Longing for Certainty

Wanting things to be different than they are is our greatest cause of suffering. Resistance to “What Is”, to reality, sets off a chain of entanglements which traps emotions and prevents them from passing through us as they should. Instead we trap them and in turn are trapped by them and so our feelings of grasping or aversion linger and we suffer.

Always we seek half of life. We seek to feel happiness, joy, pleasure and ease. When these occur we accept them as “What Is”. However when we feel unhappiness, sadness, pain and difficulty, we do not accept them as “What Is” but instead feel something is wrong. Someone has made a mistake. If only things had turned out differently, then we would be happy. This is the recipe for suffering.

The human mind seeks to understand but it unconsciously crosses a line. It shifts from wanting to understand to wanting explanations in the form of rules and laws that are not subject to change. The mind has crossed from seeking understanding to seeking certainty.


Herein lies one of the great challenges for those who would understand Buddhism (and life itself); that we seek a set of immutable rules and laws (certainty) by which to define something whose defining characteristic is change itself. We try to eliminate uncertainty. It cannot be done, as one of the oldest texts in the world, the Tao Te Ching, tries to explain in its opening chapter:

The Tao that can be told
is not the true Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the true name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Caught in desire,
you see only the manifestations.
Free from desire,
you realize the mystery.

We slip into seeking certainty with no awareness of doing so because it is our nature. Our brain is always seeking resolution, completion, to make “sense” of the world. It is a survival mechanism which evolved to help us avoid danger. Consider our prehistoric ancestors daily lives — what we didn’t know could hurt us. Physically, our brains have evolved little in the past ten thousand years. Yet even seven thousand years ago, our prehistoric ancestors practicing Yoga in the jungles of the Indus river and laying down the foundations of what would one day give rise to some of the worlds great religions, were trying help us come to terms with this mystery.

Indus Valley Artifact (2000 BCE)

The ideas of certainty, trust and control are closely related and the mindset that seeks to eliminate uncertainty always leads to a desire for rules and laws. Where there is no trust, we make laws and excessive lawmaking leads to “the dark side”. It is always depicted in story and film as evil, a command and control culture with rigid social divisions. In its ultimate form of evil it is presented as machine intelligence. Consider movies like The Matrix, Terminator, or characters such as Star Trek’s Borg. This is because we know it is unsustainable and dangerous in the long run in a world where the ultimate law is change. It is how spirituality becomes religion, how faith becomes fundamentalism, how love becomes need.

Research has shown that much of our sense of happiness, success and self-worth comes from the illusion of control. When we feel unhappy it is similarly related to a feeling of uncertainty. To avoid the endless seeking for certainty, for only half of life, we must override this default programming. We must embrace and transcend both certainty and uncertainty.

Yet there is in reality only change and thus only uncertainty. Certainty is always an illusion. Thus by accepting uncertainty we have embraced all of life. Then we accept happiness, joy, pleasure and ease but also unhappiness, sadness, pain and difficulty with the same response. Ultimately, transcending both, we see certainty and uncertainty as necessary illusions, like the ephemeral poles of some subatomic particle which, when looked for carefully, cannot be found. There is only, “What Is”.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because death’s note wants to climb over —
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

— Rainer Maria Rilke —


Posted January 29, 2012 by Rick Bateman