Discover more from Spark Zen
"The Nature of Reality Is Uncertainty"
Chan Teacher Rebecca Li's Encouraging Wisdom
Last year, I had the great pleasure of meeting Rebecca Li, PhD, a Chan Buddhist teacher in the lineage of Master Sheng Yen. Rebecca is the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. Rebecca’s first book, Allow Joy Into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times, is a compilation of talks she gave during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. Rebecca kindly gave me permission to post the talk below titled “Using Chan Practice in the Face of Uncertainty.” Even though we know much more about COVID-19, her words of wisdom still shine forth as practical ways to study the habits of body-mind, on and off the cushion. Bows of gratitude from San Francisco.
This week, as some of you have shared, is still quite difficult. But for many people, at least, there has been some hopeful news. There is news of a drug that is showing favorable test results, and a vaccine showing a lot of promise being developed in Britain. If I understand what I read correctly, there might be some way to fast-track that. Some places are relaxing restrictions. Even New Jersey, where I live, is opening the state parks tomorrow. So this week has been a week with some hopeful news.
When we are presented with this hopeful news, it reminds me of the hike my husband and I took a couple of weeks ago. We like to walk along the stream in a park near the highway. There is a place with a giant boulder, and because of the boulder the stream has to change directions and drop down a bit, which creates all these bubbles in the water. We spent a long time there looking at these air bubbles formed by the water’s movement. We noticed that there was an alcove where some of the bubbles were trapped. Right away there was this assumption in the mind that these bubbles were going to be trapped there and stuck. But we kept watching and what we realized was that there was something invisible going on in the water current; there was an eddy beneath the bubbles that turned them around, and then they could flow on.
It reminds me of a few weeks ago when we thought we were going to be stuck in this horrible situation forever, and the tendency we have to assume that the unpleasant situation we are in will last forever and to feel hopeless about it, when everything is actually the coming together of many causes and conditions. A lot of them we are not aware of; some of them will be moving us along.
We watched these bubbles escape from the alcove, and downstream there was an outlet into the next part of the stream, and we thought it would just be smooth sailing from there on down. But the bubbles didn't make a straight line sailing down the stream because there was a breeze blowing and moving the bubbles off course, making a huge detour somewhere else before moving downstream. That again reminds me of how easy it is for us to think, There's a vaccine, we're opening, we're coming back. We just go right back to wherever it is that we hope to go, and it's just going to be a straight line—our assumption of how this is going to go.
Of course, when we think that, we are susceptible to suffering that arises from all of the uncertainty along the way. We don't know what's going to happen next week. Maybe the next round of tests will not be successful; maybe there will be other outbreaks and we will have to shut down again. We have no idea. Everything arises from causes and conditions, most of which are unknown to us.
I wanted to share this story because we do have a strong tendency to extrapolate from the present moment and believe we're stuck. You think back to how you felt a few weeks ago and think that is permanent, and imagine how horrible it will be if this goes on forever. There's also a tendency to assume that if we are getting out of something we don't like, it will be really smooth and easy and nothing will get in the way, when the reality is that every moment is a coming together of many constantly changing causes and conditions.
The nature of reality is uncertainty; we just don’t know. You sit here and listen to this talk and think: Yes, yes, it’s emptiness, it’s impermanence. I understand. I can get it conceptually. But we hate it. We just don't like this uncertainty. Part of our practice is to recognize this entrenched habit—a habit that is at the level of our emotions—that resists uncertainty and which gives rise to an aversion to uncertainty. Often it is intimately related to the habit of wanting to control the emerging present moment, which is not known. We want to make it a certain way, blocking the natural flow of reality—at least in our mind.
When we engage in the practice of meditation, it's an excellent opportunity for us to cultivate clear awareness of these entrenched habits. You might sit there and tell yourself, I know everything is impermanent. I don't try to control it. Maybe you're right. But I'd like to invite you to really check it out. A good place to do that is in your meditation. Pay attention to the habit of wanting to control your meditation experience. For example if you use the method of following the breath, counting the breath, or just following bodily sensations, one of the most common habits is trying to control the breathing, trying to control the bodily sensations.
The body knows how to breathe. It has been doing so on its own since the moment you were born. One time when I was leading a meditation workshop and one of the practitioners was doing the meditation for the first time, he noticed that the body was breathing on its own and it freaked him out. He was not okay with it. He shared this feeling with the group: What is going on? There is this thing going on without me doing anything about it! It was a very instructive sharing—that we can be shocked to find that the world moves on in this uncertain way whether we are okay with it or not. It doesn't ask for our permission. But we believe it should get our permission to move in this way, and we should be able to veto it.
In our meditation, we can cultivate a clear awareness of this habit of wanting to control the breathing, wanting to make the emerging moment of our bodily experience predictable. So maybe we're calm; we want the next moment to be the same. Or with the breathing, we want to make it regular by controlling it. We want to know exactly when inhalation will come. We want to know exactly when exhalation will come. It makes us uncomfortable to allow it to happen on its own. It's unsettling that it will happen in its own time, out of our control. Even though we don't need to worry— it will come—it drives us nuts that we have no control over it.
As we cultivate a clear awareness of this habit, we can become familiar with the thought pattern that comes up: I want my breath to be this way, or I need to be in charge of this, or It's not okay that it happens in its own time. Notice whatever thought you have in your mind, whatever feeling—maybe fear, maybe dislike of the unease of uncertainty. Maybe there is a feeling of harshness, of having to grab onto something tightly to control it, of not allowing the experience to flow freely. Also notice the physical sensation of tension that comes along with it, thought after thought after thought. That's what I mean by the pattern we have cultivated over our lifetime. That's what I mean by this entrenched habit of resisting uncertainty.
