As long as I can remember, I have felt anxiety about my self. I know that I’m not alone.
That cliché about ‘searching for the meaning of life’ is one that I feel deeply. I was raised to think that I was special, and that I had some kind of higher purpose that was out there for me to discover.
But with no clear understanding of how I was special, or of what my purpose is, the result has been a life of ceaseless striving. The sociologist Max Weber described the Protestant work ethic as something that came about because Christians needed affirmation of God’s love. In the same way, I have sought recognition from others in a number of fields as affirmation that I am special.
At the same time, I refuse to accept affirmation because I feel like an imposter. Like I am pretending to be special rather than being special in myself. This pernicious cycle has turned me into a dilettante, cultivating just enough expertise in any given area to receive both (1) praise, and (2) an awareness that expertise in that area is not enough to provide me with that profound sense of purpose that I am looking for.
The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the self. On the one hand, I’ve been searching for something essential about who I am, as if discovering my essence would give me clarity about the kind of meaningful work I should be doing in the world to fulfill my potential. On the other hand, amidst feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and dread I have worried that these feelings are ultimately all that I am. The thought of being ‘freed’ from these hungry ghosts has been more terrifying than what I suffer from living with them.
What if I give up my fears and discover that there’s nothing left? (Sounds like a codependent relationship)
Learning about Buddhism recently has helped me to flip this problem on its head. The emptiness at the center of who we are is not something to be feared, but is rather something to be embraced.
I am not a thing that needs to be discovered. And I don’t have to worry that my happiness hinges on understanding some elusive meaning to my life.
Instead, I am at the ability to observe my mental states and ideas as experiences, and to welcome my hungry ghosts, not as parts of myself, but simply as friends along with all of the other experiences in my life. The ability to acknowledge that you are simply the ability to take yourself as another frees you to abstract yourself from negative thoughts, unproductive habits, and attachment to things over which you have no control. And it empowers you to accept responsibility for any actions you take in response, because every action now becomes intentioned.
I don’t have control over the thoughts and impulses that spring to my mind involuntarily. I do have control over how I choose to understand them, and how I choose to act in response.
What I take from Buddhism is that the ‘meaning of life’ consists in wisdom and compassion. For yourself, wisdom involves (1) understanding the nature of self as existential (something that acts and becomes) rather than essential (something that is in a way that is independent of experience), and (2) an awareness that anxiety comes as a result of attachment to things over which you have no control. In relationship with others, it involves compassion because we all share a longing for happiness as well as the ignorance, fear, and pernicious cycles that get in the way.
I’m not a Buddhist, but I do think that Buddhism (especially when considered philosophically rather than religiously) is a helpful lens for opening up new and helpful perspectives on the world and in one’s relationship to it. It is also extraordinary to observe how deeply it’s basic ideas about personal identity and the nature of the soul resonate with the Western history of philosophy, from the Stoics and the Skeptics, to the Italian Humanists, to Spinoza, Hume and Hegel, through Existentialism and Phenomenology.
The part of me that wants to think of itself as a unique snowflake with original thoughts resents the similarity in all of these thinkers and traditions. And that petulant child inside of me wants to reject these ideas simply because they are both unoriginal and increasingly popular.
But a bigger part of me takes comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my own struggle with meaning. And I am grateful to have these guides (and those I have yet to meet) seated with me as friends at the same table, along with all of my hungry ghosts.
NOTE: I am only at the beginning of my journey to understand Buddhism, just like I am at the beginning of my journey to understand anything. If you are more knowledgeable and see errors or opportunities for my thinking to be clarified or extended, please leave a comment and let me know.