Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by Cat Li Stevenson
“Each time you stay present with fear and uncertainty, you’re letting go of a habitual way of finding security and comfort.” ~ Pema Chodron
Being the thought-out planner with a neatly plotted road map—and a compass tightly gripped in one hand, pointing due north—I cringe a bit (okay, a lot actually) at the thought of changing direction, being adventurous, and going off the beaten path.
I’ve purposefully designed my external life for security—the cushy job, maximizing the 401K, additional streams of income to insulate the extra-super-comfy-security, a large home for a future family, long-time childhood friends, and a solid marriage.
I am deeply grateful for all of these and, on most days, find pride that my focused, linear thinking has created a surrounding of comforts.
As I venture further on this journey, though, I realize that anchoring ourselves with an abundance of security can actually become a dangerous habit.
It can create an attachment that prevents us from being fully awake.
My straight-path mindset hadn’t really prepared me for an off-roading adventure. I held a belief that if I softened my resistance to allow things to go in a direction other than I had planned, this would be a mini-failure of sorts—a “giving in” to the unknown.
And the unknown, after all, is deeply rooted in scariness, signifying weakness, giving up, having no direction. It’s not secure, and far, far from safe.
Or so I had thought.
Sometimes we can be blindly walking down a path and then an obstacle, a detour, or a sharp turn appears, asking us to expand our mind and heart to see and feel differently.
This past year, I found myself becoming a security-junky of sorts, as I would not allow for an unforeseen change to enter my life.
I would stand firmly at the arrival of this unwelcome circumstance with crossed arms and a tremendous amount of resistance. I held tightly onto my compass, my road map pressed against my chest, and didn’t want to let go.
Since February, I spent many hours becoming financially responsible for my widowed mother-in-law. She suddenly became ill with dementia and struggled with everyday tasks, including her financial independence.
At 28, I learned all one could know about social security, supplemental health insurance, Medicare part a, b, c, d, e, state-aid programs, assisted living centers, and estate planning.
I hadn’t planned to become a power of attorney and full-time financial planner, and make heavy decisions for a parent, at this age.
My husband, an only child, was now a part-time caretaker and full-time emotional shoulder for his mom. Being in his late 20’s, he hadn’t envisioned this either.
My mother-in-law—known to her friends as an independent woman, a young spirit and yogini at heart—at 67 was forced into retirement after 40 years of teaching. She was now house-bound with no privilege to drive, vastly dependent on others.
Nowhere was this ever charted in her plans.
I managed to swim through all the budgeting and retirement planning, while being angry about the situation at the same time. I felt shaky with uncertainty: about her health, my husband’s hurt for slowly losing his only family member, and how we would gracefully handle this new responsibility, alongside our own dreams for the future.
Mentally, I was able to get through all the intricacies of planning; but, emotionally I started to become unavailable.
I began to feel my energy slipping away. So I’d retract from the situation. But then, I’d bounce back with guilt, believing I was not being a supportive wife or daughter. And so, I’d open up for a bit by helping with tasks, planning, and appointments.
It was this recurring push, pull, cycle of shrinking my energy, coming up for air, and then starting over again. It was stressful.
Resistance and tension, I soon discovered, is choosing a fear-based, chaotic way of life.
After several months of these cycles—and with the aid of a mindfulness practice to show me another way—I was able to reframe the situation.
This unexpected weight of responsibility was an opportunity to step outside of mental barriers. It was a chance to break old habitual patterns of clinging to familiar good-times. It was a choice to let go of the resistance to inevitable change.
A new approach to how I faced this challenge arose: I would, radically, let it be okay that this situation made me frustrated, sad, angry, and fearful.
And not long after, some healing followed.
I found a delicate balance by not expending mental space on clinging to worry. My mindset found comfort in the uncomfortable. My heart would begin to open again, surfacing with more compassion, more gratitude, and a renewal for life.
What I’ve learned over the course of the past eight months is this:
Our need for physical security is perhaps an outward gesture of our inner fear of uncertainty. When we finally step into the discomfort—stare at fear face on—we come out lighter and less fearfully attached.
In turn, we reveal more of who we are at the core: confident, expansive, and totally adventurous.
If you’re feeling muddled by uncertainty and fear, these ideas may help you navigate these feelings with courage:
Re-think thinking too much. Many of us are conditioned to “think things out.” A bombardment of non-stop thoughts rarely gets us anywhere. Honest clarity lies in letting things go, stepping back, and holding space for the unknown. Being present with patience and allowing time to pass is a healing process.
Practice acceptance. Befriend not knowing and let go of the need to know what’s next. Ease and peace will follow. Resistance and fighting are extremely rigid and draining. Acceptance is fluid, light, and ever-changing. Shifting to an acceptance mindset allows us to show-up, wholly, with our attention grounded in the present, and experience heightened levels of awareness and wisdom.
Remember what’s there. Each of us is capable of experiencing an unlimited amount of goodness. When feeling anxious or worried, remember to shed off the heaviness of resistance to reveal what is always underneath: love and freedom. As a favorite zen teacher of mine writes, “Behind attachment is freedom. Behind fear, love.” ~Ezra Bayda
Understand uncertainty. Our journey will always be laced with hurt, risks, laughter, and celebration. We don’t get to cherry pick only the parts of our path we want to experience. It’s an all-inclusive ride. Learning to acknowledge that there will always be uncertainty will allow our experiences to be more meaningful and joyful, regardless of what we may be dealing with.
Find adventure. Think back to an exhilarating, defining, or even life-changing moment. You might notice this memory occurred when you were going with the flow, having faith—even when you couldn’t see the big picture at the time.
When we release a tight grip of old comforts, adventure and opportunities seem to naturally arise. When we allow situations to be—without having to change or redirect them—transformations begin to happen.
Until lately, it never dawned on me that simply holding space to intentionally allow for the unknown is where real strength and true courage lies.
My mother-in-law’s condition has been a huge awakening. She is a reminder that our time here is precious and limited. Each of us will come and go. And nothing that truly matters is ever permanent.
With this new opening in my life, the direction I will take has changed course. And I feel more prepared for off-roading moments. She is a reminder to live fully—to renew purpose and energy, explore new ways of seeing, reconnect to values, practice mindfulness by accepting situations as they come, and as they are.
Improvising as we go is much more freeing than rigidly fighting against what is.
Loosening the grip on this compass and finding another route on my roadmap will always mean a continuous practice of letting go and being with uncertainty. The reward of honoring this path—in the company of a headwind of fears—is that we will have really lived with courage, adventure, and love.
How do you face the fears, the uncomfortable, in your life? Do you have a certain process, a “perspective check,” a mantra, or a reminder that helps you find a sense of peace with uncertainty?