Sitting with Uncertainty

5 Nov 2020 4:36 PM | Catherine Duffy (Administrator)

Sitting with Uncertainty

by Tim Burnett

Dear Friends,

On the day after the election our nation, and the world, hung in suspense about which way the presidential and senate races would go, along with many other weighty decisions. Did you have a challenging day like so many of us did on Wednesday?

It helped me see with fresh eyes just how uncertain everything is. As COVID keeps reminding us, we don't ever know what's going to happen. And it's hard when things happen in ways we don't like. It's hard in general to work with the many disappointments of life, but don't you think it's far harder on us if we've already invested in some vision of the future? Isn't it harder to bear challenges when we've convinced ourselves that something else is going to happen; when we believe our predictions (or someone else's predictions) are actually describing the future, and not just predictions?

And in the case of the presidential election most of us are likely still feeling the heaviness of the waiting game now two days after the polls closed. In addition, regardless of who is named president, there is plenty of uncertainty around some pretty big issues in our nation: What are our next steps with COVID? Healthcare? Social and Racial Justice? The Economy?  Uncertainty is powerful. And it's everywhere.

I was thinking also about how we have so many technologies, theories, and ideas about the future that give us a false sense of certainty. Take weather reports for example. They're pretty good. Sometimes even the hour by hour predictions are accurate. That amazes me. It said it would rain at 10am and then at 11am it would clear up. And then it does just that. Amazing.

But that doesn't mean that a weather report is actually predicting the future. It's a model, an approximation. It's a surprisingly good one often. Quite accurate. And that fools us. It fools us into thinking we actually know what's going to happen. It gives us a false sense of certainty about what the weather will be tomorrow.

It's the same with political polls. It's the same with how we expect people to respond to things at work. The same with how our children turn out. We have information, we have data, we have models and predictions. They aren't wrong, they are usually reasonable predictions, but things aren't going to happen exactly as predicted, either. We get fooled. We get fooled into thinking we know what's going to happen. We are lulled into a false security when we confuse predictions with predestination; when we confuse models and forecasts with actual awareness of what the future will be.

So I figure we need to practice with this: with accepting the unknowability of things and with how destabilizing it can be to let ourselves hang out in our heads when our heads start to believe predictions as future. Then it's so upsetting when that future doesn't come to pass. Which is what is normal. Which is how it all actually works.

And yet there is something about our resilience and our human hearts that can also stay strong and grounded without depending on certainty. There's a more flexible and responsive strength available to us. It's hard to describe this in words so I decided to record a meditation on this today. It's a practice of feeling into the uncertainty and also exploring the still place in the middle of uncertainty. It isn't the stable ground of certainty we long for, but there is a feeling we can touch in our practice that's steady and still, even in the midst of the disordered flurry of a mind trying so, so hard to know what's going to happen.

It's a full 30-minute meditation and I recommend giving it a try. You can play it here on our website:  Sitting with Uncertainty

I'd love to hear about your experience with this practice and any thoughts you have about being stable and sane in the midst of the radical uncertainty that is our world.

All best,


P.S. I closed the meditation with a favorite poem by John O'Donohue as I felt the weight of Wednesday and figured we need all the help we can get.

John O'Donohue - Beannacht (Blessing)

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

may the clarity of light be yours,

may the fluency of the ocean be yours,

may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

wind work these words

of love around you,

an invisible cloak

to mind your life.

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