In a dream the other night I found myself in a forest at a crossroads waiting dumbly for a taxi. The light had faded so suddenly to pitch black that I was forced just to stop in my tracks and wait. When you feel lost, the mind can do crazy things.
Sometimes you just don’t know what direction to take. I’ve got some unknowns in my life at the moment—small details like where to call home and how to make my living. Sure, I’ve got the general frame worked out. But sometimes there are simply no clear directions on how to proceed. The way is obscured by darkness and you have to wait until the light dawns. It’s easy to try to skip through this phase or push and shove your way forward to greener pastures. It’s so uncomfortable to hang out in the scary dark unknown. I may be a target for menace; threat may be lurking behind the nearest tree. I may (gasp) make the wrong choice! Horror of horrors. I may choose no option and get scolded by my parents for not “doing something productive” (this one may be the scariest option for some of us, even if that parental voice long ago transmogrified into your own inner critic.) Whatever goads me on, I will sometimes do anything to avoid feeling that sensation of confusion, doubt and uncertainty.
I don’t like these feelings—I feel like I should know what to do, where to turn, what I want to do next. And I don’t. Some days it feels like everyone else knows, and I am alone in my dark ignorance of how to live. Isn’t everyone else living the perfect life, being carried along by a pristine current, fulfilling their each and every whim and wish? Sometimes I feel like I’ve been at the “don’t know” stage my whole life. Because of this, I wait in the place of practice a lot, because that’s what I’ve learned to do. I’ve learned what helps. But this doesn’t mean it’s easy.
When you are able to tolerate the vicissitudes of mind in all its manifestations you are unconquerable. The Vajrayana Buddhist call this recognizing your vajra essence—that adamantine, indestructible core of being that carries you through to the next phase unscathed by apparent phenomena. But unlike a diamond, it’s not indestructible because it is hard and impenetrable. It is indestructible because it is totally permeable and soft and open. According to the Mahamudra teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, all of phenomena are impermanent, and thus empty of any intrinsic reality. There is no harm that can come to empty space. How can empty space harm space? There is nothing there to harm, so you can just rest in the play of phenomena.
The practice of meditation helps you discover this indestructible space, and teaches you to dwell there—to ally with it. That clear spaciousness of mind can accommodate everything—darkness, storms, uncertainty, as well as the joys and triumphs, without being colored by the contents. Since everything is impermanent, you rest in the space, observing phenomena like clouds in a big blue sky. They come; they go. Reacting to any of these “clouds” is an exercise in futility, since events are transitory and essentially substanceless. Circumstances are constantly changing, so when you get stuck in one storyline, you are then actually inhibiting a new situation from arising because you are still stuck with the old story. Stuck in one set of circumstances just when another set of circumstances is getting ready to arise.
Just because you find yourself in a tight spot, not knowing where to turn next does NOT mean you’ve done something wrong. Nature is not always sunny days and blooming roses. There are storms, drought, locusts swarming that destroy an entire season’s efforts. The sooner you accept that the better. It means that destruction is part of the path.
Karma is the law of cause and effect—you create conditions and then must deal with the results. Sometimes there are dues to pay. So you are not doing it wrong if it is not all going perfectly. Wrong is a subjective state of mind depending on the existence of right. Guess what? There is no right either. There is only what is right for you. And the way to know what is right for you is that you feel it. You know by the barometer in your body –the sensations that coalesce from a feeling tone. You know. If you don’t know, then wait. You will. Maybe. And if you don’t know, continuously, then sometimes it is necessary to take a step in one direction. You make your best guess and you just step. And you see what happens. Sometimes you just have to jump and take a risk, without knowing, without seeing without any safety net at all. But this is not a wild guess kind of step—it is the result of having spent some time sitting with, contemplating the situation, and finally realizing that at a certain point, thinking will take you no further, and you simply need to act.
If I had sat down in my dream and wallowed in my dark night dilemma, I would be so fixated on that experience that I might have missed the helping hand offered by a passing stranger, or simply recognized that I only had to wait a couple of hours for the sun to rise. I might have gotten lost or hurt, taken a wrong direction. I might have pushed impatiently for a quick, unsatisfactory fix, rather than waiting patiently for a more appropriate and rewarding solution to manifest.
Don’t get me wrong—tolerating the fear and uncertainty of a difficult moment is not for the faint hearted. It’s tough as hell to stay still and present when your heart is screaming run. But with practice this becomes the fuel. Learning to tolerate sensations in the body is the way to work with emotions. This becomes the practice itself—to stay with those moments of pain, panic or struggle. Then here’s the best part: these situations of darkness and uncertainty then actually become the fuel that propels you into the light. You’ve got to traverse the tunnel to get to the light at the end of it. So what to do when you don’t know what to do? Nothing. Enjoy the moment until you do know.