Confidence: Holding Your Seat through Life’s Eight Worldly Winds by Ethan Nichtern

The following is an excerpt from Confidence: Holding Your Seat through Life’s Eight Worldly Winds by Ethan Nichtern.

Have you been by a car wash or car dealership and seen those inflatable people (often called tube men) who come to life when the wind picks up and wave at all passers-by like everything in the universe is amazing, only to droop in despair when the animating breeze leaves them? One moment the tube man is on top of the world, and the next he looks like he thinks he’s the worst piece of shit who ever existed.

If we’re going to have a real conversation about confidence, we have to admit we each have one of these little tube people inside us. We’re sensitive to the tiniest signals of positive or negative feedback from the world. Someone cute smiles at you, and everything is golden; and then you get a text message containing one offhand criticism, and every drop of sunshine leaves the world. The winds are constantly blowing, and they prop us up with superficial perceptions of self-worth, only to knock us down into gloom when one contradictory experience rips through. If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know that no matter what you do, no matter how you try to protect yourself, the next contrary experience is always coming.

In classic Buddhism, these forces that both inflate and deflate our self-regard are sometimes called the vicissitudes, but they often go by an appropriate metaphor: the eight worldly winds. They are known as winds because whenever we become attached to some plateau of stillness or ease, these experiences can knock us off balance. They can also be thought of as eight traps of hope and fear — traps we face constantly — because they’re moments we either chase after or brace against. Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, categorized these eight into four couplets, in which one side represents our elation (hope) and the other our deflation (fear) — or in more extreme moments, our deepest fantasies and darkest nightmares. This framework is both ancient and timeless, because even as culture evolves and technology accelerates, not much has changed in the existential terrain of the human heart. Throughout history, other experts of the human mind have also tried to elaborate ways to describe the things we all long for, such as the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (which has some surprising parallels with the eight worldly winds that Gautama talked of 2,500 years ago).

These are the four pairs of worldly winds the Buddha described, with the first of each pair describing the experience we reach toward (hope), and the second describing the experience we desperately try to avoid (fear).

Pleasure/pain
Praise/criticism
Fame/insignificance
Success/failure

The first pairing refers to the most basic human experiences, and the last to the most general: getting the result we’ve been striving for, arriving at an outcome that lets us taste the fruits of labor, a moment of perceived closure and satisfaction. At the other extreme lies the fear of failure or loss, where our efforts are in vain, our project unfulfilled, and our sense of self wounded or demolished completely. These eight forces could also just be called life itself. In classic Buddhism, the skill to recognize and face these worldly winds goes by the name upekkha. This term is often confusingly translated as “equanimity.” Equanimity is almost always a head-scratcher for students who hear it. In English, it has the connotation of nondisturbance, inertia, or stillness. If you meditate for more than five seconds you come to the realization that there is no stillness in this world, either internally or externally. Relative stillness certainly exists: life in the country may be calmer than life in the city. But absolute stillness does not exist in our world. Even skyscrapers — the tallest and sturdiest objects humans have made — are built to sway in the wind.

If you’re paying attention when any of these winds start to blow, you’re going to feel them, and they’re going to push you in a certain direction. Mindfulness is not about pretending that things don’t affect you. That pretense is called avoidance, a trick that works only for zombies and AI robots. Equanimity is about realizing that everything affects you. We are all much more sensitive to our lived experience than we might like to believe. A better English translation for upekkha might be “resilience.” In the context of this book, upekkha is the practice of holding your seat and responding mindfully to the moment, rather than reacting habitually to it. The ability to reclaim this resilience when the winds start blowing is the foundation of true confidence.

Being nonreactive never means being passive. It means responding to your needs and wants from a grounded place, a mindset supported by awareness and intention, rather than being toppled by the fast-moving threat or promise of whatever the situation at hand might present. To hold your seat means to demonstrate confidence without bluster. This power comes from presence, from knowing that life is full of forces that can make you either howl at the wind or go hide in a corner, and understanding that these forces are never going to stop moving.

Exploration of each pair of these winds offers insights into what makes our self-regard so fragile and offers practices we can adopt when they inevitably blow through our lives. These practices haven’t made my own little tube man disappear. He is still right here in my chest, an eternally hopeful little dude, nervously strapping on his backpack for his first day at the school of life, his boyish chest always inflating and deflating as the winds of hope and fear blow on through. Over time, however, the tube man has come to represent a useful compass for my journey through this life. Practice has made him more flexible, more humorous, and far more connected to others’ struggles.

You can’t disappear from your life in this world. As I’ve progressed on my path as a meditator and spiritual student, I’ve come to see that most of that ancient spirituality that has become so popular comes from practitioners who rejected the world, or at least rejected immersive participation in the societal structures of their day. I want to tell all the deeply accomplished spiritual masters who were also world renouncers, including the historical Buddha: I get it. I get why you left society behind. I really do. When you’re overwhelmed by the pressures of the real world — when you have no idea how to be a husband or a father to your infant son — of course you’d get the urge to flee. Any one of us might relate to this longing to escape the world for greater spiritual knowledge. When we get dumped, or we realize we need couples therapy, or we have to put together a résumé, or we need to figure out what we want to express creatively that doesn’t feel cringeworthy, or we try to face the political realities of a broken world — we all can have the urge to leave, to go live minimally apart from human relations, to just try to figure it all out alone. But that disappearance from society is not my path. And it’s probably not yours, either. The path is the world itself.

Ethan Nichtern is the author of Confidence: Holding Your Seat through Life’s Eight Worldly Winds and several other titles, including the widely acclaimed The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. A renowned contemporary Buddhist teacher and the host of The Road Home Podcast, Nichtern has offered meditation and Buddhist psychology classes at conferences, meditation centers, yoga studios, and universities, including Brown, Yale, and more. Visit him online at http://www.EthanNichtern.com.

Excerpted from the book Confidence: Holding Your Seat through Life’s Eight Worldly Winds ©2024 by Ethan Nichtern. Printed with permission from New World Library – www.newworldlibrary.com


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