A few weeks ago a friend asked me whether the bigger questions we have about our lives have answers or whether these kind of questions simply lead to more questions… This was part of a conversation about my recent novel ‘The Boatman’ which explores these ideas, but it made me stop and ask myself: What kind of ‘answers’ have I found? What do I ‘know’ so far?
I’ve gotten very good at asking these kind of questions–about Meaning and Purpose and What’s-It-All-For. But after 3 1/2 decades on this earth and my years practicing yoga and meditation, do I have anything that would count as an ‘Answer’?
I know that sometimes at night when I go to check on my children before I head to bed, a thought comes to me like the breath of a ghost and I become very still. In these moments, I feel like I am peering through a veil of Time, into a moment that will never exist again… A moment when both my children are little and healthy and happy and asleep in their beds. I watch them sleeping. Breathing. With their perfect skin and their perfect little selves. But in these moments the Veil of Time trembles, and it feels like I can see them grow old, I can feel the pain that will inevitably touch their lives if we move from this frozen moment. I can see their perfect selves wrapped in the bodies of old men, and sometimes I have to stop myself from crying because, I know I will not be there to take care of them then. And I know that is the best case scenerio.
These moments when Time seems to waver like the shimmering edges of a bubble, I am very still because I know the deepest truth…it is only Time that keeps these things at bay. And I am still because I am overwhelmed by the simultaneous beauty and pain of Life.
I know that we are all born beautiful beings, full of love and creative potential.
I know that no matter what we achieve or how we live, we will all eventually die.
I also know that the goalposts for what will make me happy are always moving. The things I really really want–stuff like new boots or a shiny car or a delicious cup of coffee and a croissant, but also goals like gaining a degree or publishing my novel or getting that new job–also won’t keep me happy forever. These things will make me feel elated for a period of time but ultimately the novelty will wear off and I will want something else (another cup of coffee!). This has happened with everything I have ever bought or earned or won, so I assume this will continue to be the case in the future.
I look back at all the stuff I’ve earned, especially the things I achieved that I really really wanted to achieve. Most recently it’s been publishing my novel, which I am still totally buzzing about. But before that I did a 3 year yoga teacher training course. Before that I finished my Ph.D. These were life dreams of mine. But even on achieving them, I’m not ultimately and permanently happy now. I remember walking with a great friend of mine through the backstreets of London, listening to her talk about her work in environmental conservation. At university together, it had been her dream to work in a big conservation organisation, and now she had achieved it. But, she explained, it wasn’t everything she had thought it would be. And although I have no way of knowing what her personal experience of that was, the thing I took away from that conversation was this thudding, slam-in-your-face realisation that you could achieve your dream and it still wouldn’t be enough.
And that doesn’t mean these things weren’t worth doing! Of course they were AMAZING things to do, and really important achievements. But what I know is this, they weren’t ultimately satisfying. We hold these ‘dreams’ up in our minds as the thing that will give our lives Meaning. But while they may be an important part of creating meaning in our lives, they aren’t the whole answer.
I know that the things I think I want will always keep changing.
I know that the things we think will make us happy don’t fulfill that promise in any permanent way.
I look at the window of this coffee shop and see the world. The wind blows with things I can’t control. Other people’s actions and decisions which will affect my life. Kindnesses and cruelties that will change how I feel inside. Weather. Disease. Accidents. There is so much of life that is beyond us, and yet affects us greatly. A lot of our energy goes into trying to control these ‘other’ factors in our lives, trying to get other people to do the things we want them to do, or trying to prepare ourselves for ‘potential’ situations. But although so many aspects contribute to our current state of happiness–our health, for one, but also our relationships with the people around us and a thousand unnameable factors–and although we can influence these things by our own actions, I know ultimately there are so many things I have no control over.
I know things will happen to me that I cannot control.
There is a story from the Native American tradition–in order to protect your tender feet, you can either try to cover the whole earth in leather mats, or you can simply cover the soles of your own feet.
In this journey of life, we can continue to try to control everything and everyone around us…or we can learn to control our own minds. We can either look outside for meaning and happiness, or we can search within.
I am only scratching the surface of that thing I might call ‘the answer’, the thing I think of as real Wisdom. But what I know so far and what I know for sure is this…the journey to the answers is Inside.