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What Do You Know for Sure?


"Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth." —Pema Chodron

Have you ever asked yourself what you know “for sure”? I have and I am absolutely, resolutely sure that I have no friggin’ idea about anything at all. It’s a much easier question to answer when you are 8 years old.

I have learned that once you think you know something, once you feel that you’ve really gotten the hang of something, something else comes along to disprove that certainty, unless of course you are a fundamentalist and refuse reason as your guide. Often in life, I have felt like I was being punked—that our Creator has a really bad sense of humor, bordering on cruel. But when I think like this, I try to let go of my patriarchal, anthropomorphic concept of God. It’s really no longer sensible to think like that. For me, it’s kind of like letting go of believing in Santa Claus, but more traumatic.

Here’s the kicker: We go through life and there is no manual. We learn so much from our parents, good and bad, and we assimilate that information into the subconscious. This drives us to live life in a particular way, from a particular angle, even thought we might not even see the angle we are coming from. And then we get in the groove, we find the right guy or gal, secure some form of career that feels good, and get into great shape, physically and mentally. But then, one day, right out of the blue, at what seems the most obviously worst moment possible, the proverbial shit hits the fan and we are left holding an empty bag. Our wife leaves us for another woman. Our job that we have invested in so heavily cans us. Our child, who we love with our entire hearts, begins to disappear into the dark world of drugs.

My latest cause for healthy disembodiment comes from Pema Chodron, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics). She talks often of something called groundlessness. And now, as I have lived in a sense of groundlessness for over 5 years, and as she carefully describes the wonderful benefits of groundlessness, I am left stunned.

Let me just say this: I hate groundlessness. I have always hated it, and I grew up doing almost anything to try to secure the opposite. But there they are, these wonderful Buddhist monks, living in a completely different mental and spiritual world. Common sense and our ego says go up. These monks? They go down. And groundlessness is the perfect example of this.

In her book, Chodron reminds us that try as we may, there is no such thing as being truly grounded, and this false goal is the root cause of our suffering. The ground is always moving. The false sense of security offered by feeling grounded is not what this world truly affords us. It may offer a sense of it temporarily. But in time, surely as day turns into night, we will face something impossible: death or loss of significant magnitude, and that will take us to this impossible space of groundlessness. But it is here, she says, that we find our only ability to be truly happy. It is in our ability to not cling to the things that are temporary that we can find any sense of steadiness.

Yet these words, however disconcerting on the ego level, give some comfort. I have lived like a gypsy for these past 5 years. To tell you the truth, I am not all that bold. I would probably prefer to still be at home with my partner rubbing my feet as I fall off into a glorious slumber at 9 pm. That is my groundedness.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us. —Pema Chodron

But in the missing of it, it has required me to find some other comfort. The cat is out of the bag and I know that anything can change in an instant, or slowly unravel in an exquisite unfolding of painful loss. I know that I can never again put all my eggs in this proverbial basket of finding lasting happiness externally. I am devastated. And I am much more free, and I can feel it in my bones.

Paradoxically, groundlessness does not mean not enjoying these things—these wonderful, beautiful life experiences that enrich us. Rather, seeing them with new eyes, different eyes, eyes that no longer cling and grasp. Simply behold the glory of life itself as it dances across the screen of our eyes, giving us the experience of a lifetime. This I know for sure. At least for now.

Will Donnelly

Will Donnelly is a nationally recognized, certified yoga teacher and writer, and is the author of “Practical Yoga’s Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life" (2017), a compilation of his most popular online essays now available at Will has been a pioneer in the field of yoga, developing Practical Yoga, and co-creating a yoga–reality series for fitTV (Discovery Communications, 2004). As a writer and teacher, Will encourages all students to trust their impulses and find their true voice. Will currently lives in Hawaii, where he leads weekly yoga and writing classes at Kalani retreat center. He also leads several popular Practical Yoga adventure and healing retreats throughout the year. Information on retreats, his book, DVDs and other inspiration to be found at

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