None of us can live indefinitely in the Garden of Eden. We are all thrown out in the world, into the cold, facing the inevitability of hardship, struggle and disappointment. We wake up one day to find our dreams shattered, our plans disrupted.
No shelter can fully protect us from the wrath of the storm.
This is the reality of this world. It is unpredictable and in constant flux. We can try to vigorously plan and control events to our favour, but in the final analysis we truly don’t know how it all will unfold in the future.
It is beyond our control.
We then ask ourselves, how can we can we best respond to this predicament?
We could naively try to chase perfection and blind ourselves to the nature of reality. However, as I have argued, this strategy is futile at best. If life is in perpetual change, any attempt to control and regulate things to our liking is akin to chasing after a moving target.
Alternatively, we can cultivate an attitude of acceptance. One that is more realistic and aligns with the way the world actually operates.
The Japanese concept of wabi sabi speaks to this notion of finding beauty in our flaws and in imperfections. Wabi sabi a way of life, attitude and aesthetic.
We can see this embodied Zen Buddhist art and ceramics in the concept of kintsugi. Broken pots, bowls and cups are restored and mended with a gold powder. The aim is not to hide or conceal the flaws of these broken objects, but rather to celebrate them. It is a symbol and reminder to us that nothing lasts forever.
All things are transient.
Wabi sabi is a helpful antidote to the anxieties of our time which are perpetuated by advertising and our consumerist societies. These signals tell us we ought to look or be a certain way, aligning our image with the fashions and trends of celebrity culture.
However, for many of us, we intuitively know we don’t want to partake in this constant striving. If we are honest with ourselves, we can finally admit that this charade is exhausting. A weight is lifted from our chest when we stop pretending and learn to embrace our flawed nature.
We can now accept ourselves, live authentically and age gracefully.
This freedom all begins when we learn to appreciate who we are rather than merely conforming to the unrealistic expectations of our modern materialistic societies.
Throughout history water has represented a powerful symbol and metaphor in different cultures, philosophies and religions. It has been viewed as a symbol of purity in the Christian tradition while being embodied as the Greek god of Poseidon in the ancient world.
Water is life-giving. It is vital for the health and existence of life on our planet. As we are all well aware, we couldn’t last very long without it. On the contrary, it also has the potential to exercise great power. Hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters demonstrate its strength and vitality.
In Taoism, water is a central metaphor illustrating several of the key elements of the Tao. It acts as a guide and provides us with direction on how we should aim to live.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
Chapter 76, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water takes the shape of its external environment. It is flexible and adaptable, allowing itself to be redirected and change its path when necessary. It molds itself to the shape of a cup or pitcher, and adjusts to the changing dynamics of a river.
It reminds us to practice non-resistance and acceptance in our lives. After all, what good is it to expend effort and strive against the natural currents of change – the continual flux of our lives.
Rather we can adapt, become flexible and ‘go with the flow’ of events. Change is a natural fact of our existence; we can’t stop it. Thus, it is wise to welcome it with open arms.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
Chapter 78, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water flows gently with ease. It embodies the quality of softness. However, as Lao Tsu reminds us in the Tao Te Ching, even the toughest things in nature can be overcome gracefully.
Over time a canyon, mountain or boulder slowly erodes as the crashing waves begin to break it down.
Little by little, the soft overcomes the strong.
When we exert unnecessary effort or strain, we can often move further away from our goals.
Yes, perhaps force, strong will and exertion can help you achieve short-term ambitions, but how long until you run out of steam?
You will end up in a vicious cycle.
Responding to a situation with anger will only illicit more anger from others as well as yourself. Likewise, acting with envy begets more envy, and greed produces an unquenchable desire for more. Through compassion, non-reactivity and empathy, we can begin to break this cycle.
This is what the social reformer Gandhi knew when he took his position of non-violence as a tool in his opposition to imperial British rule in India in the 20th century. It inspired solidarity across the country acting as a mirror to the expose injustices and inequities, and eventually paving the way to India’s independence.
Humility and Benevolence
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water does not judge yet it nourishes everything in its environment. It exercises humility and benevolence by acting virtuously without the expectation of getting something in return.
Taoism, like many other religions or spiritual traditions, reminds us that we ought to perform good acts because they are ‘good in themselves.’
Acting morally and with integrity means that one’s intentions are selfless and not motivated by egotistical desires or rewards – no strings attached.
Be understanding, kind and forgiving. It makes living in a deeply interconnected world a whole lot easier.
Next time you’re sitting next to a stream or staring at the waves in the ocean, remember we can always seek inspiration from the rich symbolic meaning of water.
Perhaps life should not be taken so seriously. We should not be so stiff, rigid and stern.
Maybe, it is just a game in which we make up the rules as we go along. Thus, we should avoid clinging onto desires or lofty ambitions, and flow along with the changes in life.
Dance and move freely like the wind, and drift with ease and grace like the flowing stream.
One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.
Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everythingis a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.
This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.
In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.
Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure
Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.
After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?
Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.
Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.
Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:
Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.
Passive: Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.
For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.
Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.
We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.
As Frankl writes,
We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life.
Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.
Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.
Taking Responsibility for Life
We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.
It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.
However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.
By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.
Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.
In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.
To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.
This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.
A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.