Fundamental uncertainty

Federica Gionfrida

‘And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.’

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from The Holy Longing

We are going to die. Our continued existence is uncertain in every moment. And if we’re absolutely truthful with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we really do not know what will happen to us as we die and after we die. Whatever our beliefs. For believing is not knowing. None of us have gone through the passage of death, yet. The more deeply we drop into being truthful with ourselves about death, the scarier it gets. Learning to befriend that fear is at the heart of the true spiritual path.

Christianity, a religion that emphasises the importance of belief, contains as a central symbol the image of the cross, a symbol of the initiation of death. Initiation here means a fundamental transformation of one’s state of being. The deeper meaning of Jesus' death is not to be found in that soothing illusion that ‘because Christ died for me and because I believe in Him, I know I will go to heaven,’ but in deep contemplation of the meaning of his death, because none of us, no matter how ‘good’ we are, are spared the necessity of initiation if we are to live meaningfully.

Was it Carl Jung who said that it is imperative for us to die our deaths while we are alive if we are to arrive prepared for the moment of our actual physical death? Soothing illusions of all kinds prevent us from spiritually and emotionally growing up, so that when we arrive at the end of our lives, we’re likely to find that we’re not ready to face our death and that our lives have been meaningless.


‘In alchemical language, this means we learn to open to, and hold, the tensions of uncertainty. Which activates the alchemy of transforming how we live and where we live from.’

The uncertainty principle

Another layer of uncertainty derives from the fact that in any moment there are limits to what we can possibly know. Consciousness is by its nature, limited. We fundamentally don’t know what the future will bring, and in any moment our measurements of our world, of whatever it is we are attending to or of how we are going to achieve our goals, can only always be incomplete. So that the direction we set out on at any moment of our lives contains endless possibility of harming us.

The Buddhists have known, acknowledged and worked with this reality of uncertainty for more than two thousand years. In 1927 it was acknowledged by mainstream western science when the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg came up with what he called ‘the uncertainty principle’. The basic meaning of this principle is that at any moment in the scientific observation of atomic and sub-atomic particles, the more precisely the position of an object is determined, the less precisely the speed with which that object is moving can be determined, and vice versa.

Even science, which is often fundamentally driven by the fantasy that ‘if you look closely enough, deeply enough and precisely enough, you can know the truth,’ had to acknowledge the reality of the unconscious. Still, acknowledging its existence is not the same as embracing it in one's life as a living reality. Similarly, many people nod their heads when they hear about the Tao or the unconscious, implying they know all there is to know about it while it has not affected their actual living in any real way.

Basic nervousness

The truth is, at the core of our beings we dread uncertainty. Pema Chodron tells the story of how she once chanced upon an article in Time magazine saying that scientists have proved that human beings are more afraid of uncertainty than they are of physical pain. Of course, again, the Buddhists have known this for thousands of years and Chodron does not miss the irony. There is a basic nervousness in us, which is our fear of the uncertainty underlying our every moment. This discomfort, this anxiety, this pain lies at the core of our beings, and therefore is the gateway to open to the depths of soul. Instead, usually we try to numb it down.

Many self-destructive behaviours, including addictions, relate to our fear of uncertainty, or rather, to that resistance in us to feeling it. This resistance is seen in our drive to get our lives to a place of feeling safe, secure and comfortable. We become driven to maintain our soothing illusions, and in the process our entire lives are lived as if we are in the clutches of some invisible parasite that sucks our energy and life force away, rather than living our lives true to our nature and the nature of existence. We see our doing this reflected in our addictions, our ambitions, our strivings, our entertainments, our pleasures, our religions, our spiritual practices, our busyness, our laziness, our physical exercises, our hardness of heart, our relationships, our food, how we eat, how we feed our moods or emotions. The list goes on.

