Bhikkhus, these eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, disrepute and fame, blame and praise, and pleasure and pain. These eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions.
from AN 8.6 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Both philosophy and psychology often attempt to address “the human problem”, that is, how to make meaning in our lives, knowing that we must one day cease to be. Freud thought the central problem had to do with sexual identity, but some existential psychologists (and others) think that a fear of death is the unsolvable problem we all share.
Philosopher David Loy takes this one step further. He posits that we all share a fear (or intuition) that we don’t exist even now, as we live. In other words, deep down, we suspect that our sense of ourselves is built on shaky ground and so we do all manner of things to keep creating and re-creating a feeling of “me” in the world.
I bring this up because it is one answer to the question of why we are obsessed with pursuing worldly conditions. Gain, fame, praise and pleasure affirm, if briefly, our sense of self. Truly driven people will put relentless effort into accruing wealth or fame. But wealth and fame have the odd effect of making us more real to others, but possibly less real to ourselves. A decade or more ago there was a bumper sticker that said, “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.” Even at the time, many people thought this described a no-win game.
A wiser saying is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” If we discover that much of our energy is directed at accruing worldly goods or recognition, and we are gratified but not satisfied, maybe we should take a break and reflect about how we are managing our time and attention.
This also goes for avoiding pain, rejection, disrepute and loss. We can put a lot of energy into trying to escape them, but eventually they catch up with all of us, at least temporarily. We cannot outrun them.
My own sense of emptiness or lack was visceral when I was in my twenties. I did not understand it at all. However, I had the good fortune to encounter some teachings and teachers that started to make me think that the “hole” was unfillable and maybe (just maybe) I could learn to live peacefully with a kind of uncertainty, with not-knowing. The ache couldn’t be addressed directly, but it could be set aside.
The Buddha encourages us to relax and just be with things as they are. Give up trying to be in charge of things; give up trying to intellectually grasp the whole picture and our place in it. If we wholeheartedly do one thing at a time, the existential angst can fall away. If we attend to the wholesome and unwholesome qualities that motivate our actions, what needs to be done will become apparent in front of us, just in time.