“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ~Socrates
“Meditation is not to escape from society but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The reason this letter is later than usual is that I felt confused. There are so many conflicting and troubling news items swirling around, so much tension in the US on the eve of mid-term elections and the 24-hour news cycle that keeps feeding fear and speculation about the future. Much of me wants to hide out and remove myself from the growing divisiveness in the political process through some pleasant distraction. Paying attention to what is going on in me, I recognized that this tension is driven by the desire to know how things will be and imagine that this knowledge will keep me safe. I wanted clarity before I began to write and what came through as truth is that I don’t know. I am 100 percent certain that I do not know what will happen. Just writing that helps my nervous system relax.
This is part of the Buddhist practice of “Don’t know mind.” There is a release and clarity when we stop trying to grasp what is unknowable. We cannot know the future. Each day, I hear pundits talking about what will happen if interest rates rise, if a different political party is elected, if there is a spike in oil rates, if house prices rise and fall, if the stock market leaps or plummets. There is an endless stream of “what if,” thinking. The only thing that is certain is that the future is unpredictable, fluid, and the law of impermanence applies to it all. When I allow myself to fall into future speculation around the construct of me as a small individual self, this is called papañca (Pali). Papañca is described as mental proliferation. We’ve all had that experience of picking up a particular worry or concern and twisting it about in our minds, turning it to view the best case scenario, then the worst, and all possibilities in between. In the words of the Greek philosopher Seneca, “There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!” Even when we do anticipate misfortune, we anticipate something. We expend lots of energy and time defending against or preparing to engage in what we think will happen. This habit of leaning into the future not only takes us out of the present moment, vigilance also activates a stress response in the body, which robs us of our wisdom.
There is a wonderful clarity to not knowing and opening to the idea that I can rely on myself to respond wisely as events unfold. There are strength and confidence in neither leaning into the past or future, but returning to center in the present moment. So, what is the best way to prepare for the unknown? Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the future is made directly from the present. The amount of peace, clarity, and discernment I possess right now creates the next moment. We see this in the way we answer a text or email when we are triggered and get a defensive or hostile response, or in the way we take the time to meet someone’s eyes and let them know they matter and receive a smile in return. The amount of peace, happiness, or fear and resistance in my heart when I act is directly linked to my future and the conditions I create around me. This week, I invite you to come back to the present moment, to remember that preparation for the future begins with each breath as an opportunity for fear, speculation, and tension, or for stillness, insight, and wisdom. Let’s not forget the power we do possess—the choices we make for a heaven or hell in this moment.
May we all trust our light,