“When things start to fall apart in your life, you feel as if your whole world is crumbling. But actually it’s your fixed identity that’s crumbling. And that’s cause for celebration.”
– Pema Chodron
‘The ground is always shifting,’ writes the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron in her book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, ‘whether we like it or not.’ The acceptance of the fundamental changing, impermanent nature of the world is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy and is a constant theme through Chodron’s teachings. When things fall apart, when the ground is pulled out from under us, it is not a cause for panic, but rather a cause for celebration. Suffering, she writes, is not the fact of an unfortunate event, but our resistance to it—we feel pain in the face of denial and in trying to fix the world into some kind of stable and predictable schema. Rather, she suggests, we can find relief in facing the truth of the flux in our lives and embracing that dynamic quality.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the ground is always shifting. Nothing lasts, including us. There are probably very few people who, at any given time, are consumed with the idea “I’m going to die,” but there is plenty of evidence that this thought, this fear, haunts us constantly. “I, too, am a brief and passing thing,” observed Shantideva.
So what does it feel like to be human in this ambiguous, groundless state? For one thing, we grab at pleasure and try to avoid pain, but despite our efforts, we’re always alternating between the two. Under the illusion that experiencing constant security and well-being is the ideal state, we do all sorts of things to try to achieve it: eat, drink, drug, work too hard, spend hours online or watching TV. But somehow we never quite achieve the state of unwavering satisfaction we’re seeking. At times we feel good: physically nothing hurts and mentally all’s well. Then it changes, and we’re hit with physical pain or mental anguish. I imagine it would even be possible to chart how pleasure and pain alternate in our lives, hour by hour, day after day, year in and year out, first one and then the other predominating.
“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.”
But it’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom-freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.
What the fundamental ambiguity of being human points to is that as much as we want to, we can never say, “This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.” In his interview, Chris Hedges also talked about the pain that ensues when a group or religion insists that its view is the one true view. As individuals we, too, have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab on to a position or belief as a way of neatly explaining reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities. We cling to that position as our personal platform and become very dogmatic about it.
“With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view.”
The root of these fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic tendencies, is a fixed identity—a fixed view we have of ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this or that. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view.
When I first came to Gampo Abbey, I thought of myself as a likable, flexible, openhearted, open-minded person. Part of that was true, but there was another part that wasn’t. For one thing, I was a terrible director. The other residents felt disempowered by me. They pointed out my shortcomings, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying because my fixed identity was so strong. Every time new people came to live at the abbey, I got the same kind of negative feedback, but still I didn’t hear it. This went on for a few years. Then one day, as if they had all gotten together and staged an intervention, I finally heard what everyone had been telling me about how my behavior was affecting them. At last, the message got through.
“Meditation practice starts to erode that fixed identity. As you sit, you begin to see yourself with more clarity, and you notice how attached you are to your opinions about yourself.”
That’s what it means to be in denial: you can’t hear anything that doesn’t fit into your fixed identity. Even something positive—you’re kind or you did a great job or you have a wonderful sense of humor—is filtered through this fixed identity. You can’t take it in unless it’s already part of your self-definition.
In Buddhism we call the notion of a fixed identity “ego clinging.” It’s how we try to put solid ground under our feet in an ever-shifting world. Meditation practice starts to erode that fixed identity. As you sit, you begin to see yourself with more clarity, and you notice how attached you are to your opinions about yourself. Often the first blow to the fixed identity is precipitated by a crisis. When things start to fall apart in your life, as they did in mine when I came to Gampo Abbey, you feel as if your whole world is crumbling. But actually it’s your fixed identity that’s crumbling. And as Chögyam Trungpa used to tell us, that’s cause for celebration.