[NOTE: I published what’s turned out to be the first draft of this post in late-October 2014. I wrote the original in kind of a free-form manner, just playing with some ideas. But the ideas have really stuck with me and I’ve been wanting to revise the post and clarify a few of my points almost ever since – particularly as it’s gotten, and continues to get, a LOT of page views. It’s in fact been one of my most-viewed posts.
So, I finally got around to doing the revision. It’s a little wordy! (I might have to revise again). But it’s posted below.]
“I don’t know how to find life in the desert,” the boy said. “I know that there is life here, but I don’t know where to look.”
“Life attracts life,” the alchemist answered.
—-from The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
I just finished re-reading The Alchemist – and as I was closing the book, I found myself unexpectedly thinking of an interview that I stumbled on a few weeks ago with Jared Leto.
[June 2015 note: the interview was Jared Leto’s Times Talk from August 2014. These Times Talks are generally pretty interesting, the couple I’ve seen. This one was fun – if you get a chance to watch it through. Jared Leto’s an interesting guy with an interesting take on things – and I liked the interviewer, Logan Hill, a lot as well. He had a nice manner…good questions.]
I was thinking particularly about an answer he gave to one of the questions from the audience.
The exchange he has with the questioner is cute. She’s young and not particularly sophisticated. But then she asks her question and it’s, “What is the meaning of life to you?”
Of course everybody laughs at this (good-naturedly) because it’s not something you would have expected her (or anybody) to ask. He was getting fairly predictable questions about his movies and his Oscar and his music and his tour and so on up to then. But he actually gave a good enough off-the-cuff answer to her that I’d be really curious to know how he would answer that question if he had time to really think it through and elaborate.
Essentially he says that he thinks the point is to listen. And that includes listening to yourself – because answers are there. You just have to be paying attention.
Paying attention is something I’ve had to work on.
When my ex and I first split up and I moved out with the kids, I was overwhelmed with this sense that I’d absolutely screwed up my life. I’d squandered my opportunities, made bad choices, just essentially dug myself into a huge pit from which I’d never fully recover. (Yes, I know….cheery times!)
The worst thing for me was the knowledge that I’d done it with my eyes open. I’d been well-aware of the relationship issues when I married him. There were (and are) really good things about our relationship – obviously, or else we wouldn’t have considered marriage (and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to build this post-marriage friendship we have now.) But there were also things I absolutely knew from the outset needed to change. And what I essentially did in getting married (I realized) was take a huge gamble that we’d figure those trouble issues out.
When that gamble didn’t pay off, I was absolutely crushed by the idea that my instincts had led me so very wrong. I couldn’t trust myself anymore, I thought. How could I? “Myself” was the one who had decided oh-so-optimistically that taking that massive gamble in the first place was a good idea and would work out just fine. What an idiot!
I said something at one point along those lines to my brother – about the fact that my instincts had led me so wrong.
And he completely surprised me by unequivocally negating that possibility. I still remember what he said because I was taken aback by not only the fact that he would hold the opinion he did, but that he would jump so forcefully to stating that opinion. It was that obvious and important a point in his view.
He said basically that it was a mistake to think my instincts had led me wrong. He said he thought that if I really, really thought about it, I’d see that my instincts were absolutely true and correct. Whether or not I had actually listened to them was another story. But he said he didn’t believe it was possible that they would be off. That little voice inside you is never off.
He was right.
So I’ve been thinking on and off, since I watched that talk with Jared Leto (and particularly since I re-read The Alchemist, which is a book that tends to get you thinking along these sorts of lines) about how I would answer if somebody threw the question at me: What is the meaning of life to you?
I don’t know!!!
I do like what Jared Leto said about listening. I think seeing plays in as well. Immersing into your moments is an essential point for me, I guess. Really fully feeling the moments – from the air on your skin to the colors and shapes that you see, to the things you hear and feel (emotionally and physically.)
I’m aware that I feel compelled to live as fully and expansively as I can – and that I want, at the end of the day, to know that I used my talents and my interests and all of the things that make me me in the service of understanding things…of exploring and peeling back layers and probing depths.
I want to feel like I really lived my life.
Which sounds kind of stupid. The meaning of life is to live?
What I mean is, I feel like there’s a superficial veneer to life – and I don’t want to exist at that level. I want to exist at a deeper one – one more full of color and music and scent. A richer, more expansive level.
Getting to those deeper places, getting some sense of what exists there….that’s the meaning of life for me.
Or something like that.
And okay, identifying that is one thing. Acting on it is another.
And that’s where both that “life attracts life” idea and Jared Leto’s off-the-cuff answer in that interview connect for me.
I’ve come to believe that connection to self might be the most important thing there is. Knowing yourself thoroughly and understanding yourself (so that your life isn’t just about mindlessly reacting to things) and then actually living in a way that is authentic to you…these things are vital to the quality of your life. They’re even more vital, I think, than the connections you make with other people – because they’re intrinsic to the quality of the connections you make with others.
