(Or… What Is the Meaning of Life?) – Donna Quesada.
In my Philosophy of Film class we had just watched Waking Life, the partially animated movie about philosophy, where actual characters—washed over in wavy watercolors—explore life’s fundamental questions in the context of the main character’s lucid dream. In one of the early scenes, a philosophy professor celebrates the empowering nature of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Contrary to what people think, “Sartre never had a day of despair in his life,” he explains to the curious dreamer.
Sartre’s philosophy is described as empowering because of the way he approaches one of philosophy’s biggest questions: Does life have meaning? He says we create meaning through the choices we make. We define our own purpose. But it requires tapping into our inherent freedom of will. As we create our own identities through the decisions we make, we realize our potential as humans. We carve out our own paths. And for the iconic French existentialist, that’s what authenticity is all about.
In philosophical terms, it means rejecting the traditional notion of destiny, and the corresponding idea that things are inevitably the way they are, set and fixed, in a preplanned universe. There is nothing preplanned, according to Sartre, so he famously rejects such a thought. Thus, he rejects determinism, since it suggests a preexistent, predetermined plan. Sartre asks, “Where is this plan?” Since determinism leaves no room for free will, it opens up a world of convenient excuses that make it too easy for us to dodge ownership over our choices, allowing us to fall back on such clichés as That’s just the way I was made, and, It was in the cards, or, It must have happened for a reason.
For Sartre, these excuses won’t do. We create the reasons and the circumstances of our lives, given the choices available. He is an unrelenting champion of free will, and it is that very unyielding commitment to internal freedom that makes him an existentialist. As conscious beings we are innately free, but that freedom comes with a price, namely the “burden of responsibility,” which he says we must assume for every decision we make. The weight of this burden is such that it engenders an abiding sense of angst within us. Only when we own our existence, shaping it through the choices we make, do we live an authentic life.
Buddha—What Are the Choices?
Having already taken my Asian Philosophy class, one perceptive student asked whether Sartre’s authenticity is comparable to the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness—the deliberate state of pure awareness that allows us to reshape the deeply engrained patterns of mental conditioning by simply staying present. This student saw the kinship in the shared emphasis on internal freedom.
Insofar as Sartre encourages us to actively create our own fate, with all the responsibility that comes along with this freedom, there is a parallel. But Sartre’s freedom has more to do with conscious choosing than one’s state of consciousness. There is a difference. Put another way, Sartre’s free will is said to be a product of our consciousness. But, this rather limited consciousness is exactly the source of trouble from the Buddhist perspective! It includes the noise of the ego-mind, with its ready index of grudges and complaints, which is the source of all the trouble from the get-go.
In practice, the difference between Sartre’s inner freedom and Buddha’s inner freedom is immense. The first is an ability to freely choose from among alternatives that exist in the world, while the latter refers to an awakened state of mind which liberates us from ego-consciousness. An awakened state of mind shapes what we perceive as choices in the first place, and shapes how we see the world and our place in it, and more importantly, it enables acceptance when the choice we want isn’t available. In this enlightened state of mind, we come to see the world differently, desire less from it, and act differently in it. Actions are the inseparable corollary of our state of mind. This is what it means when Buddhist teachings say that mind shapes the world. Mind is world.
Philosophy, whether eastern or western, isn’t supposed to be merely cerebral. Disregarding the old caricature of the “armchair philosopher,” it should apply to life; it should be something to turn to when times get rough. So, how does all this help with the big questions?
The Meaning of Life—
As to the question of the meaning of life, the Zen masters of old, putting Buddha’s ideas into practice, might simply point to the clouds. What is the meaning of their beautiful glide across the autumn sky? We might also ask…What is the meaning of a song? Or… What is the meaning of the letter E?
In a nutshell, all the “existential angst” Sartre speaks of—the burden of our responsibility as free and forlorn creatures in a non-determined universe—slides all too easily into more of the same spinning thoughts that fill our busy heads and our entire existence. And that’s not to shun responsibility; it’s to shun the tiresome ruminations that Buddha says are the source of our troubles. My Zen teacher used to say, “You’re in your head!”
But, we’re attached to these thoughts because they provide the illusion of control. By repeating scenarios in our heads, and endlessly strategizing all the possible outcomes, we convince ourselves that we’re managing things. Opening to the truth of how little in life we actually do get to control reveals the busy head work as a futile waste of energy, yet for some reason, we continue to cling to these thoughts out of habit.
Letting go of what Zen refers to as the ruminating mind is truly liberating. How do you let it go? By simply letting it go. How do you drop anything? The ruminating mind will offer its barrage of what-ifs, and then they will go away, so long as you don’t feed into them. It’s like with anybody’s annoying behavior… Just don’t encourage it! You just come back here. That’s why it’s called a practice: Just keep coming back to being present, and eventually, the thoughts will dissipate on their own. Like unwanted solicitors, they get tired of knocking on your door after a while.
What about all those choices we have to make? When the water is clear, you’ll know what to do, Zen says. Knowing in the Zen sense, does not involve concepts or ideas, as it does in the west; it is a quality of uncluttered presence that inspires grace in action. And this state of presence—what my student meant by mindfulness—brings us into direct contact with what is, rather than what if, so that we can get along in the world, even when it’s not what we expected.
A kind of magic happens with the simple act of staying present, without getting caught up in the stories we all concoct inside our heads and without reacting to the drama going on up there. The real show is going on here and now. So with compassion for yourself, just keep coming back.