Excellence Reporter: Shaila, what is the meaning of life?
Shaila Catherine: Many years ago a friend said to me, ‘It matters what I do today because I am trading a day of my life for it.’
This became a daily inquiry that helped me overcome a lifelong tendency: although I felt a deep desire to be present and intimate with my life, my mind tended to dwell in thoughts, conjure up plans, and weave interpretations that effectively separated me from intimacy with lived experience. I wanted to overcome this tendency toward dullness—I did not want my life to drift past while I was lost in daydreams. Life felt vulnerable, uncertain, and precious, and I did not want to miss it. So each day, before I retired to bed, I asked myself this question, and I answered it as honestly as I could: how did I live today?
It quickly became obvious that it did not matter what I was doing: what really mattered was the quality of my attention. Responsibilities, roles, and opportunities determined many of the actions that occupied my time each day. It did not matter if I was working alone, interacting with people, or meditating. By asking myself how I lived today, I was reflecting on how present, aware, and mindful I was able to be: did I meet the conditions of this day with attention, with wisdom, with kindness? Or did I permit habitual defilements, restlessness, and conceit to cloud my mind?
Some days when I ask myself ‘how did I live today’ I am still humbled to face deeply conditioned forces of craving, restlessness, dullness, and insecurity. On other days, I feel joy in bearing witness to a deep confidence and profound peacefulness that manifests through this gradual process of learning to be more present, more wise, and more awake in an ordinary life.
What gives meaning to life is highly subjective. But I do not strive for significance and meaning through spectacular worldly actions; I look to the purity of mind that is present in ordinary daily actions.
May we all live our lives well.
~Shaila Catherine teaches meditation world-wide. Shaila is the founder of Bodhi Courses, an online Dhamma classroom (www.bodhicourses.org), and Insight Meditation South Bay, a Buddhist meditation center in Silicon Valley in California (www.imsb.org). She has been practicing meditation since 1980, accumulating more than nine years of silent retreat experience, and has taught internationally since 1996. Shaila studied with masters in India, Thailand, and Nepal, and also with the founders of western meditation centers. She completed a one-year intensive meditation retreat with the focus on concentration and jhāna, and authored Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity. From 2006-2014 Shaila practiced under the direction of Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw. She authored Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhāna and Vipassanā to help make this traditional approach to samadhi and vipassana accessible to western practitioners. Her teachings emphasize deep samadhi, jhana, and the path of liberating insight.
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