Colorado has a lot of rocks, and people like to climb them. Everywhere you go in Colorado you see people on rocks—big ones. I always wondered how people could climb something so vertical. Then, not long ago, a friend took me climbing for the first time and I found out for myself.
It amazed me to see how climbing forces you to do so much with so little. It forces you to pay attention to shallow patterns and textures in the rock you wouldn’t ordinarily notice. You make your way up the face of a rock by anchoring parts of your body into these spaces; you push into them, pull against them, and balance on them. When I watch experienced climbers, I’m stunned by what they can do. But this is beside the point. What really captivates me about climbing—and what I want to talk about here—is the experience of being suspended on a rock and not seeing any possibilities for moving up or down.
Hanging off a rock is an exaggerated experience of facing the unknown. It is exhilarating, scary, and completely vibrant. When we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness—the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points. If we have the wherewithal to relax, we find our way. If we don’t, we sometimes panic. When reactive mind responds to situations where we lose our reference points, our body tightens, our breath shortens, our vision narrows.
After a while, muscle strain stirs our sensibilities: “I can’t stay like this forever!” We don’t have the luxury of avoidance, so we start to work with our mind and slowly it softens. Now, this is the fascinating part: as everything softens, all kinds of new patterns and shapes begin to emerge from the rock. We see places to balance we didn’t see before. We’re not doomed after all! As we soften and open, we access a special intelligence, unimpeded by habitual, reactive mind.
The state of not-knowing is a riveting place to be. And we don’t have to climb rocks to experience it. We encounter not-knowing when, for instance, we meet someone new, or when life offers up a surprise. These experiences remind us that change and unpredictability are the pulse of our very existence. No one really knows what will happen from one moment to the next: who will we be, what will we face, and how will we respond to what we encounter? We don’t know, but there’s a good chance we will encounter some rough, unwanted experiences, some surprises beyond our imaginings, and some expected things, too. And we can decide to stay present for all of it.
When we decide to stay present for all of it, we enter the spiritual path. Any spiritual path should provide us with an understanding that gradually leads us beyond habitual, reactive mind so that we can engage in our life with intelligence and openness. Aside from this, what could a path do for us other than encourage our usual attempt to create a semblance of security, but with a spiritual face? Nothing would change. We would continue to shrink from the unknown and chase after the familiar in our habitual effort to re-create ourselves. In this way, we could avoid participating in the change we can’t truly escape from.
In the Tibetan Buddhist lojong teachings, one of the instructions for practice is “Don’t be so predictable.” As spiritual practitioners we need to have some curiosity about the unknown. When unexplored territory frightens us, we need to ask ourselves, “Where’s our sense of adventure?” It’s important to have a sense of adventure in life, because our situation in this very moment is not unlike climbing up that rock.
The way we respond to the fleeting stream of experiences we call “our life” determines our move toward either confusion or wisdom. The Buddhist tradition has many ways of explaining the genesis of confusion, or samsara, but all these explanations have one thing in common: Confusion proliferates when we can’t stay present with whatever we encounter. When we get overwhelmed by the rich energy of experience, we put a lid on it, try to consume it, embellish it, or react to it in one way or another.
The Abhidharma tradition uses a poignant image of an old blind woman to illustrate this defining moment. Her blindness symbolizes ignorance, for the truth overwhelms her. This blindness serves as her means of escape from resting naturally in the open fullness of experience. Does this tendency have a beginning? We can’t say. But what the image suggests is that we can recognize this tendency in each moment of our lives and know that we have a choice.
We don’t often experience this choice, unless we engage in situations that challenge habitual mind, such as retreat. My friend Rosemary went into her first retreat many years ago. The minute she entered her cabin, the prospect of facing her mind without her usual distractions posed an excruciating threat. She bolted out the door and just started running. As she ran deeper into the woods and farther from her cabin, a question arose: “Where can I possibly go?” Unable to answer, she went back to her cabin and began her venture into the exploration of mind, the unknown, and the rest.
Ordinarily, when we find ourselves tripping into unfamiliar territory we quickly recover: “Phew…I almost lost myself for a minute!” But what might we actually lose in experiencing something new? What would happen if, while suspended on that rock, we made a conscious choice to rest in open stillness instead of panicking? What would happen if we didn’t try to fill up the space in our lives with so much distraction? What would happen if we let ourselves experience the raw energy of, let’s say, anger, rather than launching missiles in the ten directions? What would happen if, like Rosemary, we went back to our cabin to sit?
The example of the old blind woman poses an important question: If our confusion finds its genesis in our habit of turning away from the open state, what would happen if we habituated ourselves to staying open?
The purpose of a practice is to habituate ourselves to openness. First, though, we need to understand reactive mind. How do we experience the difference between reacting and staying open? At what point do we “decide” to go in one direction or another? What drives us or holds us back? We need to explore these experiences: reacting, staying open, reacting, staying open, reacting, opening again. We begin to see the difference. It’s a process of refinement. Our investigation cultivates a discerning intelligence that guides us in a positive direction.
The fact that we don’t know—that nothing is certain and we therefore can’t hold on to anything—can evoke fear and depression, but it can also evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity, and freedom. Some of our best moments come when we haven’t yet decided what will happen next: riding a horse with the wind in our hair; on a bike, nothing but open road ahead; traveling in a land where we’ve never been before. Paint and an open canvas. A typewriter and an empty sheet of paper. Falling in love. When we watch one of those spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood, we see him wandering through the world, nowhere in particular to go, alone. Anything can happen—we don’t know what—but we don’t mind; we know he can handle it. We feel attracted to this kind of confidence, this freedom of movement, this way of mingling with the world and its romantic loneliness.
Life is uncertain. In terms of our relationships, what will we encounter next: coming together, separation, loss, surprise? My father told me that the moment I was born he was overtaken by a mixture of amazement, hope, and trepidation. He wondered, What is to become of her? Today, my son is in his twenties, and I still feel wonder, excitement, and heartbreak as I watch him grow. How curious that love and uncertainty come together in this way! Life is so full, so touching, wondrous, sad, curious, and bittersweet, that it’s almost unbearable at times. As human beings, we need to ask, over and over again, Do we have to turn away from this fullness? Can we enjoy the limitless realm of possibility? Can we live life as an open question?
Related: “The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human” by Pema Chödrön