Originally published at The Tattooed Buddha
When I hear the term, “The human condition,” I think of a summer rain.
One of those showers on a humid day that catches you off guard as you walk to the car while carrying five arms’ worth of groceries with two. One of those brief storms that doesn’t even blot out the Western horizon. I feel the humidity break, the temperature drop, and see streaks across each window, blurring out the outside world.
How we respond to this condition defines who we are—not in general, but for that moment. It’s important to remember that: we live on a moment-by-moment basis. There’s no such thing as Big Me outside of who we are with each moment. That was Buddha’s not-self insight.
However, how we respond to a sudden storm might be a decent indication of how we respond to our lives in general. Because what is life but a sudden storm? This former non-person finds itself catapulted out into a chaotic world, and spends the rest of its life trying to make sense of it and itself.
We don’t come into it as clean, freshly folded sheets. We come to it wrinkled and stained by our genes, and by the nine months of luxury we had in the womb. In some ways, it seems we’re all looking to relive those nine blissful months, trying to get back to that euphoric nothing that met all our needs. Those days when we didn’t need to be someone, when neither good nor bad existed to us.
Everyone, without exception, is looking for a safe haven, for a life without storms.
Millions of people have made promises of paradise over the millennia, including Buddhists. I don’t believe any of them, and neither did the Buddha. He had to make his own way through it, through the storm. We all do. That doesn’t stop the storm—because we are the storm, life is the storm—but it helps us relate to it in a different way.
There’s no rule that says, “You must get upset when you get caught in the rain with groceries.” And there’s no rule that says we have to be thrilled about it either. The storm is nothing.
In Buddhist terms, it’s, “Empty.” It’s the same nothing we lived in for nine months before being pushed out into that fluorescent-flooded white-washed room. The same nothing we knew before we met those strangers in masks who passed us into the warm embrace of another stranger we maybe one day recognized as, “Mom.”
Life is one big inkblot that we alone shape and contextualize.
That sudden storm isn’t good or bad; we make it so. This has a glaring implication: we are terrifyingly free. We aren’t free to choose what enters and departs our lives, but we’re free to choose how we view everything that comes and goes. We’re free to choose our own labels, construct our own identities. We’re free to create and destroy our own habits. We’re free to grow, to stagnate, to live and die.
Whether we respond to this storm with a laugh, a cry, a shout, or a teary smile is entirely up to us. As the cliche goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But not only beauty: everything is in the eye of the beholder… Even us. We create ourselves.
Buddhism asks us to stop creating, to be uncreated. Doing that, we find that there’s an eye to this storm.
I have no interest in that. I’m here, I’m human.
I was raised in a war zone, rocked by contradictions, and I have no urge to resolve them. They make me feel alive. The human condition is founded on contradictions. It’s the space where love and hate, tragedy and comedy, being and nothingness come together in an unintelligible dance. I live for that dance.
In my opinion, the only functional truth is the truth of our illusions. A life without illusions is no life at all. Seeing the raw creativity at work in each moment of our lives, we can take control of the creative process. To me, that’s freedom. Since I’m not-self, that means I can be anyone. Since everything’s empty, then it can be anything.
Life is like a canvas dripping with wet paint. We might not be able to choose the colors, but we can sure as hell choose the image. None of our choices have to be final, because the paint never dries. We can keep creating, and keep growing all the way up to that last breath.
We are each unstoppable works of art in motion, and yet we live like we’re set in stone.
We travel the same paths, see the same sights the same way, and airbrush out the details. But nibbana is in the details. Have you ever looked at something closely, something ordinary, and been totally taken by it, and moved by it?
I find myself frequently smitten by transparent glasses of water. I love the way they shimmer and the shadows they cast. I’m as devoted to studying ordinary things as a religious fanatic is to venerating their god of choice. I worship golden morning sunlight, and those few minutes each evening when the sky is brighter than the land.
So often we sacrifice this world of intricate wonder for one of bland generalization. How often do you see each blade of grass in the yard? How often do you surrender yourself to the smell of clean clothes and coffee grounds? How often do you lose yourself in a sight, a sound, a feeling or a person’s eyes? These events don’t just happen, we have to make them happen and work at filling our lives with them.
How often are you moved? We should be constantly moved and moving, finding stillness in motion, rest in activity. That’s just my distorted view of things. That’s the magic of being, you could disagree with me 100% when it comes to this and be equally correct because your life is your life; you can view it however you like. Only you can decide which view and behavior minimizes suffering and increases joy.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a generic template; make it your own. Or don’t, either way is fine. What’s not fine is trying to control others at the expense of their own basic well-being and creativity.
I want to see everyone uncontrolled, everyone opting to control themselves instead. We do have to control ourselves, that much is certain. If not, we’ll be controlled by others, culture, and our own views and habits.
If we can control ourselves, then we start to take a more active role in the creation of ourselves and the world.
We can see the beauty or laughability of this storm. We can see it from as many angles as possible without getting snared by any of them, always remembering that this is only possible because the storm is nothing.
None of our judgments, explanations, or identities belong to life itself—they’re byproducts of our daily struggle to understand life, to know what can’t be known, to make sense out of what’s beyond sense and senselessness. They’re ways to make our lives more comfortable and womb-like. But that womb ends up being a prison.
I choose to spend most of my time in a poem. I try to feel the storm and move with it. My favorite view of life makes me feel like a chain smoking, flannel-wearing poet writing and loving in an attic room. It’s complete with wooden crates that double as both tables and chairs. A mattress hugs the corner, flat on the floor without a frame or box spring to support it.
Dust floats in sunbeams like some kind of forgotten species of firefly. Outside, the setting sun slowly sinks, naked in itself but revealing a soft layer of wool above. And from those clouds, rain. This room has known many amazing people, and especially amazing women. Whenever I’m lost in darkness, a brilliant woman eventually comes and fills the place with light. This room has stood as a silent witness to laughter, tears, and deep conversations about the nature of life and what it means to be human.
It’s not an actual place of course, it’s a feeling. And from that feeling, I view the world. That might sound strange, but like I said, we’re all free. If you want to turn a feeling into a scene, and a scene into a worldview, you can.
Buddha’s advice was to paint an enlightened life without spilling our paint on other people’s canvases.
To me, nibbana looks like a poet in an attic on a rainy day listening to records with a woman he loves more than life itself. What’s all this talk of transcendence? There’s nothing more transcendent than a sudden summer storm.