India has long been seen as a spiritual tourism haven –even before the Beatles made their pilgrimage to Rishikesh which cast India into the tourist limelight hippies were engaging in cross-continental journeys to the land of spirituality in hopes of somehow becoming enlightened while contorting into fantastical yoga positions on mountain tops. It was because of this that I vowed my time in India would be independent of spirituality; I would engage my time and energy in education, human rights and political awareness for the eventual betterment of the community. My spiritual embargo though was questioned yesterday when our class topic was what comprised a meaningful life and how one can achieve it and I discovered that maybe spirituality isn't so bad.
“Happiness. Being a good person. Helping people and animals. Friendships. Acquiring knowledge. Following your heart. Work. Love. Acknowledging the importance of others. Being selfless. Spiritual fulfilment” – this is the foundation for a meaningful life according to my students. They stated that life cannot have meaning without love; mentally I argued this point with myself as I felt that my life was plenty meaningful despite being solo, but before I could point out my brilliant deduction they specified that having love in one’s life can be love for anything: love for your friends or a love of music, and that without a passion, without love for something, life loses meaning. One student offered that fashion brings meaning to her life. Initially I dismissed her statement, scoffed at the idea that something as superficial as fashion can bring meaning to life – wasn’t meaning in life about relegating the material in favour of the spiritual? After some thought though I came to the conclusion that my initial judgment was harsh and ungrounded – fashion was something she was passionate about; for her it was like creating art, about expressing herself, her beliefs, her attitude, it was her mark on the world, her creation.
I wanted to know more though about what constitutes a meaningful life, surely a Western injee like myself could learn a thing or two. Thus, I probed them more: what constitutes a meaningful life from the Buddhist perspective? Helping mankind was the quintessential route to spiritual fulfilment. While some believe that ultimate enlightenment comes from studying Buddhist philosophy the general consensus was that exercising compassion towards all sentient beings and controlling impulses and anger by replacing them with understanding and empathy provides the necessary basis for a meaningful life.
For some time I had been under the impression that achieving meaning would be a eureka moment; I would become enlightened and my life would instantaneously obtain meaning. I asked the students what their most meaningful moments in life were and some of their answers were surprisingly simple, demonstrating that complexity doesn’t equate to meaning. Some of the students answered their most meaningful moment in life consisted of meeting their spiritual guide and political leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, but others offered what could be interpreted as commonplace events but that they felt were meaningful to them: for one student, he felt his life had meaning when strangers offered him food and shelter during his journey over the Himalayas – he felt that if a stranger cared enough to ensure his well-being than certainly his existence was significant. Another derived meaning from studying traditional Tibetan culture: “We don’t have a country. The possibility of losing Tibetan traditions in the next decade or two is terrifying” and consequently, for him, writing about Tibet, leaving a legacy and preserving his cultural heritage is what bring meaning to his life.
The idea of having children as means of acquiring meaning isn’t new to me. Listening to dozens of friends who have recently had children go on about how cleaning spit and poop truly enlightens you I was sceptical when the students brought up the idea of starting a family as an approach for greater meaning. Again, I felt that being void of children didn’t equate to being void of meaning. But the students explained that children are new generations, continuations of families which are an extension of society, a people, a nation – children are taught modern education, history, the ways of life – through them cultures can continue to thrive and prosper. While I am not sold on the idea that replicating a mini-me will make my life a more meaningful one, it was interesting perspective that I had never considered.
Finally, the importance of suffering – suffering encourages perseverance, acts as a vehicle for will which ultimately leads to a more meaningful life. One of the reasons that meeting the Dalai Lama was so significant for one student was that in addition to meeting the revered spiritual leader, it was the difficulty that had to first be overcome in order to achieve the meeting; having spent a month trekking by foot over the Himalayas to safety in India was to say the least a struggle – by overcoming it the eventual reunion was all the more momentous.
Find your passion. Meaning will follow.