The Purpose and Meaning of Life
I've had 62 years now to observe life on planet Earth, and for me an interesting and central fact has emerged. Life here appears to be a reform school for hard cases.
Let me go into this in a little more detail. Scientific research has discovered that well over half the people in America are predators. The ratio could be as high as two thirds or three quarters. Being a predator means that they don't care about the feelings or rights of others. Rather, they operate out of ruthless self interest. One of my clients once commented that selfishness is the root of all evil, and I think she may be onto something.
It's not their fault, by the way, that predators are this way. They were born as sweet and innocent babies, just like everyone else. What changed them into abusers is very simple: abuse. There's only one thing that has the power to change innocence into evil, and that's abuse. Unfortunately, abuse is as common as dirt here.
But, even though it's no one's fault that they were abused and damaged, it is everyone's responsibility to heal from the trauma. Life continues to present us with opportunities to change and grow, and eventually we do. The same lessons keep coming around until people understand them and change for the better. After that, actually, the same lessons continue to come around, but they're not noticed since they're easily and quickly dealt with.
So the purpose of life is to learn to stop being a predator, to graduate from this rough school. We graduate by overcoming our evil habits and reclaiming our original innocence.
You might ask, how do we do that? There is a way, and it has many names. One of my favorites is the way of the warrior. Warriors live out of strategy rather than emotional impulse. They overcome self-pity and negative thinking. They stop taking things personally that aren't. They accept that mistakes and accidents are impossible to avoid on this planet. They develop unshakable self worth. They learn self defense. And they operate towards others only out of love and compassion. These accomplishments aren't easy, but they're possible for everyone. That such should be the case is the very point of existence here.
The beginning of the warrior way is to ask yourself what your self worth is based on. Most people base their self worth on success. Big mistake. When they fail, their self worth crashes. Just when they need it the most, their self esteem and self confidence are gone. It's vital that self worth be based on something which never changes. Anything permanent will do. Civilization should be able to fall, you should be able to lose everything without it affecting how you feel about yourself.
To quote Don Juan, the greatest teacher of the warrior way that I've found, “The ultimate accomplishment of a warrior is joy.” And, “Warriors operate only from compassion.” In this world, only a warrior can get away with living from an open heart. For anyone else, this is silly and an invitation to attack. Predators smell openness from a mile away and come running. But a warrior is friends with everyone. How is this paradox possible?
When she's attacked, a warrior snaps into self defense mode and stops the attack in such a way that no one gets hurt, not even the attacker. As soon as the battle is over, she snaps right back into being open and friendly. “Did we just have a fight? No, I don't think so. You're my friend. Come here and give me a hug.” This is very confusing for predators. Their experience is that they attack you, and then there's some wild turbulence in the middle that they don't understand, and then they're walking down the road arm in arm with you as friends. Say what? They're left feeling that they've been swindled. The con artist is out-conned.
How does the warrior accomplish all these goals? Through the practice of a series of simple techniques. Negative thoughts are noticed and labeled. “Ha! You're a low self-worth thought,” for example. Positive thoughts are started and maintained with will power. “I am of infinite worth, just like everyone else.” At first, it doesn't matter if you believe these thoughts. The important thing is to get the habit of positive thinking going. Self defense consists of two levels. The first is using one's feelings to notice abuse, stopping it with raised hands and saying “Stop,” until the abuser stops. “That hurts me. Please don't do that. Instead, what I want you to do is....” The second level is using trickery and deceit to handle abuse. This is called the way of the Coyote. Once you can't be hurt anymore, the fear and anger stop. The most difficult skill is acceptance, the supreme feather in the warrior's cap. It's also the most necessary. Whatever can't be changed can be accepted.
Through the development of these skills, a warrior becomes detached, loving, patient and cunning.
To sum up, the purpose of an incarnation here on planet Dirt is to recover from the abuse that's been done to us, to overcome selfish habits and learn self defense and compassion. Thus we graduate from this reform school and go on to whatever's next.
