How to Live Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty
whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult
times the stress of trying to find solid ground—something predictable to
stand on—seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our
existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re
aware of it or not.
What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a
deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting
pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part
of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.
So this is where we find ourselves: right in the middle of a dilemma.
And it leaves us with some provocative questions: How can we live
wholeheartedly in the face of impermanence, knowing that one day we’re
going to die? What is it like to realize we can never completely and
finally get it all together? Is it possible to increase our tolerance
for instability and change? How can we make friends with
unpredictability and uncertainty— and embrace them as vehicles to
transform our lives?
The Buddha called impermanence one of the three distinguishing marks
of our existence, an incontrovertible fact of life. But it’s something
we seem to resist pretty strongly. We think that if only we did this or
didn’t do that, somehow we could achieve a secure, dependable,
controllable life. How disappointed we are when things don’t work out
quite the way we planned.
Not long ago, I read an interview with the war correspondent Chris
Hedges in which he used a phrase that seemed like a perfect description
of our situation: “the moral ambiguity of human existence.” This refers,
I think, to an essential choice that confronts us all: whether to cling
to the false security of our fixed ideas and tribal views, even though
they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and
make the leap to living an authentic life. That phrase, “the moral
ambiguity of human existence,” resonated strongly with me because it’s
what I’ve been exploring for years: How can we relax and have a genuine,
passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the
groundlessness of being human?
My first teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, used to talk about the fundamental
anxiety of being human. This anxiety or queasiness in the face of
impermanence isn’t something that afflicts just a few of us; it’s an
all-pervasive state that human beings share. But rather than being
disheartened by the ambiguity, the uncertainty of life, what if we
accepted it and relaxed into it? What if we said, “Yes, this is the way
it is; this is what it means to be human,” and decided to sit down and
enjoy the ride?
But what does the fundamental ambiguity of being human mean in terms
of day-to-day life? Above all, it means understanding that everything
changes. As the 8th-century Buddhist master Shantideva wrote in The Way of the Bodhisattva:
All that I possess and use
Is like the fleeting vision of a dream.
It fades into the realms of memory;
And fading, will be seen no more.
we’re conscious of it or not, the ground is always shifting. Nothing
lasts, including us. There are probably very few people who, at any
given time, are consumed with the idea “I’m going to die,” but there is
plenty of evidence that this thought, this fear, haunts us constantly.
“I, too, am a brief and passing thing,” observed Shantideva.
So what does it feel like to be human in this ambiguous, groundless
state? For one thing, we grab at pleasure and try to avoid pain, but
despite our efforts, we’re always alternating between the two. Under the
illusion that experiencing constant security and well-being is the
ideal state, we do all sorts of things to try to achieve it: eat, drink,
drug, work too hard, spend hours online or watching TV. But somehow we
never quite achieve the state of unwavering satisfaction we’re seeking.
At times we feel good: physically nothing hurts, and mentally all’s
well. Then it changes, and we’re hit with physical pain or mental
anguish. I imagine it would even be possible to chart how pleasure and
pain alternate in our lives, hour by hour, day after day, year in and
year out, first one and then the other predominating.
But it’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die,
that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our
resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our
discomfort arises from all of our effort to put ground under our feet,
to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s
called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle
against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and
relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or
awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word
for this is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.
What the fundamental ambiguity of being human points to is that as
much as we want to, we can never say, “This is the only true way. This
is how it is. End of discussion.” In the Chris Hedges interview that I
read, he talked about the pain that ensues when a group or religion
insists that its view is the one true view. As individuals we, too, have
plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves.
We grab on to a position or belief as a way of neatly explaining
reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying
open to other possibilities. We cling to that position as our personal
platform and become very dogmatic about it.
The root of these fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic
tendencies, is a fixed identity—a fixed view we have of ourselves as
good or bad, worth or unworthy, this or that. With a fixed identity, we
have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality
doesn’t always conform to our view. The discomfort associated with the
fundamental ambiguity of being human comes from our attachment to
wanting things to be a certain way. The Tibetan word for attachment is shenpa.
My teacher Dzigar Kongtrül calls shenpa the barometer of ego clinging, a
gauge of our self-involvement and self-importance. Shenpa has a
visceral quality associated with grasping or, conversely, pushing away.
This is the feeling of I like, I want, I need and I don’t like, I don’t want, I don’t need, I want it to go away.
I think of shenpa as being hooked. It’s that stuck feeling, that
tightening or closing down or withdrawing we experience when we’re
uncomfortable with what’s going on. Shenpa is also the urge to find
relief from those feelings by clinging to something that gives us
For the most part, our attachment, our shenpa, arises involuntarily—
our habitual response to feeling insecure. When we’re hooked, we turn to
anything to relieve the discomfort—food, alcohol, sex, shopping, being
critical or unkind. But there is something more fruitful we can do when
that edgy feeling arises. It’s similar to the way we can deal with pain.
