I'm 61 years old, or thereabouts — my birthday is in 10 days – and I don't know much about anything.
The older I get, the more apparent it becomes to me that our lives are mysteries. Everything is a mystery; our surroundings just look familiar from day to day, so we make too many assumptions about them. It's the stripping away of all these assumptions that can help me see something real; and yet those assumptions are very firmly glued to my being.
Last night (I write this from Bangkok on August 21) I met with a group of young people here in Thailand who are quite intent on discovering something real about their lives. They sense maybe I can help them. I'm not sure that's true; but I do my best to share my experience. In any event, one of them, George, talked about freedom and how he wants freedom.
I asked him what freedom means.
It turns out — and I think that there is probably a general truth in this — that freedom means, for both George, his girlfriend Dia, and his brother Ronald, an absence of personal obstacles. He wants to be free to do whatever he wants, to achieve his aims. And yet of course this freedom is outwardly directed. Most of our concepts of freedom are outwardly directed; revolutions are founded on this principle, and millions have died for it. We forget what inner freedom is, if we even know it's possible.
Without seeing that I am inwardly enslaved by my assumptions, the chance for freedom is remote. Yet I'm unable to shear myself of assumptions; it's not as though they are just wool I can cut off with a pair of clippers. My assumptions are very deeply rooted in me, so much so that they are not going to be pulled out without a lot of pain and bleeding. Life keeps getting hold of them and yanking them violently these days, and the anguish is intense; there are nights when I can't sleep. It's at times like that that I see both the depth of an inward connection with something higher, and the contradictory and intense attachment to life and the outer world.
Both conditions are true.
What can I do about it?
I can't do anything. Perhaps the most striking feature of my life is my helplessness.
How am I?
I'm not sure there are explanations. There is just an encounter with experience. Every moment is a mystery that I resist; every event is an unpredictable and new horizon I need to face. The best way to do that, I find, is to keep reminding myself that I don't know anything, and that I need to stop making plans and just be here for what happens, responding to it intuitively and with flexibility.
I'm not sure that this is good advice for young people; I'm not sure that it is good advice for anyone else. I can only derive it from myself; and I can only apply it to myself. Each of us has to discover such things quite intimately and personally. Grafting them onto ourselves from the ideas and examples of other people is always intensely challenging.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.