At least, one thing was certain: I was going to study Tibetan in Dharamshala, India, from July 2020 onwards. The plan was to study the language (most likely for three years)—going through all levels—as a next step on my Buddhist path in this life. So I thought.
Then a pandemic arose, which pushed me into uncertainty. The world that was so familiar was suddenly gone. The ground was taken from under my feet. What should I do, now that I could no longer go to India as planned?
How can we relate wisely to such moments of uncertainty?
When Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche recently spoke about “light in times of darkness,” he pointed out that when we wake up to a new day, we expect it to be familiar and not very different from yesterday. And we expect tomorrow, next week, and even the coming years to arise in a more or less predictable, known way.
What is surprising, according to Rinpoche, is not that things turn out to be quite different than we anticipated. What is surprising is our belief in the stability of what is going to happen. But change is actually the true nature of the world. Everything is impermanent.
I don’t know whether a flight to India will operate soon. I don’t know if the language program will start, or when. I don’t even know whether the United States will allow an extension of my visa, which expires soon.
Facing the uncertainty of the future is not easy. We have a sense of discomfort and do not feel relaxed about change. All kinds of thoughts and emotions arise, and there is a tendency to grasp for something to hold on to.
So, what do we do when our plans are disrupted in this moment of groundlessness? First, I remind myself that my thoughts and emotions are equally impermanent. They change all the time. When I sit with them as they arise and don’t try to change them or grasp them, they naturally dissolve. That is, I meditate. This creates some space, openness, and calm.
To go further, I start to investigate my own mind closely. Usually we don’t question ourselves, but that is exactly what I have been taught to do. What does my discomfort teach me? What is it about this imagined future that is so important to me? How can I let go of my expectations and relax?
What can I do now, in this moment? We each have to look at this for ourselves.
I am not sure whether I will travel to India to study the Tibetan language this year. I do not know what the airline will decide, or whether my visa will be extended. But I know that we can all shape our future with our mindful actions today.