Touching a Bubble with a Feather

When I was a kid, and parent teacher conference day would come, my mother would reluctantly take me with her – not because I was a bad student. Quite the contrary, really. Teachers usually wanted to meet with her alone, so I’d sit outside the classroom door “patiently” waiting…and then grill her about everything they said about me as soon as she came out. “Oh Mary!” she’d say, “I should bring a tape recorder – you have to know everything!” Of course, mom was right (and yes, I’m old).

As an adult, I still look for answers. Okay, ‘look’ is too soft a verb, and is way too passive and calm. The fact is that I can research things until my eyes bleed for desire for knowing a thing, quite past the point of obsession. I know it can be unnerving to those around me. “I just have to know!” I bark, with the frenzy of an addict fiending for her poison, and in my feverish thirst for the answer, continue reading, asking what should be rhetorical questions and grueling ‘the google’ like a sadist leading an inquisition,  ravenous for information like a starved animal at a feast.

I am like the two year old that relentlessly keeps asking, “but why?” and I show intolerance of answers like, “I don’t know.”  “Well,” I reply, partly joking, mostly not, “make something up!” Unanswered questions feel like a single dirty dish in the sink,  an unmatched sock, or the stray fingerprint on a mirror. Untidy, outstanding, neither here nor there.

When I step back and look at this part of me, I see the flaw. I always kind of sensed it was there, but I could never quite put my finger on it until, I think, today. It’s part of my struggle against impermanence. Isn’t it more likely that understanding or obtaining mastery over a thing would mean I wield some kind of power over it and can better control it?

Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolute utility in knowing some things. For example, I probably wouldn’t be very good at my job (or have one) if I hadn’t had some drive to learn software engineering. I wouldn’t be a responsible citizen of this country if I didn’t question my government. There are definitely times when persistence in seeking understanding is crucial and not seeking it is irresponsible. “Knowledge is power!” can be celebrated when it addresses objective knowledge, and in knowing of things that can be learned and mastered…but this is not the case, for example, in trying to find every possible outcome of some event the future.

There is a tendency, (at least by me) to strive, beyond the point of insanity, in order to find the answers to philosophical questions, subjective questions, questions that arguably have no answer, because there is no answer at the present moment in time. These are the questions that drive me to the edge of madness at times, and where colorful stories are created in my mind.

While I think it is healthy (and vital) to have some level of curiosity about the world, as with all things, moderation is key. So when does a healthy drive to find answers become unhealthy? I think the answer to that might be, when the drive to know a thing supersedes our ability to be okay with not knowing the thing.

Back to the concept that knowledge is power with a smattering of logic. If knowledge is power and power is control, then knowledge is control.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. That can be upsetting and scary when all I want to do is find solid ground, to know that xyz is xyz. That it has always been xyz and will always be xyz. But as I seek answers to the bigger questions, I become more and more aware of the impermanence in all things. The whole concept of ‘all life is suffering/impermanence’ pokes me like a dull pin over and over, stubbornly persisting as hard as I try to ignore it and as much as I try to prove it wrong. Every time I try to grab at something, I do so in trying to find the satisfaction of some sort of permanence but knowing, in the deeper parts of myself where there’s no pretense and no facade between me, myself, and I, that this concept of impermanence is inescapable and unavoidable in all things.

It sounds pretty dreary and depressing I guess, until you dig deeper.

When I get through struggling with the idea that no matter how many questions I find (or don’t find) answers to, and that power over impermanence isn’t possible, then I am faced with thinking about this in a mental space where I almost understand but keep losing grip of it. Like trying to ride a bike for the first time, or that state when you’re teetering on the edge between a dream and being awake enough to be aware that you’re in the dream, dreaming. The concept is that this awareness of, in this case not knowing something, can actually bring contentment, if we can just relax into it. In other words, we can stop the tantrums and grasping at mirages of permanence, and instead become aware of impermanence – or not knowing – and by accepting it we can let go of the struggle and feeling of discontent. Basically, being okay with it. Being okay with not knowing. Being okay with things beyond our control. Being okay with change we know is inevitable. How free that feels! (At least, for the 0.0031 seconds I find and hold on to that place. It seems that, too is impermanent.)

I read an article today from Pema Chodron on loneliness, and at first I thought, oh hey, this will help me to not feel lonely when that feeling creeps over me. Cool! To my ignorant surprise, as I read, I began to realize that I had been thinking about loneliness (and subsequently, not knowing everything) quite in the wrong way.

In it, Pema talks about meditation, and that in meditation we’re taught to acknowledge the stray thoughts that enter our minds, but rather than sort of reprimanding ourselves for the thinking that’s happening while we should be meditating, simply acknowledge the thought as label it as neutral ‘thinking’ and gently dismiss it. She beautifully analogizes this as letting the thoughts “come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather.” When I read that analogy, the hairs on my arms stood up. I visualized what it would be like to touch a bubble with a feather. That helped me to understand how to find a kind of non-dramatic way of dealing with not only stray thoughts that enter my mind during meditation, but also how to deal with the addictive need to know the unknowable.

Here’s to the next 0.0001 second of doing just that.