The Wisdom Of Uncertainty

Jack Kornfield

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One day Ajahn Chah held up a beautiful Chinese tea cup, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.” When we understand the truth of uncertainty and relax, we become free.

The broken cup helps us see beyond our illusion of control. When we commit ourselves to raising a child, building a business, creating a work of art, or righting an injustice, some measure of failure as well as success will be ours. This is a fierce teaching. Margaret is an aid worker whose clinic in Kosovo was burned to the ground, yet she began again. She knows that her work is helping people through success and failure. Emilee, who lost her most promising math student to a gang shooting, was broken-hearted. But she doesn’t regret having tutored him and now she is tutoring several others in his honor.

We may lose our best piece of pottery in the firing, the charter school we work so hard to create may fold, our start up business may go under, our children may develop problems beyond our control. If we only focus on the results, we will be devastated. But if we know the cup is broken, we can give our best to the process, create what we can and trust the larger process of life itself. We can plan, we can care for, tend and respond. But we cannot control.  Instead we take a breath, and open to what is unfolding, where we are. This is a profound shift, from holding on, to letting go.  As Suzuki Roshi says, “When we understand the truth of impermanence and find our composure in it, there we find ourselves in Nirvana.”

When people asked Ajahn Chah questions about enlightenment or what happens at death or whether meditation would heal their illness, or whether Buddhist teachings could be practiced equally by westerners, he would smile and say “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?” Chögyam Trungpa called this uncertainty “groundlessness.” With the wisdom of uncertainty, Ajahn Chah could simply relax.  Around him was an enormous sense of ease. He didn’t hold his breath or try to manipulate events. He responded to the situation at hand. When a senior western nun left the Buddhist order to become a born again Christian missionary, and then returned to the monastery to try to convert her old friends, many were upset. “How could she do this?” Confused, they asked Ajahn Chah about her. He responded with a laugh, “Maybe she’s right.” With these words, everyone relaxed.  When called for, Ajahn Chah could plan the construction of a great temple or oversee the network of over 100 monasteries started by his monks. When disciplining misbehaving monks, he could be decisive, demanding and stern.  But there was a spaciousness around all these actions, as if he could turn to you a moment later and smile – like a wink – and say, “It’s uncertain, isn’t it?”   He was living proof of the secret of life described in the Bhagavad Gita, “to act well without attachment to the fruits of your actions.”

The trust expressed by Ajahn Chah comes whenever our consciousness rests in the eternal present. “From where I sit,” he said, “nobody comes and no one goes.”  “In the middle way, there is no one who is strong or weak, young or old, no one who is born and no one who dies.  This is the unconditioned. The heart is free.”  The ancient Zen masters call this enlightenment “the trusting mind.” The Zen texts explain how to do so, “To live in Trusting Mind is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.”  The world is ‘imperfect.’ Instead of struggling to perfect the world, we relax, we rest in the uncertainty. Then we can act with compassion and we give our best. Without attachment to the outcome, we bring fearlessness and trust to any circumstances.

Jack Kornfield is the meditation teacher, and author of various books. Excerpt above is from his book, The Wise Heart.

Seed questions for reflection: What does the 'wisdom of uncertainty' mean to you? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to lean into the wisdom of uncertainty and accept non-perfection? What helps you live in the 'Trusting Mind'?

Add Your Reflection:

11 Previous Reflections:

  • link
    On Aug 26, 2020 FT wrote:
    "we are all just walking each other home ..." - Ram Dass

    1 reply: Nana | Post Your Reply
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    On Aug 25, 2020 Nana wrote:
    Children (my grandchildren) help me to live in the "trusting mind". Tomorrow, my grand babes are coming over! I can't tell you how many times my 4 year old grandson, Frankie, proclaims .... "I have a great idea". He speaks it and we "play it"!
    I am certain of NOTHING when he comes up with his "bright ideas"! Leaning into the wisdom of Frankie, I simply accept what his mind brings him ... and go with it!
    If I want this little man to FLY one day, I will listen to his 4 year old wisdom ... and FLY with it today! Uncertain ... is the place where all the pieces of our human puzzles have yet to fall in their "completed"place.
    In the mean time, Evie (Frankie's little sister) and Nana grow ... imperfectly ... and certainly ...

