The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

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Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.



Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.


It’s Not About You

Occasionally, when I’ve drunk coffee too late in the day and can’t sleep, I listen to the late night radio show “Coast to Coast AM.”   Okay, sometimes, when they’re talking about Big Foot or Reptilian Abductions, I put on meditation music instead.  But this week I caught an interview with Neale David Walsh, author of the Conversations with God series that was so popular a few years ago.  He’s out with a fourth book now, Awaken the Species, and he was talking about some of the main concepts it covers.

In case you’re not familiar with the Conversations series, or not even vaguely interested in reading what somebody says about God, you may find it intriguing that the first point the voice that Walsh identified as “God” had to make was “You’ve got me all wrong.”

As Walsh pointed out in the interview, even if you’ve dismissed the idea of the existence of God entirely, if that sentence has even a smidgeon of truth to it, it suggests that you may want to question what you do believe about the possibility and nature of an unimaginably conscious Supreme Being.  (Maybe it’s the source of the code, for example, that makes up the matrix of existence.)

That suggestion—about questioning beliefs—prompted me to remember one of the most challenging and valuable assignments I was ever given in college.  It was the final exam in a course called “American Thought and Language,” which covered significant (and often opposing) ideas that had arisen in the country since the time prior to the Revolution up to the present.   The assignment was to write an essay entitled “I Believe,” in which we were to discuss a few of our personal beliefs and give our reasons for holding them.

Every now and then, I assign that essay to myself again, just to uncover the beliefs that are driving me now and to examine them.   If you’re up for the challenge, I heartily recommend it.  It’s very revealing.

But that’s not the main thought that I brought away from the Walsh interview.  The idea that struck me most deeply was one Walsh shared when the host asked him what was the biggest piece of advice he could give people, based on his latest book.  Walsh said he would tell people what he was told was the most important thing: “Your life isn’t about you.  It has nothing to do with you.  It’s about everyone whose life you touch and the way in which you touch it.”

My whole being breathed a sigh of awe over the profound beauty of that thought.  Imagine what it would be like if each of us asked, “How can I help?  What can I do to make your life easier, more comfortable, more peaceful, more pleasant?”  What if we looked for ways we could give encouragement to each other?  If we set out to make the environment a healthier more beautiful place?  If we listened to each other more?  If we looked more into each other’s eyes?  If we looked for ways to ease another’s burden or to alleviate some of their stress?  If we did our jobs knowing that they were contributing, in however small a way, to the well-being of others and took joy in that?

So that’s the thought I leave with you this week, the message that it’s all about every life you touch and how you touch it.

I wish you the insight to see what’s needed, and the generosity of spirit to give as only you can.


Finding Meaning in Your Life

Finding MeaningIf  you got to this page because you were searching for an article on finding meaning, chances are you’re feeling dissatisfied with your life in some way, as if it should be more than it is.

Maybe you’re lonely or feeling empty, or insignificant.  That’s what meaning is, a feeling of personal significance, a feeling that your life matters, that you’re important in some way.

You are.  You do.   That’s the bottom line.

Need more convincing?  Read on.

Four Things to Know About Meaning

First of all, you’re not alone in looking for meaning in your life.  All the Big Brains who study and research and contemplate meaning agree that, on some level, every single one of us searches for it.  We all want to know that there’s some purpose for our being here.

Meaning, says psychologist Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., lets us make sense of our lives and lets us live purposefully in the world.  “Meaning,” he says, “is a unique expression of what makes us human, and what makes us great when we’re at our best.  The data from four decades of research are clear, meaning matters.”

Secondly, you matter to you If you didn’t, you wouldn’t even be looking for answers.  You wouldn’t care about relieving the pain of your loneliness, or your dissatisfaction, or your sense of insignificance.  Let yourself say this to the person reading these words:  “I matter to me.”

You’re important to yourself, too.  You’ve set everything else aside right now just to search for some understanding, comfort and healing.  You’ve let yourself be your top priority.  Own it: “I’m important to me.”

