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The Past No Longer Exists, And The Future Is Not Yet Here

August 13, 2020 4 min read

when there is no path

I’ve heard the old saying, “There are only two things in life that are certain, death and taxes” many times.  If those are the only two things in life that are certain, then that leaves a lot of uncertainty to deal with.  Humans are not naturally wired to deal with uncertainty on a constant basis.  We want to have a solid, controlled plan and when our plans go awry, we often react with anxiety, anger, or fear.

On a recent trip to Colorado, I sat looking at the Rio Grande as it flowed clear and blue through the Rio Grande National Forest.  The Rio Grande is definitely not clear and blue when it reaches Texas and that realization led to many thoughts about the uncertainty of life and plans. 

Life is uncertain and there is an impermanence to everything.  Neither of those need to be considered “bad” or cause us emotional pain.  We have a chance to grow each time we are faced with situations of uncertainty and impermanence.  For example, there is an impermanence to the river, as it can only be crossed one time before it changes.  As the water flows, the river is ever-changing, and each crossing is through new water – there is no permanence to the river.

I’ve often heard the advice “just let it go” during a moment of uncertainty.  I think the advice is given with good intention, but I don’t think it’s effective or meaningful.  To “let it go” seems to be suggestive of “ignore your feelings and hopefully the moment will pass.”  I think it is much more effective to acknowledge the feelings and let the feelings “be” without an immediate reaction.  Of course, there are situations where an immediate reaction is needed because a person is in imminent danger. But more often than not, we are not in a situation of danger and there should be time to allow the feelings to “be.”   

I think my love of travel and adventure has taught me to deal with uncertainty in a more calm and positive manner.  I still have moments when feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger take over and cause a negative reaction. But over the years, I have learned to take a moment to breathe deeply, acknowledge the feelings, and consider my reaction before responding. 

When I’m traveling, I know my plans are not perfect, so I treat them as a general “guideline” instead of rigid plans.  There are far too many things beyond my control to believe that everything will go exactly as I want or have planned.  When there are setbacks or problems, I acknowledge my feelings and then I continue forward.  

I have been reading more of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings lately. As I think about impermanence and uncertainty, I reflect on this passage found in his book: “You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment.”

Perception is a river too.  It is impermanent.  When I perceive something, I have an idea or an image of that thing.  When I look at a person, a cloud, or a dog, I have an image of that person, that cloud, or that dog.  That is the river of perceptions.

The Buddha said that our perceptions are very often false, and since error is there, suffering is there also.  We must pay close attention to this.  We have to learn how to look at our perceptions without getting caught by them.  We must always ask ourselves the question, “Is my perception accurate?”  Just asking that question is a big help.

In most cases, our perceptions are inaccurate, and we suffer because we are too sure of them.  Look at your perceptions and smile to them.  Breathe, look deeply into their nature, and you will see that there are many errors in them.  For example, that person you are thinking about has no desire to harm you, but you think that he does.  It is important not to be a victim of your false perceptions.  If you are the victim of your false perceptions, you will suffer a lot.  You have to sit down and look at perceptions very calmly.  You have to look into the deepest part of their nature in order to detect what is false about them.

There are many things to be learned from this passage, but for me, as it relates to impermanence and uncertainty, it gives me a method for coping with and understanding change. 

In my mind I have many images of people I know and places I have been.  I have many ideals and beliefs that were developed, in part, by my perception of these places and people.  People and places are continually changing, so I must also allow my perceptions of them to change.  Places I visited five years ago are no longer the same as the when I last perceived them.  People I have known, and those I know today, are changing and I must allow my perception of them to change.  I am continually changing, and I hope others will allow their perception of me to change as I learn, grow, and change.

For many people the idea of change, impermanence, and uncertainty can be worrisome.  I have a new perception and consider these great gifts.  Again, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “When we have an unpleasant feeling, we say to ourselves, ‘This feeling is in me, it will stay for a while, and then it will disappear because it is impermanent.’” 

What a great gift that unpleasant feelings need not be permanent.

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