16. No Security In Being Human

Q: I just had a funny thought about human nature. I love your photographs, but when I recall them, I remember only the happy ones. I see your image of a donkey’s eye, or a seemingly carefree woman. I know you have made many images with a darker side like your photographs of homeless people and street life, but that’s not what crosses my mind.

I’m drawn naturally to the images that bring me something I want and crave. I crave going back to “what I was.” I crave a life free from trauma, stress and fear. The pictures I like and remember depict what I think I want, so I enjoy them. But you have many different types of photographs. You could ask twenty people what their favorite image is and I bet they’d all pick something different.

A: I don’t think much about craving. It’s not that I live in the kind of “desireless” state that is supposed to be an aspect of spiritual mastery. Desire, along with its opposite, aversion, is a natural part of living, so wanting can always arise. But frankly, I have little interest in desire, which is always about future gratification. Trying to appease cravings can be an endless pursuit. Yes, if you manage to obtain what you crave, you may feel satisfied for a while, but not for long. Soon a new desire will pop up—a new craving demanding satisfaction. There’s no end to that revolving door, and no peace of mind in it.

You have noticed that you are driven by cravings. You are possessed by what you think you lack but must have, even to the extent that your perceptions of the world—of my photographs in this instance—are corrupted. Still worse, the particular cravings you mentioned will never be appeased, not for the briefest moment. No one can return to “what I was,” not even to what I was five seconds ago. And freedom from trauma, stress, and fear is a vain hope. Trauma can occur at any time. Stress is a natural aspect of living. Fear arises if and when it does, completely beyond control. In living, there are no guarantees.

So your craving for security and the end of fear will never be satisfied. Yours is not like a craving for candy or sex that may allow for some satisfaction, if only temporarily until the hankering begins again. You want something impossible. You want living itself to be something it is not: secure and free of anxiety. No one can ever satisfy that kind of craving, but only escape into a fantasised “something else.”

That something else might be Heaven with Jesus, “enlightenment,” or some other song and dance, but none of that is here now. You have tried the religious approach, as I understand is central to your social milieu, and it’s not working for you. And so you find yourself resorting to me, whose view of “God” is this: “Just because something can be conceived of and named does not mean it really exists.”

“God” is a concept — an idea in your mind — and you didn’t think it up. The notion of Big Daddy in the sky who makes rules and answers prayers was put there by others, most likely by caregivers who injected that idea into your mind intentionally while imagining that they were helping you and enriching your life. But their belief does not make that fairy tale true, nor does yours. The only thing you really know is that right now you exist. Not that “God” exists — you don’t know that — but that you exist. So you are not “of God” or “in God.” God—the idea—is in you.

Some people can lie to themselves about eternity in paradise and all that, but you aren’t one of them, so you find no security there. And you have seen that even the ones who pretend to believe all that stuff don’t really believe it. If they really believed it, when someone was diagnosed with a fatal illness, a celebration would ensue:

“Great news, man. I’ve got terminal cancer. Beautiful!”

“Really? You’re dying? Some guys have all the luck.”

I pointed to your honesty, particularly your reluctance to deceive yourself, as a gift, not a problem, so I advise going with that gift and making the most of it. A life free of suffering is a fantasy. In your heart of hearts, you already know that. So admit that to yourself. Embrace it. Suffer it.

This constant juggling of concepts about supreme beings, souls, reincarnation, transcendence, self-realization, and enlightenment serves only as a tactic of postponement. All we really know is now. When you lose interest in spiritual pipe dreams, your craving for a pain-free life will weaken. Then your attention will remain naturally where it belongs—not in some fanciful trouble-free future, but in this moment, which is the only moment one ever has, the only moment one must deal with, and the only moment one actually can deal with. Seeing that simplifies matters considerably, I find. The wise among us enjoy and suffer a fully human experience with an equanimity they are powerless to explain, albeit countless ones have tried.

Freedom means open-hearted participation in experience as it arises in real time without wishing for anything to be different. In this moment, things are as they are, and cannot be different. In the next moment, things will be different. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Enjoy the cookie while you have it. It’s the only one you get.

There is no security in being human. Never was, never will be. There are no assurances. None. In the next instant, any condition at all can arise. See that, embrace that, deal with that and that alone, and you may find the freedom you seek — not freedom from something like stress, anxiety, or fear, but the freedom to actually be. That’s the best, I say, we humans can do.