I feel those winds of change a-blowing. I don’t know in what way just yet, but I feel it. Do you ever have that sense? It’s a strange sensation when it’s so vague and nebulous. But, hey, it is what it is. Change can be a good thing, if we let it be. I have been feeling boxed in and really dissatisfied with many aspects of my life, so perhaps change is in order.
We live in difficult times. Life sometimes seems like a roiling and turbulent river threatening to drown us and destroy the world. Why, then, shouldn’t we cling to the certainty of the shore, and to our familiar patterns and habits? Because, as Pema Chödrön teaches, that kind of fear-based clinging keeps us from the infinitely more satisfying experience of being fully alive. The teachings she presents that are known as the “Three Commitments” provide a wealth of wisdom for learning to step right into the river: to be completely, fearlessly present even in the hardest times, the most difficult situations. When we learn to let go of our protective patterns and do that, we begin to see not only how much better it feels to live that way, but, as a wonderful side effect, we find that we begin to naturally and effectively reach out to others in care and support.
“The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human
“Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”
—Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground—something predictable and safe 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.
What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.
So this is where we find ourselves: right in the middle of a dilemma. And it leaves us with some provocative questions: How can we live wholeheartedly in the face of impermanence, knowing that one day we’re going to die? What is it like to realize we can never completely and finally get it all together? Is it possible to increase our tolerance for instability and change? How can we make friends with unpredictability and uncertainty—and embrace them as vehicles to transform our lives?
The Buddha called impermanence one of the three distinguishing marks of our existence, an incontrovertible fact of life. But it’s something we seem to resist pretty strongly. We think that if only we did this or didn’t do that, somehow we could achieve a secure, dependable, controllable life. How disappointed we are when things don’t work out quite the way we planned.
Not long ago, I read an interview with the war correspondent Chris Hedges in which he used a phrase that seemed like a perfect description of our situation: “the moral ambiguity of human existence.” This refers, I think, to an essential choice that confronts us all: whether to cling to the false security of our fixed ideas and tribal views, even though they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and make the leap to living an authentic life. That phrase, “the moral ambiguity of human existence,” resonated strongly with me because it’s what I’ve been exploring for years: How can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?
My first teacher, ChögyamTrungpa, used to talk about the fundamental anxiety of being human. This anxiety or queasiness in the face of impermanence isn’t something that afflicts just a few of us; it’s an all-pervasive state that human beings share. But rather than being disheartened by the ambiguity, the uncertainty of life, what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? What if we said, “Yes, this is the way it is; this is what it means to be human,” and decided to sit down and enjoy the ride?
Happily, the Buddha gave many instructions on how to do just this. Among these instructions are what are known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the Three Vows, or Three Commitments. These are three methods for embracing the chaotic, unstable, dynamic, challenging nature of our situation as a path to awakening. The first of the commitments, tradition¬ally called the Pratimoksha Vow, is the foundation for personal liberation. This is a commitment to doing our best to not cause harm with our actions or words or thoughts, a commitment to being good to each other. It provides a structure within which we learn to work with our thoughts and emotions and to refrain from speaking or acting out of confusion. The next step toward being comfortable with groundlessness is a commitment to helping others. Traditionally called the Bodhisattva Vow, it is a commitment to dedicate our lives to keeping our hearts and minds open and to nurturing our compassion with the longing to ease the suffering of the world. The last of the Three Commitments, traditionally known as the Samaya Vow, is a resolve to embrace the world just as it is, without bias. It is a commitment to see everything we encounter, good and bad, pleasant and painful, as a manifestation of awakened energy. It is a commitment to see anything and everything as a means by which we can awaken further.
But what does the fundamental ambiguity of being human mean in terms of day-to-day life? Above all, it means understanding that everything changes. As Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master, wrote in The Way of the Bodhisattva:
All that I possess and use
Is like the fleeting vision of a dream.
It fades into the realms of memory;
And fading, will be seen no more.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the ground is always shifting. Nothing lasts, including us. There are prob¬ably very few people who, at any given time, are consumed with the idea “I’m going to die,” but there is plenty of evidence that this thought, this fear, haunts us constantly. “I, too, am a brief and passing thing,” observed Shantideva.
So what does it feel like to be human in this ambiguous, groundless state? For one thing, we grab at pleasure and try to avoid pain, but despite our efforts, we’re always alternating between the two. 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: eat, drink, drug, work too hard, spend hours online or watching TV. But somehow we never quite achieve the state of unwavering satisfaction we’re seeking. At times we feel good: physically nothing hurts and mentally all’s well. Then it changes, and we’re hit with physical pain or mental anguish. I imagine it would even be possible to chart how pleasure and pain alternate in our lives, hour by hour, day after day, year in and year out, first one and then the other predominating.
But it’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.
What the fundamental ambiguity of being human points to is that as much as we want to, we can never say, “This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.” In his interview, Chris Hedges also talked about the pain that ensues when a group or religion insists that its view is the one true view. As individuals we, too, have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab on to a position or belief as a way of neatly explaining reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities. We cling to that position as our personal platform and become very dogmatic about it.
The root of these fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic tendencies, is a fixed identity—a fixed view we have of ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this or that. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view.
When I first came to Gampo Abbey, I thought of myself as a likable, flexible, openhearted, open-minded person. Part of that was true, but there was another part that wasn’t. For one thing, I was a terrible director. The other residents felt disempowered by me. They pointed out my shortcomings, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying because my fixed identity was so strong. Every time new people came to live at the abbey, I got the same kind of negative feedback, but still I didn’t hear it. This went on for a few years. Then one day, as if they had all gotten together and staged an intervention, I finally heard what everyone had been telling me about how my behavior was affecting them. At last, the message got through.”
From Living Beautifully, by Pema Chödrön