Living in the Center of the Human Predicament


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Susan A's picture

Dear Elizabeth,

I am curious to hear your thoughts on the predicament, the uncertainty of not-knowing, and the open question with regard to illness and healing. I have been recovering from a long-term illness, the outcome of which is unknown, and yet every day I do my best to regain my sense of faith that I will have a complete recovery, and still there is the great fear that this will not be the outcome. I live in the mountains, an environment that was my source of work, and solace. I have difficulty walking right now and it's as if I have "packaged" my fears, so to speak, into whether I will ever hike in the mountains again. That's the measure I've created, and the "me" I have difficulty letting go. I try to return to a place of not-knowing, of acceptance, of being with things as they are, but fear often overtakes me.

I'm grateful for your teachings and look forward to the rest of the retreat.

Susan's picture

Hi Elizabeth.  

I was struck by your focus on being open-minded, on taking in all phenomena in-the-moment, in nowness; and  about faith in relationship to that state. So, this morning while meditating, I noticed what my mind was doing in a different way. It was telling one story right after another; sometimes a "review" of the past, and sometimes fears about the future. I realized that those stories about the future were just fiction--perhaps educated fiction, but definitely fiction in that the only perspective was my guesses and fears. Those stories about the past were docudramas--once again from only one perspective being mine. As one  docudrama movie I recently watched put in their disclaimer in the beginning, "Some of the following is based on fact. Some of it is not." 

This struck me as pretty funny. I'd never looked at it quite that way--but that's the way of all memories, isn't it? Renaming these stories as fiction and docudramas is helpful in minimizing their importance.

I appreciate your thoughts!!

viccles's picture

Hello Elizabeth

I've just read your 'Retreat of one's Own' and found it helpful about just sitting with a depression. I've recently lost all my energy and find myself heavy and low, and without any obvious reason - no great changes or losses in my life. I've meditated for some years and done lots of inner work and so this isn't too scary a place, but more a puzzling one. It seems that the more I 'sit with it' the heavier it gets. I literally get slower in everything I'm doing and feel as though I drag myself about. I am concerned that it might be a bit of a vicious cycle setting in, with the slowness creating greater heaviness. Do I just keep sitting with it nevertheless? 

I suppose I know the answer is to not to try and fix it, but I also feel as though I am missing something more subtle here. Any thoughts?

With metta


frees0ngz's picture


I suffer from depression also under circumstances in my life. I find sitting is a wonderful refuge, but after 15 minutes or 30 minutes of sitting I must be active like walking meditation or yoga or other exercises. Watching helps to slow me down, but in my life I need to do two things, slow the mind down so I can see who I am behind the mask and speed the body up with exercises that nurture soul development so I can escape the inertia of the world like a rocket ship escaping the gravity of the earth. Exercise and activities help me in that way.

I have had times when depression continues unabated and then I look for a lifeline like a teacher or counselor that can help me find another pair of eyes to look at my life through. Sometimes my sense of hopelessness is derived from the story I am telling myself that is not my true nature.

We are not alone in this path. Even reading inspired teachers lifts us up. May you find the inner strength to raise yourself out of the inertia of the world.


viccles's picture

Hi Freesongs

Thanks for the encouragement. You are right about the movement, even watching the deep internal movements is illuminating. Also the story, yes that's a big part of it. Sometimes changing the story seems just like replacing one story with another when one is deeply stuck, but the movement seems to shift something physiologically too and that is helpful in lifting the old story into moving along.  Luckily the depression seems to have lifted as strangely as it came. I am grateful and appreciate what an enormous challenge it is to live with depression constantly. A brave path to have chosen to walk. I wish you good spirits and lots of insights.



swastan's picture


Thank you for your teaching. Predicament exists when we continually look outside for solutions thinking that we can fix things. When we accept who we are, there is no more struggle. If we learn to turn our vision outside in, there is spaciousness because we do not identify with what is going on outside us, yet like you said so beautifully, we can still engage in the midst of our predicaments. When we can allow things to be, there is no intention of wanting or not wanting. The minute we want something, we are limited. Less fighting, more acceptance. More allowing, less reluctance. Isn't this what meditation is all about?


Rgds, Swas

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Nicely said, Swastan!

frees0ngz's picture

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for your online retreat of Sept 6th. I am feeling that your presentation is in tune or in harmony with many things I have experienced over the years.

As you discussed, I have found myself prodded to write words and music without the proper knowing that is expected in our specialized society. It really is wonderful to experience that sitting in front of an empty page or a musical instrument and let that emptiness or uncertainty be, while letting creativity go on.

One such experience happened when I went into my backyard and experienced the overwhelming light of a full moon. When I went back inside the house these words came.

