Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, in her early 30s, was home on the porch, enjoying the air outside. That’s when her husband returned, told her that he was having an affair, and wanted a divorce.
Time stood still. For a moment, all Blomfield-Brown could register were the lights and sounds around her, and her mind paused in unexpected peace. Then she picked up a rock, and threw it at her husband.
Looking back, Blomfield-Brown, now known as Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist nun, describes that as “a big groundless moment,”1 a moment when life pulls the rug out from under your feet, throwing you into deep uncertainty and insecurity.
Chödrön doesn’t just stop there. She describes in her books that life is entirely groundless; deeply, profoundly and entirely groundless. We struggle to put ground underneath our feet, to construct certainty and security, to resolve our ambiguity and dissatisfaction, when it’s fundamentally impossible.
Life is ceaselessly changing, going up and down, without anything unchanging to hold on to — and we don’t like this one bit.
Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate — is always changing, moment to moment. We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this. Yet at the level of personal experience, we resist this basic fact. It means that life isn’t always going to go our way. It means there’s loss as well as gain. And we don’t like that.Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You
No Escape from Groundlessness
We find things to cling on to for certainty and security, but resisting the realities of change only creates more pain when things do change. Things break down, relationships fade away, our lives draw shorter with each passing day.
There is nothing to hold on to, and no escape from the groundlessness of being. The first time I read Chödrön describe groundlessness it shook me to the core. It unnerved me, and I hated this idea. I crave for certainty and security, I plan and over prepare, I like to believe that I can always make things turn out okay.
But deep down, I knew I was afraid of groundlessness because I could see its veracity. The more I tried to ignore it, the more it pierced me. Life is change and impermanence. The more I tried to find something to grab, to shake groundlessness off, the more I found nothing there at all.
We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You
The question then shifts. It’s not about finding solid ground, because it seems that there isn’t any. The question is, how do we live with strength and courage, despite there being nothing to stand on?
Strength in the Storm
Chödrön teaches that the first step is to simply accept that the ups and the downs all come together to form the basis of our lives. There will never be a time when everything coalesces into a single perfect moment, when the positive doesn’t exist without its negative half.
No warmth without the knowledge of cold, no happiness without the possibility of sorrow, no birth without its twin of death. If you can accept this, then you have the possibility of finding well-being in the shitstorm of life, despite, not aloof, of it.
We begin with the understanding that we can’t experience profound well-being without working with, not against, the gritty reality of life.Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully
Difficult moments, Chödrön consoles, offer us an opportunity to discover something about ourselves. Disappointment, jealousy, regret, anger, fear, show us where we’re stuck, where we need to grow.
Instead of acting out or closing down, Chödrön encourages us to face our suffering to see what’s actually going on. Not shutting down the parts of our experience that we don’t like, but looking at it, accepting it, and saying, “yes, this too,” helps us to become honest with ourselves.
When something hurts in life, we don’t usually think of it as our path or as the source of wisdom. In fact, we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling. (“When I get to L.A., I won’t feel this way anymore.”) At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves. However, the fact is that anyone who has used the moments and days and years of his or her life to become wiser, kinder, and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now. We can aspire to be kind right in the moment, to relax and open our heart and mind to what is in front of us right in the moment. Now is the time. If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time.Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
But it’s tough. It’s tough to accept that the moment we get nailed by life, the moment when things look bad, or when I look bad, is an opportunity for growth. The way to develop this equanimity, Chödrön advises, is meditation.
In meditation, we get the chance to practice becoming aware of our suffering, without running away from it or trying to get rid of it, but to simply be with it. To practice letting it go without becoming hooked by it.
Begin with Hopelessness
So far, so good — there is a philosophy and a practice. But then Chödrön pulls the rug out from under me again, when she cautions that the path is not a way to gain certainty, security or hope.
Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security. If we make the journey to get security, we’re completely missing the point. We can do our meditation practice with the hope of getting security; we can study the teachings with the hope of getting security; we can follow all the guidelines and instructions with the hope of getting security; but it will only lead to disappointment and pain. We could save ourselves a lot of time by taking this message very seriously right now. Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
Chödrön suggests that we give up hope entirely. Instead of hoping for a time when everything will eventually be completely okay and thinking that all our problems will be solved “if only,” she encourages us to have a direct acceptance of the way we are now, right in this imperfect moment.
