We spend so much of our lives consumed by the surface-level drama. The friend that did this or that to the other friend. The celebrity who did something shocking. Even the news, with its continual drone of controversy — the corrupt politicians, the criminal corporations, the latest sports scandal — rarely dives beneath the surface to question why these things happen or why they really matter. Most of life is meant to be lived at the surface, and yes, even the most casual of interactions are to be cherished. But, to miss the deeper drama of life - to never ask the hard questions about who we are, really, and what makes life meaningful - is to miss the true depth and richness of life.
Thoreau said that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation.” They are desperate for that depth and richness but hide quietly behind a smile, going through the motions of ordinary life. I urge you today to leap into that great, terrifying unknown. Ask the hard questions. Why are you here? Who are you? Ask them not in an offhand way, as if repeating something you heard, but with your whole heart invested in finding the answer.
Do this not only to avoid the banality of everyday life, but to find the deeper majesty that imbues each banal moment with a richness of meaning. If you simply succumb to the banal, it will suffocate your drive to create something new and extraordinary with your life. No, this is not the easy road that is already laid out for you. Yes, it involves confusion, doubt, anxiety and even terror. These qualities of life are just as fundamental as beauty, peace and love. To exclude them is to miss something important. Even as we tremble to our very cores, we gain something invaluable: self-understanding.
Socrates declared the unexamined life not worth living, and accepted his death sentence rather than give up his search for wisdom. Have you ever asked yourself, honestly, what would you die for? This is to ask who you are, really. It’s to ask: what do you really care about? If there is nothing you will risk your life for, is there anything you truly care about? Professor Jay Bernstein, in his lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, presses us to ask these questions. And we must have an answer, he says, because to have life as our only need is to have a life beyond care, a trivial life.
These questions have terrified me since I was old enough to ask them. I was seven when I first asked my parents, “What happens when we die?” When they answered honestly that they didn’t know, I trembled to my core. I curled into a ball, sobbing, as I felt everything stable within me collapsing. That was the first of many panic attacks that would grip me whenever thoughts of my finitude, death, and the fleeting effervesce of life would arise to shock me from my sleepy engagement with life.
At first, the anxiety would last only for hours or days. I could calm myself with thoughts like, “When I die, it won’t matter because I’ll be dead, so there’s no point in worrying about it now.” Ultimately that logic failed, and the anxiety stretched over weeks, months and then years. These attacks are rare now, after more than a decade of therapy and years of daily meditation. I will always have a deep and profound appreciation for the suffering of anxiety, and whenever I can, I urge others to seek the support of therapy and meditation. You don’t have to go through it alone. Therapy helps. Meditation helps. We are here to support you.
Despite the pain it has caused, I am only drawn more powerfully into the search for meaning. My anxiety has given me a great sense of urgency to grapple with the scariest, deepest, most elusive parts of me while I still can. So that I may come to know myself, and not die without ever knowing who I am.
I urge you to join me on this path. Walking together will speed our journey, and certainly make it more fun. Take heed — it will not be easy, nor always enjoyable. We will follow the path laid by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit and Prof. Bernstein’s lectures on it. Hegel himself calls it a “journey of despair,” and yet also a “voyage of discovery.” Along the way I will incorporate teachings from my meditation tradition (the non-dual Kashmir Shaivite Tantra particularly as elucidated by Abhinivagupta). The perspectives of Hegel and Abhinavagupta, though hundreds of years and continents apart, overlap in surprising ways.
By bringing them together, I aim to weave a tapestry of life in which we may yet find ourselves. Life is not something, however, that we can simply look upon to find ourselves. We must actively live it. So you must join me in the process of weaving your own tapestry, and you must grapple with the same questions in your own life. We must find ourselves within that process, as humans engaged in the activity of life, encountering ourselves perhaps for the first time as self-conscious beings. We are always conscious, even if only at the surface of life; but we are rarely conscious of ourselves, as selves. This is our journey. To become conscious of consciousness, to know ourselves, to awaken into life.
Next up: The World is Not How We Take it - Perception and Reality.
drawing by pigwire