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Dealing with Uncertainty

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

IP Interview
Published on April 30, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • How mindfulness practice can help us act more creatively in uncertain situations
Executive Bio

Ed Halliwell

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

Ed is a UK-based mindfulness teacher. He has written three books: Into The Heart of Mindfulness, Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention (published in a new edition as Mindfulness Made Easy) and (as co-author) The Mindful Manifesto. He is an associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and Sussex Mindfulness Centre, and regularly speaks on mindfulness-related topics, in the media and at conferences, festivals and other events. He leads public mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in London, Surrey and Sussex, and has introduced and taught mindfulness in workplaces such as Accenture, UNICEF UK, Imperial College Business School, and the Houses of Parliament.

Interview Transcript

How does mindfulness practice help one deal with or handle uncertainty, skilfully?

Uncertainty is reality. It’s easy to say that we live in uncertain times; uncertainty is a given of life. Apart from the obvious. It was once said that death and taxes were the only two certainties. Certainly, the former of those seems pretty inevitable. Aside from that, there is a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know and that’s difficult. We don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes. We might be able to make a guess. We don’t know that the sun is going rise tomorrow morning. We can make a good guess, based on past experience. All we’re doing when we say we know something, is using our past experience to make assessments about what we imagine might happen, because nobody knows the future. We can’t; it’s not here yet. There’s all sorts of things, happening in the present moment that might condition what happens in the future.

By definition, life is full of uncertainty. Even if you’re absolutely convinced that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, which I don’t blame you for, in smaller ways, there are so many variables that can change what is going to happen tomorrow and we won’t know until we get there. Uncertainty is a given.

Uncertainty, also, is challenging for us, as human beings, because we like things to be certain. We want to be able to predict the future, because that makes us safer. We want to be able to learn from the past, because then that can also help us make choices in the moment that help us to be safer and more successful. Our minds, brains, bodies are wired to look for the patterns. To look for, what do I expect to happen? What happened in the past that I can learn from, that will tell me something about what’s happening now? That’s brilliant; what a wonderful way of saving energy, by using our past experience to see the patterns of this moment.

However, the truth remains that the present moment is not the past. The future, when it comes, will not be what it is right now. Things are continually changing. This is another given of life. Nothing ever stays exactly the same. Things are constantly in movement. Therefore, what we’ve got is another example of this discrepancy monitor in the doing driven mode of mind, where we are continually, automatically, appraising what we imagine will happen against what’s happening at the moment, and recognizing this discrepancy.

So the uncertainty is there and, if we’re on automatic, we’re continually trying to close that discrepancy, trying to fix it, because it’s uncomfortable. Who likes uncertainty? It’s like that feeling in the belly, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is something going to get me? Is it going to go the way I want it to? Is this deal going to come off or am I going to lose everything? Am I going to get sick tomorrow or is someone I love going to get sick tomorrow? There are all sorts of ways in which things can go wrong. It’s back to that middle place of what’s happening and what we imagine might happen and that’s uncomfortable. However, it’s also inescapable.

So how do we deal with it? Well, first of all, we could recognize it. We could practice being uncomfortable with uncertainty. In fact, by being uncomfortable with uncertainty, maybe that’s the way to become comfortable with uncertainty. Actually acknowledging the discomfort. Okay, I’m uncomfortable; I don’t know what’s going to happen, because nobody does. But somehow, by acknowledging it and by doing the best we can, in the midst of this uncertainty, rather than constantly trying to close the gap and get things nailed down – which, by the way, actually is not very creative. By getting to nail things down, that means approaching things from the perspective of the past. That perspective of the past is, as I’ve suggested, not the present moment and, therefore, we’re actually putting a frame on the present moment, which is not what it is, or not wholly what it is. But if we can actually rest in the uncertainty, rest in the discomfort and then, in this place of discomfort say, let’s have a look here. What’s unique about this moment? What’s really going on? What am I experiencing? What are you experiencing? What’s happening in the environment? Then we’ve got a whole load of information, about the present moment, that we can use to engage with it fully. Whilst recognizing that we are not going to solve that uncertainty. But maybe we can act creatively, in the middle of the uncertainty and therefore, know more often when we are putting automatic frames and definitions and fixedness, onto the present moment, which might make us feel better. It might make us feel better to say, I know what’s happening here. But then we’re starting to become a bit of a know-it-all. As soon as we say we know what’s happening here, without investigating it, we’ve become limited in our creativity.

Because maybe we don’t know what’s happening here. Maybe we’re bringing our habitual perspectives into it. But by knowing we’re doing that, we’re actually opening the space for creativity. Creativity is pretty helpful in all realms of life, as well, whether it’s our work lives, our personal lives. Uncertainty is still difficult, but it’s there to be worked with, because it’s real, so let’s see if we can go with it.

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