Late Tuesday night, MSNBC co-hosts began discussing box breathing techniques at length. That is when I thought about the stack of books by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron sitting on my bookshelf—barely cracked, half-read. Those books, and spiritual enlightenment more generally, sit in my literal and figurative pile of: I Should Really Get to That One Day. Well, it seems if today is not that day, there might not be any such day. That is especially true of Chodron’s 2002 book Comfortable with Uncertainty, the spine of which felt like an extremely well-targeted SEO headline assaulting me when I walked past my bookshelf on this day of interminable ballot-counting limbo.
So, I decided to speed read the book, an approach that absolutely no person with any sense would ever advocate. Chodron herself writes against taking a “goal-oriented, we’re-going-to-do-it-or-else attitude” to spiritual practice, but she also instructs readers to “start where you are.” Where I am is chaos and free fall, and this book is a cliffside outcropping of brush that I’ve grabbed onto for dear life. One day, I hope to return to contemplate that brush, figure out its genus and species and water needs and light preferences, but right now I’m just trying to scramble the fuck up it. Let us scramble together with a few decontextualized and hastily slapped together bits of wisdom.
First and foremost, what I have figured out from this book is what I already knew, which is that I should start meditating. But, also, I should not be using “shoulds.” But, also, living with paradox is good. Cool, moving along.
Second, uncertainty is good? “IT’S GOOD!!!” I just shouted at myself, not entirely convinced that said wisdom applies to uncertainty over the future of our democracy. “A warrior accepts that we can never know what happens to us next,” writes Chodron. “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure.” Weeeeee. Chodron says that “sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.” You might say that today we are “sticking with uncertainty” and learning how the fuck we are going to survive whatever the next four years bring, which seems, even at best, like the solidification of Trumpism.
But! But. Butt. Butts. Let’s briefly pause to laugh about butts. (Now I’m crying, in a sad way.) BUT, Chodron says we must “move toward turbulence and doubt however we can” and “stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out.” She adds, “We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.” Does weeping count as abiding or spinning, I would like to know? Same question re: my friend Gchatting me “fuck” or “GODDAMNITFUCK” twice an hour for the last two hours.
As you may have gathered by now, being “comfortable with uncertainty” doesn’t mean being comfortable so much as comfortable with discomfort. So, that’s unfortunate. There is a chapter in the book titled, “The Wisdom of No Escape,” and just looking at those five words strung together on the page makes me feel like there’s a bird knocking around in my ribcage. This comfort with discomfort can be practiced through Tonglen meditation, which Chodron summarizes like so: “[W]hen anything is painful or undesirable, breathe it in,” she writes. “You surrender to yourself, you acknowledge who you are, you honor yourself. As unwanted feelings and emotions arise, you actually breathe them in and connect with what all humans feel.” The good news: If uncertainty and pain are routes of connection to humanity... imagine how very connected we could be right now as ballot counting takes hours or days alongside growing worries of a legal battle over votes!!!!
I finished the book, feeling somewhat soothed. Then I decided to do some googling whereupon I discovered the Chodron was accused in 2018 of dismissing a rape allegation against a Buddhist leader. When a woman came forward alleging that a director in Chodron’s Shambhala Buddhist community had raped her, Chodron allegedly said, according to the woman, “I don’t believe you” and “If it’s true I suspect that you were into it.” Chodron has since met with the woman, issued an apology, and made a public call for “deep and lasting change in the Shambhala culture regarding sexual abuse of power.” More recently, the 83-year-old Chodron stepped down as a Shambhala teacher, expressing that she found it “shocking” and “heartbreaking” that the Shambhala community’s board was attempting to return to “business as usual” following accusations of abuse against its leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
Here, I’m left with what might be the best line from this book: “Life is glorious, but life is also wretched.” Same with people, same with uncertainty. Here we are, here we are, here we are.