Swimming against the stream

Coming to terms with the mystery of life and the fragility of the world is an opportunity to live in a more authentic way. But it requires a totally human wisdom.

Flying is an interesting experience. But it is also a challenge to the usual perspective from which we look at the world. Travelling by plane, in fact, imposes two conditions on us: surrender and trust. We have no alternative.

On one of my last trips, shortly after take-off, a fleeting and destabilizing thought crossed my mind: a distant voice, the one we most often tend not to listen to or relegate to the furthest recesses of consciousness, reminded me that, beyond all reasonable hope, I could not at all exclude the possibility that I would never return home. That that plane could crash and… bingo! in an instant it would all be over.

But my reaction surprised me: I wasn’t scared and, paradoxically, not even too worried. At ten thousand meters above the ground, all I could do was trust the skill of the pilot, his ability to perform the tasks needed to control the plane. I had the opportunity to not listen for a few moments to that instinct for control that imperiously dominates our every action and always tries to create the best conditions to meet our interests and needs. So I acted like Sherlock Holmes by examining the facts with lucidity and I drew the consequences: the evidence is that air accidents happen and nothing gives us the guarantee that they happen only to others. A rule that applies to every aspect of life.

The ‘normal’ usual patterns

And yet, as soon as I set foot on the ground, this state of lucid detachment was replaced in a few moments by the flow of experience and my usual management mechanisms, judgments, personal concerns, and needs. In this mode of being, I arrived home, rested, saw the people I love, and watched a film. And that subtle restlessness, that background noise that reminds us of the fragility of life, where it came from, was sent back into the oblivion where all the fears that block us and prevent us from living have their place. This is how we habitually act.

We move away from discomfort and seek comfort, security, happiness, what reassures us. It’s our normal attitude. Deliberately inflicting suffering on ourselves is in fact senseless. The asceticism that wants us dead while we are still alive is the foundation of every neurosis and must be cured, like every disease. But the other side of this same dissociative disease is to deny what is the most authentic condition of every creature on the planet: to be alive, real and yet at the same time delicate, constantly changing and potentially ready to dissolve as soon as the fragile balance of conditions in the universe that sustains us is lost. All it takes is a small element, the famous fluttering wings of a butterfly that generates a tsunami on the other side of the world and everything changes.

During meditation, when the mind manages for a few moments to be present at what is happening without introducing any element of separation from experience and from what the body tells us, we are in a state of grace. Inevitably, however,, this mental presence, this openness, this awakening vanishes and we return to drown in the flow of the waves pushed by the current.

In the stream, against the stream

Looking at existence from this perspective is ‘the’ revolution that Gotama, the Buddha, asks us to accomplish. This condition is always there, before our eyes, like the ocean water for the fish that swims in it. But we are so attached to our usual patterns, to the desire to be happy, that we can’t see it and, at the bottom, to be really happy. And we simply forget to swim thinking that the ‘real’ happiness is always elsewhere, in the country of ‘if only this, if only that.’

Don’t get lost behind these illusions, keep a steady pace on the road, remain lucid, aware, and present. This is Gotama’s warning and, in fact, one of his main teachings. To understand this reality means, in traditional Buddhist terms, to understand the middle way, emptiness and not-self. It means entering the stream of the river of life to go against the current. It is interesting how in moments of extreme lucidity or emergency, we instinctively intuit this notion, because we experience without filters what we should awaken to. That is to say, the simple fact that every phenomenon exists as long as there are the conditions that guarantee its existence. When these conditions change everything changes and there is no guarantee, no magical power that allows this flow to remain unchanged forever.

There is no pessimism in this approach. On the contrary: understanding that life happens and does not only affect others can be a great, profound liberation and relief. Although it is natural and even logical to hope that everything will go well, ultimately, to be honest, the only certainty we have is that the inevitable will happen and we will die. We do not know when or how, but it is the only real possibility we can consider. And yet we deny it. The instinct for self-preservation and the fear of the unknown push us to move forward and flee in the face of danger and to cling to the idea that, after all, something of us will remain forever in the waves. Though we know, because we see it every day, that every living being, from the moment it is conceived and born, begins to grow old and die.

Lighten the burden

It may seem paradoxical but that moment of ruthless lucidity on the plane brought with it a feeling of lightness. At that moment there was no need to play a part. All the concerns about the role that I play, the opinion of others, even about whether what I thought was important or not, true or not, the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, suddenly seemed less substantial, less real. All those elements that we commonly call “I”, “my”, “personality”, “identity”, were fluid, elusive. They were there and they weren’t there. They were, in fact, irrelevant.

This absence of the need to cling to certainties, to something that confirms that we exist, is exactly what Gotama’s teaching wants to show us. He urges us to see that there can be another relationship with life thanks to which we can live happily, including every element of our humanity, including fragility, without the pretense of changing it according to what we consider useful or not. To enter the current to go against the current means to let go and surrender to the fact that none of us is excluded from this process and that precisely in this resides a great freedom. We therefore have no alternative but to understand that impermanence is our true condition. But, far from being a condemnation, there lies the opportunity to live in a more authentic and free way.

Stubbornly in the opposite direction

But you have to know how to live this condition. That is why we need a method of practice that allows us to set our steps in such a way as to lead a conscious life, a philosophical life. Because if it is true that impermanence affects us all, it is equally true that it is precisely this continuous change of conditions that generates the peculiarity that makes each individual existence different from the others. In impermanence resides the beauty, enchantment and poetry of every form of life. This extraordinariness must be cultivated, protected, and brought as a gift to others precisely because it fades quickly, like a snowflake. It is a wonder of nature and fragile like an illusion. That is why every awakening, every moment of lucidity, every time we experience this connection from the depths, we are not living an experience that is only ours.

One of the first Chinese Zen masters said that the deepest sense of these teachings, of this path, is to live an ordinary life, exactly as it is. And just as every snowflake falls exactly where it should, so every life, in its uniqueness, is perfect and we must find the voice, even this one, to express it. When we tear away for an instant the veil of clouds that obscure our minds, we have the opportunity to really discover what we are and understand how much we are tied to each other’s destiny.

But it is our responsibility and task to interpret this path. No one, after all, can tell us how to do it because we have no alternative but to live the experience that presents itself to us, exactly in the conditions in which we find ourselves. And yet we need to find the courage to dive into the river and navigate, stubbornly in the opposite direction. In that process we discover a freer, truer, and more authentic existence.


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