What Does It Mean to Live a Meaningful Life?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

“Pay attention to where you are going because without meaning you might get nowhere.”

This was the Pooh wisdom card I received on New Year’s Day. It’s a bit like a Rorschach inkblot; it can be read different ways. Pay attention to your goal if you are trying to get somewhere, or you might not get there. Or, pay attention to the meaning of what you are doing, because without a sense of meaning you may find that your effort was not satisfying or worthwhile. This is particularly relevant to me, having six months ago quit my job as a hospice chaplain and ceased to be a wage earner. Where am I go? How will I make wise choices on this new path? What has meaning for me now?

As Rodney Smith, a Buddhist teacher and former hospice social worker, wrote: “…there is … a search for purpose which goes on in almost everyone. We all search for a context to validate ourselves. Once we discover it, we can then commit our energy and resources, and it will carry over into everything we do.” (from Lessons from the Dying).

Just as the Pooh wisdom can be read in different ways, so can meaning. There are the relative meanings that our activities and roles have for us. Once it was very meaningful to be an environmental lawyer. Over time, that livelihood ceased to be nourishing and I had to find another path. Once it was important to be a good daughter. Now my parents are dead and I am not the daughter I was. Being a good daughter means something different than it did.

There is also another layer of meaning, the bigger picture that underlies our roles and activities. This bigger picture can help to inform and clarify our choices, and deepen our experience of living no matter how our roles, interests and capabilities change over time. I am not an environmental lawyer, but my love and concern for this earth are still part of me. I am not a daughter, but my love for my parents continues to live in me in new ways. There is something deeper, more connecting and continuous than the relative meanings in my life.

Often I lose my sense of the bigger picture, the deeper knowing of what is truly meaningful and life giving. I get lost in the day-to-day, living my life as a “means to a means to a means to” (to quote poet Randall Jarrell) and forgetting what it all “means.” I forget what I really want. When I look at how I actually live my day-to-day, I see the many ways my choices do not reflect what is truly important to me.

Living into the answer to those questions, “What is life really about?” and “Am I genuinely committed to an authentic life of awakening?” seems to be the path of meaning I need to be walking.

This Thursday we will take time as a sangha to reflect on the many layers of meaning in our lives. We will look at what brings meaning to our lives now, and what underlying energy or yearning seeks expression in those choices and will continue to sustain us as our circumstances change. I invite you to join me in this exploration.

Below are two quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh to aid in our reflection.

Wishing you warmth and light and sturdy walking shoes,

Ann Kline

On the Right Path

from Your True Home by Thich Nhat Hanh

Happiness means feeling you are on the right path every moment. You don’t need to arrive at the end of the path in order to be happy. The right path refers to the very concrete ways you live your life in every moment. (“your true home,” p. 242)

Meaning for our Life

from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

We begin the practice by seeking meaning for our life. We know that we don’t want to run after fame, money, or sensual pleasure, and so we learn the art of mindful living. In time we develop some understanding and compassion, and we find that these are the energies we can use to alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others. This already gives some meaning to our life.

We continue the practice, looking deeply into [what comprises] the self, and we touch the reality of no-birth and no-death that is in us and in everything. This touching brings us the greatest relief. It removes all of our fears, offers us true freedom, and gives real meaning to our life.