We do not need a belief system built on any absolute certainty. Insight, developed through study & practice, allows us to balance between the need for “eternal” & the fear of nothingless or meaninglessness.
There is the feeling, “Not at all sure.”
Is this doubt? I have no doubt about Gotama’s teachings. I have no doubt about the nature of the world, to the extent I understand that. There may be doubt about my abilities, my discipline; some self-judgments about that.
For example, why should I do this website? “What makes me think I’m so important?…” Perhaps this is the sign that what I have chosen is a worthy goal—or not.
I can sit here as long as you can, doubt. This is a practice, too.
Does anyone want this? Does anyone value a pragmatic approach that does not assume a universe with benevolent intentions towards humans (or life, for that matter)? If it really is a cold dark place, and we are completely on our own, shouldn’t we see that clearly, acknowledge it, and do our best to carry on in spite of that? Isn’t it time to grow up and let go of the fantasy of parental rescue? “This body will die.”
If the heat death of the universe arrives, and “all that we have done” is to do our best to help each other, were we wrong to do that, because there is nothing further?
Balanced between “everything exists” and “nothing exists”—between irrational hope & morbid despair—there is the watching of experience arising and passing away. Some may think this sounds just as bleak as the darkness between worlds. But perhaps that is the point. The feeling of bleakness is actually attachment to “nothing exists” (abhava-taṅhā). In fact, there is only this experience arising. But if we cling to it, or imagine a benevolent source for all of it, then we cling to “everything exists,” the eternal. It is not a case, as Gotama teaches about the intellect, of a logical exclusion—that one of the extremes must be “true,” whatever that would mean.
Any conclusion “this is true,” feels better than “I don’t know.” But the idea that the idea(!) can end the feeling (“I don’t know”) is fundamentally flawed. The idea “This must be true, & only this,” is unstable by its very nature as a process in the mind; the teacup mind never stop swirling, & the tea leaves never settle. Ideas are always partly made of feelings, so ideas alone cannot banish feelings. Looking inside, we can see that a feeling of uncertainty is still there. Ideas of “true” just become layers on top of the wounded feeling. Soon we have layers of idea-bandages soaked through with feeling-wound-blood. Still no peace.
Our tradition of logic, and the “excluded middle,”—“It must be either A or B; there is no inbetween”—which serves so well as a tool in the right circumstances, ends up being a trap when applied to ultimate questions about human existence. It becomes Wittgenstein’s fly bottle, a transparent trap from which there is no escape without understanding, a trap made of language in the shape of ideas. We take it so much for granted that it is invisible.
Gotama tells us to see that it is not real. We see this by actually examining our experience. We see that experience arises, but that each aspect of it that appears independent actually depends on many other aspects. We see that all experience arises, but is impermanent. We see experience passing away, but yet we cannot say “there is nothing,” because there is always something else arising! So neither “everything exists” nor “nothing exists” is really what we see when we look closely and carefully at our experience. Nothing lasts, but experience does not cease from arising.1 It is a flux, and everything that we take to be who we are is part of that flux. We can pick out and communicate about, for convenience, the aspects of experience that we identify with, but there is no one aspect that is “me,” that does not depend on the rest of experience for its temporary feeling of “existence.” To think about this in the abstract can lead to terror, or at least unease. But these are just more experiences arising, questions like “who am I, who was I, who will I be?” These thoughts and feelings arise and pass away like the rest of experience. By training ourselves to abide in present-moment awareness, observing and not getting caught up in the flux of experience, the power of such thoughts and feelings is diminished. We can actually live our lives more fully in the here and now—which is the only place we can actually live, the only perspective, point of view, that can exist for us in any case. As in the tale of Milarepa, we have to put our head in the mouth of the demon; then it will disappear.
1 This is a very freely done description of what Gotama says to Kaccāna, who asked about “right view”, which is the starting point for the ennobling eighfold path. Kaccānagottasuttaṃ, Saṃyutta Nikāya ii.16-17.