31 – The Fear of Uncertainty

Why do we fear uncertainty? In this episode, I will discuss how we are hardwired to fear the unknown and how that fear affects our quality of life in the present moment. The problem isn’t that there is uncertainty in life, the problem is that we’re not OK with the fact that there is uncertainty in life.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 31. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about dealing with the fear of uncertainty. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. A weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Before I jump into this week’s topic, I’m excited to announce that a book I’ve been working on for the last year or so is finally available for purchase on Amazon, in iTunes, and on Audible.com, several formats of the book.

This is something I’ve been working on specifically as to serve as an introduction to Buddhist thought. I wanted to make it easy for people to be able to go to one source, to this book, and to learn all of the basic concepts pertaining to Buddhist philosophy. So, the idea is that you can take these concepts, listen to it in this book, or read the book, and be able to have a much easier understanding of Buddhist thought. So, if you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, it would be a great place to start to have an introduction and a foundational understanding of Buddhist philosophy. And, I think that will make all of the topics that are discussed in these podcasts a little bit more relevant, and they’ll make more sense because you’ll understand the background of the overall thought behind this world view.

So, if you’re interested, again, check out secularbuddhism.com, scroll down to where it says “Read the book”, and then you can click on “Learn more”, and you’ll see the various formats of the book. The e-book, the paperback, the audio book, and the iTunes version. There’s even a PDF version. Several different versions are available. I would appreciate your support in getting one of those books, and that’s a great place to start with all of this. So, if you have any questions about that, please feel free to reach out to me, but that’s something that I’m excited to announce that is now available. A lot of you have been waiting to have a book or something that would serve as the foundational presentation on overall Buddhist thought. So, that’s a great place to start.

So, now let’s jump into this week’s topic, dealing with the fear of uncertainty. I’ve recently had several podcast listeners reach out to me asking me to talk about this topic of uncertainty, and specifically about learning to cope with the fear that arises from uncertainty. So, why do we fear uncertainty? Well, our brains are essentially hardwired to react with fear to uncertainty. In a recent neurological study, a Caltech researcher took images of people’s brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets. And, the less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. And, you might think that the opposite would be true because you might think that the less information we have, the more careful and rational we’re going to be in evaluating the validity of that information. But, oddly enough, this isn’t the case. And, as the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system which is the place where emotions such as anxiety and fear are generated.

So, uncertainty seems to trigger a battle of sorts between the rational brain and the emotional brain, the rider, and the elephant. And, I can imagine how at one point this was an evolutionary survival tactic. I can just picture early ancestors of ours venturing into an unknown dark cave and immediately feeling that sense of fear, and that sense of caution with their senses being heightened because death was maybe just around the corner. Well, the problem is that in our day and age, rarely does uncertainty mean that our lives are on the line. Yet, we’re hardwired to feel this way because it’s a survival mechanism. So, as we face uncertainty, our brains push us to overreact, and that’s normal. So, how do we work with that? And, is it possible to move beyond fearing change, and furthermore, can we learn to relish and even welcome uncertainty?

Well, I think the key lies in understanding the relationship between the rational brain and the emotional brain, the rider, and the elephant. This is a behavioral psychology mental model that was originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”. He argues that humans have two sides. An emotional side that’s automatic and irrational, this is the elephant, and an analytical side that’s controlled and rational, the rider. So, according to this model, the rider is rational and tries to plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and it’s driven by emotion and instinct. So, uncertainty causes the rider to panic and then the elephant takes over essentially.

