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PC - 6 - Facing the Fear of Uncertainty
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In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron gives us encouragement to go beyond our fearful reactions to the thoughts, emotions, people and situations that scare us. She even suggests that we can learn to smile at fear. A large group of people were asked about what they feared most, and when given the choice between physical pain and uncertainty, an overwhelming majority of people were more afraid of uncertainty than they were of physical pain. It seems that when faced with not knowing, most of us become afraid. Training our minds to sit with uncertainty, with not knowing, is a valuable life skill and part of the Buddhist practice. By sitting with uncertainty, we can more clearly see what is happening and make better choices in our lives.
How do our brains react to the unknown? When presented with a new experience, our brains try to find something to relate it to, something in our past experience or what we’ve been told. For most of us, we are continually trying to reinforce whatever current view of the world that we already have. If we think that we are unlucky in love or in life, we unconsciously reinforce that story. Lama Surya Das calls these responses the dysfunctional myths we live by.
How we experience life is based on the stories we make up about it. So what are the stories that you tell yourself about you and your life? Some of you may have heard or read this following story:
The Window” (Author unknown)
· During the Vietnam war, Two young men were injured, both seriously, and were put in the same hospital room.
· One of them had injured his spine and was unable to get out of the bed; his eyes temporarily damaged by shrapnel, his eyes were covered with bandages.
· The other young man had fluid on his lungs and was required to sit up in his bed for an hour a day to drain the fluid. His bed was next to the room's only window.
· The men talked for hours on end. They talk about their families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the service. And every afternoon when the man in the bed next to the window would sit up to clear the fluid from his lungs, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.
· The man with the bandaged eyes would live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the outside world. The man told him about the lovely park visible outside. Ducks and swans swam on the water while children played on the playground. It was springtime, so many people were outside, lovers walked arm in arm amid flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance. As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would bask in the stories and imagine the picturesque scene.
· One warm afternoon while the one man by the window was describing another beautiful day, the man with his eyes covered knew that his bandages would soon come off and he was suddenly irritated that he didn’t have the bed by the window. Unexpectedly, he thought: “Why should he have all the pleasure of seeing everything while I never get to see anything? It didn't seem fair. As the thought simmered in his mind, the man felt ashamed at first. But as the days passed and he missed seeing more sights, his envy devolved into resentment and soon made him angry and irritable. He began to brood and found himself unable to sleep. He should be by that window - and those thoughts now haunted his mind.
· Late one night, as he lying in his bed, the young man by the window began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other young man listened as the he gasped for help and groped for the button to call the nurse. Listening from across the room, the other man never moved, never pushed his own button which would have brought the nurse running. In less than five minutes, the coughing and choking stopped, along with the sound of breathing. Then there was only deathly silence.
· The following morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths. When she found the lifeless body of the man by the window, she was or course saddened and called the hospital attendant to take it away--no words, no fuss. A few days later, with the bandages removed from his eyes, the man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.
· Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look out the window. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall.
This is what we humans often do. We make up stories to fill in the blanks of the things we don’t really know. We look at life from the lens of our past experiences and look for reinforcement of what we already think is true.
"We must never forget that it is through our actions, words, and thoughts that we always have a choice about living." -Sogyal Rinpoche
It is a choice, conscious or unconscious, that we allow ourselves to be influenced by our past experiences or by what others tell us to be true. There is evidence of this fact. Researchers have documented that women at the turn of the 20th century commonly reported a specific set of symptoms, including leg paralysis, temporary blindness, and facial tics. These symptoms happened to fit the well-publicized and accepted definition of something called “hysteria”. Researchers found that patients unconsciously try to produce symptoms that will correspond to the medical diagnostics of the time. A cultural molding of the unconscious happens.
What stories are you creating that are forming your experience of living? We may not always have a choice about what happens to us, but every one of us is choosing how to live with whatever arises.
How we choose to perceive a situation is the most powerful tool that we have in life. We can practice having the courage to examine our stories and ask the question, “What is the truth?” What would it be like to simply to experience each moment as fresh and new?
"A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart." -Johann Von Goethe
We continue our series of talks from the book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and this morning I’ll talk about a key component of theEightfold Path- Wise Effort. We often talk about The Middle Way in Buddhism, finding the path between the extremes. Wise Effort is often described as “not too tight and not too loose.” How do we practice Wise Effort in everyday life?
First, it is helpful to understand that religion has a tendency to run in cycles. Someone has a direct experience of awakening, seeing themselves and the world in a dramatically different way, an experience of that inter-connectness, of themselves with everything around them, as well as with a greater "energy" or some might say innate potential all around them. This experience is often so powerful that others flock to them--like Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed--to study, learn and experience it themselves. Then, the original person dies, and those left try to study, learn and practice as best they can. Herein lies the problem--there is a tendency to hold on to the original direct experiencer’s experience, and work to preserve exactly what happened and what was said and what was done. Slowly, the power of the direct experience gets less emphasis, and the power of the religious organization starts to dogmatize, concretize and use the teachings for gaining power over others. Then, someone bucks the system, decides to go back to the direct experience, then reform arises and new enthusiasm, new teachings, leading eventually to new dogmatism and new power struggles. Buddhism is no different. There are many cycles of direct experience, rise of the organization, concretization of the experience, power struggle and decline of original purpose.
