Embracing Uncertainty

Written by David Nichtern

My taiji teacher, Sat Hon, is a virtual lexicon of sage and colorful phrases. One of my favorite expressions of his is “embrace uncertainty.” There is always uncertainty in our lives, but this saying seems particularly relevant these days. Whether we freak out or make friends with uncertainty seems to be up to us.

When we embark on a spiritual path, we are trying to learn from our lives, rather than just trying to survive or thrive on a purely materialistic level. When we see our lives as that kind of journey, it can be a good thing, periodically, to look back to see where we’ve been and look forward to see where we’re going. This kind of “view” can add valuable perspective to our journey. You take a look and then you continue along your way.

In some sense, our life is like a koan — a Zen puzzle. A koan is something to think about that your mind cannot easily wrap itself around — you have to mull it over and chew on it like a dog chewing on a bone. In a way our whole life is like that — all the pieces don’t exactly fit together: “Where’s my career?” “Where’s my mate?” “Where’s my peace of mind?” “Where am I?” “Who am I?” It’s like somebody took the pieces of a puzzle and threw them on the table and now we’re supposed to put it all together.

As we work with the puzzle of our life we face so much uncertainty. We can try hard to hold everything together or we can relax further and allow some space to listen to the melody of circumstance. We can become poets of uncertainty — poetic in the sense that we don’t just curl up into a ball and start crying for our mommy — instead, we express ourselves.

We’re not sure about love, or relationships, or enlightenment, or what we should be doing with our life, but yet we can express something anyhow and we can create some poetry that is open and adventurous. The best poetry has an element of uncertainty, right? We take a leap in and start to express something and then are willing to see where it goes. Our basic creativity somehow comes through.

Our path is really the path of not-knowing in some sense. We don’t have to solidify everything too much. Sometimes you become the pathmeister grandflash — you have your journey all mapped out. You’ve become a cartographer of experience, a mapmaker. But someday somebody might come along and say, “excuse me but you’re not quite living, you’re not fully living.” You say “Oh but I know what I’m doing — I’m doing this, I’m doing that.” You have developed a solid, fixed and stable program. You have finally got it together!

But it’s possible that when we have mapped out our journey so carefully, that the whole thing might become too theoretical, too tight, too rigid. In reality, we actually don’t know what’s going to happen next, moment to moment. We really don’t have a clue. According to the Buddha, our life is marked by impermanence and change. When we become a poet of uncertainty we are developing the art of moving with the dance of life and learning how to be creative within that movement.

In any case, we have to start from somewhere. You could say, “well then there’s nothing, there’s no basis for anything” — you could say “what’s the difference? It doesn’t really matter what I do.” But somehow that kind of nihilistic approach doesn’t really work.

Buddhism’s a little more precise than nihilism — it says start with what you have, start with the uncertainty — or even more precisely, the sense of discomfort about that uncertainty. That is what is underlying our whole field of experience — start there. We notice then that there’s a little bit of an edge in our lives.

Even as we try so hard to get comfortable with our world, with our whole situation, there always seems to be that little edge. So all we are saying here is — “Good! Wake up! It’s good! It’s not bad — that little uncertainty, that edge. It’s who we are, it’s our situation, it’s totally workable.



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