When I decided as a teenager that no matter how hard I tried, nor how much I liked the idea, I could not believe in reincarnation, I faced a major existential crisis about doing something good enough to justify this one life that I had.
To be “good enough,” it would need to create a tangible improvement in lots of peoples’ lives without causing negative repercussions for anyone or anything else. I put so much pressure on myself to live up to this that I could barely breathe because every choice became a deathbed-regret-imposing choice.
As in, those exercises that are supposed to be motivational and inspiring that ask you to imagine looking back on your life from your deathbed, or to write your obituary the way you want to be remembered. For me, these types of exercises imposed crippling burdens.
As I sought out my first adult jobs and made choices throughout my working life, I sometimes held myself back from doing things that I liked when they did not measure up to my high standards, yet ironically, on at least two significant occasions, that left me taking jobs that were even less in line with my ideals because I was so overwhelmed by all the factors involved that I ended up making the default decision that took little thought.
Over these last few months, as more and more of my old wounds have healed, and the patterns of action and thought that developed because of those old wounds have dissipated, I have been gradually letting go of that old need to justify my existence. This is the beginning of freedom.
Simultaneously, a new set of life goals has gradually been taking shape in my mind and heart.
What if my highest goal in life were to be compassionate with everyone I encounter? What would that look like on a daily basis?
What if spreading happiness were my highest aim?
What if being radically present in everything I do were the normal way I lived my life and not the exception?
What if I could bring healing and connection where there is pain and disconnection?
Is this even possible? I think it is.
Is it realistic? Again, yes.
You may think this is woo-woo, or crazy talk, or overly idealistic, but I’m not a starry-eyed teenager anymore, dreaming of making a difference in the world with no clue of the challenges involved.
What this means for me in practical terms is that I don’t have to save a sizable chunk of the world in order to be satisfied with my life. Rather, it gives me the freedom to choose all sorts of paths, and the courage to pursue them in a manner akin to the grand idealism of my teenage years, without the burden that rendered that idealism impossible to live up to.
It means that, at some level, it doesn’t matter whether I am a public school teacher, writer, entrepreneur, or even a surfer (that’ll be the day). The external situation is, to a large extent, beside the point as long as, in whatever I am doing, I am compassionate with everyone that I interact with, that I prioritize healthy relationships, spread healing and happiness, and am fully present throughout the process.
This way I can be truly living into and fulfilling my destiny no matter what I am doing, whether working, grocery shopping, texting a friend, or choosing not to buy something because I don’t want to support a particular industry.
To clarify, it does not give me the freedom to be wantonly wasteful, pollute the Earth, or do jobs that hurt people I don’t see as long as I am nice to the ones I am working with because “it doesn’t matter.” That is not at all what I mean. Precisely because being compassionate with all living beings includes animals, the environment, the Earth, as well as people I don’t know and will never meet who are affected by the choices I make. Being compassionate means protecting them in the same way as my own family because we are a family, we are all interconnected, we are all part of the same biological, physical, and spiritual systems.
In some ways this is a harder goal, in some ways a much simpler one. It lets me off the hook of having to find and live up to some specific, grand, and long-term accomplishment. It gives every moment the opportunity to fulfill my life goals. It also requires me to be more conscious of what I do and say and the effect those have on others.
How amazing would it be if the effect of my choices on others were one of compassion? How much healing could that bring for others and for myself? Could such compassion spread ripples of healing to others, and from them to more and more people? Even when it doesn’t grow, or isn’t even noticed, little moments of compassion are absolutely worth it for that one person in front of me, in their life, right here and now.
As these new ideas were solidifying in my mind, I attended a performance of a traditional Indian dance called Baul.
From the description: “Parvathy Baul is a master performer, practitioner, and teacher of the Baul tradition from Bengal, India. Parvathy’s concert performances interweave the telling of stories and a delicate exegesis of the nature of Baul poetry that she sings, what is called among the Bauls their “twilight language.” In India, Bauls are known not only for their exquisite songs but for their fierce opposition to the caste system and reverence for the feminine.”
I love the softness in her face in this picture. It captured her very well.
Between the dances, her assistant read English translations of the poetry she was singing. One of them was called Karuna, Compassion.
This line particularly stood out to me: “My ship is filled with gold, there is not room even for silver. It is completely filled with the gold of compassion.”
Listen closely in this video and you will be able to hear “karuna,” compassion, several times.
She was able to keep circling in one spot for the entire dance—close to ten minutes—while making her own accompaniment with the drum at her left hand and bangles around her ankles, while playing (and holding) the stringed instrument in her right hand. It is a very different style of singing and dancing from what I am used to, but after a while I was able to somewhat let go of my Western expectations and see a little bit of this different kind of beauty.
How amazing it would be to fully live into this image, “My ship is filled with gold, there is not room even for silver. It is completely filled with the gold of compassion.” To have a heart so overflowing with compassion that there isn’t room for anything less.
That is impossible within the myopic view of what a goal is, that I labored under for so long, which treats people and circumstances (and sometimes even God) as important only insomuch as they are either helpers or obstacles to achieving those goals.
I can see now that I was treating God this way, trying to manipulate and coerce Him out of fear, though I would not have been able to recognize before that that is what I was doing.
One of my biggest fears has been that my life would be tragically cut short by an auto accident, cancer, or something, before I could finish this grand and distant goal that I had to do. Although I tried to believe (manipulate, coerce) that God would not let that happen, I struggled with faith and trust.
But this way, I don’t have to worry about finishing some long-term goal or having a big enough or good enough goal at all, because every moment can be the perfect fulfillment of my life’s goal. I can achieve my highest aim over and over today, hopefully for years and decades. In some paradoxical way, it feels like this is trusting God more, because I’m not trying to push Him into blessing my plan by keeping me alive long enough to achieve some artificial destiny.
Although this might look like I am giving up on ambition, it actually feels like I will accomplish more now because I will get to do what I love, loving the people and the path just as much as the end goal.
It also gives me the freedom to try things out and explore a variety of interests without attaching stigma to failure, or burdening any nascent interest with having to support me.
Best of all, it redefines success for any entrepreneurial projects I might undertake, like my moon calendar. If I make something and sell only a few copies and make only a small profit, that is okay. If a project flops and no one buys it and I’m out money, that is not failure, and if one of my projects takes off and I make a lot of money from it, that is not success, because I am redefining failure and success not in terms of units sold or net profit or any other standard business metric, but by whether I do the project in love and compassion, bringing healing and peace, out of curiosity and joy.
Success becomes the people that I serve, the relationships that I foster, my compassion with everyone in the process, and how I spend my most valuable currency, time.
It also gives me the freedom to explore opportunities as they come along. If one of my ideas takes off and leads to other things, I can explore that if I choose to and play with that new path for a while without undermining “that one goal that I have to accomplish.”
This also does not mean that I won’t set up some external goals at various points in my life, but those won’t be my life goals. And I can take random jobs occasionally if I need the money or if an opportunity sounds interesting, but they won’t need to justify that my life was not a waste.
I absolutely will not achieve these goals perfectly all the time, but recently they feel more possible, and I have already been living into them more, because for the first time that I can remember, being compassionate, understanding, and happy feel like spontaneous natural reactions rather than an act of willpower—what I “should” do. Rather, they are natural outpourings of a growing connection with all of creation.
The more I live into these goals, the more I will be able to live into them more deeply, throughout my life, however long or short that is.
It is a brave new world.
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