The Sensations of Uncertainty

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores, uncertainty has hung over almost everything. Lockdown was easy in some ways, because the range of actions we could take were so limited that it gave us very little extra to be uncertain about. But as lockdown eased I noticed that I suddenly had choices available to me again that hadn’t been there for some time, and for the first time I was able to see how much uncertainty that created for me. Should I go here? Should I go there? Should I do this first and that second? Or should I do that first and this second?

I felt the disruption that the return of choices made, and I reflected on how simple and settled life was when there were less options. But I thought nothing more of it, I just saw it as an artefact of modern life. We all know that we have too many choices offered to us in every area of our lives, and that having to choose things all the time is a burden.

But one day in meditation I was trying to contemplating the moment and everything in it, and I observed that my inner monologue had a tendency to keep making summary statements of whatever I had just experienced. “That was craving,” it would say after I noticed a feeling of craving. “That was aversion,” it would pipe up after I noticed myself recoiling from something. “Thoughts are not-self,” it would say, just after I had recognised I was attaching to a thought.

I had stopped paying much attention to these statements ages ago. I just treated them like echoes, the noise that remains in the mind after the thought fades away, much like the way the sound of an ambulance siren remains long after the ambulance itself has passed. I just treated them as brain noises and let them be, much like any other sound I could hear.

This time though I was intrigued. I decided to investigate them, what were they? Why did they happen? I knew that they were unnecessary, I didn’t need to be told what I had just experienced because I had just experienced it. Was it just a reflex, some kind of habitual action I wondered.

I spent some time observing this habit of my mind, both while meditating and while doing my ordinary things, and eventually I realised that it was to do with certainty. As I was mulling over a problem or a decision, I noticed the tendency of my mind to want to find a summary statement of what my action was going to be to resolve it. “Should I do this? Should I do that? … Right, I’ll do this and this, and then wait for the outcome of that.” I recognised that the reflective statements my mind voiced while I was meditating were somehow connected to this, but I couldn’t fully understand why. So when I sat in meditation, I determined to find out how this process was operating.

Observing my experience I quickly found that in the moments in my meditation where I was just observing experience and getting further away from self-view had a quality of uncertainty about them, and the reflective statement brought the certainty back, albeit briefly.

So I then examined that experience at the level of sensation and I found that what I felt as uncertain was being underpinned by feelings of discomfort, and what I experienced as certainty was accompanied by a feeling of relief at the ending of that discomfort. I could see there was an element of clinging to the feeling that certainty brought, a feeling of comfort, relief, and stability. I could also see that there was a feeling of craving when relief wasn’t there.

The human body has all kinds of different reward systems in it, and the feeling of relief at the return to safety is one of them. These natural systems serve their purposes, but over time we have learnt how to trigger our own reward systems, and thoughts are one of the ways we can do it. So as well as having aversion to discomfort, I was possibly also triggering my reward systems to make myself feel better too, which is not dissimilar to what we do when we have a cigarette or eat some chocolate. These ways that we can make ourselves feel better can be just as addictive as cigarettes, and I felt like that was an element in what I was doing.

I realised that what I needed to do to change this pattern was to sit through the moment of discomfort, and then sit through the discomfort of the cravings for the solution. As an ex-smoker I know all too well the feeling of having to sit through a craving, but that also gives me plenty of experience of knowing that the cravings are like waves – they build, they peak, then they fade away. If you can just hold on for the cycle of the wave, then you will be fine.

I meditated and waited for that feeling of discomfort to come up, then the word that naturally came into my mind was “tolerate”. I needed to just tolerate the feelings of discomfort, I needed to restrain the impulses to think of something to make it all feel better and tolerate the cravings for certainty. Tolerate, tolerate, tolerate was all that I was thinking for most of the sit, as wave after wave of uncertainty, discomfort, and cravings flared up and died down over and over again.

Having found this underlying tendency to not tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty inside my mind, I realised that this same tendency was playing out with any kind of uncertainty caused by the outside world too. So I spent some time just noticing how this feeling would manifest itself over and over again in even the most incongruous of situations, like weeding the driveway – is it going to rain? I should check the weather. I paid close attention to the feeling of discomfort whenever it arose, and I would try to track it back to its source, and time and time again I found it was being created by anything uncertain. Is it the right time to go to the supermarket? What time do I need to start cooking lunch? Do we have two tins of beans or one? Should I do this thing? Should I not do this thing? Did Lulu ever win the Eurovision song contest?

Having recognised that the same feeling was coming up, I resolved to wait before I acted, to tolerate the discomfort and the craving that came after it until it passed. The kind of questions that created my uncertainty weren’t unreasonable ones, they are just some of the multitude of factors we need to take account of in any one day. But while I was being driven by aversion to discomfort it wasn’t in my power to properly evaluate the question. Once the discomfort had passed, quite often I found that question really didn’t need responding to, or the action to respond to it wasn’t required until some time in the future. I was creating stress for myself where it wasn’t necessary.

“Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught… Being contacted by that same painful feeling, he harbours aversion towards it. When he harbours aversion towards painful feeling, the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling lies behind this. Being contacted by painful feeling, he seeks delight in sensual pleasure. For what reason? Because the uninstructed worldling does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.”

