NOTE: This is a first draft of what will eventually be a chapter in a book. Responses, corrections, and any other observations are welcome, either via email or, preferably, as comments on this post.
Hanging in the Balance
There once was a Zen monk who, while walking across a field, encountered a ferocious tiger. The tiger chased the monk across the field until he reached the edge of a high cliff. The monk’s only chance was to grab a vine that grew at the cliff’s edge and lower himself out of the tiger’s reach. As the monk hung from the vine, he saw that below him, another tiger was waiting. He also noticed two mice starting to gnaw on the vine.
What could the monk do now?
Although few of us are literally pursued by tigers above and tigers below, most of us have to deal with one of UnBalancer’s chief confederates, Uncertainty. And if we haven’t yet, we will soon enough.
NOTE: “Confederate” is the term I’m using for the accomplices of UnBalancer. Besides Uncertainty, these include unbalancers such as Entropy, Chance, Illness, Accident, Loss, Misfortune, Obliviousness, Fear, Greed, Distrust, Anger, Hatred, Doubt, Jealousy, or any of the myriad external and internal forces that can knock us out of alignment.
We’re uncertain about what will happen in our relationships, the economy, the climate; how people see us; how an undertaking will go; how our children will do in school, and in life; what will become of us as we age. And no matter who we are and what we have accomplished, we are uncertain about our own end – when it will occur, what will cause it, whether we will suffer, how we will be remembered, what will happen afterward. The only thing we can really be certain of is Uncertainty.
For many of us, Uncertainty is the biggest threat to Balance of all UnBalancer’s confederates. Unlike the more acute unbalancers, Uncertainty isn’t a sudden blow to our internal gyroscopes that makes us tilt, after which we go through a recovery process and move on. Instead, it can feel like a constant pressure, pushing us steadily down; one that, if it goes on long enough, with enough force, grinds our bearings into grit.
Some years ago, I moved a several hundred books and vinyl records from Buffalo to Boston, filling not only the trunk but also the front and back seats of my car with heavy boxes. By the time I got close to home, I could hear a low whine from the left rear of my car, near where the heaviest box, my record collection, sat. Within days, the car began to rumble. Then it screamed. The constant weight had worn out that wheel bearing. Uncertainty can be like that.
Many of us try to combat Uncertainty by creating an illusion of certainty. We anticipate a worst-case or best-case scenario and pretend it’s real, though it’s only a shadow on a wall. When we cling to the best case, we may fail to strive for the best outcome. When we dread the worst case, we become hypervigilant, seeing only signs of catastrophe. Our projections enable us to sidestep Uncertainty, but at a sometimes terrible cost in ignorance and anxiety.
Others follow the adage, “Hope for the best but expect the worst.” We keep up a positive attitude, but we also steel ourselves for disaster. We keep our spare tires inflated, save for a rainy day, buy bread and bottled water when the forecast calls for snow, back up our computers, purchase long-term care insurance, and in this way hope to keep Uncertainty at bay.
Some of us go one better and create multiple backup plans. Like good Boy Scouts, our motto is “Be prepared.” My father, a Boy Scout leader for many years, lived by this credo. He had duplicates, and in some cases triplicates, of all the vital parts of the devices in our house … just in case. Stacked beside his workbench were two or three replacement motors for the washing machine and the dryer. Shelves in a nearby closet overflowed with duplicate faucets, belts, hoses, clamps, fasteners, and other spare parts. We could have stocked a small hardware store with all that stuff. Yet none of these backups were a bulwark against his failing heart.
These typical Balancer strategies for getting us through the anxiety of Uncertainty are sometimes effective. But often, optimism, hypervigilance, platitudes, and even backup plans aren’t enough.
That’s when the gleam appears in UnBalancer’s eyes.
Fortunately, we have more than Balancer’s standard operating procedures to help us handle Uncertainty. Just as UnBalancer has its Confederates, so Balancer has its Allies.
I introduced ReBalancer in a previous post. When Balancer starts to tilt, its first line of defense is ReBalancer, its Chief of Staff. Sometimes ReBalancer, drawing on its storehouse of tools, techniques, and strategies, is equal to the task. But in the face of a powerful combatant like Uncertainty, it may also need to call in other members of Balancer’s cadre.