The joy of this moment is that we are living in the time when Buddhism is being integrated into Western culture, and we are finding anew these amazing teachings. We have this precious opportunity to have a direct experience of what the Buddha experienced, of what Jesus experienced, of what Mohamed and Moses experienced.The books, the Dharma talks, the practice are simply tools to support the direct experience.
Wise effort teaches us how we can utilize these tools to experience awakening. Surprisingly, reading and practicing can also become obstacles. For example, once anyone starts to practice meditation, it is a common occurrence that we inadvertently start to judge each meditation session as “oh, that was a good one!” or “that was awfulundefinedmy mind just spun like a tornado the whole timeundefinedthat was of no value!” Awareness of what is happening in your mind and your body is very helpful, BUT judging each meditation session is NOT helpful. Wise effort includes just continuing to practice whether the meditation feels blissful or boring or beautiful or painful. An Indian man named Goenka, who founded the modern Vipassana movement would always say, “Continuity is the secret of success”, and “Start again”.
Goenka had this clear understanding that awakening is available here and now, in the midst of ordinary practice. As we meditate and become aware of more present moments in life, we begin to awakened to the habits, judgments, labels, preferences, stories, rationalizations and everything else that may or may not be serving our greater good. So, we can practice Wise Effort by continuing to meditate and be fully present, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when, ESPECIALLY WHEN, we are having a strong emotion or thought or story. That’s when the power of the practice really gets turbo-charged.
I have a visual aidundefinedthis vase. It seems that many of us often think of ourselves as individual silos of stuff, stuff collected from a lifetime of experiences. What’s in your vase? Probably some good stuff, some bad stuff, boring stuff and joyful stuff and painful stuff. This Buddhist practice is about clearly seeing it all, everything that we are holding onto and think of as “Who We Are”. Most importantly, this practice is about clearly seeing that we are NOT all this stuff in the vase. Look inside, can you locate where exactly that story is you’ve been telling yourself about who you are and what kind of person you are? Where are the stories about your family and your upbringing and what's right about you and what's wrong about you? Where are those bad habits and judgments that often cause so much suffering?
Through this practice, we can become aware that we often assume our vase is solid, separate and permanent, when that is simply not true. The Buddha had a direct experience of this Truth. The vase is just an illusion that we hold on to. We are permeable, porous living beings with cells that are being born anew
and dying in each second. We have this incredible ability to see clearly our stories, then to let fall away those stories that are no longer serving us.
We can even create new stories that might be more helpful to this practice of awakening. Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful, simple “story” that we could tell ourselves each day:
“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment as best I can
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
These are words that he suggests, but I encourage you to come up with your own words. What words of encouragement could you re-iterate to yourself regularly to remember to practice being present? Goenka said to himself, “Continuity is the secret of success.” And it was! And is! He also said, “Start again.” This simple phrase encourages us to simply start again, at the beginning of each meditation session, at the beginning of each morning, even at the beginning of each moment. No matter how distracted or confused or frustrated or angry or anxious we might feel, we can start again with the practice of directly experiencing this moment, beyond old habits, judgments and stories. Just start again and again, fresh and anew. See through the vase full of “stuff” to the essence of aliveness that you are.
“Clinging is to insist on being someone, not to cling is to be free to be no one”.
In being no one, we are free to have the direct experience of simply being awake.
Father Theophane was a Trappist monk at the Catholic monastery in Snowmass Colorado. He wrote a small, but pithy, enchanting book entitled, Tales of a Magic Monastery. He lived for decades in this amazing place of raw beauty and nature. The monastery covers an entire valley, surrounded by pristine mountains, herds of wandering antelope and elk, birds and creatures of many varieties. There is a tiny hut built into the side of the mountain, far away from the monastery itself, and Father Theo would often go on silent retreats there by himself for months at a time. On one of these occasions, he recounts that he prayed and meditated deeply for three months. Suddenly a question arose within him, “What am I leaving out?” He couldn’t find a single answer, yet the question haunted him and became a silent mantra that arose again and again.
When he finally prepared to leave the isolated hut, he was walking the narrow path back towards the monastery. At that moment, the sun shined directly on a simple rock on the side of the path. He bent down and lovingly picked up the rock. He said, “I apologized to this beautiful rock that I had completely ignored. I stood up, looked around and apologized to all that surrounded me for not being fully present, apologizing not just to that which was beautiful and pleasing, but to everything that was part of that moment.” What is it that we are leaving out? What are we ignoring or labeling as irrelevant or unworthy of our attention? How might it change our experience by being aware, open and allowing to all of life, instead of limiting our perspective to only that which we decide might be pleasing while avoiding anything we fear might be uncomfortable?
