Everything you have is borrowed, and there is going to be a time you’ll have to give it all back. Your money, clothes and property won’t stay with you forever. Friends and family members pass on and some grow apart from you. Even existence itself is time-limited.
I’m guessing some readers feel this is a needlessly depressing topic. Focusing on death and the impermanence of everything is scary for many people. I don’t see it that way. In fact, the sheer impermanence in life is actually freeing. If you can fully accept it, you are free to enjoy this existence focusing on what really matters, instead of worrying about all the crap that isn’t important.
Poverty, Loneliness, Pain and Failure Aren’t That Bad
Like many Generation Y members, I’m a big fan of the book and movie Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is a brilliant author and David Fincher is a great director for the screen version.
The movie centers around the protagonist’s struggle against his boring, unsatisfying life. His revelation comes when he decides to give up his material possessions and live a far less comfortable existence. Although he gave up the things society values, he became far happier because he had freedom.
I subscribe to the Stoic view of life where pain and failure aren’t the problem to be avoided in life. The Stoics believe that virtue (arete) is the meaning of life, and while health and wealth are conveniences, they should never be desired more than virtue. Poverty and loneliness, Stoics argue, are often beneficial because they allow you to display more virtue.
In the end, everyone will be poor and alone. Trying to accumulate these secondary parts of life can add comfort, but it can’t replace the quest for deeper virtues. Qualities like excellence, creation, honor and courage are the meaningful parts of life because they are not defined by their permanence. The meaning of an impermanent life is arete.
Following the Way
Taoism takes the view that there is an underlying Way to the universe. Humans have free will so they can choose to follow that Way or ignore it. If they ignore it, they will suffer. If they follow their Way, they will be at peace.
I believe everyone has a Way to follow. I’m not a believer that this is some mystical force created by the universe, but a logical relationship. Just as a machine has an ideal operating state, where all the gears move without friction and produce the maximum output, I think the Taoist concept of the Way could similarly apply to people.
I know I’m on this path when every part of my life merges without friction. My gains in my business ripple into my personal life. My health improves which improves my social life. My education is enhanced, improving my business. There is minimal friction and all of my internal gears are supporting each other.
Like a machine with one gear out of alignment, I can also quickly tell when I’m not following this Way. The parts of my life don’t work together. Life becomes a symphony with some instruments playing too loudly and out of step with the other players.
Falling in and Out of The Way
A year ago, I was in the closest state I’ve had to being perfectly in sync. I was investing all of my energy to goals of my own choosing. My fitness was improving, I had time for friends and my business was doing better than it had ever done before.
Unfortunately, I slipped out of this path getting involved in a massive academic project that consumed my life for eight months. The advantage of this slip was that it helped me recognize the importance of following the Way, and that I needed to make efforts to return to it.
What makes the Way important isn’t money, friends, health or success. It’s simply a mental state where all of your energies are pushed towards your most important goals. It’s a state of low friction where you aren’t burning out, but aren’t idling.
The Difficult Way
Often your Way, the path where you are striving perfectly in concert with your values and without internal friction or contradiction, is a difficult route. It is often more difficult than the path society says you should follow. Ultimately, I agree with the Taoist view that it is entirely up to you whether you want the easier path or the path that is in accordance with your nature. But, you also have to pay the consequences for that choice.
I’ve written about my goals previously, for a completely digital life, fitness and education. Certainly it would be easier to just put my 9-5 in at a big firm, buy a house and live in comfort.
Arete, The Way and the Impermanent Life
How do all of these ideas tie together? Simply, I believe the Stoic concept of arete and the Taoist concept of the Way are two ways of looking at the same thing. The meaning of life, is the pursuit of a life along this Way. It is often difficult to steer the ship, but all efforts should be made to bring life towards this path.
Although following the Way or arete perfectly is impossible, I don’t feel that either of these are long-term goals. When I started with personal development, I can remember moments where I struggled to run 5km, but I felt perfectly aligned with what mattered. I have also had recent moments with greater success, but I was unhappy because there wasn’t that alignment. It’s always a challenge to stay aligned, but if you make alignment a more important goal than money and popularity, it is easier to stay on track.
I think this dual concept of arete and the Way is especially important if you recognize the impermanence of life. Impermanence often scares people. So much that they invent belief systems with afterlives and reincarnation to reduce the fear of losing everything.
However, if you see past all the social conditioning and phony shortcuts around this problem, it isn’t a problem at all. Impermanence brings arete and the Way to the forefront, as if life were reminding you that everything else wasn’t as important.
You Have One Life, Make it Count
One reason I don’t subscribe to a philosophy of reincarnation or an afterlife is that it downplays the importance of this life. If you accept that everything is impermanent, the importance of the present moment skyrockets. Instead of just being another slice of infinite time, you have a precious gift that can’t be wasted in dead-end jobs, broken relationships or hiding away from the important challenges in the world.
Life isn’t measured in accomplishments and material success. Sure, other people might judge you that way, but those things aren’t the basis for fulfillment. What really matters is the energy and ambition you bring to each day. Even if you inevitably fail to reach the targets you strive for, the meaning of life is the striving.