The future is uncertain, yet shaped by today

At least, one thing was certain: I was going to study Tibetan Language in Dharamshala (India) from July, 2020 onwards. 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, pushing me back in uncertainty. In a similar way the world that was so familiar to us has suddenly been put between brackets. The ground is taken away from under our feet. What to do, now that I no longer know whether I can get to India as planned? How can we relate to such moments of uncertainty wisely?

Mistaken assumptions
When Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche recently spoke about ‘Light in times of darkness’ he pointed out we usually wake up to a new day, taking it to be familiar and not very different from yesterday. Just like we expect tomorrow, next week and even coming years to arise in a particular known way. The underlying assumption is a firm stability of our life and the world we live in. 

I booked my flight from Seattle (US) to New Delhi (India) almost a year ahead of time, even before I arrived at our centre NalandaWest (in Seattle) to participate in the Three Paths Residential Program. Moreover, I already envisioned a particular life after my Tibetan Language Program. 

Now it is uncertain whether a flight to India will operate soon. I don’t even know when the program will start, assuming it does. I am not even sure whether the United States will allow me an extension of my visa, that will expire soon. 

My application for an extension of my US-visa is received, will it be granted?

What is surprising, according to Ponlop Rinpoche, is not that things turn out to be quite different than we anticipated. What is surprising is our belief in the stability and expectations about what is going to happen. As a consequence we might experience fear, anxiety or despair when things change. While change is actually the very true nature of things. Everything is impermanent. Just as we can clearly see how our lives are interconnected. 

Focus on this moment
The pandemic is like a wake-up call. An excellent moment to do a reality-check. What do our emotions, and how we deal with them, have to say about ourselves? How are our relationships with others and what is our responsibility? To what extent are we involved in the world, out of compassion and love? 

We usually do not ask such questions, like we have the habit to look out for the (better) future. I certainly notice how all kinds of thoughts and emotions arise amidst the uncertainty about what lies ahead. I sense some discomfort at times. Feeling not always at ease. As I equally see there is a tendency to grasp something I can hold on to. Information when India will re-open for International Air Traffic. Certainty about whether I can stay in the US. Knowledge about my path in life. 

However, my future is uncertain. In fact, it does not even exist. Like the post-Covid-19 future does not exist. Rather than looking towards the future, Rinpoche shared it is more helpful to focus on today. What can we do now? Like the professor Mark Lilla recently wrote in a wonderful opinion-article in The New York Times, we should stop asking pundits to predict the future after the coronavirus. “We should ask only what we want to happen, and how to make it happen, given the constraints of the moment.”

Which at the moment of writing includes working on the changes that need to take place regarding social injustice, police brutality and racism – as protests here in the U.S. and elsewhere clearly remind us.

Act upon your intentions, without worries
When I look at this moment and focus on today I notice how my body starts to relax and my mind & heart opens. Contemplating what to do now, I remind myself of my intention. The aspiration and application of Bodhicitta. To this end, I currently chant Śāntideva his prayer when I get up and before I go to sleep: May I be a boat, a bridge, a passage, for those desiring the further shore. In response to the pandemic the Dalai Lama also referred to Śāntideva, saying that “If there is something to be done – do it, without any need to worry; if there’s nothing to be done, worrying about it further will not help.” 

So what can be done, without worrying? How can I benefit all sentient beings? Maybe in other ways than I thought a year ago, or even yesterday. How do we want our world to be? Maybe quite different than how it was before the pandemic arose. And maybe we need to reconsider our own life. 

If we run away from our discomforts and unease, it will resurface tomorrow. If we do not see we are interconnected, why expect there to be a better society to come? If we continue to resume economic life and not take good care of the environment as it was before the pandemic, is it reasonable to think social injustices, mass extinction of non-human life, global warming and so on will come to a halt? 

Shaping the future today
The future is uncertain. That is something we need to accept. Yet, it is shaped by what we do now. In this moment. In that sense, as I once saw written on a little stone in Shechen monastery in Kathmandu (Nepal), what we do today is what matters most!

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