The dark season is here in the Northern Hemisphere. And maybe it is dark for you in multiple ways. You may fear the future. It can be a comfort and a guide to remember that all beings, including the Buddha, faced the darkness of the unknown.
After many years and lifetimes of effort, after leaving home and family, after studying and leaving various teachers and friends, after a long solitary quest, the Buddha attained that glimpse into the nature of things that we call enlightenment. And what happened next? He faced unknown. Unsure that he could ever convey what happened to him, he went wandering. He was literally aimless–goal accomplished, all striving ended. He was no longer driven by his old story line. Now what?
In the Christian calendar, this time is called Advent. Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “coming.” It is a time of opening to the darkness of the unknown, which in many traditions including Buddhism, is the very definition of faith. Faith is not insisting on a certain set of beliefs. It is a willingness to be present to what is instead of clinging to a story with a fixed conclusion. What will come? A new light? Or will it stay dark? We don’t know. And no words can help. What can we do? We may feel as if we are wandering lost.
We do our best to remember to return to the awareness of the present moment, aware of our senses and our breath and the world around us. This can feel like such a small act. But in the midst of it might occur to us that reality is vast and intelligent and that something marvelous is coming, something beyond our wildest dreams.
You may doubt this. You may find it hard to believe there will be even a tiny ray of sunlight through the clouds. I understand. You may feel terrified about the future or horribly disappointed by life. You may feel a creeping hopelessness, a sense that there won’t be enough light, no safe place of freedom and ease for you, for so many in this world.
Go small, this is my experience. Remember your youngest notions of what is essential and good. Offer someone a kind word or a glass of water or a smile. Pick an old person, a stranger on the street, and just smile, no matter how you feel. Or try this, an experiment from Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard: “Every hour spend ten seconds wishing someone happiness. It’s transformative.”
And here is another way of thinking of being open to the darkness of the unknown, this one from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
The Buddha could imagine what his life would be like after enlightenment. Reality is greater than any story line.