Opening to uncertainty and walking the path

Learning to balance internal and external, retreat and daily life, contemplative and engaged practice is difficult. It takes diligence and effort, and it usually means tilting to one side of the scale for a while, then over-adjusting, then trying to come back to equilibrium. I left my job and career a year ago next week, and I still don’t know what’s next. Only that this practice is whatever it is, and that is life itself. It took a lot to disengage from all that security and I’m not keen on jumping right back in. The word I tend to use to describe to people what it is that I’m doing is, to just let things unfold.

Since January of this year, when I was still on retreat, the practice has been very much about being with uncertainty, confusion, not knowing. It is a difficult place to be for most people – certainly not a culturally-supported kind of practice, and therefore something that can bring up a lot of self-judgment among other things. I’ve always been very decisive and clear, so hanging out in an extended state of confusion is unsettling to say the least, though I’m learning to be with it and I know it’s exactly what is needed at this particular moment. And, again, finding the balance between truly being present and actually making plans takes skill and understanding.

The week before last, in a moment of equilibrium during formal practice, there was the realization that it’s totally okay if I drop out of the workforce for a few years. Many people have done it before. Whether people stop working to raise a family or for spiritual practice, the point is, it’s not unheard of to not be a totally “productive” member of society. Although ideally I do want to be in the world and want to work in a profession that better integrates the contemplative practice with my intellectual and analytic abilities, the best thing may be for me to cultivate wisdom through intensive practice until it makes more sense and there’s not just a taking a stab in the dark. The revolution does start within.

I read a letter from Ajahn Thitamedha announcing her decision to leave the Forest Sangha and to disrobe after 16 years as a nun (you can read the whole letter here). I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to arrive at a decision like that. She seems very at peace with it and says at the end:

In regards to my future plans, I would still like to be a wandering yogi-practitioner, a pilgrim for a couple of years. And after that I do not know. The Path is wide Open.

I suppose that is always how life is. We create an illusion of security with work, relationship, house, family. It’s a beautiful thing to open up to the absolute reality of constant change, nothing solid.

I was also very moved by a post from Nathan at Dangerous Harvests. Like Nathan, I have chosen to live a simple, modest life and I don’t know that I want or could even really go back to a more conventional lifestyle. He says following on the heels of explaining his frugality and the consequent fear of making a leap of faith:

From a practice perspective, I think I’ve always had a major rub between the silent, contemplative, meditative aspects and action in the world. […] I find myself sitting in zazen, or walking around my neighborhood, listening. Maybe expecting answers to come and/or a direction to take as well, which I can see is probably a hindrance. Thing is, in the past, that direction, and the actions required have come to me […]

So, I’m feeling impatient. Thinking maybe I just have to leap in some direction, and letting what comes come. Wondering if the whole leaping off the hundred foot pole teaching is foolish if done in haste. And what is “in haste” anyway?

I like to be a confident person. I like to have some sense of what I’m doing, and to be able to support others in finding that sense for themselves. It’s part of the reason why I love teaching. But being in a lead role too often makes it that much harder to feel confusion, directionlessness, and incompetence because not only do you expect the opposite of yourself, but others come to expect you’ll have your [stuff] together as well.

The rub that Nathan talks about is exactly what I’ve come up against during this period of confusion. I left Burma because I wanted relationship to be a more central part of my practice – the things you learn in relation to others are invaluable and cannot be replicated working with the mind only. And now I want to go back to Burma because the conditions are so supportive there and I crave (even more) solitude and the kind of understanding that emerges from intensive practice. Ultimately I know the place is insignificant, the conditions unimportant. And yet…

I too have done a lot of things, have been successful, and have taken on leadership roles. However, there was also always a sense of unease there because the application and the context was so dis-integrated, as I’ve discussed before. At this point I don’t identify with being a leader, a decider, a manager, or any of that. “I don’t know what I am. What I am is unknown, but continually revealing itself.” So said an anonymous teacher, and quoted by Doug Phillips in a talk you can listen to here.

Right now I’m hanging out, relating, volunteering again for Hospice after several years of “not having the time to”, reading, writing, practicing formal meditation and, as they say in the Tibetan tradition, doing “post-meditation”. I’m living, awaring (so fittingly used as a verb by both Toni Packer and Sayadaw U Tejaniya). I’m so lucky to have conditions supportive to my taking the time to let the unknown reveal itself, parents who don’t mind their almost 34 year-old living with them for a while, enough money to continue to give dana for the teachings I’m receiving, good health, etc. Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Uncertainty is a wonderful thing. Every difficult experience is. They are our best teachers. I will keep checking in to make sure I’m not being complacent, waiting for something to happen. I will continue to try and find ways to share the little wisdom I do have, while still cultivating more.

