No solution. Can’t fix it.

Last week I had coffee with a friend who’s living under a cloud of uncertainty about his job; the company he works for is embroiled in complex, very public litigation with a competitor that could cause his company to go out of business or merge, with radically unpredictable consequences for him and for his co-workers. The fatigue was etched on his face—he’s worn out by worry– “I just want this to end, to go away!” he said.

No solution. Can’t fix it.

Later, I spent some time with another friend who’d recently been fired from his job, and he was manic, absolutely bewildered. He’d been taken by surprise, and to make matters worse, his old boss was seemingly out to get him, even after the fact.  Bewildered. Be-wildered. Transported back to wilderness, to deep shadows and mortal danger.

No solution. Can’t fix it.

I could go on. Another friend entering year three of cancer therapy, a relative who underwent a life saving transplant operation, only to face intrusive therapies for the rest of his life. My own battles with health and my own peculiar psychology. The list is long, all with one thing in common, whether it’s my own predicaments or those of others–

No solution. Can’t fix it.

Maybe it’s age, but it does seem like the hallway is narrowing, like fewer things are new, more things are breaking down. I can be completely empathetic for my friends in distress, but that’s not what they want, and it’s not what I want for them. They want, I want, whatever it is that has them feeling cornered to stop.

We want it fixed.

When the vice begins to tighten and fear arises, space collapses and time stretches. We feel crushed, and we’re certain it will last forever.

The Shambhala teachings point out a couple of important truths here- first, that this “crush” is an essential part of the human deal (it happens on some level pretty much all the time to each of us); and second, that there is no other place to go, no place to flee to.

The truth of our lives is that there’s no way out. Fear of death, of loss, is with us from our first in-breath. Each of us will eventually lose everything and everyone we’ve ever cherished, and our “job” is somehow to be Ok with that.

Ultimately, it’s the very inescapability of our predicament that contains its own answer. From minor irritation, to the loss of a life’s work, to the loss of a life’s love, to our own moment of death, this is the ground of being human. Like it or not, we’re staying. And yes, this can indeed suck.  Pain is real, we do age and die and encounter innumerable challenges along the way. But there’s a profound element of choice in how we react to these challenges, how much of the drama we write ourselves.

Happiness and comfort aren’t the same thing. Maybe joy can permeate pain. Perhaps great suffering and joy can (must?) co-exist.


The core Shambhala teaching of Basic Goodness, that we are all basically good, sufficient unto the task, that all of this sacred world is basically good, suggests that right here, even in the midst of our worst predicaments, magic can still arise. If we can stop struggling to control the every fact of our lives, even for a moment, space and luminance can emerge.

This is the essential truth and magic of the world, that it doesn’t come out “right,” that there’s no “right,” that in fact, there’s no “out,” there’s only this; and the more we can stop fighting and begin to flow with “this,” the more our experience of the world and of our lives might be transformed.

I heard a story once- a great Tibetan teacher was asked what he thought a fully awakened being actual experiences. He said “impermanence and emptiness all the time.”

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a 92-year old woman named Ann and fell completely in love with her. We traded life stories—hers was longer. I asked her, from her limb “at the top of the tree,” what “really matters?”  She smiled. People, she said, your people matter — other than that, more and more I think that not much else really matters.

We care for each other. Each of us is alone and we’re all in this together. We offer our hearts and our compassion, our tonglen practice, and we share in each other’s pain for as long as we’re here.

This is what matters. The rest is just story.

No solution.  Can’t fix it.

the challenge(s) of hope


Abandon all hope of fruition

-Lojong slogan

    Avoid the trap of hope and fear

                                      -Shambhala Buddhist teaching

Isn’t hope a good thing? When we bump into these teachings on “hope,” we trip. It can be really confusing — aren’t we taught that we should be hopeful people?  Yes and no —  “hope” can be both expansive and, in another context, severely limiting, so working with hope can be challenging.

For starters, hope is always about our wanting to change the way things are right now. If we’re stuck in a terrible situation, hope, in the form of allowing for the possibility for change, can be quite positive. This positive, expansive manifestation of hope can be an antidote to our habitual tendency to solidify our present experience. Life sucks, so it will always suck, from now until the end of the world (which, of course, seems to be immanent.)  If we sit in this fixation, despair arises. Yet with this species of hope, we can at least allow for the possibility that our situation can change; this kind of hope is a modest step toward recognizing the impermanence of all things, including our present situation, our suffering and ourselves. It can be a door out of fixation and into the future.

