Updated: Dec 25, 2021
What is an existence?
For many, perhaps for most, it is a vehicle we travel in, without being conscious of it, much less directing its course. Our awareness of the distance we’ve traveled kicks in once we approach our final destination. All of a sudden we question our choices: who was in the driver’s seat this whole time? What roads could I have taken had I put my hands on the wheel? Did I really make the most of my one ride?
Others among us are shaken out of our slumber mid-road: an event, an encounter, a trauma causes us to step outside ourselves and observe our journey. Yes, I am in motion; no, I do not know how long I have left before I run out of fuel. Yes, I see the steering wheel: perhaps I could turn off the autopilot. Only thing is, no-one ever taught any of us how to drive; is there anyone in the vehicles around me in the driver’s seat? Could I learn from them?
Being awakened is painful in more than one way. It means realizing the fleeting nature of our existence: just how attached we are to it, and how fast it is slipping away. We understand we are powerless to stop its escape. For those of us touched by disease, the sting of our body’s betrayal makes our impotence all the more painful: perhaps that steering wheel isn’t within reach for us after all. Our realizations bring us to act differently and make unusual choices, and others around us may not understand, or worse, judge us negatively. That, too, is harrowing for us social animals.
But can anyone really reach that steering wheel? The wise among the awakened will question the very notion of the steering wheel. In fact, they question the notion of the driver itself. On a profound level, the totality of my being is determined by the genes I inherited and the circumstances I’ve lived through: I do not choose my thoughts any more than I choose my skin tone. Can “I” take credit for the mind I have? Who is this “I”, really, if not the collection of all the thoughts and impulses that “I” do not choose, that are continuously revealed to me on the screen that is my consciousness?
If you're like me, at this point you’ll probably want to ask: if there is no real driver, why go through the trouble of awakening? Why realize the finite nature of our journey, and the awful shame that is a life on autopilot, if we don’t have any real power to change our condition?
Here’s the best answer I have found, dear reader: neuroscience may invalidate our notion of self, but it exhorts us at the same time to make the most of our human experience. Here’s how: truly grasping the finite nature of our existence is just another one of those thoughts and experiences that shape our mind, which in turn shapes our understanding of the world, our actions and, ultimately, the reality we inhabit. When we genuinely understand how lucky we are to have a conscious experience at all, we’ll want to treasure and savor every moment of it: the warmth of the sun on our face, the touch of a loved one, the whiteness of fresh snow are invaluable treasures that won’t be available to us forever. The time to enjoy them and express gratitude for them is now.
Secondly, understanding that each thought and experience shapes our future, we’ll want to make them count: speak and act kindly; fight the negative bias in our mind and make an effort to see the good in the world; bring love to the beings with whom we share the planet. No, there isn’t a deity who will reward us for acting well; but if we’re lucky, our good deeds and thoughts will shape us into persons of presence and compassion, for whom the lights are really on and who inhabit a reality filled with love. And that, dear reader, is the best way I know to live a human existence to the fullest.