We are all on bicycles, pedaling furiously. We are unable to stop. The moment we do, we crash or fall, and worse –others pass us and we are left behind.
We live in a society that demands so much from its individuals: to be more productive, more prepared, more of this and less of that. We were born to strive from cradle to grave, and we were taught to ceaselessly hurl ourselves forward if we wanted to be ‘valuable’. What is our ‘worth’? We place our worth in tangible and intangible things. Impermanent things, all the same.
What is the relationship between identity and worth? Three weeks of poor health, disrupted routines, immense disappointment and anxiety has led me to reflect deeply on this subject. I was made painfully aware of the tendency to build my identity around the things I can (and cannot) do or achieve. What I could do defined my identity and what I was worth. If I ceased to do what I used to be able to do, everything crumbled. On that note, I found myself contemplating the fragility of ‘worth’ and asking questions like ‘How can we make sense of our lives in such a demanding world?’ More fundamentally, when we strip away all the demands and pressures that our society exerts on us, we are left with a more profound question of ‘What does it even mean to ‘be’?’
I return to the original metaphor that I began with –the bicycle. It is a bleak metaphor for existence, perhaps paralleling Weber’s iron cage and the imagery of workers being merely a cog in the bureaucratic machine. This post will offer two alternative metaphors for getting through life: the river, and the mountain.
Before I explain these metaphors, allow me to borrow some concepts from Buddhism that I find very useful in supporting these metaphors. The concepts are ‘impermanence’ and ‘emptiness’. Firstly, life is suffering because we cling to impermanent, fleeting things. These impermanent things range from whether or not we run a sub-10 minute 2.4 to whether or not we get on the Dean’s list. If we tie our identity (who we are) to impermanent things (things that we can easily lose in an instant), who are we without these things? We are empty. This brings me to the second concept of ‘emptiness’. Everything is ‘empty’. At this point, I find that many people misunderstand me. ‘Emptiness’ is not a void, nor is it intended to be negative. It has no value in itself, and is all-encompassing. Our existences are ‘empty’ not because life has no form. But instead, life has no permanent form.
Earlier last year, I got a tattoo of a great white shark on my ribs. It was supposed to symbolise strength and being forward-moving. The great white shark breathes by ram ventilation –it has to keep swimming in order to breathe. I was captivated by the idea of always being on the move in order to survive, and I still am. It is important to me to keep moving along, but it should not be reduced to mindless thrashing. Moving forward and striving for things that I care about is only part of the story. It is also important to flow.
The metaphor of the river is perfect here –it is not entirely directionless, after all, all rivers lead to the sea. Yet, it forces nothing. The flow of a river is neither a push nor a pull. It simply is. Similarly, what it means to ‘be’ is to flow. This means not clinging on to things that are beyond my control, and learning to let go.
I consider myself to be more emotionally volatile than people realise. This is why the metaphor of the mountain is very helpful when I am coping with negative feelings or desires. The mountain is not shaken during the storm, and it stands indifferent to all the seasons. It may be shrouded in clouds, but the presence of the clouds do not change what it is. The mountain simply lets the clouds come and go. This is exactly like how I want to treat my feelings and emotions. I let them come, and then drift away. Like everything else, it passes.
This post has asked ‘What does it mean to ‘be’?’ and I wish to end off by clarifying a few things: I do not claim to hold all the answers, nor do I have answers to metaphysical questions regarding our higher purpose in life. More importantly, this post serves as a reminder to myself (and to share with any readers out there) that we are formless and persistently clouded by impermanent things. Being a very anxious individual, I am fully aware of the difficulties in simply ‘being’. I too, am easily overwhelmed by emotions, circumstances and desires that cloud my vision of what we really are –i.e. we are fundamentally the same, ‘empty’, beings traversing the universe. However, I hope to make use of these metaphors to make sense of and cope with impermanence. I believe it is the first step I can take to nurture healthy mental states and grow as an individual.