He was a man who had been studying Buddhism and mystical writings for many years. But over coffee with his friend, the writer Emmanuel Carrerre, declared:
‘I am disappointed! I have reached the sixty and I have not escaped the human condition!’
It is an oft-sold dream, in both religion and self-help, that the human condition can be escaped from, or transcended.
‘You just have to do this, that or the other – and you will be free!’
And I note this, perhaps, because I also have reached the age of sixty (well, sixty one, to be savagely accurate) without escaping my human condition. The ego can work as happily with a preacher as a sociopath…and the two might be one and the same.
We’ve read all the books, heard all the talks, longed to be free etc etc. But our body still falters, our sex lives disappoint, our relationships remain variable and anxious, life’s dread can still grip us, we have feelings best hidden, anger best repressed, concerns about money, a long list of regrets, and our dreams which only leave us frustrated.
‘C’est la vie!’ we say, in an attempt to sound wise, and to distance ourselves from creeping fury or despair.
Some have no plan to escape their human condition, of course. They do not give these things a second thought in their lives, with no time for that navel-gazing nonsense.
‘Life may be change and suffering, but that doesn’t mean there’s either a reason for it or any escape.’
But others can’t do this, and work quite hard to be better, to be happier, less trapped, to improve in some way, to understand – perhaps they meditate, read helpful literature, pray, attend conferences or retreat days, sing songs of praise or breathe deeply.
It’s almost like two different families of people on earth… and I’m in the second family, (a little uncomfortably) believing there’s something here worth pondering, a way of looking after ourselves, a kindness in creation’s air which doesn’t grant health, wealth and happiness to all seekers – but can shift dark clouds, soften the ground beneath our feet, and leave us with awe in our soul.
Whether I am happier now than I was twenty years, I’m not sure…I probably am.
What I am much more aware of is the nature of my unhappiness – it’s insipid colours, it’s harsh tone and slippery grip.
This means that it cannot kidnap me in the manner it once could. I notice the abduction, and tend to be able to leave before it becomes despair.
And this is progress.
I am reminded of the guru in the wood. A traveller asked the guru to show him a path out of the wood. The guru said:
‘I don’t know the path out of this wood. But I can tell you ninety nine paths that won’t get you out.’
This also is progress: we can follow the wrong gods home.
For now, I believe in the grace and vulnerability of self-awareness, a footpath into the present.
I believe in resurrection moments – stones rolled away, sudden light, and grave clothes briefly discarded.
And I believe in befriending my human condition, both beautiful and difficult, deceitful and true… and in trusting the path.