How To Handle Uncertainty, According to Chinese Philosophers

Nothing lasts forever. Everything comes and goes. What goes up, must come down. Go with the flow.

These are just a few of the phrases that most likely find their roots in Taoism, one of the oldest branches of Chinese philosophy which emerged around 400 and 500 B.C.E.

At one point, Taoism served as a religion in ancient rural China, and in later years it emerged as a philosophy around the world. The basic principle of Taoism is that animals, plants, and humans should live in balance with the world around them. As many of us know, this is much easier said than done. 

But what if adapting a Taoist frame of mind could make dealing with uncertainty just a bit easier? In The Path, a book focused on Chinese philosophical thought, Micheal Puett and Christine Gross-Loh claim that ancient Chinese wisdom may still be the secret to the good life millennia later. 

So in the midst of a changing and uncertain world, try starting your new year with a dose of the Tao and see how it impacts your mindset as 2021 throws new curveballs your way. 

What is the Tao?

The Tao roughly translates as “the Way”. And you can think of “the way” as your life’s natural path. Teachers often describe the tao as a river. 

The primary purpose of taoism is to move with the natural curves and obstacles the river presents—think a fallen log or a large boulder. The log could be a metaphor for losing your job, and the large boulder blocking the river may be a metaphor for a romantic relationship that turned sour and is holding you back.

What do Taoists believe?

According to Taoists, living in balance means adapting to these obstacles without resistance. In simple terms, that means learning how to flow with the river of life like a leaf that has just fallen from an autumn tree. The leaf surrendered when it fell from the branch, and continues to surrender as it floats down the river past boulders and fallen logs. 

Taoists aim to openly accept the conditions and forced changes that may present themselves in life. Learning how to move around these obstacles, and accept these changes, allows one to continue to move forward. 

Why is Taoism challenging to practice?

Openly accepting change contradicts our basic human nature, which is no fan of change. According to scientists, our brains are hardwired to resist change out of fear. So we prefer predictability, stability, and consistency, even if it is unhealthy in the long term (think staying in a toxic relationship, registering a beneficial move to a new city, or remaining in a job you hate). 

Despite hating change, the joke’s on us. 

The truth is everything is changing; cells in our body are being born and dying every second, the clouds come and go, the seasons pass, and life shifts our path whether we want it to or not. 

How could this ancient chinese philosophy help us now?

Even knowing this fundamental truth of the reality of change, most of us don’t like uncertainty. 

Even so, the months of this pandemic have brought nothing but unpredictability. For many, our way of life, our relationships, our professional lives, and even our own sense of self has morphed in ways we didn’t even know possible. 

We have been forced to give up all of our plans in all aspects of our lives, both personal and professional. In the past year trips, weddings, and time with friends and family have been cancelled. 

In this prolonged time of uncertainty, it is easy to begin to even existentially question ourselves and our own decisions. For many of us big questions are surfacing:

Am I in the right career?

Am I with the right partner?

Is living close to family important to me?

Should I go back to school?

Should we have a baby right now?

These questions can feel overwhelming in the moment, but what if you approached these big life questions with a dose of taoism? 

What if instead of resisting the change or the obstacles that present themselves, you simply accepted what is coming up at face value? 

What if you simply saw each obstacle as just another part of your life’s journey, and instead of repeatedly trying to flow directly through the boulder in your river, you learned that it would be easier to let go and float around it?

A step by step guide to thinking like a Taoist:

1. Start by noticing what’s coming up in your daily life, this can be done by practicing mindfulness meditation. Meditating is a great way to calm the mental chatter in the back of your head so you can actually notice what is under all of your worries, fears, hopes, and dreams. 

2. Once you have stilled the mind, notice if there is anything that is bothering you. You can even journal and reflect on any things that have been taking up the majority of your thoughts.

3. Take a moment to simply answer this question with a yes or a no for the matter that comes up: Am I accepting the change that my life is inviting?

4. If the answer is yes, great job and keep finding ways you can support yourself as you continue to accept this change with a sense of openness. Perhaps it is calling a friend, or keeping yourself motivated or positive about the change or obstacle presenting itself.

5. If the answer is no, take a moment to reflect on why that may be. Meditating again can be helpful, especially with a focus on the emotions that may lie under the resistance. Emotions like fear, anger, grief, or anxiety, are just some of the reasons you may not feel open to change. Noticing these emotions is the first step, because once you notice them you can move past them. These emotions are the atoms that make up the obstacle in your metaphorical Taoist river. When you can accept the obstacle for what it is, and understand why it is holding you back, you can embrace the uncertainty that lies ahead. 

Despite the natural fear factor that comes with change and uncertainty, oftentimes we emerge from our lowest points wiser, more confident, and even more radiant than before. Life is just a series of peaks and valleys, your only job is to be present and aware so you can enjoy the ride. 

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