Thursday, March 28, 2013

Meaning of Life? Create It!


self portrait 'Rhino Rising' by the author 2010

Staring out onto the early morning sunrise, my mind is a blank slate:  No specific issues of survival, relationship, or body crowding my thoughts.    Bright and cold this winter morning, it hit me:  What if there is no higher purpose?  No mission.  Nothing special to be done?  No ‘gift’ to share.  Just living, here and now with highs and lows and mostly 'in betweens'.  Living in any way that is appropriate to the person, place, or time.  What if this is it? No meaning of life-No heaven or hell-no reincarnation.  No more SEARCHING high and low.  

Personally, I'm maxxed out.  After thirty years, I declare--'No more seeking ultimate meaning and purpose of life.' I finally got what Victor Frankl  said in his classic Man's Search for Meaning--we each make up the meaning of life.  In essence, he asserts we are all artists who create our personal purpose or not. 

At the gym the other day, an acquaintance spontaneously offered his view of the afterlife:  We don’t die, we simply dissolve back into the earth, into the cosmos which is going nowhere from nowhere--No big bang with its beginning and implied ending.  This guy is not a spiritual seeker, but he has lived life.  In his late sixties, he works at a local lumber yard.   Over the years he has regaled me with tales of his youthful adventures running marijuana across the US/ Mexico border, getting caught, years of incarceration, and jailhouse tattoos.  Under his rough and crusty demeanor resides an artist.  He draws and paints a wide range of subjects from nudes to lizards to landscapes:  That is how he makes sense of it all.   He does art and that is his life’s meaning.
Former School Prinicipal Throws Down
'Retirement’, Freedom—‘doing what I want when I want, ’has not been at all like I expected.  How I yearned for this endless vacation. Eventually after leaving the job,  I felt adrift, like the legend of the Flying Dutchman condemned to wander aimlessly for eternity.  I sought something to attach meaning to--a woman, a job, a new title.  I was Ulysses trying to get home and taking many unproductive detours--complete with tempting Sirens and devouring Cyclops--in my quest for purposeIt took years to see that the answer was in meI now get how prisoners often prefer to stay in jail and find a way to return.   It isn’t necessarily self destruction; it is a return to the known, predictable, and manageable. 

Spiritual teachers often say self-less service brings meaning, because giving satisfies, fulfills, and adds meaning to life.  My quest for right service (purpose?) felt like the arc of the covenant—does it exist?  I volunteered a lot when I was in my traditional career.  But now finding a good fit vexed me.  A litany of questions arose with each possibility: Can I learn and grow?  Is it fun?  Will I be around agreeable colleagues?  Will my skill set be utilized?  Is it ‘meaningful? And finally, will I be free to 'innovate?'  Innovation was a pejorative in my old profession These days I don't have to kow tow.  

Then I got it.  There is no perfect service for me without creativity, therefore my purpose is self-expression!  It scares me to the bone, but it waits in the background.  Always ready to respond to the invitation to liberation.  Sometimes I avoid it by escaping into travel, relationships, entertainment, mood altering substances but it doesn't go away.  When I do face the blank canvas, the computer screen, or any activity that calls out my soul, liberation and purpose are close.

That is where I find meaning--in the Creative.  'Retirement' (for that matter anytime) is an ideal time to allow the creative spirit to flourish--no meaning to find, no mission to serve--simple, deeply, freely--create.  If I can do it, anyone can.  Without 'natural' talent I've had painting exhibits, poetry readings, published articles, and studied guitar, drum, and dance.  Although sometimes a torture, the creative act  expresses my uniqueness.  And that is meaningful--to me.   

