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Learning to Embrace Uncertainty in Life

When You Become Comfortable with Uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities Open Up in Your Life Ekhart Tolle

Shortly after developing Tennis Elbow last summer, I went on a bit of a research binge to try and understand both what this condition was and how I could heal it quickly. One piece of information I came across, from an unorthodox article, was the following:

The science of conditions like [Tennis Elbow] is generally much more of a mess than you might think. Although the situation is improving, and a fair bit more tennis elbow research has been done, it is still a surprisingly difficult, mysterious, and interesting condition — involving more mind and muscle than anyone suspects.

This was unwelcome information to me at the time. In fact, it was downright devastating. It made me anxious, confused, and angry. The problem was that, in taking up this research, I was eager to find knowledge, facts, and the truth about tennis elbow. Instead, what I got was the exact opposite – uncertainty. Although the article still encouraged readers to explore traditional methods of treatment, it predominantly emphasized that there is nothing about this condition that is known conclusively.

It took some time, but I eventually came to a point later on where I saw the wisdom in this author’s comments. As a result, I decided to learn as much about Tennis Elbow as I could and try out all the popular methods of treatment. At the same time, however, I also resolved to accept the fact that everything regarding this condition was largely uncertain – not least of which was my outcome.

Picture of a man holding his elbow in pain

The result of all this? Funny enough, it was all mostly positive. In adopting this approach, I ended up experiencing a significant decrease in my anxiety, confusion and anger. It was almost as if accepting uncertainty decreased my overall inner tension and distress.

In addition, my tennis elbow ended up getting much better.  A few months after my initial research, I came across the very helpful, but unconventional, writings and lectures of Dr. John Sarno. Dr. Sarno, who recently passed away in his early nineties, saw Tennis Elbow, and most other forms of chronic pain, as a part of a larger psychosomatic condition known as TMS (Tension Myositis Syndrome). Keeping in mind the wisdom I learned earlier, about the uncertainty associated with Tennis Elbow, I eventually decided to suspended my initial negative judgements and tried out Dr. Sarno’s recommended healing treatment. Now, just over a year after first developing this condition, my Tennis Elbow has almost completely disappeared. This was the only treatment that worked for me, out of the many I tried. And, it was one that did not have the backing of the larger medical establishment (it still doesn’t!).

I mention all this because the lesson I learned with my Tennis Elbow situation is equally applicable to our lives in general. That is, that we can all experience a ton of benefits if we learn to become open to, and even comfortable with, uncertainty in our day-to-day life.

The first step in exploring uncertainty in daily life is to simply acknowledge that it exists. Like the many doctors and physical therapists, who would like to pretend that Tennis Elbow is a mathematical subject of certainty, we all like to believe that our many activities and practices are completely reliable formulas. ‘If we eat nutritious meals, take our vitamins, and exercise, then we will be rewarded with long and healthy lives.’ ‘If I go all-out at work, put in overtime, and do what I’m told, then I will climb the heights of professional achievement and become a raging success.’ ‘If I take breaks, meditate and show care towards others, then I will eventually find both peace and contentment.’ The examples of our many life formulas go on and on.

Consciously or unconsciously, all of us believe in these magic formulas. We all buy into the illusion that we can have the certainty of a fixed outcome if we simply apply steps one through ten on a consistent basis for a given period of time. Sadly, though, the truth of the matter is that there really is no magic. That’s right. There are no magic formulas in life. The maxim which says that taxes and death are the only two things in life with any certainty applies equally to everything under the sun. So, try as we may, we can still get sick and die even when we live a healthy and fit lifestyle. We can still become demoted or fired from a job to which we have given all our time and efforts. And, we can still develop into cold-hearted narcissists even when we are living balanced and seemingly moral lives in the present. Not one of our life formulas is ever completely foolproof, ever completely certain.

When it comes right down to it, uncertainty in our lives is not limited merely to one or two things. On the contrary, it exists in almost everything we do. Our physical development. Our mental health. Our emotional states. Our social support networks. Every practice and activity we undertake in these and other areas are all cloaked, at least to some degree, in a mist of uncertainty. As much as we might like to deny it, that’s just the way life is.

A woman tries to walk through a dark & misty room

The strange thing about all this, however, is that very few of us are actually aware that uncertainty is so powerfully present in our lives. The people we surround ourselves with. The books we read. The TV shows we watch. The people we ‘follow’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. All these things suggest to us that there are limitless formulaic recipes that we can adopt. And, if we could only bring ourselves to fully implement them, then we could all one day see our ambitions and dreams come true.

When you reflect a little, it’s easy to understand why we have a difficult time acknowledging uncertainty in daily life. Certainty is knowable, easy to understand and capable of being executed ‘successfully.’ It makes us feel nice. It makes us feel secure, comfortable, and confident. And, it gives us warm promises of nice returns based on simple steps and instructions. On the other hand, uncertainty is a lot less agreeable. It requires that we listen and think with our heart, consult other people for advice, and rely on less calculated strategies, such as trial and error. It brings out the truth that we are limited in what we can know, understand, and accomplish. And, as a result, it can make us feel vulnerable, helpless, dependent and confused.

