1. Buddhist

The Art of Living in Limbo

Mary Wagstaff's painting
“At the Edge of Dawn” oil painting by friend Mary Wagstaff

2020 always sounded like the year we would arrive at a clear vision. But it turns out we are living with more uncertainty than ever. There is a clearer understanding that we are all intrinsically interconnected, but it’s not creating the joy and serenity that one would hope.

Instead, we have a justifiable sense of unease about this incredibly contagious, damaging and deadly disease. And many of us feel like we’re stuck in the waiting room of life. Now we Americans (and people from many other countries) have been told our flight to Europe has been postponed indefinitely. Even though most of us had no plans to go to Europe, not being allowed in feels terrible. Conditions change so quickly! Last year at this time I made up an itinerary of a trip from Paris to Capri. I booked the rooms where we would celebrate our 50th-anniversary second honeymoon. What fun! And yet as the time approached when we had to purchase our airline tickets, doubt set in, and we eventually decided to cancel our reservations. I don’t feel regret exactly, but I do feel disconcerted that now our choices are no longer our choices. And I feel great compassion for anyone who was looking forward to a trip or a meditation retreat or anything else that can’t possibly be replaced by an online experience.

So here we are, all of us, all over the world to varying degrees, living in limbo. We’re waiting for the end of the pandemic, a vaccine, and a cure. This is one humongous group waiting room! But the sense of waiting isn’t new. On a smaller scale, but big to each of us, we have been living in limbo our whole lives. Each day, week, month, season, and year contains some degree of waiting in it.

Your life most likely contains lots of limbo. Pause to name a few of the ways you are uncertain about the future. Think about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Now consider how much of what you don’t know is related to the current pandemic, and how much is just a regular part of life? One of my students is an actor who says waiting is a built-in condition of her professional life. She’s used to living in limbo. Our limbos may look a little different, but there are common themes: waiting for deliveries, medical test results, admission to a school, communication from a loved one, when a vehicle or appliance can be repaired, etc.

Yes, life has always had sense of limbo. Uncertainty is ever-present. The practice of meditation—calming the mind and focusing on the sensory aliveness of this present moment—helps us to develop the ability to live with uncertainty without freaking out. So it is a practice perfectly suited for our time. Whatever time we are in. In the time of COVID-19, it becomes a crucial skill for survival.

I read a survey recently that only 15% of Americans are happy right now (a significant drop from pre-pandemic numbers). I overheard someone asking, “How could anyone would be happy right now?” Yet I know a number of people who are happy. Not happy about everything that is going on, not complacent about all the wrongs that need to be righted, not turning away or twiddling their thumbs, but intrinsically happy with a quiet steady joy that doesn’t depend on causes and conditions. Even a student in my class who has struggled for years with anxiety, depression and self-hatred, shared that she is happy. But, she assured us, she feels guilty about it. 😉 With all she does to make the world a better place for all, she doesn’t need to feel guilty about feeling joyful! All of us deserve to be happy. And the world becomes a safer place for all beings when we are.

Another recent survey showed that 15% of Americans meditate. Now, there’s no scientific proof to suggest that it’s the same 15% of people who say they are happy, but it is an interesting coincidence, is it not? And if it is the same 15%, why would that be so? Why would meditators be happy when others are not?

That’s easy: Because we train our minds to live skillfully with uncertainty.

Imagine there is a rough storm in the ocean. Some people are drowning and most of the rest are struggling for air and crying for help. But a few people are floating on the waves as they rise and fall, and if they get pushed underwater, they recover quickly and float again. 

What’s different about the way they are in relation to their shared experience? For one, they don’t see the high waves or the storm as an enemy to be battled, but as the arising and falling away of conditions. They know that this too will pass. And while it is going on, they notice it all, responding rather than reacting. And part of their response, to whatever degree they are able, is to help those who are having difficulty. Perhaps they find a piece of wood floating by, and they encourage others to hold onto it. In this way, they rise and fall together, and find comfort in the storm.

When we understand the impermanent nature of all conditioned things we can have an easier time weathering any kind of storm. When we understand the interconnection of all life, we don’t make enemies of what arises. And so we don’t stir up inner storms to add to the sense of suffering. 

The simple practice of meditating for an average of thirty minutes a day can make all else possible to survive the ongoing state of limbo that is life, and even to find joy in being alive to experience it all, what the Taoists call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.

But what do I know? I am just an old lady living a life very much like I always have. I am not completely alone or stuck in a difficult or dangerous situation, I am not struggling financially, and I’ve never had a lot of wanderlust. So it’s easy for me to be happy right now. Still, I remember the young woman I was before I started meditating, the one who was often depressed, anxious about making ends meet, fearful for the future and full of regrets for the past. Her view of life was such that she saw the underbelly of everything and didn’t even think to give it a tickle. And I know, no matter what her situation, she would not be managing this experience skillfully. She would be suffering and causing suffering all around her.

That young woman, that tangle of beliefs, thoughts and judgments, still lives inside me. I hold her with compassion. All those patterns, all those aspects of who I believed myself to be — they are all still there, but the fear that made them so dominant has diminished. The lovingkindness I tap into both in my meditation practice and in every moment of my life allows me to hold them all lightly, to see them all more clearly, and to feel rooted in this moment with more clarity and compassion. And that makes all the difference.

 So I am grateful for the practice of meditation and the many ways it has made it possible to live in the ever uncertain life that is our gift if we can see it, and our curse if we don’t.

And that gratitude causes me to offer these dharma posts to you each week. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you find the joy of living fully in each moment, just as it is. Even in this moment of great uncertainty. Maybe especially in this moment of great uncertainty. What a perfect time to cultivate the art of living in limbo.

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