A third thing to know about meaning is that it isn’t the same thing as happiness, or success, or fulfillment, or being loved.   You can experience your life as meaningful even in the midst of great sadness, or failure, or loneliness, or pain.  You still matter; you’re still important.  There’s still a reason for your being.

“But what is that reason?” you may cry back to me.

Well, that’s where things get a little complicated.  I can tell you my personal answer and I can tell you about the reasons that others have suggested, but in the end, you have to discover your answer for yourself.  Because the final thing to know about your life’s meaning is that it’s personalized.  Your reason for being may be the same as mine.  But it may be different, too.  You get to decide.   Meaning isn’t something that the outside world gives you.  It’s something that your life offers you through the living of it.

How to Find Your Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist from the last century who probably thought about meaning more than anybody else ever has, said that we can find meaning in three ways.

The first way is through creating something or doing some kind of activity or work.   The second way is through engagement with the world or with another person.  And the third way is by taking an attitude of defiance toward suffering.

Defiance Toward Suffering

Let’s start with the last one first.  If you’re suffering, just by finding this article you were exercising your defiance of your pain.  You had already made up your mind not to let it rob you of your meaning.   You had chosen to rise above your pain, to be greater than it.  And you were doing more than that, too.  You were exercising courage and the will to keep on keeping on.  Both of those qualities are personal strengths and clues to what gives your life meaning.  You’re saying, “I’m important to me.  I matter.”

I knew a woman who suffered from an incurable disease that slowly paralyzed her body.  When it forced her to retire from her work, she vowed that she would do at least one useful or creative thing every day.  And she did, and it gave her life meaning.

Toward the end, the only creative thing she could do was smile.  And she did that, too, every day.

She used her ability to accomplish something to defy her pain and suffering.  What a valiant spirit!

Finding Meaning through Work and Activity

In his beautiful  article on finding meaning through work and activity, minister Lee Woofenden offers this explanation for the way that our work contributes to our life’s meaning:

“…our most real and human aspect is the love and understanding that forms our mind or spirit. This is what makes us truly human. And the world of our thoughts and feelings is the one that we inhabit most intensely and deeply.

“And yet . . . if our thoughts and feelings have no means of expression, they also lack a certain sense of reality. It is not enough for us to simply feel strong feelings and think enlightened thoughts. We humans have an innate drive to express those thoughts and feelings through our words and actions, and in our relationships with our environment and our fellow human beings.”

It’s the physical expression of our inner spirit, Woofenden says, that allows us to feel fulfilled.

I heartily invite you to read his entire article for deeper insight.

“Work” doesn’t necessarily mean the job you do for a living, of course.  It can mean gardening, washing the car, or sweeping the floor.  But it does also mean your job.  And if you think that what you do for a living isn’t meaningful, you might benefit from looking at it a little differently.  Try seeing how what you do fits into the bigger picture, how it has its place in a complex organization that, in some way, helps your fellow man.

Whatever work you’re doing, the more of yourself you can put into it, the more meaningful it will be for you.

Engaging with Life and People

Psychologists who are studying the ways that a sense of meaning shows up in our lives are discovering that when you ask people what was meaningful to them in the past couple of days, they’ll name times when they were doing things they enjoyed, whether that was a solitary hobby or having lunch with a friend.

It’s often the moments of simple pleasure that make our lives feel worthwhile.

“Finding meaning in life can be exciting when you bestow loving focus, attention and care on to what you do,” writes Naveena Gerrits  in her wonderfully helpful article on engaging in meaningful activities.

She provides a big clue to extracting meaning in that sentence: give your activities your loving focus, attention and care.

Doing that will keep you rooted in the present and help you enter the flow state, that space where you’re so engaged that you lose all track of time.