One popular way of relating to physical pain is mindfulness meditation.
It involves directing your full attention to the pain and breathing in
and out of the spot that hurts. Instead of trying to avoid the
discomfort, you open yourself completely to it. You become receptive to
the painful sensation without dwelling on the story your mind has
concocted: It’s bad; I shouldn’t feel this way; maybe it will never go away.
When you contact the all-worked-up feeling of shenpa, the basic
instruction is the same as in dealing with physical pain. Whether it’s a
feeling of I like or I don’t like, or an emotional state
like loneliness, depression, or anxiety, you open yourself fully to the
sensation, free of interpretation. If you’ve tried this approach with
physical pain, you know that the result can be quite miraculous. When
you give your full attention to your knee or your back or your
head—whatever hurts—and drop the good/bad, right/wrong story line and
simply experience the pain directly for even a short time, then your
ideas about the pain, and often the pain itself, will dissolve.
In My Stroke of Insight, the brain scientist Jill Bolte
Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the
physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an
automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered
until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it
lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to
The fact of the shifting, changing nature of our emotions is
something we could take advantage of. But do we? No. Instead, when an
emotion comes up, we fuel it with our thoughts, and what should last one
and a half minutes may be drawn out for 10 or 20 years. We just keep
recycling the story line. We keep strengthening our old habits.
Most of us have physical or mental conditions that have caused us
distress in the past. And when we get a whiff of one coming—an incipient
asthma attack, a symptom of chronic fatigue, a twinge of anxiety—we
panic. Instead of relaxing with the feeling and letting it do its minute
and a half while we’re fully open and receptive to it, we say, “Oh no,
oh no, here it is again.” We refuse to feel fundamental ambiguity when
it comes in this form, so we do the thing that will be most detrimental
to us: we rev up our thoughts about it. What if this happens? What if that happens?
We stir up a lot of mental activity. Body, speech, and mind become
engaged in running away from the feeling, which only keeps it going and
going and going.
We can counter this response by training in being present. When you
contact groundlessness, one way to deal with that edgy, queasy feeling
is to do the one-and-a-half-minute practice:
feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and
even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the
feeling. This allows you to have a direct experience of it, free of
interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether
it’s good or bad. Just be present with the sensation. Where is it
located in your body? Does it remains the same for very long? Does it
shift and change?
Ego or fixed identity doesn’t just mean
we have a fixed idea about ourselves. It also means that we have a fixed
idea about everything we perceive. I have a fixed idea about you; you
have a fixed idea about me. And once there is that feeling of
separation, it gives rise to strong emotions. In Buddhism, strong
emotions like anger, craving, pride, and jealousy are known as kleshas—conflicting
emotions that cloud the mind. The kleshas are our vehicle for escaping
groundlessness, and therefore every time we give in to them, our
preexisting habits are reinforced. In Buddhism, going around and around,
recycling the same patterns, is called samsara. And samsara equals pain.
We keep trying to get away from the fundamental ambiguity of being
human, and we can’t. We can’t escape it any more than we can escape
change, any more than we can escape death. The cause of our suffering is
our reaction to the reality of no escape: ego clinging and all the
trouble that stems from it, all the things that make it difficult for us
to be comfortable in our own skin and get along with one another.
If the way to deal with those feelings is to stay present with them without fueling the story line, then it begs the question: How
do we get in touch with the fundamental ambiguity of being human in the
first place? In fact, it’s not difficult, because underlying uneasiness
is usually present in our lives. It’s pretty easy to recognize but not
so easy to interrupt. We may experience this uneasiness as anything from
slight edginess to sheer terror. Anxiety makes us feel vulnerable,
which we generally don’t like. Vulnerability comes in many guises. We
may feel off balance, as if we don’t know what’s going on, don’t have a
handle on things. We may feel lonely or depressed or angry. Most of us
want to avoid emotions that make us feel vulnerable, so we’ll do almost
anything to get away from them.
But if instead of thinking of these feelings as bad, we could think
of them as road signs or barometers that tell us we’re in touch with
groundlessness, then we would see the feelings for what they really are:
the gateway to liberation, an open doorway to freedom from suffering,
the path to our deepest well-being and joy. We have a choice. We can
spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things
really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human
situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.
So the challenge is to notice the emotional tug of shenpa when it
arises and to stay with it for one and a half minutes without the
storyline. Can you do this once a day, or many times throughout the day,
as the feeling arises? This is the challenge. This is the process of
unmasking, letting go, opening the mind and heart.
Pema Chödrön is
an ordained nun and a teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. She is
a resident and teacher at Gampo Abbey, in Nova Scotia, Canada. This
article was adapted from her forthcoming book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (October 2012). Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.