Excellence Reporter: Gary, what is the meaning of life?
Gary Kraftsow: What could be a bigger question than, “What is the meaning of life?”
I begin an answer by reflecting on the meaning of the word meaning itself. Synonyms of the word meaning include words like significance or import, but for me, these don’t suffice. There are several different levels of meaning, which can include cognitive, emotional, symbolic, and conative.
Cognitive meaning is understood by thought, using words and ideas. Emotional meaning is experienced by feelings, using the language of the heart. Symbolic meaning integrates thoughts and feelings, and touches us in the place where the mind and the heart converge. Conative (an old word relating to will, desire, and even impulse) meaning involves our will to act, manifests in our day-to-day behavior, and is the path to actualizing our highest potential.
So, going back to the question of the meaning of life, I think of this question from two perspectives. The first is what has been preserved and passed on generationally from the Wisdom Traditions of the world. The second is how we as individuals understand and experience those teachings in our own lives.
All of the Wisdom Traditions of the world, in different ways, proclaim a Higher Truth or Reality – what might be called the Dimension of the Sacred – hidden from our ordinary awareness as we live our daily lives. These traditions suggest that the meaning of life can be found in a higher purpose: that of infusing our daily lives with the Dimension of the Sacred. This enables us to recognize the preciousness of life, and to live each day touched by this Higher Reality.
The Ancient Yogis called the teachings about the meaning and purpose of life (relevant for everyone) Sanātana Dharma. Of course, these teachings are not just abstractions. The real issue and challenge is for each of us to discover meaning and purpose in our own lives: what the Ancients called the discovery of our Svadharma.
Regarding the different levels of meaning, at a cognitive level, we are called to understand the impermanence of life and, in the face of that, find a sense of purpose. This involves a self-reflective process through which we examine our values and priorities and orient our lives towards what is most important to us.
At an emotional level, we are called to find joy and happiness in each day – again, in the face of the reality of impermanence. This, too, involves a self-reflective process through which we recognize sources of joy and cultivate relationships with what truly brings us happiness.
At a symbolic level, we are called to open our minds and hearts to the Dimension of the Sacred. This involves a meditative process through which we look beyond our ordinary worldview and self-interest, and open ourselves to the greater Mystery of Life.
At a conative level, we are called to create, through our action, the life we want to live, and in that process, to actualize our highest potential. This involves a process of purification, so that our impulses and behavior are in harmony with our values, and our choices lead us into a deeper relationship with true sources of joy.
So for me, in a nutshell, it’s all about finding meaning and purpose in life, happiness in the present moment, and actualizing my highest potential – all within the perspective of impermanence, the reality of change, and the inevitable end of life.
~Gary Kraftsow has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing and personal transformation for more than 40 years. He began his study of yoga in India with T.K.V. Desikachar, in 1974 and graduated with a BA, Magna Cum Laude, from Colgate University in 1976. He received his Masters Degree in Psychology and Religion from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the Director and Senior Teacher of the American Viniyoga™ Institute, and the author of two books, four educational DVDs, and several digital courses.
Excellence Reporter 2016
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