If you want to find a path to meaning that suits your personality and style, Gerrits’ article is a fabulous place to go for suggestions.  She lists dozens and dozens of activities you might explore, broken down into the headings:

  • Creative Forms of Expression
  • Hobbies  – Work – Career
  • Ethics – Contribution – Society
  • Environment – Nature – Cosmos
  • Relationships – Family – Home
  • Spirituality – Religion – Philosophy

The Ultimate Meaning

Throughout the ages, humans have been trying to find the meaning of life.  The ultimate reason for our being is one of life’s ultimate mysteries.  The answer you choose to the question, “Why are we here?” like the answer to finding the meaning in your own life, is a personal matter and depends, in large part, on your spiritual or philosophical orientation.

You may even decide that, because it has no one-size-fits-all answer, the only honest answer is “Beats me!”  It’s too big a question for most of us.

But “What makes my life worthwhile?” is a question that hits home for us all.  Your answer may change as your life changes.  You may find it in relationships today, in your work tomorrow, or in overcoming suffering at some point along the way.  Think of discovering the meaning in your life as a day by day adventure.

Every day, try to do something that gives you a sense of satisfaction, achievement, relatedness, contribution or pleasure.  Let your personal interests guide you in finding them and experiment from time to time with new things.  You can print out a copy of Gerrit’s list or bookmark it and review it every now and then for ideas.

Increase the attention you give to your health, too – to the quality of your nutrition, to giving yourself adequate amounts of hydration, exercise and sleep.   The healthier you are, the easier it is to feel zest for life.

Take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey and learn what your highest personal strengths are.  Then find ways that you can use them more often and in different applications in your life.

Try keeping a gratitude journal to increase your awareness of the things that let you feel good about being alive today.

And every day, tell yourself “I’m important to me.  I matter.”  Because you are, and you do.

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Ordinary Meaning: Finding Your Purpose in Life

Finding MeaningIf you secretly cringe at the suggestion that you need to find your capital-P Purpose in life, you’re not alone.  Ask a hundred guys on the street to tell you their life’s Purpose and, chances are, you’ll get a hundred blank stares.

Nevertheless, the idea that each of us has some unique and specific reason for being permeates the whole of our culture.   We’re taught that until we discover our Purpose and devote our lives to fulfilling it, we have no hope of living a truly significant or life.

Happily, new research by University of Missouri psychology professor Dr. Laura A. King into the meaning of life’s meaning is putting that notion in its place.  People all over the world, it turns out, find their lives meaningful whether they’re following some grand purpose or not.  In fact, the new studies indicate, life has meaning built right in.

Meaning isn’t some lofty ideal that’s experienced only by an elite, privileged few.  It’s an automatic part of everybody’s life, tucked right into our ordinary day-to-day living.  

That doesn’t mean that identifying purpose in your life is a waste of time.  Far from it.  The reason that we’re encouraged to find purpose in the first place is because having a sense of purpose contributes so much to the meaningfulness of life.   But the new research does give us a broader perspective as we explore its place in our lives.

Why Purpose Matters

Having a purpose promotes goal-directed living.  When you know what you’re striving to accomplish with your life, you have a sense of direction.  You spend less time on things that don’t matter; you’re more focused.

Having a purpose infuses your life with more passion. It gives you reasons to get out of bed in the morning.

But above all, striving toward a purpose gives your life a sense of meaning.  And the bottom line is that it’s meaning we’re truly seeking.

If you have a strong sense of meaning in your life, says meaning expert Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “you’re much more likely to feel pleasing emotions like love, joy, and vitality.  On top of that, you’re more likely to be satisfied with your life, and more accepting and satisfied with yourself. In addition, you’re more likely to feel like you have an active hand in shaping your own life, and are likely looking forward to a bright future.”

Dr. King agrees.  People who rate their lives as meaningful, she says, are better off than those who don’t.  They have a higher quality of life, better physical and mental health, slower age decline, less Altzhiemers, better coping abilities, heightened occupational assessment, longer lives, and are more socially appealing.

