I was talking with a friend who very often doesn’t feel he has a clear direction in life, doesn’t operate on any solid principles, and usually doesn’t feel he’s clear on what he should be doing at any given moment.
I completely relate to this difficulty: it’s the uncertainty of what you should be doing at this moment, or today, or in life. We feel this uncertainty all the time as stress, anxiety, fear — or simply the feeling that we’re doing things wrong.
So I’d like to share how I’m working with this uncertainty … a small number of ideas I learned from Zen and from playing the game of Go (a Chinese strategy game more complex than chess, played with black and white stones on a 19×19 grid).
In short, the ideas are:
- Keep the whole board in mind.
- Play one stone at a time.
- Dance with the uncertainty.
- Leave no trace.
Let’s look at each of them — they’ve been incredibly helpful to me.
Keep the Whole Board in Mind
First, a disclaimer — I’m terrible at Go. I’m a beginner, though maybe an intermediate beginner. That said, I have learned some things that are important.
One big one is to play with a “whole-board” mindset. Most of us beginners get too caught up in the local situation — in your daily life, that’s looking at the messages and emails coming in, being responsive to tasks as they come up.
The best Go players play with the bigger picture in mind — what does the whole board call for in this situation?
For our daily lives, that means bringing the big picture into the decision-making process. What does your life require right now? What matters most to you? What would have the biggest impact on the things that you care most about? Do you have meaningful work, people you serve, a purpose, a mission, a direction? Think about that a bit, and use that to guide your decisions.
What matters to you? What can you do this week, today, right now, that will have an impact on that?
You don’t have to have a certain answer to any of these questions. Just come back to the bigger questions as you make smaller decisions, so you’re not just being reactive.
So as I finish this one task and think about the next task, instead of acting on impulse and responding to things coming in … I should think of the big picture and choose based on that.
That leads us to the next idea …
Play One Stone at a Time
When I play Go, I see like 10 big moves where I’d like to play my stone. I can only play one move right now though, because after I play a stone, my opponent gets to play their stone (of opposite color).
So the idea I’ve learned is this: I can only play one stone at a time … so I have to play the biggest move out of the dozen or so I’d like to play right now.
Right now, you probably have a dozen or two things you could be doing. You might wish you could do them all at once, and have them all be done in the next hour. But you can’t! You can only do one task at a time. You can only play one stone right now.
So, with the big picture in mind … which task would be the most important one you could do? You don’t have to have a super clear answer to that, but use that question to guide your choice. Let the others go for now, and play those stones one at a time with each move you have.
You have one stone to play — just pick one based on your gut, with the whole board in mind, and let go of the rest. Let go of the need for that choice to be certain …
Dance with the Uncertainty
You can keep the whole board in mind, and try to choose the most important task to do right now … but not really know which to choose.
That’s OK. No one ever really knows. Not in Go, not in life. There’s never any certainty.
So we have to learn to be OK with the uncertainty of it. Pick what feels right, based on our gut intuition. Which will do the most good, which will have the most impact, which will ease the most pain in our lives and the lives of others?
These kind of questions can guide us in the uncertainty, but we won’t ever eliminate the uncertainty. No system or set of rules will ever eliminate the uncertainty.
So let’s dance with it. Explore it like adventurers wandering into unknown territory. With curiosity, with wonder, with delight.
Play in the middle of the uncertainty. Let yourself bring joy and lightheartedness into it. And just play the stone, curious to see what might emerge.
Leave No Trace
Now you’ve chosen the stone to play … and you’re dancing with the uncertainty … it’s time to dive into it completely.
Do this task as if there were no other task in the universe. As Suzuki Roshi said in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, leave no trace of yourself. Let yourself burn up completely in the task.
This practice is about being completely in the task, not thinking about yourself but just being there, doing it. As if you’re one with everything as you do it, egoless and free of the burden of thinking about yourself (which we do a lot of the time).
If that’s too confusing, just try to be completely with the task. Lose yourself in it.
So those are the ideas …
Keep the big picture in mind as you choose what to do.
Pick the most important task that you can work on right now, with the big picture in mind.
Play in the middle of the uncertainty of that task.
And be completely with the task.