On Life’s Uncertainty: Embracing Groundlessness

This is a reblog of a post that I wrote in 2016. It is fitting for the times we are experiencing: Life in the Time of Covid-19. Our time here in this strange space will change us. Let it change us for the better. Stay well, friends.

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I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the fragility of life. Probably more than I should. I’m not morbid, I’m curious; perhaps I’m a bit anxious, as well.

Life: It’s so unpredictable.

One day you’re riding high, the next day you plummet to the depths. Illness takes us by surprise and changes everything–sometimes permanently. Job loss, accidents, fractured relationships, missed connections, near misses–all of it happens so fast. And of course, the ultimate gamechanger–death. The phone rings once, twice, three, four different times and that’s it, they’re gone. No notice, no time for goodbye.
When I think about this, I’m reminded that I, too, will have a last day on this earth. A last breath.

One final exhale.

How can we live with that awareness? I know how I try to live with the knowledge that one day will be my last: I live every day in gratitude. I live every day knowing that it might be my last. I am so truly grateful just to be alive, and I don’t care how cliché that sounds. I try (notice: I said, I try) to embrace all of life–it’s ups and downs and sideways diversions. Because those four phone calls I mentioned a few sentences ago, were all abrupt goodbyes concerning people I loved so much and who left us way too soon.
Unexpected deaths change us. Not being able to say goodbye changes us. The knowledge that this could be the last day we spend with a loved one changes us.

It all changes us.
 

Paradoxically, awareness of death helps us to live a more wholehearted life. When we are conscious of our death, we become more conscious of our life. Meditating on this common Buddhist saying helps:

Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?

And then, also to help us along, there’s poetry. And while it, like awareness, is not a fixer of death (What is? Time? Ha! I certainly don’t think so!), it is a healing balm for sad, worried, fearful souls. Poetry is a way to express the inexpressible.
Jane Kenyon’s poem, Otherwise, is one of my favorites on this topic. It’s about gratitude and life’s uncertainty and death’s certainty. As I write this blog post, I’m also looking out my living room window, petting my cat, drinking my coffee, and making plans for today, tonight, and tomorrow. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.

Otherwise–Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Poem from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems from Jane Kenyon, Graywolf Press, 1996.

“It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.”
Pema Chödrön

Author’s photos. Feature Image: A walk on the beach, North Carolina. Precarious feather on the water, Cary NC. The view from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s window, Monk’s House, Rodmell, UK.

 


34 thoughts on “On Life’s Uncertainty: Embracing Groundlessness

  1. Love that poem! A good post is always worth a reshare now and again. The Buddhists have it right – and we in our westernised superiority have it so very wrong. Having control and having stuff does not make for a happy life. We are living to see the beginnings of the fall of this civilisation. That’s all. Our world will change at an ever increasing rate. Humanity will divide, we can already see signs of it happening. The loo paper hoarders are just the tip of the iceberg. We live in interesting times. And all we can do is breathe, be kind, let go and help where we can. This is going to be a long ride, so we may as well be kind to ourselves when we feel anxious, turn off the news and count our blessings where we can. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for sharing this Cheryl. Isn’t it interesting how these concepts keep returning in our lives, often offering deeper and deeper layers of understanding? Love the thought provoking poem and have always appreciated Pema Chödrön. I, too, have found that experiences and people pass too quickly (certainly not on my timetable) and perhaps the only way to offset that regret is to know and accept that change is the natural order of life, and, therefore, to fully enjoy the now. All good things to share as we do our best to stay afloat in these challenging, uncertain times.

    As a sidenote, I attempted to comment on your post yesterday but WP is back to its tricks again. Hopefully, this will go through this time. Stay healthy. Stay safe. Stay positive. (Don’t change in that regard.) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it worked this time. Thanks for persevering:) Change IS the natural order of life, and we who have an intimate relationship with nature know this so well. A garden is a perfect metaphor for change and life. Speaking of gardening, that’s where I’m spending all of my self-distancing days. No complaints there:) Stay well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Surely the garden will keep your spirits up, Cheryl. Gardening and the Tao have been my greatest teachers that change IS the natural order of life as you witness as well.

        My garden is only at the early entry stages. I’ve planted some cold weather crops like lettuce and spinach. Most of the dwarf iris are already spent, and te critters have once again decided I am not to enjoy tulips. I pretty much knew this when planting the bulbs last fall but my optimism overrode my sensibilities. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A beautiful and profound reflection, Cheryl. We are designed to believe that we’ll live forever, but not one of us will, and sometimes it seems that one of the goals of life’s journey is an acceptance of that fact. You’re right that it changes everything. Thanks for reposting this. Be well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Indeed, a timely (re)post and the poem, quote, and photos are so perfect … as are your words, Cheryl. From the quote, this really struck me (almost literally): “Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.” This is what I do struggle with daily, even without the anxiety of covid-19. I try to let go, to just live in the day and not worry about what might or might not happen tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now. I often fail, but it is the (very thin) silver that I’m trying to line this pandemic with: I’m learning what I can control and what I can’t control, and to embrace both.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Cheryl. So true, and in line with my reading and thinking after my midlife crisis where I had to develop ‘better habits’ of thinking and feeling. So that’s how I know for sure that the philosophy you’re shared is so right. LOVE the otherwise poem :>)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Cheryl, for your thoughts and for sharing those of Buddha, Jane Kenyon, and Pema Chodron. Facing our own impermanence – or that of those we love – seems insurmountable, ridiculous, unlikely – it will never happen to us. Right? And yet we always know differently. In these uncertain times, we can only try to stay in the moment, and, as you said, be grateful for all we have now. I want to share a link with you of someone with whom I’ve had healings, and whose own recent post helped me come to the best understanding of all that’s going on of anyone or anything to date. I wept when I read it, and believe it to be true. For you – https://mailchi.mp/47af404e5a43/spiritual-insights-volume-82-april-2020-rebooting-healing-the-planet?e=4bc9a61853 – jeanne ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jeanne. I read the info you sent and did some further research. I see that Anysia teaches at Omega. I would love to hear more about your work with her. I do believe this time is preparing us for something to come. If you feel like sharing, would you send me an email with more info about Anysia’s work. Have you read her book? Thanks. ❤️

      Like

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