Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning down. Within hours, some of the wealthiest people in France pledged a substantial amount of money to help restore it. Up to date, more than €900 million ($1.1 billion) has been raised in an effort to restore the iconic cathedral.
Although many would consider this to be a worthy cause, others didn’t share this sentiment. The effort to raise money to restore Notre Dame was met with a lot of backlash from those who believed that the money could have been better spent elsewhere – to address the rise of homelessness in Paris for instance.
This raises a lot of interesting questions about what it means to be human. Why would we spend millions to restore a cathedral that, if we had to look at it objectively, is nothing more than a pile of bricks?
Subjectively, we might say that Notre Dame is an important symbol for the French people or that it has historical significance and value. But these concepts exists in thought only and therefore has no objective quality.
It’s for this reason that the Buddha said that everything is unreal. This is not to say that things or events aren’t real; it simply means that our thoughts about things and events aren’t real. If people get emotional about Notre Dame burning down, it’s not because it has any real or objective value; it’s because of the value they’ve attached to it in thought.
In the same way, the Buddha also taught that there is no self. Again, it’s not so much that you and I aren’t real; rather, the thoughts we have about who we are aren’t real. Thoughts have no objective qualities, because it fluctuates and changes all the time. Therefore, the self has no objective qualities either.
Enlightenment then, is the realization that there is no self – seeing through the illusion, as it were.
Now, I don’t know if anyone ever becomes fully enlightened. Except maybe for those yogis in India who sit naked in the sand. I don’t know if they’re really enlightened or if they’re just mad, but what I will say is this: If you came to the full realization that you don’t really exist, what else would you do but sit naked in the sand? But of course, most of us have “more important” things to do than to sit naked in the sand. The self must accomplish things; it has to establish itself as something significant. And for the most part, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with that. But if I take myself too seriously, I suffer all the more. As Seneca, the Stoic philosopher put it, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”.
Jesus taught a similar philosophy. There’s a story where a rich young man came to him and asked how he could inherit eternal life. Some believe that he was asking about eternal life after death, but I believe he was asking about living more fully in this life. He was a young, successful and wealthy man, and he pointed out that he had kept all the commandments, so he was probably a good guy as well. But perhaps he began to realize, as the Buddha once did, that he – along with his wealth and possessions – was impermanent and corruptible and would one day be gone. Now he was searching for something incorruptible and eternal.
Of course, Jesus knew that he was frustrated, as most of us are, because of his attachment to the false sense of self. He had spent his whole life establishing and maintaining an image of himself that isn’t real and he was weary. Jim Carrey’s words also come in handy here; he said that “Depression is your avatar telling you it’s tired of being the character you’re trying to play”. When we over-identify with the image we have of ourselves, it takes a lot of energy to maintain and defend that image. That’s why the path of inner peace that both Jesus and the Buddha laid out involves letting go of the attachment to the false sense of self.
Jesus told the rich young man that if he wants to find this “eternal” life, he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. This wasn’t an invitation to do more good things so that God would reward him; it was actually an invitation to do less – to let go. It’s not so much about letting go of his wealth as it is about letting go of the thoughts he has about himself in relation to his wealth.
I don’t claim to have come to the full realization of no self just yet. I still get just as caught up in my false sense of self as anyone else, often with disastrous consequences. I often feel the need to preserve and defend my sense of self at all costs. But when I remind myself that there really is no self to preserve and defend, I suddenly feel a sense of relief and liberation when I realize how ridiculous it all is. Why would I feel hurt, offended or disrespected if there’s no real, objective self that can be hurt, offended or disrespected?
As humans we are able to attach meaning to things and events. This is a great gift, because we get to enjoy and appreciate things like Notre Dame. But it is also a curse when we cling to it. When the things we attach meaning to, including ourselves reveals their impermanence and burn to the ground, we suffer.
Maybe the key to living an “eternal” life then, is to enjoy and appreciate whatever meaning we get out of it, but at the same time, to not take it too seriously; to realize that life, as we generally understand it, is nothing more than a magnificent ego trip. When we begin to imagine a world where people don’t take themselves so seriously, we also begin to image a world that is happier, healthier and more at peace.