Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Meditation: An Excellent Life

How can a person create an excellent life? This is the meditation I’m carrying around as I take care of the myriad domestic duties that fill my to-do list on this Monday.

What makes an excellent life? Certainly one part of the answer involves understanding what we, as humans, can experience. We are, to be sure, constrained by the limits of what we can do and feel, and to ignore these limits inevitably leads to frustration, denial and, eventually, to feelings of failure and helplessness. Yet, out of fear of experiencing these things, we often turn away from the process of exploration that helps us discover concretely just exactly what those limits are. In many ancient myths, someone who wanted to find happiness, love or enlightenment had to travel first through some version of hell. Dante did it most literally, I suppose. Before he was allowed to contemplate the splendors of heaven, Dante had to wander through the horrors of hell so he could understand what kept humanity from passing through the pearly gates. Frodo Baggins’ journey also illustrates this point, even if the hell he experienced was somewhat more metaphorical. I think there’s more to be said on this, but I save it for later. I have laundry to do today.

My point, I guess, is that we can and should be active in our efforts to understand what our own limits (that is, our own definitions of what makes an excellent life) really are. Although we are wise to accept that some of the main parameters of life are fixed--we can’t truly avoid sleeping, eating, interacting with one another and doing, on occasion, at least some work we find distasteful--there is a great deal of room for variety in the way we approach our lives. I believe that this flexibility allows enough room for people to take initiative and make choices to make a real difference in their lives. One of the greatest things we can do as people, I think, is to reflect on, and then act in, ways that make our lives excellent.

Paul Graham (2006) offers this statement, “‘Always produce’ is ... a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to this constraint it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. (It will help you) discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.” I am continually dismayed by how little time we devote in our society to trying to connect with the work we love. Consider the three major activities that make up how most of us spend our free time: Watching television, conversation and hobbies. Of these three, the one that takes up most of our time and, ironically, most of our psychic energy, is the one that is the most passive and, for many of us, the most addictive. That we are not taught to look at our lives through a lens of doing is made clear to me every year by the blank stares I receive when I ask my students if they have any hobbies. I once received a response from a girl in my class, “Is watching American Idol a hobby?”

In holding Graham’s statement up as one of wisdom, I don’t mean to say that life must be all work and no play. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I believe quite strongly in the value of play. Play is a great way to get to know yourself and, through that, your vision of an excellent life. “Always produce” is not meant to remove play and leisure from our lives; it’s meant to give it some sense of purpose. By making our leisure active, we continually zero in on the understanding of what makes us happy.

In what ways is your leisure time active? How does it connect to your vision of an excellent life?

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