29 WAYS TO FIND MEANING IN YOUR LIFE
1. Stop whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking, wherever you’re going… and marvel at your life, your existence, your world. You are how the cosmos comes alive- and that is a phenomenal undertaking of the universe that took 13.8 billion years of cosmo-evoultionary processes to get you here.
2. You might die tomorrow. You might die today. In 5 billion years planet Earth and Sun will die. We need to revisit these thoughts once in awhile to truly appreciate our moment of being alive now. Try facing death by listening to “After Life”: http://www.radiolab.org/2009/jul/27/ .
3. Consider this: the number 1 deathbed regret is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” The universe is the ultimate free lunch. You are not indebted to the world, the world is your playground.
4. Try practicing “negative visualization.” You could lose your legs, become blind, or become paralyzed… Someone important to you could get in a car accident and lose their ability to talk to you, or one of your best friends could die next week. It could happen easily to any of us and yet we never want to think about it because it’s painful. But if you can occasionally consider how your life would change if something greatly negative happened to you, you emerge with a renewed appreciation for the things you have, a renewed sense of happiness, gratitude, meaning.
5. Look at the night sky. Contemplate the vastness of the cosmos. Realize that you are not outside the universe, but the universe is inside you. You are a part of the All that is the cosmos and you cannot fall out of the All. In fact, you are a congregation of the All. Finding our inherent belonging in the All allows meaning to blossom.
6. Half the world lives in poverty. How lucky you are not to be in that situation, yet how likely it is that you could have been born into that situation. Take gratitude in that and maybe do some little thing that makes a big difference to an individual life.
7. Recycle and be eco-conscious. The earth is our one planet and it is our responsibility to love it and take care of it.
8. Think about the problem of the “self.” It’s the same infinite regression problem as the problem of God. If the little “I” in your brain is directing everything you do, then who is directing the “I”? If the I creates you, what created the I and where did the I come from? (Likewise if God is the creator of the universe, then who created God?). If there’s no you, then there’s no basis for individual desires, greed, or selfishness. There is no “I”; there is only your participation in the collective that is humanity. There is scientific evidence that humanity as a collective is more apt to solve problems (consciously or subconsciously) than the individual. If you are not attempting to tap into the emergent properties of the human collective and actualize your connectedness to human beings, and are instead only enhancing your nonexistent self, you are not maximizing the success and intelligence of the “you” that “you” think “you” are.
9. Sometimes time seems to go by dangerously quickly. The best parts of our lives flash by. When I dwelled too long on this, I would have a mental heart attack. How meaningless everything is if it’s just all going to flash by and disappear! Then I realized… it’s because every moment we cherish is temporary that it’s meaningful and beautiful to us. Imagine if every event or time of your life you enjoyed lasted forever or if you could have continual access to reliving those times- then they wouldn’t be special to you, instead they would bore you. And this is exactly why the idea of a monotheistic afterlife “heaven” is total junk. If you can experience anything “eternally” it cannot be bliss for you, it can only become dull and boring. Ephemerality is the true heaven for human beings. So, you don’t truly want the monotheistic “heaven,” because it’s actually a hell in disguise… (Oops, sorry to denigrate thousands of years of striving for the theological holy grail). The true heaven is life on earth because it is temporary, fragile, and fleeting.
10. I had the honor meeting the Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt with my Yale research group. He gave us an informal talk about life advice. He emphasized how important it is to take time off from whatever you’re doing and go enjoy yourself. Afterward, all the grad students were buzzing about how this is the exact opposite of what all their astrophysics professors were telling them; work the hardest and longest you possibly can and be utterly and ceaselessly bolted to your scientific undertakings. Dr. Schmidt’s point transpires again and again in my life trajectory–somehow, when we spend considerable time letting go of direct conscious connection with our problems and projects, we are much more apt to approach them.
11. When people realize just how unfathomably miniscule our existence in the universe is, they typically have a disheartened reaction. However, “our cosmic location and means of origin should not be confused with our cosmic potential” (Cosmos and Culture). We may occupy a tiny, tiny part of time and space in the cosmos, but each human being is infinitely more complicated than an entire, colossal star. And we are pieces of the cosmos that have the power to steer the cosmos to incredible directions and technologies that the laws of physics by themselves aren’t capable of doing. So in some sense, we are more powerful than the laws of nature, we are emergent products of nature who can direct nature. Even though we are born from an infinitesimal fragment of the universe, we have evolved to be conductors of the cosmos. Our smallness in the universe has nothing to do with our significance.
12. The materialistic philosophy of society and economy has a tendency to make us unhappy (because there’s nothing meaningful about buying stuff for ourselves). We’re constantly told to want something new, to want materialistic goods we don’t really need (and then immediately not want them anymore once we have them). It’s very easy to be a victim of that because deep reasons live within our impulse to give into those materialistic callings. Think about this the next time you want to spend a ton of money on an extraneous thing: we collect and buy things in part because of our fear of death. Yeah, wait for it… Due to our fear of dying we subconsciously use “things” to become extensions of ourselves. We try to make our finite selves less finite by surrounding ourselves with “more infinite” lasting things. We hoard resources to make us feel more alive.