"The moon is shining in my window tonight

Silently whispering in my ears

Secrets I can never tell

In words...or thoughts...or tears" (originally the word was deeds but it changed today!)

I too share your uncertainty about meat but like you my body does better with protein. I find that I can carry sauteed tofu (until water mostly evaporates) with me many places and after a few hours a piece of that brings the attention back in focus. To me the issue is not meat, but having sufficient protein to keep the brain active, but whatever works somehow I try to find gratitude and presence when I am gifted a part of earth to sustain me.

I look forward to other lectures and will see about getting your book.

Thanks again for sharing.


dahirjama's picture


The fact that you are Troubled – there is your Koan, I think.

Science asks questions & goes out in search of answers. It has always depended on “more info coming in”.  This “info coming in” has never stopped – not yet. Will it ever stop? I would not bet on it. So a million years from now science (if it is still alive) will be receiving “more info” and “models will be adopted and discarded” over and over again. Where is our “innate truth”, our holy grail? Must we have one? Does it matter?

Thank you Richard for I am also learning as I write this.   


deepurple's picture

I'm confused!  Intellectually I think I understand creativity happens when we are empty like the page waiting to be written upon or the canvas waiting for a brush stroke..  I can't wrap my "mind" around the "ability not to know" when all our lives we are encouraged to "know".

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Dear deepurple,

I'm glad you asked this. The word 'empty' can be pretty confusing. In the teachings i used the example of an open canvas to illustrate possibility and fullness. 'not knowing' in the way i am using it means not shutting down around conclusions - static ideas. But it doesn't imply that we have no awareness or give up our discernment. In fact, when our mind is open it releases our intelligence and creativity. We can make clearer decisions when we don't shut down in this way.

Usually we consider someone who is open-minded to be more intelligence than a rigid fundamentalist. And when i say fundamentalist we can just look at our own often we just reach conclusions about who someone is, what something is...but people and life is so much more full and complex and rich than that. So i am saying that instead of seeing things in a one-dimensional way, we can see things as "open dimensional." This means there is limitless possibility. 

Susuki Roshi said, "In the mind of a beginner there is limitless possibility. In the mind of an expert there are few." This is what i am saying when i talk about the ability to "not know." 

The next talks might clear this up a lot. I hope this helps you.

deepurple's picture

Thank you.

dahirjama's picture

How do we know or rather how do I know? I am 52 and I don't think I have gotten to this "advanced" age by accident. I must have know somthing to get to 52 How did I know? I haven't got a clue. Yes Elizabeth this is extremly interesting - It is sort of nirvana, right? I love it - thank you

sdg2323's picture

Indeed, Elizabeth, your gently delivered comments are quite powerful. Pascal wrote that man (and woman) is the glory and the rubbish of the universe. In one sense all things are the same, and in another all things are in flux. What a paradox; what a riddle! How now should we then live?

Laura438's picture

Thank you, Elizabeth. I had not thought about happiness, samsara, bodhicitta, and not knowing in the way that you presented them. It felt clarifying and freeing to listen to your perspective.

My question has to do with how to recognize quickly when we are stuck, when we are in a fixed state. Is reactivity/being hooked/being triggered one clue? Are there others?


Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your question. I notice that when i am in a fixed state a lot of conflicting emotion arises. Someone will do something and i will immediately close down around it. I will lose perspective...i will objectify the situation and see it only in one way. I won't be able to listen as well. I won't be able to respond compassionately.

I was thinking today about the Dalai Lama. He is in a predicament because Tibetans are in exile. yet he still refers to the Chinese as his brothers and sisters. He also listens to the stories of his people - how they were tortured and imprisoned. He tries to negotiate with the Chinese and educate the world about Tibet. In the process he doesn't abandon anyone or sweep anything under the rug. He is totally open. So there is just this kindness there responding to everything he encounters with this kind of intelligence. He is both open and engaged at the same time. I think the openness needs to inform our actions in order for compassion to release.

I will talk about this a lot in the third talk. I think your question is great because it is really valuable to be able to discern when we are open or shutting down. It is an important part of the whole inquiry.

Richard Fidler's picture


Where does skepticism come in?  A skeptic comes to a conclusion after considering alternative ways of thinking.  Even after accepting a perspective, the true skeptic does not cling to it.  If evidence is found contrary to an accepted model, that model is discarded.  Is that like the openness you talk about that goes along with not knowing?  

