There’s a wonderful story about Ajahn Chah, a great Buddhist teacher. Many years ago, a number of meditation teachers I know went to Thailand, where they visited Ajahn Chah’s forest refuge. In Thailand, people tend to use the Buddhist abbots and monks the way people in this country use therapists or astrologers. Someone in the group was speaking to the master about coping with the uncertainty of life, especially the anxiety over losing people we love.
Ajahn Chah lifted a lovely crystal goblet from his side table and held it up to the sun. “Do you see this glass?” he said to them. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken.”
He paused a moment, allowing them to take in this remark, then continued. “When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When you understand that this glass is already broken,” Ajahn Chah said, “every minute with it is precious.”
This is the wisdom of insecurity. Remembering that we are ephemeral beings, every moment comes alive with feeling and existence becomes vivid. Everyone who has suffered, struggled, and lost knows that surrender to insecurity, as opposed to resistance, reveals the way forward. True strength – spiritual strength – always comes from truth and the truth is rooted, always, in the knowledge of impermanence. Insecurity is precisely what wakes us up.
It’s easy to go to sleep in your life when everything is hunky dory. How inviting it is to go into a trance, lulled by the hum of the status quo, and imagine that we are secure. The illusion of permanence cushions the mind, though, and deceives us into believing that nothing is changing. Beginner’s mind is quite the opposite, freshening awareness and enabling us to meet each moment as wholly new, unlike any moment that’s happened before, and gone – poof –before you know it.
That’s why meditation is perfect practice for teaching the wisdom of insecurity. We close our eyes and tune into the tenuousness of every second. Time flows by as we sit on the bank and watch it pass, from the place in us that’s beyond such passage. The more we do this, the less shocked we are by insecurity because we have witnessed impermanence. We realize that it is not insecurity that’s the problem, it is the resistance to insecurity, wanting things to be other than how they are. We come to recognize insecurity as our natural state rather than being terrorized by it.
To the degree that we keep mortality at bay, we avoid this crucial wisdom as well. We miss opportunities for connection and truth telling. I used to work in hospice care. I remember a dying woman who wanted so badly to talk to her daughter about her experience but her daughter would not hear of it. The weaker her mother grew, the more fierce the daughter’s denial. “You’re gonna beat this,” she kept telling her mother but both of them knew that this was a lie, leaving the truth nowhere to go. That woman died with the loneliness of not being able to open her heart to her daughter who was too afraid to receive the truth.
That is what we do with ourselves. We stop wisdom from speaking to fear. We refuse to let the wall down between that aspect of ourselves that knows the truth and the part of ourselves that’s petrified. We meet our own fear with a wall of refusal –speak to the hand – rather than open arms, allowing the wisdom mind to comfort the little “me” in all its torment. This reminds me of a beautiful story from the Hindu tradition, in which the unenlightened person, caught in the little “me,” is compared to an infant crying in its mother’s arms. The mother is the wisdom mind. The child cries and cries till it finally looks up into the mother’s face and sees her eyes looking back at him with infinite kindness and bottomless love. Seeing the mother’s smile, the child, the unenlightened mind, finally learns to smile, too.
Our terror of insecurity stems from a case of mistaken identity, in fact, when we believe ourselves to be nothing more than this crazy accumulation of feelings, reactions, and fears, rather than the awareness, the Self, that transcends little “me” and can steady it in its trembling. When insecurity overwhelms you, there are four useful questions to ask yourself (I’ve done this several thousand times in my life so I know they work):
1. How are you right now? Most of the time our minds are lost in the future, predicting terrible things, when, in fact, ninety-nine percent of the time most of us are just fine in the present moment. Tiny fractions of most of our lives are spent in actual mortal risk or pain; the rest is happening in our heads.
2. What can you do right now to ease your fear? Often, we freeze in the throes of anxiety and the freezing itself becomes our prison. When you take a single, positive action, it goes a long way toward not feeling powerless.
3. What is the worst thing that can happen? This question is the fast track to clarity and balance. Our worst imagined outcomes are rarely as apocalyptic as our terrorizing minds imagine. The act of naming our fears returns us to solid ground.
4. Finally, every situation can be optimized. This is very important. I’m not saying that every situation can be made terrific but that, with the exception of extreme pain, torture, or trauma, every situation has an optimal through line, a way through that causes minimum pain and maximum well-being. It’s our job to find it. When we do this, even insecure moments become teaching moments. Nothing is wasted. We learn from our feelings of insecurity to identify where we’re clinging, where we’re caught, where we are deluding ourselves.
Years ago, my friend Eve Ensler wrote a poem called “All of Us Are Leaving.” It wasn’t an elegy or dirge; it was a celebration of being here. All of us are leaving. All of us are insecure. How beautiful and humbling this is. How mysterious.