Living with Permanent Uncertainty

More and more people are talking about living in “uncertain” times.  It’s now called, “the new normal.” The anxiety over our predicament of uncertainty appears to be a new discovery.
Our long-held assumptions about the future are being quickly rearranged.  Collectively, our cultures are shifting so fast that we expect to live in an era of uncertainty.

Along with the popular acknowledgement that uncertainty is now permanent, comes the recognition that “chaos” is part the new world order.  Writing about his work to help the U.S. military “embrace” a future of uncertainty, Ori Brafman, author of The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness and Success,  explains ,  “The military, one of the most structured organizations that has ever existed on earth, has realized that in order to be adaptive it needs to embrace elements of chaos.”
While we don’t know what this means for military priorities and practices, it’s a high-profile signal of a mindset shake-up in the establishment status-quo.

In his blog, Unfolding Leadership, author Dan Oestriech offers another example of the changing nature of our reality. In Leading Change in a VUCA World,” Dan points out that to lead change in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) leaders must be able to adapt and stimulate continuous organizational change.  He points out that earlier models of change management are outmoded top-down strategies designed to maintain control and overcome resistance

Awareness is progress, right? We’re seeing mindsets shift as a society – business, medicine, education, relationships  – every sphere of life feels the difference and the pressure for change.  We’re not going back to the old world – and more of us know it but aren’t sure what’s next. While organizations and institutional systems will either spend the next years attempting to shore up power and control (fail) or flex and flow experimenting with new models, what will our personal response to a VUCA world be?

Cultures change when people do.  So how do we handle our new collective awareness that living is a state of permanent uncertainty?  Organizational instability is one pill to swallow, personal volatility – quite another.

Growing a Bigger Mind 

In seeking consolation and clarity for unanswerable questions, I often turn to the work of a trusted resource – author Pema Chodron.  There’s nothing religious or mystical about the wise and practical advice that this American Buddhist nun offers.  Her work inevitably reminds me that I’m anxious and frustrated because I’m looking outside and not inside for guidance. In case we need reminding – uncertainty is and always has been our human companion.

In Living Beautifully (with Uncertainty and Change) Pema writes, “As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux.” Depending on our personality and experience, some of us make a great study of the ways we get and stay “organized.” We’re constantly trying to control what the Buddhists call “impermanence,” a state which most of us deeply resist.  According to Pema “We think that if only we did this or didn’t do that, somehow we could achieve a secure, dependable, controllable life.” Unfortunately since that’s not possible, we’re often disappointed when things don’t work the way we planned. Pema describes this state as the “fundamental activity of being human,” or what author Chris Hedges calls the “moral ambiguity of being human.”

Rationally we concede this constant state of impermanence in which we live; emotionally we resist it. Our attempts to fix our identities, feelings and thought processes often result in forms of chronic anxiety. We mentally and emotionally insist – this is the way to think, to feel, to act – this is how I will put the ground beneath my feet and stay planted as long as I can.   “Once we have this fixed idea,” says Pema, “then we see everything as a threat or a promise – or something we couldn’t care less about.”

Working with Our Resistance to Uncertainty 

Undoing resistance isn’t easy. It requires looking more deeply (with as little negative judgment as possible) to notice our reactivity.  Noticing is first non-doing. We do not have to “take action” whenever we become aware of our resistance. Not taking action to fix things is anathema to many of us – especially those raised in “get it done” Western cultures. The undoing of resistance is moving towards more responsive and spontaneous behavior (and in this category I put thought at the top of the list).  Implied is the eventual option of choice – we can learn to choose a path of non-reactivity with practice.

  • Notice your binary, black-white, either-or thinking. Usually these thoughts patterns lead to where we hold our greatest attachments. These are often fixed-patterns, emblematic of what we consider our identity. Often when the ground shakes, we dig in and hold on to ideas about our identity.
  • Identity attachments per se are not bad, but can be places we “park” our resistance as a way to attempt control over outcomes.  We can become “attached” to anyone or anything (people, events, thoughts, story-lines, behaviors, habits) “Attachment” in the positive psychological sense can be a healthy thing but those we cling to can be defenses constructed to avoid emotional discomforts.
  • Notice reactions to emotions, particularly those we label as difficult. When emotions “arise” we often fuel our reaction by how we think about them. Oh no, not this feeling again.  What if this happens? What if that happens? We judge, often harshly, past feelings that haven’t “gone away.”   This resistance to the flow of our feelings and physical sensations is often indicative of our aversion to uncertainty.