What I mean by that is: If you put up walls inside of yourself, if you deny parts of yourself, if you ruthlessly tamp down your own needs and ignore the things that make you come alive, you make yourself less than what you could be – because you’re stuffing yourself into a mold rather than allowing yourself to grow organically, in the free air.
Doesn’t it follow that, in doing that, in stuffing yourself, you’ll by default only be allowing a small part of yourself to be available for the important work of living your life? And that includes caring for and connecting with others. So you’re not only limiting yourself when you ignore yourself and your own needs; you’re limiting your children, and anybody else who may have been enriched from contact with a you that is expansive and energized and fully alive.
And what a shame that is!
I’ve realized in the last few years that if I want a life full of adventure and color and fresh air, if I want to live creatively and passionately, in the pursuit of wisdom and understanding (and I do want all these things), it has to start from inside of me. Life attracts life. You have to cultivate the characteristics that will allow the things you want to manifest.
Like, say, if you want to meet creative and passionate people, you should be following your creative interests and the things you feel passionate about. If you ignore those, if you put yourself into a box and deny yourself those things, doesn’t it make sense that you’ll naturally find yourself surrounded by other people who are also living in boxes?
That’s been my experience – again and again and again. Truly changing the pattern, for me, required hitting the absolute bottom with marriage, with nothing whatever left in me to give, having used myself up so utterly that I had nowhere else to go (or hide). I could only be right where I was, looking around me.
I can actually pinpoint the moment I hit this place: it was my birthday, 2010. (With my birthday coming up again next week, I’ve been thinking about that 2010 birthday a bit lately.)
At that moment in time (my birthday 2010), I immersed fully in my present – for maybe the first time ever. And not because I wanted to, or because I was thinking (in any way at all) about mindfulness, etc. I was present in the moment simply because I had no fuel left, not even fumes, with which to go anywhere else besides that place. I had nothing left.
Now, that’s a pretty awful way to bring about mindfulness and presence…but it’s apparently the way I had to do it. And I had to get to that place; I see that now. Reaching it, even so painfully, brought a clarity that was necessary. It changed everything.
For one thing, it was from that place that I acknowledged (finally) that the marriage needed to end. That was (obviously) a life-altering moment. I’d known the truth of it inside for a long time, but hadn’t allowed myself to face it until then.
But, maybe most importantly, I finally recognized the destructive pattern I’d been living – living for pretty much my whole life. This people-pleasing, stuffing-myself-into-a-mold-of-somebody-else’s-design pattern that was slowly and steadily killing something really essential to who I am.
I don’t know when the pattern started exactly (though some recent blogging makes me think it might possibly have been around junior high) – but the ending began on that 2010 birthday. Not all at once; but it started then – because when I allowed myself to really listen to myself, so much became clear.
The thing is, the information had been there all along – clarity, understanding, truth. It was all there. I just hadn’t stopped to listen to it.
As truly awful as it was to hit that place in 2010, it’s a little terrifying to me to think where my life would be now if I hadn’t hit it – if I hadn’t stopped, absorbed where I was in time, and then redirected.
Something in me would have died…that I know. Something intrinsic.
It a little irritating to me to think that if I would only have understood some of this earlier – like, twenty years earlier – and redirected then, I would have saved myself so much grief and angst, and the discomfort of so many bad choices!
But I guess, in hindsight, I learned the way I had to learn. The choices we make, the mistakes, they’re all teachers really, aren’t they?
As I think this all through, it occurs to me that listening really might be the heart of everything after all. (I think Jared Leto might have been on to something!) You have to really listen to yourself, so that you can hear and understand yourself.
And then you have to see as well; that’s equally vital. Otherwise your eyes just gloss superficially over everything and you lose the important and relevant in a sea of meaningless color and shape.
So it comes down to knowing where you are and who you are – with no illusions. And the best way to know these things, I think, is to allow yourself sometimes to just be. To breathe. To listen and see. Doing so enables you to live deeply – and authentically to who you really are inside. Which then in turn naturally attracts back to you things of equal depth and worth and authenticity. I really think that’s how it works.
Life attracts life.
So, I think about this sort of thing…I (obviously) blog about it. The tag cloud on my sidebar here is full of words like “mindfulness” and “intuition” and “self-knowledge.” You’d think I’d be really good at living it.
I am getting better (I think I am!) But I’ll admit: it’s still way harder than it feels like it should be – seeing as how I really do believe this stuff is incredibly important. I’m just my own worst enemy, I guess. It’s so ridiculously easy to fall into people-pleasing, say….or to listen to the little voice (where does that come from??) that whispers the things I want are impractical pipe dreams. Standing for myself too still requires some bravery.
Though I have to say, that last has gotten much easier the more I practice it.
Maybe everything’s like that. Maybe it’s just about continuing to work – one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.
You do that long enough, I guess you have to get somewhere…right?