Most of us find periods of explicit uncertainty very difficult to handle with equanimity. Indeed, the urgent desire to ‘know’ the way forward — to escape that uncertainty — or change the scenario, can feel quite overwhelming. It is this desire for it to be different that causes the extreme suffering associated with the times when we know we don’t know. I’m thinking of times that we may be waiting for medical or academic test results. Or news from a loved one or awaiting our estranged partner’s decision to return home or set up house elsewhere. So many times when we know we have no control over what comes next.
As the Buddha said, “suffering is wanting things to be different!” We yearn to be able to fix things; to be able to turn the clock backwards or forwards!
Impermanence ensures uncertainty
However, if we look carefully, we can see the impermanent nature of all things, resulting in moment-to-moment uncertainty! Everything we can experience, on any level of being, is constantly changing. In order to feel more comfortable, we have a strong tendency to think and act as though we can predict at least some of the more mundane aspects of our day to day life. The authority figures in our particular culture play on this desire for ‘certainty’ when they issue their directions and their predictions of how things will be. The problem is that it is a delusion to believe we – or the authorities – can accurately predict even the next moment!
Yesterday I heard that a friend had died. He felt he had a touch of ‘flu one night and lay down on the living room couch. His wife decided to leave him there for the night. In the morning he was dead! He was a few years short of 50 and thought to be healthy.
‘Bardo’ — the in-between state
This in-between period, between knowing and not-knowing; between one perception and the next; between feeling good and learning you have lost something precious; or between learning of the death of a loved person and the grieving period prior to accepting this loss, is known in Buddhist terms as ‘bardo’. The term ‘bardo’ is often seen as the period between birth and death and death and the next life but, more accurately, it is the gap between this moment and the next unknown moment.
In Buddha Dharma, the larger bardos are (1) the bardo of this life; (2) the bardo of dream (the gap between going to sleep and waking up); (3) the bardo of meditation; (4) the bardo of dying; (5) the bardo of dharmata (or reality — the seeing as it really is) and (6) the bardo of existence (or becoming).
So bardo is both the gap between moments and the much larger intervals that punctuate all our experience of waking, sleeping, meditating, being born and dying.
Freedom in accepting uncertainty
Pema Chodron, a wise North American Buddhist nun and spiritual teacher, tells us that “nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness! She points to the sense of freedom that comes from acceptance that we are not in control and we don’t “know.”
Generally we don’t want to stay in that middle place of “unknowing” because it makes us feel vulnerable and uneasy. However, it is by staying open and flexible, explicitly acknowledging our uncertainty, that we begin to access our inner strength, a strength that is based on compassion, wisdom and loving acceptance, or equanimity.
As Pema Chodron says, our practice is “to stay with the uneasiness and not solidify into a view. We can meditate, do tonglen, or simply look at the open sky–anything that encourages us to stay on the brink and not solidify into a view.”
Working with paradox
As time goes on and my awareness of impermanence deepens as I watch my body — and the bodies and circumstances of my family and friends — age and change, I find myself thinking more and more in terms of paradox, rather than right or wrong; this or that! Interestingly, allowing paradox (the co-existence of opposite ideas) to more frequently replace my learned tendency to make ‘statements’, as though I know things, has indeed brought with it a sense of spaciousness and possibility that feels joyful and hopeful.
On those rare occasions that I allow myself to watch the (generally bad) news of global warming, disasters, war and terrorism, I am tested to maintain this open view. I notice the definiteness with which the news and predicted dire consequences are pronounced and it is indeed a challenge to remember how peace follows war and disasters can bring out the best in people, as well as causing enormous suffering.
Hopefully, I remember that I don’t know, and they don’t know what comes next. Hopefully I remember to keep my heart open and hold the aspiration for courage, support and skilful resolution of the challenges each of us face, moment to moment, in our unknowing.
The goal is to maintain a state of non-clinging awareness and equanimity. In this state we are free, open and happy!
Perhaps some of you have ideas on coming to terms with uncertainty? Any thoughts, comments, questions are most welcome!