There’s a passage from Pema Chodron, the renowned Buddhist nun, that I recently came across in Tricycle, and I wanted to share it with readers because I feel that it captures the essence of where many of us found ourselves over the course of a year filled with uncertainty: 

“In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground – something predictable to stand on – seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.” 

She later goes on to say, “Under the illusion that experiencing constant security and well-being is the ideal state, we do all sorts of things to try to achieve it — it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty or our situations. The discomfort arises from all of our effort to put ground under our feet.”

Indeed, how many of us have sought a “return to normalcy” or searched for anything vaguely familiar in order to achieve some sense of stability? We know (or at least hope), that once the worst of it is over we’ll be able to pick ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, and continue on, putting it all behind us. We’ve been accustomed to doing so throughout our entire lives, so why would we do otherwise this time around? The answer might be found when we go inward for some self-reflection, looking deeper into the “cause and effect” nature of our conditioned habits.

If we really think about it, every hour of every day up to this point has consisted of what I call “micro-choices” – small, imperceptible decisions that have been made literally with little to no conscious effort on our part. We’re all quite familiar with them — choosing to take this route to work rather than that one, forgoing a tempting treat when it has been offered to us at a social gathering — you get the idea. What we’re not so in tune with is that each of these rather innocuous, minute decisions that are made represent change. We’re opting to select “this” rather than “that,” all-the-while going about our daily routine.

Where we tend to struggle lies mostly in those weightier life situations when we’ve been dealt a serious curve ball, and it has left us reeling. This has been particularly common for many throughout the pandemic, as not only were innumerable people (myself included), suffering the mental and physical challenges associated with prolonged isolation, but tens of millions found themselves unemployed and without health benefits. Unlike previous experiences we’ve encountered dealing with significant adversity, these were (and continue to be), extraordinarily challenging times for countless individuals.

Because the virus is indiscriminant by nature, for many of us, this may be the first time we’ve chosen to address the inevitability of our own physical mortality. Culturally, it’s not something that we generally feel comfortable discussing with one another, and therefore it gets pushed to the side. 

In his book “No Death, No Fear,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the acclaimed Zen master reminds us: “Impermanence means something is always changing. We think that our body is permanent. In fact, birth and death are taking place in our body all the time. At every moment many cells are dying and many cells are being born. We have the illusion that our bodies are always our bodies.”

Embracing such a concept might have a rather liberating effect on those who’ve held tightly to preconceived notions of our mortal existence. There’s a freedom that goes along with such a state of Being, but it must be viewed with some measure of scrutiny, as it too possesses the qualities of a mental construct.

Are these current life situations insurmountable? Of course not, but what they will require is an adjustment in our perception that the foundations we’ve come to rely upon are sturdy and immovable. If nothing else, we must learn to see through the illusion of permanence in all things. Denying so will only perpetuate a cycle of suffering that becomes more and more resistant to change.

 “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh,” added Ms. Chodron, in the aforementioned piece. Is it a concept that might take some time to digest? Sure, but what do we have to lose, other than the ground we stand on?

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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