The Gift of Light

gift of light

I confess.  Despite my best efforts, I fell into the Bah-Humbug Swamp this past week.  Its appearance in my path is a seasonal thing.  Right smack in mid-December it bubbles up and grabs me. I tried to tip-toe past it this year, but it sneaked up and sucked me right in, covering me from head to toe with slimy sadness and chunks of disgust.  (Wait!  There’s a happy ending.  Don’t quit reading now!)

Instead of seeing the beauty of the holiday lights and enjoying the music that floated from stores’ speakers as I shopped,  all I could see was how driven and stressed everybody seemed as they tried to live up to all the expectations that the season evokes.   While I was under the Swamp Spell, it all looked like sheer madness.

But then I remembered the magical rope I had created for myself.  See, I knew the swamp was likely to show up, so I prepared for it in advance.  In my imagination, I found a big, glittering, quartz-encrusted slab of granite and right in the middle of it I anchored a tall marble pillar etched with the words “Kindness” and “Compassion.”  Because it reminded me a bit of a light-house, I placed a revolving light on it, too.  I wanted to be able to see it in case I did fall into the swamp, no matter how dark the swamp might be.  Then I made the magical rope.  It was woven of golden fibers and it had a kind of detector on the end of it so that if I swung it in the air above my head, it would automatically be drawn to the pillar and attach itself there.

It was a cool rope, because I could roll it up into a little ball that easily slid into my pocket, but when I pulled it out and swung it overhead, it would become any length it needed to be to reach the saving pillar.

Another cool thing about it is that while you were reading my description, you built one of your own in your imagination.  So now you can save yourself from the swamps of Bah-Humbug, too, if need be.

Anyway, once I remembered that I had my rope in my pocket, all it took was an instant for me to see it swirling over my head, finding the Pillar of Kindness and Compassion, and latching on to it.  Once it did that, I flew right out of the swamp and my whole view of things changed. I started looking into people’s eyes and smiling at them.  It surprised them, and they smiled back, forgetting how frazzled they had been a minute ago.  I winked at children and they giggled.  I found little ways to help people.  I told the check-out clerk how I appreciated her efficiency and friendliness.

Later, I used the rope when I caught myself losing patience with a neighbor, and again when a friend was telling me a litany of troubles.

I plan to use it all through the holidays.  Kindness and Compassion are, after all, the best gifts you can give.  They’re the ones that everyone remembers, the ones that truly touch their hearts.  And that’s because the glittering granite rock where the Pillar of Kindness and Compassion stands is anchored in your heart, surrounded by the sea of your love and casting a light so bright that it can shine through  any darkness.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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Our site has a wealth of articles that can help you live a more meaningful, flourishing life.  Browse through the topics in the Article Index while you’re here and see all that’s available to you. And pick up a copy of our free Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well Being for more easy and powerful ways to enrich your life.  Just fill in your email at the top right of this page.

 

Photo by robby m

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