The meaning of life and how to survive it
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
Is life really suffering? 2020 would certainly have us think so. But I think there is more to the story. Suffering may be a part of it, but life can't just be about the pain otherwise why would any of us get out of bed in the morning? There is more than suffering, but we need to appreciate the full meaning.
I didn't blog for the whole of 2020. I saw other writers and content makers give their 'expert' advice on a situation that was mostly uncharted to all of us and I thought, nope! Nobody needs any of that right now. Instead, I listened.
I listened as the pandemic unfolded and the world responded, as the death-count rose and fell, as the theories and conspiracies and public outcries and politics evolved. I listened as the world suffered from the virus, racial violence, white fragility, a shadow pandemic, sexism, Boris and Trump. If Buddha meant, "life is suffering", the world certainly got a fat dose of it.
Many people reject the translation of "life is dukkha" as "life is suffering" because of the non-direct English translation of the word "dukkha", and "suffering" casts a rather bleak view. I tend to agree.
In my view, life is about loss. Now, you might think that sounds worse, but hear me out. Death is the one certain, the one absolute; it is the only thing as nonnegotiable to life as birth. Everything ends. Everything dies at some point, in some way, and that means everything and everyone that we hold dear to us ends too, and that means loss and a whole lot of grief.
Keep on reading, it's not all bleak, I promise.
If we embrace this truth instead of denying it, then we can start to appreciate that as organisms our very existence is about avoiding loss by keeping the things we care about in our possession, including our health, relationships, memories, security, identity and sense of purpose.
Every time we lose one of these things, our body and brain react with painful bereavement. When we imagine losing one of these things, we feel primal fear that motivates us to ensure that doesn't happen. And when we're not grieving or fearing loss, we are building strategies and structures and routines and even empires around us that are all designed to avoid loss. And for those of us who have already experienced loss, we are surviving it while trying to avoid facing any more of it. Thus, life continues this way.
Ok, still sounding bleak, right? So what's the take-home message? How do we enjoy life and not go crazy? If life is loss, what is our survival strategy that evades crushing depression and anxiety and actually enables us to feel positive? Well firstly, we remind ourselves that we are not alone in this journey. Everyone faces the same certainties. Secondly, with courage, we apply these three principles:
1) Accept the fear.
The fear is what keeps us sharp and motivated. Like Newton's third law; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Your sense and fear of loss is your chemical evidence of life's value; your signpost for the things you care about. We are so programmed to experience life this way, we have an entire reward circuit in our brain that motivates us to seek out more of learnt great experiences and avoid loss at all costs. Our body and brain is flooded with cortisol (the fear and pain hormone) when we face loss, ensuring we avoid this feeling forever! But our intellectual human brain can rationalise that we can never avoid loss and grief and the pain of bereavement; they are coming. The solution is not to make yourself a human fort with impenetrable emotional walls so that you don't care about anything or anyone enough to suffer loss. This is as futile a strategy as avoiding failure by never trying to be successful; all you'll do is cut yourself off from any true sense of living until time passes and your life is over in the most lonely and unfulfilled way. No, continue to love and care, and embrace the fear that comes with it. Let the fear of loss remind you of the things you hold dearest to you and let it motivate you to protect, sustain, enjoy and appreciate them for as long as possible. Live with the fear, just don't let it overwhelm you. You can achieve that with the next two principles...
2) Prioritise gratitude.
You've heard it before; live for today, appreciate the good times. But how much do you apply this? Loss is inevitable, and burying and denying that truth or trying to fight it stops you feeling the joy and happiness that comes with having the things and people you care about in your life today. Instead of denying it and distracting yourself, and instead of letting fear of loss overwhelm you, prioritise gratitude as part of your daily experience. Enjoy every moment spent, no matter how trivial, with the things that matter; that same list. Notice and appreciate when you are physically and mentally heathy, when you have healthy relationships, when you are reminded of great memories, when you are safe and secure, when you are learning and developing as a person with new knowledge and experiences, and when you are applying purpose and meaning to your life. Prioritise noticing these gifts and acknowledge them either verbally or in a Journal, or by taking photos, writing letters, saying a gratitude prayer, whatever works for you. But do it with intent, as a priority, rather than allowing the gratitude to slip by in a brief, private thought that can so easily be drowned out by the loud noises of a busy life. Brené Brown talks about this in detail in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. Prioritising gratitude as part of your daily life shifts your brain into a place of automatic positivity that will feel more natural and easier the more you practice it, and soon you will spend more time focussing on and enjoying the good things than dwelling on and fearing loss.
3) Appreciate your resilience.
Grief will not kill you. Believe me, if may feel like it can, but actually you are very well designed to survive it. Despite common belief about grief being the most life-wrecking experience we can endure, and romantic notions of us never being able to recover from losing those we love, this is not the most common outcome. Scientist George A. Bonanno dedicated his life's work to the greatest scientific research project into the human experience of grief ever conducted, which he documents in details in his book The Other Side of Sadness. As Bonanno reveals, we humans are highly equipped to survive grief and bereavement on a physiological, emotional and social level. Our body and brains have the means to survive the agony and bounce back healthily and his book details endless accounts of individuals who have done just that in the aftermath of the most devastating tragedies. Most people return from the darkness of grief quite smoothly, and actually, it makes perfect sense that humans are designed to survive the one absolute in life; loss. We are survival machines, after all, and if we were commonly destroyed by loss, we'd have died out as a species by now. So knowing this, appreciate how strong you are and relax into the truth that you have the guts, tools and stamina to come through anything that life throws at you. Knowing this, you can embrace point 1 and 2 even more. You can accept the fear of loss and prioritise gratitude daily with the knowledge that you are wonderfully equipped to cope when the day finally comes when something dear to you ends. You will survive the pain and you will outlive the grief. You are a resilient being; trust yourself.
If you can commit to these three principles, you will truly optimise your experience of life. You will take more risks, recognise value when it's present, appreciate every moment of joy, create joy for yourself and others and recognise when others are creating joy for you, and know that while all things do indeed come to an end, you are designed to enjoy the rewards of life while enduring the perils. The meaning of life is not to suffer, it is to brave the waves of joy and loss with an open, courageous heart.
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