The Empty Bowl and the Alchemy of Uncertainty

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by Barbara Ford

Recorded by author

Barbara with Joanna Macy

Last year, I had the great good luck to visit my beloved friend and teacher, Joanna Macy, a brilliant elder of our time. We spent the afternoon together, catching up on family and news in the dappled sunshine in her backyard. Ukraine was on her mind. She traveled throughout Russia after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and had dedicated herself to supporting the communities there as they coped with the physical, emotional, and cultural injuries of that event. (As an aside, some communities there are still using Geiger counters to find the least radioactive spots in their environs, so that they can plant gardens and guard the children from the ongoing threat of exposure as toxic particles move with the wind and the dust.)

At some point after this deep and thoroughly unvarnished conversation about the state of the world, she looked up into the tree branches above us, newly opening buds filtering the sunlight, turned to me smiling widely and said, “I am so grateful to be alive at this moment in history!”

how to stay present in the face of those reckonings, and the unavoidable truth of uncertainty as our constant companion on the journey. 

This is not uncharacteristic of her, to be honest, but I was sitting with a kind of stunned awe, again, at this person who, while willing to stare deeply into the abyss of the pain of the world, still found herself in this place of deep gratitude. That statement, and that moment, reminded me of all the times over the years she talked about the reckonings our world was bound for, the tumult of fires, literal and cultural, that threaten our world. Her work, and mine, is largely centered on how to stay present in the face of those reckonings, and the unavoidable truth of uncertainty as our constant companion on the journey. 

In the Work That Reconnects, a body of practices developed by Joanna, there is one practice called the Truth Mandala, or Circle of Truth. Within a circle of witnesses, a person enters and interacts with objects symbolic of emotional states that might arise in confronting one’s pain for the world. For example, a pile of dead leaves symbolizes grief. A large stick, tightly held, symbolizes anger. One of the objects I have a great resonance with is an empty bowl, which is connected to confusion, uncertainty, numbness. Each object has a correlating quality to each emotional state. Grief is connected to love. Anger, to one’s passion for justice. The emptiness in the bowl makes a space for the new to arise.

That empty space is a kind of scrying bowl, a place to seek new meanings, new ways of being with the unknown.

For me, the empty bowl has been a deeply meaningful image in my life and creative work. It comes up in dreams, in paintings, in poetry. That empty space is a kind of scrying bowl, a place to seek new meanings, new ways of being with the unknown. As such, the bowl becomes the container of process that helps transform my struggles with uncertainty and reclaim qualities that are born out of that alchemy.

I’ve been a climate activist for over twenty years now, and the climate crisis has been a difficult but important teacher in this endeavor. We are still learning so much along the way, including how the climate crisis intersects with so many other crises of the human and more-than human world. As more and more communities start to experience, first-hand, the unprecedented changes in climate phenomena, more of us are faced with a deep uncertainty about everything: Where can we live, safely? What will our children have to contend with? What is worth focusing on? And, lastly, is there a future at all?

Climate futurist Alex Steffen is a voice I’ve come to appreciate in this moment. He writes, 

…the planetary crisis ain’t the Apocalypse. We do not face the End of Everything. We face the obliteration of our certainties, sure. We also face the destruction of many of the wonders of nature. And we face the reality that for billions of people, life will feel pretty damned apocalyptic, even as humanity as a whole staggers along. We live now in a trans-apocalyptic world. (1)

I need to breathe here, as I write. To breathe, and to also mention that the word “apocalypse” does not mean the end of everything, but, in fact, comes from the Greek words that mean “to uncover or reveal.”

So much is being revealed.

The truth is, whole communities of people have gone through some version of apocalypse

All the cultural crises of our time–climate chaos, fascism, racism, inequality–have deep roots in time, and in consciousness. The truth is, whole communities of people have gone through some version of apocalypse, whether it is the genocide of Native American communities, the enslavement of African people, or the Holocaust. Worlds have ended, if not the world. The results of colonization and domination cultures have spread to the entire planet. While some communities are disproportionately affected, what’s new is that, now, all people, species, landscapes, and living systems are threatened by the effects of the mindset that put climate chaos into motion.

Alex goes on to say:

It’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility… being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption. (1)

 It’s not that our future is broken, but our present. And, if enough people find a way to offer themselves to this present brokenness, a viable, less broken, and more just future might be built.

Nothing has ever been certain, actually. Crops fail. Health fails. Accidents happen. This has always been true. Joanna Macy says this: 

I know we’re not sure how the story will end.  I want so much to feel sure. I want to be able to tell people…it’s going to be alright.” And I realize  that wouldn’t be doing anybody a favor. First of all, we can’t know. But secondly, if… we could be given a pill to be convinced, “don’t worry, it’s going to be okay”, would that elicit from us our greatest creativity and courage? No. It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our greatest power. (2)

We all have different lived experiences of uncertainty, and varied capacities to cope. People are facing houselessness, disability, family difficulties, oppression. I’m not here to tell anyone how they should be strong in any adversity. However, some folks might find comfort in the exploration of ways to navigate these times.

Let’s talk about the connection between uncertainty and creativity, for example. The writer Meg Wheatley says that we can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. She states: Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for what’s new. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing.(3)

Fire bowl by Barbara Ford

Artists of all kinds have always known this. The very act of creating is dependent in a large part on opening to possibility, to emergence, to unpredictable discoveries.  As an artist and a poet, I find that the best work is born out of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, honestly. I continue to struggle with the process. It’s not an easy path. It is humbling and sometimes disorienting. At the same time, when something unexpected and wonderful arises, it feels like I have been a vessel for some other, larger truth teller. Call it Muse, or God, or Trickster, it is a feeling of deep connection.