13. Many languages do not have a word for “weekend.” In the US, we live for the weekend, we cannot imagine having a week without using the word weekend. And all we want is for the weekend to start sooner so we can do the things we want to do. But if you are living for the weekend, you are not living your life. You can’t expect to do the things that make you happy on the “end” of every week of your life and be happy. Most other countries seem to have that figured out except us. We can try to incorporate small enjoyable “weekend” things into the week, stop looking forward to the weekend, and live our lives now instead of later.
14. Unless we figure out how to engineer the longevity of our star, the sun and it’s earth-particle along with it will die in about 5 billion years. But saying “5 billion” probably doesn’t mean much to you. What does 5 billion really mean? Let me give you some temporal context. It took 65 million years to get from itching rodents to men with technological gadgets. With 5 billion years left to bask in the energy of the sun (assuming that intelligences develop planetary engineering and adjust the conditions/use light reflectors and/or adjust the distance between the earth and swelling sun), that’s potentially eighty more chances for an intelligent civilization to arise from rodent scratch. Eighty! 80! Eighty more new intelligent species could thrive on earth if something happens to us… So, “no problem” if we nuke ourselves, there’s plenty of time for another intelligent civilization on earth to emerge and get it right.
15. We all have a fear of death to some extent. The internet may be a player in lessening that fear. The internet is the extension of ourselves and the extension of all of humanity’s knowledge. 1 billion people have facebook now. Those 1 billion people will never die in totality- the most valued moments of their lives are on the internet for people to access long after their death… Welcome to internet immortality.
16. I wish deeply that human beings could stop being critical, judgmental, negative, inconsiderate, unkind to each other. What will it take for us to realize that we are the same? We are all the same starstuff in the universe and we all share the same tiny fragile globe, planet earth. We are all interconnected and reliant on each other for the success of our species. I think a lot of the mistreatment between humans comes from personal frustrations with ourselves. If we can just stop wanting what we don’t have and learn to be awe-struck over our existence maybe that can gradually change… There is something rather than nothing; the Universe could have remained a void of nothingness, but instead there is you. Planet earths might not have worked out in the play of the cosmos, but they miraculously did… and here you and me are. Let us share in that miracle instead of squandering it in hate, thoughtlessness, and unkindness.
17. There was a recent story on Radiolab about cicadas (http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2013/may/14/septendecennial-sing-along/) that touched on something very profound towards the end of the show. They made a comparison between the emergent properties of an orchestra of cicadas to humanity. Each cicada blindly follows basic, rudimentary rules for broadcasting a mating call, and yet masses of them together create a beautiful orchestra of cicada song without knowing it. The guest on the program said something to the extent of “each individual (cicada or human) doesn’t have to know much at all about the whole orchestra or the whole of civilization, but still interesting things happen. You’re one little part of this great big thing and you don’t really have to know what’s happening. But you’re doing your one little bit for the orchestra, for humanity, for creation… and you’re not sure where it leads, you’re just following the simple rules of life without realizing the immense complexity you’re creating.”
18. Sometimes bad things happen in our lives; we get hurt, we get sick, we lose our jobs, we get blamed for things we didn’t do, we fail, we get lose sight of our goals, we get depressed, we do things we regret, we get frustrated, we disconnect from people in our lives, etc. And during these bad things, we can’t possibly see any benefit ever coming from them. But successful people say again and again that great opportunities flowed from their misfortunes and I think that this is usually true. We have to believe that the events in our lives, good or bad, are leading us to better things and to the story of who we are. We have to believe that the dots in our lives are connecting together into a bigger picture. Some of those dots may be ugly, but when we look back at them we’ll see how they helped lead us to new things and helped make our lives into something beautiful. (For example, “Find Your Cosmic Meaning” would not exist if a bad thing hadn’t happened to me).
19. Psychologists of religion sometimes refer to a spiritual transformation or an awakening to meaning as a “staircase” from the profane to the sacred. Ponder your staircase by watching this beautiful TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence.html In order to begin climbing the staircase, letting go of the self is required. Another very elegant TED talk describes that first step: http://www.ted.com/talks/thandie_newton_embracing_otherness_embracing_myself.html
20. Meditate. It is scientifically proven to dramatically change your brain and hence your life. This is in part because meditation allows your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and your insula (two parts of your brain involved with your ability to feel empathy and your bodily sensation, respectively) to become more connected, making you more compassionate, easygoing, and empathetic. I haven’t been meditating that long and I already see a very significant difference. I don’t get frustrated by little things as much as I used to. And I used to get hurt when people were unkind to me and think about it over and over, but now it doesn’t bother me. I feel empathy for the unkind person, because their brain isn’t getting the meditation it needs. If you’re meditating every single day, you’re not capable of being unkind.
21. Ask yourself what your grand goal in living is. This grand goal in living shouldn’t have anything to do with financial matters, relationships, offspring, success, material things, etc., because many of us have these things and know that they don’t guarantee happiness, fulfillment, or meaning. Your grand goal in living should either be something creative, something involving social change, a contribution to society, or a desire to learn, explore, or understand something. It should be something that attempts to make the world a better place, further humanity, or challenge your abilities. Maybe you have more than one grand goal in living. And keeping those goals in mind will make you feel like you have a more meaningful place in civilization.
