lovers could recount.
Now that’s a pretty simplistic example, but it shows the cause and effect of a neutral scenario. It’s helpful to show how there can be positive, mildly favourable, mildly disagreeable, and negative responses to any given situation.
Approaching things with equanimity means rejecting all of those responses. It’s the “conscious realization of reality’s transience.” Nothing in life lasts for long.1
In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chödrön explains it this way: “To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion before it hardens into grasping or negativity.”
I think what threw me and caused me to forget this definition again and again is that I didn’t want to remember that equanimity means disavowing the positive response as well. Resting in the still neutrality of the moment means not getting caught up in the positive side either.
But, why would we want to reject positive feelings?
Holding on tight
How many athletes have clung on to the sense of self-importance they garner from being cheered for by thousands of fans only to enter retirement with an identity crisis because they don’t know who they are if they aren’t performing on the court?
How many business executives have chased after that sweet feeling of power they get from making big decisions only to have it leak into their personal life and warp their intimate relationships?
How many people have experienced the delicious reverie of a tasty treat only to keep eating and eating until they feel sick or develop an unhealthy relationship with food?
We hold on to good feelings—things we deem desirable—until we contort and disfigure them into something entirely different.
Clinging evokes images of love and relationships as well.
It brings to mind the most memorable quote I’ve ever heard about love, shared by Thich Nhat Hanh: “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
There’s a similar quote by Osho about the freedom that should be associated with love:
“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.
Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love.
So if you love a flower, let it be.
Love is not about possession.
Love is about appreciation.”
When we have a positive response to something, we want to possess it forever. We want to sit with that emotion and never feel anything else. We want to be forever with that feeling, forever with that person, forever in that moment, because in our eyes it is the height of happiness.You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free. —Thich Nhat Hanh Click To Tweet
But love is blind. Sure, we minimize the flaws of our beloved when in love, but we also block out other things when we choose to cling to that desired state.
We assume that ecstasy is the apex of love, but what if love is going down into the depths of despair with your lover and finding a deeper connection, resiliency and foundation than you would have ever found in that fairytale land?
What if happiness is letting go of that person in order to tap into a greater calling?
What if letting go of the result you think is the “end all, be all” finally frees you?
What if relinquishing control takes you into the next dimension of consciousness and growth?
So when I think about that flower anecdote, I get it.
It’s about accepting “desired states” (that positive feeling or that familiar feeling) without grasping and holding on to them. As soon as we cling and grasp (or alternatively hide or push away), we cultivate a feeling of fear. In trying to alleviate our fear of the unknown, we subconsciously anticipate the loss of our desired state.
When we cling, we stress.
We have a limited view of infinite possibilities.
Twenty years ago, I could never have imagined the life I currently lead. And you, did you anticipate the life you lead now?
Imagine how many factors had to work together to bring us to this point in life. Now imagine how many factors are working together for our future.
Now think about letting it all go and embracing the uncertainty—the possibility and freedom in uncertainty.
Palms open, facing up
I’ll finish by painting a picture of how I remind myself to accept things as they come. This is how I attempt to face the life with equanimity, using my hands as the visual representation of the reaction of my mind and heart:
When I have two closed fists in front of me, I am clinging (desperately holding on to what I view as desirable).
When I have two hands pushing out from me, I am protecting (trying to avoid/reject/run from what I view as undesirable).
When I have two open hands in front of me, palms facing up, I am accepting (receiving and lightly holding what comes).
So here’s to embracing the uncertainty of life with palms open, facing up.