From the Buddhist perspective, the elephant could also represent our habitual reactivity, that knee jerk reaction that comes with encountering uncertainty. And, taming the elephant isn’t about eliminating those reactions. It’s more about how quickly can the rider, or the rational mind, regain and maintain control when the emotional mind is trying to take over, when the elephant is trying to take over. So, I want to talk about that just a little bit. First, from the perspective of the wisdom of adaptability. So, it’s seems that the more resistant we are to accepting change, the more we’re going to suffer. Change can be painful, and perhaps that’s why we’re so anxious about uncertainty. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering out of fear of the unknown. They prefer suffering that is familiar.” I think that’s a fascinating thought, that our fear of the unknown, or our fear of uncertainty, could cause us to prefer the suffering that we’re experiencing in an environment that’s familiar. Because, what’s familiar is so much more safe than the unknown, so even though we suffer more in that familiar space, we’re just gonna stay there.

There’s a video that I shared quite a while back on Facebook, and it’s been shared by many people, of a little boy who’s in the water and he’s floating on his back but he’s hanging on to this rope. And, he’s crying, he’s panicking because he’s acting like he’s about to drown. And, then somewhere off to the side the mom, or somebody, walks into the frame and grabs his legs and just puts them down so that he can realize how shallow it is. And, he puts his feet in the water and he stands up, and the water was only to his waist or less that whole time. Of course, he immediately stops crying and the video circulated as a meme kind of saying, “When you overthink this is what overthinking looks like,” or something like that. And, I think that’s a nice visual representation of this concept of we prefer to stay suffering in a state that’s familiar. In this case, floating on your back thinking, “I’m about to drown.” That’s still familiar. It’s full of suffering, but what’s even scarier is deciding, “Well, what if I put my feet down and realize, ‘No, this is deep. I really can’t stand there.'” That uncertainty, that fear of uncertainty, could prevent me from wanting to lower my feet when, in this specific case, the reality was, “Well, just lower your feet,” and it’s actually really shallow.

And, I don’t think the point is to try to highlight here that life is always that scenario. It’s always better than you’re expecting, that’s not the point. The point isn’t that it’s always shallow, the point is that the suffering was there whether or not it was shallow, and there’s only one way to know. Relax, put your feet down. There’s an expression I really like around this thought, and this comes from the Tibetan poet [Shantideva 00:09:06]. And he says, “If the problem can be solved, why worry? And, if the problem can’t be solved, then worrying will do you no good.” And, I really like that because, really, what’s the point of worrying? If you can solve it, then start doing, start focusing on, “How do I solve this?” But, if it can’t be solved, then again, why worry because nothing can be done about it.

I have a good friend of mine, a foreign exchange student who was living with us last year, was talking to me earlier today, well, actually yesterday, and telling me about an incident he had where he was filming several video files that he was putting together, a YouTube video, and when he moved the files over to his computer and started to work with them, the files that he deleted that he no longer needed, ended up being the files that he did need. And, at that point, he had already wiped the hard drive and he was trying to recover those files, and he had to buy software to see if he could recover it, and that wasn’t working and it was a really stressful situation for him as you can imagine. Filming for however long, it was probably hours worth of footage, and you’re trying to put together a video and you realize that you just deleted the files that you needed and you can’t recover them. Even with that software, he wasn’t able to recover it.

And, what was interesting is he was telling me this story later and he was saying how surprised he was with how quickly he found contentment in that situation realizing … He was getting really frustrated until he just accepted, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.” And, it was in that moment that he started to feel that contentment. And, I imagine that contentment was directly correlated with how quickly he was able to accept what was, and adapt to that new reality he was faced with.

I think part of why we fear uncertainty is because we seem to get caught up in this game of thinking that we can actually control life as it unfolds. And, this illusion of control happens because sometimes we do control parts of what’s happening, and I think that makes us forget that we actually don’t control it at all. Sickness, old age, death, and so many other things come in from time to time to remind us that we are simply not in control. So, think about this. The problem isn’t that there is uncertainty in life, the problem is that we’re not okay with the uncertainty that there is in life. Those are two very different things. I think that’s why we fear it. Not because it’s there, but because we don’t like that it’s there. And, the crazy irony in all of this is that uncertainty is the only certainty. It’s always gonna be there, there’s no getting rid of it. So, I guess you could ask yourself, “What would my life be like if I was okay with the uncertainty of it all? What would that look like?”

