Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?
I spent fifteen years as a nun in the Plum Village community of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (whom I affectionately call Thay, or “teacher” in Vietnamese). Often people would ask Thay what to do when facing big life decisions, like which career path to take, whether to separate or stay with their partner, or whether to ordain as a monastic. Thay would often say, “Don’t try to figure out the answer by thinking about it.” In thinking over a question again and again, we do not generally arrive at real wisdom, but we easily tire ourselves out and get even more confused or anxious.
These deeper life questions can’t be resolved at the level of the mind, but must be entrusted to a different, deeper part of our consciousness. Thay suggests we consider this big question as a seed, plant it in the soil of our mind and let it rest there. Our mindfulness practice in our daily lives is the sunshine and water that the seed needs to sprout so that one day it will rise up on its own, in its own time. And then we’ll know the answer to our question without a doubt.
But we must leave the seed down in the soil of our mind and not keep digging it up to see if it is growing roots. It won’t grow that way! It is the same with a deep and troubling question. We ask our deeper consciousness to take care of it, and then let go of our thinking and worrying about it. Then in our daily lives we practice calming, resting, and coming home to ourselves in the present moment and that will help the seed of our question to ripen naturally and authentically. This process cannot be rushed or forced. It may take weeks, months, or years. But we can trust that the seed is “down there,” being tended to by our deeper consciousness, and one day it will sprout into a clear answer.
In Buddhist psychology this part of our mind is called store consciousness. This is because it has the function of storing our memories and all the various mind states we can experience in latent, sleeping form. For example, maybe you’ve experienced trying to solve a problem or find an answer to something that perplexes you. You think hard and circle round and round in your mind, but you feel you don’t get anywhere. Then you let the question go, and suddenly when you least expect it, inspiration or helpful ideas come to you in a time of rest, and you just know what to do. That is store consciousness operating. It is working on the problem for you while your day-to-day consciousness rests. Store consciousness works in a very natural and easeful way and is much more efficient than our thinking mind. When wisdom arises from store consciousness, it feels right in the body and we no longer have doubts.
But waiting for the answer to arise can be challenging at times because we may really want to know the answer. We may find ourselves feeling deeply insecure and fearful if we don’t know what to do, which path to choose. We worry we will make the wrong choice and we catastrophize about what will happen if we take this or that direction. It’s hard to find our way if we continue to feed this worry and fear. We can recognize that we are not helping the situation and stop. Returning to this moment, anchoring ourselves in our body, we will find the solidity of the home inside of us, which is capable of helping us find our way, if only we let it, and if we can let go of trying to figure out the future in our heads.
Some years ago, I was trying to discern whether or not to leave the monastic life after having lived basically all of my adult life, from age twenty-five to forty, as a nun. During that time, I attended silent retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, or IMS, for several years in a row that were six weeks or three months long. These retreats were times outside of time, weeks when I could not leave the grounds and take action, but just had to “stay home” with myself. Being in silence, social interaction was limited, and I had the luxury of time to look closely at myself and do nothing. It was an important time of pause, to look deeply, to return home to myself and let my own consciousness take its time to find the way.
When I decided to ordain as a nun at age twenty-five, in my heart I was making a lifelong commitment. So it was painful and confusing to find myself questioning this vow that I had assumed would carry me through my entire life. In that time of transition, I didn’t know who I was anymore and had no idea who I might become. I was in the midst of a process, like the caterpillar that must dissolve itself completely in the chrysalis to become a butterfly. It was terrifying and extremely uncomfortable when I wanted answers and clarity, when I was used to knowing who I was and where I was going.
Joseph Goldstein was one of my interview teachers on these retreats at IMS and when I shared how distressing it was to find myself with no solid ground under me whatsoever, he mentioned Alan Watts’ book, The Wisdom of Insecurity. It points out that when we are clear and sure about what we are doing, we cannot be open to the many other possibilities available. But when we let ourselves hang out in the space of not-knowing, there is enormous potential and life could unfold in innumerable ways. So, rather than avoid and fear this place of uncertainty, we can embrace it and all its gifts.