Feeding our sense of self

Buddhist teachings tell us that what ultimately numbs our fear of uncertainty is ‘a sense of self.’ This implies that however we numb our awareness of uncertainty, feeds our sense of identity, our sense of ‘who I am’, of ‘me-ness’, or ‘us-ness’ in relationship. Can you ‘see’ it? How a sense of self numbs your fear and gives you a false sense of security? Our avoidance of uncertainty soon becomes habitual; we are unconscious of exactly how we do this; we accept our slogging along these tracks like zombies as ‘normal’ and shrug off any questioning of it by claiming it as inevitable, as ‘the way of this world.’ This often develops into the condition that Freud and Jung called neurosis, because this machine-like existence never occurs without painful symptoms. Older cultures would have looked on us with horror, at the level of what they appropriately called ‘demonic possession’.

It is important to notice the compulsion at the heart of this possession, for the moment of compulsion is the key to unlock deliverance from it. Soul loves her creatures and so-called ‘symptoms’ are really her way of trying to bring us back to her. In this pattern, a key symptom is craving. And sometimes, like in addiction, this craving can seem unbearable. It is both ironic and humorous how we run away from discomfort and end up with greater discomfort, for soul is very imaginative in her tortures! Even though you may be able to avoid the fear of uncertainty, you won’t be able to outrun the symptoms of soul. Maybe you’re able to manage them, but management of symptoms is the ego’s way of doing things, and living like that is ultimately deadly to soul. Which means you’re then likely to find your life rather meaningless.

Stopping the world

When we’ve had enough of these places, at certain points in the cycles of our suffering, windows of opportunity open, and we catch a glimpse of soul’s lament about how we are squandering our lives. If we truly start hearing the longing for something better, something truer, and start taking to heart the tragedy of how we live, we may arrive at the place where doing something about it becomes possible. Our first step is to ‘stop our world’. Which involves cultivating, in little steps, the ability to no longer be compulsively moved onto our habitual tracks. It works similarly to ‘coming back to the breath’ in meditation. When we have stopped the world enough times, we gradually begin to move through into a whole other way of living.

In order to cultivate our roots in this other world, one of the requirements is that we let go, that we surrender into embracing the reality of uncertainty. We start to do this through becoming more aware of our basic nervousness in the face of fundamental uncertainty. We notice how it affects our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings, our speech, our actions. An authentic state of mind is one that consistently embraces the reality of uncertainty.

In alchemical language, this means we learn to open to, and hold, the tensions of uncertainty. Which activates the alchemy of transforming how we live and where we live from. In other words, it activates the transformation of our consciousness and the process of embodying that transformation. Both of which, being alchemy, are processes and so takes time. Facilitated by ‘the chemical reactions’ activated by holding tensions skilfully. And so we open to embrace the experience of uncertainty as the soil of our existence.

Real-life implications

Opening to uncertainty has some very real implications for how we live. To start with, we learn to pause in the face of our compulsions towards comfort, and feeling safe and secure. In Chogyam Trungpa’s path-of-warrior language, ‘we renounce the cocoon mentality of the setting sun world.’ We start to surrender into the discipline of opening to whatever ‘is’ inside of us and to the world as it is, including others as they are. ‘Embracing the reality of uncertainty’ is a cute catchphrase, but what it means to do so becomes only palpable once we start to understand that this ‘uncertainty’ doesn't ever stop. As such, it is constantly knocking at our door to open to it, deeper and deeper, time and again. Each time, we are asked to let go of something and each time we come up against our edges.

If we truly start opening and embracing uncertainty as the soil of our life, we discover the true meaning of ‘life-as-journey,’ which means uncertainty is not the gloomy end-point of ‘being spiritual’. Rather, it is the gateway to dropping into an experience of the infinite itself as an enduring condition. True, the path is hard, there never are any guarantees and you may need to find a sound guide, but the world you discover is fundamentally good despite it always containing much evil. Even at times when it seems the world is overwhelmingly evil, if we realise this is no good reason to harden our hearts, that it is not worth living like that, we find this moment, now, always also contains a sacred river of goodness flowing through it. And so we begin to wake up to the sacred nature of existence.

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