Living with Uncertainty

There are very few certainties in life. When I was a kid, my dad was fond of saying, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I always thought this was incredibly funny at the time. Now, I realize he was right. (Though some people manage to avoid both for quite some time.)

Uncertainty, ambiguity, and change are a big part of life experience. And yet, many of us spend a great deal of time acting as if that is not the case. Working very hard to create a sense of permanence and security which is elusive, illusory, and transitory.

The most that we can really hope to do is to create the illusion of certainty, a false sense of permanence.

Creating the illusion of permanence is like building castles in the sand. It definitely will take up a lot of time and energy. And you might build something very impressive. But ultimately if you get too attached to everything staying like it is, you will be very disappointed.

One major symptom of this type of activity is fear. Lots and lots of fear. I’ve watched people I know create virtual fortresses in their lives, trying to protect themselves from change. What really happens is that their lives get smaller, and smaller, as they try to control each and every aspect.

I’ve seen myself do this too. I think the prescription for this is the realization that the true sense of safety resides inside of us, rather than outside of us, in our external circumstances.

Understanding that concept intellectually is one thing. But living that truth is a lifelong practice.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012


“Once you are clean and clear, you can feel tremendous love falling on you from all dimensions.” – Osho

I recently moved; tonight, as I was shuffling the cards for a reading with my Osho Zen Tarot, one fell out. The description read, “’Home’ is not a physical place in the outside world, but an inner quality of relaxation and acceptance…Now is the time to look at whether you are allowing yourself to receive the extraordinary gift of feeling at home wherever you are.”

I know why I go back to the cards again and again: for important reminders. Of course I know, intellectually, that I can be at home anywhere. I don’t own much, and I move often. But each time includes a period of adjustment. A period where I get caught up in the physical: “Can I feel at home in this new place?”

I forget…That home is a place inside. That I can be at home with myself, and within myself. And that if I cultivate that feeling, of being at home in myself, I can never really be lost in the world.

It is such a gift to live in the truth of that realization.

On Letting Go

In the Bhagavad Gita, it says that we are entitled to our work but not the fruits of our labors. This means that it’s unwise to be attached to outcomes or results. Sometimes we fail, despite our best efforts. In other words, if we take an action with a specific outcome in mind, and then that outcome does not occur, we may feel that we have failed, and then attach to the failure all of the emotional baggage that culturally goes with it. As an alternative, the Gita teaches non-attachment.

In our culture, we’re not encouraged to let go. We’re encouraged to strive. To master our circumstances. To never give up. Now, I’m not advocating giving up, but there is a difference between giving up and letting go. Letting go is a surrender, not a defeat. Letting go is a mindset that says, “I’ve done all that I can do, and I feel good about my role.” It’s not outcome-oriented.

Attachment to achievement is one of the factors that leads to burn-out so often in the service-oriented professions. I think of the teachers and counselors and other people I know in the helping professions, and I see many of them who care so much that they are drained by the lack of results. It can be hard to remember that everyone has free will. And that, even given opportunities to change, some people have not aligned themselves or harnessed the necessary elements to create that change.

There’s nothing wrong with desiring certain outcomes in life, or working toward goals. But if we become so invested in the achievement of a particular goal or attached to a certain outcome that we make the process and the experience (the journey) less important, that’s when we create additional suffering for ourselves (and often others, as well).

Recommended Reading: The Little Book of Letting Go, by Hugh Prather

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Desire: Riding the Horse

The energy of desire is incredibly powerful. When we desire something (or someone, for that matter) in our lives, it can consume us. I’ve heard desire described as a horse, in the sense that it’s a very powerful tool if utilized correctly (like most things). In dealing with our desire, it’s wise to be riding the horse. If the horse runs wild, stampeding, that can be extremely dangerous and destructive. If we’re riding the horse, we acknowledge its power, interact with it, and direct it.

The Buddhists would say that desire is insatiable. As soon as we satisfy one want, we manufacture another. This leads us down a path of self-indulgence and selfishness and, ultimately, does little or nothing to alleviate unhappiness. Rather, it seems to breed more unhappiness.

At the other extreme is denial or suppression of desire. This is also a less than helpful approach. Suppressed desires tend to reveal themselves in inappropriate and unhealthy ways.

All this is to say that dealing with desire effectively is a matter of striking a delicate balance.

One of my favorite Vedanta teachers, Swami Bodhananda, distinguishes between binding and non-binding desires. For example, those items at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy would be non-binding desires. Food, clothing, shelter, and safety (meeting basic needs) fall into the category of non-binding desires. Binding desires may be along the lines of, say, a desire for caviar twice a week, or 3,000 square feet of living space. Distinguishing between needs and wants in our culture can be difficult, especially since a virtually continuous barrage of advertising strives to create new needs on an ongoing basis.

Because of the almost endless onslaught of media, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to where your information is coming from, and to limit that flow of information when possible. In other words, to balance input with processing and take time to reflect on your true priorities as part of living a life that more fully reflects your values.

Oracle Cards: Predicting the Future?

I’ve used oracle cards, or tarot cards, for a number of years in my practice, and people often ask me about them. The most common questions include, how do the cards work? And, do they predict the future?

Some of you may be disappointed to learn the cards aren’t magic. They don’t have special powers and no, they don’t predict the future. But don’t stop reading yet.

Oracle/Tarot cards are a tool to enhance self-knowledge and intuition. Sometimes we may be blocked in resolving a problem in our lives or answering a question because we are relying only on our logical mind to reach a resolution. Don’t misunderstand me: logic, reason and the intellect are important, but they are not the only way to apply wisdom to an issue.