Not all of the people who live here are predators. A quarter or so are loving and sweet. Another of the paradoxes here is that the same conditions that reform the predators are also ideal for final polishing. The sweet people are here for what the Sufis call “the rubbing and the squeezing.” For them too, the point of being here is to graduate, but they're operating at a level that's unimaginable to the raw beginners.
There are many paradoxes in life, and one of them is that we can't leave here till we no longer want to. “Wait a minute. Now that I've finally learned to live here happily and have a good life here in the middle of the madness, now you're dragging me away?” Ah yes....
Now I'll move on to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” This is a different question from, “What is the purpose of life?”
One difference is that meaning is more a matter of feeling than of thinking, and purpose is more about thinking than feeling. One feels that one's life has meaning, or feels that it doesn't. People who feel their life has no meaning often feel bored. Meaning is a whole different realm than purpose.
Oddly enough, the matter of meaning can be clarified by thinking about the difference between fun and satisfaction. There are many sources of fun in life. People have fun partying, watching TV, playing video games, doing hobbies, reading books, and on and on. But satisfaction is different. Oddly enough, there aren't many sources of satisfaction. Most people can number them on one hand. The list might go something like this: creativity, having relationships, raising kids, accomplishment, work that you love, communing with nature, helping others. All of these are also fun, but they leave behind a glow that lingers in a way that fun doesn't.
An important part of satisfaction for men is struggle. I'm not sure it's true for women, but for men the struggle to survive is satisfying, and the struggle to find a girlfriend, or to deal with the girlfriend you've got. Many men find when they retire that the struggle is gone, and satisfaction is gone with it. There's a sense of meaninglessness.
For women I think satisfaction is more a matter of seeing their children thrive, and the family do well. Sometimes that involves struggle, and sometimes it doesn't.
But for men and women both, an important part of having a good life is finding something that's more than fun, something that satisfies. No one can tell you what's satisfying for you. Everyone has to find it for themselves.
So the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is quite simple, actually. The meaning of life is finding what satisfies. This doesn't mean the finding is simple. Some things can be simple but not easy, and this is often one of them.
What does all this mean in practice? As you go through life, you'll mostly meet people who fall into one of two groups. The larger group will attack you, use you shamelessly, manipulate without mercy and resort to meanness, hostility and cruelty to get their way. They're generally melodramatic and controlling. The only rational response to these people is to defend yourself. Whenever possible, that means walking away without a word. All the rest of self defense is for those situations in which you can't walk away.
The other main group you'll meet are people needing help. Sometimes they know it, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they can be helped, and often they can't. Even when they ask for help, they will often lie to themselves and to you. Often they're so hobbled by the traumas of the past that they're unable to change or grow. The rational response to these people is to help those who can accept it, and defend yourself from those who can't.
Anyone can be thrown into hell and suffer. That doesn't take talent or skill. The challenge we're faced with here is being thrown into hell and thriving. Now there's a challenge worth taking on. Those who can develop the necessary skills can claim the good life, even here on this odd planet in this odd time. Strangely enough, the good life seems to be within reach for everyone. No one can tell you what the good life is for you, but there are general guidelines. What makes most people happy in life is good relationships with others, satisfying work, positive thinking, playfulness and hope. Depression is usually about lack of hope. Creating a clear vision of what the good life looks like to you, and feels like to you, and making a plan to get to it, will create hope. And hope is vital. There's no substitute for hope.
Michael J. Fox did a special on ABC in 2009 called The Incurable Optimist. He traveled all over the world interviewing incurable optimists. He found that they all have a behavior in common. In any situation, they don't focus on the negative. Rather, they focus on the opportunities. “Yes, I know this is troublesome, but what are the opportunities here?” The delightful thing is a behavior is something anyone can learn and adopt. By deliberately training ourselves to focus on the positive possibilities, we allow our lives to bloom like flowers.
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