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

Everyone knows life is impermanent. We’ve all felt it, in the anxiety of change, the sadness of loss, the fear of uncertainty.

Pema Chödrön, a renowned Buddhist nun in the Shambhala tradition, calls this discomfort “groundlessness”: how life’s constant shifting gives us nothing to stand on.

It’s impossible to sum up Ami Pema’s teachings on how to face groundlessness in a single post , but I’ve found these three points useful in my own training.

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

Begin with Hopelessness

Give up any hope of feeling certain, because that’s at odds with life’s uncertain nature.

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.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

Instead, accept impermanence with kindness towards yourself and others. Without kindness, suffering becomes a personal failure, and strength is 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.

Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully

Pain as Path

Instead of acting out, denying, or shutting down, Ami Pema encourages us to take our difficulties as teachers. This helps us to show up fully, wherever we are.

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. 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

Joy within Impermanence

Even in the midst of uncertainty, Ami Pema insists we can be happy. We don’t practice to feel removed from life but to experience it fully.

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

The practice, Ami Pema suggests, is meditation.

For When Things Fall Apart

I found Ami Pema’s books, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Living Beautifully, at a difficult time in my life.

I’d like to say they helped, but they shocked me before anything else. I’d always craved security and worked hard to make things feel certain. To be told this was the source–not the cure–of my anxieties was a jolt, and I didn’t want to accept it.

But groundlessness wouldn’t let me go, and the more I wrestled with Ami Pema’s teachings the more they soaked through.

I saw that I’d taken anxiety as a personal weakness when it was a normal reaction to impermanence, and how accepting life’s insecurities isn’t surrender, but a path to peace.

Taking pain as a teacher opens us to our lives and others’, and practicing presence allows us to be joyful even in the midst of change. It’s difficult, but groundlessness isn’t something to fear—it’s something to learn from.

2 replies on “Standing on Groundlessness”

  1. This is a fantastic article and is helping me tremendously in my current time of messiness and imperfection. I am learning to be nice to myself through this period of my life. Thank you.

  2. Loved the article. Thank you. I have long been a fan of Pema and her teachings which seem unique to me – at least in flavour – though I know they go back to the buddha. I think groundless also included not knowing if we have free will, not knowing how we are here, not knowing why we are here or how to derive morality, not knowing how long we have got, not knowing if there is a god, or gods, or no god, or no gods, or if ‘we’ are actually god. Not knowing what happens after death, if anything. Not knowing if we have any identity or separateness, or defining feature. In short not knowing pretty much everything. I sift the things I think I know like searching for gold in a pan and come up with just one thing that is known – there are thoughts/sensations … there is existence. This seems to me to be the only ‘fact’ out there – and isnt that miraculous?

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