On Trying to Explain My Buddhism to My Mother-in-Law

Living in Uncertainty (item #8 from The Manifesto)

I will live in uncertainty. I will put myself out in the world without having a guarantee that everything will go the way I want. I will understand that the condition of living in uncertainty is the human condition. To this end, I will not try to control the people around me by anticipating their needs/wants.

We are always getting ready to live but never living.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward.
Charlotte Brontë


All the items in my manifesto are about freedom, but this one is rooted in the Buddhist tradition of accepting uncertainty—and so opens up to a much bigger freedom, a universal freedom. So much of what we do every day is about trying to minimize risk: we make sure we have enough gasoline in the car before we drive anywhere (for that matter, we maintain our cars and have them inspected to guard against breakdowns); we pay our insurance (car, health, life); we get yearly physicals; if we have a choice, we don’t drive at rush hour. The list goes on and on. We are prudent. We use our human ability to anticipate possible future events in order to plan for the future. As we do these things, we begin to believe we’re not just planning for the future: we’re controlling it.

How could we not believe this? We can see cause and effect. We have enough gas in the car: we make it to our destinations without being stranded by the highway. It makes sense. We know if we don’t have enough gas in the car, we’re sure to be stranded, waiting for assistance.

But aren’t there scenarios in which we end up stranded even though we had enough gas? Flat tire, engine breakdown, accident, stolen car. And those are just the common ones. There’s also the possibility of tornadoes, earthquakes, stampeding elephants, asteroids falling from the sky.

My point is not to feed the fears that the media stokes for us every day, but to show that planning is not control. The future will happen its own way. We do not control it. Whatever’s going to occur will not ask us if we’re ready before it occurs. Snowflakes as big as houses might fall in Florida. It’s unlikely—but in any case, we don’t control it, and we can’t plan for that kind of chance.

Which brings us back to basic Buddhist doctrine, often worded as the admonition to live in the present. The mere idea of this is so alien to us in the West that it sounds like nonsense. But what it’s really about is accepting that the human condition is the condition of living in uncertainty. To live in the present moment means understanding simply that we don’t know what’s going to happen. And though understanding this truth can be terrifying, it can also be the ultimate freedom: if we don’t know what’s going to happen, then the burden of worry can be put aside, at least for the moments we truly accept our ignorance of the future. I’m not suggesting we’re all going to become experts at this, able to live in the present moment all the time, or at will. But next time you’re worrying about whether your job is secure, whether your friend has cancer, whether your house is going to sell or your child is going to try drugs, stop and take a breath. Say to yourself, “I don’t know what will happen.” See what that feels like.


And then think about how you can accept uncertainty in your daily life in ways that give other people freedom as well as yourself. Babies and children, of course, must have their needs anticipated. They must be taken care of, nurtured, sometimes indulged when they really want something. But the other adults in your life do not require this kind of anticipatory care. They, like you, are in charge of deciding what they want and asking for it. Both they and you suffer when you try to anticipate what they want and do it before they even ask.

One example is all those “relationship rules” people make themselves crazy over. How soon after getting his/her phone number should you call? Will she think you’re too needy if you call the next day? Will he decide you aren’t really that desirable if you’re available for the first time he suggests? Does she like guys with a sense of humor or the brooding type? In this way we remake ourselves for other people, failing to be our authentic selves, failing to even try to figure out what we want, and failing to give the other person a chance to express what he/she wants. Romantic comedies to the contrary, the “true person” may not come out before the relationship goes very far. The pattern, once begun, may continue in small and subtle ways, so that we constantly reshape ourselves for other people.

More importantly, if we get the “results” we want from all this speculation about what someone else wants, we decide that anticipating others’ needs is a great way to control our lives. We believe that if we behave in way Y, then she will behave in way Z (or at least not behave in way A). Control.

But. But what about the person living with someone with an anger problem? She may spend her day trying to prevent an outburst of anger, and still accidentally say the “wrong” thing. All that preparation, the emotional exhaustion of questioning everything you say and do in terms of how another person would see it—and still the dreaded response happens.

Most of us live in less obvious situations. We try to prevent our partner from being “in a bad mood,” from pouting, from getting irritated, or from being disappointed in us. But do we really want to treat the other adults in our lives like children? The real question: are we brave enough to face whatever response others have to our authentic selves?

If you’re not always the maid, accountant, cook, gift-giver, comedian, mechanic or nurturer of your family, then what are you? Who are you? And if others love you for the things you do, will they still love you even when you don’t automatically do those things?

Again, this is scary stuff. It is admitting that you do not control the future, and that you do not control other people. It is accepting that you live in uncertainty. Be who you are. Respect others’ rights to have feelings, thoughts and reactions to what’s really going on around them. Don’t be afraid of those reactions. Remember, no matter how others react, you are not allowing them to judge you. If you say, “I love you” first and the other person says, “Oh no, I feel smothered,” be courageous enough to talk about it. You don’t know how the conversation might go. That’s the point. In accepting your own freedom—you do not control the future—you give others their freedom—you do not control them.

None of this is to suggest you abdicate your responsibilities. It is only to tell you that you’re allowed to redefine your responsibilities. You’re allowed to be who you are, to be genuine in your interactions with other people. You’re allowed to stop believing you are responsible for things you cannot control. You’re allowed to look around at the world—even if only for a minute—like a child would, delighted by some new taste or sound. The economy will not crash because you’re failing to worry about it. It may crash—but you can’t control that. It’s not your fault, or your job.

Isn’t the freedom glorious?


*This post is part of a chapter from The Manifesto, a book of ten suggestions for living a freer life. Please click here to buy the book, in print or for Kindle.

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