Uncovering A Meaningful Life

Uncovering A Meaningful Life

Life is challenging.

For those struggling for survival – enough safety, food, shelter etc., this statement is obvious. Yet, even for those of us who have the basic necessities satisfied, a vast set of challenges still awaits us for meaningful living.

Uncovering and developing a life of purpose, deep connections, and authentic self-expression is not simple. Dedication to a “Life Path” that is larger than personal enjoyment creates a lens through which to navigate the ups and downs. Having a way of viewing life that brings meaning is a powerful choice.

Your Right to a Truly Great Story

Human beings live in stories, some self-created and some inherited. Our stories are not true or false, they are helpful or unhelpful lens’, through which we view our lives. Meaningfulness is intimately connected to the stories we live by.

A friend recently reminded me of an old, wonderful story that speaks to this:

Three stone masons are building the sacred Chartres Cathedral.

Someone comes along and asks the first stone mason, “What are you doing?” The first stone mason replies: “I am placing stones, one by one. Every day, I do my best to bring just the right amount of mortar, to set each stone well. All day long, stone after stone, until I go home and sleep. I like being at my good job but sometimes I wish I could do something else.”

The second stone mason is asked, “What are you doing?” He answers, “I am earning a living. By doing this job, I’m able to provide for my family. I often enjoy my work and value the ability to support my family but sometimes I wish I could do something else.”

The third stone mason, when asked, “What are you doing?” responds, “I am building a beautiful cathedral. I’m helping people to connect with God. The work is hard but very fulfilling, especially when I imagine people many years from now enjoying my effort. This touches my heart deeply.”

Path, What Path?

Far more than ever, 20 and 30 year old’s are given little direction for finding their path and/or a meaning-filled story. They have fewer admirable institutions to enter and fewer relational life skills for navigating the truly important questions. In the past, young adults entered their parents’ faiths, professions, community and identities.  As individualism has become a dominant ideology, we encourage people to find their own dream, discover their vocation and life path, yet offer little guidance on “how”.

Those in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, often retired from their profession, now face a desolation of meaning that was somewhat fulfilled by their jobs and social position. Volunteering can help but, as I have heard, can often feel like just putting in time.

Even those in the middle, in their 40’s and 50’s, who are lucky enough to have a secure career and close relations, often sense a kind of embarrassed emptiness in realizing that economic security and family attachments may not be enough to meet their deep need for fulfillment.

We live in societies that have glorified the individual. This glorification has many very positive attributes, especially compared to the role bound structures of previous generations. Still, at what price?

Many of us have discovered that meaningfulness and self-knowledge come through potent relationships and connection to something larger. This “something larger”, however one defines it, is the source of a meaningful story.

Balancing the need for inner freedom, for valuing one’s distinctiveness AND being subservient to a higher calling can be tricky. Said another way, how can we contribute our unique flavor, our inimitable gifts, in service to the great meal of Universal Life?

What are the skills that are most essential for uncovering a meaningful life?

To name a few:

– Enlarged Context leads to Life Path

A Noble Life Path begins with a view that is larger than pleasure, enjoyment or just surviving. While these are important, they are not sufficient. Purpose is larger than self, larger than success, larger than “making it”- it is defined by interacting with and contributing to the world in life-giving ways. For some of us, this can be satisfied through occupation and family life. For many of us an even larger view is needed.

Embodied Presence leads to Awareness

Without presence, we literally miss the experience of direct contact with life. So many of our “best” moments live only in memory and not in actual experience. While memory is a wonderful, life-giving capacity, how unfortunate when we miss so many moments in real time.

Presence is needed for the “I am here” experience. Our emphasis on embodiment is to offer a tangible way of dropping into this moment. All our longings – to love and be loved, to create, to feel authentic, to truly connect with others – all our truly human values, require a capacity for presence.

We can be present yet not truly aware. Awareness requires the capacity to be both IN our experience and WITH our experience. This meta-level “with”, often called “witnessing”, means that we can see ourselves from a larger space, not only within the thoughts and feelings of the present moment. To simultaneously be present in ourselves AND with the light of awareness, allows a much more satisfying way of being.

Connectivity leads to Generous Listening

We live in relatedness. Connecting with the world, with nature, the environment, other people invites meaning. When we are lost in our own small stories and not able to deeply connect deeply with larger than self, we tend to amplify our personal dramas. Attuning to self without attuning the outer world creates both loneliness and delusion.

Listening generously to the needs/perceptions of others as well as our own are fundamental skills. Communicating from this generous listening invites intimacy. Without this, we live in self-created boxes, as we put others in their box. We become television sets, on different channels, talking to each other. No one is listening, no one feels seen/heard and valued. When in conflict, each side turns up the volume to drown out the other or simply exits the conversation. This happens politically but also in our most personal relationships. Meaningfulness arises when we attend generously to self and world, this attention is also called love.

Gratitude leads to Forgiveness

More than any human virtue, gratitude is easy to cultivate into an almost constant state. When, through attention, we grow our capacity to feel grateful for the minor gifts of life – actually just for life itself – we will consistently feel connected to “something larger”. Connecting to this “larger”, invites both compassion and forgiveness.

Forgiveness begins with the ability to say, “I am so sorry for the pain I have caused”. Without the humility to acknowledge how often we create difficulty for others, we will find it difficult to forgive others for their many errors. We begin to appreciate that everyone is confused and wounded, softening our hearts towards their mistakes. To live is to create difficulties for self and others. Gratitude toward life allows us to accept this fact.

– Courage leads to Perseverance

Living is not easy. Living in a meaningful way requires the courage and commitment to persevere in the face of difficulty. When dedicated to a path, ALL events are seen in light of that path. We no longer see difficulty as only difficulty, it is also an opportunity for steps on our path. Our challenges are seen as learning moments in which we grow. Without denying the awfulness of certain moments, we humbly stand up, committing ourselves to our larger vision. As many elders have described, we move from suffering to wisdom to service.

Seriousness leads to Humor

To paraphrase Moshe Feldenkrais, “the work of learning to be human is too important to do it seriously”. We are all so wounded by life, even those who are “privileged”, that to develop our deeply human qualities needs a strong dose of laughter. Without this, being on a path is just too painful.

– A Meaningful Story leads to Love

In “The Embodied Life” work we often speak of learning to move from “fear to love as our basic operating principle”. To live from this kind of openness, requires enough inner safety to overcome our evolutionary bias toward self-protection. Without losing intelligent, situational, self-protection, we learn to let go of the habit of meeting the world with armor. When our truly great story moves us beyond constricted self-absorption into connectivity with Life, love rather than fear becomes our home.

While other skills can be included on this list, being moderately developed in the ones described will go a long way to growing a truly meaningful, purposeful, fulfilling life path.

Personal Note: Many people in the world have little choice for earning their daily bread. Many laborers/stone masons, feel trapped. I understand that some of us have less choice for choosing a meaningful context. Still, many of my heroes are those who encounter horrific circumstances and manage to create meaning. Viktor Frankl’s examples from his time at Auschwitz inspire me, as does the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Most recently, I have been brought to tears by the life and death of Alexei Navalny. His capacity to turn inhumane conditions into a hopeful message for the world as he lived his “larger story”, lifts my spirit in unanticipated ways. I dedicate this writing to his memory.