As difficult and undesirable as it may be, however, opening ourselves to uncertainty can be very beneficial. One benefit is that an awareness of uncertainty shines a bright light of truth on ourselves, our decisions and our actions. It shows us that we are not as confident and secure as we thought. That we are shooting in the dark more than we would like to admit. That our beliefs are not completely sound. That our job is not as ideal as we tell ourselves. That are relationships have more holes in them than connections. And, that what we thought was good for us, in terms of life goals, may not be good for us at all.

It’s true that realizing all this can be a bit painful. No one likes to see the blindness and darkness that exists in their lives. But, in the general scheme of things, it is always more rewarding to be in alignment with reality. Illusion only leads to permanent pain and sadness, whereas truth makes peace, joy and love possible.

Another benefit of acknowledging uncertainty in our lives is that we begin to open ourselves up to the beautiful world of the heart. When we live from a mindset in which we think we know everything and have it all figured out, we unconsciously limit ourselves to being led by our minds. This is the place of cold hard facts, of data, of numbers, of ‘magic formulas,’ of predictable cause and effect. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a bad place. Nor is the mind, itself, bad. Rather, the point here is that our mind is a tool that we use in life. It is not something that should be guiding, controlling, and dominating our entire lives – the way we feel, think, decide, act, etc. The mind is great for planning, debating, analysis, mathematics, construction, and for a lot of other good things. However, when it comes to deeper human realities, like life-balance, personal fulfillment, and human relationships, it is very deficient in its leadership capacity. The reason for this is because the truly fulfilling and important things of life exist in the world of the heart, and this place is not built of facts, data, formulas and simple cause and effect relations. Its fabric is woven from uncertainty, intuition, and mystery. It requires risk, dependence, trust and hope. The mind can help in charting the heart’s territory, but, as a guide, it is blind, deaf, and mute.

When we live from and within the world of the heart, we discover a wealth of wisdom and insights that are completely inaccessible to the mind. We discover that we are not simply intellects that need to be constantly fed information and facts. We discover that we have emotional worlds that require a lot of sensitive care and attention. We discover that our bodies are just as important as our minds and hearts. We discover that a lot of our beliefs and practices, which we considered ingenious and invaluable, may actually be hurting us. And, we discover a whole slew of effective strategies and principles for ensuring our overall wellbeing, which we had never even considered, or previously concluded were meaningless. The insights that come from the world of the heart are really quite limitless, just as the heart itself is limitless.

A photo of the sun rising above the mountains

Lastly, when we open ourselves up to the uncertainty of life, we notice subtle, positive changes in our inner states. We experience a decrease in negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and confusion. And, at the same time, we also come into contact with flashes of those emotions that we never have enough of: peace, joy, love, and contentment.

Moreover, this movement from a negative to a positive state of being affects the way we see ourselves, the way we see others and the way we see life itself. We become more hopeful and optimistic. We begin to see goodness in those around us. And, we come to realize that life is more supportive than threatening. Since these changes of perspective originate from the heart, they also have the added benefit of being grounded in what is true, good and beautiful. Who doesn’t want that?

A lot of people who are reading this post, may have either rejected the notion of uncertainty completely from their life, or at least wrestled with it from time to time, but never really embraced it. This is because many of us were raised in mind-dominated families, and the mind has provided us with a degree of comfort, security, and confidence that is difficult to let go of. In addition, our egos are largely mind-made, and they will not easily give up the territory of ourselves they have conquered over the years.

So, where do you go from here, if you’re open to acknowledging uncertainty, but feel like you just can’t do it? One of the most effective ways to overcome this obstacle is to take small steps towards making truth the highest priority in your life. The reason why this is so important is because when you honestly make truth your top priority, when you have the courage to look deeply at yourself and consider what you actually ‘know’ and what you don’t know, then you’ll automatically arrive at the conclusion that most of your so-called knowledge is really uncertain. Remember, ‘the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes.’

Trying to prioritize truth can be scary and challenging. This is because it can bring you to a place where your lack of knowing can make you feel vulnerable, helpless, and confused. But, there is a strange paradoxical incentive to entering this world of uncertainty: that is, that the state of unknowing somehow leads you into the world of the heart where limitless insights abound and personal fulfillment awaits. If you want proof of this, consider the example of Socrates. At the same time that Socrates is remembered as the philosopher who famously knew ‘that he knew nothing,’ he is also regarded as the wisest and most knowledgeable philosopher that ever lived. For him, a humble and honest acknowledgement of uncertainty was a prerequisite for discovering the deepest and most significant truths, and thereby, for living a truly authenticate and satisfying human life.