What does it mean to be human? It’s the question each of us gets to live, the question that’ll remain incompletely answered until the last human being has lived and died and there’s just the dark night sky after the grand finale of fireworks, at which point the cosmos will burst into applause and shout, “Now that, that is what it means to be human!” Until then, we’re all engaged in the collective project of answering that question. This is what it means, this is what it means, in each new moment, this is what it means.
Maybe one part of being human is the desire not to be human, to be superhuman: that longing to get beyond it all, to somehow transcend the pain-sensitive body, the fragile heart, the inflammable mind. This longing for transcendence has a nice ring to it. It sounds fancy to me, legit in some intriguingly mystical way. Transcendence. I mean, come on, it’s a fantastic word. So is “enlightenment.” The only tricky thing about these words, for the seeker of any sort, is that they so easily become subconscious synonyms for “escape,” spiritual smoke and mirrors that obscure the quivering nerve endings inside that just don’t want to get hurt and will do anything to avoid it.
What am I seeking and why? This question cornered me recently, tossed me around. In the scuffle, I saw that so much of what I do is actually motivated by the subtle desire to avoid pain. Little day-to-day things. Big life things. I could see how, without continuing to wrestle with this question, my entire life might be driven by this subterranean aversion. How that aversion could easily become the principal motivation for a spiritual practice, for a career, for a relationship. For a walk across America. Maybe if I walk far enough, I’ll find the secret key. Maybe if I meditate long enough, I’ll achieve some kind of existential immunity. If I find the right partner, or study with the best teacher, or read enough books, then maybe I won’t have to hurt so much someday. But the pain will come, regardless. It’s like an old man named Bill Guy said it to me over his woodstove on a cold winter night in Alabama: “You got lots of grieving to do.” There’s just no way around it.
But, again, maybe wishing there was a way around it, maybe that’s a part of being human, too. So I wonder, if a part of being human is the longing not to be, what would you become if you eliminated that longing? Is that what makes a buddha out of a human, no longer needing to be anything else? What if transcendence wasn’t a renunciation of humanness but an unconditional acceptance of everything that comes with it – the pain, the confusion – a full-on immersion into this process, in all of its dirt and disease, disintegration and death. What if enlightenment wasn’t some altered, alien state, but, in fact, exactly this, fully this, the state of being really, really human without hedging, censoring, editing, blocking, tweaking, sugarcoating, glossing, ignoring, escaping, avoiding, denying, and constantly seeking something else.
I like this understanding of transcendence. It’s not bliss, or someone with magical powers, or an evolved state of consciousness that allows you to manipulate reality and save yourself. It’s the opposite. The thing to be transcended in the human experience is the desire not to be having a human experience. So, to be superhuman, you just have to be super human. The cool thing about that is there’s no way to fail, because even when you’re running away, that’s human, too.