The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human — Pema Chodron


Thank you Pema Chodron, teacher of my teacher. This excerpt below, and the book that it comes from, are never far from me. Reminding me of balance and beauty and impermanence while standing next to something that is never the same twice.

We keep trying
to get away
from the fundamental ambiguity
of being human,
and we can’t.

We can’t escape it
anymore than we can escape change,
anymore than we can escape death.

It’s your fixed identity that is crumbling.

The real cause of suffering
is not being able
to tolerate uncertainty —
and thinking
that it is perfectly sane,
perfectly normal,
to deny
the fundamental groundlessness
of being human.

Pema Chodron
Living Beautifully With Uncertainty & Change

It’s All A Mystery


Last night I had dinner with a friend at a nearby Thai restaurant. We shared jasmine tea, cheese-filled wontons, coconut soup, sticky rice, and massaman curry. Delicious. And casual.

As expected, our conversation also was delicious. This is an old friendship in which over a couple of decades we have shared comfort that parallels the tea, fun that matches the wontons, imagination and color that is like the soup, big challenges that are sticky as any rice, and tasty delight that is the curry. A headline conversation thread for me from last night was the inherent mystery of it all. By “of it all,” I mean, life. “So much of it is mystery,” I observed to my friend. “All of it is mystery,” she replied. We laughed. There’s no need to be tentative together. It’s a delight to be with another that isn’t just speaking platitudes when talking about inherent mystery — because, after all, there are a few inevitable gut punches, not just spoons filled with sugar, in this kind of awareness.

We parted. Grateful. Filled.

Last night I had a dream. More mystery. About mystery. About simple behavior and a choice of operating mode that aligns with “it’s all mystery.”

In the dream I am with another friend. She is holding a vase of flowers. She is arranging the flowers and asking me, “does it need two stems of greenery or one?” In the dream I’m aware that she is asking a question as if there were an absolute answer. I respond deliberately to interrupt the assumption. “My hunch is to go with two.” She replies, in a way that attempts to subtly concretize my response, and to enable her a certainty, “So, it should have two?” I respond again, “My hunch is two. It doesn’t have to be two. That is your choice.” A third time my friend seeks what feels like an imposed absolute, “So, you think it should be two?” I offer one last clarity. “My hunch remains two. But it doesn’t really matter. I’m also a minimalist, so I value things that are understated.” My friend isn’t completely satisfied with my answer, but I feel I’ve stood for something that matters about changing the way we think. And I like that. I wake.

If all of life is mystery, it feels important to me that I change my language to reflect this inherent mystery and complexity. So many habits of language point us to removing uncertainty and subjectivity in favor of the certain and the objective. Many find the certain and the objective comforting — I can find oodles of ways that I  have in my life. But comfort doesn’t help us grow up into the inherent mystery that is life. It’s just a comfort. And feeds a well-perpetuated illusion that at its base, is intended to protect us humans from the fear that can arise from uncertainty.


All of life is mystery.

What if I and we lived as such, increasing the way that we encounter each other with curiosity about our choices and perceptions in how we are navigating the great mystery of it all. I know I want this. It’s a round world awakening, this time to get from the flatness of narrowed perception comforted by false certainties, to the roundness of more full awareness and embracing of subjectivity.

The waiter at the Thai restaurant tended to us well over the two hours what my friend and I were there. He brought us our tea. Then our food. After giving us some time to eat, he came back to check on us — “How is your food?” This is habit for me, in the mystery and grand subjectivity of things, to respond from the subjective. I smile at him, genuinely and appreciatively (thinking to myself that the food was really good), and respond, “I’m really enjoying it.”




The Certainty of Uncertainty in Communication

I don’t think of myself as a communication specialist. However, most everything I do, from coaching to large group work, comes from the kind of premise articulated through this recent Brain Pickings by Maria Popova.

There are many layers that go into this exchange that is human being with human. There are many layers that go into merely understanding the myriad of exchanges within ourselves. Thoughts. Feelings. Associations. Memories.

Communication attempts to put what is real or becoming into words or actions or energy through an inherently representative (and thus reductive) set of symbols. It’s like trying to explain love with only the rolling of dice. You can make up a system to interpret it — on a scale of 1-6, but it’s inherently flawed.

From Brain Pickings…

Every act of communication is an act of tremendous courage in which we give ourselves over to two parallel possibilities: the possibility of planting into another mind a seed sprouted in ours and watching it blossom into a breathtaking flower of mutual understanding; and the possibility of being wholly misunderstood, reduced to a withering weed. Candor and clarity go a long way in fertilizing the soil, but in the end there is always a degree of unpredictability in the climate of communication — even the warmest intention can be met with frost. Yet something impels us to hold these possibilities in both hands and go on surrendering to the beauty and terror of conversation, that ancient and abiding human gift. And the most magical thing, the most sacred thing, is that whichever the outcome, we end up having transformed one another in this vulnerable-making process of speaking and listening.

The attention to good communication isn’t just about the right words. Nor the right pacing. Nor the right metaphor. These are interesting and important things.

My primary interest remains with the fundamental understanding that communication ain’t perfect, no matter what good choices we make. And it can’t be. Too complex. Too many layers.

That doesn’t me absolving ourselves of effort. It does mean, however, that we learn to embrace inherent and un-reifiable uncertainty. It means that curiosity always matters in our communications, and in our being.

That’s some life work that I feel committed to.

Make Some Friends

Today my oldest son is starting a summer job. It’s new work for him. I can tell that he is a bit nervous. If it were me, I’d be trying to suppress my nerves a bit. I’d be worried. Will I know enough? Will I be able to help? Will I look stupid? Will they make fun of me? These are silly questions in so many ways. But silly doesn’t make them not true either.

As dad, I’m proud of my son. Way to go! Contribute. Make some money. Take your place in another stage of adult life. Use your skills. Use your gifts. Learn some skills and learn some gifts. Be supportive of others. All of these thoughts are in play. When my son and I talked last night, we spoke about all of these things.

And yet, the nerves remain. You can’t have all of the answers prior to going in. This fact points out a rather obvious but often denied reality — complete certainty and predictability is a myth! It’s what many of us seek, mostly unknowingly. I know that fear / response combo in me. But it’s not our perfect preparation for every imaginable encounter that is the most needed skill. Sometimes, I suppose. But more often, and more often neglected, the skill we need is the ability to adapt. To work with what is and to work with what shows up.

After all of that good advice to work hard (that’s what I was told when I was a teenager and young adult) and put in a good day’s work — all of which matter — I realized this morning that the “advice” I woke up with for my son is rather simple. Make some friends. If you make some friends, you’ll find your way into the good of the work, and perhaps find your way through some of the not-so-fun in the work. If you make some friends you can be in some good learning together — about the job and about each others lives. If you make some friends, you can enjoy what you are creating together.

Well, here’s to a good day for my son in his learning and making friends. And here’s to all of us learning to be well with each others in life’s many uncertainties and newnesses.