Without meaning man is poor. And what is my meaning? What is a meaningful life and how do we find and realize it?
In my experience, it’s quite impossible, and impractical, to define meaningful life in merely conceptual terms or in the form of a fit-all and fixed prescription. I think we do not need a rule or doctrine to know whether we are living a meaningful life or not.
And talk of meaningful life is misguided too. A life might be meaningful but not necessarily felt to be so all the time. The “all-the-time” must go out of our vocabulary, whether it refers to joy or pain, or any human condition whatsoever.
It’s better to speak of meaningful action. So we can speak of a meaningful life as a life dominated by meaningful action. I used the word “dominated” because it leaves open the possibility of fall which is a fundamental human possibility, and even a necessity. And above all, we don’t want to put the bar to high as it tends to end in beating ourselves up, which is neither productive nor meaningful.
Defining meaningful life as a field of meaningful action gives us a more concrete and workable definition because action is something present, and we have power and freedom only to impact things in the present moment.
Now, what is meaningful action? Obviously there’s no universal definition of it as it would be different for each individual. An action might be meaningful for one but not so for another. It’s up to each individual to decide that, but I believe we all have an internal sense that can let us know if an action is meaningful or not. There’s no need to think about it or conceptually figure it out. I list a few guidelines that I believe capture the essence of what I mean by meaningful action:
- An action is meaningful when while performing it we feel a sense of alignment with our environment, or the universe if you wish. We can feel a sense of flow when engaged in such actions. For example, as a teacher I get this feeling of alignment when I successfully explain abstract concepts in calculus or physics to a student, or sometimes when I play guitar, or when I write. This tells me that these actions are part of what I am supposed to do in life. Whether this sense of alignment is encoded in my biological makeup or has some spiritual significance is totally irrelevant here; I can always sense if it’s there or not without having to understand it.
- An action is meaningful when there’s no sense of urgency or compulsion driving it. Typically actions that arise from a deep sense of urgency or compulsion cause us to dissociate from our bodies and create tension in our awareness. Being in touch with our bodies, i.e. staying embodied as much as we can (which can easily become second nature by practice), we will develop this communication channel through which our body can tell us whether an action is simply a distraction or avoidance strategy, or something aligned with the rest of us. For example, when I am acting out (let’s say smoking a second cigarette) to fill in a void in my life or avoid an unpleasant feeling, I can feel a deep sense of urgency behind the action and also a disconnect with my body. I may go through with it, but I can stay embodied and pay attention to how my body feels or how contorted it can become. This will increase awareness and also build tolerance toward the feelings I have labeled “unwanted.” Overtime, I may become strong enough to say no to that action and instead choose to stay embodied and feel things all the way through, which itself is a form of action, however a more meaningful one.
- An action is meaningful when while performing it, we are less concerned with ourselves or the acting “I.” In other words, the actor behind an aligned (meaningful) action becomes fully anonymous. Why is Daniel Day-Lewis such a great actor? Because he goes to such a great length to train himself to become the character he plays, to become fully anonymous so that the true character can emerge in its fullness. One could say that when acting, Daniel Day-Lewis is not. In other words, when engaged in meaningful action our ego becomes thin, and therefore our spirit can easily flow into and feel one with the action. For example, sometimes when I cook I realize I’ve been so immersed in the process that I haven’t even thought of myself or my day’s worries, as if my ego had dissipated. It’s not necessarily a blissful feeling, but it’s meaningful in the sense that my constructed identity has let go of its constricting grip, and hence I can flow more smoothly.
These internal senses have helped me a lot in spotting whether I am in the midst of a meaningful action or not. All we need to do to live a meaningful life is to engage in a few of such actions everyday, and to replace an old pattern with a new, meaningful action everyday, or every week. Then, we don’t need to worry ourselves with the general philosophical, abstract question of “the meaningful life.” We can simply focus on today and how to increase our engagement in concrete, meaningful actions.
I just like to point out that a meaningful action may not always feel so throughout. It is often the case that initiating an action that’s good for us may face some initial resistance which comes from our inertia or historic conditioning. For example, I don’t necessarily feel inclined, and much less so aligned, to do my meditation every morning. I have to go through an initial resistance and discomfort to access that alignment.
On the other hand, a meaningful action may not feel so for a while and until we’re grounded in it. I didn’t get much out of my meditation practice for a while; but after years of battling with it and finding my right place and practice, I am now able to hit the target zone 7 out of 10 times, and that’s a success for me. However, even through that struggle, there’s some inner feeling, some deep willingness inside, that pushed me through; perhaps not so much a sense of alignment but a precognition. I like to describe it this way: It is as if I could scent my way toward alignment. And I believe that all human beings are equipped with this spiritual scenting capacity. So, don’t wait for an action to feel good or meaningful right off the bat; step into it and you’ll find out by paying attention to how you feel about it. In short, you can’t think your way into meaningful action; you have to act your way into it.
Lastly, like any good story, meaning is enriched only when it’s layered meanings, forming something like a pyramid of context. An engaging story is one in which not only each individual scene is constructed in a meaningful way, but one where all the scenes are tied to the general plot of the story, and the plot to the central idea that the author intends to convey. I think our lives works in the same way with the only exception that we never know what the plot is. Life is an ever unfolding plot constructed through our actions.
I may fill my day with a variety of meaningful actions such as reading, meditating, washing dishes, cooking, playing music, etc., which is great. But I can make these actions even more meaningful (or colorful if you wish) by situating them in a broader context (remember, context is the source of enrichment for all meaning.) For example, if I read I can share what I learn with others so they can benefit from it. If I cook, I can invite a friend over to share with them the result of my creative efforts. If I write, perhaps I can share them in my blog more often (note to myself) so that they may resonate with another soul. I like to classify all these exterior connections as “giving away” or “service.”
I would like to finish by emphasizing the last point. A word in isolation can have many connotations but lacks a full, long-lasting meaning. It is only in situating it among other words and a larger context that its sense can converge toward a fixed point, and hence contribute to the totally of a text. Humans act in the same way: in isolation from others, we can’t really feel fully meaningful no matter how many meaningful actions we surround ourselves with. It is only through connection with others and letting our personal actions flow into their lives that our lives become enriched in meaning.
To summarize, we can be truly happy when our actions create a sense of anonymity or alignment with what is around us, and this alignment necessarily entails a connection with others, a connection not only of our individual selves but also of our actions. So, an action is meaningful if it creates alignment and also propagates into the lives of others, creating alignment in their lives too.