On retreat last week I noticed myself behaving in such a way to try and influence the opinion people had of me. This could certainly be viewed as attachment/aversion to good reputation and bad reputation in the eight worldly dharmas schema but I found I was more influenced by the ‘not knowing’ aspect of how people perceived me, than how they actually did. Once I (near the end of retreat) noticed this and was able to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing, my actions were far less influenced by worrying what others were thinking.
As my practice develops I find myself returning again and again to this notion of not knowing as it seems to underlie much of my reactive behaviour. Even within the formulation of the eight worldly winds we can see why this might be the case, as the certainty of a bad situation is often seen as preferable to uncertainty. If there is upheaval at our workplace and we learn that a certain number of employees are going to lose their jobs, anxiety often results (unless, of course, we don’t like our job, but even then, the thought of having to find new employment is rarely comfortable). However, imagine, if you will, the state of not knowing whether you are going to lose your job against the state of knowing you are going to be made redundant. In the latter case, although there may be sadness associated with loss, at least you can begin to make plans to find a new job and move forward. In the scenario of not-knowing, people are often paralysed from taking action in that state of uncertainty. Similarly, if a partner is clearly upset about something and we do not know what it is, our mind can come up with all kinds of imaginings as to what is wrong and how we may be at fault. Knowing the issue at hand, even if it does involve blame being cast in our direction, at least puts an end to the mental gymnastics of the imagination.
Currently, I am noticing just how much of life is uncertain and my meditation and daily life practice is to be able to sit with that. Even if I am relatively certain about the present, the future is an unknown quantity, and things can change rapidly. Being present with experience means leaving the safe world of conceptual thinking behind and learning to live in the shifting sands of how things actually are. On my retreat, one of the meditations was just to sit and see if anything stayed the same and, if so, for how long. Although, intellectually, we all know that things change, having an actual experience of how fast even small details shift is, I find, quite disturbing. Another retreat participant was shocked by how quickly the present moment became the past. This endless shifting is a double-edged sword, though. Just as pleasant experiences will soon pass, so will unwanted ones. The only problem is that we don’t know which one will arise next even if we think we do. How often do you find that a much anticipated event turns out to be a disappointment, or a dreaded one much better than expected?
So, in the face of the uncertainty of life, what is there to do? The strategy we usually adopt is to attempt to make life predictable by providing stability for ourselves in terms of financial security, the presence in your lives of friends and family, looking after our health and so on. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of sensible behaviour but, although we can reduce the severity of change and the impact it has on our lives, it is impossible to remove it completely. Things change and will continue to do so, whether that occurs as the gradual signs of aging or the abrupt removal of the ground beneath our feet.
Buddhism, and living an awakened life means, for me, coming face-to-face with how things really are, rather than hiding in the comfortable world of solid concepts, much as I would like to! Most spiritual practitioners talk about how they become more uncertain about life as they practice, as opposed to less so, and many scientists are also aware of this phenomenon. If we look deeply into the nature of life, there is only one logical outcome – things are uncertain and unpredictable. Listening to the news, with reports of natural disasters, regime change and financial instability, leads to a similar insight.
With the world being as it is, it is up to us whether we choose to hide from that and pretend that everything is going to remain pretty much the same, or at least largely under our control, or open up to uncertainty and each moment with all it has to offer. Although I logically want to take the second route, I must admit it is not easy. Each time I sit in the void, my mind frantically searches for a reference point to grab hold of. With time and practice I hope to become better at the practice of being with the unknown. How long it will take for that to happen, though, is anyone’s guess.