Earlier this week an old blogging friend posted this quote on Facebook; it is an old favorite of mine, and in reading it again I saw something in it that I never noticed before.
Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. (Rainer Maria Rilke).
For a number of years I have practiced Buddhist Lojong, also known as Buddhist Mind Training. Just looking at the name makes one think it must be something like brainwashing, doesn’t it? It is, quite simply, learning to think differently. In fact, the practice makes the human mind more flexible and facile, it actually removes the effects of a lifetime of literal and figurative brainwashing. At first, we start just watching the way our mind works, we notice the mind is on autopilot an awful lot of the time. We see how the mind seems to have rigid grooves worn in it over the course of our lifetime, from automatically reacting the same way to similar stimuli over and over again.
For example, have you ever had a conversation with someone who appeared to be listening with full attention to your words, and yet completely missed the point of what you were saying? Sometimes this is the result of a deep groove in that person’s cognitive process that has them automatically reacting to something in the words you spoke. Something you said triggered an automatic reaction in them, and in effect, they have a subconscious expectation that you are talking about some other thing, or that you mean something else and even though they seem to be paying attention, they literally are not hearing what you are saying.
At its most extreme that automatic cognitive mechanism, sometimes humorously called a mindless reaction, is what causes one person to take something personally and get hurt or angry, when the person who was speaking had absolutely no intent to communicate the thing that caused the offense. We’ve probably all had the experience of someone taking offense at something we said, when we either did not actually say the words that caused offense, or perhaps we said the words but did not mean them the way they were understood; it is all due to just this kind of mindless reaction.
Lojong softens and evens out those grooves so one can just be open and present; it allows you to listen without projecting your own concepts on to what someone else is saying, and the potential for misapprehension is minimized.
Perhaps this is a story for another day, but a further benefit of the practice is we learn to stop taking many things in life so personally. Can you imagine how different the world might be if people were able to communicate with more ease and take offense less frequently? It would dial back the ambient emotional temperature considerably.
One more benefit of the practice is learning to be comfortable with uncertainty. In this messy disordered world we long for certainty. Good people suffer, law breakers prosper, we yearn for assurances, and we hunger for the certainty of knowing exactly who to blame for all the suffering we both witness and experience. The human mind, until it learns to think differently, craves certainty. However once we find that the comfort arising from certainty lasts only moments before the restless mind is on to the next thing, we learn to loosen our attachment to the need for certainty.
Finally, this brings me back to Rilke’s quote, “Try to love the questions…” This week’s reading of the quote suggests something deeper to me than merely learning to be comfortable with life’s burning questions, it hints at learning to be comfortable with uncertainty in general. “…It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Because when we become certain about anything in life, the questions along with the opportunities to learn anything new cease to exist.