You might also notice the related habit of wanting to hide away from unpleasant experiences. You have shared about how you know there are all these terrible things going on and you just don't want to be dealing with it. It's too painful, too difficult, and you want to hide from it. Allow yourself to see this habit working in your mind, without judgment. Understand what your mind has been doing, its habits, the different ways you are trying to exert control over the flow of the present moment that is uncertain, and notice how this urge to exert control over what really can't be controlled is generating a lot of tension in your body and mind.
The tension in your mind makes it impossible to have the total open, clear awareness that is necessary for us to see reality the way it is, with all its nuances. When you tense up your mind in your effort to exert control over reality, to block out the uncertainty or to block out the unpleasant sensations of feeling the uncertainty, you are likely to fall into the habit of distorting reality, because you can't see the totality of it.
The habit of distorting reality usually takes us down the road of exaggerating certain aspects of it. In our current situation, it may be exaggerating the risk of infection. You're just so freaked out: Everyone's infected, everything I touch will give me the virus—exaggeration. Or exaggerating how quickly the drug is going to become available or how effective it is. If you really read these reports carefully, this drug is not a magic pill. It just shortens the number of days you stay in the hospital; it doesn't push a button and turn off the virus. So when we are not able to see reality with this open, clear awareness, we fall into the habit of distorting reality.
Of course, when we are seeing reality with a distorted view, we are susceptible to making unwise decisions. We may engage in more risky behavior than is wise because we exaggerated how safe it is, or the other way around, hiding away more than necessary. Along with that, when we are unable to see reality with clarity, with wisdom, we are unable to feel compassion when we see others. We see everyone as threats, as dangerous, and we don't want to get close to them.
And so when we are able to cultivate this clear awareness, notice the tension, notice the suffering we are creating by falling into these habits. And as we cultivate clear awareness of these habits, then we gain a better understanding of them and we can also see more clearly that every moment offers us the opportunity not to give rise to the next thought, the next reaction that perpetuates this habit. Every moment offers us the opportunity to practice this way.
The more we can do that, the more we can cultivate this total clearness this total awareness of the nuances and the complexity of the situation in the present moment. In the days and weeks and months ahead, we literally don't know what's going to happen. But it's okay. Every day we have a little bit more information. And then if we have to make a decision, we make that decision with an awareness of the information we have at that moment, with this total clear awareness, and we do our best. There is not going to be absolute perfection, 100 percent risk-free, 500 percent certain—no. But whatever decision we make will be the coming together of the causes and conditions in that moment, with the available information we have, and we will do our best to have clarity, to process what is known instead of using a mind that is filled with deeply distorted views, that is deliberately blocking out what we don't want to see or hear.
Along with this practice of cultivating clear awareness, I would also like to encourage you to pay close attention to habits of mind we are cultivating during this period of lockdown. As many of you have pointed out, it is indeed a period that is unusual, extraordinary. We have been practicing an unusual level of vigilance about everything, in our effort to flatten the curve so that we can help prevent the collapse of our healthcare system. These have been relatively extreme measures, and we are not going to be able to sustain this forever. It's simply too stressful to keep this level of vigilance.
However, we need to cultivate clear awareness of the kinds of mental habits we might be fostering inadvertently. This reminds me of a message that was shared on Facebook with me that I want to share with you: Instead of going around thinking that everyone else has COVID-19, reinforcing our suspicion and fear of others, let's move through the world as if we are the one who is infected, reinforcing our compassion and concern for others.
This was shared with me a few weeks ago, and it was particularly true because there was no testing and we didn't know if we were the one who was carrying the virus. Moving forward, we still don't know. As soon as we go out, we might become infected. I wanted to share this with you as something to reflect on, to check in, to see if, in this period of extreme lockdown measures, we have been giving rise to thoughts of There is danger around, I'm so afraid of other people infecting me. Thinking this way will perpetuate thoughts and feelings that reinforce our suspicion and fear of others, feelings that are already prevalent, given that we live in a society with a lot of social isolation even before this pandemic.
Check to see if we've been giving rise to these thoughts and feelings that reinforce the sense of me being a reified, solid, unchanging self that is separate from others. We do that already, but are we doubling down on it? We've been practicing to notice and remind ourselves of the emptiness of self, of our interconnectedness with others. And this period of self-isolation, being worried about being infected, can inadvertently be driving us to reinforce this belief that we are separate from others.
If we are not aware of these thoughts proliferating in our minds, they grow like weeds because that is already our default mode of thinking, and they take over. We will forget all about the true nature of our reality, which is that we are actually interconnected with others. It's not just something to say—we are. There is no inherently existing, permanent entity that we call self. So practice remembering that this notion of a reified, separate self is an erroneous view, one that comes from our entrenched habit of resisting the true nature of reality, which is dependent origination, impermanence. Practice remembering to notice our habit of giving rise to suffering when we exist reality.
When we practice remembering this, we are also reminded that we don't have to buy into this belief that the self is a separate, permanent, reified entity. We don't have to believe it. Because when we believe it, we act accordingly, which is not in accordance with wisdom and compassion.
The practice of giving rise to compassion is the other side of cultivating wisdom. When we can remember our interconnectedness with others, instead of reinforcing the belief in a separate self, then we can remember to give rise to compassion for others to be in touch to be touched by others suffering.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings know peace. Thank you for your continued support!