Tuesday, March 17, 2020

At home in the void

A lot of us feel like we're sort of between-the-worlds right now

There are a lot of questions alive about what our society might look like in the coming days, month, years.  Or, closer to home, what my own life might look like: Will my job come back?  Will American democracy or economy continue to exist in a recognizable form?

When such uncertainty is upon us, it can be easy to spiral down into a well of worry or frustration, and that is UNCOMFORTABLE.  So I wanted to offer a couple of notions here in case you could use support in facing the uncertainty of the moment.

It would be easy to offer a pat Buddhist response - that we are always in a state of uncertainty and change, whether we know/admit it or not.  But that kind of answer isn't very comforting.  There's a reason we don't usually like to think about that, and to have it brought back up when we need a lil comfort is not always a kind move!

At the same time, many of us could come into a more functional relationship with the Unknown.  Often we like the unknown on our terms.  We like a surprise ending to our mystery novels, we'd like to fall in love once or twice in our lives, but more than that, the unknown can become downright inconvenient.

And so, when the unknown rears its head unmistakably in our lives - in ways we can't ignore - it can be an experience we haven't cultivated many tools for.  We do the best we can, we stay afloat (or we don't), but what if there was a way we could use these times?  What if there was a way to relate with this energy of uncertainty that made our lives richer, our minds sharper, and our hearts more open?

It is possible, but we need to take the hard step of learning to make a home in the void.  Ok, now I get to give you my Zen line - we already live there anyway.  My favorite meme I saw online said something like, "Let go of the idea that you're surrendering control, you never had control so all you're surrendering is anxiety!"  Wow.

But how challenging can it be to surrender the illusion of control in this way?!  Zen practitioners and other non-dual specialists are supposed to be experts at this - but I personally figured out how to use Zen practice to try to get more control: control over my mind, control over circumstances around me - all wasted efforts.

Real Zen practice is to sit within the void and get comfortable there.  It's based on this fundamental realization that we have no choice about whether we're going to be in the void... it underpins our existence - sometimes we get a reprieve from noticing it, other times it's impossible to ignore!  What we do get a choice about is whether we make ourselves comfortable there.

And this IS  a choice.  Comfort isn't actually coming from circumstances.  We all know that some of the richest people in the world are the most depressed and anxious, and some of the poorest are among the most joyful.  True bravery has arisen amidst the deepest terror, and real compassion amidst the most severe discomfort.  Our inner states are something that radiate from within us, not something that comes from circumstances.  This is what makes integrity possible.  You get to choose.

We don't get to choose our circumstances. That is confusing the Unknown for the Known.  We try to choose our circumstances, but we actually miss a chance to find out what might be possible.  When the void arises and we startle back with fear, we're likely to apply any sense of knowing that comes easily to hand.  Enter our negativity bias.  Within the vast space of wide possibility we ask ourselves "I wonder what the worst possible scenario might be?" and because this known is more comfortable than the void, we might even cling to it - cycle it over and over in our minds.

But there are other options.  We could ask ourselves "what might be the best case scenario?"  If this seems far too optimistic to you, please consider that if you're not asking this at least as often as about the worst case scenario, you're not a realist, you're a pessimist.  That's fine if that's what you like, but it can get quite uncomfortable, not to mention have deleterious health-effects!

An ancient yogic training teaches us to start by learning to ask of the void, "I wonder what wonderful things might come about from this?" rather than taking the pre-facilitated low-road of our primate brains and automatically bracing ourselves for stress.  When we do this, we're beginning to grow an extremely important skill of having a "positivity bias" rather than just a "negativity bias".  This allows us to see new and different options, and gives us new capacities to regulate the stress response in our body.

Only after this is a yogin advised to begin to open up and dwell in the reality that we don't know anything about anything at all.  We're instructed to take our time, and step by step drop the arrogance of "knowing," at least a few times each day.  If we're sweet about it, we might come to recognize that the Void is not our enemy.  The masters tell us the Void is more like our mother - the source of possibilities, and a place of rest.  Rather than the endless whirring-stirring of the mind seeking for certainty, we let it go, hold our notions lightly, and be more like the sky than the passing clouds.

When we've come home to our mother, the Void in this way, we're better able to deal with the Known.  Don't think I've forgotten about the very important Known - our lived, practical world!  We're not in some weird spiritual bypass where you can't know anything and we all get to contradict each other in an infinite game of one-upsmanship!  (ick).  The Known is what's right in front of us, the world of tangible effects.  One Buddhist teacher gives a whole talk on how a pen is not a pen - it has Voidness - but then he says in true Zen style, "if you don't think this is a pen, come up and i'll draw a mustache on you!"

The Known is what's right in front of us.  We'll need enough food to feed ourselves - so will the families down the block.  We should probably not breathe on too many of each other for a while, stay at home.  If you don't pay the Netflix bill, you won't have that kind of entertainment later tonight.  When we're not trying to make the Known out of the Unknown these day-to-day matters actually become quite a bit easier!  They're easier because they're not bearing the weight of all of our fears and nightmares.  They're just the tasks that need doing so we can care for self and other.  Wash your hands, disinfect the doorknob, check on your friends, donate to a food bank, sleep enough, exercise, repeat.

In Yogic practice, the world of the Known becomes "ornaments of the Void". We begin to take appearances lightly and use them to create art.  That's all we can truly do, and what a relief.  We no longer try to make the world of tasks and appearances give us certainty and ease - it doesn't have that power.  We bring the certainty of our VALUES, the ease of our loving HEARTS, and we apply them to the tasks of our real lives.  

So, my friends I invite you: rest with me in uncertainty.  It will feel unfamiliar, but if you practice a bit, it will begin to feel unfamiliar like a comedian setting you up for a REALLY FUNNY JOKE, unfamiliar like falling in love, unfamiliar like an orgasm that blasts the thoughts right out of your mind, or like waiting to see what the sunset will look like tonight over the ocean.  We can bring all that wide-open possibility down into the simple acts of making a better world together - step by step, task by task, helping each other in each new moment.

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