Cultivating a Beautiful Life

Cultivating a Beautiful Life

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 18, 2016 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water friends,

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my path in life: where I’ve been and how I want to move forward. I usually assume that my future happiness depends on setting the right goal, determining the best way to work towards that, and checking off each step as I go. I’ve even got a note taped to my computer monitor that reads “What can I do today that will positively change what I will be doing in two years?”

So I was intrigued to read an interview in Daily Good with Gina Sharpe, who has been a corporate lawyer and Vipassana meditation teacher, among other professions. The article’s author, Tracy Cochran, explains that she approached the interview much as I’ve been approaching my life, expecting Sharpe to present a tidy timeline when asked to described the choices that had led her to this moment. And yet instead Sharpe replied:

“I don’t think of life as a sum of choices. I think of outcomes as a result of each choice. I’m not sure that so called ‘choices’ would have been as wise as what actually happened. We fool ourselves to think that we are making big choices that are going to direct our lives. What’s actually happening is that in every moment small, intimate choices present themselves, depending on conditions that previously arose. And appropriate responses can happen if we’re present. Those appropriate responses come together to be part of a kaleidoscopic pattern that can later on appear to be a huge choice that we made. Actually, the pattern is always changing, and if we look at it with spaciousness, it’s beautiful.”

Reading this made me consider that trying to plan my life on a grand scale is the wrong approach. Perhaps in agonizing over making the right big decisions, I’m completely missing the importance of the small decisions. What is beautiful, wise, and valuable–those determinations must be made here and now. Conditions only exist in the present moment and can be met best with what Sharpe calls a beautiful mind: one that is authentically present to everything that arises, that integrates every experience yet carefully chooses which qualities to cultivate, that makes small decisions wisely and with equanimity in the face of impermanence.

Sharpe is careful to say that this equanimity is not the same as passivity, a distinction I sometimes struggle with. Accepting how things are or that things change does not mean being resigned to what is or surrendering responsibility for my actions. A beautiful life becomes possible when small decisions are made wisely by one who is grounded in the present and ready to adapt as the situation changes.

“People in our culture like to plan,” Sharpe says. “But in reality, you do step one and the universe responds by offering up new conditions, and then you respond to the new conditions that arise—which have nothing to do with what you knew about when you planned your steps—and then the universe responds again.”

To me, this sounds like an interpretative dance–completely alive to the present moment, gracefully moving to ever-changing music. To be honest, I love dance yet feel very self-conscious when dancing. Perhaps this same self-consciousness is why I obsessively try to plan my life. How can I learn to trust that there will be beauty in the unfolding kaleidoscopic pattern of my life if I approach each moment whole-heartedly?

This Thursday, after we sit and walk together in silence, I’d like to hear your experiences of cultivating a beautiful life. Do you try to plan or embrace whatever arises? What have been the results in your life of these differing approaches? I encourage you to read the entire interview with Gina Sharpe, linked below, which has a lot of food for thought, as well as some quotes from Thay and an excerpt from an interview with Alan Wallace. All go to the question of how do we cultivate a beautiful, meaningful life.


I hope you can join us.


Michelle Johnson-Weider

Link to the original interview:

From Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh

The deepest concern in you, as in many of us, is one you may not have perceived, one you may not have heard. Every one of us has an ultimate concern that has nothing to do with material or affective concerns. What do we want to do with our life? That is the question. We are here, but why are we here? Who are we, each of us individually? What do we want to do with our life? These are questions that we don’t typically have (or make) time to answer.

These are not just philosophical questions. If we’re not able to answer them, then we don’t have peace – and we don’t have joy, because no joy is possible without some peace. Many of us feel we can never answer these questions. But with mindfulness, you can hear their response yourself, when you have some silence within. You can find some answers to these questions and hear the deepest call of your heart…

We rarely offer ourselves the time and space to consider: Am I doing what I most want to be doing with my life? Do I even know what that is? The noise in our heads and all around us drowns out the ‘still, small voice’ inside. We are so busy doing ‘something’ that we rarely take a moment to look deeply and check in with our deepest desires…

You can spend your whole life listening to internal and external messages without ever hearing the voice of your deepest desire. You don’t have to be a monk or a martyr to do this. If you have space and silence to listen deeply to yourself, you may find within you a strong desire to help other people, to bring love and compassion to others, to creative positive transformation in the world. Whatever your job – whether you lead a corporation, serve food, teach, or take care of others – if you have a strong and clear understanding of your purpose and how your work relates to it, this can be a powerful sense of joy in your life.


From an interview with B. Alan Wallace in Tricycle

What is genuine happiness? I prefer the term “human flourishing,” which is a translation of the Greek word eudaimonia. The usual translation is “genuine happiness,” but “flourishing” is more accurate. Like the Buddhist notion of sukkha, and ananda—bliss, joy in the Hindu tradition—flourishing is a sense of happiness that’s beyond the momentary vicissitudes of our emotional state.

And what would that happiness entail? A meaningful life.

What makes for a meaningful life? I consider each day, not just the life as a whole. I look at four ingredients. First, was it a day of virtue? I’m talking about basic Buddhist ethics—avoiding harmful behavior of body, speech, and mind; devoting ourselves to wholesome behavior and to qualities like awareness and compassion. Second, I’d like to feel happy rather than miserable. The realized beings I’ve known exemplify extraordinary states of well-being, and it shows in their demeanor, their way of dealing with adversity, with life, with other people. And third, pursuit of the truth—seeking to understand the nature of life, of reality, of interpersonal relationships, or the nature of mind. But you could do all that sitting quietly in a room. None of us exists in isolation, however, so there is a fourth ingredient: a meaningful life must also answer the question, “What have I brought to the world?” If I can look at a day and see that virtue, happiness, truth, and living an altruistic life are prominent elements, I can say, “You know, I’m a happy camper.” Pursuing happiness does not depend on my checkbook, or the behavior of my spouse, or my job, or my salary. I can live a meaningful life even if I only have ten minutes left.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 18, 2016


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