The Practice of Uncertainty
As I am writing this, the corona virus pandemic shutdown is in full force and groups in some states are protesting because they claim they want their "freedoms back." I am going to unpack this a bit in an effort to examine our collective need to cultivate "The Practice of Uncertainty."
Fear is a valid emotion. In fact, fear and our flight, flight, or freeze response has insured our species' survival for thousands of years. With that said, there is a down side to fear when it gets out of whack. Case in point, look at the protesters in places like Michigan. To a certain extent, I feel for these protesters as they are acting out of fear, but I'm not sure how carrying guns while marching on the state capitol is going to solve anything. It is actually going to do nothing but create even more fear.
No one likes what the corona virus pandemic has unleashed upon us. We are all contending with the horrific emotional carnage that the death, illness, economic collapse, and confinement this pandemic has hurled at us. As a result, most of us are a volatile mix of emotions.
I cringe a bit whenever I hear newscasters proclaiming that this is the "new normal" or we are living in "uncertain times." I assume their intentions are probably in the right place, but I have some news for these newscasters: there is no normal (never was), and all times are uncertain (they always have been).
It is somewhat of a paradox that as humans our minds are not wired for uncertainty, but virtually nothing in our lives or our world is ever certain. If you think about it, even our very existence is in a constant state of flux, as we are not much more than ever-changing sub-atomic particles and cells. So as a human, you are constantly changing. Scientists and researchers say that our bodies replaces themselves with a new set of cells every seven to ten years.
I have heard it wisely stated before that the only consistent thing about life and our nature as humans is in fact inconsistency. From a mindfulness perspective this concept is explained as the law of impermanence. According to this principle, most of our suffering is caused when we grasp or cling for permanence in our ever-changing world. Not only is it helpful to realize this, but the weight of our struggles is lightened a bit if we have a sense of humor about life. Popular podcaster Joe Rogan sums this up when he said, "If you ever start taking things too seriously, just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying though the universe."
When I look at the gun-carrying protesters putting others at risk by trying to prove a point, several things come to mind. While I acknowledge and empathize with their fear and anger, in my opinion, their actions are extreme. Their actions illustrates to me the need for robust SEL (social and emotional learning) programs across our country in which we teach children how to constructively regulate their emotions in healthy ways. As I often say, learning these "soft skills" is just as important (if not more) than core academic subjects, and they should be taught in schools with the same dedication we teach math, English, history, technology, and science.
There are other mental skills and practices we can learn which will help us in times of uncertainty. First and foremost, we can accept that fact that change is a fact of life. There is an old Zen proverb: "Let go or be dragged." We can prepare for the future, but not fixate on it. Whatever experience or situation we are dealing with in the present moment is our reality. If we try to mentally resist it, our suffering will only increase exponentially. Instead of trying to fight against situations we have no control over, we can accept the situation at hand, and do the best we can with it. I tell the elite athletes, students, and executives I work with to act like the present moment was handed to them on a silver platter, and make the most of it. By no means does it mean we always "love" (or even like) what going on. Forced positivity in any situation is just as toxic as negative mental resistance to a situation. Expect the unexpected, and you will be more apt to respond instead of react. Choosing to respond over reacting gives us the power to act in a thoughtful, rational way instead of in a knee-jerk responsive manner.
Master mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad implores us to "go neutral." This means to accept it when something happens to us, whether good or bad. Instead of getting caught up in the negativity of the situation, accept it, learn from it, and move on. If we see something as "neutral," we don't have to waste time trying to judge it as good or bad. I love this approach, because it takes us out of the role of the victim, and it moves us out of the whole "something bad has been done to me" mentality quicker. (If you are interested in learning more about Moawad's approach, I highly recommend his outstanding book, It Takes What it Takes.)*
While being cognizant that change and uncertainty are constants in our lives is helpful, it is important to realize that we will always, to some extent, grasp for things or circumstances not to change. Just being aware of this will help the grasping/clinging to dissipate sooner, thus lessening the degree of our suffering. Meditation and mindfulness practices also teach us to embrace the present moment. I highly recommend that we teach our children these practices at a young age as well. Not only do these types of mindfulness activities build up our metacognition skills, but they also help take the edge off during our perceived 'uncertain times."
Just like the protesters, we all have our own fears and trigger points. They say they want their freedom back. As badass former Army Ranger, best-selling author, and popular podcaster, Jocko Willink likes to say, "Discipline equals freedom." I would offer to the protesters that a little bit of self-discipline goes a long way in supporting the greater good. None of us are happy about this current situation. However, I think it is wise to err on the side of caution than potentially risking more harm to ourselves and others. In other words, expect the unexpected, then respond instead of reacting.
*Note: A few more book titles you may be interested in: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts and The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, the current Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, will begin his tenure as the school's Director of SEL & Mindfulness in June. His website is www.greggraber.com