Risking Significance

I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.    

– Dawna Markova

What does it mean to have a meaningful life?

An interesting question to pose to a human being, also known as a meaning-making machine, in a world that is meaningless without our making sense of it. We want significance, purpose, and something worthwhile. (What else?) Double click into the meaning behind these words for a moment: We want significance, how? Purposeful, how? Worthwhile, how – and according to whom?

If we are not making up a meaning that feels true to our unique fingerprint and worthy of the pulse of our very own gift of this one life, then we’ll likely subscribe to The 10 Things You Must Do For A Meaningful Life list that’s likely floating around on some life-hacking site somewhere.

When we bump up against our cubicles, commutes, and time clocks with the question of meaning stirring in our head, it’s easy to wonder: “Is this all there is?”  We long to have more impact. (Who doesn’t want to be one of those people that makes an impact?) Maybe we long for the promise that there’s a better something in the greener fields of the hip interwebs of entrepreneurship. Maybe we long for a life’s work that’s truly our own, not what our parents wanted. Maybe we hear that line by Annie Dillard on repeat tauntingly in our heart-mind, “How you spend your days is how you live your life…,” or the classic Mary Oliver line, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” And we say quietly to ourselves, “OMG, WTF am I doing? I need more…meaning.

We set out on that mission. But do we know what we’re looking for? How do we go about finding it? All we know is that we don’t want to die an unlived life. Are we still barely breathing (and calling it a life) or just breathing twice as fast (and calling it a life) as we do The 10 Things You Must Do To Have A Meaningful Life and check them off the bulletproof list?

“The meaning of life is just to be alive,” says Alan Watts. “It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

There’s nothing wrong with the impulse to find meaning. We are meaning-making humans, after all, and living a good life is part and parcel of living well. But who and what is part of our drive for meaning? How do we define that for ourselves? And, what might we be missing in the hunt out of fear of an unlived life?

For some, its material things–cars, fancy stuff, yachts. For others, meaning is made via some sense of a spiritual life punctuated with lifestyle shifts–the malas, tracking our meditation times and fitness routines, the superfoods. All a search for meaning via external things,  just with different flavors.

Being life-styled like someone on the other side of the rat race and gold watches, means you’ve made it, right? Or have we merely swapped out the things that gratify and validate our ego in a move of spiritual materialism? As a solid primer on the topic, Pema Chodron explains spiritual materialism like this:

“My understanding of spiritual materialism is using the spiritual teachings to build up your sense of ego, or limited sense of a self. […] Materialism usually means material things. People use clothes and furniture and cars and everything you can think of to comfort themselves or to feel secure. Spiritual materialism is using spirituality the same way as materialism, instead of spirituality being something that introduces you to the true nature of reality, which is unfixed, impermanent, and changing.”

In our search for meaning, our suspicions should rise around the things that make us feel secure and comfortable in our “knowing” of how the world is, the meaning we make around that assumption, and the “therefore this is how we are” conclusions we make. We, too, are in flux with the changing nature of reality. Our ego can build up and cling to a sense of self that’s relatively fixed. Whenever the ego is involved, fear is present, and it keeps us struggling to be present for our life. Our identity with the fixed self can prevent us from seeing anything but the fluid nature of who we are vs. how we construct our lives. How do we build capacity to handle all that flux?

Writes David Whyte: “A life’s work is not a series of stepping-stones onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, which, of itself, is in conversation with the elements.”

Life is to be experienced. It’s our felt conversation with the elements.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

– E. E. Cummings

 When we stop breathing, we know our fear is taking hold. We contract, we limit our reference point for experiencing life, we look to control things (and create security), and strategize our plans and next bold moves from a scarce place of limited resources.

The ego struggles with the ever-changing nature of reality and the world we live in. It plots, plans, and looks for life-hacks for the fear of dying, both materially (as in our body dies) and in significance (as in our sense of self that we keep defended and validated is deflated). The ego fears what D.H. Lawrence asks: “Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, canceled, made nothing? If not, you will never really change.”

Can you see how a life with chart-able data and a series of predictable “if, then” rubrics, that follow a direct path to somewhere up and to the right on the graph would ease the anxiety caused by the ego’s fear of death? If only life could be measured quantitatively or by checklists, we could manage all of that uncertainty (and maintain our sense of self), right? Instead, we’ll optimize to get to the perfect place or state of mind or level of living that’s out there (as if that place exists) at 2x speed, and maybe, along the way, we could even avoid the suffering inherent in being a sentient being.

And, we’ll be breathless as we do it. Because we won’t be touching on the deeper ache, the deeper longing that’s still there — the longing to be present for our life. To be fully alive in the full-spectrum range of experiences a sentient human can handle – the love, the sadness, anger, grief, joy, that tingly feeling of aliveness – is it. The work of our lives is to be with life as it happens.

Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
– David Wagoner

What’s happening IS your life. Be with it. There’s no metric for that, as Jerry discusses in the podcast conversation with Khe Hy. There’s no data set or pattern to track to see what’s around the next corner. Relying on quantifiable things is delaying the present, doing them faster rushes through it. (“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” writes Alan Watts.) Our work is to find the space in us to be with all of it. To be in it. To meet it bravely. To risk our significance, as our ego trembles in fear.

This is the work of your life.