Finding Authentic Meaning for Life

Shanti Grumbine, Collecting Evidence Before It Can Be Hidden Or Destroyed (From “Genizah”), de-acidified New York Times newspaper, jade glue, matte medium, UV archival spray, nails, magnets, 27x12 inches

From earliest infancy and continuing throughout life, humans seek secure relationships with others that will provide enough security to allow us to explore the world around us without feeling alone and vulnerable. Supported by others, we don’t fall back on fight-flight-or-freeze programming, nor allow basic survival concerns, such as finding the next meal, to dominate all our actions. Instead we can develop additional relationships with others, and accumulate skills to support us for whatever challenging circumstances arise in the future.

In addition to providing security, belonging to a community provides us with a sense of purpose greater than survival alone: We can develop higher values, such as empathy, care and concern for others, tolerance, self-acceptance, inner peace through meditative practice. It’s not surprising that research conclusively demonstrates that people are happiest when they feel securely connected with a group.

Yet, as we move through life, seeking meaningful interactions with others, many interactions have less than satisfying results; there are times when traumatic rejections result from our efforts to connect with others, and we are left feeling emotionally wounded. These struggles can result in psychological armoring, an attempt to shield ourselves from additional disappointments; we stay on alert via sustained physical stress, vigilant  mental suspicion, and an array of inhibitory impulses arise whenever the urge to attempt a fresh attempt at self-expression arises; in essence we build a wall of defense mechanisms that may offer a sense of protection—keeping us ‘on guard’ by reducing our vulnerability—but the result is our lives become smaller, lacking in trust with others.

Given all the distancing and suspicion armoring validates, we often try to work out many of our issues from an isolated perspective, for our defensive postures hinder us from sharing our emotional experience aloud, developing the support of secure and reliable relationships. Our armoring can result in many self-sabotaging choices and decisions—choosing to inhibit our impulses to bond with others, which is emotionally risky. And so we may prefer to present ourselves in an inauthentic fashion, only displaying, even exaggerating, those traits that seem popular: confidence, humor, intelligence, successes. Inversely, we may hide the experiences that seem undesirable, such as vulnerability, fear, indecision, sadness, confusion and on. And so we present a distorted version of ourselves, in essence we perform, and fail to display our real, innate drives and needs. Even if we do win friends and support, it often feels hollow, as it is a security born of repression and exaggeration.

The landscape within which we seek security is worth reflecting on at this point:

(1) all careers and roles in the world are unstable cannot answer the emotional needs we have for secure connection; moreso, even when things appear stable, the mind tends to habituate and seek additional surities;
(2) each of us will age, experience sickness and will die; and so we live without guarantees of health, ability, or more time to locate a sense of sanctuary with others;
(3) we all feel, to a degree, separate and unique, at least until innate fear structures are lessened by empathetic connection with others.

Given the frailty and lack of security we face, its clear how fundamental a role meaningful interactions can play in safeguarding sanity, yet we prefer to communicate superficially, in ways that conceal, rather than communicate, emotional needs, vulnerabilities and energies. We can never arrive at a state of mind free from a need for satisfying relationships; worthwhile relationships are built on mutual empathy, caring, tolerance, reliability; our sense of uniqueness and separateness can only be alleviated when we hear others articulate emotions that we struggle with, and that requires the courage to communicate honestly and listen openly. We feel less alone when we witness, via voice tones, body language, facial expressions, etc, the signs that others have similar feelings and struggles.

How can we drop our guard and open to a deeper connection? Our connectedness with others grows greater, rather than diminishes, the more we realize live towards death; values and beliefs mean little without acknowledging and making sense of our mortal experience, the lack of security in the world. To live an authentic life we must contemplate being in the world without guarantees or shelter. Such a vulnerable state requires close relationships with others.

Alas, the search for meaning amidst impermanence and unreliability, many of us find ourselves too busy searching for approval, seeking financial rewards and various achievements, leaving us little time to critically evaluate the cultural views and beliefs we are asked to uphold and embrace.

Without locating higher values that provide a foundation when the rug is pulled out under us during times of loss, despair, frustration and setbacks, we face the feeling of meaninglessness and annihilation: no matter how many trophies our careers and achievements offer, they cannot satiate the craving for insurance and guarantees, especially when stemming from insecure relationships during childhood years. Our strivings to achieve lasting ease will fail us if they are based on performative skills and roles (trying to be smart, funny, confident, self-reliant, etc); a feeling of acceptance and belonging can only arrive when they are the rewards of our authentic and natural interests. Trying to survive amidst a competitive marketplace provides no higher purpose, higher value or meaning; the important questions remain unresolved.

Higher values only arise from critical and experiential testing; note that the Buddha taught that, outside of harmlessness, one should verify every belief and value, not taking reports or conventions for granted. Once we test out and develop values that are reliable and unconditional—such as compassion, gratitude, equanimity, care—we live our life as guided by these beliefs, rather than simply surviving in the roles we’ve acquired (work, familys, endeavors, hobbies, etc). When we communicate with others from honest expression of emotions and higher values, we speak from a place that is emotionally unguarded and free from undo influence of social mores and conventions.

What follows are some spiritual exercises and reflections, geared towards evaluating and reprioritizing from an aspirational perspective:

• If we had a diagnosis of only months to live, what would we change? what obligations and responsibilities would we put aside? How would we behave differently?

• Reflect on the times we experienced the greatest peace in life? What do these experiences have in common?

• What are the great ideas you respect from the canon of philosophy or literture or culture? How can we live from this perspective?

• What actions did we undertake five years ago that we feel proud of? What can we learn from these actions.

• What would our speech to the world be? How would we summarize the important things we’ve learned in life? What have we discovered aboutf life worth expressing to others?

These questions are offered in the hope of providing an exercise that will guide us towards meaningful priorities, higher values and authentic choices, based in openness, honesty, caring, harmlessness, empathy and self-expression. If we want to establish a true meaning for our lives, the meaning shouldn’t be searched for “out there” in the realms of self-help books or lifestyle magazines, but in reflecting on what we’ve seen to be true in our own experience. As the Buddha taught so memorably: “Don’t believe what is reported to be true, what you’ve been taught or heard from others, what you’ve inferred from logic; instead, base your actions on what you’ve seen to be true in your own experience.”

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