I had another podcast listener reach out to me, in fact, it was earlier today that I was reading her e-mail and she was concerned about upcoming decisions that needed to be made regarding schooling, having to pick the right school. And again, to me, this is another example of uncertainty. She was wanting to get the right choice. And, I think the fear of uncertainty was, “How can I ensure that I pick the right school?” And, perhaps even a little bit more, “How can I ensure I don’t pick the wrong school?” And, to me, both of those scenarios are really about, “I don’t know what’s going to happen once I pick, and that uncertainty is scaring me.” But, what if it’s not about right or wrong? What if there isn’t a right or wrong pick? It’s only gonna be right or wrong based on perspective, right? Because, I could pick a school and at some point in the future look back and say, “Well, my life has worked out this way or that way, therefore I must’ve picked the right school.” Or, you could look back and say, “I’m not happy with where my life is, I must’ve picked the wrong school,” and both of those could be wrong. Both of those scenarios, I shouldn’t say wrong, both of those could be inaccurate because it’s just gonna be based on perspective anyway.

Alan Watts talks about how faith is an attitude of being open to whatever might be. And, to me, this implies that rather than having faith in making the right decision, I’m placing my faith in my ability to wisely adapt to whichever choice I end up making. ‘Cause, in this sense, faith is not about trying to eliminate uncertainty, it’s about being comfortable with uncertainty. You could almost say that faith is synonymous with uncertainty. So, applying this to that scenario of the school, the fear of uncertainty can be minimized by increasing the faith that I have in myself to be able to adapt to whichever decision I end up making. I hope that makes sense.

Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent. This means that all things are continually changing, and this implies that all things are going to be uncertain because they’re always changing. This impermanence is the permanence of an uncertain future. So, fear of an uncertain future affects our quality of life in the present moment. And, I experience this all the time with being a business owner. Uncertainty is scary, but it’s also unavoidable. And, one of the things that I’ve done in my own life is to try to focus on developing my ability to adapt. Because, the quicker I can adapt, the better things go. For example, I’ve had multiple deals that I’ve been working on in the past several years with my business. I manufacture photography accessories, a lot of you know this, and I sell my products to various chains and stores throughout the world, and AT&T Wireless was one of my customers that was selling one of my products in their stores. And one day, out of the blue, after, I think, six or seven months of working with them, they decided to recall one of the products that we manufacture. And, when they do something like that you, contractually, you just have to take everything back.

So, out of the blue, I get this call that thousands and thousands of a certain tripod, or a certain product that I make, were gonna be sent back to me. And, it was devastating because a lot of money had been invested into manufacturing those products and they’re all out there in the market, and to have them pulled that way means I have to take them all back and I have nowhere to sell them because they were the ones selling them. So, immediately this produces a high level of uncertainty. What’s gonna happen with these products? What’s gonna happen with the purchase orders that they had placed that they owe me? I’m not gonna get that money now. How am I gonna pay for all of the manufacturing costs that I had incurred to manufacture these? Right out of the gates it was a lot of uncertainty and it’s really scary.

So, what I’ve found for me, in this experience, what I was able to do right away is just quickly adapt to the new set of circumstances. I think sometimes the suffering that can come with a scenario like that is not accepting the new scenario. It’s like you’ve just been dealt a new hand of cards and you don’t want to accept it. You’re like, “No, this isn’t fair. This can’t be happening.” Sure, I could’ve experienced all that, but it doesn’t help because the reality is that there’s a new reality. Prior to the call, there was a whole different reality. Then that call comes in and everything changes in that instant. And, this is where the wisdom of adaptability kicks in. It’s how quickly can you adapt to the new set of events as they unfold, the new reality that’s constantly changing.

