We have been exploring the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path, and just when we got to the aspect of Wise Action, we’ve been given the challenge of a lifetime to change many of the ways we interact in the world.
Suddenly we are social distancing, wiping down surfaces and washing our hands before and after shopping. Many of us are meeting online instead of in-person for work, school and socializing. Can we practice Wise Action or will fear drive us to unskillful behavior that causes suffering for ourselves and all beings? Are we resilient enough to respond readily to new situations? Or do we drag our feet, kicking and screaming, refusing to see the damage we cause?
In the past few posts, we have looked at how we can skillfully be in relationship to this situation:
We’ve looked at how practicing being fully present in this moment alleviates the anxiety that crops up when we project our fear into the future. We see how toxic that future-thinking is, and we can feel it in the tension that accumulates in our jaw, shoulders, fists or stomach. We have learned that when we bring our attention back again and again to this moment, just as it is, and really experience it with all our senses — we will, moment by moment, day by day, not just survive but live wholeheartedly.
Then we turned to focus on the skillfulness of cultivating compassion for ourselves and for all beings, especially during this time when so many of us are stuck in fear. We found that when fear rises up within us and in those around us in unskillful words and actions, instead of judging, condemning or justifying ourselves or others, we can offer lovingkindness: May I be well, may you be well, may all beings be well. That simple well-wishing transforms how we are in relation to all that arises. And it can prompt generosity and all kinds of wise words and actions.
In this dharma-post, we look at a third important component of coping well with what we are experiencing. And that is the “I don’t know mind”.
Imagine back to November and how you thought the coming year would be. Would you have imagined this? Probably not!
And if you had been told that in a few months a deadly pandemic would sweep the globe, what would you have imagined? The human brain is prone to have a negativity bias, so it’s likely that those words would have careened through your whole nervous system in hyper dread and worry, especially if you find books and movies that create frightening futures entertaining.
I’m sure some of what you imagined has happened. But for every challenging, difficult thing, there have been so many heart-warming amazing things as well. Could you have predicted the fellowship of this moment? The way people have adapted and adhered to the new necessity of caring for ourselves and others at this time? Could you have predicted the creative and compassionate responses that we hear about every day? Could you have imagined the peaceful beauty of a planet where suddenly the human species slowed its frantic pace? Have you seen how blue the sky is now? How we can see the stars?
Since we can’t know what the future holds, one of the most skillful things we can do in our lives is to cultivate an ‘I don’t know’ mind. Because as much as we may know, there are so more many things we can never know. And the need to know, or more accurately to be perceived as ‘in the know’, causes us and those around us to suffer. You’re probably familiar with the term FOMO – fear of missing out. Does that describe your way of being in the world?
That need to know, or to feel we know, is accompanied by, maybe sponsored by, a craving for certainty and solidity. It’s difficult not to fall into fear and the chain of pain uncertainty entails. But if you can recognize the true nature of being, that there is no such thing as certainty or solidity, then you can embrace the not knowing itself as a way of being truly alive in the moment with joy, curiosity, and gratitude.
We can celebrate the human mind’s quest for knowledge, and appreciate all the scientific and cultural brilliance they bring, but we can also make room for the realization that life is like this: unpredictable. That can seem frightening, but doesn’t it help to recognize that there is always wonder, beauty and the triumph of the human spirit? Yes, there are difficulties, challenges and heartbreaking losses that we meet with compassion. But there are also beneficial changes that have come about, some temporary, some more long-lasting, but all having an impact on the future for us all. We don’t know!
Our imaginations are faulty and unreliable, full of unsubstantiated speculation. We may let our imaginations dictate our current state to a greater degree than is wise or helpful. Yet we often fail to act upon areas where the imagination is useful, like planning for statistically likely outcomes. For example, if we don’t set aside some portion of current income for later years. Maybe that’s inconvenient thinking that might make us change our current behavior, so we ignore it.
Likewise, while scientists have been ringing the alarm bell on climate change for decades, most of the world’s human population, and especially our leaders, chose to ignore the signals because acknowledging it would require actions that might seem inconvenient.
But a sudden dramatic event like COVID-19 captures our attention. There’s the oft-used analogy of the poor frog that’s put in a pot of cool water and doesn’t realize the pot is sitting on a flame and the water is slowly coming to a deathly boil. That’s like climate change: It’s impact on the human species and all species will be infinitely greater than this pandemic, but we don’t make changes in our lives to deal with it. When the frog is instead dropped into boiling water, it instantly jumps out. Just so our reaction to this world event is much quicker. Suddenly we have adopted whole new ways of behaving because we have a shared understanding of the importance of doing so.
We now see we have the power to make changes to our behavior when we recognize the importance of doing so. This is such a wonderful lesson for us to learn. And we discover that making these changes is not all pain and inconvenience. We find the joy in it! We are a creative clever funny species full of great heart! Look at us now! I am so proud to be human in this moment. I just hope we all recognize we can meet the bigger challenge of our lives with equal joie de vivre.
In our Thursday morning online class, (which you are welcome to join – just contact me to receive a Zoom invitation) people shared the challenges they are facing. Some were experiencing loneliness while others were experiencing friction living in close quarters. Both situations are understandable at this time of sheltering in place. The important thing to remember is that it’s not the situation but how we are in relationship to it that matters. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “Don’t try to calm the storm. Calm yourself. The storm will pass.”
Can we hold ourselves and our families or roommates with compassion? Can we ask for what we need in a thoughtful way? Can we recognize that we are an intrinsic part of all life?
To live in the ‘I don’t know mind’ is to be open enough to allow life to amaze us, to be grateful for this gift of being alive not because of what we can accomplish or accrue, but simply because of this moment just as it is, revealing itself in all its wonder.
I am most grateful for you. Please share your thoughts below. And please consider joining the online sangha Thursday mornings at 10 AM PT.