So what am I going to do next? Keep practicing. Definitely forever a yogi. Monasticism would be a possible path, but I see that there are few really desirable options for women at the moment, not to mention the inherent conflict with my secular tendencies. And that doesn’t work so well with the engagement piece, or the relationship piece (though of course unless you go the cave route, you would likely live in community). Get another master’s degree, become a Buddhist chaplain or contemplative educator perhaps? Continue with IT and operations and become a contractor and just build 2-3 months a year into my schedule for formal retreat practice? Who knows. Echoing Ajahn Thitamedha, I believe by following the Path, it will all work out.

Here’s to opening to uncertainty and walking the path. I’d love to hear others stories about being with the rub. Please do share in comments. I may not approve/respond until next week though because I’ll be in silent retreat this week.

Readings on this topic:

The yin and the yang: Thanissara and Kittisaro on balancing spiritual work and social activism (Part 1 ) and (Part 2)

Awakening to Revolution, excerpted from Spirituality and Social Action: A Holistic Approach by Vimala Thakar(she worked with Vinoba Bhave and the Land Gift Movement for many years)

As mentioned at Dangerous Harvests, Barry Briggs’s Ox Herding has a series of posts on the “One-Percent Solution” directly relevant to this subject. In fact the whole site deals with formal vs. daily practice.


Zen Peacemakers

Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Buddhist Global Relief

Engaged Buddhism Resources | DharmaNet

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  1. So, we are left so elegantly, uncomfortably without certainty.
    somehow I want to thank you for expressing that awkwardness.
    so now, together and alone in longing, together and alone in not knowing
    the tracks left in the sand provide no comfort,
    only words from ancient travelers, how to avoid pitfalls
    in the tracklessness.

    I do feel alive
    vibrant, open, awake

    you are a clear voice, thanks

    • Thank you for this extremely thoughtful comment. I wish I heard your voice a little more often, though it speaks volumes, albeit indirectly, through all of your selections. You echo here the sentiment that Toni Packer expresses in a talk my teacher read over the weekend, that we are both together and alone in our search for wisdom, for understanding the true nature of reality. And yes of course that means, in not knowing. I must admit I’ve been amazed how much it’s actually possible to feel a sense of community from afar – that this does not have to be completely anonymous. Though, when I meet with the group I’ve been sitting with for five years now, it reminds me how much learning can take place in physical presence. That’s where relationship really becomes practice. May we all find those meaningful relationships, which help us along the path. May we all find comfort in discomfort, in uncertainty…

  2. Dear Katherine,

    Thank you for the post and for sharing your vulnerability and strength.
    I too left my employment but now I am more than ever iterested in being self-expressed where I am (in this community) and serving it the way i can (engaging in different local projects among other things, offering some coaching to students) and looking at the issue of work more as an issue of vocation, which not always was the case. What matters to me these days is more why and how I do whatever I do more than what i do.

    I understand how hard it can be to hang in there and face uncertainty day after day and appreciate your courage. Zazen is a good place to practice it I never know what comes up and learn to open it to whatever experience, no matter wether I like or not.

    Thank you so much for your practice! In this place of uncertainty we shall meet. :-)

    Gassho (palms together)

    Irisha Mooi A

    • Hello Irisha – thank you for visiting and for the dialogue. Yes, this is practice in action. Finding our way, our calling, what we are meant to do. It’s not a straight shot from what I’ve found so far, it’s a wandering, unfolding, letting be, opening to the unknown. Zazen, or shikantaza, as I understand it is meditation as a way of life. And no, I can’t imagine anything better for guiding us along this path. Understanding the mind and growing in wisdom is where meaning lies for me…

      Thank you too for your practice. We shall meet indeed.

      Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu. (Also with palms together, meaning “well said” and used often to mean “thank you” as well…)

  3. EBE

     /  July 19, 2010

    Thanks for sharing with us! Practicing Dhamma in the lay men world is indeed not easy. Good for you that you have enougn time for long periods of solitude. However, I’m not sure that monastic life are good for every one. Each being needs to find its own path, its own middle way.


  1. Making decisions « on the precipice

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