And, this is why I like to compare life to a game of Tetris. Because, that’s kind of the point is that it’s constantly changing. You’re always getting a new shape and you’re always adapting your gameplay to the new reality that’s constantly unfolding in front of you. I think that’s one way to combat the fear of uncertainty is to increase my ability to adapt as the game unfolds. I think there’s always gonna be fear of uncertainty. The point isn’t to get rid of that fear, I think the point is to become comfortable with it and to recognize, “Well, that’s natural. The fear of uncertainty is natural, so I’m gonna move past it quicker because I don’t have to get frozen in that fear.”

And, I think meditation plays an important part here. In a way, meditation is the practice of becoming comfortable with this comfort. Our quality of life in the present moment goes up as we become more comfortable with uncertainty. And, I think that this is practiced directly when we’re meditating. If you think about it, the whole point of meditation is to practice being with what is. It’s not to change reality, it’s to become comfortable with reality. And, if uncertainty is reality, then meditation is a great place to practice being comfortable with that uncertainty. And, I’m going to address in a different podcast a whole method, or a whole set of techniques built around the idea of using meditation as a tool. So, I’ll address that probably in next week or the following week’s podcast. There will be an episode that’s specific around meditation.

So, I want to share a couple of final thoughts on this topic. One, we need to stop trying to have certainty in life. Remember, I’ve talked about the game of Tetris. And, the point is that you don’t know what’s coming next, that’s the whole point of the game. So, what you can practice is just observing. If you’re playing Tetris, what you’re practicing is just observing what you have and, “What do I do with what I have?” You don’t play Tetris trying to figure out how to anticipate what the next five pieces are. You could rack your brain trying to figure that out, but you’ll never figure it out. Because that’s the whole point of the game is that you don’t know.

So, what if you could practice just getting into that mode of observing? So, when it comes to fear of uncertainty, don’t judge the fear of uncertainty, just observe it. Don’t over-identify with the emotions that you experience because remember, you’re not your emotions. Rather than seeing fear as, “Uh-oh, I am afraid,” think of it as, “I am experiencing fear.” Create that little bit of separation between you and your emotions because you’re not your emotions.

And, the final thought is to try to learn to just go with the flow. Be like water. Think of how water adapts immediately to anything and everything. To me, water is the ultimate expression of the wisdom of adaptability. Because, it’s in the fact that water can adapt to anything, that water has the power to change anything. Water in the form of a river flows through a canyon and it adapts to whatever the path needs to be for it to flow, and at the same time, water is what’s carving that path. So, the strength of it is found in its adaptability. And, we can go through life in that same way, we can be like water. We can adapt to the circumstances around us, and at the same time, shape those circumstances. But, we’re shaping them because we are adapting to them.

That’s the paradox, and I think that’s the paradox that sums up this topic of the fear of uncertainty. There’s no need to fear it because uncertainty is the only certainty out there, it’s just what is. And, the sooner we can accept that, and be with that, we can go with the flow and use uncertainty as part of our strategy of playing the game. A lot like playing Tetris. Realizing that the whole point of the game is that I don’t know what’s coming next. That’s the point of the game. So, think about that and ask yourself, “What would life start to look like for me if I didn’t have that fear of uncertainty? What if I was okay with uncertainty because now I understand that certainty is part of the game?” And, like my friend that I mentioned earlier, when circumstances unfold, the quicker you can adapt to those circumstances and accept them using Shantideva’s wisdom, “If you can do something about it, then why worry? If can’t do something about it, then why worry?” In both scenarios, why worry? What would life look like?

So, keep that in mind. And, as I said, I will add to this discussion in a future podcast episode. But, this is all I have for now with this one. So, thank you for listening. Thank you for supporting the podcast, for being listeners. Thank you for supporting the book if you end up getting that and having that as a foundational understanding of Buddhist philosophy. And, just in general, this is a week to be thankful, this is Thanksgiving week. I’m just thankful for all of you, and for your support, and for being a part of this journey with me. So, thank you and until next time.