Authenticity & Freedom
I have been reading some existentialism. One of the key concepts in existentialism is authenticity. This goes with another key idea, which is freedom. These ideas reached a high pitch in the work of Sartre who had lived through the experience of the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. At that time staying alive often depended upon acting in inauthentic ways and there was an acute sense of loss of freedom. Sartre, however, maintained that a person always inherently has freedom, even in the most dire circumstances. Whatever befalls us, we still choose how we respond.
This led the existentialists to a critique of bourgeois society, where even without the threat of gestapo violence people still spend much of their time and energy on posing in hypocritical ways. Of course, this is not a new observation. The Taoists, the Stoics and the early Christians had all made similar observations. The existential twist was to say that the reason for such inauthenticity was fear of freedom. When we realise our freedom we experience the anxiety of choice. Much of the time we would rather either operate on habit, or pretend that we have no choice.
Along with freedom comes risk. If I am free to choose then I am vulnerable to making mistakes. In other words, I may betray myself as a fallible, foolish, human being. This seems awful and unacceptable, so we pretend that we are not so vulnerable and that any mistakes are due to factors beyond our control. We will go to considerable lengths in this strategy, not excluding alienating from ourselves our own characteristics and failings, as when a person says, “I have to drink because I am an alcoholic,” or “I always lose my jobs because I have an authority problem,” as though the "problem" had an existence of its own.
The pathologisation of many behaviours under the rubric of mental so-called illness has helped to extend this kind of inauthenticity and non-responsibility into many areas of life. People who do not have any serious form of insanity still regularly use such labels as a way of lessening their awareness of the freedom that they have. The impulse to hide is understandable. When we acknowledge our freedom we also acknowledge the hovering presence of panic not far away. Many people go through life hardly ever, if at all, making a genuine decision. The book by Kundera, The Incredible Lightness of Being, is a telling, existential story of a man who lives a socially successful life without ever deciding anything for himself until the Russians come along and invade, when life starts to become more unavoidably real.
Inauthenticity is also rife in the religious/spiritual domain. We do not have to go back to the Pharisees in the Bible to find plenty of examples of people posing as more holy, more respectable or more enlightened than is actually the case. Taking on a spiritual persona can be a first-class strategy for avoiding one’s humanity. If one has some status in a religious group, other members also put pressure upon one to act in sanctimonious ways. Unfortunately this not only deceives others, it is also, all too often, a case of deceiving oneself and this very deception constitutes the avidya that Buddha referred to as the root of all our trouble. One can summarise Buddha’s enlightenment as his realisation that all our poses have their roots in avidya, the refusal to look at the reality of life.
Thus, Buddhism, even though it has a different flavour from existentialism, is existential philosophically. It shares the same diagnosis and suggests a rather similar remedy: the diagnosis of refusal to look and the remedy of waking up. What we wake up to is the reality of life and death, joy and suffering, freedom and risk, love and its disappointments; in other words, to our bombu lives in an imperfect world, longing for something better, sometimes glimpsing it and sometimes seeing it slip through our fingers, but much of the time playing posing games, more concerned with how we appear (rupa) than with reality (dharma)..
Thy Neighbour is as Thyself
In his early life, Sartre saw the demands of freedom and authenticity in purely individualistic terms. Later he came to see that one has an inevitable responsibility toward others. Buddhism starts from that point, seeing authenticity - vidya - as the foundation for compassion. When I face the reality of my life, I face the reality of all lives. When I see my own fallible mortality, I see that of my neighbour too. Before such an awakening everything seems to be arranged on a vertical scale from worse to better. After it, everything is horizontal - we all walk in similar moccasins.