But at the same time, we’re afraid of this future. We can’t control it; it may not turn out “well.” So we earnestly hope for a specific outcome – “if only I get this job (or girl, money, award, fill in the blank….) then everything will be terrific!” We’re uncomfortable with the fundamentally ungrounded (unguaranteed?) nature of the future, so we send out our emotional tractor beams and try to drag the future into a specific outcome that we, in our wisdom, deem to be acceptable. This is the “trap of hope and fear” referred to above.

With this limiting kind of hope, we essentially decide today the conditions by which we will agree to be happy tomorrow. We’re in a sort of negotiation with the universe, this swirling mass of cause and effect — “if you let me win, I’ll be ok.”  But of course, this can’t work. We’ll get what we get, so why decide in advance how we’ll feel about it?  Moreover, do we really even know what’s best for us at a given moment? It may be years before we know for sure (if ever.)

The first kind of hope derives from aversion (get me outta here!) The second kind of hope derives from grasping, or passion (I specifically want THIS.) Both derive from a reluctance to engage with the world as it is, moment-by-moment. Both emerge from trying to control our experience, rather than simply experiencing our lives.

And what huge energy we put into trying to control all of this, energy we could better use to engage with whatever emerges. And, of course, we ourselves are constantly changing, just as impermanent as the shifting world we’re trying to control (indeed, how could it be otherwise?)

So even if we could put a rope around the world, there’s nothing solid to tie it to.

Here in these mountains, we’re in the second year of drought, but it’s rained a lot in recent weeks. It’s cold this morning, but the sun has finally broken through the clouds. Spring can take its time at these altitudes, often just a brief respite between the deep snows of winter and the dry heat of this high alpine desert.

Which direction this day will tip is anybody’s guess, but for now at least, the hills are green, the flowers are ripe, and the streams are all running full.

© Old Bones, New Snow/ J.A. Fink 2013


Going All-In: Part III (the Two Pernicious Voices)

A while ago I talked about the thousand small decisions that make up the guts of any commitment– after the rush of initial enthusiasm, the essential drudgery of sustained action (carrying water, chopping wood.) Today I want to speak to two old friends of mine that come up once you’re committed – I call them the “Two Pernicious Voices.”

Both of these are perfectly natural “protector” voices that may serve us well in other contexts. But as often happens, they can grow to be toxic, which can be particularly difficult to see because they’re also ventriloquists, speaking to us in our own voices.

The first of these Pernicious Voices I call the “voice of no.” It always seems to be that there are far more reasons not to do something to than to do it. I’m busy, I’m tired, I hurt, or my own personal favorite, I’ll do it right after I take care of …

I once heard the adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes (yikes, what a name!) give an interview. He’d just finished running seven marathons in seven days on, I believe, seven different continents. The interviewer asked him how he kept going, and he answered that “the little voice that says ‘stop’ must be ignored.”

How about the little voice that says don’t even start?  And what a persistent little bugger he is, always reminding me that my life would be so much simpler, so much easier if I just skipped this bit. And smaller, and less interesting, and basically of less us to anyone.

But like I said, this little rodent speaks in MY voice, and he’s very much “on my side.”  So I’ve developed a small test. Which choice (in the quasi-Shakespearean “to do or not to do”) will make my world larger? If I can go with that, regardless of the nagging sound of chewing coming from behind the walls in my head, it’ll probably turn out well.

ImageThe second Pernicious Voice is “the voice of perfectionism.”  Ah, my old friend, “not good enough” sneaks out from behind the baseboard.  Like his little brother, the “voice of no” this little guy takes a perfectly useful trait (for the voice of no– look before you leap; for perfectionism– the aspiration to do one’s best) and basically sharpens the handle of the knife.  But perfectionism isn’t really about aspiration- it’s about fear; it’s about trying to get someplace other than the messiness of here, someplace where everything will be perfect and safe. Why even start- you’ll never be (fill in the blank). And if you do start, this Voice will suck all of the joy out of the process because it mutates life from a process into an imaginary and ultimately unattainable goal, it turns play into inevitable defeat.

The “voice of no” and the “voice of perfectionism”—the two Pernicious Voices — these are the voices of staying safe. They’re also the voices of boredom, of why bother. They gnaw rather than bite, but left unattended, they can undermine an otherwise good foundation. We can say no, we can yearn to be “perfect.” Or we can say yes, over and over again, to soaking ourselves in this blessed mess we call a human life, and like it or not, we’re each “all in” on that one from our very first uncertain breath.

Going All In- Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about this quality of going “all in.” Since then, I’ve been working a lot with what this means in practice, and a couple of specific things have surfaced.