When we are clear and sure about what we are doing, we cannot be open to the many other possibilities available.
What I found on these long silent retreats was not an answer to my dilemma of whether to disrobe or continue as a nun, but rather the ability to dwell more and more comfortably in the condition of not-knowing. I learned to allow the seed of my question to rest in the deeper layers of my consciousness. I was able to touch peace, joy, and wellbeing in the midst of not-knowing, in the midst of awkwardness and confusion. I learned to let go of fear and resistance right in the midst of dissolving and losing my identity.
By slowing down, choosing to rest back into the uncertainty rather than fighting it, I was able to touch into a sense of space, precisely in moments when it felt like there was no way to keep going, and I would be totally overwhelmed. If we can breathe in and out, putting our mind completely on our breathing, or feel our bodies and put all of our attention on the sensations in the body, we can create that space. We slow things down and let our nervous system recalibrate and center. The external situation may not change, but we’ve changed in relation to our external situation. If we can stop, we have the chance to touch into something deeper than overwhelm. This practice of pausing, or stopping, helps the seed of our question to mature and ripen into the guidance and direction we need.
In a sense, our culture, our society is dissolving. We are collectively entering the chrysalis, and structures we have come to rely on and identify with are breaking down and we don’t know what the next phase will be like. We are in the cocoon. Learning to surrender in our own lives is essential to our collective learning to move through this time of faster and faster change, disruption, and breakdown.
To begin the practice, find a comfortable position, sitting, standing, or lying. Connect with your body and how it’s making contact with the chair or the floor. Allow yourself to rest back in some way and really feel the support of whatever is holding you. . . Every time you breathe out, let your body rest even more into the support of the earth.
Allow your face to soften, releasing the forehead, the muscles around the eyes, the jaw. . .
Let the tongue rest in the mouth. . .
Be aware of the shoulders and as you breathe out, let the shoulders soften. . .
Bring attention to the chest and belly, allow them to release and soften on the next exhale. . .
Notice your arms and hands, with the next exhale let them grow a little heavier, releasing tension. . .
Feel your legs and feet, as you exhale release, soften and let go. . .
Feel your whole body now as you inhale and exhale, allowing the whole body to soften and release its weight even more onto the earth. . .
Now bring to mind some question or challenge you may have right now … notice how you feel about it, and the pull that may be there to resolve it. . . Without trying to figure out an answer or solution, see this question or challenge as a seed you are entrusting to the soil of your mind, down in its depths. . . just allow it to lie there, peacefully, quietly. . . let yourself rest back into the unknown, inviting your body to just slightly, actually lean back a tiny bit. . . let yourself reconnect with the feeling of being held by the earth. . . you can rest on the earth, just as this question can rest in the depths of your mind. . . while it may be scary not to know, there is also infinite possibility here. . . take a few deep breaths. . . feel your body, settling, present. . . and give the seed permission to take the time it needs to ripen into an answer. . . trust your own consciousness to show you the way when the time is right.
You may like to practice,
The Buddha is in me
I have confidence
And if it’s helpful, you are welcome to practice it along with your breathing,
Breathing in, the Buddha is in me,
Breathing out, I have confidence
It means the capacity of awakening is your nature. You can trust in this.
Let yourself breathe and open to this truth of your own ability to access presence, wisdom, patience, ease, even in the midst of uncertainty. You can do this.
Trust, resilience, wisdom is my nature,
I have confidence.
I entrust myself, I entrust myself, to the earth, to the earth, and she entrusts herself to me. —Plum Village song
DAILY LIFE OFF THE CUSHION
You can bring this quality of resting back into your daily life. When you notice yourself leaning into the future, tensing up, trying to predict what will happen, straining to figure out what to do, whether on your own or with others, see if you can actually physically rest back. Open up the front of your chest, let your arms hang by your sides, and lean backwards slightly. This can support your mind to rest back, release and let be, even for a short moment and to whatever degree you are able.
Excerpted from We Were Made for These Times by Kaira Jewel Lingo (2021) with permission of Parallax Press.