Image-110It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. (Proverbs 25:2 ESV) Proverbs has a way of getting right to the heart, and the mind, of a matter. This is not to suggest that Proverbs is an easy tip-sheet for life. It is more like the tip of an iceberg, in that the answers it provides can point us to underlying mysteries. As I suggested in my previous article, an experience of anxiety, or of having to wait for something, can point us to a presence that we need to pay attention to, or to a new self that needs to emerge.

New Life Stirs in the Dimness of Doubt

In Scripture, we discover a God who both reveals and conceals  – often at the same time, and in unexpected ways. Recall for a moment the disciples’ initial response in the Upper Room after the Crucifixion. They were alone, afraid, hiding out. They were reliving the very real post-traumatic stress of what they’d heard about or witnessed first-hand at Golgotha. Consider the trauma and anxiety produced by their shattered kingdom dreams and expectations: there had been no triumphant Messiah on a flaming  white horse. New life was stirring, not in the light of certainty, but in the dimness of doubt.

In this holy darkness, our finite minds bump into more existential questions, such as:

  • What are we are actually searching for?
  • How do we go about seeking it?

I would suggest that our drive to understand and explore is a mark of the imago Dei (image of God) in us. But it can also become distorted by a “need ” to know, by an agenda of head-figuring in place of deeper soul-searching. And it is the latter that resonates more with the original Greek sense of the word knowing, which is an intuitive, experiential, mind-body-soul sort of awareness of what is happening in the here-and-now.

Brain Boggle: Balancing Your Mind

So let’s apply a little brain science to our own Upper-Room uncertainty.

Dr. Daniel Siegel, a renowned psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, agrees that we live in a culture conditioned towards cognitive resolution—what Siegel terms “top-down learning.” In the book Healing Moments in Psychotherapy (2013), Siegel describes how this conceptual part of our mind that processes facts, ideas, and knowledge is quite different from the neural circuitry that processes direct experience.

The problem is our over-reliance on the “top-down” function of our brain. This top-down mode relies on labeling, categorizing, perceiving, and filtering mechanisms that size-up and define our present reality based on past events. This “top-down” dominance not only keeps us one step removed from our experience, it also limits our access to the brain’s equally important “bottom-up” process of sensing and feeling. Often, we rush to control our real-time sensory experience or emotion by seeking explanations “about” it.

Your Brain Can Trap You in a Rut of Suffering

For example, Siegel notes that the word “anger” may be a powerful trigger for someone, “but relying on labels can be imprisoning in the sense that we are, in essence, retrofitting the current moment with all that the state of anger has meant to us in the past.” Top-down brain input is important, for sure. But in the case of painful past events, its ingrained response of learned adaptations and patterns can actually trap a person in a rut of suffering.

Siegel likes to use an inner reflection taken from neuroscience . He quietly repeats to himself, “I invite top-down to take a break. I invite language to move to the side. I invite myself to go into a place of awareness that I cannot control with language and the certainty of prior experience. I embrace the uncertainty of bottom-up” (italics mine).

This didn’t really make sense to me as it stood as, as far as I understand it, neuroscience is a noun not an adjective and cannot be used to describe inner reflection. One could also reword it as “a neuroscientific inner reflection.”

Embracing uncertainty—as a sign of health? It’s enough to boggle the mind.

Or … could it help heal the mind?

Bottoms Up: The Science of Letting Go and Tuning In

Image-210Siegel describes how the mind is regulated by and moves along an energy curve of “probability.” It moves from peaks of high certainty (defined thoughts, emotions, and  images), down to the less-than-certain plateaus of thinking, emoting, and imaging, to then bottoming out into zero-probability, otherwise known as “the plane of possibility.” This is the place where deep awareness emerges and “consciousness happens,” Siegel says. It is here that we become more present people who are informed by our fixed ideas and habits, without being controlled by them.

For Siegel, “letting go of top-down expectations means enhancing the bottom-up experience of the raw, spontaneous present moment.”

In other words, we need a healthy injection of uncertainty to maintain a nimble and flexible mind—to open us to our own potential, and to the possibility of being more fully ourselves.

Siegel suggests that people often enter therapy because of their “rigid or chaotic patterns of plateaus and peaks.” Healing is promoted through the integration of top-down and bottom-up brain functions, and by the mind’s ability to move fluidly between peaks, plateaus, and planes.

This neural-elasticity is known as mindfulness, a reflective state in which your “observing self” and your “experiential self” are actually listening to one another, sharpening your inner awareness and decision-making. Mindfulness means that these two selves are “internally attuned” to each other with openness and acceptance instead of judgmental critique.

We Need the Presence of Another to Lead us into Mindfulness

This is where the real work of counseling begins, for often we cannot “internally attune” ourselves. Indeed, Siegel refers to the mind as both an “embodied” and a “relational” process. In therapy, we come to know ourselves through an “attuning” relationship of trust and emotional resonance with a trained other, who helps to reflect our own experience back to us.

This different yet shared awareness not only grows our neural pathways and brain fibers, it also promotes stress-reduction in the body, in part by disrupting old dysfunctional patterns and wired-in defenses. Moments of surprise and uncertainty erupt as the “plane of possibilities” unfolds in a person’s life. In the safe space that counseling provides, body, brain, and mind are regenerated and develop transformative ways of relating to oneself and others.

My point is that it takes the mindful presence of another to enable us to become more present to ourselves and to grow our own coherent mind.

Awareness, like healing, is a co-created act. And it’s at the very heart of our seeking.

Christian Counseling Can Help You to Embrace Uncertainty

This recognition that we need the presence of another person is at the heart of the Christian counseling process. In my next article, I will describe how waiting in uncertainty can help us in our relationship with God and in our relationships with those around us. But if this article has raised any issues for you, or if you struggle with a top-down brain that cannot handle uncertainty, you may want to consider speaking to a Christian counselor. A professional Christian counselor can help you to discover how uncertainty can be a doorway to the “plane of possibility” in your life.

Kidd, S. M. (1990). When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions. San Francisco: Harper.
Kula, I. (2006). Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Siegel, D. J., & Solomon, M. (Eds.). (2013). Healing Moments in Psychotherapy (pp. 217-268). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

“Foggy Uncertainty” by Matthew is licensed under (CC BY 2.0.)
“Day 34” by Nina Matthews is licensed under (CC BY 2.0)


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