First, it seems like diving in, to whatever pool your working with, involves one big decision (“JUMP IN!”), immediately followed a thousand smaller decisions (“stay in.”) Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to talk about what he called the BIG NO, cutting directly through habitual patterns (which, of course, is also a BIG YES to whatever comes next.) This is what I was reaching for with the notion of going “all in,” — cutting through “holding back” or, as Acharya Pema Chodron puts it — renouncing “holding back.”  This is the cold wind, the sharp blade, the step into space.

Yet while it’s invigorating and inspiring to make a leap, the guts of the matter come later, when you first come up for air and it starts to sink in that now you’re in for it. From here on, it’s a thousand small decisions that collect like dust under the bed into what we generally call a life.  If the initial inspiration is a vajrayana dragon, the rest of it is the Zen of “chopping wood, carrying water.”

Here’s where we typically wear out, where the rush of the resolution has passed and we start to get bored with having to face our habitual patterns over and over again – our habit actually wears us out before we can cut a new groove, form a new pattern. It’s not that it’s so tough really; it’s just not very exciting. This is where perspiration supersedes inspiration, where we need to put the shiny stone of our resolution in our pocket and just start walking.

The second piece around this is closely related- it’s the quality of staying with something until it comes to be “ordinary.”  I met a guy on the mountain recently who asked me how many days I’d ski this winter. I told him 40-50 (a lot by most people’s experience, not so much relative to a lot of folks who live here in the mountains.) I wouldn’t want to ski that much, he said, it wouldn’t be special anymore.

And he’s right – that’s what happens. I got to this point with road biking last summer and wanted to get there this winter with skiing- I wanted to see what happens when I’m no longer “GOING SKIING,” and get to where I just “go skiing.”

What I’m reaching for here is the quality of interiority, of familiarity that emerges when we stick with something long enough for the novelty, the specialness, to subside. This is a big part of the practice aspect of meditation – getting past the entertainment value of the novel, the new, and just sitting.  And I don’t think we can ever really get to this point if some part of us is still looking backward.

So here these pieces come together. We begin with inspiration, with resolution, which is essential. We commit to go all in, and then we repeatedly need to decide to stick it out, to wear through the veneer of novelty and to settle into the ordinary, to keep doing whatever it is we’ve decide to do until we feel like we might die from boredom.

And then we die.

Or rather, a part of our “old self” dies. Our old way of seeing starts to die, and we begin to develop new eyes. We begin to notice a level of interior detail that we were too distracted or too speedy to see before. The depth of the subject begins to reveal itself, and the world actually changes, taking on a previously invisible three-dimensional quality.

But this can’t happen without going “all in.” Until we go “all in,” we’re forever on the outside, never completely inside whatever it is we aspire to do or be. We have to fall completely into whatever “thing” it is we’re giving ourselves to, to hang in with the terminal boredom, choosing again and again to stay.

Until we get bored, literally, out of our minds.

Then the exquisite detail of this sacred world can slowly and magnificently begin to unfold before our entirely new eyes.


I’ve always been a master of the hedge, the back door left ajar, the psychological bolthole where I can slip if this doesn’t go well.  Work, art, music, relationships — I’ve approached them all with a persistent subconscious restraint, a small holding back, the invisible “not really.”

But it’s not small at all, this reservation.  It’s like trying to get airborne while stubbornly hanging onto a branch.  There can be some pretty interesting flapping around, but not a whole lot of altitude.

Where this pattern comes from is anybody’s guess, but I have my suspicions. On some level, it’s tough to fly while lifting the weight of all of these stories (like a parachute full of bricks- it’s not much protection in the end.) The “not good enough” (this classic piece of Americana); the “who do you think you are?” (where we shoulder the weight of someone else’s fear); the dread of being embarrassed or judged that underlies so much of the fear of failure.

And of course, over time, this fabric of stories becomes it’s own story with it’s own weight carefully woven through the gravity of repetition. So when do we get to put it down? And what triggers that decision? Of course, this has to be more of a process than an event, but still, when?

I carry a picture in my mind of an old man, his hair gone gray and long, having finally arrived at that place of nothing left to prove and nothing left to fear.  He’s watching his grandchildren play. He closes his eyes and savors the laughter.  His old face is warm.

So there it is — before it’s truly too late, I aspire to shrug off the heavy brocade, this fabric of stories and at least once to feel the wind directly on my skin.

I aspire to embrace my own inner fool, to go “all in” as often as I can stand it.

I want to kick the door shut behind me and head into the hills, to trust that a trail will form itself, even if it’s not at all where I thought I was going, to reach for the edge of the cliff and simply keep climbing, to relax my grip and trust that the wind will carry me

or not…

© J.A. Fink 2013