In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:
We may think our agitation is ours alone, but if we look carefully, we’ll see that it is our inheritance from our whole society and many generations of our ancestors. Individual consciousness is made of the collective consciousness, and the collective consciousness is made of individual consciousness.
Like much of his work, this reminder is prescient, especially as we continue to navigate ever-changing coronavirus protocols, the escalating climate emergency, and deadlocks in American politics that halt the possibility of true progressive, human-centered policy. In juxtaposition to these extremes, we might feel that we are standing still, not making progress on our path, or that we have been left without a choice on how we get to exist.
These times don’t have to be a disruption. They are an opportunity to acknowledge impermanence and recognize the roots of our suffering.
From the small moment of testing a new recipe to the larger moment of asking a love interest whether they’d like to be exclusive, states of not-knowing live on the same plane of existence. Herein lies that danger that Thich Nhat Hanh warns us about regarding the collective consciousness. When we’re bombarded with the public discourse of our “unprecedented times,” no matter how big or small the issue, we are susceptible to getting lost in the narrative of what we believe about our suffering. We allow external influences to drop us deeper into the worldly truth of our thoughts and feelings instead of recognizing that in these liminal waters of uncertainty, fear and helplessness will be intensified.
Recognition isn’t an easy task.
This past summer I built an intimate relationship with fear and helplessness. I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager, and this particular season of heaviness had me contemplating the fact that I might never “get better.” The fear of looking down the road and finding myself consistently in the grip of depression was present. So too was the helplessness of my mind’s storytelling that “this is everything, this is all-encompassing, this is all that will ever be and you have no choice.”
These thoughts are mental formations, or chitta samskara. Anything that is made of something else—be it a plant or our fear and helplessness—is a mental formation, and, much like unpredictability itself, these formations are present at all times. They are aspects of our consciousness that come from wholesome and unwholesome seeds (kleshas), which will be watered and fertilized differently, depending on our current state of affairs and our individual life experience. Outward triggers will “water” these seeds and allow them to take root. Our current societal conditions, for example, have “watered” and fortified our fear, helplessness, and uncertainty to the enhanced states so many of us feel today. I suffered from these effects during this summer’s episode of depression, but the feeling has always been there. The not-knowing of this time amplified the feelings. I would venture to guess that whatever your particular seed of suffering is, the same has happened to you. What gets left out of the conversation is that this is actually a dynamic space to be in.
The dharma invites us to embrace these often painful energies as teachers. When a feeling from an unwholesome seed rises to the surface, we have to witness it with gentleness. That alone takes strength. Allowing yourself to be a person experiencing fill-in-the-blank feeling may require a certain degree of release. When our suffering is running deep, this invitation may feel even more difficult to navigate, the heaviness too burdensome to bear. Whatever the feeling is, however, allowing yourself to go to its depths can help you touch the emptiness of the emotion.
If we can recognize and accept our pain without pushing it away or clinging to it, we’ll be better able to see that joys and sorrows are truly the same. Through letting go and touching emptiness, we can then choose a compassionate response.
Consider the uncertainty, fear, and helplessness seeds that have taken root and sprouted to the surface in yourself. With gentle curiosity, you can ask: What does this seedling look like? How does it move in your body? Can you give it a sound? If you could touch it, how would it feel? This intimacy can lead you to see what actions you take in response to these seeds, and to know your habitual responses. With creative wisdom, you can investigate your unwholesome seeds and note: “This one drags me to the bottom, but here is bodhicitta too.”
Once spotted and identified, the seedling needs to be properly tended to. This is calling in right diligence. With diligence, you can regain your agency. Instead of this unwholesome seed being an unwanted suffering or vulnerability where we might collapse in on ourselves, we can recognize what this pain looks and feels like and how we can move toward a skillful and compassionate response.
This is the joy of being amidst and leaning into disruption. It is from this place that we can choose to take the next steps that anchor us along our uncertain paths.