Letting Go of Certainty

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 

Truth Arrives in Silence

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

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“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.

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