Mindfulness, meditation, and finding hope in uncertainty: Interview with Henry Shukman
Updated: Apr 18
The Narrative with Matt Lewis is a blog series that explores the importance of human connection, relationships, and hope, topics central to the mission of 3rd Conversation and important for all of us during this time of uncertainty. As the chief storyteller of 3rd Conversation, Matt is an expert on the use of narrative as a tool for connection, teamwork, and leadership development.
Editors Note: In 2021, given the widespread impact of COVID on humans both within and outside of health care, we have expanded the universe of individuals we invite to participate in the Narrative and tapped into other disciplines to invite both a deeper and wider conversation and explore sources of renewal as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
Our most recent interview is with Henry Shukman (Ryu’un-ken), an internationally recognized Zen Master based at Mountain Cloud meditation center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Henry is also a writer and poet who has published nine books to date. He writes regularly for Tricycle, The New York Times and other publications, and his most recent book is the memoir, One Blade of Grass.
ML: It seems impossible for any of us to have predicted recent events, everything we went through and are still going through— how have you been experiencing the last year?
Thank you for bringing that question into the conversation.
We have two adult children – both in their early twenties – and this has been hard on them. And it has been hard on us, as their parents, to see the savage reduction of social life and connectivity to their teachers and mentors.
But for me personally, it has not been as hard because my wife and I have an at-home-mellow-life and there was a way for me to be of service through the work I do. At Mountain Cloud, we have had an explosion of interest. Of course, it has all been online, but we increased from holding 8 meditation retreats to 20. There was an immediate sense that this was something we could offer that was helpful to others. I have been fortunate to both have a deep practice of meditation plus the added opportunity to serve in some small way.
ML: I’m curious to hear your reflections on meditation and mindfulness as an activity based in relationships. People may have the perception that meditation is solitary, but how much of the practice is learned by being connected to others?
There are at least two or three strands to this practice, one of which is the self-discipline to do a little bit of meditation every day, and yes, probably on our own. But if that's happening without gathering with others – and the past year showed us that includes gathering together online – it is not going to have the same depth of impact.
We tend to be culturally predisposed to this idea of taking it all on ourselves: this is a solitary project; I have to be the one who accomplishes this, on my own; it is through my solitary work that the skill set will be developed.
That is not wrong but it's very incomplete. That’s a maximum 25% of the picture for mindfulness and meditation. There is this whole other domain that includes the practice of receiving guidance and support that makes everything easier and deeper.
Also, it is important to see how these practices can help us be in relationship with others. The practice of meditation, if we are doing it right, will down regulate our nervous system. We get more centered. We get calmer. And we may not see this immediately, but over time we will also become more present. That is a much better state for interacting. Meditation and the practice of slowing down helps us remember to be open to direct interaction and relationship.
ML: Before our conversation today, I listened to you on another podcast articulate the observation that all too often our personal sense of truth is like a clenched fist. You offered this question: what would it take for us to open our fist, not in service of the next answer, but actually remain open to new ideas and possibilities?
And yet, it seems in this country, we are becoming more and more polarized. Any reflections on how personal or community openness is possible given the current social context?
There is something crucial for all of us about not tightening our grip on what we think we know. Instead, we must be open to uncertainty– by the way, I think there's always uncertainty and, importantly, uncertainty can be a productive place. But it has taken some of these big events like COVID for people to really feel how universal uncertainty is in our daily lives.
And what happens when we feel that uncertainty? The typical response is first anxiety, followed by the desire to get certain again about something. Anything. We want to latch on to something, as soon as possible.
But there is another approach. We must ask ourselves: what would it take to live with uncertainty?
There are great teachings that say we only know two things: that death is certain, and time of death is uncertain... generally, people don’t want to hear that. But it can be a helpful truth to reflect upon. Because what does it mean for our experience of this moment to recognize that this mortal reality is going to end at some point? Well, if we are really open to it, it's humbling. It amplifies gratitude for this moment we presently occupy. It brings a powerful recognition that we are all in the same boat.
Embracing uncertainty – the elemental uncertainty that exists in all our lives – brings about connection, compassion, and a loving attitude for ourselves and others. With a true recognition of uncertainty, gratitude and curiosity arrive.
ML: What you just described – finding connection and compassion by embracing uncertainty - feels incredibly hopeful to me. Where else are you finding hope?
There is always a bigger perspective. Of course, it's good to narrow and focus on the details of what requires our attention in the moment. But there is a leveling up when we both see and remember that there is a bigger picture.
We can look at history and see hate and violence and cruelty and oppression and brutality. And we must see those things. And it's very, very good that they're coming to light more.
But human history is also full of love, beauty, people making incredible sacrifices. Seeing that picture is beautiful to behold. It is inspiring.
It's an amazing thing to be part of this human unfolding. Sometimes there are hard lessons that require we traverse difficulty. But we are on a great cosmic journey together. That makes me hopeful.