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Where does a meaningful life come from?

Shantigarbha and I are just back from one week at COP26 in Glasgow. The day after, I joined my friend Cath to meditate in a nearby park. Cath is going there every day during COP26 to meditate for the earth and all beings who are impacted by the climate and ecological emergencies.

When I arrived, the first question she asked was “How was it in Glasgow?” My response was “It was meaningful. I’m glad that we went there to show that we care about what happens to the earth, the weather, and us.” I was a little bit surprised by my response. It came naturally and spontaneously from deep inside. I would say that I don’t use the word meaningful often in my daily life. I’m still reflecting on the word. What exactly is meaningful for me? Why was Glasgow meaningful?

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle. I mentioned it in my last blog. There’s a whole chapter on meaning. It helped me to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to have a meaningful life.

From NVC we know that meaning is a need, something we are all longing for. Maybe we don’t all need it at the same time, but it’s something we all have in common. When I’m really connected with this need I can feel it in my body. It’s in my shoulders and in my stomach. I feel grounded and content. Something is settled in me. The authors of the book on stress asks the question, “What matters to you?” In their definition “Meaning is a nourishing experience of feeling connected with something that is larger as ourselves. It helps us to thrive when things are not going well.”

Meaning is something that each person experiences differently. In other words, we all have different strategies to meet our need for meaning. Cath’s strategy was sitting under a tree in Bristol and meditating for the wellbeing of the earth and all beings who are involved in COP26. My strategy was to be in Glasgow and be present on protest marches with others.

From the book I learned about various aspects of meaning:

  • Any activities that help you to develop your potential are deeply meaningful.
  • Meaning can be found in learning to live with chronic illness.
  • Contributing positively to life is deeply meaningful.
  • Feeling that you matter is meaningful.
  • Our sense of meaning comes and goes.
  • Meaning supports thriving and sustains coping.
  • Meaning supports quality of life. People with meaning in their life experience greater wellbeing, more satisfying relationships, greater hopes as well as physical health and reduced psychological stress.

Where does meaning come from? The answer is: you make it! Meaning is what sustains us on a long hard journey – no matter what the outcome is. Meaning is not found, it is made. There is no right or wrong. It’s about whatever gives you a feeling that your life has a positive impact. What is your something larger? Some people know from an early age, for others it takes years.

Looking back on my experience in Glasgow, I have a sense I did something larger, outside of my daily routine. At one point I lost the person I was within a crowd of 100,000! I was surrounded by intense drumming from Samba bands and had no idea what to do and how to get back to the people I knew. In the end, I was only lost for about thirty minutes, however, it felt like a long time. 

What kept me going was the sense of how important it was for me to be there. In Glasgow, seeing how important COP26 was to others, a similar sense of urgency about the climate and ecological emergencies awakened in me. It gives me a sense of meaning because I have something to contribute to life here.