Sam peers at me from behind his dark-framed glasses. The lanky young man with bleached hair and interesting tattoos on his left arm is a graduate student at a nearby university. He sees me for weekly therapy sessions, and mostly we talk about his anxiety. Sam is studying to be a programmer at a software company. Recently, he worried aloud, “Why do I keep studying for this job that will just make money for a boss who already has it all? It doesn’t make sense.” He continued, “We just build algorithms that make people even more addicted to their devices. I want to put my energy into something that gives meaning to my life.”
This is not an easy time to find meaning for ourselves.
I listen to friends and clients who experience their lives as empty and purposeless—those who feel aimless or adrift. There are plenty of reasons for people to hide, hibernate, stop working, experience anxiety and depression, or feel numb to the affairs of our world. Over fifty years ago, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl told us that we were living in a “vacuum of meaning,” but the existential crisis he was describing then seems even more salient now.
Like Sam, many of my young clients worry about what their future will look like and how they’ll find a sense of meaning. For me, the image of the Greek hero Sisyphus comes up.
While many see Sisyphus as a symbol of futility—condemned by the gods of Mount Olympus to roll a heavy stone ceaselessly up the mountain, only to see it roll down again—the French existentialist Albert Camus had a different view. In Camus’s interpretation, Sisyphus pushes his stone forward with an attitude of knowing and dignity. He knows that he has no say about whether or not to complete his arduous task over and over again, so he uses what choice remains and decides to replace sorrow with joy.
I have come to see Sisyphus as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who chooses to forgo entry into nirvana until the last suffering being is saved.
Friedrich Nietzsche told us, “He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how.’” For the bodhisattva, the purpose of relieving suffering is the why, and an exquisite presence, akin to what Sisyphus experiences while rolling the stone up the hill, is the how.
But, as Doctor Tseten Dorjee, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s personal doctor, told me this past summer, “Just any meaning-making is not enough.” Higher meaning, he writes in one of his books, includes altruism, which is driven by an understanding of our interdependence and rooted in the “groundless ground,” or the foundation out of which all phenomena rise and dissolve back into again and again the sacredness of being.
Indeed, much of our suffering comes from what meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach both refer to as “the delusion of separateness,” or our misperception of seeing ourselves as isolated from others instead of as interconnected. “Inter-being-ness,” as the late Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh called it, is our true nature and the deeper reality of our world. We are all part of the web of life, interdependent and interconnected, and the current challenges in our world are largely due to our “delusion of separateness,” or seeing another person or group of people as “them,” standing in opposition to “us.”
When we see ourselves as modern versions of Sisyphus, however, rolling not only our personal stone but the stone of humankind up the hill, or when we go further still and see Sisyphus as a whole community of “planet people” rolling the stone of the human condition up the mountain, we can feel our heartfelt connection to others. Even though we don’t know what the outcome will be, as a community of bodhisattvas, we support one other so we don’t burn out.
Meaning emerges for the bodhisattva from connection, or joining with others and touching the field of being. Understanding that everything in life is interdependent and constantly co-arising, she relates to the stone as sacred—part of the interdependent web of life. This insight that we are all connected, that we are all relatives, gives rise to a deep, loving care. With roots reaching deep and branches spreading out wide, the bodhisattva can sustain herself.
Just so, if we can go beyond our identity as a separate self and begin to understand our identity as part of a much larger whole, the burden of having to fix things alone subsides, and meaning emerges. Touching and being touched by the groundless ground, we are protected from burning out. We are the ocean, and we are the wave. We are Sisyphus, and, as a community, part of a much bigger interdependent web of life. Being fully engaged for the sake of us all allows us to grow into a new opportunity for living a meaningful life.
Last week, I saw Sam again. He had taken two months of leave from university to walk the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route in Spain. For six weeks, he walked about fifteen miles a day with a heavy backpack and slept in hostels at night. Walking through the dry Spanish countryside, he met many others who had left their homes to ask what matters in life. He told me about 31-year-old Lan from Singapore, who, after seven years as an accountant, felt bored and empty. There was 25-year-old Ben, whose company in London had failed with Brexit and COVID-19. Ben had told Sam that he would keep walking until he found inspiration for some meaningful way to contribute to society. Sean and Lyn, who both had just passed the Bar exam in New York, wanted time to think deeply before committing themselves to the stressful professional path they had chosen. Pascal, from France, had just come from a ten-day silent vipassana retreat and hoped that Camino and meditation would help him shift from his administrative job to something that would connect him in a more personal way with others.
Sam walked the Camino with a whole gaggle of international friends. Now, back at home, he did not feel so alone anymore with his questions. Through the experience, he had come to see the Camino, or the way, not as a goal but as a process. He realized that what mattered was the journey, and that this journey, and the journey of life, gave him a sense of community and belonging. Having made the choice to prioritize meaning and connection over career and earning power, he found his anxiety lifted. Just before leaving my office, Sam told me how surprised he was to feel a sense of trust in life—trust that new doors would open to him in time.
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