We have it tougher than other animals.
They do not struggle with internal conflicts, like the urge to overeat competing with the desire to keep slim. They do not dwell on past injustices and worry about future problems. They do not pose unanswerable questions, or haunt themselves with fears of meaninglessness.
We, however, are embroiled in the paradoxes of being human -- dilemmas that have been fodder for thinkers from the Buddha to the existentialist philosophers. While Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, had deep psychological insight into human anxiety, his prescription for angst was based on rejecting what later became a sacred imperative for the existentialists -- creating personal meaning for ourselves. Anxiety, for the existentialists, was the unavoidable price to pay for being fully human. Were the existentialists right? Was Gautama's view of the human condition an impoverished one?
The Buddha recognized that much of our suffering stems from our confused and self-destructive thinking. We suffer when we surrender control to our unmanaged, painful ruminations, which originate from the misguided expectation that a fleeting, contingent world can satisfy our needs. He believed that the quest for meaning is precisely the type of pursuit that we must learn to renounce, because it is illusory. Gautama looked into the heart of human angst and concluded that it arises from misunderstanding -- from seeing ourselves as separate from the world and demanding gratification and meaningfulness from it. He taught that, instead of struggling to get the world to satiate our needs, we must deepen awareness of our inseparability from the undifferentiated, fluid whole of reality.
Our job, according to the Buddha, is to meditate on the profoundness of the present moment by immersing ourselves in the immediacy of our sensory experience within the world. Being fully absorbed in our present sensory experience liberates us from the craving and suffering that is produced from misunderstanding ourselves.
Modern science supports much of what the Buddha taught: natural selection did not design us to find contentment but to seek it. Our physiology is calibrated to pull us away from just being and toward becoming -- precisely what the Buddha identified as the root of our problem. And cognitive science endorses the view that our minds have minds of their own: Our unrestrained, unmanaged thinking causes us pain that no other animal experiences.
Yet there is something inhuman, almost sacrilegious, in the Buddha's admonishment that we abandon our personal ambitions. By portraying personal meaning as an illusion, the Buddha denied us the opportunity for the particular kind of depth and richness that is unique to a human life (and which necessarily entails incremental suffering). As much suffering as they may entail, our goals, plans and dreams provide us with the purpose and energy that sustain our will to live. The Buddha's ideas were grounded in the Hindu traditions in which he was raised, including the notion that "self" is not fundamentally independent from the world. A separate self, however, was precisely the focus of the existentialist thinkers, who looked into the heart of human angst and arrived at very different conclusions, based on the primacy of individualism.
Victor Frankl, for example, argued that our job as humans is, in fact, to create tension for ourselves: each of us generates meaning by establishing personal goals that give us the motivation to persevere. And before him, Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that, rather than detaching ourselves from our yearnings and aspirations, each of us must dare to live in the fullest possible way. Our job is to create personal values and push ourselves to the limits of our capabilities.
Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus agreed that the absurdity of the human condition is not something to release ourselves from (in a Buddhist sense), but they also believed that it was not something to rise above by finding meaning within (in a Nietzschean or Franklesque sense). They argued that absurdity, along with the anxiety that accompanies it, is an inescapable condition of humanness that must not be denied or avoided: our job is to live authentically by acknowledging absurdity and persevering in spite of it.
There is no single solution to the unique human dilemma. No two existentialists have the same perspective or prescriptions. And multiple forms of Buddhism have arisen from Gautama's original vision, which was only captured in writing by others after his death (just as there are many forms of Christianity that have institutionalized the spoken words of Jesus). By virtue of being complex beings, we have complex jobs to fulfill -- jobs that are defined more completely and practically by marrying the Buddha's and the existentialists' insights.
The Buddha was right in identifying human angst as the product of how we interpret ourselves in the world, and in advocating that managing this angst is one of our primary tasks -- by identifying the bigger picture of which we are a part, by accepting the contingency that influences our lives and by maintaining awareness of how our unmanaged thinking can lead us astray. By combining these insights with the existentialists' insistence on personal meaning, we can forge a path that allows us to muddle our way through the paradoxes of being human. We have the dual challenge of both generating meaning and managing the anxiety that is an inescapable part of aspiring in an uncooperative world. It is because we face this two-pronged test that we must each become, as the psychotherapist Eric Maisel puts it, both "a meaning expert" and "an anxiety expert." The two projects are inseparable.
But they are projects without termination points: Our muddling is forever constant because the human condition is a predicament to be continually managed, not a problem to be fixed or solved. Nirvana is not a state to be achieved with finality but a fleeting reprieve that we must continually work towards, in part by creating the meaning that both energizes and frustrates us. The painter Paul Klee captured this dynamic when he said, "He who strives will never enjoy this life peacefully." While striving is what natural selection has bestowed upon us, evolution has also endowed us with an ability to understand and manage the unique form of suffering that accompanies striving. Our job is elaborate, amorphous and nearly impossible to fulfill -- a job, according to the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, from which there is "no exit."