Chödrön teaches that the way to live courageously with groundlessness requires both this acceptance, and an unconditional kindness towards yourself and others. Without kindness, acceptance becomes inconceivable, suffering becomes a failing, and humor becomes impossible.
You build inner strength through embracing the totality of your experience, both the delightful parts and the difficult parts. Embracing the totality of your experience is one definition of having loving-kindness for yourself. Loving-kindness for yourself does not mean making sure you’re feeling good all the time — trying to set up your life so that you’re comfortable every moment. Rather, it means setting up your life so that you have time for meditation and self-reflection, for kindhearted, compassionate self-honesty. In this way you become more attuned to seeing when you’re biting the hook, when you’re getting caught in the undertow of emotions, when you’re grasping and when you’re letting go. This is the way you become a true friend to yourself just as you are, with both your laziness and your bravery. There is no step more important than this.Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully
Awakening Isn’t Elsewhere
To accept things as they are now, is to accept that the path is nowhere else to be found but here. The training ground for equanimity happens when a driver cuts you off in traffic, when your mother tells you something for the hundredth time, when your colleague demeans you in front of your boss, when you feel like snapping at someone just because you can.
The moment to be a better person is in the moments when I want to be the worse, when my buttons are being pushed and my limits are being tested. That, instead of running away from or pushing away my anger, fear, insecurity, anxiety, or jealousy, I should turn towards it and regard it as a teacher.
It is the last thing I want to hear. But this, I think Chödrön would say, is the practice for living courageously, compassionately, and happily, in the face of uncertainty, insecurity, and groundlessness. It doesn’t mean that we give up effort and intention, but that we abandon hope that there will ever be a better time to find peace of mind than in the imperfect present.
But wherever we are right now, whatever our lives are like in the moment, this is our mandala, our working basis for awakening. The awakened life isn’t somewhere else — in some distant place that’s accessible only when we’ve got it all together. With the commitment to embrace the world just as it is, we begin to see that sanity and goodness are always present and can be uncovered right here, right now.Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully
Finding equanimity doesn’t mean that you never feel fear, worry, doubt, anxiety, grief or anger ever again. As long as you’re human, you’ll always have feelings. But you develop the ability to see them more clearly and not be as easily strung along by them. Equanimity gives you a choice.
If we feel distress, embarrassment, or anger, we think we’ve really blown it. Yet feeling emotional upheaval is not a spiritual faux pas; it’s the place where the warrior learns compassion. It’s where we learn to stop struggling with ourselves. It’s only when we can dwell in these places that scare us that equanimity becomes unshakable.Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You
This practice is a tall order, and I’m glad Chödrön doesn’t sugarcoat how challenging and scary the practice can be. She encourages us to take the practice one step at a time, to gradually push against our comfort zones to the best of our ability.
Our Fundamental Situation is Joyful
Even in the midst of unending uncertainty, Chödrön insists that our fundamental nature is joy, that we don’t practice to become unfeeling and removed from life, but to experience its changing nature fully, with happiness and peace of mind, without the need for solid ground to stand on.
But there’s nothing wrong with impermanence, suffering, and egolessness; they can be celebrated. Our fundamental situation is joyful.Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
Chödrön teaches that groundlessness needn’t cause fear, and I’ve found her books, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Living Beautifully, a great help in dealing with my own anxieties about uncertainty and insecurity. By letting go of the need for certainty, it seems, we can uncover the strength to walk without any ground to stand on.
It’s crucial for all of us to find a practice that will help us have a direct relationship with groundlessness, with impermanence and death—a practice that will enable us to touch in with the transitoriness of our thoughts, our emotions, our car, our shoes, the paint job on our house. We can get used to the fleeting quality of life in a natural, gentle, even joyful way, by watching the seasons change, watching day turning to night, watching children grow up, watching sand castles dissolve back into the sea. But if we don’t find some way to make friends with groundlessness and the ever-changing energy of life, then we’ll always be struggling to find stability in a shifting world.Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully
Featured image ‘Water’ by Brent Olson. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.