In summer of 2022, it had finally caught up to me.
I had been working as a software engineer at my dream company for a year, a job I'd been pursuing for the previous seven, but I was miserable.
The job was fine (more than fine actually, it was and is great). But I was supposed to feel like my life mattered. I was supposed to feel impressed with myself. I was supposed to have ARRIVED.
Instead, I just felt the same pointlessness I had been running from those last seven years. It had been a nonstop string of aspirations since I graduated college, bigger and bigger goals, ranging from fitness to business to education to renown. I had accomplished each one in turn, but found the familiar feeling waiting for me each time.
There was no escape. Nothing I accomplished, nothing I acquired, no recognition I could possibly ever earn, would fulfill me.
This time, I knew I would never outrun it. I needed to try a different approach.
So after a good 6 months of moping around to the frustration of my wife, I decided to answer the question: what is the meaning of (my) life?
Surprisingly, or maybe not, I found the answer pretty quickly. Or at least, I found an answer that satisfied me. It has three parts:
- Live life in accordance with your values
- Cultivate an awareness of the finite nature of life
- Seek connection to something bigger than yourself
Unfortunately, putting it into practice turns out to be far, far more difficult than achieving your wildest undreamt ambitions.
Fortunately, even taking small steps in the right direction has a huge impact.
Buddhism and psychology join forces
I initially approached it from the basis of psychology. I didn't look for answers in religious or traditionally spiritual pursuits until much later.
But psychology wasn't concerned with meaning so much the individual's sense of well-being (I hadn't come across the work of Viktor Frankl yet). It felt like a big piece was missing.
Eventually, I came across a collaboration between a religious leader and a western psychologist. The Art of Happiness is a series of conversations between the psychologist Howard C. Cutler and the 14th Dalai Lama. I read this as a teenager, but it took me 20 more years and reading more books by the Dalai Lama to realize why it resonated with me. It held that missing piece: a larger perspective on human happiness, suffering and meaning.
While western psychology tackled the problem of happiness in order to alleviate the suffering of the individual, the Dalai Lama couched it in terms of a universal responsibility to all humanity.
By cultivating our own happiness, well-being and contentment, we uplift everyone we engage with. By seeking our own peace, we help others do the same because we create a kinder world.
In essence, he gave meaning to an individual's search for meaning.
The Dalai Lama's book, Ethics for the New Millennium, is the foundation for the third part of my answer to the question, "what is the meaning of life?": live a life that is part of something bigger.
(What do ethics have to do with anything? Ethics is the study of how we ought to live, which essentially answers the question, "what makes a good/worthy/meaningful life".
What is that "something bigger?"
Normally, the question of what to live our lives for is answered by religion, but in our secular times, that is inadequate for many people. So, the Dalai Lama provides an answer that relies on our own experience.
- Humans naturally seek to be happy and to avoid suffering.
- Thus, ethical behavior is that which avoids harming others and increasing suffering.
- This is hard because the world is complicated.
- Thus, ethical behavior requires understanding what would promote happiness and alleviate suffering in ourselves and others.
- This requires two things:
- Reason, thought, and skill to determine (as much as possible) the impacts of our actions in each unique, complex situation; and
- Compassion, empathy, patience, humility and other "spiritual attributes" to allow us to choose the action that will promote the most happiness, avoid suffering, and come from the correct intention.
Thus, by driving our ethics, compassion connects us to all humanity, indeed, all living things that can suffer. (To be precise, compassion allows us to recognize the reality that we are all connected, rather than live in the self-focused way we normally do.)
Connection from compassion
As we develop a sense of compassion for others, we start to see that we are all essentially the same, and we start to feel that we are all part of the same group.
In truth, it is not just compassion that brings that sense but all the spiritual qualities: compassion, empathy, patience, humility, and others.
For the Dalai Lama and others with highly developed spiritualities, the extent to which we can feel a sense of connection to others is quite extreme: unconditional love for all humans, including one's enemies, and a sense of belonging to the Earth and presumably all of existence.
In the few moments of my life I have felt anything approaching this, I can say without hesitation that I felt deeply content and happy, that I was essentially okay and that my life was meaningful. But for me, and I think for most people, those moments are fleeting and tenuous.
The Dalai Lama does not ask us to aim so high initially, but instead points out that even a small increase in feelings of connection will be of benefit. With practice, our ability to elicit compassion becomes stronger and the sense of connection we feel deepens. This in turn, gives us a sense of contentment and happiness.
Compassion also is a source of joy and contentment that tends to outlast the satisfaction from material gains. Helping those we care about generally makes us feel good. And yes, it can get complicated when we use charity as a means to flaunt our moral superiority, on a basic level, I think most humans have at least a few experiences when they gave or received love and support unconditionally and felt it to be greatly rewarding. A parent's love for their child is a simple and nearly universal example.
Compassion as the driving force in life
So, if we seek to live a more meaningful life, instead of looking for ways to be more important or powerful, we should seek ways to cultivate compassion.
I think it's important to emphasize that this doesn't mean we should NOT seek to acquire money, prestige, or exciting lifestyles. Only that we should realize these things will not give us a sense of meaning and satisfaction. They will not bring lasting happiness.
To me, this means a life where compassion and the other spiritual attributes are at the core of my being and drive the other things. If I do seek more money or power or adventure, it comes from a place of wanting to make the world a better place by connecting with others, improving their situations, or experiencing and sharing the beauty of the world.
That said, I'm not very developed spiritually. I may find that the acquisition of material wealth or a life of adventuring is simply not compatible with a life lived in compassion. But my instinct is that this is a simplistic, perhaps even dogmatic view. In any case, the Dalai Lama doesn't ask us to totally stop our lives, but just to inject them with a bit more compassion than before, and to keep doing that little by little.
All the caveats
There are many arguments against this view of life, and while they might seem merely arguing for the sake of arguing, I think that people really are afraid of committing themselves to compassion for others.
We have been so steeped in a culture of competition and aggression, that we have come to see compassion as weakness. At least, we may think that if we help others, they will just take from us leaving us with very little to help ourselves or more people. The Dalai Lama has his answers to these reservations, but I will provide my own as well.
First of all, I would encourage people to think of this as a problem to be solved. Instead of saying it can't be done, we should be asking, how can it be done? Maybe it is impractical given our current way of life and thinking, but we can direct our energy to plotting a way forward, rather than giving up without starting.
In essence, I would point out that arguments against compassion for all are essentially arguments for defensiveness and tribalism at best, and actual hatred at worst. Can you find a way to love your enemy without allowing them to destroy you?
People might also point out that, while it might be possible, the political, social, and economic issues we face are too urgent to allow for the slow cultivation of compassion. We just need to deal with the current crisis with the tools we have.
To that, I would point out that anytime we feel threatened, we will naturally feel the situation is urgent. There is never a time when this sort of situation doesn't feel urgent. At some point, we have to try something different.
There are, of course, situations where we do need to defend our lives, and there are people who have so little they really cannot afford the time, energy, or resources to help others. And there are those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not help themselves out of bad situations. That these people exist in such situations is a failure of our society and while I certainly think they too would benefit from cultivating compassion, I also understand that the demands on their mental and emotional states are quite extreme. Especially in a world with as much abundance as ours, we ought to direct our efforts to alleviating such abject suffering. The point is not to find fault, but to find ways to make things a bit better.
That said, even the Dalai Lama admits it is not simple to affect such change on a large scale, or even for an individual. All he asks is that we seek to cultivate a little more compassion in our daily lives, perhaps try to expand the circle of people whom we love, and try to remember to respond carefully when we are threatened or wronged."