Nicolae Tanase: Oren, what is the meaning of life?
Oren J. Sofer: There is something profound, mysterious, and sacred about being alive. The experience of being consciousness in a sensitive, vulnerable human body is so utterly unexpected, so remarkable, that we cannot help but wonder: Why we are here? What does all of this mean?
When I was 16 years old, I spent a month canoeing through the forests of northern Quebec. I can still recall lying on the sandy shore of a wide, still lake late one night, gazing up at the vast, starry sky and wondering, “Who am I? Why am I here?” The questions churned inside. I stared upwards for what felt like hours, listening, searching.
Such questions point to our fundamental longing as human beings for meaning and purpose, for a way of making sense of our lives, for wholeness and for healing. When approached properly, the asking of the question itself can take us on a journey of wonder, mystery, goodness and awakening.
I prefer not to talk about “the meaning” of life, which assumes that there is only one, privileged way of understanding our existence. It may be more appropriate and humble to speak of meanings of life. And from my understanding, one of the most central meanings of life is to be truly happy and at peace.
This goes beyond emotional happiness, which is fleeting and depends on outer conditions. The happiness I am speaking of is not dependent on getting what we want, things going our way, or having pleasant experiences. This kind of happiness is a deep contentment, an abiding inner well-being. It contains resourcefulness and resilience, and comes from three domains: growing in wisdom; living ethically; and appreciating life. Each supports and deepens the other.
Growing in wisdom has two aspects: experiencing our interconnectedness, and understanding what is for our own welfare.
There are completely ordinary moments when we touch our immutable connection with all of life. A sunset, the wind in an old oak tree, a shaft of light slanting through the window—for a split second we see ourselves, the world, and life as complete. We sense something larger than who or what we are as individuals, and that we are intimately and inseparably a part of that. In these experiences, we glimpse a peaceful truth that points us back towards our true nature and potential as human beings.
Nature is complete in and of herself, each creature and moment reflecting an innate harmony and wholeness. We each share this innate value, without needing to do or become anything to belong. These moments remind us that we are complete and whole just as we are. This is the first step to touching a profound and abiding happiness: recognizing that what we long for is already within us. This recognition is an aspect of wisdom.
The next step in developing wisdom is finding a path for realizing that potential, for living in alignment with this deep truth that we all know intuitively. Part of any authentic path helps us to discern what is for our own welfare, which is often something different than the messages we inherited from our society. One seeking the deeper meaning in life soon comes to realize that the happiness achieved through gain, fame, praise and worldly success is fleeting and empty; it’s unstable and can flip to the opposite at any moment.
Through study, reflection, and contemplative practice we begin to see what is for our true welfare. With wisdom, we understand that living with integrity, cultivating good qualities, and helping others brings meaning and a more lasting happiness.
This brings us to the next aspect of being truly happy. Living ethically and helping others grows naturally out of recognizing our shared situation with other living beings. We all long to be happy. We all experience the vulnerability and uncertainty of being alive. The more clearly we see this, the more we live with a sense of reverence, care and respect for other human and non-human beings.
Living in this way requires that we grow in qualities of kindness, compassion, and generosity. This is based upon and deepens our wisdom, as it invites us into an on-going investigation of what guides our actions in the world. Are our choices coming from care and concern for the welfare of ourselves and others? Or are they coming from confusion, self-centeredness, or anger. To live ethically, helping one another and caring for the planet, brings inner strength and integrity—a solid, robust kind of happiness.
As we grow in wisdom and ethics, a place of deep, abiding well-being becomes more and more accessible. This is third aspect of true peace and happiness: appreciating life. To truly appreciate life is to live with contentment and dignity. We live with an awareness of the fleeting nature of everything, and a knowing of the precious gift we have received.
When we cease chasing after happiness by trying to control our surroundings or distracting ourselves from discontent, a very different kind of well-being emerges. We learn how to rest in the flow of change that is the fabric of our existence; how to take joy in the beauty of ordinary moments; and how to use our time on this planet for something greater than enriching oneself.
Those questions that rattled in my mind and heart beneath the stars 25 years ago set me off on a wonderful path. I’m grateful for the chances I’ve had to explore those questions, and to share what I’ve understood with you, today.
The answer isn’t in these words: it’s in living their meaning, in walking a path.
~Oren J. Sofer teaches mindfulness meditation and communication. His teaching combine formal training in Buddhist meditation, Somatics and Nonviolent Communication with everyday experience working in the world.
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