Uncertainty, Impermanence, and Pema Chodron

Calming Words in a Time of Groundlessness

Uncertainty continues to grow and expand and deepen around us, creating perhaps, its own virus, a virus in the heart. We hear the words today, “everything is so fluid and we don’t know what’s next”. My own levels of anxiety continue to rise. In response, I returned to one of my favorite books by a beloved writer to calm myself. I’m referring to When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. She has a gift for bringing some fundamental ideas of Buddhism into the Western world. Additionally, she explores the place of compassion and sacredness in our lives. This is especially true when the bottom begins to shred beneath us. I share a few insights from her writings that have helped me during this time of groundlessness.

Impermanence is the Essence of Everything

I began to notice how her insights on impermanence seemed applicable to many of our feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, as the spread of the coronavirus weaves its way into all parts of the planet. A pandemic does not have to lead to pandemonium unless we choose to allow it and even encourage it by making ME the center of the pandemic while excluding all generosity towards others. She asks us to consider another tack on our feelings of impermanence. She suggests that “[i]mpermanence is the goodness of reality… Impermanence is the essence of everything,” adding that in general, “people have no respect for impermanence; …in fact, we despair of it. We regard it as pain. We try to resist it by making things that will last – forever”. In doing so, she claims, we can easily “lose our sense of the sacredness of life”.

Uncertainty and Egolessness

Chodron describes at one point how these can become focal points of wisdom, even opportunities to examine life-long habits of responding to them when they appear. If we do not cultivate such an attitude in our current condition of uncertainty of where the virus will take all of us, then when?  Her approach goes even deeper: she suggests that if we can see ourselves nested within our feelings of impermanence and uncertainty from a place that is not so ego-centric, which is the genesis of both panic and fear, then things transform vividly. Here is what she understands: “Egolessness is available all the time as freshness, openness, delight in our sense perceptions… we also experience egolessness when we don’t know what’s happening… We can notice our reactions to that”. I find this very difficult to do but know that I/we must make the effort.

Our Greatest Freedom

I find her observations to be comforting as I try to be more relaxed with the uncertainty that faces all of us each day around the planet: will there be enough money, food, health, healthcare, cooperation, unity in the face of increasing adversity? When the same old patterns of ‘grasping and fixating” continue to drive us towards greater insecurity wherein the patterns are repeated with renewed gusto, we can, she notes at the end of her reflections, “relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness.” We cannot forget that we do have profound choices within the circle of uncertainty and panic. We can choose to remain and to increase our humanity towards one another in this moment. Like 9/11, we are united around the courage of our shared community. Our greatest freedom may indeed reside in how we relate to the mess we feel around and within us. 

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