But I’m human you say – it’s normal to feel this way – to resist uncertainty is certainly understandable. Yes, it is.  One of the most valuable practices I’ve learned from Buddhist teachings has been self-compassion.  While the idea of self-love and compassion can seem self-indulgent, the practice can offer great comfort and relief to soothe our most human vulnerability – fear of the unknown. Although we will keep trying to get away from the “fundamental ambiguity of being human,” we cannot.  As uncertainty is our constant human companion, anxiety and even fear, are at times, inevitable.

As Pema Chodron wisely counsels and consoles, “The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face.  When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fierceness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feels its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever.”

Thanks for reading! 

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Gurmeet Singh Pawar says:

    nice post louise. Isn’t it interesting that we look for absolute knowing there is none and knowing there is none we still need an absolute to take next single step.
    Thanks & have a nice day 🙂

  2. Dear Louise~
    As always, deeply beautiful writing and writing that helps because it doesn’t offer escapes.
    As I’ve continued to think about that VUCA world, I’m increasingly convinced it is simply an inflection point that inevitably follows the modes of past thinking that overemphasized analysis, order, the dismissal of emotion, the substitution of role clarity for relationship, and other aspects of hierarchical thinking and traditional organizational culture. We know what we were by what is showing up now. Like any theory we cling to, the thing inevitably breaks because it is a human creation not an absolute truth or reality. It breaks because the opposite of VUCA — stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity — has always been an invention, and all such constructions pass away with time. But this does not mean that we are doomed to simply live with that VUCA defined world (much based, it seems, on scarcity thinking); it just means we are reaping what we’ve sown. This is collective karma, perhaps, or something like it. This leaves the door open to the good stuff coming if we can just sit with the heat and the cold, as you say. The river keeps on flowing, and if we can trust anything at all, I believe we can trust in that.
    Thank you!

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks so much for your kindness and appreciation – and wonderful contribution to the conversation.
      May I sugggest an article focused from this very wise point you made here “We know what we were by what is showing up now.” This, of course, is true for the collective – and the personal. And its often messy, as Rumi refers to in his poem the Guest House,
      This being human is a guest house.
      Every morning a new arrival.
      A joy, a depression, a meanness,
      some momentary awareness comes
      As an unexpected visitor.
      What a rude awakening to think that clarity stability, simplicity and certainty have always been an invention. A monumental attempt over centuries to try to force order, with brillant disruptions like the Rennaisance here and there. One reason I love history so much is because it is so alive with opportunities for learning – to see more deeply, from yet another angle.
      And the good news, as you suggest, is that we can learn to let the good stuff come in. And I believe (cynicism not being one of my energy drainers) that we are. In the brillant,crazy, exhausting mess of reckoning with this VUCA world – there are millions of pockets of light. For me personally, my learned ability to just “sit” in the chaos and breath into a center of inexhaustible well-being is moving and constantly reassuring. I don’t know what it is but it’s my refuge in the uncertainty. As is connection……

  3. John Wenger says:

    Beautiful article Louise. The same day I read this, a friend told me about the parable of the trapeze. Here is the link to it, you might appreciate it:

  4. Reblogged this on Optimizing Healing Healthcare and commented:
    One of my very favorite (and perhaps one of the most profound) articles on leadership that I’ve read is “Leadership In Turbulent Times Is Spiritual” by Margaret J. Wheatley.
    In the article, Wheatley reminds her readers that “as times grow more chaotic, as people question the meaning (and meaninglessness) of this life, people are clamoring for their leaders to save and rescue them.” In times of uncertainty when there are no easy and ready answers, she describes a desperate people that presses “their leaders to stop the chaos, to make things better, to create stability.” She continues: “And even leaders who would never become dictators, those devoted to servant leadership, walk into this trap. They want to help, so they exert more control over the disorder. They try to create safety, to insulate people from the realities of change. They try and give answers to dilemmas that have no answers.”
    Wheatley challenges the myth and “trap” that leaders fall into and reframes leadership in turbulent times as helping “people move into a relationship with uncertainty and chaos.” To be successful, leaders “must enter the domain of spiritual traditions.” Why? Because “as our world grows more chaotic and unpredictable, we are forced to ask questions that have, historically, always been answered by spiritual traditions. How do I live in uncertainty, unable to know what will happen next? How do I maintain my values when worldly temptations abound? What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here at this time? Where can I find the courage and faith to stay the course?”
    In her blog “Living with Permanent Uncertainty,” Louise Altman invites her readers to a similar domain and shares the wisdom of another modern day mystic like Margaret Wheatley, namely, Pema Chodron. Altman speaks to the resistance that is often the only certainty in the midst of uncertainty and offers some practical ways to address it our lives and as leaders. Read more by clicking here.

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