I am sitting with some friends in a corporate sandwich shop in the basement of a skyscraper in midtown Manhatten, waiting for an interview we will have upstairs on XM radio, and that we've arrived an hour early for.
There are long lines of people waiting at the counter to buy pre-made lunches in clear plastic containers, and a few hundred people sitting at small tables in 1's and 2's eating those same lunches, usually the same salad and the same sandwich and plastic utensils, and some other people are throwing their plastic containers away in bins and heading back to work upstairs.
The people who eat here are not the big-salary executives working in windowed offices on high floors. Here everyone has similar ties and inexpensive dresses. These people work spreadsheets and answer emails inside offices without windows, or in cubicles, or (more commonly nowadays) in an open plan office with a hundred other people next to them facing terminals.
At first glance this is the least interesting cross-section of New York City -- a lot of blank stares into smartphones. I see at least two men, one black and one white, wearing identical ties.
But I am suddenly struck that everyone in this room is probably a hell of a lot more interesting than they appear at first glance. Some (or maybe many) cut loose on weekends, and are into odd stuff like collecting small batch whiskey, or fixing vintage Porsches, or weird kinds of sex I've never heard of. There is probably a good (or great) painter or writer hidden in this room, too.
It also strikes me that everyone in this room feels a fundamental sense of alienation they can't shake. And that I'm like that too.
There is an assumption that our parents were offered as children, and that they unconsciously passed on to us -- which is that the way we live is somehow natural and OK. That our jobs, schools, hobbies, cars, smartphones are fundamentally OK, and that the only problem is that we haven't got the right job/school/hobby/car/smartphone yet, or we'd be happy.
Or, for those of us who have gotten beyond that stage, that it is our own fault we haven't figured how to make it all work yet (in, or outside the system), because if we did we'd be happier, or at least content -- like the Buddha or the Dalai Lama or the new Pope who seems like a pretty cool guy and pretty much unruffled by things going on around him. Even though he has chosen to drive a lousy car and not to have sex for the rest of his life.
So we try to change ourselves (through therapy or self-help books) or find the meaning of life through religion or gurus or Zen or yoga or exercise or practice or money or new cars. I've done all those things.
But sitting here drinking cold bitter coffee out of the same cup everyone else has, typing on my smartphone like everyone else is doing, I realize that the nagging feeling that the life I am living is different than the life I should be living may be the problem itself. It is this that is creating a fundamental split within myself. And that this is really what is causing so much unhappiness in my life, and for those around me.
Most of us believe that the way we experience the world (this coffee sucks) and the way we think we ought to experience it (this coffee should be good, so it's not fair) are naturally different. We are upset that things aren't what they should be, or we expect them to be -- but then again, they never are. From this perspective life is a little like looking through a cracked camera lens, where the image is just off by a little bit, it's always doubled. And no matter what we do we can't ever quite get the two images to line up.
This is how we feel alienated from our life, and our self, too.
We are a nation of aliens. Of people looking but not quite finding, reaching but never holding. Always grasping, but the things we finally reach change over time, or that ultimately slip through our hands.
But what if there is nothing else for us to find? What if, in fact, there is nothing but just this lousy coffee, right here, right now? These words you are reading at this moment, on your computer/smartphone, are all there is in the universe, and they can't be better than they are as I am typing them, and as you are reading them. You get what you get.
There are no secrets to discover, no mystical insights that will set us free. Teachers and gurus and life coaches and therapists and self help books can be useful, but when they promise anything different than exactly all the good, bad, pain, suffering and all the rest that we already experience in this moment (and this one, and this one) they are scamming us, and we are letting them scam us, in the hopes of escape that never happens, because there is nowhere to escape to. This is all there is.
When I really got that for the first time, it was a big relief. I began the process of slowing down all my reaching (at least some of the time), I stopped trying to find that one thing that would settle my life down. I ceased believing there is somewhere I can arrive where everything is finally settled, for once and for good.
All the things we feel and experience in all the moments of our lives, pleasant and unpleasant, are just this -- not good, not bad, but fundamentally OK because there is no "other" or opposite anyway. There is no should. Just this, nothing more.
From here we are free to realize that we do have a choice. Because we have no choice we are free to choose.
This lousy lunch is just this lousy lunch, it tastes like cardboard and vinegar and that's ok. Next time I'm going to try to get a better meal (or maybe a better job, or quit altogether when I can figure out how).
Not because things should be better than they are now, but because I am one, not separate from my life or alienated from myself, and I can choose, free to hope for the best (though it's hopeless), free to take and be just OK with whatever comes. And be content with that.