There is a feeling of dissatisfaction running through our lives. Sometimes this feeling erupts into anger, frustration, disappointment, or despair. Usually it simply hovers at the outskirts of our awareness as a vague sense that life is never quite what we expect it to be. Life always falls short of perfection. And we often ask: what is the meaning of life? How shall we live?
I am struggling to learn how to live and I know you are too. For many years I have been exploring, trying new approaches and failing again and again. Along the way, slowly, I have become better and better at living, though I always fall short of mastering it.
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are often said to contain the essence of Buddhism. The first truth states very simply that life is never quite perfect, never fully satisfying. We go out there and do what we can, but life comes out swinging and knocks us down time and again. We try our best to get things right, to forge a bit of happiness, yet there is always a new challenge lurking just around the corner.
Learning How To Live
In my neighborhood growing up, there was a community pool. My family and I would often go there and I would stay in the shallow end, because I did not know how to swim. I would watch in envy as other children, younger than myself, jumped joyfully off the diving board into the deep end. It looked like such fun, but for some reason I just didn’t know how to swim.
I felt embarrassed because I was the only kid my age who still couldn’t swim. This gave me a sense of inadequacy and made me wonder what was wrong with me. I wanted to join them but I was afraid. I felt shame, fear, a sense of failure and a lack of confidence. I felt terrible.
One day a neighbor of mine, who was younger than me, was trying to teach me to swim. He tried all sorts of different approaches, then suddenly I swam for a short distance. I was shocked! I stood there in a moment of revelation. At that moment, something clicked, fear vanished and it all made sense.
I tried again and again and within a few minutes I was a swimmer. I couldn’t believe it! Once I understood, once I knew how to swim, all of the pain and suffering vanished. I was left with a feeling of elation and excitement at the new adventure which lay in front of me.
The problem of life is much the same. We struggle in life because we simply don’t know how to live. We don’t know everything we need to know. Just like swimming, once life is mastered, all problems vanish. But life is much more complex. It requires much more effort and learning.
As we improve ourselves and chip away at our ignorance, life becomes clearer and easier. Life is all about learning how to live. The challenges and difficulties of life are our training and as we pile up the aha moments we slowly gain a clearer understanding of how to live.
In Search of the Aha Moments
Growing up, everything in my life was average. My family had an average home and an average car. I lived in an average sized city and achieved average grades. I was not popular, yet not an outcast. I had a few average friends and we assumed we were destined to lead average lives. I blended in. However, underneath it all lingered confusion and uncertainty.
I was told that I should figure out what I should do and who I should be, but received very little guidance. It wasn’t that nobody tried to help me, it just seemed like no one knew how. I couldn’t relate to others. I had fears, anger and shame. I was lost in an average world, though nobody else knew it. Life was never quite satisfying and no one seemed to have the answers.
I turned to the study of psychology, then to Asian religions and philosophy. I consumed dozens of self-help books and attempted to apply what I learned. I went and lived in China, travelled around, explored its culture and temples, language and people. I wanted to know how I should live. Yet I still could not find the answer.
I felt as if I was adrift in the ocean, constantly battered by the waves, endlessly surrounded by nothing which could help me. Up and down I went through the current of life, being dragged about like an insignificant piece of driftwood.
Then, one day, as I was sitting meditating on life, something struck me. Everywhere I went, the struggle followed. And as simple as this statement is, it contains within it a profound truth: the struggle is within me. I create it. The reason my search never resulted in an answer was because I was seeking it from outside myself. This was my first aha moment.
One day at a thrift store, I picked up a copy of “As A Man Thinketh” by James Allen. The book was left in my parent’s basement as I explored China for a few years. Then, one day when I was visiting them, I opened up an old box and found this book staring at me. It was one of those moments where chills went up my spine and time froze. It was as if the book had rushed through my eyes straight into my soul. I felt the urge to grab it and brought it back to China with me.
The book sat on my shelf for a while longer. Eventually, I started to notice it more and felt compelled to read it. Finally, I picked it up one day and poured through it all at once. Upon putting the book down, I felt as if a veil had been lifted on the world. Much of the blurriness of life faded and I had a profound moment of simple and beautiful clarity. The message of the book was my next aha moment: As I think, so shall be my life.
I realized that I was the author of my life. I was the designer, the painter, the architect, the sculptor. I traced how my thoughts affected me and those around me. I became aware of the creative power that flowed from within me. I sat humbled and in awe of the mighty power that had been lying dormant within me all these years. I knew that the time had come for me to take over as the leader of my soul.
Transforming Knowledge Into Action
I read over and over again one sentence of the book: “Let a man radically alter his thoughts, and he will be astonished at the rapid transformation it will effect in the material conditions of his life.”
I can still remember vividly, pacing back and forth repeating this sentence over and over. Within me rose an overwhelming feeling of conviction to transform my life.
I began to look over in my mind all of the things I was unhappy with and a fire of determination boiled over in my soul. I ran out the door and kept running. I kicked off my shoes and ran until my feet were bloody. I stumbled and fell. As I arose, bloody and battered, a flame was burning forth from my eyes. I resolved to master my thoughts. I went home and wrote down a list of everything I would no longer allow in my life. I also wrote down what I wanted in my life.
From that day on, through the comings and goings of life, I felt as if mighty gods were floating behind my ears, ready and waiting to receive and execute my orders. I had discovered the exciting adventure that comes from the pursuit of mastery.
I am still learning how to live, but I am getting better and better at it. Each aha moment I have brings with it the dissolution of many of life’s problems and difficulties. Every step of the way, I come closer to an understanding of how best to live.
A Recipe For Living
As far as I can tell, if we follow the recipe below, one by one, the difficulties of life will melt away. Simple, yet profound.
- Take the time to be grateful for your life and notice the beauty around you
- Be good to yourself by taking charge of your life and pursuing peacefulness, health, growth & love, so that you can, above all else…
- Be good to others