As I mentioned previously, we form an understanding of reality almost entirely through our own sensory experiences. And since these senses are a part of our physical being, we naturally form a perspective that we're the center of it all. Life appears to happen not just around us, but to us. David Foster Wallace said it best: we're "lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation."
From an evolutionary standpoint, this self-centered perspective makes sense: the more important we think we are, the more likely we are to attempt to survive and reproduce. And it’s served our species well thus far.
But the vast majority of us no longer live in a fight or flight world. This mindset is outdated. It’s a delusion. We are very clearly not the center of the universe. We live in a small corner of a relatively small rock being hurled through space. And we already established that we see and engage with a tiny fraction of reality — and understand and control even less. We may be, like Foster Wallace said, lords of “our own tiny skull-sized” universe, but we are not lords of the universe. We're just conscious clumps of dust amongst trillions of other clumps of dust.
The problem is that, although we know this, we still attempt to live life as if we're at the center. We focus on our desires, our goals, and our purpose. We attempt to control and dictate to reality. And as a result, we experience friction. The universe doesn't bend to our wishes, so we resort to discontentment, frustration, complaint, envy, and a number of other emotions. But when we knowingly have a perspective which is inconsistent with reality, why do we expect anything less? We're acting like the lead in a movie where we're actually an extra.
For some, this truth is difficult to swallow. We’ve lived our entire lives thinking and behaving like we’re the center of existence, and to let go of that is a shot to our ego. We don't want to feel small in a massive universe. What's more, admitting this would force us to unravel our entire conception of reality. But look around you. This universe was here before us, and it’ll be here after us — even after any thought of our existence or sign of our influence has faded. Our few decades are just a blip on the cosmic timeline.
So what does this mean for us? Are we entirely unimportant? Are our lives meaningless?
Not quite. Recognizing our relation to and place in the universe doesn’t devalue us. It’s an opportunity to reassess and redefine our value. Rather than living as if we're 100% of something incredibly small, we get to be a piece of something that's enormous. Instead of being narrowly focused on our existence, we get to be a contributor to a massive, interconnected system. Instead of asking ourselves, "What can I do for myself?", we can ask, "What was I made to do?" The ironic bit is that by pursuing the best version of our natural selves — by letting our essence shine through, and pursuing goodness and quality in all things — we benefit both ourselves and the collective. This paradigm shift is humbling, but most of all liberating and empowering.
"When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, it also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, Some day, I will have to die. This period of time is my life span, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing. These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. We have to help it remove the notions of self, person, living being, and life span if we want the wave to be free and happy. A wave can be recognized by signs — high or low, beginning or ending, beautiful or ugly. But in the world of the water, there are no signs. In the world of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she swells, and she feels sad when she falls. She may think, 'I am high,' or 'I am low,' and develop a superiority or inferiority complex. But when the wave touches her true nature — which is water — all her complexes will cease, and she will transcend birth and death.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching