Through a Glass Darkly – Living with Uncertainty

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:
now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

St. Paul, First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 12

What do we really know about the future?  Can we predict or prepare with any certainty for tomorrow?  We believe our knowledge of the past can prepare us for the future, but in fact we know it cannot.  9-11, the financial meltdown, the Gulf oil spill. did our knowledge of past events enable us to predict these catastrophes? It did not.  It is only in retrospect that we make sense of past events, inventing chains of causality, connecting the dots. (For more on uncertainty and unpredictability, I highly recommend The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House, 2007/2010). This inability to know the future creates uncertainty and a steady state of anxiety.   The Buddha compared the mind, filled with uncertainty and doubt, to a bucket of muddy water, in which we may try to see our own reflection, but, because of its turbidity, can neither see nor recognize ourselves in it.

If we look closely, we will discover that vexation is a common condition of the mind.  We worry, we are anxious, we are afraid, we are always on edge.   Against a background of uncertainty, we do our level best to keep busy – we are always on and on about the next thing to be done (or berating ourselves for things undone), but like an ever-growing and infinite to-do list, we can never seem to arrive at the end.  Busy, busy, endlessly busy.

And, at the end of all of this busy-ness, are we less anxious, more certain, happy and joyful?  Does our busy-ness contribute to our certainly or does it merely distract us from it momentarily?

The Buddha compared this experience of uncertainty to a rich man traveling alone across an inhospitable desert, without food and in constant danger, and when he finally reaches the village on the other side, only then is he able to abandon his fear and experience relief.  So too, we live in a near constant state of fear and uncertainty, only occasionally punctuated by temporary relief.  How can we abandon our fear?

Zen Master Dogen, in his Fukanzazengi (Instructions for Sitting) provides us with a very simple recipe that is so fully realized it is like being able to look into a crystal pool and see your original face for the very first time.  If we follow his simple instructions, not only will we find relief from uncertainty, we may also discover the “treasure store” of everyday enlightenment.

The link for the entire teaching (very brief and well worth reading) can be found here:

What follows are the fundamentals of zazen practice.  “Zazen”, or sitting Zen, or just “sitting”, according to Master Dogen, is not to be mistaken for meditation (although it looks exactly like sitting meditation).  It is the manifestation of Buddha- consciousness, identical and coincidental with “Satori” – enlightenment.

“For sanzen (zazen), a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half- lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”