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The Only Thing Certain Is Uncertainty

Meditation offers a cognitive reframe to help mediate anxiety and depression.

Key points

  • The Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that "The only constant thing in life is change."
  • Philosophers in both the east and west teach us how to find inspiration in the truth of impermanence.
  • While uncertainty can be stressful, if our minds are open, it can create what Zen teachers call a "flash of openness."

Sabrina, one of my patients, put it succinctly, “I feel like I’m in a constant state of whiplash these past few months. Furthermore, I have no interest in learning the Greek alphabet by the virus variation du jour,” she smirked. “We were hoping to get a break and travel over the holidays. Those plans are dashed. All this uncertainty is making me depressed and anxious. What can I do?”

Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, would have concurred: “The only constant thing in life is change.” And our meditation teachers have been telling us the same thing: Nothing is permanent. The pandemic has made this explicitly clear. We hoped that once we were vaccinated we could return to our lives — but not so fast. Maybe once we have a booster shot things will be back to normal. “I am totally exhausted and fed up. Will this ever end?” Sabrina asked.

I hear variations on her question every day in my clinical practice: “How do I cope so I don’t fall into despair?” I have been looking for answers in ancient wisdom. Philosophers of both east and west have been telling us that everything is unstable and temporary. However, we want to believe that life is predictable. And because we want things to be stable, our minds resist and become agitated when they aren’t.

The Truth of Impermanence

Buddhist philosophy encourages us to see the truth of impermanence. A simple way to notice this is to watch your breath for even 30 seconds. Try it. When we pay attention to our breath, which we think of as stable, we see a constantly changing process — one breath is slow, the other fast, one shallow, one deep — it is constantly changing, never the same.

Given that everything is changing all the time, that nothing lasts, and that nothing is stable for long, what is skillful? How do we live when nothing is certain? How do we raise kids, plan for the future, and make decisions?

Positive Cognitive Reframe

A Zen teacher, Roshi Wendy Nakao has what we psychologists call a positive “cognitive reframe” that I find helpful and that I share with my clients. She speaks of uncertainty as a “flash of openness” or a sudden shift to being in the present moment. We spend so much of our time ruminating about the past or worrying about and imagining the future. But what happens when what we imagined was stable or what was our “center” drops away?

A student told her a story of pruning an old, beloved climbing rose bush as he stood on tiptoes, on the base, only to realize that the stump, which he thought was solid, had rotted away. It gave way, he fell into the vine, and the thorns wrapped themselves around him. Yes, life can feel like that at times.

How many of us have had an experience of this in the past two years, of having what we thought was solid ground — relationships, work, savings, health, home — drop out from under us?

What often helps is to develop a vast perspective, creating space to put all of this in a larger context. Healing can come from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, and even for joy. What happens if we are open to this uncertainty, rather than resist it, fight it, or argue with the way things are?

Maezumi Roshi, another Zen teacher, would often say, “I don’t ask you to give up your ideas, but at least set them aside for a while. You can pick them up again later.”

I have turned this wisdom into an easy four-step practice that I call "When Things Fall Away":

  1. Take a moment to widen your view. Feel the whole of your body. Focus on the horizon. See the big picture. Feel the chest as a whole. Feel the left side of the body. The right side. The front. The back.
  2. Let yourself get in touch with feeling cared about. Think of people who have been there for you, even if it hasn’t been perfect — mentors, benefactors. Take that in.
  3. Extend this caring. Feel this caring for another. Think of other beings that matter to you — that you appreciate and have compassion for.
  4. Finally, expand out. The meditation teachers often say, “You are the sky. Everything else is the weather."

This way of seeing and responding to impermanence helps us develop inner strength and resilience. To end with a wise quote by Francis Bacon, “We only have this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand, and melting like a snowflake.”

I take further inspiration in "Star Trek": "The future is an undiscovered country."

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