The beginning of 2020 saw the US and Iran on the brink of war after the US assassinated Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, coupled with global fear over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. On 31 January, the UK officially left the EU, leading to a transition period in which many questions of international significance must be quickly answered. Broad expanses of Australia remain at deep risk of the forest fires that were splashed across media platforms across the world. Many Americans wait with baited breath for November, when the Electoral College will decide whether president Donald Trump is voted out or remains in office for another four years. All this, while in the background looms the specter of climate catastrophe, which some would argue is already unfolding. It is only 15 February, and it is easy to feel an overwhelming sense of insecurity about the world’s situation with so many crises happening at once.
The hard truth is that is a privilege to be able to say that circumstances are “stable.” Life, until relatively recently, was nasty, brutish, and short, and a medieval king would be quite envious of the amenities and conveiences afforded the average middle-class person today. Nevertheless, we have come far as a human community and since the end of the Second World War, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human life should at least ideally aim for a certain minimal standard that fits our contemporary conception of dignity and living well.
Indeed, 2020 is the year the United Nations takes stock of how far its Millennium Development Goals are progressing. While some of the eight goals are progressing quite well (extreme poverty is being reduced at an extraordinarily rapid pace), we have seen a relative decline in material prospects and social mobility in many industrialized societies. Inequality is growing fast alongside rapid development of many Asia-Pacific nations. Furthermore, unprecedented levels of discontent and impatience with governments have led to demagoguery and populism around the world. A backlash against civil rights and social inclusion for minorities has led to an angrier, more divisive online discourse, particularly in Eastern Europe and even in Western Europe. The idea that everything is “just fine” does not sit well with many, particularly young people.
The deaf and blind author, educator, and activist Helen Keller (1880–1968) is reputed to have noted: “Security is mostly a superstition.” Of course, she did not mean that we should not bother to strive to provide a secure and stable environment for our families, classrooms, companies, or societies. Rather, her observation echoes the Buddhist idea that we too often assume that permanence and stability are the default, natural state of things. The Buddha taught for over 45 years that insecurity—ever changing, always flowing flux—is our natural state.
The problem is not insecurity itself, but our resistance and aversion to it. Indeed, aversion actually leads to a “false consciousness” bravado against fear: a refusal to face it honestly, discuss it with loved ones, or accept it with peace: “The illusion of permanence . . . deceives us into believing that nothing is changing. Beginner’s mind is quite the opposite, freshening awareness and enabling us to meet each moment as wholly new, unlike any moment that’s happened before, and gone—poof—before you know it.” (HuffPost)
Equanimity in the face of fear and uncertainty is not about “toughening up,” or acquiring more resources such as money to fend off inevitable impermanence. As the Thervada monk Bhante T. Seelananda notes: “One should not forget that the cause of all dukkha, unsatisfactoriness is craving. Once the Buddha himself said that the world is ensnared by craving (Tanhāya uddito loko). . . . Refuge is never found in another person. . . . we must understand that as long as we are under the influence of fear we cannot understand that we are dwelling either in the past or in the future. The problem is nothing but this. That itself is the cause for insecurity. You are not dwelling in the present moment. You are full of delusion, full of expectations, this means either brooding over the past or delving into the future. If you come to the present moment you see what is going on right now. You see what you have grasped as your own is rapidly changing and vanishing.” (Bhavana Society)
Sraddha, or trust in the Dharma, is the Buddhist practitioner’s ultimate refuge in a cosmos where insecurity and paradox is baked into life and living itself. As the teacher and author Jack Kornfield said: “Instead of struggling to perfect the world, we relax, we rest in the uncertainty. Then we can act with compassion and we give our best. Without attachment to the outcome, we bring fearlessness and trust to any circumstances.” (Jack Kornfield) Yet in unquestionably unstable times such as these, we need to balance our focus on illusory security with the very real need to strive for a safer, more livable planet—environmentally, economically, politically—for the sake of future generations. We should strive for positive change, especially if we take the idea of impermanence seriously—in other words, our relationship with impermanence should be almost “dialectic,” in which we accept fully the inevitability of change and insecurity but also become agents of positive change ourselves.
Facing peril and uncertainty need not be a one-way street. We must embrace it honestly, to be sure—but we can be catalysts for bringing about skillful, beneficial, compassionate, and wise change in the world. For that, we should feel empowered, not disenfranchised, in this very unstable world. Let us not take it for granted.
The Wisdom of Insecurity (HuffPost)
Fear And How To Overcome Fear: A Buddhist Perspective (Bhavana Society)
The Wisdom of Insecurity (Jack Kornfield)