Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of October 21, 2019


A Meaningful Life

(Introduction: The Search)

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Why am I here? How should I live? What should I do? What really matters? What is my purpose? What do I really want? What will I regret? What will make me happy? What would my best life be? What will fulfill me? Between the promise of my potential and the constraints of my obligations, how can I live a life that I consider truly meaningful?

Real questions like these pursue us throughout our lives. Sometimes they are explicit and conscious, and sometimes not. So many of the choices we make every day are shaped by an attempt at an answer. Yet the questions keep coming, even into old age. The most accurate assessment of our life cannot be made until we are at an end, because something more or new remains possible, as long as we have time left. Nevertheless, from our own perspective each moment can be meaningful or not, or somewhere in between. For a moment to be meaningful it must contribute to the overall meaning of our life, in whatever way we frame that meaning. Meaningful moments add up to a meaningful life.

Recent research purported to show that meaning in life depends on emotion: not on the valence of emotional experiences, whether they are positive or negative, but rather on the emotional intensity of an experience. These researchers tie this to the narrative self, the story of our life, the story of who we are, the story that defines us. Intense emotional experiences become part of our story. Those experiences form our memories, which form our story.

Yet meaning in life needs to be true. This is not something we want to delude ourselves about, or gloss over, because we would assuredly regret that at some point. So we need to ask: is our narrative self true? Is our memory and the story we construct from it who we really are? One approach to answering that comes through the lens of time. Memories and the story they make are from the past. All that may shape us, but our reality is here and now, no story needed. Indeed, our narrative self is nothing more than the story that ties together our memories, thereby creating an illusory self, a substitute self. This masks our true self, which is not separate, more than individual, fully in the present, not about me or my story, and not even about my thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

Meaning is inextricably linked to a future we envision, to an overarching and stable intention around which we organize our life. A meaningful life is less a product of discrete meaningful events and more the long-term pattern of meaning that we create and choose. Meaning comes from the life aims we adopt and stick with, from our goals and roles, not because they express me, but because they enable me to serve something necessary, something greater than me.

Happiness comes from taking, while meaning comes from giving [1]. Such giving flows from the four great sources of meaning: creativity, productivity, love, and spirituality. Creativity includes all the ways we do or make something new. Productivity covers our active work, our jobs, professions, and careers, our duties and obligations, and all the ways that we serve society, be it building things such as products, businesses, or organizations, or creating or restoring order in the ongoing war with entropy, even down to sweeping the kitchen floor. Love offers meaning in the ways we give through family, friendship, community, charity, courtesy, kindness and empathy. Spirituality includes our inner and outer, individual and communal approach to the Sacred. Meaning derives from any or all these sources. But for some, the greatest meaning may derive from working toward a single, long-term goal or intention.

Meaning arises from our values. What do we care about? What ideals and principles do we live by? Living according to our values imbues our life with meaning. To the extent our values align with objective values, societal values, our conscience can guide our actions to accord with our values. Thus, our personal conscience, if we listen to and follow it, can show the way toward a meaningful life.

In the coming weeks, we will explore how we can live a meaningful life. For this week, please look at the source or sources of meaning in your own life.

    1. Finding Yourself
    2. Giving
    3. Spirituality in a Pandemic
    4. Calm in the Storm
    5. Opening to Presence
    6. Talent and Ego

[1] Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker & Emily N. Garbinsky (2013) Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8:6, 505-516, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2013.830764


        

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