Questions and Objections
A couple days ago I suggested that we might aim at a relationship with the events that are unfolding in our lives, now and always, that turns loose of the conditioned human tendency to make everything about “me”. From a viewpoint that transcends self-centeredness (in the sense of putting ourselves and our wants, needs, and opinions at the center of everything), I suggested, it doesn't actually matter what happens to us or anyone else—even if what happens to us is the worst of what we can imagine. In response I received some questions and objections that went along these lines:
If it doesn't matter to me what happens, isn't that the same as saying I don't care?
How will I be motivated to act? If nothing matters, won't I avoid the responsibilities that arise out of this situation, and just sit on the couch instead?
Isn't this a form of denial?
I always appreciate feedback like this because it makes for good conversation. The answer to these questions is no, no, and no. Here's why:
When I say that it doesn't matter what happens, what I'm suggesting is that there is no good reason for being attached to particular outcomes. It's the attachment that's the trouble, in other words. It's not a problem to want things or to prefer one outcome over another—as animals with bodies and the needs that come with bodies that's natural and unavoidable—but if we attach ourselves to an outcome, which is the same as to say we can't let it go, then we are setting ourselves up to suffer no matter what happens. If it doesn't go our way then we'll suffer because we have invested our well-being in the thing happening; if it does go our way then we'll suffer for the same reason, we'll just like it better. To depend upon outward circumstances for our well-being is a form of suffering (in the Buddhist sense of being separate in our imagination from our authentic nature), even if we get what we want. The point here is that attachment to outcomes creates an “I” to be, and that's a miserable thing to be, because there is in fact no real “I”.
If we let go of attachment then the outcome will be, ironically, that we're enabled to truly care. The reason is that an “I” can care only for itself. An “I” is inherently self-centered and self-absorbed, and will not allow awareness to escape beyond it's wants and needs. True compassion and empathy occurs when the “I” is absent and we are aligned with our natural goodness and clarity instead. It's like the phenomenon that happens in romantic relationships, where one of the people involved is attached to the relationship or to the other person and so cannot fully love. Only someone who can let the relationship be what it is and let it go where it naturally will go, and who can let the other person be who they are, will fully be in love. Love has to be unconditional, in other words, in order to be true. It's the same with all of our other noble impulses. If everything is about “me” then I cannot truly care for another, and there is no real compassion, but if nothing has to do with me and I can let go of my preferences as to what happens to me, then my heart will naturally open to myself and others.
Similarly, if there is no “I” attaching to outcomes we will naturally be full of energy and feel motivated to serve. I've been thinking over the past couple days about a story I heard concerning an unhappy truck driver who was driving cross-country during a rainstorm. It rained so much that a river flooded he needed to cross and he found himself stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to continue and with nothing to do. He learned that the local community was threatened by the rising water and that the whole population had turned out to fill sandbags and in other ways protect their homes. The truck driver was bored, so just to have something to do he decided to pitch in. Over the next few days he went from feeling isolated, lonely, and miserable in any number of ways, to feeling connected, purposeful, and in love with his life and the people that he met. This is because he accidentally found a way to let go of his own egocentric agenda—he benefited from the work in no material way—and just go with the flow of what occurred around him. The same will happen to any of us who are willing to set aside “I” and live without attachment.
To face the facts embedded in our human existence that we are profoundly insignificant, that nothing we experience means anything about anything, and that it matters not a fig what happens to us, is the opposite of denial. To maintain the fiction somehow of our importance and to put ourselves at the center of the universe is actually the denial. We will all sooner or later be dead no matter what happens, and soon after that nobody will remember we even existed. That's a really good thing to keep in one's awareness, because it opens the door to fully being present with our lives. If we are not living for some imagined future or for some irrelevant end, then the only other place to be is right here, right now, being who we are and having the life that's unfolding in front of us. Not only is that the place from which we may the most effectively act in response to the coronavirus and every other circumstance in our lives, it is also the place where anxiety ends and peace resides.