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Dear Richard,

The interesting thing to me about all of this is that we are talking about a way of being that does not reach conclusions on one hand and yet is engaged on the other. Looking for models that are true and then discarding them is our usual m.o. But what i am talking about, essentially, is a different way of thinking about things (the Middle Way). For instance, in relation to my son i am a mother, in relation to my mother i am a daughter, in relation to my teacher i am a student and when i am in the grocery store i am a customer...but none of these things describe who i really all things i am changing, unfinished and open to interpretation...and yet i can function in all these roles. So the need to reach a conclusion about who i am in this way is actually unnecessary. So because there is no innate truth to who i am (or anything else for that matter) there is this incredible openness, flexibility and intelligence that can happen. Understanding this provides a way of being that can accept that in a larger sense, things don't lend themselves to being known because all things are expressive and dynamic and can't be pinned down. So we can let go of a lot of painful fantasies we have. Skepticism, on the other hand, has to do with looking for static truths...even if they are temporary static truths. Here we are saying there are no inherent truths and yet things continue to function. I will talk about this a lot more in the 3rd talk. I really appreciate your question!

Richard Fidler's picture

When you say there is no innate truth to anything, as a student of science, I am troubled.  I can see how "I" am just a construct, but the reality of water being made up of two parts hydrogen to one of oxygen seems more than just a construct.  It approaches the truth.  In science models are adopted, then discarded as more information comes in--but always you get closer to reality as an asymptote, though you may never reach it.  This has always bothered me about Buddhism--its insistence that we can never know the truth.  We can never grasp it completely because science is reductionist, but we can approach it.  Am I wrong?

frees0ngz's picture

Dear Richard,

I too have my practical side that understands your question. What I find that comforts me is that my concept of H2O is not water anymore than the word apple gives me an experience of touching or eating an apple. Truth is something I couldn't talk about with any certainty. Just like when I talk to someone who has never tasted apple juice, my trying to tell them what my experience of drinking it is like is totally baffling.

What I am is a mystery that words cannot express, so I wonder if anything I wrote helped do anything besides expressing that you and I both share this challenge.


Richard Fidler's picture

I think you are saying that there is no experiencing reality because we are limited in what our senses can take in and because we are always tuning in some phenomena and tuning out others.  We base our perceptions on what we have seen and heard before.  And not just "things" but time, too.  Why do we concentrate on certain segments of time--such as those in which we have to perform, for example--and zip on past the time we are just living in?  We automatically highlight certain events and play down others.  

Science is different.  It attempts to widen our sensory world through technology.  It is reductionist.  It reduces a phenomenon to a manageable number of variables so it can never totally capture the what is going on.  But it certainly is not limited in the same way our own body/mind is.  For one thing science insists on corroboration and individuals do not.  

My take on it all is that the dharma has it right in saying that humans create constructs and simplifications in understanding the world.  That comes from the early process of socialization.  At the same time, there is structure in the physical world--it isn't humans imposing their sense of order on the universe.  The universe has an implicit structure.  The allegory of the chariot being derived from individual parts and having no reality is in error.  There is a chariot--it's just that we can't quite capture it accurately (though we can come close)

Sorry to burden your attention with all of these words.  These are things I have been thinking about. 

frees0ngz's picture


Perhaps Elizabeth's response that this is your koan is a sufficient answer.

I find myself experiencing uncertainty with science and with the study of meditation and awakening. My physics teacher talked about Aristotle and how there was not a chair but an idea from which all chairs are derived. Perhaps your chariot is an idea from which all chariots are modelled. Am I looking at the chair or chariot or my concept of it?

You mention experiencing reality. My problem is there is not one reality I can put my finger on and say "this is it. !" I sit in this chair and feel the contact with my legs. The dehumidifier is "singing" its songs in this other reality. I enter the reality of the rhythmic clicking of the keys as I type on the keyboard. Then I wait and feel my breath. Then the colors on this screen, that others interpret as words, come into focus. I don't know if I could run out of realities to be aware of.

Uncertainty is a traditional posture of Eastern studies within. It is like an empty glass turned up, it is always ready to receive.

I feel a certain joy letting that be. Thanks for writing for it gives me the chance to write and then things come out I did not know were there.



Kath6613's picture

Is it easier to live this way when your basic needs are met? When we are searching for security at the most basic level it is difficult to detach from the outcome when the outcome is so essential to our physical well being and sustenance. 