SN 36 trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi

By not sitting through the feeling of discomfort that came up with uncertainty I created more suffering for myself, and by leaning on ways of making myself feel better by looking for certainty, I was using sensual pleasure as the escape. But it wasn’t a solution at all, it was only ever a temporary distraction. My reaction to uncertainty was never changed with by this approach, it just perpetuated it. I had not utilised the advice of the Buddha to Bahiya:

“In that case, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In what is seen there must be only what is seen, in what is heard there must be only what is heard, in what is sensed there must be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there must be only what is cognized. This is the way, Bāhiya, you should train yourself.” trans. Ajahn Anandajoti

The Buddha here reminds me that uncertainty is a mind state, a mental phenomenon that arises and ceases. Our reaction to the mind state is also just a phenomenon that arises and ceases too. The suffering comes when we make any aspect of this ‘real’ and try to get rid of it. When we are in the middle of the feelings and mind states we say that we are whatever it is that we feel – I am uncertain – but we are not feelings or mind states. We are not uncertainty, and we are not certainty either.

The concerns that uncertainty gets attached to in my life are ones around actions: should I do this or should I do that? Is the thing I’m doing now the right thing? Is the thing I’m not doing now the right thing? Clearly on some level I have coded these things as “I-making” activities, so any doubt around them is a profound existential threat to my sense of self – it’s no wonder feelings of discomfort come up then.

I am reminded of a story that Ajahn Sundara, one of the senior nuns in the Forest Sangha tradition, told about her early days in monastic training. She had previously lived a very cosmopolitan life, and was a very fastidious eater, at one time even following a macrobiotic diet. As part of living as a monastic, the nuns and monks need to eat whatever they are given, they are not allowed to ask for food or for a particular type of food. There is no place for faddy diets in a monastery. This was a big shift for Ajahn Sundara, and she said that she had to do a lot of practice with it. At one point her mind said to her “if I keep eating like this then in 30 days I will die”, and she said that after 30 days the voice in her mind did die!

When we can’t separate ourselves from the content of our minds, we believe the threats and fears that are being highlighted to us, but in Ajahn Sundara’s case the noise was coming from the sense of self, it was her ego around food that screamed that it was going to die, and it had every reason to be alarmed because it did die. So when I listen to the noise in my own mind I can understand that there is a sense of self that is threatened by uncertainty, but I can also understand that it is not “the real me” (whoever or whatever that is) that is under threat.

I already know that when a feeling of fear manifests in my experience physically that it is not something I have to react to, it is a suggestion from my senses and memory that there is something happening that might be a problem and that they just wanted to give me a heads up. It’s up to me if I want to act on the suggestion or not. So I can take the same principle to these feelings of uncertainty, some part of me – probably my ego – wants me to know that there might be a problem (for it). By persevering through the discomfort I can show myself time and time again that these signals don’t have to be responded to.

By allowing the alarm responses that come along with physical discomfort to be quelled, the mind is much easier to work with, and much easier to see through. The ego around uncertainty was as much being created by the feelings of discomfort as it was by the uncertainty itself, so once the physical element is subdued then there is a much smaller ego to deal with. And then I can step back and look at what is in the mind and go “oh, it is just a sense of self”, and I can let it go too.

I’m not completely dismissing the body’s alarm responses, sometimes there really is something we need to respond to, but we can still make the same response without becoming the feeling. That requires some trust though. Take thinking for example. Have you noticed that often the answer to a problem only comes when we stop thinking about it? We are so used to thinking through our problems that we fail to notice how little return we get for the amount of time we think about something. Thinking about things doesn’t actually solve our problems, in fact it often only creates more.

To get to the point where you can resist the impulse to think over a problem needs you to be able to hold still long enough to let the discomfort subside, and then watch how the knowledge you need becomes apparent without the interference of your chattering mind. We need to work with these things over and over until we learn to trust ourselves as capable of making the right choices and responses without needing the adrenaline of the fight or flight response – or without needing a completely calm and settled mind and body either.

Tolerating the discomfort of the feelings doesn’t mean that the problem goes away, clearly the return of your level head won’t pay your bills for you, but it does allow you to focus on what is important in the long term and to not waste your energies trying to make yourself feel better in the immediate moment. Being taken over by sensations is like putting all of your attention on a paper cut on your finger while your house is on fire, or re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it is a distraction from what is the most important thing to be dealing with. At the very least tolerating the discomfort will let you get your priorities in order.

Uncertainty is a very personal thing, and I am sure there is no one solution to how we can use practice to help us to deal with it. But examining my own experience I saw that my responses to uncertainty all focused on making myself feel better, so the solution to uncertainty for me was about recognising the strong physical sensations that come up and tolerating them long enough to find out what had sparked them off in the first place. This probably won’t be the same for everyone, but sometimes we can’t really get to what is at the heart of the issue until we recognise that often there are more than just mental factors at play, there are physical ones too. When we can see everything that is going on then we can work on it in the right way, and let go of what isn’t helping us.

It can be especially hard to let go of something when we are feeling scared and uncertain, but this is what meditation trains us for. It creates the conditions where we can temporarily suspend those fear and aversion responses, and look at what is going on in a rational way. With the difficult feelings out of the way then we can see the world as it is, and with a cool head we can be open to accepting that reality and finding the best way to deal with it.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

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