In the middle of our life-journey
I found myself in a dark wood…
— Dante, Inferno
As Kierkegaard noted, while we understand life backwards, we can only live it forwards. We are all time travelers [ref] Thanks to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe for this metaphor! [/ref], and while we only live within each moment, moment to moment, the moments tick inexorably away towards the future. The thoughts we entertain and the actions we engage in within each moment give birth to the next moment. This is the meaning of paticca-samuppÄda, or dependent origination.
We do this living forwards in a fog of uncertainty. Every choice we make is a bet with an associated degree of risk and uncertainty. We can never accurately predict where each step, each decision, each fork in the road, will eventually lead.
We all crave certainty. We want to know the right stock to invest in, the best school to attend, the right career path to follow, the right partner to marry, the right time to have children, the best smartphone to own, the true religion that will save us. We try to contrast and compare, weigh the pros and cons, play the odds, but we’re really like the farmer with the lost horse in the Taoist fable. Good choice? Bad choice? Who knows?
Despite the uncertainty that shrouds our every decision, we still need to do the best we can. What other choice is there? This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is a light that illuminates our path one step at a time. Mindfulness allows us to see one moment ahead in the fog of uncertainty.
Before making an important decision, after we have done our diligent research and weighed the pros and cons, it’s helpful to take the time to sit mindfully with the choice at hand. This means giving up thinking about the choice but just sitting quietly with the choice as an open question. As Dogen might say, ”think non-thinking.” This allows the choice to breathe and reverberate throughout our being, permitting all aspects of Being that rational thought alone cannot fathom or penetrate to resonate with the choice. As we sit, inchoate thoughts and feelings we had not been previously aware of have the space to unfold. When we take the time to sit with a decision in mindfulness we emerge into a new kind of clarity, one that rings true within our deepest selves.
When we have done everything possible to make a good decision, it can still come out badly. We can never control the consequences of our decisions once our actions have launched them into the real world. Whatever the consequences are, we now own them. We may not like them, but we have to deal with them as best we can. Is it possible to live without regret? Without longing for the road not taken? Without whining? Is it possible to accept our current life fully, just as it is?
In the Angulimala Sutta, a murdering brigand gives up his thuggish ways to become a member of the Sangha, and eventually achieve Enlightenment. Despite his enlightened status, he’s vilified by the public. The Buddha tells him to accept the consequences of his past actions with equanimity:
”A clod thrown by one person hit Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One… said to him: Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for … many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-and-now!’ [ref] Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu [/ref]
The Buddha would give us the same advice: ”Suck it up!” Imagining a world where things can be different right now than they actually are is a waste of our energy. It’s the way we made it. The world is as the world is. Can we live in it with mindfulness, acceptance, and even joy?