Dragging my feet from one day to the next, what am I really doing? This one question is unavoidable in the life of every reasonable person. Call it existential crisis, midlife crisis or whatever you like. If you have lived your life by the book, and did all that you could to help others and yourself, this phase is inevitable.
Every sane person, at some point in their life, is plagued by a persistent feeling of emptiness. Everything is there but nothing is, you feel. There is no real reason to be unhappy and yet happiness is nowhere to be found. I have wealth, family, freedom, status, I should be happy, you think but life still kind of feels pointless. As if the more we acquire the emptier we feel.
Not every rich man feels empty and not every poor man feels fulfilled though. Not all the time anyway. Happiness is a flirtatious partner. You can’t bet on its loyalty or stability. Often we think happiness exists in my dreamland, a place where everything (and everyone) will move according to me. And since, life will function the way I want, I won’t have to deal with feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, anger and so on. This is a lofty and an ignorant view.
A life devoid of challenges and conflicts is not necessarily a happy life, in fact, it is immensely boring and will eventually lead to intense sadness and a big void. Our struggles teach us, they shape us.
Quoting Dr. Victor Frankl, whose philosophy bears significant and direct influence on my views shared in this post:
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.
I think Dr. Frankl nailed it. We must have a reason to be happy. Our possessions and people are reasons to be happy, to be grateful, but they are not long lasting reasons because they don’t really give a meaning to our life beyond a certain degree. No doubt, they bring color, variety, pleasures, even moments of happiness and fulfillment. Yet, it doesn’t mean that we are leading a meaningful life. Otherwise, hundreds of millions of people, materially comfortable, wouldn’t be fighting the demons of loneliness, sadness and depression.
Friedrich Nietzsche contended, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
If you have a reason to get out of bed every morning, you will. If you’ve a reason to live, you will. If you’ve a reason to love, you will. If you’ve a reason to be happy, you’ll be happy. And reason boils down to one thing: meaning. If your life has meaning, if your relationships have meaning, you’ll be fulfilled naturally. Meaning is the only light that dispels the darkness of emptiness.
And there are three ways to find meaning in your life.
Vedantic school has a famous phrase called Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Satyam is truth, Shivam divinity and Sundaram beauty. The moment you learn the art of seeing and appreciating the goodness in your life, you start to see the truth in its ways. You begin to see the divinity in everything life puts you through. You are inspired by the beauty of it all. The splendor, glory and miracle of every unfolding moment melts you from within, it gently forces you to see how goodness abounds your life. Blue sky, healthy body, a sound mind, green trees, vast oceans, everything is full of goodness. It’s a state of mind that can be consciously cultivated. Vedas call it sattva, mode of goodness. Goodness is synonymous to fulfillment. A sattvic mind (that is, mind full of goodness) is a tranquil mind. So, one way is to fill your mind with good thoughts. Or, make an effort to see the truth, divinity or beauty that exists in the present moment. Your life then takes on a whole new meaning.
The second way is to passionately give yourself to a cause. Devoting your body, mind and soul to serve a cause leads to a phenomenal expansion of individual consciousness. You will still have your down moments with everything else going around you, but you won’t feel your life is pointless. As soon as you take up a cause, you grow out of your limited and individual existence and step into a much larger play field. The baby bird has jumped out of the nest hoping to fly. It won’t fall flat on the ground. Precisely at the right moment, this bird will know how to flutter its wings. Nature will not let it die. Giving yourself to a cause forces you to reach the optimum level of your potential. Vedas call it rajas, mode of passion. You are full of energy when rajasic and can’t wait to get to work because your cause has given your life a meaning. Your cause breathes a new life into you awakening the spirit of service, transforming your negative emotions into a usable form of energy.
By suffering I don’t mean that something terrible must happen in your life. Instead, anything that shakes us out of our illusions is suffering. Such incidents and experiences, while disconcerting, push us out of our comfort zone. They make us humble and more open to other perspectives. They impel us to reflect on our life, our choices and actions. You realize that what all you took for granted at one stage was actually a blessing. In this newfound wisdom and humility, you begin to look at life differently. The Vedic term is tamas, mode of ignorance. Ignorance leads to suffering. (Yes, it’s 100% true. For, suffering is not what happens to us but how we interpret it. An ignorant person can’t handle his or her loss in the same graceful manner an enlightened person would, for example.) In my view, ignorance is the chief cause of individual suffering and suffering is the seed of meaning. For Buddha too, it was the sight of suffering that melted him enough to quit royalty, don robes and embark on his journey.
A young man tells his mother he has fallen in love with a girl and wants to marry her.
“Just for fun, Mom,” he says, “I’ll bring over three girls and you’ll have to try and guess which one I’ll be marrying.”
And the next day, three beautiful women are sitting in front of his mother.
“Can you guess who will be my wife?” the son asks bubbling with excitement.
“The one on the right,” she replies in a blink.
“Oh my God! You’re amazing! How’d you know?”
“Cause…” she says nonchalantly, “I don’t like her.”
We don’t have to dislike something just because life is giving it to us. At times, playing a spectator, a nonjudgmental witness is all it takes to understand what direction we should take.
Our intrinsic nature propels us to discover our life’s meaning. When it comes to an inquisitive mind, discovery of meaning is the secret of happiness. You know, how there’s a release of energy and you laugh as soon as you understand a joke. So it is with life. You are set free the moment you get a grip on its meaning. Different things mean differently to different people. It’s a personal affair.
When you remain oblivious to the goodness, beauty and divinity in your life, or if you don’t selflessly devote a portion of your time to a cause, life is then forced to hand you the third perspective: suffering. It may come as acute boredom, deep sadness, severe depression or a wake-up call in the form of great personal loss. Whether you want to go with the first, second or third option, the choice is yours.
Himalayan lotuses don’t grow in fresh water ponds, they blossom in marshes. Emptiness or unhappiness is not a dysfunction of life. It’s not a malfunction of your mind. It simply means that life is telling you to reflect on yourself and your actions. It’s asking you that you no longer neglect your calling or that you find one. The seed of fragrance is the very basis of your existence. When stagnation arrives, the lotus of transformation is ready to bloom. All you have to do is not oppose it.
Go with the flow and see where life takes you. Let the seed sprout.
He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How…