Profound wisdom from an author of one of my favorite books, “Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer. He recently spoke at a Stanford Baccalaureate explaining why your life is not and has never been about you…
“A moment is a moment. As with all other times in life, there are highs and there are lows. Today you may be feeling high, and that is beautiful. Time passes though, and you forget about that moment. But right now, you have the skills, connections, and obligations to do great things. And this means not only great things for yourselves- you are expected to do great things for others and for the world. So let’s be honest: the future really is in the youth. And yet the truth is it is not always going to be easy to survive your promising life, anywhere in the world. There is so much competition, and anxiety about that competition, that it is possible that success won’t come easy, and it’s also possible that success won’t come at all. Or maybe it will come in abundance, but you don’t find it as meaningful as you thought it would be. Or, maybe success comes and you find it satisfying but only at first when it is still bright and shiny and exciting, and later at the state and with the implications of the successful life you have lived, it will wear you down and you will find yourself tired and confused.
It could be that as time goes on from this day, some of your personal relationships don’t work out the way you hoped they would. It’s possible that your sense of self doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s possible that there will be disappointments, setbacks- some acknowledged and some buried deep within and not acknowledged. In short, it is very possible that from this day forth there is some pain awaiting you: bad love affairs, betrayals, losses, disillusions. Likely, you are going to have some seriously shaky moments. Maybe as you move through the decades it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the idealism and hopefulness that you have right now. It could be that one day you wake up and you find yourself wondering what have I been doing all this time? Who have I become?
You’ll keep busy. You’ll have a lot of things to do. And if there are such feelings, you’ll try your best not to notice them. If there is any despair, disappointment, discouragement, or boredom that you’re feeling years from today, you’ll try not to notice and I bet you’ll be able to do that- to not notice it…
I should say something encouraging.. and I do intend to do that! But, I figured I would be more convincing if I were also pretty realistic and it is realistic to say that your lives from now on will not be that easy. It is realistic to say that the skills you will need to survive may be more than, or other than, the skills that you have so far in your lives. Because the truth is that it takes a great deal of fortitude and strength to sustain a worthwhile, happy, human life over time in this actual world that we live in.
So here comes the uplifting part:
Your life isn’t and has never been about you…
It isn’t, and it has never been about what you accomplish, how successful you are (or are not), how much money you make, what sort of position you ascend to, or even about your family, your associations, your various communities, or even about how much good you do for others in the world.
Your life, like mine, and like everyone elses, has really only ever been about one thing: LOVE.
Who are you, actually? And where did you come from? Why were you born into this life? You didn’t ask for it. When this short human journey is over, where do you go next, and why and how does any of this exist? What is the point of it all? Not even your Nobel-prize winning professors know the answers to these questions- these inevitable and unavoidable questions. The only thing we know is that we are here for a while and then we are gone, and that WHILE WE ARE HERE, WE ARE HERE TOGETHER, Which is why the only thing that completely makes sense, the only thing that is completely real is LOVE.
This is not a mystery and this is not news or some great discovery. Everyone actually knows this even though we forget about it. Love is always available to you wherever you look and when you dedicate yourself to love- when you dedicate yourself to be kind to everyone you meet, not just the people on your side, AND not just the people you like and approve of, but EVERY human and EVERY non-human being, then you’re going to be ok.
In your life, whatever it brings, even if it brings a lot of difficulty and tragedy, your life will be a beautiful life. I hope that you find this uplifting…
But there’s more… HOW do you love? What does this mean? How do you make your love real so it’s not just a pretty idea? This does not happen by itself. It takes attention, commitment, and effort over time. It doesn’t come from wishing or believing or assuming. You’re gonna have to figure out how NOT to get distracted by your personal problems, by your success (or lack of success), by your needs, desires, suffering, various interests, and ALWAYS keep your eye on the ball of love, even as you inevitably juggle all the rest of it. So you have to commit yourself to love and you have to have a way- a path or a practice for cultivating love and strengthening it throughout your lifetime no matter what happens, because love is not a feeling, it is an overarching attitude and spirit. And it’s a daily activity.
When you go about this practice of cultivating love, whatever practice you choose, the most important characteristic of this practice is that it must be useless- absolutely useless. In other words, it has to be an activity that has no practical effect other than to connect you to your heart and to your highest and most mysterious purpose- a purpose that is literally unknown because it references the unanswerable questions I mentioned a moment ago.
We’ve been doing so many good things for so many good reasons. Lots of good things for our physical health, psychological health, emotional health, family life, future success, economic life, for your community, for your world… but the practice of love that you choose must be a practice that is useless. It doesn’t do anything but to touch our lives beyond all concerns. For example, you could practice gratitude. Have you ever woke up in the morning and just been grateful for another day?
Another practice might be the practice of giving. Giving doesn’t have to be money or gods. Giving can be a daily intention of just a kind word or smile. Or you could practice kind speech on all occasions even difficult ones – committing yourself to speak as much as you can in kindness, and with inclusion of others and their needs, hopes, and dreams – not just speaking from your own side.
Or you can practice beneficial action – committing yourself to intentionally acting with a spirit of benefiting someone else (For example, you could wipe the counters after you’ve used a public restroom, or you could pick up and throw away someone’s garbage in the park) .
Or you could practice identity action, recognizing that when you do anything you are not, and cannot do it alone by your own power. You’ve never done anything alone and by your own power because inevitably whatever you do involves others, and the whole world involves others in a world of support. For example, you cannot breathe air on this Earth without the trees producing oxygen.
Or you could practice compassion – which is going toward, rather than turning away from, the suffering of others and your own suffering. We all want to avoid pain so much that what we do in our lives is focused on avoiding pain- making pain disappear. But oftentimes we cannot make pain disappear- so can you go toward it rather than run away? Can you become softened or brought to wisdom by the unavoidable pain found in others or yourself?
All of these practices share one thing: they come from love. They encourage love. They produce more love. And when you do them over time, little by little it conditions your heart and you discover that you are living in a world full of love, and for your life and for our lives collectively in the times to come, of all the things we need the most, we are going to need much more love. LOTS OF LOVE.
In good times, love is lovely, and in hard times, love is absolutely necessary. Love turns tragedy into opportunity. It turns something unwanted and difficult into a chance to drive love deeper- to make it wiser fuller more glorious and more resilient.
Fenton Johnson said, “One can and should lay great plans, but life has its own ebb and flow and our first duty is to be present to that ebb and flow. We must realize that failure and success are social conceptions that can be useful but that in their conventional definitions have little to do with what really matters, which is to study and practice virtue.”
Timothy Kelly said, “How one lives one’s life is the only true measure of the validity of one’s search.”
So, please, do seriously think about it. Not in a grim way, but with a certain amount of joy and lightness. It is amazing to be alive. Amazing. Unlikely. What is really worthwhile and what is just a distraction, no matter how much another person tells you what is and what isn’t. Only one person can do that, and that is you.
I’m happy for the life you’ve had so far, and I’m congratulating you and hoping for your life a head, a life of challenge and difficulty and passion. What an opportunity.
Watch here if you want to hear it for yourself! (Starts at 29:00 and ends at 57:30).