One creative practice I’ve tried is improvisational singing. That’s when you literally open your mouth and sing sounds or words and you don’t know what they will be until they are sung. In the beginning, I was afraid- of sounding bad, of getting it wrong, even of being boring. But the truth is, the more you just throw yourself out there, risking shame and oblivion, there are moments of clarity and communion between all the so-called “bad” notes. The power of those moments can eclipse the fear of failure.

two of the gifts of uncertainty are artistry and emergence, the empty bowl that holds all that can be born

So, I posit that two of the gifts of uncertainty are artistry and emergence, the empty bowl that holds all that can be born. Releasing ourselves from “needing to know” in order to act can lead us through a portal to the mystery, a sometimes messy, divine truth.

And, as you might imagine, this portal also can lead to wonder. What is wonder, after all, but a kind of beautiful, embodied acknowledgement of the workings of mystery? The fact of a sunset isn’t what makes us wonder. The confluence of color, space, the moment as it meets our open heart is where wonder arises.

Another gift of uncertainty is honesty. Many of us have grown up with a bias towards facts over truth. Our educational systems reward the learning of facts, sometimes more than the gifts of curiosity and wonder. If more of us were taught the valuable skill of honoring what we don’t know, of being okay with the vulnerability of that stance, I think our capacity for rich and honest relationships, for experimentation, for creativity, would grow our hearts and communities in some lovely ways. 

Ironically, if we were honest about our not-knowing, we would be more in touch with our own truth and the truth of others.

Right now, around the world, there is a growing tide of fascism. Fascism, in effect, is a kind of evil sureness of one’s right to absolute power over a populace and the planet. We watch in horror as Russia invades Ukraine. We see in the United States actions by politicians and plutocrats asserting similar ideals. This kind of toxic certainty, coupled with a disdain for empathy and mutuality, is at the heart of so much unnecessary pain and destruction. It is the antithesis of justice. It is the antithesis of care.

The ones who embrace uncertainty are the ones who, through their vulnerability, reap the twin gifts of humility and empathy.

  The ones who embrace uncertainty are the ones who, through their vulnerability, reap the twin gifts of humility and empathy. Humility reminds us of what we still need to learn, and what to unlearn. It softens our armor, our resistance to change the parts of ourselves who, unknowingly, have learned habits and assumptions that perpetrate harm. Here’s one example from my life: As a white person striving to unlearn the racism I absorbed growing up, I strive to read and learn as much as I can about racism. However, it has taken some experiences that broke me a little, interactions and truth-telling that brought me into a deeper conversation with my humility. At first it was difficult. I resisted. I was attached to my innocence. When, over time, I became more comfortable with not-knowing, and less attached to protecting myself, I found myself better able to learn, more grateful for the learning. It’s definitely an ongoing journey, but one, now, I value as some of the deepest learning of my life.

Humility and empathy dwell together. They both depend on focusing outside of the self, on the willingness to see and honor other viewpoints. Both remind us of our true belonging to each other and the world, and of the pointlessness of perfection. Both are born out of an acceptance of the uncertainties we all face, and the truth that we need each other to face and navigate them together.

The writer Rebecca Solnit has made it her business to address ideas of hope, courage, and what she calls “radical uncertainty”. Her book, Hope in the Dark, is essential reading. She writes:

Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. (4)

Did you notice how she links uncertainty with possibility? And how she links certainty, in either direction, as a potential limitation to take action in the world?

“Who shall I be, no matter what?”

As a result of this kind of inquiry, my deepest question right now as an activist, and, indeed, just as an individual, is “Who shall I be, no matter what?” It releases me from the false binary choice of success or failure. What is courage, after all, but the heart’s strong dance forward in the face of uncertainty? In fact, uncertainty is a parent of courage, and the sibling of hope. Not a passive, waiting kind of hope, but an active hope that compels us toward the future with agency and love.

Here’s another quote from Rebecca that I hold dear:

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable. (4)

Creativity. Vulnerability. Honesty. Humility. Empathy. Courage. Hope.  May these alchemical qualities guide us into the complicated and tumultuous future, and may we find joy in the company of brave, artful, and loving friends in the journey.


Song for the Empty Bowl

we fill the emptiness with stones
with fire, with memory and bones
with fury songs and quiet poems
and prayers for all the quiet ones

this emptiness can hold a drum
a knife, a seed, a place to hide
but mostly what I fear has come
a bowl of tears, a rising tide

uncertainty is my lament
my prayer, my home, my quiet friend
the spells of all the breaths we hold
the songs unsung, the tales untold

to find this dance, to sing this song
an ancient sphere, to waltz upon
this empty bowl, my deep unknown
my curve of grace, my silent koan


  1. Steffen, A.,”We All Live in California Now,” essay at: June 10, 2022.
  2. Macy, J., interview Joanna Macy and the Great Turning in film by Christopher Landry, 2016.
  3. Wheatley, M. J., Turning to One Another, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2009, p.45.
  4. Solnit, R., Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Haymarket Books, Chicago IL, 2016.

Recorded by author

Barbara Ford is a longtime WTR facilitator, artist, writer, and activist living in Portland, Oregon. She has been active in the climate justice movement for over twenty years as an arts organizer, as well as supporting the activist community with WTR inspired events to grow a culture of self and community care. She has created the Radical Gratitude model for expanding our ideas about gratitude, and is offering new writings in her new Substack newsletter called Cultural Artisanship in a Changing World (  More info about Barbara at

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