Yet—think about this—life as it is, is inherently uncertain. Due to the changing and impermanent nature of things, we can never guarantee security. Still, it’s very difficult for us to accept the reality that life is not subject to our control. And as a consequence, we resist; and much of our suffering arises when we resist this reality. Still, we pretend we’re in control, just like the steersman in a row boat thinks he’s in control of his boat. He moves his rudder, and of course, to some extent he can determine where his boat will go. But, he forgets that the stream is going at its own speed, and that there may be unknown twists and turns and even rapids ahead. Like him, we may occasionally realize that we’re not, in fact, in control, but as soon as our boat hits the quiet waters we fall back into the illusion that we can control what happens. We simply don’t want to feel the uncertainty that this illusion attempts to cover over.
We will all experience times when our personal emotional distress is particularly powerful. As the saying goes, we’re all just one doctor’s visit away from falling through the thin ice. When we’re struck with serious illness, chronic pain, a relationship crisis, or financial and work reversals, it can seem as if meditation techniques like observing the mind, or feeling the spaciousness of the breath, aren’t quite enough to deal with the churning anxiety that we’re experiencing. When it seems as if the future is dissolving right in front of us, we need to know how to practice with the experience of uncertainty, or we’ll remain confused and anxious. As well, we’ll continue to detour away from genuine equanimity into the artificial comfort of distractions, busyness, or efforts to control our world.
When we experience the discomfort of uncertainty, and especially when we have the feeling of panic when things go really awry, our little mind will naturally resist. It will tell us to fix it right now, or to find a sense of ground or some escape.
But practice asks us to see the discomfort, even the panic, with a curiosity that’s willing to explore exactly what we’re feeling in the present moment. Practice asks us to reframe our viewpoint so that we can see, and perhaps even welcome, the discomfort as our path to becoming free. This is what it means to say Yes—to simply want to know what our life is, whether it’s interesting or boring, pleasant or unpleasant, joyful or painful.
What helps us open to, or more precisely, to surrender to, the experience of a life that no longer fits our expectations—where safety, security, and certainty are no longer givens—where what we counted on is gone, and where there may be little left for us to hold on to? To surrender means to cease fighting—to give up our resistance, including our constant effort to avoid discomfort. Surrender also requires that we give up our stories—such as our stories about how life should be comfortable, or within our control, or our stories about how awful things are.
Surrender ultimately means to give ourselves up completely to what is. But the fact is, we can’t force ourselves to surrender. We can’t just drop our resistance and our stories simply because we want to.
What we can do, however, is experience the totality of what we are in this very moment. We can focus all of our attention on the exact truth of our own mental, emotional and physical experience, which includes our resistance. The practice of surrender begins with feeling the totality of this with an unwavering intensity, allowing the cocoon that protects us, the hard shell that covers the heart, to begin to break open. When we can enter into this dark place fully, something else emerges. The grace that can flow from consciously experiencing our pain becomes a gift that transcends our imagined helplessness.
The specific practice is to move toward, and to fully reside in, the physicality of our discomfort—allowing the fear, the sadness, the grief, to be breathed directly into the center of the chest. In the darkest circumstances, breathing into the heart is the one thing that will always be a genuine response to the moment. Using the breath as a conduit, it’s as if we’re breathing the swirling physical sensations and energy of distress right into the chest center. Then, on the outbreath, we simply exhale, and let our experience just be.
We’re not trying to alter our experience; we’re simply using the heart’s breath as a container to fully feel our distress. We can also include the wider sense of the breath—the air all around us—which gives us an even bigger context for experiencing whatever is present. It is here that we can experience the rock bottom security that grows out of opening into our deepest doubts and insecurities. It is also here that the sweetness of the simple joy of Being becomes available to us.
Recently I have been on the roller coaster of uncertainty in dealing with the medical establishment. All of this has been challenging, and also, in a way, very rewarding. In fact, one of the unexpected benefits has been a bigger sense of compassion for others. Letting the uncertainty be breathed into the heart cultivates compassion, since we are opening to the shared pain of being human—the shared experience that anyone with health issues has to go through. However, to experience the depth of compassion for others we have to first experience the depth of our own struggle, which, in turn, becomes the touch point to connecting with the universal pain of being human.
The point is: The path of the authentic life requires being open to change, to uncertainty, to whatever arises. Prioritizing safety and control guarantees that our life will remain both very small and very unsatisfying. It’s interesting that when we reach our lowest moments, a part of us gets exposed that we’re rarely in touch with when things are going well, and when we enter into it consciously, this is the very part that opens the door to the essence of our existence. This is the main point: The experience of uncertainty can transform from our worst fear to the Great Teaching, because it forces us to give up our deepest attachments and surrender to what is.