22. None of us had a choice about being here. None of us had a choice about existing. We each have lives, bodies, brains, and faces that we didn’t choose and that we didn’t ask for. But we could have not existed at all. We need to remember this going forth with ourselves and with others. We need to do our best with what we have and remember that the things that make each of us different aren’t things that we chose. But the thing that makes us the same, our existence, is the gift we’ve all been given. The genetic probability of our existence, depending on what factors you consider- all the people that had to meet for your birth to be possible and all the zygote possibilities that had to align for you to exist- might make your life a very, very unlikely occurrence. And if we can share and appreciate the beauty of that unlikely gift, instead of squandering it because of our unchosen differences, our existence can be something truly remarkable and meaningful.
23. Build stopping places in your life. Our society is obsessed with the idea of constantly moving on to the next step in life, and doing so as quickly as possible. And if you’re five steps ahead, you’re at the top of the game of life. Go to elementary school, go to high school, go to college, do an internship, go to grad school, find a job, move up the job ladder, etc., etc., – just go, and keep going, and don’t stop. This is a deeply flawed process. It’s the reason many of us have not found our passion or realized our dreams (or worse, end up with degrees and careers that we didn’t want to begin with)- and how can we ever find our niche, our dreams, or our true desires, if we’re constantly forced to move on to the next step? Take that month off, that year off, and wander, explore, and reflect on yourself, your world, and your dreams and you’ll be much more fulfilled, aware, and knowledgeable about your self than simply hurling blindly forward like everyone else.
24. Don’t “do” anything. Just “be.” We are human beings, not human doings. Yet most of us feel the perpetual need to constantly “do” something. In constantly doing, we are just distracting ourselves from our being. If you can sit and not do anything and simply let your mind wander to wherever it wants to go, eventually you will come to the thought of your own being. After awhile of just being, you will come to notice time, consciousness, and existence- and how absurd, how strange, how unbelievable they really are. If you can bring yourself to these thoughts again and again, a spiritual breakthrough awaits you because no longer are you doing to fill your being with distractions from itself, but filling your being with an awareness of how special and incredible it really is.
25. Be artsy or at least get into The Art. I believe that good art is desperately trying to express things about our human nature and reality that science can not yet, or will never, explain. Connecting with these artistic perspectives may be the source of inspiration for some of our advancement as a species.
26. Let go of any form of attachment. As humans, we naturally desire many things. And desire is directed at some future state. There’s nothing wrong with desire- it is often what propels us forward. The problem is attachment. We don’t just desire something- we attach on to some future, idealized outcome of a desire (and simultaneously tell ourselves that we will be miserable if we don’t achieve the idealized outcome of the desire). The key is figuring out that the outcome is never going to fulfill your desire (or make you content or happy)- you will simply desire something else with each desire achieved. Moreover, you will never be the same person at the time point at which you conceived the desire and the time point at which the desire was achieved, making said desire potentially undesired when finally achieved. You must learn that despite the outcomes of your desires, your happiness level will not change. If you can let go of attachment to particular outcomes of your desires, the world is yours- you will have no limitations because you are no longer clinging on to one particular future outcome.
27. Stop again and think about the absurdity, the complexity, the amazing behind the fact that your consciousness emerged from the blazing, magnetic fireball that is our star.
28. Recognize your inherent “uselessness” in face of your tormented desire for success, admiration, and love. Philosopher Yann Dall’Aglio says, “How to renounce the hysterical need to be valued? Well, by becoming aware of my uselessness. Yes, I’m useless. But rest assured: so are you. We are all useless. This uselessness is easily demonstrated, because in order to be valued I need another to desire me, which shows that I do not have any value of my own. I don’t have any inherent value.” (Read the whole speech here: http://www.ted.com/talks/yann_dall_aglio_love_you_re_doing_it_wrong/transcript?language=en.) I don’t take this “uselessness” literally, but I take his point as seeing the desire of others upon yourself as useless, because those that you want to desire you or admire you are also inherently non-desired without other consciousnesses. Success, admiration, and love are social constructs- they only exist in the framework and reference of other consciousnesses. You must find value in yourself that is not dependent on your desire for the desire of others. For me, my strife to understand the cosmos and my quest for outer space gives my life a value that I know has nothing to do with anyone except for me and the universe. I believe the universe values me in some strange sense, because of my obsession with it, because I am one of the few parts of the cosmos that has come to desperately and thoroughly know (or at least try to know) itself.
29. Realize the indestructibility of the fundamental condition of the human being. No matter how extreme your failure or success in your life, our fundamental condition as a human being does not change. That fundamental condition is that each of us is existentially alone and confused, facing the mystery of the universe and not knowing exactly how our existence is really possible, and that condition cannot be improved or worsened by anything we do in life. No accomplishment, possession, job, project, significant other, or spiritual awakening can alter this fundamental condition.