Living with the Unknown

How to deal with uncertainty and surprise.

Posted Aug 28, 2019

“I’ve been around for a long time,” said my 84-year-old friend, “but there’s something about these days that’s harder than I ever remember—the climate emergency, political situation, racial divisions, violence. It’s like always living on the edge of a precipice.”

My friend’s words reverberated. I remembered a quote from Socrates—"These are surely the hardest of times." These are feelings humankind has shared across the centuries.

No matter how long we have worked to become more conscious and wise, there are moments when everything seems to fall apart. We try to salvage some equanimity, but the torrent of afflictive thoughts and feelings continues, followed often with self-judgments.

There’s a Zen saying, “Don’t hope for a life without problems!” What a shock to hear, especially if we’re unaware of our attachment to wanting certainty, security, and life being the way we hope. We keep being ambushed by the unexpected—a medical diagnosis, upsetting news, accidents, failed projects, the death of a friend, or whatever. The question is how we respond to life’s hard knocks and learn to accept that we live in the great unknown.

“Hard is just hard,” said a little sign on President Obama’s desk. Simple, compelling words. How so? There is the continuous unfolding of our life’s experiences—just what happens, the reality, “just this.” But then what follows is whatever we add about those experiences—our responses, reactions, and mental commentary. That is all extra. It invariably creates suffering, and therefore it is a creative place for inner work.

As a mindfulness teacher said, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” Everything is an invitation to pay attention and to find opportunities for healing old patterns. One creative response is to notice our mental commentary and whatever we’re adding to a situation: “This isn’t fair"; "How could this happen?” “Disappointed again"—those old mental tapes.

The gift of meditation is that it begins to soften those patterns, generate acceptance, and create space around our experience so that we can make different choices. When we feel the mind/heart closing down in reactivity, first of all, we can pause and breathe. We can breathe into the heart center and feel expansiveness instead of contraction; we can invite the inner smile which helps to soften whatever is happening. As someone once said, “In the end, the only miracle is a change of heart.”

In working with these challenges, it also helps to acknowledge that we are always living with the unknown, that the unknown is actually the very foundation of life. We may long for security and certainty, but these are illusions that add a subtle kind of suffering. Suffering always arises in the gap between the reality of what’s happening and whatever judgments we have about it.

May we remember to have compassion for ourselves and for all others living with their challenges. Like opening the lens on a camera, we widen our perspective to include all beings; this not only softens the heart, but shifts our energy away from self-cherishing. Like a vast, loving net, compassion includes everyone and everything.

As one wisdom teacher said, “Compassion is the spontaneous wisdom of the heart. It’s always with us. It always has been and always will be. When it arises in us, we’ve simply learned to see how strong and safe we really are.”