“A warrior[-bodhisattva, that is, a warrior of nonaggression who is willing to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception in order to alleviate suffering] accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It’s also what makes us afraid.” ~ Pema Chödrön
One of my meditation teachers, Sharon Saltzberg, often says that we are all just one phone call away from the realization that life is uncertainty. Here’s the truth: we never know what will happen. Any belief that we think we do know what will happen is an illusion. We spend a lot of time and energy creating this mirage of safety and security. And no matter what we do, all of us face moments when the veil of the illusion is lifted.
This week, it feels like uncertainty is everywhere. Just in my little circle of people, just this week, I know someone who had major surgery, someone who got a devastating diagnosis, someone is waiting to have biopsy, someone is dealing with the serious illness of a loved one, and someone is facing decisions regarding end-of-life care for a beloved. Each one of these people, just this week, are face-to-face with the uncertainty of life. What they thought they knew may not be so. What they were thinking would happen might not happen…or it might.
Each of us can recall a moment in our lives when our hearts stopped for a minute, when our minds reeled at the information we were receiving, when our stomach dropped and we thought, “Wait a minute. What? This can’t be happening.”
It can be uncomfortable to remember these times or to contemplate this precarious ledge on which we blithely walk every day. It can be downright terrifying if we focus on it with a lot of intensity. Damnation. Think of all the things that could happen. Yikes, y’all.
Here is where somatic practice, mindfulness practice, is so important and so helpful. If, when things are not spiraling into the unwieldy unknown, we practice being present, being in our bodies, in this moment, noticing what is so without judgment, then when that call comes, or we’re waiting for the lab results, or for the surgeon to come out of the operating room, when things feel really, really uncertain, we can come back to that practice. If we practice it when we don’t need it, the skills will be there when we do.
All these people in my life right now who are surfing the uncertain are amazing. They have taught me what it is to be patient and gracious and about how to allow life to unfold. Each one of them has demonstrated extraordinary presence and dignity whilst facing the ambiguity that is tumbling around them. It is certainly possible that in the privacy of their own minds and hearts as they lean against their kitchen tables that they have not been so peaceful. I know that would most certainly be the case for me. And yet on some level and in some way they are being with what is happening, and it is remarkable to witness.
This week I did my CPR re-certification training that I do every year. And just like every year, I walk out of the training on hyper-alert: looking for excessive sweating, shortness of breath and slurred speech. I look at every member at the gym and every participant in my class like a ticking time bomb. That feeling wears off pretty quickly and yet when something does happen while I’m teaching I find that the yearly practice is there to support me. I know what I need to do to get help to someone who is hurt. Since I only practice CPR and emergency procedures once a year, when someone needs assistance during my class, I panic a little and sometimes bobble the ball. Which is why frequent, regular practice is so important. If I practiced it more often, I probably would panic less. The same is true for mindfulness and it is why coming back to the present and sensation is so important. The old patterns of fight or flight or freeze will kick in when we are under stress. It takes some doing to make a different choice. We are, in effect, going against our programing – both from evolution and from our distracted culture – to choose to be mindful and present. And, my experience is that as challenging as it can be, it is worth the effort.
Whether you are chest deep in uncertainly right now, or if you just remember when you were, it is a good time to connect to the present moment. Use the sounds around you, or your breath, or the physical sensations you are experiencing right now to anchor your attention and rest right here and right now.
Life is uncertain. And we can make a choice to be with that uncertainty. It just takes practice.