When we’re willing to view life as the teacher, even in the midst of uncertainty, a journey begins. This journey—some might call it the spiritual path—challenges us to shift from fear of uncertainty to trusting life in the face of that which we can’t know and don’t understand. After interviewing many people about what they’d learned on their own spiritual journeys, I discovered that the journey from fear to freedom, which is all about coming into right relationship with uncertainty, is a predictable journey, one that many have traveled before you and many will travel after you. As you read through the five phases, consider where you are on your own journey. It is a map of sorts and can help you assess where you are on your path.
The Journey from Fear to Freedom
Phase 1: Unconscious Fear of Uncertainty. I stay in my comfort zone and avoid the unknown at all costs. What I don’t know feels dangerous, but I’m not conscious of how uncomfortable I am with uncertainty. I never get close enough to the unknown to really feel it. I do not act without a sense of certainty about the outcome. I expend a lot of energy avoiding risk.
Phase 1 Motto: “Better safe than sorry.”
How to navigate Phase 1: Start becoming aware of how your inclination to cling to certainty limits your freedom. Ask yourself, “Is this working for me? Is staying in my comfort zone really protecting me?”
Phase 2: Conscious Fear of Uncertainty. What I don’t know feels dangerous, but I’m aware of the fear I feel. Situations of uncertainty provoke feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear in me. This leads me to avoid uncertain situations and to try to control my world. But though I prefer certainty, I’m aware of how clinging to it is holding me back. I resist the unknown, but I realize it’s hard to have adventures if you’re always waiting to be sure of the future.
Phase 2 Motto: “The only thing certain in life is uncertainty.”
How to navigate Phase 2: Be gentle with yourself as you recognize how your drive for certainty limits your possibility. Don’t beat yourself up because you resist uncertainty. Pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to admit it. From a place of radical self-compassion, you will naturally begin to shift into Phase 3.
Phase 3: Uncertainty Limbo. I don’t know whether the unknown is dangerous or not. I’m not entirely at ease with what I don’t know, but I’m not resisting it, either. The unknown doesn’t outright scare me, but I don’t seek it out. I’m starting to sense the freedom that comes with making peace with uncertainty, so I’m willing to be cautiously curious and let my fear of the unknown teach me.
Phase 3 Motto: “I’m curious about the unknown, but I have my reservations.”
How to navigate Phase 3: Question everything. Stay open. Be curious. Resist the urge to create artificial certainty in order to ease any discomfort you still feel with the unknown. If you seek out too much certainty during this phase, you’re likely to allow fear to create something not quite in alignment with the full realization of what’s possible. Live in limbo and do what you can to comfort yourself and find your peace.
Phase 4: Uncertainty Seduction. Not only am I not scared by uncertainty, I’m downright attracted to it. I realize there is more to know and the only way to know it is to lean into the unknown and explore it. To me, the unknown is not scary, it’s somewhat seductive. I’m more in touch with discovering, and with the enlivenment that accompanies the discovery process, than I am with knowing. Discovery is sexier than certainty, and I’m at risk of being reckless as uncertainty seduces me. I’m so willing to entertain the unknown, to step into it and see what’s there, that I don’t always practice discernment. I’m willing to become an adventurer, but I have to remember not to yo-yo to the opposite end of the uncertainty spectrum.
Phase 4 Motto: “The flip side of the fear of uncertainty is the excitement of possibility.”
How to navigate Phase 4: The key to Phase 4 is discernment. When the unknown becomes compelling, it can be tempting to leap blindly, but this can get you in trouble. Someone who experiences no fear in the face of the unknown is at risk of becoming reckless. Healthy behavior in Phase 4 allows you to approach uncertainty with discriminating decision making, fueled not by fear, but by the integrity of the soul and the guidance of your intuition.
Phase 5: Surrender. I don’t know, but I trust anyway. I’m not afraid of the unknown, and I’m not seduced by it, either. I practice discernment. I sense that there is an organizing principle I may never fully understand, but I have faith that leaning in this direction is safe. Good things may happen when I lean into the unknown. Bad things may happen, too. But regardless of what happens, I trust that I live in a purposeful universe and that there is meaning in all outcomes. I am simply open to wonder, and I value freedom more than I value certainty.
Phase 5 Motto: “The only way to experience life’s richness is to surrender to the unknown.”
How to navigate Phase 5: Enjoy! Phase 5 tends to be very peaceful, but you don’t usually land there and stay there. Remaining in Phase 5 is a constant practice. If you find yourself slipping back into fear in the face of the unknown, remind yourself to trust that there are unseen forces guiding you in ways you may not understand until you look back.
It’s A Process!
Keep in mind that your journey through these five phases may not be linear. You may leap forward from one phase to the next, only to find that you regress in times of loss or trauma. Because we’re often more comfortable with uncertainty in some areas of our lives than in others, you may not be in the same phase in all aspects of your life. For example, you may be in Phase 4 in your professional life and Phase 2 in your love life. Be sure not to judge yourself based on where you are. There is no “right” or “wrong” phase, and you have to trust your own timing.
The reason to identify where you are on your journey is not to trigger your “not good enough” story, but simply to help guide you as you walk your own path in your own timing. Be extra gentle and compassionate with yourself as you navigate this journey from fear to faith. As Rachel Naomi Remen says, “You can’t force a rosebud to blossom by hitting it with a hammer.” Trust the process and indulge yourself with radical self-care. Know that wherever you are, you are in the right place.
Lissa Rankin, M.D., New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and The Fear Cure, is a physician, speaker, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and spiritual seeker. Passionate about what makes people optimally healthy and what predisposes them to illness, she is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual; it also heals the collective. As she became aware of how fear dominates modern culture and how such fear predisposes us not only to unhappiness but to disease, she began researching ways to befriend fear so we can let it heal and liberate us, opening us up to greater compassion, not just for others, but for ourselves. Lissa has starred in two PBS specials and also leads spirituality workshops, both online, as well as at retreat centers like Esalen, Kripalu, and Omega. When doing what she can to sprinkle pixie dust on a fear-based culture, Lissa loves to hike, ski, and dance. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her daughter. Read her blog and learn more at LissaRankin.com.