How to Thrive While Facing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

After being awoken by my four-year-old son in the middle of the night, I’m now tossing and turning, trying to get back to sleep. My mind is playing through the different things I have to do in the day to come.

“Should I just get up and do some of this stuff,” I think to myself. “But it’s way before I have to get up — I’ll be tired all day!”

I get lots of things done each day. Why am I worrying about it now?

The answer is that I feel stressed. Stress seems to thrive during periods of uncertainty, or ambiguity, or both. Times when we don’t know something that is very important that may occur sometime soon, or when an important situation is unclear and our usual ways of orienting ourselves don’t seem to be working well — these times are truly maddening.

I’m in one of those times right now.

I’m ashamed to admit that I feel stressed; I’m afraid you’ll say, “you’re a meditation teacher — have you tried practicing that stuff you teach? I hear it’s good for stress.”

Yet I also know that you can’t do big things without feeling stressed. If you never push yourself, you might be able to avoid stress for a while, but life finds a way to push you to realize your potential, causing growth and change, which inevitably causing stress.

My goal isn’t to avoid stress, it’s to take the stress and turn it into fuel, finding inspiration and satisfaction in achieving my goals, but also in the process of transforming one kind of energy — stress, anxiety, tension — into another: determination, steadiness, and faith.

I don’t want to put off feeling peaceful until I’ve achieved my goals — because my goals are big, and they’ll take a while to realize, and when I do achieve them, I’ll take on bigger goals.

I want to feel a sense of peace while striving to my utmost.

The Tigers and the Sage

There’s an old story of a sage who was walking along and all of a sudden a tiger springs out of the bushes; the sage runs, but soon finds himself at the edge of a cliff. Seeing a branch below, he jumps off the cliff and grabs onto the branch. Barely out of the reach of the tiger above him on the cliff’s edge, he looks down to find another tiger is climbing up the soft earth that slopes upward at the base of the cliff. The branch he is on starts to pull out of the cliff from his weight. He sees a strawberry growing on the cliff side, and he plucks it, savoring its sweetness.

The Universe seems to crack open, and he achieves a state of oneness with all beings, past, present, and future. He has waited for this realization for many years, and gives thanks for this traumatic experience, which seems to have been necessary to bring about this blessed state, even if it means the end of his life.

Suddenly, there is a flash of lightning, followed by the boom of thunder. The tigers flee and the sage falls down to the sloping earth at the base of the cliff.

He is unharmed.

Rain washes down on him; the heavens seem to celebrate his spiritual achievement.

Active and Passive States

An important lesson from meditation is that you go through different kinds of states, some of which are more active, and some of which are more passive. You want to use this knowledge to help you deal with stress.

In an active state, you are expressing energy. For example, speaking is an active state. Your energy is focused on the words you are saying and the energy flows outward.

In a passive state, you are receiving energy. For example, listening to another is a passive state, in which your energy is focused on taking in the words you are hearing, deciphering their meaning, and placing them into context with what you know.

There are different strategies for handling stress depending on whether you are in an active or passive state, and it is normal to cycle through active and passive states as you go through your day. (It’s also possible to be right in the middle between active and passive, but it’s short-lived and it’s not necessarily something you should strive for.)

Balance means that the mechanism of switching works well, not that you are always doing both at once.
Certain times are for being passive — reading, listening, learning, reflecting, and of course, sleeping, are passive activities. If you’re trying to do one of these in an active mode, you’ll probably fail at it. Other activities are active — talking, exercising, and writing, for example — and you wouldn’t want to make them more passive, for you’d probably reduce the effectiveness of the activity.

Respecting that there are times when you’re in an active state and times when you’re in a passive state gives leads different strategies for reducing stress.

Active State Techniques for Stress Reduction

  • Meditation is unique in that it works well when you are in an active state or when you are in a passive state, but you may want to tune your meditation to your state. (Subscribe to get two meditation recordings, one active, one passive.)
    Use physical movement. Sometimes, the answer is simply to go for a walk, or a bike ride, a run, or a swim, or do some pushups, yoga, or qi gong.
  • Talk about it. All of us are tuned to telling stories, so tell the story of your stress to another person. You might want to create some ground rules — ask your friend to listen without judgment, and focus on hearing your story and seeing you, not on problem-solving or advice, which can feel disrespectful and dismissive. What you want here is help in allowing your feelings to flow, and in being seen, not specific answers.
  • Write it down. Writing is a powerful way of bringing clarity to a situation, helping you focus on what you do know when things are uncertain.
  • Appreciate what you have. Spend some time appreciating what you’ve done, and how far you’ve come. No matter how far you are from your goal, consider the steps you’ve taken. All your future steps will be based on what you’ve done so far.
  • Use an active affirmation. An affirmation is a statement that you repeat to yourself as a way of embedding a message in your subconscious. In an active state, you will feel more connection with active messages, such as:
  • “I can do this.”
  • “Together, we will succeed.”
  • “Each day, I take a step closer to my goals.”
  • “This team will reach a new level of cooperation today.”

Passive State Techniques for Stress Reduction

  • Meditation works when you’re in a passive state, too. But we focus on different things. (Check out the recording for more on this.)
  • Reflect on your vision. It’s important to have a vision of how things could be. When uncertainty seems to threaten that vision, take some time to reflect and re-affirm your vision, remembering that when things seem really far from how you envision them, that doesn’t mean your vision is wrong. It just indicates that the journey is not complete.
  • Take in the sunlight. If it’s during the day and you feel stressed and worn down, go outside and be in the sunshine. Of course, this works the best when the sun is shining, so it may not always be an option. Sunlight has a powerful impact on your mood and is physically important as well (for synthesizing Vitamin D, to name just one example).
  • Put your bare feet on the earth. Placing your bare feet on the earth is a powerful way of electrically grounding yourself, which has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which is associated with many ailments.
  • Get a hug. Do you have someone you can give a hug to? The simple act of embracing another person has been shown to raise your serotonin and oxytocin levels. If you don’t have someone handy to hug (perhaps it’s the middle of the night), try simply thinking about and visualizing embracing someone you care about. Visualization of an experience has been shown to activate the parts of the brain that get activated by the experience itself.
  • Use a receptive affirmation. A receptive affirmation is one that is more prayerful, more focused on the help we get from others, for example:
  • “Things will work out.”
  • “I’m surrounded by the love of those who care about me.”
  • “Through every challenge, my faith increases.”
  • “God will provide.” (Have an issue with the word God or simply want some other options? Then I’d suggest substituting “The Universe”, “Spirit”, or “The Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty”)

Embracing Rather Than Avoiding

Try to embrace your feelings rather than avoiding them.

That’s often easier said than done. But try to see your strong feelings as an asset rather than a liability.

Your feelings can be the oil that makes your lamp shine more brightly than you ever thought was possible, but only if you embrace your feelings, without concern for whether your feelings seem to be positive or negative.

Meditation is an excellent way to give yourself the space, attention, and energy you need to really experience your emotions, no matter what they are.

I have created two meditation recordings to help you meditate in order to clear out stress. The first meditation is for when you’re in an active state, and the second is for when you’re in a passive state.

Both are free for subscribers of Meditation 2.0. Click here to subscribe and get both meditation recordings.