I do like the idea of being curious and not knowing especially when it comes to creatively finding a way to resolve a problem or to address a conflict in life.  Being open to other possibilities brings an openness to other relationships and ways of seeing and being.  And how not knowing is part of the adventure of life. Letting go of our need for certainties in life brings a sense of freedom and creativity.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Dear Kathleen,

I really appreciate your comments. I wanted to clear up one thing... when i speak about living in a predicament i am not talking about being detached but rather accepting the unfixable nature of life. So it is more about being inclusive or expanded than detached. This means we have to give up our fantasies about how thing 'should' be and relate to things as they are. In this way we can engage life more intelligently...even things like sustenance and livelihood, etc...I really appreciate you brining this up because i always think we should see the dharma in a practical way. I think the purpose of dharma is by nature practical. So thanks!

indigomission's picture

Hello Elizabeth--

I wanted to say thanks for the talk, and also for the book The Power of an Open Question, which I was able to read yesterday. I am so grateful to opportunities like this (and also all the MSB audio, which I surround myself with constantly! and the Link) to engage with Dharma because I live in rural Georgia and have a young child. So I was listening to your talk today while my son was bouncing around, playing Pokemon, chasing the dog.

After I listened to your talk today, I was thinking a lot about grief, and the long process of mourning something that's lost (a relationship, a person lost to death or substance abuse, etc.) Sometimes in the midst of grief I feel like I am causing myself this pain by clinging to what is not here anymore, or feeling compassion for a person I've lost who is alive but addicted and suffering. I'm wondering constantly about whether I am causing pain by clinging, or whether I am doing the "big heart" experience you talk about when you say we have to just live with the pain of the world without trying to solve it, make it go away, distract ourselves. I've also wondered whether the grief is a productive process-- Kubler-Ross and other authors seem to indicate that's so, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way. I guess grief is a huge topic, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's picture

Dear Friend (I didn't see your name),

It is so wonderful that these online retreats and links enable you to listen while you watch your son. It reminded me of how it was when my son was small, bouncing around and writing on the walls!

i wanted to respond to your question. I was thinking while i was driving the other day how many times, even in a day, life breaks my heart. Even if it is not my own personal heartbreak, it is somebody else's! At the same time i was also noticing how much i have come to appreciate having a broken heart. I suppose the heart breaks when our fantasies fall apart; which is what really needs to happen for a practitioner because it shows us our humanness and connects us to others...and freedom comes with heartbreak because we are no longer trying to manage our world with so many hopes and fears.

At the same time, i think there is a difference between grief and compassion. These are the two ways (aside from simply ignoring) that we deal with painful situations (our own and others). I think the difference between the two is that compassion is open and freeing. It has an empowering affect too because with compassion we can openly bear witness to or behold our own and others' challenges. When we have compassion we can benefit others in a clear way. For instance, if someone is sick like our child and we close down, then not only can we not think clearly, but then the child becomes unable to relax. So compassion has an open and clear and peaceful kind of tenderheartedness. While grief is often heavy and stuck and there is a lot of blocked energy in the body. It is hard to help others when we are stuck in grief because we close down.

I am not judging grief, of course. It is natural and human to feel the pain of loss. But you asked me if grief is a productive process. I think that to be stuck in grief is not helpful. What is helpful and liberating is to see that you are big enough to accommodate grief. So there is nothing to get rid of or feel bad about when we have such strong emotions arise...i am just talking about developing a different relationship to them...we can use them and appreciate them and see how they can help us develop as practitioners rather than feeling we shouldn't have them or push them away with a subtle aggression. I always think it is important to remember we are never stuck.


indigomission's picture

That's a great distinction to make-- and it's so important for me to think about the fact that something labeled "grief" can make the experience feel heavy and homogenous, when really it may be surprising and open-ended.

Thank you!


peacegirl's picture

I am interested in what some of you do day-to-day, in a concrete way, to alleviate the frustrating (and painful) struggle of wanting security yet not being able to get it?

Kind regards.

agatwood's picture


I do Yoga just about every day. I am also setting a discipline of sitting in silent meditation, for 15-20 minutes each day.

These two practices help me to center and ground in the present moment. I find that, the more I can live in the present, the less painful the desire for security becomes. What I sense, when I am open to it, is that I am secure in now ... whatever is happening, whatever stories my mind might be making up about it, whatever off-the-cuff emotional response seems at hand. 

Slowly, over time, I find that I am developing an interior witness, an observer. This observer helps me to see what is going on in my life. In that witnessing space, I am able to approach life from a peaceful perspective. 

It is a long journey, a lifetime's journey, but you can do it. We all can.


Alan Atwood

rgoldwing's picture

I just continue to meditate and accept that it is the way it is.

JimJackson's picture

Peacegirl.  How would you answer if your question was re-phrased as follows?  I am interested in how some of you are being with your struggles and wantings for a sense of security. How are you being when you recognize the fear arising? How are you being when you recognize the fear passing away?

May you be peace.

peacespeak's picture

hello Jim  

I am new to this group and enjoying reading your entry this morning.  Hearing the return to human "being" - the fullness of learning from our direct internal experience.  Look forward to more of your thoughtful reflections over the course