It's really hard to be human. It's inconvenient, messy, and often painful to have a body; it's more deeply inconvenient, messy, and painful to have emotions; and it's downright miserable to be oppressed by conditioned mind, a process of socialization that demands we cast aside our authentic self in exchange for the asylum of conformity. And yet this is what we've got, all of us. There's just no way around it.
Given that, what are we to do? Well, one option we have is to equip ourselves with the tools and experience required to live as free and happy beings, despite the fact that we are human animals crawling over the face of planet earth. We may develop the determination and self-discipline necessary in order to use those tools through all the inevitable resistance and all the stinging challenges that Life will throw our way. I wrote on this topic in the previous blog about training. Another option we may choose if we will is to care for the human we are with sincere sensitivity and loving-kindness.
The other day one of my comrades called to tell me that he had lost a dear acquaintance, tragically, in an accident. She died when a drunk driver veered into her lane on the highway. Isn't that awful? She had no children, thankfully, but she was young and full of hope and possibility. My friend, as might be expected, was trying to make sense of his own life given this violent reminder of his own mortality, of the brevity of life and the finality of death, and just how tentatively we each cling to our existence. Against this backdrop, he told me, it just doesn't make sense to devote one's life to anything ambition will bring. This life will pass as if in the blink of an eye, and so what could possibly be the point of accumulating a pile of money, or of exercising power over one's fellow-humans for a few short years? It doesn't make sense to spend a life indulging appetites, either, and for a similar reason: pleasure is fleeting and provides no benefits that will survive old age, sickness, and death. Is there anything, he wondered, that is worth giving a life for?
I think there is. A life well lived, a life that is deeply satisfying and meaningful, is spent caring for the human we each have come here to be.
We each entered this lifetime in the company of a unique human incarnation. That incarnation in a sense is who we are, but in another sense is not. In addition to experiencing ourselves as that human, with it's unique karma and all the challenges and opportunities that go with that, and with it's particular and universal needs, we also may experience ourselves as the compassionate awareness that holds the power to address those needs and guide the human skillfully through this life. Both are contained within the human body/mind. Most people identify with the incarnation and lose sight of the awareness, though they may glimpse it from time to time. The fortunate ones, however, discover that who they are in their essence is not this individual human alone, but also the Life that animates it. This perception along with a ton of work opens up a way to unconditional love--because who we are at our essence IS love--and through this love, with the clarity it brings, to the life they we were each born to live.
The critical distinction here is between our "Self" as in our authentic nature and the "self" that conditioned mind pretends to be in order to capture our attention. To give energy to the former is to live in joy; to give to the latter is to become lost, confused, and depleted. This is the nature of spiritual practice, or at least one way to explain it: practice is the process through which we learn to see the difference between the "Self" that is the same as Life and the "self" that is an empty aspect of conditioned mind, and to live as the one and not the other.
An argument could be made, of course, that no matter how lovingly one cares for the incarnation the human still dies in the end, and just like fame or pleasure that love cannot survive beyond the grave. There is no way to prove otherwise, but I have a hunch that the love does survive. Life is love, you know. And on a practical level it doesn’t really matter. In order to truly care for the human in my charge I need to identify with the compassion that is Life, and that, I believe, is the proper end of all our efforts. It is the source of all our joy as well, and the peace that we all crave in our hearts.
And so what does it look like to care for a human in this world? It is to provide what is nourishing and what will help the human to thrive, and to withhold what is toxic and will lead towards disease, anguish, or both. In my own case it is to cultivate the self-discipline that makes space for meditation, yoga, and cardiovascular exercise. It is to feed the body good, clean food, and to surround myself with loving people. It is to spend time in nature, where my inherent beauty and harmony is best reflected. It is to reserve time for solitude, but not too much solitude. It is to avoid unhealthy foods and intoxicants, and just as much to avoid the deprivation-strategy that says we can never have an ice cream cone or a glass of wine. It is to abstain from empty social commitments. It is to practice disidentification so that I may forgive myself for the inevitable errors and failings that will happen, and so that I can create authentic relationships with others. It is to love other people and be the best friend in the world to myself. Perhaps the greatest and most wonderful mystery in the world is that we can absolutely be for ourselves everything that we need. And it is to choose my relationship with Life over all other things. This last, in a way, is what this whole effort comes down to. Every way that I care for myself maintains my relationship with Life—they are the same thing. The quality of my relationship with Life is the same as the quality of my life itself; to devote my energy and attention to that relationship is the source of all happiness.
Please understand that there is no "should" in this. To care for the human rather than to simply be the human, with all it's blindness and confusion, is a free choice. If we are to have a deep and authentic life we will need to want it more than anything, as this is a hard path and it required tremendous commitment and determination. At the same time it is possible to say, at least in my experience, that if we truly want to care and be cared for in this lifetime, then that will inevitably happen. The road to joy becomes clear with the willingness to follow it. And it is my experience that all of Life is behind this possibility; how, then, can we possibly fail?