In Search of an Inner Life


I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious

Albert Einstein

Is there anything beyond the futility of the external world, governed by fierce competition, ambition and baseless pleasures?

Where does one take refuge from the constant treadmill of busyness that encapsulates our day to day working lives?

One is inclined to ask, is there anything outside of the status games played within our society, trying impress others through fame, fortune or luxury consumer goods. A life of endless striving for misleading pleasures is exhausting. Spending money to buy new things requires one to dedicate more and more of one’s time to work – an endless cycle.

So what can provide us with reprieve from this perpetual restlessness. Religions, philosophers, and intellectuals have long praised the benefits of going inwards. Practices such as meditation, prayer, reading and contemplation allow one to connect with themselves more deeply. This distances and shelters us from the noise of the social and political world. It provides us with perspective from the outrage of news headlines and increasingly polarized politics.

Learning for its Own Sake

But what constitutes an inner life, and how can it be cultivated? In Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz looks at how intellectual pursuits help us foster inner depth and meaning. Hitz wants to democratize learning and education beyond the proverbial ‘Ivory Tower.’ She wants to recover the joys and pleasure of learning for its own sake.

If an individual is intrinsically motivated, they’ll willingly spend hours upon hours learning about a subject. They will study its nuance and intricacies because this is what genuinely interests them irrespective of any external rewards. Grades, high paying jobs and social status may be a byproduct of their efforts, but it is not their sole focus.

Hitz argues that learning is a noble and worthy goal in and of itself . Wonder and contemplation of life’s central questions is part of our human nature. As Hitz writes,

Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions….If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students in the depths where real understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves.

Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Expanding our Humanity

Education broadens our horizons, and exposes us to different perspectives and ways of being. Great literature informs us of our connection to others regardless of class, race or gender. It demonstrates that at a more fundamental level, we all have the same basic emotions, desires and struggles. Math and science enables us to transcend the trivialities of the day to day to discover fundamental truths about the cosmos.

By reading broadly and widely we become exposed to different ways of life. This provides insight and allows us to engage in self-reflection of both our selves and society as a whole.

Restoring Human Dignity

The value of an inner world and pursuing learning for its own sake is that it offers a source of human dignity. Intellectual life (outside of the academy) demonstrates that our self worth is greater than what is merely instrumental (i.e., social status, political views, cash in a bank account). We can’t simply be reduced by our outward appearance or external achievements.

At its best, education inspires and aspires us towards a higher ideal. It shows us the path towards something greater than our limited self-interest, something beyond ourself.

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Encouraging Goodness: How Moral Actions are ‘Awe-Inspiring’

I’ve written before on the downstream effects of small any seemingly insignificant acts of goodness. Through our deeply interconnected world, we can never fully appreciate how our actions will impact others and our broader communities.

Recent research being done on the science of awe-inspiring moral behaviour has begun to validate some of these claims. In his latest book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, the psychology professor Dacher Keltner explores the latest science behind the causes and consequences of experiencing awe.

While many of us have experienced these ecstatic and ephemeral moments throughout our lives, Keltner defines awe as a feeling that goes beyond or transcends our current understanding of reality. Whether its gazing out into the horizon on a summers day or marveling at the miracle of a newborn child, awe connects us to something greater than ourselves.

Awe can open up the door to new frontiers allowing us to break through the mold of rigid patterns of thought. Our self-interested preoccupations seem insignificant. Egoistical desires diminish.

Keltner documents the many health benefits of awe ranging from physiological (slows heart rate and deepens breathing) to psychological (reducing negative self-talk).

Although it is common to think of awe being associated with nature or the arts, there is one area of interest in Keltner’s work I want to zero in on – moral beauty. These are actions of selflessness, virtue and goodness. They need not be necessarily heroic acts worthy of ‘news’ per say, but ones which are played out in our day to day lives.

Keltner’s research demonstrated that after surveying individuals in different countries, cultures and religions, acts of moral goodness was one of the main reasons that caused people to feel awe. Acts of kindness such as helping strangers, providing for those in need of financial need or even reading about our spiritual role models all led to more awe.

Witnessing the selflessness of others can provide us with hope and inspire us to take action ourselves. These types of actions remind us that our wellbeing and contentment is not a merely individualistic affair. It is deeply intertwined to the prosperity of our networks and communities. Everyone living in a society relies on the work of others in the broader economy.

We don’t have to wait for moments of awe to arise in our lives. We can pursue awe through purposeful and active engagement in the world.

It begins with cultivating our attention, through relishing in the beauty of both the actions of others and the natural world.

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

John Milton

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Leaning into Uncertainty: Embracing the Unknown in 2023

Good riddance, what a year you have been 2022.

You have upended the lives of many amidst the economic uncertainty and the rising anxieties posed by inflation.

You have put the world on edge as we witness citizens around the world fighting corruption in autocratic regimes for liberty, justice and equality.

You have shown us the fragility and vulnerability of our precious beloved planet. We remain in a state of unease and trepidation facing the continued risk of an ongoing environmental crisis.

We may long for utopia, a panacea of relative stability and assurance, but perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty.

How could we ever expect things to smoothly in a world as complex as ours? The tighter we hold our grip, the more we begin to realize how little control we do have.

What if we were to let go of our predetermined plans or expectations and lean into the unknown. Only then can we fully welcome and embrace the beauty of the present moment. We can draw our heightened attention with awe to the mystery and wonder of the miracle of life on earth.

As our rigid patterns of thinking fade away, new paths begin to emerge. Novelty, creativity and excitement emanate as we gradually walk through the fog of the uncertainty.

Uncertainty requires patience. Uncertainty requires grace. Uncertainty requires faith in the goodness and resilience of the human spirit.

We can have reassurance in the strength found in our character and inner life.

As I put away my preconceived plans and expectations for 2023, I slowly walk towards the unknown in 2023 with a resolve to lean into the great unknown.

Wishing you all a safe and happy new year,


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This was originally posted on the Wise and Shine Blog