Sometimes we know what we want to do in a particular situation. We know the right thing because we feel it. But we may not have evidence to support it – it may not be logical. Sometimes oracle cards can help us tap into what we already know, or can give a different perspective on an issue.

There are dozens of different types of oracle or tarot cards. They are intended to help the user gain insight into a particular problem, question, or situation. My two favorite decks are Healing with the Angels Oracle Cards (by Doreen Virtue – Manifestation card pictured here) and the Osho Zen Tarot.

Cards are very personal, and just because these two decks are my favorites doesn’t mean that they will necessarily speak to you. Cards generally contain a picture and a word, such as Abundance, Manifestation, Peace, etc. These types of cards can help you to focus on a particular intention, or to identify a particular area of your life that needs attention. Generally a book is included with the purchase of a card deck that will help to interpret the cards that are drawn from the deck, or may include additional questions for self-reflection.

Card readings can be done for yourself or someone else. When you purchase a deck that speaks to you, the literature included will generally give suggestions about how to focus upon an intention or question, and various techniques for drawing cards.

No Pain, No Gain? Part II

“There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.”

The point of this parable, of course, is that nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Things happen in life, but it is the story we attach to them that can bring us additional suffering, as was discussed in the previous entry. And emotional suffering (along with other factors, of course) can have an impact on the type and degree of pain we experience.

The idea that pain may have an in-organic cause is new to a lot of people. Sometimes the easiest way to understand it is that pain is often stress-related. Stress can be defined as wanting things to be different than they actually are. When we can’t be present with acceptance of what is, that creates a situation of stress which can lead to or exacerbate physical pain for many people.

David Morris concludes his article “Belief and Narrative” with this observation: “Knowledge of the complex ways in which cultural beliefs, values, and narratives shape pain is as important as the science of neurons and genetic markers. It constitutes a valuable resource for clinicians in a multicultural environment in which pain is the symptom that most often initiates the doctor-patient visit. It suggests that clinicians might help patients to enhance beneficial beliefs and to identify–and possibly alter–beliefs and narratives that seem to make their pain worse.”

What Morris seems to be suggesting is that the medical community’s current focus on the organic causes of pain, and attempts to quantify what is largely a subjective and emotional experience, limits what could be a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the experience of pain. Indeed, if the medical community has a focus on pain relief, it is most likely influenced by the fact that pain is what gets most people to the doctor. And, in addition, most people perceive the problem to be resolved when they are no longer in pain.

Of course, we can also add to that the prevailing belief that one must experience additional pain to resolve the earlier pain. But the reason the emotional factor is important is because to truly resolve an issue we must go to the root of the problem, to the source. Treating the surface symptoms doesn’t necessary resolve the core issue. Thus, problems are likely to recur, even with medical intervention, if the core issue as not been addressed.

I think what we’re really talking about here with pain is a paradigm shift with regard to how we approach pain…it’s not the pain that’s the problem, it’s our wanting to avoid the pain and get rid of it. If we can begin to view the experience of pain differently, as a message, we can begin a journey toward relating to our experiences in a new way. One of the keys is by shifting out of the dualistic mindset of either-or, good-bad, as the story teaches.

Read more online zen stories.

No Pain, No Gain?

As a massage therapist, I am amazed by how often I hear statements like this: “Don’t worry, I can take a lot of pain. I’m tough. Plus it’s gotta hurt in order to feel better, right?” Not necessarily! This myth seems to have originated in the fitness industry. It’s a persistent misconception, and it speaks volumes about social attitudes toward wellness.

I suppose the easy answer is that these people are simply closeted masochists, eager to suffer in a socially sanctioned way. But it’s not that simple. People are generally only willing to suffer if they think something good will come out of it. I think it’s more to the point that there’s some pervasive belief in our culture that through pain, success of some sort is achieved. Or that any success worth achieving is bound to be painful.

An interesting article by David B. Morris in The Scientist entitled “Belief and Narrative” discusses the cultural dimension of pain. Morris observes, “’No pain, no gain’ is an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only through hardship.”

If there’s some validity to those previous ideas, it also follows that those things that are good for us (or will lead to some increased “achievement” in some area of life) cannot be pleasant, or enjoyable. Nutritious food must be taste-less or unpleasant. Exercise must be onerous and painful. Massage, too, must be painful in order to be beneficial. So it sets up an expectation that anything that is in the name of health, healing, fitness, or general wellness is likely to be, in short, unpleasant.

Morris goes on to explain the importance of narrative related to pain, in terms of “the patient’s own story.” He notes that pain is largely a subjective experience and that a variety of social and emotional factors have an impact. For example, “Chronic lower back pain is often impossible to trace to an organic lesion, such as a prolapsed disk. The narrative that describes pain as a reliable alarm system justifies countless unnecessary surgeries. It cannot, however, begin to explain why the two strongest signs predicting that an American worker will develop chronic back pain are job dissatisfaction and unsatisfactory social relations in the workplace.” In other words, many times pain has a non-organic cause, and continually searching for an organic (ie medical, physical) cause of pain is an increasing source of frustration for a lot of people I see in my line of work. Often pain is related to other factors and it’s hard for people to understand that at first.

There is a Buddhist aphorism that goes something like this: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is an homage to the idea that in life physical and emotional pain are unavoidable. They are part of the experience of being here, and being in a body. But the suffering part, that is the part within our control. We can directly impact the experience we have by the stories, the narratives, we create around our experiences. The Buddhists would say that when we try to avoid pain, that is when we suffer the most.