Coping with uncertainty

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Meditating on emptiness can provide protection against anxiety.  Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash

Some Buddhists have an interesting way of coping in an uncertain world.

They do the following:

  1. Understand that everything we see and experience is ultimately empty
  2. Spend time really embedding that understanding in their brains
  3. Apply this understanding to everything they encounter

This process has an enormously protective effect.

WHAT IS UNCERTAINTY?

Uncertainty is the predictable fact that life is not predictable.  People do not do what you want them to do.  Tomorrow will not be exactly as you might wish it to be.  Your own body will not behave in the way that you expect.

The reason uncertainty upsets us, is that it offends our desire for control.  Think about it.  You spend all that time arranging your life, people and things, so that you know where everything is.  And then all those things you thought you had under control start misbehaving.  You are not the master of the universe.  This can be very uncomfortable for a human.

WHAT IS EMPTINESS?

Emptiness is the ultimate insubstantial nature of all the things we take for granted.  Nothing is exactly as you understand it to be.

It’s true that we usually have enough understanding to deal with the world on a day-to-day level.  Our toothbrush is generally where we left it last night, and our food is still in the fridge.  This gives us a basic ability to live.

Unfortunately, we often extend that basic, coarse understanding into an assumption that we understand everything and everyone.  We start to attribute motivations to the people we know.  We start to act in anticipation of the future as we expect it to be.  Then, suddenly, life reminds us that it is not predictable, and it sends us into a sulk.

This is why a good grasp of emptiness is so good for mental health.  If you can understand clearly that your understanding of everything is limited, then you are predicted against disappointment.  You do not have to fight so hard to tell the world to fit your picture of it.  You can let the world be, calmly, without always feeling so aggressively interventionist towards it.

THE ROLE OF MEDITATION

The way many Buddhist philosophies handle this question, is to encourage a particular meditative practice…

  1. The meditator, in collaboration with a teacher, comes to a generic understanding that everything they experience is empty.  This doesn’t mean everything is pointless.  It is more that everything is like a dream.  When you are in a dream, you still feel involved, and you can still exercise your emotions.  But when you wake up, you realise that it is a dream, and in that way insubstantial, empty.  You may feel relief on waking.  “Thank goodness,” you may say, “that experience was not really happening.”  But while you were dreaming, it was happening.  Likewise with meditating on emptiness.  Your aim is to wake up, to understand that your normal life is as empty as a dream.  When this happens (and it is called enlightenment, or awakening), you can experience the same relief as in waking from a nightmare.
  2. This understanding can take a long time to generate.  In the meantime, the meditator perhaps works with a generic image of emptiness, something that, to them, represents the essential insubstantiality of everything.  It might be picturing everything melting into cloud, or being absorbed into a white light.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the meditator can practice clear, steady focus on a generic image of emptiness.
  3. Eventually, after a lot of practice, the meditator can, after meditation, carry this understanding with them into their everyday experience.  How can things upset you if you know that, ultimately, they are empty?  In this way, the person who has a clear and enduring understanding of emptiness, is able to accept everything that happens to them without disturbance.

PROTECTION AGAINST ANXIETY

Anxiety involves an inability to accept the world as it is, and especially the inability to cope with uncertainty.  Anxious people often go to great lengths to try to get the world to conform to their control.  They may exercise extra control over their food intake, their hygiene, the activities of their family and friends.   These behaviours can turn into obsessions, all created by a difficulty in simply accepting the world as it is.

An understanding of emptiness gives the anxious person a rest.  They can resign from their self-appointed role as master of their universe, and relax.  They can stop being over-watchful, having an elevated opinion of the importance of their own perception.  They can stop behaving like guards in a watchtower, scanning their environment for signs of non-conformity to their wishes.

In short, if you spend time meditating on emptiness, you are teaching your brain to be humble, and to accept that everything you see and experience, and everyone you meet, is (a) not predictable by you, and (b) quite magically dreamlike.

Many people who do practice meditation, report that the world seems to reward them with little magic moments.  It is not that the world has changed.  But, by relaxing and giving the world space, meditators find that they themselves have changed.  In consequence, the quality of their experience changes, and they are more free to watch and experience the world around them without fear or panic.

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SUMMARY

Coping in an uncertain world is hard for humans.  People and things do not behave as we expect.  This can offend our natural desire for control.

We would do well to accept that we cannot ultimately predict or control the people and things around us.  There is a way in which reality is a bit of a dream.  When we realise this, it can be an immense relief.  We can develop a sense of humour, and stop being such a control freak.

Meditating on emptiness helps to protect us from anxiety.  We learn to focus, with constancy, on the ultimate, dreamlike emptiness of everything.

Eventually, when we have mastered meditation on emptiness, we may feel enlightened, relieved to be awake.  No longer can daily life scare us with its surprises.  This is because, finally, we get the fact that things change, and accept everything life brings us.

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