    Post Your Reply
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    On Aug 25, 2020 Patrick wrote:
    The mystics and poets of every good faith tradition know this truth and have tried as best they can to express it, most often simply in their own lives when words are inadequate. }:- a.m.

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    On Aug 25, 2020 Joan wrote:
    This got me thinking about the Leonard Cohen song 'Anthem' ... beautiful song that so resonates with this writing today especially the line ..'there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in' 🌈

    1 reply: Nana | Post Your Reply
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    On Aug 25, 2020 EC Rose wrote:
    I am reminded of a similar idea in Rudolf Steiner's Michaelmas Verse for Courage when he shares, "It is part of what we must learn in this age, namely to live out of absolute trust without any security of existence."

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  • link
    On Aug 25, 2020 Claudia wrote:
    I am working with uncertainty. It is very helpful in letting go from a long term relationship.

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    On Aug 22, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    The wisdom of uncertainty is that there is no certainty. That is a basic fact of life and to accept it is to avoid a lot of grief. I always have some amount of awareness of uncertainty which helps me be more accepting and calm in my living. Though I have awareness of nonperfection, I am perfectionistic, which causes me unnecessary stress. What helps me live in the trusting mind, though imperfectly, is to remind myself of basic age old facts of life that Jack Kornfield cites, especially that we never know for sure, there is no permanence, we don't fully control anything, there is always some measure of success and failure in our actions, commit to right action, focus on process and not outcome, outcome is out of our control, let go of outcome and trying to control it. What helps me live in the trusting mind is my experience that when I do I feel satisfaction, peace, ease.

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    On Aug 21, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Knowing and accepting tha fact that the cup of my life is going to be broken one day and not to get hung up or chained by the fear of uncertainty is the way of living fully. This is my understanding of the "wisdom of uncertainty". Because I know the fate, I accept it without denying or resisting it.This way of thinking and knowing creates a weather of freedom and openness in my mind. Such a mindset helps me live fully. We all have been going through the uncertainty at this time in our life. The arrival and the spread of the corona virus has caused fear, worry and anxiety in our mind. How do we deal with these huge clouds of fear, worry, and anxiety floating iin our mind? This is a big existential challenge to all of us. My daughter runs a private MontessoriSchoolin Phoenix, AZ. The virus situation has been causing a lot of worry and anxiety in her and my mind. We are not sure about how long the corona virus will last. Instead of worrying about the uncertaintywe mindfully pro... [View Full Comment] Knowing and accepting tha fact that the cup of my life is going to be broken one day and not to get hung up or chained by the fear of uncertainty is the way of living fully. This is my understanding of the "wisdom of uncertainty". Because I know the fate, I accept it without denying or resisting it.This way of thinking and knowing creates a weather of freedom and openness in my mind. Such a mindset helps me live fully.

    We all have been going through the uncertainty at this time in our life. The arrival and the spread of the corona virus has caused fear, worry and anxiety in our mind. How do we deal with these huge clouds of fear, worry, and anxiety floating iin our mind? This is a big existential challenge to all of us. My daughter runs a private MontessoriSchoolin Phoenix, AZ. The virus situation has been
    causing a lot of worry and anxiety in her and my mind. We are not sure about
    how long the corona virus will last. Instead of worrying about the uncertaintywe mindfully processed our fear and anxiety and came up with a well thought out plan for opening and operating our school. One week is gone smoothly and we are confident that we will be able to run the course smoothly. We are sailing the boat with the winds of compassion and cooperation of all the people involved in this endeavor.

    Doing the best we can do without worrying about or attached to the outcomes of our efforts helps us live in the "Trusting Mind." When doubts or worries arise in our mind we mindfully process them, let them come and go. The "Free Mind" is the "Trusting Mind".
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'









    [Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Shailendra | Post Your Reply

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