During times of challenge, having a sense of meaning and purpose can help you weather the storm and see things in the context of your life-story.   As Dr. Steger says this in his article about facing the loss of your job:

Nietzsche had another saying, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  If you have created, discovered, invested, and fostered meaning in your life, momentary – even severe – set-backs take their proper place in your life. You can take perspective and see that these challenges fit into the greater story of your life, and that your story intertwines with the stories of the people you love.  Your life can be bigger than the setbacks; your story can be bigger than your life.

According to the VIA (Values in Action) Character Strengths Survey™, having a sense of purpose is a part of the strength of Spirituality.  When you rank high in it, you’re told that, “You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.”

That definition takes purposefulness into the metaphysical realm.  From this perspective, it’s more than just knowing what you want to accomplish; it involves a set of beliefs about the meaning of the universe itself and your place in it.

For many of us, that’s a tall order, and outside the scope of our interests.  And it’s this exalted view of meaning that Dr. King’s work addresses, bringing the topic of meaning back to the ground.

Built-In Meaning

Meaning isn’t always something that we have to stop and create or construct, Dr. King said in a recent private teleseminar.  It’s something that can happen to us, that can emerge from the world.  It can come from unexpected places to sit in our lives of its own accord, as happens with intuitions and synchronicities that spontaneously guide and confirm us, often in significant ways.   Then it’s just a matter of noticing something that’s signaling us about something that we need to know.

The world, says Dr. King, is not inherently meaningless.  It’s characterized by natural regularity, by associations between events that have importance to us.   Rats in labs, to take a simple example, learn that pressing a bar when a light turns on means food will appear.  Their readiness to learn about associations shows that the natural world is not chaotic or random.  The reliability of such associations is necessary to their survival – and to ours.

When over 100,000 people in 32 nations were asked if their lives had meaning, 91% of them said yes, they did.  And the biggest percentage of those who agreed lived in the impoverished nation of Sierra Leone.   The ability to find meaningful connections is more important when it is plainly necessary to survival, says Dr. King.

That’s the adaptive problem that the feeling of meaningfulness solves: the connection between events.

The body is wired to make reliable connections from an environment that is filled with them in the same way that it’s filled with oxygen.  The meaningful associations are everywhere, all the time.  Meaning tracks the presence of the world making sense, Dr. King says, and it comes in on a non-conscious level, an intuitive level that serves adaptation.

We, as human beings, are lucky that we get to recognize meaning for what it is, to feel it.  We understand that the convergence of things matters.

Everyday Purpose and Meaning

Whether your daily activities are in service of some higher purpose that you have identified for yourself or are simply the routines you do to get through the day, the web of meaning is always operating for you, revealing the connections that are available to help you fulfill your intentions.

In fact, Dr. King’s research shows a positive correlation between a routinized life and feeling a sense of meaning.

You are a living part of the web of connections that arises from an inherently meaningful world.  It will trigger meaningful associations for you whether your purpose is to cure cancer or simply to figure out what’s for dinner.

Dr. King’s research also shows that the strongest predictor of whether a day feels like it was meaningful is the simple experience of pleasure that day.  When you ask people what the most meaningful events of their lives are, they list the same kinds of things:  the prom, graduation, marriage, childbirth.  But when you ask them about the most meaningful things in the last two days, they tell you about everyday events they enjoyed—like chatting with a friend about a problem over lunch.

Meaning isn’t something that you have to work for, Dr. King says.  Notice the simple pleasures in your life.  When you’re enjoying life, it feels more meaningful.

But notice, too, she advises, the range of emotions you feel.  Sadness, loss, and grief can be meaningful, too.  In fact, the richly emotional life is often the most meaningful one in the long run, the one that contains both the highs and the lows.

And above all, notice the magic and the connections.  In the end, Dr. King says, we’re born into a world that makes sense.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

You may also enjoy “How to Live a Meaningful Life.”

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