♫ ♫ ♫ “To the Unknown” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫
“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” ~Pema Chödrön
It’s been a while since I posted here (brushing the tumbleweeds off the blog). Sorry it’s been so long! This summer has been wild and woolly, with a lot to juggle. I’ve been keeping multiple balls in the air and experiencing uncertainty with many of those balls. As a result, I’ve had difficulty making plans and attaching to outcomes or expectations. And you know what? It’s been good for my practice. Sure, I’ve experienced uncertainty before. A whole lot of it. Haven’t we all? This summer has, however, reminded me yet again that change is integral to life, that life, as I’ve said here before, is a dynamic process and not a static edifice.
We like to have our feet on terra firma, in other words, to know where we stand. Uncertainty throws terra firma to the four winds. As a result of experiencing uncertainty, we often try to find something to cling to, whether from the past or in our notions of the future, which means that either way, we aren’t fully present for now. Making peace with uncertainty – harmonizing ourselves with the nature of life being change – helps us cultivate our capacity to be fully present and aware of what’s going on in our lives moment by moment, instead of clinging to the past or dreading the future.
Perhaps our most common reaction to uncertainty is fear of the future – fear of what might happen, fear of what might not happen, fear of our own fear. Sometimes we experience apprehension to which we can give no name, a feeling through which we convince ourselves that because we’re experiencing uncertainty, we are bound for some terrible fate. Other times, dread is locked up in storylines we create about ourselves or about other people. Either way, our mental constructs cause suffering.
Why? Well, through mental constructs, we seek anchors. We seek security, something to latch onto, something we hope will make us feel safe. But those anchors – security blankets – can’t last, since everything changes. Our first reaction to change – the gateway to the unknown – is fear or dread, and we scramble to get our feet on what we earnestly hope is solid ground, impermanent mental constructs that we either think up for ourselves or borrow from somebody else’s ideas.
When we’re faced with the prospect of change, especially when we don’t know what the change will entail – and let’s admit it, when and how can we possibly know the full ramifications of change? – we fall into habits of reaction, some of which have their origins in early childhood as coping mechanisms by which we tried to make sense of the world, and then we’re off, reacting and reacting and reacting, not seeing clearly, and becoming frustrated and angry when our anchors crumble and the ground under our feet turns out to be air.
The world changes along with us, and us along with the world. Everything together – us, the traffic on our street, the wars being fought across the globe, our next-door neighbors’ marital struggles, the abandoned kitten foraging for food two streets over, the tadpoles in the pond on the mountain, the joys and agonies and triumphs and disappointments and comings and goings and busy times and quiet moments of beings all over the world – are all part of the same thing, and it changes all the time, with nothing anywhere ever remaining the same.
This moment, whatever it is you’re doing, thinking, or feeling, is unique. It’ll never come again. At the same time, it’s part of the continually unfolding process which we term our lives, the world, the cosmos, the universe, and our experiences of these things as we perceive them. When our perceptions — ego-clinging, bending and skewing what comes in to fit our views — obstruct clear seeing, then we fall into confusion. Delusion. Our need for anchors, for certainty and for absolutes, is part of this dynamic.
Many people think they need anchors in order to find peace, but they search all their lives without finding anything. Anchors slip. Certainty is illusion when change is the only constant. Finding peace in uncertainty – notice I didn’t say “despite” uncertainty – is part of the path of practice. I have a phrase for this: “keeping my seat.” When things go crazy around me, I strive to keep my seat. By seat, I don’t mean an anchor. Rather, I mean expansiveness, or letting go, to the extent I’m able, of the need for anchors, for certainty.
“Seat” refers to sitting meditation, but it also refers to coming back to the breath which rises and falls, coming back to the moment I’m currently experiencing – in other words, now, the only time I really have. Keeping my seat also means staying aware – paying attention to what is happening now, since life is a flow of nows. In making peace with our nows, we build lives of peace, a calm inner abiding that doesn’t depend on mental fabrications of “certainty” existing out in the world to serve as anchors. Things arise, then they pass. With awareness, with clarity, we can see this process, and we can accept it.
When we’re less attached to anchors, we can open ourselves more – our minds and our hearts. We don’t resent the traffic on our street. How does our annoyance at traffic change it? It doesn’t. Our annoyance only annoys ourselves and perhaps those around us as well. We are able to be better friends to those around us, to engage in deep listening, deep caring, and give of ourselves more freely. “What’s in it for me?” is one of the most pernicious anchors of all, wherein we feel that whatever good we do, there ought to be some promise or expectation of reward. But life isn’t a carrot and stick proposition. Rather, as Pema Chödrön says, life is a good friend and teacher. That applies especially when its lessons are particularly challenging.
So why feel fear, why feel dread at the prospect of uncertainty, of the unknown? No matter what happens, we can learn from it and cultivate not just knowledge but wisdom and compassion, which are far more important than knowledge in how we live our lives. When we deeply look, listen, and investigate, we come to know our true nature through the experience of realization.
Whatever is before us, whatever might be happening, can be a means of awakening. And uncertainty – the unknown – is made up of boundless possibilities for liberation.