Let me start with a story. Six weeks ago I was released from hospital. I went in for a planned operation on the Monday and was out by the Wednesday. The operation itself wasn’t complicated but it required an abdominal incision so I knew in advance that the healing process was going to be a long, slow one that would leave me weak. The day before I went into hospital Storm Ciara blew the roof off our garden shed, in one complete piece fortunately. Don’t worry, we managed to drag it back on top the shed and weigh it down with sand bags; it has dutifully stayed in place since then. One week later as I looked out of the window at the dishevelled shed, I reflected that seven days earlier I had been strong enough to lift that roof but now I was struggling to lift anything heavier than a glass of water. It reminded me that life is not certain, just because I was strong for many years it doesn’t create a guarantee that I always will be.
The reality of uncertainty is at the heart of Buddhist practice. The harsh realities of old age, sickness, and death are subjects we are invited to contemplate and investigate. When we look closely enough we see that everything in the conditioned world is uncertain, and ever changing. Perhaps until this point for many of us this was an intellectual enterprise; of course we knew all of these things were uncertain but how probable we thought it was that we would get to personally experience it would have been pretty remote. Now at least we can see it directly. This is cold comfort but a precious lesson for us; the systems we had in place that we thought could keep our world safe and predictable were little more than facades, mirages. Jobs are being lost, shops are empty, freedoms are limited, and people are sick and dying.
The very definition of dukkha is uncertainty, unreliability, unpredictability. This was what the Buddha has been telling us all along, but most of us don’t see through the mirage until something punctures our sense of certainty. Shock, and suffering, are difficult but important experiences that push our practice into new territory. It was the shock of seeing the harsh reality of life outside the palace walls that spurred the Buddha out of his comfortable life as a wealthy prince to the pursuit of the spiritual path. The great lay teacher Dipa Ma lost her husband and young son in a short space of time, then she herself was struck down by a serious illness. Certain that she was going to die, she looked at her life and realised that all she could take with her was her practice, so she threw herself completely into it.
Development of your Buddhist practice requires these moments when the facade falls away and you see the truth of the world as it really is. But just the seeing these truths does not on its own change anything. Many people think Buddhism is nihilistic or morbid because the truth at the heart of the teaching is that suffering is a normal part of human life, and you would think that if you hadn’t experienced these facts within the wider contexts of the teachings. It is unavoidable that we grow old, get sick, and die. But what the Buddha understood was that while these things, old age sickness and death, were unavoidable, the suffering that came from them was avoidable. He realised that the suffering came not from these experiences themselves but from our interpretations and responses to them.
The direct experience of uncertainty turns our lives upside down, to the extent that we can find ourselves questioning literally every aspect of our previous lives: the things we like and dislike, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the people we spend time with, our choice of partner, of career, of beliefs. We can find ourselves wondering what the point of it all is. In a time of uncertainty we instinctively grasp for anything that feels solid, but when you finally see that there is nothing solid to hold on to you are flung into one of the most difficult parts of the practice. The teachings have always seemed so clear and logical, yet here you are feeling like you are falling through space. This is a reality of practice that doesn’t always get talked about, but it is a fundamental part of your growth if you can learn to tolerate the uncertainty. Like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, at some points in the practice we almost need to rearrange every atom of our understanding of the world to be able to integrate our experience into wisdom. This naturally leaves us feeling extremely disorientated for a while.
We can feel like upheaval is abnormal, but if we look closely at the world then we see it is a perfectly normal part of the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes everything is static, and sometimes everything is moving. In the Theravadan practice we call this the worldly winds, unavoidable external conditions that we all experience from time to time. Sometimes they are in our favour, and sometimes they are not, but they will happen to us all at some point.
Often our first response to discomfort or crisis is to wonder what we have done wrong. The teaching of the worldly winds is to look beyond our own narrow view point and to see the forces that are acting on us from the outside. Our minds and egos build another mirage, that we are in control of every aspect of our lives, but when you look through that mirage you see that your mind is just one force among many in the world. Sitting in meditation and seeing that the situation you are in is the result of conditions beyond your control is a useful practice that will help you to understand the true nature of how the world, and your mind works.
If you were out at sea in a boat and the wind got stronger, and the waves started crashing over your deck, you wouldn’t wonder if you had done something wrong. You would understand that it was a storm. Storms happen, you know that, and you know that they end too. So like a boat in a storm take time to observe that you are not the storm; the upheaval you are feeling is not because of you. If you are asking yourself questions like why do I feel this way, or how can I stop feeling this or thinking this, then stop. When you are asking questions like that then you are acting like you are the storm, that you and your thoughts are the cause for the uncertainty. But look at the situation and see that the uncertainty has come from external conditions. We don’t try to stop a storm, we try to weather it, to get through it. In the face of an existential storm this is what we do too, we tie everything down and hold on until it passes. Recognise that outside forces are creating uncomfortable conditions for you, and find ways tolerate that until it passes.
If you were in a boat in a storm it wouldn’t make any sense to respond to the storm by trying to change how you felt about it, or by just ignoring it until it goes away. A boat in a storm has no choice to be unaffected by it. You wouldn’t blame yourself if your boat was getting blown around by the wind, yet you might think you are responsible for your thoughts and feelings in a crisis. When a storm hits, see that you are not the storm; and when the boat is being flung around by that storm see that you are also not that boat.
When you sit in meditation you can observe that thoughts arise without your input. Your thoughts are the result of conditions; they are responses to the world, and responses to sensory input. It’s really easy to believe that you are thinking these thoughts, and even experienced meditators have moments when they get drawn in by them too, but when you look really closely you can see that all of your thoughts are triggered by something else. Your thoughts are being thrown around like the boat in the storm; look closely and you will see the interaction between your thoughts and the conditions you are in. When you are on retreat your thoughts are calm and quiet, because you are in calming conditions. So when you are in an uncertain situation notice that your thoughts are also uncertain. These kinds of experiences eventually help to create a space between you and your thoughts. In time you learn to not take them so personally, and not become so upset when they are not the kind of thoughts you wanted to have. This allows us to weather the storm, to not react impulsively to get away from feelings of discomfort but instead to be able to sit with them, to tolerate them, and to learn from them.
Sometimes we wish we could just stop thinking but for a boat in a storm this makes no sense. If it tried to resist the waves it would sink; if it tried to resist the wind it would be blown over and capsize. The boat survives the storm because you find ways to go with the storm safely. When the wind is strong you make your sail smaller so it doesn’t catch as much wind; when the wind is too strong you take down the sail completely so you don’t get overturned. The boat can’t resist the wind, just like you can’t stop thoughts from coming up in response to the conditions; but allowing your mind to grab onto those thoughts and run with them is like leaving your sails out. If you find yourself ruminating on things that make you feel unsettled then stop, intervene, put your mind on something else. You can’t stop thoughts from popping up in your mind, but you can stop the stories that you weave out of them.
Rumination will not lead to insight; it too is a mirage. We take refuge in our minds and our ability to think things through but when you look closely at the nature of all things you see that the mind is just as unreliable as everything else in the conditioned world. Insight arises on its own when you are ready to understand it, you don’t need to ponder it. That is why you need to learn to weather the storm long enough to allow the insights to become clear. In time you can learn how to stop using your thoughts as a way to feel safe and secure. Once you have seen that they are at the mercy of what goes on around them you see that they could never give you any real comfort, but likewise you see that they cannot really upset you either. This knowledge allows you to weather the storm, unconcerned by the boat being flung around by the wind and waves, and confident that you can hold on until it passes.