Over the past few weeks I’ve been limiting my engagement with other people (as I periodically do) in order to focus on personal projects, and to give my heart a rest from the non-stop, 24/7 shit-show that makes for public discourse these days.
Unlike my previous social sabbaticals, though, I am struggling to use this time to myself productively.
Granted, for someone like me struggling to be productive means *only* reading four books at a time; listening to a podcast series; doing The Artist’s Way 12-week program; volunteering; taking tai chi; and writing the story of my religious life (in addition to my home and family responsibilities). But still. I haven’t found a new job yet, and time has stretched out before me in a way that has removed the urgency from my efforts.
It is sobering.
Sobering because it has finally begun to dawn on me that my life is actually purposeless. Or rather, that my purpose is to just be the best version of myself that I can; and then, die. (Not unlike literally everything and everyone else in the universe.)
Sobering because it means that I’ll never again be able to fill my days with busyness in order to distract myself into believing I’m doing something cosmically important with my own little turn at sentient being.
Sobering because the implication of not having some grand purpose for my life means that there is no other priority for me besides what I can do right now. I don’t have the excuse of something more important that needs my attention, or some lofty pursuit that excuses me from seeing what needs to be done in my closest spheres of influence. There is no great destiny — aside from the great destiny of being, as I am.
In Zen, the idea of aimlessness (apranahita) is considered one of the three doors to liberation. What does this mean for those of us who have spent our lives trying to solve problems ‘out there’ and ‘fix the world’?
It means that we’ve been going about it the wrong way.
Aimlessness doesn’t mean ‘being lazy or ineffectual’. Rather, in the Zen tradition, it’s about effacing specific ideologies, solutions, or outcomes so that I can be fully engaged with the world around me; doing what I must, without the benefit of believing in a ‘higher purpose’ for myself.
But how, you may ask, can the human race get anything done this way? If everyone is just wandering around aimlessly, how do we actually solve problems?
The key, of course, is to allow ourselves to be guided by our moral and ethical commitments to attend to what is happening in each moment, and to the best of our limited abilities. We know that the world is full of pain, suffering and despair. Our responsibility to ourselves (and to one another) is to address the suffering over which we can actually have a direct impact.
How bizarre is it that I’ve spent so much time and money working on theoretical problems, trying to solve problems for people I’ve never met, while the people living across the street from us may be suffering and in need of help? How often have I ignored the homeless person on the side of the road because I had to get somewhere and do something important?
Imagine a world where we all met each moment and every circumstance with openness to helping the people right next to us; abandoning our dogmas, embracing wisdom — the ability to read the specific needs and context of the moment — and then choosing our response in a way that serves the unique needs of the time and place in which we stand.
The truth is, the multitudinous challenges facing humankind are limitless. Solving them will never come from a single approach or system or dogma or theory. The world will become whole when flexibility, creativity, humility and compromise become our modus operandi, allowing us to meet one another in the moment to address THIS problem. The one that is right in front of us. And then the next one. And the next.
It’s impossible to know the future. It’s impossible to see what is coming next. The duration of our time here is uncertain. Understanding this means abandoning hope that we will remake the world in our image and solve the very problems that may have caused us immense personal pain and loss.
But we are not helpless, nor hopeless.
What is required is courage to give up on our delusions of grandeur and stop hoarding our love, creativity, money, time and compassion as if the world will someday become more worthy to receive our gifts than it is today.
In the words of one of my teachers:
Plunge into it all
Open to it all
Forgive it all
Offer it all
After all, we’ve nothing to lose.