“When we are faced with making difficult decisions, let go of doubt and fear. Have faith and trust that the answer will present itself.”

-Rose Caiola 

An invitation into the unknown

I am enjoying a lovely reception at Deepak Home base in ABC Carpet and Home. The space is stunning to begin with – now extraordinarily adorned by the original calligraphic paintings of Thich Nhat Hanh. The beauty and simplicity of these ink brush on paper drawings fill me with delight. I am magnetized toward one in particular. It says, “Are you sure?” Smiling, I wonder: Is it a recipe for self-doubt? Or an invitation into the unknown? Like all art, it depends on how you look at it.

Buddhist philosophy teaches us that certainty is an illusion, and the need for it creates suffering. Psychologists find that the inability to tolerate uncertainty is often the central issue in anxiety disorders. Yet, we have a strong need to feel secure and in control of our lives. And we live in a world that requires us to exhibit some degree of certainty about who we are and what we can do.

Are you sure? What does that question bring up in you?

And who’s asking it?

We have many different voices inside us

right-decisions when faced with a choiceWhen we are excited about sharing a new idea, a critical voice may ask, “Are you sure?” Your inner critic may represent a person or group whose values and judgments you have internalized. Ironically, the voice was first developed as a defense to keep us safe from criticism. But as time goes by, it can become stifling, especially when we try to change or do something new.

The inner critic can lead us to doubt our ideas, plans and desires. Brilliant ideas can get nipped in the bud because of our private self-doubts, premature skepticism and over-concern about what others will think. Identifying the origins of these voices can be liberating in itself. Having compassion for ourselves and our need to be liked and feel safe and secure with others is important too.

It is common to experience the voice of self-doubt after we have made an important decision. “Are you sure?” comes like a boomerang, leading us to question what we were once so sure of. Maybe you should not have agreed to those terms; maybe you should have waited for a better offer. Social psychologists call this post-decisional regret – and it can be very powerful.

We tend to equate making a good decision with one that feels certain. This sets us up for a dichotomy of right or wrong, good or bad, win or lose. Asking “Are you sure?” again and again can build tolerance for the grey areas; maybe the decision was not perfect, or the conditions were not ideal. If the inner critic says, “Oh that was a stupid thing to do!” countering with “Are you sure?” can free us from this black and white thinking, and help us to remember to treat ourselves with kindness.

woman with question marksThere is also an inner wise voice that may be inviting other possibilities by asking, “Are you sure?” Staying open to the unknown and being able to remember that no matter how smart we are, we simply cannot know everything, can be a source of comfort rather than anxiety.

When events involving others happen outside of our control, we have a natural inclination to make sense of the event by trying to identify the motivations or intentions behind others’ actions. If the event had a negative impact on us, we are more likely to attribute it to the negative intentions of another. This is a great time to ask, “Are you sure?” Tolerating the uncertainty and vulnerability of the impact of another’s actions on us can be very challenging. When we assume we know the intentions of another, we are often wrong. Realizing that we just don’t know can be a welcome relief.

Impermanence and suffering are the great teachings of Buddhism – we can never be sure – when we find ourselves needing certainty, it is time to step back and compassionately ask why? Why do I need so much certainty – and can we be compassionate toward that need for certainty?

Going deeper

Try sitting in the unknown for ten minutes. Prepare to sit for meditation with an issue for which you would like certainty, but know it is not possible.  Practice sitting in not knowing and observing how your mind reflexively searches for reasons, plans and schemes of action. As these thoughts arise, intentionally and gently let go of them, and simply allow yourself to sit in the void of not knowing the answer. After ten minutes of not knowing, you might feel refreshed and able to see the situation differently.

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