WE CAN STOP WAITING FOR LIFE TO BEGIN, OR GET “BETTER” OR BE “RIGHT”. Life is what is happening right now. In Buddhism, “the Mandala of the Whole” is a metaphor for incorporating all of life into our experience, not just waiting for the “good parts”, and ignoring or avoiding the “bad parts”. Reflect upon your life and recall an event that change the course of your life. You may have known it at the time or only realized it after the fact. It might have been a joyful time or a horrific time. Each moment can provide the fertile ground for growth and understanding.
Dr. Martin Seligman, who wrote Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, has come up with the term Post-Traumatic Growth or PTG, to demonstrate that PTSD is not the only response that human beings have to horrific situations. There are documented cases where people are able to grow spiritually and find a deeper purpose in their life after an event that was disturbing, disheartening, distressing, even disastrous or horrific.
Progress on the Spiritual Path
Often, we begin to explore a spiritual practice because of some difficulty or challenge we are experiencing. We want to “overcome” this obstacle or get beyond it. Jack Kornfield encourages us that:
“With the awakening of wisdom, the heart gradually expands to hold the full paradox of life.”
We often try to define ourselves and our situation in black and white terms. What if we and the world around us are so complex, that these labels and judgments are exactly what is holding us back from seeing ourselves and the world more holistically? What if the deepest wisdom is actually found in the messiness and complexity?
Natural awareness practice: We can practice being aware of where we are placing our attention in each moment. Playfully explore experiencing yourself, and everything and everyone around you more directly--beyond labels, judgments or reference points. We can all benefit from the practice of seeing the world and our “selves” with neutral curiosity and beginners mind. There is wisdom to be found in each situation, in each moment. This practice does NOT translate into being non-responsive (like a doormat), but rather leads to the practice of being wisely responsive. May all beings be free from suffering; may all beings be happy.
As we continue our series on Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Chapter 12 is entitled, “This Very Body, The Buddha.” He retells the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s six-year spiritual quest when he tried to deny his body through the practice of fasting and extreme asceticism. One day, he almost drown from exhaustion, and barely had the strength to pull himself up on the side of the river. All he could do was simply roll over and gaze up at the sky. It’s said that at that moment, he remembered being a young boy and sitting under a rose apple tree in his father’s garden. That moment of stillness in nature had created this sense of awe and wonder, and his heart became at rest and at peace with all things. The story is told that, at that moment of remembering, he realized that his six-year spiritual quest had been about fighting against his body and his mind and the world around him.
The Middle Way is a concept described in many ways in Buddhism. Within the context of this story Jack Kornfield points out that the middle way of being is somewhere between struggling with whatever arises and becoming lost in the flotsam and jetsam of living. At that moment, Siddhartha started to awaken, he opened to the suffering and beauty of life as it is, and simply rested in the peace that arises naturally out of an awareness of all that is.
About that time, a young woman, named Sujata, walked by who was the daughter of the land owner where Siddhartha was lying down. She saw this emaciated being, and decided to offer him a bowl of rice milk that she was carrying. Siddhartha accepted it gratefully—something for which his ascetic friends would later despise and shun him. Yet, Sid now felt refreshed, with a new perspective, and then went to sit beneath the Peepal tree (later known as the Bodhi Tree because Bodhi means awakening), where he would have this experience of being at rest, at peace, with whatever arose in his mind, in his body or in the world around him. It was then that he became The Buddha (translated as The Awakened One).
In a teaching by HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the great Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the 20th century, he describes this everyday practice in the following way:
“Simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself. This produces a tremendous energy which is has been locked up in the process of mental evasion and a general running away from life’s experiences. Clarity of awareness may, in its initial stages, be unpleasant and fear inspiring. We can see these uncomfortable responses as part of the process of breaking down our habitual emotional reactions and judgments.
“Don’t mentally split into two when meditating, one part of the mind watching the other like a cat watching a mouse.” In this type of meditation, there is no introspection concentration, instead there is a continual opening of the mind and the body to whatever is. We can experience the whole universe and “us” fluidly as a part of the whole, as open and unobstructed, everything mutually interpenetrating. Drop the project and simple experience all things, including our sense of self, as transparent and free from obstructions. Even the judgments and habits and emotions that arise are transparent and ephemeral. It is merely our confusion or desire to make all things solid and permanent that cause a false sense of separation.
When we remind ourselves again and again, to practice open up, to see where we are stuck, to stop fighting, and start accepting, it is then when the entire experience can burst open into a Technicolor display of living. The paradox is that things can only begin to change when we fully accept what is.”
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We are located at 707 West 47th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64112, within the Unity Temple on the Plaza building, corner of 47th and Jefferson.
You can reach us at 816-561-4466 X108 or email Janet Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org