Balancer’s Allies include Acceptance, Logic, Intuition, Common Sense, Gratitude, Moderation, Patience, Perseverance, Support, and the many other internal and external resources that can help restore equilibrium.
I’ve written elsewhere about using Acceptance and also about what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability. These are among Balancer’s more powerful Allies. But when the tigers are above and the tigers are below, and the mice are gnawing on your vine, you need to pull out all the stops and call in UnBalancer’s ultimate Ally.
That Ally is Presence.
Let’s return to the monk hanging from his cliff:
As the vine began to give way, with death imminent, the monk also saw a ripe wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. He put it in his mouth. “This lovely strawberry,” he thought. “How sweet it tastes.”
In my own life, I’ve faced uncertainties small and large, and so have my friends, family members, and therapy clients. Those who deal most effectively with potentially paralyzing Uncertainty respond very differently than those who succumb. Instead of catastrophizing, exhausting their energy on worry and backup plans, or escaping from their fears with alcohol, drugs, or distraction, they turn their focus to the present. They remain alert to whatever they must do to try to ensure a desired outcome, but they are also fully engaged in everything else in their lives.
Rather than putting their lives on hold when faced with uncertain health, an uncertain relationship, or an uncertain political or economic time, those who vanquish Uncertainty savor the life they have, in each moment. They know that whatever they are uncertain of will, in time, become a certainty, but they are in no hurry to get there. They eat the wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. They are fully present, and Uncertainty has no power over Presence.
There are everyday examples of this practice, and there are dramatic ones. One particularly striking example comes to mind: the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Bauby, a Parisian journalist and magazine editor, was stricken, at age 43, with a massive stroke that put him into a coma for 20 days. When he awoke, he was completely aware and alert but also nearly paralyzed, able only to swivel his head slightly and to blink his left eye. He was locked in a body with almost no way to communicate his thoughts, feelings, and needs to the outside world. Miraculously, we know what happened to him because he wrote a book about his experiences, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, from inside this locked-in state.
He wrote his book literally one letter at a time, blinking his left eye while a transcriber recited the French alphabet in order of letter frequency, recording a character when Bauby blinked to indicate his choice. Each word took about two minutes to write and the entire book took 200,000 blinks.
It’s been almost 20 years since I read Bauby’s book, but the contrast between his external and inner worlds is still vivid. I remember, for example, his experience of food. Bauby had been something of a connoisseur and he’d enjoyed many fine meals. After his stroke, he was fed through tubes, perhaps never to eat again. The tiger above and the tiger below. So instead, he “ate” like a king by recalling past meals and rearranging them in his mind.
Although Bauby remained completely aware of his surroundings, he lived mainly in his imagination. He found ways to have a full and meaningful life in what most of us would consider unendurable conditions. “My diving bell becomes less oppressive,” he wrote, “and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.” Like the Zen monk in our story, he found the strawberry and savored it, dealing with the terror and Uncertainty of his fate by seizing each moment.
Bauby died from pneumonia two days after his book was published. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sold 25,000 copies on the first day, became the number one bestseller in Europe, and was later made into a well-received film.
Often, we think we are on one path only to find, somewhere down the line, that we have actually been on another without knowing it. We are rattled, and until we become present to the life we are now in, we can dwell in a branch of purgatory managed by Uncertainty. But once we see that this path is, simply, another path, we are free to take in everything that we find along its way. We hold onto the vine and reach for the strawberry and see how sweet it tastes.
David J. Bookbinder
P.S. I’m experimenting with ways to lower the price of the print version of my book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Third-party sellers on Amazon seem to be engaged in an automated price war, gradually driving the cost down one penny at a time, so I have become a kind of third-party seller myself, as Transformations Press. I can’t match the discount available to these large third-party sellers, but I have dropped the price from $40 to $28.50 plus shipping. To get that price, click the “New from” link under the main “Paperback $40” price and select the first Transformations Press entry. Order the book from there and I’ll send it to you at the discounted price.
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)