Do you ever find yourself measuring your life’s meaningfulness? People who are generally dissatisfied or depressed often feel that their lives aren’t particularly meaningful, while those who feel fulfilled and content tend to find life more meaningful. Life can be frustrating. It is often hard, painful, and monotonous; but does that make it less meaningful?
Everyone struggles, and everyone has disappointments, pain and sorrow. Could it be that the concept of a meaningful life varies depending on our mindset? If so, could we extract more meaning from life by simply adjusting our notions?
What makes life meaningful?
Psychological research has identified three components that commonly contribute to a meaningful life: the concept that life is coherent, that one’s life has a purpose, and that one’s existence and actions have significance.
A sense of coherence
A feeling of belonging, and understanding how we fit into the big picture, helps us make sense of our lives. From being a member of a family, a relationship, a club or the community; being part of something broader than ourselves can give us a more balanced perspective in our pursuits — and support along the way.
A sense of purpose
Having goals in life — both long term and short term — can give us a sense of direction and motivation. Whether it is breaking a bad habit, mastering a new skill, or raising responsible and well-adjusted children; every step taken towards our goals has value and meaning.
A sense of significance
Accomplishments — such as helping others, creating something useful or beautiful, or simply being recognized for our work — help us feel like we can (and do) make a difference; that we matter.
All these things can make life more meaningful, but if we take a careful look at why we find meaning in these things, our sense of significance, purpose and coherence could come from a higher realm and provide more profound meaning.
Casey Woodling, philosophy and religious studies professor at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, suggests “the unexamined life has no meaning,” while Socrates went so far as to say that it was not even worth living.
The spirit of meaningfulness
Assigning value to aspects of your life that please you — while devaluing those that don’t — can give one the false impression that meaning is derived from the pursuit of pleasure.
Yet sages and philosophers throughout the ages and across cultures have a different take on life’s meaningfulness. From the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu to present-day philosophy professor Iddo Landa, wise men agree that goals and achievements ultimately don’t matter. What does matter is understanding and fulfilling our oneness with the universe.
When we recognize and accept that each of us is but a part of a profound, vast existence which we all maintain, we begin to see the importance of treating every being with kindness and respect, and the futility of struggling for personal gain.
One can realize the most meaningful life by relinquishing self interest in favor of serving others. All the myriad things we occupy ourselves with in order to stand out, amass possessions, or find comfort lose their significance in favor of cultivating humility, kindness, integrity, and self-restraint.
By embracing such virtues, we can become one with the nature of the universe, and return to our original, pure, divine state. This is considered the ultimate meaning of life by teachers and seekers of the Way. What is it that makes this goal so elusive?
For most of us, our lives are largely shaped by our attachments. For as long as we hold them, various fears, notions and desires influence our thoughts, drive our decisions, and affect our actions. Taking up a spiritual path, we start to recognize attachments for what they are, and gradually let them go.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”– Lao Tzu
Fear is particularly pervasive. Based on past experiences, sensationalized, negative news and countless uncertainties, we project future disaster, humiliation, pain or ill fortune; yet Lao Tzu points out, “There is no greater illusion than fear, no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself, no greater misfortune than having an enemy. Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.”
Reflecting on the current state of affairs, Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen suggests that fear is a “by-product of luxury” which “robs us of our freedom.” While Svendsen maintains that fear stems from social failings, Lao Tzu wrote in Tao Te Ching that “both hope and fear are phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear?”
Take a step back to look at things from a different perspective, and you will be able to take everything lightly.
Notions are another nagging attachment. Ideas like “I need this or that, so and so is so good or bad, such and such is either impossible or utterly unavoidable…” — all these are fixed ideas in an ever-changing world.
The Buddha taught “Change is never painful, only resistance to change is painful.” As sure as the earth revolves around the sun, new situations will evolve around us — we can resist them and feel dissatisfied, or accept them and follow the natural course of life.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.”– Lao Tzu
Although life can seem meaningless when it does not conform with our notions about how it should be, there is very little we can control outside of ourselves. What we can do is to modify our notions and check our desires.
In guiding his disciples on the path to enlightenment, the Buddha taught Four Noble Truths. The second Noble Truth can be summarized as follows: “Desire is the root of all suffering.” But how can this be? Along with ordinary, selfish desires, aren’t there also noble, selfless desires as well? This brings us back to our notions.
As humans, we are far from omnipotent. The things we consider good could have a negative impact on others, while the things we consider wrong might actually be right. Of course, we need to live our lives and let our actions be guided by our understanding and beliefs, but these are often linked with desire.
Desire can bring painful emotions if it is not fulfilled, yet it takes a long process of cultivation to whittle it all away. We we can start by being less attached to outcomes, try to go with the flow, and accept everything — whether we perceive it to be good or bad — with gratitude. If you can do this, you are well on the Way.
Following the Way
Many spiritual leaders hold that tranquility of mind and contentment come from Surrender — complete surrender of the ego — to embrace and follow Heaven’s will. When we do this, we are no longer driven by desires, but by duty — the duty to fulfill a sacred responsibility to both the universe and ourselves.
A straight path toward assimilation with the highest principles of the universe and a welcome return to our original, pure selves, requires dedication to the steadfast cultivation of virtue. A life like this has such profound meaning that quantifying meaningfulness seems almost… meaningless.
While we proceed on our spiritual journeys, if we can look at every frustration, every ache, disappointment and loss as an important step along the Way, we will easily clear these hurdles that are provided for our progress. Meaningfulness drawn from a noble spirit is not dependent on comfort, recognition or material gain. Instead, we recognize the value of every moment.