I invite you to jump into the water of the Creative and like Ulysses ride your ship into wild storms, smooth waves, and peaceful satisfaction.  You have given your gift. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

After the Valley of Darkness, the Sun Shines


Believe it or not the sun shined doesn’t always shine in southern California.  These short days and long nights of winter, the sun was a beacon and a gift that day, as I sat on my new front porch/ lanai/ deck/ stoop (depending on your vernacular).  My soul had been as dark as my favorite dessert--brownies.
the author at an undisclosed location
The funk started a few months earlier, when I reserved a trip to a writer’s conference in Cape Cod.  Immediately, a worm insinuated itself into my subconscious--nerves, anxiety, worry, and trepidation.   There wasn’t any presenting issue (as the psychologist say) but simply appeared in my reality one day. 
For months each day was in slow motion, while I dragged a fifty pound psychic weight.  The mood lifted doing simple chores; trim the tree in the yard, clean the bathroom, take the computer for servicing.  But in the quiet and solitary times, the yawning maw of the dark beckoned.  Bellowing its siren song of warning, don’t go there, don’t do that, watch out for him, (and most vexing)—Why bother?

I retraced my twisting life trail of the last couple years and realized most of the time I was lost in Rumi’s poem, The Tavern, ‘if I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out of this prison for drunks.’   I was stumbling, I was helpless, clueless.  I was deep in the pit!

I am not alone.   We do many things to avoid looking in that sinkhole:  50 million American adults are on anti-depressant medications, 25 million regular (4+ times per month) cannabis users and 30 million regular (4 or more times per week) drinkers.  Of course, there is much overlap in these altering state individuals but that doesn’t even include the other forms of self-medicating; obesity, compulsive shopping, gambling, or sometimes (Marx would be proud) religion.  What ever gets you through the night. Regardless, it is clear a lot of us seek escape from emotional pain.  But often the depression or stress or dissatisfaction seems to boil down to ‘what’s life about?’  I doubt there is one adult over 40 who hasn’t had this thought.
A depressing movie by Fassbinder
Finding an answer has been my mission for years.  Now, a few years into my so-called ‘retirement’, I’ve had the house remodeled, made many trips out of town, stayed out late every night of the week, volunteered, and took art classes.   I bounced from one dabble to another dabble.  No ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ did I find.  I was in a Fassbinder movie.  At one point my head was spinning like an inner gyroscope gone a muck, then inertia set in.  Stuck.  The abyss beckoned, my journey to the center of the soul.

Even in my darkest times, my routine kept me going; gym, meditation, family, and home maintenance.  But I had no 'joie de vivre', no enthusiasm, no hope of the future—all  AWOL.   My long nurtured visions of living on a tropical island, finding a life companion, and contributing to social change were dormant, no longer dreams I was working on but mere fantasies.  No more real than a night dream.  

Some see me as a Buddha of patience, but my lifelong challenge has been to really appreciate the present experience.  I always figured that ‘new and different’ would mean more fun and freer.   I just kept moving on. The unknown offered possibility and hope.  Who knows what will happen? Fueled by this innate curiosity and bias for novelty, I was never bored.  Then I arrived in this darkest of valleys:  the grass was no longer greener over there--futility.  And it hit me:  From the widest angle life is never better, just different.  Stuff began to shift that day.

That morning with the sun shining sun on my soul, I caught the wave.  Surrendering to the momentum of the great sea, at last connected to the life source, I was alive again.  Well not that I was dead before, but the time of agitation and fear churned my inner waters.   But when the wave hit, the rush of energy (the life force) coursed through my soul even though I knew that it too would pass.
The Valley of Darkness where I see 'evil'
Is there a short cut through the valley of doubt, fear, and insecurity?  If there is, I haven’t found it in 30+ years of study and therapy.  I think it comes with being human, especially for those middle aged and older individuals who strike out into new and challenging work and art.   Skills built over a lifetime are put aside and the subconscious 95% of our mind is free to bubble up to awareness.  And where there was once competence and confidence, doubt and vulnerability emerge.  At that point we get to grow or retreat to the comfortable.  I looked back at my old routine and job and realized that isn’t me anymore.  For me there is only one path, growth-learning-adventure-expansion.  It my call to renew, reinvent, and refire.  Inevitably, sometimes that road leads through a valley of darkness.

Post script:  the above was first drafted just as I turned the corner on my revival from the darkest period of my post job life.  As I anticipated, it has not been unbroken success after success, but more like two steps forward one step back.  I have days of doubt and fear but when it happens I know in my soul that tomorrow WILL be DIFFERENT and usually better.  I remember my mantra:   Pay attention, keep stepping, and breathe deeply.  Somehow even when things don’t change, they seem better.